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Trump Appeals Decision Removing Him from Maine Primary Ballot; Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) Facing New Charges In Alleged Corruption Scheme; Countdown To Iowa, 13 Days To First Presidential Votes; CNN On Scene Where Hamas Says Senior Leader Was Killed In Attack; Probe Under Way After Fiery Tokyo Airport Collision. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired January 02, 2024 - 18:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Thursday, and then Erin Burnett will host a town hall with former Ambassador Nikki Haley, both Thursday 9:00 and 10:00 only here on CNN.


And then next week, Dana Bash and I will moderate the CNN Republican presidential debate. That will be on January 10th, just five days before the GOP Iowa caucuses. The debate is live from Des Moines at 9:00 P.M. Eastern, that's next Wednesday, a week from tomorrow, only here on CNN.

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Our coverage continues now with one Mr. Wolf Blitzer in the Situation Room. Happy New Year. I'll see you tomorrow.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, breaking news, Donald Trump just appealed his removal from the Republican primary ballot in Maine. The secretary of state who made the decision to ban Trump joins us with her reaction this hour.

Also breaking, another federal indictment of Senator Bob Menendez accusing the Democrat of accepting bribes from a second foreign country. Standby for details on the new charges tied to an alleged corruption scheme that prosecutors say lasted for years.

Plus, there's new audio of air traffic controllers giving instructions shortly before the fiery crash at a Tokyo airport. What the recording reveals as the investigation gets underway.

Welcome to our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in The Situation Room.

Let's get right to the breaking news. Donald Trump formally challenging the decision to remove him from the primary ballot in Maine based on the 14th Amendment's insurrectionist ban. We'll speak live with Maine's secretary of state, Shenna Bellows, in just a few moments.

First, let's go to CNN's Chief Legal Affairs Correspondent Paula Reid. Paula, what is Trump's team arguing and what happens next?

PAULA REID, CNN CHIEF LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, now it's up to the main courts because here the Trump team is asking the court to overturn the decision by Maine's Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, you're going to talk to in a few minutes. She is a Democrat. And under Maine's rules, she is the first stop for questions of ballot eligibility. And here, she opted to remove Trump from the ballot. But if you don't like what the secretary of state says about your ballot eligibility, you can appeal that to the court system, which is what they've done here, asking them to overturn her decision.

Trump's team arguing, quote, the secretary was a biased decision-maker who should have recused herself and had no legal authority, making multiple errors of law and acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner.

Now, her decision was based on Section 3 of the 14th amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which bars insurrectionists from holding public office. But this section of the Constitution has now been litigated by multiple states across the country with varying outcomes. Maine and Colorado have opted to remove Trump from the ballot under this section but other states actually have been reluctant to really get into the merits here, instead relying on procedural arguments and opting to keep him on the ballot.

But, Wolf, that also leaves the door open to continue to litigate this issue in the general election unless the Supreme Court steps in. And we still expect that former President Trump will eventually appeal that Colorado decision to the Supreme Court.

BLITZER: So, Paula, how could this unfold when Trump takes this to the U.S. Supreme Court?

REID: All right. Well, the big question is when is he going to take it to the Supreme Court. It has been two weeks since the Colorado Supreme Court issued their decision, and time is of the essence. It's unclear if we're going to see this appeal today.

But, look, even if Trump doesn't appeal this question to the Supreme Court, the Republican Party of Colorado has appealed that decision from the Colorado Supreme Court, removing Trump. And their petition really lays out the key questions. The first question is, does Section 3 of the 14th amendment apply to presidents? This is something where we saw a split even within the courts within the state of Colorado.

The next question they have posed is, okay, even if it applies to presidents, who enforces this? Is it the states? As we see now, each state kind of has a different procedure for enforcing ballot eligibility, or is there a role for Congress?

Now, the Republican Party of Colorado also asking if they have a First Amendment right to list the candidate of their choosing. So, it is expected that the Supreme Court will take up this issue from someone. I certainly won't guess how they will rule. But the other big question, Wolf, is how long will it take them? Time is of the essence. Ballots are going out, particularly for the primaries. Now, I'm told it's even possible they could not even do oral arguments here to make their decision sooner. But I think this is going to be our slogan for 2024, Wolf, all eyes really on the Supreme Court.


