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THE SITUATION ROOM

U.S. Troops in Syria; China Threat; Republican Debate Changes?; Black Lives Matter Protesters Disrupt Clinton Event. Aired 18-19:00p ET

Aired October 30, 2015 - 18:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[18:00:03]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news; troops on the ground. The U.S. is sending special forces to Syria, a first in the war against ISIS. Is President Obama going back on a promise?

Threat from China. Rising tensions tonight over a U.S. warship's travels through waters claimed by Beijing. Is a top Chinese military official trying to provoke a war?

Shouting down Clinton, a stunning scene, as Black Lives Matter protesters disrupt the Democratic front-runner's campaign event. What does it say about anger in the African-American community right now?

And Republicans retaliate. They are taking their outrage over this week's presidential debate to a new level. Tonight, the party is pulling out of an upcoming candidate face-off, hoping to make NBC News pay a price.

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: The breaking news tonight, the most significant escalation yet in America's battle against ISIS terrorists and a major shift in the Obama administration's policy. The U.S. military is now preparing to send ground troops to Syria for the first time.

The White House says a small number of special operations forces will be deployed to Northern Syria to advise and assist rebels fighting ISIS, this after President Obama repeatedly declared he would not put American boots on the ground in Syria.

Also breaking, soaring tensions over the voyage of a U.S. warship through waters claimed by China. A new report suggests a top Chinese military official may have threatened war with the United States. I will talk about all of this and much more with retired U.S. Navy Admiral James Stavridis. He's a former NATO supreme allied commander.

And our correspondents and analysts, they are also standing by to cover all the news that is breaking right now.

Up first, our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta. Jim, you had a strong and important exchange today with the White

House press secretary, who tried to downplay the significance of this major military shift today.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: They are trying to downplay it. Wolf, today, aides to the president said it again and again, this move into Syria is an intensifying of the U.S. effort to battle ISIS, but the White House denies that this announcement marks any kind of reversal for President Obama even though he repeatedly assured Americans U.S. forces would not be engaged in combat in the fight against ISIS.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): It's an escalation in the war on ISIS. The White House announced roughly 50 special operations forces will be deployed to Northern Syria as part of what's described as an intensifying strategy, including targeted raids against ISIS positions in Iraq and Syria, and a new push to retake the crucial city of Ramadi.

But aides to the president stress it's a cautious move.

JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: This is an important thing for the American people to understand. These forces do not have a combat mission.

ACOSTA: White House officials maintain this won't be a repeat of the war in Iraq in 2003, but more like the raid U.S. forces joined last week to rescue Iraqi hostages, and the administration is not ruling out future deployments.

(on camera): It's possible that there could be further deployments?

EARNEST: Well, Jim, I don't want to try to predict the future here.

ACOSTA (voice-over): But the White House denies this is a presidential flip-flop on ISIS, despite repeated promises from Mr. Obama that U.S. ground forces won't be engaged in combat against the terror group.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: American boots on the ground in Syria would not only be good for America, but also would be good for Syria.

I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria. I will not pursue an open-ended action like Iraq or Afghanistan.

With respect to the situation on the ground in Syria, we will not be placing U.S. ground troops to try to control the areas that are part of the conflict inside of Syria.

ACOSTA: Press Secretary Josh Earnest insists that was when the president was talking about using boots on the ground to topple Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

(on camera): It would be great if we could just have a moment of clarity here and you could acknowledge that, yes, this mission is changing. It's not what it was said it was going to be at the onset of this.

(CROSSTALK)

EARNEST: To say that it's clear, to say that, Jim, would only confuse the situation.

ACOSTA (voice-over): Contrast that with how the Pentagon describes the situation in Iraq, where U.S. forces are already in an advise and assist role.

COL. STEVE WARREN, PENTAGON SPOKESMAN: Of course it's combat. Our aviators are conducting combat air patrols. It's the name of the mission, combat air patrol. So, of course it's combat.

ACOSTA: Lawmakers from both parties are asking questions. New House Speaker Paul Ryan said in a statement, "This commitment of U.S. forces must come with a coherent strategy to defeat ISIL. Otherwise, we are likely to see the same results in the region."

GOP presidential candidates, like Senator Lindsey Graham, aren't being that diplomatic.

[18:05:05]

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This is a half-assed strategy at best.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: Now, the White House won't say how long these special operations forces will be in Syria or who they will be working with, saying that is being kept secret for operational security reasons.

But aides to the president agree this push against ISIS in Syria is not what they would consider a game changer and that the battle against the terror group will likely last well into the next administration -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jim Acosta, good work. Thanks very much.

Tonight, there is another breaking story we're following, a possible threat of war against the United States level by a top Chinese military official.

Brian Todd is digging on this story.

