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One Week To Trump-Biden Debate, New Details On How They're Preparing; New York Times Reports, Judge In Trump Classified Documents Case Ignored Advice To Step Aside; U.S. Signals Expanded Policy On Ukraine Counterstrikes Inside Russia; Biden Declares Federal Disaster In New Mexico Amid Deadly Wildfires; U.S. Ballerina On Trial For Treason In Russia For Donating To Ukraine. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired June 20, 2024 - 18:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: She left her daughter a message saying, try to make your life. Friedlander told Vogue Germany, quote, I am grateful, grateful that I made it for being able to fulfill my mother's wish that I have made my life, unquote.

We are just one week away from the biggest event yet of the 2024 presidential race, the first general election presidential debate. It will be right here on CNN. I will co-moderate that discussion along with my colleague and friend, Dana Bash. You can watch it live next Thursday at 9:00 P.M. Eastern here on CNN and streaming on MAX.

The news continues on CNN with one. Mr. Wolf Blitzer right next door in The Situation Room. Thanks for watching.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, with just one week to go before the historic Biden-Trump debate right here on CNN, we'll take you inside the radically different ways the two candidates are getting ready and their strategies when they step on stage.

Also tonight, new reporting that the judge in the Trump classified documents case rejected advice to step aside when she was first assigned, ignoring the urgings of two more experienced federal judges.

And the Biden administration appears to be expanding an agreement with Ukraine, allowing counterstrikes inside of Russia using U.S. weapons. How far will Ukraine go in hitting back on Vladimir Putin's own turf?

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

Our top story tonight, preparations for the CNN presidential debates are revving up right now exactly one week before the must-see showdown between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump. Our correspondents are covering the candidates and the lead-up to their face-off in Atlanta.

First, let's go to CNN's Kayla Tausche. She's over at the White House for us. Kayla, how is the president preparing? KAYLA TAUSCHE, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, President Biden will be huddling with his aides at Camp David, the mountainside Maryland retreat just north of here, for the next several days. They'll be poring over materials of prior Trump appearances, binders of questions, topics, possible punches, counterpunches, sifting through and culminating into a mock 90-minute debate in a few days once they feel like they've refined their message. At that debate, we've now learned that the president's personal attorney, Bob Bauer, is likely to reprise his role standing in for former President Trump behind the podium, as he did four years ago in the prior election, according to sources who are familiar with the matter.

But the messaging for the Biden team is pretty simple. They believe that voters have been tuned out and disengaged up until this point. And they believe that voters have missed some of what they see as the more incendiary things that Trump has said. So, they plan to call those out and to hold the former president accountable. One of those pieces of material that I've learned that they plan to raise is Trump's comments in December, that he plans to be a dictator on day one, but that he says he won't be a dictator after that.

Now, as far as the setup on stage, some of those details are also starting to come together. Biden's team won the coin toss and they had a choice between choosing their position on stage or having the last word on stage. They chose the right podium. So, Biden will be standing on the right and former President Trump will speak last on stage. So, certainly, as these details are coming together, final preparations are being made and now it's down to figuring out, Wolf, what exactly they're going to say to each other.

BLITZER: Interesting. All right, Kayla, stand by. I want to bring in CNN's Alayna Treene right now. She's covering the Trump campaign for us. Alayna, is it fair to say the former president is taking a rather different approach?

ALAYNA TREENE, CNN REPORTER: Absolutely, Wolf. So, you just heard Kayla lay out that President Joe Biden and his team are going to host a mock debate. Donald Trump has no plans to do that. Now, even though that is what he's done traditionally in the past, we know that people like Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie have stood in and role played his opponents for past debate prep, they will not be doing that this year.

Now, when I talk to Trump's campaign and what you hear them say publicly is that Donald Trump does not need as much preparation as someone like Joe Biden. They're trying to really downplay the amount of preparation that he's doing. But, of course, He is preparing and his advisers have told me that he's participated in more than a dozen of what they're dubbing policy discussions with vice presidential contenders, senators, policy experts, also people from his previous administration. I know some of those people have included Kellyanne Conway, Rick Grennell, Stephen Miller, all people who served in his White House.

Now, some of these policy discussions, just some of the topics that have come up, are the economy and sharpening his message on inflation. We know that he met with J.D. Vance, a top contender for vice president earlier this month at Mar-a-Lago to talk about that. He also met last week with Senators Marco Rubio and Eric Schmidt and they discussed the January 6th, or his handling of the January 6th attack on the Capitol.


