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Four Weeks To Iowa, Trump's Rhetoric Going To Dark Extremes; Georgia Election Workers Awarded Millions Sue Giuliani Again; Hamas Releases Video Of Three Elderly Israeli Hostages; Florida Republican Power Couple Under Fire Amid Sex Scandal, Sexual Assault Allegations; Texas Governor Signs Bill Making Illegal Border Crossings A State Crime; Pope Francis Authorizes Blessings For Same-Sex Couples. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired December 18, 2023 - 18:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg tells CNN that he hopes other airlines are paying attention to the penalty.



PETE BUTTIGIEG, TRANSPORTATION SECRETARY: This sends a message that every airline has to make the proper investments in having a good enough system and good enough customer service, that when the unexpected happens, when weather happens, or anything else, you can quickly get back on your feet, take care of your passengers, get people to where they need to be.


TAPPER: Southwest has already paid $600 million in refunds and reimbursements to passengers.

Our coverage continues now with Wolf Blitzer in The Situation Room. I'll see you tomorrow.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now with the lead-off Iowa caucuses now only four weeks away, Donald Trump is taking his campaign rhetoric to dark extremes. We're getting new reaction to Trump's immigrant bashing that's invoking comparisons to Nazi Germany. The GOP governor of New Hampshire, Chris Sununu, joins us live this hour.

Also tonight, two former Georgia election workers are suing Rudy Giuliani again just days after a judge ordered the former Trump lawyer to pay the women nearly $150 million in damages. We're going to tell you what they want now.

And Hamas releases video of three elderly Israelis it's holding captive in Gaza, this as the U.S. is playing a role in new efforts to restart negotiations aimed at freeing the remaining captives amid desperate protests and pleas by former hostages.

Welcome to our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in The Situation Room. Exactly four weeks from tonight, the first votes of the 2024 presidential election cycle will be cast in Iowa. And GOP frontrunner Donald Trump is trying to fire up supporters with ugly and very chilling new attacks on immigrants.

CNN's Omar Jimenez has more on Trump's rhetoric and the reaction.


DONALD TRUMP, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: They're poisoning the blood of our country. That's what they've done.

OMAR JIMENEZ, CNN HOST (voice over): Former President Donald Trump is talking about undocumented immigrants in more extreme terms, echoing language used by white supremacists and promising unprecedented action if he's elected.

TRUMP: It is only common sense that when I'm reelected, we will begin, and we have no choice, the largest deportation operation in American history.

JIMENEZ: With just four weeks until the Iowa caucuses, the GOP frontrunner is leaning into rhetoric that has traces of Adolf Hitler's writings, foreigners poisoning the blood of a nation. But it's just among the themes the Trump campaign appears to be focusing on in the final weeks to Iowa and New Hampshire.

TRUMP: Joe Biden is a threat to democracy. He's a threat.

JIMENEZ: Over the weekend, Trump quoted Russian President Vladimir Putin approvingly to attack President Joe Biden of Russia.

TRUMP: Vladimir Putin of Russia says that Biden's, and this is a, quote, politically motivated persecution of his political rival is very good for Russia because it shows the rottenness of the American political system.

JIMENEZ: The Biden campaign responded, Donald Trump channeled his role models as he parroted Adolf Hitler, praised Kim Jong-un, and quoted Vladimir Putin while running for president on a promise to rule as a dictator and threaten American democracy.

Trump's rhetoric and evolution of his 2016 message on immigration.

TRUMP: They're bringing drugs, they're bringing crime, they're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.

JIMENEZ: So far, no signs that such talk will have a negative impact on his standing with GOP voters, even as his Republican rivals campaign to stop his march to the nomination.

NIKKI HALEY, REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We have to leave behind the chaos and drama of the past with a new generation and a new conservative president.

JIMENEZ: Nikki Haley has been rising in new polling with a new CBS/UGov survey showing her in a solid second place in New Hampshire at 29 percent, behind Trump's 44 percent among likely GOP primary voters.

That same poll has DeSantis at second place, but in Iowa, behind the former president. DeSantis has been critical of Trump's recent rhetoric, saying it distracts from the real issues at the border.

GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: To give them an ability, the opposition an ability to try to make it about something else with some of those comments, I just think it's just a tactical mistake.


