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The Situation Room

Schumer: Menendez Temporarily Stepping Down As Foreign Relations Chair After Indictment; New Jersey Gov. Calls For Sen. Menendez To Resign; CNN Poll: Biden Leads Trump In Potential Rematch In N.H.; Star Witness in Jan. 6 Hearings On Fear Of Testifying; Trudeau Announces Three-Year $482 Million Aid Package For Ukraine; Rep. Abigail Spanberger, (D-VA), Is Interviewed About Ukraine, Canada; Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA), Is Interviewed About Senator Menendez Bribery Charges; McCarthy Speakership At Risk As Clock Ticks Towards Potential Shutdown 8 Days From Now; Border Towns Overwhelmed As New Surge Of Migrants Arrives. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired September 22, 2023 - 17:00   ET


PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Our coverage continues now with Wolf Blitzer in the "Situation Room." Have a great weekend.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, breaking news, Senator Bob Menendez is out as the Foreign Relations Committee Chairman, at least for now, hours after his federal indictment. The Democrat accused of accepting hundreds of 1000s of dollars of cash, gold bars and more allegedly trading his influence to benefit business associates in Egypt.

Also tonight, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy takes his appeal for Western aid to Canada after getting a mixed reception from top officials here in Washington. This as Ukrainian forces target Russian occupied Crimea with new attacks.

And President Biden leads Donald Trump in CNN's exclusive new poll from New Hampshire. We'll break down the numbers and signs that anger at Trump could outweigh concerns about Biden's age in a potential rematch.

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

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: And we begin with the federal criminal indictment of a powerful Senate Democrat. Democrat Bob Menendez temporarily giving up his post as Foreign Relations Committee Chair as he faces corruption related charges for the second time in 10 years. CNN Senior Justice Correspondent Evan Perez is working to support the story for us.

Evan, break down the charges for us. EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the Senator is facing very serious charges, including bribery and honest services charges. What prosecutors are laying out are some astonishing details of what they say the senator was trading in excess -- access to his office essentially, for money including hundreds of 1000s of dollars in cash, gold bars, mortgage payments for the home of his wife, as well as a Mercedes Benz car that, $60,000, car that a prosecutor say was all paid for by some of these codefendants.

Now, Prosecutors laid out a June 2022 search by the FBI where they say they found some of this money, $480,000 in cash were found -- was found some of its stuffed into jackets bearing the name of the senator. You see pictures there the inside the 40 page indictment that was unsealed today by prosecutors at the Southern District of New York. They also said that they found $70,000 in a safe deposit back box that was also searched that day in June. They also notice -- they also noted that they found nine gold bars. They also said that they found fingerprints and DNA from some of the co-defendants that link some of that cash directly to the senator.

Now, one of the -- one of the hurdles for prosecutors is to show what Senator Menendez was doing in exchange for the bribes, in exchange for this money. And here's what they laid out in this indictment. They say that he pressured a Department of Agriculture official to help one of his co-dependence -- co-defendants can maintain his monopoly on halal meat exports to the -- to Egypt. They say he pressured state prosecutors in New Jersey to help fix a case for one of his co- defendants and friends of his co-defendants. They say that he also provided nonpublic information on military sales to Egypt.

Again, information that made its way to Egyptian officials, as well as editing a letter that was being used to help lobby members of the Senate, again, related to Egyptian military sales here from the United States, Wolf.

BLITZER: Evan, what is Senator Menendez saying about these charges?

PEREZ: Well, in addition to announcing that he's stepping down from his powerful perch at the -- as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he accused the Justice Department of discrimination because he is a Latino. And I'll read you just a part of his statement where he says, "I have been falsely accused before because I've refused to back down to the powers that be and the people of New Jersey were able to see through the smoke and mirrors and recognize I was innocent." He promised, Wolf, that he will beat these charges as he has in the past.

BLITZER: And, Evan, how are these charges different than the previous investigation into Menendez?