Now, I also, Wolf, just want to bring your attention to something else that's playing out behind the scenes, which is expectation setting. We know for months now that Donald Trump and his campaign have really painted Joe Biden as this weak, feeble, mentally and physically unfit person. However, that's at a very low bar for Joe Biden. And now Donald Trump is trying to maybe change that rhetoric a bit. Take a listen to what he said the other day in Wisconsin.


DONALD TRUMP (R), FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT, 2024 PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Is anybody going to watch the debate? He's going to be so pumped up. He's going to be pumped up. You know, all that stuff that was missing about a month ago from the White House.

I'll probably be negotiating with three people, but that's okay. I've done that before. I'll be debating three people instead of one, instead of one half of a person.


TREENE: Now, Wolf, to be very clear, there's no evidence that Joe Biden has taken any sort of performance-improving drug or that he plans to, but this is kind of the rhetoric that Donald Trump is using to maybe raise those expectations for his performance.

Now, I can also tell you just behind the scenes that Trump's team, they're not just talking about policy, they're also workshopping his rhetoric. We know in past debates he has talked over Biden, he has been very aggressive not just toward his opponents, but also the moderators. This is something they've worked behind closed doors to rein in.

And lastly, just to Kayla's point about Biden winning that coin flip on stage, Donald Trump also got to choose who would get to speak last and they chose that they want to give closing arguments. So, Trump will have the last word next Thursday.

BLITZER: All right. Alayna Treene and Kayla Tausche, to both of you, thank you very, very much, excellent reporting.

Let's get some analysis with our political experts right now. Jeff Zeleny, this decision by the Biden campaign to pick the right lectern as opposed to the left lectern and let Trump, for all practical purposes, have the last word, what's up with that?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: It was interesting. I talked to a couple of Biden advisors and no one exactly seemed to know. One person said, you know, perhaps he prefers that's his good side to be on camera. Look, I think at the end of the day, both of them will have plenty of time. And the last word probably does not matter as much as what happens in the full debate going up until that period.

But, Wolf, it's so striking I've been spending a lot of time going back watching both of the debates from 2020, the same men, but, boy, everything has changed not only in the world but also between them. So much of the last debates were dominated by coronavirus and Trump's handling of it and his record again and again then former-Vice President Joe Biden was going after Trump's record. Now, it's President Biden's record that he has to defend. And in the history of these debates, that's one thing that often trips up incumbents, because defending your record does not allow you to talk about the future, and to give some other attack lines in.

But what's so interesting about this, history is probably not our best guide here in terms of the struggles of incumbents because both of them are incumbent presidents and neither one of them have debated for four years. They both did not have primary debate. So, so much is on the line. But, again, this is a unique situation, a sitting president versus a former sitting president, we've never seen it before.

BLITZER: Interesting. Nia-Malika Henderson is with us as well. Sources are telling us at CNN that President Biden is likely to pick his personal lawyer, Bob Bauer, to play Trump in these mock sessions that he's going to be going through preparing for the debate. What does that tell you?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, listen, Biden obviously has a team of people around him who are very familiar to him, who have prepped him for debates, prior people like Ron Klain, people like Bob Bauer. And, you know, that's a team of people he trusts, that's a team of people who really, I think, have served him well in the past. If you look at those past debates, he pretty much won the last debates against Donald Trump, and it really, I think, sealed the momentum he had in that 2020 race. They're looking for that momentum again here.

They expect Donald Trump to be Donald Trump. For all this talk about all the sort of prep and policy briefings he's supposedly in, Donald Trump will likely show up as Donald Trump, which is someone who tends to be meandering in terms of his speech, disjointed in terms of his speech, very sort of disjointed overall in terms of what his arguments will be and living in the past, right? Expect him to sort of litigate 2020 again.

So, listen, I think out of the two, Joe Biden is the more practiced and polished debater. I do think he's got to figure out about how do you lay a vision forward for the country rather than getting mired down in his own policy and his own legislative achievements, which are quite formidable, but he's got to be more forward-looking.

BLITZER: They're going to be doing a lot of practice sessions going into that debate one week from today.

Meghan Hays is with us. Biden officials say they will try to hold Trump accountable on the debate stage. How do they do that?

MEGHAN HAYS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I mean, I think that the president needs to just cut him off when he's not being honest or telling mistruths.


