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Iran Tensions; Interview With New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez; San Bernardino Investigation; Presidential Emotion; Obama Cries Announcing New Gun Control Measures; FBI: Critical Gap In San Bernardino Attack Timeline; Ad Wars Raging Among GOP Hopefuls. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired January 5, 2016 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Now: presidential emotion. President Obama tearful and angry as he announces how he will use his power to try to change gun laws, promising hundreds of more ATF agents and expanded background checks. Tonight, Congress and the gun lobby are saying not so fast.

Whereabouts unknown, the FBI now saying it can't account for nearly 20 minutes of movements by the San Bernardino terrorists after they massacred 14 people. Tonight, the mystery is deepening, as officials ask the public for help. Where were the killers and what were they doing?

Missile crisis, Iran showing off a new underground missile bunker as tensions continue to boil over between that country and a key U.S. ally in the Middle East. Could Tehran's escalating fight with Saudi Arabia scuttle the Iran nuclear deal and possibly derail the war against ISIS?

Ad wars. The Republican presidential campaigns awaken, dropping millions and millions of dollars on attack ads that range from pointed to bizarre. Will they make a difference in the final push for Iowa?

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 breaking news, a newly revealed mystery complicating the investigation into the San Bernardino terror attack. The FBI now saying it's unable to determine where husband and wife killers Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik were at in the first 15 -- 18 minutes, I should say, after they shot and killed 14 people at an office holiday party.

And tonight officials are also asking the public's help in filling in the gap in the timeline. All this comes just hours after a very tearful President Obama revealed how he will use his executive powers in an effort to prevent another mass shooting. The president says he's implementing new gun control measures, including expanded background checks to narrow Hollywood is known as the gun show loophole.

The president was visibly angry and at times he wiped away tears as he recalled the 2012 massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. We're covering that and much more this hour with our guests, including Senator Bob Menendez of the Foreign Relations Committee. And our political reporters, they're fanned out across the country right now with the candidates, involved in in-depth coverage of all the latest twists and turns in the race for the White House. We have our correspondents and expert analysts also standing by.

Let's begin with President Obama's emotional announcement of new gun control measures.

Our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, has details.

Jim, this is clearly a very personal issue for the president.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, he was raw and he recognized he is running out of time, but taking aim at what he has called the biggest frustration of his time in office.

That is the inability to pass gun control. President Obama is now going around Congress to tighten up the nation's background check system for buying firearms.


ACOSTA (voice-over): It was perhaps the most emotional speech President Obama has ever given in office, first embracing the crowd of mass shooting victims and their families on hand, then openly crying as he made the case for new executive actions on gun control.


ACOSTA: The president wiped away tears as he recalled what he has described as his saddest day in office, the slaughter of 20 first- graders and six adults in the Sandy Hook school shooting.

OBAMA: Every time I think about those kids, it gets me mad. And, by the way, it happens on the streets of Chicago every day.


ACOSTA: Under the president's new executive actions, a warning to nearly all gun sellers to conduct background checks or risk prosecution, plus new FBI or ATF agents, $500 million for mental health care, and a new push to develop smart gun technology.

To hammer home the argument, the president was joined by the father of Daniel Barden, who died at Sandy Hook.

MARK BARDEN, FATHER OF SANDY HOOK VICTIM: As a nation, we have to do better. We are better. We're better than this.

ACOSTA: And former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who was nearly killed by a mass shooter five years ago. Her husband, Mark Kelly, is now a leader of victims' families.

(on camera): Well, it's almost like you're a community of people now.

MARK KELLY, HUSBAND OF GABRIELLE GIFFORDS: We are, for incredible, unbelievable, devastating circumstances. So it's not a community that people wanting to belong to. Just leave it at that. You don't want to be invited into that club.

ACOSTA (voice-over): The new executive action stopped short of a law mandating universal background checks across the country. The president blamed the NRA and Republicans in Congress for that.

OBAMA: So, the gun lobby may be holding Congress hostage right now, but they cannot hold America hostage.


ACOSTA: The NRA responded, saying: "The proposed executive actions are ripe for abuse by the Obama administration, which has made no secret of its contempt for the Second Amendment."

And Speaker Paul Ryan said: "Rather than focus on criminals and terrorists, the president goes after the most law-abiding of citizens. His words and actions amount to a form of intimidation that undermines liberty," a sentiment echoed on the campaign trail.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He's obsessed with undermining the Second Amendment. He's obsessed with burdening law- abiding citizens who are going to follow the law, no matter what it is.

ACOSTA: The White House says that's pure politics.