PEREZ: Well, you know, the Senator has been under the cloud of DOJ and investigations almost from the time he got to the Senate back in 2006. As matter of fact, when he was -- when he ran for office in 2005 there was an investigation already ongoing into his relationship with a nonprofit that got federal aid. He later got under another investigation and got indicted, Wolf, with a donor, a South Florida doctor. He ended up beating those charges. The jury -- there was a mistrial, the jury was unable to reach a verdict on some of the charges.


The Justice Department declined to retry that case. That happened in 2018. And According to prosecutors, that's when the timeline begins on these current charges, the current charges that have now been announced in the Southern District of New York.

BLITZER: Evan Perez, Evan, thank you very much. Let's get some more right now in this important story, the Menendez indictment. Our legal and political experts are here with me in THE SITUATION ROOM.

And Paula Reid, let me start with you. We just got a statement from the governor that -- this is the governor of New Jersey, and let me read it to you, because it's very serious. This is Governor Murphy and today's indictment against Senator Menendez, the allegations in the indictment against Senator Menendez and four other defendants are deeply disturbing. These are serious charges that implicate national security and the integrity of our criminal justice system. Under our legal system, Senator Menendez and the other defendants have not been found guilty and will have the ability to present evidence disputing these charges.

And we must respect the process. However, the alleged facts are so serious, that they compromise the ability of Senator Menendez to effectively represent the people of our state. Therefore, I am calling for his immediate resignation."


BLITZER: That's the Democratic governor of his own state.

REID: Yes. And this is not the first person today to call for the senator's resignation. As Evan just mentioned, he this is the second time in a decade Senator Menendez has faced corruption charges. It was just several years ago that he was accused along with a very wealthy eye doctor of exchanging nearly a million dollars in gifts for political favors. Now he was -- there was a mistrial, then he was acquitted.

But what makes this case different is you're also talking about sharing sensitive information with a foreign government. And that is something that I think is really going to have fanned the flames calling for his resignation, particularly with his now former role on this -- on the Foreign Relations Committee, I think you're going to hear a lot more people calling for his resignation. These charges are incredibly serious.

BLITZER: Very serious indeed, if you read this indictment, nearly 40 pages of evidence, including a lot of pictures, as well --

REID: Yes.

BLITZER: -- as some of the evidence. Tia Mitchell is with us. He's under -- going to be under enormous pressure to resign right now. How do you see that unfolding?

TIA MITCHELL, WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION: Well, he's been defiant so far. But who knows how he reacts as the pressure mounts, especially from Democrats. That's something that's also different from his last indictment, there was a Republican governor, Democrats, you know, we're a little bit more hesitant to directly criticize him and call for his resignation. The circumstances are different, the case is different. The fact that there's a Democratic governor who would appoint a replacement is different.

And quite frankly, I think the fact that he's facing charges again that, you know, there's a perception that even after facing this crap -- this cloud of scrutiny for several years, that he didn't operate a little bit better just to avoid any questions whether he ultimately gets found guilty or not. And so I think the cause for his resignation will increase. The question is, will he remain defiant? Or will he start, you know, reacting to that pressure?

BLITZER: When he was charged, Shan Wu, years ago, he was acquitted effectively, because there was a hung jury, and that he keeps pointing to that right now as evidence that he'll be acquitted this time as well.


BLITZER: How strong is the case against him?

WU: Yes. Well, right now, I would say from a legal standpoint, gold bars and cash stuffed in your pockets makes for a very splashy press conference. That isn't the meat of the case, really. They have to show that there's a nexus between all those goodies and something he did was improper. He, of course, will argue he didn't do anything improper, he's just acting as a senator.

I'll say some of the things the indictment about the sort of nonpublic knowledge being shared, looks like they're going to be hard to explain. He does have a very strong defense counsel, who I had worked with the U.S. attorney's office, he is a wizard in the courtroom, the insured lawyer, and I suspect this will end up in the courtroom.

BLITZER: Yes, I suspect you're right.

You know, Paula, it's interesting, because in this indictment, and I've read the whole thing, one thing that really jumped out at me is they accused him of, quote, "secretly aided the government of Egypt." Now he was -- until today he was the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. When you're chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, you have access to a lot of very, very sensitive national security information. That's a very serious charge right there.