BLITZER: Good point. Paula Reid, thank you very much.

Joining us now to respond to Donald Trump's legal appeal, the Maine secretary of state, Shenna Bellows. Madam Secretary, thank you so much for joining us.

Trump's appeal claims you lack the authority to remove Trump from the ballot and accuses you of political bias. Let me quote from this 11- page document that was just released. The secretary should have recused herself due to her bias against President Trump, as demonstrated by a documented history of prior statements prejudging the issue presented. Madam Secretary, how do you respond to that?

SEC. OF STATE SHENNA BELLOWS (D-ME): First, thank you for having me. I swore an oath to uphold the Constitution and the rule of law. Those were my sole considerations in this hearing and in my decision.

And it's really important to recognize that this is a process in Maine. I qualified Trump for the ballot based on his signatures. And then five registered Maine voters, including two former Republican state senators, brought a challenge. I was required by law to hold a hearing within five days and then issue a decision within a week.

Now, it's part of the process. The courts will take it from here. That being said, I voluntarily suspended the effect of my decisions pending appeal. This is how the rule of law should work.

BLITZER: I also want to get your reaction to another key part of Trump's legal appeal, and I'm quoting once again from this 11- page document that has been released.

As evidence of President Trump's conduct, the secretary relied entirely on President Trump's public speeches. These speeches did not incite insurrection, and, therefore, President Trump's political speech was protected by the First Amendment. Madam Secretary, what do you make of that?

BELLOWS: I encourage people to read the decision. It's 34 pages in its entirety. It's on the secretary of state's website. I did carefully consider all aspects of my decision, looking at First Amendment considerations.

But, first and foremost, it's important to recognize the Maine legislature has delegated to me as secretary of state the responsibility to ensure the candidates who appear on the primary ballot are qualified for the office they seek.

And Section 3 of the 14th amendment is part of the Constitution. It's not an option, it's a requirement, just as the other qualifications for president, like age or citizenship, or not allowing someone like Barack Obama or George W. Bush, who've served twice, to serve again, I did my duty. And we await the court reviewing the matter. And I will uphold whatever the court instructs me to do because the Constitution and the rule of law are what matter.

BLITZER: Do you think the U.S. Supreme Court, Madam Secretary, needs to take this question up in order to clear up any ambiguity.

BELLOWS: We would very much welcome guidance from the U.S. Supreme Court.

BLITZER: Chris Christie, as you know, he's a fierce Trump critic, warns this move risks turning Trump into a martyr. How do you respond to that? And do you have any concern taking Trump off the ballot risks tearing the country apart?

BELLOWS: My duty under Maine election law and the Constitution and the oath I swore to the Constitution was to look exclusively at the hearing and the evidence before me and make a decision based on the law. Neither political considerations nor personal considerations for my safety could enter into that decision. I had a duty and an obligation to follow the Constitution, as do all of us who serve in government.

BLITZER: Speaking of your safety, Madam Secretary, I know you've received threats in the wake of your decision to exclude Trump from the ballot in Maine and dealt with a swatting incident in recent days at your own home. Have you continued to receive threats? And how concerned are you about your safety?

BELLOWS: It is unacceptable what my staff, my family endured in terms of threatening communications, abusive, aggressive and threatening communications starting on Friday. And my husband and I were away for the holiday weekend, and law enforcement acted perfectly. They were amazing.

So, the swatting incident, the fake call bringing law enforcement to my home, was resolved without incident because of law enforcement's excellent communications with me. But we know from across the country that swatting can be very dangerous. And these types of attacks, these threatening communications, are absolutely unacceptable. It's time to de-escalate the rhetoric. The courts are the right place for this. Mr. Trump's appeal today is appropriate. The attacks on me, my family and my staff are not.

BLITZER: Have there been additional threats since then?


BELLOWS: I'm really not comfortable discussing my personal security, and I just want to express my appreciation for law enforcement and the good work that they have done in protecting me and the people around me, including those I love.

BLITZER: I totally understandable. Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, good luck to you. Stay safe over there. We will stay in close touch with you for sure. I appreciate it very, very much. Let's get reaction right now from our legal and law enforcement experts who are with us, and, Carrie Cordero, I'll start with you. What's your reaction to the arguments that Trump's legal team is making in this appeal to get back on the ballot in Maine?

