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Trump Asks Supreme Court To Block Ruling Rejecting His Immunity Claim; Biden Warns Against Rafah Offensive Without Plan To Protect Civilians; Haley On CNN Slams Trump's Unthinkable Remarks On NATO And Russia; Pentagon Reveals New Details About Austin's Return To Hospital; Police: Child Who Shot Is Still "Fighting For His Life". Aired 6-7p ET

Aired February 12, 2024 - 18:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Henry arrived very early Saturday morning, 2:22 A.M., just in time to help kick off weekend festivities. Congratulations to Pamela and Adam and the entire Wright family. We love you. We can't wait to meet him. Only Pamela Brown could look that good after delivering a baby.

A heads-up about this coming Sunday, check out my series, The United States of Scandal. It's a closer look at some of the most outrageous, iconic, fascinating political controversies of the modern era. We speak to Rod Blagojevich and Rielle Hunter, who was John Edwards' girlfriend, and Jim McGreevey and Valerie Plame and so many more. The series premieres this Sunday night at 9:00 Eastern right here on CNN. I can't wait for you to see it.

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

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, breaking news, Donald Trump just asked the U.S. Supreme Court to get involved in another one of his legal battles. He's attempting to block a lower court ruling that flatly rejected his claim of presidential immunity in the federal election subversion case.

Also breaking, President Biden publicly warns Israel against the ground offensive in the Gaza city of Rafah unless there's a credible plan to protect Palestinian civilians, this just hours after deadly airstrikes on Rafah in connection with an Israeli rescue operation that freed two Israeli hostages.

And Nikki Haley is slamming Donald Trump tonight, telling CNN his threat to let Russia attack NATO countries is unthinkable. We're following all the new reaction that Trump's incendiary remarks and fears he'd abandon U.S. allies if he's president again.

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 right to the breaking news. Donald Trump is taking his fight for immunity to the U.S. Supreme Court. CNN's Chief Legal Affairs Correspondent Paula Reid is here with us. Paula, today was the deadline for this filing. What are Trump's attorneys now asking the U.S. Supreme Court to do?

PAULA REID, CNN CHIEF LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, they're asking the Supreme Court to pause a lower court ruling that found that Trump does not have presidential immunity to shield him from the federal election subversion case and they want that opinion to be paused because otherwise the first federal trial against former President Trump could begin in a matter of weeks.

Now, last week, in a unanimous and scathing opinion, a three judge panel on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals found that Trump does not have immunity, and we know that the strategy for former President Trump is to delay, delay, delay. They are trying everything they can to push this case back until after the November 2024 election.

And they're going to exercise every option they have signaling in this new filing that they intend to appeal formally to the Supreme Court, but also possibly go back down to the Court of Appeals, ask the full court to hear them.

Now also interesting, Wolf, in this new filing, they also point to the political calendar. They say, quote, conducting a months-long criminal trial of President Trump at the height of election season will radically disrupt President Trump's ability to campaign against President Biden.

Now, Wolf, that is significant. It echoes what we've heard from Trump repeatedly, these accusations that all of the cases against him are, quote, election interference. And I think if you see the fact that this trial is able to go on maybe in weeks or months, that is going to become their new legal argument. It's going to go from just delay, delay to you can't possibly do this because you're interfering with the election.

BLITZER: So, what -- Paula, what could the Supreme Court do?

REID: Well, what's amazing about the Supreme Court is they can do anything they want. But here, we expect the Chief Justice John Roberts will likely lay out a schedule for the two sides to weigh in. We expect the special counsel, Jack Smith. He's probably already drafted his responses because he wants this to move as quickly as possible.

Remember, they're not just considering this question of whether they will pause the immunity ruling. Last week, they heard oral arguments on the question of ballot eligibility. So, they're in this unique position of contemplating two massive cases connected to former President Trump, both of which could have an enormous impact on the election.

BLITZER: Interesting. Paula, stay with us. I have more questions for you.

I also want to bring in some of our legal experts ,and, Norm Eisen, let me start with you. Do you expect the Supreme Court will grant what's called a stay in all of this? And how long of a delay could there be?

