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The Situation Room

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) Not Seeking Re-Election In Blow To Democrats; Sources Say, Mar-a-Lago Workers May Testify Against Trump At Documents Trial; Key White House Official On Humanitarian Pauses In Gaza; Pentagon Releases Video Of U.S. Strike Targeting Iranian-Backed Groups' Weapons Facility In Syria; White House: Israel Agrees To Daily Four-Hour Pauses In Northern Gaza; Feds Investigating Suspicious Letters Potentially Laced With Fentanyl Sent To Election Offices. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired November 09, 2023 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news, Senator Joe Manchin throws a major new curve ball at fellow Democrats, announcing he won't seek re-election, the powerful moderate giving Republicans an opening to flip his state and grab Senate control from his party.

Also breaking, the Mar-a-Lago employees who may testify against Donald Trump in the classified documents trial, CNN has exclusive new reporting on the prosecution's criminal case.


And I'll ask key White House Official John Kirby if Israel has fully committed to daily four-hour pauses in its bombardment of Northern Gaza. This as CNN is getting a closer look at the Israeli military's war against Hamas.

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

Tonight, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin says he will not run for re-election, delivering a major blow to Democrats hope to keep control of the U.S. Senate in 2024.

Let's get right to CNN's Melanie Zanona. She's up on Capitol Hill. Melanie, does this open up a seat that Republicans potentially could pick up next year?

MELANIE ZANONA, CNN CAPITOL HILL REPORTER: Yes, absolutely, Wolf. This is a huge blow for Democrats and their hopes of keeping the majority. Democrats were waiting on pins and needles to see what Joe Manchin was going to do, and that is because West Virginia is going to be one of the toughest seats for Democrats to defend next year in addition to Ohio and Montana.

West Virginia is a deep red state. Donald Trump won the state by double digit points. And without an incumbent there, it is going to be a lot easier for Republicans to flip that seat. But even Manchin was likely going to face a tough time winning re- election. Jim Justice, the popular Republican governor, is running on the GOP side. He is also endorsed by Donald Trump. And so Republicans are feeling quite confident. In a statement, the head of the Senate GOP campaign arm said, we like our odds in West Virginia.

And meanwhile, in an equally telling statement, the Senate campaign arm put out a statement saying they're going to start focusing on trying to flip seats in Texas and in Florida. But those are going to be equally difficult for Democrats. And remember, Republicans only need to flip two seats in order to win back the majority, Wolf.

BLITZER: Melanie, as you know, Manchin appeared at a third-party town hall this past summer. Could he run for president as an independent?

ZANONA: Well, this certainly has renewed speculation about Manchin's political future. It is uncertain at this moment what he is going to do. But in his announcement video today, he did say that he wants to explore if there is some middle ground out there. Let's take a listen.


SEN. JOE MANCHIN (D-WV): I will not be running for re-election to the United States Senate. But what I will be doing is traveling the country and speaking out to see if there is an interest in creating a movement to mobilize the middle and bring Americans together.


ZANONA: So, it's unclear exactly what he means by that, but he has toyed with the idea of running as a third party for president. He has not ruled it out, and the bipartisan group, No Labels, which has long been a huge supporter of Manchin's, has said they might offer up a so- called unity ticket in 2024.

So, we'll see what Joe Manchin decides to do in the long-term, but in the short-term, no doubt, a huge setback for Democrats and their quest to hold on to power. Wolf?

BLITZER: ll right, Melanie, thank you, Melanie Zanona up on Capitol Hill.

Let's get some analysis right now. Joining us, CNN Political Commentators Scott Jennings and Ashley Allison.

Ashley, let me start with you. What are the implications you think of Manchin's decision not to seek re-election?

ASHLEY ALLISON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: This is significant. I mean, we already, as Democrats, had an uphill battle with trying to make sure Sherrod Brown holds his seat in Ohio, John Tester holds his seat in Montana, and now West Virginia.

Now look, Joe Manchin wasn't overly Democratic the last couple of years while in the Biden administration, but it does matter when you're talking about committee assignments, when you're talking about actually the vice president being able to break the tie in the Senate. So, it's significant that he is not running.

It doesn't mean Dems can't still hold the Senate. I mean, we have races. There's a race in Texas, there's a race in Florida, and Montana and Ohio still could stay Democratic, but 2024 just got a little more intense.

