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THE SITUATION ROOM

Trump vs. Cruz; American Prisoners Heading Home; Interview with Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton; Trump Flubs Bible Quote in Pitch to Evangelicals; Democrats Honor MLK Hours After Debate Fireworks; Sanders Works to Crack Clinton's Southern Support; Feds: Two American ISIS Supporters Arrested. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired January 18, 2016 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:02]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news: heading home. American prisoners freed by Iran are reunited with families and begin to returning to U.S. soil. Tonight, new details on the secret talks that led to their release and whether were they linked to billions of dollars of sanctions relief for Iran.

Left behind. A former FBI agent who vanished in Iran still is missing tonight. Why wasn't he part of the release deal? Is Iran holding something back? I'll ask a top Republican critic of President Obama's Iran policy.

New ISIS arrests. Two Virginia men are nabbed at the airport allegedly on their way to join the terrorists in Syria. We are going to tell you what we're learning about the charges as we await their first appearance in court.

And Trump vs. He's ramping up his battle with Ted Cruz and citing Scripture to evangelicals. Did Trump's Bible quoting appeal win over voters, or did it backfire?

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: And let's get to the breaking news. Joyous reunions for freed Americans, as other U.S. citizens, though, remain in captivity tonight.

New photos show the journalist Jason Rezaian surrounded by family in Germany after 18 months as a prisoner in Iran. He's one of five Americans released as the Iran nuclear deal was taking effect, and tonight the family of a former FBI agent who vanished in Iran is demanding answers about his fate. The Iranians say Robert Levinson wasn't part of the prisoner release because they insist they don't know where he is. Levinson's family is disputing that.

Inside Iraq tonight, a search is now under way for three American contractors who are believed to have been kidnapped in Baghdad. An Iraqi security official tells CNN they were abducted from an apartment known to be a brothel.

I'll ask Senator Tom Cotton what he's learning. He's an Iraq War veteran and a member of the Intelligence and Armed Services Committees. And our correspondents and analysts, they're also standing by to cover all the news that's breaking right now.

Up first, our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto.

Jim, you had a chance to speak with Jason Rezaian's brother today.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf, so much relief, even a sense of disbelief today with these families as they finally are reunited.

Ali Rezaian, Jason Rezaian's brother, saying he's in good spirits, saying the first thing he wanted as he got out of Iran wasn't a hamburger or a beer. It was information, it was news. He's a journalist after all. But he did begin to detail this final last- minute delay that could have destroyed this prisoner exchange in the final hours before those Americans were allowed to leave Iran.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO (voice-over): After a four-hour flight from Tehran to Geneva, these were the American prisoners' first moments of freedom and first family reunions, Jason Rezaian, "Washington Post" journalist, freed after a year-and-a-half jailed in Iran, Amir Hekmati, a former U.S. Marine, freed after more than four years behind bars, including a death sentence, and American Pastor Saeed Abedini released after more than three years in jail.

But their release had to pass one final unexpected obstacle. Just before takeoff, Iranian authorities tried to block Jason's wife and mother from joining him on board.

I spoke today with Rezaian's brother Ali.

(on camera): The Iranians threw up a roadblock at that point. What happened?

ALI REZAIAN, BROTHER OF JASON REZAIAN: The Iranians, as they have done all along, continued to manipulate them, continued to try and mess with them and prevented Yegi from leaving some period of time, but thanks to the Swiss and thanks to the Americans, she came with them as well.

SCIUTTO (voice-over): Rezaian, Abedini, and Hekmati are now undergoing physical and psychological medical checks in a U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany.

Congressman Dan Kildee, who long advocated for Hekmati's release, joined the reunions.

REP. DAN KILDEE (D), MICHIGAN: I carry with me, I wear it almost all the time, this little button that says "Free Amir." I guess I can flip it around and just have it say Amir free. SCIUTTO: The surprise announcement came on the same day as the U.S.

and Iran announced the completion of the nuclear agreement, which crucially brought an end to all economic sanctions against Iran for its nuclear activities.

Today, Secretary of State John Kerry denied that the hostages' freedom depended on that sanctions relief.

BLITZER: No one really believes it was a coincidence that on the day the implantation of the nuclear deal goes forward, finally the Americans are released from Iran.

JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: Well, it became -- as I say, it became convenient. It was not linked.

SCIUTTO: Events this weekend bring a fundamental change not just to relations between Iran and the U.S., but in Iran's relationship with the world. Iran now has access to, the U.S. Treasury estimates, $50 billion in frozen assets. It can sell its oil and gas freely on world markets.

