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Interview With Washington Congressman Adam Smith; Trump Taunts; Chicago Police Superintendent Fired; Terror Fears. Aired 18-19:00p ET

Aired December 1, 2015 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Will the move defuse growing tension in the city? I will talk to the NAACP president, Cornell William Brooks, who was himself just arrested while protesting in Chicago.

Hit me. Donald Trump taunts his Republican presidential rivals, urging them to attack and vowing to hit them back 10 times harder, the GOP front-runner saying the only way to get to the top is through him. Will his competitors bring it on?

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're following the breaking news in the war against ISIS, the U.S. stepping up its presence on the ground. The defense secretary, Ash Carter, announcing the Pentagon will deploy a specialized expeditionary targeting force to Iraq where terrorist forces control broad regions, including the country's second largest city.

We're also following developments in Chicago, where the mayor, Rahm Emanuel, has fired the police superintendent amid growing protests over a deadly police shooting. Dash-cam video just released a few days ago shows a white police officer firing 16 times at a black teenager. That officer now has been charged with first-degree murder.

We're covering that and much more at this hour with our guests, including the president and CEO of the NAACP, Cornell Brooks, and the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, Congressman Adam Smith.

Our correspondents and our expert analysts, they are also standing by.

Let's begin with the breaking news.

Our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, begins our coverage.

Barbara, you're learning new details of this new plan to send U.S. special operation forces to Iraq and then to Syria to fight ISIS.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, indeed. Defense secretary Ash Carter has been facing withering criticism on Capitol Hill of President Obama's anti-ISIS strategy. So, today, he unveiled some new plans, but will it be enough to deflect that criticism?


STARR (voice-over): Hundreds of U.S. special operations and support forces heading to dangerous ground in Iraq and Syria.

ASHTON CARTER, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: These special operators will, over time, be able to conduct raids, free hostages, gather intelligence, and capture ISIL leaders. This force will also be in a position to conduct unilateral operations in Syria.

STARR: The announcement to send more forces coming after the attacks in Paris. The military will now do more risky missions, such as the special operations hostage rescue raid in October where Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler was killed in action.

CARTER: We're good at intelligence. We're good at mobility. We're good at surprise. We have the long reach that no one else has. And it puts everybody on notice in Syria that you don't know at night who's going to be coming in the window, and that's the sensation that we want all of ISIL's leadership and followers to have.

STARR: The new force will number just dozens of commandos. But they will have massive backup, helicopters to get to their targets, rescue forces if they run into trouble, potentially some 200 troops in all, officials say, all of this as a separate group of 50 special operations forces are to arrive at any time in Northern Syria to assist anti-ISIS forces there.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs underscoring the U.S. needs better intelligence.

GEN. JOSEPH DUNFORD, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF CHAIRMAN: Our effectiveness is obviously inextricably linked to the quality of intelligence we have. And our assessment is that this force and the operations this force will conduct will provide us additional intelligence that will make our operations much more effective.

STARR: A raid in Syria that killed top ISIS operative Abu Sayyaf in May provided an initial trove of intelligence, leading to improved information about ISIS. Two operatives still in the U.S. crosshairs, ISIS' leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, said to be involved in plotting future attacks in the West.


STARR: Now, Carter insisted today that ISIS has lost territory, lost ground in Syria and Iraq, but he was asked flat out, is the U.S. winning against ISIS? The secretary largely sidestepped that question and said the U.S. will win -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. He was pressed a couple times and he said eventually the U.S. will win and refused to say the U.S. is winning now.

All right, Barbara, thanks very much.

Russia is also upping it military presence in the region, but has a very different strategy and very different goals when it comes to fighting ISIS.


Our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, is in Paris and has been traveling with President Obama.

Jim, the president and Russian President Vladimir Putin, they are deeply divided when it comes to Syria.


President Obama was very candid today that he has not made much headway in convincing Vladimir Putin to change his tactics in Syria. The shift, the president conceded, could take months as ISIS continues to grow stronger.


ACOSTA (voice-over): They have met face-to-face twice in the last month. But they still don't see eye to eye. So, President Obama told reporters at a climate summit in Paris, expect Russia's Vladimir Putin to continue to go his own way in the war on ISIS, at least for now.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: On Mr. Putin, I don't expect that you're going to see a 180 turn on their strategy over the next several weeks.

ACOSTA: That means the U.S. and Russia will keep on bombing different targets, with Washington taking aim at ISIS and Moscow hitting U.S.-backed forces fighting Putin's man in Syria, Bashar al- Assad.

