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Iraqi Military Offensive in Ramadi; Report: Russian Bombing in Syria May Be War Crime; Interview with James Jeffrey; TSA Changes Airport Screening Procedures; Heavy Fighting as Iraqis Push Into ISIS- Held City; New CNN Poll: 21-Point Lead for Trump; Cruz Slams Cartoon, Uses it to Raise Money; Ted Cruz Slams Cartoon Depicting His Children; Protests Cause Chaos at Shopping Mall and Airport. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired December 23, 2015 - 17:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Happening now, battle for Ramadi. With guns blazing, Iraqi tanks push deeper into an ISIS stronghold.

Are the Iraqis up to the challenge?

Could we finally be witnessing a turning point in the war?

Russian war crimes?

A world renowned human rights group is pointing at Russia's bloody bombing campaign in Syria. Vladimir Putin says he's targeting terrorists, but Amnesty International says hundreds of innocent civilians are dying.

Will anyone be held accountable?

In command -- a brand new CNN/ORC poll shows more and more Republicans want Donald Trump to be the next commander-in-chief.

But right now, Trump's attacks are aimed at Hillary Clinton and, once again, at the news media.

And pre-Christmas shutdown -- part of the Mall of America, the country's largest shopping mall, is shut down by protesters chanting, "black lives matter?" And the protest has now spread to the Minneapolis/St. Paul Airport.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


We're getting dramatic new video from the Iraqi military's new offensive to retake a key city from ISIS. You can clearly hear the gunfire as Iraqi tanks and armored vehicles creep through the streets of Ramadi, passing light poles still flying ISIS flags.

When the terror group took Ramadi back in May, the U.S. Defense secretary, Ash Carter, complained that the Iraqis simply showed no will to fight. We're looking into what has changed. We're also digging into a scathing new report on Russia's bombing campaign in Syria. Hundreds of civilians are dying, so many, the report says what Vladimir Putin's military is doing may amount to a war crime.

And could Donald Trump be the next U.S. commander-in-chief?

Our brand new CNN/ORC Poll of Republicans shows Trump 21 points ahead of his closest rival, Senator Ted Cruz. The poll also shows Cruz is alone in second place and building an impressive lead over the rest of the Republican pack.

A former U.S. ambassador to Iraq is standing by, as are our correspondents, analysts and guests. We'll have full coverage of all the day's top stories.

Let's begin with our Pentagon correspondent.

Barbara Starr -- Barbara, what are you hearing about this Iraqi military offensive?

BARBARA STARR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, what is becoming very clear is Ramadi is a test case for the Iraqi military.

Can they really win against ISIS?


STARR (voice-over): Iraqi troops roll across a floating bridge, opening a path toward central Ramadi. Heavy gunfire continues to ring out, Iraqi armored vehicles on the move, fighting street to street. The entire area is mined and booby-trapped by ISIS, entire houses wired to blow up. Tough work for Iraqi troops even after weeks of U.S. training to prepare for the war.

COL. STEVE WARREN, SPOKESMAN, ANTI-ISIS COALITION IN IRAQ: This enemy has had time to set up their defense inside of this city. And it's going to be very difficult and it's going to be a very slow process for the Iraqis to slowly, methodically and carefully clear their way through this city.

STARR: Sectarian sensitivities are being handled delicately. The fighters purposely do not include any Iranian-backed Shia militias in this part of the Sunni heartland, according to the US. The U.S. already helping Iraq plan for a Sunni-led force to hold the city if it is taken back by Iraqis. Hundreds of Sunni tribal fighters have been trained by the U.S., the U.S. military anxious to show success of its anti-ISIS strategy.

WARREN: We've begun a training program a year ago to train Ira Iraqi forces to be able to take their country back. And in the last several weeks, we've begun to see that happen. That training has started to take hold.

STARR: Some say for ISIS, Ramadi already served its purpose this spring when they chased Iraqi forces from the city. MAJ. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: They've now determined, look, they're going to trade space for time. We're going to go ahead and give up this space called Ramadi. We're going to continue to live to fight another day.

STARR: But on this already devastated battlefield of a city, desperation is everywhere. Some ISIS fighters remain dug in and willing to use Ramadi citizens as they see fit.


COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Human shields are going to be the favorite tactic that ISIS employs. A significant civilian casualty rate is also going to be a significant problem for Iraqi forces. So if the operations go wrong, you're going to have possibly some real problems going into those areas without causing the deaths of civilians.


STARR: And, Wolf, we're learning tonight that the administration is having a very quiet internal chat. Top officials are talking about whether and how they can loosen the rules of engagement, the rules that they must meet before they launch an airstrike on a particular target. They are adamant this is not about increasing the risk of civilian casualties. They don't want to do that. But they do want to see if, as they intensify the airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, they can loosen some of the requirements so they can keep the pressure up on ISIS -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And as you point out, that whole city of Ramadi, that town, has been wired, improvised, explosive devices all over the places, including entire buildings have, in effect, becoming building IEDs.