BLITZER: It certainly did. You know, Scott, Manchin says he's going to be traveling around the country speaking to those in the middle. Now, does that suggest to you he may actually try to run as the third party candidate?

SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, why not? Everyone else is. I mean, you get Jill Stein jumping in today. Manchin has been flirting with it. You've got Cornell West out there, RFK Jr.

As significant as this is for the Senate, and I do think this is great for Republicans because they were going to have to spend to beat Joe Manchin, they won't have to do that now, this idea that you could have a Wild, Wild West presidential campaign with numerous independents, if they can solve the ballot access issues, really could be problematic for both Biden and Trump. They are both deeply unpopular. Americans don't want that rematch, and they may be looking for a third, fourth, fifth, or sixth door.

BLITZER: You know, it's interesting, Senator Mark Warner from Virginia, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, in the last hour, he told me he can't imagine Manchin would run as the third party candidate because, potentially, that could really help Trump, assuming he's the Republican nominee.


Do you agree with the senator?

ALLISON: Well, a third party candidate definitely would help Donald Trump. And to Scott's point, there are so many now that it could pull away from Joe Biden's coalition.

Now, Joe Manchin also probably could get some Republican votes from Donald Trump, but he would also potentially get some of those independents. So, it's so close right now, if Donald Trump and Joe Biden are at the top of the ticket for the two parties, than any other variable could backfire on either party. And with Joe Manchin, I think it kind of backfires on Joe Biden.

BLITZER: How do you think Mitch McConnell is reacting to all of this? You used to work with him.

JENNINGS: I did, happily. I think West Virginia was the top target for Republicans.

I think they felt good about it anyway. But the real coup here is you don't have to spend. Jim justice, the Republican, is going to win easily in West Virginia. So, you can now move those resources that you might have had to spend over there in West Virginia to Ohio to take out Sherrod Brown, to Montana, maybe even to Pennsylvania, possibly even to Arizona.

So, it does alleviate some of the pressure on spending. But you can put this one in the Republican bank, and then the majority will be fought out in Ohio and Montana, maybe a couple of others.

BLITZER: And Jill Stein is apparently running as well. She hurt Hillary Clinton, what, back in 2016. Do you think that's going to be a major setback for Biden?

ALLISON: Jill Stein, it's like a fruit fly that you can't get rid of. It could hurt Joe Biden. Now, again, even if she got 1 percent of the vote, that could also come against Joe Biden's coalition.

The one thing I will say, though, is that with this potential six- person presidential race, we're in unprecedented times at this point. So, we've been in unprecedented times with the potential nominee of Donald Trump and having felony convictions.

So, people are really going to have to figure out how to run races, to talk to voters, to talk to the issues. And even with everything as an uphill battle right now for the Senate, for Democrats after this week, with abortion being a leading issue, I still think there's an opportunity to go and talk to voters and really meet them where they are and Democrats pull it out.

BLITZER: What do you think?

JENNINGS: Young progressives, I think, are unhappy with Joe Biden right now. You give them any other option, maybe they'll take it. I also think you have the double haters in this election, people who don't like either candidate. Some of those in last year's midterm and even in this year's elections, obviously, they don't like Biden, but they're still voting Democrat because they're worried about Trump. Maybe they're looking for another door.

The scrambling of this could drive the ultimate winner of the Electoral College down to near 40 percent, maybe even lower. We haven't had that in this country in a very long time.

BLITZER: Yes. All right, Scott, thanks very much, Ashley, thanks to you as well.

Just ahead, the latest out of the Middle East as Israel intensifies its operations in Gaza. I'll get reaction from a key White House National Security Council official, John Kirby. He's standing by to join us.

Plus, exclusive new CNN reporting on the classified documents case against Donald Trump. We're learning about potential witnesses the special counsel could put on the stand.



BLITZER: Tonight, CNN is getting a closer look at Israeli military operations in Gaza. CNN reported from Gaza under Israel Defense Forces escort at all times. And as a condition for journalists to embed with the IDF, media outlets must submit footage filmed in Gaza to Israeli military for review. CNN did not submit its script to the IDF and had editorial control over the final report.

Let's bring in CNN's Oren Liebermann. He's joining us live from Tel Aviv right now. Oren, tell us what you saw.

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, first, it's nearly impossible to get into Gaza to report. You can't get in from the Israeli side as a reporter or from the Egyptian side.