[18:05:10]

And Western companies, including American firms, can now do business with Iran for the first time in years.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO: Representative Kildee tweeted a short time ago that Amir Hekmati asked to send his own tweet from his page.

And here is a personal note that he had, including a picture, this to the president. "Thank you for making my freedom and reunion with my family possible," he writes. "I'm humbled that you were personally involved in my case and proud to have you as my president."

Of course, you have three very happy families tonight, Wolf, the Hekmatis, the Abedinis, the Rezaians. But I spoke earlier just a short time ago with the Levinson family and they, of course, were upset, very happy for these families, but upset that they not only have -- they don't have Robert Levinson free, but they don't have any news.

In fact, his son said to me it is nonsense to say that the Iranians don't know where he is.

BLITZER: Our heart goes out to that family, indeed. Thanks very much, Jim Sciutto, for that.

Tonight, there is also a cloud over the Iranian prisoner release. The man considered to be the longest held hostage in U.S. history, Robert Levinson, once again, as we have been reporting, was not part of the deal.

Brian Todd is looking into his fate and he's also looking into the other questions surrounding this prisoner swap. Brian, what are you learning?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, tonight there are two Americans, as you mentioned, left behind in Iran whose cases are very mysterious.

One, as you mentioned, Robert Levinson, a 67-year-old former FBI agent. Levinson vanished in March 2007 from the tiny Iranian resort island of Kish. Tonight, as part of the prisoner swap deal, Iranian officials are promising to try and help find Levinson. The Iranians, as we just mentioned, have denied holding him and say they don't know where he is, but Levinson's relatives say they don't believe that.

They spoke to Jim Sciutto on "THE LEAD" a short time ago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DANIEL LEVINSON, SON OF ROBERT LEVINSON: I think it very obvious that the Iranian government knows exactly where he is. And it takes more than just cooperation to find him because we honestly don't know where exactly he is, but the Iranians certainly do.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TODD: At the time he vanished, Levinson's family said he was working as a private investigator looking into a case of cigarette smuggling. The family has since said that Levinson worked as a contractor for the CIA.

Neither the CIA, the FBI or White House have ever publicly acknowledged any connection between the CIA and Robert Levinson . Tonight, a senior administration official tells us they have had reason to believe that Robert Levinson may have been held outside of Iran, at least at some point.

In 2011, the family received these photos, very disturbing photos of Levinson in an orange jumpsuit. They had earlier received a proof of life video. Another American who was released over the weekend represents kind of a different kind of mystery, his name, Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari.

It's not clear why he was imprisoned in Iran. A senior administration official tells CNN Khosravi-Roodsari chose to stay in Iran after his release, but neither U.S. nor Iranian officials are saying why, Wolf, and we have been pressing them over the weekend and all day today. They are saying very, very little about this man's case, and not much is known about him.

BLITZER: Brian, on Robert Levinson, adding to all the mystery, there are now some questions about the man claiming to be the last person to see Levinson alive, isn't that right?

TODD: Very strange case and part of that Levinson case. Wolf, this man is named Dawud Salahuddin. He claims he's the last person to see Levinson alive. He says he met with Levinson just before he disappeared to discuss that cigarette smuggling case that Levinson's family said that he was there to investigate initially. Now, Salahuddin said he and Levinson were both detained by Iranian police on the day that Levinson vanished. But this man, Dawud Salahuddin, has a lot of baggage of his own. He is actually a fugitive from the United States, given refuge in Iran after admitting he killed a pro-Western Iranian diplomat in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, Bethesda, Maryland, in 1980.

U.S. officials have said Salahuddin is not a credible source of information about Robert Levinson, but this man again adds another very bizarre twist and another mystery to the case of Robert Levinson tonight, Wolf.

BLITZER: Certainly does. All right, Brian Todd, thank you.

We're also getting a more candid assessment from the Obama administration tonight about Iran's brief detention of 10 American sailors. Secretary of State John Kerry now acknowledges the video of the sailors in custody made him angry.

Our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, has more on this part of the story.

Barbara, when I spoke to the secretary, a little while ago, he shared his frustration about those images.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: You know, Wolf, so far, the Pentagon is being very quiet, citing the fact that there is an investigation going on, but, as you pointed out, Secretary Kerry had a much different view about all of this.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STARR (voice-over): Now that the Americans detained in Iran are released and the nuclear agreement is in place, the first public anger at Iran for filming U.S. sailors on their knees at gunpoint.

KERRY: I don't want to get into precise language. I think that's inappropriate, but let me make it clear. I was extremely upset, frustrated. It was inappropriate. And I made it very, very clear to the Iranians that we needed those people back and we needed them right away.

