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Iran-Backed Militants Vow Retaliation After U.S. Strikes; Blizzard Threat, Bitter Cold Disrupt Final Push to Iowa Caucuses; Biden Back in D.C. After Trip to 2024 Battleground Pennsylvania. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired January 12, 2024 - 18:00   ET



MAYOR CHERELLE PARKER (D-PA), PHILADELPHIA: It doesn't happen without the Biden Harris administration re-elected.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: All right. Philadelphia Mayor Cherelle Parker, thank you and best of luck to you.

Coming up on Sunday on State of the Union, Governor Ron DeSantis will join me just one day out from the Iowa caucuses. Also, we're going to talk foreign policy with Senator Bernie Sanders. We're going to talk politics with Maryland Republic American Governor Larry Hogan and veteran Democratic Strategist David Axelrod, Sunday morning at 9:00 Eastern and noon only here on CNN.

Then, of course, Monday, CNN's coverage of the 2024 Iowa caucuses will believe it begin at 4:00 Eastern here on CNN.

Our coverage continues now with Wolf Blitzer in The Situation Room. I'll see you Sunday morning.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, U.S.-led airstrikes inside Yemen trigger a vow of retaliation by Iran backed militants. Tonight, President Biden says the strike sent a message to Iran about its allies, the attacks on ships in the Red Sea as mass protests erupt in Yemen and fears of a full-scale regional war intensify.

Also, this hour, a potential blizzard and bitter cold are disrupting the final push to the critical Iowa caucuses. We're tracking the candidates and the severe weather with only three days to go before the first presidential votes of 2024.

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

Let's get straight to our top story tonight, Iran-backed Houthi militants vowing to hit back after a U.S.-led coalition struck the rebel group's positions in Yemen.

CNN National Security Reporter Natasha Bertrand is joining us now. She's got the latest developments. Natasha, first of all, what is President Biden saying as the U.S. braces for retaliation? NATASHA BERTRAND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: Well, Wolf, the president spoke briefly earlier today and he reiterated that the United States stands poised to respond to any additional Houthi action, including missile and drone attacks that they launch in the Red Sea.

And he addressed concerns that Iran might get involved in this conflict because the Houthis are supported and backed by Iran. Iran has been providing them with intelligence to attack these vessels in the Red Sea. He was asked if we are in a proxy war with Iran. Here's what he said.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I've already delivered the message to Iran. They know not to do anything.

REPORTER: Will you continue with the strikes, sir?

BIDEN: We will make sure that we respond to Houthis as they continue this outrageous behavior along with our allies.

REPORTER: Are we in a de facto proxy war with Iran?

BIDEN: No. Iran does not want a war with us.

REPORTER: Are you willing to call the Houthis a terrorist group, sir?

BIDEN: I think they are.


BERTRAND: Now, the Houthis did, in fact, fire a ballistic missile today after these massive rounds of strikes by the U.S. and the U.K., and they targeted a commercial vessel in the Red Sea, but nothing was hit, according to the Pentagon.

But the Houthis have vowed to retaliate, and they said that American and British interests are legitimate targets for them. And they said that their attack on the Houthi infrastructure last night, it will be dealt with in a, quote, appropriate manner.

It remains to be seen just how much Houthi infrastructure has been destroyed by these U.S. and U.K. strikes. The U.S. would only say at this point that the strikes that they conducted on the Houthis were, quote, significant. Wolf?

BLITZER: Yes, significant indeed. All this is unfolding, Natasha, as the defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, is still hospitalized, right?

BERTRAND: That's right, Wolf. The Pentagon has taken great pains to emphasize that the secretary was working over the last several days and that he was deeply engaged in every aspect of this military operation, working from the hospital, in talks constantly with President Biden and Central Command. But President Biden was asked today whether he still has confidence in Austin and importantly whether this was a lapse of judgment for Austin not to disclose his hospitalization last week. Here's what he said.


REPORTER: Do you have confidence in Secretary Austin?

BIDEN: I do. I'm sorry.

REPORTER: Was it a lapse in judgment for him not to tell you earlier?



BERTRAND: Now, it remains to be seen just when Austin is going to be released from the hospital. The Pentagon released an update earlier tonight reiterating that Austin had made a round of calls to members of Congress today describing the justification behind the airstrikes in Yemen last night. But they said they still don't have an update as to when the secretary is going to be released from the hospital.

