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Biden Ramps Up Re-Election Bid With Plea To Black Voters; Top GOP Hopefuls Close In On Iowa Caucuses One Week From Today; Trump Claims Immunity As He Asks Judge To Dismiss Georgia Charges; Blinken: Israel Has "Absolute Imperative" To Protect Gaza Civilians; Nine Hospitalized After Explosion At Fort Worth, Texas Hotel; Trump Tests Presidential Immunity Claims In State & Federal Courts. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired January 08, 2024 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: But look at the snow and, Jake, there's another storm on the heels of this just three days from now that will fill this place back in with more snow, very active this week.
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Our coverage continues now with Wolf Blitzer in The Situation Room. I'll see you later.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now. President Biden delivers an impassioned plea to African American voters in South Carolina, hoping the state that propelled him to the Democratic nomination in 2020 can recharge his re-election campaign. This as top Republican hopefuls hit the final stretch with just one week until the Iowa caucuses.
In Georgia, Donald Trump is asking a judge to throw out the state's election subversion case against him. The former president once again claiming immunity, the same argument of federal court will hear tomorrow with Trump in attendance.
Plus, we have breaking news about that terrifying midflight fuselage blowout aboard an Alaska Airlines plane. Now, United Airlines says it's uncovered loose bolts on its own fleet of Boeing 737 MAX 9 aircraft.
Welcome to our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in The Situation Room.
We begin tonight with President Biden ramping up his reelection campaign, the president trying to rally support from African-American voters, a key piece of his winning coalition back in 2020.
Our Senior White House Correspondent M.J. Lee has the latest.
M.J. LEE, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Tonight, President Biden returning to the state and the voters that he has credited for saving his last presidential campaign.
JOE BIDEN, U.S. PRESIDENT: Thank you, South Carolina. We are very much alive.
LEE: Now as he seeks a second term at the White House, Biden is once again counting on South Carolina to have his back.
BIDEN: We've come too far from where we started. Nobody told me the road would be easy. I don't believe he brought me this far to leave me.
LEE: The storied Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston was where nine black worshipers were shot and killed by a white supremacist in 2015. Biden recalling visiting the grieving community as vice president just days after the death of his son, Beau.
BIDEN: We came here to offer comfort, to receive comfort from you.
LEE: As the Biden campaign starts to ramp up, heading into the new year, the president's advisers say they recognize the importance of shoring up support among communities of color, including and especially black voters. With recent polls showing some warning signs of softening support, Congressman Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, a co- chair of Biden's 2024 campaign --
BIDEN: It's because of this congregation in the black community of South Carolina and not exaggeration and, Jim Clyburn, that I stand here today as your president.
LEE: -- ringing the alarm bell over the weekend.
REP. JIM CLYBURN (D-SC): We have not been able to break through that MAGA wall in order to get to people exactly what this president has done.
LEE: Attacking the so-called MAGA movement led by his predecessor, Donald Trump, is already emerging a central focus of Biden's re-elect, the president again invoking the January 6th insurrection of three years ago.
BIDEN: That violent mob was whipped up by lies from a defeated former president. Insurrectionists waving confederate flags inside the halls of Congress built by enslaved Americans. For hours, the defeated former president sat in a private dining off of the Oval Office, and did nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing.
Losers are taught to concede when they lose. And he's a loser.
LEE (on camera): And, Wolf, if you listen to this speech in so many ways, this was a promises made, promises kept speech, the president ticking through some of the things that he has done in his first term, particularly aimed at supporting the African-American community, like nominating the first woman to the Supreme Court, lowering the cost of insulin, making investments in HBCUs.
And President Biden, of course, knows very well that this is such a critical part of his base that he has to convince once again to turn up to the polls in 2024.
BLITZER: So critical, indeed. M.J. Lee at the White House for us, thank you. I want to go to the race for the Republican nomination with the first contest now just one week away.
I want to check in with CNN's Kylie Atwood. She's joining us from Des Moines, Iowa, right now. Kylie, how are the candidates sharpening their messages?
KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Come, Wolf, it's the final sprint here in Iowa, just one week, as you said, until the Iowa caucus. And over the weekend, the former president, Donald Trump, was here. He had campaign rallies, he increasingly went after his opponent, Nikki Haley.
Of course, we've seen him go after Ron DeSantis for months now, but now he's sharpening his attacks on Nikki Haley. He's doing that at rallies. And also his campaign and the super PACs that are supporting him are doing the same in T.V. ads. There's a new T.V. ad that doubles down on his inflammatory rhetoric, calling illegal immigrants coming into the United States poison and saying this of Nikki Haley when it comes to immigration.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We don't need to talk about them as criminals. They're not illegals are criminals, Nikki. That's what illegal means. Nikki Haley, too weak, too liberal to fix the border.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ATWOOD: Now, her campaign has said that Nikki Haley always has opposed illegal immigration. And when it comes to these immigrants, not all of them are hardened criminals.
Now, of course, she has talked about the resources that she would put into securing the border, not just putting up a border wall but also putting additional resources into that challenge. And one of her spokeswomen said that Trump should be spending more time explaining to voters why he didn't actually build the border wall when he was president instead of spreading these misleading claims.
Now, when it comes to Ron DeSantis, he obviously has been battling it out with Nikki Haley to be number two here in Iowa. In his super PAC just today in Iowa putting out a new ad going after her and some comments she recently made in New Hampshire.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Haley disparages the caucuses and insults you. It's Ron DeSantis who embodies and defends Iowa's values of faith, family and freedom.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ATWOOD: Now, her campaign obviously says that she was making some comments about New Hampshire voters correcting Iowa voters in jest. She spoke about the fact that these states often joke with one another about being the first states. They challenge one another. But she was trying to keep it lighthearted. Nikki Haley saying she was trying to have some fun on the campaign trail but, of course, DeSantis still trying to use those comments to see if he can gain any additional traction here with voters in Iowa. Wolf?
BLITZER: Kylie Atwood reporting from Des Moines, Kylie, thank you very much.
Our political experts are here with some analysis right now. Gloria Borger, let me start with you with the former first lady, Michelle Obama, said, and this obviously was very significant. She's raising some alarm bells as far as 2024 is concerned. She says she's terrified, her word, terrified about the election. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MICHELLE OBAMA, FORMER U.S. FIRST LADY: What's going to happen in this next election? I am terrified about what could possibly happen because our leaders matter, who we select, who speaks for us, who holds that bully pulpit. It affects us in ways that sometimes I think people take for granted.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Very stark warning from her about the challenges that Democrats face coming up in November.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Look, she's never been shy about these kinds of things. And it also -- don't forget that her husband, Barack Obama, recently met with Joe Biden and gave some advice about what he ought to do with his campaign, that is maybe move some of the people from the White House to the campaign.
And so I think this is a couple that talks to each other and I think you can presume that they both feel the same way. They're looking at the same polls that we're looking at. They're looking at the fact that he's losing a lot of key constituencies, like younger voters and Hispanic voters. And so I think she's speaking her truth, as we say, and she's not shy about it.
BLITZER: Let me bring Ashley Allison into this conversation. She's a former Obama White House senior policy adviser. It's not just the former first lady raising these alarm bells as far as Democrats are concerned. The Democratic congressman from South Carolina, Jim Clyburn, as we just heard in that report, he says he's also very concerned about black voters simply not showing up to vote this time. What do you think?
ASHLEY ALLISON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, look, we know black voters resurrected Joe Biden's campaign in the primary in the state of South Carolina with the help of Mr. Clyburn. We also know Joe Biden can't win without a large historical number of black voters turning out for elections, like they did in 2020.
People say this all the time, but I'm not sure they actually believe it, and their actions speak to this.
Black folks are not a monolith. And so older black voters may feel one way about a certain issue, younger black millennial voters may feel a certain way. I don't -- there are some black voters that will vote for Donald Trump. I don't think that the risk is that 50 percent of black voters vote for Donald Trump. But not showing up is just as much a vote for Donald Trump.
And so when we hear the former first lady say that, we all remember the day Donald Trump watched and many of us were devastated and had to go back to the White House the very next day and listen to the president address us in the Rose Garden. And then we lived four years of his presidency and saw some of the egregious policies that he implemented that really did hurt black people.