And I think that you do that by blunting him with what you've done and what you had to do to fix the economy that he left and some of the other things that he left. And when we got into office in 2021, there was a lot of different legislative things and different tactics that the president took. And that's a way he can talk about his achievements, by blunting the former president.

BLITZER: Yes, but their mics are going to be turned off if they're explaining. So, it's going to be harder to interrupt in the course of this debate.

Shermichael Singleton is with us as well. Trump is largely not bothered with trying to set expectations for this debate other than to belittle, try to belittle Biden as much as possible. The New York Times is writing this, let me quote from The New York Times, the expectations game is a particular challenge for the Trump campaign. Mr. Trump has spent months casting the 81-year-old Mr. Biden as a husk of a man who can barely walk or formulate complete sentences. What if Mr. Biden clears the very low bar that Mr. Trump has now set for him? That's from The New York Times. It's an interesting question.

SHERMICHAEL SINGLETON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: It is. Look, Wolf, I would allow optics to speak for themselves. If I'm advising the former president on preparation, I think tone matters. I wouldn't interrupt once the microphones are muted. And I would constantly make the current president speak about his current record. I would make him have to defend the fact that household incomes from for a family of four are at the lowest they have ever been in over a decade. I would make him have to defend that the ability to buy a home is almost nonexistent for a large percent of the American people. I would make him defend the fact that inflation is driving up costs for everyday goods. I would make him defend the fact that the immigration crisis is out of hand. I would make him defend the fact that we're seeing aggression from adversaries such as Russia and China and does not appear to be a path forward or a strategy from this administration to tackle those issues. That is what I think could separate the former president.

And to Nia's point, we did see once in 2016 after the former president won, he gave that speech and everyone was surprised like, oh, wow, this is a different version of Trump that we're not used to seeing. He needs to tap into that version next Thursday.

BLITZER: Talk about substantive issues.

SINGLETON: Absolutely.

BLITZER: Not the other stuff. You know, it's interesting. There's a new poll, a new Fox poll, Jeff, and you've seen it. I've seen it. And it shows that this is still a very, very tight race. But look at this. Biden is ahead in this new Fox News poll ahead of Trump very slightly, 50 percent to 48 percent. That's clearly within the so-called margin of error. So, there's no clear leader. But it does show that Biden in these polls over these past few months has improved.

ZELENY: Without a doubt. I mean, he has made gains among some independent voters in the wake of the convictions or during that timeframe. We don't know if it's because of that. But, look, Wolf, by and large this is a very stable race perhaps in an unstable world, but the contest between the two has barely moved. I mean, despite everything that has happened, the convictions have not moved it. The turmoil in the Middle East really hasn't moved it. You know, the national polls are -- there are some limits to what we can gain from those.

But state by state, when you look at all of these battlegrounds, it is remarkably tight, almost always within the margin. Now, that's not necessarily good for the incumbent president, because the incumbent president would certainly like to have an advantage. That's why the debate, the earliest debate in history, could be defining to shake up this race or not. If it doesn't, it's hard to imagine anything else for the remainder of the campaign doing something dramatic to shake up this race.

HENDERSON: Yes. The earliest debate, and I think probably the most important debate any of us have ever covered over the last many years covering politics. Biden is obviously hoping to gain some more momentum. You see some of that in this Fox News poll. Donald Trump, of course, doesn't like this poll, because it does show independence, as you said, sort of moving closer to the president. It shows Biden doing very well among older voters. That's a trend that he started in 2020 and doing a little better among African-American voters as well.

I think he's got to sort out how do you piece together a coalition, a winning coalition, Biden. The national polls are one thing, but in these states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, it's a whole different thing.

BLITZER: What does this new Fox poll and some of the other polls that have in recent days come out tell you about the importance of this upcoming debate?

MAYS: I mean, I think it's extremely important, but I think that optics here matter more than almost a substance. People are going to look at them and how they look and how they sound and who can be the president for the next four years. Both of them could be the oldest presidents here elected and I just think that that's really going to matter more than most things. And so they need to come out strong. They both need to sound strong in what they're saying.

BLITZER: It's interesting because Trump didn't like this poll, this Fox News poll. He put on his Truth Social account. He said, the latest Fox News poll is trash. Fox News should get rid of Paul Ryan and get a new pollster.

