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Interview With Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard; Plane Crash Investigation; President Obama Targets Criminal Justice Reform; Trump on Rubio as V.P.: 'Most Likely Not'; GOP Candidates Make New Demands for Upcoming Debates. Aired 18-19:00p ET

Aired November 2, 2015 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Stand by for new details.

And warning to Obama. As the president works to free thousands of prisoners and help them build new lives, a top U.S. law enforcement official says the feel-good reforms could backfire.

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

Tonight, aviation and intelligence officials say they can't rule out the possibility that a Russian passenger plane was brought down by terrorists.

But so far, there's no evidence to support an ISIS affiliate's claim of responsibility. The Russian airliner was headed from an Egyptian resort town to Saint Petersburg on Saturday when it broke into pieces about 20 minutes into the flight and crashed in the Sinai Peninsula. All 224 people on board were killed.

As the mystery deepens, we're now awaiting information from the plane's black boxes. They have been found and they have sent to Cairo for analysis.

Also tonight, we have new details about the U.S. military strategy against ISIS. Just days after the Pentagon confirmed deployment of the first ground troops in Syria, we're learning about discussions to further expand the U.S. military mission there. I will ask Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard about that. She's an Iraq War veteran and a member of the Armed Services and Foreign Affairs Committees.

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

Up first, our aviation correspondent, Rene Marsh.

Rene, what are you learning about this disaster over Sinai?

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, an aggressive chapter of ISIS operating in the Sinai Peninsula where this passenger plane disintegrated midair. And, tonight, investigators cannot rule out terrorism, but they

don't have evidence of it, either. So if the midair breakup was not the work of explosives, then what? That's the very question investigators are hoping data from the plane's recorders will reveal.


MARSH (voice-over): Investigators hope the data contained on the plane's black boxes will help solve the mystery of what caused a Russian passenger jet to suddenly plunge from the sky with 224 people on board; 20 minutes after takeoff from Egypt Saturday morning, the Airbus 321 reached a cruising altitude of about 33,500 feet, then almost immediately plummeted, disappearing from radar with no distress call from the pilot.

As the victims' bodies are recovered and flown to Russia, airline officials quickly seem to rule out human error and technical problems with the plane.

LT. COL. TONY SHAFFER (RET.), FORMER U.S. ARMY INTELLIGENCE OFFICER: The airlines are blaming anything except them. So when they talk about outside influences, it could be either a technical problem not caused by them, by the manufacturer or in the case what I think they're implying here is terror.

MARSH: But Russian investigators say it's too early to make any conclusions. Former head of the NTSB Peter Goelz agrees.

PETER GOELZ, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: We have the company speaking, I think, out of line saying that their aircraft was in perfect condition and there was no problems. Then you have the Egyptians who are saying, well, it broke at flight, but there's absolutely no sign of terrorism. I think all of those statements are inappropriate and ill-timed.

MARSH: ISIS is active in this part of the Sinai Peninsula. And the group has claimed responsibility.

JAMES CLAPPER, NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE DIRECTOR: It's unlikely, but I wouldn't rule it out.

MARSH: But based on initial reading of radar satellite information and photos from the crash site, U.S. intelligence sources say there is so far no evidence of terrorism or the plane being hit by something like a missile.

Investigators continue to search the massive crash debris field for evidence. They will also explore whether an accident 14 years ago involving this exact aircraft played a role. The tail hit the runway during landing causing substantial damage. It was repaired and has since flown hundreds of flights. The airline adds that the aircraft passed a full inspection in may.

GOELZ: You want to see whether that repair was done right and whether the maintenance over the years was done correctly.


MARSH: And U.S. investigators point to this crash of a Japan Airlines flight in the 1980s. Its tail struck a runway on landing. Also, despite repairs of the plane, it crashed seven years later.

It was later determined improper repairs caused metal fatigue and cracking. That compromised the aircraft. Now, Metrojet Airlines says the aircraft in Saturday's crash passed a full inspection in May. While we wait for a readout of the black boxes, investigators will also inspect the wreckage for bomb residue and examine the tear marks for a better understanding about what caused the crash -- Wolf.

BLITZER: They have a lot of work to do. Rene, thanks very much.

Let's go to Russia right now.

There are conflicting claims about what may have caused this horrible crash.


Our senior international correspondent Matthew Chance is joining us from Saint Petersburg.

