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THE SITUATION ROOM

Sarah Palin Endorses Donald Trump for President; Freed American: 'It's Like Being Born Again'; Interview with Saudi Arabia Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired January 19, 2016 - 17:00   ET

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


JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: We actually read them, believe it or not.

[17:00:03] That's it for THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. I now turn you over to my friend and colleague, Wolf Blitzer, who's right next door in a place I like to call THE SITUATION ROOM. Thanks for watching.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, Trump's big endorsement. And a political stunner. Breaking tonight, GOP frontrunner Donald Trump gains the backing of the former vice-presidential nominee, Sarah Palin. As Iowa's Republican governor now calling for the defeat of Ted Cruz just two weeks before that state's all-important caucuses.

Bernie's fire. A brand-new CNN poll shows Bernie Sanders nearly doubling Hillary Clinton's numbers in New Hampshire. Is the Democratic coronation on hold? Iran to blame? The search is now on for three U.S. citizens kidnapped in Iraq. And there are new questions about the timing of the abduction coming right on the heels of Iran's release of Americans.

An American prisoner speaks. We hear for the first time about the harrowing ordeal of Americans held for years by Iran, and we've got new details about the urgent way they were freed. But has Iran really changed? I'll ask the Saudi foreign minister in an exclusive interview.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: The breaking news, thunderbolt from Donald Trump. IN a stunning turn of events, the Republican frontrunner scores his biggest endorsement yet, winning the backing of former Republican vice- presidential nominee, Sarah Palin.

And we're standing by to hear Donald Trump tell us all about it as Iowa's Republican governor now openly calling for the defeat of Ted Cruz in the upcoming Iowa caucuses, less than two weeks away.

And our brand-new CNN poll shows Democrat Bernie Sanders has now opened up a lead of almost 30 points over Hillary Clinton and the crucial early state of New Hampshire. An American prisoner freed in a swap with Iran. That is now opening up that prisoner. He's opening up for the first time about his years of captivity and the nerve- wracking hours before he reached freedom.

But Iran's biggest rival in the region is voicing major doubts about whether Tehran can be trusted. Will Saudi Arabia seek a nuclear weapon? I'll speak with the Saudi foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir. And our correspondents, analysts and guests, they will have full coverage of the day's top stories.

But let's begin with this hour's breaking political news. Sarah Palin is now endorsing Donald Trump for president. We're expecting to hear from both of them soon at a rally in Iowa. That's where our political reporter, Sara Murray, is now standing by.

Sara, Trump has been dropping hinted about it all day, but now it is official.

SARA MURRAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Now it is official, you're right, Wolf. And this is something of a coup for Donald Trump. Previously, Sarah Palin had said she liked Cruz; she liked Trump; she was torn between the two. So the fact that she went with Trump is kind of a big deal. And it could potentially move voters in Iowa. Here's why.

If you are someone who is on the fence about Donald Trump's values, if you are maybe on the fence about how conservative he is, Sarah Palin really burnishes his chops on that front.

And the other thing is, they appeal to sort of the same set of voters. They have cast themselves as outsiders, and they've really worked to tap into these blue-collar former Democrats who have turned to the Republican Party and don't look at leaders of the Republican Party as people who reflect them.

Now, in making this announcement today, Donald Trump could not help but twist the knife a little bit. He dredged up an old quote from Ted Cruz talking about Sarah Palin, saying she can pick winners.

And let's not forget this could all be pretty good news for Sarah Palin, too. She was a Republican standard bearer in 2008. She shook up that campaign. There is no doubt about it. But since then her star power has faded a little bit.

Last year, FOX News canceled her contract, and she sort of faded into the background a little bit. She's going to be on the campaign trail tonight, though. She's going to be with Donald Trump tomorrow. And that is sure to get plenty of attention -- Wolf.

BLITZER: That's where we expect to hear from her, where you are. She said in a statement released by the Trump campaign, quote, "I am proud to endorse Donald J. Trump for president of the United States."

So the event is a rally. I assume there's going to be another huge crowd, right?