BLITZER: Natasha Bertrand, thank you very much for that report.

Let's get some more now on the strikes against these Houthi targets and the growing tensions in the region. Here is CNN's Paula Hancocks.


PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Explosions light up the night sky in Yemen as U.S. and U.K. militaries strike more than 60 targets. The intention, U.S. officials say, to degrade the Houthi rebels ability in the Red Sea.


The Iranian-backed group has already promised retaliation.

MALCOLM DAVIS, AUSTRALIAN STRATEGIC POLICY INSTITUTE: But it's also possible that the Houthis and Iran, through its proxies in the region in Iraq and Syria and through Hezbollah, could also launch asymmetric attacks, indirect attacks across the region.

HANCOCKS: Iran's proxies, the so-called Axis of Resistance, have been launching attacks on Israel and U.S. troops in the region on a near daily basis, from bases in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria. The possibility now of an increase in attacks by these Iranian-funded, trained and equipped groups cannot be discounted.

COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Probably through proxies, because the Iranians don't want to -- at least not yet, they don't seem to want to directly confront the U.S. and its allies. The other aspect of this is that the proxies that Iran has aren't necessarily as directly controlled as we sometimes think they are by the Iranians. HANCOCKS: All ideologically linked, supporting Gaza and attacking Israel in the United States, but with varying degrees of autonomy.

DR. SANAM VAKIL, DIRECTOR, MIDDLE EAST AND NORTH AFRICA PROGRAMME, CHATHAM HOUSE: Iran has benefited from decentralizing management over the groups. This comes with risks, though, because there is a much more agency for these groups and then thereby much more risk for Iran as well.


HANCOCKS (on camera): A senior State Department official says that the U.S. secretary of state, Antony Blinken, brought a specific message to his Middle East tour recently, namely that if the U.S. were to carry out actions against the Houthis, it should be seen as defensive and not escalatory. It's a message that will not be accepted by Iran's proxies in the region.

Paula Hancocks, CNN, Abu Dhabi.

BLITZER: And thanks to CNN's Paula Hancocks for that report.

Right now, I want to bring in a key Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Congressman Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey. Congressman, thanks so much for joining us, like all the other members of the Intelligence Committee.

You've been briefed. First of all, what can you tell us about these strikes and how far does all this go to degrade the Houthi's ability to carry out future attacks?

REP. JOSH GOTTHEIMER (D-NJ): Well, what's very clear as these are, as you heard, Iranian-backed proxies, so the Houthis have been firing missiles and drone attacks on ships in the region now for weeks. Many global ships have been diverted. You're talking about going to have 15 percent of all global commerce in the region.

The Houthis, between drones and their missiles, have shot in the direction of U.S. ships, military ships, and, of course, have gone after U.S.-owned ships.

So, the bottom line is, in this case, I think the president was completely right to respond. You can't let this go on unanswered. And as the president also said today, Wolf, which I think is very important, is Iran does not want war with the United States but this is are their proxies. They're backing the Houthis, they're behind this and you can't just let them go unanswered.

BLITZER: How do you expect the Houthis to retaliate, Congressman?

GOTTHEIMER: Well, we'll see. We've seen what they've been doing now for weeks, right? They've been firing missiles at ships in the region, including those of our allies. They've been firing drone attacks at those in the region. They've hijacked ships.

So, the bottom line is I think they're going to continue, my guess is, to do more of the same. But as the president also said today, they should expect a response. This just can't go unanswered.

I called along with Brian Mast, Congressman Brian Mast, for the Houthis we designated as a foreign terrorist organization. And, clearly, this is clearly terrorist activity. They're doing it on behalf of the Iranians, the Iranian government. And so this is a very aggressive move from Iran's proxy. It's just like Hezbollah, just like Hamas.

So, this is a very -- it's a very tense region right now. But the bottom line, the best way to keep things in check is you can't let them go unanswered.

BLITZER: So, does the U.S. need to brace, Congressmen, for these other Iranian-backed proxies? You mentioned Hezbollah, you mentioned various Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria, Hamas in Gaza, for example. Should the U.S. brace for them to respond as well?