REID: It is because they're accusing him of sharing sensitive information with the government of Egypt. The allegation is that his wife received a position no-show job in exchange for him wielding his enormous influence to help the government of Egypt not only sort of advocating for them on certain issues related to the military, but also sharing nonpublic information specifically about personnel working at the U.S. embassy.


And this is the part of the indictment, again, that really separates it from the previous case, and I think is what is going to most support these calls for his resignation. It is an incredibly serious accusation to lob against a U.S. senator.

BLITZER: Yes, that's a really big, big deal.

WU: Yes.

BLITZER: The fact that they are accusing him of sharing sensitive information with a foreign government.

WU: Oh, absolutely. And I'm actually somewhat surprised they haven't ventured into that area more specifically of pharaoh or even, you know, espionage type charges. They're really sticking with the notion that there's corruption here. There's money and gold being paid in return for the exercise of this influence.

I think, you know, again, the prosecution has to show that nexus that he -- what he did was wrong in return for these benefits for his wife and for him. On the other hand, it's not that easy of a road for him either, because the question there is like, does he not believe in banks?

BLITZER: Yes. This is really an embarrassment for the U.S. Senate as well.

MITCHELL: Yes, I mean, you know, Congress is having a lot of drama these days. And I think the last thing either chamber want another member accused of corruption, another member accused of behavior that undermines public confidence in how Washington works. So in general, it's not great for the House or the Senate for, again, for public perception. That's another reason why I think there will be more calls for his resignation.

BLITZER: Yes, I suspect you're absolutely right. Guys, thank you very, very much.

Coming up, the star witness of the January 6 congressional hearings opens up about her fear of testifying. Cassidy Hutchinson revealing she almost ran out of the U.S. Capitol.



BLITZER: We have new exclusive CNN polling from New Hampshire, a key swing state and the sight of the first in the nation primary showing a sliver of good news for President Biden in a potential head to head contest between President Biden and former President Trump. Let's bring in our political experts to discuss. David Chalian, our political director, share these numbers for us. What we're seeing in New Hampshire right now about a potential 2024 rematch.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Yes. Now remember, Hillary Clinton edged out a very narrow victory over Donald Trump in '16 in New Hampshire. Joe Biden won it more substantially three years ago. Take a look at this brand new CNN poll in conjunction with the University of New Hampshire and you see -- well, this is splitting by party. But overall, Joe Biden is at 52 percent and Donald Trump is at 40 percent.

Take a look here when you look by party, Wolf, 94 percent of Democrats are -- they're basically universally aligned with Biden in this and that helps him overwhelm a slight six percentage lead that Trump has over Biden among independents 45 to 39. But note there that Donald Trump with his own party is substantially lower, 79 percent support than Biden is with Democrats.

We see Joe Biden in each one of the general election matchups with Republicans, Wolf, winning this state outside the margin of error. So it could be a battleground state that is tilting a little blue if it stays this way for the full year. But it is welcome news to the White House even though what we've been talking about with Joe Biden in the past we do see in our poll concerns about his age, his health, among Democrats, they remain, but they're just not enough to swamp what is this substantial lead he has over Donald Trump in the state.

BLITZER: Yes, that's a pretty strong lead, 52 percent to 40 percent at least right.

Now Karen Finney is with us as well. You know, Karen, we're also hearing directly from the former Trump aide Cassidy Hutchinson, who testified before the January 6, select committee as we all remember, I want you to listen to what she said she feared at that moment. Listen to this.


CASSIDY HUTCHINSON, FORMER WHITE HOUSE STAFFER: In the days after my testimony, you know, there's the immediate security protocols and security concerns. So my life changed in the way that I -- the fact that the way that I was living my life for a while.

TRACY SMITH, CBS NEWS CORRESPONDENT: You couldn't go back to your apartment.

HUTCHINSON: I could not go back to my apartment. I ended up moving down to Atlanta for several months.

SMITH: They didn't even think it was safe for you to stay in D.C.?



