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The Situation Room

New Jersey Governor Calls For Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) To Resign After Bribery Charges; Star Witness Of Jan. 6 Hearings On Feeling Unsafe After Testimony; Ukraine Hits Russian-Held Crimea With Missile And Cyberattacks; New ProPublica Report Revives Scrutiny Of Justice Clarence Thomas' Ethics And Conservative Interests. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired September 22, 2023 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We're following breaking news on the bribery charges and the political fallout for Senator Bob Menendez after his criminal indictment. His home state governor is now urging the Democrat to resign from the U.S. Senate. This, as Menendez, has already been forced to step down, at least for now, as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

First, let's go to CNN's Kara Scannell. She's outside the courthouse in New York where the charges were announced. Kara, the New Jersey governor isn't the only one calling for Menendez to resign.


There's a growing chorus of lawmakers from New Jersey who are calling for Senator Menendez to step down. That's after federal prosecutors here announced this allegedly brazen bribery scheme. They detailed how an FBI search of the senator's home turned up the proceeds of this alleged crime.


DAMIAN WILLIAMS, U.S. ATTORNEY, SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK: Some of the cash was stuffed in the senator's jacket pockets.

SCANNELL (voice over): Indicted again, New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez facing corruption-related charges for the second time in ten years. Prosecutors announcing a three-count federal indictment against the Democratic senator and his wife over their dealings with three New Jersey associates and businessmen starting in at least 2018.

D. WILLIAMS: The senator and his wife accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars of bribes in exchange for Senator Menendez using his power and influence to protect and to enrich those businessmen.

SCANNELL: The alleged bribes include more than $550,000 in cash hidden in the senator's home and safe deposit box, a Mercedes-Benz convertible and gold bars worth tens of thousands of dollars, among other things.

The indictment also alleges the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair, quote, provided sensitive U.S. government information and took other steps that secretly aided the government of Egypt.

D. WILLIAMS: Behind the scenes, Senator Menendez was doing those things for certain people, the people who were bribing him and his wife.

SCANNELL: The senator, not new to scandal, issued a defiant statement in response to the U.S. attorney's latest allegations. I have been falsely accused before because I 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.

Menendez has long maintained his innocence in this latest probe into his dealings telling CNN back in April --

SEN. BOB MENENDEZ (D-NJ): This inquiry will end up, I believe, in absolutely nothing.

The senator faced similar corruption charges in 2015 related to political favors.

MENENDEZ: To those who were digging my political grave so that they could jump into my seat, I know who you are and I won't forget you.

SCANNELL: That case ended in a mistrial, a partial acquittal, being dropped. In this latest case, Menendez remains defiant, saying he won't be, quote, distracted by baseless accusations.


SCANNELL (on camera): Now, prosecutors alleged that Menendez had used his position on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to aid Egypt. Specifically, they alleged that he helped ghostwrite a letter that the Egyptians sent to other senators to try to convince them to lift a hold on nearly $300 million in aid to Egypt.

Now, the other three defendants have not responded to these allegations. One of the businessmen said that he would fight these allegations in court. All five defendants are due back here in court on Wednesday. And, Wolf, they -- as the attorney's office's stress, that this investigation is still ongoing?

BLITZER: Interesting. All right, Kara Scannell in New York for us. Thank you very much.

Let's get some more on all of this, our Legal Analysts Elliot Williams and Joey Jackson are with us, also with us, our Senior Political Analyst Gloria Borger.

And, Gloria, the Democratic governor of New Jersey says Senator Menendez should resign. And just last hour, Democratic Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger told me she also was calling for his resignation. Clearly, this is a very, very significant development.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Oh, yes. And also, Wolf, the leader of the state Democratic Party in New Jersey has now called for him to resign. So, you can see what's brewing in the state of New Jersey. You know, Menendez is a powerful senator, but -- and this was supposed to be a safe seat, right? He's up again in this next cycle. It's supposed to be a safe seat. And now they've got to make a decision whether they say to him, you know, we don't want you to run on the ticket or just let him run, as he says he wants to do.