OBAMA: I don't think we should be under any illusions that somehow Russia starts hitting only ISIL targets. That's not happening now. It was never happening. It's not going to be happening in the next several weeks.

ACOSTA: Still, based on their conversations, the president is convinced Putin may be changing his calculus, away from supporting Assad to landing Russia in another military quagmire.

OBAMA: With Afghanistan fresh in the memory, for him to simply get bogged down in an inconclusive and paralyzing civil conflict is not the outcome that he's looking for.

ACOSTA: But it's more complicated than that. Moscow is still outraged over Turkey's downing of a Russian warplane last week, angrily accusing Turkish leaders of trying to protect a black market oil supply from ISIS terrorists.

Turkey's President Erdogan denied that, vowing he'd resign if the claim is proven true. And in a meeting with President Obama, he fired back that Russian bombers are slaughtering ethnic Turkmen in Syria. Mr. Obama all but told both sides to cut it out.

OBAMA: We all have a common enemy, and that is ISIL, and I want to make sure that we focus on that threat.


ACOSTA: Now, a Russian news agency said Moscow had some evidence that Turkey was importing oil from ISIS across the porous Syria/Turkish border.

During his news conference, the president said he is frustrated with the situation at Turkey's border, adding he has had repeated conversations with Turkey's President Erdogan about gaps there that are being exploited by ISIS terrorists. Wolf, this is a constant source of frustration inside the White House.

BLITZER: It certainly is, the president saying about 100 kilometers of the Turkey-Syria are very, very open, the Turkish military, 500,000 troops not doing enough. The president clearly frustrated with Turkey right now, a NATO ally.

Jim Acosta, thanks very much.

Let's talk about all of this, much more, with the ranking member of the House Armed Services, Democratic Congressman Adam Smith of Washington.

Congressman, thanks very much for coming in.


BLITZER: You're the top Democrat there. You were at that hearing. Were you reassured? Because I know you have had some questions over these past several months.

SMITH: Yes, I think the focus is better.

And I think Secretary Carter and General Dunford presented a much better strategy. I think the communication strategy coming out of the White House, well, frankly, throughout the Syrian conflict, has not been great. There have been things said that have led people to not know exactly what the White House was doing. I think they are definitely getting clearer and focusing and pushing a strategy forward.

BLITZER: Because the communications, the dialogue, as you correctly point out, has been confusing.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Dunford, today said the U.S. has not contained ISIS. Two weeks ago, the president in that interview with ABC News said ISIS is contained. Secretary Kerry says -- in a new interview with "Rolling Stone," he says the U.S. can defeat ISIS -- quote -- "if we get our act together."

I mean, there seems to be a conflicting amount of statements coming out, some positive, some negative.

SMITH: Well, there's two pieces to this.

First of all, saying that ISIS is contained I think is flat wrong. They have reach. They have an ability to spread their ideology and to spread terrorist acts, gosh, over the Internet, much less by sending people across borders. They just motivate people in Western countries.

BLITZER: Why would the president say that in that interview, that ISIS was being contained? Was he being very specific to in Iraq and Syria and certain geographic areas? Because the impression was that the U.S. is winning this war.


SMITH: Right. What the president is trying to do is to counter some of the more extremist rhetoric that is frankly coming from the Republican Party about how, you know, we're -- basically, we're all going to die, trying to panic everybody, that ISIS is coming, ISIS is here, ISIS is there.

He's trying to put it in perspective. And I agree with him on that. I think playing into the fear that ISIS is trying to spread doesn't help. That simply moves terrorism forward.


That said, I think you have to be careful about the way you put it. I think Secretary Carter is right. ISIS has lost territory in Syria and Iraq. And there was just a news story a couple days ago about how defections are starting to happen because the perception is that ISIS is no longer making progress.

That said, as we have seen, they can spread terror over the Internet, they can spread terror with a phone call. So to say that they are contained, until they are gone, they are not contained.

BLITZER: And Secretary Carter under repeated questioning even refused to say the U.S. is winning right now. He said the U.S. eventually will win, but he can't say that the U.S. is winning.

SMITH: That's the wrong question, because you don't really have a metric.

What he said was, we are making progress in terms of rolling back ISIS' gains. The Kurds on the ground, primarily in Syria and Iraq, have taken back territory, and that has undermined them. But when you have a terrorist organization, as the cliche goes, we need to be right every time. They only need to be right once.