Here's the question, are there U.S. troops on the ground going in with these Iraqi forces right now?

STARR: Wolf, I asked top U.S. military officials that very question twice today. I am told, no. There are no U.S. military advisers on the ground with the Iraqis. There are U.S. military advisers at a nearby base called al-Taqaddum. That is where they have been. And for now, officials are insisting that, for now, is where they will stay.

BLITZER: That's going to put a lot of American families who have men and women serving in Iraq right now, between 3,000 and 4,000 troops on the ground in Iraq right now, a little more at ease knowing the dangers in Ramadi.

Barbara, thank you very much.

In another front in the war against ISIS, a Nobel Peace Prize winning human rights group is condemning Russia's bombing campaign in Syria because many civilians are dying.

CNN's Brian Todd has seen the new report -- Brian, tell us why they think the Russian military may be committing war crimes.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, tonight Amnesty International is saying some Russian bombings could amount to war crimes because they directly hit civilians. There are horrific accounts of residential areas, a mosque being struck, and in at least one case, a Russian bomb apparently devastated a marketplace.


TODD (voice-over): November 29th, a bustling market in the Syrian city of Ariha. In one moment customers were buying fruits and vegetables. The next moment, an explosion. Witnesses say bodies were mutilated, decapitated. That's according to Amnesty International, citing videos like this one, which CNN cannot independently verify.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (through translator) we have no terrorists here. May God curse the Russians.

TODD: Amnesty says this was the work of the Russian military indiscriminately bombing a civilian area.

PHILIP LUTHER, AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL: Three missiles hit that market, 49 civilians were killed and there was no evidence of a military target.

TODD: A new report from Amnesty International says the Russians have killed at least 200 civilians in Syria since their military campaign began in September, striking homes, medical facilities and this mosque, with unguided bombs.

LUTHER: Those attacks may amount to war crimes because they appeared to be attacks directly hitting civilians or civilian objects.

TODD: An assertion vehemently disputed by the Russian government. But Amnesty cites videos like this one as evidence Russia is dropping cluster bombs, which contain dozens of smaller bombs.

LUTHER: When they fall, sub munitions, little bomblets, are left behind, and, in many cases, don't explode. And so they effectively become land mines for -- and in many conflicts where they've been used, children and other civilians have picked them up in months and years to come.

TODD: Amnesty does not accuse the Russians of purposely targeting civilians, an Amnesty official telling CNN they may have gotten bad intelligence on some targets. One analyst says the Kremlin's developed tactics of waging war that don't take civilians into account as much as other nations do.

OLGA OLIKER, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC & INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: They haven't put a lot of thought into how to avoid civilian casualties. And they're willing to accept the collateral damage, I would argue, looking at how they fought historically. It's about encircling and bombarding. And when you encircle and bombard, civilians will get killed. TODD: In a Moscow theater in 2002 and a school in Beslan, Russia in 2004, terrorists held hundreds of innocent people hostage. In each case, Russian forces went in and killed almost all the attackers. But many of the hostages, including nearly 200 children at the school, also died.

OLIKER: There is a view that destroying the enemy is your first priority.


TODD: Now, tonight, Russian officials are responding forcefully and very angrily to the Amnesty report. The Russian Defense Ministry calls the report "groundless, full of cliches and lies." The Russians deny using cluster bombs. They say their airstrikes are pinpoint, only hitting terrorists. And they say it's not just them, pointing out that the U.S. forces have bombed innocent civilians, as well, in the fight against ISIS -- Wolf.


BLITZER: Brian, there are now also some reports the Russians may soon be helping the Taliban in Afghanistan.

What are you hearing about that?

TODD: That's right, Wolf.

The Russian Foreign Ministry says the Taliban in contact with the Kremlin in Afghanistan for the purpose of working together against their common enemy, ISIS. The Foreign Ministry tells CNN there won't be weapons going to the Taliban, but they'll share intelligence.

Still, this is a case of Vladimir Putin inserting himself once again into a conflict where America is already involved, things getting potentially very messy as a result.

BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting for us.

Thank you very much.

Let's get some insight into all of this from the former United States ambassador to Iraq and Turkey, James Jeffrey.

Ambassador, thanks very much for coming in.


BLITZER: Lots to go over.

First of all, the suggestion from Amnesty International that the Russian forces may be engaged in war crimes because of innocent civilians who are dying.

What do you know about that? JEFFREY: Wolf, first of all, we do know that Russia's ally, Assad, deliberately targets civilians in order to force them to flee and to undercut support for the insurgents.

Secondly, as we saw in your film clips earlier, the Russians are dropping what we call dumb bombs out of airplanes without any guidance. Those things are go to go everywhere in populated areas.

BLITZER: So you accept this Amnesty International report?

JEFFREY: Yes, I do.

BLITZER: You think there's a basis to it?


