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Closing Arguments Wrap In Meadows' Bid To Move Georgia Case; Trump Says, Will Appeal March Trial Date In Jan 6 Federal Case; New Video Of Gunman Entering Site Of Deadly Racist Rampage; Russia: Wagner Chief Prigozhin Confirmed Dead In Plane Crash; McCarthy, Allies Planning Biden Impeachment Inquiry Strategy. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired August 28, 2023 - 18:00   ET




ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN HOST: Happening now, closing arguments just wrapped up in Mark Meadows bid to move the Georgia election case to federal court. The former Trump White House chief of staff and the Georgia secretary of state offering conflicting testimony.

This comes as Donald Trump is now vowing to appeal his new trial date in the federal election interference case, the judge ordering the proceedings to begin on March 4th, 2024 on the eve of the critical Super Tuesday presidential contest.

And breaking news, new video of the Jacksonville gunman entering the store where he unleashed his deadly racist rampage. We're also learning more about his past before he opened fire with a swastika- emblazoned assault rifle.

Welcome to our viewers here in the United States and all around the world. Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Alex Marquardt and you're in The Situation Room.

And we begin with a very significant day in two of the criminal cases against Donald Trump, first, in Georgia, where former Trump White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, took the stand today. The hearing amounting to a sort of mini-trial of the election interference case against Trump and his 18 co-defendants.

CNN's Sara Murray has all the new details.

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right. We got a look at Fani Willis's case and how she may question witnesses, as we saw Mark Meadows --


MURRAY (voice over): Former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows --

MARK MEADOWS, FORMER WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: To start wholesale trying to change the way that we conduct elections, state by state, I can tell you, we're asking for problems. We're asking for fraud. MURRAY: -- taking the stand in a federal courtroom in Georgia after he, former President Donald Trump, and 17 others were charged with racketeering by the Fulton County district attorney for their attempts to overturn the 2020 election in Georgia.

DONALD TRUMP, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: You can't ever accept when they steal and rig and rob.

MURRAY: Meadows, who has kept a stunningly low profile amid the various investigations into Donald Trump now breaking his silence on the case under oath. Those were challenging times bluntly, Meadows told the court of his White House tenure.

As Meadows seeks to move his case from state to federal court, the focus of Monday's hearing, prosecutors delved into their case and some of the allegations against Meadows.

Meadows denying under oath that he directed another White House aide to write a memo about how to delay or disrupt the certification of the election on January 6th, saying he had zero recollection of that happening. And it was the biggest surprise to me upon reading the indictment.

Putting Meadows on the stand to challenge the events he's accused of participating in, in Georgia, a risky approach for any criminal defendant. Meadows looking to make the case that his activities after the 2020 election were part of his official duties as chief of staff, including arranging the call between Trump and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.

MEADOWS: Mr. President, everybody is on the line. And just so, this is Mark Meadows, the chief of staff.

TRUMP: I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have, because we won the state.

MURRAY: Raffensperger also took the stand, saying he first tried to resist the call and testifying there was no federal role in certifying Georgia's election.

When prosecutors questioned what federal role Meadows was fulfilling in post-election calls with Trump and another purveyor of election falsehoods, his then-personal Attorney Rudy Giuliani --

RUDY GIULIANI, FORMER TRUMP ATTORNEY: We cannot not allow these crooks, because that's what they are, to steal an election from the American people. They elected Donald Trump. They didn't elect Joe Biden.

MURRAY: Meadows said he was acting as a gatekeeper and insisted there was a federal interest in accurate and fair elections.

Meadows also claimed he wasn't the driving force in pushing bogus claims of election fraud. But when then-Attorney General Bill Barr dismissed the fraud claims -- WILLIAM BARR, FORMER ATTORNEY GENERAL: I made it clear I did not agree with the idea of saying the election was stolen and putting out this stuff, which I told the president was bullshit.

MURRAY: -- Meadows said he felt that further investigation was warranted.


MURRAY (on camera): Now the hearing has wrapped up in the closing statements. Meadows' attorney argued that the chief of staff has wide responsibilities. He said now if he, meaning Meadows, shot a demonstrator in Lafayette Park, that would obviously be outside the scope of his duties.