SINGLETON: I mean, look, the poll is somewhat alarming for the fact that you do worry about some of those independents, but what I took out of that poll, and I read through it, it's pretty lengthy, the economy is still top of mind for most people.


When you look at -- when you ask individuals what do they think about the state of the economy, I think 68 percent were worried. When you ask if many Americans felt that they were financially okay, most of them said they were not. That's good for Donald Trump.

HAYS: But on that poll, stability and democracy also were in the top three issues that people were concerned about, and those are two things that former President Trump is not doing well on.

SINGLETON: That's fair.

BLITZER: It's still the economy, stupid. Is that what you're saying?

SINGLETON: That's what I'm saying. Well, I didn't want to say that, but that's what I'm saying.

BLITZER: James Carville said it. All right, guys, thanks very, very much.

Just ahead, the judge overseeing Donald Trump's classified documents trial back in the spotlight. New details on the early days of the case when colleagues reportedly urged Judge Cannon to step aside.

Plus, the United States Supreme Court just added another new day to its calendar to announce decisions in the outstanding blockbuster cases that remain, including whether Donald Trump is immune from prosecution in his federal election subversion trial.



BLITZER: There's new reporting tonight that the judge in the Trump classified documents case down in Florida ignored early advice to step aside from the assignment. The information from The New York Times comes amid growing criticism of Judge Aileen Cannon's handling of the case.

Let's break it all down with our legal experts, and I'll start with our Chief Legal Affairs Correspondent Paula Reid who's here with me in The Situation Room. What does this new report reveal to you about Judge Aileen Cannon's decision to stay on this case?

PAULA REID, CNN CHIEF LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: It's a new dimension to the criticism and scrutiny that she's faced since she was randomly assigned this trial. Here, The New York Times reported that two more senior, more experienced judges urged her to pass it off to someone else because she has scant trial experience, but she refused to do that.

Now, another reason they were urging her to pass it off is because the first time she got involved in this case early on, she got what we call bench slapped by the court of appeals, saying that she didn't have the authority to do some of the things that she was doing related to the search warrant that was executed at Mar-a-Lago.

Now, since she's been overseeing this case, like I said, she's been under scrutiny, especially for all the things she hasn't yet done. She currently has six motions to dismiss outstanding. There's still a question lingering about a possible gag order, and there's no trial date.

Now, some people have also asked if some of her delay tactics are meant to help the former president. If you talk to his legal team, I'll be the first people to tell you that they don't feel like she has really helped them. She often rules against them when it comes to their most important objective, which is to delay this case until after the election, she has helped him achieve that.

BLITZER: It looks like there's no way this case is going to be decided before the election.

REID: No way.

BLITZER: Yes, I see. Elliot, what's your reaction to this New York Times report?

ELLIOT WILLIAMS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: You know, it's interesting, I clerked on the Southern District of Florida, and sort of am familiar with some of the judges at issue here. One of the main points that they raise in the article is that there's a practical reason of where her chambers are located. She sits in Fort Pierce, Florida, which is about two hours north of Miami, where most of the litigants are further south in Palm Beach County and Miami-Dade County, and it might have just been practical. It's not surprising to me that federal judges, more senior federal judges might approach another judge to step off the case because there's all kinds of reasons why judges step off of cases, you know, whether it's a matter of recusal or a conflict of interest or simply this judge may not, based on their workload, be the right person to take it.

So, I'm not stunned by this and particularly given some of the some of the points that Paula had raised about why people were concerned about how she's doing in the case. It's not a big shock.

BLITZER: Carrie Cordero is with us as well, our CNN legal analyst. As you know, Judge Cannon, Aileen Cannon, will hold a hearing tomorrow on Trump's request to declare the Special Counsel Jack Smith's appointment invalid. What's going on with that?

CARRIE CORDERO, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, so it is surprising that she took she's giving the former president this much opportunity to argue on this issue. I think most observers would agree that that the special counsel is legitimate. And so she is giving sort of a wide amount of latitude to the former president and his legal arguments.

But I have to say, I think that some of the commentary regarding Judge Cannon really is getting sort of condescending. Some of the article that came out of The New York Times, it said that some of the other judges urged her to turn over the case because to someone who was, quote, older and more experienced of a jurist. And other judges sometimes are new on the bench. She maybe has made decisions that certainly I disagree with in terms of the law, but the way for that to be adjudicated is for the appellate process to work out.