BLITZER: What do you make of that, Karen?

KAREN FINNEY, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It's terrible. But unfortunately, it follows a pattern that we have seen time and time again, sometimes brought on by rhetoric from the former president or folks like really, Rudy Giuliani in the case, for example, of the two poll workers from Georgia where, you know, sometimes the supporters of the former president act in ways that jeopardize people's security. And it's terrible to think that a young woman who was simply trying to do her patriotic duty and tell the truth in front of the -- in front of the Congress of United States of America would have to be concerned for her safety. And I suspect it's one of the issues that voters are going to be thinking about when we make the argument that 2024 in part will be about preserving democracy, because you should not be afraid to tell the truth.

BLITZER: She had a lot of guts in doing --

FINNEY: She sure did.

BLITZER: -- surely what she did.

Scott Jennings, her testimony was very brave, as we all know. And this clip now shows just how much it actually wound up turning her life upside down. What do you think?

SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I agree with Karen, actually. I think when you think about people who have engaged in public service, whether it's Cassidy Hutchison or the poll workers in Georgia, I mean, these are not public people to start with, you know, they're not household names, they're not famous, you know, they're not used to this, and they didn't sign up for this and so they try to do the right thing and they wind up in this maelstrom that puts them at personal risk. It -- what -- it ultimately has a chilling effect on other people who might want to go into public service, whether it's at the government level or just at a volunteer level for, you know, volunteering for the next election. And so I think that's one of the unfortunate outcomes of all this is how many people out there say, well, I might want to work in politics, but it just seems to make too messy, too icky or either too dangerous, because I don't want to get caught up in something I can't control. So to me, it's very sad because I think it will reduce the number of people who want to engage in in public service in this country when we need -- at a time when we need more not less.


BLITZER: Yes, you're absolutely right.

David, we're going to be hearing a lot more from Cassidy Hutchinson in the coming days as she releases her brand new book in which he discusses all of the things that happened to her. What kind of impact you think this could have on the campaign, the Trump campaign going forward?

CHALIAN: Well, we saw what kind of impact she had on the January 6 hearings, which was significant impact. It really was her testimony that shifted the entire mission of that January 6 committee and its pursuit of what occurred and the truth behind all of this. She was a hugely influential voice. You know, listen, as Karen pointed out, the Democrats are going to put abortion rights front and center in this campaign, the battle for democracy front and center in this campaign, that will be a piece that we hear in this upcoming speech from President Biden in Arizona. That's something he told donors about in New York last week, and he started getting much more aggressive in this space going at Trump directly after kind of like holding back not wanting to weigh in on his specific indictments and trials and trying to stay out of the Department of Justice way, but the argument about democracy is one that you're not going to see President Biden shy away from you're going to start seeing him lean more into. So in that sense, Cassidy Hutchinson is a player in that overall story.

Do I think her book is somehow going to impact Donald Trump's poll numbers? No. But I do think this larger piece about democracy, we saw it as an argument in the 2022 midterms, and the electorate cared about it enough. And I don't think that's gone away. And I think the Biden campaign is planning to make it a key part of their campaign.

BLITZER: We'll follow this very, very closely. Guys, thank you very, very much.

Important note to our viewers, CNN's Jake Tapper will sit down with Cassidy Hutchinson this coming Tuesday on "The Lead." That's at 04:00 p.m. Eastern.

Up next, the criminal indictment of a powerful U.S. senator is rocking Washington. And now the state's governor is calling for Senator Menendez to resign. I'll discuss that and more with a key House Democrat. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.



BLITZER: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has announced a three year $482 million aid package for Ukraine as President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is visiting Canada. Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces hit Russia occupied Crimea with missile and cyber-attacks today. CNN's Paula Newton is covering all this for us. She's joining us live from Ottawa right now.

Paula, give us the latest.

PAULA NEWTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, Wolf, I lost count of how many standing ovations, Volodymyr Zelenskyy got in Parliament. And, Wolf, that was the easy part, right? In terms of this visit, he was here in North America trying to shore up that military support. Certainly, as you mentioned, he got more military support, nearly $500 million additional from Canada.