CARRIE CORDERO, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, predictable that they're going to obviously challenge this. I think one of the big questions that goes across the Maine case as well as the Colorado case is the record that is established by these states in determining that the former president was engaged in insurrection.

So, one of the things that the Maine secretary of state pointed out in her finding was that the record made that factual finding, but there was no actual proceeding in Maine. It was just based on her assessment of the facts, as are in really the public record. Different than the Colorado case where there was a trial. It was short, it was limited, but there was some sort of judicial proceeding.

I think, in some ways, one of the issues the Supreme Court may need to look at when these cases all eventually get up there, is what factual record under Section 3 of the 14th amendment of the Constitution is required to determine that someone who might be determined ineligible under that provision actually engaged in insurrection.

BLITZER: Good point. Andrew McCabe is with us as well. What do you make of Trump's argument that the Maine secretary of state, we just heard her, was politically biased against him?

ANDREW MCCABE, CNN SENIOR LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: I think that's probably the least effective argument he'll make in the course of this proceeding. The court is unlikely to take that into great consideration. The Maine secretary of state serves, I think, at the discretion of the governor. She was appointed in her position. Most folks in those positions have political affiliations. I don't think any of those indicators undermine her decision. But it's the questions of process, the questions of what is the sort of due process that he was entitled to according to what's happened in Maine, and was that standard met. That's the more substantive and potentially more effective argument.

BLITZER: Important point. Marcus Childress is with us as well. In his appeal, Trump's attorneys write this, and let me read from it. Section 3 of the 14th amendment to the Constitution does not apply to President Trump. He has never served as an officer of the United States and has never taken an oath to support the Constitution. What's your reaction to that?

MARCUS CHILDRESS, FORMER JANUARY 6 COMMITTEE INVESTIGATIVE COUNSEL: Well, on the January 6th committee, we argued that he was an officer elected official whose job was to execute the laws that he'd been elected to represent. I think it's interesting that we're seeing arguments about officer and legal interpretation when the best argument would be that he wasn't involved with trying to prevent the lawful transfer of power, right? That's the argument that if he would led with, we wouldn't even be in this situation. But instead, we're seeing procedural arguments. And so I do find it interesting that the first arguments that are being presented relate to process, procedure bias, but not the actual facts, that he had nothing to do with insurrection or preventing the lawful transfer of power.

BLITZER: We all remember, and it's all on tape, what he was saying publicly at the time. Carrie, is there any legal basis at all to say Trump never took, quote, an oath to support the Constitution?

CORDERO: Well, so this gets into sort of the arcane of constitutional interpretation and whether the president's oath is similar or a little bit different or different in some way from other officers under the Constitution. The president does take an oath. It's a little different than some of the other oaths that other officers, as defined under federal law and the Constitution take. So, there is that difference. And that's why the Supreme Court really is going to have to settle that officer question.

When we just think about it in lay terms, we think, well, of course, the president is an officer of the United States, but there is actually sort of an extensive constitutional debate over that, and that's Supreme Court territory.

BLITZER: Well, speaking of the Supreme Court, Andrew, how much pressure is the U.S. Supreme Court under right now to take this into consideration?

MCCABE: Enormous, enormous amount of pressure. The fact that we are looking at the possibility of multiple states deciding this issue not only differently, but on different grounds, that is a conflict that the Supreme Court was born to resolve, right, to inconsistency across the states in the interpretation of the Constitution and the execution of federal matters, really. They absolutely must weigh in and shed some light on this.

The question is whether they will go with the maybe easier, more narrow solution of making a narrow judgment on procedural grounds or whether they'll go directly at the substantive issues that Carrie has raised.

BLITZER: I'm anxious to get Marcus.


What do you think? How's your reaction to that?

CHILDRESS: I agree with everything that Andy just said. I think, look, we kind of forecasted these issues on the committee. And so thinking beyond just Supreme Court in 2024, one of our recommendations in the bill that Congressman Raskin put forth was actually establishing standards and procedures for evaluating Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, because we were kind of foreseeing that there wasn't enough clarity, although we did believe that he was disqualified under Section 3 of the 14th Amendment.