BLITZER: And if they are, in fact, as the allegation is, committing war crimes, what happens?

What does that mean?

JEFFREY: We add it to the long list of war crimes and violations of international law that Mr. Putin has demonstrated since marching into Georgia in 2008.

BLITZER: So, but for all practical purposes, it doesn't mean much?

JEFFREY: For all practical purposes, moral and legal issues are of importance in this world, but it isn't going to matter much to Putin.

BLITZER: All right.

JEFFREY: It matters to us.

BLITZER: What about this new report now that the Russians are beginning to share intelligence with the Taliban in Afghanistan. You've heard this?

JEFFREY: Everything Mr. Putin is doing in the Middle East is to capitalize on what he thinks is our relative withdrawal from the region, to establish security relationships with the Iranians, with the Iraqi government, with the Syrian government, now with the Taliban. We're going to see this everywhere.

BLITZER: They say they're helping the Taliban because the Taliban is fighting ISIS, as well. And ISIS increasingly is establishing a presence in Afghanistan.

Is that a good enough reason?

JEFFREY: No. Wolf, there are many reasons to go after ISIS. And we're seeing a bit of that tonight. But one of the best reasons is it's serving as an excuse, underlying excuse for Putin and the Russians to push into the region, not to take down ISIS -- you see his bombs basically don't target it -- but rather to go after our security relationships and our allies. BLITZER: Because the -- as you know, six American service members were just killed in a Taliban suicide strike outside the Bagram Air Base. So if the Russians are helping the Taliban and the Taliban is killing Americans, obviously, and Afghan troops, as well. The mess that currently exists in Syria could easily be translated, could easily be replayed in Afghanistan right now.

JEFFREY: Nothing Putin is doing in the Middle East is or really can be of assistance to our efforts, our desperate efforts, to preserve security in this region. And any diplomacy that looks that way is wrong diplomacy.

BLITZER: One quick question, can the Iraqi military retake Ramadi, and, more importantly, hold onto it, if ISIS tries to get it back?

JEFFREY: With the kind of advanced, more aggressive U.S. support we've seen now, it will take Ramadi within days or weeks. And it can hold onto it. It did for 18 months before it lost it last time.

BLITZER: Ambassador James Jeffrey, thanks very much for coming in.

JEFFREY: Thank you.

BLITZER: We have breaking news coming into THE SITUATION ROOM.

The government announces an abrupt change in airport screening procedures effectively immediately at all U.S. airports. Stay tuned for what has changed. We'll update you on that.

Also coming up, our brand new CNN poll shows Republicans jumping onto the Donald Trump bandwagon.

Will Senator Ted Cruz or anyone else be able to stop him?


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We're going to win so much in so many different ways that you're going to get tired of winning.


BLITZER: We're following breaking news. In the midst of this Christmas travel rush, new security procedures are going into effect at the nation's airports. Our aviation correspondent, Rene Marsh, is joining us with details.

Rene, tell our viewers what exactly has changed.

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we know that TSA has changed passenger screening procedures at airport security checkpoints. The agency now has the power to mandate that a passenger go through this screening, the full body screening machines. This is effective immediately.

It used to be that passengers, if they didn't want to go through those full-body scanners, they could opt out and get the pat-down. We now know that the TSA is changing that. In this current security climate, where there's heightened concern about terror plots, the possibility of terrorists wanting to bring down a commercial jetliner using an explosive, they are making this change so that, if any of these TSA officers on the front lines have a security concern about a specific passenger, they have the power now to make that passenger go through this full-body scanner.

BLITZER: What's behind the change, Rene?

MARSH: Well, the benefit of the full-body scanners essentially is that it is able to detect nonmetallic explosives. So the fear is, let's say someone opts out for a pat-down. Perhaps they miss an explosive, a nonmetallic explosive that's hidden, perhaps, in someone's underwear. Remember the 2009 underwear bomber.

So they're trying to close this loophole so that, if they have a concern, a red flag with a passenger, they will have to go through that scanner. And that scanner would, indeed, pick up a nonmetallic explosive, Wolf.

BLITZER: So if a passenger says he or she doesn't want to go through that full-body scanner, they want to be patted down, that's no longer going to be acceptable, is that right?

MARSH: That's right. It will not be acceptable. However, it raises the question what basis will TSA use to determine who they will mandate must go through this full-body scanner? TSA will not give us any specifics, only saying that they don't want to divulge that for security reasons.

But again, it will be up to the TSA officers' discretion whether they believe someone needs to be forced to go through that scanner, Wolf.

BLITZER: Very quickly, Rene, the timing, why now?

MARSH: Well, again, high traffic time and also the ongoing concern, the heightened concern that there are these aspirations of these terrorist groups to bring down a commercial jetliner. We saw what happened with that Russian jetliner. So TSA making sure they close up all of the loopholes.

BLITZER: Rene Marsh reporting for us. Thank you, Rene.

