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Trump Claims Immunity In Federal Election Subversion Case; Ukraine Says, Russian Attack Kills At Least 51 In Small Village; Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) And Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) Race To Lock Down Support In Speaker Fight; DeSantis Attacks Trump: "We Don't Need Anymore Presidents That Have Lost The Zip On Their Fastball". Aired 6- 7p ET

Aired October 05, 2023 - 18:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Vice President Kamala Harris were among those who paid tribute to the trail blazer. Feinstein served more than 30 years in the U.S. Senate, making her the longest serving female senator in American history. She was 90 years old when she passed.

If you ever miss an episode of "THE LEAD", you can listen to the show whence you get your podcast. Our coverage continues now with Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. I will see you later tonight on "AC360".

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, Donald Trump is asking a judge to toss out the federal election case against him, citing presidential immunity and his impeachment acquittal in the U.S. Senate after the January 6th insurrection. Could his new defense potentially set up a battle that goes all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court?

Also tonight, Ukraine is reeling from the deadliest Russian strike on civilians since the early days of the war. At least 51 people, including children, slaughtered today by a Russian missile attack on a grocery store.

Plus, the speakership fight is heating up in the House, top contenders racing to lock down support from moderates. This hour, I'll get reaction from a key Republican who represents one of the most competitive districts in the country.

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

First up tonight, Donald Trump raising a new defense in the federal election subversion case against him, the former president claiming immunity and asking the judge to toss it out all together.

Let's get details from our Senior Legal Affairs Correspondent Paula Reid. Paula, what is Trump arguing?

PAULA REID, CNN SENIOR LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, as you know, the special counsel has charged former President Trump alleging that he plotted, along with his allies, to illegally stay in office, even after he lost the 2020 election. But now, his lawyers are insisting the entire case should be thrown out, arguing that he was, quote, only trying to ensure election integrity.

And in their filing today, they dismissed the allegations from prosecutors that Trump, quote, knew that widespread reports of fraud and election irregularities were untrue. They're also arguing that the then-president's actions were within the ambit of his office, so he's absolutely immune from prosecution.

Now, they have made similar arguments in civil suits, because the Supreme Court has held that presidents are immune from being sued for civil damages or anything related to their official duties in office. But what exactly constitutes an official duty?

Well, that's still a little murky, and this is, of course, the special counsel's investigation. This is a criminal context, and as we are so often, with former President Trump, we're really in uncharted waters here, because no current or former president has ever faced criminal charges. So, this is likely something, a question that could make its way all the way to the Supreme Court.

BLITZER: We shall see. All right, Paula Reid, stay with us. Don't go too far away.

Right now, I want to get to some breaking news, a stunning new report from ABC News raising very serious concerns about Donald Trump's handling of highly sensitive U.S. national security information. According to ABC, the former president allegedly shared data about the nation's nuclear submarine fleet with a foreign member of his Mar-a- Lago club back in April of 2021. That member, an Australian billionaire, then allegedly discussed the information, very classified information, with more than a dozen other people, including foreign officials and journalists.

Special Counsel Jack Smith's investigators were reportedly made aware of the alleged conversation, but as of now, it has not been included in the indictment against Trump. We are not aware of any response from Trump or the Mar-a-Lago club member to ABC News.

Let's bring in our legal and national security analysts for analysis. Shawn Turner, let me start with you. This is potentially a very significant development, isn't it?

SHAWN TURNER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: It is, Wolf. You know, from the very first time that we knew that the former president had documents at Mar-a-Lago, for national security and intelligence officials, there were two key questions. The first is, what did the former president intend to do with the information? And the second is, who in the president's orbit would have access to that information?

The worst case scenario for that situation was that there would be a foreign national who had access to that information. That worst case scenario has been realized if this reporting is accurate.

It's important to point out, too, Wolf, that this is not just any intelligence. This is what we call actionable intelligence.


In other words, it's information that allows our foreign adversaries to react to our military capability. So, if this is accurate, this is extremely concerning from an intelligence perspective.