MURRAY: I think that's a safe assumption. People are still trickling in, and it is very cold outside. But you know how Donald Trump rolls in Iowa. He tends to draw crowds. That would make any other candidate in this race extremely jealous. The interesting thing about Trump's schedule today is, he's actually had three stops. He has another one tomorrow morning. And this is a pretty heavy campaign schedule for a guy who usually flies in on his jet and flies out the same night. That's not the case today, Wolf.

BLITZER: We're going to stand by. We're going to have live coverage of that joint appearance by Donald Trump and Sarah Palin in Iowa. We'll get back to you, Sara. Thank you.

Sarah Palin's endorsement of Donald Trump, one more blow on what's turning out to be a rather bad day for Senator Ted Cruz. CNN's Sunlen Serfaty following the senator in New Hampshire right now. He's getting some more bad news, as well. How's he reacting to all of this, Sunlen?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, he is really trying to downplay the significance of both this one-two punch, not only coming from the Sarah Palin endorsement but big words from Iowa's governor today.

First, on Sarah Palin's endorsement, really trying to downplay that significance, tweeting out, quote, "I love Sarah Palin. Without her support I wouldn't be in the Senate. Regardless of what she does 2016, I will always be a big fan."

Of course, it's significant to Ted Cruz, not only because it rallies many Tea Party supporters in a must-win state, Iowa, that he has said point blank he will win.

But Sarah Palin, of course, also endorsed him in his 2012 Senate run. But again, Cruz today really responding to these punches on the Iowa governor, today saying that Ted Cruz should be defeated in Iowa.

This is a significant charge, because normally the governors there, they remain neutral. That is tradition. They don't really take a stance. Ted Cruz again today, Wolf, casting this as just establishment part of the party being in full panic -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Sunlen, a little windy over there in New Hampshire, as we can tell. Sunlen, we'll stay on top of this story.

Let's get some more now on this bombshell announcement. Joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM, our CNN senior political reporter, Nia- Malika Henderson; our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger; our political director, David Chalian; and CNN political commentator S.E. Cupp.

David Chalian, let me start with you. We got some new CNN/WMUR poll number on the Democratic side coming up. We're going to talk about that in a moment. But this is a huge, huge development for Donald Trump.

S.E. CUPP, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Huge.

BLITZER: A major development. I'm going to channel in Donald Trump right now. It's a huge development for him, a setback for the other Republicans. DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: It is. Listen, I think we, as

political reporters, tend to overstate what endorsements mean. But I do think that this one is a big impact endorsement for one key reason. Ted Cruz has been having all the momentum right now, and I just think it is a moment of pause for that. You were just talking to Sunlen about a rough day for Ted Cruz, and certainly the Iowa headlines will not be great for him.

But having a validator like Sarah Palin from the Cruz wing of the party, where Cruz says he wouldn't be in the Senate without her, we know that, in Republican primary fights, Sarah Palin has proven to have some muscle. She can get some folks energized.

And I think it's not about how many votes Sarah Palin brings Donald Trump. I don't think that is what this is about. It's about a validator coming in and saying this is not just a Cruz momentum ride to February 1.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Particularly when Cruz has been talking about Trump's New York values and saying he's not a real conservative.

Suddenly, as the validators, you put it, you know, you've got Sarah Palin there saying, "Wait a minute. I'm the original Tea Party person. Here I am, and I'm -- I'm giving him the seal of approval."

Also, it gives Trump even more attention, if that's possible, than he is already getting, because now you've got two reality TV stars, probably going through the state of Iowa and the state of New Hampshire together. The crowds will be huge. And I think it takes away a lot of the oxygen from Ted Cruz who, by the way, was very smart, when he tweeted that he wouldn't be a senator if it weren't for Sarah Palin. So he's not attacking her in any sense.

BLITZER: A lot of the liberal establishment, the media -- liberal media, parts of it, at least, will make fun of this; but she is a factor in Republican circles, Sarah Palin.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN POLITICAL SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: She is a factor. And she is a brilliant political performer. She's going to bring headlines. She's going to have quips and soundbites that, you know, are dominate the Twitterverse and cable news in the conservative blogosphere.