NORM EISEN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, they'll almost certainly grant a stay while they figure out what to do next. If they decide to accept certiorari, they'll grant the stay and there'll be a petition or request by Trump.


If they decide to accept certiorari, they will probably move on a very fast pace, as we've seen with other historic cases. U.S. v. Nixon, the 14th Amendment case that they just heard, accelerated proceedings to try to resolve this.

In terms of what they'll do, Donald Trump had arguments that he could have made that were more modest about the nature of presidential immunity. He went -- swung for the fences to say a president is so immune that he can even order SEAL Team 6 to assassinate a political opponent. That can't be right.

So, I think the long-term odds for success are poor, but Paula is quite right, it's a delay game at this point, and we'll just have to see if the court moves quickly or not.

BLITZER: Let me get former federal prosecutor Ankush Khardori into this conversation. Ankush, Paula, as you heard Paula report, Trump's attorneys don't necessarily expect to win, but they want this process to go out, delay, delay, delay, as it's being called. Do you think the Supreme Court will likely allow that?

ANKUSH KHARDORI, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: You know it's such a hard thing to predict because they could go anyway on how they address this motion for a stay. And the really precarious sort of situation that Jack Smith finds himself in and the Justice Department finds himself in is like every day actually kind of matters at this point given the calendar and given the political calendar and given the difficulties that people may see about holding a trial in the run up to the election potentially in the fall.

So, I don't expect them to countenance the whole delay tactic or, at least I hope that they will not, but we're now starting to cut it pretty close here.

BLITZER: Very interesting. You know, Paula, on another legal issue, Donald Trump was in a courthouse down in Florida today in connection with the classified documents case against him. What do you think? What was the focus of today's hearing?

REID: I'm so glad you asked about this because a lot of people want to know, hey, what's going on with the classified document case. And right now, they're dealing with a lot of procedural issues like this. Today, the judge in the case, Judge Aileen Cannon, a Trump appointee, she met behind closed doors with lawyers on both sides, defense attorneys and then separately prosecutors, to discuss access to classified information, which is going to be a critical issue in this case. It is also an issue and a process that could push this case, which is currently on the calendar for May could push this later in the year, possibly even until next year.

Again, it's all about the delay game for former President Trump, the reason being if he's reelected, his attorney general could likely make Special Counsel Jack Smith and both of his federal cases go away.

BLITZER: Just drop the case if he's elected president again.

You know, Norm, it's interesting, normally in a situation like this, a legal situation like this, the prosecution has to make all of the evidence available to the defense, part of the discovery process, as it's called. In this particular case, because of the highly classified information, some of the most classified information around things are different.

EISEN: Yes, Wolf, it's a special federal law known as the Classified Information Procedures Act, CIPA. And Section 4 of that statute allows, even when you have criminal defendants, as here, allows the court to say some information is just too sensitive, you don't get it at all. Other information, we might redact a name, put in John Doe instead, or the prosecution is required to provide summaries, but not the actual document.

So, the judge is balancing national security interests against the right of every defendant in an American court to a fair trial, but extra precautions to avoid compromising our national security.

BLITZER: I thought it was interesting, Ankush, I'm sure you did as well that Trump and his attorneys met privately with Judge Cannon down in Florida without prosecutors even present. Take us inside into the scene. What do you think happened?

KHARDORI: So, this is what we would call an ex parte hearing, right, when you only have one side speaking to a judge. It happens fairly regularly, actually, in these classified sorts of settings because each side needs to be able to make arguments about its potential trial strategy in order to argue for additional disclosure if you're Trump or less if you're Jack Smith, and the judge wants to hear those arguments directly rather than have folks talking to each other and potentially disclosing their trial strategy ahead of time.

So, Trump apparently was there, and they were talking about a bunch of disclosures that they think the government ought to be making to them in the way of discovery. And I gather from the reporting that there was quite a bit of discussion about their defense strategy and what that will look like and why it makes sense to give them what they want.

BLITZER: Very interesting. You know, Paula, as you know, unlike last week, Trump was actually in the courthouse today down in Florida. What does that suggest to you?