The Russian airline Metrojet, Matthew, already dismissed what they call technical or human error. Why are they declaring this so early on, especially when the Kremlin isn't ruling out terrorism?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think they're trying to -- using that vague language that they have used, trying to distance themselves as much as possible from the catastrophe that has cost 224 lives.

All over this country, there's been a national day of mourning. You can see behind me hundreds, if not thousands of people have been turning out for the past three days to pay their respects, to lay flowers, to light candles and to put children's toys outside the arrivals gate at Pulkovo Airport here in Saint Petersburg out of a show respect, something that's deeply affected Russian people.

The company officials, of course, some of whom may face criminal charges if it's found maintenance or technical errors were to blame, are trying to put as much distance as possible from this catastrophe and themselves.

It's of course intentioned with what the Kremlin is trying to do. It's not ruling out terrorism, but it doesn't want to see any connection with its actions in Syria. Remember, just a couple of months ago, Russia started airstrikes against ISIS and other rebel groups in Syria and this incident -- it's why it doesn't any sense in which it's interpreted as blowback or retaliation for its policy in Syria.

So it's really down to the investigation now to tell the people of Russia and tell the government which is most likely, is it terrorism or is it mechanical failure? But someone is ultimately going to pay the price for this.

BLITZER: Matthew, you're there at the memorial. The remains have arrived back in Russia today, at least some. How difficult are all of these conflicting stories, the mystery of this for the families of those who were on board?

CHANCE: Well, I think it must be very difficult. We're not managing to speak to the families very much here.

They're in the same hotel that we're in, but they're kept very closely sort of under guard or in a secure situation, anyway, where they're given counseling. But it's a particularly time for the families right now, because you mentioned the 144 of the bodies, the remains of the bodies, have already been transported back from the Sinai Peninsula here to Saint Petersburg to the morgue where they're being officially or formally identified.

There's another aircraft carrying more bodies coming back within the next few hours. The priority now is to get those bodies formally identified, to fix the funeral arrangements, which haven't been decided yet, before the real focus comes on what caused this. But already questions are being asked. As I say, was it terrorism? Was it a technical malfunction? These are the questions that everybody in Russia now wants answered.

BLITZER: Matthew, the co-pilot's ex-wife went on Russian TV saying he had told his daughter he was concerned about the condition of the plane just before the flight. Tell us about this.

CHANCE: Interesting.

Yes, yesterday, the ex-wife I think it was of the co-pilot of the ill-fated airliner went on a Russian state television channel, NTV, or at least state-controlled channel television channel, saying that he had spoken to their daughter, saying that the technical situation, the maintenance issues with the plane left much to be desired.

I think that's sort of a paraphrase of what he said. It's not conclusive proof in itself, but it does lend weight to this idea that there was some technical problems with this aircraft. We have heard from your previous reporter that it had a crash 15 years ago or so. It was an old plane. It was 18 years old.

I mean, the airline Metrojet is not a big airline. It had financial problems, as all airlines have in Russia at the moment because of the economic crisis here, and so that all stacks up to circumstantial evidence that it could have been a maintenance problem that was at the root of this, but again we just don't have the evidence at our fingertips at the moment.

It's a strong possibility, but it's not the only possibility when it comes to learning about the fate of the 224 people who were killed on that Metrojet plane.

BLITZER: It certainly isn't. All right, Matthew, thank you very much, Matthew Chance reporting for us live from Saint Petersburg in Russia.

We're joined now by Democratic Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. She's a member of the Foreign Affairs and Armed Services Committee Committees. She's also an Iraq War veteran.

Congresswoman, thanks for joining us.

The director of national intelligence, James Clapper, says he wouldn't rule out the possibility that ISIS shot down this airliner, to which you say?

REP. TULSI GABBARD (D), HAWAII: It's a very real possibility that either ISIS or al Qaeda or one of these other Islamic extremist groups could be responsible for this horrible, horrible tragedy.


I think it gives us pause to look at really the threat that Russia faces from Islamic extremism. I think we forget sometimes really how close Russia is and the former Soviet Union states to bordering these Middle Eastern states and the chaos that exists there.

And we also see directly why Putin, why Russia is so concerned about keeping Assad in power in Syria. They recognize directly that if Assad and the Syrian government of Assad is overthrown, then these Islamic extremist groups like ISIS and like al Qaeda will step in and will take over all of Syria, presenting a direct and existential threat to Russia.