Brian, this could be a serious escalation of tensions between the U.S. and China. What do we know?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Certainly could be, Wolf, at a time when tensions are already at a boil over these disputed manmade islands in the South China Sea.

We're told tonight of a fairly tense meeting between a Chinese admiral and an American admiral. There are serious questions over whether the Chinese officer might have made the ultimate threat.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): Tonight, sources say there is new escalation, an apparent threat over what has become a near standoff between the U.S. and China.

It came in a meeting between top U.S. and Chinese admirals, talking for the first time since an American destroyer intentionally steamed through waters near these manmade Chinese islands on Tuesday. Translations of the exchange vary.

According to Reuters, Chinese Admiral Wu Shengli, in a videoconference with U.S. Admiral John Richardson, said if the U.S. continues with those kinds of maneuvers, there could be a serious confrontation, "or even a minor incident that sparks war."

Others say the word was fire or misfire, not war. One translation has the Chinese admiral saying -- quote -- "The pistol you're cleaning could go off in your hands."

Tonight, neither the U.S. nor the Chinese will say if it was meant or interpreted as a threatening confrontation, but it certainly is raising eyebrows.

(on camera): Is it still a provocation?

DOUGLAS PAAL, FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL OFFICIAL: His words are meant to respond to what believes was a provocation. And so I think it's like for like and so he wants to get across that very serious things can happen.

TODD (voice-over): Tensions between the nations have been growing over China's construction of manmade islands in the South China Sea. The U.S. views the area as international waters, where anyone can navigate, and fears the islands could be used as a military outpost. China says the islands and those waters are theirs.

In May, CNN's Jim Sciutto was reporting from a U.S. Navy surveillance plane near those manmade islands when the plane received this warning.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You are approaching our military alert zone. Leave immediately.

TODD: Then on Tuesday, another warning after the U.S. sailed just 12 miles from the construction.

LU KANG, CHINESE FOREIGN MINISTRY SPOKESMAN (through translator): It may force China to draw the conclusion that we need to strengthen and hasten the buildup of our relevant capabilities. I advise the U.S. not to create such a self-fulfilling prophecy. TODD: Tonight, as the saber-rattling continues, there are

serious concerns that the U.S. Navy may soon be outgunned by the Chinese in these waters.

MIRA RAPP-HOOPER, CENTER FOR A NEW AMERICAN SECURITY: China may be stationing military aircraft on these islands before too long, may be stationing naval or coast guard vessels off these islands. There is no question that this buildup may facilitate the military capabilities that could in fact lead to a clash.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: I just corresponded with a U.S. Navy official who said he did not interpret what the Chinese admiral said as being a threat, but he did hear the words mistakes or miscalculation about that meeting.

American and Chinese military leaders will have a chance to work out some of these broader differences over these islands in the coming days when the chief of U.S. Pacific Command goes to China to meet with his Chinese counterparts.

Analysts say the two sides will have to figure out a way to de- escalate the situation over these islands. The consequences they say of possibly moving to a broader conflict are simply too dangerous -- Wolf.

BLITZER: That's absolutely right. Very dangerous, indeed.

You have been doing some digging on the Chinese admiral who might have made that threat of war. What do we know about him?

TODD: Analysts are telling us tonight, Wolf, that Admiral Wu Shengli is a venerated commander of the Chinese navy and he commanded flotillas which protected Chinese and other commercial fleets from pirates off the Arabian Peninsula and off Somalia.

He is known as a very polished, very savvy commander who speaks English. That is rare in the Chinese navy, Wolf. He's not known as a loose cannon, so if he made a threat or even implied one, it could be serious.

BLITZER: Serious indeed.

All right, Brian, thank you.

Joining us now is the former NATO supreme allied commander, the retired U.S. Navy Admiral James Stavridis, who is now the dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

Admiral, thanks very much for joining us.

ADM. JAMES STAVRIDIS (RET.), FORMER NATO SUPREME ALLIED COMMANDER: Good to see you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Let's talk a little bit about China in a moment, but, first, let's talk about Syria right now. What -- it was only in 2013 the president said flatly, you heard

him, say there will not be U.S. boots on the ground in Syria. Today, they announced there will be boots on the ground in Syria. Why?

STAVRIDIS: Because we're losing.

In simplest terms, the Islamic State continues to meet it objectives. It's expanding, highly dangerous organization, and let's face it, we're nowhere in terms of even containing it, let alone destroying or defeating it. We have got to adjust our strategy.

[18:10:05]

BLITZER: As recently as 30 days ago, not two years ago, 30 days ago, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

EARNEST: The United States recognizes that boots on the ground will be required to stabilize the situation inside of Syria and ultimately to rule out ISIL. The president has made clear that those not be U.S. boots on the ground.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: What changed because in the past 30 days, because all of a sudden today they announced there will be 50 sets of boots on the ground?