What's interesting here, Wolf, is that, well, that will be part of a multi-year program. Certainly Canada continuing to say that we are here for the long haul in terms of supporting Ukraine on this. I also will note that when you look at the real bold, audacious attack that Ukraine made on that Black Sea headquarters earlier, the hours earlier, it really put Zelenskyy here on the front foot. What Ukrainian Canadians tell me here is they know that Zelenskyy wants to be seen as a winner, that if he is seem to be winning this battle, no matter what has been said so far about the counter offensive, that he knows that he's able to get more military aid more quickly if he can show their strength on the battlefield. Wolf.

BLITZER: Paula, how different was this visit to Canada from President Zelenskyy's reception here in Washington?

NEWTON: Yes, much different, Wolf. I mean, look, there was no nuance to the support he got here. He was absolutely unequivocal and that includes from opposition parties here in Canada. I will say that when you look at the counter offensive strategy, there are not people here in Canada questioning what are you doing, how you're doing it or how quickly is this going.

And to that end, what was also significant, Wolf, is that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Canada would begin to try a working group to try and actually seize Russian assets around the globe and the hundreds of billions of dollars. And that includes assets from the Central Bank of Russia. I have to tell you, Wolf, whether you talk to the State Department in the United States or the Treasury, they are very skeptical that this plan can work or that it's even legal. So, Zelenskyy was definitely, again, leaning on Canada to try and have some influence with other allies, including in the United States. And obviously, this continues to be a tough sell with Republicans on Capitol Hill.

It will take much more than one strike on the Black Sea headquarters to do it, but he believes that countries like Canada continue to plead his cause, that perhaps he can elicit more support even from Republicans in the U.S. Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Paula Newton reporting for us from Ottawa, Canada. Paula, thank you very much.

For more on this story and other important news, I'm joined now by Representative Abigail Spanberger of Virginia. She's a key member of the House Intelligence Committee.

Congresswoman, thanks so much for joining us. I first want to get your thoughts on Ukraine's strikes on Russia's Naval Fleet headquarters in occupied Crimea right now. Does that help your -- does that help Ukraine's counter offensive? Is it the right strategy for Kyiv in your view?

REP. ABIGAIL SPANBERGER (D-VA): Well, strategically certainly anytime they are able to successfully strike at the Russians that is helpful to their long term goal of not only defeating the Russians and expelling them from Ukraine, but demonstrating to the world, the United States, Canada and our other allies, the world over that they are committed to winning, that they are committed to the fight for their own democracy and for their own freedom.

BLITZER: As you just heard, Canada is now committing to three years of additional aid to Ukraine. Can Ukraine count on the U.S. in the long term given your GOP colleagues hesitations right now over a lot more funding?

SPANBERGER: They have to. Their freedom and democracy as a concept as a reality on the ground in Ukraine, and American values depend on it. And certainly there is bipartisan support for continued support of Ukraine. We have seen significant wavering and certainly there are extraneous voices within the Republican Party doing the bidding for Vladimir Putin. But there are still more committed folks on both sides of the aisle who are loudly, confidently and concretely committed to the support of Ukraine and their efforts to win this war.

BLITZER: I also want to get your thoughts on the breaking news today. The Democratic Senator Menendez has now been charged with bribery using his position as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to trade very sensitive U.S. intelligence and military aid to Egypt for money. The Governor of his state is now calling for him to resign immediately. Do you echo that call?

SPANBERGER: Absolutely. Absolutely. This is an issue of ensuring that our voters, the American people, those who send to us to do the work for the American people on Capitol Hill believe in us, it's also incredibly important that on the global stage, that international leaders do not think or do not even have a hint of an expectation that they can by any sort of influence with American members of Congress. So certainly he is innocent until proven guilty. But this indictment is damning, and he should resign.

BLITZER: Very damning, indeed, what damage does it do to U.S. national security for a U.S. senator to allegedly trade American intelligence and military aid for his own financial gain?