And so I imagine that, you know, Congress might be looking into this, right? What's the procedure? What's the right court? What's the right venue to actually evaluate these types of challenges to elected officials in the future?

BLITZER: Let me get Carrie to weigh in as well.

CORDERO: Well, an interesting question that plays into one of the live issues in front of the Supreme Court right now, which is whether or not Section 3 of the 14th Amendment is what's called self-executing, whether Congress needs to act in some way in order, because it was a Civil War era provision, whether or not Congress needs to act in some way for it to be effectuated. And that's one of the issues also that comes up from the Colorado side of this list.

BLITZER: The Supreme Court's -- those justices are going to be busy in the coming days and weeks, to be sure. Guys, thank you very, very much.

Just ahead, there's breaking news we're following right now. Senator Bob Menendez is facing new accusations tonight in the federal corruption case against him. What prosecutors now say about an alleged scheme to help a second foreign country.

Plus, with just 13 days until the first votes of the 2024 presidential race, Donald Trump's Republican rivals are scrambling for second place.



BLITZER: There's breaking news we're following. Democratic Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey is facing new allegations tonight, now accused of helping a second foreign government in exchange for were gifts, lots of gifts.

CNN's Kara Scannell has details on the superseding indictment just released by federal prosecutors. Kara, tell us about these new accusations.

KARA SCANNELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, prosecutors are accusing Senator Bob Menendez of taking steps to help the government of Qatar, steps that are favorable to Qatar in order to help his New Jersey businessman, Fred Davies, who is a defendant in this case, obtain multimillion dollar investment from a Qatari investment fund.

So, what prosecutors allege is that Menendez made introductions between a member of the Qatari royal family and someone on the investment side with the New Jersey businessmen and then made statements praising the Qataris that he made publicly.

Now, prosecutors alleged that he had sent an encrypted text message to the developer telling him he was issuing this press release with these public statements and encouraging him to send it to the Qataris.

Now, Menendez also intervened just before a meeting that took place in London between the developer and the Qatari investment official, sending that Qatari investment official a text messages saying, I hope that this will result in the favorable and mutually beneficial agreement that you have been both engaged in discussion.

Now, prosecutors say, months later, this multimillion dollar investment deal was signed. And in exchange, authorities say that Menendez received a gold bar from the real estate developer. He also received tickets to the Formula One Grand Prix race in Miami, Florida, for two years in a row, and that there is also a suggestion in the indictment that Menendez was offered luxury watches, some valued at as much as $24,000. It's not clear if Menendez had taken a watch.

Now, we have reached out to the Menendez camp today. No statement from them yet, although he has vigorously denied any wrongdoing in the past, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. This 50-page superseding indictment, which I've now gone through, said he accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars of bribes in exchange for Menendez's power and influence as a senator. And then it goes on and on and on.

Remind our viewers, Kara, what charges was Menendez already facing before this new indictment?

SCANNELL: Well, he was charged with accepting those hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from several New Jersey businessmen, including the developer.

Now, these initial charges also accused him of being an agent of the government of Egypt, saying that he was taking steps while a senator to assist Egypt, particularly in terms of its military aid. These new charges say add the second country of Qatar to it, suggesting or alleging that he was involved in trying to take steps that were favorable to Qatar in order to help these businessmen and ensure even more valuable gifts, according to the prosecution. Wolf?

BLITZER: Kara Scannell reporting for us, thank you very much.

Coming up, who's on the attack with less than two weeks to go before the first votes of 2024 are actually cast?

And after weeks of criticism and controversy, we're going to tell you why the president of Harvard University is resigning now.



BLITZER: Tonight, the final countdown is on to the first presidential votes of 2024. The critical Iowa caucuses are now just 13 days away and Donald Trump's leading rivals are ramping up their attacks on one another.

CNN's Eva McKend is traveling with Nikki Haley as she campaigns in another early battleground, New Hampshire. Eva, how is Haley sharpening her message going into this, the final stretch? EVA MCKEND, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, as we speak, she's telling New Hampshire voters that if she wins the Republican nomination, that she can go on to beat President Biden in November.