So, the chance to see what was happening was given to us by the IDF, who took us in with a tank about a mile deep into Gaza to see what was happening on the ground. Not only the progress they say they're making, but also the challenges they face in a war that is very much hot.


LIEBERMANN (voice over): Through the breach, we enter Northern Gaza at the Erez border crossing. The land here, once fertile farmland, is barren and the trees that might have provided enemy cover destroyed.

In the distance, smoke from an Israeli airstrike is a stark reminder that this is day 34 of a war that may stretch much longer.

On Thursday, the IDF chief of staff and the head of the country's internal security service entered Gaza and promised strength through cooperation.

Everyone is doing everything, said General Herzi Halevi, just so you can be as strong as possible.

Along our path in Northern Gaza, the signs of civilian life have given way to the constant hum of drones and the distant echoes of artillery.

Our time with the IDF began at the coordination base for the border crossing, the first international media to visit the site. The terror attack on October 7 hit hard here, the scars of machine gun fire and RPGs still visible. The base was mostly empty on the holiday, but not entirely. The IDF says nine soldiers were killed here and three kidnapped. It took 12 hours for Israel to regain control of the base. Now it's one of the main gates to Gaza.

A month into the war, more than 10,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli attacks on Gaza, according to the Hamas-controlled Palestinian Health Ministry there.

The IDF says 35 Israeli soldiers have been killed in the Strip since the start of the incursion. The October 7th attack by Hamas in Israel killed more than 1,400 people, mostly civilians.

We stop at an overlook near the town of Jabalya.

One of the things uncovered here on this hill near Jabalya is a meeting point of three different tunnels. And you can see, if you take a look, that's one, two, three. They came together here, and it let Hamas move underground quickly, below the feet and out of sight.

Colonel Tal, the tank commander, many explosives here.


There were many trenches. There were a lot of weapons and ammunition. We found here a storage site with many explosives against tanks, RPGs.

Even from a distance, the scale of the destruction is stunning. Apartment buildings, homes, neighborhoods decimated.

Colonel Tal says the area is almost completely evacuated. We don't see civilians in our eyes. We see sometimes terrorists, but the majority of civilians haven't been here in a while. They've all gone south in the direction of the heart of the strip.

As we talk, we hear rocket fire and see the trails of the launches triggering red alerts in Ashdod. After about 90 minutes inside Northern Gaza, we make our way out, hugging the border wall for safety. Even here, so close to the exit, we stop briefly so the dust clears and we can make sure the way ahead is safe, in the distance, once again, the smoke from another strike.


LIEBERMANN (on camera): The IDF spokesperson said the ground operation in Gaza will only deepen, as Israel said, it has largely encircled Gaza City and is moving towards the heart of the city in its ground operation.

Wolf, I also spoke with the tank commander about the humanitarian corridor that we've talked so much about earlier today, and he said they're aware of the humanitarian corridor. It's not his job to coordinate it, but he knows when it is and where it is.

And even in the middle of a war, he knows you don't shoot in that direction even as the war rages around them in other parts.

BLITZER: Oren Liebermann in Tel Aviv for us, Oren, thanks for that report.

And joining me now to discuss all the news out of the Middle East, the National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, retired Admiral John Kirby. John, thanks so much for joining us.

First, I want to get to Israel's daily four-hour pauses that are now being reported in Northern Gaza to allow civilians to flee south. How will these pauses actually work and have the Israelis fully committed to them?

JOHN KIRBY, COORDINATOR FOR STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL: They have fully committed to them. And the way it's going to work is about three hours before the pauses will begin, the Israelis will, through a variety of means, notify civilians living in Northern Gaza that the pause is going to start and here's when and also advise on the safest corridor, the safest passage out.

They've added now a second safe passage corridor, humanitarian corridor, they call it, out of Northern Gaza along the coast road. So, that's one more than they had before over just the last few days.

This is a step in the right direction, Wolf. I mean, this could help reduce civilian casualties by giving people the confidence and the time to move out of harm's way and not find themselves in the crossfire between Hamas and the Israeli Defense Forces.

BLITZER: But, John, even with these brief pauses, is there really anywhere in Gaza that's safe for Palestinian civilians? And we're told almost half of them are children.