OBAMA: I believe in the Second Amendment. It's there written on the paper. It guarantees a right to bear arms, no matter how many times people try to twist my words around.


ACOSTA: Now, much of the president's ability to enforce these new actions depends on Congress spending the money to hire new investigators at the ATF and FBI.

Republicans have long said that the president should enforce the nation's existing gun laws. The White House is firing back saying GOP lawmakers now have the opportunity to do just that -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I assume the president will show that passion and that anger, that frustration Thursday night at the town hall, the live town hall he will have here on CNN with Anderson Cooper. Thanks very much, Jim Acosta, for that report.

We're following other breaking news, the FBI now revealing a critical gap in the timeline of the San Bernardino terror attack. Officials say right now they cannot account for the whereabouts of the husband and wife killers for about 18 minutes after the massacre and they are asking the American public's help.


DAVID BOWDICH, FBI ASSISTANT DIRECTOR: We want to ensure that we know whether or not they stopped at any locations, any residences, any businesses that we don't already know about. We want to ensure that if they made contact with anyone that we don't already know about between those hours or between that time that we're able to fully investigate those matters.


BLITZER: Let's bring in our justice reporter, Evan Perez.

Evan, given all of the cell phone technology and all of the evidence that they have so far, they can't account for these 18 minutes. The assumption is maybe they were, what, trying to dump some evidence or they were in contact with other people. That's the concern?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: All of those possibilities, Wolf.

And it's very unusual for you to have the FBI certainly make a public plea like this, certainly at this stage in an investigation like this. And these 18 minutes, again, from 12:59 p.m. to 1:17 p.m., is the part that they don't know.

We have a map that the FBI shared that shows all of the different places they believe that they were driving up and down in that San Bernardino area and they didn't go very far. The FBI doesn't know of any additional plans for additional attacks that they had.

It appears that after they carried out the attack at the Inland Regional Center, they didn't even bother going back home. They simply were driving around and they made a few stops, including -- they did trace a cell phone that appeared that they made a stop at a lake and that's why the FBI believes that perhaps they had stopped there, to dump some equipment or some of their evidence, and that's the reason why the FBI spent some days searching that lake.

They ended up finding nothing that relates to this investigation. This is really an interesting, very mysterious case really, because they still really don't know why that day, why the Inland Regional Center, why this holiday party. Why did they choose this attack to carry out, Wolf?

Because they had the equipment, they had the guns, they had the black powder that they used to construct these IEDs, they had this for several years. Still the mystery for them is solving the idea of why they did this, why they chose that day, and why they did this...


BLITZER: And the FBI still working on the assumption this was an ISIS-inspired attack, as opposed to a formally ISIS-directed, organized attack. PEREZ: Exactly. They believe these people were radicalized and they

were influenced by radical jihad ideology, but they don't believe that anybody overseas directed this.

BLITZER: Evan Perez, thanks very much.

There's other breaking news coming in from Afghanistan right now. A U.S. official tells CNN a quick reaction force has been deployed to the scene of an ongoing fight in which a U.S. soldier was killed.

Our chief security national correspondent, Jim Sciutto, is working the story for us.

What are you learning, Jim?


A quick reaction force, so-called QRF deployed, these forces deployed when U.S. forces are in danger on the ground and we know that they have been in danger, one U.S. service member killed in action earlier today, two U.S. service members injured, and in the rush to evacuate them, one helicopter disabled as well.

The initial thought, it might have been hit by mortar fire. As it turned out, that helicopter's rotor hit a wall, that one down. Another medevac helicopter that was attempting to go there, too dangerous to land. And we were told earlier today by the Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook that the firefight still under way right now.


PETER COOK, PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY: My understanding is that there may still be Americans on the ground in this immediate situation engaging with the enemy in support of Afghan forces.


But again, I don't have the exact detail right now and how it transpired initially and what their status is at this moment in time.


SCIUTTO: This was a joint U.S./Afghan operation under the umbrella of train, advise and assist.

But keep in mind, that sounds like you're standing in the background or just training or advising, but that often puts U.S. service members right in the middle of a firefight. You may remember a few weeks ago a U.S. Delta Force operator killed in Iraq on similar joint mission with Kurdish forces there.

Now you have an American killed here. The enemy here, we're told, in this fight, the Taliban, this is a Taliban-controlled area in Southern Afghanistan in Helmand province, Wolf.

BLITZER: Taliban still on the rise in Afghanistan, very worrisome. Thanks very much, Jim Sciutto, for that.