And so the risk, I think, the terrifying nature that we all face is, can we endure another four years of Donald Trump? And I don't want to have to. And so the campaign is going to have to speak and convince those black voters to show up.
BLITZER: That was one of the reasons, I'm sure, why President Biden was in South Carolina today, as we all saw.
Scott Jennings, Nikki Haley has been dealing with the fallout from her comments about the Civil War. But now Donald Trump is contending with his own really controversial comments on that subject, as well as several other key subjects. I want you and our viewers to watch this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: I love studying the -- if you take a look -- I mean, the wars -- I don't know what it is. The Civil War was so fascinating, so horrible.
I know it very well. I know the whole process that they went through and they just couldn't get along, and that would have been something that could have been negotiated and they wouldn't have had that problem.
John McCain, for some reason, couldn't get his arm up that day. Remember, he goes that like that. That was the end of that. Crooked Joe is staging his pathetic fear-mongering campaign event in Pennsylvania today. Did you see him? He was stuttering through the whole thing. He's going up, he's a threat to democracy. He's a threat to democracy.
They ought to release the J6 hostages. They've suffered enough. They ought to release them. I call them hostages. Some people call them prisoners. I call them hostages.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: They are not hostages. Hostages are individuals who were at a music festival and were grabbed by terrorists and taken to Gaza or their family members. These are people who either decided to plead guilty to crimes or were convicted in a courtroom of crimes. They're not hostages, clearly, right, Scott?
SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes. I think the most egregious thing he said there was about calling these people hostages. I know it's become fashionable on the right to refer to them that way. But you said it, Wolf, these people are going through the criminal justice process. Some have been convicted, some pled guilty, some are still going to trial.
But what happened that day was horrible. These people are not hostages. I know people and you know people who were in the Capitol that day, who feared for their lives. It was a terrible day. But this is obviously, he thinks, going to be motivating for his political base.
I will just tell you, I personally think it's extremely limiting for him politically because there's a whole bunch of independents and even some Democrats who are not happy with Joe Biden but don't want to have anything to do with the idea of whitewashing January 6 or calling these people hostages or trying to claim something happened that day that is different than what we all saw with our own eyes.
BLITZER: Yes, absolutely. All right, guys, thank you very, very much.
This important note, be sure to tune in to CNN's Republican presidential debate between Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis. It will be moderated by my colleagues Dana Bash and Jake Tapper this Wednesday in Iowa. It's at 9:00 P.M. Eastern only here on CNN.
And just ahead, we're following breaking news, another airline finding issues with some of its Boeing 737 MAX 9s after a section of the plane blew off on Alaska Airlines plane midflight.
Lots more news coming up, we'll be right back.
BLITZER: We're following breaking news. More issues just discovered tonight by another airline after the FAA orders the emergency inspection of Boeing 737 MAX 9 planes. The revelation coming days after a piece of fuselage blew off an Alaska Airlines plane, leaving a gaping hole.
CNN Aviation Correspondent Pete Muntean is following this very disturbing story for us. What are we learning? Pete?
PETE MUNTEAN, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, tonight every 737 MAX 9 in the U.S. remains grounded. This is the latest development after Friday's harrowing incident. United Airlines has that plane by the dozens and the part that ripped off in flight is called a door plug. United now says it found loose door plug bolts on an undisclosed number of its MAX 9s. It is a huge development as the investigation into how this happened is just beginning.
MUNTEAN (voice over): From inside the damaged airliner to a Portland backyard, the investigation into the hole violently ripped in an Alaska Airlines flight has a new smoking gun. The National Transportation Safety Board has now recovered the part of the fuselage that ejected without warning only six minutes after Flight 1282 took off Friday. The piece tumbled 16,000 feet only to be discovered two days later by a schoolteacher named Bob.
JENNIFER HOMENDY, CHAIR, NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD: I'm excited to announce that we found the door plug. Thank you, Bob.