In the Senate, you know, it's been much more muted. You know, Chuck Schumer is saying, you know, everyone is innocent until found guilty. And that is, of course, true. And he stepped aside as chairman. So, you don't hear the chorus coming from the club of the Senate, not yet, at least.


House members have spoken out, as you point out. But what's really important is what's going on in the state of New Jersey when you have the governor and the head of the state Democratic Party both saying he should resign.

BLITZER: Interesting. Elliot Williams is with us. Elliot, what stands out to you about these very serious allegations against Senator Menendez?

ELLIOT WILLIAMS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: A lot of things stand out about the allegations, Wolf. I think the challenge for prosecutors is really going to be to establish not just that these things happen but that there was some nexus between gifts and favors presented to Senator Menendez and his official actions.

I think what stands out to that effect are some of the colorful details. For instance, the fact that you're dealing with gold bricks and big wads of cash, neither of which are themselves unlawful to purchase, but when considered in the context of other conduct just simply raises flags and certainly will not look good in front of a jury.

With respect to this letter that he ghost-drafted for other senators, an important detail in the indictment is that he uses his personal email address to transact about it.

Now, again, senators are free to use their personal email address, but they have official email addresses. And the mere use of some mode of communication, which appears to have been a way of evading further scrutiny is itself the kind of thing that will look bad in front of a jury.

So, all of those details do paint a pretty broad picture and really do suggest, if not criminal behavior, certainly behavior that's not befitting someone being a United States senator.

BLITZER: Yes, let me get Joey Jackson into this conversation. Joey, I want to get your thoughts on something that Democratic Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger just told me in the last hour here in THE SITUATION ROOM about the allegations against Senator Menendez. Listen to this.


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

REP. ABIGAIL SPANBERGER (D-VA): So from an indictment standpoint, from a legalese 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. So, in the simplest of terms, yes.


BLITZER: Simple answer. This is a former CIA officer, Joey, accusing the senator of espionage when he provided this assistance to Egypt. Do you agree?

JOEY JACKSON, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Yes, Wolf. I don't know that I agree with that. Remember, I'm speaking from a defense perspective. And from a defense, I think you need a connection. Elliot was speaking to that issue earlier. I think there has to be a nexus between the conduct alleged and the actual activities engaged in.

What do I mean? It is the sole essence of a senator's job to represent constituents, to do what you do on behalf of them, to do it forcefully. And so now, where they're making an attempt, that is the government, believe to suggest that there was a quid pro quo.

Now, if you suggest or you say that, then I want to see the connection. Are there emails with respect to I will act in the event, for example, that you pay me money, I will act if you give me gold bars, I will act if you line my pocket? So, I would really make the argument that this is not espionage.

To the issue of people telling them to resign, you know, it's about to process. These are accusations. An indictment is an allegation. That allegation has to be substantiated in a court of law by a jury of your peers, which finds you guilty. That's not the essence of the evidence in an indictment in a grand jury.

So, I don't think we could jump to conclusions with respect to his guilt or with respect to him being engaging in espionage. He, from a defense perspective, was representing his constituents forcefully. And that I think will be his attorney's argument at the core as they move forward.

BLITZER: Elliot, what do you think?

E. WILLIAMS: No, I would agree with that wholeheartedly, Wolf. I think the challenge prosecutors are going to have in this case, as in any other, when you're dealing with public corruption as, and particularly in Washington, there is the conduct that maybe people find distasteful of the influence-peddling, the wheeling and wining and dining and the wheeling and dealing. But when does that rise to being criminal conduct? And prosecutors are going to have to establish a clear link between one act and another.

And where I disagree with Joey a little bit is, in many respects, it's a political question. Do people want this individual to be a senator? That's very different than the criminal question. Can you convict him? And can prosecutors be successful on the basis of the conduct?

What they laid out was a lot of evidence and a lot of information here, but a jury is going to have to believe a direct link between the gifts and the favors and the official action. And that's not always entirely clear to juries.

BLITZER: You know, it's interesting, Gloria. We've known that Senator Menendez was under investigation since last year, but he was allowed to continue as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.