In some ways, I mean, she was Donald Trump before Donald Trump was Donald Trump. I mean, in 2008, she was the one -- she was the one who was out there connecting with audiences, connecting with blue-collar whites, mastering Facebook and Twitter, even before Donald Trump had done that.

And so I think this is really huge and really sort of doubles down on Trumpism. You will hear Democrats. I think they've already been sending out memos about this, talking about it as a dream ticket. Of course, not really a dream ticket.

BLITZER: S.E., let me ready to you. Senator Cruz, before the official announcement from the Trump campaign, he tweeted this: "I love Sarah Palin. Without her support, I wouldn't be in the Senate. Regardless of what she does in 2016, I will always be a big fan."

CUPP: Yes. Yes. And Sarah Palin, to Ted Cruz, as well, I was at an event with our Jake Tapper in Las Vegas where he was interviewing Sarah Palin, and she said Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are both of her favorites. She loves Ted Cruz. So I'm sure this is deeply disappointing, and I think Ted Cruz is on the losing end of this.

I'm not sure, though, as much influence as she has with the Tea Party, her influence among mainstream Republicans has gone down considerably. Five thirty-eight just did a profile, I think, last year on where she's gone. And she lost 55 points among mainstream Republican voters.

[17:10:13] So, I'm not sure what secret box she unlocks for Donald Trump that was previously, you know, unattainable for him in terms of voters. But you know, it will certainly be nice to have her with him in Iowa.

BLITZER: And there's been other major developments in Iowa. I want to go to Jeff Zeleny. He's out in Iowa for us right now.

I want to talk a little bit later about the Iowa Republican governor, Terry Branstad. He made a major announcement today, saying to the Republicans in Iowa, "Don't vote for Ted -- don't vote for Senator Cruz. That would be" -- he didn't endorse anyone. He didn't endorse Donald Trump, and he did say Cruz is not the guy for Iowa.

But quick reaction there. This is likely to help Donald Trump in Iowa right now, this Sarah Palin endorsement.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, no question about it. Sarah Palin is still popular here among caucus goers. Let's remember who actually attends these Republican caucuses. They're party events, and she is very popular, you know, among these conservatives who listen to talk radio, watch FOX News and other things.

So I believe this will definitely help Donald Trump. It's another seal of approval here. I mean, Iowans make their own decisions to a point. I agree with David that endorsements are -- have a limited value here.

But look how Sarah Palin helped Joni Ernst. She's not endorsing anyone but Sarah Palin helped her. She can do the same with Donald Trump. It does hurt the other Republican establishment. Every single one of the Republican candidates in the field so many of them would have taken this endorsement, no question. Donald Trump got it, of course. So I think it helps him on margins, definitely.

BLITZER: David Chalian, it also comes on this day that the Iowa governor, Terry Branstad, said it would be a big mistake for Iowa to support Ted Cruz. That's a major setback for him, as well.

CHALIAN: It is. And that's really all -- that's all about -- listen, that, I actually think, will rally Ted Cruz supporters, because Terry Branstad represents the very establishment that -- that a lot of Cruz supporters -- he's a popular governor. There's no doubt about it. And you'd rather have him stay out of the race than actively campaign against you.

Again, not a good day for Ted Cruz. And if you were watching local news tonight in Iowa, or wake up and read those Iowa headlines. It's a double whammy against Ted Cruz in the state that really means a ton for him.

But I think that he two endorsements are different. And I think that Palin has more impact. You were saying you're not where she might bring them. I would think, in the home schooler community, in some of the evangelical community, which are some voters that are parked with Ted Cruz right now, she may be able to have a conversation with some of those voters and warm then to Trump if some reason they've been put off by Trump.

BORGER: Trump has been talking directly to evangelical lately, because he understands...

BORGER: Trying. Liberty University we saw.

But -- but, you know, he understands that he's got some deficits there when it comes to the question of whether he's had a campaign conversion or not, right? And I think she does help him there.

I also want to say that this helps Sarah Palin, too.

