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Ukraine Claims Another Victory Against Russia; Another Government Shutdown Looming; Senator Bob Menendez Denies Bribery Charges; Menendez Rejects Calls To Resign After Bribery Charges; Trump Ramps Up Campaign Stops In Key States; Pentagon Updating Records Of Veterans Let Go For Being Gay. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired September 25, 2023 - 17:00   ET



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A reminder, if you ever miss an episode of The Lead, you can listen to the show wherever you get your podcasts. Our coverage for CNN continues right now with Pamela Brown in the Situation Room.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN HOST: Happening now, Ukraine reports significant damage from a massive and deadly new Russian attack while also claiming it struck a major blow to Moscow by killing the commander of Russia's Black Sea Fleet. We're going to get a new U.S. assessment of the war from key White House official John Kirby.

Also, tonight, Senator Bob Menendez speaks out for the first time since his indictment on bribery charges defiantly rejecting fellow Democrats' calls for him to resign.

And Donald Trump is ramping up his appearance in key battlegrounds even as he's set to skip another Republican primary debate. Stand by for a new snapshot of the 2024 race, including a swing state showdown between Trump and President Biden this week.

And welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Pamela Brown and you're in the Situation Room.

And we began with Ukraine's claim that it has killed the commander and other officers in Russia's Black Sea Fleet, potentially crippling the Kremlin's naval forces. Kyiv now accusing Moscow of seeking revenge for that attack by striking the southern port city of Odessa.

CNN's Sam Kiley is following all the new developments.


SAM KILEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Ukraine dismissed this as a pathetic attempt at retaliation. A Russian bombardment of the port city of Odessa with drones and long-range missiles. Two warehouse workers were killed, and abandoned hotels smashed in what could have been an almost routine attack by Russia.

But for this. Kyiv now claims to have killed the commander of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, Admiral Viktor Sokolov. Ukraine says it also killed another 33 Russian officers in the missile strike against the fleet headquarters in Sevastopol on Friday.

The Ukrainians have targeted senior Russian officers throughout this war, often using intelligence from NATO. And specialist units have been tasked by Kyiv with these killings. They're aimed at sapping morale and undermining command systems.

CNN has no independent confirmation of Ukraine's claim to have killed Russia's admiral, but it would be its biggest success in this campaign. And part of an ongoing effort to break through Russia's defense lines to ultimately strike at Crimea.

They've included earlier attacks on Putin's navy and a bridge to Russia itself. The first batch of U.S. donated Abrams tanks have now also arrived in Ukraine. But they are not the strategic weapons the Ukrainians say they need.

VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, PRESIDENT OF UKRAINE (through translator): The defense packages from the United States including artillery, necessary shells, HIMARS munitions, air defense missiles, additional air defense systems, tactical vehicles and some other types of weapons that will prove themselves on the battlefield.

KILEY: Kyiv wants these ATACMs. Range missile systems to attack deep behind Russian lines to kill more officers and destroy logistics hubs. The U.S. has yet to announce that Ukraine will get these missiles before the winter freezes over the front lines where they are.


KILEY: Now of course from the Ukrainian perspective without air dominance breaking through those defense lines are extremely difficult. So, a great deal, Pamela, of their main effort is focused on breaking what the military calls C2, the command and control, the discipline of Russian troops.

And that's why they want those ATACMs because they believe that if those missiles can kill enough key Russians the Russian military will collapse in on itself sparing bloodshed on both sides.

BROWN: All right, Sam Kiley, thanks so much for that.

And joining us now from the White House, the National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, John Kirby. Thanks for joining us.

So, Ukraine as we know, as Sam just laid out, says this Russian attack on Odessa is revenge for Friday's strike on Crimea. If Ukraine did in fact kill the commander of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, how big of a blow would that be to Vladimir Putin?

JOHN KIRBY, COORDINATOR FOR STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS: That would be a significant blow, certainly to Russian naval operations in the Black Sea area.


And they have been very, very active for the last 18 months from the Black Sea, striking inside Ukraine from ships at sea. So, if you're able to kill the commander of the fleet or a lot of his or her staff, obviously that's going to have a significant impact on their ability, as Sam says right in his reporting, to command and control that fleet.