BLITZER: Very concerning indeed. Olivia Troye, as Shawn says, it was always a question about what Trump was doing with these highly classified documents that he stored over there at Mar-a-Lago. This potentially shed some serious light on that, right?

OLIVIA TROYE, FORMER DHS ADVISER TO VICE PRESIDENT PENCE: Yes, and it takes it to a whole new level of understanding of the negligence of his behavior with such sacred information that, look, people put their lives at risk for, right?

I mean, I have to tell you, Wolf, I'm sick to my stomach just reading and learning this news exactly of what they believe it was that he shared, because, look, it's the silent service, the submariners, who spend months at sea, and I think about just what a betrayal to have a former president of the United States sharing this information that could be easily given to foreign adversaries who are eagerly -- like, eagerly seeking this type of information that could put all of our national security at risk. It is beyond disgraceful. This is awful.

BLITZER: Yes. If you or Shawn or anyone else with top secret security clearances were to share this kind of highly classified information, we know what would happen to you guys.

Norm, let me get some legal analysis from you. It's unclear if the information Trump shared was actually accurate. From a legal standpoint, is that significant?

NORM EISEN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Wolf, if it was based in the documents that the former president held at Mar-a-Lago, whether accurate or not, it still goes to his culpability. The reason we have these rules -- and he's not charged with disseminating the information, a different crime. He's charged with unlawfully possessing it. But the reason we have these rules is precisely because of the risk that it will get into the wrong hands.

It also sheds light on his intent. In any criminal case, you have to prove state of mind. And so it's relevant on that ground. But we do have to caution, of course, it's a media report now. It does not appear to be in the case, certainly is not in the existing charges. We'll see if it enters the case, but very damaging, even if it turns out not to have been strictly accurate.

BLITZER: Paula, how could this report potentially impact the special counsel, jack smith's investigation into Trump's alleged mishandling of highly classified documents down at Mar-a-Lago?

REID: Well, I'm not sure it does, Wolf. According to this report, this is something that the special counsel was aware of, something that they have asked repeatedly about, but ultimately opted not to include in the indictment, instead focusing on other incidents, including that reporting about how there is a recording of Trump at one of his properties allegedly sharing classified information with people who did not have the proper clearances. They also charged another incident where he talked to someone in his inner circle allegedly about classified information.

So, for some reason, the special counsel decided that this is an anecdote that they may not be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. So, while this story is certainly concerning, the special counsel did not think that it warranted being included in the indictment, and I think I would be surprised if they were to issue a superseding indictment as that could alter the timeline of their case and push it back even further, something that they have been fighting not to have happen.

BLITZER: Very interesting. Shawn, let me get your reaction to a key part of this ABC News report about the information Trump allegedly shared with this Australian, and I'll read it right now. Trump shared, and I'm quoting now, the supposed exact number of nuclear warheads they routinely carry and exactly how close they supposedly can get to a Russian submarine without being detected. How damaging could this sort of revelation be to U.S. national security?

TURNER: Yes, Wolf. I don't think we can underestimate how -- or understate how concerning that is. When we're talking about a specific number of nuclear warheads, when we're talking about our standoff distance, what that gives our adversaries is the ability to take a look at their own military capabilities and to react to that information as they develop their own military strength. And so, we can rest assured that our adversaries, it looks like, China and others, they're looking at this information, and they are assessing what it actually means with regard to their own military build-up.

It's also important to point out that with regard to the specific information that was -- that's alleged to be given out here, that's just a piece of the pie. We know that there were thousands of documents at Mar-a-Lago. And I will tell you, Wolf, that while I have a top secret security clearance, I would not have had access to this type of information because it's so unbelievably sensitive. So, again, this is the kind of thing that has national security and intelligence officials really concerned right now.


BLITZER: Yes, it certainly is. All right, guys, thank you very much. We're staying on top of this story.

Also just ahead, two days after conservative rebels brought down the speaker, Kevin McCarthy, Republican contenders for the gavel are turning to the moderate wing of their party as they try to lock down support.