BLITZER: Is it possible that these terrorists, these militants could have gotten their hands on a surface-to-air shoulder-fired missile, may not have the range to go up to 33,000 feet, but a shoulder-to-air missile to actually shoot this plane down?

GABBARD: I think we have to look at all possibilities right now. There's a lot of changing dynamics that go on there.

And unfortunately what we have seen, a lot of weapons are being co-opted by these Islamic extremist group, and frankly some of them -- and I'm not making any assumptions about this situation, but we're seeing in others parts of Syria, for example, how some of the weapons that the U.S. has provided have gotten into the hands of the Islamic extremist groups.

The point is the situation on the ground is changing. This investigation needs to be completed. We can't rule out the possibility of these Islamic extremist groups having targeted this aircraft, but we have got to see the results.

BLITZER: And we can't rule out the possibility that a bomb could have been placed inside that plane and blown it up along the lines of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie.

GABBARD: That's exactly right.

You have had experts on here through the day talking about what all the different possibilities are. I think if we look at what's happening on the ground and we look at the investigation that's being conducted, it will become clear. But my point here is the threat that Russia sees directly from these Islamic extremist groups, directly as it relates to what's happening in Syria, and frankly I think the United States needs to recognize the same situation that threat also poses to us.

BLITZER: One quick question on this issue in the Sinai. There's still about 750 American troops in Sinai right now. They have been there. They go in for about a six-month rotation every six months since 1979, the signing of the Israeli/Egyptian peace treaty.

And this is a really dangerous area right now. We don't hear a lot about these Americans. We know four of them were severely injured back in September when they were the victim of an improvised explosive device. Are you concerned about the presence of these American troops in Sinai right now?

GABBARD: I think if we look at Egypt, I think it's important that the United States maintain its support as Egypt continues to I think move in the right direction in trying to shut down these Islamic extremist groups within their own country.

We have seen groups like ISIS take charge of certain territories within the Sinai, and in other parts of the country there, so I think it's important that the United States continue to support Egypt as it takes the strong stand against these Islamic extremist groups.

BLITZER: It's a dangerous assignment they have there, and clearly the targets of these ISIS terrorists, al Qaeda terrorists who are roaming around Sinai right now.

Congresswoman, stay with us. We have more to discuss, much more with Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard when we come back.



BLITZER: We're back with Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard. She's an Iraq War veteran. She also serves on the Armed Services and Foreign Affairs Committees.

Congresswoman, stand by for a moment, because we're getting new information right now about the first U.S. ground troops being deployed to Syria in the war against ISIS.

Our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, has been digging into this.

This mission obviously could expand even more. Is that what you're hearing, Barbara?


The first troops aren't even on the ground yet and the Pentagon already looking at a series of options that could put even more U.S. troops right on the front lines.


STARR (voice-over): U.S. special operations forces prepares for a new assignment on the ground in Northern Syria, arriving within weeks, working with local fighters to help them go against ISIS, the Pentagon says, fresh airstrikes on the Syrian-Iraqi border, part of the effort to cut ISIS supply lines and isolate their strongholds, forcing them into vulnerable battlefield position.

GEN. MARK MILLEY, U.S. Army Chief of Staff: I can't ask special forces to win a war. They're trained, manned and equipped to do functions. But winning a war by themselves is asking too much. The way you win wars is you commit the nation.

STARR: The ultimate goal, get U.S.-supported fighters as far south as Raqqa, ISIS' capital. But for now, the local Arab and Kurdish forces are poorly equipped.

The Pentagon has yet to provide heavy weapons, but U.S. air support is moving in.

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: They do have small arms and trucks, but they also have mortars, and they now have overwhelming forces coming in from the air. When you're talking about combines A-10s and F-15s with ground forces in a desert environment, you have a significant advantage over ISIS, which doesn't have those aircraft.


STARR: And the Pentagon considering further expansion, including more special operations forces for raids in Syria and Iraq against ISIS leadership, more Apache helicopter gunships for low-altitude attacks and possibly U.S. forward air controllers on the ground to help pick out targets.

U.S. troops in Iraq may now be based with smaller Iraqi units closer to the front lines, all still as adviser, the Pentagon insists. A U.S. official tells CNN the Russians are also expanding their operations, now flying from a third air base just as the administration is trying to keep up the pressure on Moscow.

ASHTON CARTER, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: We have been saying they have a strategy that is doomed to fail.