Now that doesn't mean it's going to be some sort of permanent fix, Pamela. They'll replace those people. Obviously, they'll put a new leader in, and the Russian fleet's not going anywhere out of the Black Sea. But for a while, it will have a significant impact on their ability to operate.

BROWN: So to follow up on that, can the U.S. confirm whether this commander was in fact killed along with 33 other Russian officers as Ukraine says?

KIRBY: No, we cannot. We've seen the reporting on that but we're not in a position to confirm it.

BROWN: All right, so how far did these repeated Ukrainian attacks on occupied Crimea go in disrupting Russia's fight on the front line?

KIRBY: I think it's important if you just look at the map and look geographically, Crimea is critical for Russia's efforts to continue its occupation north of Crimea, north of that peninsula, and then up the eastern side of the country into the Donbas.

Crimea acts as a bit of a staging ground, not just for attacks from the Black Sea, but also to be able to help replenish and resource their troops, particularly in the southern part of Ukraine. So, it makes perfect sense that Ukraine would want to hit strategic targets inside Crimea to try to hamper their ability to use Crimea as a staging base, if you will, for supporting their troops further inland.

BROWN: President Zelenskyy, for his part, says the first American Abrams tanks have now arrived in Ukraine. What does that mean for the counteroffensive?

KIRBY: This is the first tranche of the Abrams tanks. These are very capable armored tanks that can have a particularly significant impact on the battlefield. But they're only the first tranche of the more than 30 that the United States has committed to Ukraine. There will be more flowing in here in coming weeks.

Now, obviously, it will be up to President Zelenskyy and his generals to figure out how they use these tanks. They have other tanks from other countries that they're using. But in this fight, in this counteroffensive, where they are making steady but slow progress, particularly in the south, these sophisticated Abrams tanks, they can be a significant help.

BROWN: There are also reports that the U.S. will provide Ukraine with longer-range ATACM's missiles. Is that the case? And did President Biden make that commitment when he met with President Zelenskyy last week?

KIRBY: Now I don't have any announcements on these ATACMs. These are long-range cruise missiles to speak to today. What I can speak to is the fact that we are continually in conversation with the Ukrainians about their needs, including air defense needs.

And as you saw, the president, when he, after he met with President Zelenskyy, announced yet another tranche of security assistance, some additional arms and equipment. We're going to keep that coming.

BROWN: All right. Before we let you go, I want to ask you about a potential government shutdown. The Pentagon has warned that a government shutdown could disrupt the delivery of military to Ukraine. How is the administration planning to handle that possibility?

KIRBY: We've got a little bit more funding to go, so I think we'll be OK for the next few weeks or so. But without the supplemental request that we asked for, it will absolutely have an effect on our ability to support Ukraine well into the fall and into the winter months, Pamela.

And look, I mean, the weather is not going to be all that cooperative here soon. You heard from Sam, you know, once we get into the winter, it gets really hard for both militaries to maneuver and to operate. And so, we want to make sure that we're getting them everything they need here while they still have good conditions on the ground.

Not getting that supplemental request if there's a shutdown, that's going to have a significant impact on their -- on their ability to succeed on the battlefield.

BROWN: Yes, and you talk about the winter. Ukraine says it's going to keep fighting through the winter. What do you think that looks like?

KIRBY: Well, I think it'll look like last winter, unfortunately. Now we're heading into another winter of war. But its -- last winter, both sides, they did fight. They didn't stop. Nobody just sat down.

But the fighting gets greatly affected by the weather conditions as it does anywhere around the world. And so, it's going to have an effect on them. And we want to make sure that they can take advantage of the good conditions that they have now for as long as they can.

BROWN: All right, John Kirby, thanks so much.

KIRBY: You bet.

Coming up, where efforts to avert a government shutdown stand. Right now, rebel Republicans digging in their heels with the deadline only days away.



BROWN: Tonight, the U.S. government is hurdling toward a crippling shutdown at the end of this week. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy still unable to defuse a GOP civil war that's preventing critical funding from being approved.

CNN's Melanie Zanona is live for us on Capitol Hill. So, Melanie, with time running out, what happens when lawmakers return tomorrow?

MELANIE ZANONA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Pam, I can walk you through what their plan is, but there's no guarantee that it's actually going to go according to plan. So, starting tomorrow, House Republicans will try to move forward with a package of individual long-term spending bills.