[18:10:17]

STARR: The Iranian captors, part of the hard-line Revolutionary Guard Corps opposed to nuclear negotiations with the U.S. The U.S. showing a dramatic shift in tone from the initial reaction about the sailors' treatment.

JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We have received assurances from the Iranians both that our sailors are safe, that they are being sort of afforded the proper courtesy that you would expect.

STARR: The Pentagon is still waiting for a full investigation.

ASHTON CARTER, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: I think we need to give these guys the opportunity to tell us what was really going on.

STARR: Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz says Iran exploited the U.S.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: John Kerry and President Obama are profusely thanking Khamenei for letting our sailors go after they had wrongly captured them and tried to humiliate them.

STARR: The Navy investigation will focus on the sailors' treatment while in Iranian custody, including any interrogation, according to an initial Navy review that revealed there was a verbal exchange when the sailors were surrounded at gunpoint, but no shots were fired.

It started January 12 at 9:23 in the morning when the boats left Kuwait. At some point, they changed course and entered Iranian waters. The sailors may not have even known where they were. At 2:10, the Navy received a report the sailors were being queried by Iranians approaching them in four armed boats.

At 2:29, the Navy has trouble reaching its sailors. By 2:45, there is total silence. The U.S. Navy began an immediate search and radioed Iranian authorities looking for information. But it was three hours before the USS Anzio got a message from Iran that the sailors had been taken. The sailors still could face some type of discipline for their navigation error, but the administration is focusing on a diplomatic victory.

JOHN KIRBY, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: If our sailors, those 10 sailors had been taken a year ago, they would still be in Iran. We wouldn't be able to get them out because we wouldn't have a direct way to communicate with the Iranian authorities to negotiate that release.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: Now, the Pentagon says all of the equipment, the boats, the weapons, the ammunition, everything was returned to the United States, except, interestingly, two SIM cards for satellite phones. That could technically give the Iraqis (sic) access to a military telephone network, but it might be a safe bet to assume the U.S. Navy has already changed those access codes -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Assume they have.

Barbara, you're also following a search under way right now for three American contractors who are now missing in Iraq. What are you hearing?

STARR: They went missing a few days ago. Their company, they are contractors, notified the U.S. and the Iraqi government. Now for the last day or so, Iraqi police, Iraqi security forces are hunting through a southern neighborhood of Baghdad known as Dora. This is an area where Shiite, Sunnis, other militias have been very active.

Iraqi officials say the men, two Iraqi Americans and an Egyptian American, were taken from an apartment known to be a brothel, not clear exactly who has them. The U.S. State Department, the FBI monitoring it because these are civilians -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara Starr, thanks very much.

Joining us now, Senator Tom Cotton. He's a leading Republican on the Senate Intelligence and Armed Services Committee, also an Iraq War veteran.

Senator, thanks very much for joining us.

What can you tell us about the search for these three American contractors in Baghdad?

SEN. TOM COTTON (R), ARKANSAS: Well, Wolf, it's still under way. And I don't want to do anything that would prejudice or interfere with that.

I will say this. I spent several months patrolling Al Dora district in Baghdad in 2006 with the 101st Airborne. It's a tough neighborhood. There's a lot of militias operating there, including a lot of Shiite militias, which are backed by Iran.

And it may not be coincidental that three Americans have gone missing in Baghdad just two days after President Obama cut a hostage deal with Iran that showed the world that there is a price on the head of Americans in every country in the world, especially country where Iran dominates. That's one reason why this hostage deal was so bad.

BLITZER: I want to talk about that in a moment. But what you're suggesting is maybe this was an Iranian-backed initiative to take these three Americans?

COTTON: We don't know that yet, Wolf.

The coming days will probably play it out and we will see. But Iran does dominate many of the militias that are very large and influential in Baghdad and we just paid a huge price to get back hostages from Iran. And Iran still has at least two more Americans held hostage. Maybe more.

We have taught Iran's leaders and the world a very bad lesson, that there is a price on the head of Americans to be held hostage. And even if these three Americans weren't taken hostage by Iranian-backed militias, it's a more dangerous world for all Americans all around the world today.

[18:15:10]

BLITZER: So, you wouldn't have done this deal to free Jason Rezaian and these other Americans?

COTTON: Look, my heart goes out, as does every American, when I see the videotape of Jason Rezaian and Amir Hekmati and Saeed Abedini coming back to their families.

But let's be clear. These were not prisoners. This was not a prisoner swap. They were hostages. They were held unjustly for no reason. We just released and pardoned seven people who were duly convicted or pending trial in an American court and delisted 14 different people from international extradition requests, in addition to going forward with the nuclear deal giving Iran tens of billions of dollars, a vast nuclear infrastructure.