STARR: And still no one at the Pentagon is even suggesting these new options will be a game changer. This will, they say, be a very long road ahead -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Certainly will be. All right, Barbara, thank you.

Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard is still with us. You think, Congresswoman, it's a good idea to keep American

troops on the ground in Syria, but you also say it's important to make clear exactly what their mission is. Do you understand what their mission is in Syria?

GABBARD: Wolf, that's exactly the point.

I see a lack of clarity on what their mission is. First and foremost, we need to make sure that we, our troops, our resources, are not doing anything to help these Islamic extremist groups further their goal, to reach their objective of overthrowing the Syrian government of Assad.

And unless and until the United States changes its position of conducting this illegal and counterproductive war to reach that end, to overthrow the Syrian government of Assad, then my concern of having U.S. troops on the ground there in Syria, providing weapons, providing support, my concern is that they will be directly or indirectly used towards that end, to reach that same objective that the Islamic extremists are trying to accomplish in overthrowing the Syrian government of Assad.

BLITZER: As you know, a very small number of U.S. ground combat troops now for the first time being sent into Syria, less than 50, according to the Pentagon.

But already, as you know, some are drawing comparisons between this initial small number of American troops going into Syria and the initial strong number of troops that went into Vietnam. And that number grew and grew and grew. Do you have concerns about what is called mission creep?

GABBARD: Well, Wolf, what I'm concerned about is that people are clear about what's actually happening in Syria.

There are two wars that are happening right now there. The first is the war that we should by focused on, the war against ISIS, al Qaeda, and these other Islamic extremist groups that attacked us on 9/11. Days after 9/11, Congress authorized this war to occur.

And the other war is the civil war where you have two sides, the opposition forces, whose most effective forces on the ground are ISIS, al Qaeda, al-Nusra, and a whole slew of other Islamic extremist groups. And on the other hand, you have the Syrian government of Assad that's trying to defend and stay in power.

My concern here is twofold with that second war, the civil war that's being conducted right now, is that it is a counterproductive and illegal war that the United States has taken a position in, in trying to overthrow this government, and, second of all, it goes directly against our first and foremost mission, the mission that Congress authorized.

Congress has not dollar war against the Syrian government of Assad. BLITZER: While I have you, Congresswoman, Reuters is now

reporting that the U.S. Navy plans to conduct patrols in the South China Sea about twice a quarter, twice every three months for so, this following those comments made by China's naval commander that U.S. provocative acts in their words could potentially spark war.

Do you support the continued U.S. naval presence in the South China Sea, areas, waters that China claims are their territorial waters?

GABBARD: The U.S. has been and continues to conduct these freedom of passage patrols in international waters all around the world, making sure that these passages are open for commerce for everyone.

The dangerous thing that I see about not only what China is trying to do and create these artificial islands, is that it creates the potential for other countries to do the same. If you have got Vietnam -- creating these artificial islands essentially out of nothing, building them on top of reef, you can see how that could be a problem not only in the South China Sea, but around the world.

It would create a whole new dynamic. So, I think the critical thing here for us as the United States and the countries in the region, the ASEAN nations, is to find a consensus, to find a peaceful resolution to this that will ensure stability within the region, which I think ultimately is what all of these countries would like to achieve.


BLITZER: Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, thanks very much for joining us.

GABBARD: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Just ahead, Donald Trump, is he trying to bigfoot his rivals and undue efforts to negotiate new rules for Republican presidential debates?

And President Obama's push for criminal justice reform gets personal. We're going to tell you what he's been doing today and why he's getting pushback from New York's police commissioner.


BLITZER: Tonight, Donald Trump isn't impressed with Marco Rubio's rise in the new presidential poll.

When asked today if he would consider Rubio as his running mate, Trump said -- and I'm quoting him now -- most likely not.

[18:30:24] We're following all the new wrangling in the Republican race and the fallout from the latest debate. Joining us, our CNN political reporter, Sara Murray. So there's a new poll out of New Hampshire. Sara tell us what it shows. SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

It shows Donald Trump is still on top in New Hampshire, but it's Marco Rubio that's surging, proof that these debates really do matter.


MURRAY (voice-over): Donald Trump holding onto a big lead in New Hampshire. A new Monmouth University poll shows Trump with 26 percent from Republicans, a ten-point lead over Dr. Ben Carson in second.