And the hope among Speaker Kevin McCarthy and his leadership team is that is going to build some goodwill with members of the far right who've been calling for them to pass these individual bills and that they will eventually rally around a short-term spending bill to keep the government open to try to buy themselves a little more time to pass the rest of their long-term spending bills.

But there are a couple hurdles to that plan. First of all, still unclear whether they have the votes for either long-term or short-term spending bills. And second of all, even if they did all of those bills are dead on arrival in the Senate.

And meanwhile, looming over it all is a potential threat from hardliners to force a vote ousting Kevin McCarthy for -- from the speakership if he crosses them or acts in a way that they feel like violators -- that violates the deal that he made to become speaker.

But Kevin McCarthy is insisting that these hardliner threats are not driving his decision-making. Take a listen.


KEVIN MCCARTHY, U.S. SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: I'm not worried if someone makes a motion, I'm not worried if somebody votes no. I'm going to wake up each and every day with the same thing that drives my opinion of what needs to be done, solving these problems and that's what I'm going to be doing.


UNKNOWN: But some of those --

MCCARTHY: And I'm going to work with people who want to get that done.



ZANONA: Meanwhile, across the Capitol, Chuck Schumer has taken steps for the Senate to advance its own short-term spending bill, but that is unlikely to include many of the conservative priorities that the House Republicans are seeking.

And Kevin McCarthy has not said what he would do if that bill were to come over from the Senate. So ultimately, for Kevin McCarthy, it may come down for him making a choice between keeping the government open or keeping his speakership. Pam?

BROWN: And meantime, you have former President Donald Trump weighing in, who, he seems to be encouraging hard line Republicans when it comes to conceding, right?

ZANONA: Yes, that's exactly right. And we should remind viewers that Donald Trump presided over the longest shutdown in U. S. history when he was making demands over the border, and now he has entered the fray once again. He has been encouraging Republicans to shut it down.

I want to read you part of his Truth Social statement. He said, unless you get everything, shut it down. So that is just a sample of the challenge that McCarthy is dealing with here. He knows a number of these hardliners are listening to Donald Trump. He has their ear and so it makes it even harder for Kevin McCarthy to convince them to back down. In fact, they are digging in and even amplifying Trump for making these comments, Pam.

BROWN: All right, thanks so much, Melanie Zanona. Let's go over to the White House now. President Biden weighed in a short while ago about the threat of a government shutdown, laying the blame squarely on what he calls extreme House Republicans.

CNN's Kayla Tausche is at the White House for us. Kayla, tell us more about what the president is saying.

KAYLA TAUSCHE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Pam, the president is doubling down on the White House's message that it is Republicans alone that are stirring the government toward a shutdown despite a bipartisan budget deal that the president helped broker in June.

Here's the president speaking on that earlier this afternoon.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: Just a few months ago, the Speaker of the House and I lead to spending levels from the government. Now a small group of extreme House Republicans, they don't want to live up to that deal, and everyone in America could be faced with paying the price.


TAUSCHE: A White House official tells me that President Biden remains in touch with congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle and that the president is broadly supportive, in this official's words, of the efforts by the Senate to overcome the hurdles that Kevin McCarthy is facing among his conference in the House, to broker some sort of deal there, and that President Biden believes that a Senate-brokered deal is one that would be in the spirit of the bipartisan budget deal that all parties reached just a few months ago.

But in the meantime, the Office of Management and Budget is telling agencies to start putting in place their individual plans, contingency planning for a government shutdown that would begin Saturday at midnight.

And the White House is now dispatching officials from independent cabinets to start warning of disruptions to specific programs like air traffic control and nutritional programs for women and children if that shutdown does take effect.

I've also asked the White House for its economic assessment of what would happen if the country government endured a short or a long-term shutdown. The Council of Economic Advisers, which normally crunches those numbers, has not made those available. But it's safe to say, Pam, that there would be an economic impact if that were to happen.

BROWN: And just to take a step back for the big picture context here, who do voters usually blame for a shutdown and how does the White House navigate that?

TAUSCHE: Well, it really depends on who is in power and who's the one that is pushing the shutdown narrative here, Pam. I mean, just a few months ago, we saw the White House once again trying to put Republicans on the hook for a potential partial shutdown or a default on the nation's debt if a deal was not reached at that time.