You can't say you are winning until the group is completely gone. BLITZER: To the critics who say this seems half-hearted, send 50

special operations forces to Syria, maybe now another 200, if you're going to go in there and destroy and defeat ISIS, don't you need to send a lot more than let's say 250 U.S. commandos?

SMITH: And there is where I think the critics are among, because what the president is absolutely right about is if this becomes the U.S. military vs. ISIS, then ISIS has won a huge, huge victory.

They can then portray themselves as defending Islam against Western aggression. The only way we win this war is if Sunnis in Iraq and Syria and everywhere else ISIS is defeat ISIS. If it's Western aggression, as we saw in Iraq, we went in, we wiped out, but with a Western force there, they popped right back up.

If they can credibly claim that Western aggression against Muslims is what they are fighting against, then we're never going to -- we will eliminate this group and another one will pop up. It has to be led by the locals, by the Sunnis and the Arab states. And we have to support that.

If we send 30,000 troops in there, we may win in a month, but the terrorism will continue. This has to be locally driven.

BLITZER: The former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, retired General Michael Flynn, he spoke to our own Jake Tapper today and he made a stunning charge that, back in 2012, when the DIA was offering assessments of how ISIS was growing, this is not the line the White House wanted to hear, the president was in the midst of a reelection campaign, and they simply ignored those warnings.

Listen to what he said. Listen to this.


LT. GEN. MICHAEL FLYNN (RET.), FORMER DIRECTOR, DEFENSE INTELLIGENCE AGENCY: I think that they did not meet a particular narrative that the White House needed. The people that were around the president, his sort of inner circle that were advising him, I think advised him incorrectly.

I think the narrative was that al Qaeda was on the run and bin Laden was dead, and -- yes, and they were dead and these guys are -- these guys are -- we have beaten them.


BLITZER: It's a pretty stunning accusation, especially given the current controversy, that the U.S. military's Central Command was forced to tailor its intelligence to be more attuned to what the White House wanted.

SMITH: Yes, I think Mike Flynn is absolutely wrong.

And the evidence is in what the Obama administration was doing in 2012. They were still actively, you know, doing drone strikes. The intelligence was aggressive against al Qaeda and against ISIS. We were still targeting in, gosh, a dozen different countries. So he's absolutely wrong.

BLITZER: Because he points out that the president was calling ISIS the J.V. team.

SMITH: Yes. Well, that, again, the president has said some things that are not accurate.

But while he was calling them the J.V. team, we were actively, through our intelligence and our defense agencies, targeting them, aggressively going after them and also al Qaeda and a variety of different other groups that threaten us.

The notion that the White House decided in 2012 that this was over and stopped is just totally belied by the facts, the facts that the drone strikes continued, the intelligence continued, the targeting of ISIS and al Qaeda and other groups continued.

BLITZER: And what about this current investigation by the Pentagon's inspector general that the Central Command was forced into sort of cherry-picking or doctoring its intelligence to make it more palatable to what the White House wanted?

You're familiar with this?


SMITH: I'm familiar with it. We don't have any evidence that that has happened.

I will tell you, I have been to Afghanistan and Iraq and at least seven times each, and I talked to one group of analysts, and they gave one picture. I talked to another group of analysts. I went from the CIA to the DIA. There is always differences of opinion.

OK? And, frankly, the CIA is always the most pessimistic of the group. The DIA tends to be more optimistic. And this was when President Bush was in charge, as well as when President Obama was in charge. There is no evidence whatsoever that the White House pretended this threat didn't exist.

BLITZER: And just to be precise, when the president labeled ISIS the J.V. team, you're saying what?

SMITH: I don't think that was the correct thing to say.

BLITZER: That he was simply wrong?

SMITH: Yes, I think he is wrong.

But I also think that what he's trying to do is, look, terror is about spreading fear and making people change their way of lives. We have had presidential candidates on the other side talk about how we need to like round up all of the Muslims, that we need to label -- the fear that is being spread by the other side, the president is trying to say, hey, calm down. We are the United States of America. We have got this under control.


And I think he's right to say that. I do think some of his choices of words have underestimated the enemy in a way that is not helpful.

BLITZER: We're going to have a lot more to talk about, Congressman. Stay with us.

SMITH: Sure.

BLITZER: There's a new report that ISIS is recruiting assets here in the United States on Twitter. Much more coming up right after a quick break.



BLITZER: The breaking news this hour, the U.S. increasing boots on the ground to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The defense secretary, Ash Carter, announcing the Pentagon will deploy what is being called a specialized expeditionary targeting force to Iraq to conduct raids, rescue hostages, gather intelligence, capture ISIS leaders whether in Iraq or Syria.