STAVRIDIS: I think, Wolf, there has been a drumbeat from a lot of different quarters, from the Congress, from international observers, from military analysts, who have consistently been saying we need boots on the ground, special forces to really drive the bombing campaign to begin with.

We are going to need more, frankly, and they are going to have to help the Kurds. And we're going to have to complete the mission with the Iraqi security forces in the south. If we put ISIS under that kind of three-axis pressure, we're going to see they're not 10-feet tall. But we got to start somewhere, and we have to put boots into Syria.

BLITZER: But no one seriously thinks 50 U.S. special operations commandos, as excellent as they may be, are really going to make much of a difference.

STAVRIDIS: Not at all.

And I would -- this will sound harsh, but I would categorize the 50 going as too few and too late, but we can still recover, but it's certainly going to take more over time.

BLITZER: How many more, would you think?

STAVRIDIS: I think -- at a total mission package to really take on, I think you're looking at 10,000 U.S. troops, including those in Iraq.

We have about 4,000 there now. I think, over time, we're going to have to drive that number up to around 10,000 if we're really going to make a dent.

BLITZER: But that also works on the assumption that the allies that the United States has, whether the Iraqi military in Iraq, which has been very disappointing, as we all know.

STAVRIDIS: Indeed.

BLITZER: The Kurdish fighters, who are courageous, as we all know, but don't have military equipment that they need, some of them are running around not with even combat boots. They're running around with sandals or sneakers. They are going to need a lot training. They are going to need a lot equipment. This is a long-term proposition.

STAVRIDIS: It absolutely is long-term.

I think the other key to this will be getting the Turks involved. At some point, we are going to have to get their ground forces. They are the second largest army in NATO after the United States. They have terrific ground capabilities. They are on that border. They have skin in the game. I think that is the other piece that will need to be deployed.

BLITZER: Explain this to me. And you're a former NATO supreme allied commander. I love the title, NATO supreme allied commander. NATO got involved in Afghanistan, but they're not getting involved in the war against ISIS. What's up with that?

STAVRIDIS: It's a weakness in my view on the part of NATO because of the 28 nations can't move forward unless all 28 of them agree.

BLITZER: But don't they recognize is as a threat to all 28 NATO allies, not just the United States or Turkey, for that matter?

STAVRIDIS: I think there is a realization, Wolf, but it has not yet tripped over to the point that would see a major NATO deployment like we have seen in Afghanistan, but you're seeing NATO in a serious discussion about a NATO training mission for the Iraqi security forces.

Obviously, NATO is involved with Turkey. You're seeing the first steps. Over time, I think, there is potential to see NATO more involved.

BLITZER: Some members of Congress, like Tulsi Gabbard, an Iraq War veteran herself -- she's from Hawaii. She was here.

STAVRIDIS: I know her.

BLITZER: She says, basically, you know what? As painful as it might be, as much of a butcher that Bashar al-Assad is, in the scheme of things, keep him in power. More important than him is to get rid of ISIS. You say?

STAVRIDIS: I think there are two things going on here.

We need to be careful to kind of separate them. One is ISIS. We have to destroy them. They are apocalyptically evil. Bashar al- Assad, I think we are going to need a diplomatic solution. That's what you see going on at Vienna now.

Wolf, the Balkans. If you think back 20 years ago, eventually, it was a diplomatic solution. And Milosevic ended up in The Hague and died there. I think that's what will happen to Assad, but we are going to have to go through a diplomatic path to get there.

BLITZER: Stand by, Admiral.

STAVRIDIS: You bet.

BLITZER: We have a lot more to talk about.

Our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, had a very important interview with the director of national intelligence, James Clapper. We will play that interview for our viewers and much more and get your analysis of what is going on right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:19:04]

BLITZER: We're back with the former NATO commander, Admiral James Stavridis. He's the dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

Stand by, Admiral. We have a lot to discuss.

But we have a disturbing new assessment now from America's top intelligence official about the ability of the United States to monitor Iran's compliance with the new nuclear agreement.

Our chief security national correspondent, Jim Sciutto, spoke exclusively with the DNI, the director of national intelligence, James Clapper.

Not necessarily sounding all that confident about this deal, is he?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Yes, not a ringing endorsement.

One of the jobs of the intelligence community is to monitor Iran's nuclear program, North Korea's nuclear program. These are things they are watching very closely. And, in fact, the nuclear deal negotiated with Iran, it was built in part on monitoring by U.S. intelligence.

You will hear U.S. officials say frequently, listen, if they cheat, we're going to know. But you speak to Director Clapper and he says he gave very conservative assessments, not only to Congress, but to the White House about their ability to do that.

