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White House on Damage Control Over Biden Age, Memory After Scathing Report; Trump Courts NRA After Upbeat Day For Campaign And At Supreme Court; Tensions Flare As Biden Calls Israeli Ops In Gaza Over The Top; Zelenskyy Fires Ukraine's Military Chief In Biggest Shakeup Since Start Of War With Russia; Taylor Swift Mania Grips Super Bowl LVIII. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired February 09, 2024 - 18:00   ET



COY WIRE, CNN SPORTS CORRESPONDENT: There's no way I'm getting against those two in this big game.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Coy Wire in Vegas, have fun, man.

Coming up Sunday on State of the Union, Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio talking about the immigration deal collapsing. I'll see you Sunday morning at 9:00 Eastern and again at noon here on CNN.

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Our coverage continues now with THE SITUATION ROOM. See you Sunday morning.

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, the White House ramps up damage control, echoing President Biden's outrage over the scathing special counsel report, describing him as an elderly man with a poor memory. Standby for the Biden camp's reaction, as voters' concerns about the president's age weigh on his re-election bid.

Also this hour, Donald Trump is courting gun enthusiasts at an NRA event in the battleground state of Pennsylvania. We'll get a read on Trump's message a day after his ballot battle at the U.S. Supreme Court seemed to go his way.

And fresh tension between the United States and Israel after President Biden calls the Israeli military's operation in Gaza over the top. This as Israel is facing backlash over a planned evacuation and ground offensive in the refugee-packed city of Rafah.

Welcome to our viewers here in the United States and all around the world. Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Alex Marquardt, and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

First tonight, the White House is picking up where President Biden left off when he lashed out at Special Counsel Robert Hur for portraying him as a forgetful old man who can't remember when his own son died.

CNN White House Correspondent Arlette Saenz has more on the pushback and the political stakes for the president. So, Arlette, we saw a full court press by Team Biden as well as Democrats, including Vice President Harris today.

ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: We did, Alex. And President Biden departed the White House a short while ago for a weekend at his home in Wilmington, Delaware, just one day after Special Counsel Robert Hur's scathing report and assessment of the president's mental acuity.

Now, the White House isn't in full damage control mode with aides defending the president, the president himself lashing out at what he believed was inappropriate parts of the report and Vice President Kamala Harris even suggesting that the report was politically motivated.


SAENZ (voice over): President Biden today hosting German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to discuss Ukraine. Biden ignoring questions about special counsel Robert Herrs explosive report one day after teeing off.

JOE BIDEN, U.S. PRESIDENT: I've seen the headlines since the report was released about my willful retention of documents. This needs assertion is not only misleading, they're just plain wrong.

SAENZ: Instead today, it was Vice President Kamala Harris who came out slamming the special counsel, suggesting politics was involved.

KAMALA HARRIS, U.S. VICE PRESIDENT: The way that the president's demeanor in that report was characterized could not be more wrong on the facts and clearly politically motivated, gratuitous.

We should expect that there would be a higher level of integrity than what we saw.

SAENZ: Biden's aides noting the president fully cooperated with the investigation, including two days of interviews in the opening days of the Israel-Hamas War.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He wanted to make sure he had everything he needed and he didn't want to throw up roadblocks.

SAENZ: Special counsel's investigation ending without criminal charges. But Hur's assessment of Biden as a, quote, well-meaning elderly man with a poor memory putting the 81-year-old president's age in the spotlight.

BIDEN: I am well-mean ing and I'm an elderly man and I know what the hell I'm doing.

SAENZ: The president fiery in the face of reporters' questions last night.

M.J. LEE, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Mr. President, for months, when we're asked about your age, you would respond with the words, watch me. Many American people have been watching, and they have expressed concerns about your age.

BIDEN: That is your judgment.

I'm the most qualified person in this country to be president of the United States and finish the job I started.

SAENZ: Hur's report highlighting a chief issue voters raise about the president. A recent NBC News poll found three in four voters have major or moderate concerns about whether he's fit to serve a second term.

REP. MAXWELL FROST (D-FL): Yes. Okay. We know President Biden is old, okay? Yes, but it doesn't sound like breaking news to me.

SAENZ: It comes amid a string of verbal slip-ups, including Thursday, when Biden mixed up the leaders of Egypt and Mexico.