REID: Well, we need to get some more reporting about what exactly happened in this closed door proceeding, how did he pay (ph), how did he interact with the judge.

[18:10:00] So, one thing we saw last week is oral arguments at the Supreme Court seemed to be incredibly successful for him. He sent an experienced lawyer who was well-prepared to make legal arguments, and he was not there. Though he did do sort of the loud martyr election interference thing from the steps of Mar-a-Lago, he did that separately, away from the court.

So, to see him attending, especially such a technical proceeding, is notable, and we'll be watching this week as he has hearings connected to his cases in Georgia and New York to see if he continues to show up or if they take notes from last week and he has less of a presence at the courthouse.

BLITZER: It seems like almost every day there's a new legal battle involving Trump going on, and I suspect there's going to be a lot more days like this. All right guys, thank you very, very much.

Just ahead, from the courtroom to the campaign trail, some Republicans move to defend Donald Trump after he suggests he won't defend NATO allies. Standby for how Trump's GOP primary rival is now responding.

But, first, President Biden responding today to mounting pressure to protect Palestinian civilians in Southern Gaza.

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



BLITZER: More breaking news we're following this hour, President Biden is putting additional pressure on Israel about civilian casualties in Gaza following his talks over at the White House with the King of Jordan.

Listen to the president's new and very public warning to Israeli officials about a planned ground offensive in the refugee-packed city of Rafah.


JOE BIDEN, U.S. PRESIDENT: The major military operation in Rafah should not proceed without a credible plan, a credible plan for ensuring the safety and support of more than 1 million people sheltering there. Many people there have been displaced multiple times, fleeing the violence to the north, and now they're packed into Rafah, exposed and vulnerable. They need to be protected.


BLITZER: The president speaking hours after a deadly round of airstrikes in Rafah, as Israel launched an operation to rescue two hostages held by Hamas.

As the war rages, sources tell CNN that President Biden is growing more frustrated with the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, believing he's ignoring his advice and blocking efforts to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Now, to Israel for more on that hostage rescue and the very emotional family reunions, CNN's Nic Robertson reports from Tel Aviv.


NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR (voice over): Words barely needed, joy, relief, love, overflowing in long, denied embraces. Just freed Fernando Marman and Louis Har, alive, but aged more than their 128 days held hostage by Hamas.

GEFFEN SIGAL ILAN, NIECE OF RELEASED HOSTAGE: The first moment of the hug, I wasn't believe I'm hugging them. I was so happy. We were crying and it was very emotional moment.

ROBERTSON: And, physically, how are they both? How would you describe them?

IDAN BEGERANO, SON-IN-LAW OF RELEASED HOSTAGE: I can say very thin, walking at least, so I can say that they are walking but I believe that they still on high adrenaline and we will see how physically good or bad they are or how mentally good or bad they are only when that days will come.

ROBERTSON: The overnight military operation to free them, a lightning covert raid. The two men held on the second floor of an apartment building in the center of Rafah, extracted under fire.

DANIEL HAGARI, ISRAEL DEFENSE FORCES SPOKESMAN: When we reached the hostages, Fernando and Louis, they were asleep. We've covered them with our own bodies. Fires were starting to occur inside the flat.

ROBERTSON: Gunshots?

HAGARI: Gunshots everywhere inside the flat, and gunshots from the surrounding buildings.

ROBERTSON: Palestinian officials say around 100, including women and children, were killed in Rafah in the early hours Monday morning, some in nearby strikes that the Israeli military say were to provide cover during the hostage rescue, this at a time when Rafah's 1.4 million densely packed civilians fear a coming IDF ground assault and Israel is under huge international pressure to keep the civilians safe.

HAGARI: We've been preparing for these seconds, minutes, all the targets that Hamas has in this area, headquarters, arms, infrastructures.

ROBERTSON: So, you were hitting Hamas targets?

HAGARI: Only military targets of Hamas.

ROBERTSON: But civilians were killed.