And by and large, American voters said that the buck stopped with President Biden and that he would bear any responsibility if that were to happen. But the difference in that scenario was that House Republicans had coalesced around a specific set of priorities and they passed a bill that the White House then had jump started negotiations in response to.

So, in that situation, House Republicans had moved first and did have a relatively united position, thus putting the White House on the hook. It remains unclear exactly how Americans would feel about the shutdown this time around, albeit it appears that we're careening toward one. Pam?

BROWN: All right, Kayla Tausche, thanks so much.

And up next for you on this Monday, a powerful Senator says he is not going anywhere as calls grow for his resignation after being indicted on bribery charges. You're in The Situation Room. We'll be back.



BROWN: Senator Sherrod Brown is now the second Senate Democrat to call for the resignation of New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez. Since Friday, several Democratic lawmakers have called for Menendez to resign.


REP. DEAN PHILLIPS (D-MN): There is evidence here. And yes, I'm a Democrat, so is Senator Menendez. But based on what I've seen, I'm disappointed. Yes, I think he should resign.

REP. ABIGAIL SPANBERGER (D-VA): Certainly, he is innocent until proven guilty. But this indictment is damning and he should resign.

REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ (D-NY): I do believe that it is in the best interest for Senator Menendez to resign in this moment.


BROWN: But Menendez says he will continue to serve despite the federal bribery charges against him and his wife.

CNN's Kara Scannell is covering the story for us. She joins us from New York. So what is Senator Menendez saying today, Kara?

KARA SCANNELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Pam, in these first public remarks since the indictment was announced on Friday, Menendez made it clear he is not going anywhere. And you know, he was, he's been charged with three counts of bribery-related offensive. Prosecutors say he took hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes. And in exchange, he helped three New Jersey businessmen and aided the government of Egypt.


So today, in his first remarks about this indictment and these charges, Menendez has said that he believes he will be exonerated. And he tried to address the envelopes stuffed with cash that the FBI found in jackets bearing Menendez's name when they searched his home last year. Take a listen.


SEN. BOB MENENDEZ (D-NJ): I recognize this will be the biggest fight yet, but as I have stated throughout this whole process, I firmly believe that when all the facts are presented, not only will I be exonerated, but I still will be the New Jersey's senior senator.

I have withdrawn thousands of dollars in cash from my personal savings account, which I have kept for emergencies and because of the history of my family facing confiscation in Cuba. Now this may seem old- fashioned, but these were monies drawn from my personal savings account based on the income that I have lawfully derived over those 30 years.


SCANNELL: Now Menendez did not address the gold bars that the FBI found or the Mercedes Benz convertible that they allege was part of this scheme. Now he has said that where he did try to address some of these allegations about Egypt because prosecutors allege that he took several steps to try to aid Egypt as part of the scheme.

Now he said his record as a senator shows that he's always tried to hold Egypt to account, particularly on human rights abuses. Now after this press conference or remarks that he stated publicly, he didn't take any questions, including ones from reporters asking if he was going to run for re-election. Pam?

BROWN: And what comes next in this case, Kara?

SCANNELL: So, on Wednesday, Menendez, his wife and those three New Jersey businessmen are due in court in lower Manhattan where they will go before a judge for the first time to face these charges. It's not clear yet if this will be an arraignment, but, if possible, then he will enter a plea in this case.

Now based on everything he said today it seems he's going to plead not guilty to these charges and that will then kick off this legal fight as he is potentially entering a run for reelection. Pam?

BROWN: All right, Kara Scannell, thank you so much. And for more on this story, I'm joined by Jessica Tillipman. She is an anti-corruption professor at George Washington University Law School. I'm also joined by Caroline Polisi. She's a federal and white-collar criminal defense attorney.

So, professor Tillipman, let's start with you. What do you make of this argument from Menendez that the reason authorities found thousands of dollars hidden away in his home is because he's just an old-fashioned guy who felt safer with cash?

JESSICA TILLIPMAN, ANTI-CORRUPTION PROFESSOR: Well, obviously, he has to point to something to explain piles of cash found on jackets and envelopes in his home. So, this looks like the excuse or the defense he's going with, at least for now.

He didn't quite get to the gold bars. Most people don't keep those hanging around their house very often. And he didn't get to some of the other items like the car. But, you know, at least for his initial statement, this seems to be a loop warm defense.