[18:20:07]

Have a listen to his answer.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SCIUTTO: With regard to Iran, why does the intelligence community have confidence it could track Iran's nuclear program in light of past failures, for instance, with India's and Pakistan's? Why the confidence now?

JAMES CLAPPER, NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE DIRECTOR: Well, we say the confidence.

SCIUTTO: If there is.

CLAPPER: We were required by the Congress to provide a rather detailed assessment, rather classified assessment of exactly what we could and couldn't do.

We were very conservative in that assessment. So, yes, there are some things we can do pretty well, but we also knowledge that there are other things, like plans and intentions of leadership, that have been difficult with Iran anyway and will continue to be.

So, I would say we have moderate confidence that we can monitor compliance with the agreement.

SCIUTTO: Moderate confidence. That's not exactly a ringing endorsement.

CLAPPER: Well, it varies from -- it depends on what the issue is. And so I'm just giving you a kind of overall summery, some from -- some areas we think are quite high, and others not so much. And it depends on the pretty detailed assessment we did of what our capabilities are on a discipline-by-discipline basis.

The Iranians -- and we have said this as well -- will exploit every ambiguity they can in the agreement.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCIUTTO: Exploit every ambiguity.

I will say he has confidence about their ability to monitor Iranian activities on the ground in Syria. And in fact he said that they were watching those very closely. They knew in advance and watched very closely as Iran was sending military assets into Syria, Wolf.

BLITZER: As you say, not necessarily a ringing endorsement, the confidence level as far as the nuclear deal is concerned.

Jim Sciutto, thanks very much.

We're back with the former NATO supreme allied commander, James Stavridis.

You agree with the DNI, the director of national intelligence?

STAVRIDIS: I absolutely do.

I'm very concerned about that particular issue. And I will tell you where we really need to up our game is the cyber-world. To the degree we're going to be able to track things, it will be through big data and cyber. We probably also need to invest in clandestine and work with the Israelis, who have good networks there as well.

BLITZER: To find out what is really going on?

STAVRIDIS: Absolutely.

BLITZER: Because the U.S. track record -- he mentioned Pakistan and India, knowing about their program. North Korea, there was a nuclear deal with them back in the 90s during the Clinton administration. That didn't exactly work out so great.

STAVRIDIS: No. And, of course, famously in Iraq, we thought we had the ability to find weapons of mass destruction and we did not.

So I think there is no reason to have a high level of confidence, certainly.

BLITZER: What about Brian Todd's report on this exchange with this Chinese admiral who was effectively, reportedly, threatening war if the U.S. continues to move that destroyer, the Lassen, into that area?

STAVRIDIS: Yes, this is, of course, a result of the Lassen, which is an Arleigh Burke destroyer, similar to one I commanded, the Barry, doing a freedom of navigation run through what the Chinese claim is territorial seas, which is frankly a preposterous claim.

What I think about the exchange is, it's concerning. The Chinese do not do things off the cuff. This is a very sophisticated officer, an English speaker. I have met him.

I think we should all kind of reserve judgment until Admiral Harry Harris, the commander of Pacific Command, next week is going to be having talks in a very direct way. We will get a better sense then, but it certainly rings a disturbing bell.

BLITZER: Certainly does.

All right, Admiral, thanks very much for coming in.

STAVRIDIS: Pleasure.

BLITZER: Just ahead, significant new fallout from the latest Republican presidential debate. The party isn't just complaining about the questions. It's retaliating now against NBC News.

And Hillary Clinton's African-American allies couldn't protect her from the protests. Stand by for reaction to an astounding scene, as Black Lives Matter activists disrupted her event.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:28:42]

BLITZER: Breaking tonight, Republicans are retaliating for what they call gotcha questions in the last presidential debate.

The Republican National Committee says it is suspending an upcoming debate with NBC News. The RNC is accusing NBC's sister network CNBC of badly mishandling the candidates forum in Colorado earlier in the week.

CNN's Sunlen Serfaty is in Iowa covering the Republican race.

Sunlen, the GOP candidates, they have been in revolt pretty much against this debate that occurred earlier in the week.

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

The candidates have been loud and angry about their unhappiness with this debate, and now this unprecedented move by the RNC to step in. NBC is responding, saying that they will work in good faith to try to resolve this, but tonight there is no resolution in sight.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SERFATY (voice-over): Tonight, the Republican Party is taking revenge on NBC.

REINCE PRIEBUS, REPUBLICAN NATIONAL COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: I was very disappointed in the moderators. I'm disappointed in CNBC.

SERFATY: The chairman of the Republican National Committee telling NBC brass in a letter it is suspending the partnership for February's debate, saying this week's debate moderated by CNBC was conducted in bad faith.