Let's dig deeper into all of this. Joining us, Democratic Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey. He's a member and he's a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator, thanks very much for joining us.

I want to get to all of these issues, but very quickly on the FBI saying they are missing 18 minutes of the terrorists' movements in San Bernardino. They are working on the assumption this was ISIS- inspired, not ISIS-directed. I assume you have been briefed on this. What are you hearing?

SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ (D), NEW JERSEY: Well, I don't know much more, Wolf, than what you have reported.

They are trying to figure out what those 18 minutes represent in terms of movements. And I believe that, in time, they will, with the help of the community at large, hopefully plug in that time.

The real question for me has always been, is this ISIS-inspired or ISIS-directed? And it seems at this point that they are moving in the direction of ISIS-inspired. ISIS-directed would have been a game- changer. Still, a dangerous set of circumstances with lone wolf activities here in the United States and abroad.

BLITZER: And they are trying to figure out during those missing 18 minutes whether this husband and wife, these killers were in touch with anyone that might have been directly involved in ISIS or some other terror group.

Senator, a U.S. soldier, you know was killed today in Afghanistan. The situation there is described as still ongoing. You just heard Jim Sciutto's report. It's, what, almost 15 years since the U.S. got involved in trying to destroy al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. It took four years to destroy, the U.S. and its allies, the Nazi empire. Why can't the U.S. get the job done in Afghanistan?

MENENDEZ: Well, I think the Taliban, you know, are committed to -- ultimately to death, if necessary, in order to achieve their goals.

They are willing to take the long view. They believe that the West, in general, both NATO and the United States, even though we have been there, as you have said, for nearly a decade-and-a-half, are not committed to the longer-term fight and ultimately they believe that time is on their side.

This is rugged territory. Operations are not, as we view, standard armies with uniforms fighting each other. This is very different. And the challenge is one in which the Taliban know the region and, at the end of the day, are willing to fight over the long term. And that's part of our great challenge, as well as that the Afghans, despite all of the resources that we have poured into them and all of the training and assists we have given them, are still not fully up to the fight. And that's a challenge as we look at the lives and national treasure that we have invested in Afghanistan and look at this point and have to decide what does it mean if we don't continue to help the resolve of the Afghans beat back the Taliban.

BLITZER: You want to keep those 10,000 U.S. troops who are still in Afghanistan there on the ground fighting the Taliban and now ISIS moving into Afghanistan as well?

MENENDEZ: Well, as you know, the president made a decision to extend a delay of the forces' drawdown there until I think towards the end of this new year.

And we have to evaluate that as we go along, because, at the end of the day, all of the lives and national treasure that we have committed to Afghanistan, not only about the Taliban coming to power again potentially, but also a greater stronghold for the possibility of ISIS. And as we try to continuously remove territory from ISIS, we can't allow it to take new ground as it moves forward.

BLITZER: And if things were not bad, it's getting even worse in the region now with Iran and Saudi Arabia. They are escalating tensions.

Senator, stand by for a moment. I want to get to that, a lot more.

We will take a quick break. We will be right back.



BLITZER: We're back with Democratic Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey. He's a member, a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Want to talk to him about the soaring tensions right now between Iran and Saudi Arabia and growing fallout from the Sunni Muslim Saudi government's execution of a top Shiite cleric.

Stand by, Senator. We will get to you in a moment.

I first want to bring in our global affairs correspondent, Elise Labott. She has the latest on this escalating crisis.

Elise, there are important new developments today.


Well, Wolf, today, Iran unveiled a new underground missile bunker and promised to speed up its ballistic missile program, a show of defiance to the U.S. as it scraps sanctions under the nuclear deal, and to Saudi Arabia, where an escalating fight between the two countries threatens to derail U.S. policy throughout the region.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) LABOTT (voice-over): A massive show of force in Iran, as the government unveiled a huge new underground missile site, boasting precision-guided missiles the U.S. fears could carry a nuclear warhead.

This muscle-flexing comes as tensions with Saudi Arabia reach a new high. Secretary of State John Kerry in diplomatic overdrive to get the sides talking again.

JOHN KIRBY, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: We believe that it's important to work through that tension, work through those disagreements, so that we can all work harder together on other issues, which are affecting the Middle East writ large.

LABOTT: Today, Kuwait joined Saudi Arabia in cutting diplomatic ties with Iran, the kingdom's latest Sunni Muslim ally to do so, the backlash against Iran growing after protesters torched and razed the Saudi Embassy in Tehran.


But, today, Iran's president was defiant on Twitter, declaring -- quote -- "Saudi Arabia won't be able to cover up its crimes by cutting ties with Iran."