We're back with the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, Democratic Congressman Adam Smith of Washington state.

The president was pretty blunt today in his news conference in Paris criticizing Turkey, a NATO ally which has one of the largest militaries in the world, 400,000 active duty troops, 200,000 reservists, the president saying that there's nearly 100 kilometers on their border with Syria where they are not patrolling.

There's a transit point for foreign fighters. He says ISIS is shipping out oil from Syria into Turkey for sale to fund their terror operations. What's going on over here? Turkey is a NATO ally. Can't they close up that 100-kilometer area of the border?

SMITH: That's a huge part of the problem.

We have two clear missions in Syria. We have to get rid of Assad. Assad is not a legitimate leader. And, second, we have to get rid of ISIS. We have to do both, because part of what fuels ISIS is Assad.

BLITZER: But why isn't Turkey stepping up?

SMITH: I'm getting there, because Turkey's number one goal when this whole thing started was to get rid of Assad.

And, quite frankly, Turkey and a number of other Arab states were not nearly as particular as they should have been about who they were funding in that effort. And a lot of the guns, ammunitions, funds wound up going to groups al-Nusra and ISIS, because, frankly, the Arab states didn't care. They just wanted Assad gone.

Now that they see the threat, they are sort of caught in the middle. You have got Turkey that is focused on eliminating Assad, whereas a lot of other folks are focused on eliminating ISIS. So, they're focused on eliminating Assad, so I don't know what is going on back and forth across the Turkish border.

Certainly, there's fighters going back and forth across. But they need to close and it they need to recognize that defeating Assad, you have to do both. You have to defeat Assad and defeat ISIS. And if you have a strategy that is only helping one, then it's not enough.

BLITZER: ISIS supposedly is recruiting a lot of assets here in the United States. A new study out today by George Washington University says that it's almost unprecedented. About 300 ISIS Twitter experts are recruiting people to go ahead and join this movement.

Is enough being done to stop this movement from growing here in the United States?

SMITH: We're working on it, but it's a difficult threat.

BLITZER: Why are they so good in social media and the U.S., which basically created and developed social media, not so good at it?

SMITH: They have a simpler message, Wolf.

And they are simply preaching to the disaffected. It's always easier to preach to people who have nothing to lose and who are disaffected by what is going on. But I met with the NSA director. Chairman Thornberry and I did today.

And part of the problem is ISIS is -- they're smarter about this stuff. Once they find someone who they think they can work with, they encrypt everything and it's harder to get access to that information. But, look, social media appeals to the lowest common denominator.

You can access whoever you want to access. And that's the real threat. And all of this concern about the Syrian refugees, the Syrian refugees go through about a two-year process. Any refugee does and are vetted very, very carefully. What I'm concerned about is exactly what you describe. They can recruit people who we don't even know.

BLITZER: Who are in the United States.


SMITH: And a lot of times, no connection. They are just people who are, as I said -- well, disaffected is a polite way of putting it.

They are unhappy with their lives. They're looking for some sort of answer. And so ISIS takes advantage of that and uses social media to recruit them. And it's something that we have to really be vigilant about and it's a difficult problem to get at.

BLITZER: But they are good in social media. They have got some pretty sophisticated online magazines.

SMITH: Oh, yes.

BLITZER: They recruit not only the U.S. but in Europe. But my only point is, why can't the U.S. counter that? Because we're pretty good at social media, too, I suspect.


Well, we're trying to counter it, but ISIS is trying to appeal to a particular group of people, to a group of people, to Muslims who feel like they have been under assault from the West. So, if the West then comes out with a message -- and we have tried this. We have done this in the al Qaeda war and a variety of different things.

We have used video games, we use comic books, we use different ways to try to appeal to people, to push them away from joining jihad. But when the message is coming from a Westerner, vs. coming from -- this is why we have to have that local support, why we have to have Muslims. And there are many that are out there doing that.

They are the ones who really need to read it. The messenger matters. OK? And if the messenger is the West, you're going to be less able to go after a disaffected Muslim youth than if you are a Muslim.

BLITZER: It would be great if Sunni Muslims were leading the charge against ISIS right now in big numbers.

SMITH: They have to.

BLITZER: Let them get the job done.

SMITH: Everyone keeps talking about winning. That's the only way we win, is if what you just said happens.


BLITZER: Congressman Adam Schiff, thanks very much for joining us.