So, in the example of the search warrant, she issued a decision. I happen to disagree with the decision that she made to have a special master, and she was overturned by the appellate level. And that's actually the way that it's supposed to work.

BLITZER: That's the legal system at play. You know, Paula, we're just learning that the Supreme Court will release more opinions on Wednesday, meaning that the earliest we can get a decision in the Trump immunity case could come potentially then, or maybe a few days later. What's your sense? This is such an important case. When do we suspect the Supreme Court will finally reach a decision?

REID: Well, the one thing I've learned about the Supreme Court is, don't even try to guess when they're going to release their decisions, but presumably it'll happen in the next ten days. We also have tomorrow. But the reason this is such a critical decision, this question on whether the former president has any immunity to protect him from the other federal cases facing from Jack Smith related to January 6th, is this is a question that could have implications for presidential power in this United States, something that has really never been examined before. Do you have criminal immunity? How far does that extend? So, it's not just about that case. It's for all future presidents of the United States, which is why we are watching that one so closely.

There is another related case having to do with another defendant who was charged in January 6th and a question about obstruction.


Now, depending on how that case is decided, that could also have implications for Trump's case. But it's not just about Trump. It's this larger question of presidential power. But remember the justices, they have lifetime appointments, they have no bosses, they do whatever they want to do whenever they want to do it. But we'll be watching over the next ten days.

BLITZER: No one is above the law. That's what they keep saying. And the question is, is Trump above the law?

WILLIAMS: I hope not. And, yes, it's a little bit of a platitude, no one is above the law. And now this question of immunity, it all depends on what they do with it. And it seems, based on oral argument, that they're probably going to send it back down to the lower court to sort of sort out the difference between what's a personal action of the president versus an official act of him. But we don't know. And this is an important principle in American law, Wolf, who is above the law, and we don't know yet.

BLITZER: We will be watching every morning over the next several days. Guys, thank you very, very much.

Coming up, the White House and the Pentagon publicly confirming CNN reporting today on Ukraine, a live report on what one senior official is calling a truly extraordinary change in policy.



BLITZER: Tonight, the Biden administration appears to be giving Ukraine more leeway to launch counterattacks inside of Russia using U.S. weapons.

CNN's Natasha Bertrand is working the story for us. Natasha, tell us about this change in policy and what it means. It could be very, very significant.

NATASHA BERTRAND, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf. So, U.S. officials are now saying that U.S.-made weapons can be used by the Ukrainians to strike over the border into Russia in response to Russian attacks against Ukrainian territory, anywhere along that border. So, previously, it was understood that those U.S.-made weapons could only be used by the Ukrainians in a very narrow, kind of limited region, just across the border from the Kharkiv region in Ukraine, launching attacks right across that area into Russian territory.

But now what we're learning from U.S. officials, and this was underscored earlier this week by the national security adviser, is that, no, this policy actually extends to really the entire border region between Ukraine and Russia as long as Russia continues to use its territory along that kind of border to launch attacks inside Ukraine.

Here's what National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said about this earlier this week.


JAKE SULLIVAN, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: It extends to anywhere that Russian forces are coming across the border from the Russian side to the Ukrainian side to try to take additional Ukrainian territory.


BERTRAND: Now this is something that the secretary-general of NATO, for example, had been pushing for, essentially saying that it makes sense that if Ukraine is being attacked from Russian territory, then they should have the right to strike back. But U.S. officials are emphasizing here that the policy with regard to those long range missiles, those ATCMS missiles launching deep inside Russian territory, that has not changed. That is still a no go. They really want to keep it limited to that border area, Wolf.

BLITZER: Natasha, I understand the U.S. has also moved Ukraine to the top of the list of countries receiving shipments of sophisticated American air defense systems. What will that do? BERTRAND: Yes. This is something that a U.S. official is calling a very extraordinary policy change because, essentially, what it's doing is that it is making it so that these Patriot interceptors, those missiles that intercept incoming from the Russians, as well as NASAM interceptors, all part of air defense systems, those that are rolling right off the production lines in the U.S., they're going to go straight to Ukraine.

So, basically, Ukraine is going to the top of the list, and other countries that have ordered these interceptors are going to have to wait. And the reason for that is that officials say that Ukraine simply is not going to have enough of these air defense munitions to last it through the winter, and therefore it is going to be extremely vulnerable to Russian attacks on critical infrastructure, for example, if the U.S. doesn't make this very dramatic policy shift, which they are now having to inform, you know, in a very diplomatically In sensitive manner these other countries that have been waiting for quite some time to get these interceptors. But the priority right now is Ukraine, Wolf.