JIMENEZ (on camera): Now, the dynamic between DeSantis and Haley, and even Chris Christie, if he can surge in New Hampshire, will be interesting because a strong second place in one of these early states could send a strong message that some of the rhetoric that former President Trump has been using is at the very least vulnerable politically.

That said, four weeks to Iowa, the former president has doubled down on a lot of the poisoning of the blood-type phrasing, he clearly feels that is part of a winning message. Wolf?

BLITZER: Omar Jimenez reporting for us, Omar, thank you very much.


Joining us now, the Republican governor of New Hampshire, Chris Sununu, a vocal Trump critic who has endorsed Nikki Haley for president. Governor, thanks so much for joining us.

First of all, do you condemn what we just heard from Trump in your own state? That immigrants are, quote, poisoning the blood of our country, seemingly echoing Adolf Hitler and white supremacists?

GOV. CHRIS SUNUNU (R-NH): It's awful. It's absolutely awful. But unfortunately, with Donald Trump, it shouldn't be surprising. And there's a couple reasons he's doing it. He knows that Nikki is gaining on him, especially here in New Hampshire. He wants to spur up that negative, evil rhetoric to kind of get his extremists of his base to make sure that they're not leaving him because a lot of his other voters are likely to move from him in the next couple of weeks. But most importantly, what he's doing is he wants to hopefully not let folks ask him the question of, hey, why didn't you secure the border like you promised you'd do?

He's almost acting like he wasn't president, right? Remember, he said he was going to build the wall and make Mexico pay for it and secure the border and all that. He didn't do any of it. And now we have this crisis coming into our country, which most Republicans and most folks across the country want that border secure.

So, he's going to spur up the rhetoric because he's not taking questions, not answering anything, not getting on the debate stage. And he wants to make sure that that base is with him. It's an awful way to do it. It speaks more to him and his character and the problems you're going to have if he were elected again.

And which is why Nikki -- that type of stuff is why Nikki Haley is surging here in New Hampshire. I think she's going to be surging in Iowa. It's not a 40-point race. It's a 15-point race. And I think pretty soon you're going to see it's about a two point race and a real tossup between Haley and Trump going forward.

BLITZER: We shall see. You've endorsed Nikki Haley, who so far, governor, as you know, has not denounced Trump's authoritarian and very hateful rhetoric. This should be simple to condemn. So, why hasn't she?

SUNUNU: Well, look, I mean, I'm not going to speak for Nikki other than to say when she's out there, she talks about the former president. She talks that this is the time to move on. There's no place for that. But I think she does a good job of making sure that she's not just saying, elect me for president because we don't like that guy, elect me because of that rhetoric. She's putting her resume, her background, her experience, and most importantly, what she's going to bring. She's a former governor.

So, it's not just about political points and policy. It's about actually achieving something, accountability, how you manage the government, how you manage getting things done, how you work with Congress. And, again, that type of message is really resonating with folks. They don't want to live in the past here in New Hampshire. New Hampshire is always a forward-looking state, which is why she's doing so well.

BLITZER: But don't you think she should denounce Trump's hateful rhetoric?

SUNUNU: Well, look, I think she's been pretty hard on him. I do. Again, I think everybody's waiting for every candidate to go nuclear, kind of like Chris Christie does. And Chris has done a great job of that. I think I'm out there doing.

But, you know, not everyone is going to have the exact same style. Folks say, well, you're too much pro-Trump and you don't go hard on them enough. Other folks say, oh, you're too anti-Trump and why can't you like them more? So, she's right where she needs to be as a candidate, which is talking about the future.

So, no, if I thought she was doing it wrong, if I thought it wasn't resonating with folks, I'd be the first to say it. But her style, her approach, her background and likability is what's really connecting with folks here.

BLITZER: As you point out, Governor, in that CBS poll, Nikki Haley is surging to second place in your state of New Hampshire. What do you think it would take for her to close that gap?

SUNUNU: Well, a couple things. I think you're going to see a lot of -- I mean, I think Chris Christie and Ron DeSantis have run good races. They're great candidates. But you're going to see a lot of those folks start moving this way.