MUNTEAN: Investigators are now matching up the bolts, hinges and roller bearings of the door plug to the structure of the plane to provide key clues about why it came off. The size of a refrigerator and weighing 63 pounds, the force of the rupture was strong enough to open the cockpit door 26 rows up. The noise of 400-mile-per-hour air audible as pilots radioed in an emergency.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Alaska 1282, we just depressurized, we're declaring an emergency, we do need to descend down to 10,000.
MUNTEAN: Investigators say the explosion contorted seats, removed head headrest and threw phones from passengers hands to Portland streets below.
Amazingly, nobody on board was seated immediately next to the hole or seriously injured.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We heard a big loud bang?
EMMA VU, ALASKA AIRLINES PASSENGER: I just knew something bad was going on because the masks had come down and I'd never experienced that before.
MUNTEAN: The plane, a new Boeing 737 MAX 9. It made its first flight just this past October and had been used by Alaska Airlines on only 150 trips.
The Federal Aviation Administration has temporarily grounded MAX 9s until Alaska and United Airlines can make emergency inspections.
HOMENDY: We may look at the manufacturer, the design of this aircraft, but we go where the evidence takes us.
MUNTEAN: What is missing from the investigation is audio from the cockpit voice recorder, which was not recovered in time to stop its automatic overwrite. Gone are the recordings of the loud bang heard by passengers.
MILES O'BRIEN, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: It's high time that we improved the amount of data we got out of these cockpit voice recorders.
MUNTEAN (on camera): Investigators have uncovered one more key piece of evidence. They say this Boeing 737 MAX 9 had pressurization problems three times before this incident. A cockpit alarm went off just one day before the incident.
Now, following its own protocols, Alaska Airlines kept the plane from long overwater flights, like to Hawaii. So far, investigators say it's not clear if those alarms foreshadowed Friday's in-flight blowout. But at this stage, they're not ruling anything out. Wolf?
BLITZER: It's all so, so scary. Pete Muntean reporting for us, thank you.
Coming up, a D.C. appeals court prepares to hear arguments on whether Donald Trump is immune for prosecution in his federal election subversion case, as the former president presses a Georgia court to throw out his indictment in that state.
BLITZER: Tonight, Donald Trump is asking a judge in Georgia to throw out the state's election subversion case against him, once again, citing presidential immunity.
Our Senior Justice Correspondent Evan Perez has details on the filing. Evan, how is Trump taking on the immunity issue in Georgia right now before tomorrow's key federal election case?
EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, a lot of these arguments are similar or the same arguments that the Trump legal team has been using in the federal case. I mean, I'll go through just a couple of them. They're arguing that the former president has immunity because he was acting within his official capacity and raising these claims of vote fraud. They're saying that the fact that he was tried, that he was impeached in the House and acquitted in the Senate would expose him to double jeopardy.
I'll read you on another part of this filing, again, which follows along a lot of what you've heard in the federal case. They say, our country has a longstanding tradition of forceful political advocacy regarding widespread allegations of fraud. President Trump lacked fair notice that his advocacy in the instance of the 2020 presidential election could be criminalized.
Important arguments, these are arguments that we're going to hear a lot of tomorrow here in Washington, the federal appeals court taking up this big question of immunity. We're expecting that to take about an hour or so tomorrow, Wolf.
We know, of course, that this is something that Judge Tanya Chutkan has already reviewed. She said that the former president does not enjoy this privilege of immunity from any criminal prosecution because of what he was doing in his capacity as president.
But, obviously, tomorrow is going to be a very, very important day, constitutionally a very important moment for the former president, especially as he tries to push this potential trial beyond the election season, Wolf. We'll see what the appeals court says and whether this ends up back at the Supreme Court.
BLITZER: We'll see. All right, Evan, thank you very much, Evan Perez reporting for us.
I want to get some more analysis from our legal experts. Elie Honig, how do you think Trump's presidential immunity argument actually holds up?
ELIE HONIG, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, Wolf, I think this is a real long shot of an argument by Donald Trump and probably a losing argument in the court of appeals and perhaps beyond.
Now, it's important to understand what Donald Trump is and is not arguing here. He is not arguing that he is immune from prosecution for everything he did during every minute of his four-year presidency. What his team is arguing is that he's immune from prosecution for anything he did during that time within the outer scope of his job as president.