KIRBY: Well, Hamas is placing those children and those families in harm's way by tunneling under their apartment complexes and using their hospitals and schools as command bunkers. Hamas is placing these civilians deliberately and directly in harm's way in between the IDF and Hamas. And so these safe corridors and these pauses, this breathing space and time for people to get out, should help alleviate some of the anxiety and the worry that so many innocent Palestinians are feeling every day in North Gaza.

BLITZER: As you know, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, another terror group in Gaza, is now saying it's ready to release two hostages on humanitarian grounds. Israel has not confirmed or denied this yet. What is the U.S. assessment of this situation, of this statement?

KIRBY: Yes, we're monitoring that ourselves right now. We're not in a position to confirm the veracity of it. Obviously, Wolf, we want all the hostages released. They shouldn't be there in the first place. But as we have seen in the past, there has been some limited release of hostages under, quote/unquote, humanitarian grounds. We've seen four hostages released under those grounds by Hamas. So, we're going to explore this with our Israeli counterparts and we'll see where it goes. We want them all out.

And that's another reason why, Wolf, these pauses can be so valuable, because should we be able to secure the release of hostages in whatever number, you're going to need some sort of safe passage to get them from where they're being held to a position, a place of safety where they can get met medical care and be reunited with their families. That means you're going to have to have a pause in the fighting, at least for a limited period of time.

BLITZER: The CIA director today met, as you know, with the head of Israel's intelligence agency and Qatari officials as well. The Qatari officials, as you know, have a direct line to Hamas. Their purpose was to discuss releasing hostages in exchange for a three-day pause in fighting.

I understand you can't share specifics, but did the U.S. see progress in these talks?

KIRBY: What I would tell you is that we're going to continue to try to find progress in these negotiations to get these hostages out. I don't want who talk too specifically, and I don't want to negotiate here in public.


But these conversations are important to keep having. We're glad that we still have those lines of communication open because that can make all the difference in the world. There isn't an hour that has gone by since October 7th where President Biden and his team hasn't been focused on the plight of these hostages, including some number of Americans, and making sure we can get them reunited with their families. And we're going to stay at that work all across the administration.

BLITZER: I want to get to another very disturbing development that's unfolding. As you know, the U.S. struck Iranian weapons in Syria last night in retaliation for attacks on American forces, but since then, U.S. troops have already been targeted in four more attacks. So, are these U.S. retaliatory strikes actually working?

KIRBY: It is not uncommon, after we take a retaliatory strike, for there to be some sort of secondary set of strikes by these proxy groups. We haven't seen them to be very effective. That doesn't mean we're taking it lightly or we're undermining it at all. We obviously will continue to do what we have to do to protect our troops in Iraq and Syria. You heard the president talk about that today.

Look, these proxy groups and the IRGC, the Revolutionary Guard Corps that supports them, resources them, trains them, funds them, gives them these capabilities, they have a choice to make. We've shown that we will do what we have to do to protect our troops in Iraq and Syria, and we'll continue to do that. If they want yet more responses from the American people and from the American military, then they'll have to deal with the consequences for that if they're going to keep striking.

BLITZER: Yes. The Pentagon says 56 U.S. troops have already been injured in these strikes by these various proxy groups. I'm going to leave it there.

John Kirby, thanks so much for joining us.

KIRBY: You bet.

BLITZER: And there's more breaking news ahead, why a Mar-a-Lago maid and woodworker may be called to testify against Donald Trump. CNN's exclusive new reporting, that's next.



BLITZER: Breaking news tonight, CNN has learned that multiple Mar-a- Lago staffers who worked for Donald Trump may find themselves on the witness stand testifying against the former president.

CNN Crime and Justice Reporter Katelyn Polantz has exclusive details. She's here with us right now. So, who may be called to testify and how is Trump reacting?

KATELYN POLANTZ, CNN SENIOR CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, we have learned of a lot of different people, from the very low level workers at Mar-a-Lago to people that are in Trump's inner circle.

So, Paula Reid and I did some work to try and figure this out and it includes people like a plumber, a maid, a chauffeur, a woodworker, people that would have been in and out of Mar-a-Lago and had noticed things that were off or were odd or that caught their attention and that ultimately have helped the prosecutors build this case against Donald Trump, that there were classified documents strewn about the property after his presidency.