Is that something Senate Democrats will have to answer for?

BORGER: Well, I think -- look, I think, you know, the Senate is a club. And he was under investigation and he is presumed innocent until found guilty, and he was just under investigation and he very strongly said they will find nothing.

I think the question that I have now is when he says they have misrepresented the normal work of a congressional office, whether there are many members of Congress who think that this is not the normal work of a congressional office and that there needs to be some accounting for the amount of money that was found, for the gold that was found, and for these texts and emails and the passing on of information that was private to a foreign entity through an intermediary, which happened to be his wife.

So, I think -- you know, I think there are a lot of questions that need to be answered and I think senators always give their colleagues the benefit of the doubt, but at some point, given what's going on in the state, that could change.

BLITZER: We shall see. Guys, thank you very, very much.

Just ahead, Cassidy Hutchinson reveals she essentially went into hiding, feeling threatened after her bombshell January 6th testimony. The former Trump White House aide is speaking out now for the first time. We'll share that with you when we come back.



BLITZER: Former Trump White House Staffer Cassidy Hutchinson is now speaking out for the first time since her bombshell testimony before the January 6th Select Committee in a new interview describing how it was unsafe for her to return home.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) CASSIDY HUTCHINSON, FORMER TRUMP AIDE: 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 -- the way that I was living my life for a while.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: 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.

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



BLITZER: All right. Let's get some reaction from former Trump White House Communications Director Alyssa Farah Griffin along with Ashley Etienne, former Communications Director for Vice President Harris.

Alyssa, let's talk to you first. You and Cassidy Hutchinson, you worked together in the Trump White House. What's your reaction to actually hearing that her testimony, she felt, put her life in danger?

ALYSSA FARAH GRIFFIN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It's heartbreaking, but I can tell you it's true. Cassidy and I are also close friends. And at the time, I saw the vitriol that she was getting online. I was made aware of both the congressional committee's concern for her safety but also her own attorneys and family.

Listen, over 10 million people watched that hearing. I think she moved many hearts and minds, but you also know that there are folks on the far right who were threatened by what she was doing. And I think she was in danger and that was the right call to leave.

BLITZER: Yes, certainly. Ashley, what do you think?

ASHLEY ETENNE, FORMER COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR FOR V.P. HARRIS AND SPEAKER PELOSI: I mean, my heart goes out to her, of course. But what I appreciated, she showed a love level of courage that we're not seeing even from Republican members. She's, you know, like Nikki Haley most recently, is standing -- stood up to the president and really spoke true to power and really defended American democracy.

And so I just admire her courage and I really wish that the rest of the Republican Party would take a lesson and a playbook from her and really demonstrate that level of courage in the interest of protecting and defending and strengthening our democracy.

BLITZER: Alyssa, I want to read a bit more of what Cassidy Hutchison told CBS News and this is a quote. I would not back the former president of the United States. He is dangerous for the country. He is willing and has showed time and time again willingness to proliferate lies to vulnerable American people so he could stay in power. To me, that is the most un-American thing you can do. This is coming from someone who actually like you worked in the Trump White House. Will voters listen?

GRIFFIN: That's the open question. But can I just say, Wolf, look how easy that was. How many elected members of Congress who are Republicans feel that same way? They know what they saw on January 6th, but they can't muster those words that Cassidy Hutchinson, a 29- year-old, at the time she was 25 when she was in the White House, was able to so clearly say.

And I did read the book under embargo and I want to respect that, but I will say this, once it comes out, I think there's going to be a lot of Republican leaders who frankly should be ashamed of themselves if they read her account, and they don't second-guess this idea of once again backing Donald Trump and potentially putting him back in the White House because this book is damning.

BLITZER: It certainly is. Ashley, Hutchinson says she remains a Republican even as she is speaking out against Donald Trump. Do you think other Republicans will take note?