We are entering the stage of the contest where the ad wars are really heating up here. Many of Haley's opponents attacking her for her position on China, arguing she's too soft on China. Here is how she is responding to this.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: DeSantis called China Florida's most important trading partner. DeSantis even allowed a Chinese military contractor to expand just miles from a U.S. naval base.


MCKEND: Meanwhile, Governor DeSantis sounding a lot like former President Donald Trump on the campaign trail. Let's listen.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They've corrupted our institutions, indoctrinated our kids, opened our border, weaponized government against us.


MCKEND: So, you can hear they're heavy on the weaponization of government argument.

So, Haley on stage now here in Rye, New Hampshire, she's going to have a bevy of stops tomorrow. Chris Sununu, she's joined by the popular governor here, the governor telling her supporters tonight that they have entered crunch time.

Meanwhile, Chris Christie, who has a strong base of support in this state as well, he's going to be campaigning here at the end of the week, Wolf.

BLITZER: Eva McKend reporting for us from New Hampshire, Eva, thank you very much.

Let's get some more right now. Our political experts are joining us. And David Chalian, you're our political director, DeSantis and Haley aren't taking Trump on directly, and DeSantis is even echoing, as we just heard, many of Trump's talking points. Is that a mistake?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Well, I guess we'll see the ultimate answer to that, Wolf, when voters weigh in here, but it has not been a strategy that has been proving to be a good one thus far for the DeSantis campaign on the trail.

And I think it sort of gets at a key conundrum, a problem for DeSantis to solve here.


How do you overtake the guy you're trying to overtake, who's 30 points ahead of you in the polls? But not only are you not making the case directly against him, you're actually using his own lines, because you are in this tension between his dominance in the race and what Republican primary voters are eager to hear. And DeSantis just seems to be stuck in this problem that he hasn't yet solved.

BLITZER: For Kevin Madden is with us as well. Kevin, we see these new dueling ads. We just saw some from both the Haley and DeSantis sides attacking each other. But does that change the dynamic of the race when Trump, according to all the polls, is still very much the dominant frontrunner?

KEVIN MADDEN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Not really, because I think the theory by both Haley and DeSantis is that they don't want to antagonize the most vocal, animated, based Republican voter who has some sort of support for Donald Trump.

I think the flaw in that theory is that voters already have Trump if they want to choose him, and Trump has, in some of these early primary states, a 15, 20-point lead. The race goes through Trump. So, taking on each other and with glancing blows, with ads 13 days away from decision time is not really going to alter the trajectory of this race. And for either one of them to win, it needs a dramatic alteration right now in the current trend lines.

BLITZER: Let's bring in Ashley Etienne as well. Ashley, what do you think candidates need to do right now in this home stretch to get ahead when Trump is still looming so large over the race? And how should Democrats be thinking about this?

ASHLEY ETIENNE, FORMER COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR FOR V.P. HARRIS AND SPEAKER PELOSI: No, I think Kevin's absolutely right. The problem is that these two candidates are trying to serve all enemies here. They're running scared of Trump and the MAGA base.

And I've been a part of a lot of campaigns, and I will say all of them are winning campaigns. And the strategy, fence-riding strategy is not a winning strategy here. You've got to take the leader head on and you've got to draw a distinction. These two candidates are not doing that. They're really positioning themselves as a milder, sort of less deplorable version of Donald Trump, and voters aren't buying it.

Now, in terms of the Democratic Party, the party has its own challenges. I was talking to the campaign just recently, and they're going to continue to be consistent, put their head down and do the work and stay focused on their own game. But they've got this problem where they're bleeding support among key base voters, African- Americans, Hispanic voters and youth voters.

And I can tell you the problem is not Biden's record, nor is it the message. It's really disinformation. And the party does not have a strategy to address it. We saw in each presidential campaign where foreign agents, and now we're seeing Trump's campaign doing this, too, spewing disinformation in everyone's feeds, micro-targeting these constituencies to suppress the vote and also distort Biden's record. And they don't really have a strategy for that right now. And I think that's a problem. And that's going to continue to be their Achilles' heel.