The judge did not rule on this question of whether Meadows can move his case to federal court, but said he will rule promptly, noting that he is aware that arraignments are set in this case in the state court on September 6th.


MARQUARDT: All right. Sara Murray, thank you very much for that report. Please stand by. We will be back with you in just a moment.

But I want to go from the Georgia election interference case to the federal election interference case against Trump and the March 4th trial date that was set by the judge today.

CNN's Jessica Schneider has the latest on that. So, Jessica, what is the judge saying about this timing of the case?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, she really said that it would be unprecedented to wait until 2026, which is when Trump's lawyers wanted this case to start. So, she did say, look, we're not going to give you that. Special counsel, we'll also not going to give you what you want, January 2024. She gave the special counsel certainly more than Trump's team by making it March 2024.

But she said this. She said, in setting a trial date, it does not depend on the defendant's personal or professional obligation. She said that, really, Trump was already being given more than the average criminal defendant. She said that he had many resources at his disposal.

Trump's attorney, John Lauro, he really pushed back on this. He said, look, I only started the representation recently. I haven't had a lot of time to get into this case. There are 12.8 million pages of discovery here. And then John Lauro even told the judge, he said, look, because you are making this trial to start date in just six months from now, I'm going to tell you right now, I'm not going to be able to give adequate representation to the former president.

That sort of sets the stage for any possible future appeal that the president might make on ineffective assistance of counsel claims. I mean, putting this start date in March 2024, this adds to an already incredibly crowded calendar here between October of this year and May of 2024. You're talking about the start to all four criminal cases against the former president.

So, his legal team is going to be really working overtime here. The prosecution said, look, Trump legal team, this actually isn't that big of a hill to climb. All of these documents that we've handed over in discovery, 12.8 million pages, but they say most of it you've already been privy to. This comes from Trump's White House, Trump's political action committee. These are documents that were before the January 6th committee.

So, they said, really, there's not a lot of new evidence for you to sift through. And, plus, they said there's about 47,000 pages of those that will really be key to the prosecution that the defense team can really zero in on.

But this is barreling forward to a very fast trial just about six months from now. And it's not likely the date will slide at all, or if it does, that it will slide very much at, Alex.

MARQUARDT: Barreling towards it and all of these trial dates in the middle of what will be a very contentious campaign season. Jessica Schneider, thank you very much, I appreciate it.

Let's get more on all this with our legal and political experts. Temidayo, I want to start with you. You're a lawyer for the January 6th select committee. You know the ins and outs of Mark Meadows' actions in Georgia. So, what do you make of his arguments today that everything that he did fell within that scope of his role as the president's chief of staff?

TEMIDAYO AGANGA-WILLIAMS, FORMER JAN. 6 COMMITTEE LAWYER: So, I think that just is not based in fact. I think the idea that he was chief of staff 24/7, I think that's just not supported. I think what we saw was a clear delineation between the political actors and the White House actors.

And with any campaign, there's a forward-looking aspect. Mark Meadows here was acting in a capacity to support former President Trump's future bid for the White House. So, I think this idea that he was acting in an official capacity is not supported.

And we saw that he was often interfacing with individuals on the campaign, not on the political side, not on the White House side. He was talking to campaign lawyers, often, talking to folks outside the White House. So, I think once you get deep into facts here, you'll find the support that he was acting in a political capacity and not in official government capacity.

MARQUARDT: And, Elie Honig, what did you make of Mark Meadows taking the stand? Was that wise?

ELIE HONIG, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: It was a big risk, Alex. Pretty much the last place any criminal defendant wants to end up is in the way to the stand. But it was also necessary because Mark Meadows is the one who has to make a showing here that he was acting within the scope of his federal employment. There's really no other plausible way to do that. And I think the fact that he chose to take that risk tells me how important it is that Mark Meadows thinks he gets his case moved over to federal court.

I do think this was a rough day for Mark Meadows. I think it's one thing to assert generally, well, as chief of staff, I had very broad duties, but it's another thing to be cross-examined, as he was today, about very specific actions and phone calls and to sort of justify that within the scope of the chief of staff's job.

MARQUARDT: And, Sara Murray, this has been -- this is called a bit of a preview to the case that Fani Willis, the Fulton County prosecutor, D.A., might be making assuming she gets to keep this trial in state court. So what did we learn?