The problem for Donald Trump, though, is the facts. Donald Trump's team claims well He was just making calls from the White House to legislative leaders, to cabinet members, to members of Congress and sort of leaves it at that. But that's a myopic view of the facts.
The reality, I think, is quite clear in Jack Smith's indictment is Donald Trump was not trying to just neutrally administer the election. He was trying to steal it. He was trying to make sure it tipped his way and I think the weight of the evidence here is overwhelming it and is going to ultimately doom Trump's argument.
BLITZER: Carrie Cordero is with us as well. Carrie, what do you think? What will this case before the Federal Appeals Court tomorrow mean for Trump's immunity claim in Georgia?
CARRIE CORDERO, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, the immunity claim, I think, is one of the weakest that the former president makes, and for some of the reasons that Elie outlined, including that it's a very difficult argument to make that the activities he was engaged in were really in the scope of his presidential responsibilities. He was advocating the changing of election outcomes based on his role as a candidate. That's what all of the facts that have been revealed so far indicate.
And as for Georgia, Georgia, I think, is actually the weakest location for him to be making these arguments because there is such stronger evidence there, including the audiotape that exists between him and the secretary of state. So, of all places, Georgia seems to me where he has the weakest basis, in fact, act to make this argument.
BLITZER: Interesting. Elliot Williams, how do you expect the timeline to actually play out for this federal appeals court case? When could it go before the U.S. Supreme Court?
ELLIOT WILLIAMS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Sooner than cases typically would tend to appear before the Supreme Court, Wolf. But we should adjust our expectations as to how long cases take.
Now, look, under normal circumstances, it can take months, if not years for appeals to work their way through the lower courts and on up to the Supreme Court.
Now, every court who has weighed these questions, starting with the federal trial court and now the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, have moved with an exceptional amount of haste in getting these cases to argument and briefed and so on. And I would anticipate that if this does go to the Supreme Court, and, spoiler alert, we're pretty confident that it will, they will move quickly, too.
Now, again, it's quickly in law terms, which is weeks or months as opposed to months or years. So, stay tuned, but it will be relatively quick.
BLITZER: We will certainly stay tuned.
Elie, Trump says he's attending tomorrow's hearing. He's used other courtroom appearances, as all of us know, for political benefit. But is there any legal benefit to his being there in person tomorrow?
HONIG: Well, at most, there's perhaps an atmospheric benefit for him. So, when a criminal defendant, as Donald Trump is on trial, he has to be physically present in the courtroom. And we'll see that playing out over the next several months.
But on an appellate argument, like we're going to see tomorrow, there's no requirement that the parties appear. In fact, it's quite unusual to have the actual criminal defendant appear at that argument. He has every right to do so. But in my experience, arguing cases in front of other federal courts of appeals, you almost never see the actual defendant there.
It is his right to be there. His lawyers may point out his presence to the judges to make the point that he cares, he's taking the time to show up. But I think the obvious reality here is he's doing this as a political and P.R. move more than any kind of legal move.
BLITZER: Yes, that's an important point as well. Carrie, we're learning that Judge Chutkan, who's overseeing Trump's federal election case, was the victim of a very disturbing swatting call after facing death threats over the summer. How concerning is that and what are the implications here?
CORDERO: Well, the swatting event is a really, really serious event. And Judge Chutkan is just one of many public officials who are victims of these attacks. Swatting is when somebody calls the police, calls 911, alleges that there's some violent activity going on.
And so what it does is it prompts this huge law enforcement response, which can potentially be at the very least scary for the people who are potentially at home during that incident or in a place of business or a school or public building. At worst, it can potentially create a really dangerous situation.
And so for the judge herself, I would imagine that court security obviously is going to take an extra look at her own physical security with respect to this judge and this case. But, Wolf, this is a much bigger problem that is nationwide going on both at federal, targeting federal officials and local officials.
BLITZER: Elliot, how significant do you believe this swatting incident is amid this uptick? As Carrie points out, it threats to judges around the country.
WILLIAMS: It's incredibly significant, Wolf. But like so many other crimes in our country, we have a patchwork of laws around the country with respect to prosecuting swatting cases individually. It's up to individual states to decide how they want to prosecute these crimes.