BIDEN: Initially, the president of Mexico, Sisi, did not want to open up the gate to allow humanitarian material to get in.

SAENZ: Hur's report striking a personal nerve with Biden after saying the president couldn't remember when his son, Beau Biden, died from cancer.

BIDEN: How in the hell dare he raise that?


SAENZ: In private, Biden's fury even more direct, telling a group of Democratic lawmakers, quote, how would I effing forget that?


SAENZ (on camera): Now, one big question going forward is whether there could be a potential release of transcripts or audio of President Biden's sit-down over two days with special counsel Robert Hur's team.

The White House -- spokesperson for the White House Counsel, Ian Sams, today told reporters that they are not ruling that out, that it could be a possibility, and that they would maybe be open to that once a review is done and any redactions would be made due to classified information.

But what is clear here is that the White House had hoped that this would -- reports that the headline of Biden facing no criminal charges is what would emerge from this investigation, but now it's clear that one of the key issues about Biden's age, concerns about his age, is coming front and center once again in the 2024 campaign.

MARQUARDT: It certainly is. Arlette Saenz at the White House, thank you very much for that report.

Let's get more on this with our political experts. Audie Cornish, I want to start with you. Do you think that this administration tactic of forcefully pushing back has really done anything to dampen the growing questions about Biden's fitness after this scathing report from Robert Hur?

AUDIE CORNISH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm just going to deploy one of the most cliche of cliches about if you're explaining, you're losing. I think you can tell by just how many people are coming out, what they're saying, the way they're saying it, that there is basically a bit of a panic going on.

And just to add one more note, you know, special counsel reports, they're kind of like the gift that keeps on giving. You know, this is why there's such a battle when there is going to be a special counsel appointed, because at the end of the day, you don't really know what you're going to get. And so far, the last 15, 20 years or so, Americans have gotten reports of one kind or another that underscore and create almost whole new political firestorms on their own.

MARQUARDT: And, of course, the point of a special counsel is their independence.

Kate Bedingfield, you have a unique perspective here. You served as communications director in the Biden White House. I want to get your reaction to something that longtime Democratic Strategist Paul Begala said earlier today. Let's take a listen.


PAULA BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I'm a Biden supporter, and I slept like a baby last night. I woke up every two hours crying and wet the bed. This is terrible for Democrats, and anybody with a functioning brain knows that.


MARQUARDT: Kate, we know that Trump has made his fair share of mistakes as well. Those are extremely well-documented. But do you think there's a recognition inside the White House about how widespread and serious these concerns are about Biden's fitness?

KATE BEDINGFIELD, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, look, I heard Audie use the word, panic. I can tell you from having worked for Joe Biden and with this team for a long time, this is not a team that panics. That's not the way they do business.

Now, I think what they're doing is trying to forcefully push back. They recognize this is a moment where they need to forcefully push back on some of what was in this report. And I think they did that by sending the president out last night to show some fire in the belly, to show some anger, which I actually think can be a good thing.

That's actually something that combats this notion of age, or is he too old, when he shows that he's sparring with reporters, when he shows that he's fired up. So, I didn't think that was a bad thing, to be honest with you. But, you know, writ large, I think this question of age is certainly going to be one that is going to play out across the campaign.

Now, I don't agree with Paul Begala that this is a bedwetting, hair on fire moment. I think it's a reminder that age is going to be one factor in this campaign, and it's something that the Biden campaign is going to have to deal with, and the Biden White House, and President Biden is going to have to take on directly.

But, remember, there are going to be a lot of other factors in this campaign too, like people wanting to protect their right to have an abortion, like people not wanting a president in Donald Trump who's going to try to take away their right to vote, or overturn the results of a fairly contested election.

So, I don't think that we should overcrank on the idea that this report is going to be the only thing that's going to matter in this election. And I think you've seen the White House push back forcefully today, and now the campaign needs to get on offense, and get back to talking about Donald Trump.

MARQUARDT: And, Scott, to that point, this report is damaging. But how much do you think these concerns over Biden's age are already baked in for voters heading into the general election?

SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, if you just look at the polling. I mean, obviously people had these concerns and the concerns that they had came from what they saw themselves in television appearances and speeches and so on and so forth.