I don't think it's a coincidence that those two things happened on the same day and it sets a very bad precedent for our dealings with Iran throughout the region and all around the world.

BLITZER: So what would you have done to get back those Americans?

COTTON: First off, I wouldn't have started down the path of negotiations while Iran was holding Americans hostage.

I would have demanded at the very beginning, if I was going to engage in any kind of negotiations with Iran, that they release all Americans, to include accounting for the whereabouts of Robert Levinson. But, remember, going to back to before he was even elected, President Obama was talking about extending a hand to dictators without precondition. The chief regime that he had in mind was Iran.

BLITZER: Senator, stand by. We have more to discuss.

There is a lot of breaking developments happening right now.

Much more with Senator Tom Cotton right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:20:52]

BLITZER: We're back with Senator Tom Cotton, as we're digging deeper into the fine print of the newly implemented Iran nuclear deal and the financial implications.

Senator, I want you to listen to part of my interview with Secretary of State John Kerry today. I asked him about an agreement for the U.S. to settle a decades-old legal dispute with Iran by paying a very hefty settlement to Iran.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: This $1.7 billion that the U.S. is now directly going to provide the Iranians, a claim settlement.

KERRY: Over a period of time.

BLITZER: This is U.S. taxpayer money that the Iranians are going to get, $400 million in arms that they purchased back in the late '70s that were never delivered, but $1.3 billion, the U.S. is going to give the Iranians in interest.

KERRY: Not give. I wish -- it's a legal settlement. And it's money that we would owe in a much greater sum than that.

We're liable for about $6 billion or so. And the reason we are liable for that is because in 1979, when the hostage-taking took place, we appropriately froze $400 million. That $400 million under the law collects interest compounded over the years.

So this was a -- this is a negotiation, by the way, that is completely separate from what we were doing with respect to the nuclear agreement. It's been going on for decades.

BLITZER: When I heard that the U.S. was going to give the Iranians $1.7 billion for this claim, I wondered if there was a demand, if the Iranians are going to offer some compensation to the 52 American diplomats who were held hostage in Iran in 1979 and '80 for 444 days.

Is Iran going to offer compensation to them?

KERRY: Just as there are claims against us, we have claims against Iran. And there are legal proceedings now involving those particular claims. And that's the consequences of what happened in 1979.

But, as I say, a legal process was put in place under the Reagan administration. In 1981, the claims tribunal went forward. And we have had many of our claims settled where Iran has paid us. And this is one of those claims now.

BLITZER: Did you raise the issue of the 52 American diplomats held hostage?

KERRY: We have constantly talked about that and other things.

BLITZER: Are they going to pay anything?

KERRY: I can't tell you what the outcome is going to be, because I don't know. But we have always talked about every difference between us, even in the context of the nuclear agreement.

But none of us were licensed at that point to do anything except get the nuclear agreement done, because we needed to rid the world of the potential threat of a nuclear weapon, and that's why the president kept it appropriately very narrowly focused, Wolf.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: We're back with Senator Cotton.

I want to get your reaction, $1.7 billion finishing up this claim that the Iranians had against the U.S. What's your reaction?

COTTON: Roadside bombs that Iran sent to Iraq to blow up over 500 American soldiers cost a lot less than $1.7 billion.

The troops that they're supporting in Syria right now slaughtering innocents and undermining the entire region only cost a few hundred dollars a month. The terrorists that they support in Hezbollah only cost tens of thousands of dollars on a weekly or monthly basis.

And $1.7 billion is an astonishing figure. And, as Secretary Kerry said first, this was not part of the nuclear deal. This was a stand- alone agreement that didn't have to be undertaken, unless it's just part of the ransom that we had to pay to get innocent Americans back from Iranian captivity.

And, second, remember, this was a deal, if it was in fact about a weapons agreement before the Islamic Revolution in 1979, that we made with the pro-American government of Iran that was then overthrown by a violent revolution led by the ayatollahs. And we're rewarding them now by giving back that previous regime's money with interest.

Secretary Kerry talked about interest payments being required under the law. I'm not sure which law he is referring to, but it's sounds to me like he's more interested in being the lawyer for the government of Iran than he is standing up, for instance, as you say, Wolf, for the rights of those 52 Americans who still have lots of claims against Iran for the terrorism and the captivity in which they held them.

[18:25:15]

BLITZER: You went to Harvard Law School, right?

COTTON: I did.

BLITZER: So, you know something about the International Claims Court in The Hague.