We'll also go live to the scene of a deadly Russian strike against Ukrainian civilians, one of the bloodiest attacks by Russia since the start of Putin's invasion.


BLITZER: The top contenders for speaker of the House are working to lock down support from Republicans as the chamber remains paralyzed two days after a conservative rebellion ousted Kevin McCarthy.

CNN's Melanie Zanona is working her sources on Capitol Hill for us. Melanie, right now, Steve Scalise and Jim Jordan are fighting to win over at least one major faction of their party, right?

MELANIE ZANONA, CNN CAPITOL HILL REPORTER: Yes, that's right, Wolf. Republican moderates are right now in contention to get the votes for speaker. I am told that both Jim Jordan and Steve Scalise are racing to lock down the support of the more centrist-leaning members in their party in a number of private phone calls and private meetings over the last few days.

And I'm told specifically that Jim Jordan's pitch has centered on the idea that he is best positioned to unite the fractured party, in part because he has the ear of the hard-line Freedom Caucus, a group that he was a co-founder of.


He's also assured moderates that he would make sure that they are not be put in tough positions, that he would try to protect them as much as possible, but there's still a lot of concerns among moderates about Jim Jordan's flame-throwing brand of politics.

And meanwhile, you have Steve Scalise, who is also making his case to members, and he has argued that he is a good fundraiser, that he's been in all of these vulnerable members' districts and that he knows how to govern because he is a current member of the GOP leadership team.

But I can tell you, Wolf, in talking to my sources over the past few days, there's still a lot of concern about whether either of those men can get 218 votes from the Republican conference. And if they can't, that raises the prospect of another messy floor fight, like we saw in January, or it raises the prospect that a dark horse contender jumps into the race, someone like perhaps Patrick McHenry, who's acting as interim speaker.

But in the meantime, the battle for moderates is on and there's still a lot of uncertainty in Washington.

BLITZER: There certainly is. Melanie Zanona up on Capitol Hill, you're going to be a busy lady, thanks very, very much.

In an exclusive interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour, former secretary of state and the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, is weighing in on the possibility of Congressman Jim Jordan becoming the next House speaker.


HILLARY CLINTON, FORMER DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I mean, he is one of the principal ring leaders of the circus that's been created in the Republican Party for the last several years. I have no inside knowledge about what the Republicans will do, who they will end up voting for, but when do they put the country first? They do not represent a majority of even the Republican Party when you look at the extremists in the House. They certainly don't represent a majority of the country. And, you know, somebody has to stand up and say, enough.


BLITZER: You can see Christiane's full interview with Hillary Clinton on CNN International on Monday.

Some Republican members of Congress, meanwhile, are publicly expressing their frustration with the current choices for speaker. Congressman Dusty Johnson of South Dakota told CNN, unless the GOP makes some fundamental changes, it will be, quote, the same stupid clown car with a different driver, end quote.

Let's get reaction right now from Republican Congressman Anthony D'Esposito of New York. Congressman, thank you so much for joining us.

What does this chaos in the House GOP conference say to you about the state of your party right now?

REP. ANTHONY D'ESPOSITO (R-NY): Well, thanks for having me, Wolf. You know, I have to argue that the chaos within the party has only been created by a very small fraction. I mean, if you look at the speaker vote just this week, Kevin McCarthy was the choice of 96 percent of the Republican conference. The only reason why he was ousted is because every single Democrat on the House floor, including the ones to the far left and the progressives that Matt Gaetz has criticized for so long, they voted together in order to oust Kevin McCarthy in what clearly was a personal vendetta.

BLITZER: Steve Scalise and Jim Jordan, as you know, they are the first two candidates in this race for the House speakership. Do you have a preference, Congressman? Would you support, for example, either of them?

D'ESPOSITO: So, right now, we are working as a cohesive group. The Long Islanders, specifically, myself, Andrew Garbarino, Nick LaLota, and some of the other New Yorkers, we are working as a cohesive group, really keeping our powder dry. We want to hear from all the candidates. We want to express to them what's important to the voters here in New York and especially Long Island and make sure that they have an understanding of the needs of, like you mentioned earlier in the segment, the moderate Republicans that really have given the majority in this 118th Congress.