BROWN: And also, prosecutors could hear that and verify his statements, right? Did he withdraw this money from these banks? I mean --

TILLIPMAN: Yes, absolutely. And in fact, the indictment points to the fact that there's DNA evidence on some of the cash. Look, ultimately, we've seen this fact pattern before in these types of cases. If a receptacle can carry cash, it's been used, whether it's been a freezer, a bathtub, or a trunk. There's always these types of cases where people are trying to stuff cash to hide it when they're engaged in some sort of alleged bribery scheme.

So, it's going to be pretty difficult for him to get around this, particularly when they're pointing to physical evidence in the indictment. But again, at least this is his attempt to try to explain it away.

BROWN: So, Caroline, what do you think about the fact, he talked about the cash found in his home, but not the Mercedes, not the gold bars. And a reminder for our viewers, the indictment alleges he Googled how much a gold bar was worth after a trip to Egypt.

CAROLINE POLISI, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Yes, a lot of really damning evidence in this indictment, Pam. And as the professor knows quite well, since 2016 in this country, you know, there was a Supreme Court case, United States versus McDonald, in which the court really tamped down on prosecutors' ability to bring charges of this nature, not entirely, but they really narrowed the landscape in how they could charge.

And what prosecutors are going to have to show is a quid pro quo, so, you know, a thing of value, which obviously Mercedes Benz and gold bars are, in exchange for what's known as an official act, or in this case, a breaching of an official act.

And that's what's really in this indictment. I think the government will have no problems getting over that hurdle. They have shown time and time again, in many different ways, how Menendez both breached his acts, breached his official duty and used his office to influence others in order to, you know, really benefit himself and his other co- conspirators.

BROWN: I want to go back looking at the Menendez defense that we heard from him today, professor. Senator Menendez defended his record on Egypt. He explained that he has been on that country, in the country. He's pressed it on human rights violations, basically trying to make the case undermine this idea that he would do any favors for Egypt in exchange for gifts. In your view, how strong of a defense is that?


TILLIPMAN: Well, certainly it's -- he will be able to point to some things that he's done. But it's belied by the statements in the indictment, which point to covert activity that he was engaged in to effectively aid the country of Egypt, and obviously, these businessmen as well. I mean, I think it gets to the point that when you're dealing with a corruption case, all this stuff, comes behind closed doors, with winks and nods, this isn't stuff out in the open, like some of the public things he's been able to point to. This is the stuff behind the scenes.

And my colleague is correct. It's going to be far more difficult for the Justice Department to bring a case like this in light of decades of Supreme Court cases that have basically narrowed the application of these criminal statutes to prosecute direct domestic corruption cases in the United States. So they have a high hurdle and even higher hurdle than they normally would, in corruption cases. These are more difficult cases to bring.

But here again, he's pointing to something he's done publicly to try to discount the allegations in the indictment that that show that he or that allege that he's effectively been campaigning covertly on behalf of the Egyptian government all this time in exchange for bribes.

BROWN: Yes, talk a little bit about will expand on that Caroline about the complications for prosecutors here and making the case. Look, yes, he had a big role on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but this goes beyond just trying to, you know, influence policy. It's a big hurdle. POLISI: It is. And, you know, I think one thing that we're not talking about in this conversation is that, you know, Menendez faced very similar charges in the district of New Jersey, previously, and, you know, he -- there was a hung jury, and he was later acquitted on most of those charges.

So he has the -- this -- these types of charges, and the argument that he will make this time is going to be similar, in that. It doesn't meet this high bar this, you know, overt quid pro quo, a handing of money, you know, a shake of a hand in exchange for an official act. Basically, he's arguing, you know, look, it's swampy. These are the types of things I do all the time. You know, I don't think it's going to work. It's very hard to, you know, fend off charges of this nature one time.

I think it's even, you know, almost impossible to do it twice. So, look, he's been under investigation. I think it's interesting. You know, they started looking at him immediately after he was acquitted of those charges in 2018. So this conduct runs immediately from 2018 through 2022.

BROWN: Yes, that really stuck out to me too. Jessica Tillipman and Caroline Polisi, thanks for offering your insights.

TILLIPMAN: Thank you.

BROWN: Well, Senator Menendez is the latest in a long line of lawmakers from both parties who have been rocked by allegations of scandal and wrongdoing. Brian Todd is covering the story for us. So what is the latest Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Pamela tonight as Senator Menendez remains defiant against those charges. We take a deeper look into past cases where money and power converge in pretty colorful fashion.