ETIENNE: Well, I mean, I think that's left to be seen. I'm not sure that they will. They've not demonstrated that level of courage. They've continually put Donald Trump ahead of American democracy. And I think I agree with Cassidy, like there is nothing more un-American than attempting to undermine the election, multiple attempts to undermine the election. He also says he wants to dismantle the Constitution. He's also a Russian sympathizer. I mean, for me, I don't know anything that's more antithetical to who we are as a nation.

So here's the thing I think Judge Luttig said it best. In order for us to move forward as a unified country, it's going to require a healthy Republican Party. And they have to become whole and healthy again. And the way to do that is really confront and be honest with American people, like Cassidy has, about what Donald Trump did and how dangerous he is for American democracy if he gets that job again.

BLITZER: Alyssa, how is Cassidy doing now?

GRIFFIN: She's doing great. She's ready to tell her story. And I'm glad she took the time and waited until she was ready to tell it on her own terms.

And, listen, I would say we're still in a Republican presidential primary. I think we're all realistic about how likely it is that Donald Trump is the nominee. But I hope that folks like Nikki Haley, Chris Christie, those who are still in the race, read this book and really ask themselves, is it time to take him on more directly and tell the truth to the public about what a threat Donald Trump is?


ETIENNE: Well, you know, I was going to add that Nikki Haley took him on in the last debate. And she broke with convention and it proved to work. I mean, she's surging in the polls. She was the one who said that he added $8 trillion to the deficit and that he was the most unpopular politician in American history. And it seems to be working.

So, I think you're right, Alyssa. I'm curious to see whether or not Republicans will take note of that and we'll see a different tone and tenor from them in the next debate.

BLITZER: All right. Guys, thank you very, very much.

This note to our viewers, CNN's Jake Tapper sits down with Cassidy Hutchinson this coming Tuesday on the lead. That's at 4 P.M. Eastern.

Coming up, Ukraine launches one of its biggest and most brazen attacks yet on Russian-occupied Crimea. And we'll hear exclusively from a top Ukrainian general.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Ukraine hit the Black Sea fleet's headquarters in Russian- occupied Crimea with a missile attack today, one of its biggest attacks to-date.

CNN's Senior International Correspondent Fred Pleitgen is covering this important story for us from Ukraine. What's the latest, Fred?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi there, Wolf. Well, the Ukrainians certainly see this as a huge success. The main headquarters of the Black Sea fleet of the Russian Navy is a highly fortified area, and certainly an area where many people thought there would be a lot more air defenses at work there and that they would be a lot more effective as well.

I talked about that with the top commanding general of Ukraine's counteroffensive in the south of the country, but we also talked about the counteroffensive in general and some of the skepticism towards supporting Ukraine in Washington, D.C. Here's what he said.


PLEITGEN (voice over): Smoke billowing from Russia's Black Sea Fleet headquarters in Sevastopol, Moscow blaming Ukrainian-launched cruise missiles, Kyiv only confirming they hit the building.

I sat down with the commanding general for Ukraine's counteroffensive in the south, Oleksandr Tarnavsky, and he tells me strikes like these are invaluable for his troops.

BRIG. GEN. OLEKSANDR TARNAVSKY, UKRAINIAN ARMED FORCES: A destroyed commander means a destroyed command link. And if there is no command, then there are no coordinated actions hitting infrastructure, like factories, bases, warehouses, containing weapons is also a factor for victory.

PLEITGEN: In the past weeks alone, the Ukrainians say they've hit a Russian ship, a submarine, an air base, and a surface-to-air missile system in occupied Crimea. Still, Ukraine's president faces skepticism both for many Republican lawmakers and the public about the U.S.'s continued support for Ukraine.

Tarnavsky asking for patience.

TARNAVSKY: We have one goal, liberation of our territories. However hard it is, we will keep on working. And I want to thank even the skeptics. Their criticism also influences our task's success.

PLEITGEN: It's been a slow grind for the Ukrainians on the southern front, progress so far incremental.

But the question is, do you think that there will be a big push?

TARNAVSKY: I believe so, and I think this point will be Tokmak. They are relying on the depth of the offensive line there. I worry less about the Surovikin line, more about the crossroads, tree lines and the minefields between the tree lines.