We're also following the intense battle right now as Iraqi forces are trying to retake a key city overrun by ISIS last May. After months and months of training U.S. -- using U.S.-supplied tanks, heavy equipment, the Iraqis are fighting in street-to-street battles in Ramadi.

[17:20:04] Iraqi officials report the terrorists have planted bombs almost everywhere in the neighborhood surrounding the military's main target: the ISIS-held government compound.

Joining us now in THE SITUATION ROOM, our CNN contributor, Michael Weiss. He's the senior editor of "The Daily Beast," also the co- author of "ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror." Also joining us, retired Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, our CNN

military analyst.

Michael, the Iraqi army says it's making steady progress in retaking Ramadi right now from ISIS. But this is the same army that fled Ramadi earlier this year in May, leaving behind lots of weapons, simply running away when some ISIS terrorists moved in. Why should we expect a different outcome this time?

MICHAEL WEISS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I mean, I would be cautious about just how easy it's going to be to take central or downtown Ramadi. I mean, as you point out, ISIS has booby-trapped this entire city. They're using human shields. They have a certain kind of house-borne IED, where they essentially create a bomb that collapses an entire house the minute troops enter it.

The one thing I would say, though, Wolf, is here is a very credible Iraqi military division. It's called the Golden Division. It's essentially their Special Ops. What distinguishes them from other army units or interior ministry or federal police is that they're multi-sectarian. So you've got Christians. You've got Jews. You've got Sunnis.

A lot of the guys in the Golden Division actually have been targeted by the Shia militias, which according to the United States, the Pentagon, have stayed away from at least this part of the fight for Ramadi. It's true that they're in the sort of western districts near Habbaniyah and so on, but they're not marching into downtown Ramadi.

Also, according to the U.S., there's about 1,200 Sunni-Arab tribesmen who have joined up in this fight. I mean, remember, the Arab tribes were slaughtered -- or members of the tribes had been slaughtered by ISIS in that 2014 blitzkrieg into Mosul. And then, you know, months later into al-Anbar.

So, you know, there is some potential here, but I am very worried about sort of how this is going to look. ISIS has a lupine cunning when it comes to turning civilian populations against the government authorities. And as your earlier correspondent pointed out, all they have to do is inflict mass civilian casualties and fatalities, and the people will say the liberation is just as bad as the conquest by the terrorists. So it's a little too soon to declare victory.

BLITZER: Yes, I'm sure you're right. General Hertling, the Iraqi army says the process of retaking Ramadi right now is especially challenging because of this huge number of IEDs planted throughout the city. They -- the Iraqis also, as you know, they've refused to accept American help, actually, on the ground in this operation.

But is there any way the U.S. can actually help them? I know a lot of American families who have service members serving in Iraq right now are happy that U.S. troops are not part of the ground battle in Ramadi. But what else should the U.S. be doing besides airstrikes?

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, they're doing it, Wolf. And I would suggest that not only do they have the Golden Division, like Michael said. He's absolutely right on that. But the other five brigades that are attacking into Ramadi right now are the ones that have been trained by American forces.

They have not only received the support in terms of their training, but they've given them great tactic and procedures in dealing with IEDs. Because they know that's what happened in Baiji and in Tikrit. They ran into houses that had house-borne IEDs, HBIEDs, like you said before, that would collapse the ceilings. I've experienced that in forces when I was in Iraq. I actually watched six of our own soldiers, U.S. military, get crushed by a Wolf -- roof that came in on them. So they have trained these new Iraqi soldiers in how to counter that.

I heard one of your analysts say the other night that they were going to do in-stride breaches. That's not true at all. They are going to find these IEDs. They know what they look like. They've been trained at al-Taqaddum, as Barbara Starr said earlier. And they are going to counter these IEDs as they go in the city.

But they are still going to find, as Michael said, some very intense fighting with what's left from ISIS. These are the guys that are going to stay there and die and take others with them in suicide explosives or attempts, but I think a lot of the Iraqi forces right now, these new green forces that are attacking in Ramadi now know better ways to attack.

BLITZER: Michael, what do you make of this Amnesty International allegation that Russia's engaged in war crimes with their airstrikes in Syria right now killing a lot of innocent civilians?

WEISS: Yes, I mean, it makes perfect sense. You know, the way Russia has perpetrated this campaign is similar to what they did in Chechnya in the '90s.

I just got off the phone yesterday with Rami Jarrah, who's a Syrian journalist in Aleppo City. And he told me a couple days ago they bombed a very populous marketplace in central Aleppo. And they said the bomb had hit about a few meters away from a crowd of 200 to 300 people. It would have killed hundreds, had it actually struck in the middle of that dense crowd.

Rami said that he was very skeptical of claims among the civilian population in Aleppo that Russia is purposefully targeting marketplaces, mosques, hospitals, as your other reporters pointed out, but now he's convinced that that's exactly what they're doing. And he explains it as follows.