CUPP: Goodness yes.

BORGER: This is good for Sarah Palin, because suddenly she's back in the game. She's back in the spotlight. The crowds are ready-made for her. Donald Trump is larger than life. She gets to be on that -- on that stage with him. And it doesn't hurt her personally, by going forward or hurt her celebrity. I'm not saying...

CUPP: What's so fascinating, you know, I followed Sarah Palin day one. And the Sarah Palin I knew in 2008 was attacked mercilessly. Sexist attacks from the left on men, women. Just endorsed a guy who has called women slobs and bimbos and thinks that breastfeeding is disgusting and mocks a woman's face.

The Sarah Palin I know from 2008 was attacked mercilessly on her faith and had to defend her Christian conservative Pentecostal religion. This is a guy she endorsed who had been attacking Ben Carson on his Christian conservative itch and Ted Cruz on his Christian conservatism.

I mean, it's just a remarkable marriage of two people who, you're right, are -- who you're right, are similar in terms of the sort of reality TV kind of persona but are so -- are so different in so many ways. I don't recognize her anymore.

HENDERSON: In some ways have transcended politics, right? I mean, they're celebrities, and I think somebody coined a phrase "celebriticians," because they're both celebrities and politicians. I think she's going to be so credible in going after Ted Cruz on some of these issues in a way that Donald Trump has not been.

CHALIAN: What kind of endorsement is this? The famous quote from Joe McQuaid in New Hampshire, when the "New Hampshire Union-Leader," the paper up there, endorses. "We don't just endorse once. We endorse every damn day." She's going to be out on the stump every day now in these final days.

BLITZER: Remember, it's only 13 days.

CHALIAN: She's going to be an active participant in this campaign with Donald Trump in some way.

(CROSSTALK)

CUPP: I don't know how she swings at Ted Cruz after being so polite about it.

BORGER: Right. You can be pro-Trump and not attack Ted Cruz, and I would...

CUPP: Helpful.

BORGER: But you know what? She could be helpful in getting people out. She can be helpful in energizing a base of support to actually go out on caucus night. You know, we have heard differing reports about Trump's organization in the state of Iowa. She can -- she can energize.

BLITZER: David, it's very intriguing, because remember, Sarah Palin became famous when John McCain was the Republican presidential nominee. She was picked to be his running mate.

CHALIAN: Recently, Donald Trump has had some negative words about John McCain and vice versa. Yet Sarah Palin, John McCain's running mate, now endorses Donald Trump.

And that will be question No. 1, if anybody gets a question to Sarah Palin about this process. That will be question No. 1, to get her response to the John McCain comment. Although John McCain and Sarah Palin, although they have had very different views about lots of issues since they've been on the ticket actually -- even when they were on the ticket together -- even on the ticket different views on some key issues -- but they have had sort of a policy nonaggression pact. They just don't usually take that bait. So I don't think Sarah Palin is going to be out there sort of bashing John McCain in any way.

BLITZER: Let's go back to Sara Murray. She's getting ready for the Donald Trump over there in Iowa. We're going to hear from Trump and Sarah Palin. You've been covering Trump for a while. How is this likely to play?

MURRAY: Well, it's interesting. We've been talking to people on the ground here, the ones who already like Donald Trump say it might hurt him a little bit, the ones who -- might help him a bit. And the ones who aren't voting for Ted Cruz say maybe it will hurt him a little bit.

But the folks here who are undecided are saying that this is not going to move their vote one way or another.

But I do think, as you guys were just saying, that Sarah Palin does help in terms of energizing a base. And she could help with continuing to turn out big crowds for Trump if she campaigns with him. She's going to be here today; she's going to be out with him tomorrow. And we're at a point where perception matters, appearance of momentum matters. He has about two weeks to look like he's the frontrunner in this state in Iowa where he's actually tied. And Sarah Palin is the kind of person who could help continue to fuel that perception.

BLITZER: You know, Gloria, the number of endorsements from major political players for Donald Trump not a huge number.

BORGER: Not huge.

CUPP: No. Zero.