In the letter, the GOP says the moderators -- quote -- "engaged in a series of gotcha questions, petty and mean-spirited in tone, and designed to embarrass our candidates. "

The move by Republicans comes after days of fierce and relentless criticism.

DR. BEN CARSON (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: What it's turned into is a gotcha. That's silly.

JEB BUSH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It was all about the -- trying to figure out the gotcha question to make people look bad.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You would think in a debate with CNBC they would talk about things like the economy. Right? Instead of some of the issues that came up.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I don't like the questions, so they're a little tough.

SERFATY: Among the complaints about the debate, that the moderators targeted specific candidates.

JOHN HARWOOD, CNBC ANCHOR: Is this a comic book version of a presidential campaign?

TRUMP: It's not a comic book, and it's not a very nice-asked question the way you say that.

SERFATY: CNN has now learned a handful of campaigners will meet in Washington Sunday, trying to combine forces to make changes to the next debate hosted by the FOX Business Channel in two weeks. This as the candidates try to get back on the trail and handle the fallout from their debate performances.

Today Marco Rubio cancelled an event in Iowa after casting a vote in the Senate overnight. Rubio was hammered by his mentor, Jeb Bush, for not showing up to vote.

BUSH: You should be showing up to work.

RUBIO: I don't like missing votes. I hate it. And we do our best effort to make them. We've cancelled campaign events, especially for important votes.

SERFATY: Missing votes and poor management of his personal finances are two of the many lines of attack the Bush campaign is now stacking up against the freshman senator.

According to a 112-page leaked strategy memo, the Bush campaign's goal: to paint Marco as a risky bet, someone who misuses state party credit cards and taxpayer funds, a candidate with no accomplishments and no credible experience beyond government.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SERFATY: Now this stepped up strategy by the Bush campaign also comes as he's had to downsize some personnel, including pushing out the COO of his campaign. They will try, however, though, to hit the reset button. They are launching a "Jeb can fix it" tour next week in Florida to highlight his record as governor. That will also take him to South Carolina and New Hampshire, as well, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Sunlen Serfaty in Iowa for us. Thanks very much.

Let's bring in our chief political correspondent Dana Bash; our CNN Politics executive editor Mark Preston; and our CNN political commentator, Ryan Lizza. He's the Washington correspondent for "The New Yorker" magazine.

You've gone through this leaked Bush memo. Any surprises there, any hints of their next moves?

RYAN LIZZA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: You know, one of the things, you could tell from this memo that they had built this enormous campaign, right? There's things about data analytics and all of this sort of state-of-the-art stuff that modern presidential campaigns do and that tens of thousands of contacts they made.

And you read that document and think, wow, this campaign was built for a candidate that should be at 30, 40 percent here. And I think that's the big surprise.

And then the other thing is the one that Sunlen mentioned, which is the oppo research on Marco Rubio, just making crystal clear what everyone in politics knows is that the -- Jeb's path to the nomination, to the extent that he still has one, goes straight through Marco Rubio; and they are sort of shoveling some of this negative information about Rubio out into the press.

This is going to be a moment for Rubio. He's going to be under intense scrutiny now, because he had a big debate performance. He's the candidate of the moment. And so it will be a testing moment for him now.

BLITZER: These two men, these Floridians were very close at one point. That underscores how bitter this relationship has become.

MARK PRESTON, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, CNN POLITICS: Really. I mean, I talked about the political mentor, the -- for the House speaker that was serving at the elbow of the governor, and now they are political rivals.

Look, what we saw on the stage the other night was something I don't think we actually saw, have ever seen; and that was them standing together, and you could feel the tension at that time. You have to wonder, could they ever repair their relationship, now that certainly Marco Rubio is looking at some of the things that Jeb is lobbing at them.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: And you know, when you look at the political calendar, I was thinking a lot about this after I watched that back and forth. And trying to figure out why Jeb Bush let go of this. He's missing so many votes.

And this dawned on me, the answer is Florida. Because you look at the calendar, the Florida primary is going to be the key primary if both of them get that far. And people on both sides say only one of them is going to come out of Florida.

And so, by Jeb Bush making clear to Florida voters, Florida Republicans that Marco Rubio isn't there for them anymore, it's going to matter at that Florida primary.

LIZZA: This is a constituent issue. That's what this is.

BASH: Yes, exactly.

LIZZA: Trained at Florida.

BLITZER: I want to play a little clip. This is Jeb Bush speaking about how genuine it is just a little while ago. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: I get a lot of advice these days. Wow, do I get a lot of advice. The simple fact is you've got to be who you are. And I know who I am. My compass points north. I'm comfortable in my own skin.

And I believe that what people are looking for is authenticity. They're looking for genuineness. They're looking for someone who has a heart for people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Is that enough, though?