What he's suggesting is the $1.7 billion that the U.S. is now going to give Iran for the arms that were never delivered, it could have been a lot more if the Claims Court in The Hague would have adjudicated it. Could have been $6 billion, he's suggesting, so the U.S. got a bargain.

COTTON: I'm pretty confident that we have been able to avoid that adjudication for 36 years now, that we have got very good lawyers in our State Department that could prevent that, if it is in fact about an arms deal that was never consummated and not about something else.

BLITZER: So where do you go from here? There is this nuclear deal that's about to be implemented. You voted against it. All the Republicans voted against it. There is nothing really you can do at this point, right?

COTTON: Well, we can move to impose sanctions on Iran for their other nefarious activities, like their support for terrorism, their regional aggression and their human rights abuses. The House of Representatives has tried to just do that.

BLITZER: But, presumably, the president would veto all of that.

COTTON: Well, he and John Kerry have said all along they are not removing sanctions for non-nuclear-related activities.

In fact, they have purported to impose new sanctions today. Now, I have my doubts about the seriousness of those sanctions, since we just released 21 people or lifted warrants against their arrest for violating previous sanctions. You can't impose new sanctions for their other activity and try to stop the aggression that they are undertaking throughout the Middle East.

BLITZER: Senator Cotton, thanks very much for coming in.

COTTON: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Tom Cotton of Arkansas.

Just ahead, Bernie Sanders is trying to cut into Hillary Clinton's Southern support after their most heated face-off so far. You're going to find out why they briefly called a truce.

And Donald Trump goes by the book in courting evangelical voters, but one Bible passage tripped him up.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: 2 Corinthians, right, 2 Corinthians, 3:17, that's the whole ball game. Where the spirit of the lord, right, where the spirit of the lord is, there is liberty.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The Democratic presidential candidates, they're following up on the most combative debate so far by finding something they can all agree on: honoring the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

[18:32:02] But the holiday from campaign fireworks isn't lasting long. The Iowa caucuses only 14 days from now. Our senior political correspondent, Brianna Keilar, is joining us now from Alabama.

Brianna, Bernie Sanders, he's there tonight, right?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Bernie Sanders is here, actually looking at civil rights landmarks, and soon, here in a few hours, he'll be having this rally here at the auditorium behind me, and I will tell you there is a crowd that is wrapped around the block here. It's a huge line waiting to get into this event.

But if you think it might be odd that Bernie Sanders is here in Alabama so close to Iowa and New Hampshire, you wouldn't be entirely incorrect. But what he's doing is really trying to take a chunk out of Hillary Clinton's southern fire wall, the black vote here in the south so key to the success of a Democrat and these southern contests in late February and early March, and right now it is largely aligned behind Hillary Clinton.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HILLARY CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Hello, South Carolina.

KEILAR: Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders speaking in a unified voice today in South Carolina about Martin Luther King's legacy.

CLINTON: Dr. King died with his work unfinished. And it is up to us to see it through.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: What is important is that we remember his vision.

KEILAR: But last night...

SANDERS: I think Secretary Hillary Clinton knows that what she says is very disingenuous.

KEILAR: A Democratic house divided, Clinton hammering Sanders on health care, accusing him of wanting to scrap Obamacare by providing Medicare for all Americans.

CLINTON: I want us to defend and build on the Affordable Care Act and improve it.

SANDERS: We're not going to tear up the Affordable Care Act. I helped write it.

KEILAR: With a ferocity that reveals just how competitive the race for the Democratic nomination has become in Iowa and New Hampshire but belies Clinton's 25-point lead nationally, she zeroed in on Sanders' moderate record on guns.

CLINTON: He voted against the Brady Bill five times. He voted for immunity from gun makers and sellers, which the NRA said was the most important piece of gun legislation in 20 years.

KEILAR: Sanders said he is willing to reconsider his vote on immunity and turned his attention to Clinton's ties to Wall Street.

SANDERS: I don't get personal speaking fees from Gold Sachs.

KEILAR: Clinton hit Sanders for voting to deregulate credit default swaps, a move that paved the way for the financial crisis.

CLINTON: Senator Sanders, you're the only one on this stage that voted to deregulate the financial market in 2000.

KEILAR: But it was Bill Clinton who back that bill, signing it into law. The Clinton campaign highlighting the former president's admission years later it was a mistake.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Fired up, ready to go!

KEILAR: Now Sanders is looking south for support from black voters who disproportionally support Clinton. Key African-American leaders, like former attorney general, Erick Holder, and most of the Congressional Black Caucus have endorsed her.

[18:35:13] CLINTON: God bless you.

KEILAR: But Sanders has hip-hop artist Killer Mike in his corner.