HAGARI: Tragically, as I said, Hamas embeds itself with the civilians. We did what we need to do to rescue our hostages, and we will keep on doing that anywhere, we will have the conditions to do that.


ROBERTSON (on camera): So, this rescue really does raise that very important question that President Biden and so many other world leaders are asking right now. I mean, is it militarily possible to go in and take out Hamas and save hostages without killing a lot of civilians?

Now, there is expected to be some advancement potentially of the negotiations over the release of the hostages. Bill Burns, CIA chief, is expected to be in the region and meet with Israeli and Egyptian and Qatari officials, but it's not clear what wiggle room Israel is going to give on those negotiations remembering Prime Minister Netanyahu has really shot down Hamas' latest counteroffer. Wolf?

BLITZER: Nic Robertson in Tel Aviv for us, thank you very much. Tonight, those deadly Israeli airstrikes on the Southern Gaza City of Rafah have unleashed a new wave of fear, panic and grief. We want to warn our viewers, this report from CNN's Nada Bashir includes images that viewers may find disturbing.



NADA BASHIR, CNN REPORTER: Yet another distraught Palestinian mother, her hands and face bloodied, her injured daughter, limp, carried out of the car. Around them, more casualties arrive, badly wounded, some of the youngest in a state of shock. The horror that they have faced will be hard to move past.

We were at home when the airstrikes began, this young girl says. I told my mother that I wanted to use the bathroom. Then suddenly all the walls of the bathroom and all the water containers above us collapsed on me.

This was the scene overnight in Rafah, a terrifying series of airstrikes by the Israeli military on a city where some 1.5 million people are now concentrated. The target said to be Hamas, part of an operation to secure the release of two Israeli hostages.

But the aftermath is, yet again, one of sheer tragedy. Bullet holes ripped through the thin plastic of this tent. Inside, the bodies of displaced civilians killed while they were sleeping.

We were asleep and then suddenly we heard the sound of missiles falling around us, Issa says. We could hear the gunfire, the destruction.

According to the Palestine Red Crescent, at least 100 people were killed overnight, but that figure is expected to rise.

We're civilians, we're not part of the resistance. We haven't taken up arms, this man says. Look around here, everybody here worked on the land. We're civilians, not fighters. Eyewitnesses tell CNN that Israeli helicopters fired machine guns around the border area, a foreboding warning of what could lie ahead for this city with Israel now threatening to launch a ground offensive on Rafah.

We were first displaced to Khan Younis, where we had many difficult nights, Nasr says. Then we came to the Egyptian border, to Rafah. We can't be displaced anymore.

The Israeli military has been directed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to prepare for a mass evacuation of civilians from Rafah, drawing criticism from many in the international community.

The U.N.'s Human Rights Chief warned on Monday that any ground operation could lead to, quote, further atrocity crimes by Israel with nowhere safe for civilians to flee to.


BASHIR (on camera): And, Wolf, as we have seen the prospect of a ground operation by the Israeli military has drawn widespread criticism from the international community. We have now heard from the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court expressing concern over the bombardment that we have seen across the city of Rafah and, of course, the prospect of a ground operation, but also warning that the ICC is actively looking into reports of crimes committed by the Israeli military in and around Rafah.

BLITZER: Nada Bashir reporting from Cairo for us, thank you for that report coming up.

Republicans react to Donald Trump's threat to abandon American allies if he returns to the White House.

Plus, why Trump is publicly disparaging Nikki Haley's husband and what she's just now telling CNN about that.



BLITZER: Tonight, Donald Trump is defending his handling of NATO amid outrage over his threat to let Russia attack member nations that are in his view delinquent on payments to the alliance. Trump's GOP primary opponent Nikki Haley ramping up her condemnation of Trump's comments during an appearance on CNN just a little while ago.

CNN's Kristen Holmes has more on Trump's threat and the reaction.


KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Tonight, fresh fallout to Donald Trump's claims he told allies he would encourage Russia to attack if they didn't spend more on defense.

NIKKI HALEY, REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: That's somebody who's going to get us in a war, and that kind of rhetoric was unhinged.