[17:25:07] He's like, this is the kill logic that the Assad regime had employed in the early days of the Syrian uprising. You go out into a crowd; you shoot one person dead. The next day you have to shoot five people to make the same point, because the crowd swells. You know, it grows the ranks of a protest.

Russia wants to kill a lot of people immediately, so that they don't have to kill even more people later on. They want to bleed Aleppo. They want the civilian population to flee. The problem, though, is this. Aleppo today consists, in the main, of

internally displaced Syrians, people who are coming from other cities and hamlets and towns and villages all throughout Syria. This is the poorest of the poor. And they're hanging on, Wolf, not because they're great patriots or they want to stand in defiance of this onslaught, not just from Russia, by Assad, Hezbollah, ISIS, you name it, but because they have no other place to go. They can't afford to go to Turkey. They can't afford to move elsewhere. They have essentially occupied empty residences, apartment buildings. They set up shops -- shops and stalls in these marketplaces, because it's actually -- it is a greater advantage to them there than anywhere else in the country.

So, you know, actually, it's not having the effect that the Russian government wants it to have.

One other final point: The defense ministry came out, the Russian defense ministry, and said amnesty should disclose the identities of the anonymous sources who gave them this information. And then said they threatened, "If amnesty doesn't do it, we'll do it ourselves."

I mean, what kind of a government does this? They say you have to name who the eyewitnesses are telling you about humanitarian carnage or we're going to out them ourselves? This, I think, tells you everything you need to know about Moscow's plan in Syria.

BLITZER: Michael Weiss helping us. Thanks very much.

General Hertling, thanks to you, as well.

The remains of six U.S. service members killed by a suicide bomber this week in Afghanistan are returning to the United States. U.S. Air Force Staff Sergeant Chester McBride was a football hero in his hometown of Statesboro, Georgia. Major Adrianna Vorderbruggen was the first openly gay active duty woman in the U.S. military. Technical Sergeant Joseph G. Lemm was a detective 15-year veteran of the New York police force. Staff Sergeant Peter Taub had told his family he was stationed in Saudi Arabia, not Afghanistan, so they wouldn't worry. Staff Sergeant Louis M. Bonacasa was on his fourth tour of duty; previously served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Staff Sergeant Michael A. Cinco was from a small town near the Texas-Mexico border.

Our deepest condolences go out to all their families, spouses, children and their friends.


BLITZER: A new nationwide CNN poll of Republicans shows Donald Trump far ahead of his rivals, with Senator Ted Cruz standing out from the rest of the pack in second place.

[17:31:13] Today both Cruz and Trump are aiming their criticism at the news media rather than at one another.

Let's bring in our chief political correspondent, Dana Bash. Tell us more, Dana, about this brand-new CNN/ORC poll. DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Wolf,

Donald Trump would be the first to tell you that six months ago few people took his candidacy seriously. Now he's heading into 2016 with a rock-solid position as leader of the GOP pack.


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We're going to win so much in so many different ways that you're going to get tired of winning.

BASH (voice-over): For a candidate who loves winning, this will be a very merry Christmas.

TRUMP: I'm only kidding. We never get tired of winning, right?

BASH: Donald Trump is so far ahead in CNN/ORC's new national poll he has more support than the next three GOP candidates combined, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson and Marco Rubio.

His leads are even bigger on the question of voters' confidence in him to deal with key issues: the economy, fighting ISIS and illegal immigration.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Trump! Trump! Trump!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Trump! Trump! Trump!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Trump! Trump! Trump!

BASH: But the best news for Trump may be that Republicans are settling into the idea of him as a formidable candidate to take the White House. Forty-six percent say they think Republicans' chances are better with Trump at the top of the ticket, up eight points since August.

TRUMP: She got schlonged. She lost. I mean, she lost.

BASH: That as Trump's war of words with Democrats is getting hotter. Hillary Clinton told "The Des Moines Register" that Trump has a, quote, "penchant for sexism."

HILLARY CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I really deplore the tone of his campaign, and the inflammatory rhetoric that he is using to divide people. His bigotry, his bluster, his bullying have become his campaign.

BASH: Trump responded Trump style on Twitter saying, "Be careful, Hillary, as you play the war on women or women being degraded card."

Meanwhile, Ted Cruz at second place in CNN/ORC's new poll, is sparring with a familiar and politically beneficial source, the mainstream media.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Not much ticks me off, but making fun of my girls, that will do it.

BASH: He is irate that his two young daughters were depicted in a "Washington Post" cartoon as monkeys.

CRUZ: Don't mess with our kids. Don't mess with my kids. Don't mess with Marco's kids. Don't mess with Hillary's kids. Don't mess with anybody's kids. Leave kids alone. And if the media wants to attack and ridicule every Republican, well, that's what they're going to do. But leave our kids alone.