PLEITGEN: But the U.S. has cautioned time might be running out, as fall progresses, making the earth here soggy and movement difficult.

How much do you think that you can achieve before the winter sets in? How far do you think your forces can get, realistically?

TARNAVSKY: The weather can be a serious obstacle during an advance, but considering how we move forward, mostly without using vehicles, I don't think the weather will heavily influence the counteroffensive.

PLEITGEN: General Tarnovsky says he remains optimistic that Ukraine's counteroffensive will be a success, especially if Ukraine continues its campaign targeting Russian forces in the rear, like Crimea.


PLEITGEN (on camera): Oleksandr Tarnavsky there speaking about the importance of hitting that command and control center, of course, the headquarters of the Black Sea fleet, Wolf, but he also says that that hit is also a big boost in morale for the Ukrainian forces, and he also believes a big hit, a gut punch for the Russians and their morale as they see one of their most highly fortified headquarters hit by those Ukrainian missiles. Wolf?

BLITZER: Fred Pleitgen reporting live from Dnipro, in Ukraine, thank you very much, Fred.

For more on this important development, I'm joined now by Representative Gregory Meeks of New York. He's the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Congressman, thank you so much for joining us.

You heard that top Ukrainian general tell CNN, and you just heard the report, that these strikes on Crimea are key to the counteroffensive strategy from Ukraine. Is that your assessment as well?

REP. GREGORY MEEKS (D-NY): Absolutely. In meeting with President Zelenskyy yesterday when he was in town, he indicated to us that that is one of their goals, because all of the weapons that Russia is storing is there in Crimea, and if you hit those, we believe that the Russians will start to run across the bridge back from Crimea to Russia.

And it is a big morale booster, also, I believe, for the Ukrainian soldiers. And significant, I think, because it shows also the weakness of Russia. You know, they have had to run to North Korea to try to get some additional weapons, showing that they're running out there, and they did not have the protection that some would have assumed that they would have had to protect the arsenals that they've had in Crimea.


So, it shows their weaknesses. It shows that they're very vulnerable. And it shows that the United States, as well as the rest of our allies, should just stay the course, because Ukraine is winning. And it takes its time, but it's just strategic. And I think that they're doing the right thing at the right time. And I thank President Biden for giving them what they need when they need it.

BLITZER: Congressman, I want to turn to the breaking news today and get your thoughts. Your colleague, Senator Menendez of New Jersey, is facing growing calls right now from your fellow Democrats to resign over very serious bribery charges. Democratic Congresswoman Spanberger, she just echoed that call here in THE SITUATION ROOM during the last hour. Do you agree with your colleagues, should the senator resign?

MEEKS: Look, I am very concerned about what took place, but as an attorney, as a former prosecutor myself, I do believe in due process. You know, I look and I've said the same thing and the same standard for former President Trump, who has been indicted four times and has over 100 charges against him, but there should be due process.

But nobody, well, nobody is above the law. If anyone has broken the law, they should pay for it and that should be not a break to anyone. So, if Donald Trump and/or Senator Menendez have broken the law, they should pay the price. But I do believe we are a country of laws, and so I do believe in and due process.

BLITZER: But what message does this send for him to stay in the Senate? He has now resigned as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

MEEKS: Look, I don't -- the message is he is being prosecuted, it's an indictment on him just in the same as it is for Donald Trump, who's still running for president of the United States of America. So, it is his choice as to whether or not he decides, as he decided it was his choice, to step down as chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, and it is his choice to try to determine whether or not he can continue to serve the people of New Jersey.

I think you've heard a lot from some of the members of Congress from New Jersey. That's their decision. But for me, you know, I have to stand for due process. Due process is tremendously important because if you go to many other countries, due process is not there. And a violation of due process, for one, is a violation for all. But I don't want anyone to be above the law. No one is above the law.

BLITZER: Your Democratic colleague, Congresswoman Spanberger of Virginia, a former officer in the CIA, just told me in the last hour that in the simplest terms, she could actually see a case potentially for espionage charges against the senator. Clearly, this is a very serious matter. Is it a mistake for Democrats not to push him to resign?