MURRAY: Well, I think either way, whether it's in federal court or state court, Fani Willis goes with it.


But I think we saw one of the key witnesses we would expect to see at trial, which is Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, and the beginning of the arguments that she is going to make that, look, this wasn't about federal duties, and it even went beyond political duties, that this was really an effort to try to keep Donald Trump in the White House regardless of what it took to do so.

I think we saw the sort of early outlines of that playing out today, and we'll have to see whether at least today they were persuasive to the judge that they should stay in state court, instead of federal court.

And, look, we saw the interest from other parties in this case today. There was an attorney for Jeffrey Clark that was spotted around the courthouse. There is an attorney that's on Donald Trump's legal team spotted around the courthouse. A number of attorneys want to know if this Meadows play is going to be successful, and if they'll be able to move their cases to federal court.

MARQUARDT: And, Kristen, the federal election interference case, we have that news today that the judge has decided that the trial date should start on March 4th. So, how is Trump's team bracing for that collision between his legal and political calendars next year? Have you heard any concern that he won't have enough time on the campaign trail?

KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Alex. The Trump advisers that I've spoken to seem to still believe that this trial will be delayed, the federal trial, that he won't actually be going to trial during the campaign. Trump himself is saying that he was going to appeal this.

Now, talking to actual legal experts, they say that this is unlikely to slide. You heard Jessica say that, as well as that this is not something that he can appeal. But that is really where their mindset is right now.

However, I have talked to a number of advisers who do believe that there is a possibility, given this calendar, and as these trial dates mount, that this could have some overlap.

And I do want to pull up that calendar one more time because there're two specific things that they're talking about. One being in January, when you look at the first Iowa caucus, that is the same date as that E. Jean Carroll civil trial. The other one they're pointing to, of course, is March. When you look at the 4th, that is the federal 2020 election subversion trial that we've just gotten today, and the fifth is Super Tuesday.

Now, they believe that they can paint this as election interference when you specifically look at these dates. And I'm not talking about just a legal argument, but the argument in the court of public opinion, which is how we know that Donald Trump likes to do things. They can say that this is directly impacting his campaign.

But, again, how this actually plays out, it still remains to be seen. We are in unprecedented times. We'll having to really watch it unfold in real-time.

MARQUARDT: Unprecedented, but we know it will be a very busy few months. Thank you to you all for your time and your perspectives.

Coming up, new reaction to Mark Meadows' testimony from a key player in the Trump White House, the former chief of staff for Vice President Mike Pence, Marc Short.

Also ahead, breaking news on the new video of the Jacksonville shooter and his deadly racist attack.



MARQUARDT: A critical hearing in Georgia wrapping up a short time ago, former Trump Chief of Staff Mark Meadows trying to get the Trump election subversion case moved to federal court.

Joining me now is Marc Short, the former chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence and is currently a Pence adviser. Mar,, thanks so much for joining us this evening.

I want to first ask you about Mark Meadows testimony. You were the former vice president's chief of staff, so Meadows was your counterpart in Trump's office. Were his actions in Georgia part of the job description of a chief of staff?

MARC SHORT, FORMER CHIEF OF STAFF TO VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: Well, Alex, I'm not sure that the job description for Donald Trump's chief of staff ever probably fit in to the normal chief of staff role. But I do think one challenge for him is to say this is all my official capacity. If that was true, then why was he circumventing all of White House counsel's advice? Why wasn't Pat Cipollone involved? Why wasn't that team involved? Why wasn't DOJ involved? Instead, Mark recruited outside lawyers who he wanted to listen to.

And so I think that undercuts the notion that this all part of my federal responsibility if I'm not getting counsel from the people hired into your office to serve the White House in that role.

MARQUARDT: And at that center of this case, of course, is that call with the Georgia secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger. And Mark Meadows said today that that call was to get over what he called a roadblock and land the plane on what he called the whole transfer of power to Joe Biden. What do you make of that explanation?

SHORT: Well, again, I think that the vice president at that point was focused more on traveling the country and trying to get states to reopen after much of the threat of COVID was behind us.