BASH: "The Washington Post" editor took the cartoon down, saying the paper's policy is to leave kids out of it, and he failed to look at the cartoon before it was published. The cartoonist, a Pulitzer Prize winner, says she thought Cruz's daughters were fair game, since he uses them on the trail and on TV, like in this fake "SNL" parody.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The whole family will enjoy reading stories like "The Grinch Who Lost Her E-Mails."

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: "I know just what I'll do," she said with a snicker. "I'll use my own server, and no one will be the wiser."

BASH: Cruz came back with a one-two punch of his own, a cartoon hitting the media and Democrats, what he called Hillary and her lap dogs.


BASH: Now, it is almost the end of the fundraising quarter, so Cruz is trying to capitalize on all the outrage over that cartoon with his daughters. He used it in an appeal for campaign cash. He said, quote, "to push back on 'The Washington Post' and the rest of the liberal media," Wolf, he said, "I need" -- not I want -- "I need to raise $1 million in the next 24 hours."

BLITZER: All right. Dana, stand by. I want to bring in also David Swerdlick. He's the assistant editor of "The Washington Post." And our senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin.

Jeffrey, Trump way on top in this brand-new CNN/ORC poll similar to the FOX News poll that came out earlier in the week. The Quinnipiac University poll yesterday showed it a bit tighter among Republicans. But by all accounts, he is doing well.

[17:35:11] TOOBIN: Yes. And the thing that strikes me about this poll is the incredible non-move for Marco Rubio. You know, every time we have a debate, we all say, "Boy, Marco Rubio had a terrific debate. Marco Rubio was the winner." You know what? Marco Rubio hasn't moved significantly in the polls in months. That to me, especially for a candidate that Democrats are supposed to fear above all others, the idea that he is still stuck at 10 percent is to me the real story of this poll, as well as this just enormous Trump lead.

BLITZER: And the other story, of course, Dana, is Ted Cruz. He's moved up pretty impressively. He's now solidly at No. 2 in this poll and several other polls as well.

BASH: Right. I mean, he's only at 18 percent compared, what, 21 points behind Donald Trump, but he still is the No. 2. Maybe given some credence to what he announced yesterday, which is that he believes that it is ultimately going to be a two-man race between him and Donald Trump.

But I think also, just to Jeff's point, never mind that Rubio hasn't moved. If you look across the board at the issue sets that Republican voters say they care about -- fighting ISIS, illegal immigration, the economy -- not only is Trump winning, he is winning, to use his word, in a huge way. Almost 60 percent in some of those issues. So even voters who aren't necessarily saying that they would support him support him on these issues.

BLITZER: And, David, take a look at this because 46 percent in our new poll of Republicans, they say that they would have a better chance of winning the White House if Donald Trump were the Republican nominee. Are you surprised by that number?

DAVID SWERDLICK, ASSISTANT EDITOR, "THE WASHINGTON POST": I'm not surprised, because you hit on the key. It's of Republicans, right, Wolf? If this poll was taken of all voters, I think you'd see a smaller percentage of people thinking that that -- that Trump would propel Republicans to victory in November 2016. Whether or not he can beat Hillary Clinton remains to be seen.

But I think his strength among Republican voters means that he's going to be successful in these early primary states among the Republican voters that turn out.

BLITZER: Right now he doesn't have to worry about the general election. He's first and foremost got to worry about those Republicans...


BLITZER: ... who show up in caucus states or primaries.

SWERDLICK: Yes. He's got that huge lead over a Cruz in that latest CNN poll where he's almost -- he's more than doubled them up. And that suggests that, in the next couple of states, he'll be very strong.


BLITZER: Hold on one second, Jeffrey. Dana, go ahead.

BASH: Real quick, David, you're right about that, but you know, the whole rap on Donald Trump from a lot of people that we know here in Washington, Republicans I'm talking about, is, "Oh, my goodness, we really hope he's not the nominee, because we don't think that he can win."

But this poll is suggesting that that's turning around for Donald Trump among voters, that they believe not only does he garner the most support, but that he's getting close to the point where they think he can actually win. That number 46 is up just -- eight points in just a couple of points (ph). BLITZER: Jeffrey, I want you to weigh in, because in that poll it

shows hypothetical matchup between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, it would be close.

TOOBIN: Well, that's true. But I also think -- remember, we're talking about primaries. And state by state, at least in the beginning, matters more than the overall national number. And that's why I think Ted Cruz is in better shape than a national poll indicates.

All the Iowa polls show him either tied with Trump or ahead of Trump. So he is very likely to come out of Iowa at least as a very plausible alternative to Donald Trump. That's likely to help him a great deal. And even though he's still significantly behind, that's something he has in his favor that none of the other candidates do. Because none of them are close to Trump in Iowa.

BLITZER: There's also been these studies -- I know all of you have seen them -- suggesting that Trump may be doing even better because people, some people are maybe reluctant to acknowledge to a pollster that they're going to vote for Donald Trump. And there may be that hidden group out there that will, even though they don't want to say so to some strange pollster.