And, frankly, this is a great opportunity to call on the federal government and states to take this kind of conduct seriously because for the reasons that Carrie laid out, number one, it wastes law enforcement resources to have them go to people's homes to investigate things that aren't happening, and, number two, it puts people at risk when you're sending armed agents to an individual's home.
BLITZER: It certainly does. All right, guys, thank you very much.
Just ahead, new questions about why Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin waited days to tell the White House he was put in intensive care and the latest around his ongoing hospital stay.
BLITZER: There is new blowback tonight over Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's unexplained hospitalization, even the White House apparently kept in the dark about his condition for days.
Our Chief National Security Correspondent Alex Maquardt has details.
ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (voice over): It has been a week since the country's most senior defense official has been in the hospital, and for much of that time, very few people, even his boss, the president, were aware.
The Pentagon now says that Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was rushed to Walter Reed Hospital last Monday on New Year's Day due to severe pain after elective surgery right before Christmas. Today, the Pentagon revealed that even for the initial procedure in December, Austin and his team didn't tell the White House or Austin's deputy. Now, shock and anger from both parties are now spreading across Washington for Austin's failure to reveal for days to people who should have been told that he was still in the hospital.
REP. ABIGAIL SPANBERGER (D-VA): I do hope that every person in the cabinet recognizes that this was not an appropriate step, not an appropriate way to handle what was his hospitalization.
MARQUARDT: That is unacceptable, said Roger Wicker, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee. We are learning more every hour about the Defense Department's shocking defiance of the law.
Also in the dark were the most senior members of the Biden Administration.
ANTONY BLINKEN, SECRETARY OF STATE: I wasn't aware of his medical issue.
MARQUARDT: Biden says he still has complete confidence in Austin and isn't asking him to resign. But the White House said today that the way Austin notified them needs to be reviewed.
JOHN KIRBY, COORDINATOR FOR STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL: I think there's an expectation that when a cabinet official becomes hospitalized, that will be notified up the chain of command. There is that expectation.
MARQUARDT: Austin's initial surgery was on December 22nd. He went home the next day. Then he was rushed to the ICU by ambulance on January 1st. His deputy, Kathleen Hicks, was only told the next day that she would have to assume some responsibilities, but not why. It wasn't until Thursday, January 4th, that Hicks, Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, and, ultimately, Biden were told where Austin actually was. The next day, on the fifth, the Pentagon told congressional leaders and put out a public statement. Then finally, on Saturday, five days after being admitted, Secretary Austin said in a statement, quote, I recognize I could have done a better job ensuring the public was appropriately informed. I commit to doing better.
While Austin was in the hospital, Hicks was on vacation in Puerto Rico, where she periodically assumed Austin's duties, this during a very busy week that saw Israel carry out a strike against a Hamas leader in Beirut, the U.S. bomb a militia commander in Baghdad, and U.S. Forces continue to actively face attacks by Iranian-backed groups, including the Houthis in Yemen.
MARK ESPER, FORMER DEFENSE SECRETARY: I think that was a really tricky situation where you want to be able as the president to pick up the phone and say, hey, what's going on, what do we need to do, what's the next course of action, other options, et cetera.
MARQUARDT: People who know Austin say he kept things quiet because of how private he is.
BRIG. GEN. MARK KIMMITT (RET.), FORMER ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE FOR POLITICAL-MILITARY AFFAIRS: Lloyd Austin is an intensely private person. He doesn't go out in front of the cameras. He doesn't go out of his way to be known or to be seen. He likes to take a lower profile.
MARQUARDT: And, Wolf, the Pentagon said just moments ago that Austin is no longer in the ICU, but he does remain at Walter Reed Hospital. And from there he is monitoring the Defense Department's operations around the world. We're told that he's still experiencing discomfort as well.
Now, a spokesman did not explain why even when Austin went into the hospital for the first time last month for surgery, President Biden and others were not told. Meanwhile, the White House is praising Austin's general leadership, saying he took ownership for all this. Wolf?