After a strong debate performance, Marco Rubio surging to third, tripling his support since September. Today he also picked up an endorsement from freshman Senator Cory Gardner.

Now the Republican field is tackling a new challenge: reforming the structure of their presidential debates.

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

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: No, it's not, and that's not a very nicely asked question the way you say that.

MURRAY: After last week's CNBC debate, representatives from several campaigns met on Sunday to determine exactly how their candidates can exert control over how the debates are run.

BARRY BENNETT, CARSON CAMPAIGN MANAGER: Find out if we can reach some consensus on what the debates should look like.

MURRAY: Now those campaigns have drafted a letter for debate sponsors with their demands, like keeping debates under two hours, and giving candidates at least 30 seconds for opening and closing statements.

DR. BEN CARSON (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We may not get everything in one big bite, but we're making progress. That's the important thing.

MURRAY: While there's consensus on a few issues, each campaign is using the moment to play to their candidate's strength and downplay their weaknesses. Candidates like John Kasich and Jeb Bush want more speaking time.

JEB BUSH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Whatever the rules are, they should keep to them. That's all I think the candidates want. The rules were established, and they lost control over the entire process last time.

GOV. JOHN KASICH (R-OH), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I know that Harry Truman couldn't get elected president with explaining the United States of America's healthcare plan in 30 seconds.

MURRAY: While those competing for more conservative voters want to see different moderators. SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If you have never

voted in a Republican primary in your life, you don't get to moderate a Republican primarily debate.

MURRAY: And some are already sick of the grumblings, saying they think the debate format is just fine.

CARLY FIORINA (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We're here in Iowa talking to voters instead of being in D.C. talking about debates. We've had no trouble negotiating with the networks. And my policy remains what it's always been: I'll debate anyone anytime anywhere.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R-NJ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Stop complaining. You know, do me a favor. Set up a stage, put podiums up there. and let's just go.


MURRAY: Now, this moment of agreement between the campaigns was short-lived. Chris Christie and John Kasich say they will not be signing this joint letter. As for Donald Trump, he will also be going it alone. The campaign says they will negotiate directly with the network -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Sara, stand by. I want to bring in our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger; and our senior Washington correspondent, Jeff Zeleny.

Gloria, what are you hearing? How significantly, potentially, could the debates be changed? Would that be good or bad?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Look, I think they could change around the edges, but not in many ways that some networks haven't already done.

I mean, if you look at the letter penned by attorney Ben Ginsberg, which, you know, not all the candidates have signed onto, as Sara says, it asks for things like you can't ask yes or no questions without allowing for substantive follow-ups; you can't make us raise our hands in the answer to a question; you have to give us opening statements and final statements. You know, I think that that changes debates around the edges.

But the problem that the candidates have if they want a united front against networks is that they don't have a united front. You've got 14 or 15 campaigns who have different agendas here. Chris Christie doesn't want to sign onto any letter, because he doesn't want to look whiney; he wants to look like a fighter. Same thing with Kasich, who put out a statement saying, "I'm the governor of Ohio. I'm used to getting tough questions." Trump doesn't want to be attacked by the other candidates. Carson wants to be able to just deliver a statement of what he believes.

And so if you want to fight the networks or people who are asking you questions, you ought to be united, and they're not. BLITZER: Jeff, Donald Trump, he's always doing it his way,

wanting to negotiate directly with television executives, for example, this according to "The Washington Post." Is this businessman Donald Trump doing what he does so well, negotiate these deals, or is there something else going on here?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Sure, Wolf. I mean, why would he want to be part of this group? I mean, he does himself a good bit of good by just going it alone here. Why did she want to associate himself with all these other candidates? I mean, as he would say, he's a winner. You know, so I think that this is not surprising at all that he wants to negotiate himself.

[18:35:11] But what it has done, as Gloria just said, it has undercut or helped undercut in the leverage. The only way these candidates have any leverage is if they stand together. If they would have come out of that meeting last night with a unified front, sort of, you know, we're in lockstep on this, that might have been one thing, but they're -- they certainly have not. So I'm not sure where we are. I think we're sort of at square one here.

But by Donald Trump negotiating alone on this, it, A, shows that he's in a position of strength, and B, it doesn't associate him with everyone else. He's not going to be sort of tied up with these other people, some of whom he might call losers.