SMITH: Thank you.

BLITZER: Just ahead, new fallout from the shooting of a black teenager by a white police officer. Tonight, a Top Chicago official is out of a job.

Plus, jury selection for a former cop on trial for the death of Freddie Gray. Can the officers charged in the case get a fair trial in Baltimore?


BLITZER: Chicago's top cop fired as the city reels from this police dash camera video showing the white police officer, Jason Van Dyke, firing 16 times, killing an African-American teenager, Laquan McDonald.

[18:30:23] Van Dyke is free on bond, $1.5 million bond after being charged with first-degree murder. The police department held the video for over a year, only released it last week under court order. Chicago's mayor, Rahm Emanuel, says the department needs to confront its challenges with new leadership.


MAYOR RAHM EMANUEL, CHICAGO: Superintendent McCarthy knows that, if a police officer is only as effective as when he has the trust of those he serves. After this weekend, after effectively handling both the protests that follow the release of the McDonald video last week, and the arrest of Laquan's killer. Superintendent McCarthy and I began a discussion on Sunday about the direction of the department and the undeniable fact that the public trust and the leadership of the department has been shaken and eroded.

This morning, I formally asked for his resignation.


BLITZER: All right. Let's talk about this and more with the president and CEO of the NAACP, Cornell William Brooks. Also joining us, our senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin. The former federal prosecutor, our legal analyst, Sunny Hostin, and the former FBI assistant director, our CNN law enforcement analyst Tom Fuentes.

Cornell, you were actually arrested with some of your colleagues protesting yesterday on the streets of Chicago.


BLITZER: Give us your thinking. Why did you decide to do that?

BROOKS: We wanted to send a very strong message to law enforcement. And so the NAACP thought that the best way to send a strong message to law enforcement was to break the law in order to deliver the message to law enforcement that you cannot sincerely (ph) and violently violate the constitutional rights of your citizens by not holding police officers accountable and allowing them willy-nilly to prey upon the people they're charged with protecting.

So we have a police department that, for over a generation, has not been accountable, not been transparent, where we have a police review board that received 10,000 complaints and only resulted, with any significant disciplinary action, in 19 of those; where we have a police department that has operated its own domestic Guantanamo in terms of disappearing citizens and violating their rights. This is the kind of department that needs to receive a clear message.

And so we were arrested with a group of young seminarians. And we need to be clear that the pressure will escalate. There will be more civil disobedience. There will be no protests, more direct actions by the citizens of Chicago and people across the country. Because the department -- the Chicago Police Department is not unique, but it is distinctive in terms of the degree to which it has certainly violated the rights of its citizens. And it cannot be counted. It cannot be allowed to continue to operate in such a fashion.

BLITZER: Did the firing by the mayor of the police superintendent meet your requirements? Is that enough?

BROOKS: No. The people in Chicago and people across the country are not working for a parade, personalities, simply a changing of the guard. They need systemic reform in this police department.

So where you have a police authority board that reviews thousands and thousands of complaints, dismisses complaints without ever interviewing police officers, we have a system of check and balances without much check and no balance. We have the fox guarding the chicken coop where the fox is in a uniform, and the fox is not looking out for the well-being of the chickens. That would be the citizens of the city of Chicago. We need much more than that.

BLITZER: Should the mayor, Rahm Emanuel, step down?

BROOKS: Again, the problem here goes well beyond a police chief who has served for 4 1/2 years or the mayor. This goes back at least a generation.

So when we have a police department, where we have officials who have been convicted of perjury, the police department where there's no accountability.

And so the point being here, it is not merely the matter of the superintendent changing jobs or merely the matter of the mayor changing jobs. We need to see significant reform. And we also need a federal pattern and practice investigation, because the fact of the matter is, this goes well beyond the tenure of either Superintendent McCarthy or Mayor Emanuel.

BLITZER: Jeffrey Toobin, was there a cover-up by the police? Did city leaders, in addition, refuse to make the video public, because they were trying to protect their titles, the police officers, if you will, who were involved?

[18:35:10] JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I think it's clear now that there has to be a federal, an outside investigation. There are so many unanswered questions about this situation.

You know, why was this video not released for a year? Well, Mayor Emanuel points to the prosecutor, Alvarez. Alvarez points to the federal government.

What was the impact of the fact that Rahm Emanuel was running for re-election while this -- at a time when this video could have been released? What about the other videos, the Burger King videos, which some assert were erased by police officers or someone else?