New Hampshire wants to make sure that we're the state that doesn't live in the past. You're going to see a lot of those voters come this way whether they get out of the race or not. That's really up to them. But their voters are going to move, and even Trump voters. The number one reason why Trump voters say they're going to vote for Trump is, well, he's going to win anyway, so I guess we'll just vote for him.

See, folks think it's inevitable. So, when we get out of kind of break that mindset of it's inevitable that there is somebody here that's going to challenge him, that can hit the reset button on the whole campaign across the whole country, that gets people excited. You'll have a lot of undeclared voters coming out, a lot of the hardcore base coming out for a new version of the conservative leadership, a new generation. That gets people excited.

So, it's just about working the process as folks are making up their minds, and that's what the next five weeks are. They're really starting to make up their minds, whether it's over the holidays with family or interacting with co-workers or just coming out to see Nikki Haley one on one at one of our town halls. They've been tremendous and it's making waves.

BLITZER: This clearly is a critical moment in this entire election cycle. Governor Chris Sununu, thank you so much for joining us.

SUNUNU: You bet.

BLITZER: All right. Let's get some more in all of this with our political experts. And, Gloria, let me start with you. What was your analysis of what we just heard from governor?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, he's a cheerleader. He's a great cheerleader for Nikki Haley. And I think he made some good points, which is about the inevitability of Donald Trump. Lots of voters believe that, well, maybe I'll vote for him because he's going to win anyway, and I think he has the best chance of beating Joe Biden. And polls have shown that may not be the case, case that he's not inevitable, that Nikki Haley is moving up.


And if they have a good reason to leave Donald Trump, maybe they'll do it.

Now, this is the rosy picture that he paints. But I think he also made another interesting point, which is about Donald Trump's behavior. Yes, as you point out, Nikki Haley is not attacking Donald Trump the way, for example, he did, but the point that he made is that Donald Trump is acting like he wasn't president before and that problems at the border didn't exist when he was president, that he didn't build the wall. And those are the things that Nikki Haley is talking about, about the debt and how it went up during the Trump presidency. Those are things she is talking.

And so, you know, she's positioning herself, particularly New Hampshire, where independent voters vote in the primary, as the alternative, and she's positioning herself as somebody who can beat Joe Biden.

BLITZER: Alice, tell us why Trump's extremist rhetoric is not generating much more condemnation from so many in the Republican Party.

ALICE STEWART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Look, when you talk privately with Republicans, they absolutely condemn the conversation, the dialogue, the divisive rhetoric and these comments that he has made recently with regard to immigrants and poisoning the blood of this country. That's disgusting and despicable, and they will tell you that.

Many who are supportive of him publicly won't do so forcefully simply because they don't want to face the backlash of him or his supporters. But I can tell you, as Governor Sununu just said, that kind of rhetoric, basically parroting -- as many have said, parroting the words of Hitler from Mein Kampf, that is wrong and it should not happen.

And what it does, it really takes away from the real conversation that Republicans need to be having about immigration, talking about Republicans actually do support legal immigration, talking about what we can do to stop the flow of illegal immigrants into this country. We're seeing record numbers stop the flow of fentanyl into this country, as well as human trafficking. These are serious problems with immigration. And we should be talking about and not these stupid comments.

KAREN FINNEY, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, it's Americans who are bringing fentanyl in, in higher numbers. But the point is, because Republicans won't denounce these comments, and that keeps Donald Trump as the person controlling the Republican Party, so this is tolerated.

And I want to point something out about this poison the blood rhetoric, and it's something I feel very strongly about. He's not just talking about immigrants. I'm biracial. Parts of my family said that my parents' union was poisoning the blood of white people, that that's what I am. I am poison. So, when he says that, remember that under 30, it's a very biracial generation. So, he's actually saying to young people, you're poison.

And I do think when we get to the general election, and if it believing that it is Trump and Biden, that is what Joe Biden is talking about when he talks about the soul of the country. And when we're having that conversation, that is a very different conversation than what's happening right now in the Republican primary, where there will be somebody who will speak up and speak out and say, what you said was disgusting and you're insulting many generations of American citizens as well as immigrants.