BLITZER: That's absolutely right. You know, Sara, you reported the new Monmouth University poll showing Trump still with a healthy lead among Republicans in New Hampshire. Do these numbers, though, speak to his strength nationwide?

MURRAY: Well, look, I think that Donald Trump is still the leader. And even in the nationwide polls that have shown him sort of neck and neck with Ben Carson, it's clear he's a top-tier candidate here. We've seen him struggle a little bit more in Iowa than we have in New Hampshire. That's all part of the back and forth and the fun of a Republican primary. You don't necessarily win all of the first states.

But, look, I don't think anyone is looking at these polls and saying, hmm, Donald Trump, you know, he's totally fallen from graces, even after that debate, where he really faded into the background for a large portion of it.

BLITZER: You know, Rubio is also emerging in this poll, doing well. He's tripled his support, Gloria, since September. He's now at 13 percent among Republicans in New Hampshire.

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: That's up from only 4 percent. I assume it's largely the result of his impressive performance in that debate.

BORGER: It is, but his numbers were going up before that. That debate hugely helped him. The thing to look at with Marco Rubio is that he's consistently

one of the most favorably rated Republican candidates, next to Dr. Carson. People like Marco Rubio. And if Marco Rubio is not their first choice, they always say they could see him as their first choice if their first choice goes away.

So being a lot of people's second choice is a very good place to be right now, and that debate helped get him noticed. It showed that he was a fighter. It showed the generational difference between Rubio and a Jeb Bush, for example.

And I think today, and you pointed out in an earlier piece, you know, Donald Trump said, "Oh, I don't think I'd ever see him on the ticket." It shows you that Donald Trump is a little bit nervous about Marco Rubio.

BLITZER: You know, Jeff, we're just getting this in, and I'm just reading it. The "Wall Street Journal" and NBC News, they have a new poll that has just come out nationwide among Republicans. And look at this.

Dr. Ben Carson is at 29 percent. Donald Trump is at 23 percent. This is the second major national poll that shows Carson ahead of Donald Trump nationwide among Republicans. It has Rubio and Cruz third and fourth with 11 percent and 10 percent, 8 percent with Jeb Bush. But this is a precedent; it does show a trend, at least right now: Ben Carson emerging ahead of Donald Trump now in the second major national poll.

ZELENY: It sure does, Wolf. And we were just looking at that a second ago, as well. It does show a trend here that Ben Carson is, you know, replacing Donald Trump in some respect.

And I think you have to ask yourself, you know, why is that? I think it's the demeanor of Ben Carson. It certainly isn't his specific policy proposals, because given very few, if any. But it is -- it is interesting that the electorate seemed to like the rough edges of Donald Trump throughout the summer and the early part of the fall, but Ben Carson is a lot quieter than Donald Trump, so the electorate now is saying, "Gosh, we sort of like him."

But what it shows more than anything, Wolf, is volatility in this Republican field. The field is very, very, very much unsettled. So for anyone who says that Jeb Bush is done, or you know, we sort of see how this has worked out, we don't know how this is working out yet. This is a very, very fluid Republican field here.

And this national poll shows that Donald Trump has lost a lot of his summer flair. We'll see if he can rebuild that. He has not yet run any television ads. He's not spent any money pushing his own message. We'll see if he starts doing that.

BLITZER: We're going to talk more about what this poll shows. Guys, stand by. Gloria has got a special report coming up, as well.

When we come back, we'll also have more on that deadly Russian airliner crash and whether terrorists, mechanical failure or something else may be to blame.

And why the New York City police commissioner is worried about President Obama's latest moves to reform the criminal justice system.


[18:44:31] BLITZER: President Obama just announced new measures aimed at helping former prisoners build new lives by making it easier for them to find jobs. The president is making his push for criminal justice reform very personal, but he's getting pushback from the New York City police commissioner.

Our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, is joining us now with more. The president spoke just moments ago in New Jersey. Tell us what he said.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. Just as the Obama administration is speeding up the release of federal prisoners who are serving harsh drug sentences, the president wants companies across the country to start hiring many of these former inmates and not hold their past crimes against them.


[18:45:04] ACOSTA (voice-over): It's an image of a president that's rarely seen, visiting a halfway house in New Jersey, shining a light on a program that transitions former prisoners back into society.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Part of our goal here today is to highlight what is working.

ACOSTA: In the fourth quarter of his time in office, President Obama is making criminal justice reform a top priority.

OBAMA: There but for the grace of God.