BLITZER: Yes, that's important. David, CNN, of course, will be hosting the final debate before the Iowa caucuses. DeSantis is calling Trump scared for not attending. Haley says Trump is hiding. But Trump hasn't paid a political price, at least so far, for skipping all these Republican presidential debates. What do you think?

CHALIAN: Hasn't paid a political price. I would argue he has reaped political reward here for not showing up on the debate stage. It has served him quite well. He has not faced sort of the scrutiny that a high-profile, highly watched debate would be for him and allowing his opponents to take their shots.

Now, he says that's why he's not going. Why? If he's running that far ahead, should he allow his opponents that kind of opportunity? And it has worked out quite well for him. Voters have not seemed to mind at all in terms of their support for Donald Trump, that he has not been on the debate stage.

BLITZER: Interesting. Kevin, CNN's Edward Isaac Dovere has a close look at the Biden campaign's 2024 strategy. And he writes this, and I'm quoting right now, let me put it up there on the screen. There you see it. The 2024 campaign year for President Joe Biden's inner circle will largely be about carefully ratcheting up the intensity against Donald Trump, wary of voters becoming dulled to what they expect to be the former president's ever wilder rhetoric and promises about what he would do if he comes back to power. What does that signal to you?

MADDEN: Well, I think it speaks to what Ashley was saying earlier. The Biden campaign has a lot of challenges before they ever get to a general election. I mean, their base enthusiasm right now is a problem. The best way, I think, the campaign thinks to solve that is to really drive a hard contrast between the worldview that Donald Trump has and his temperament and that of President Biden and the worldview that he has.


This election is going to be very, very close. It's going to come down to probably a couple of hundred thousand voters in about five regional areas of the country. And the Biden campaign has to focus intently on the persuadable voters in those areas if they're going to have a chance to win in November of this year.

And so I think that's ultimately their campaign, is to focus acutely on those persuadable voters in those states and draw as hard a contrast around things like protecting democracy, stability around the globe and the economy as much as they can in order to get those persuadable voters to move their way over the next year.

BLITZER: Ashley, what do you think?

ETIENNE: Well, I mean, regrettably, DeSantis and Nikki Haley have done President Biden absolutely no favors by avoiding attacking Donald Trump head on. But here's what I've been also hearing from the campaign. They believe that as soon know in a matter of months when Donald Trump's political, legal woes take center stage, that's going to be a game changer for the party because it will be an opportunity to really remind the American people the danger that Donald Trump poses and really all the chaos that came along with his tenure in the White House.

So, they're hoping that in a matter of months that the dynamic will shift and change when we hyper focus on Donald Trump and he shows up in these courtrooms.

BLITZER: All right, we shall see. All right, guys, thank you very, very much.

And stay with CNN for back to back Republican presidential town halls with Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley live from Iowa this Thursday night, it all begins 09:00 P.M. Eastern only here on CNN.

And just ahead, there's breaking news. Harvard's embattled president steps down after weeks of controversy. What the university is now saying about her resignation.

Plus, new air traffic control audio reveals the moments before a fiery plane crash at a Japanese airport.



BLITZER: Harvard University President Claudine Gay is stepping down tonight after weeks of turmoil following her controversial testimony on Capitol Hill and a plagiarism scandal.

Let's get the latest from CNN's Miguel Marquez. Miguel, Harvard says Claudine Gay has endured racist vitriol, but it's accepting her decision to resign.

MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. And in accepting that decision, it said it was accepting it with sorrow. But, look, her leadership of the university became more and difficult as she became a political lightning rod, making it difficult for her to please everybody, essentially, upsetting some students, alumni and donors.


MARQUEZ (voice over): A second Ivy League president out in less than a month. Harvard University president Claudine Gay's tenure, just six months long, was mired in controversy. The weight of multiple allegations of plagiarism following a poor performance in a Capitol Hill hearing about anti-Semitism resulting in her resignation today.

In a letter to the Harvard community this afternoon, Gay wrote that her exit came with a heavy heart. It has become clear that it is in the best interests of Harvard for me to resign so that our community can navigate this moment of extraordinary challenge with a focus on the institution rather than any individual.

Harvard announced late today that Alan M. Garber, who currently serves as provost at the university, will step in as interim president, while acknowledging Gay's commitment to the school. It is with that overarching consideration in mind that we have accepted Gay's resignation, the Harvard leadership wrote, adding, we do so with sorrow.