HOLMES: The comments by the former president came during a weekend campaign stop in South Carolina, sparking new fears about his commitment to defending NATO allies from Russian aggression.

DONALD TRUMP, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: The president of a big country stood up and said, well, sir, if we don't pay and we're attacked by Russia, will you protect us? I said, you didn't pay, you're delinquent? He said, yes. Let's say that happened. No, I would not protect you. In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want. You've got to pay.

HOLMES: President Joe Biden condemning Trump's comments as, quote, appalling and dangerous. Trump's former U.N. ambassador and current Republican rival, Nikki Haley, also calling out his remarks.

HALEY: Why would you go and put our allies and our military in harm's way by saying something so careless? It's what happens when he gets off the teleprompter for two minutes, he becomes unhinged, he becomes undisciplined, and he goes and he starts to say these wacky things. That's what scares everybody about him.

HOLMES: The former president has long insisted European countries should spend more on their defense.

TRUMP: This is not fair to the people and taxpayers of the United States.

HOLMES: While his latest comments set off alarms overseas, political allies of the former president brushed off concerns about Trump's approach to NATO in a potential second term.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL): I have zero concern because he's been president before. I know exactly what he has done and will do with the NATO alliance, but it has to be an alliance.


It's not America's defense with a bunch of small junior partners.

SEN. TOMMY TUBERVILLE (R-AL): I'm 100 percent behind him and have been. He started this years ago when he even went over there to their face and said, listen, American taxpayers can't afford to keep paying your bills.

HOLMES: The GOP frontrunner also stirring controversy by mocking the absence from the campaign trail of Haley's husband, Michael, who is deployed in Africa with the South Carolina Army National Guard.

TRUMP: Where's her husband? Oh, he's away. He's away. What happened to her husband? What happened to her husband? Where is he? He's gone.

HOLMES: Those comments drawing a sharp rebuke from Haley.

HALEY: That is not someone who deserves to be commander-in-chief, because if you don't respect our military, how should we think you're going to respect them when it comes to times of war and prevent war and keep them from going? It's just -- it was awful.


HOLMES (on camera): And, Wolf, just moments ago, Donald Trump responded on true social to the pushback to his NATO comments saying that when he was in office, he made NATO strong, that he made them pay their bills. But, of course, that's not what the pushback is to. The pushback is to saying that he would not only allow but encourage a country like Russia to go into other countries if they had not paid their bills, Wolf.

BLITZER: Kristen Holmes reporting for us, Kristen, thanks very much.

Let's get some more on this and other issues with CNN Political Commentators Van Jones and S.E. Cup. S.E., is there any reason to think these comments from Trump will actually hurt him with Republicans?

S.E. CUPP, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: No, he's conditioned that base to not only forgive, but agree with a lot of the sort of out there bonkers and very unorthodox things that he's said from a position of conservatism, because I said this earlier today, but he pulled something amazing off. He convinced conservatives to jettison conservatism, Christians to jettison Christianity, Republicans to stop caring when he kind of craps on the military and men and women of service. So, this is something that he's conditioned, and I don't think he'll pay any price with his base for that.

BLITZER: I suspect you're right. Van, Trump today claimed he, quote, made NATO strong. But Nikki Haley told Jake Tapper that Trump repeatedly discussed getting out of NATO during his presidency. What do you make of this?

VAN JONES, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, he's just, you know, that's what he wants to say, but it's in fact true that he's been an opponent of NATO. A lot of people who work with him think if he gets in there that we're going to pull out of NATO.

And I think some of us don't understand the American people have not heard the case made for any of these institutions that we care about. You think about a NATO, you think about the U.N., you think about the world -- IMF, it seems like a bunch of establishment stuff, who cares about it.

But you don't understand. The reason that dollar bill is respected everywhere, the reason that passports good everywhere, the reason the goods come to this country, the reason we have peace and prosperity is because some of these institutions that our parents and grandparents put in place have been keeping America safe and strong for a long time.