ACOSTA: And it's personal. Earlier this year at a federal prison in Oklahoma, Mr. Obama candidly admitted he could have ended up behind bars after using drugs in his youth.

OBAMA: These are young people who made mistakes that aren't that different than the mistakes I made.

ACOSTA: Now, the president wants to make it easy for ex-inmates to find jobs. He's calling on Congress to ban the box in federal hiring, as in eliminate that section on job applications that asks about criminal records, encouraging employers to seek that information later on.

Former prisoner Samuel Hamilton says the box is a barrier to a better life.

SAMUEL HAMILTON, FORMER INMATE: It's been my experience, and individuals who I know that you find yourself not getting the job just because of your criminal history. ACOSTA: That change could be crucial to thousands of federal

prisoners just released over the weekend after many have their drug sentences reduced.

OBAMA: We've got to make sure that Americans who paid their debt to society can earn their second chance.

ACOSTA: But some top law enforcement officials like New York Police Prisoner Bill Bratton warn, quick, feel-good prison releases could backfire.

WILLIAM BRATTON, NYPD COMISSIONER (via telephone): Somebody that is in jail that seems they're nonviolent drug offender may in fact have crimes of violence in their record. So, we have to be very concerned about who were letting out.

ACOSTA: Still, criminal justice reform is all of a sudden in vogue in both parties.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R-NJ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Incarceration in New Jersey has fallen by nearly 10 percent.

ACOSTA: GOP presidential contender Chris Christie says he's done it in New Jersey while respecting law enforcement.

CHRISTIE: The other thing that the police officers know is that the governor supports them. This president has not supported law enforcement in this country.


ACOSTA: Now, the White House has responded to Christie's swipe on criminal justice reform by saying the governor is desperately trying to boost his poll numbers.

When politicians are fighting over an issue like this, Wolf, it usually has some staying power, and I suspect this one does as well -- Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: You're probably right.

All right. Jim Acosta, thanks very much.

Let's talk about this with our CNN anchor Don Lemon, and former federal prosecutor, our legal analyst Sunny Hostin.

Sunny, you heard the New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton says violent offenders could slip by the radar, be released on the streets, could pose a danger. Do you agree?

SUNNY HOSTIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I don't agree. I actually think that's a pretty irresponsible characterization of this program. We know that the sentencing commission recommended these reductions -- the reduction in sentencing in 2014, and federal judges, Wolf, have to carefully examine all of the petitions before them. And in fact, in that examination, about 26 percent of those

petitions by inmates have been denied by federal judges. So, there's sort of definitely a built-in system of checks and balances. These aren't violent offenders that are being released. These are nonviolent drug offenders that were incarcerated for really long periods of time under the federal sentencing guidelines. And I know this because as a federal prosecutor, I was beholden to sort of those, you know, federal sentencing guidelines.

So, I think that the real question is, rather than be worried about the recidivism rates, which is about 40 percent of people that are released, we've got to who worry about whether or not they have treatment for a lot of their addictions. We've got to worry about training. We've got to worry about certainly sort of this ban the box so there are job opportunities, and we should be worried about housing.

So, that -- those are the real issues. This other issue that the commissioner is talking about is really a red herring. And I think it's really irresponsible to sort of panic the public like that.

BLITZER: Don, the president spoke to NBC News today about shaping his legacy, what he wants to see from the next president. Watch this.


OBAMA: I'm very proud that my presidency can help to galvanize and mobilize America on behalf of issues of racial disparity and racial justice, but I do so, hoping that my successor, who's not African-American, if he or she is not, that they'll be just as concerned as I am, because this is part of what it means to perfect our union.


BLITZER: It's interesting, he speaks just as this new NBC News/"Wall Street Journal" poll comes out showing that among Republicans nationwide Dr. Ben Carson has taken the lead, 29 percent, Donald Trump at 23, second national poll to do so. Last week, it was "The New York Times"/CBS.

[18:50:01] Very interesting a very interesting take, and, of course, Dr. Ben Carson is African-American.

DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: Yes. And at this rate, could. I mean, you know, he could end up being the nominee. If that does happen, there will be a general election. There's still a long way to go until then.

But I think it's interesting because I remember back to the beginning of this presidency, Wolf, both of you and covered this. We covered both inaugurations together, and when people would say, you know, President Obama is not doing enough to help African-Americans. Some people still say that, he's not doing enough. Well, I think the president said I represent all Americans. But

now, I think he is concerned with legacy and I think he is, as he said, a new person and he's more competent in his second administration, and I think part of his legacy, he wants to deal with racial injustice. And I think that's very good, and that's good on him.