GOTTHEIMER: Well, I think everybody right now is aware of that you know every day you're facing risks both from Hezbollah in the north. That's why the president sent initially two carriers to the region to keep the -- to make a clear -- send a clear signal to Hezbollah and Lebanon, to not act, to stay put. We see obviously what Hamas did with on October 7th, a hundred days ago, and their heinous attack on Israel, including their killing dozens of Americans, six are still hostage.

So, we've seen that we've seen that and we've seen their action and then also its Iran-backed activity and we've seen it through to Palestinian Islamic Jihad.


And, of course, now the Houthis, we've seen activity out of Iraq, which has continued firing at Americans.

So, you know, the whole region, of course, right now is tenuous. But the bottom line is that's why we have to, when we need to, respond. And I think the president took exactly the right action.

BLITZER: To what extent, Congressman, is Iran directing all these various attacks? And does this strike bring the U.S. closer to a direct confrontation with Iran?

GOTTHEIMER: Well, I can't go into all the specifics on that but I'll say you we know historically and what's been clearly public is that Iran funds a lot of this activity, right? The missiles that the Houthis have are clearly from ,Iran the government Iran, right? And that's like -- I don't think they got them themselves in and Iran has been pretty clear of who that they funded many of their proxies in the region, including Hamas, including Hezbollah.

So, you know, what you have to look at here is Iran itself, and this has been their pattern over the years. Iran uses their proxies to attack others and to threaten others including Israel and our other allies in the region and, of course, us. Now, they've gone directly as well, the Iranian military, the IRGC, has attacked our allies, have gone after our bases, but, usually, the activity is through the proxies. And that's what we're seeing here, in my opinion, with Houthis.

BLITZER: Some of your fellow Democrats in the House Congressmen are criticizing President Biden for not getting congressional approval before these strikes. Back in 2020, after then-President Trump's deadly strike on Iranian commander, Qasem Soleimani, Biden wrote this at that time. Donald Trump does not have the authority to take us into war with Iran without congressional approval.

So, Congressmen, should President Biden have sought formal Congressional approval under the War Powers Act before carrying out this latest attack?

GOTTHEIMER: Well, I agree. Back in the last administration with the attack on Soleimani, given his threats in the region, and I believe that the president acted appropriately here, as they pointed out, in a sense of posture. That's the commander-of-chief's to respond when there's an attack on our interests, and this is clearly an attack on our interests. And the president acted responsibly and, of course, proportionally. And that's what he's -- as commander-in-chief that's what his responsibility is.

Now, if this goes on longer and it goes deeper in the region, I believe the president should come to the Congress. But when in terms of responding to an attack on our interests, where you're talking, again, thousands of ships have been affected, 15 percent of global commerce affects the supply chain, affects the global economy, and, of course, there's been a there's been missiles fired and drone attacks fired in the direction American ships and military, you have to respond, and I think the president acted accordingly.

BLITZER: Congressman Josh Gottheimer, thank you so much for joining us.

GOTTHEIMER: Thanks for having me, Wolf. Have a good weekend.

BLITZER: You too. And just ahead, crippling cold impacting the campaign trail at a critical time in the race for the GOP nomination. A live report from Iowa and how the candidates are using new tactics to get their message out with just three days to go.

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



BLITZER: Tonight, the Republican presidential candidates are facing a new challenge in the final 72 hours before the very high-stakes Iowa caucuses. The state is at risk right now for a dangerous blizzard followed by record breaking subzero temperatures, and that's disrupting campaign plans and threatening to reduce voter turnout. CNN's Jessica Dean is on the scene for us. She's joining us from Des Moines right now. Jessica, give us an update, first of all, on the weather and its potential impact on the GOP race.

JESSICA DEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we are in the middle of a blizzard here in Des Moines and across much of the state of Iowa. People are being told not to drive, that it's too dangerous. And we really don't see many people out on the streets, not many cars. We see a few buses going around the city of Des Moines, but that's about it.

And as you can imagine, that has certainly impacted the campaigns, which have scrambled to make the most out of this very snowy, cold day just three days before the caucuses.


DEAN (voice over): With three days until the Iowa caucuses, the snow fell and fell and fell and campaigns scrambled.

GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You have to go and trudge through snow to be able to earn the vote. You trudge through snow.

DEAN: The snowfall is set to be followed by dangerously frigid temperatures heading into caucus Day on Monday. Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley canceled all of her in-person events on Friday, instead opting for tele-town halls.