What makes this more damaging and I think longer lasting and really pivotal for this campaign is that a third party credible, independent voice comes along, spends a few hours with Joe Biden and says, yes, everything you think you've been perceiving about his public performance is absolutely true.

And in politics, some of the most damaging things are the ones that are confirmed by independent third party validators. In this case, Mr. Hur spends hours with him and comes to a conclusion that a lot of voters had been perceiving.


But, you know, they don't interact with Joe Biden every day. It's just what they could see on T.V.

So, yes, I think it's going to last and I think it's going to hurt. And I think you can see from the, you know, people coming out today and just how vicious they've been against Hur. Frankly, vicious is what they've been. I mean, called them a liar and called them a partisan today, that they know it's damaging as well.

MARQUARDT: Well, a lot of Democrats are saying that he's not independent or a third party, that he's a longtime Republican, and he's trying to score political points. But, Audie, we have seen both Biden and Trump have verbal missteps, mistaking leaders of different countries. So, why do you think that these concerns about mental acuity in particular seem to be sticking to Biden more in a way that they aren't with Trump?

CORNISH: I mean, Biden is actually older than Trump. This has very much been also hammered home, I think, in certain media circles. And it's just always been a problem. I think your question earlier about whether it's baked in is the real issue.

And whether or not there are a bunch of voters who say, look, if my choices are between kind of someone who's being described as elderly with a bad memory or someone being described as sort of like possibly vindictive and violating some democratic norms, what are the choices that we're going to make?

But Nikki Haley, who you can probably hear in the distance trying to get some attention, this is her argument, right, that neither of these choices is ideal. And she uses age specifically to make that point.

MARQUARDT: Yes, she certainly does. All right, thanks to you all for your thoughts and your time this evening.

Just ahead, a new warning that the Gaza City of Rafah could become a zone of bloodshed as Israel plans mass evacuations ahead of an expected Israeli ground offensive against Hamas there.



MARQUARDT: There is a fresh source of tension tonight between the United States and Israel. President Joe Biden escalating his criticism of the way that Israel is carrying out its military operation in Gaza, calling their approach over the top.


BIDEN: The conduct of the response in the Gaza Strip has been over the top.

There are a lot of innocent people who are starving, a lot of innocent people who are in trouble and dying, and it's got to stop.


MARQUARDT: I want to get straight to CNN's International Diplomatic Editor Nic Robertson, who is in Tel Aviv.

So, Nic, this sharpening criticism, is it having any effect?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: I think it is. We heard from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office today saying that he was determined that he should go ahead, the military should go ahead, although he hasn't given a proper order yet, to go into a referendum and take down the last four battalions of Hamas that he says are there.

But he said, to do that, there's a lot of civilians and the civilians need to be moved out of the way. So, he's calling on the army to give the cabinet, his cabinet, a plan of how the army is going to make sure the civilians are not in harm's way. It gives the impression of the prime minister feeling the political heat and pushing off the resolution or tamping down that heat, if you will, onto the military.

But the military in the past has had a plan for trying to protect civilians. It's used it in Khan Younis, the military operation that has been going on for a number of months now. It calls for certain neighborhoods to be told by tax, by leaflets that are airdropped to take a certain route, leave at a certain time and go to a certain safe area.

But what we've witnessed is that those routes are sometimes not safe, people get killed along the way. They're not safe in the safe area. Sometimes they get killed there and some people are too afraid to leave and don't leave, and they also have been killed. So, it's very hard to, it appears, by that mechanism, to protect all the civilians.

MARQUARDT: And, of course, you can't go any farther south than Rafah.

Nic, the United Nations is now saying that an Israeli operation in the occupied West Bank, so not Gaza, but in the West Bank, may now amount to a war crime. What more do you know?

ROBERTSON: Yes, this is for two reasons, two different war crimes. When that 12-man undercover commando unit went into the hospital, some of them were dressed as nurses, as doctors, as people who were working in the hospital. That is a war crime.

It's not wrong for the military to disguise itself in some way to perpetrate a military operation, but not to use medical clothing and pass yourself off as protected personnel. So, that was one count of a war crime.

And the other war crime that the U.N. officials are saying is that you cannot kill somebody who's in hospital getting treatment. The maximum they could have done to the people in the hospital would have been arrest and detain.