Fury among Iran's largely Shiite population still spreading, after the Saudi beheading of this Shiite cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, who it called a terrorist. The Saudi foreign minister said Iran only has itself to blame.

ADEL AL-JUBEIR, SAUDI ARABIAN FOREIGN MINISTER: It's their aggressive moves that have led to this, not anything we did.

LABOTT: U.S. officials fear confrontation between the region's dominant Shia and Sunni powers could bleed over into Iraq, where Prime Minister Abadi, who is friendly with Iran, needs Sunni tribes to hold Ramadi, now that Iraqi forces have retaken the city from ISIS.

BRETT MCGURK, U.S. DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE: Very concerned whenever you see this kind of potential for a real polarization, because it enables extremists on both sides to take advantage of the situation.

LABOTT: And in Syria, where the U.S. needs Iran and Saudi Arabia to agree on a peace deal to end the brutal civil war.

VALI NASR, JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY: The Saudis have not agreed to any of this all along, and, therefore, I think they still want to argue to their own base and to the United States and international community that their focus is Iran. That's where they see the problem. And they are not willing to change that posture in order to help with the fight against ISIS or in order to bring peace to Syria.


LABOTT: Now, U.S. officials wonder if Gulf nations are playing politics to gain leverage in Syria or kill the nuclear deal with Iran.

The Saudis have been concerned since that deal that the U.S. would embrace Iraq. Today, the State Department said those fears are unfounded. But despite the U.S. having no formal diplomatic ties, it's remarkable, Wolf, how often Secretary Kerry is on the phone to the Iranian foreign minister. They have grown quite tight.

BLITZER: Over the past two years or so working out this nuclear deal in large measure.

Thanks very much for that, Elise.

Let's get back to Senator Menendez.

Senator, these two countries, Saudi Arabia and Iran, neither one seems to be backing down. How is this going to impact the U.S. war against ISIS?

MENENDEZ: Significantly. It's one of the most critical moments in our fight against ISIS.

So, we need a coalition of countries committed to real causes of actions against ISIS. And that coalition is fractured when you have within the region itself this type of divide. Now, let me just say a couple things, Wolf.

Number one is going ahead and ransacking an embassy of any country anyplace in the world is unacceptable, according to the Geneva accords. And I'm glad to see the Security Council spoke up against that. Secondly, Saudi Arabia is a major ally of the United States within the region, but we have differences with them on democracy and human rights.

And, thirdly, American leadership is indispensable in this regard. And so our challenge here is to try to defuse the situation, get the Saudis and the Iranians in a communicative path. That won't be simple, because the Saudis feel that we left them at the dance after they were committed to us for such a long time when we made the deal with Iran and when President Obama suggested that Iran should be and would be a regional power.

Well, this is of concern to the Saudis. They are surrounded in the neighboring countries with Yemen, with Iraq, with Syria, where they see an existential threat around all them, and they are concerned about an Iranian-Shia crescent. And so this is going to be one of the most critical moments and a bit of a tinderbox. The region is always a tinderbox. This adds a lot of fuel to that tinderbox.

BLITZER: It certainly does.

I know you opposed the Iran nuclear deal. How much blame do you put on the president, the secretary of state for doing that deal which clearly the Saudis did not like?

MENENDEZ: Well, look, you know, the deal is separate and apart. And we're beyond that at this point. I did believe that it was not the type of deal that we should have structured. And I do believe that we need to be very strong with the Iranians. For example, as you -- as I'm sitting here, I see this new broadcast about the missile, underground missile capabilities they have.

There is a separate set of U.N. Security Council resolutions not allowing the Iranians to test intercontinental ballistic missiles. And yet, after the nuclear agreement was signed, they have had not one, but two tests. And so far, the Security Council has done nothing, and we have not quite done anything yet.

Now, I have written to the president. A group of my colleagues have written to the president and the secretary of state, saying we need, separate and apart from the nuclear file, to send a very clear message to Iran that they cannot, with impunity, violate the international community's will and face no consequences.


If we do, then whatever the nuclear agreement is worth for, they will think that they can violate that with impunity as well.

BLITZER: Would you think it's realistic or unrealistic to assume Saudi Arabia, if they continue to have this tension with Iran, might actually go out and buy a nuclear weapon, let's say, from Pakistan?

MENENDEZ: Well, I was concerned about that when I spoke against the Iran deal, because, you know, under the theory of mutual self- destruction, countries seek nuclear power and derive nuclear weapons from them so that they can fend off another country that has it.

