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Federal Judges Appear Skeptical Of Trump Immunity Claims; Doctors Say, Defense Secretary Austin Being Treated For Prostate Cancer; Boeing CEO Acknowledges Mistake In Meeting On Midflight Blowout; Massive Storm Hammering U.S. With Heavy Snow, Flooding Rains, Strong Winds And Tornadoes. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired January 09, 2024 - 18:00   ET




WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, a panel of federal judges appears to take a scalpel to Donald Trump's claims of presidential immunity, the court clearly skeptical of the former president's arguments during a critical hearing. I'll get reaction from Democratic Congressman Jamie Raskin.

And there's also breaking news out of the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's undisclosed hospitalization now revealed to be the result of complications from prostate cancer surgery.

And there's more breaking news we're following. Boeing's CEO acknowledges the company's, quote, mistake during a safety meeting on the Alaska Airlines midflight fuselage blowout. We have new details on the investigation.

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

First up this hour, Donald Trump's deeply skeptical reception in federal court today as a panel of judges heard his arguments for presidential immunity.

Our Chief Legal Affairs Correspondent Paula Reid is on the story.


PAULA REID, CNN CHIEF LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Former President Trump traveled to Washington Tuesday to watch arguments in a federal appeals court hearing over whether he should be shielded from criminal prosecution.

DONALD TRUMP, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: I feel that as a president, you have to have immunity, very simple.

REID: Trump was not required to be in attendance but was in court to witness the three-judge panel express skepticism of his claim that he cannot be prosecuted for his actions unless he is first impeached and convicted by Congress. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Can a president order 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 impeached and convicted before the criminal prosecution.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I asked you a yes or no question.

SAUER: There's a political process that have to occur under our infrastructure, our Constitution, which require impeachment and conviction by the Senate and these exceptional cases.

REID: Trump's lawyers argued that when trying to overturn the 2020 election, Trump was acting in his official capacity.

SAUER: To authorize the prosecution of a president for his official acts would open a Pandora's Box from which this nation may never recover.

REID: Trump's lawyer also warned that if this near absolute immunity was not recognized, there could be a possibility of vindictive prosecutions against political rivals.

SAUER: They would authorize, for example, the indictment of President Biden in the Western District of Texas after he leaves office for mismanaging the border allegedly.

REID: The special counsel rejected these arguments, noting that charges were brought in this case because of what they describe as extraordinary conduct.

JAMES PEARCE, ATTORNEY, SPECIAL COUNSEL: Never before has there been allegations that a sitting president has with private individuals and using the levers of power sought to fundamentally subvert the democratic republic and the electoral system.

REID: And argued that impeachment and conviction through a political process should not be required before a criminal prosecution.

PEARCE: I think it would be awfully scary if there weren't some sort of mechanism by which to reach that criminally.


REID (on camera): This court has been working on an expedited schedule, so we should get a decision soon. But whoever loses here will likely appeal to the full appellate court or the Supreme Court. But, Wolf, the longer it takes to get a final resolution on this question, the more likely it is that the federal election subversion case will go to trial before November.

BLITZER: We will see. All right, thanks very much. Don't go too far away.

I also want to bring in our legal experts for some analysis, and Laura Coates, let me start with you. Having heard Trump's arguments in the courtroom today, did the judges have reason to be deeply skeptical?

LAURA COATES, CNN ANCHOR: Absolutely. What the Trump team is asking is to have a judicial ruling that a president has absolute immunity for all actions taken while in office. That could not be.

They gave them a set of hypotheticals, including, well, hold on a second, you're saying that the only way to do this, the only way to prosecute a former president or a president is by having an impeachment and a conviction and only then. And even if it's that, there's official actions that could include things like selling pardons, selling military secrets, ordering SEAL Team 6 to assassinate a political rival. They had all these hypotheticals to try to test the limits of this nonsensical argument.

I think that they did not make a compelling case at all to the appellate bench today to suggest that absolute immunity isn't all warranted. We've got to have some guardrails for there to be, well, not a king in this country.


BLITZER: It certainly seemed like those judges were appreciating that specific point.