You can only use, they say, physical force, you know, shooting them if they put up a lot of resistance, and as we saw at the time, at least one person appeared to have been shot in the head because there was a bullet hole in the pillow and a lot of blood on the pillow.

MARQUARDT: All right. Nic Robertson in Tel Aviv, thank you very much.

Joining me now is Senator Michael Bennet, Democrat of Colorado and a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Senator, thank you so much for joining us this evening.

I want to start on Israel and Gaza. You heard the president there saying that the way that Israel has been waging its war in Gaza over the past four months now is over the top, in his words. Do you agree with that?

SEN. MICHAEL BENNET (D-CO): I do agree with that. I think that a lot of us believe that more civilians have been killed than should have been killed. We are supporters of Israel. We are believers that they have to defend themselves against what Hamas has perpetrated here. But they are also going to be held to a very high standard.

And I think it's important that they kill as few civilians as possible.


And obviously it's very important that they comply with international law. So, I think it was important for the president to send that signal, not just last night, but with the guidelines that he's established as part of the aid that we're going to be voting on this weekend for Israel.

MARQUARDT: And those guidelines are that anybody receiving aid should abide by U.S. law and international law as well.

Senator, I want to ask you about Rafah and the plans that Israel may have to expand their military operation to the southernmost tip of the Gaza Strip. As you know well, there are around 1.3, 1.4 million Palestinians who have sought refuge in Rafah. Many of them have nowhere else to go.

So, what pressure do you think the administration should now be putting on Israel to make sure that those civilians who are so desperate are not in harm's way as Israel presses forward?

BENNET: I think that we have a moral obligation to those civilians. I think Israel has a moral obligation to those civilians. It's not clear to me that Prime Minister Netanyahu shares that view about that moral obligation. And it's very important that Israel proceed in a way that does as little damage as possible to civilians.

Israel is in an impossible situation. It's true. They are dealing with a death cult in Hamas. The damage that Hamas has done has been extraordinary to Israel. And the fact is they have burrowed into civilian infrastructure all over Gaza.

But that does not mean that we're relieved of the -- and that Israel is relieved of a set of high expectations for those of us that have high aspirations for democracy, whether it's here or whether it's anywhere else. And it's going to be a very difficult situation. And I think we would all feel a lot better here if we thought that Prime Minister Netanyahu shared that moral view about the Palestinians that are there.

But, of course, he doesn't. He's more interested in his political position in Israel, and that's a great worry to me.

MARQUARDT: Senator, before I let you go, I want to ask you about President Biden lashing out at critics who are saying that he doesn't have the mental acuity, the mental fitness. They point to his memory lapses after this special counsel's scathing report. I want you to listen to what your colleague, Democratic Congressman Adam Smith, had to say on this.


REP. ADAM SMITH (D-WA): That's not the way you want to do it. Okay, I think we can all agree on that. He was angry, he was frustrated by what came out. There was not a prepared, clear agenda of, okay, here's my explanation, here's what I'm doing, and it didn't go well, okay? There's no doubt about that. That needs to get better.


MARQUARDT: Senator, do you agree to think the president is handling these concerns the wrong way?

BENNET: Let me -- before you let me go, I want to say this, two things. President Biden has accomplished an extraordinary amount domestically, the bipartisan infrastructure bill being a good example of that. He has led this coalition against Putin brilliantly, and more important than that, the Ukrainian people have fought brilliantly.

And the president is going to have to campaign this for this summer in this fall and litigate the obvious issue of his age, and I believe he will be able to do that. In the meantime, this weekend, we have a really important piece of business to do, which is we have got to get Ukraine aid extended and we have to do that in the Senate with a big bipartisan vote. And then the House of Representatives is going to have to figure out how to do it.

I think measured against the standard of his global leadership, he's actually done exceedingly well particularly compared to the person that he's running against. And the American people are going to be able to make their choice in November.

MARQUARDT: Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, thank you so much for joining us tonight.

BENNET: Thanks, Alex, for having me.

And coming up, Donald Trump on the campaign trail, is he seizing on the special counsel report on President Joe Biden? We'll get an update on his event in Pennsylvania and his next battle at the U.S. Supreme Court.



MARQUARDT: Just into CNN, the House is scheduling a new vote on impeaching Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas after Republicans failed to push it through on their first trial.