KILLER MIKE, HIP-HOP ARTIST: Look at that picture of Dr. King that's been on your grandma's wall your whole life and say to yourself whose policy best identify with that? Vote for that person. In my case that's Senator Sanders.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KEILAR: While Bernie Sanders is here in the south, Hillary Clinton is campaigning in Iowa really speaking to the vulnerabilities of these two candidates going into these early contests, Wolf.

BLITZER: Brianna Keilar in Alabama for us. Brianna, thank you.

Let's bring in our senior political reporter, Nia-Malika Henderson; our CNN Politics executive editor, Mark Preston; and CNN senior political analyst, Ron Brownstein. He's the editorial director of "The National Journal."

Nia, can Bernie Sanders really expand that critically important Democratic base in the south by appealing to African-American voters?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, I think he can somewhat. He's certainly been at it since August going to South Carolina, going to historically black universities in South Carolina, for instance. I've traveled with him and covered some of those rallies. I think the question is how much.

He was at about 7 percent in the fall with African-American voters in South Carolina, and he's about 11 percent now. So it will, I think it's just going to depend. I mean, the big, I think, question here is also time. He doesn't have a lot of it. I talked to one of his advisors. They said, compared to the Clintons, the Clintons had, like, 20 years of relationships with African-American voters and African-American officials in South Carolina and throughout the south. They had about six months of that.

I think another question is going to be electability. In South Carolina you're not going to have a lot of socialists. You're not going to have a lot of people who want to cast protest votes, either. So in some ways Sanders is going to have to prove his electability to those voters even before he gets down there. It's not clear that Iowa and New Hampshire will necessarily prove his electability for voters in the south.

BLITZER: South Carolina, the third contest coming up.

You know, Ron, Sanders boasted of a strong polling last night. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SANDERS: Secretary Clinton well knows when this campaign began she was 50 points ahead of me. We were all of three percentage points. Guess what? In Iowa, New Hampshire the race is very, very close. Maybe we're ahead in New Hampshire.

In terms of polling, guess what? We are running ahead of Secretary Clinton in terms of taking on my good friend, Donald Trump.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: So does he have a pathway if he struggles in places, let's say, in the south like South Carolina, Ron?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it's still challenging. I mean, look, there's no question that Bernie Sanders has expanded beyond the beachhead that he started with. He started with, essentially, a pretty narrow constituency of younger and white- collar liberals, and he has shown a lot of energy and touched a chord and moved beyond that, particularly into the white working class.

But he's still got two big hills to get over. The first one is the one that Nia mentioned, that he is still struggling among minorities voters. The NBC/"Wall Street Journal" poll this week had Hillary Clinton leading him 69-27 among non-white voters like the participated Democratic primary, and that's about 35 or 45 percent of all the voters.

So if he holds his share of the white vote that he's now getting in New Hampshire and Iowa, takes that to places like New York, California, Georgia, he'll lose.

The other thing, Wolf, real quick, that hasn't gotten as much attention is that he is not polling terrifically well among partisan Democrats. Even the polls showing him ahead in New Hampshire and Iowa in the past week, showed him trailing among people who identify as Democrats. His advantage is among those who identify as independents.

And in the end, it is hard to win a party's nomination if you can't win most of the voters in that party, which is something John McCain discovered when he had a very similar profile early in the 2000 race.

CLINTON: Secretary Clinton, Mark, she's really embracing President Obama, not just on the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, but a whole host of other issues, which probably will help her in a Democratic contest but potentially could bode and could create some problems in a general election.

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICS EXECUTIVE EDITOR: Right, because the argument right now from Republicans is that a vote for Hillary Clinton is a vote for another four years of President Barack Obama. And while there is an incredible amount of support within the Democratic Party for Barack Obama in the eight years that he has held office and for the Affordable Care Act, the fact of the matter is a lot of people are upset at President Obama. They don't think he did a good job.

So Hillary Clinton, though she has to win the primary before she gets to the general, the irony of that last night during that debate is that she was very critical if you recall eight years ago of President Barack Obama and all of his policies. And last night she wrapped herself in Barack Obama.

So look, twofold, who does that help? Helps her with African- Americans in South Carolina. It also potentially helps with liberals out in Iowa, because Barack Obama beat her, as well. Remember back in 2008.

BLITZER: He's still popular, very popular among a lot of that liberal base.