NIKKI HALEY, REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I am so sorry that we couldn't be in Fort Dodge, but I didn't want to miss the opportunity to be able to communicate for all of you that were planning on coming out to see us on this snowy day in Iowa.

DEAN: Most of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis' events were also called off, though he did add a last minute stop to meet with volunteers in Urbandale, Iowa.

DESANTIS: We can handle the snow, even though we're a Florida based campaign.

DEAN: The forecast calls for subzero temperatures in the coming days, with Monday expected to be the coldest caucus day ever in the Hawkeye State.

HALEY: I've been doing radio interviews. I've been on the phones with voters. We're trying to make sure we do everything that we can. And, yes, the weather is a concern. I'm concerned because I want people to be safe on caucus day. It's going to be negative 28 wind chill. And so what we hope is that they will wear layers, that they will bring their photo I.D., and that they will come out and caucus.

DEAN: The candidates are already beginning to try and account for the likely record-breaking cold on Monday.

DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We got to make sure that everybody gets out, doesn't say, well, you know, it's a little cold out.

DEAN: Former president and frontrunner Donald Trump's campaign is already adjusting expectations. His advisers have privately acknowledged to CNN his lead will likely be impacted by the weather on Monday, with much of his strategy built on turning out as many caucus- goers as possible.

DeSantis and the super PAC aligned with his campaign have long in ground game in Iowa, which will be put to the test on Monday.


DESANTIS: The people that kind of come in and just, you know, spend tens of millions of dollars and that's kind of it, they tend to underperform. But on our side is probably the best that anyone has been able to put together.

DEAN: With a flurry of campaign events scheduled for the weekend, the weather could cause further disruptions on the trail with the entire GOP field planning to barnstorm the state over the next few days.

In the meantime, a pro-Haley super PAC has released a new ad to reach voters at home, mocking DeSantis for his past support for Trump.

DESANTIS: Make America Great Again.


DEAN (on camera): And what we've continued to see is this dynamic between DeSantis and Haley, as they both fight to be the alternative to the frontrunner, former President Donald Trump. And to that end, we're getting some new reporting from a source familiar with his plans that Governor DeSantis plans to fly directly to South Carolina from Iowa after the caucuses. He'll stop there before continuing on to New Hampshire. That's worth noting because New Hampshire is technically next. South Carolina is Nikki Haley's home state, of course, so there's a little bit of trolling going on there.

And the race in New Hampshire, according to polls right now appears to really be between Trump and Haley, so, DeSantis really seeing his moment to go to South Carolina before then going on to New Hampshire. Wolf?

BLITZER: Yes, he's got to worry about New Hampshire first, of course. So, Jessica, what will this race look like tomorrow?

DEAN: So, that's what we're all looking to see. The snow is supposed to stop in the coming hours. But then we're going to see these subzero temperatures, where they're saying if you're outside, you could get frostbite just within ten minutes for any exposed skin, so it's still going to be extremely cold.

But as I mentioned in that story, all of the GOP field, all of the candidates, including the former president, are expected here in Iowa tomorrow. They're supposed to be going all across the state. And as of now, all of those events are currently on. So, we will look to see if that stays the case.

Again, this weather coming at just such a unique and important time for these campaigns with just such little dwindling time between now and when the caucus-goers will go to those caucus sites on Monday and will start to have the first votes cast in this primary.

BLITZER: All right. Try to stay warm, if you can, Jessica Dean in Iowa for us. I appreciate it very much.

Coming up, new reporting on fears within the Biden camp that some key voters aren't taking Donald Trump's potential return to the White House all that seriously.



BLITZER: President Biden just returned here to Washington from a trip to a key battleground state. We're talking about Pennsylvania, this as we're getting new insight right now into a big concern for his re- election campaign.

CNN's Senior White House Correspondent M.J. Lee is joining us. She's got some new reporting for us. What are you learning, M.J.?

M.J. LEE, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the Biden campaign does overwhelmingly believe right now that the likely Republican presidential nominee is going to be Donald Trump. And they are preparing for a general election with that expectation in mind.

But what we are learning is that the reality that the Biden campaign is grappling with right now is the fact that the majority of undecided voters at this moment in time do not seem to believe that Donald Trump is going to be the Republican nominee. In fact, according to internal campaign data that some officials describe to us, some three in four people in this undecided group that the campaign is targeting doesn't yet believe that Trump is going to be the Republican nominee.