BORGER: That's -- it does hit young people, more of whom are biracial. And then the question is, why is Donald Trump doing so well with younger voters and Joe Biden is losing younger voters. That's a job for the campaign, obviously, but they got to figure that one out. BLITZER: It's interesting, and Nikki speaking about young and older. Nikki Haley launched a new ad going directly at Biden's age, renewing her calls for term limits and mental competency tests. Listen to this.


HALEY: I'll just say it, Biden is too old, and Congress is the most exclusive nursing home in America. Washington keeps failing because politicians from yesterday can't lead us into tomorrow.

We have to leave behind the chaos and drama of the past with a new generation and a new conservative president.


BLITZER: A very subtle reference to Donald Trump in there as well.

BORGER: The chaos and drama. Yes, that's what she, instead of saying Trump, she says chaos and drama. And, you know, Trump is only, what, three years younger than Joe Biden, and she's saying Joe Biden is too old, and just hinting at Donald Trump, why not come out and say it? I mean, you know, there have been questions raised about Donald Trump's age lately as well. But, you know, again, it goes back to the point that you were making with Chris Sununu, which is she'll attack Trump frontally on some things, but on other things, she uses chaos and drama.

FINNEY: Because there's a fear of the Trump base, right? I mean, because she knows that the way to get the Republican nomination is those folks that are saying they're open to someone else and maybe peel off a few of the Trump voters, but you can't make them angry by having such a strong frontal assault.

STEWART: The argument that she's making about age and mental competency tests and chaos and confusion, clearly, the campaign has tested that.


She's talked about that on the debate stage. She has talked about that out on the trail. And she has talked about that in many interviews, and she understands clearly this message is working.

People want to see someone younger. People want to see someone with less drama. And in our own CNN poll, people are concerned about not just President Biden but Donald Trump's stamina to be a president yet again, and that's something that clearly is resonating.

FINNEY: And when you think about age, I mean, think about what Joe Biden has been spending his time doing. Congress said we want Joe Biden to get engaged in these talks we're having because when he gets engaged, we get a deal, right?

He's been on the phone helping to get our -- get hostages home. So, with Donald Trump is that who we want having that conversation? I don't think so. BORGER: I think he has to find a way to turn it to his advantage and start talking about his wisdom and his experience. We'll see if he does that.

BLITZER: Let's see what happens. All right, guys, thank you very, very much.

Just ahead, a major setback in former Trump White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows' efforts to move his Georgia election interference case from state to federal court.

And the two Georgia election workers who just won a nearly $150 million verdict against Rudy Giuliani are now suing him again. We'll have the details.

Stay with us here in The Situation Room.



BLITZER: A federal appeals court rejects former Trump White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows' attempts to move his Georgia election interference case from state to federal court.

CNN Senior Justice Correspondent Evan Perez is following the story for us. Evan, how do the judges view Meadows' arguments?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this is an important ruling from this conservative-leaning appeals court. And they rejected the idea that what Mark Meadows was doing, what he's charged with, what he's accused of in this Georgia case, that it related to his official duties, what they say here, and this is written by William Pryor, who is a George W. Bush appointee, again, a conservative appointee on this court, he says whatever the chief of staff's role with respect to state election administration, that role does not include altering valid election results in favor of a particular candidate. He goes on to say is that electioneering is not part of the job of a chief of staff.

What Mark Meadows was trying to do, Wolf, was trying to move this case to federal court, essentially trying to find a way to kill this case. If it had been moved to federal court, essentially, it would mean that he would be immune essentially from being prosecuted for what he's accused of, which is a violation of Georgia RICO statute.

And so what this conservative-leaning panel here has said is no dice.

BLITZER: There's also an update on Trump's fight over immunity in this election subversion case, as you know. Tell us about that.

PEREZ: Well, Wolf, this is a sign that the courts are -- they see the calendar and they want to move these cases very quickly. They've scheduled oral arguments for the former president's claim that he is immune from prosecution, that this Jack Smith case should go away for January 9th. And so now we have two tracks. We know the special counsel is asking for the Supreme Court to speedily take a look at this idea that the former president enjoys immunity or whether he can't be prosecuted for double jeopardy, under double jeopardy, because he was tried by the House but acquitted by the Senate in -- his last year in office.