MEEKS: It's a very serious matter. No question about it. Due process for our country is a very serious matter. We have -- as I said, Wolf, we have an individual who has been indicted on four occasions with over 100 charges. He is still running for president of the United States, due process. And none of the Republicans are saying that he should not run for president of the United States.

The fact of the matter is, some say even if he is convicted, they will vote for him. I say if someone is convicted, if after due process, Senator Menendez was convicted, then, clearly, he would not be able to be the senator from New Jersey, but due process.

You know, I come from a community where due process did not happen for us for a long period of time, and many people fought and died for that right of due process. So, there's no way that I, with the background that I come from and understanding the history of this country, can step away from due process being the rule that has to still be followed.

BLITZER: And due process means innocent until proven guilty. Representative Gregory Meeks, thanks so much for joining us.

MEEKS: Thanks for having me, Wolf.

BLITZER: Just ahead, Congress currently has no plan to avert a government shutdown. How that could affect your paycheck, what you eat, and possibly your next flight out of town.



BLITZER: Tonight, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer tells CNN he's in talks with Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, seeking a way around the division and the paralysis in the House of Representatives, as a government shutdown looms eight days from now.

CNN's Brian Todd is taking a closer look at the real world impact of a shutdown. Brian, this would affect millions of Americans in a variety of ways.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It certainly would, Wolf. Analysts and government union officials are warning us tonight about the serious ramifications of a government shutdown, expressing their concerns about everything, from the food we eat and the water we drink to our travel plans.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) TODD (voice over): Those soul-crushing flight delays that might have hampered your travel this summer and last year, get ready for potentially more of them. Your food and water might be vulnerable to safety lapses. Those are among the potential disruptions to our lives that could occur if the Congress can't agree to extend the funding of the government, and we face a government shutdown by midnight on September 30th.


EVERETT KELLEY, PRESIDENT, AMERICAN FEDERATION OF GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEES: Don't think for one minute that it don't affect your community, that it don't affect your church, that it don't affect your city, your municipality. It affects all of America.

TODD: First to feel the pinch, almost all of the country's 3.5 million federal workers going without pay, including active duty military and much of federal law enforcement. Some essential workers will have to work anyway without pay, like air traffic controllers and TSA officers at airports.

If they're working, why could there still be flight delays? When you don't have money to put gas in your car to come to work, when you don't have money for public transit, you know, that could cause delays at the airport because these guys are going to call in because they can't get to work.

TODD: And a shutdown would delay the training for badly needed, newly hired air traffic controllers.

PETE BUTTIGIEG, TRANSPORTATION SECRETARY: Even a shutdown lasting a few weeks could set us back by months or more because of how complex that training is.

TODD: How would the rest of us feel it? National parks likely closed, food stamps in jeopardy, as well as passport processing and disaster funding for places like Hawaii and Florida. Even thousands of preschool kids could be shut out.

CATHERINE RAMPELL, CNN ECONOMICS AND POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Head start is losing funding. That means a lot of preschools may be temporarily shutting down and the families that rely on them will be affected.

TODD: Our daily sustenance would be affected, analysts say, because FDA and EPA inspectors wouldn't be working during a government shutdown.

RAMPELL: You'll see fewer food safety inspections. You'll see a pause in inspections of drinking water facilities.

TODD: Social Security and Medicare payments won't be stopped. But service?

KELLEY: A person come and want to apply for a new claim, that won't happen. A person have an issue with their benefits, you know, they have no one to call, no one to talk to.

TODD: The broader economy would take a hit, experts say, because things like permitting for construction projects and loan approvals for farms and small businesses could be paused.

RAMPELL: A government shutdown is just yet another drag on the economy because it ends up disrupting lots of supply chains and lots of services that people and businesses rely on them to keep other parts of the economy running.


TODD: What should the average American do to prepare for a possible shutdown? Analyst Catherine Rampell advises check on what benefits you're receiving from the federal government, whether it's food stamps or your child's preschool. Find out if those benefits will be disrupted. And she says, contact your representative in Congress and urge them to work as hard as possible to reach a funding deal. Wolf, those members are going to be under a lot of pressure in the next week.