One of the things we heard about was a woodworker, a contractor, going to the property, installing crown molding in Donald Trump's bedroom. And that person noticed a stack of papers that looked quite odd. He thought it was a movie prop. It turns out, that appeared to be classified records with a cover sheet on top of that stack of papers.

But, of course, that's not all. There would also very likely be Secret Service agents that are called intelligence officials that would have spoken to Trump about the importance of being very careful with the handling of classified records, and then other people in Trump circles, people we've been hearing about for quite some time, Evan Corcoran and his former lawyer and others.

BLITZER: Stay with us. We got some more questions for you, but I also want to bring in our legal analysts, Elliot Williams and Norm Eisen.

Elliot, how could these potential witnesses benefit the prosecution in this criminal case involving these highly classified documents?

ELLIOT WILLIAMS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I think a few ways, Wolf. Now, number one, these are individuals who would have firsthand knowledge of what they saw. None of it is secondhand. It's not being filtered through other people. They're testifying or would be testifying about what they saw firsthand.

And these are not the kinds of witnesses who are collaborators or co- conspirators and might be seen as tainted in some way by their relationship to the things that are being investigated. That's big as far as evidence goes.

More importantly, these are the kinds of people who would be compelling or believable to a jury. These are ordinary blue collar or working class folks who prosecutors would have to put on a witness stand in front of a jury of ordinary citizens --

POLANTZ: And who would live in that community.

WILLIAMS: -- who live in the community. They are members of the community as well. And that everything in trials comes down to credibility and who jurors feel they can trust. And I think this is the kind of witness that, frankly, you want to be putting on if you're a prosecutor.

BLITZER: So, Norm, are there pros and cons to calling these witnesses?

NORM EISEN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, the con to calling these witnesses is that they are what we sometimes refer to as civilians. These are not people. Unlike Evan Corcoran, who spent his whole professional life around courts of law, he knows how to testify. These are not people who are accustomed to being on the stand. They're not accustomed to the limelight. They work for Donald Trump. So, there will be a certain amount of awkwardness.

Elliot, and I have, I dare say, put on thousands of witnesses between us, hundreds at least. Witnesses sometimes do blow up. They have to be carefully prepared by the prosecution. Wolf. And Trump's lawyers, we saw this most recently, how they went after Michael Cohen, how they went after E. Jean Carroll. In that case, Trump's lawyers will be no holds barred.

WILLIAMS: And there's an open question as to whether Trump's team could pay for the legal fees for some of these witnesses, too, which could create a conflict and maybe even raise questions in the eyes of a jury as to whether they might be conflicted.


BLITZER: On that point, Katelyn, there are several of these witnesses still work at Mar-a-Lago and are getting legal support help from Trump, right?

POLANTZ: That's right. One of -- some of the people are receiving help with lawyers, and that's something that we know the prosecutors have actually been watching very diligently. It came up in one of the indictments that he called someone who became his co-defendant to offer a lawyer and that person still has a lawyer that was being paid for through Trump's circles.

But one of the things that was so interesting about this is how protective we learned Trump was over these people. When he heard this maid who cleans his bedroom suite had been one of the people the investigators were speaking to and could become a potential witness against him, he went ballistic. That's what one source told us.

And then there was another person in this group of workers, an I.T. worker, who did get a cooperation deal with attorneys, left the Trump legal team's fold, got a federal public defender to represent him and that person no longer works at Mar-a-Lago.

Trump didn't realize he was still working at the club and was quite unhappy that he was still drawing a Trump Org paycheck, essentially, after he became a cooperator in this case.

BLITZER: What do you think, Elliot? How worried should Trump be that some of these witnesses, people who worked at Mar-a-Lago, could testify under oath, yes, I saw boxes that had top secret classification documents, I witnessed those and observed those documents?

WILLIAMS: Not withstanding all the troubleshooting -- BLITZER: And none of these staffers had security clearances.

WILLIAMS: No one had security clearances. But, again, like I said, not withstanding some of the sort of problems we're spotting here, anytime a witness who lives in your house and witnesses the events for which you have been charged with crime, sees something, it is a matter of concern for you. And for all of the reasons that we've noted, these are people who could be seen as credible.

Now, of course, we don't know who they are. We don't know if they have criminal histories or anything in their backgrounds that might cast doubt on their testimony as witnesses, but still, it is valuable first-hand testimony that could be quite bad for a defendant.

BLITZER: Who do you think would be the most damaging for Trump?