And so the potential has always been there. This clearly exacerbates that. And it has to be a real concern. Now, I know the administration will say, well, why would any country want to go through the sanctions that Iran went through?

But Iran ultimately achieved largely what it wanted. And countries like Saudi Arabia that have -- even with declining oil prices, still have significant resources may very well look in terms of their own national security and follow that course. I hope they do not, but it is a risk.

BLITZER: And Iran's about to get $150 billion in sanctions relief, assets that are about to flow in to Iran right now. The Saudis clearly are angry about that as well.

Senator Menendez, thanks very much for joining us.

MENENDEZ: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Just ahead, it's brutal, increasingly vicious, and in some cases bizarre. We're going to inside the ad war that is raging tonight among the Republican White House hopefuls.

Plus, more on President Obama's rare display of emotion and the memory that moved him today to tears.


BLITZER: With the first caucuses and primaries of the 2016 race for the White House only a few weeks away, the Republican presidential hopefuls are attacking each other with a newfound fury and not just on the stump. The ad wars are raging tonight and certain to get even more brutal as the decision day in Iowa and New Hampshire gets closer and closer.

[18:31:12] CNN's political reporter Sara Murray is in New Hampshire for us tonight.

Sara, the insults right now, they are flying. Tell us about that.

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. It seems like every Republican is going after pretty much every other Republican. But the one exception, the one guy who seems to be mostly spared from the incoming fire is Donald Trump.


GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R-NJ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I don't care whether your name's Barack Obama, Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio. You've never won a thing of consequence in your life.

MURRAY (voice-over): Months of raising money, honing policy positions and polishing stump speeches, coming down to this, the last few weeks before voters hit the polls. And now the knives are out, on the stump and on the airwaves.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Weak economy. Scandals.

MURRAY: Chris Christie bashing his GOP rivals who hail from the Senate.

CHRISTIE: You go into the legislature to schedule when you're supposed to be there. They tell you where to sit, and then they say yes or no. Say yes or no. Senator Rubio can't even seem to get that done.

MURRAY: While Marco Rubio tried to turn one of his potential weaknesses in a GOP primary, immigration, into a shot at Ted Cruz.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He supported a massive expansion of temporary workers, guest workers coming into the United States. He supports a massive doubling of the number of green cards. So his record on immigration in the past is a little different than what it is now.

MURRAY: And Donald Trump, he's sticking to one of his favorite punching bags, Jeb Bush.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Bush was three. Bush? That's not good. How would you like to spend $59 million and you're 3? See this young guy over here? Stand up. Stand up. If I spent 59 million on him, he'd be at at least 5. OK?

MURRAY: All those millions of dollars coming straight to the homes of the early-state voters as candidates blanket the airwaves with ads. A super PAC backing Rubio slamming Christie as too cozy with Barack Obama and his liberal principles.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Chris Christie could well be Obama's favorite Republican governor. Why? Christie's record.

MURRAY: While Cruz tried to rally voters over the threat of illegal immigration...

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I understand that, when mainstream media covers immigration, it doesn't often see it as an economic issue. But I can tell you, it is a very personal economic issue.

MURRAY: ... vowing to secure the border...

CRUZ: If I'm elected president, we will triple the Border Patrol. We will build a wall that works.

MURRAY: ... and using some language that sounds awfully familiar to Trump.

TRUMP: He says, "We're going to build a wall." Now, here's the good thing. He's a politician, so he wouldn't know where to start. You know, I know how to build a wall. OK? I know exactly how to build a wall. I know the footings. I know how deep they have to go. I know how high we can go with the precast. I know everything.


MURRAY: Now, apparently Donald Trump had a little extra time on his hands to settle some other feuds today. After actor Samuel L. Jackson told a magazine that he was a better golfer than Trump, insinuating that Trump cheats. Trump took to Twitter to defend himself, saying he's pretty sure he never golfed with Samuel L. Jackson. "Boring, not a fan" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Trump gets hit, and he hits right back. All right, Sara, thanks very much.

Let's get some more with our chief political analyst Gloria Borger; our senior political analyst, Ron Brownstein. He's the editorial director of "The International Journal." Our CNN political commentator, the Republican strategist Kevin Madden; and our senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin.

Gloria, these ad wars, they're escalating right now, but in the bottom line, do they really mean much?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think at this point, first of all, I'm used to seeing biographical ads where these candidates in a large field would be introducing themselves to the public, but it hasn't worked for Jeb Bush. This is what Mitt Romney was doing, right, at this point. It hasn't been working. So they're not doing that.

[18:35:08] They're doing these ads that are negative and nasty to try and differentiate themselves.