All right. Guys, stand by. We have a lot more to assess, including Ted Cruz. He's really going after "The Washington Post" right now. We'll tell you what's going on on that front when we come back.


[17:42:25] BLITZER: Senator and Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz now slamming "The Washington Post" for publishing a political cartoon showing him in a Santa suit with his two daughters as monkeys.

The newspaper's taken down the cartoon, but the Cruz campaign is sending it out to supporters as part of what it calls an emergency fundraising appeal. While Cruz says don't mess with our kids, he featured his daughters in a campaign commercial; also released outtakes of his image makers helping them make the ad.

Let's bring back our chief political correspondent, Dana Bash; "The Washington Post" assistant editor, David Swerdlick; and our senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin.

Dana, this is a complicated story right now, because all of us as journalists, whether mainstream journalists, not main, we don't want to play around with little children. Their parents may be doing stuff, but leave the kids alone.

BASH: That's right. And we know that the cartoonist had said that the reason why she thought this was fair game is because of the ad that you just showed. The fact is that Senator Cruz and his wife have used his -- both of their daughters in -- that was actually kind of a parody ad. It wasn't supposed to be a real ad, but also on the campaign trail. Having said that, you know, we know from covering lots of candidates

with small children they didn't choose this political life. They didn't choose to be in the spotlight, even if their parents are including them in their quest for office. And it's just the right thing to do for journalists to leave them out of it, especially when you're doing something like making a cartoon where the kids are depicted as monkeys.

BLITZER: Yes, it's not appropriate. The editorial page editor of "The Washington Post" put out a statement: "It's generally been the policy of our editorial section to leave children out of it. I failed to look at this cartoon before it was published. I understand why Anne thought an exception to the policy was warranted in this case, but I do not agree."

So they pulled it. It's gone.

SWERDLICK: Yes. Our editorial page editor, Fred Hyatt, took it down from the website, posted that note that you read. I think, you know, he made a clear decision, explained it. And I deferred him on that decision with respect to that cartoon.

With respect to children more generally, like Dana said, you know, children don't ask to be a part of this process, so in my view, sometimes it can be very dicey, Wolf, to get them involved in cartoons or coverage.

I will say, though, that it would have been nice to see some more people on the right side of the political spectrum have the same view that Cruz is expressing now with regard to the Obama children and the first lady when there have been, you know, attacks on them, unwarranted attacks on them over the course of time.

BLITZER: I say keep the kids out of it. And Jeffrey, I assume you agree, as well. Even if the parents decide to bring the kids up on the stage, show off the kids, you don't go after the kids.

[17:45:04] TOOBIN: That's right. And frankly, I don't think I have seen any Republicans go after Sasha and Malia Obama. I think one of the good things about the Obama presidency is they have led lives entirely private as far as I'm aware. And I have not seen any attacks on them. And I think it's good that "The Washington Post" took this cartoon down and apologized.

I also think we need to pause and say this is also kind of a gift to Ted Cruz. He's fundraising off of this. Outrage against the news media plays very well with his supporters. So let's not pretend this is some nightmare for the Cruz family. This is actually something that's going to work out just fine for his candidacy, but I do think the "Post" was right to take the cartoon down.

BLITZER: Well, let me ask David to weigh in. Have you seen right- wing publications making fun of Sasha and Malia?

SWERDLICK: Yes. During the Obama administration -- I mean, to Jeffrey's point I think he's right that mostly the media and folks on the political right have stayed away from the Obama children. I do remember one instance in 2013 when the NRA cut an ad where they were saying that if the Obama children could go to a school with an armed guard why couldn't other people's kids go to school with an armed guard. There have been a few other instances like that.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: And comments about their curls, for example, when they were traveling abroad with their mother. There have been, not from politicians or even kind of mainstream media at all, but it has been out there. And the people who use those terms have been criticized for it.

One just little piece of I think interesting color about this whole fundraising appeal, Heidi Cruz, the mother of these girls, Ted Cruz's wife, she is pretty much in charge of his fundraising. So she's pretty politically astute in addition to being obviously a protective mother as well.

BLITZER: She's what? She's an investment banker, too, right?

BASH: She was.


BASH: Now she took time off. She's now --

BLITZER: I know. But she has a background in finance.

BASH: She does.


BASH: She knows what she's doing.

BLITZER: She knows what she's doing, obviously a very smart lady.

All right, guys, thanks very, very much.

We're following breaking news in and around Minneapolis-St. Paul right now. Protesters chanting Black Lives Matter. They closed down part of the country's biggest shopping mall. And when police moved in, they moved. The protest spread to the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. It's a mess out there. Stand by. We'll update you on what's going on.


[17:50:45] BLITZER: We're following some dangerous weather right now across the mid-south where tornados are hitting even though winter is just beginning. Our meteorologist Jennifer Gray is at the CNN Weather Center right now.

Jennifer, show us where the threat is most imminent.