BLITZER: But is it your sense, Congressman, that one of these two men will be the next speaker of the House?

D'ESPOSITO: I think it's hard to say right now. I spoke to Congressman Jim Jordan earlier today. We met with Leader Scalise yesterday. I think that there's a lot of conversations that need to be had in the next 72 hours as we lead into Tuesday when the Republicans get back on the Hill for conference.

There's a lot of conversations. There's a lot of discussions that need to happen. We need to have an understanding of the vision of both men and whoever else throws their hat in the ring of how we are going to bring the Republican conference together, how we're going to focus on the next, when we finally have a speaker less than 40 days, probably, in the mid-30s, to put appropriation bills on the floor, to get them passed and to keep this government open.

One of the biggest criticisms that Matt Gaetz had for Kevin McCarthy was that he needed Democrats in order to vote for this 45-day C.R., and when, in fact, Matt Gaetz needed those same Democrats, all of them, in fact, to oust Kevin McCarthy.


So, right now, what we should be focused on is making sure that we keep this government open. And in order to do that, we need, especially us moderates, and those of us from New York, we need to hear from the speaker candidates to make sure that that is a priority that they have moving forward.

BLITZER: Your New York GOP colleague, Mike Lawler, told me yesterday here in THE SITUATION ROOM, he wants to expel Matt Gaetz from the GOP conference. Is that something you could support as well?

D'ESPOSITO: I think right now we need to let everyone's emotions sort of simmer down. I, myself, was very angry the other day, and past remarks about Matt that I still believe in. But, nonetheless, I think we need to really see how the next few days play out.

And I think the way that this is going to go and the future of this conference and how we handle people like Matt Gaetz, I do think that they need to be held accountable. I do think there needs to be repercussions. I believe that Matt Gaetz committed heresy in the acts that he committed earlier this week.

But what we need to see and what we need to focus on right now is what the American people want, and that is to get the House back in order, gavel back into session, and get these appropriation bills across the floor so we can keep the government open.

BLITZER: A source tells CNN, by the way, Congressman, that Donald Trump is actually considering going up to Capitol Hill in the coming days to help Republicans pick a speaker. Would you like to see that happen?

D'ESPOSITO: Well, my feelings is this. I think that we have a lot of talent in the Republican conference of members that currently hold seats in the United States House of Representatives. And I am confident that one of them will meet all the expectations of the membership, and one of them will lead us as speaker of the House.

BLITZER: So, you don't think it's necessary for Trump to show up?

D'ESPOSITO: I think that we have all the talent necessary and all the leadership necessary right in the House of Representatives and the Republican conference.

BLITZER: Congressman Anthony D'Esposito of New York, thank you so much for joining us. We will continue this conversation down the road. I appreciate it very much.

D'ESPOSITO: Thanks, Wolf, have a great night.

BLITZER: You too.

Coming up, CNN is on the scene of one of the deadliest Russian attacks against Ukrainian civilians since the beginning of the war.

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



BLITZER: We're gathering new details right now about Russia's truly horrific attack today against civilians in a small Ukrainian village, one of the bloodiest Russian attacks since the beginning of Putin's invasion. At least 51 people, including children, are confirmed dead.

Our Senior International Correspondent Fred Pleitgen is joining us now from the scene of the strike. Fred, tell our viewers what you're seeing.

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi there, Wolf. Well, we are seeing the utter devastation and the aftermath of the strike. In fact, I'm going to get out of your way and you can see just what this missile, which the Ukrainians say, struck this place earlier today, what it did to this house. You can see that the building has completely been annihilated. This is the kind of rubble that you would probably normally only see if there was a substantial earthquake.

If you look over here, you can see that it really knocked over entire parts of this building, just a complete, substantial, large, thick, very heavy wall just falling over, and that's certainly something that you can see throughout the debris of what is left of this building.