Let's get straight to CNN's Melanie Zanona, who's on Capitol Hill with details. So, Melanie, what are you learning? MELANIE ZANONA, CNN CAPITOL HILL REPORTER: Yes. Well, we are just learning here that the House is going to bring up Mayorkas' impeachment articles again on Tuesday night. Of course, as you mentioned, the House failed to pass those impeachment articles this week with three House Republicans voting against it in what was a very embarrassing floor defeat for the leadership.

But House Republicans are confident that they are going to have the votes next week, when Steve Scalise, the majority leader who has been out battling cancer and receiving treatments, returns as he's expected to do on Tuesday.

Now, the timing of this vote, Alex, is actually very notable because Tuesday night, there is a special election to replace the seat that was vacated by former Congressman George Santos. And if Republicans fail to win that, they are going to see their margins dip even lower.

But, of course, as we've seen around here, nothing is certain given the razor than majority. So, we'll just have to see, Alex.

MARQUARDT: All right. Melanie Zanona on Capitol Hill, thanks very much.


This hour, Donald Trump is on the campaign trail, appearing at a National Rifle Association event in Pennsylvania, which, of course, is a key battleground state, in his widely expected rematch with President Joe Biden.

CNN's Kristen Holmes is at the NRA gathering in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. So, Kristen, what is Trump's message as President Biden is now once again on the defensive about a sensitive issue, really, for both of them, their ages?

KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Alex. Look, it is a sensitive issue for both of them. Trump is 77. Biden is 81. A majority or at least many of Donald Trump's supporters are older. And I was told by senior advisers there is some concern that they alienate those voters if he is consistently attacking Biden for his age.

So, what Trump has got to do is not an option calling him mentally unfit but also constantly saying it's not about age, he has a lot of older friends, this is just about cognitive ability.

Now, when it comes to that special counsel's report, even though Democrats, Republicans and President Biden himself have been focusing on that sentence that said that he was a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory, Donald Trump has not seized on that at all. Instead, he has focused on blurring the line between his special counsel case, Jack Smith, brought a mishandling class by documents as well as Biden's case saying that essentially it's a two-tiered justice system.

Now, on the second day of this Biden fallout, Donald Trump has been uncharacteristically quiet all day, but, of course, he is on the stage now. We will listen and bring you any updates in his comments.

MARQUARDT: Yes, on the stage now, I can't hear what he said, but the crowd is booing.

Kristen Holmes there in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, thanks very much.

Also tonight, Trump and his lawyers are on the brink of yet another Supreme Court fight. They are facing a Monday deadline to ask the justices to block an appeals court ruling against Trump's claim of presidential immunity from prosecution.

Let's bring in our legal and political experts. Elie Honig, I want to go to you first. So, what options does Trump really have right now?

ELIE HONIG, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: So, Alex, this is a procedural moment, but, really, it could be the whole ballgame. So, option A, if Donald Trump does nothing, then the case on Monday will go back down to the district court, the trial court, which can resume its proceedings and presumably would set a trial date for a few months out. I think that's very unlikely.

Option B is Donald Trump can go up and ask the Supreme Court either to take the case or to keep everything paused. And if the Supreme Court does that, then the case will be on pause pending the big decision, which is, will the Supreme Court take the case?

If the Supreme Court does not take the case, Alex, then I think we're going to very likely have a trial sometime around the summer. Obviously, that's a huge deal. But if the Supreme Court does take this case, that's going to push this whole schedule back to the point where I think it becomes probably unlikely that we see a trial before the election at all.

So, that key sequence is about to kick off on Monday.

MARQUARDT: And it had been originally scheduled for next month and then taken off the docket.

Ankush Khardori, the judges attempted to hamstring Trump's ability to ask the full court to review this case. How do you expect Trump will deal with that aspect?

ANKUSH KHARDORI, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Yes, so this was an interesting wrinkle to the order that they issued. Ordinarily, Trump would have the option to ask the whole court to rehear it, and that would extend this process even further. They truncated that by essentially saying, you can ask, it will not stop the clock unless we agree to rehear it.

So, there's a strong disincentive, frankly, for now Trump to try to go that route. And so my expectation would be that on Monday we will see him go to the Supreme Court through his lawyers because the D.C. Circuit is not going to be so appealing at this moment.