And campaign officials say that the biggest reason really just simply seems to be that at this moment in time, a lot of voters are simply tuned out of the election. They're not paying close attention to sort of the ins and outs of the Republican primary. As one senior campaign official put it, they said, you can't conceive of how tuned out these folks are.

And that idea is supported by some recent public polling, including this poll from late last year that showed, when you asked the question, how much attention are you paying to the election, 47 percent of people said that they are paying little or no attention, and just 20 percent said that they are paying a lot of attention.

And, look, Wolf, the Biden campaign does believe that at some point in time, there is going to come a shift in the minds of a lot of voters where they sort of come to this realization that one senior campaign official described as sort of the, oh, shoot, it is an election between that guy and that guy, moment. But it's just impossible to know right now when that shift will happen.

Now, in the meantime, as we have seen over the last few weeks, the Biden campaign is sort of trying to ramp up these attacks and these contrasts that they are trying to make between President Biden and his predecessor, Donald Trump, on a number of issues, whether it is talking about the events of January 6th from three years ago, whether it is talking about issues like the economy or abortion, they are drawing that contrast and really focusing the most on Donald Trump.

In fact, you saw earlier this week when there was a Donald Trump town hall going on and a town hall between two of the other Republican candidates, the Biden campaign really only focused in real time on the things that Donald Trump was saying.

So, the task that the Biden campaign describes to us at hand for them right now is to remind voters of what the Donald Trump White House looked like during the first four years of that first term and also just try to paint a picture of what a second Donald Trump president presidency would look like.



BLITZER: What do we expect? Do we expect the President Biden, M.J., to be out there on the campaign trail more often in these coming days and weeks?

LEE: Yes. You know, that's certainly expected, given where we are in the calendar. I don't think that is exactly where we are right now. I think they are waiting to see the Republican primary process play out. But, yes, I think at some point, soon in the coming months, we are going to see sort of a blurring of the lines even more than now between official events that are put on by the White House and then campaign events.

And the truth of the matter is, when it comes to the issues, I think that distinction is increasingly going away. You know, we saw the president and he's returning right now to the White House from an event in Pennsylvania. That was largely focused on the economy, the issue of the economy. You can't really say that that is not an important campaign issue. And, in fact, it is probably the number one campaign issue.

So, yes, we do expect sort of the travel and the schedule of the Biden campaign to ramp up in the coming months, and particularly as it becomes clearer who the Republican nominee is going to be on the other side.

BLITZER: Yes, things are heating up big time. All right, M.J. Lee at the White House for us, thank you very much.

Just ahead, an alleged affair between Donald Trump's lead prosecutor in Georgia and the district attorney is brought up in court now for the first time.



BLITZER: There are new developments tonight. The judge in the Trump election subversion case in Georgia now plans to hold a hearing on allegations of an improper relationship between the Fulton County district attorney and the lead prosecutor.

Our Chief Legal Affairs Correspondent Paula Reid is working the story for us. She's here with me in The Situation Room.

Paula, these allegations, I take it, first came this week from one of Trump's co-defendants without any direct evidence.

PAULA REID, CNN CHIEF LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: And that's right. Trump's co-defendant, Mike Roman, has accused the district attorney, Fani Willis, who's overseeing the sprawling RICO case, and the lead prosecutor, Nathan Wade, of having a romantic relationship.

Now, Wade's appointment raised a lot of questions here because while he has briefly worked prosecuting cases, they were pretty minor cases. And more recently, he has worked in personal injury. I mean, I even had some sources suggest to me during the course of this investigation, they were a little surprised by his lack of experience in the criminal process given this enormous role.

Now, Roman's lawyers, as you noted, they have not provided any evidence, but they point to the fact that Willis has one of the largest staffs of any judicial circuit in Georgia, and yet she appointed Wade, even though he doesn't necessarily have the resume you would think of, and that he has made a substantial amount of money working on this case over the past two years.

Now, I want to note that Wade has not responded and Willis has -- her office has said that she will respond through the appropriate court filings. But today, during a routine hearing, one of Trump's lawyers brought this up and the judge is overseeing this case said, look, I'm going to schedule a hearing on this. He needs some more filings to come in. But, Wolf, going forward, I mean, this is going to be an issue.