TODD (voice-over): Senator Robert Menendez isn't the only politician who's had an embarrassing discovery at his home. Authorities uncovered $90,000 in cash in the freezer of the home of Democratic Congressman William "Cold Cash" Jefferson. He was convicted of bribery charges in 2009.

PROF. LARRY SABATO, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA: There are a lot of places to hide $90,000. A freezer is very inventive and creative.

TODD (voice-over): American politics is littered with a colorful trail of these scandals in recent years.

TIM NAFTALI, SENIOR RESEARCH SCHOLAR, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY: Anytime you put money and power together, there is the opportunity and the chance for political corruption. And so it should be no surprise at all that we in the United States have had more than our fair share of very colorful political corruption scandals. TODD (voice-over): Republican Congressman George Santos is not only accused of blatantly lying about multiple episodes in his past, but he's also accused of manipulating two American institutions, veterans and dogs have allegedly ripping off dog breeders in the purchase of puppies. And scamming a veteran whose dying dog Santos promised and failed to take care of.

RICHARD OSTHOFF, DISABLED VET WHO SAYS GEORGE SANTOS SCAMMED HIM: Santos really took a piece of my heart when he did this.

SABATO: Dogs and veterans are very sympathetic in character. And yet for a thief I suppose they're ideal targets just because so few people would try to steal money from them or to put them in a bad situation,

TODD (voice-over): All of which Santos denies.

REP. GEORGE SANTOS (R-NY): The reality is it's a witch hunt.

TODD (voice-over): Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich allegedly conspired to auction off Barack Obama's vacant Senate seat in 2008. And it was the way prosecutors say he did it, captured on tape shamelessly and crudely declaring.


GOV. ROD BLAGOJEVICH (D-IL): I've got this thing and it's -- golden.

NAFTALI: Of course he saw a jackpot when Barack Obama was elected president and he had this seat that he knew only he could fill.

TODD (voice-over): Blagojevich was later convicted on corruption charges, but had his sentence commuted by then President Trump. Prosecutors said California Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter took more than $200,000 in campaign funds and spent it on video games, groceries and other household items and a $14,000 Italian vacation. Then he claimed it was all his wife's idea until she called him out on it in court.

SABATO: When you're a thief and a cad simultaneously with your own wife. I think it makes you much less sympathetic.


TODD: Now Senator Menendez has adamantly proclaimed his innocence in this latest case and vowed to fight the charges. The analysts we spoke to say, given Menendez this past record in cases like this, don't write them off. He faced similar charges in a different case a few years ago. We got a hung jury, a mistrial, then an acquittal. Pamela?

BROWN: All right, Brian Todd, thanks so much.

Just ahead for you. Donald Trump just wrapped up a rally in South Carolina, the first of multiple campaign stops this week. But there's one place he will not be stuffing. We're going to tell you where up next.



BROWN: Donald Trump today is kicking off his busiest campaign weeks since launching his reelection bid. The GOP front runner just wrapped up a rally in South Carolina as he prepares to crisscross the rest of the country. CNN chief national affairs correspondent Jeff Zeleny is here. So what is on Trump's agenda? And what is notably absent from his agenda this week?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Pamela, he's keeping one eye on the primary, which is the reason he was in South Carolina this afternoon. And of course, South Carolina goes third in the voting next year, but also Nikki Haley is from South Carolina, as is Tim Scott. So he's trying to assert himself in that primary flying to Michigan on Wednesday, of course, he's going to appear at the UAW workers strike there. And then he's also flying to California on Friday. That is for the state California convention. He's after the delegates there.

They've changed the rules there. So the California primary is on Super Tuesday. That's what he has his eye on there. And then on Friday, or on Sunday, excuse me, he's going to Iowa, Ottumwa, Iowa so still trying to make sure he holds his commanding lead in the Iowa caucus campaign. What's not on the calendar, of course, is the debate.

At the Reagan Library on Wednesday, all the other Republican candidates will be gathered there. He of course, is making the decision to not campaign. So ignoring his rivals on one hand, but trying to focus on staying ahead of them in these primary states, even as he focuses on President Biden in Michigan, so a bit of a mixed strategy here but clearly he is out on the campaign trail this week, more than we've seen him before, does not have any court appearances, like he has previously. Of course, all those cases are still there.