MARQUARDT: Very interesting. Audie, do you think that yesterday's oral arguments in the 14th Amendment case, the Colorado ballot case, impacts the Supreme Court's appetite for another highly politically charged Trump case?

CORNISH: I mean, to be honest, we noticed that in those oral arguments, they did not spend a whole lot of time talking about the issue of immunity or somehow trying to retry or try the president's actions leading up until January 6th. They were looking very narrowly at the certain provisions of the Constitution that were at play.

But what they made very clear across the spectrum was what are the ramifications if we do something sweeping and it keeps coming to our doorstep to sort of figure this out?

And, fundamentally, all of these cases are about figuring out the guardrails. What's legal? What's not? How do we prevent the country from falling into the same kind of political and cultural battle that it's been locked in for the last two years? And is there a way to build stronger protections into case law so that we're not in this conversation four years from now?

MARQUARDT: And, Elie, quite simply, what is your prediction? Do you think that the Supreme Court will be willing to take up this case?

HONIG: Well, Alex, as of this moment on Friday, February 9th, I am at exactly 50-50. Sorry to cop out, but this could go either way, really. On the one hand, this is why we have a Supreme Court.


This is a massive issue. We know very little about it. The consequences are enormous. This is why we have a Supreme Court to give us rulings on cases like this.

On the other hand, the Supreme Court doesn't like to get involved in political cases. You could feel they weren't thrilled to be involved in the Colorado case the other day. I don't think they're going to be thrilled to get involved in this one. And we've really seen very consistent rulings from the district court and the circuit court. They've been strong rulings. I think they've been well-reasoned. So, I could see them saying, no.

But really important for people to keep in mind, of course, you need five of nine justices to win a Supreme Court case, but you only need four to take the case. So you can sort of count heads. You can say maybe Alito and Thomas will be willing to take it, probably Gorsuch. If that's the case, they only need one out of Roberts, Barrett, and Kavanaugh to join them to give them a fourth to take this case, which, as I said before, could well derail the case until after the election.

MARQUARDT: Ankush, let's turn to the Mar-a-Lago classified documents case where Special Counsel Jack Smith this week detailed threats against prosecutors, judges and other witnesses writing, quote, that witnesses, agents and judicial officers in this very case have been harassed and intimidated, and the further outing of additional witnesses will pose a similarly intolerable risk of turning their lives upside down.

So, prosecutors want to keep the names of many of these individuals secret. How do you think the court should be handling this?

KHARDORI: Well, look, when there's a public trial, information becomes public in the course of that trial. In the run-up to the trial, the judge does have some discretion to sort of impose some confidentiality around the process, particularly in a situation like this, where you have the prosecutor saying, people are being exposed to serious threats.

So, I would expect, or at least hope, that the judge would take this very seriously. I don't know what the judge will do, obviously. But the judge has options here. But once it goes to trial, people don't testify in secret. These people are going to have to take the stand if they're witnesses.


CORNISH: Alex, just to add to that briefly, you know, we had the Colorado, I think one of the state election officials here, and she's had security with her everywhere she's gone. There have been attacks on the judiciary in one way or another over the last few years. There is actually a sustained concern about the safety of this process and the people involved.

MARQUARDT: Yes, these threats could be very, very real.

Thanks to you all for your expertise tonight. I really appreciate it.

And be sure to check out Audie Cornish's podcast, The Assignment.

Just ahead, more on the dire situation in the Gaza City of Rafah and how it could soon get far worse as an Israeli ground invasion looms.



MARQUARDT: We are getting a disturbing new look at the southern Gaza City of Rafah ahead of an expected Israeli ground offensive today. Residents now bracing for more bloodshed, more suffering.

CNN's Nada Bashir has our report, and, again, some viewers may find some scenes disturbing.


NADA BASHIR, CNN REPORTER (voice over): There are simply no words, this grandfather cradling the body of his seven-year-old granddaughter, Ataf (ph), beside the shallow grave, where she will soon be buried.

I told her mother that Ataf is now above, in heaven, Ahmed (ph) says, with her aunt, her cousin and her grandmother, who are all waiting for her. You see, we have many martyrs in our family.

Ahmed says his family had been taking shelter in a school in Khan Younis when an airstrike hit. It took hours, he says, to reach the nearest hospital still able to treat little Ataf, but it was too late.