And when you're talking about the people who are -- many of them released from prison, many of them are black and brown people who go, have to go back into society, who won't be able to vote and possibly won't be able to get a job, and I think he's right to be concerned about that at this point in his presidency.

BLITZER: Don is going to have a lot at 10:00 p.m. Eastern, "CNN TONIGHT", later tonight. We'll be watching.

Don, thank you. Sunny, thanks to you as well.

Just ahead, we'll get back to the plane crash history. Stand by for new information coming in to CNN about the possible cause.


BLITZER: Tonight as Jeb Bush tries to reboot his struggling campaign, CNN is focusing on one of the most controversial showdowns in the Republican history. That would be the Florida recount in the 2000 presidential vote. Many Democrats question whether George W. Bush would have won the White House if his brother hadn't been Florida governor at the time.

Our chief political analyst Gloria Borger has been digging on this for a CNN special report that airs tonight, "Bush Versus Gore: The Endless Election".

Watch this.


GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST (voice-over): In presidential politics, it doesn't get crazier than this -- a too close to call election, a tie in the key battleground in Florida, where the governor is the little brother of the Republican candidate.

JEB BUSH (R), THEN-FLORIDA GOVERNOR: We thought it would be close. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine it would be this close.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You own the system, which the governor at the time, Bush, owned. You generally will win. They didn't do anything criminally wrong or anything inappropriate. But as I said, I think if the Democrats controlled the governorship and basically control the state, no doubt in my mind those calls would have been made for the Democrats.

BORGER (on camera): Jeb was sort of the wizard?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, he's the governor of the state.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And there was chaos as a result of an election in had is state and he was going to try and get control of this thing.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's between a rock and a hard spot. Obviously he wants his brother to win but he can show no favoritism in his role as governor of the state. And we weren't asking him. I don't believe that he pulled any levers.

BORGER (voice-over): Or maybe he didn't have to. Maybe it was just understood.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No major law firm in Florida would work for Al Gore.

BORGER (on camera): Even Democratic?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Even Democratic-oriented law firms because everyone was afraid of antagonizing the Bush family, antagonizing the governor, and losing an important state business.

BORGER: Did you have any evidence that they had been called?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No evidence that anyone said anything to anybody. Stuff didn't have to be said, right? It was just all obvious.

It turned up that the name of the governor of the state of Florida was the same name as the name of the person we were running against, you know? And so, nothing had to be said. And I'm not saying that Governor Bush did anything wrong. I don't believe he did. I want to be clear about that.

But it wasn't a fair process. It wasn't a neutral process. It was a process that was rigged against us.


BLITZER: And Gloria is joining us now.

Gloria, an amazing documentary put together. But take a look at the current election cycle right now. How much have Republicans seized on Jeb Bush's connection to his brother?

BORGER: Well, they've ceased on his connection to his brother in regards to the dynastic politics of the family, being part of the establishment, how he really feels about the war in Iraq. Not one of them has actually said, hey, what about the time there was a contested election in the state of Florida, did you pull any levers and use your power to get George W. Bush elected because that would actually be a positive thing for them to say and they are not doing it.

But as we point out in this documentary, Jeb Bush was powerful in the state of Florida. But not one Democrat came to me and said, we can prove that he did anything that was wrong. As Bill Daly said in that clip and as Ron Klain said in that clip, he was powerful, he used the levers of government the way anybody, who is in charge of a state, would have used it to get his candidate elected -- only this time, Wolf, the candidate happened to be his brother.

BLITZER: Gloria, you've done amazing work.

BORGER: Thank you.

BLITZER: I know you've worked for months and months on this one hour documentary that will air later tonight.

BORGER: It's my hobby.

BLITZER: And I've seen it. I know it's excellent.

BORGER: Thank you.

BLITZER: Our viewers will learn from it. There's a lot to learn. It airs later tonight, "Bush Versus Gore: The Endless Election," airs 9:00 p.m. Eastern tonight on CNN. Gloria, I hope everyone watches because there were lessons, important lessons we will learn from that, that are still very much applicable today. Gloria, thanks for doing this.


BLITZER: That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I hope you join us right here tomorrow in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.