Now, what we have to keep in mind, Wolf, is that the Ukrainians say what was inside this building was both a shopping mall, a shopping center, probably more like a little store, but then also a cafe or sort of event center, really.

And they say at the time that the strike took place, that there was a funeral wake going on for a Ukrainian soldier who died a year ago but who had been buried somewhere else, because this place was under Russian occupation and was supposed to get repatriated to here. The Ukrainians say that by and large, the people who were at this funeral wake were civilians. Most of them coming here from this area and many of them, of course, killed on the spot.

Now, the reason why this building looks the way it does and certainly the surrounding area does as well is the Ukrainians say that it was struck by an Iskander missile, Wolf. That's a medium-range missile that the Russians have, and it has a very heavy warhead of about a thousand pounds. It's usually made to destroy infantry. It's made for the battlefield, to destroy armored vehicles there. And, obviously, if it hits a house like this, the aftermath that you see here is certainly something that is extremely devastating.

We came here as the search and rescue operation was still going on, and there was certainly a lot of bodies that were being pulled here from this building. Those operations have now ceased because the folks here say that it's absolutely impossible to find any sort of survivor, certainly, in here, but in any case, they don't believe that anybody could have survived what happened here.

More than 50 people were killed. The Ukrainians obviously extremely angry about all this, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, we've already heard from him accusing the Russians and saying this was terror on their part, as he put it, Wolf.

BLITZER: Fred, is there any sort of military target anywhere near this little village?

PLEITGEN: Not that we can see. I mean, we came here sort of as the sun was setting, and we certainly didn't see, really, anything in the way of military around here. And I think one of the things that we have to keep in mind, Wolf, I think we can pan again, that this place -- it is a very small village. This was probably the largest structure in this village. There were only about 160 residents left from what we heard here in this village since the war began. So, with 50 people now being killed, a substantial amount of the population of this village is now dead.


And from what we've seen, there really weren't any military installations around this area that we could see. And the other thing that we have to point out, Wolf, is that this is not a frontline town. We're about 25 miles, I would say, away from where the frontline is right now. It's near the area of a town called Kupiansk. That area has been very active. That was an active frontline. The Russians trying to put some pressure there, but certainly right here is not an area that has seen any sort of fighting in a very long period of time, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Fred Pleitgen, stay safe over there, as I tell you all the time. Thank you very, very much.

This latest strike on Ukrainian civilians comes as President Volodymyr Zelenskyy pleads with allies for more aid and stronger air defenses, specifically.

CNN's Nic Robertson has the latest.


NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR (voice over): Rushing to recover survivors, emergency workers scramble through rubble in one of the deadliest Russian strikes since the war began. Children, among the victims, an eight-year-old boy killed, many attending a funeral when the precision-guided Iskander missile hit a cafe and store.

As this country reeled from the devastating blow, President Zelenskyy had this stark warning about what U.S. political divisions mean for his country.

VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT: The division with the United States is dangerous. Yes, it's a tough period for the United States, and, of course, it's a tough period for Ukraine.

ROBERTSON: The Ukrainian president in Spain, meeting E.U. leaders to stiffen their support, all the while worrying about an apparently wavering U.S. commitment.

ZELENSKYY: Difficult election period for the United States, different voices. Some of the voices are very strange. About this, also, we will speak about this.

ROBERTSON: In Crimea, though, Ukraine's fortunes improving, a big focus of recent attacks targeting Russian naval shipping and headquarters paying off. New satellite imagery showing Russia has reacted, pulling some of its prize Black Sea naval fleet out of Ukraine's missile range.

Once a red line for Putin, he now appears on the back foot, effectively ceding partial use of ports he considers essential for Russia's defense and territory Zelenskyy vows to retake. But Zelenskyy's concern, momentum could be transitory without U.S. support.

ZELENSKYY: I believe that today it is impossible to protect people, especially during the winter, except by air defense, to protect people who died absolutely tragically because of this inhuman terrorist attack.