Across Gaza, more than 10,000 children have been killed since the war began, according to the Hamas-Ran Health Ministry. Many more left orphaned or facing life-changing injuries.

In the central city of Deir al Balah, the airstrikes are near daily. Those who survive left to dig through the rubble with their bare hands in search of their loved ones.

Meanwhile in Rafah, once deemed a safe zone, UNICEF estimates that there are now more than 600,000 children among the over a million people in the area, many taking shelter in these sprawling tent cities.

The southern city has for weeks come under relentless airstrikes by the Israeli military who say they are targeting Hamas. But now a looming ground operation is stoking fears that Rafah could become, as one aid group has described it, a zone of bloodshed.

If by some misfortune there's an invasion of Rafah, two-thirds of the population will die, Gabr says. We can't get out of Rafah. We have no other alternative.

Israel says it is now calling for a mass evacuation of civilians in the southern city ahead of a planned ground offensive. But it is almost impossible to fathom where else these civilians can turn to.

But Rafah has not only become a vital lifeline for the displaced, it is also a crucial gateway for humanitarian aid crossing over from Egypt, and many in the international community are now sounding alarm bells over Israel's warning.

ANTONIO GUTERRES, UNITED NATIONS SECRETARY-GENERAL: And I am especially alarmed by reports that the Israeli military intends to focus next on Rafah, where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have been squeezed in a desperate search for safety.

BASHIR: The U.S. State Department has warned that it cannot support an Israeli military operation in Rafah without serious planning for civilians there, with U.S. President Joe Biden on Thursday describing Israel's actions in Gaza as, quote, over the top.


But Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already dismissed a proposal from Hamas for a prolonged truce, which would see a phased withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza, and a gradual release of hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners.

Netanyahu, who described the proposal as delusional, has vowed to push ahead until a, quote, complete victory over Hamas is achieved, leaving little hope for diplomacy as negotiations continue. And little hope for what lies ahead in Gaza.

Nada Bashir, CNN, in Cairo.


MARQUARDT: Our thanks to Nada Bashir for that report.

Coming up, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine removes two of Ukraine's top generals from their posts. We'll have more on what this means for their war against Russia.



MARQUARDT: Ukraine is abuzz over the dismissal of the country's top military commander, as well as a key general, as President Zelenskyy follows through on his pledge to make changes to the top of the military leadership.

Brian Todd has been monitoring this story.

So, Brian, what does this mean for Ukraine's war effort against Russia going forward?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Alex, it could well mean changes in tactics on the battlefield. Today, President Zelenskyy announced a new chief of the general staff. It comes just after a very significant and controversial move to replace the overall head of the army.


TODD (voice-over): Ukraine's wartime, president makes his biggest military shakeups since Russia's full-scale invasion, almost two years ago. Volodymyr Zelenskyy announces that his popular army chief, General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, has been dismissed.

VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): We had a frank discussion about what needs to be changed in the army, urgent changes.

TODD: Zelenskyy soften the blow by giving Zaluzhnyi the country's highest honor, the Hero of Ukraine Award and posing for an all smiles picture.

EVELYN FARKAS, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, THE MCCAIN INSTITUTE: They want to put the best face on it for the world. And, Zaluzhnyi at the end of the day wants Ukraine to win.

TODD: Why is General Zaluzhnyi being pushed out now? Analysts say it could be a political move. Opinion polls in Ukraine show that Zaluzhnyi has much higher approval ratings than the president. And there's speculation that Zaluzhnyi could be a presidential candidate, which one expert says makes this a risky play by Zelenskyy.

PROF. HENRY HALE, CO-AUTHOR, "THE ZELENSKYY EFFECT": My fear if I were in the Zelenskyy camp would be that by firing Zaluzhnyi, you create a potential political martyr who also has the glow of a hero in the war. TODD: But experts also say Zelenskyy could simply be holding

Zaluzhnyi to account for the fact that Ukraine's counteroffensive against Russian forces has failed to make significant gains. Zaluzhnyi himself described the war as a stalemate in November essay in "The Economist" magazine.

FARKAS: So I think Zelenskyy said, okay, man, you're calling this a stalemate. Well, you know, you're the guy responsible for bringing us to stalemate. So it maybe -- it accelerated some thinking he had already been having.