Now, you've got Donald Trump, he's like a crazy interior decorator who wants to knock out every post and every pillar to make the house better, he's going to collapse the whole house. And we aren't making the case for these institutions. When he attacks them, he's attacking the basis of American peace, strength and prosperity, and he's not being called on that. We call him reckless. He's going to get you killed. He's going to make you less safe. He's going to collapse the world economy. He's doing stuff that's really reckless because people don't understand the importance of these institutions he's attacking.

BLITZER: You know, S.E., speaking of reckless Trump mocked, Nikki Haley's husband's military service, Haley called that disgusting. We're talking about Major Michael Haley responding earlier today, posting this meme on X.

Let me read it, the difference between humans and animals, question mark, animals would never allow the dumbest ones to lead the pack. Nikki Haley says her husband was angry about this attack. What are you hearing from Republicans about this? He's serving the U.S. military overseas in the Horn of Africa right now.

CUPP: Yes. I mean, privately they're disgusted by this, just as they were disgusted when he attacked John McCain, a war hero. But this is gross on a number of levels, right? He's going after a presidential candidate's husband, spouse, who has nothing to do with this campaign.

He's also implying that somehow Nikki Haley's husband has left her, is nowhere around, doesn't support her, also not true. And, simultaneously, he's mocking our men and women in service and degrading that important public service work.

Again, this has been going on a long time. He takes any shot he wants from, again, at a POW to a disabled journalist to a child. And the base completely not only forgives him but ends up agreeing with him and joining in. And eventually says, you know what, that none deserved it.

BLITZER: Yes, that's a good point. Van, a brand new South Carolina poll shows Trump leading Nikki Haley by more than two to one among Republican voters in her home state, 65 percent to 30 percent.


Do you think any of Trump's comments about NATO or Nikki Haley's husband will impact that?

JONES: Yes, I don't think so. I think the challenge that Nikki Haley has is that, in her home state, she's well known and he's well known. So, there's not that much rearranging of the furniture you can do in a campaign like this where you have basically almost 100 percent name recognition for both candidates. I think the Republican Party has decided that they want to get on the Trump train and see where it goes.

But I got to tell you, I'm very proud of Nikki Haley. I say it as a Democrat. Somebody who's sticking up for the basic institutions that our parents and grandparents fought for, the world order that our parents and our grandparents gave blood and treasure for, defending America, defending those ideals, defending those -- and, frankly, as he was saying, defending the lives of our soldiers and Air Force and Marines, and those folks, they deserve somebody stick up for them because Trump is not sticking up for them. He's not sticking up for a dad gum thing that America has achieved in the past 50 years.

And it sounds funny, whatever, but this -- screw NATO, that is the defund the police of the right. It sounds good, but if you actually defunded the police, it would be a terrible outcome. Screw NATO, sounds good. If you screw NATO, you're going to be in so many wars, you won't be able to count them.

And so it's become fashionable and cute and funny to do all the stuff that Trump does. Nikki Haley is a serious Republican. She deserves serious consideration from everybody.

BLITZER: Yes, she's getting increasingly tough on Trump, to her credit.

Van Jones, S.E. Cup, to both of you, thank you very, very much.

Just ahead, we'll dig deeper on Trump's NATO threat, the war in Gaza, and much more with Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger. She's a key member of the House Intelligence Committee and she's standing by line.



BLITZER: More now on the breaking news we're following, President Biden warning Israel against a ground operation in Rafah in the southernmost point in Gaza without a credible plan to protect Palestinian civilians there.

Joining us now to discuss this and more, Democratic Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, she's a key member of the House Intelligence Committee. Congresswoman, thanks so much for joining us.

In its operation to free two Israeli hostages, Israel also launched strikes, killing about 100 Palestinians in Rafah. We're seeing devastating videos. We've showed them to our viewers of bloody children and crowded hospitals. Congresswoman, was this a proportionate use of force?

REP. ABIGAIL SPANBERGER (D-VA): What we know is it is important that Israel work to try and get the hostages home. Director of CIA Burns has been doing extraordinary work negotiating, trying to bring them home. But death of civilians, particularly children, like we are seeing right now in Rafah, has to make everyone just take a deep breath and determine how is it that Israel can achieve the goal of bringing home hostages, but also protect civilian lives, particularly children.