SPANBERGER: Wolf, I'm a former intelligence officer, a former CIA officer, and as indictment, it is absolutely devastating. It is shameful. It is devastating. It is abhorrent that there would be any elected member of Congress, the House or the Senate or that there would be any position person in a position of authority within the United States government who would in any way jeopardize the public trust and the trust put in them by the voters but also our own national security, and to do so for their own personal gain. It's just -- it's important.

BLITZER: Does it to you as a former CIA officer, does it sound like espionage from your perspective?

SPANBERGER: So from an indictment standpoint, from a legal standpoint, I'll defer to the Justice Department and the FBI on that. But certainly, as a former Intel officer, we collected information and we paid people for that information, the simplest of terms. Yes, from a legal standpoint, I'll defer to the DOJ on that.

BLITZER: Representative Abigail Spanberger, thank you so much for joining us.

SPANBERGER: Thank you for having me.

[17:33:21] BLITZER: Coming up, efforts to avert a government shutdown are on hold right now in the House of Representatives as frustrated Speaker Kevin McCarthy sends his divided members home with the deadline fast approaching.


BLITZER: Tonight, a potentially crippling federal government shutdown is only eight days away and there's no deal in sight to end the House Republican infighting that's pushing Congress right now to the brink. Let's go to CNN Capitol Hill reporter Melanie Zanona. Melanie, what's the latest on this standoff?

MELANIE ZANONA, CNN CAPITOL HILL REPORTER: Well, Wolf, if I'm standing here in a fairly empty Capitol, because lawmakers have left Washington without a clear plan to avoid a government shutdown, after conservative hardliners once again scuttled Kevin McCarthy's plans. Initially that bill to fund the government tomorrow, it included a number of conservative priorities. But McCarthy had to reverse course, once it became clear that he did not have the votes for that bill.

Now, I did just leave a meeting with some of Kevin McCarthy's top allies. And they outlined what their new strategy is going to be going forward. The plan as of right now is they're going to try to pass as many long term individual spending bills as possible next week. And they're hoping that that could get some of these conservative hardliners on board with a short term plan.

But all of those bills, the short term plan that the GOP is considering, the long term bills they're trying to pass are dead on arrival in the Senate. So it really doesn't do much to solve their shutdown problem. And Kevin McCarthy is clearly frustrated. Take a listen to what he had to say earlier this morning.


REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA), HOUSE SPEAKER: I just believe if you're not funding the troops and you're not funding the border, pretty difficult to think that you're going to win in a shutdown. I've been through those a couple of times. And if members think by moving you into a shutdown and that's positive idea. I think what we continue to talk about it. I thought we had a really good conference the night before the two people the other way too. So it's a yin and a yang.


ZANONA: Now across the Capitol, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has taken steps to advance his own short term spending bill is something that's likely going to include disaster aid and Ukraine funding, the latter of which conservative hardliners are opposed so that could tee up a major showdown with the House. But I want you to take a listen to what Schumer said about working with Mitch McConnell with our Manu Raju.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MAJORITY LEADER: Leader McConnell and I are talking and we have a great deal of agreement on many parts of this. It's never easy to get a big bill, C.R. bill done. But I am very, very optimistic that McConnell and I can find a way and get a large number of votes both Democratic and Republican in the Senate.



ZANONA: So Kevin McCarthy is really going to have to make a decision here. If that Senate bill comes over to the House, he can either ignore it and risk a government shutdown, or he could put that on the floor, but risk his own speakership. And so far, Kevin McCarthy is not saying how he would act, but it's a big critical week coming up here in Washington next week. Wolf?

BLITZER: Certainly is. Melanie Zanona, up on Capitol Hill, thank you.

For more on the shutdown threat, be sure to watch Inside Politics Sunday with Manu Raju premiering this Sunday at 11:00 a.m. Eastern only here on CNN. Right now, a new surge of migrants is arriving at the U.S.-Mexican border. New CNN video shows migrants wading through the banks of the Rio Grande in Eagle Pass Texas, many of them looking for a narrow opening to crawl under the dense rows of razor sharp wire. Let's go to CNN's Ed Lavandera. He's in Eagle Pass for us right now. What do you see and what are you hearing, Ed?