Now, what we don't know, Wolf, is whether this really does mean that Tanya Chutkan, the judge overseeing his federal -- the election interference case, whether that trial will slide from her plan, which is March 4th. It doesn't look good for her to be able to hold that trial on March 4th. But what we are seeing here from these courts is that they want to have these hearings and they want to rule very quickly, so that if they can try to get this done, we could have a trial perhaps before next summer.

BLITZER: Lots at stake right now. Evan, thank you very much, Evan Perez reporting for us.

For more on this important story, I'm joined by CNN Legal Analyst Carrie Cordero.

Carrie, what does this January 9th trial date mean for Trump's fight over presidential immunity?

CARRIE CORDERO, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, the important part, as Evan pointed out, is that the appellate level is going to weigh in on it.

There was a question whether or not it was going to go right to the Supreme Court. Now, if it's going to be heard by the D.C. circuit, I think that what that shows is that the D.C circuit wants to retain its role and that it shows that it can move quickly.

The appellate courts, they have a wide jurisdiction, wide decision- making authority to determine how quickly they're going to hear things. And I think what they're showing is they are going to hear it. Whether or not, I still think that that March date could potentially be shifted, but the appellate level court is indicating that it can move a little bit faster if it wants to.

BLITZER: And, Carrie, the Georgia election workers, the two women who won a $148,000,000 verdict against Rudy Giuliani for defamation on Friday, as we all remember, are now suing him again. They want a federal judge to permanently block him from lying about them after he repeated his totally baseless claims. How strong do you think this case is for them?

CORDERO: Well, the thing is, the statements that he made were right out in the public during the proceedings of the court case itself. He was going out and making public statements. So, there's actually, I think, no factual dispute about what he actually was saying. They're going to have everything available to them.

I think it shows also that although there was this incredibly high judgment in terms of the money that they were awarded in their civil case, what these plaintiffs are showing is they really are interested in the conduct stopping. They want Rudolph Giuliani to stop talking about them and stop harming their reputation and stop potentially directing threats against them.


And so since he still continues to say those types of things, they have decided to take legal action again.

BLITZER: We shall see what happens. Carrie Cordero, thank you very much.

Coming up, Hamas releases a video of three elderly Israeli hostages in captivity. We're going to share new details on what the video shows and we'll do that right after a quick break.


BLITZER: New developments tonight in the Middle East, where Hamas has just released a video showing three elderly Israeli hostages in captivity.


CNN's Jeremy diamond is standing by for us. He's live in Tel Aviv. He's got details. Tell us more about this newly released video, Jeremy.

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this is just the latest Hamas propaganda video featuring hostages that are being held in captivity in Gaza. This one features three elderly hostages, 80-year- old Yoram Metzger, 84-year-old Amiram Cooper, and 79-year-old Chaim Peri.

In it, Peri pleads with the Israeli government to secure their unconditional release, talks about the fear of Israeli airstrikes.

It's not clear exactly when the videos were filmed, but the Israeli military is calling these, quote, a criminal terror video. And all of this, of course, comes, Wolf, as the pressure is ramping up on the Israeli government to reach a deal to free those hostages, including a lot of former hostages beginning to speak out.


DIAMOND (voice over): The pleas are only growing more desperate.

RAZ BEN AMI, FORMER ISRAELI HOSTAGE: I begged the cabinet and we all warned that the fighting would likely harm the hostages. Unfortunately, I was right.

DIAMOND: Recently freed hostages and the families of those still captive are ramping up the pressure on the Israeli government to reach a deal for their freedom, after Israeli soldiers mistakenly shot and killed three Israeli hostages in Gaza.

Their desperate plea smeared onto a white sheet on the building adjacent to where they were killed. Help, three hostages, read the Hebrew letters, stained with red sauce. Former hostages, like Doron Katz-Asher, who was shot as she was whisked into Gaza, now beginning to share their stories of captivity.

DORON KATZ-ASHER, FORMER ISRAELI HOSTAGE: The first day was foggy because I lost a lot of blood and they stitched my wounds on a sofa with the girls next to me, easy to understand that it was without anesthesia.

DIAMOND: In an interview on Israeli T.V., she revealed that she and her two daughters spent part of their captivity not in a tunnel but hidden in a hospital.

