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Closing Arguments Wrap In Trump's New York Civil Fraud Trial; Critical Iowa GOP Caucuses Now Just Four Days Away; House Republicans Unhappy With Speaker Over Government Funding Deal; Source: U.S. Strikes Houthi Positions In Yemen As Militants Defy Demands To Stop Red Sea Attacks. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired January 11, 2024 - 18:00   ET



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Our coverage continues now with Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. See you tomorrow.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news, closing arguments just wrapped up in Donald Trump's New York civil fraud trial. The former president taking his campaign to the courtroom, launching into a rambling speech before being cut off by the judge who urged Trump's attorneys to control their client.

Plus, we're now in the final stretch before Iowa decides with the first in the nation caucuses just four days away. Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis trying to capitalize on last night's heated CNN debate and close the gap with Republican frontrunner Donald Trump. A key Haley supporter, New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu, joins me live this hour.

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

And let's get straight to the breaking news. Donald Trump's New York civil fraud trial comes to a close, the judge in the case aiming to reveal his decision on the state's request for a $370 million judgment against Trump by the end of this month.

CNN's Kara Scannell is just outside the courthouse where all of today's drama just went down. Kara, how did this all unfold?

KARA SCANNELL CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Trump's attorneys gave their closing arguments for much of the morning where his lead attorney, Chris Kise, have said that the A.G.'s office present did not one witness who testified that there was any fraud committed here. The big question was, was Donald Trump going to speak. The judge had set out terms that said that he could only speak if he stuck to the facts and the law and Trump had not agreed to do that in advance of the hearing.

But then at the end of the day, at the end of the closing arguments Trump's attorney asked the judge if he could speak. The judge allowed Trump to stand up and address him. And Trump told the judge that he was an innocent person being persecuted by someone running for office. He continued to then talk about a witch hunt, talked about how this was politically motivated by the New York attorney general, Letitia James, and that is when the judge stopped him and said one minute to Trump to give him a one-minute warning. Trump said you have your own agenda, I understand that.

The judge saying, Mr. Kise, please control your client. And then he cut him off as clock struck 1:00, because that was the time for a lunch break. The judge even telling Kise that he'd wrapped his closing quicker, Trump could have more time to speak. But Trump again telling the judge that he did nothing wrong, he said he was an innocent man.

Now, when he left the courthouse, he continued to go on the attack. He addressed reporters, just at one of his properties at Lower Manhattan. Here is what he said.


DONALD TRUMP, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: She's a political hack, the attorney general. And the judge is obviously extremely friendly with the group. It's really a -- it's a witch hunt in the truest sense of the word. It's election interference.


SCANNELL: So, after Trump's team gave their closing statements, then it was the New York attorney general's team. They outlined to the judge that they said that Trump had committed fraud on his financial statements for ten years beginning in 2011, and they argued that the judge should find him and his adult sons liable. Wolf?

BLITZER: So, Kara, what is the New York attorney general saying about all of this, and what's the bottom line as far as what's at stake for Trump?

SCANNELL: Well, the attorneys in court had argued -- made their argument on the law. And what one of the state attorney general had said is the court should infer that Trump acted with intent to defraud based on his extensive knowledge about his assets, pointing to his knowledge about his triplex apartment that was overvalued, that they acknowledged was a mistake, but the attorney general said that that was screaming evidence of intent to defraud.

Now, after the court wrapped and all was said and done, the New York attorney came out to address the cameras. Here's what she said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) LETITIA JAMES, NEW YORK ATTORNEY GENERAL: This case has never been about politics or personal vendetta or about name-calling. This case is about the facts and the law, and Mr. Donald Trump violated the law. I want everyone to know that the personal attacks really don't bother me.


SCANNELL: So, the judge said that he will now take all their arguments under advisement and he said he would hope to make a decision in this case by the end of month, but he said that there was no promise or no guarantee.


But the New York attorney general is asking the judge to find or get ill gotten gains from the Trump Organization of $370 million to bar Trump from doing business in New York and to put a five-year bar on his sons, Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr., very interesting moment in the courtroom where the state was giving their closing arguments.

The judge questioned whether they had proven that the adult sons had committed any fraud. The judge saying, what evidence do you have, I just haven't seen it that they knew that there was fraud. The attorney general's lawyers saying that you can't stick your head in the sand as a defense. Wolf?

BLITZER: Kara Scannell in New York for us, Kara, thanks for that report.

I want to bring in our legal and political experts for analysis right now. And, Carrie Cordero, did Trump help self addressing the court today? He didn't have to but he wanted to.

CARRIE CORDERO, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I don't think he helped himself in front of a judge. Remember that perhaps that would have appealed to a jury and regular citizens, but I don't think that that would impact the judge in any positive way, if anything, because the judge then had to turn to his lawyers and say calm down your client, I think that probably -- he did himself more harm. But I don't think that was even his point, right? His point was to be able to make a statement and use it for political purposes down the road.