PRESTON: No, no, I mean, they're looking for somebody who is authentic, but has heart, has desire. We've been talking about this week after week, month after month.

Donald Trump is doing so well because people think that he's going to be a fighter on their behalf. You know, Jeb is doing this "Jeb can work (ph)" thing.

He's going to Florida -- no surprise, right? -- where he's going to talk about how he cut taxes and cut public employees down there. No surprise that he's doing it there.

The fact is, it's not about his resume. We never heard anything bad about Jeb doesn't have, you know, the background or the skills or the knowledge of how to be president. We've heard that he just doesn't really want to be president.

BLITZER: Maybe it was just me, but I wonder, Ryan, if you agree. When I heard that exchange that Jeb Bush had with Marco Rubio when he started questioning why he isn't voting, doing his day job, I got the sense he didn't really feel that comfortable going after him in a public forum like that, although maybe his advisor said to him, "This is what you've got to do in order to win."

LIZZA: And I'll agree with you. Marco Rubio picked up on that. Because what did he immediately say? He said, "Someone probably told you to say this, Jeb Bush." It was a really devastating response.

BLITZER: That's not traditional Jeb Bush. He's basically a nice guy.

LIZZA: Basically a nice guy, and he's been pushed into going into attack mode, because everyone said, "Oh, you're too low-energy," the Trump line. "And you don't have a backbone."

So I think he's trapped in this. On the one hand, he doesn't want to go on the attack. That's not who he is. On the other hand, he has to prove he's tough.

BASH: Which is why that moment you just played that just happened, of him saying, "I'm getting a lot of advice. Boy, am I getting a lot of advice." I mean, that's what that was.

And to your point, the reason why that moment with Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush was so devastating for Bush is because Rubio was right. I mean, there's no question what Bush was doing was political. It wasn't in his heart at first. Of course, he's a fighter. Of course, he's a competitor. Of course, he wants to win.

But he's not, you know, that guy when it comes to the personal political battle that you have to do these days. And that's why I think it was -- it was not good.

And, you know, in Jeb Bush's defense, the moderators didn't let it play out and didn't let him respond.

LIZZA: This is maybe the most important moment of his campaign so far, right? Because there are a lot of smart Republicans who believe that whoever wins the Jeb-Rubio smack-down here is the most likely nominee.

BASH: Absolutely.

LIZZA: A lot of people don't think that Trump or Carson can do it and will come from a more establishment person. And this is the -- this is sort of sub-primary of the year.

BLITZER: All right, guys. Stand by, because there's more political news coming up.

Important programming note for our viewers out there. Please join Dana this Sunday when she hosts CNN's "STATE OF THE UNION." Her guests include -- get this -- the new speaker of the House of Representatives, Paul Ryan; the former speaker, John Boehner; a good duo right there Sunday, 9 a.m. Eastern and Pacific.

Just ahead, Black Lives Matter activist chant over Hillary Clinton and disrupt her campaign event. We'll talk about the dramatic protest and what it could mean for the presidential race.

And an unprecedented early release of federal prisoners now beginning. Thousands are heading home, possibly back to the streets. Could this attempt at reform, though, backfire?

Stay with us. We have a full report.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:42:48] BLITZER: Tonight, a dramatic new confrontation pitting Black Lives Matter activists against Hillary Clinton. Look at what happened as protesters disrupted her event in Atlanta.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HILLARY CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Using the power of the feelings that come forward...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Black lives matter! CLINTON: And yes, they do. Yes, they do.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Black Lives Matter!

CLINTON: Yes, they do, and I'm going to talk a lot about that in a minute.

(MUSIC)

CLINTON: Now, my friends, I'm going to get to some very important points that actually prove that black lives do matter, and we have to take action together.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: As the situation escalated, the congressman, the civil rights icon John Lewis personally tried to break up the protest. Demonstrators eventually were escorted out of the event. Hillary Clinton was at the historically African-American college to call for an end to racial profiling and other reforms in the nation's criminal justice system.

Let's bring in CNN anchor Don Lemon; a criminal defense attorney, the CNN legal analyst Joey Jackson; and our CNN politics executive editor Mark Preston. He's still with us, as well.

Don, the scene was very heated and Representative John Lewis, as you know -- and I said he's a civil rights activist icon -- he had to go in there and really try to stop it. How unusual is this going to be going down the road? Will there be more of these kinds of protests at these political events?

DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: I'm sure there are going to be more. I would say I would hope not. And, you know, John Lewis, you said an icon. You said activist, and then you corrected yourself, Wolf, and said icon. And I would add on top of that legend, someone who when they -- when he walks into the room, I get very quiet with reverence, because he's a person who marched with Dr. King. And part of the reason that I'm able to sit here on television now and be in the position that I'm in.