Conservative media had been unearthing multiple examples of plagiarism in Gay's past works, including an entire paragraph being lifted almost verbatim in her 1997 PhD dissertation without citation after she, along with the presidents of UPenn and MIT, gave an answer that was widely considered too legal in a December 5th Congressional hearing about anti-Semitism on campus.

REP. ELISE STEFANIK (R-NY): So, the answer is, yes, that calling for the genocide of Jews violates Harvard code of conduct? Correct?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Again, it depends on the context.

MARQUEZ: Fallout from the hearing also resulted in the resignation of UPenn's president, Liz Magill. House Republican Caucus Leader Elise Stefanik wasting no time responding to today's events.

STEFANIK: As a Harvard graduate myself, we have seen a failure of leadership from Claudine Gay, a failure of moral leadership. This accountability would not have happened were it not for that congressional hearing.

MARQUEZ: Stefanik underscoring that her investigation will continue.

JACOB MILLER, HARVARD HILLEL PRESIDENT: Only when it comes to anti- Semitic hate speech, that the school tolerates it and gives these kind of lawyerly equivocal answers. And so I think this is kind of the bigger issue that we've got to deal with.

MARQUEZ: Gay's tenure as president was the shortest in Harvard's nearly 400-year history. She was also the school's first black president and only the second woman at the helm. In her resignation note, she wrote that it has been frightening to be subjected to personal attacks and threats fueled by racial animus.


MARQUEZ (on camera): Now, Dr. Gay will remain a member of Harvard's faculty. The school says that it will start a search for a new president in due course. And some conservatives on Capitol Hill say they will now train their ire on MIT's president, who was also at that hearing, as well as other leaders of other universities that they consider too woke. And some African-American leaders say all of this has just way too much of a stink of racial bias and they will begin protesting some of those donors who targeted Claudine Gay. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right. Miguel Marquez, thank you very much for that report.

Coming up, CNN is on the scene where Hamas says one of its senior leaders was killed in an attack.


How it may be escalating Mideast tensions, that's next.


BLITZER: Tonight, a new flash point in the Middle East in the midst of the Israel-Hamas war. Hamas says one of its senior leaders was killed in an attack in Beirut, Lebanon.

CNN's Nada Bashir is on the scene for us. She's in Beirut, where the attack occurred.

Nada, what do we know about this attack and the senior Hamas leader who was killed?


BLITZER: Nada, I'm not sure you're hearing me, but if you can hear me, what do we know about this attack and what we know about the senior Hamas leader who was killed?

NADA BASHIR, CNN REPORTER: I'm hearing. I'm dialing on my phone. I'm dialing on my phone. I'm dialing on my phone.

BLITZER: All right. Nada, standby. We're going to fix this connection, we're going to get back to you -- all right. I think we have it fixed right now.

Nada, tell us what we know about this attack and what we know about this senior Hamas leader who was killed.


BASHIR: Well, Wolf, this is certainly a dramatic escalation. We are talking about the number two of Hamas's political bureau, someone who's considered one of the founding members of Hamas's military wing, the al-Qassam Brigades, and, of course, he has been a huge point of focus and concern in the national communities, as well as we know back in 2015, the U.S. Treasury Department designated him as a global terrorist, offering some US$5 million in reward for any information about him.

Now, of course, we have been getting more details just as they come in, this is a developing situation. We're having authorities around here. They have cleared out just now, but the military and other officials were present on the ground, looking through the debris.

You might be able to see, it's a bit dark now, but just behind me, the destruction is very clear. But it was clear this was a very precise explosion, a precise strike. Now, the Lebanese national news agency has described this as an aerial strike. They say using three missiles. We've been speaking to people on the ground, one shop owner just three doors down saying that they heard three loud booms when the incident, when the explosion took place. And of course, we have no heard from the leader of Hamas, Ismail

Haniyeh. He has described this as a cowardly assassination carried out in his words by Israel.

Now, of course, we have reached out to the Israeli military. They declined to comment. We heard a little earlier today from a senior adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Mark Regev, he spoke to MSNBC a little earlier this evening, saying that Israel does not claim responsibility, but that whoever carried out this attack was clearly targeting Hamas specifically, not targeting the Lebanese state, not, crucially, targeting Iran-backed Hezbollah.