JENNIFER GRAY, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Right now we're looking at the threat northern Mississippi and the counties of Benton. This is a tornado that has been in progress for quite awhile, started over in western Mississippi and it has a path of destruction. We have seen reports of damage with this tornado, so if you are in the path or you know loved ones that are, a lot of people are on the road, it did cross I-55, and flung some vehicles around.

So this is a very dangerous situation, in fact, this one particular tornado watchbox out of all of these, the one where we've seen this particular tornado warning is within this particular watch that the storm prediction center has labeled a particularly dangerous situation. That is until 8:00 Central Time.

Look at this line of showers and storms. You can see the orange box is an active tornado. The active thunderstorm warnings right now in the hot pink boxes, the active tornado warnings right now but this is all part of a larger system. We are going to see this continue to march to the east. Not very typical for this time of year but we have very, very warm and humid air in place and we have the perfect dynamics, Wolf, that are going to trigger these showers and storms. So the threat isn't over. It's going to last through the early part of the evening so we'll definitely stay on top of it.

BLITZER: And we'll stay in close touch with you and the folks out there, please, please be careful. Thank you, Jennifer.

We're also following other breaking news as protesters create chaos around Minneapolis, Minnesota. The protest started at the Mall of America, that's the nation's largest shopping mall in suburban Minneapolis. The activists chanted Black Lives Matter as well as the names of African-Americans who have died in police custody. They are demanding the release of Minneapolis police videos of the fatal shooting of an African-American man last month.

Police in riot gear moved in to break up the demonstration, but the protest then spread to the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. The demonstrators blocked a major road to the airport bringing traffic to a standstill. There were some scuffles inside one of the terminals.

We're joined once again by our senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, also joining us our legal analyst Sunny Hostin and our law enforcement analyst Tom Fuentes. He's a former FBI assistant director.

Sunny, these activists, they want authorities to release footage of a 24-year-old Minneapolis man but they also chanted justice for Sandra Bland. Given what we saw happening at the mall was put into lockdown, the airport affected. How effective really are these kinds of protests?

SUNNY HOSTIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I think it's very effective, quite frankly. It's a very effective form of advocacy. Let's face it. When we look at what happened in Chicago. What happened all over our country. We know that this kind of advocacy really does work. It's very American. Civil disobedience and protesting has been around for a very long time and it's always been effective.

I can tell you that I just visited my father in Greensboro, North Carolina, and visited the civil rights museum where we saw on February 1st, 1960 the actual Woolworth store that the sort of student sit-ins began and I was reminded at how very effective and historic these sit- ins and protests can be. So I think that as long as they remain peaceful, as long as they remain pointed, we should be reminded that this is very American and this can be a very, very effective form of advocacy.

BLITZER: Jeffrey, an attorney for the Mall of America says it's private property. The protesters aren't welcome. A judge only barred three Black Lives Matter organizers from attending. Legally, do the protesters have any standing there?

TOOBIN: You know, Wolf, this is an extremely interesting question the Supreme Court of the United States has actually dealt with several times because malls are private property. But they also are like main street used to be. Most Americans spend a good deal of time and a lot of their money in malls so if you shut off all First Amendment activity within malls, you essentially don't allow First Amendment activity in a lot of communities.

What judges have done by in large is what this judge has done, is treat these areas as quasi public in the sense that you can have some protest there but you can't have as many or as long protest as you can in a truly public space.

[17:55:15] I think the authorities seem to be handling the situation pretty well so far, the judge seems to have issued an appropriate ruling. Most importantly, everything is peaceful but you know what? As Sunny said, this is civil disobedience. Some people may get arrested but that's part of political protest in America and it has a long and noble history.

BLITZER: Tom, what do the police do? You used to be a cop before you joined the FBI. What do the police do in a situation like this?

TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Well, the problem, Wolf, is that in the interest of public safety they may have to shut down the mall. They may have to have these stores closed but the problem I have with this, yes, it's an effective method of protest but that doesn't make it right as far as I'm concerned.

You know, these retail stores make about 80 percent of their profit in the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas and if they shut down, they lose that revenue. Also, thousands of people work in those stores, work in that mall, many of them minority members on hourly wage who are now not working if that mall shuts down. So it affects them personally, economically, and I think that if you're going to exercise a right, that's great until it hurts other people and I think this hurts innocent people who have nothing to do with whether the police shot somebody or arrested somebody or whether a video is released or not.

BLITZER: Tom Fuentes, thanks very much. Sunny Hostin, Jeffrey Toobin, thanks to you, guys, as well.

Coming up, we'll have an update on the battle for a key city now held by ISIS. Is Iraq's army strong enough -- excuse me -- to push ISIS out? Plus, a family of British Muslims planned a U.S. Disneyland vacation,

now they say they were barred from flying to the United States because of their religion.


BLITZER: Happening now, closing in on ISIS. Iraqi forces, they are moving right now, deeper into a captive city nearing the terrorists' center of power but tens of thousands of civilians remain trapped and explosives are planted almost everywhere.