[18:45:04] And if you don't respect him who asks you to have some manners, at least, and listen to Secretary Clinton, then I don't know who you will listen to.

Listen, I know that Black Lives Matter, you know, it was formed out of anger, but now they are at the table and their tactics need to change. They need to grow up and start listening.

Hillary Clinton is an ally, nothing says black lives matter or don't matter when you're shouting down an ally. She wants to help. She's open. She may very well be the next leader of the free world. You don't want to shout that person down. You want that person in your corner to take care of issues.

BLITZER: And you saw Joey Jackson, you saw not only Representative Lewis, but the Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, you saw other civil rights leaders there, as well, they were trying to intervene and ironically, this protest was occurring as Hillary Clinton was saying so many things, as far as racial profiling, other sensitive issues that these folks really would like to hear.

JACKSON: Wolf, people are frustrated and if anybody recognizes, understands and appreciates someone's right to protest, no matter at what event, as long as its peaceful, it would be that man John Lewis.

And so, the fact is, I don't begrudge anyone for exercising their First Amendment rights, anyone for being frustrated. I think our leaders have two responsibilities, they have multiple, but in my view A, to listen, and B, to take action where effective and where appropriate.

So, there is a lot of built up frustration, Wolf, and therefore, you're going to see protest and continued protest because people are not happy.

And so, as long as again, they are within the confines of the rules, allow them to protest. You know, this is -- it's been a long struggle from the days of the congressman and there are so many issues that need to be brought to the bear. You know, you talk about criminal justice reform, where do we begin? It starts with the partnership between policing and communities, so there is a mutual trust, a mutual respect, so you don't have issues like Michael Brown, like Eric Garner, like Tamir Rice, I could go on, throughout the program.

And we're releasing 6,000 prisoners from the Justice Department, releasing them to what? Is there adequate housing? Is there education? Is there mental health treatment? Is there substance abuse treatment?

There is all of that frustration and then the rehabilitation issues that come with that. And so, again, Wolf, I do not begrudge them at all for exercising their right as long as they do it in accordance with the law.

BLITZER: The -- it's not the first time Black Lives protesters -- Black Lives Matter protesters have been at an event. Bernie Sanders had the same problem just a few months ago, right?

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICS EXECUTIVE EDITOR: As did Martin O'Malley, the former mayor of Baltimore.

Listen, the big problem right now for Hillary Clinton and literally after this happened, I called a long-time Democratic activist, an African American and ask here, said, what do you do -- what do you do in a case like this if you're Hillary Clinton? The answer was, she's in a hard place. I don't know what to do. I don't know what to tell her except, she has to listen.

Now, if you saw what happened there, Wolf, she handled that well. She did. She sat back talking about issues of importance not only to the African-American community but everybody but she has to listen at this point.

BLITZER: Don, after the disruption at this event, and it was obviously pretty awkward, Representative Lewis told CNN the protesters in his words represent another time, another period. What do you think he meant by that?

LEMON: And then he finished it up by saying I wish, it's unfortunate that they didn't listen to the secretary.

Listen, I think Joey is right, you can't -- no one is begrudging anyone for protesting. That's not the issues here. But at some point, when a person tells you, OK, I hear you, how do we work this out? What do we do? How do we sit down and talk about it? You have to start listening.

So, not only does Hillary Clinton have to listen, she's telling you, I want to listen to you. You have to listen, as well. It takes both sides to listen.

Yes, there's a lot of frustration out there. But if you have the ear and you're meeting with Hillary Clinton, and you're behind closed doors with her and you're at the table and you got her, why do you have to keep yelling at her? There's no need to do it.

So, she's telling you I'm listening, so now you have to start listening to her, as well, to her message up on that stage. She said, I'm going to address that later. If she didn't address it, listen to her, she doesn't address it, then you say -- but you didn't address the issue.

So I think it's, you know, it goes both ways here. I don't know what the context is. He could mean it like, oh my gosh, I mean, these kids are something else, or he could mean their issues are different than mine when I was leading protests. So, I'm not sure how he meant it.

But if John Lewis tells you, "hey, listen, I'm with you," Hillary Clinton tells you, "Hey, listen, I'm with you," Kasim Reed, Kasim Reed, a mayor -- a black mayor of a city, a black city like Atlanta tells you, "Hey, I'm listening, I'm with you," then, you know, take a pause and listen for a second.

BLITZER: Yes. Good advice. All right. Thanks very much for that.

[18:50:00] Don, by the way, is going to be back with a lot more later tonight, 9:00 p.m. Eastern on his program "CNN TONIGHT" 9:00 p.m. Eastern.

Joey, Mark, Don, guys, thank you.

We're going to have much more news ahead.

But, first, this "Impact Your World".