There are a lot of unanswered questions about this situation, and only an outside investigation -- the United States Department of Justice, the Illinois attorney general, Lisa Madigan, has called for the U.S. Department of Justice to step in. I think that's the only solution that will have any sort of credibility at this point.

BLITZER: Sunny, do you agree? Was there a cover-up?

SUNNY HOSTIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I think Jeffrey raises some really important points here.

I am not prepared to go so far as to say there was cover-up, but this is unusual at best. The fact that it would take 13 months for any prosecutor to bring a case, given these facts, given the clear evidence that we've now all seen on this video is arguably just almost malpractice.

I think when you look at the systemic issues that have a long time been known by the citizens of Chicago that exist in the police department, there's just no question that without this finger pointing between the prosecutor's office and the mayor's office and the police department, it does smell of some sort of problem there in Chicago.

And I agree with Jeff, the only way that the citizens of Chicago and, actually, I think for many of us in this country that have been observing this kind of brutality that we've been seeing from our police department. We do need, at the very least, an independent investigation by the Justice Department to sort out whether or not there was some sort of untoward cover-up going on here.

BLITZER: You and I, Tom, we just read this letter from the attorney general of Illinois, Lisa Madigan to the attorney general of the United States, Loretta Lynch, asking for a full-scale investigation of what's going on in Chicago. You used to be a police officer outside of Chicago. Do you believe there was a cover-up?

TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: I don't know. If there was a cover-up, it's hard to tell at this point without the investigation of where it came from.

So I agree with Sunny, with Jeff, that they do need to have an investigation into this outside of the Chicago authorities. Who made the decision to sit on that video? Because we've seen other communities where we've had a police shooting, and the video is out the next day. So why did this one take 400 days?

Looking at the facts of that video and what occurred in this thing, I don't think that investigation should have taken more than one or two months. Again, not an entire year.

So something was going on there. Was that being run by the mayor's office, telling the superintendent don't release it during campaign season? Was it the state's attorney's office in taking a long time to actually bring the charges? We don't know a lot about it but something is amiss.

BLITZER: All right, Tom Fuentes. Jeffrey Toobin, Sunny Hostin, Cornell William Brooks, guys, thanks very much. We'll obviously stay on top of this story. More news coming up, including Donald Trump. He's scheduled to

hold a campaign rally at the top of the hour. And the Republican presidential frontrunner is offering some advice to rivals who want to topple him.


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Hey, there's only one way to get to the top and it's all through Trump. Let's face it.



[18:43:36] BLITZER: Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump is telling his rivals if they want to get to the front of the pact, they'll have to go through him, and he's challenging them to bring it on. Our senior Washington correspondent, Jeff Zeleny, is in New Hampshire for us tonight.

Jeff, Donald Trump is about to hold a campaign rally there. What is the latest?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: He is, Wolf. Exactly two months from tonight, the Iowa caucuses will kick off this long 2016 campaign. It's been frozen in place in essentially two categories: Trump and the rest of the field.

But the rest of the field is starting to get restless, and Ted Cruz is trying to break out.


ZELENY (voice-over): Donald Trump is urging his rivals to bring it on.

TRUMP: So far, let's see, Christie hasn't hit me yet. He will at some point. Rubio has got to hit me.

ZELENY: Bravado from the Republican frontrunner exactly two months before the Iowa caucuses kick off the 2016 campaign.

TRUMP: Even, I think, Cruz is going to have to hit me because, you know, he's a nice guy.

ZELENY: After defending Trump for months, Texas Senator Ted Cruz is suddenly on the rise and may not be a nice guy in Trump's eyes much longer.

TRUMP: If somebody hits me, I'm going to hit them back so hard. Hey, there's only one way to get to the top, and it's all through Trump. Let's face it. They have to.

ZELENY: Hitting back has become a Trump trademark. Few Republicans have escaped his buzz saw. Cruz is running neck in neck with Trump in one Iowa poll and already making a bold prediction. SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I don't think

Trump is going to be our nominee. I don't believe he's going to be our president.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Cruz appears to be taking a page from Trump's playbook, making attention-grabbing comments of his own. Asked about birth control in Iowa, Cruz knows of know conservatives who flat out oppose contraception. He said he and his wife do not, saying they were glad they had two girls, not 17.

CRUZ: Last I checked, we don't have a rubber shortage in America. Like, look, when I was in college, we had a machine in the bathroom. You put 50 cents in and voila!

ZELENY: But many religious organizations are opposed to birth control. He also told radio host Hugh Hewitt, Democrats commit more violent crimes in America.

CRUZ: Here's the simple and undeniable fact, the overwhelming majority of violent criminals are Democrats.

ZELENY: And he took the media to task by reporting the suspect in the Colorado Planned Parenthood shooting reportedly said, "No more baby parts" as he was arrested.

CRUZ: It was also reported that he was registered as an independent and as a woman, and a transgendered leftist activists.

ZELENY: Aides said Cruz was trying to make a point against rushing to judgment.

But sorting out fact from fiction has become a full time task in this presidential race. Trump is still standing by his assertion that he saw thousands of Muslims celebrating in New Jersey on 9/11, even though no one has produced video evidence to support that claim.

On CNN's "NEW DAY," former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani said small pockets of cheering took place in the city, but he accused Trump of exaggerating his claims.

RUDY GIULIANI, FORMER NYC MAYOR: Let him deal with it. Let him show the evidence of it. If it shows up, it will corroborate him. If it doesn't show up, it's going to make him look really bad.


ZELENY: But so far, there's no evidence that anything Trump has said has made him look bad or diminish him in the eyes of his voters. Now, he's stepping up his campaign much more aggressively. Last night, he was in Georgia, tonight in New Hampshire, tomorrow in Virginia, later in the week, in North Carolina and then finally in Iowa.

So, as this campaign enters a new phase, he's stepping it up and tonight, Wolf, I expect him to tell his rivals once again to take their best shot -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jeff Zeleny there in New Hampshire for us -- thanks very much. Let's dig deeper right now with our CNN political reporter, Sara Murray, our senior political correspondent Brianna Keilar and our chief political analyst Gloria Borger.

Giuliani also said that Donald Trump, Gloria, is judged by a different standard because he's an entertainer, if you will. I guess that's the point he's trying to make.


You know, I don't think that's it. I think this is about Republican primary voters. Republican primary voters are mad at the so-called establishment which would be elected officials, Republican elected officials. They are mad at the media. Don't like the media.

And so, Donald Trump gets a bit of a pass where other entertainers or politicians would not. I think that's what we're seeing going on. If he attacks somebody, it's OK because he is different. He's not one of them. He's sort of the ultimate outsider.

BLITZER: Sara, you've been on the road covering Trump now for a while. Do voters seem to have any concerns about some of the assertions he's made?

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICS REPORTER: I think, if anything, when you present voters with any sign that Donald Trump might be telling the truth, they would rather blame the media than blame Donald Trump. But I think a perfect example of this is in the 9/11 comments. Voters will say, well, look, I saw someone here or we saw these small pockets of people.

The difference is, Donald Trump is not talking about small pockets of people, Muslim Americans who were cheering on 9/11. He's talking about big groups and that sends a very different message. It says that it's a pervasive feeling among Muslim-Americans that they want to harm America as opposed to a couple of people who might have had hatred in their heart that day but supporters look at those, you know, small group examples and say, well, Donald Trump was right and the media is just spinning it.

BLITZER: Ted Cruz is really moving up in Iowa based on the last poll that we just saw. He's number two just behind Donald Trump. Brianna, very statistically almost tied.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right and that actually makes him vulnerable, I would say, to Donald Trump. You know, you start kind of getting in the way of his polls.

BORGER: Hit me.

KEILAR: And he might even hit before he's hit, I think.

But the expected pathway for Ted Cruz is basically through Donald Trump or around Donald Trump. The expectation would be that somehow Trump would either self-destruct but at the same time you wonder, he's not going to go quietly. You wonder if that's going to happen.

But the other issue would be, you know, that Cruz would take Trump down if you look at the way Cruz has sort of been playing this. You heard him there in that sound bite. He said, I don't think he's going to be the nominee. I don't think he's going to be the president.

That's not especially hard hitting and so far he hasn't shown that he wants to do that. His pathway at this point is possible. You hear this from Democrats and Republicans, but at the same time, it's narrow and I think this is the biggest challenge for Ted Cruz. At a certain point, he has to expand his appeal.

[18:50:01] And for so long, covering Congress and covering politics now, I've talked to Republicans for years, they -- establishment Republicans loathe him. I am not overstating that.

BORGER: Well, you know, I do think Cruz is very well-positioned to win in the South. There are lots of evangelical voters there. He will do very well in the South. If he can get through Iowa, win or second place, and can do decently in New Hampshire, I think he can do very well in the south. Then the moment of truth for the Republican Party will be, oh, Cruz or Trump or brand X after March 1. And I think that the Republicans I've been talking to today, that's what they're thinking.

BORGER: All right, guys. Stand by. We have much more to talk about, including growing fear among some of those establishment GOP leaders that Donald Trump may, in fact, emerge as the Republican presidential nominee.

We'll have more on that when we come back.


[18:55:26] BLITZER: Donald Trump certainly enjoying an extended run at the top of all the polls and daring his Republican rivals to take their best shots at him. We are back with our political experts.

Brianna, I want to read to you something that Lindsey Graham, he's a Republican presidential candidate, not doing very well, the senator from South Carolina, told "The New York Times" about Donald Trump. "It would be an utter, complete and total disaster if you are a xenophobic, race-baiting, religious bigot, you are going to have a hard time being president of the United States and you're going to do irreparable damage to the party."

Those are strong very words by a Republican against a fellow Republican.

KEILAR: Those are very strong words. But as you said, Lindsey Graham isn't doing so well in the polls.

So, it's -- I guess, the question sort of is, what about these other candidates? And why aren't they sort of taking this tone that Lindsey Graham is taking? It's because they're afraid of Donald Trump, they're afraid of the voters who support them. Donald Trump has them in this place where they are either revealed to be kind of wussy or they're sort of revealed to put themselves out there and be very vulnerable and get clobbered, and that's not going to end well for them.

But just look at what they're saying -- Jeb Bush, you know, he's sort of tinkering on the edges, criticizing Donald Trump when it comes to his leadership abilities. Ted Cruz says, oh, he's not going to be nominee. Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, says when Donald Trump says this thing about thousands of people protesting -- thousands of Muslims celebrating 9/11, Chris Christie says, I don't recall that, but I forget things. This just shows you where he has them.

BLITZER: You know, Gloria, if Donald Trump wins in Iowa, and he's ahead, wins in New Hampshire, then they go to South Carolina, all those other southern states, he does very well there. Potentially, he could be the Republican presidential nominee.

BORGER: He could. To get back to your point, I think Republicans don't want to elevate Donald Trump any more now by attacking him than they've already done.

Donald Trump could be the Republican nominee. I spoke with a bunch of Republicans today asking them that very question. A lot are taking sort of a wait-and-see attitude because they believe one of two things. One, that his ego will get in the way. If it looks like he is going to lose in any early states, he might decide he doesn't want to be a loser. And so, you know, he might decide that he would just get out.

You know, there's also a sense that Donald Trump cannot carry it through the South. And that that would then be an opening as we were talking about before for Cruz.

BLITZER: So far nothing knocked him out of first place in any of these major polls.

MURRAY: Right. There is this sort of wishful thinking among, I think, a lot of establishment Republicans that Donald Trump's ego will get in the way or he'll implode in some way, because they know that the easiest way to elevate supporters is for the establishment Republicans to start going after Donald Trump.

BORGER: Right.

MURRAY: And then he points to them and says, look at the party who left you behind. They're trying to kick me out of the race.

And that's why everyone has been so careful in terms of most of these establishment Republicans attacking Trump. Lindsey Graham, a different story, that's the guy who has nothing to lose and is not one who's known to mince words. BORGER: And if at some point, if Donald Trump remains in the

race, and if it becomes a two-person race, it's Donald Trump versus one other person. And then Donald Trump has to get 51 percent of the vote, not 25 percent of the vote. There is a question about whether in the Republican Party, he can do that.

We know his base is solid. We know his base loves him. The question is, how high can he go?

BLITZER: But he has been very impressive so far at least. No matter how irritating some of his comments may be to other Republicans, it hasn't hurt him.

KEILAR: No, it hasn't. And -- you were talking about wishful thinking that some Republicans hope he'll implode. I've been talking to Republicans who say these candidates cannot just ignore Donald Trump if they want to surpass him. They have to figure out a strategy to take him on. They can't just hope and pray that it's going to work out for them.

MURRAY: And that's the Ted Cruz conundrum now. We are getting close to Iowa. If you want to make your move, you've got to start thinking about how you're going to do it. And Trump is not wrong. You have to go through Donald Trump if you want to win.


BORGER: Why do you think he is goading? Why is he goading all these candidates? He wants them to take him on.

MURRAY: He likes to fight.

BLITZER: Let's see what happens. Guys, thanks very much.

By the way, stay with CNN for the next Republican presidential debate. I'll be the moderator. The final GOP face-off this year, it happens December 15th, two weeks from today, live from Las Vegas, only here on CNN.

Thanks for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.