BLITZER: Yes, that's right. And that's clearly what he did.

Norm Eisen, let me get your sense, what's the risk right now for the Trump Organization?

NORM EISEN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it's substantial, Wolf, including that when all of these trial and appellate proceedings are concluded, it may no longer be called the Trump Organization. It's not just the massive over $300 million in financial penalties for the wrongdoing that the attorney general is seeking, but there is injunctive relief.

This judge has already ordered, it's been stayed pending appeal. This judge has already ordered some of the remedies that can be referred to as a corporate death penalty, Trump and his sons not allowing to participate in the business, not allowed to do other business, to take loans for a period of time, perhaps putting a receiver-in-charge.

If all of that comes to pass and if it holds up on appeal, and I think the judge has been careful, like with those Eric and Don Jr. comments, he's showing balance, if it holds up on appeal this could be the end of the Trump Organization, as we have known it for all these years.

BLITZER: Yes, which is a huge, huge moment, indeed.

Kristen Holmes is with us. She's in New York watching all of this unfold. She was with the former president earlier today. This is a very personal case as we all know for the former president, Kristen, which, in many ways, goes to the heart of his own identity. Talk about that.

KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Wolf. I mean, Donald Trump has had an identity and a brand that was he was a real estate tycoon, that he built a successful business in Manhattan, that he could make money so he could make money for people, which is what he argued when he was running for office in 2016.

This really goes to all of that. As he's said over and over again, he believes that they devalued his properties. Particularly, he has been fixated all the valuation that they gave Mar-a-Lago, his resort in Palm Beach which they said it was worth $18 million, and he believes it was worth far more than that. And it seems it very much upsets him because he, again, views himself as a real estate tycoon.

So, we know that he's been sitting in on this trial specifically multiple times and that he's been really engaged. At times, we were told he was going to stay half a day, he stayed the whole day. But there is another reason for this as well, which is he is treating these trials like campaign stops, and that's exactly what we saw today.

We have to keep in mind we are just days away from that Iowa caucuses, from those first ballots being cast in this primary season, and Donald Trump does want to suck all the oxygen out of the race. We are seeing Nikki Haley on the rise, we are seeing an all-out battle between Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley on the ground in Iowa. He does not want them to have any space on the campaign trail. He wants to take complete control of the media narrative. And that's what you really what you saw today, every opportunity that he had to get in front of the camera and try to make his case he took it.

BLITZER: Yes. Important points, Kristen, thank you.

Carrie, how do you think the judge is likely to decide in this case?

CORDERO: Well, of course, this judge has already found that the Trump Organization engaged in fraud. And most of this particular case that has gone on for weeks now has to do with the penalties and the extent to which the company is going to be brought to heel. So, I think the judge has already shown that he is disposed to finding that there is fraud. I think this is really about the dollar amounts. The attorney general has asked for hundreds of millions of dollars, so I think one question is whether or not the judge goes as high as she would like.

And then I do think his point about that the judge made about the adult sons who run the business does lend towards wondering whether he will really try to cripple the organization itself if he thinks that they are really now in charge and they didn't necessarily have personal knowledge or intent with respect to the fraud.


So, the continuation of the business, I think, is a remaining question.

BLITZER: Let me get Norm back into this conversation. How long do you think, Norm, this process could unwind, could take place before the Trump Organization is directly impacted?

EISEN: The judge has said he wants to issue a ruling towards the end of the month. That's an approximate date. Then it will move through the appellate process. We know the appellate courts in New York, the appellate division has had some questions about just those remedies. How far can this judge go?

They've stayed some of the most severe remedies. It is not a fast appellate process in New York. There's two level of appeal. It could take years before we get a final answer.

BLITZER: And, potentially, the judge could rule the Trump Organization and Trump personally and the sons could no longer do business in New York.

EISEN: Potentially, and he's already signaled some direction towards that with his initial ruling on partial summary judgment, but raising questions today about the sons.

BLITZER: Yes. For Trump, this is obviously very, very sensitive indeed.

Kristen, Trump gave some remarks after leaving the court in New York where you are and you had a chance to ask him a key question. Tell us about that.

HOLMES: Yes, Wolf. So, this was actually about a separate case. What we saw in Tuesday, a reminder that Trump went down to the federal court in D.C. to listen to his legal team really argue his immunity claims. And a hypothetical that a judge brought up to his lawyer essentially was if Donald Trump or if a president ordered SEAL Team 6 to kill a political opponent, should they be prosecuted? And, essentially, the lawyer said no. So, I asked Donald Trump point blank do you agree with your lawyer's statements, asking if he believed that presidents were above the law, and this is what he said.