EISEN: Well, you never know who that Cassidy Hutchinson is going to be, that one person who steps forward. None of us had ever heard of her before she became the star, the John Dean of the January 6th hearings.

I think Evan Corcoran could be the most devastating. I believe that the plumber and the maid and the chauffeur and the woodworker, they'll assemble a mosaic of evidence, but Corcoran was forced to testify about his conversations with Trump. It goes right to intent. That is the toughest issue to prove.

So, if you're upset about your former maid or current maid testify, imagine your lawyer in whom you've confided all of the confidences about the case, very dangerous.

BLITZER: How significant is it that the judge in this particular case, down in Florida, Judge Aileen Cannon, is considering delaying the start of this trial until after the 2024 presidential election?

POLANTZ: Well, Wolf, for Donald Trump's legal team, it is very much of the ball game, if not the whole ball game here. They are pushing so hard to have this trial date moved until after the election of next year. We're waiting.

It's been more than a week that Judge Cannon said she would tell us when this trial is going to be. It's set for May, and we just don't have final word from her yet. We're waiting for that. But the reason this is so significant is that right now, this trial is about national security, Donald Trump, how he was handling himself, conducting himself after he left the presidency, and handling national security secrets, the sort of things that are core to the protection of this nation.

That is something that the Justice Department very likely wants viewers to be able to learn about in a trial setting before the election so that they can have it, something they're considering when they go to the polls. There's a possibility that this sort of testimony about what people were seeing, what they noticed about Trump, what they noticed about Mar-a-Lago, that doesn't even come out in public testimony until after the election. BLITZER: We shall see, very sensitive material indeed. Guys, thank you very, very much.

Just ahead, the substance and the potshots as five of Donald Trump's Republican presidential rivals hold a heated debate.



BLITZER: Tonight, Donald Trump is hosting Florida Republicans down at Mar-a-Lago, a day after skipping the latest Republican presidential debate. Five of Trump's GOP rivals sharpening their attacks on him and on each others, as CNN's Jeff Zeleny reports.


JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Tonight, the Republican primary is heading toward a boiling point.


NIKKI HALEY, REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You have Ron and Trump joining Biden and Pelosi.

ZELENY: one day after the third presidential debate highlighted deep divisions on a range of hot button issues, including abortion.

SEN. TIM SCOTT (R-SC), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I would challenge both Nikki and Ron to join me at a 15 week limit. It is in our nation's best interest.

ZELENY: Senator Tim Scott pushing his rivals to support a national 15-week abortion ban despite voters rejecting a similar call this week in Virginia, while Ohio overwhelmingly voted to protect abortion rights in the state Constitution.

HALEY: Let's find consensus. Let's agree on how we can ban late term abortions. Let's make sure we encourage adoption.

ZELENY: Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley seeking common ground even as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis criticized the anti- abortion movement for repeatedly failing to make its case a year after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

DESANTIS: You got to do a better job on these referenda. I think of all the stuff that's happened to the pro-life cause, they have been caught flatfooted on these referenda.

ZELENY: Scott, who is banking his candidacy on appealing to Iowa's evangelical voters, seized on that criticism, telling CNN's Dana Bash he disagreed with DeSantis.


SCOTT: I don't understand why he said what he said. There's no reason to insult the pro-life voter.

ZELENY: Two months before the Iowa caucuses kick off the 2024 contest, the sparring among Republican challengers reached a new level, even as the far and away frontrunner, Donald Trump, was again spared scrutiny because he mocked the debate from a nearby rally.

DONALD TRUMP, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: They're not watchable. You know, the last debate was the lowest rated debate in the history of politics. So, therefore, do you think we did the right thing by not participating?

ZELENY: It was the first Republican debate since Hamas attacked Israel October 7th, placing a renewed focus on foreign policy.

All candidates pledged unwavering support for Israel.

DESANTIS: Finish the job once and for all with these butchers, Hamas.

CHRIS CHRISTIE, REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: America is here no matter what it is you need at any time to preserve the state of Israel.

ZELENY: Some of the biggest flashpoints came between Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy, who blasted her hawkish views and accused her of rushing to war.

VIVEK RAMASWAMY, REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Do you want Dick Cheney in three-inch heels?

ZELENY: She wasted little time pushing back.

HALEY: First, I'd like to say they're five-inch heels and I don't wear them unless you can run in them.