All right. Guys, stand by. We have a lot more politics coming up. The road for the White House. Two weeks from today, the Iowa caucuses. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're back with our political team and the escalating battle with Ted Cruz two weeks before the first presidential contest. Trump amping up his pitch to evangelical voters today having

[18:45:00] Dana, Trump began his day at Liberty University in Virginia.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. This is now an empty gym, but it was filled just a couple hours ago at his New Hampshire event. But you're right, he did start out at one of the most prominent, if not the most prominent Christian universities in the country. Not a typical venue for a brash billionaire from New York.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TRUMP: We're going to have some fun, right?

BASH (voice-over): Appearing at Virginia's Liberty University is a right of passage for GOP presidential candidates, even Donald Trump who drew a big crowd beyond students required to attend.

TRUMP: I want a general where we knock the hell out of them.

BASH: He stumbled a bit quoting Scripture.

TRUMP: I hear this is a major theme, Two Corinthians 3:17, that's the ballgame, where the spirit of the Lord, right, where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.

BASH: It's Second Corinthians, not two.

A moment showing sharp contrast with Ted Cruz who comfortably weaves Bible verses into speeches.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: How do you know I'll follow through on those promises on the first day in office, and every day afterwards? As the Scripture has said, you shall know them by their fruits.

BASH: But so far, polls show evangelicals like Trump despite him not talking the talk of a typical Republican trying to reach them.

CRUZ: It seems Donald has a lot of nervous energy.

BASH: Still a big part of the Cruz Trump escalating war is a personality and character contest.

TRUMP: He's a nasty guy. Nobody likes him. Nobody in Congress likes him. Nobody likes him anywhere once they get to know him. He's a very -- he's got an edge that's not good.

BASH: Today, Cruz responded to being called nasty with a classically Cruz pop culture reference.

(MUSIC)

BASH: But Cruz is no longer laughing Trump off. He's now following Jeb Bush's lead, questioning Trump's conservative credentials.

CRUZ: Ronald Reagan was a voice of consistency, and I'm pretty sure that Ronald Reagan didn't write checks and support Democratic politicians.

BASH: And a Cruz super pact released this new TV ad trying to paint Trump as a hypocrite, by playing Trump in his own words praising Cruz.

TRUMP: But he really is special.

BASH: As for Trump, his campaign clearly knows he has some image- softening to do, going with a testimonial from his daughter Ivanka.

IVANKA TRUMP: When I was a young girl, my father, Donald Trump, always told me I could do anything that I set my mind to if I coupled vision with determination and hard work.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: Now you heard in the piece Donald Trump was calling Cruz nasty. He had a twitter tirade against him over the weekend. But it was all noticeably absent, Wolf, both here in New Hampshire and earlier today in Virginia perhaps it's because Trump got blow back from several prominent conservative radio hosts saying he should be careful not to go after Cruz too hard because he could alienate his own Trump voters -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Dana Bash, thanks very much.

All right. This just coming into THE SITUATION ROOM. The Republican National Committee announced just a few moments ago that it will award its February 25th Republican presidential debate to CNN. That debate was originally assigned to NBC, but after the RNC's October CNBC debate, the RNC suspended its partnership with NBC for the February debate.

CNN will partner with the Telemundo network, with "National Review" and with the Salem Radio Network, to put on the February 25th debate. This debate comes only five days before the March 1st Super Tuesday primary where voters of a dozen states cast their votes.

Mark Preston, the February 25th debate will take place in Houston that sets the stage for a lot of contests a few days later.

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICS EXECUTIVE EDITOR: Yes, no doubt about it. Inarguably, one of the most important debates we will see of the cycle. And, look, Wolf, this is clearly a crushing blow to NBC. There is no doubt that. There is so much interest right now in the Republican presidential race. We saw NBC did the debate with Democrats but here at CNN, we do welcome in opportunity, you know, to host this debate during this very critical time, during election.

So, Wolf, I guess very simply, we'll see you in Houston.

BLITZER: We're all going to the Houston for the Republican presidential debate.

Ron, let's talk about Donald Trump's speech at Liberty University, Southern Baptist Minister Russell Moore tweeted this, "This would be hilarious if it weren't so counter to the admission of the gospel of Jesus Christ. #TrumpatLiberty."

Does he potentially -- Trump have a problem with the evangelicals?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, it is fascinating when you look at the mangling of the bible verse, you look at the checkered personal history, you look at the upbringing in Queens, New York, not very far from where I grew up, he's a most improbable candidate to be appealing to evangelicals, and yet there he is.

[18:50:06] I have a piece coming out in "National Journal" trying to explain why. And I think the answer is that when you look generally at the Republican electorate, as we talk about before, Donald Trump is a very, very strong position among working class Republicans, those without a college education. For instance, in that NBC/"Wall Street Journal" poll this week, he's ahead two to one over his next closest competitor, Ted Cruz, among Republicans without a college degree.