ED LAVANDERA, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, today dramatically different from where we've -- what we've seen, thousands of people crossing here in Eagle Pass, Texas, this is the area where you have seen the majority of those migrants cross making their way from the Mexican side of the river over there, winding across there and then eventually confronting all of this razor wire. And that was where we've seen dramatic scenes play out where you've had hundreds of people standing in the water for hours on and refusing to go back to the other side.

And then eventually trying to figuring out a way to lift up the razor wire and safely get through. And that's what we saw yesterday unfold here as state law enforcement and border patrol agents simply just watched on. All of those people turn themselves in. And they were then processed by border patrol agents. Some of them we were told, were arrested on trespassing charges here in Texas.

But all of this continuing to unfold that the question is, how long is this latest surge of migrants going to last and across the U.S. southern border. Local authorities are bracing for the long term impact of all of this. The mayor of Eagle Pass, Wolf, tells us that he's been told by federal authorities that they're about 50 to 60,000 migrants in southern Mexico. The train lines that have been moving many of these migrants North, they've literally been hopping on trains to make the journey north have been shut down temporarily.

And the mayor also says that they believe that many of those migrants are deeper in Mexico waiting for those trains to fire up again, then that could be one of the explanations why we've seen so few people trying to cross today. But despite this, they believe that this migrant surge is going to continue and they're bracing for much more impact of migrants arriving here. These communities were many of the local officials say that the shelter system and the capacity to care for them has been strained to the maximum right now. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right, Ed, thank you. Ed Lavandera on the border over there, the U.S.-Mexico border.


Coming up, an Iranian woman who took to the streets in protest against the government and lost an eye is now telling your story to CNN. We'll have an exclusive report. Stay with us.


BLITZER: New federal data is now revealing a very disturbing new trend in the recent increase in COVID-19 cases here in the United States. Hospitalizations are rising faster than average among children. CNN medical correspondent Meg Tirrell is joining us right now. She has details. Meg, how bad is it?

MEG TIRRELL, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, if the numbers are pretty striking. When you look at them, they are up among adults, three times higher now than they were three months ago. But among kids, they've risen five times since that trough three months ago. Now it's important really to put this into context. This rise is off the lowest level that we've seen for hospitalizations, with COVID since they started measuring this at the beginning of the pandemic, but it is rising to levels that doctors are starting to become concerned about this really overall.

And if you look at where geographically hospitalizations are highest, it's really concentrated in areas in the south. Particularly you can see the yellow there that's showing higher levels and the orange even higher than that really concentrated in states like Florida. One concerning trend among the kids data we're seeing from the American Academy of Pediatrics is that really we're seeing these pronounced rises in kids under the age of four. We're seeing that they are just a quarter of kids in the country but more than half of COVID hospitalizations.

And their vaccination rates for COVID are particularly low. Only 13 percent of kids under the age of four have had any dose of COVID vaccine, compared with about two thirds of kids between the ages of 12 to 17. So the American Academy of Pediatrics really urging parents to talk with their pediatricians about how to protect their kids from COVID.

BLITZER: How has the White House been handling this new wave of COVID cases?

TIRRELL: You know, Wolf, we are starting to hear that they're going to step up messaging a White House official telling CNN that they're going to start pushing more of the message not just for COVID vaccinations, but also for flu and for RSV. We also of course heard this week that the administration is going to restart its home test program where folks can order free home tests for per household starting early next week, so all of that coming together. But as we are seeing these cases and hospitalizations rise, you are hearing some frustration from some doctors that the messaging hasn't been stronger yet.

BLITZER: All right, Meg Tirrell reporting this important news. Thank you very much. It's been a little more than a year since the death of an Iranian woman who wasn't wearing her headscarf properly, allegedly in the hands of Tehran's so called morality police. CNN's Jomana Karadsheh spoke exclusively with one protester who lost her eye after taking part of the nationwide unrest. And we want to warn some of -- we want to warn our viewers, some of the images you're about to see are upsetting.