BLITZER: Very significant developments. Natasha, thank you very much.

Now to U.S. tensions, and they're very serious right now, with Israel amid their war in Gaza. Biden administration officials are sharpening their public pushback against the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, after he claimed the United States was withholding weapons from Israel. Listen.


JOHN KIRBY, WHITE HOUSE NATOINAL SECURITY COMMUNICATIONS ADVISER: You'd have to talk to the prime minister about what prompted him to do that. Again, it was vexing and disappointing to us as much as it was incorrect.

MATTHEW MILLER, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESPERSON: I'm not exactly sure what the prime minister is talking about or what he was trying to accomplish.

There is one shipment of high payload munitions that we have put on under review and that remains under review. That's not a bottleneck. That's a policy review.


BLITZER: All right. Let's bring in our Chief National Security Correspondent Alex Marquardt. Alex, these tensions are on full display right now, but what's happening behind the scenes?

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: We're hearing similar frustration behind the scenes, Wolf. I was speaking with a senior Biden administration official earlier today who told me that the anger is palpable. It is remarkable to hear these administration officials saying these things about Netanyahu. Two days ago, the White House press secretary saying, we genuinely don't know what he's talking about. The U.S. has been the biggest supporter of Israel diplomatically and militarily since this war began. They assembled a multi-country coalition to help Israel when it was attacked by Iran. As the State Department spokesman was saying, there is exactly one shipment of large bombs that is being held up by the Biden administration, nothing more than that.

Now, Netanyahu almost certainly, for domestic consumption, is painting himself out to be a victim. There was a slight walk back from the prime minister's office. He tweeted that the prime minister met with the U.S. ambassador.


And during that meeting, the weapons that the prime minister referred to in his angry video against the Biden administration are indeed in the process of being delivered to Israel.

Netanyahu's closest aide, Ron Dermer, is in Washington today. You can certainly imagine that this kerfuffle came up in those meetings. But whether this changes the administration's posture towards Netanyahu, that remains to be seen.

BLITZER: You also have some new reporting, and this is also very significant, about major U.S. concerns right now over a potential war between Israel and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah forces in South Lebanon.

MARQUARDT: Because we appear to be closer to an all-out war between those two sides than we have been since the October 7th war began. In fact, the IDF talked about the possibility of an all-out war earlier this week. I've been speaking with senior officials, as well as my colleagues have as well. They say that we are entering a very dangerous period. And U.S. officials are deeply concerned because they know that a fight with Hezbollah is very different than a fight with Hamas.

Hezbollah is much more formidable. They have many thousands more men and they have a vast arsenal of short and long range missiles that can reach deep inside Israel. They have drones, they have precision weapons that could thwart and overcome Israel's air defenses. We know that Israel's air defenses, the Iron Dome that we talk about all the time, they are vulnerable to those to those Hezbollah systems and missiles.

The U.S. is now pushing for a diplomatic resolution. There's a deal that they believe could work if the war in Gaza were to end. Wolf?

BLITZER: Hezbollah has a lot more weapons, missiles, rockets in South Lebanon than Hamas has in Gaza. So this could be a very, very serious situation, indeed. Alex, thank you very much.

Coming up, a brewing court battle with major implications for the separation of church and state over what Louisiana's governor is mandating be put inside every classroom in the state.



BLITZER: Right now, the state of Louisiana is bracing for legal challenges over an unprecedented new mandate for public schools to display the Ten Commandments.

CNN's Isabel Rosales has more on the newly signed law and the backlash.


GOV. JEFF LANDRY (R-LA): Yes, it's a big bill. This is great.

ISABEL ROSALES, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Louisiana public schools now require to display the Ten Commandments in all classrooms, a first in the nation. Republican Governor Jeff Landry calling it one of his favorite bills before signing it into law.

LANDRY: This is one of the bills that got the press over here.


LANDRY: I think so. Because if you want to respect the rule of law, you got to start from the original lawgiver, which was Moses.

ROSALES: The new law requiring a poster-size display of the commandments by the start of 2025 in every school that received state funding from kindergarten through university level with the commandments as the central focus, in large, easily readable font. The law also specifies the exact abbreviated language that must be printed on classroom displays, which will be paid for through donations.