TODD: Zaluzhnyi's replacement, General Oleksandr Syrskyi, Ukraine's land forces commander, who led the successful defense the capital Kyiv, when the Russians first pushed in. Analysts say Syrskyi is not well-liked among many Ukrainian troops.

CHRISTOPHER MILLER, UKRAINE CORRESPONDENT, THE FINANCIAL TIMES: He is viewed by many of Ukraine's rank and file military as a commander who does not value the lives of his soldiers, there was the battle of Bakhmut that Russia wage for ten months during which time, Ukraine did not withdraw troops. Oleksandr Syrskyi demanded that his soldiers remain inside the city and hold it to the bitter end.

TODD: This move comes after Zelenskyy told an Italian media outlet, he's considering a wider shakeup, replacing several Ukrainian leaders beyond just the military.

FARKAS: I think it might be just to kind of re-energize, reinvigorate, keep people on their toes, and some of that could be, of course, political to consolidate, to remind people that he's the boss. But I also think that it's -- they just have a very real human fatigue and probably a need for new ideas and new blood and new energy.


TODD (on camera): Today, the new commander in chief, General Syrskyi, laid out his new battlefield priorities. One is to implement new technology in the fighting space, like more drones, they are looking to upgrade technology in large measure, Alex, because of course those new weapons and ammunition that they desperately need from the United States have not arrived. That aid package still held up in Congress.

MARQUARDT: Those drones absolutely critical.

Brian Todd, thanks very much for that report.

Coming up, the NFL's biggest game of the year is almost upon us and the biggest TV audience might even be bigger this year because of none other than Taylor Swift.



MARQUARDT: Millions of football fans will be watching Sunday Super Bowl between the San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs. And some of that huge viewership might be attributed to Taylor Swift, who's getting pretty much as much attention as the game itself.

CNN's sports anchor Coy Wire has this report.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Shout out to the newest member of the Chiefs kingdom, Taylor Swift, who has officially reached the Super Bowl in a rookie year.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thanks for joining the team.

COY WIRE, CNN SPORTS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The NFL and loads of fans are embracing this romance. One thing you can bet on is that Taylor Swift is good for business. NFL viewership hitting all time highs this postseason.

TRAVIS KELCE, KANSAS CITY CHIEFS TIGHT END: She's rewriting the history books herself. I told her I'll have to hold up my end of the bargain and come home some hardware, too.

CHARLES BARKLEY, FORMER NBA PLAYER: If you're screaming that Taylor Swift saying she ruined it, you're just a loser.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why is everybody so mad about this? Why is everybody so mad about this?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This says nothing about Taylor Swift. It says everything about the men bothered by it.

WIRE: It's pretty clear that this is all been quite divisive. Some supporting T-Tay (ph), but others --


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We are boycotting any T-Swift songs. It's hard for me because I ever on my playlist -- my running playlist and everything. So, but if she pops up --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She's dead to you this week.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: -- on the TV station, my oldest son Max and I are big Swifties, no, she's dead to us this week.

WIRE: Now, listen to this, Taylor's favorite number is 13.

TAYLOR SWIFT, MUSICIAN: This is my 13th Grammy, which is my lucky number. I don't know if I've ever told you that.

WIRE: This is Super Bowl LVIII, five plus eight is 13. The game is being played on 2/11, 2 plus 11, 13. The Chiefs opponent, the 49ers, four plus nine is you get it.

But seriously though, this will be Taylor's 13th game this season, leaving some conspiracy theorist of thing, the NFL is scripted.

ROGER GOODELL, NFL COMMISSIONER: I don't think I'm that good of scripter or anybody on our staff.

WIRE: Has this first ever Vegas Super Bowl matchup been Taylor-made?


WIRE (on camera): Yeah, Alex, people are running wild with this romance. They are even propped best for whether Travis Kelce is going to propose to Taylor after the game. He says that's crazy talk. One thing you can bet on is this game itself is going to be epic.

MARQUARDT: And whether she'll just drop onto the field and perform with Usher at the half time show as well. Have to wait and see.

Coy Wire, thanks very much.

WIRE: Hey now.

MARQUARDT: I'm Alex Marquardt here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Thank you so much for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.