KATZ-ASHER: We were in a 12-meter room, ten people, no beds, only a sink. And to go to the toilet, we had to knock on the door. They could open it after five minutes or after an hour-and-a-half. Small girls couldn't hold it.

DIAMOND: Cramped conditions, but also unending fear.

KATZ-ASHER: Fear, fear that because my girls were crying or making a noise, they would get an order from above, be taken from me, fear, always fear.

DIAMOND: For 49 days, Katz-Asher shielded her daughters from that fear, until the moment they were handed to the Red Cross on the streets of Gaza, where hundreds of people crowded their vehicle.

KATZ-ASHER: It was the first time after a month-and-a-half that Raz said, Mom, I'm scared.

DIAMOND: Multiple former hostages also describe the terrors of living under Israeli bombardment in Gaza.

OFIR ENGEL, FORMER ISRAELI HOSTAGE: There was a bombardment on the adjacent house. It sounded like it was going to hit us. One of the guards was notified that his family member is dead. So, you tell yourself, I hope he doesn't turn against us.

DIAMOND: Nearly every single former hostage spoke of feeling abandoned by their government while in captivity, now channeling that feeling into action.

SHARON ALONY-CUNIO, FORMER ISRAELI HOSTAGE: I think that everyone needs to understand that not enough is being done in order to free the hostages from the Gaza Strip. They need to come back now. You have to do everything you can to bring them back now.


DIAMOND (on camera): And amid this pressure from some of those former hostages and the families of those current hostages, there do appear to be some real efforts to try and restart those hostage negotiations between Israel and Hamas.

Over the weekend, Israel's intelligence chief, the head of the Mossad, David Barnea, meeting with the Qatari prime minister. And today in Warsaw, Poland, the CIA director, Bill Burns, sat down with the Qatari prime minister, as well as Barnea, the Mossad chief. So, some real efforts here to restart those talks, we will see, Wolf, where they lead.

BLITZER: That's hope they restart and restart soon. Jeremy Diamond and Tel Aviv, thank you.

Meanwhile, the U.S. defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, just paid a very high stakes visit to Israel, as the Biden administration pushes the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to change his war strategy in Gaza.

Our Senior White House Correspondent M.J. Lee has more for us right now. M.J., how is the administration underscoring its message with this visit?

M.J. LEE, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Secretary Austin is just the latest in a series of senior Biden administration officials who have traveled to the region. Of course, we've seen Secretary of State Antony Blinken, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, among others, traveling to the region recently.

And these trips come at such a crucial moment in this war as the U.S. has been increasingly and not just in private, stressing to Israel to put it simply that the war needs to change.


Secretary Austin, after his meetings, both with his counterpart and also Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saying that the trip so far had been incredibly productive. He said that he was able to get a status update on Israel's military operations and where they were on achieving its military objectives and also getting an update on their efforts to reduce civilian casualties and also the flow of humanity assistance into Gaza.

But what was so notable about what Secretary Austin said was his description of the next phase of this war. Take a listen.


LLOYD AUSTIN, DEFENSE SECRETARY: I'm not here to dictate timelines or terms. Our support to Israel's right to defend itself is ironclad.

We also have some great thoughts about how to transition from high intensity operations to lower intensity and more surgical operations.


LEE: And, Wolf, as CNN first reported, U.S. officials do believe that this next phase of the war could be just weeks away, that possibly by January we could be seeing a lower intensity phase of the war, where the targeting and the raids are hyper localized to target specific Hamas leaders and operatives.

Secretary Austin making clear in his comments that the U.S. does have some suggestions on how exactly to move on to that next phase. Of course, Secretary Austin is somebody who has personal experience with this kind of urban warfare. But the big question, Wolf, of course, going forward is whether Israel is going to heed the U.S.'s advice and how soon. Wolf?

BLITZER: M.J. Lee at the White House for us, M.J., thank you very much.

Now to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and the terrible toll the war is taking on hospitals there. CNN's Issa Soares has more on this part of the story. We want to warn our viewers, some of the footage in her report is disturbing.


ISA SOARES, CNN ANCHOR AND CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Sheer terror inside southern Gaza's Nasser Hospital. An artillery strike has just hit somewhere in the building.

With the power cut, people inside rushed with flashlights and mobile phones to try and find where and who had been struck.