ROBERTSON: The brutal attack Thursday yet another object lesson in the ugly, crushing seesaw of war. Not for the first time Russia has used precision missiles to target popular cafes in Eastern Ukraine, likely without adequate air defenses, not the last.


ROBERTSON (on camera): Well, in that European leaders meeting in Spain, President Zelenskyy will have heard a good deal of support. I was speaking with a senior European Union politician and he said, look, all the leaders, the political leaders within the European Union, are politically committed to continuing to support Ukraine. They will continue to back Zelenskyy.

But the reality, and they recognize this, is that if the United States does become more isolationist, which is what they and what Ukrainians worry about, then the European Union alone cannot make up that shortfall, cannot give them all the ammunition they need, cannot give them all the air defenses they need. They can make up some of the shortfall, but at huge cost to agriculture in Europe or support for some of the smaller nations in the European Union.

So, this is a real worry for everyone, but today, at least, Zelenskyy will have heard positive words there in Spain, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Nic Robertson reporting for us, thank you very much.

Just ahead, more on the explosive new report that Donald Trump allegedly shared potentially very sensitive information about U.S. nuclear submarines with a foreign billionaire down at Mar-a-Lago. I'll discuss this and more with the former director of U.S. National Intelligence.



BLITZER: Let's get back to the breaking news we're following, ABC News' bombshell new report on Donald Trump's alleged mishandling of very sensitive national security information after leaving the White House. The former president allegedly sharing this information about U.S. nuclear submarine fleets with a foreign member of his Mar-a-Lago club.

Let's get reaction from CNN National Security Analyst James Clapper. He's the former director of National Intelligence. Thanks so much, General, for joining us.

According to ABC News, Trump allegedly told this Australian billionaire down at Mar-a-Lago that the -- told him of the supposed exact number of nuclear warheads U.S. submarines carry and exactly how close they supposedly can get to a Russian submarine without being detected. Give our viewers a sense just how sensitive is that kind of information.

JAMES CLAPPER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, Wolf, with due regard for the fact it's a single-source media report and the fact that the special counsel, for whatever reason, chose not to use it in -- for an indictment, with those caveats in mind, this is really, to me, a serious infraction.


It is, unfortunately, a long -- a part of another in the long litany of violations of our national security by failure to properly protect such sensitive information. If this involved sea-launch ballistic missiles and the subs that carry them, this is a part of our national strategic arsenal, which gets to the very essence of the survival of the nation

So, it's hard to overstate, if this is true, hard to overstate how serious this is by affirming knowledge of these submarines with foreigners. And according to the ABC report, as many as 45 people were aware of this, probably more. So, this, to me, is extremely serious, if it is, in fact, true. BLITZER: That billionaire reportedly shared this highly classified, very sensitive information with foreign officials. He also shared it, supposedly, with his own employees and even some journalists. What sort of impact could that have on American national security?

CLAPPER: Well, it potentially has a huge impact. It could be very damaging, you know, because of the potential for it falling into wrong hands, into an adversary, meaning, specifically, the Chinese or more importantly the Russians.

And if they can validate or not the information that the president was spreading around, that puts in jeopardy not only our national survival but the jeopardy of these billion dollar submarines, not to mention, importantly, the lives of crew members.

BLITZER: How do you think foreign adversaries are watching all of this right now, watching all of this unfold?

CLAPPER: Well, I think it's, unfortunately, not new to them, and, you know, that's a concern I have that people are getting jaded to this. And, obviously, Mar-a-Lago and the former president himself are becoming, I'm sure, a target for intelligence, and I think the adversaries view it as a valuable source.

And, unfortunately, as I said, it would appear that we're getting jaded to this since it happens so frequently. And you would think after -- well, I guess this happened before the revelation of the Mar- a-Lago documents, but it's really -- words fail me, I'll put it that way.

BLITZER: Yes. Good point. James Clapper, thank you so much for joining us.

Just ahead, Ron DeSantis turns up the heat on Donald Trump in a new attack out there on the campaign trail even as poll numbers show him far behind the Republican frontrunner.