And I think the president's statement that it is so imperative to protect civilians, Palestinian civilians, is a clear call, an important statement to make. And, certainly, as we continue to see potential additional efforts to bring hostages home, and as Israel continues to go after the Hamas terrorists who perpetuated the attack in October, it's important, it has always been, and it continues to be important to protect civilians, particularly Palestinian children on the ground in Gaza.

BLITZER: Congresswoman, I also want to discuss with you Donald Trump's latest threat to let Russia attack NATO members, NATO allies, that's been going unchecked by Republicans. What message does that send to U.S. allies? And for that matter, what message does that send to Putin?

SPANBERGER: It sends a message to Putin that, you know, he'll get out of jail free card. It sends a message to President Xi. It sends a message to the ayatollah in Iran. It sends a message to authoritarians and would-be authoritarians the world over that if Donald Trump is elected president again, he is a president that would not honor the United States' commitment, that would not honor the principles of democracy and freedom and would give free rein to people like Vladimir Putin, who has been driving this horrific war against Ukraine, impeding their freedom, trying to take over their country.

And we, the United States of America, have been a proud ally in their fight, supporting them, bringing NATO and other partners together, supporting them as they wage this war for freedom and for democracy. And what Donald Trump said is just absolutely abhorrent. It's shameful. It's terrible. And everyone across the board should be denouncing it. It ignores U.S. national security interests. It ignores our own imperatives to have a strong NATO alliance. And the fact that he would say this at a campaign rally, that he would laugh it off and that others would now excuse it, it's just a terrible state of affairs.

All this comes, Congresswoman, as foreign aid to Ukraine and other allies hangs in the balance right now. I know you just returned from Ukraine. How dire was the situation there? And did President Zelenskyy make his concerns clear to you and your Republican colleagues?


SPANBERGER: President Zelenskyy was clear, members of the military and security services within Ukraine were clear. And importantly, us officials, both us army generals who we met with in Poland before we entered Ukraine, and U.S. personnel at the embassy in Ukraine were clear, it is a dire moment for Ukraine. It is an imperative need that we provide the security assistance to Ukraine and that we do so as quickly as possible. It's a point that was made certainly by President Zelenskyy, but by our own us its personnel in country and in Poland nearby who've been supporting the Ukrainian efforts.

BLITZER: Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, thank you very much for joining us.

SPANBERGER: Thank you so much.

BLITZER: And coming up, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is back in the hospital after the secrecy around his first stay raised some major concerns.



BLITZER: Tonight, we're learning more about the Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's return to the hospital after the secrecy surrounding his initial stay there a few weeks ago.

Brian Todd is working the story for us.

Brian, the Pentagon is sharing new details about his health.


Secretary Austin's doctor say that he underwent non-surgical procedures to treat a bladder issue and that he was put under general anesthesia, a fair amount of transparency from the Pentagon today over this unlike last time.


TODD (voice-over): For the second time in less than two months, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is back in the hospital, only this time, the public and the president know about it. Austin has transferred his duties to his deputy and the Pentagon says before he left for the hospital on Sunday, the president and Congress were notified.

Austin was admitted at Walter Reed Medical Center for symptoms, suggesting an emergent bladder issue.

The hospital says today he was put under general anesthesia for nonsurgical procedures. The Pentagon says that he'll remain in the ICU at Walter Reed for the remainder of his stay for privacy.

And the Pentagon spokesman relayed a statement from Austin's doctors regarding his broader battle with prostate cancer

MAJ. GEN. PAT RYDER, PENTAGON SPOKESMAN: Current bladder issue is not expected to change his anticipated full recovery. His cancer prognosis remains excellent.

TODD: And the White House says President Biden has no concerns over whether Austin can continue serving. But Austin did have to cancel an important trip to Brussels this week for meetings with NATO leaders on Ukraine. The Pentagon says, hell participate virtually, but analysts say his physical absence will be notable.

KURT VOLKER, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO NATO: We are now in the midst of the war in Ukraine, where NATO was -- NATO countries are playing a very important role helping Ukraine survive this, and we need to get this right, and we need to be engaged.