HORTON: And what a great day it is in Louisiana. It's like hope is in the air everywhere.

ROSALES: State Representative Dodi Horton, the Republican author of the bill, dismissing concerns from Democratic opponents, insisting the commandments are rooted in legal history, and that the bill would return a moral code to classrooms.

But critics argue mandating the religious text be displayed in schools would violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which says that Congress can make no law respecting an establishment of religion.

JACOB NEWSOM, LOUISIANA HIGH SCHOOL TEACHER: I was raised to follow the Ten Commandments. And I think regardless of how you feel about the Ten Commandments, nobody would dismiss the fact that they are a pretty good set of rules. However, it is a clear violation of separation of church and state to enforce this.

ROSALES: Another Louisiana educator fiercely against the new law, says she teaches students of all faiths.

TIA LEBRUN, LOUISIANA EDUCATOR: I'm very opposed to it. And it's not anything to do with disliking religion. It's just that there are different religions that exist in our communities. I've taught Jehovah's Witnesses. I've taught Muslim students. I have really great Muslim teacher friends who are going to now have to display Christianity as the accepted or promoted religion in our state.

ROSALES: For civil liberties groups, including the ACLU, vow to sue, saying public schools are not Sunday schools. In a joint statement, the groups argue the new law will turn students into a captive audience for school-sponsored religious messages.

ALANAH ODOMS, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, ACLU OF LOUISIANA: You may have heard the saying, so goes the south, so goes the nation. I want folks to pay very close attention to what this governor is doing. I think if he is, in fact, successful, you will see this kind of religious indoctrination happening across the American South.


ROSALES (on camera): And, hey, you might remember this. This upcoming court fight comes nearly 23 years after a similar controversy in neighboring Alabama. That is when Ray Moore, then chief justice of the State Supreme Court, installed a 5,000-pound granite block of the commandments in the rotunda of the state Supreme Court building. That was a move that ultimately led to his removal as the state's highest judge.

And, Wolf, I just interviewed Moore over the phone and he told me he welcomes this new Louisiana law and he hopes that other states catch on. And that is precisely the reason Louisiana becoming a blueprint for other states that has critics of this new law so spooked. They're concerned and certainly keeping a very close watch on the courts. Wolf?

ROSALES: Isabel Rosales, thank you very much for that report.

And just ahead, a live report from New Mexico, where new rainfall is bringing relief and creating headaches for firefighters trying to contain two very deadly wildfires.



BLITZER: The White House says President Biden has just declared a major disaster in New Mexico, expediting federal assistance to fight deadly wildfires.

CNN's Ed Lavandera is on the scene for us in Lincoln County, New Mexico.

Ed, what's the latest that the effort to contain these fires?

ED LAVANDERA, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, firefighters say that they have gotten some help from the rainfall that has come down since yesterday evening and into this morning as well. And that rainfall did cause some problems. There was in some places as -- almost as much as two inches of rain, it might not sound like a lot, but a lot of that rainfall fell on the scarred terrain of the mountains and the canyons you see behind me.

And that created flash flooding and mudslide as well, creating very treacherous situations for those that are not evacuated in that community, and also for the firefighters and the crews working on the ground here because these wildfires, despite the rain, are still at zero percent contained.


They've scorched more than 23,000 acres and firefighters are still trying to battle. They do say that the rain that came has slowed the spread of this fire. So that is welcome news and that the firefighters will say they'd been focused on the areas in the edges of the wildfire that are closest to the homes and vital infrastructure that are here in the Ruidoso area.

BLITZER: Ed, when will residents be able to start returning to their homes and see what they lost?

LAVANDERA: We don't really know exactly when that's going to happen, and local officials here having given any indication as to when that could happen, mostly because the fire is still remain at zero percent contained. It's still quite extensive, the areas that are affected by all of this.

There is a community virtual meeting where people will be able to ask questions or hear from local officials. So I imagined that that topic would come up because right now, Wolf, access into the Ruidoso area and the Ruidoso Downs area is completely cut off by law enforcement roadblocks.

BLITZER: Ed Lavandera on the scene for us, Ed, stay safe over there. Thank you very much.

Coming up, new video as the trial of another American starts in Russia today, an update on what's being called the $50 treason case of a Los Angeles ballerina.



TAPPER: Yet another U.S. citizen has been jailed in Russia and is now on trial. This time, it's a Russian-American ballerina accused of treason after she donated to a Ukrainian charity.