But as I was looking at Sara's piece, what occurred to me is that they're all stepping on each other. They're all so nasty about each other that the public there might just say, "You know what? I don't -- I can't tell the difference between these folks."

And so I'm not quite sure about the effectiveness, although I do think that the Cruz ad with the men in business suits climbing across the border was pretty good, I must say.

BLITZER: It was clever.

Ron, why is Trump continuing to hit Jeb Bush as he's fallen in the polls? What's going on here?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, first of all, Bush doesn't have a monopoly on his attention. Trump is kind of an equal opportunity offender who, as you've heard, routinely goes after pretty much anybody who pops up in the polls.

But I think the reason he continues to go after Jeb Bush, is because Jeb Bush has been such an important foil for him right to the beginning. To many of the Trump voters, Bush embodies what they don't like about the Republican establishment, what they don't like about the direction of the party.

And I think it is the counterpoint to Bush that has been so valuable and helpful for Trump, really right from the beginning in establishing his hold over his lane of the party.

BLITZER: In 2012, Kevin, when you were working for Mitt Romney, his super PAC did a lot of the attack ads, if you will. That was, I assume, a smart strategy at that time, because it kept Mitt Romney sort of out of it.

KEVIN MADDEN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think what happened is it was -- it complimented a lot of the strategies that we had inside the campaigns as far as who we wanted to draw the contrast with.

I mean, let there be no mistake that, during that 2012 campaign, when the Romney campaign had to draw contrasts against Rick Perry or had to do it against Newt Gingrich, we did so with a ruthless efficiency, and we did it relentlessly.

I think one of the big differences that you've seen in this 2016 race is that, when it comes to the frontrunner, Donald Trump, a lot of the campaigns have jabbed at him intermittently. They haven't done it in a very broad and sustained way. And their super PACs largely have been silent until now.

The question, I think, that many of these campaigns are going to find answered in the next 30 days is, was it too late to start trying to define Donald Trump? And particularly right now, as Gloria pointed out, the volume of ads that are going in place, so much of this noise, some of the crystalized arguments inside these ads is getting lost.

BLITZER: You know, Jeffrey, you're our legal expert. Let's go through what I always assumed would happen at some point that it's now happening on this day. Donald Trump calling into question Ted Cruz's eligibility to become president of the United States, because he was actually born in Canada.

Trump saying it's precarious right now for the GOP, speaking in an interview in "The Washington Post," "Republicans are going to have to ask themselves the question, do we want a candidate who could be tied up in court for two years? That's a big problem. It would be very precarious, one for Republicans, because you'd be running and the courts may take a long time to make a decision. You don't want to be running and have that kind of thing over your head."

I'm going to tell you what Cruz has just responded, but is this really a serious legal issue, whether or not Ted Cruz is a natural-born citizen?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: You know, I think the answer is, no, that it is not a serious issue. The courts have never really defined what that term means. You know, for people who don't know, Ted Cruz was born in Canada. His mother was an American -- is an American citizen. His father came from Cuba. As I say, he was born -- he was born in Canada. The fact that his mother was an American citizen probably means that he is a natural-born citizen in the words of the Constitution.

But I think an even bigger issue is that the courts would probably not give standing, that is the right to sue, to anyone except the person he was running against if he becomes the nominee of the Republican Party. And I don't imagine Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders or whoever it turns out to be will actually file that lawsuit.

So I think the issue will never really come before the courts in a way that the court will deal with on the merits. You know, Ted Cruz, there are a lot of reasons to vote for him, a lot of reasons to vote against him, but I don't think the citizenship issue is a serious one.

BLITZER: Ron Brownstein, Ted Cruz's response to Donald Trump today, calling into question his natural-born citizenship, Ted Cruz saying something to the effect -- let me read it here -- "This is 'Happy Days'" 'jump the shark' episode," suggesting Trump is jumping the shark.

What do you think, politically, why is Donald Trump right now all of a sudden raising this issue of the natural-born citizenship rights of Ted Cruz to serve as president?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, a couple of things. I think first of all, whether or not there is a legal issue there, as Jeffrey sort of discounts effectively, there is the ability through this issue to kind of raise the question of whether Ted Cruz is really one of us. And I think it is -- it kind of goes with a lot of the themes of the Trump campaign, about, you know, kind of who qualifies as a true American.