TODD: Austin's absences even more noticeable at a time when the U.S. is launching airstrikes against Iran-backed militias and defending against Houthi missiles in the Red Sea. Sunday's disclosure, far more prompt than in January when for days, President Biden and other senior officials were unaware that Austin was hospitalized or the reason.

LLOYD AUSTIN, DEFENSE SECRETARY: We did not handle this right, and I did not handle this right. I should've told the president about my cancer diagnosis. I should have also told my team and the American public.

TODD: Austin insisted there had been no lapse in readiness while he was hospitalized.

AUSTIN: At every moment, either I or the deputy secretary was in full charge.

TODD: But the optics were disastrous.

CATHERINE LUCEY, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, WALL STREET JOURNAL: This certainly gave an opening. The presidents critics, because if you remember one of the things the president ran on was that he would the stability, that he would have a very orderly administration or whether it would be no drama or chaos.

TODD: Former Ambassador Kurt Volker worries about Americas adversaries, sensing weakness at the top. The number one that I view this way is Vladimir Putin because Putin is former KGB officer. He thinks in personal terms, he thinks in terms of personal psychology.


TODD (on camera): The scrutiny of Secretary Austin over all of this is nowhere near finished. He scheduled to testify before the House Armed Services Committee at the end of February about the failure to notify officials of his previous hospitalization -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We wish him, of course, a speedy recovery.

Brian Todd, thank you very, very much.

Up next, new details on that shooting inside a Houston church, including the condition of a seven-year-old victim.



BLITZER: Police are sharing potential new clues about Sunday shooting at a Houston megachurch.

Here's CNN's Ed Lavandera




ED LAVANDERA, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Gunfire blast ring out just before a Spanish language service was about to begin at Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church in Houston Sunday afternoon.

Police say 36-year-old Genesse Ivonne Moreno entered the prominent mega church with her seven-year-old child. She was wearing a trench coat, carrying a bag and two rifles including the AR-15 she used to unleash the barrage of gunfire. That firearm Moreno used in the attack had a sticker with the word Palestine written on it. Police say Moreno started firing the AR-15 the moment she walked into the Lakewood Church building.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My mom was screaming and then my mom said, come, come, and we ducked.

LAVANDERA: Two off-duty officers working security for the church, responded to the gunfire.

DISPATCHER: Two people down. We need an ambulance.

LAVANDERA: Moreno was shot and killed at the scene, and her child was shot in the head, and is now in critical condition.

CHIEF TROY FINNER, HOUSTON POLICE DEPARTMENT: I want to extra prayers for his seven-year-old kid, who's fighting for his life.

LAVANDERA: The second victim was a 57-year-old man who was hit in the leg by gunfire. He's been released from the hospital.

One of the off-duty officers who shot and killed the shooter is an agent with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission who had just recently finished training in active shooter response.

KEVIN J. LILLY, TEXAS ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGE COMMISSION CHAIRMAN: These two officers held their ground. They held their ground in the face of rifle fire at point-blank range.

LAVANDERA: Police say after she was shot, Moreno said she had a bomb, though no explosives were found in her backpack or the car she drove to the church.

Investigators also carried out an extensive search of Moreno's home in the city of Conroe, about 40 miles north of the Lakewood Church, as they continue to dig into a more clear motive of this shooting attack, the shooter has a criminal history and has been previously convicted of assault and unlawful carrying of a weapon among other charges.

Police say they found antisemitic writings connected to Moreno.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're all still pretty shook up and were pretty scared, but I mean, like we're not going to allow that, you know, this fear to be in us because like this is our charge and this is a place of prayer and worship. And we still want to come back and we still want to pray and worship here.


LAVANDERA: Wolf investigators added that Genesse Moreno has a history of mental health issues and that they discovered those antisemitic writings belonging to her. They also say that she had been involved in dispute with their ex-husband's family, some of those relatives they say are Jewish -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Ed Lavandera, reporting for us -- Ed, thanks very much.

And to our viewers, thanks for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.