BROWN: They are. So we've taken advantage of not having any of these court appearances this upcoming week. Let's bring in CNN national politics correspondent Eva McKend and Tia Mitchell, Washington correspondent for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. All right, so Eva Trump is skipping the second presidential debate, as Jeff laid out in favor of going to Michigan where of course there is this auto workers strike. You have President Biden also going to Michigan tomorrow to walk the picket line with the -- with those that are striking a day before Trump, we should note. Here's what Trump had to say about Biden's visit.


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He's selling our automobile companies everything right down the tubes. So I announced that I'm going to Michigan and then he announced 20 minutes later, I'm going to Michigan.


BROWN: So what is the political significance of these dueling visits in such a critical state?

EVA MCKEND, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS CORRESPONDENT: Well, President Biden to be clear as an invited guest, the union leadership at least wants him there. And he's going to be in his element. He enjoys this. You know, Joe Biden from Scranton, has made his entire political career about being for these very workers. But it's a vulnerable position, he is putting himself in there is still very sensitive negotiations going on now. And he's clearly staking out this position.

The challenge for him also is going to be in taking on the former president who, you know, sort of aesthetically and culturally, has said that he is for workers, but during his administration during the Trump administration, they took very anti-union policies. And so that is something that the President is going to be tasked with emphasizing this week.

BROWN: So Michigan is a really important state to both of them, right? Trump won narrowly in 2016, lost in 2020. They're both eyeing a rematch in this state. You mentioned that Biden was invited there. So far, though, the union has not endorsed a presidential candidate. What kind of reception do you expect from the auto workers this week with both Biden and Trump, Tia?

TIA MITCHELL, WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, THE ATLANTA JOURNAL- CONSTITUTION: I think both of them have vulnerabilities with the auto workers. President Trump has emphasized the transition to electric vehicles as a place where he thinks President Biden is vulnerable because there is, you know, uneasiness among union workers on how this will affect their industry long term. So that's where President Trump is going to try to make the comparison but again, for President Biden, like Eva said, he said all along, I am a pro union president, the most pro-union president in history.

He definitely can point to anti-union stances that happened under President Trump's tenure. So President Biden is going to try to go there and have an event with union workers on the picket lines to say, these are my folks, and hopefully, he'll have them with him. He wants their endorsement.

BROWN: Yes, no, he certainly does. Jeff, when you look at the polls a majority of the new polls show Trump and Biden in a dead heat for 2024 rematch. So when you think about that, is the second Republican presidential debate, essentially a sideshow compared to this showdown we're going to see in Michigan?


ZELENY: Well, it's important in the sense of, you know, it's basically become a race for number two, if you will, for second place. Who will be last man or woman standing with former President Donald Trump? And look, the primary still has to be one as our recent history has shown, anything can happen. So that's one of the reasons that Trump is in South Carolina and Iowa. He's not letting the gas off.

But look, the debate is important for at least a couple of these players. I mean, like Nikki Haley, she emerged in a stronger position after the first debate. Governor Ron DeSantis probably did not. So they're looking to change things up. So it is important and we'll find out tonight actually, the RNC will put out the list of which candidates are making it, it'll probably be a slightly smaller stage.

But these polls a year before elections, slightly more than that, certainly are a snapshot in time that tell us the challenges that the President is facing on the economy on immigration, and excitement. Republicans are more excited now these poll shows the Democrats are that might be because there is a fully engaged Republican primary, and there's not necessarily one on the Democratic side yet. But look, the debate is still important on Wednesday, even though Trump won't be there, he'll probably be watching and his people certainly will be watching to see who will emerge as sort of the leading contender. At some point he'll have to engage in the primary. We'll see when that is.

BROWN: Yes. He'll certainly also be looming large even though he won't be there physically. He always does. And that's the way he likes it, right? We are so far out from the election. But even nationally, there has never been a candidate who has been leading this much in the polling who lost a primary. Leading this much of the polling as Trump has, we should note, but we do want to note this. This happened in New Hampshire.

In 2000, George W. Bush was at 45 percent of the vote and polling at this time, but he was beat by John McCain. You may recall this. Recent CNN poll show Trump is relatively vulnerable in New Hampshire. Do you think the other Republican presidential candidate should really be honing in on New Hampshire as a result?