BLITZER: Yes, very good advice from her. Brian Todd, thank you very much.

New CNN polling from the key battleground state of New Hampshire may be giving some hope right now to the Biden campaign as a top GOP rival to Donald Trump sharpens attacks against the former president.

CNN's Chief National Affairs Correspondent Jeff Zeleny is joining us from Manchester, New Hampshire right now. Jeff, so where do things stand in the Granite State?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, for all the talk of a potential rematch between President Biden, former President Donald Trump, a bit of a reality check here in our latest New Hampshire poll.

Of course, New Hampshire always a swing state in the general election a year from now, but take a look at these numbers here, President Biden getting a slightly greater than a majority over the former president, 52 percent to 40 percent.

And, Wolf, this is quite interesting. What this is driven by is anger at the former president. When we asked a respondent here, voters in New Hampshire, what is driving their decision, anger toward the former president is higher than a lack of enthusiasm for the current president.

So, certainly, just a snapshot in time. Obviously, this is considerably early. A, we do not know if there will be a rematch between them. And the dynamics could change, but certainly a benchmark.

But, Wolf, what is underway here, of course, is a Republican primary campaign. And former South Carolina Governor and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley is gaining ground in our poll, as we talked about last evening. Well, she was presenting her economic plan here today. And, as she did so, she took aim at the former president, comparing them to Democrats.


NIKKI HALEY, REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Joe Biden is proving reckless spending is the road to socialism. But he's not the only culprit. Joe Biden, Donald Trump and Barack Obama added more to our national debt than the previous 42 presidents combined.


BLITZER: So, this is a continuation of the argument that, Wolf, she has been making about the spending and the fiscal policy of the former president. Of course, she's trying to carry some of that momentum into next week's debate at the Reagan Library in California on Wednesday.

Of course, this is essentially now a race for second place for the possibility to confront the former president head-to-head, one-on-one. He's not competing in that debate. But, Wolf, all of this certainly is sending a message the next year at least here in New Hampshire.


Certainly, it will be an unpredictable one. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right. Jeff Zeleny in Manchester, New Hampshire, for us, thanks, Jeff, very much.

Coming up, a new explosive report on U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Why the justice is once again facing scrutiny about his ethics. One of the reporters who broke this story standing by to join us next.


BLITZER: Tonight, new questions about U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' ethics and close ties to conservative interests. A "ProPublica" report reveals Thomas attended donor events of the Koch Network. That's a political organization founded by libertarian billionaires Charles and David Koch.

Joining us is Justin Elliott. He's one of the "ProPublica" reporters who broke this story.

Justin, thanks very much for joining us.

Walk us through your very significant new reporting and how it fits into the scrutiny over Justice Thomas' relationship with conservative mega donors.


JUSTIN ELLIOTT, PROPUBLICA REPORTER: Yeah. So we've been reporting all year about Justice Thomas accepting at this point millions of dollars worth of luxury travel, vacations around the world from various wealthy political donors. This story's a little bit different because it's not just a vacation sort of hangout on the beach. These are undisclosed trips to a political event, as you mentioned, the Koch political network.

It's a very powerful and large political organization, spends a lot of money on campaigns and also on lawsuits trying to change the law. They have this annual donor event out in Palm Springs, California. What we found is that Justice Thomas has been to that at least twice. He was described to us by folks that we spoke to who worked at the Koch Network as a fundraising draw for high-dollar donors.

BLITZER: In the article you say that Justice Thomas was, quote, let me read to you directly, was, quote in, the extraordinary position of having served as a fundraising draw for a network that has brought cases before the Supreme Court.

How remarkable is that? What are the implications for the Supreme Court? ELLIOTT: Yeah. So, I think there's sort of two reasons why this is

notable. One is that judges in general are supposed to be independent and impartial and part of that is they're not supposed to be involved in either political events or fundraising events. And this Koch network donor summit in California is arguably both a political event and a fundraising event.