BLITZER: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is going after former President Donald Trump, who maintains a very commanding lead in the CNN poll of polls, while DeSantis's numbers have clearly fallen.


GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Nobody is entitled to be nominated. Nobody -- especially anybody that couldn't even stop Joe Biden. You are not -- you are not entitled to be nominated. You've got to earn the nomination.

We need a president that's got energy. We need a president that's going to be full throttle for eight years. We don't need any more -- we don't need any more presidents that have lost the zip on their fastball. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Joining us now to discuss this and other political news of the day, Republican strategist Kevin Madden is with us. I'm also joined by Ashley Etienne, former communications director for Vice President Kamala Harris.

Kevin, DeSantis, we just heard and saw, stepping up his attacks on Trump as his campaign seems to be languishing right now.

Do you think this will make a difference?

KEVIN MADDEN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, you know, I think it would make a difference if he does it in a very broad and sustained way. That's one of the things that's been interesting about DeSantis's campaign is that he's kind of dabbled a little bit in drawing a contrast message with Donald Trump, but he hasn't done it in a way where it's been a full frontal assault, and he has surrogates doing it and he's been delivering it relentlessly.

So I think that's the only, really, way for that kind of message to really break through and really force a choice upon these voters in places like Iowa and New Hampshire that are tuning in. So, that's the big test for the next week. Is this going to be something that he just offers a glancing blow, or is this a new message we're going to see all the way through the first contest and the first caucuses in Iowa?

BLITZER: What do you think he'll do?

MADDEN: I think, what I've seen so far, it's been glancing blow and then move on to another topic. And that's one of the reasons that he has had a trend line that has been trending down in the last couple of weeks and months, because he hasn't really had a consistent message.

BLITZER: It's interesting, actually, that Trump is taking credit, as you know, he takes credit for a lot of stuff, for DeSantis's campaign woes, and now he says, this is Trump, he says he will turn his attention to Nikki Haley, who's also running for the Republican nomination.

This is Trump: We took out Ron, a far less talented person than people originally believed. Crooked Joe is down to us by 11 points, and now we have to focus on one of the most overrated people I know, Nikki.

Has she really surpassed DeSantis right now as the main challenger for the Republican nomination to Trump?

ASHLEY ETIENNE, FORMER COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR FOR VP HARRIS & SPEAKER PELOSI: I mean, she definitely is surging in the polls, right?


And her fund-raising is up as well.

Here's the difference between she and DeSantis. She actually is -- to Kevin's point, she didn't just glance by him, a blow, but she actually landed some blows on the president during the debate -- the former president during the debate on issues that really matter to a Republican like the deficit, adding $8 trillion to the deficit, and it actually worked to her advantage.

Not only did she surge, but she created an environment -- an environment where Republicans started to feel a little more comfortable with taking Donald Trump on directly. You know what I really love about this is it comes down to the women. Nothing gets under Donald Trump's skin more than a woman. Smart, aggressive, and that doesn't -- you know, that's fearless and actually --

BLITZER: You've noticed that.

ETIENNE: You know, I -- firsthand. I saw it firsthand. So I'm excited to see what she does next but to Kevin's point, it's got to be sustained.

BLITZER: She's a talented politician, clearly very smart. You know, it's very interesting, Trump on another subject said he would be open to serving as speaker of the House of Representatives in his words, for a short period of time until Republicans setting on a long-term candidate. What do you think about a potential Speaker Donald Trump?

MADDEN: You know, Ashley and I were talking about this earlier having both worked in the House of Representatives. It's weird that everybody's trying to write the season seven script of "House of Cards" with all these like crazy storylines.

It's not going to happen. The next speaker of the House will be a member of Congress. But you know, Donald Trump, if there's one thing he's very good at, is a genius at, it's driving a headline. He's got a little bit of headline for the next 24 hours, but I just don't see that.

BLITZER: And you don't have to be a member of the House to be the speaker of the House.

MADDEN: You don't but the next speaker will be.

BLITZER: We shall see. What do you think?