[18:40:15] And I think he is kind of subtly raising those issues, the same way he has by saying there are not a lot of evangelicals who come out of Cuba. Again, kind of emphasizing the dissimilarity between Cruz's background and that of most Republican voters. Over 90 percent of Republican primary voters in 2012 were white, and over 60 percent were over 50. Ted Cruz is different, demographically, than most of the people he's asking to vote for him. And I think what you see from Trump, whatever the legal merits, is subtly raising those issues.

And by the way, one of the things that is striking, as Gloria and Kevin mentioned, is how little the other candidates have gone after Trump. To a large extent, that reflects their belief that, in the end, if it's one-on-one against Trump, they would have the advantage. The problem is it may never get to one on one against Trump, and also that if he stays as high as he is undiminished, maybe they don't get over the top.

So it is a striking strategy to have the frontrunner largely exempted from these ad wars that are going on.

MADDEN: Ron is absolutely right, but I do want to disagree with him on one thing. The idea that Donald Trump does anything subtly I would have to disagree with. I mean, the fact that he's bringing this up, he's going to bring up -- this is typical Donald Trump, which is attack your opponents with reckless abandon and bring up every single issue you possibly can.

BORGER: And he knows that Cruz is such a threat to him in Iowa that Cruz has the real potential to win the Iowa caucuses that he -- that he has no choice but to attack.

BLITZER: I always wondered when Trump would bring this issue up. Today he did. We'll see the fallout as it unfolds.

Guys, stand by.

Remember, please be sure to join us tomorrow. I'll be going -- I'll be sitting down tomorrow one on one with Donald Trump. He's the Republican presidential frontrunner. You can see the full interview with him right here in THE SITUATION ROOM, tomorrow, 5 p.m. Eastern. My extensive interview with Donald Trump.

We'll take a quick break. Much more right after this.


[18:45:55] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: A remarkable display of emotion today by President Obama as he announced the executive action he plans to take and implement new gun control measures. The president wiping away tears as he recalls massive shootings in recent years, including the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's our right to worship safely. That right was denied to Christians in Charleston, South Carolina. And that was denied Jews in Kansas City, and that was denied Muslims in Chapel Hill and Sikhs in Oak Creek. They had rights, too.


Our right to peaceful assembly, that right was robbed from moviegoers in Aurora and Lafayette. Our inalienable right to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness, those rights were stripped from college kids in Blacksburg, in Santa Barbara and from high schoolers at Columbine. And from first graders in Newtown. First graders.

And from every family who never imagined that their loved one would be taken from our lives by a bullet from a gun. Every time I think about those kids, it gets me mad. And, by the way, it happens on the streets of Chicago every day.



BLITZER: Gloria, it's not every day you see a president of the United States start crying, in effect, as he did today.

BORGER: No. This is a president, I recall, after Newtown got quite emotional, got emotional on the campaign trail in 2008 when he talked about his grandmother who had just passed away.

But we don't see it very much. This is "no drama, Obama", as we call him. This is clearly an issue that he feels very strongly about. I think it's one of the deep frustrations he has as president of the United States.

And today, what was interesting about this moment was he also admitted that gun control is not going to happen during his presidency. And he sort of came out and said it and said, this is hard and we've got to start somewhere so we're going to start with this.

BLITZER: Ron, you've spent a lot of time studying this issue. Polling shows that Americans are split on the issue of gun control. So how will this move by the president play out, do you think, in the 2016 election?

BROWNSTEIN: First of all, I agree that's as impassioned as we've ever seen President Obama in public.

Look, Americans are not only split, they are conflicted and closely divided. I think the answer to how it plays out is reflected in this really I think revealing chart that we've posted today in "National Journal" looking at public opinion on guns.

And what it tells you is that it now energizes each party's coalition. It helps Democrats among the groups where they have been gaining. Minorities, socially liberal whites who put more priority on gun control but it helps Republicans among the groups where they have been gaining, primarily blue collar whites, rural voters, people with a gun in a household. Each side, I think, in a very close balance sees a benefit in stressing this issue.

And that itself, Wolf, is a big change, because from 2000 to around 2013, Democrats had largely abandoned this issue, believing it was a political loser. Now both sides are back on the field and I think the result is that in 2016, we are going to see the parties diverge on this issue more sharply than at any point in any presidential campaign since that 2000 election.

[18:50:07] BLITZER: Jeffrey, you think these executive orders will be challenged through the courts?

TOOBIN: You know, I really don't, Wolf, because they are so modest. The paradox of today is that there was all this drama. You see the president's emotional reaction and the angry response. What he actually did was very small. He didn't even issue a regulation.