BLITZER: Could these allegations have ramifications, consequences, beyond what's going on in Fulton County?

REID: Certainly, because, of course, this is such a consequential case. They're charging a former president. We're in the middle of an election cycle. It's not surprising today to see Republicans seize on this. And they are trying to get documents that would support this. Wade is in the middle of a divorce, so they are seeking some of the documents that they believe could substantiate some of these claims. So, this is absolutely going to turn into a political issue.

Now, it's not clear that this would make the charges themselves go away, but there will likely be calls for either one or both of them to step aside, potentially someone else to take over the case. I mean, it's -- this, for the Trump team, let me tell you, talking to sources in and around Trump world, I mean, this is really a gift because this gives them the opportunity to really try to undermine the credibility of this case that has always been such a concern, Wolf, because it's a state level case.

So, even if Trump is re-elected to the White House, he nor any other president could pardon anyone who's convicted in that probe.

BLITZER: Interesting indeed. And looking ahead to next week, there's the E. Jean Carroll defamation case that will be coming up. We understand Trump says he will attend that case in-person as well. Today, the lawyers for E. Jean Carroll raised a big concern.

REID: Yes. They're really concerned about what Trump could do if he follows through on what he said he's going to do, which is show up. Now, I covered the first E. Jean Carroll defamation trial last year. Trump did not participate in that at all.

But look what happened yesterday in New York. I was covering the civil trial where the judge gave Trump the opportunity to address the court. There were rules, there were restrictions, Trump blew through all of them. He attacked the judge. He attacked the prosecutor. He went on a bit of a rant, something you really usually don't see in court. So, it's understandable that E. Jean Carroll's lawyers, even though this is federal court, are worried because this proceeding, they are going to be before a jury that will be considering potential damages for defamatory statements that Trump made in 2019.

So, we're already talking about defamation, attacking E. Jean Carroll publicly. So, they are probably right to be concerned about what Trump might try to say or do in this courtroom. Now, the judge has already tried to put limits on what Trump can say if he does participate. That's pretty standard, Wolf. In most legal proceedings, they would want you to stick to the relevant and material facts. But that was the case in New York, and, again, Trump just completely blew through that.

So, it will be interesting to see if he actually shows up, because as I said, this is federal court, right?


This is not a state court, which is what we were in yesterday. There are no cameras. There's no audio. There are no reporters camped out in the hallway. It's much harder to seize the limelight in a proceeding like this and try to get your message out, which he arguably did very effectively yesterday. Then when he tried the same thing on Tuesday here in D.C. in federal court, it didn't work.

So, I'm really curious to see how these conversations go over the next few days with his lawyers. If he realizes, wait, this is federal court, this is why I didn't participate the first time and changes his mind. But if he does show up, we'll see that the judge is giving Trump's team a chance to weigh in on this request as well.

BLITZER: He sees all these legal hearings that he's going through, there's a lot of them, as potential political opportunities for him in the campaign. REID: Absolutely. It's an opportunity to get his message out. First, you have the assembled media, if it is a significant proceeding, as it was yesterday. And then you have the opportunity to try to frame this as a political persecution, which is what he's doing in the civil cases and tries to do with all these other cases too. It's just easier to do at the state level than it is for these federal proceedings.

BLITZER: Paula Reid, thanks as usual, you're going to be a busy lady in the next few days. You always are. Thanks very much for joining us.

Coming up, for the first time in Joe Biden's presidency, the U.S. Justice Department is seeking the death penalty. We'll have more on the horrific case that prompted this truly historic move.



BLITZER: Let's turn back to the battle for Iowa as Republican candidates urge caucus goers to brave the bitter cold and turnout for Monday's high stakes contest. Our political commentators, Maria Cardona and Alice Stewart are joining us right now.

Maria, Iowa is expected to be brutally as you all know, Monday night. Should the Trump campaign be at all concerned that with his dominant lead right now, Trump voters may not necessarily feel its necessary to brave the cold for him?

MARIA CARDONA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I do think that they should absolutely be concerned in this kind of historic, frankly, life- threatening weather, you know, a lot of times, most of the times, these candidates always wonder whether their voters are going to come out. But on Monday, everyone is asking, will voters come out in this weather? And because of all of the warnings, people think, wow Donald Trump is 30 points ahead. Well, maybe he doesn't need me.