Andrew McCabe, what did you think that exchange about if a president were to order SEAL Team 6 to go ahead and assassinate a political rival?

ANDREW MCCABE, CNN SENIOR LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: An incredibly vivid and artfully crafted question, because it exposes the absurdity of this argument. The fact that a president -- I mean, any ten out of ten people asked in the United States the same question, is it ever okay for a president to use the power of government to assassinate a political rival would answer that question resoundingly, no, obviously, no. And Mr. Trump's lawyer could not say no because of the absurd legal position he's taken in this motion. So, you saw that qualified yes, which clearly didn't seem to satisfy anyone on the panel.

BLITZER: It certainly didn't. Norm Eisen, do you think the judges will reject Trump's arguments?

NORM EISEN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: There can be no question after hearing today's oral argument that Trump's demand for absolute immunity is going to be dismissed out of hand.

The most important questions that we have now are how fast will this panel move. Will it be as soon as this week, perhaps on Friday? Will they wait until after the Iowa caucuses do it next week? What exact contours will their decision take? Will they embrace Judge Chutkan's flat dismissal? Will they put some qualifications on it?

There were a lot of bells and whistles that were discussed today, including the question, do they even have the ability to hear this question before trial, normally appeals or after trial? That was -- so there were a lot of those side issues that came up. And then what happens after they rule? Will Trump go for a full en banc review? Will he try to slow things down? That means the entire D.C. Circuit, will they push it away quickly? What will happen at the Supreme Court? Jack Smith has already said he wants it to go fast.

Those are the important open questions now. Trump is going to lose. We can very seldom predict with such certainty he is going to lose this.

BLITZER: To that point Paula, what happens next? Walk us through what is likely to happen in the days ahead.

REID: Well, I agree with my distinguished colleague, Norm. Most people agree it's unlikely Trump is going to prevail here. I also think it's very likely that because the larger strategy here, it's not just about constitutional questions, it's about delaying, trying to kick that federal election subversion trial until after the election that they would likely ask for this to be heard by the full en banc panel. Who knows if they'll take that up, but then they are likely to go to the Supreme Court.

And it is unclear if the Supreme Court would want to wait in here. They already have one hot button Trump issue, the ballot eligibility question that they're going to hear. And they've already declined once to weigh in here and just give some clarity on this immunity question.

So, we know for sure that there will likely be appeals, it's unclear though if additional courts will take this up. But the bigger question, again, bigger almost than the constitutional question, is the question of timing. We know Trump's strategy is to delay, but Smith is trying to do everything he can to get this case to trial before the election.

BLITZER: So, Laura, how long do you think it'll take for these judges to issue their ruling?

COATES: Well, if today was an indication, some of you already knew what they wanted to do. I have appeared before Judge Pan as a trial attorney and prosecutor many times. She was as really focused and professional and persistent in her questioning as she was there.

But look at that list of judges here. You've got two on the left, who one of them, including Judge Childs, was on the short list of potential Supreme Court justice nominations to replace Justice Breyer. You've got Judge Pan. You heard a lot from her today. You hear, of course, Henderson, the person to ultimately decide whether or not you could re-bring the Michael Flynn case. We're talking about really serious judges here.

And this is a bench more broadly that has a lot of alum who are current Supreme Court justices, Kavanaugh, Thomas, Roberts, the late RBG and Scalia. This is a bench that knows quite well what could come next and about the entire en banc process and beyond.

But you know what you didn't hear today that was really fascinating? You did not hear them try to decide whether an insurrection was engaged in by Donald Trump. You did not hear them going through the facts of the case to decide whether he was criminally liable or not. All they wanted to focus on, which is why it's so important, they wanted to focus their attorney, not to go into the politics of Jack Smith, all we want to know about, are you asking us, once you've conceded there are reasons to have a president prosecuted, the only question before them now is, do they actually have absolute immunity? By having that precision and focus, it will be a short turnaround.

BLITZER: Interesting. Andrew McCabe, you're the former deputy director of the FBI. Walk us through how you see this playing out.

MCCABE: Well, I think we've covered exactly procedurally what is likely to happen. I think a request for an en banc or re-hearings is the most likely alternative, simply because it provides another opportunity to burn time.


That requires a majority vote among all the judges in the circuit. It's not clear to me that they will take it. We've got to see if there's an incredibly solid, well-argued, expansive opinion that's released with this panel's ruling that the en banc request could get turned down, then you're looking at a likely request for certiorari in front of the Supreme Court. But it's an opportunity for this court that's already burdened with politically volatile issues to pass allowing the circuit court judgment to remain. And so we'll see. We'll have to wait and see.

BLITZER: And, Norm, how do you think this will, as this plays out, how will it affect the special counsel's case?

EISEN: Well, a lot will come down to whether the Supreme Court says, another hot potato, no thanks. Cert denied. If they pass on that and the D.C. Circuit goes quickly, I don't think Donald Trump has the votes for an en banc review. He cannot get a majority of the D.C. Circuit that is going to say, hey, let's add more time.

So, if that happens, the fastest timeline, we could be back in trial proceedings before Judge Chutkan in sometime in the spring. That March 5th trial is not going to go on March 5th at this point, too much delay. My best guess, we're back in trial somewhere in the 60 to 90- day window after March 5th, but so many unknowns. We'll be watching closely.

BLITZER: Keyword, so many unknowns. Guys, thank you very, very much.

To our viewers, an important note, be sure to watch Laura Coates' show, Laura Coates Live tonight, 11:00 P.M. Eastern right here on CNN.

Just ahead, the stunning announcement today on Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin hospitalized and battling prostate cancer. A live report on what we know about his condition and who's running the Pentagon.

Stay with us. You're in The Situation Room.


[18:16:05] BLITZER: All right. Let's get an update right now, some breaking news, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's prostate cancer diagnosis and the new fallout from his undisclosed hospitalization.

CNN's Oren Liebermann is over at the Pentagon for us. He's got new details. Orin, what can you tell us?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, there were two major questions here about Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin's hospitalization. One was on the medical side and the other was on the failure to notify President Joe Biden and other senior administration officials.

So, let's deal with the medical side of that first. There we learned a tremendous amount today. Here's a look at a timeline of the past couple of weeks in terms of Austin's hospitalization. On December 22nd there, he is hospitalized following a diagnosis with prostate cancer.

It is caught early. He goes through a surgery, a minimally invasive surgery, according to Walter Reed. He is under general anesthesia and is released the next day to work from home.

On January 1st, he starts to feel some discomfort, including nausea and pain. He is readmitted to Walter Reed Medical Center. According to Walter Reed, he is then transferred one day later to the ICU. This is January 2nd. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs is notified as is Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, but they're not yet told he is in the hospital.

That doesn't happen until you see there, January 4th. That is when Biden is notified Hicks and then others are notified over the course of the next couple of days, including on January 5th. But only today does the notification come out that he's been diagnosed with prostate cancer. That's when Biden learns, that's when we learn and the public and other senior administration officials. That a stunning revelation because that means that Biden knew he was in the hospital for several days, but didn't find out why.

Still, Walter Reed says his prostate cancer was detected early and his prognosis is excellent. In terms of when officials found out, here is the Pentagon and the National Security Council.


MAJ. GEN. PAT RYDER, PRESS SECRETARY, PENTAGON: 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.

JOHN KIRBY, COORDINATOR FOR STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL: It is not optimal, Gabe. It is for a situation like this to go as long as it did without the commander-in-chief knowing about it.

(END VIDEO CLIP) LIEBERMANN: Not optimal appears to be a bit of an understatement there. The Pentagon has said that Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks was transferred the responsibilities at times to make decisions. But, again, she too didn't know that Austin was hospitalized for quite some time here.

That gets to the question of failure to notify other officials, including the commander-in-chief, the president. That responsibility, the Pentagon says, was to the chief of staff, Kelly Magsamen. She had the flu is the reason being given for her not notifying others.

But that still leaves, Wolf, a tremendous number of questions on why that responsibility wasn't delegated to someone else, like his senior military advisers. There, the Pentagon just says right now, there's a 30-day review that was started yesterday to look at the policies and procedures around notification. And as we learned, the White House has extended that questioning of what are the protocols to other agencies in the government.

BLITZER: They got to learn the lessons to make sure this doesn't happen again. Oren Liebermann, thank you very much.

Let's discuss the breaking news with CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Jonathan Reiner. He's a professor of medicine and surgery at George Washington University here in Washington. So, what sort of treatment, Dr. Reiner, do you think Austin will need to undergo right now and what are the potential, potential problems?

DR. JONATHAN REINER, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: Well, first of all, it sounds like the secretary had an abscess form about a week after his surgery. That would be the fluid that they described that was present in his abdomen, and that would have had to been drained to help him heal.

And then I'm sure he's in the hospital now continuing to receive antibiotics and whether he'll need antibiotics going forward is unclear.


And then it also depends on if there are any complications from the urologic surgery itself and the prostate healing and his urine flow and things like that.

But it's important to note that hospitalization is very innervating and takes a lot out of you. And the secretary, although he looks very robust, is 70 years old. And I tell people that it takes about three times as long to recover from an illness as you spend in the hospital. So if he's in the hospital now for eight days, it could take him a month to recover from this.

BLITZER: Really?


BLITZER: Complications could be very, very serious, too, right? We don't know. We're watching all of this.

He was readmitted to the hospital, as you know, last week after originally undergoing the surgery to deal with the prostate cancer. So, what does that indicate to you?

REINER: Well, it indicates that he was sick, and, more importantly, he was admitted to the intensive care unit, which suggests that he was unstable.

And the story really starts to fall apart when you think about the secretary of defense in an intensive care unit without notifying the rest of the chain of command, because he would have been potentially unstable. He would have been potentially on pain medication. That would have made it very difficult for him to make complex recommendations in a time of a national crisis. So that piece of the story is very hard to understand.

BLITZER: You have a lot of experience in this area. Do you think he'll be able to fully perform his duties while he's undergoing this treatment?

REINER: Well, I think if he's no longer on pain medication and he's just receiving antibiotics, maybe some physical therapy, and just overall resting at home, yes, then he should be very capable of reading emails and participating in conference calls and advising the White House, as long as he's not requiring pain medication.

BLITZER: As we know, African-American men are more likely to get prostate cancer, right? Yes, that's a problem.

REINER: Right. So, African-American men are about 1.7 times more likely to develop prostate cancer than white Americans and about 2.1 times more likely to die, so more likely to get it, more likely to die as a consequence of the illness, which is why screening is important for African-Americans and all Americans.

But the recommendations from the American Cancer Society actually accelerate the time when a person should consider screening from 50 years old to 45 years old for African-Americans.

BLITZER: When you say screening, you mean that PSA test?


BLITZER: Which is now pretty controversial.

REINER: It's controversial because the question is, does it detect cancers at a very early stage that don't need to be treated? So are people who don't need to be treated, being treated. And what the American Cancer society states is that people should discuss this with their physician.

BLITZER: That's a good idea. All right, Dr. Reiner, thank you very much for coming in.

And we're just about, what, 24 hours away from Republicans facing off right here on CNN for the last debate before the critical caucuses in Iowa. A live report from Iowa, that's coming up next.



BLITZER: Only six days until Iowans cast the very first votes in the 2024 presidential election, but only one candidate was out there on the campaign trail today in snow-covered Iowa.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny is in Des Moines for us right now. Jeff, Nikki Haley had the campaign trail, I take it, mostly to herself today?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, she absolutely did, and it is a snow-covered and wind-blown campaign trail, as you might expect in January here in Iowa.

But Nikki Haley is trying to ride a bit of a wave of momentum into those caucuses just six days from tonight. And she was campaigning in Dallas County. It's a critical suburban county just west of Des Moines here. And she was reaching out to those moderate Republicans, who she believes may be on her side.


NIKKI HALEY, REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: 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. So, thank you, thank you, thank you. I appreciate that.

I believe President Trump was the right president at the right time. I agree with a lot of his policies. But rightly or wrongly, chaos follows him. You know I'm right. Chaos follows him. And we can't have a country in disarray and a world on fire and go through four more years of chaos. We won't survive it.


ZELENY: So, of course, Haley is in an aggressive fight with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. They are trying to become the leading alternative to former President Donald Trump.

DeSantis, for his part, was in Tallahassee, Florida, delivering a state of the state address in Florida. He flew back this afternoon, arrived a short time ago. He, of course, will be on stage with Haley tomorrow night at our CNN debate.

Vivek Ramaswamy, for his part, he was trying to have an aggressive campaign schedule as well. Well, the snow caught up to him. He was unable to get to his events.

So, the question is, of course, in these final six days, the weather could have an effect on turnout and organization. Yes, snow is pretty common here, but these cold temperatures coming into next week, we're talking zero as a high, certainly could impact the organization and turnout of all the candidates. But for now, at least, there's aggressive phone banking underway, trying to convince some of those undecided voters, and even the decided voters that their votes are needed.

So, Wolf, six days before the Iowa caucuses, this is really going to set the pace and perhaps the duration of the Republican-nominating fight. Wolf?

BLITZER: Yes. Jeff Zeleny, try to stay warm, thank you very much.


Meanwhile, in New Hampshire, another early critical state, a new CNN poll shows Nikki Haley's support has grown dramatically, cutting Donald Trump's lead down to single digits for the first time. Since CNN's last New Hampshire poll back in November, the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. has jumped, look at this, 12 percentage points, up to 32 percent, meaning she now trails Trump by only 7 percentage points.

Let's bring in our experts to discuss what's going on. David Chalian, you're our political director. What are these new New Hampshire poll results say to you about the state of the GOP race, at least in New Hampshire?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Well, they say that momentum that we've been talking about related to Nikki Haley's candidacy for the last couple months, Wolf, is still very much apparent in New Hampshire.

And I think it's so specific that this is about New Hampshire, because I think there's a different structure to the race. And you could see it inside these numbers. Nikki Haley's rise that you just talked about is largely due to her support with moderate Republicans, with independents who say they're going to participate in the Republican primary.

Donald Trump is still dominant in the granite state, Wolf, with conservatives, with registered Republicans. And it is not everywhere that Nikki Haley is going to have that kind of opportunity to pull in independents. They can't participate when there are closed primaries.

So, New Hampshire is particularly fertile ground with her and she's hoping to make some magic happen here in Iowa to bounce into New Hampshire and actually close that gap, that single digit gap that we show in our new poll.

BLITZER: Yes. Alyssa Farah Griffin is with us as well. Alyssa, despite Haley closing the gap, there is some good news for Trump in this new poll. 80 percent of Trump supporters say they're definitely decided on their vote compared with 54 percent of Haley supporters. This is a key advantage clearly for Trump. Can Haley overcome that?

ALYSSA FARAH GRIFFIN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Listen, Wolf, there is a real GOP primary. And if you'd asked me even a couple months ago, I would say it's Donald Trump's to take. But Nikki Haley has run a smart and effective campaign. She's still very much playing in Iowa. She's working the caucus game. She's got a ground game there. And she understands even just coming in second place would be a huge boon to kind of narrow and say, I am the alternative to Trump.

But what New Hampshire voters are really focusing on, she's got the backing of highly popular Governor Chris Sununu, but this open question of what does Chris Christie do.

Chris Christie has been the anti-Trump candidate from the outset. He's got an over ten-point lead. But there really is no path for him beyond New Hampshire. So, there's this pressure around him to maybe step out and endorse Haley. But so far, that's not materialized. I'll be very curious to see what conversations happen in the weeks ahead.

BLITZER: Yes, good point. Van Jones, how much would a Haley upset win, not coming in second, but win in New Hampshire? How much would that shake up the race?

VAN JONES, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I mean, it would shake it all up. I mean, part of what has to happen is somebody has to actually believe that Donald Trump can be beaten. You know, he just seems to be the steamroller. No matter what happens, you know, you throw in indictments at him, you do it, you throw in the kitchen sink at him, you're throwing banana peels on the sidewalk, marbles on the stairs, he just keeps coming and keeps coming.

So, if somebody stops him, it just changes the entire equation of what's even possible in American politics, even if it happens just one time. And so I think we're looking at something, you know, if anybody can stop him, it looks like it's going to be Nikki. If she pulls it off, it will be one for the record books.

BLITZER: We'll see what happens. David, you're there in Iowa for our CNN debate tomorrow night between Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis. Who is most in need of a standout performance?

CHALIAN: Well, they both need the attention. They both need positive reviews because Donald Trump is still the dominant force, not just here in Iowa, but even with what we're talking about in New Hampshire, he is the dominant force in the nomination race.

But Ron DeSantis, Wolf, particularly has invested so much time in the state of Iowa. He's really put all the marbles on this first kickoff state. And so he's looking to make sure that he uses the debate tomorrow night, this moment before Iowa Republican caucus goers, before they head out Monday night to the caucuses to start closing the sale and actually solidifying what he hopes will be a closer than expected second place showing.

BLITZER: Alyssa, Nikki Haley has done well, as we all know, in past debate performances. What are you looking for from her tomorrow night?

GRIFFIN: I think Nikki Haley really needs to lean into the electability argument. The one thing the GOP field agrees on is they want to defeat Joe Biden. In consecutive poll after consecutive poll, Nikki Haley performs best head-to-head against Joe Biden, and some beating him by as many as 16 points, whereas Ron DeSantis, who is popular in Iowa, he at times even loses to Joe Biden in a general election.

So, I think she's going to hammer home.


You know, if you're actually wanting to win the general, not just the primary, I am the best candidate to do it.

BLITZER: Van, Ron DeSantis is polling in our last poll at just 5 percent in New Hampshire. How much does this raise the stakes for him to do well in Iowa?

JONES: Well, if he doesn't do well in Iowa, it's over for him. As I just said, he's put all his cards on the table there and he's not doing as well as you would have expected, especially when you think about where he was six months ago, nine months ago. So, he's got to do well in Iowa.

The debate tomorrow night is going to be critical. Nikki Haley has a tendency, as good as she is, she puts her foot in her mouth sometimes and she starts tickling her tonsils with her toes. Stop doing that. You got to go in there and you got to stay on message and do a good job. And don't give people three or four days to beat you up afterwards, Nikki Haley. And DeSantis has been getting better and better and better in these debates, in these town halls.

And so we're going to see now a truly mature matchup between two people who could be the future of the party no matter who wins this actual primary.

BLITZER: Yes, these next few days will be critical. David, give me a final thought.

CHALIAN: Well, listen, the mission here is quite clear for both DeSantis, Haley, but also for Chris Christie, Vivek Ramaswamy. This is the moment. If you're going to alter the trajectory and try to stop Trump, you've got to make a dent. If Donald Trump gets a big victory in Iowa on Monday, followed by a significant victory in New Hampshire on Tuesday, this nomination process could wind down real quickly with Donald Trump as the likely nominee.

BLITZER: We'll see what happens. All right, guys, thank you very, very much.

And this important note, don't miss Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis facing off in the CNN Republican presidential debate moderated by our own Jake Tapper and Dana Bash. That's tomorrow night, 9:00 P.M. Eastern right here on CNN.

Just ahead, there's breaking news we're following right now. Boeing's CEO acknowledges the company's mistakes during a safety meeting today. And he addressed employees in the aftermath of the midflight blowout on one of its planes. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)


BLITZER: We're following breaking news right now. Boeing's CEO addressing the company's employees today for the first time since that terrifying midflight blowout on one of its 737 MAX 9 planes used by Alaska Airlines.

CNN Aviation Correspondent Pete Muntean is following the story for us tonight. What are we learning, Pete?

PETE MUNTEAN, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun says the company is acknowledging its mistake, that in a just released excerpt from the company's all-hands safety meeting today, here is the issue. Calhoun did not say exactly what that mistake is, if anything. And now investigators are scrambling to get to the bottom of it.


MUNTEAN (voice over): After Friday's dramatic in flight blowout, significant new findings by investigators and airlines are putting the spotlight on bolts in the Boeing 737 MAX 9 designed to hold the part that ripped off in place known as a door plug. The National Transportation Safety Board now says it blew out and up, triggering what investigators call a chaotic and loud explosive decompression.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Alaska 1282, we just depressurized, and we're declaring an emergency, we do need to descend down to 10,000.

MUNTEAN: In prepping their planes for FAA mandated emergency inspections, Alaska Airlines and United Airlines both report issues with door plugs on an undisclosed number of now grounded MAX 9s. Alaska says mechanics found some loose hardware was visible. United says it found possible door plug installation issues and bolts that needed additional tightening. Now, investigators are searching for the door plug bolts from Friday's incident, potentially key evidence.

CLINT CROOKSHANKS, AEROSPACE ENGINEER, NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD: We have not yet recovered the four bolts that restrain it from its vertical movement and we have not yet determined if they existed there.

MUNTEAN: A MAX 9 door plug is secured by high air pressure inside the plane, pushing 12 tabs on the door against matching tabs on the plane's frame. A total of four bolts at the top and bottom of the door can be removed for maintenance. But without them, the door could slide out of place.

CROOKSHANKS: By design, if the bolts are there, it prevents the door from translating upwards and disengaging from the stop fittings and flying off the plane.

MUNTEAN: Early reads from Alaska 1282's flight data recorder detail that cockpit alarm sounded followed by the door plug blowout one minute later.

JENNIFER HOMENDY, CHAIR, NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD: This was a really significant event. It was terrifying.


MUNTEAN (on camera): The NTSB says it has reached out to Spirit Aerosystems. That is the Boeing contractor that builds the MAX 9 fuselage. Those planes remain grounded until airlines can inspect them. Airlines are waiting on inspection details from the FAA, and the FAA says it's now reviewing inspection guidance from Boeing. Alaska Airlines says it canceled 109 flights today. As a result, at United, 170 flights canceled. Wolf?

MUNTEAN: Pete Muntean reporting for us, thank you, Pete, for that update.

Coming up, Donald Trump's claims of presidential immunity face a stiff test in a federal appeals court here in Washington. I'll get reaction from a lawmaker who served on the January 6th select committee and helped lead Trump's impeachment. Congressman Jamie Raskin is standing by live.



BLITZER: More now on our top story this hour. Today's critical hearing over Donald Trump's claims of presidential immunity.

I want to bring in Democratic Congressman Jamie Raskin of Maryland. He served on the January 6th select committee.

Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.

You also led Trump's second impeachment after January 6th. He was acquitted in the Senate, but Trump's lawyer conceded today Trump could be prosecuted if he had been convicted.

What do you make of that?

REP. JAMIE RASKIN (D-MD): Well, the presentation in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals before the three-judge panel was astounding. Donald Trump and his lawyers essentially asserted that the president has the right to assassinate people, to kill people without any prospect of prosecution unless they're first impeached by the House and convicted in the Senate.

And, of course, as a member of Congress, my first thought was, well, then if the president is going to order out for the assassination of his political rivals and say there's a narrow margin in the Senate of a two or three votes in the opposition party, what's to keep him from murdering members of the Senate to make sure that he doesn't get convicted there in order to deny a two-thirds majority? He can kill them because then he can't be impeached or convicted because he's murdered his opposition and he can't be prosecuted for it because he hasn't been impeached or convicted.


Now, of course, Trump's argument is utterly ludicrous. Nobody's ever even attempted such an absurd argument in American history, but it shows you how outlandish and deranged Donald Trump's world view is at this point. And it's very dangerous because all of it revolves around political violence.

BLITZER: The three federal judges were clearly skeptical of Trump's arguments even calling them paradoxical. Do you think they will reject his immunity bid?

RASKIN: Yes, I think this claim that the president is immune from crimes that he commits in office, unless he's first impeached or convicted, it will be rejected probably unanimously by this three- judge panel and certainly overwhelmingly by the D.C. Circuit.

If you think about it, what he's saying is that a president could order out assassinations for any political rivals or journalists or citizens he doesn't like. He can steal money from the government, he can take money, millions of dollars from foreign governments and then if the House moves to impeach him, he can simply resign because of course their argument there is if the president is no longer president, he's no longer subject to impeachment proceedings or trials, which was why Mitch McConnell voted not to acquit him but not to convict him in the end. He said that Donald Trump was actually factually morally responsible for inciting a violent insurrection against the Union, but he asserted that the Senate didn't have jurisdiction to hear the case because Trump was no longer in office.

That argument was flawed. I think it cut against two centuries of precedent. But in any event, he wasn't saying Donald Trump wasn't guilty, he was saying Donald Trump would get off on a technicality, and Donald Trump is saying if you could get off on a technicality, you can get away with murder.

BLITZER: I want to put on your head as a former professor of a law school at the American University Law School here in Washington. This could ultimately end up as you know, Congressman, before the U.S. Supreme Court. What's at stake here when it comes to presidential power and the rule of law?

RASKIN: Well, Donald Trump is asserting the powers of a dictator. His heroes, of course, are Vladimir Putin and President Xi and Orban and the advocates of illiberal democracy, meaning democracy without freedom. That is elections -- rigged elections without freedom for the people.

It's really our form of government. It's constitutional democracy. I mean, our framers rebelled against monarchy and the idea the king can do no wrong. But that's essentially the jurisprudence of Donald Trump, that the president cannot be guilty if he's president of anything, and now today, we learn even of political assassinations.

So this cuts completely into the meaning of our constitution and our entire history, and I would hope that all nine justices even those who are compromised in some way would reject this argument, and I hope it would have even the most sycophantic Trump followers on the court look seriously, perhaps for the first time at the Section Three of the 14th Amendment argument, because Donald Trump is behaving in such a way these days that he's indicating nothing would stop him from trying to engage in another insurrection or coup or rebellion against the union.

And I hope they take seriously the literal language, the straightforward text of Section 3 of the 14th Amendment and the original purposes of the 14th Amendment which were to say if you disqualified yourself by engaging in insurrection or rebellion, you can never serve in office again. You can vote, you can be a free person, you can be at large. But thank you we'll somebody else to be president of the United States.

BLITZER: Yeah, it was pretty amazing. I'm sure you like me have never heard arguments like this before in a federal courtroom.

Congressman Jaime Raskin, thank you so much for joining us.

Coming up, an update on severe weather right now across the country. A live report from Florida where tornados ripped through the panhandle.



BLITZER: Right now, we're tracking a major winter storm slamming the central and eastern United States. The storm spawning severe weather and tornados in the South, including damaging twisters in South Carolina and the Florida panhandle.

Let's get the very latest from CNN meteorologist Derek Van Dam. He's joining us from Panama City Beach in Florida.

Derek, I understand the damage is already very extensive.

DEREK VAN DAM, CNN WEATHER ANCHOR: Yeah, here's an example of that, Wolf. What you're looking at behind me over my right shoulder was a house that was toppled by the wind just like a large tree in powerful winds. But this one is being supported by its neighboring home. This is just a drop in the bucket of the damage that we witnessed here within Panama City Beach as over a dozen tornados tore through the southeastern U.S., over 107 reports of severe wind gusts.

It was a morning and day full of terror for these people because what you're witnessing behind me is just simply incredible, hard to put into words as well. But the threat is not done, even though the severe weather is slowly starting to wane. What we're focusing on now is on the wind threat and a potential for flash flooding overnight.

So, you get to my graphics and you'll see just what we call an atmospheric river of moisture that is pluming into the East Coast and with this could bring up to 2 to 4 inches of rain on an area that's already experienced snowfall within the past storms just earlier last week. And so, that will quickly allow for rapid melting, rapid rises in our rivers and the flash flooding there, you can see the warnings there on our map that encompass much of the entire eastern seaboard.

Now, wind gusts tonight, we need to take this seriously because they're starting to ramp up even across the outer banks at the moment, but we have over half the United States under some sort of wind alert. We're focusing in on the East Coast. We could experience hurricane force wind gusts across parts of the Mid-Atlantic coast and into southern New England as well. That's something we need to take seriously, Wolf.

BLITZER: And I could report, Derek, heavy rain already here in Washington, D.C., and the entire metropolitan area. We're watching that very, very closely. Lots going on in the weather front.

Derek, thanks very much for that update.

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

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.