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) MICHAELA PEREIRA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Once dubbed

the female Michael Jordan, Chamique Holdsclaw dominated women's basketball.

On the court, she had the focus of a champion.

SPORTS ANNOUNCER: On transition, Holdsclaw.

PEREIRA: But off, Holdsclaw spent decades in what she calls a mental prison.

CHAMIQUE HOLDSCLAW, FORMER BASKETBALL PRO: I was feeling like these extreme highs and lows. When you're the star of a team, you sweep things under the rug.

PEREIRA: The National Alliance on Mental Illness says one in five Americans live with a mental disorder, but most don't seek treatment.

HOLDSCLAW: Ultimately, sweeping things under the rug, you explode.

CALLER: The lady's name is Chamique Holdsclaw.

PEREIRA: Holdsclaw made headlines when she took a baseball bat to her ex-girlfriend's SUV and shot out one of the windows.

After a decade of being misdiagnosed, Holdsclaw found out then she was bipolar. Holdsclaw is now an advocate for mental health.

HOLDSCLAW: I realized once I open my mouth, and I said I struggled with this, a realize lot of people are going through the same thing.

I had the same size feet as a 12-year-old. My feet haven't grown. So imagine these feet.

(LAUGHTER)

PEREIRA: She started a foundation and a program called Mentally Driven.

HOLDSCLAW: What I try to do is I use basketball as a decoy. I bring them in. I get them talking about their emotions and feelings. We champion for cancer. We champion for heart disease. We need a champion for mental health awareness because it's affecting a lot of people and taking a lot of lives.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:56:16] BLITZER: Tonight, the largest single release of federal prisoners in U.S. history is under way. Thousands of convicted felons are starting to return to communities across America. They are being freed early because of a change in sentencing guidelines for drug offenders.

Let's bring in our justice correspondent Pamela Brown.

There are concerns about what is about to happen?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's absolutely right. As you mentioned, thousands of prisoners being released. They have all been serving time in federal prison for drug offenses.

But critics do worry that their release could lead to an increase of crime in cities across the U.S.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN (voice-over): Fifty-eight-year-old convicted drug dealer Brad Nelson (ph) is going home today after spending several years in prison and months in a Maryland halfway house.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They introduce you back into society but they do it slowly.

BROWN: He was supposed to get out in 2016, but his sentence on federal conspiracy and distribution of heroin charges was cut short.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I was a functioning addict.

BROWN: Nelson is among 6,000 prisoners being released starting today as part of a sentencing reform plan touted by President Obama.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We've got to be able to distinguish between dangerous individuals who need to be incapacitated and incarcerated versus young people who are in an environment in which they are adapting but given different opportunities, a different vision of life, could be thriving the way we are.

BROWN (on camera): Some of these people being released today are your clients, right?

CAROLINA PLATT, FEDERAL PUBLIC DEFENDER: Yes, some of them are my clients. They made bad decisions and they deserve a second chance.

BROWN (voice-over): Public defender Caroline Platt says many of the inmates are first-time offenders.

PLATT: I think it's been widely recognized that federal drug sentences in this country have been too long for the past couple of decades.

BROWN: Texas is currently releasing the most prisoners followed by Florida, Illinois and California.

On average, they served 8 1/2 years in prison for drugs.

STEVE WASSERMAN, NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF ASSISTANT U.S. ATTORNEYS: Drug addicts oftentimes have to resort to robbery and theft in order to feed their habits. Drug traffickers routinely carry firearms and engage in acts of violence in order to protect their turf.

BROWN: That's one reason the early release will lead to more crime, at a time some cities nationwide are dealing with a surge in violence.

A study by the U.S. Sentencing Commission shows inmates released early were less likely to reoffend compared to those who served the full term.

A justice official tells CNN, judges examine every case and 20 percent of the petitions for early release were denied.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm thankful just to be out.

BROWN: The thousands that did pass muster, like Nelson, are now enjoying their freedom today for the first time in years.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: And all the prisoners released today will be under mandatory supervision. A majority of them had already been living in halfway houses and more than 1,700 inmates are being handed over to immigration and custom enforcement for possible deportation -- Wolf.

BLITZER: The 6,000, there are more that will be released in the coming months, indeed years earlier than originally sentenced.

BROWN: That's right. In fact, over the next few years, you're going to see 40,000, an estimated 40,000 prisoners be released from federal prisoners as a result of this initiative -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Good report. Thanks very much. Let's hope that people can adjust and do well in their new, free lives. Appreciate it very much.

BROWN: Thank you.

BLITZER: Remember, you can always follow us on Twitter. Go ahead and tweet me @wolfblitzer. Please tweet the show @CNNSitroom, and please be sure to join us right here Monday in THE SITUATION ROOM.

In the meantime, thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. Have a great weekend.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.