I wear heels. They're not for a fashion statement, they're for ammunition.

ZELENY: Later, with tensions inflamed during a discussion over TikTok and China, the attacks grew personal.

RAMASWAMY: In the last debate, she made fun of me for actually joining TikTok while her own daughter was actually using the app for a long time. So, you might want to take care of your family first.

HALEY: Leave my adult daughter out of your voice.

You're just scum.

ZELENY: Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie struck a far more civil tone and repeatedly sought to rise above the fray. Today, he told CNN some of last night's exchanges were absurd.

CHRISTIE: The juvenile back and forth between Vivek Ramaswami and Nikki Haley, I thought the whole idea was to win the 2024 election and to defeat Joe Biden and to show who, in fact, could do that in this field. (END VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY (on camera): And we are learning tonight that Chris Christie is actually planning on visiting Israel, the first Republican candidate to do so.

Wolf, foreign policy is front and center. But at the end of all of that, it's hard to see anything really change the dynamic of this race. Donald Trump, who was not there, is still in firm command.

BLITZER: He certainly is. All right, thanks very much, excellent report, Jeff Zeleny for us.

Coming up, new video just coming into THE SITUATION ROOM of that U.S. airstrike on a weapons facility in Syria used by Iranian forces.



BLITZER: This just in to CNN, the Pentagon has just released video of U.S. airstrikes targeting a weapons facility in Syria linked Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and other affiliated groups.

Let's bring in CNN's Arlette Saenz. She's over at the White House for us.

Arlette, so what does this video show?

ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this video is giving people a first look at these airstrikes that were carried out against a weapons facility with links to Iran and Iran proxy groups. Now, these airstrikes were carried out by two F-16 fighter jets on Wednesday evening, U.S. time.

And as you can see in the video, there is a secondary explosion that can be seen. Now, a senior military official last evening had said that additional explosion had indicated that this had struck facilities that was housing weapons that may have likely we've been used on attacks against U.S. and coalition forces. There have been at least 41 times that U.S. and coalition forces have either been attacked by a runaway drone or by a rocket attack as well.

And it comes as President Biden had just told reporters earlier today, he had ordered the strikes and he decided to make these strikes, conduct the strikes, because they had hit us. Now, the president had also said he believes it's working, because they're reaching the targets they're reaching -- or have reached so afar. But also, he told reporters that the U.S. would prepare to -- be prepared to launch these types of strikes again if needed.

BLITZER: Arlette Saenz, reporting from the White House, thanks very much. Very significant development, indeed.

Right now, let's get the latest on the very dire humanitarian situation inside Gaza. The White House says Israel has agreed to daily four-hour pauses in military operations for portions of the northern end of the Gaza Strip. But for many civilians, life in southern Gaza is fraught with danger as well.

CNN's Salma Abdelaziz has our report.


SALMA ABDELAZIZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): If you are among those still in northern Gaza, this is what life looks like now, the heart of a battle zone.

May God protect us, this man says. Those who do not have the means to live, we will have to stay where we are, it's as if they sentenced us to death.

The Israeli military continues to call on all residents of northern Gaza to move south. It is the forced exodus of an entire population, Palestinians say.

But some are unable or unwilling to heed the warning. Thousands of them are taking shelter at Gaza City hospitals, among them patients that can't be moved, families too afraid to travel through bombs and bullets, and medical staff loyal to a duty of care.

Dr. Mohammad Abu Namoos says he has sent his family away, but he will stay behind. What can be done, there's no other way out of this, there is no safety, he says. That's why it's best if I get my family out so I can focus on treating patients.

On Wednesday alone, as many as 50,000 people made the perilous journey south via the time-limited corridors set up by the Israeli military.


REAR ADM. DANIEL HAGARI, ISRAELI MILITARY SPOKESMAN (through translator): They're moving because they understand that Hamas has lost control in the north, and that the south is safer, a safer area where they can receive medicine, water, and food. They understand it's an improvement.

ABDELAZIZ: But the south is not safe, and hardly an improvement. Israeli airstrikes level homes here, too. And the conditions for the estimated 1.5 million now cramped in this corner of the enclave are described as inhumane. Thousands of the displaced are living on the street.

There is no aid, no water, the toilets are closed, she says, and no bakeries. We get a single loaf of bread every three or four days after waiting in long lines for half a day.