Here, they find her. Wrapped in a blanket is the body of 13-year-old Dina Abu Mosem (ph). She had been recovering from an amputation at the hospital following a previous strike in Khan Younis, according to the Hamas-controlled Ministry of Health in Gaza.

Weapon remnants found by her bed were consistent with an Israeli illumination shell, a weapons expert told CNN.

CNN reached out to the IDF but is yet to receive a response.

In the destroyed grounds of Kamal Adwan Hospital in Northern Gaza, another heartbreaking goodbye. This hospital had been under siege for days by Israeli troops who claimed it was operating as a command and control center for Hamas.

They withdrew from Kamal Adwan on Saturday, saying in a statement, quote, their activity in the area was completed and released video of a small amount of weapons they apparently found there.

According to the U.N.'s Office for Humanitarian affairs, quote, an Israeli military bulldozer flattened the tents of a number of internally displaced persons outside the hospital, killing and wounding an unconfirmed number of people.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have been displaced. And today they demolished the building, killing doctors, leaving nothing behind. They haven't even spared the doctors. Look, my son is here under the rubble and I can't reach him.

SOARES: The IDF has not yet commented on this allegation.

Over the weekend, the WHO chief said that, quote, attacks on hospitals, health personnel and patients must end as medical facilities and those inside continue to bear the brunt of this war.

Isa Soares, CNN, London.

(END VIDEOTAPE) BLITZER: Thanks to Isa Suarez for that report.

Just ahead, the Florida Republican Party strips its chairman of his powers in the wake of sexual assault allegations. We'll have the latest on this scandal. That's coming up next.



BLITZER: A top Florida Republican is under fire tonight, stripped of his party chairman powers amid a sexual assault investigation and a sex scandal involving him, his wife and another woman.

CNN's Brian Todd has details for us. Brian, what are you learning?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Christian Ziegler has so far resisted calls to step down, but he could be forced out soon.

Ziegler and his wife are involved in some disturbing and salacious allegations, as well as allegations of hypocrisy.


CHRISTIAN ZIEGLER, FLORIDA GOP CHAIRMAN: Hello, Florida. Are you guys excited to be here today?

TODD (voice over): For years, Christian and Bridget Ziegler have been viewed as a rising political power couple in Florida, connected allies of Governor Ron DeSantis, as he bulldozed his conservative cultural agenda through the Florida legislature.

Tonight, Christian Ziegler, Florida's Republican Party chairman, finds himself rebuked by the Florida GOP in the wake of sexual assault allegations and a sex scandal.

JACK BILL, CHAIRMAN, REPUBLICAN PARTY OF SARASOTA COUNTY, FLORIDA: We approved the censure of Chairman Ziegler, a reduction in salary to a dollar a year, and removed all authority for all -- any responsibilities, any opportunities to do anything from an operational standpoint.

TODD: But following Sunday's unanimous vote by Florida's Republican leadership, Ziegler still retains his title as state GOP chair and refuses to resign, frustrating some of the state's Republican power brokers.

STATE REP. MICHELLE SALZMAN (R-FL): But it's poor taste. We're very upset.


TODD: Even Ziegler's top benefactor in the state says it's time for Ziegler to go.

DESANTIS: It is not helpful for the mission to have this hanging over his head. And so, I have said he should step aside.

TODD: The Sarasota Police Department has been investigating Ziegler since October after a woman accused him of raping her.

According to a certain warrant affidavit obtained by CNN from the Florida Center for Government Accountability, Ziegler and his wife Bridget a three-way encounter with the alleged victim on October 2nd. The affidavit says that when the victim learned that that Bridget Ziegler couldn't make it, she changed her mind and cancelled with Christian Ziegler. The victim says he showed up at her apartment anyway and raped her on a bar stool.

Christian Ziegler denies the allegation and says the sex was consensual. He's not been charged with a crime. The affidavit says Christian and Bridget Ziegler have had a previous consensual three-way sexual encounter with the accuser. The entire case distracted for Florida's Republican leadership, as it navigates the GOP presidential primary race which includes two men who called the state home, former President Donald Trump and Governor DeSantis.

STEWART: For Ziegler to say, I'm not stepping down because we have a mission to do. The mission doesn't have anything to do with menage a trois.