MCKEND: They are and we see them, you know, really trying to compete in these early states. Our politics right now are so in predict unpredictable. Yes, Trump has this significant lead, and it would be unprecedented for someone else to pull ahead. But it's also unprecedented for former president to be facing for criminal indictments. So it would be a mistake for anyone at this point, especially the candidates that have a significant war chest. So I'm covering Senator Tim Scott's campaign, for instance.

And he has a lot of money. So it would be a mistake, I think, at this point to sort of count any of these other candidates out because we know that elections can be full of surprises.

BROWN: They sure can. Good reminder for everyone. Eva McKend, thank you so much. Tia Mitchell, Jeff Zeleny, we appreciate it.

And coming up more than a decade after gays and lesbians were allowed to serve openly in the U.S. military. The Pentagon is taking steps to update service records of people who were let go. You're in the Situation Room.



BROWN: Well, it has been 12 years since the repeal of the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell Policy. And now the defense department is trying to update the service records of veterans who were previously discharged because of their sexual orientation. CNN Pentagon correspondent Oren Liebermann has the story.


OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): During 22 years in the Navy, Karen Solt says she spent her career looking over her shoulder, afraid a fellow sailor might turn her in or worse and CIS would uncover the life she had to hide as a gay woman in the military.

SR. CHIEF PETTY OFFICER KAREN SOLT, U.S. NAVY (RET.): They would try to root us out. They would try to catch one person, bring that person in, interrogate that person, have that person turn on a bunch of us. Next thing you know there'd be a whole slew of people that would be discharged.

LIEBERMANN (voice-over): In a forthcoming memoir called "Hiding For My Life," Solt called these witch hunts. On the USS Frank Cable, Solt says she already faced discrimination as part of the first generation of female sailors allowed to serve on ships. Though she left the military on her own terms, she says concealer her sexuality created long term scars from which she is still healing.

SOLT: Well, I got out in 2006, I thought it would be free. And what happened for me was that I'm still looking over my shoulder. Because I had for 22 years I would have been looking over my shoulder. And so that did not go away. That was very conditioned into me.

LIEBERMANN (voice-over): Twelve years after the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, the Defense Department is trying to take another step toward writing that wrong.

KATHLEEN HICKS, DEPUTY DEFENSE SECRETARY: Even if the department didn't see it, then we see it now. We see you now.

LIEBERMANN (voice-over): For the first time the Defense Department will proactively reach out to veterans discharged for homosexual conduct to correct and update their military records, as well as reviewing records of veterans who may be able to upgrade their discharge. Since 1980, more than 32,000 service members were discharged from the military under the Homosexual Conduct Policy, according to DoD.

When the Obama administration repealed Don't Ask, Don't Tell in 2011, and it became legal to serve in the military as an open member of the LGBTQ community, some but not all eligible service members applied to change their military records to honorable discharges, removing a stigma and giving them access to veteran's benefits. Advocates say the latest effort is an important statement in support of LGBTQ plus rights, especially now.

BRANDON WOLF, NATIONAL PRESS SECRETARY, HUMAN RIGHTS CAMPAIGN: I think in an era where right wing extremists have plunged the LGBTQ plus community into a state of crisis into a state of emergency it matters to have an administration that's willing to go back and try to make wrongs right.


LIEBERMANN: The Pentagon acknowledged that even these latest steps won't fully solve the issues and the problems for those discharged for homosexual conduct. And that's because not every discharge record listed that specifically so becomes difficult to find those cases of people who were effectively kicked out for being members of the LGBTQ plus community but it wasn't specifically listed on their discharge forms, that in and of itself is an entirely different issue.


But advocacy organizations we've spoken with said, look, even if this isn't a complete step or a full solution to the problem, it is an important step and a big one in the right direction. Pam?

BROWN: Liebermann, thank you so much.

Coming up, in just days the government is set to run out of money and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is running out of options to find a solution. Will he risk shutting down the government to keep his job or crosses Republican hardliners by working with Democrats? What this all means for you? We're going to tell you coming up in the Situation Room.


BROWN: Happening Now rebellious House Republicans are pushing Congress closer and closer to a government shutdown egged on by Donald Trump and in defiance of House Speaker McCarthy's urgent please. Is there any hope of a breakthrough as time is running out?