BLITZER: And, certainly, whatever his condition is, we wish him a speedy recovery. Alex Marquardt, thank you very much.
Just ahead, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken landing in Israel today, what he says he'll push the Israeli government to do ahead of meetings with top officials, as the U.S. tries to stabilize a region of growing instability.
BLITZER: Secretary of State Antony Blinken is back in Israel tonight for a high stakes push to reduce civilian casualties in Gaza, and prevent violence in the region from spiraling out of control.
CNN's Jeremy Diamond is joining us from Tel Aviv.
Jeremy, this is a critically important visit from the secretary of state.
JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It certainly is, Wolf. And there is so much on the agenda, whether it is the next phases of this war in Gaza, what comes after the war in terms of Gaza reconstruction, or the current humanitarian situation. But perhaps what is looming largest are these major tensions at the Israel-Lebanese border. Israeli officials in recent days have been warning that the diplomatic window to resolve this issue situation is closing. And that the situation up- north is untenable.
That's why the secretary of state has had all of these visits in the region, but tomorrow perhaps will be among his most critical meetings to try and defuse those regional tensions.
BLITZER: And, Jeremy, I understand you just returned from reporting inside Gaza under an IDF escort. The entire time clearly. What did you see? Share with our viewers.
DIAMOND: Well, Wolf, like so many other parts of Gaza, Central Gaza, we saw the destruction that that has wrought by this three-month war now. But over the last two weeks, Israeli military troops have also moved deeper into central Gaza, an area where tens of thousands of people have flee the fighting in the north.
Now we did as a condition to participate in this -- we were required to submit footage to the Israeli military for a security review, but we did not summit our final report. We maintain full editorial control over this reporting.
DIAMOND (voice-over): After three months of war, this is a glimpse of Central Gaza.
Buildings flattened or partially collapsed, others riddled with bullets or scarred by smoke. Civilians are nowhere to be found.
The outskirts of al Bureij now under Israeli military control.
The Israeli military has now been fighting on the ground here in central Gaza over the last two weeks. And you can see all around made the results of that military campaign. Destroying buildings, smokes still billowing from parts of central Gaza.
As the fighting rages, the Israeli military is also uncovering the scale of Hamas's underground infrastructure, inviting CNN into central Gaza for the first time to show what they are uncovering.
Alongside now bulldozed farmlands and inside a nondescript building, the opening to a tunnel system.
MAJ. ARIEL, 188TH BRIGADE: We are standing in one of the main entrances to manufacturing terror center.
DIAMOND: Which the Israeli military says Hamas used to manufacture and transport weapons.
So, this is the entrance to a tunnel that the Israeli military found in central Gaza. You can walk through here, and they say that if you follow this tunnel all the way down, you get a ventrally to what is a weapons manufacturing facility that Hamas has been using throughout the war.
[18:50:05] Inside that facility, Israeli commanders say Hamas builds rockets and mortar shells like these, and then filled them with explosive material like fertilizer below ground. The military did not allow reporters underground, seeing the chemicals needed too dangerous. But it provided this video, it says, was filmed inside that underground facility.
Steps away in a warehouse alongside a residential building, long-range rockets capable of reaching Tel Aviv, or Jerusalem.
REAR ADM. DANIEL HAGARI, IDF SPOKESMAN: What we are seeing is using the embedded civilians industries to build a rocket industry.
DIAMOND: But some would say that you are making this point that Hamas and civilians are embedded, that it's all happening in the same places to justify the enormous civilian casualties that we have seen in Gaza so far.
HAGARI: We focus on Hamas, not -- we are focusing on our war on Hamas. We are not fighting the people of Gaza.
DIAMOND: When you look at the numbers of thousands of children who have been killed in Gaza, are you doing enough to distinguish between Hamas fighters and civilians?
HAGARI: Every death of every child is a tragedy. We didn't want this war.
DIAMOND: More than 9,000 children have been killed so far. According to the Palestinian ministry of health. Like this girl pulled from the rubble in central Gaza, tens of thousands of civilians who fled the fighting in the north, now at risk here. In al Bureij, the Israeli military dropped these warning fliers days ago, urging civilians to flee to nearby Deir Al-Balah, but the fighting is now raging there, too.