JOMANA KARADSHEH, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): To the chants of death to the dictator, a protester tears down a poster of Iran's supreme leader.

ELAHE TAVAKOLIAN, INJURED IRANIAN PROTESTER (through translator): A young girl was murdered because of the compulsory hijab. We couldn't take it anymore. It was like a fire hidden under the ashes.

KARADSHEH (voice-over): And like a wildfire, the protests spread to every corner of Iran. The rage was met with violent repression. In the small town of East Parayam (ph), the fear the chaos captured in this shaky cellphone video also captured this. Security forces opening fire at protesters.

The scene so hard to watch as the crowd rushed to help a woman screaming and pain after she was shot in the eye.

TAVAKOLIAN (through translator): That moment when I got shot was the bitterest moment of my life.

KARADSHEH (voice-over): That woman is 32-year-old, Elahe Tavakolian. She was at the protest with her 10-year-old twins.

TAVAKOLIAN (through translator): My children were just shouting, they killed our mom, help. When this person started shooting, we saw him. He was 30 or 40 meters away. I saw him aiming at us. I turned sideways to shield my children and I was shot. I can see only blood. I covered my eye with my hand. I felt like if I take my hand off, it might fall out of its socket.

KARADSHEH (voice-over): Elahe is not alone. Activists say Iranian security forces were using metal pellets and rubber bullets deliberately and systematically shooting the eyes and blinding more than 500 protesters according to rights groups. Many have shared their photos online, but the regime's called them liars spreading propaganda. Elahe lay in hospital in this agonizing pain for hours, doctors reluctant to help her as security forces were hunting down the injured and those who aided them. After a surgery to treat her wound, Elahe stayed at home in a darkroom for more than three weeks.

TAVAKOLIAN (through translator): I could hear them from my room chanting slogans. Something was pulling me outside, to speak, to shout, to demand my rights. I felt like my fight wasn't over yet.

KARADSHEH (voice-over): But she also wanted to save her eye. With the help of an Italian journalist, Elahe made it to Italy where she's undergone more surgeries. It was too late. Doctors discovered that the pellets still lodged behind her eye, had moved and were forced to remove the eye. She was fitted with a prosthetic. But life has never been harder for Elahe. She still lives with the physical pain, the trauma alone in a foreign country, now relying on donations and friends to survive and hardest of all, not knowing if she will ever see her children again.

TAVAKOLIAN (through translator): I never regretted this and I never will. If I returned to Iran, I will do it again. So many say this revolution is over. But it is not over. All across the country, women are now going out without a hijab because they are no longer afraid of them. This is our method of civil resistance.

KARADSHEH (voice-over): The regime may have crushed the protests, but the resilience of Elahe like so many others remains unshakeable.

TAVAKOLIAN (through translator): No matter how many times they cut the flowers, they cannot stop the spring from coming. They shot my eye and they shot others but the struggle is going on. No matter how many they kill, they cannot stop the spring from coming. They cannot keep freedom from returning to us.

Jomana Karadsheh, CNN, Milan, Italy.


BLITZER: And thanks so much for Jomana Karadsheh's report for us. We really appreciate it very powerful.


Coming up, we'll have more on the breaking news we're following right now. New calls for Senator Menendez to resign immediately over shocking bribery charges coming from inside his own party. We're going to dig deeper into the grave accusations against him that could put him in prison for up to 20 years, which include accepting cash, gold bars, and a Mercedes and a lot more.


BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news, growing pressure on Senator Bob Menendez to resign after a new federal criminal indictment. His home state governor is saying Menendez should go as the Democrat that stands accused of creating his cloud for a treasure trove of bribes, allegedly including cash lining his pockets, gold bars and a luxury car.

Also tonight, the star witness in the January 6th congressional hearings is now speaking out revealing the danger she felt after testifying and issuing a new warning about Donald Trump.

And Ukraine unleashes missile and cyberattacks on Russian occupied Crimea, including a strike on the headquarters of the Kremlin's Black Sea Fleet. CNN is in Ukraine amid the very ambitious attack by Kyiv's forces on Russian targets.


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