TODD: Adding to the embarrassment, Bridget Ziegler is a founder of Moms For Liberty, a conservative group that campaigns against LGBTQ rights and gender education in Florida schools.

BRIDGET ZIEGLER, SARASOTA COUNTY SCHOOL BOARD: They can tell you all different things about certain sexual acts at, you know, kindergarten.

STEWART: He head of Moms for Liberty that supports religious causes and faith and family to be engaged in such a salacious scenario, it's the height of hypocrisy.


TODD: Contacted by CNN, Christian Ziegler's attorney said they would not comment on the party's vote to censure him and take his power away. The executive committee of Florida's Republican Party is expected to officially remove Ziegler from his job at a meeting on January 8. Bridget Ziegler has not been accused of any wrongdoing. She has so far ignored calls for her to resign from the Sarasota school board -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting for us -- Brian, thank you very much.

Coming up, the Republican governor of Texas has just signed a very controversial bill making illegal border crossings a state crime. Will it lead to a showdown over the United States Supreme Court?



BLITZER: In Texas tonight, Governor Greg Abbott just signed a bill into law that makes illegal border crossings a state crime. The measure is creating fear throughout the Latino community in Texas.

CNN's Ed Lavandera is in Dallas for us. He's got details.

Tell us more about what this law will do.

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, this controversial bill that was passed by the state legislature just last month at a special session essentially makes it a state crime to enter the state illegally from Mexico as well as gives judges or local law enforcement the power to arrest people here in Texas. It also gives judges the ability to deport people who are here illegally.

Now, exactly how this will be implemented remains to be seen but Governor Greg Abbott insists that this bill will go a long way to curbing the legal influx of illegal immigration into this state.

As I mentioned, he signs the bill today. It's not supposed to take effect until early next year, but already, immigrant rights groups, as well as legal advocates are saying that this law is essentially unconstitutional. It is racist and bigoted. They also go on to say that it is stepping on the jurisdiction of the federal government to enforce immigration laws here in the United States.

There was a similar law that was passed in Arizona years ago that was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. But Governor Greg Abbott this afternoon is saying that this Texas version of the law can withstand judicial scrutiny and he welcomes the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn that precedent.

BLITZER: What's the situation at the border like now, Ed?

LAVANDERA: Well, in various portions of the U.S. Mexico border, you are seeing a large influx of undocumented immigration once again. And the numbers are rather staggering, 192,000 apprehensions at the U.S. southern border last year according to the head of the Border Patrol. So, all of this comes as, you know, the numbers on the border continued to go up.

BLITZER: Ed Lavandera in Dallas for us, Ed, thank you very much.

Coming up, the pope signs off on the priests blessing same sex couples in what is being seen as a major shift in Catholic Church doctrine. We'll have a live report. Stay with us.



BLITZER: Pope Francis authorizing Catholic priest to bless same-sex couples but there are some conditions attached to the new ruling.

CNN Vatican correspondent Christopher Lamb is joining us from London.

Christopher, tell us how this impacts LGBTQ+ Catholics and what we know about how the pope came to this decision? CHRISTOPHER LAMB, CNN VATICAN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this is a

very significant development because for the first time, the pope and the Vatican are saying that it is possible for priests to offer informal blessings of same-sex couples. So what the Vatican is saying that these blessings can take place within a church service, a former church service, nor should they be confused with sacramental marriage between a man and a woman, but they can be offered as informally to same-sex couples.

Now, this is important because the Vatican is in the process, of this is not possible that same-sex blessings were off the table, saying that the church could not bless sin. But, in today's ruling, in a very different shift, a very different language, the ruling said when people ask for a blessing and exhaustive moral analysis should not be placed as a precondition for conferring it. The grace of God works in the lives of those who do not claim to be righteous, but who acknowledge themselves humbly as sinners like everyone else.

Now, in recent years, the Vatican has been asked to make a ruling on whether they can be the possibility for blessings. And Pope Francis last October indicated that they could. This Vatican document flushes out what the pope has indicated in the past of the church must be more welcoming to gay people and must find ways of recognizing their relationships. This is -- this is why this ruling is so significant.

BLITZER: Significant indeed. Christopher Lamb, reporting for us. Thank you very much.

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

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.