All they did was issue informal guidance that said we believe the definition of gun sellers is somewhat broader than it had previously been. The number of companies affected is probably not that great. The number of -- and the only way could you challenge it is if one of these new gun sellers, newly-defined gun sellers, was criminally prosecuted. He or she could go to court and say, I want the case thrown out. That's a long way down the road.

This was mostly, I think, a symbolic political event that really defined the terms of the debate for the future. But as a legal matter, it really was a fairly minor event.

BLITZER: Kevin, we heard several of the Republican candidates say in effect the president is trying to take your guns away. Ted Cruz, he made that point. He also posted on his Web site this image. Take a look at this the president of the United States in full riot gear, if you will, theoretically, supposedly getting ready to take away your guns.

Is that going too far?

MADDEN: Well, first of all, I don't question the president's passion and belief on this I think it was strong evidenced by that moment that he had today. I do believe, though, that if you look at the Republican Party, Second Amendment voters are among the most animated, among the most active voters inside the Republican coalition.

And this does offer the candidates an opportunity to draw a starker contrast with the administration that they believe, rightly or wrongly according to Jeff's points, that there is an encroachment on their liberty and that this is outside the president's legal authority.

BLITZER: But is that picture of the president in that helmet in riot gear, is that going too far?

MADDEN: There -- look, I think voters will make up their finds for that on their own. I think many --

BLITZER: What do you think? MADDEN: I believe that's not the best way to make the argument.

There are many voters inside the Republican who care passionately about this issue that do believe the president is encroaching on their liberty. They do rally behind certain appeals like that.

BORGER: I think the picture is disrespectful. This is the president of the United States. I think it's disrespectful.

MADDEN: Yes, there I ways to make the argument in a much better way, a more persuasive way and not just beyond the Republican base.

BLITZER: Guys, thanks very much. There is breaking news we are following. There's a new twist in the San Bernardino terror investigation. Where did the killers go in the minutes immediately following their deadly attacks? Stay with us.


[18:57:01] BLITZER: Let's get more now on the breaking news. The FBI asking the public's help in filling a critical gap in the San Bernardino terror attack timeline. Tonight, officials cannot account for the whereabouts of the husband and wife killers 18 minutes after the massacre.

Let's dig deeper with our CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen, and former FBI assistant director and law enforcement analyst Tom Fuentes.

How significant would that 18-minute gap be for the FBI trying to learn what happened then?

TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Well, normally, Wolf, in a case like this, the FBI wants to reconstruct every minute of the time they spent from the time this incident ended as far days, weeks, months back in their lives. The fact that there is a gap here after the shooting and before their encounter with the police, did they meet with somebody, did they destroy evidence, did they throw the laptop in a different dumpster than the lake or other places they were looking?

So, you know, that's very significant if they did any of those things. They might not have, but they might have.

BLITZER: Because the FBI is trying to determine, Peter, whether this was simply an ISIS-inspired terror attack or an ISIS-directed terror attack. They are hoping if they can find out what happened during that 18 minutes, they can close down on that.

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Yes. But, I mean, if we look at the pattern of the radicalization, I mean, it seemed to have taken over a very, very long period of time. It seems this 18-minute gap is more useful for the things Tom is describing than a particular kind of clue that will say this was directed by ISIS, which it doesn't seem to have been anyway. These people were shopping for a cause. At one point it was al Qaeda in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki, then they turned to ISIS. They had been radicalized three years before the actual incident. BLITZER: They are trying to figure out, Tom, if there was anybody

else involved. That's critical, right now. There was a friend, but they want to find out if anybody else may have been involved.

FUENTES: No, that's right. If they have them meeting somebody else, that's very significant. They could also have developed other cases out of the original case from either the cell phones or other information that they have that will not know. They are not going to tell us. If they have developed another cell and they are looking at another related cell to these two people, they are not going to tell anybody. It's not going to be in the press conference. They can do that investigation right now and be looking for additional corroboration of that fact.

BLITZER: This new Jihadi John, this video that came out, authorities now think it's a guy by the name of Siddhartha Dar. It's a potentially significant development.

BERGER: Yes. I mean, I don't think it's 100 percent nailed down that it is this guy. But he is somebody who's had a long record of militancy in Britain. He was part of a group surrounded, (INAUDIBLE) led by guy called Anjem Choudary.

He was well-known to British authorities. He basically escaped to Syria with his family a couple of years ago.

BLITZER: All right, guys. Let's leave it at that. We'll continue to follow all these stories. Thanks to you very much.

And to our viewers, please be sure to join us tomorrow right here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Donald Trump will be my guest. I'll sit down with him tomorrow for a one-on-one interview.

Until then, thanks very much for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.