And if enough of them do that, then I think there's a danger there. But at the same time, Wolf, I think that there's danger for all of the other voters as well. If you're somebody like Nikki Haley where you actually need to change some mines and you want voters to go who perhaps aren't sold on one candidate or another, or certainly are shopping around for Donald Trump, you got to think and life- threatening weather. The only voters who are going to come out are the diehard voters that support a candidate. And for that, I'm -- I would bet Donald Trump has more of those.

BLITZER: Alice, Trump has consistently dominated as we all know, the polling in Iowa, but his team now seems to be trying to lower expectations. That according to "Politico", which I'm reading now from Politico, a win is a win, a top Trump adviser, Chris LaCivita a told reporters after the town hall, but anything over 12 points I think is a great night what do you think behind -- what do you think is behind -- what do you think is behind that comment?

ALICE STEWART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think they're looking at the poll numbers that things are tightening up. You know, for months, he's been up, you know, 50, 40, 30 percent in Iowa. Now things are tightening up.

And the key with Iowa is you always want to under-promise and over- deliver, right? You want to overplay your expectations. And when they see that they are not going to just completely blow away the competition, they need to temper the messaging, which is exactly what they're doing.

I think, look, there's no mistaking that I would imagine that Donald Trump will win an Iowa, but by how much is the question. And the key here is how close can a Haley or DeSantis get in close that gap to give them the momentum they need to get into New Hampshire, and really make a push for gathering more delegates as we get down the GOP, the primary calendar.

BLITZER: We will find out Monday.

All right. Guys, thank you very much, Maria Cardona and Alice Stewart.

Other news we're following right now, federal prosecutors will seek the death penalty for the gunman responsible for killing 10 Black people at the Top Supermarket in Buffalo, New York, in what will be the Biden administration's first capital punishment case.

CNN's Brian Todd is joining us right now.

Brian, what can you tell us?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, even though the president's own attorney general had placed a moratorium on the federal death penalty, federal prosecutors felt this case stood out. They cited the horrific nature of the crime and the intent of the shooter.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Present in the courtroom.

TODD (voice-over): He gunned down 10 Black people at the Top Supermarket in Buffalo and wounded three others. Tonight, the man responsible for the racially motivated shooting is facing the prospect of being put to death by the government following the Biden administration's decision to pursue the death penalty in a federal case for the first time.

Today, victim's relatives responded with mixed emotions.

MARK TALLEY, SON OF BUFFALO SHOOTING VICTIM GERALDINE TALLEY: I would have preferred he stay right here, locked up in county jail for the rest of his life surrounded by people who want to kill him every day.

MICHELLE FRYSON, NIECE OF BUFFALO SHOOTING VICTIME PEARL YOUNG: We would like to seek justice served, to the point where that he would at least have some thoughts some time to think crisis what he did.

TODD: The gunman is already serving a life sentence in his New York state case after pleading guilty last year to state terrorism and murder charges. At the federal level, he faces several hate crimes and firearms charges.

The decision to pursue the federal death penalty is a reversal for President Biden, who as a candidate pledged to try to eliminate the death penalty at the federal level. There's still a moratorium on federal executions put in place by Biden's attorney general, Merrick Garland.


Why is the Biden Justice Department doing this now?

LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, PBS NEWSHOUR: Even though he ran on abolishing the death penalty, this is a mass shooting. Someone who killed ten people, Black people in a grocery store in Buffalo, and he has tried to really show that he is significantly combating violence like this, and white supremacist violence and racist violence.

TODD: And in asking for the death penalty, federal prosecutors in court papers repeatedly stressed the intentional nature of the gunman's rampage.

CNN legal analyst Joey Jackson says the federal case will play out like many capital murder trials. A jury will decide his guilt or innocence. Then if he's convicted in the penalty phase, if just one juror votes against the death penalty, his life will be spared.

What's the real likelihood that the shooter will actually be executed by the federal government?

JOEY JACKSON, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I think that there's a substantial likelihood. I think that they have the evidence. They have the goods. And if ever, there was a case that warranted the death penalty, this would be it.

TODD: But the federal case will likely keep open some horrible wounds.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Never go in no neighborhoods and take people out the --


TODD: The state sentencing hearing last year was so highly charged that a person rushed the shooter in the courtroom and had to be subdued by officers.