ETIENNE: What's also interesting there is there's reporting now coming out of the Republican conference that there is what they're calling a silent majority of Republicans who don't want Donald Trump to come up to the Capitol on Tuesday and don't want limb to run for speaker.

Can you imagine a situation where he would lose by five votes and not become the speaker?

MADDEN: Well, we have a technical, too, Ashley. He actually can't be speaker because there's a rule that you can't serve in leadership if you're under indictment. So, it's actually -- technically, he's not even eligible. They'd have the change that rule and there's not a lot of moderates or people in swing states that want to change that rule and explain it to their voters. BLITZER: Yeah, it's very good point. What do you think of these two

members who have actually thrown their hats into the ring, Jim Jordan and Steve Scalise? Do you think they're the best choices right now for the Republicans?

MADDEN: Well, I tell you what? I think both have a very long road to 218. That's one of the hardest things about the House is just getting to that 218 number. I think Steve Scalise, by the fact he's already in leadership, has served in a whip rule, has a very good pulse on the conference, has a very good advantage I think in this particular head to head race.

BLITZER: Kevin Madden, Ashley Etienne, guys, thank you very much.

Just ahead, the Biden's dog, Commander, has been removed from the White House grounds after a series of biting incidents involving secret service and White House personnel.

We'll take a closer look at the extent of the problem and how it's being addressed. We'll be right back.



BLITZER: President Biden's German shepherd has been removed from the White House after a series of biting episodes that were more widespread than initially reported.

Brian Todd is looking into this for us.

So, Brian, how is the White House addressing the problem?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the Bidens have sent Commander away from the White House grounds as they had to do with their other one German shepherd, Major.

Tonight, we have new information on these incidents and the tensions they've allegedly caused between the Bidens and staffers.


TODD (voice-over): Commander, the Biden's 2-year-old German shepherd in the dog house or at least no longer at the White House. The first family sending the dog away and evaluating next steps.

CNN's Betsy Kline citing multiple sources reporting that Commander has been involved in more biting incidents than previously reported at the White House. The Secret Service has acknowledged 11 incidents involving its personnel.

But sources who spoke to CNN say the number is higher and includes executive resident staff and other White House employees.

BRANDON MCMILLAN, HOST, "LUCKY DOG": It is in constant chaos. It is not the dog's fault. The dog was let down from day one. TODD: Sources told CNN the bites have ranged in severity with one

known bit requiring hospitalization, some requiring attention from the White House medical unit and others going unreported and untreated.

JONATHAN WACKROW, FORMER SECRET SERVICE AGENT: The consequence of that is you create a hazard in the workplace. The challenges that commander presents, you know, really have a measured impact on operations.

TODD: One source told CNN, Commander's aggression has led to secret service agents being warned to avoid certain areas of the White House grounds so they wouldn't interact with the dog. The source calling it a hostile and dangerous working environment and quote, we're beyond the point of trust being broken. We have to speak up.

The optics also that make they don't care about the safety of the people who work around there?

TIA MITCHELL, THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION: I think -- I think that is also a concern because we know that there's a power dynamic when you work for the president and the first lady.

TODD: The White House pushing back on that.

KARINE JEAN-PIERRE, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president and first lady care deeply about the safety of those who work at the White House and those who protect them every day.

TODD: Another official says the Bidens have taken this seriously and the Secret Service denies reports of tension over this, but it's not if first time a Biden dog has caused problems. The family's elder dog, Major, also a German shepherd, injured a Secret Service agent and was sent away which one source says caused a breach of trust, but Major and Commander have company in White House history. Teddy Roosevelt's dog Pete once ripped the pants off a government official.

Then there was Barney.


TODD: George W. Bush's own Scottish Terrier.

TIM NAFTALI, CNN PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Barney had a real reputation for being difficult. Jenna Bush Hager later said that Barney was actually a real jerk.


TODD (on camera): White House officials had previously said that Commander would be receiving remedial training but they could not answer whether that training had taken place in the aftermath of the recent biting incidents -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Brian, thank you very much. Brian Todd reporting.

And to our viewers, thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.