Now, of course, there is concern that this could trigger an escalation. This comes off the back of weeks of skirmishes on the southern Lebanese border, where we have seen Israel carrying out strikes on Lebanese villages and border, but also, of course, Hezbollah, in turn, targeting Israeli targets across the border.

BLITZER: We'll see what the reaction is. Nada Bashir in Beirut, stay safe over there. Thank you very much.

We apologize for those technical difficulties. Glad we fixed it up.

Just ahead, new audio now reveals the moments before a fiery collision at a Tokyo airport that left five dead. We're going to share new details on the clash and the remarkable evacuation of the passenger jet involved in the crash.



BLITZER: Tonight, authorities in Japan are probing a fiery crash at a Tokyo airport that left five people dead aboard a coast guard plane, and forced 379 people on a huge passenger jet to scramble for safety.

CNN's Brian Todd is on the story for us.

Brian, what are you learning about this horrific crash and the remarkably quick and effective evacuation?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we have new details tonight on the Japan Airlines planes' crews' interactions with air traffic control just before the collision, and on the heroic efforts of that passenger plane's crew to save everyone on board that aircraft.


TODD (voice-over): The moment of impact, a fireball on the tarmac of Tokyo's Haneda Airport, the collision of the Japan Airliners passenger plane today with a Japanese coast guard aircraft. Five crew members on board the Coast Guard plane were killed, one injured. After impact, the passenger plane careens down the runway, engulfed in flames.

It stops on the other end of the runway, and the flames spread even further, incredibly, all the passengers and crew aboard the Japan airlines plane, nearly 400 people, including eight children under two years old, were able to evacuate safely. Just over a dozen suffering non-life-threatening injuries.

PETER GOELZ, FORMER NTSB MANAGING DIRECTOR: This was an extraordinary performance by the flight crew. This accident will go down as a benchmark and will be studied extensively going forward, because of the success of getting these folks off the plane.

TODD: Japan Airlines now says its crew was cleared to land by air traffic control before the collusion.


TODD: Japanese authorities say they had 90 seconds to get all of the passengers off the plane while it was burning. Passengers said some of the exits were not aspirational, and everyone had to get out near the front.

SATOSHI YAMAKE, PASSENGER ON BOARD JAPAN AIRLINES PLANE (through translator): We could smell some smoke. The passengers were not panicking a lot.

TODD: Experts say the passengers deserve praise, that if a lot of them had stopped on the way out to grab luggage or other items, people would have died.

MARY SCHIAVO, CNN TRANSPORTATION ANALYST: We have had very similar situations here, including planes that were engulfed in flames like this, and most people, and in some cases people got off. But some people stop to collect baggage, to put on their shoes, et cetera. Here, passengers have already reported, nobody did.

TODD: The Japanese coast guard plane was on the ground when the incoming passenger plane hits in its attempt to land. A Japanese airline safety official says preliminary reports indicate the passenger plane's pilots did not spot any aircraft on the runway before landing.

DAVID SOUCIE, CNN SAFETY ANALYST: They could've done a go-around. It's ridiculous how unorganized these things can be at such a critical juncture in the flight.

TODD: The coast guard plane was involved in relief efforts for victims of the massive air earthquake in Japan the day before. It's not clear tonight who is in the wrong place at the wrong time, but safety experts say these moments, takeoffs and landings, are always the most dangerous junctures of any flight.

GOELZ: That's when you're in the most crowded environment, you've got planes, you've got vehicles moving about, you've got baggage transport taking place. It is a crowded environment, you add the idea that it is night, and it's dangerous.


TODD (on camera): the investigation is in its very early stages, it is ongoing, Wolf. No official blame has been placed yet for this accident.

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

And once again, also in Japan, the urgent race to find survivors after yesterday's devastating 7.5 magnitude earthquake. The death toll surging to 57 today, as rescuers dig through the rubble, Japanese officials say relief efforts in the northern part of the disaster zone have been difficult after the quake destroyed a key road and cut off access to the area.

To our viewers, thanks very much for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.