TODD (on camera): One illustration of the torture still being endured by the victims' relatives came from Simone Crawley, the granddaughter of victim Ruth Whitfield. Simone Crowley told CNN, quote, there has never really an outcome that will really measure up to the impact that has happened.

Wolf, they are still devastated.

BLITZER: They certainly are.

Brian Todd reporting -- Brian, thank you very much.

Coming up, polls are about to open in one of the most consequential elections of the year. A live report from where voters are picking a new president. That's next.



BLITZER: The future of Taiwan's democracy is up in the air right now as voters of the island prepare to choose a new president. Threats from China's increasingly assertive communist government playing a major role in Saturday's election.

Our senior international correspondent Will Ripley has the latest from Taipei.


WILL RIPLEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Tonight, Taiwan at a crossroads, the upcoming presidential election, some call a choice between peace and war. Taiwanese voters face a monumental decision, continue prioritizing ties with Washington or recalibrate the U.S. relationship and mend fences with Beijing.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): If the Democratic Progressive Party doesn't change the direction, I think that war can happen in our generation.

RIPLEY: In the campaign's final days and hours, three parties drawing battle lines.

Watching closely, China's communist leaders and U.S. lawmakers.

Taiwan's ruling party, the Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP, the presidential front runner.

LAI CHING-TA, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE, DEMOCRATIC PROGRESSIVE PARTY: We are determined to safeguard peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.

RIPLEY: Presidential candidate and current vice president Lai Ching- Ta, running alongside Taiwan's former U.S. envoy, a ticket openly despised by Beijing.

Lai says deterrence is the only way to defend Taiwan from a Chinese takeover -- a message that seems to resonate with many in this crowd.

And a message that infuriates China. Lai promises to continue the policies of Taiwan's two-term president Tsai Ing-wen. Beijing broke off, talks with Taipei, when Tsai won in 2016, for landslide reelection in 2020, fueled in part by fears of Taiwan becoming the next Hong Kong.

During Tsai's eight-year presidency, U.S.-Taiwan ties and arms sales hitting new highs. Cross strait ties tanking, tensions boiling over. Taiwan's two main opposition parties call it a dangerous path, claiming it pulls Taiwan, China, and the U.S. closer and closer to a catastrophic cross strait conflict.

Plans for a joint ticket collapsed on live TV, giving the ruling party a slight edge.

Kuomintang or KMIT candidate, Hou Yu-ih, seen as friendlier to China, calling for more cross strait diplomacy and trade.

HOU YU-IH, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE, KOUMINTANG PARTY: Do not use hatred to create confrontation and division.

RIPLEY: Taiwan People's Party or TPP candidate, Ko Wen-je, promising a pragmatic and professional China policy.

CYNTHIA WU, VICE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE, TAIWAN PEOPLE'S PARTY: Our party would like to reach out to China and have them begin dialogue with us.

RIPLEY: Intelligence agencies in Taipei accused Beijing of election interference, slapping sanctions on Taiwanese exports, sending spy balloons, showing off a new aircraft carrier. And this week, launching a satellite over Taiwan, triggering a rare emergency alert during this foreign ministry press conference. Taiwan later apologized for mistranslating the Chinese word for satellite to missile.

LAI: They're trying to destroy Taiwan's democracy whenever possible.

RIPLEY: Disinformation, deepfake videos, doctored audio, all coming from China, Taiwan intelligence says. Beijing calls the ruling party candidate dangerous, deepening divisions ahead of a crucial vote to define this democracy's future.


RIPLEY (on camera): And tonight, you're looking live at one of nearly 2,000 polling stations across Taipei. The polls are opening up in just seconds, Wolf. Less than a minute from now, people across Taiwan who have to return to their hometowns and vote in-person to participate in this election, where you can see the turnout at this one, a lot of people, Wolf, even flying from overseas, understanding just what's at stake this time, this vote.

BLITZER: Yeah, the stakes clearly are enormous.

So thanks very much, Will Ripley, reporting from Taipei.

And to our viewers, thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. I'm going back Monday morning for CNN special live coverage of the Iowa caucuses. Our coverage begins at 09:00 a.m. Eastern. I'll see you then.

Until then, once again, thanks very much for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.