TRUMP: If a president of the United States does not have immunity, he'll be totally ineffective because he won't be able to do anything because it will mean he'll be prosecuted, strongly prosecuted perhaps, as soon as he leaves office by his -- by the opposing party. So, a president of the United States, I'm not talking just me, I'm talking any president has to have immunity.


HOLMES: It really sounds like he is saying that a president can do almost anything with immunity once they're in office. The argument there being that his lawyers are saying he was acting in his official capacity after the election in 2020 to try and find fraud. Jack Smith says that just not accurate.

BLITZER: Yes, an important point indeed as well. Guys, thank you very, very much.

Coming up we have news from the campaign trail tonight with four days to go until the first test into the 2024 presidential race. We'll have a live report from Iowa along with the New Hampshire governor, Chris Sununu, a key supporter of Nikki Haley. He's standing by for a live interview.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.



BLITZER: In just four days the Iowa caucuses could make or break multiple Republican presidential campaigns. CNN's Jessica Dean is on the trail for us in Ames, Iowa.

Jessica, this is the final stretch before a critical contest.

JESSICA DEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's absolutely right, Wolf. And there's really two realities playing outright now. You all were just talking about the frontrunner, former President Donald Trump, spending his day in a New York City courtroom, meantime we have Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley crisscrossing Iowa, trying to get their message out to as many Iowans as possible before Monday's caucuses. And, of course, the big question that's swirling is will an alternative emerge to Trump on Monday?


DEAN (voice over): Tonight in Iowa Republican presidential candidates continuing their final push for votes ahead of Monday's critical caucuses.

NIKKI HALEY, REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: So get excited. Four days until caucus.

GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You know, I'm a guy I'm running on your issues and your family's issues and this country's issues. You know, I'm not running for any other reason.

HALEY: Ron doesn't defeat Biden. Trump is head to head with Biden. On a good day, he might be up by two.

DEAN: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley clashing on the CNN debate stage Wednesday night, attacking one another on competency, character and conservative convictions.

HALEY: If leadership is about getting things done, how did you blow through $150 million on your campaign? We went and save out money. We made sure we spend it right because you have to understand it's not your money, it's other people's money and you have to know how to handle it. If he can't handle the financial parts of his campaign, how is he going to handle the economy when it comes to the White House?

DESANTIS: I think here's the problem. You can take the ambassador out of the United Nations but you can't take the United Nations out of the ambassador.

We don't need another mealy-mouthed politician who just tells you what she thinks you want to hear just to try to get your vote, then to get in office and do her donor's bidding.

DEAN: While other candidates continued to pitch their closing arguments to voters, former President Donald Trump attending closing arguments of his civil fraud trial in New York, a day after again refusing to debate the other candidates and instead taking the stage alone on Fox News.

TRUMP: I'm not going to have time for retribution. We're going to make this country so successful again, I'm not going to have time for retribution.

DEAN: DeSantis and Haley largely avoided sustained attacks on the former president.

HALEY: I think he was the right president at the right time. I agree with a lot of his policies, but his way is not my way.

DESANTIS: If Trump is the nominee, it's going to be about January 6th, legal issues, criminal trials, the Democrats and the media would love to run with that.

DEAN: All of this unfolding just hours after former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie dropped out of the race criticizing rivals who refused to call out Trump.

CHRIS CHRISTIE, FORMER REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Anyone who is unwilling to say that he is unfit to be president of the United States is unfit themselves to be president of the United States.


DEAN (on camera): And, Wolf, one factor we're all keeping an eye on here is the weather in Iowa. We've got a major snowstorm that is set to hit Iowa in the coming hours. How will that affect candidates' events tomorrow and leading into the weekend.


And then looking ahead to caucus day on Monday, it's expected to be the coldest caucus day ever, the coldest January day in Iowa in five years, wind gusts up to negative 40. And, Wolf, when you're covering presidential politics and elections, there can be jokes about it's all about turn out but with those conditions, candidates and their campaigns are going to have to make sure that their supporters get to those caucus sites on Monday night.

BLITZER: Yes. The ground game will be critical, indeed. Jessica Dean, thank you very much.

Joining us now, the New Hampshire governor, Chris Sununu, he's endorsed Nikki Haley for president. Governor, thanks so much for joining us.

Nikki Haley, as you know, spent a lot of time last night making the case against Ron DeSantis but spent much less time talking about Donald Trump or Joe Biden for that matter. Was this a mistake?

GOV. CHRIS SUNUNU (R-NH): Oh no. Look, Nikki understands who's on the stage with her. She understand that right now DeSantis and Trump are the two that have set expectations very high in Iowa. They've both said they're going to win Iowa. She hasn't really set those expectations.

So, when someone is on the stage she's going to go after DeSantis. I thought she was very clear on Trump as well talking about election denialism, talking about January 6th what the tragic that was. So, she took her shots there, which she had to. But as Nikki always does, she's about herself. She's about what she's going to bring to the table, the leadership that's there. She knows voters vote for someone and not just against others.

So, I think she did a phenomenal job especially, I mean, you look at the international stuff she really just owned Ron on those issues. I think she owned all the candidates on those issues because of that background knowledge and expertise. And given that these international issues are really at the forefront more so than we've seen in other presidential campaigns in the past, I think that's one of the reasons you see her surging in Iowa, surging in New Hampshire, and it really has become that one-on-one race between her and Trump.

BLITZER: In our latest CNN poll of New Hampshire, as you know, Governor, the now former Republican presidential candidate, Chris Christie, received 12 percent of the vote while nearly two-thirds of his voters say Haley is their second choice. Does Christie's exit put Haley in a position to defeat Trump and win your state of New Hampshire?

SUNUNU: Without a doubt, there's no question. Now, you've still got to go earn them, right? All those voters don't just come onboard. Nikki had a better ground game here in New Hampshire than anyone. She connects with people better. She does retail politics. Trump doesn't even try on the retail politics side. He comes in as a big rally and takes off, doesn't answer any questions.

So, Nikki understand she's still have to go earn those voters, right, and she's going to continue to engage with them all the way to election day. So -- but there's no doubt, I think you're absolutely right, they are poised to come over to her team. We'll see what happens with Ron depending on how well he does in Iowa. But this has become a one-on-one race. She's right there.

Nobody thought anyone was going to challenge Trump in any of these states and she's kind of shattered all presumptions on that so far. To deliver a shocking win here in New Hampshire would be an amazing opportunity for the country.

So, as your previous report was saying, you've got to get out to vote. I mean it's not a cliche. It really is important getting folks out, making them realize they just don't support Haley on their couch, they've got to get behind Nikki and come out to the ballot box.

It looks like we're going to have some pretty good weather, probably a bit better than Iowa is going to have. So, I anticipate our turnout to be pretty darn high.

BLITZER: Just before Chris Christie took the stage for his final campaign speech yesterday, he was heard on a hot mic talking about Nikki Haley. Let me play that clip for you. Listen to this.


CHRISTIE: She's going to get smoked and you and I both know it.


BLITZER: How do you respond to that?

SUNUNU: Well, look, Chris is about to go on stage in that moment and kind of shutdown his campaign. That's a tough moment for him. I think Chris is great guy. I think he ran a strong race. I give him all the credit in the world for his consistency on message and all that. It didn't pan out for the vote.

So, I would just say it's a kind of a raw moment for Chris, whether -- I think she's not going to get smoked. I mean, the data all say that. Because from New Hampshire if it's that one-on-one race first, second, first, second, and then she goes to her home state and there's a huge opportunity there.

So, the dynamics are changing so fast in this race and it's all pointing towards opportunity for Nikki Haley. So, I appreciate Chris was having a moment there but I don't think it's telling in any way.

BLITZER: Governor, I know you've suggested that you would vote for Trump even if he is a convicted felon. Nikki Haley has basically said that as well. She's refused to rule out joining Trump's ticket as a vice presidential nominee. Given that, why should anyone take either of your criticisms of Trump seriously? SUNUNU: Well, look, the issue around the voting as a convicted felon, that's a complete hypothetical, right? It's a complete hypothetical. My point there is this. If you think that these court cases are going to come to some sort of firm resolution before the election and the result of any of these are going to impact the vote, everyone always says that but it never does, right?

The voters are not looking at those issues. They're not looking at January 6th. That is not what the voters are galvanizing behind.


They know Bidenomics, whatever that is, and inflation, these things have crushed middle American families, and that's what these folks have to be talking about.

So, I get that it's fodder and all that, but my point there is more don't worry about long-term hypotheticals that you think may or may not affect the race, you've got to win the votes here. If you want Trump out, if you want it defeat Trump, it happens in Iowa and New Hampshire. That's really where it happens, and that's why we don't want anyone to kind of sit on the couch and wait to see what happens in the court. I think that's more of a driver than anything else.

BLITZER: Yes, these next few days will be critical, indeed. Governor Chris Sununu, thank you so much for joining us.

SUNUNU: You bet.

BLITZER: All right. Coming up, we're going to get more analysis on the sprint to the finish in Iowa. We'll be right back.



BLITZER: All right. Let's get back to our top political story, the countdown to the Iowa Republican caucuses after a rather heated CNN debate last night.

Our political team is joining us now with some analysis, and Gloria Borger is here. DeSantis and Haley, they spent much of the night really going after each other. What did you think of that strategy?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALKYST: Well, I don't think it changed anything to tell you the truth. I think they were, you're a liar, you're a liar. It was like political ping-pong. And if you're a voter coming to this and you're trying to decide who you like better, I don't think a decision was made last night.

BLITZER: Interesting, you know, Kristen Soltis Anderson is with us. DeSantis has clearly spent a lot of time and a lot of money in Iowa. What does he need to achieve?

KRISTEN SOLTIS ANDERSON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: He needs to come in a strong second, I think, in order to breathe life and oxygen back into his campaign. He's already got very little to look forward to after Iowa. He does not poll well in New Hampshire. He's nowhere to be found in South Carolina. So, he needs an enormous amount of energy coming out of Iowa to get kind of escape velocity, to have momentum for the rest of the campaign.

BLITZER: We're told, Karen, that Iowa will have the coldest ever, or maybe at least in several years, the coldest ever Iowa caucuses when it comes to Monday. So, how's that going to impact the result?

KAREN FINNEY, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: As long as people can actually get to their caucus locations, they should be fine because Iowans are hardy, they are used to the cold, they are used to having to make their way through the cold, and they are used to the caucus process.

So, as long as people can get there, it should be fine. If there are trouble on the roads, that's where some of these folks -- and we've seen people this week have trouble actually getting to their events. So, I think that's one the thing they'll look for.

BLITZER: Cold as cold. We'll see what happens on that front.

You know, Gloria, in Trump's town hall last night, he seemed to walk back some of his recent rather controversial statements. Let me play this clip.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can you say tonight that political violence is never acceptable?

TRUMP: Well, of course, that's right. And, of course, I'm the one that had very little of it.

I am not going to be a dictator. I'm going to manage like we did.

I'm not going to have time for retribution. We're going to make this country so successful again, I'm not going to have time for retribution.


BLITZER: So, what did you make of that strategy?

BORGER: They put out a fundraiser that said that he's your retribution. Look, I think somebody got in his ear and said, you know, this might not play well. And so maybe you ought to walk these things back a bit, which is exactly what he was doing.

I'm not going to have time for retribution. I'm not going to be a dictator, after he said he would be, at least on day one. I think this is a strategist saying to him, cool it, and he did.

BLITZER: I think you're right. You know, Kristen, let me play another clip from Trump's town hall last night. Listen to this.


TRUMP: It's been 54 years that we're trying to get Roe v. Wade terminated, and I did it. And I'm proud to have done it.


BLITZER: Because Trump seems to have been in many different areas when it comes to abortion rights for women and Roe v. Wade.

ANDERSON: He wants to make sure that he does not give an opening to someone like Ron DeSantis, who has tried to hammer him from the right on this issue. He wants to stake his claim. No, I'm the one that appointed the justices that did this thing, that put these points on the board for conservatives. But he also knows the potential political toxicity there.

He sees the same numbers that we all do, that Republicans have really struggled at the ballot box in a post-Roe versus Wade world, and wants to make sure that he says, hey, hey, hey, I'm not going to be as far out there as, say, someone like Ron DeSantis.

FINNEY: This is a tactic we've seen him do many times where he tries to be on multiple sides of an issue so that everybody gets to hear what they're listening for. And somehow he is the one person who is able to pull it off in politics, whereas others get called out, he seems to be able to make it work for him.

BLITZER: Yes, the Biden campaign has already jumped on him on this issue very, very quickly.

BORGER: And they will continue to.

BLITZER: Yes, I'm sure they will, a very sensitive issue indeed.

All right, guys, thank you very much.

Just ahead, House Speaker Mike Johnson tells CNN he's not worried about keeping his job, but some in his party say he should be worried.



BLITZER: Speaker Mike Johnson is under pressure from the right flank in the House Republican Conference after negotiating a government funding deal with the Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer.

Let's get the very latest from CNN's Chief Congressional Correspondent Manu Raju. He's up on Capitol Hill.

Manu, the speaker is facing yet another major test. Give us the very latest.

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Pressure he is now building on the speaker of the House to back away from a deal that he cut with the Democratic leader in the Senate Chuck Schumer, a deal that he believed was good to sell to his members and it could avoid a government shutdown by next week.

But those members on the far right are pushing him to back away from that, seek even deeper cuts. But if you were to do that, that could prompt a government shutdown by next week.


RAJU (voice over): Speaker Mike Johnson trying to tamp down a conservative revolt as tensions flare with hard right Republicans over his deal with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to avoid a government shutdown next week.

REP. ANDY OGLES (R-TN): He didn't go in with the strongest hand and what I'm looking for now is a fighter.

REP. MARJORIE TAYLOR GREENE (R-GA): I think it was a massive failure and we had no input into the conversations.

RAJU: Do you think Johnson cut a bad deal here with Schumer?


REP. BYRON DONALDS (R-FL): This place is a joke.

RAJU: Now trying to avoid the same fate as Kevin McCarthy, the first speaker ever ousted after he relied on Democrats to help keep the government open.

Johnson and Schumer cut a deal over the holiday recess to fund federal agencies at an overall level of $1.66 trillion, similar to the deal McCarthy and the White House agreed to last May.

REP. WARREN DAVIDSON (R-OH): By the time we could even get back to D.C., he had negotiated the terms of our surrender on the issue.

RAJU: Do you think he's up to the job?


DAVIDSON: I think the problem is we didn't do the right thing up front. So, we focused on who should be the next speaker. We focused on a person.

RAJU: In protest, 13 hardliners stalled action in the house this week. Now, those members want Johnson to back away from his deal and seek even deeper cuts while also imposing new immigration restrictions, moves that would almost certainly cause a shutdown.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We do not want to fund a government that's working against us.

REP. KEVIN HERN (R-OK): There's a likelihood we could have a -- we continue a short-term shutdown.

RAJU: Would you be okay with that?

HERN: I think if it's for a short period of time, yes. Then we'll get these appropriation bills done.

RAJU: Johnson telling CNN he is not concerned about his job.

Are you worried that one of these guys is going to make a move on you?

REP. MIKE JOHNSON (R-LA): No, I'm not worried about that at all.

I am a lifelong hardcore conservative. I want to get as many policy wins as we can.

But the reality is we have a small majority.

RAJU: Indeed, many furious at the far right, saying Johnson's hands are tied with a razor thin majority and with Democrats running the White House and the Senate. They say the deal includes spending cuts Republicans should tout.

It seems like you guys are sort of banging your heads against the wall with some of these folks.

REP. FRENCH HILL (R-AR): I'm suffering. I've got traumatic brain injury from banging my head against the wall.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm not big fans of them, let's put it that way.

RAJU: But the eight Republicans who voted out McCarthy are offering no regrets.

REP. NANCY MACE (R-SC): Well, I mean, the former speaker wasn't someone you could trust. I trust Mike Johnson.


RAJU (on camera): And right now this negotiation in the House is really between defense hawks. Members of the Republican Party who consider themselves defense hawks and members of that far right Freedom Caucus, they are negotiating how they can avoid a government shutdown by next week.

There are several options that are on the table. But, Wolf, if Mike Johnson decides to go a route that breaks from his deal with Chuck Schumer, almost certainly you can expect Democrats to reject that, which will raise real fears about a government shutdown. But if Johnson decides to side with Chuck Schumer's, those threats to ouster from the speakership will only intensify. Wolf?

BLITZER: Manu Raju up on Capitol Hill, thank you.

We're also following other breaking news right now, Hunter Biden pleading not guilty to federal tax charges in a Los Angeles courtroom.

Let's get some more now from CNN National Correspondent Nick Watt. He's outside the courthouse. Nick, update our viewers.

NICK WATT, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Hunter Biden came in and out of this courthouse through the back entrance, no comments to reporters. And this historic hearing took just a few minutes. This is a criminal case, but, Wolf, politics hangs heavy over these proceedings.


WATT (voice over): The sitting president, sometimes wayward son, could face prison time over taxes he didn't pay on foreign earnings. He just pleaded not guilty to nine counts, including three felonies.

This is a legal matter and potentially very consequential. It comes after yesterday's political posturing in Washington over Hunter Biden's role in the impeachment inquiry into Biden Sr., which is also focused on Biden Jr.'s overseas income.

According to this indictment handed down by Grand Jury in L.A., Hunter Biden earned over $7 million between 2016 and 2020 but failed to pay at least $1.4 million in taxes he owed on time.

The defendant spend the money on drugs, escorts and girlfriends, luxury hotels and rental properties, exotic cars and other items of a personal nature, in short, everything but his taxes. Also, and these are the felonies, he is accused of filing a fraudulent return for 2018 after allegedly claiming some very private expenses were for business purposes, $11,500 for two nights with an escort, more than $27,000 on online porn and nearly $60,000 on his daughter's rent and college tuition.

Biden's lawyers say all this happened when he was in the grip of drug addiction. He's now clean and paid his tax bills, plus interest and penalties, more than two years before this indictment was ever filed.

This morning, Jill Biden said this.

JILL BIDEN, U.S. FIRST LADY: I think what they are doing to Hunter is cruel. And I'm really proud of how Hunter has rebuilt his life after addiction.

WATT: He almost reached a plea deal in the summer. A separate gun charge would have been dropped. He would have pleaded guilty to two tax misdemeanors and faced no jail time. That deal collapsed at the very last minute largely over the breadth of immunity on offer.

His lawyers claim it collapsed under pressure from former President Trump and other Republicans, who, in turn, claimed the criminal investigation of Hunter Biden was politically tilted in his favor, based on allegations from IRS whistleblowers, both claims the Justice Department flatly denies.


WATT (on camera): And today, the judge set a trial date, June 20th, here in Downtown Los Angeles.


So this year, what we could see is a sitting president out on the campaign trail while his son is on trial and while his likely opponent Donald Trump, who has his own legal issues, is also in the dark -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Nick Watt in L.A., thank you very much for that report.

Coming up, South Africa accuses Israel of committing genocide during its war against Hamas in Gaza. Both countries are litigating the allegations before the United Nations' top court in The Hague.


BLITZER: All right. There's major breaking news we're following right now. A United States official tells CNN the U.S. military has carried out strikes on multiple Houthi targets in Yemen.

I want to bring in our team for more information.

And Oren Liebermann, you're joining us from the Pentagon. Let's get the latest review first, this is a big deal. If the U.S. is attacking targets inside Yemen, the Houthis are, of course, backed by Iran. This war could be escalating big time.

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: The U.S. and the U.K. to a large extent have been telegraphing the fact that if attacks on commercial shipping lanes in the Red Sea, a critical waterway continued. The U.S. would be compelled to act. We are now seeing those actions take place in real time. A U.S. official telling CNN that the U.S. is hitting multiple targets in Yemen controlled by the Houthis.

We have seen reports of explosions in major western Yemen in cities like other Hudaydah and several others cities there. That the likely result of these U.S. strikes, the strikes carried out by U.S. fighter jets, as well as Tomahawk missiles. Those are land attack missiles launched from Navy vessels.

There's also an expectation based on comments we've seen from the U.K. that they might be a part of these strikes as well. Crucially, this is not a strike on a single location. These are multiple targets and apparently based on reports of explosions from Yemen across multiple cities. The U.S. very much trying to send a message as it works to deter further attacks on commercial shipping lanes, attacks that a forced some major shipping companies to entirely avoid the Red Sea, adding thousands of miles to shipping routes.

It is because of this threat to shipping that the U.S. setup Operation Prosperity Guardian with more than 20 other countries to defend the shipping lanes. But that was purely defensive. This is an offensive operation, targeting the Houthis in Yemen. The Houthis had vowed that they would respond to any sort of U.S. aggression with an even greater response, we saw them just on Tuesday, launched 21 drones and missiles that were intercepted by U.S. and U.K. destroyers and aircrafts.

So you see over the course of the last 48, 72 hours, they potential major escalation in the Red Sea, in southern Red Sea. Again, the U.S. now carrying out strikes in Yemen using fighter jets, as well as Tomahawk missiles against Houthi targets. They had warned this was a possibility. And, Wolf, we are very much seeing that possibility play out as we speak.

BLITZER: Yeah, this war could be expanding big time right now.

MJ Lee, you're over at the White House for us. Has the White House said anything about this latest development?

MJ LEE, CNN SENIOR WHTIE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the White House has not officially commented yet, but I think it is worth noting how significant this action is given that the U.S. had very much hoped that things would not devolve to this point. At this has been a huge priority for the administration to essentially try to keep things in the Middle East contained and not have a broad how are regional conflict given the existing volatility in the region? It has also been a priority for the administration to not disturb the current truths and the Yemen civil war.

Now, this action that we are now reporting out of the Pentagon clearly signals that the situation in the Red Sea had become a completely intolerable for the U.S. and its allies. And we did see a bit of a turning point last week when a us official said following the weeks and weeks of provocations and the attacks from the Houthis in the Red Sea on these shipping vessels that they were essentially giving the last warning, that there would not be another warning.

And so, given that we have seen these attacks in these provocations continue in some ways, we were very much preparing for a different kind of response from the U.S. and its allies. Again, we haven't gotten an official word from the White House, but, Wolf, as Oren was saying, given the significance of this kind of action by the U.S. in Yemen, we should expect to hear from the president and some way tonight -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yeah, very significant development indeed.

Colonel Leighton, you're a military analyst. These strikes certainly do carry a real risk of escalation right now. Give us your reaction.

COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Yeah, Wolf. The big situation here with these strikes is that, first of all, they are going to hit some of the targets as Oren mentioned, Hudaydah, it would the main port in western Yemen is a highly likely target. There were a lot of anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles that are located in that area.

As far as the escalation of the possibilities or possibilities of escalation are concerned, what can happen here is that the Houthis are going to respond first to the ships, the U.S. ships and British ships in the Red Sea. Then they could possibly target situation installations in the Saudi Arabia.

That could very much inflame tensions throughout the southern Arabian peninsula at this particular point. So I think were going to see some major activity in the next 24 hours or so.

BLITZER: Yeah. I think you're absolutely right. Oren, I know the U.S. has sought to avoid this escalation, this

development, but it's clearly happening as we speak right now. And I know the U.S. was prepared for this. There's a U.S. aircraft carrier battle group not too far away, right?

LIEBERMANN: Correct. The USS Dwight D. Eisenhower is I believe at this point in the Red Sea, if not very close by. There are some four U.S. destroyers in the Red Sea. There's a British destroyer there as well.

In addition, I believe other warships from other countries, those part of Operation Prosperity Guardian to try to protect international shipping there.


But it's exactly these kinds of ships you need to shoot Houthi launches out of the sky.

And these same types of ships that can use, for example, Tomahawk missiles to carry out strikes on land targets.

It is worth noting that we can now say a senior administration official's briefed congressional leadership that earlier today that these strikes were imminent. So, Congress given a heads-up. Congress to put a tremendous amount of pressure on the Biden administration to do essentially more than make statements, or put warships in the Red Sea to try to push back against the Houthis and make sure they don't threaten one of the world's most critical waterways.

Again, that's what were seeing being here play out. The U.S. very much aware that there could be a risk of escalation with the Houthis and because the Houthis are an Iranian proxy, you have to keep an eye on Iran to see their reaction to this, especially after the U.S. says they seized a tanker in the Gulf of Oman earlier today.

BLITZER: Yeah, very, very significant. Looks like this war, as I said, is escalating big time.

And, Colonel Leighton, as you know, these aircraft carrier battle group has a lot of warplanes ready to go if, if given the order. What do you think? How likely is this next step going to be taking place?

COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: I think it's highly likely, Wolf. I think the warplanes that you mentioned, primarily FA-18 fighters onboard the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, they are going to be used to strike targets that are more complex than what you would do normally strike with a Tomahawk missile. Some of areas that they might strike it would include radar installations. They will also probably go after some of the command and control nodes that the Houthis have.

So that is basically what were looking at here. See, I think a lot of activity in the northern part of Yemen and in the western part, which are the areas that the Houthis currently control.

BLITZER: I want to bring in CNN's chief national security correspondent, Alex Marquardt. He's getting more information.

Tell us more about the U.S. allies. They're involved in what's going on, Alex.

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it was a major consideration in carrying out the military operation that we are now seeing unfold that the U.S. not do this alone. There is a belief that the British also have a hand in this and potentially actually others as well. The U.S. really wanted to have global support when it came to retaliating against the Houthi rebels in Yemen.

You have this coalition of 22 countries, Operation Prosperity Guardian, that was set up late last year in order to protect ships in the Red Sea. And then just last week, the U.S. and other countries warning of consequences to the Houthis if they consider a -- continued to carry out attacks against commercial shipping in the Red Sea. That was a warning that was issued by the White House alongside 11 other countries.

Wolf, there was a real sense that this was imminent as soon as that statement was put out, a senior administration official saying that there would not be another warning. We have seen several attempted attacks and attacks by the Houthis in the past few days. And here, we are seeing the response.

So, as Oren and the colonel had been alluding to, the question now is what does -- what do the Houthis do? What does Iran do in reaction to tonight's strikes? We heard from a senior Houthi leader just earlier today who said but that they would confront America and make it kneel down.

I've been told by numerous U.S. officials that it is clear that Iran's hand is clear in all of these operations and attacks that the Houthis carry out. So, of course, there's a real concern over what Iran will do here.

I will tell you, the U.S. officials don't think that Iran necessarily wants to escalate and open up any kind of full-scale war or major front with Iran. But there are certainly eager to stir the pot. So what were seeing here now is an attempt to deescalate the situation essentially, give the Houthis a bloody nose and give them a message to back down and stopped up, carrying out these operations in the Red Sea, Wolf.

BLITZER: You know, I'm just curious, Oren, there at the Pentagon. Clearly, an operation like this would have been planned for some time. You don't want just go ahead and expand this war.

And it comes as the Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is apparently still in the hospital. Update us on that and the connection, if any, to what's going on?

LIEBERMANN: He very much remains in the hospital at this point. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has been there since January 1st. So ten days and no expectation that he's going to be released in the coming hours, perhaps not even in the coming days here.

So the Pentagon has been adamant and so has the White House that Austin can do his job from Walter Reed. It is a military medical center that has the facilities necessary to conduct secure communications. And this effectively is their opportunity to prove it.

Now we don't know yet his extent of involvement. Is he able to monitor this in real time? What are the communications like between him and the president at this time? Was this strike preauthorized? In other words, did you have to give a final sign-off while in the hospital?

These are all frankly questions that we have right now. The bottom line is this entire process and the national security perspective was able to move forward.

BLITZER: So, Alex, what should we be looking for next?

MARQUARDT: Well, a reaction of some kind from the Houthis, if you believe the warning that they issued earlier today. There will be some kind of response. So, the question is whether this escalates from here. Again, the U.S. and whoever else is involved in terms of allies, trying to send a message to the Houthis to stop this. Whether they listen to that, it remains very much to be seen, Wolf.

BLITZER: We're going to stay on top of this new development in the region. Very significant indeed.

Guys, thank you very much.

And to our viewers, thanks very much for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.