Let's go to CNN's Brian Todd. He's following the case for us, as well as the cases of other Americans now being detained in Russia.

Tell us more, Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this young woman's name is Ksenia Karelina. What she is accused of doing seems almost laughably benign. But she could still face up to 20 years in a Russian prison. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): She smiles nervously from inside a cage in a Russian courtroom. This is 33-year-old Ksenia Karelina, a Russian- American dual citizen and amateur ballerina from Los Angeles, one of Vladimir Putin's growing slate of high high-profile Americans in custody.

Karelina's trial in the city of Yekaterinburg began today. She's accused of treason by fundraising for Ukraine's military.

SARAH MENDELSON, FORMER U.S. HUMAN RIGHTS OFFICIAL AT U.N.: Well, let's put trial in quotation marks because it is nothing but a sham.

TODD: Karelina's employer says, all she did was allegedly donate $51.80 to a Ukrainian charity in the U.S. How would Russian intelligence know if she donated less than $52 to a charity?

STEVE HALL, FORMER CIA HEAD OF RUSSIAN OPERATIONS: This person has not only Russian citizenship, but also has friends and family back in Russia. They are able to monitor email activity, telephone activity, all the different powers that any state has to basically conduct espionage on their own citizens or whoever they like.

TODD: Karelina's employer, a spa in Beverly Hills, said Karelina had been, quote, wrongly accused, and that she was in Russia to visit her 90-year-old grandmother, her parents and younger sister.

Her boyfriend said this to CNN in February.

CHRIS VAN HEERDEN, KSENIA KARELINA'S BOYFRIEND: She is so proud to be Russian and she doesn't watch the news. She doesn't intervene with anything about the war.

TODD: Karelina faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted. Her trial, which will be held behind closed doors, will be presided over by the same judge who will soon handle the trial of another American, "Wall Street Journal" reporter Evan Gershkovich, according to Russian state media.

MENDELSON: The records for this judge is he puts people away, unjustly.

TODD: Gershkovich is accused by the Kremlin of espionage. He and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who's been held in Russia for more than five years on espionage charges, have been declared as wrongfully detained by the State Department, which again warned Americans to day not to travel to Russia for any reason.

MATTHEW MILLER, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESPERSON: You're running tremendous risk by traveling to Russia of being detained, being imprisoned, being convicted.

A U.S. Army soldier, Sergeant Gordon Black, has just been sentenced to nearly four years in a penal colony in Russia for theft and threatening to murder a woman. Russian media says he did not admit to the threat charges, but partially admitted to theft.

Why does Putin seem intent on accumulating American prisoners?

MENDELSON: If he has a whole cohort of Americans that are being held, that's going to put a lot of pressure, continued pressure on the American government to come up with some kind of deal.


TODD (on camera): Now the problem with the U.S. trying to bargain with Vladimir Putin for the release of Ksenia Karelina, Evan Gershkovich, Paul Whelan, or Gordon Black, is that the U.S. really does not have any high level Russian spies in its custody and has had to approach other countries around the world to see if they can help package someone in a trade.

One Russian who Vladimir Putin really wants back, Vadim Krasikov, a former colonel in Russia's intelligence services. He is serving a life sentence in Germany for murdering a former Chechen fighter there -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I believe, and correct me if I'm wrong, Brian, that the U.S. had hoped that more Americans would get out of Russia would be freed, released at the time when Brittney Griner was released.

TODD: They really did hope that, Wolf. Brittney Griner was released just before Christmas of 2022. She had served several months in that Russian prison because of what the U.S. gave up to get her. They had hoped at least to get Paul Whelan back with her, but the Russians refused to give Whelan up.

The U.S. gave up Victor Boot. He was a notorious arms dealer, very violent man with American blood and a lot of other blood on his hands. He had been serving time in a federal penitentiary.

Once the United States gave up Victor Boot, they got Griner back. They wanted Paul Whelan back. They did not get Whelan back.

Now, you know, the U.S. doesn't really have, as we pointed out, a lot of other Russians, really any other high-value Russians, and its custody to get these four Americans out is going to be extremely difficult.

BLITZER: Yeah, very difficult, indeed.

Brian Todd, thank you very much.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. I'll see you tomorrow morning, 11:00 a.m. Eastern on "CNN NEWSROOM". Of course, back here tomorrow night in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Until then, thanks very much once again for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.