BORGER: And you know, they're staying away from him. When you think of establishment, the establishment has kind of run more to Jeb Bush but that hasn't gotten Jeb Bush anywhere. To David's point, then endorsements don't matter as much.

This isn't so much about an endorsement, per se, as it is about adding energy, enthusiasm, credibility on the conservative side to Donald Trump. This is just the kind of endorsement he wants. I don't think he's courting...

CHALIAN: Not at all.

BORGER: ... endorsements at all. He's doing just the opposite one would argue, in fact. I mean, he does not want Mitt Romney's endorsement, nor is Mitt Romney going to offer his endorsement.

CUPP: This is almost like a veep pick, right? He's using Sarah Palin to address deficiencies.

BORGER: There you go.

CUPP: On his campaign. Not saying she will be the veep pick for him.

BLITZER: She has some experience. She has experience.

CHALIAN: Also double down on the brand.

CUPP: Yes. Double down on the brand.

CHALIAN: Right. That happens with a V.P. pick also.

CUPP: And to use her as a surrogate, in ways that where she's more convincing.

HENDERSON: With women? Against the establishment. We'll have to see, who does she go after? Is it Cruz? Does she go after Rubio? You know, I mean, it's sort of -- it's a force multiplier, I think, for Donald Trump.

BORGER: I think she goes after political correctness and says she stands with Donald Trump against political correctness, and that is what Donald Trump...

CUPP: And let's not forget she will be very useful against Hillary in ways that Donald Trump cannot talk about Hillary Clinton. She really can. I mean, she can get away with a lot more than he can, I think, and do it in a way that isn't offensive to women, potentially.

BLITZER: I see, so you seem -- you seem to be implying that maybe there's a possibility, like John McCain takes Sarah Palin as his running mate, Donald Trump may think about picking Sarah Palin as his running mate if he gets the nomination.

CUPP: Well, what I always say is it's not who he will pick, it's who will do it. Right? And I don't know. Maybe Sarah Palin would do it.

BORGER: Just raised her hand.

CUPP: Who knows, who knows? We could -- we could have 2008 all over again.

CHALIAN: And it's no accident that this happened just as some conservative talk radio hosts started sort of backing Ted Cruz and then having some comments to make about Donald Trump. These -- these -- this comes -- the timing of this, I think, is pretty...

CUPP: Masterful.

CHALIAN: ... for Donald Trump...

BLITZER: Because historically, the last 13 days before the Iowa caucuses, a lot of undecided people are making up their minds.

CHALIAN: That's right. People are starting to pay attention in the most intense way and really thinking about this every day. It's part of the kitchen-table conversation. And to have this come just as some questions were being raised on the conservative side, I think is as good a timing of an endorsement.

BLITZER: We'll be listening carefully. We're going to hear from Sarah Palin. We're going to hear from Donald Trump at this rally in Iowa.

Jeff Zeleny, you've been covering this for a long time. Let's look beyond Iowa. The impact of Sarah Palin's endorsement of Donald Trump in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada, some of the other early states.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I think the impact is actually pretty significant. I'm not sure about New Hampshire as much, but I think going beyond that.

If you look at the geography of a lot of these states here, certainly Sarah Palin has a good and big following in South Carolina, in some of those so-called SEC primary states.

As this moves on into March, which obviously it's going to. Sarah Palin is a good ambassador for Donald Trump into some of these areas where she's more relatable in a cultural sense, on hunting, on guns, on other things. I mean, Donald Trump is still, you know, convincing some of these voters that he is, in fact, on their side.

So I think that she is good in that respect. And I am told by a close friend of Governor Palin's who lives in Iowa, who has spoken with her today, that Sarah Palin and her husband, Todd, will in fact, campaign in Iowa again for Donald Trump in the next 13 days. They say that they are at his disposal as much as he wants. So we'll see how much he wants her campaigning there.

So I think it is significant here in Iowa, as well as beyond as this campaign is going to go on into, you know, who knows how long as it becomes a delegate fight into March.