And so we weren't involved in what's happening in Georgia, to be candid. I think that, as I've said many times, I think the actions that were taken were wrong. I don't think there's evidence that there was fraud or the Georgia election was stolen. To call on Raffensperger to find 11,000 votes, I think it's going to be a pretty challenging defense for him.

MARQUARDT: But do you think that Meadows in that moment was trying to ease the transfer of power to Joe Biden?

SHORT: I think that there was plenty of evidence of White House asking that we halt transition efforts. And so that would, I think, also run counter to that defense.

MARQUARDT: When we look at the federal case and the efforts to overturn the election, that the investigation that Jack Smith is leading, we now have a trial date that the judge set today, March 4th, 2024 next year. What do you make of that date? And are you concerned that all of Trump's courtroom commitments in this calendar will eclipse the Republican presidential primary?

SHORT: I don't know that it will eclipse it. I think that it's important for Republican voters to factor this in. I think that the Trump campaign has heralded each indictment, because I think it's booked (ph) to his support among the base of our party. Whether that continues once the trials begin and arraignments begin I think is a different question, Alex.

But I do think it's also complicated to have that fall on the eve of Super Tuesday. I think that is a very political time to have that date land. And so I think it's going to feed into concerns that people have that there are people in DOJ or at the court who are more politically biased.


MARQUARDT: We only have a couple of moments left, but I want to ask you about the mug shot, this now famous mug shot of the former president in Fulton County, the Trump campaign saying that they've raised over $7 million. This is the latest evidence of a boost in support after yet another indictment. Meanwhile, the former vice president, Mike Pence, he's trying to stand apart from Trump as a defender of the Constitution. But does this indicate that Pence is out of step with his own party?

SHORT: Well, again, I think that there's a certain amount of people who want to come to the president's defense because they're very proud of the record. And I think the vice president is very proud of the four years as well, Alex. But I think that the events of January 6th, I think, were clearly a separation between the two.

And I think that there's a question of whether or not those events may help rally donors among your base. Does it really increase your support among independent voters or new voters? I would question that it does. And so I think that's important for our party to have that conversation moving into the actual primary season.

MARQUARDT: Those voters, of course, critical to the general election. Marc Short, thank you very much for joining us.

SHORT: Alex, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

MARQUARDT: And coming up, we are following breaking news. A faculty member is dead and a suspect is in custody after a shooting at a major American university.

And we're getting new video of a racist gunman just before a deadly rampage in Jacksonville, Florida. We will be going there live for an update. And I'll be speaking about the ongoing investigation with the local sheriff.

You're in The Situation Room.



MARQUARDT: We are following breaking news. There is new video of the racist gunman just before he unleashed a deadly shooting in Jacksonville, Florida. A federal hate crimes investigation underway right now.

Brian Todd is in Jacksonville covering this story for us. So, Brian, what's the latest?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Alex, we do have new information tonight, important new information along with that dramatic new video that you mentioned from law enforcement of the shooter's movements before and during the rampage.


TODD (voice over): New information tonight about Saturday's racist shooting rampage in Jacksonville. New video shows that before the shooter killed three black people at a dollar general store, he stopped at a different dollar store, but only came out with a bag. SHERIFF T.K. WATERS, JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA: When I'm looking at it, it doesn't appear to me that he wanted to face anyone that may cause him any issues. So, it looks like he wanted to take action at the family dollar. That's what it looks like. And he did not because I think he got impatient and got tired waiting.

TODD: He then went to Edward Waters University, a historically black university. Video shows the suspect apparently parks in a lot, gets a bag out of the hatch, then puts on a vest. Then a security officer responding to a student's tip approaches. The suspect speeds off, jumping the curb and almost hitting a column as he was chased off.

LT. ANTONIO BAILEY, PROTECTIVE ENTERPRISES PUBLIC SAFETY: For you to have on a tactical vest, gloves and a mask, you know, the question raised, what are you doing here?

TODD: Authorities revealing today the shooter previously worked at a dollar tree store. Writings left behind by deceased shooter Ryan Palmeter show he wanted to kill black people, the sheriff says.

WATERS: The manifesto is, quite frankly, the diary of a madman.

TODD: Law enforcement releasing two short video clips of the gunman's rampage at the dollar general store, aiming his rifle at a car in the store's parking lot, then aiming it inside the store.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I heard, pop, pop. I turned around, I see him drawn. The video also showing officers storming the store, looking for the suspect, and visibly reacting when they hear the shot believed to be a self-inflicted gunshot.

Community representatives are demanding broader action to address racism and hate crimes.

JU'COBY PITTMAN, JACKSONVILLE CITY COUNCIL MEMBER: It's unjust that we can't even walk on the sidewalks. We're not safe in any stores.

TODD: A federal hate crimes probe has already been launched.

JOE BIDEN, U.S. PRESIDENT: We can't let hate prevail and it's on the rise, it's not the militia (ph).

TODD: The three victims, all black, Angela Carr, an Uber driver, Jerald Galloon, who has a four-year-old daughter, and A.J. Laguerre Jr., who worked at the store.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He was a real sweet young fellow.

TODD: Officials say there was nothing in the gunman's past to prevent him from legally buying these two guns, a handgun and an AR-15-style rifle emblazoned with swastikas. Even though in 2017, he was sent for a 72-hour mental health evaluation under the Baker Act, and then released, according to authorities.

MAYOR DONNA DEEGAN (D-JACKSONVILLE, FL): I don't know legally, given the way the laws are written right now in the state of Florida, that there was anything that could have been done, and therein lies the frustration for me.


TODD: Officials say detectives have spoken to the shooter's parents. They say that he lived with his parents in a town about 30 minutes away from Jacksonville. We knocked on the door of the parents' home to try to get them to speak to us. A woman on the other side of the front door said, no comment. Alex?

MARQUARDT: All right. Brian Todd in Jacksonville, thank you very much for that report.

And for more, I'm joined now by Jacksonville's sheriff, T.K. Waters. Sheriff Waters, thank you so much for joining us. I know how busy you are.

I do want to ask you first about this new footage that was just released that Brian mentioned, as well as the timeline of the suspect's movements. How does this video help with the investigation and your understanding of how things unfolded?

WATERS: It just further, it helps us -- one -- it lends to, one, he worked at a dollar tree, two, he went to a dollar store, and then he went to the dollar general. And it helps me to at least, in our hopes through our investigation, that his goal was not E.W. University.


But his goal, for some reason, we still don't know. Hopefully, we'll figure out at some point. For some reason, it was one of those stores.

MARQUARDT: But the fact that he worked at a dollar tree and then carried out this rampage at a dollar general, what could it tell you about his motive?

WATERS: It's difficult to tell. I mean, maybe he, you know -- quite frankly, maybe he felt like it was a store where he could find his preferred targets. The fact that he went to a store, the Family Dollar at Kings& Myrtle, that is in a predominantly black neighborhood. The other store, the dollar general, is in a predominantly black neighborhood. So, it tells us quite a bit about what he was looking for. That coupled with the letters that he wrote tell the story.

MARQUARDT: His preferred targets, which you have made clear, was black Floridians.

In terms of the people around the shooter, who have you had the chance to speak with? Any family members, former boss, co-workers?

WATERS: I spoke to -- so my detectives are working around the clock. They are doing a lot of hard work, a lot of amazing work. And they've spoken to mostly everyone. I've spoken to the right family members, two of our victims, and we've had a good conversation. I wanted to check on them personally, let them know that my heart goes out to them and they have the support of our agency and our city. MARQUARDT: And, Sheriff, over the weekend, you made clear that there was nothing illegal about this young man owning firearms. But now we know that he had been held as a minor for a mental health evaluation under Florida's Baker Act. Should that prevent, do you think, someone from buying guns legally in Florida?

WATERS: I think if he's evaluated, and it turns out that he has a mental condition, of course, and it does now, but in his situation, he's a juvenile. And, apparently, that was not the case for him.

From what we can tell, the background checks were done as they were supposed to have been done. He was able to purchase those guns legally.

The big thing that I've been saying is, I want to take the focus off his responsibility. He is responsible for this. There's -- his motives were clear, his tool was clear, but he is responsible. He's an evil man who did a very evil thing in our community.

MARQUARDT: Sheriff, we have heard from some black leaders in Florida. They've pointed the finger at Governor Ron DeSantis and his rhetoric. One state representative said that it helped fuel these types of actions. Your state, Jacksonville, still reeling from the shooting, but how do you think the current political climate is affecting the lives of black Floridians?

WATERS: I think the political climate kind of mirrors the national political climate. But I can tell you this, the individual that did this didn't like anyone. He wasn't a far right wing individual. He wasn't far left. One of his statements was he didn't like either side. And, quite frankly, he didn't like much of anything.

But I'll tell you this. I don't feel like in our community, you'll have that discussion from one side of it, but I also live here. I also have been serving the city for 32 years. I've seen great people in this city. This guy didn't live in Jacksonville, and this does not represent what Jacksonville is and who we are as a community. And that's my answer. I think we are a great city and fully with great people that have horrible thing happened to.

MARQUARDT: A horrible thing this was, of course, a terrible tragedy. Sheriff T.K. Waters, thank you for taking time to speak with us. Our thoughts are with you and with the people of Jacksonville. Thank you.

WATERS: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

MARQUARDT: And we have more breaking news. We are following the new information about a terrifying situation on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And it's in earlier today.

CNN's Nick Valencia has been covering this story all day. Nick, what is the latest?

NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Alex, this is the kind of situation that law enforcement trains for but hope never happens to them. But today it did on the campus of UNC there in Chapel Hill.

According to UNC police, the call came in shortly after 1:00 P.M. Eastern of shots fired on campus. And it was almost immediately after that that university officials send out an alert to those in the area telling them to shelter in place. A lockdown was put into effect.

And then for hours, there was almost no information released officially at all, just adding to the anxiety, that scarcity of information. But when it was all done, a faculty member, just one faculty member, according to police, was shot and killed by a suspect who was then taken into custody. That suspect has not been identified because formal charges have not been filed.

But earlier this hour at a press conference, the UNC chancellor spoke about this tragic loss and said that this is canceling this event.


They're canceling classes today and tomorrow.


KEVIN GUKIEWICZ, UNC CHAPEL HILL CHANCELLOR: This loss is devastating and the shooting damages the trust and safety that we so often take for granted in our campus community.

We will work to rebuild that sense of trust and safety within our community and our hearts are with the family of our fellow faculty member, those who are personally connected to the victim and those traumatized by this senseless act of violence.


VALENCIA: This incident happened near the Bell Tower, which is, if you know UNC, basically the heart of campus. And this was just the second week of classes there for those students. Police have not yet released a motive. They say it's too early for that and they have yet to recover the weapon used in this incident. Alex?

MARQUARDT: A terrifying day for these students who have just started this new school year. Nick Valencia, thank you very much.

VALENCIA: You bet.

MARQUARDT: And just ahead, a new forecast from the National Hurricane Center as Idalia barrels toward Florida's Gulf Coast, prompting evacuations underway right now.



MARQUARDT: This hour, Tropical Storm Idalia is on the verge of becoming a hurricane that is expected to hit Florida with potentially catastrophic force.

CNN Meteorologist Chad Myers is tracking the storm. So, Chad, what is the latest forecast?

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Latest forecast is for the storm to get to be 120 miles per hour. The problem is that is still in the middle of the water, really, 100 miles at least before it hits land. So, it could get even stronger than that in between what we call these points where you see all the circles there on the cone. But hurricane warnings in Tampa all the way up to Apalachicola.

My concern is that this map looks an awful lot like what Ian looked like at just about 36 hours before arrival.

Now Ian missed Tampa and ended up way down here of Fort Myers Beach. I don't want you to take this lightly, Tampa, because the track is up here this time, not toward you, but if it takes that typical right- hand turn, you are right in the middle of what could be a catastrophic hurricane.

The area that it's going to hit is called the big bend area, at least for right now until any models change. They haven't changed today. Right now we are at a 70-mile-per-hour storm. Another hurricane hunter aircraft is on its way to check to see if that went down or up over the past couple of hours.

But there's that Category 3 to the west of about New Port Richey, Tampa Bay, and, again, not that far west of Tampa Bay. So, if this thing decides to pull a Charlie or pull an Ian, we are all going to be watching this so closely that you need to be paying attention at this point in time, even with a four to seven-foot surge in Tampa. Winds are going to be 70 to 80. Trees are going to be down. Power lines are going to be down.

Tomorrow is the day to evacuate if they tell you to, because after that, it won't be possible. Trees will be down, power lines will be down. This water is very warm. This storm is going to explode in intensity as soon as it gets over Cuba and into the Gulf Stream. The new forecast for 8 to 12-foot storm surge.

Now there aren't many towns in here. You've got Steinhatchee, Cedar Key, and the like. And those are very low. Many places there don't even have 12 feet of elevation, if that's what the surge is. It will be over washing the entire town. So, that's the real threat here.

But also the rain. It's going to rain in the Carolinas. It's going to rain into parts of Georgia, also into Florida. And there will be tornadoes on the west coast of Florida for tomorrow. Every storm that comes in will already be spinning because it's going around a center top. And so as these storms come in, they could be water spouts coming on shore. They could be real tornadoes right on land, and not just zeros and ones. These could be EF-2s and 3s tomorrow. Maybe not a 3, but certainly a 2 as these super cells stay on land and spin for quite some time.

Alex, there's your arrival time probably for Tampa, the worst of it, somewhere around 8:00 P.M. tomorrow night. That's the beginning of it. And then all of a sudden, as the core goes by, maybe another 12 hours, and it gets better from there. But this is going to be a difficult storm. You cannot let your guard down if you're in the Tampa, New Port Richey, even towards Sarasota, Pinellas County, Pasco County. This is going to be a big event for you one way or the other.

MARQUARDT: And we know you're going to be keeping a close eye on that, and we will be speaking with you a lot in the coming days. Chad Myers, thank you very much for that very sobering report.

Coming up, as Russian authorities confirm the death of Wagner leader of Yevgeny Prigozhin in last week's plane crash near Moscow, we will be discussing the potential implications for what remains of the Wagner mercenary group.

You're in The Situation Room.



MARQUARDT: Russian investigators have announced Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin's death after genetic testing confirmed his identity among ten victims who died in a deadly plane crash outside of Moscow last week.

CNN senior international correspondent Fred Pleitgen has the story.


FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice- over): Less than one week after the fiery crash north of Moscow, Russian authorities now confirming Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin was among those killed in the incident as were members of his leadership team.

Molecular genetic examinations have been completed, the investigating committee says. According to their results, the identities of all ten dead were established. They correspond to the list in the flight sheet.

The news shocked some in Russia, but appears to have surprised few as makeshift memorials have been popping up in various cities like here in Moscow.

I think these conversations about Prigozhin's mistakes and different assessments will be forgotten, and only an image of a hero will remain in people's memory, this man says.

They did a great job. They are heroes for our country, this woman adds. A brilliant future awaits Wagner. Everyone makes mistakes. It happens.

And this man says it doesn't leave any new emotional feeling. It just confirms that we are united and there are less and less of us.

The Russians say the investigation to find the cause of the crash is ongoing, while the Kremlin called speculation that Russian President Vladimir Putin may have ordered the jet taken down, quote, an absolute lie. But Putin's spokesman now says it's not clear whether the Russian leader will attend Prigozhin's leader. Putin's words for the Wagner boss lukewarm.

He was a man with a complicated faith, Putin said, and he made serious mistakes in life.


Putin had called the mutiny Prigozhin unleashed in late June treasonous. The Wagner private military company once one of the strongest forces fighting for Russia and Ukraine has been in limbo since then.

Wagner will probably get new leadership, loyal not just to Vladimir Putin but also to the Russian defense ministry, says a Russian analyst, Sergey Markov, who's close to Wagner.

SERGEY MARKOV, ANALYST: The Wagner group is a symbol for victory. So, it is reasonable to preserve somehow this name, this unique label as a symbol of victory.

PLEITGEN: The organization could undergo major changes, though, as the man who turned Wagner into one of the most powerful mercenary outfits in the world, is now confirmed killed.


PLEITGEN (on camera): But, of course, Alex, a lot of open questions still remain. What's going to happen to a lot of the Wagner fighters, are they going to sign with the Russian defense ministry, possibly go into the Russian military?

Also, what's going to become of Wagner's business in the Middle East and, of course, also in Africa. And the biggest question, who's going to be the new boss of the organization -- Alex.

MARQUARDT: Fred Pleitgen, thank you very much.

For more on this story, I'm joined by Georgetown University adjunct professor, Jill Dougherty, who is, of course, also a former CNN Moscow bureau chief.

Jill, let's start with those questions that Fred just posed. Now that Prigozhin is confirmed dead, how much do you expect President Putin to take over Wagner's forces and those very lucrative and important relationships around the world, particularly in the Middle East and Africa?

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN CONTRIBUTOR, RUSSIAN AFFAIRS: Well, I think a lot of them are really valuable, especially in Africa. So, I think you'd have to predict the Kremlin would want to get their hands on it in some fashion. And the way they can do that is there are -- let's say the fighters, the Wagner fighters themselves, there actually are a number of other private military contractors out there like Wagner, smaller, perhaps, that are connected to people who are friendly to President Putin. One of them, in fact, is under the control in some fashion of the head of the ministry of defense.

So you could move some of them over. Then already they've taken the heavy weapons from them, and some will go into the military themselves. But it's not -- you know, the group is actually not that large. So you're dealing with a few thousand people. It was 20,000, 25,000. Now, maybe fewer.

So I think they can kind of move them over. But the actual businesses, Alex, the ones that are really lucrative and really important, you can bet that the Kremlin is going to have them continue in some fashion, but under Kremlin control.

MARQUARDT: Jill, do you think that there's a risk at the same time that Prigozhin's most loyal supporters could turn into anti-Putin, anti-Kremlin opponents?

DOUGHERTY: You know, I do think that there is that problem. I mean, a lot of his men really respected him, and you could actually say even loved him as kind of this guy who said, you know, the truth, told the truth.

And, so, I think that is a problem. They are not as, let's say, allied or under the influence of Putin. Because Putin doesn't have that cache that Prigozhin did.

So -- and I think it's notable that President Putin has been out since all of this happened meeting with the public, having adoring fans saying, President Putin, we love you. There's a reason for that, because I think he wants to show that he too is popular.

MARQUARDT: Jill Dougherty, we always appreciate your thoughts. Thank you very much.

And we will have more news just ahead here in THE SITUATION ROOM, including House Republicans plotting their strategy for a potential Biden impeachment inquiry when Congress is back in session.



MARQUARDT: The House of Representatives is almost back from August recess, but Speaker Kevin McCarthy is already plotting a strategy for a potential Biden impeachment inquiry.

CNN Capitol Hill reporter Melanie Zanona is covering this story for us.

So, Melanie, what are your sources telling you about how serious this is, and the wrangling that is taking place to get Republicans all on the same page?

MELANIE ZANONA, CNN CAPITOL HILL REPORTER: Yeah. So, I'm told that in recent weeks, Kevin McCarthy has been telling fellow Republicans that he indeed plans to pursue an impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden, and that he wants to start the process as soon as by the end of next September. So he is really started to strategize behind the scenes about what this would look like and how to really message on what would be a polity risky effort for the GOP.

Let's take a listen to how he's talking about this on Fox News yesterday.


KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: If you look at all the information we've been able to gather so far, it is a natural step forward that you would have to go to an impeachment inquiry.

There's a lot of questions still. And to be able to get the answers to these questions, you would need impeachment inquiry to empower Congress.


ZANONA: So, you can hear there that he's trying to get Republicans on board by arguing that opening up an impeachment inquiry would give them more leverage in their investigations into the Biden administration.

But they still don't have the votes for impeachment. They need 218 votes. They are not there yet. And that is because there is a number of vulnerable and moderate Republicans who think they haven't shown enough evidence to directly link Biden with his son's foreign business deals.

And I think the White House response is really telling here. I want to read you the statement from Ian Sams. He is the White House spokesperson.

He said, instead of continuing their extreme far-right political warfare to tie -- to lie and try to politically damage the president, house Republicans should work with him on the issues that really matter to the American people, like lowering costs and creating jobs or strengthening healthcare and education.

And so, you can see Democrats already trying to use this as a political liability against Republicans. And McCarthy knows that. But he is also under immense pressure from both his right flank and former President Donald Trump to move forward with impeachment.

MARQUARDT: Immense pressure, but he's not there yet. But clearly, he's going to come out of the gate swinging as soon as August recess is over.


MARQUARDT: Melanie Zanona, thank you very much.

I'm Alex Marquardt here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Thank you so much for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.