So, we spoke to a judge who is George W. Bush appointee who said that it took his breath away that a judge would do this and as a lower- court judge, he would have been disciplined for doing something like this. But more specifically, you know, as you mentioned, the Koch Network has actually brought cases before the Supreme Court. There's one coming up in the Supreme Court turn that's about to begin.

It's on a legal issue known as Chevron that most people haven't heard of. But has, you know, potentially huge ramifications for the government's ability to regulate things like the environment, labor, consumer protections. That's a case that Koch Network lawyers have brought to the Supreme Court, and, you know, now because of our reporting we now know that Justice Thomas has this, you know, very, very unusual relationship with this group that's litigating at the Supreme Court.

BLITZER: In both the Supreme Court and Congress, Justin, for that matter, there is no consensus as of yet over establishing a code of ethics for the justices.

So, do you expect anything to really change here?

ELLIOTT: Potentially. I mean, so, the Senate Judiciary Committee has been investigating some of these ethics issues at the court, and also both justices appointed by both Democrats and Republicans, Justices Kagan and Kavanaugh have said in recent days and weeks that the court internally is looking at adopting some sort of ethics rules which right now it actually doesn't have any.

So, we're watching that closely, and we'll see if they come to some kind of consensus and whether it has any teeth. BLITZER: Excellent reporting from "ProPublica" reporter Justin

Elliott. Justin, thanks very much for joining us.

And still ahead, CNN's Donie O'Sullivan takes an in-depth look at believers of the online conspiracy theory that the slain U.S. President John F. Kennedy is still alive. We'll have a preview of his report, when we come back.



BLITZER: President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. His son died in a plane crash in 1999. Those are facts. But there is a growing group of people who believe President Kennedy and his son are both still alive and in hiding.

CNN's Donie O'Sullivan spent a year traveling across the United States, meeting with the so-called believers and their families who say the conspiracy theory has taken over their lives.

Watch this.


ERICA VIGRASA, SISTER OF PROTZMAN FOLLOWER: One time we went to play tennis and he got a phone call. Jason believed it was Junior calling him, JFK Jr. calling him. And this was maybe a week before he went to Dallas.

DONIE O'SULLIVAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: So you're playing tennis with your brother.


O'SULLIVAN: And he gets a call.

VIGRASA: Correct.

O'SULLIVAN: And he thinks it's JFK Jr.

VIGRASA: He does.

O'SULLIVAN: At that point, you're, like, there is something seriously wrong here?

VIGRASA: Yes. But what do you do?


BLITZER: Donie, you did a deep dive on this group for CNN's "THE WHOLE STORY WITH ANDERSON COOPER". Why are people believing this sort of thing?

O'SULLIVAN: Well, Wolf, this is kind of an offshoot of the QAnon conspiracy theory. It all started about two years ago when everybody was kind of shocked that hundreds of people showed up at the grassy knoll in Dallas, of course, where President Kennedy was assassinated almost 60 years ago.

And this group of people, hundreds of them, we're seeing they're waiting for either Kennedy or his son, JFK, Jr., to show up. Now, they didn't materialize, most of those people went home. But this core group left their families for quite some time to wait for the Kennedys to return. Some people describing this as a cult. What we wanted to do with this documentary was kind of get beyond these irrational beliefs because that is what they are, and really look at the impact that this is having on American families, but also why people are going down these rabbit holes in the first place.

And, you know, really what we found is that the people who believe in this, many of them, they aren't always, quote/unquote, always been crazy people or quacks. Many of them productive members of society, loving -- have loving families, have jobs. But something clicked.

Often times it's a trauma or they're going through a tough time, and they find these communities online and they get sucked into them.

And, as you can see from that interview there with Erica Vigrasa from Pittsburgh, her brother got sucked into this rabbit hole. And you can see the devastation it causes, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yeah. All right. Donie O'Sullivan, thank you.

And you can see the new episode of CNN's "THE WHOLE STORY WITH ANDERSON COOPER" this Sunday 8:00 p.m. Eastern.

To our viewers, thanks for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.