BLITZER: Jeremy Diamond reporting from Tel Aviv, Jeremy, thank you very much.
Coming up, there's breaking news we're following right now, an explosion at a hotel in downtown Fort Worth, Texas. Authorities are reporting multiple injuries from the blast.
BLITZER: We are following breaking news, an explosion at a hotel in downtown Fort Worth, Texas.
CNN's Ed Lavandera is on the scene for us.
Ed, what are you learning? ED LAVANDERA, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, right now, Fort
Worth fire officials and police officials are saying that they believe what caused this explosion is a gas leak. They still have not completely confirmed, that but when we got out of our car turned downtown fort worth this afternoon, the smell of gas is very thick in the air here.
This happened around 3:30 Central Time, 4:30 Eastern Time at the Sandman Signature Hotel in downtown Fort Worth. The explosion rocked this downtown area after it occurred, but we are told by first responders that 11 people injured nine of those were going to be taken to hospital. One of those is in critical condition, but the good news so far as we have no reports of anybody dying in this explosion. However, emergency officials say one person is still missing, that's the latest information we have as of 20 minutes ago -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right. We'll stay in touch. Ed Lavandera on the scene for us, thank you.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump's lawyers wants the Georgia and federal election subversion cases against him dismissed, arguing he can't be prosecuted for actions taken in his official capacity as president.
CNN's Brian Todd is looking into the concept of what's called presidential immunity for us.
Brian, what are you finding out?
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, presidential immunity is a lightning rod phrase which some people believe implies that a president can be above the law. But experts say that's really not the case.
TODD (voice-over): Former President Donald Trump and his lawyers insists that Trump's presidential immunity, while he was in office extends to the criminal justice system. What is presidential immunity?
NICK AKERMAN, FORMER WATERGATE ASSISTANT SPECIAL PROSECUTOR: Presidential immunity basically means that you cannot be sued or criminally prosecuted for certain acts as president of the United States.
TODD: Why is there an idea that a president shouldn't be criminally prosecuted for an act committed during their time in the White House?
AKERMAN: Philosophically, the heart of the argument on this immunity is that the president has to be able to move forward, make decisions, in a pretty rapid pace. And he can't be subject to lawsuits for any act that he takes, whatever act that is, that he can't be tied up in court, rather than being acting as president.
TODD: But Nick Akerman says that applies mainly to civil lawsuits against a sitting president, not criminal charges. AKERMAN: It's a completely different situation if a president commits
a crime. Under no circumstance does a president have the right to commit a crime.
TODD: President Richard Nixon tried to invoke limited presidential immunity over judicial orders in 1974 when he tried to avoid handing over his White House tapes to the special counsel investigating the Watergate sandal. He did not try to invoke immunity over criminal prosecution.
TIMOTHY NAFTALI, FORMER DIRECTOR, NIXON PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY: The Supreme Court in the summer of 1974 swept while these arguments away and said that Richard Nixon had to turn over the tapes.
TODD: Nixon did hand over the tapes, which contained evidence that he was involved in the Watergate cover-up. Shortly after, that he was out.
RICHARD NIXON, FORMER PRESIDENT: I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow.
TODD: After leaving the presidency, in his iconic 1977 interviews with journalist David Frost, Nixon seemed to integrate he thought he was above the law wall serving as president.
NIXON: But when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.
TODD: But historian Tim Naftali says Nixon was not referring to absolute presidential immunity,
NAFTALI: He was talking about a very narrow band of national security and domestic security operations, which for a period of time could be done in the United States, and it not be illegal. Even that narrow band, which does not include insurrections and it does not include burglarizing the Democratic National Committee or your opponent's party headquarters. That narrow band ultimately was removed by Congress and the courts.
TODD (on camera): Many legal analysts believe the Supreme Court will likely weigh in in some fashion on whether Donald Trump has presidential amenity. The question is when, Wolf, because there are of course appeals to play in these cases.
BLITZER: There certainly are.
Brian Todd, thanks for that report, very important.
And to our viewers, thanks very much for watching.
I'm wolf Blitzer, in THE SITUATION ROOM.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.