BLITZER: We're going to go back to Sara Murray at the event where Sarah Palin will endorse, formally endorse, publicly endorse the Republican presidential frontrunner, Donald Trump. Do we know the format? Will she introduce Donald Trump? Will he introduce her? Have they given you any guidance on the step by step, what's about to happen?

MURRAY: They haven't given us a lot of guidance yet on the schedule. It possible they'll come out together. It's possible that Donald Trump will call her up.

And you know what's interesting here, Wolf, people are still filing in. We're about a half an hour from when this event is supposed to start. It's still not a full room. I have to imagine that that is going to change rapidly in the next 30 minutes or, in true Trump fashion, they're going to wait until this room is filled to bring Sarah Palin out.

And like I said, it's not just today that she's going to be out on the campaign trail. She's going to be out with Donald Trump in Tulsa tomorrow, as well. And like Jeff Zeleny was just saying, it's not just about Iowa and New Hampshire. It's about how Sarah Palin can rally the base when you get into some of those southern states. And we might get our first real taste of that tomorrow in Tulsa.

BLITZER: I assume, Sarah, that a lot of people in Ames, Iowa, where you are, want to see and hear Donald Trump. But now, they're getting word that Sarah Palin is going to be there, as well. That's going to bring in more -- more people to listen to this event, I assume, right?

MURRAY: I think that's definitely possible. As you know, the news just broke officially within, you know, the last hour, but we've been talking about this all day. People have been speculating about it all day.

And so I'm sure if you were even someone who was thinking about going to this event, the fact that you're getting two celebrities for the price of one is what sort of got you off the couch on a very cold day here in Iowa to come out tonight. So we'll have to see how big this crowd is, as things get rolling in the next half hour.

BLITZER: David Chalian, the polls in Iowa have shown a very, very tight race between Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. That's basically, in Iowa, at least a two-man race.

CHALIAN: It is right now, although we'll be paying attention who that third person is, because I think we'll be looking at that establishment lane. But it is a two-man race in Iowa. And you were right, it's close.

I think what we see in the polls in Iowa now is that the big question hanging over this is, are reliable, regular caucus goers who have done this year after year after year just this sort of universe of people that show up? Or does Donald Trump, as he has brought something new to this presidential campaign, bring a whole swath of new voters, new caucus goers to turn up on that cold February night?

And if that's the case, which would not surprise, I think, any of us sitting here, that Donald Trump has actually ignited something that is new, if those new voters show up, Donald Trump is going to be in a really strong position on caucus night.

Every campaign -- I was talking with Dr. Carson. Dr. Carson believes he's going to bring out new voters that we haven't counted yet in the -- in the Iowa caucuses. Donald Trump says he's going to do it.

Ted Cruz says he's going to bring out a different voter. Rubio believes he's going to bring out some establishment folks who probably haven't participated as much before.

CHALIAN: Is more than the traditional makeup of the Republican electorate.

BORGER: Exactly. And 57 percent of Iowa caucus goers in 2012, self- identify as evangelical or born-again. And this is what Trump has been trying desperately for over the last couple of days, and I think Palin may help him a little bit.

CUPP: If you're Rubio, you hope that maybe all of that is split up between all of these figures, Carson, getting some share of that, Donald Trump getting some share of it and Ted Cruz. And then you can eke in at least third, if not second or first.

It's so frustrating for us because, really, the only metrics we have are these polls, right, to determine where Iowa where we are nationally with these candidates. And it's such a self-selecting group of people who answer landline phones and, you know, from pollsters. So I think Iowa and New Hampshire will give us our first actual, accurate indication of where Republican voters are in ways that I think, you know, we haven't -- we haven't really got our finger on thus far.

HENDERSON: And I think if you're Cruz, Iowa is much more important to you than it is to Trump. I mean, he has to win Iowa, which is why you see people like Branstad trying to block his path and Trump, as well.

BORGER: Trump doesn't like to lose.

BLITZER: All right, guys. Don't go away. There's a lot of other political news we're following, including these new CNN/WMUR poll numbers in New Hampshire, pretty surprising numbers, I must say, on the Democratic front. