Return to Transcripts main page

The Situation Room

Doctors: Defense Secy. Austin Being Treated For Prostate Cancer; Federal Judges Appear Skeptical For Trump Immunity Claims; Haley Makes Final Pitch To Caucusgoers In Iowa; Blinken In Israel For High-Stakes Talks With Government Officials; War Of Words Between Late-Night Star And NFL Quarterback. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired January 09, 2024 - 17:00   ET


OLIVER DARCY, CNN SENIOR MEDIA REPORTER: Fox News and injecting poison into the public discussion and that's something Disney certainly does not want.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Yes, no, I think that that's a very important point to make. Oliver Darcy, thank you so much.

Well, just programming notes before we go, Jake Tapper is in Iowa right now getting ready for tomorrow night's CNN Republican presidential debates. He'll moderate along with CNN's Dana Bash live from Des Moines. Ambassador Nikki Haley and Governor Ron DeSantis will take the stage. Watch live tomorrow night at 09:00 p.m. Eastern right here on CNN.

Our coverage continues now with Wolf Blitzer in the "Situation Room."


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now breaking news, doctors for Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin revealing he has prostate cancer. We have details on his condition and the surgery complications behind this controversial hospitalization. We're also following a critical test for Donald Trump's claims of presidential immunity from prosecution. Three federal judges hearing Trump's argument appearing deeply skeptical of the theory. This hour, we're breaking down all the courtroom drama and what comes next for the case.

Plus, as Republican presidential candidates sprint toward the finish in Iowa, we have a new CNN poll on the race in New Hampshire. Is Nikki Haley closing the gap with front runner Donald Trump?

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

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: All right, let's get straight to the breaking news. Doctors for Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, revealing complications from prostate cancer surgery were the cause of his undisclosed hospitalization last week. CNN is covering the story from every angle over at the Pentagon and at the White House where our senior White House correspondent MJ Lee is standing by. First, let's go to our national security reporter Natasha Bertrand.

Natasha, what is the Pentagon saying?

NATASHA BERTRAND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: Well, Wolf, after days of uncertainty surrounding Secretary Austin's hospitalization last week, and just what prompted it, the Pentagon did relay a statement from Secretary Austin's doctors just today at around 02:00 p.m. that revealed that Secretary Austin had undergone surgery for prostate cancer on December 22. And that surgery is what led to those complications that resulted in Austin needing to be transported in an ambulance to Walter Reed Medical Center last week. Now in this statement from Austin's doctors they said, quote, that "His prostate cancer was detected early, and his prognosis is excellent." But they said on January 1, last Monday, he was admitted to Walter Reed Medical Center with complications from that procedure, including nausea with severe abdominal, hip and leg pain and initial evaluation from that revealed that it was a urinary tract infection. That infection has since cleared. It involved various complications about -- regarding abdominal fluid that was ultimately drained.

A rare complications that an oncologist told CNN happened really in less than 1 percent of instances resulting from these kinds of prostate cancer surgeries. But the White House -- or I should say the Pentagon still has not revealed just why the White House was not made aware of Secretary Austin's prostate cancer diagnosis until today. And when Pentagon Press Secretary General Ryder was asked today whose idea it was not to inform the White House until nearly a month later that Secretary Austin had been diagnosed with cancer, he dodged a response to that question. Here's what he said.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When this happened in December, whose decision was it not to alert the President that the defense secretary had prostate cancer?

MAJ. GEN. PAT RYDER, PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY: Again, you know, as far as the situation in terms of what the elective surgery was and the Secretary's condition, we're providing that information to you as we've received it. We received that this afternoon, and we're providing it to you now.


BERTRAND: Now, the Pentagon acknowledges that there have been serious shortfalls in just how the notification process was conducted when Secretary Austin was transported to the hospital last week, the White House was not aware that he was in the hospital until about three days after he was first admitted. And they now say that they are conducting a 30 day review to go over those processes and see whether anything needs to be changed. But many questions remain, Wolf, about why this cancer diagnosis was kept from the White House, from the President of the United States for so long given, of course, the secretary is very, very key position in the cabinet.

BLITZER: Let's head over to the White House right now. MJ Lee is standing by.

MJ, when was President Biden notified?

MJ LEE, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, not only do we now have many more details about Secretary Austin's medical condition, we also now know so much more about what the White House and President Biden really did not know. President Biden, we are told, only learned about Secretary Austin's prostate cancer diagnosis this morning. This of course follows the President only finding out last Thursday that he had been hospitalized. This was at least three full days after Secretary Austin had been sent to Walter Reed.


This means that the White House just simply did not know in real time that the President secretary of defense had undergone surgery under general anesthesia and had been hospitalized because of complications, all while there were some very serious and sensitive national security matters before this White House. Now, the White House is making pretty clear and they acknowledge that clearly, there were some issues, some problems with the lack of transparency here. And one question, Wolf, that I just asked John Kirby, in the White House press briefing was whether now that the President does know what the medical condition is that Secretary Austin was being treated for, whether the President himself believes that he should have been afforded the privacy to keep that detail private. This is what he said.


JOHN KIRBY, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL COORDINATOR FOR STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS: Nobody at the White House knew that Secretary Austin had prostate cancer until this morning. And the President was informed immediately after.

The President believes and has since the beginning of the administration that transparency with the American people is really important. And he knows being a public figure for his entire life that as a public figure, you have an added burden to be as transparent about your personal situation as possible.


LEE: And this transparency is the reason why Chief of Staff Jeff Zients has sent out this memo earlier today to all of the cabinet officials and all of the different agencies saying you have a couple of days to basically send to me the protocols that are in place at every agency so that they can be reviewed to make sure that they are appropriate. And there was a reminder in that memo that when there is a situation where a cabinet official is basically out of commission, including being hospitalized, like Secretary Austin was, that certain protocols need to be followed in terms of delegation of authority. But Wolf, for now, the White House is emphasizing that the President does continue to have full confidence in Secretary Austin.

BLITZER: MJ Lee over at the White House, Natasha Bertrand at the Pentagon, thanks to both of you for that update. I want to get some more now from the Dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, Dr. Ashish Jha.

Dr. Jha, thank you so much for joining us. How serious is this prostate cancer diagnosis for Secretary Austin?

DR. ASHISH JHA, DEAN, BROWN UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF PUBLIC HEALTH: Yes, so, Wolf, thanks for having me back. Very, very common cause of cancer, number one cause of cancer among men. The good news is if you catch it early, and you do the surgery that he had, he should be cured. Again, we don't know all the details of his cancer particularly. It's a serious cancer but if caught early and treated effectively, he should be cured from the cancer.

BLITZER: What could the fact that he was readmitted to the hospital last week mean?

JHA: Yes, so there's a lot of details we don't know, Wolf. He would pierce that he went -- underwent prostatectomy. Very common surgery about, 100,000 American men go through that every year. Most of the times there are no major complications, about 1 percent, 2 percent of the times we do see infections or bleeding or a urinary leak or something that can land people back in the hospital seems like. Unfortunately, Secretary Austin was in that very low, you know, rate of people. And we don't know the details of exactly what happened that landed him back in.

BLITZER: Is there any reason that Secretary Austin wouldn't be able to serve wouldn't be able to continue to serve as Defense Secretary during his upcoming treatment?

JHA: No, look, as long as -- and it appears from what we've heard from his doctor said the complications are getting treated. These are very treatable complications. He's going to get antibiotics, going to get the fluid drained, all of that should be fully successful. And in the right place enough, obviously, Walter Reed is a terrific place in terms of a place to get care. In the right place, this should be very treatable, he should be able to get back to work quite effectively.

BLITZER: How much greater is the risk for African American men for prostate cancer?

JHA: It's a great question, Wolf, it is absolutely true that African American men get prostate cancer at higher rates, they get more aggressive types of prostate cancer, they're more likely to get sick and die from prostate cancer. Again, from what we know about Secretary Austin, thankfully, it looks like it was caught early and treated effectively. And assuming that that's all correct, he really should be in the free and clear from this cancer.

BLITZER: Dr. Jha, when should men start getting screened for prostate cancer? And at what age are they most at risk?

JHA: Yes, you know, as men get older, they will develop a bigger -- you know, prostates get bigger, people noticed this or going to the bathroom more often. Some proportion of men will go on to develop prostate cancer. There's still some controversy of when to get started getting screened by PSA or other methods. Certainly men over the age of 50 are starting to develop higher and higher risks. Family history matters.


We've talked about other risk factors. It's a really important cancer and I think early diagnosis is the key to making sure people get treated effectively.

BLITZER: That PSA tests, the it's become a bit a bit controversial, what's your recommendation?

JHA: Yes, it is controversial, Wolf. And I -- and look, the issue is that if you screen lots of people who are low risk, some of them are going to have elevated PSAs and you'll end up doing unnecessary surgery which can have complications as we have found out. So that's the controversy here. I certainly think anybody who's at elevated risk, who's got a family history, they absolutely should be getting screened. For the average male, it's a conversation between you and your physician weighing the risks and benefits. I've had those conversations with patients.

Some choose to get it, some choose not to. I think both are reasonable for people who are average risk.

BLITZER: Dr. Ashish Jha, thanks so much for your expertise.

JHA: Thank you.

BLITZER: Coming up, former President Donald Trump was in the D.C. courtroom today, as his lawyers argued that he's immune for prosecution. But are the federal judges buying that argument? Plus, why only one Republican presidential candidate is campaigning in Iowa today with less than one week until the Iowa caucuses? Stay with us. You're in the Situation Room.



BLITZER: In Washington today, a panel of federal judges sharply tested Donald Trump's claims of presidential immunity as the special counsel's team urged the court to reject the former president's arguments. Our Senior Justice Correspondent Evan Perez is with us here in the Situation.

You are in the courtroom for that entire proceeding today. The judges I take it appear to be deeply skeptical of Trump's lawyers' arguments?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: There was a lot of skepticism. And by the way, Wolf, the former president did not have to be at this proceeding. It's very unusual for criminal defendants to even show up to an oral argument like this, but the former president was in there. And he heard his lawyers, John Sauer and his legal team, they're putting forward their argument that he has this immunity because of the allegations that he stands accused of that those all occurred while he was -- while he was president United States. And what you heard from the judges were -- it was really a test.

They were trying to test how far, how far do they stretch this idea of immunity. And here's an exchange between Judge Pan and John Sauer, the Trump attorney, that really shows how far they tested this.


JUDGE FLORENCE PAN, COURT OF APPEALS, D.C. CIRCUIT: Could a president ordered SEAL Team 6 to assassinate a political rival? That's an official act in order to SEAL team 6.

JOHN SAUER, TRUMP ATTORNEY: He would have to be and would speedily be, you know, impeached and convicted before the criminal prosecution.

PAN: But if he weren't -- but if he weren't, there would be no criminal prosecution, no criminal liability for that?

SAUER: Chief Justice's opinion, whoever against matters in (ph) and our Constitution and the plain language of the impeachment judgment clause all clearly presuppose that what the founders were concerned about was not --

PAN: I asked you a yes, no, yes or no question. Could a president who ordered SEAL Team 6 to assassinate a political rival, who was not impeached, would he be subjected to criminal prosecution?

SAUER: If he were impeached and convicted first. No.

PAN: So your answer is no.

SAUER: My answer is qualified yes.


PEREZ: And that was Judge Florence Pan. She is -- she really cornered John Sauer to finally say that there is a possibility for a president to be prosecuted, Wolf.

BLITZER: And as I mentioned, Evan, you were inside that proceeding, you watched it very closely. You had a good seat inside that courtroom. And you notice how Trump was reacting to what was going on.

PEREZ: Right.

BLITZER: Share a little bit of that.

PEREZ: Well, he was pretty subdued, especially at the beginning of the proceeding. But once the government began doing their part of this, James Pearce was the government attorney for the special counsel's office, he started taking notes, he started passing notes to John Sauer, his attorney, they were furious where he nodded very, very visibly to what Sauer was arguing, especially when he was pushing back on this idea that the former president seemed to be very animated when Sauer was making the point that Trump is not accused of doing anything that is outside of his time in office.

BLITZER: So what happens next?

PEREZ: Well, this is a three judge panel, Wolf. This -- one of them is a Republican appointee, the other two are democratic appointees. And so we expect that they're going to be writing their opinion, and then we're going to see it possibly in the next week or two. And then, of course, whoever loses it's possible that they will try to bring this to the Supreme Court. These are obviously very weighty questions, constitutional questions.

And for the former president, the stakes are very high, because obviously we have a trial that is due to start in March. And we'll see whether that can even happen with this still pending.

BLITZER: Very historic and very significant.

PEREZ: Absolutely.

BLITZER: Thank you very much. Evan Perez reporting for us.

I want to bring in our legal experts for some analysis right now. Elie Honig, give us your read on the Trump team's arguments today, do the judges have reason to be deeply skeptical?

ELIE HONIG, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: I think they do, Wolf. And after listening to the entire argument today, it's hard for me to envision any universe where two of those three judges come back in favor of Donald Trump. And here's why. Because Donald Trump's lawyers today locked themselves into a really unusual, and I think ultimately untenable legal position. Their position is a president or former president can only be criminally prosecuted if he has first been impeached by the House and then convicted by the Senate.

On one hand, there's just no legal support for that. It's creative, it's inventive, but I don't see anything that they base that on legally. And moreover, it leads to preposterous results like we see with that SEAL Team 6 example. If you're arguing that a president could potentially ordered the assassination, but he can't be prosecuted unless he's been impeached and convicted, that's just a ridiculous result, and judges take that into account. So I'd be very, very surprised if this comes out in Trump's favor.

I think the judges are going to reject this immunity claim.

BLITZER: Well, let me follow up with Karen Friedman Agnifilo.

Karen, from what you heard today, do you think the judges will reject Trump's immunity bid?


KAREN FRIEDMAN AGNIFILO, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Yes, absolutely. And as Elie was pointing out just now, it was what the lawyer -- what Judge Pan did was locked Trump's lawyer into conceding that there is no, just fulsome presidential immunity for criminal prosecution the way Trump likes to say and has argued before that what they're saying is, no, there is no such thing as this complete presidential immunity. So, I do think that that's what they are going to find how quickly they do it and then how quickly this gets to the Supreme Court is a whole other story, because obviously, getting this case to trial is really what the special counsel's trying to do. And we all know that Trump's team is trying to delay that.

BLITZER: Delay, delay, delay. That's their motive right now.

Alayna Treene, you're with us as well, as you know, Trump left the courtroom, very defiant. What was his message?

ALAYNA TREENE, CNN REPORTER: Right. Well, Wolf, he was very defiant. And he also deployed the same strategy we've seen him use in the past, which is to argue that he did nothing wrong, and that he is a victim of political persecution. But look, I want to point out, and Evan made this point, Donald Trump did not have to show up today. That was his choice. And part of that reason is because this case, he cares deeply about the arguments that his lawyers made in the courtroom today.

He really genuinely believes that he is immune from these charges, because he was president at the time. But the other part of it is the political strategy. And Donald Trump wanted to control the media narrative around this. And that's why you saw his team scrambled to set up this media availability with him and have him speak to the press directly. And part of that message of what he said was, look, I am immune, I was immune, I was president at the time. And he also argued that this would set a bad precedent for future presidents. Take a listen to what he said.


DONALD TRUMP, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This is the way you're going to try and win. And that's not the way it goes. It'll be bedlam in the country. It's a very bad thing. It's a very bad precedent.

As we said, it's the opening of a Pandora's box. And that's a very -- that's a very sad thing.

I feel that as a president, you have to have immunity, very simple. And if you don't, as an example of this case, were lost on immunity. And I did nothing wrong, absolutely nothing wrong.


TREENE: So as you can hear him there, Wolf, insisting he did absolutely nothing wrong. And again, really pushing this notion that he is immune, and that he thinks that this could open up Pandora's box in the future for others who may find themselves facing criminal prosecution after being president.

BLITZER: And warning that there would be bedlam. His word bedlam --

TREENE: Right.

BLITZER: -- if he loses this case. Elie, the court has already moved this case along in a very fast pace. How soon could the judges rule?

HONIG: Well, Wolf, I think we will definitely see a ruling by the end of this month, possibly within the next week or so. And when that happens, after that happens, I think we're going to see movement up and down in terms of the legal pyramid here. Upwards, I think whoever loses here is almost certainly going to ask the Supreme Court to review the case, open question as to whether they take it. But then downwards, this is really important, too, we heard Jack Smith's team today urging the court of appeals to, quote, "issue the mandate." And what that means is Jack Smith's team is saying, within a few days of ruling on this Court of Appeals, we want you to send this back down to the district court, the trial court, so that they can unfreeze, they've been on pause, basically, and resume preparing for trial.

So, we're going to see a lot of movement both ways on this very soon.

BLITZER: Let me get Karen to weigh in. To Elie's point, Karen, where do you think this case will go next? How likely is it that the U.S. Supreme Court would take this on?

AGNIFILO: I think that they have a lot to do right now with Trump. This wouldn't be the only case, right, involving Trump that they're hearing. And there -- they put the Colorado disqualification on the docket very quickly. And so, I think they are moving quickly with respect to Trump cases.

And I think it just depends on how quickly Trump gets his filing in, his petition for certiorari, and whether or not he delays in getting it to them. He has a couple of months to do that.

BLITZER: Alayna, this was one major stop in Trump's very packed calendar. This week, he's heading to Iowa tomorrow to campaign before Monday's caucuses, then to a New York courtroom on Thursday for his civil fraud trial, just how intertwined is his legal and political schedule?

TREENE: And they are completely intertwined. But that's also something that the campaign has wanted. That's part of their strategy. And look, I think that schedule that you just laid out, Wolf, is a perfect example or preview, I should say, of what we can expect in the months to come of Donald Trump having to flit between the courtrooms and the campaign trail.

And look, I think, you know, that New York civil fraud trial on Thursday, just like what I was saying about him caring a lot about the arguments today that he made about immunity or his lawyers made about immunity, Donald Trump also very much cares about that civil fraud trial. And so, he wants to be there.


Again, he doesn't need to be there. But this is something that his team does see as benefiting him politically as well. They think that every time Donald Trump is out there talking about his legal cases, he sees a boost in polling, they fundraise off of it. And they're really using this as their own political strategy in addition to the legal strategy.

BLITZER: Good point. All right, guys, thank you very, very much.

Up next, for months Donald Trump has dominated state Republican presidential primary polls. But that changed a bit today as a Republican challenger cut into his once very dominant lead in a key state. We're going to break down the exclusive new numbers right after this.



BLITZER: Republican presidential candidates are making their final pitches to Iowa voters with less than six days until the state's all important caucuses. But severe weather today is forcing some candidates to cancel events. CNN's Kylie Atwood is in Des Moines, Iowa for us right now. Kylie, how are the candidates spending these last few days out there on the campaign trail as now all of a sudden severe weather is moving in?

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, listen what they're trying to get to as many voters as they can, but it is officially crunch time here in Iowa. And all of the candidates, particularly Nikki Haley, have a lot at stake trying to capitalize on some momentum she's recently seen.


NIKKI HALEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Get excited, six days until caucus.

ATWOOD (voice-over): Nikki Haley welcoming voters who made it through today's Iowa snowstorm to attend her event.

HALEY: Thank you for showing up because I didn't know if we were going to come see five people but to see a full house really is great.

ATWOOD (voice-over): Her momentum growing as she narrows the gap with former President Trump in New Hampshire, Trump at 39 percent and Haley now with 32 percent. Her support grew 12 points from November. The last time the CNN University of New Hampshire poll was last conducted.

HALEY: I will be a president that makes you proud.

ATWOOD (voice-over): Some supporters told CNN that they have backed the former South Carolina governor for months and feel she's also picking up new support in Iowa.

KIM MCADAMS, HALEY SUPPORTER: A lot of them have been undecided when they come in. And after she speaks, you know, they'll kind of look at me and go, yep, I like her. I think she's the one. So I think it is building.

ATWOOD (voice-over): And former Trump supporter, Bill Kirk, believes that Haley is the safer bet.

BILL KIRK, HALEY SUPPORTER: I don't think he's going to be standing at the end because I think the DOJ is going to take him down.

ATWOOD (voice-over): Haley had the campaign trail largely to herself today in the Hawkeye State, with Trump choosing to attend a court case in D.C. to defend his presidential immunity claims instead of courting voters. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis delivering the State of the State speech in Tallahassee.

GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: 2024 is going to be a banner year for the Free State of Florida.

ATWOOD (voice-over): And Vivek Ramaswamy canceling his morning events due to the snow after getting stuck in a snowy ditch returning from campaigning on Monday night.

VIVEK RAMASWAMY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If you can't handle the snow you're not ready for Xi Jinping, that's my view.

ATWOOD (voice-over): That decision after he took swipes at Haley for also canceling an event in the state yesterday because of the winter storm. As Haley star rises, she's increasingly taking hits from all sides,

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Nikki would sell you out just like she sold me out.

ATWOOD (voice-over): A doubling down on our message that it's time to move on to a new generation of leadership.

HALEY: The only way we're going to win the majority of Americans is if we go forward with a new generational leader that leaves the negativity and the baggage in the past and goes forward with the solutions for the future.

ATWOOD (voice-over): And voters saying that they appreciate her positive attitude despite the incoming attacks.

DOUG STOUT, HALEY SUPPORTER: Even in her personal comments, she never goes after DeSantis unless it's a response to something that they've done. Very seldom goes after Trump. Usually it's about her, what she says, how she'd make the country a better place. That's what I'm looking for in a candidate.


ATWOOD (on camera): Now, today, when I spoke with voters here, Wolf, they told me that they're going to be watching the CNN debate tomorrow night with one of those voters telling me it's high stakes for both Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis, saying that neither of them can afford to make a mistake.

BLITZER: All right, Kylie Atwood in Des Moines for us, Kylie, thanks very much. I want to discuss with our panel of experts. Ron Brownstein, let me start with you in our new CNN poll. As you know, from New Hampshire, Donald Trump holds just a seven point lead over Nikki Haley, 39 to 32 percent. Chris Christie is in third place at 12 percent. Vivek Ramaswamy and Ron DeSantis are in the low single digits. Is New Hampshire unique or is this now for all practical purposes from your perspective, a two person race?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think that Nikki Haley is on a trajectory where after Iowa and New Hampshire. We will feel that she is the most viable remaining alternative to Trump. But she still has a long way to go even in this poll to make it a truly competitive two-person race. You know, one thing to note here is that she is beating Trump in this poll by over 40 points among Independents and Democrats who can participate in a Republican primary in New Hampshire. But he's still beating her by two to one among self- identified Republicans.

And to win a party's nomination, ultimately, you have to win the partisans of that party, which suggests to me that if she in fact is running to beat Trump, and there are main questions about whether she is fully committed to doing all that it takes to beat him, she is still going to have to give Republican voters a sharper argument about why they should move away from the former president.

BLITZER: Yes, I totally agree. S.E. Cupp, Christie is in third place with 12 percent. When his supporters are asked about their second choice candidate, nearly two thirds say they would choose Nikki Haley, which would put her potentially in a dead heat with Trump. How much pressure does this put on Chris Christie to actually drop out of the race and hope that his supporters go for Nikki Haley?


S.E. CUPP, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Look, there are really good arguments that consolidating the field, especially with Nikki Haley on the rise and kind of no one else. You know, having that kind of momentum, that that would certainly help and Chris Christie dropping out would help Nikki Haley, especially in New Hampshire. That said, anything can happen. Imagine Ron DeSantis wins Iowa, Nikki Haley wins New Hampshire or second, we're saying win second place in both of those states.

Do South Carolina is up for grabs? A lot could happen. And if I'm Chris Christie, I don't drop out before New Hampshire, I still want to play in this race and make my case. And he said from the very outset of his candidacy, that he was in it for the long haul. He truly believed that over the course of last year, and this year that all of Trump's legal troubles would play out and show even his own supporters that he was just unelectable. Now, so far that hasn't happened. But that was just a little insight into his mindset going into this campaign.

BLITZER: Yes, that's important. Karen Finney, are you surprised that Nikki Haley has been able to close the gap with Trump despite some recent stumbles such as her Civil War comments as far as slavery was concerned?

KAREN FINNEY, CNN COMMENTATOR: Not really. I mean, there's a couple of things here, I think we have to consider. The electorate in New Hampshire is different than the electorate in Iowa. And so -- and because you do have those moderates, and independents, and, you know, the voting is a little bit different. So it's not surprising. I think the test for her will actually be if she can do well in New Hampshire because when we talk about, you know, staying in it the long haul, that takes money.

So I think the question for her becomes, can she make an argument to donors to help her stay in the race for the long haul? We know that Trump's goal is to try to shore up the nomination by Super Tuesday. So can she stay in beyond that, to really try to challenge him? And as we keep an eye on, you know, these legal cases, remember the other thing we were saying polling is voters are saying to us, well, maybe I'll have a plan B just in case.

BLITZER: Yes, that's important as well. Ron, Donald Trump is facing a lot more criticism today for another controversial remark, this time for saying he hopes the economy crashes. Listen and watch this.


TRUMP: We have an economy that's so fragile, and the only reason it's running now is it's running off the fumes of what we did, what the Trump admin, it's just running off the fumes. And when there's a crash, I hope it's going to be during this next 12 months because I don't want to be Herbert Hoover, the one president, I just don't want to be Herbert Hoover.


BLITZER: So Ron, have you ever heard a candidate speak like say anything like that before?

BROWNSTEIN: How many times have we said that, Wolf, on how many subjects with Donald Trump? No, I don't think we have. You know, look, the economy is an area of strength for him right now. I mean, consistently in polls. People say they trust Trump more than Biden to handle the economy. And they think that they have more money in their pocket at the end of the week, under Trump than they do under Biden. Biden has some tailwinds that are going to help them over the next year in all likelihood. Wages are rising faster than prices now.

The Fed is indicating that it's going to cut rates. But it is likely that even if you get to, by the time we get to Election Day, I believe it is still likely that more people will trust Trump than Biden, on the economy. Trump's vulnerability I think is really what we saw today. I think he is going to rue today. I mean, literally four or five days after Joe Biden gave a speech saying he is a threat to democracy. He was in court with his lawyers making the case that he can assassinate his political rivals, and face no criminal consequences unless he is impeached in the house and convicted in the Senate.

And that is something that has never happened in U.S. history. The Senate has never voted to convict a president. I mean, he really just wrote 1,000 Democratic campaign ads today. And it is striking to me and maybe indicative of the half-hearted nature of this Republican primary race, that we haven't heard a peep out of Nikki Haley or Ron DeSantis, as far as I know, about this idea that a president could kill his rivals without consequence unless he's impeached and convicted.

BLITZER: S.E. as you know, the Biden campaign understandably, blasted the former president today, writing this and I'll put it up on the screen. Donald Trump should just say he doesn't give a damn about people, because that's exactly what he's telling the American people when he says he hopes the economy crashes. S.E., what's your reaction to Trump's comments?


CUPP: Well, they're really par for the course. Donald Trump is a person who says he loves America and he clearly hates Americans. I mean, you know, whether you're looking at that comment, where he hopes the economy crashes, when so many Americans are already kind of struggling to pay bills, or sending hundreds of Americans, his own supporters, by the way, to jail for convincing them to embark on an insurrection at the Capitol.

I mean, this is not a guy I think, who loves Americans, I think he loves himself. But Biden can't just run on Trump's comments day to day. He's got to put up an argument about why his economy is good, and why, what he's doing at the border. He's got to be more proactive and less defensive.

BLITZER: Karen, do you think these comments could impact Trump's standing with voters in the primary races or the general election for that matter?

FINNEY: Well having gone up against him in 2016, not at all in the primary because consistently, it never has. And you have to be very careful when you're competing against Donald Trump that attacks day to day because they can take you off of what your game plan needs to be, certainly in the general election. It could but I think Americans are tuning him out until we get closer to the end because the barrage, I think people are just exhausted by it.

BLITZER: Karen Finney, S.E. Cupp, Ron Brownstein, guys, thank you very much. The support, note, don't miss Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis facing off in the CNN Republican presidential debate moderated by Jake Tapper and Dana Bash. That's tomorrow night 9:00 p.m. Eastern right here on CNN.

And just ahead, Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Israel today, how he's planning to avoid a wider conflict in the Middle East.



BLITZER: The U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Israel today telling the Israeli government, Palestinians must be allowed to return to their homes in northern Gaza as soon as conditions allow. He held a series of meetings where the war in Gaza was clearly right at the top of the agenda. CNN international diplomatic editor Nic Robertson has the story.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Such a pleasure to have you in Israel.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: First of all, you're welcome here.

ROBERTSON (voice-over): Back --


ROBERTSON (voice-over): -- to back to back to pressure Israel to better protect Gaza civilians saying some progress made.

BLINKEN: We have an agreement that the U.N. will now conduct an assessment to determine the conditions necessary for people to be able to move back home.

ROBERTSON (voice-over): In Gaza, where Israeli officials say the battle tempo easing, the wars effects remain harsh. Nine Israeli troops killed Monday. Dead and wounded Palestinians continue overwhelming hospitals. And as Blinken urged better humanitarian access, needy Gazans stormed food trucks. From his meetings in the region the past week, Blinken set out a path to peace, which so far has been publicly rejected by Israel's government.

BLINKEN: If Israel wants its Arab neighbors to make the tough decisions necessary to help ensure its lasting security. Israeli leaders will have to make hard decisions themselves. Israel must be a partner to Palestinian leaders who are willing to lead their people and living side by side in peace with Israel.


ROBERTSON (on camera): Blinken also saying that Palestinian leaders must reform a message he said it takes a Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday, who appears under increasing pressure to step aside and allow new leadership more palatable to Israel. Blinken in essence, telling both sides they need to change. No guarantees it's going to happen. Wolf?

BLITZER: Nic Robertson in Tel Aviv, thank you very much.

Coming up, an ugly high profile war of words between one of late night T.V.'s biggest stars and one of the highest paid quarterbacks in the NFL. Aaron Rodgers is not repeat -- not apologizing. We'll have the latest.


[17:52:28] BLITZER: New York Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers is not backing down in his first public comments one week after baselessly insinuating late night star Jimmy Kimmel's name might turn up in documents connected to a legally and politically explosive scandal. Brian Todd is monitoring the story for us. Brian, what's the latest?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this all emanates from comments that Aaron Rodgers made last week implying that Jimmy Kimmel might be named in the Jeffrey Epstein documents which he has not been. Today, the Kimmel-Rodgers feud over all of this took another bizarre and public turn.


TODD (voice-over): The NFL is best known conspiracy theorist, doubles down. New York Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers today refused to apologize to late night host Jimmy Kimmel for publicly suggesting without any support that Kimmel might be named in documents identifying associates of the late accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein. Kimmel has not been named in any Epstein documents. Today on ESPN's the Pat McAfee Show, Rodgers not only didn't apologize, he denied even implying that Kimmel was in the Epstein documents.

AARON RODGERS, NEW YORK JETS QUARTERBACK: As long as he understands what actually said, and that I'm not accusing him of being on a list, I'm not stupid enough to accuse you of that with absolutely zero evidence, concrete evidence. That's ridiculous.

TODD (voice-over): But here's what Rodger said last week about the Epstein documents.

RODGERS: So a lot of people including Jimmy Kimmel are really hoping that doesn't --

TODD (voice-over): To which Kimmel issued a vehement denial, threatened to sue Rodgers and last night skewered him on his "ABC" show.

JIMMY KIMMEL, HOST, "JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE": Aaron got two A's on his report card. They were both in the word Aaron, OK?

TODD (voice-over): And Kimmel felt he needed to again counter Rodgers initial insinuation about him being in the Epstein documents.

KIMMEL: Of course my name wasn't on it and isn't on it and won't ever be on. I don't know Jeffrey Epstein. I've never met Jeffrey Epstein. I'm not on the list. I was not in a plane or an island or anything ever.

TODD (voice-over): Today, Rodgers also described the backstory of an ongoing feud, saying Kimmel had mocked him as an Epstein documents conspiracy theorist and antivaxer.

RODGERS: He comes out and says that I'm an overly concussed wacko.

TODD (voice-over): The host, Pat McAfee, today allowed Rodgers to deliver another five minutes of vaccine denialism without a fact check. This adds to a year's long list of controversies Rodgers has created for himself not only going off on conspiracy theories about the COVID vaccine, but also once misleading the public about being vaccinated himself.

RODGERS: Yes, I've been immunized.

TODD (voice-over): Rodgers later admitted he'd not been vaccinated, that he considered himself immunized by holistic medicine. He blamed others for the brush back he'd received.


RODGERS: I realize I'm in the crosshairs of the woke mob right now.

TODD (voice-over): One analyst says the four-time NFL Most Valuable Player, one of the most famous athletes on the planet, has a following that makes his remarks even more consequential.

DAVE ZIRIN, HOST, EDGE OF SPORTS TV: All of these things together, turned Aaron Rodgers into somebody who's actually kind of dangerous in our society, not dangerous in a cool way, but dangerous in a way that actually hurts our ability to collectively grapple with the problems that face us.


TODD (on camera): Today, Aaron Rodgers said he wants to put this issue with Kimmel to bed and move forward. He suggested that the media is looking to cancel him saying that's the quote, game plan of the media. A spokesperson for ESPN, which televises the Pat McAfee show declined to comment to CNN about Aaron Rodgers remarks. Wolf? It's a mess.

BLITZER: It certainly is. Brian Todd, thank you very much.

Coming up, today's major test for Donald Trump's claim, he's immune from prosecution. What a panel of federal judges thought of the former president's argument. We'll have that right after a quick break.