And U.N. shelters are overcrowded. At one site at least 600 people must share a single toilet, the U.N. Says.

And as for humanitarian assistance, it is so far a drop in the ocean of need. VOLKER TURKER, UNITED NATIONS HIGH COMMISSIONER FOR HUMAN RIGHTS:

This is the gateway to a hellish nightmare, and then I see in front of me the lifeline that would bring relief and humanitarian assistance, which until now has not been enough, woefully inadequate.

ABDELAZIZ: The conditions are so dire that this family says they decided to leave a U.N. shelter and move back into the ruins of their bombed out home.

We're still afraid, of course, for our children but it's the lesser of two evils, this father says. At least it's better than being surrounded by disease, hunger, and fear. At least here, our children are at home.

With three out of every four Gazans internally displaced, the U.N. estimates home is what so many dream of here, but many fear that that sense of normalcy will never return.

Salma Abdelaziz, CNN, London.


BLITZER: Our thanks to Salma for that report.

Coming up, more breaking news we're following. Federal law enforcement officials are now investigating suspicious letters, possibly laced with fentanyl, sent to election officers around the country.



BLITZER: We're following breaking news. Federal law enforcement officials are now investigating suspicious letters potentially laced with fentanyl that were sent to election offices in at least five states.

For more on the story, I'm joined by CNN senior justice correspondent, Evan Perez.

Evan, what do we know about these letters?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, in the case of at least a couple of these states in Georgia and in Washington state, officials say they suspect that the letters contain potentially deadly drug, fentanyl. Right now, they are investigating more than a dozen of these letters that were sent to mostly election officials in Georgia, in Oregon, Nevada, Washington state, and California, Wolf.

There is also another letter that was received by the office of the attorney general in Texas, in Austin. That is also being investigated.

At this point, the investigators are treating all of these letters as potentially connected. Given the timing, they've been received over the past couple days. Of course, this raises a lot of concern. Here is the Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger addressing the letter received in Fulton County today.


BRAD RAFFENSPERGER (R), GEORGIA SECRETARY OF STATE: This is domestic terrorism, and that needs to be condemned by anybody who holds elective office and anyone who wants to hold elective office anywhere in America.


PEREZ: And, Wolf, you know, this is a big concern for election officials, especially around the country. They've been receiving a lot of threats since the 2020 election, and it is something going forward, obviously, it's a major concern for the FBI, and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service that are investigating these letters -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Certainly is.

Evan, standby.

I want to bring in Donell Harvin. He's the former chief of Homeland Security and Intelligence for Washington, D.C.

Donell, thanks very much for joining us.

Who do you think, who might have sent these letters, and what could the purpose actually be?

DONELL HARVIN, FORMER DC CHIEF OF HOMELAND SECURITY AND INTELLIGENCE: Wolf, I don't want to get ahead of investigative authorities that are looking at this. I will say it's very serious. I will also say that four years of federal officials have been warning us about the security of our elections.

And when you see instances like this, it really is concerning. Fentanyl is not a benign substance. It's what we call in the business of the poor man's weapon of mass destruction. In the wrong hands, the proper quantities, it can kill a lot of people.

There is a number of individuals who could possibly be behind this. Once again, I don't want to get ahead of investigative authorities. But, once again, if you are sitting at home and you are in an election official, or somebody who is going to volunteer to go and help an election, it really has a chilling effect on you.

BLITZER: Fulton County officials say that this is just a preview of what we can expect in 2024. What should authorities be preparing for?

HARVIN: Yes. I mean, you know, what -- when we saw in the last election, we saw armed militia showing up at polling sites. So, once again, if you're an election official, you're going to cast a vote. You see people, you know, AR-15s, fully armored up with body armor. And then, you see, as you saw in the January 6th Committee, election officials being having death threats made against them. Now you have this. Once again, I think the federal government is going to give us a full

accounting of what happened. I am sure they will catch the individual or individuals that were responsible for this.

But, it's going to take a lot to secure our election infrastructure. It's a vast infrastructure, there's a lot of moving parts, it expands all levels of government, and so, they need to start working on this. The federal government through DHS has an amazing agency called CISA. I'm sure it's going to be all over this. We'll hear more from them zoom.

But, this is concerning. At least the facts we have right now.

BLITZER: Very concerning. Donell, thank you very much. Donell Harvin, helping us.

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

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.