That appeal is extending across religious lines, and he is running much better with evangelical without a college degree, those working class voters. And they are a big chunk of the vote in the South and in the Midwest. States like Missouri, Ohio, South Carolina, Georgia. There will probably be at least one third of the primary voters.

And the scary thing I think for Ted Cruz and for some of the critics of Trump is that these may not be voters who are moved by the traditional appeal to social issues. They may be coming to Trump at the same reason that more secular blue collar voters are, particular his stance on immigration and trade.

So, it may not be easy to dislodge Trump from this beachhead and it may make those southern states more competitive than many expect today.

BLITZER: The nasty feud that's on, Nia, right now between Trump and Cruz -- does that potentially open the door for other Republican candidates to score points?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: You know, I think that's certainly what they hope. So, certainly, somebody like Rubio, all of those folks in the establishment wing, Kasich as well as Christie. The idea being that maybe even if the Republican Party itself hadn't been able to take out somebody like Donald Trump, maybe Cruz will be able to take him out and in sort of the collateral damage, of them, you know, decreasing their standing among their voters and people will flock to these other candidates.

You know, but who knows? But I mean, this has been sort of the game that the establishment lane has played, hoping things will happen externally between Cruz, as well as Trump and then hoping that they can gain. But we'll see what happens. I mean, they're such formidable candidates in their constituencies and voters are so attached to them. It's hard to see a lot of this shaking out and flowing to Rubio's, you know, benefits or any of these other folks.

BLITZER: One thing that could help Trump, this new radio ads, is daughter Ivanka is doing. She's very impressive. She's got a following out there herself. That potentially could help him out there.

PRESTON: No question, because it humanizes him, right? So, we see Donald Trump on TV being very boisterous and bombastic and what-have- you. But let's not forget he's a father. For all the talk about him being, you know, chauvinistic person, you know, maybe not as kind to women, I mean, he constantly talks about his daughter.

We've seen her on the campaign trail. She's very poised. She's arguably his best surrogate on the campaign trail.

BLITZER: Yes, she's an impressive young lady.

All right, guys. Thanks very, very much.

Just ahead, two more Americans face terror charges because of their alleged support for ISIS. Federal authorities say one of them was arrested at a U.S. airport while on his way to Syria.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're now learning new details about the latest arrests of alleged American supporters of ISIS. Officials say one of them was picked up at a Virginia airport while on his way to Syria to join the terror group.

Our justice reporter Evan Perez is joining us. He's got details about this case.

What are you learning, Evan?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, Wolf, Joseph Hassan Farrokh is a 28-year-old U.S. citizen born in Pennsylvania and he was arrested, as you pointed out, at Richmond Airport. He was on his way to Chicago. His final destination, according to the FBI was in Syria, to join the group ISIS.

And according to the FBI, he was working with a couple of friends, including one who is an FBI informant for the last couple of years, was paid $10,000.

Also arrested on Friday was Mahmoud Amid Mohamed Elhassan, who was a taxi driver who allegedly helped carry Farrokh to the airport or was at least part of the way to the airport. According to the FBI, Wolf, this Farrokh is 28 years old. You know, he's one of kind of an older example of what we've been dealing with over the past year with people who say they want to join ISIS. They want to travel overseas to join the group.

The FBI has stepped up surveillance of a lot of these people, especially in light of what happened in San Bernardino. But, you know, the people like this, are not the ones that the FBI worries about the most. The people they worry more about are those who might be planning an attack in the United States and who don't show up on the radar. In the case of these two, the FBI had an informant who was able to record some of the conversations with them and was able to, you know, help encourage this arrest.

BLITZER: These two guys allegedly off to Syria to train to ISIS and come back to the United States or just fight over there?

PEREZ: Well, in the case of Farrokh, he wanted to go over there and he said he was born to be a jihadist, according to the FBI. They have recordings of him talking to an informant and to his friends. He wanted to go on there and take on the American forces who are there fighting ISIS.

You know, he did not intend to come back. As a matter of fact, he said he wanted to have his family join him eventually in Syria, Wolf

BLITZER: The FBI says there are investigations underway, Comey, FBI the director, in all 50 states. Is that right?

PEREZ: In all 50 states. And like I said, you know, of the things about these guys is Farrokh, keep mentioning to the FBI that he knows they're watching people like him. So, but, yet he falls for this, what certainly is a sting operation. What they worry more about people, Wolf -- people who are plotting these things but not on the radar.

BLITZER: And let's remember, these are allegations, charges. No one has been convicted yet.

PEREZ: Absolutely.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Evan, for that. That's it for me.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.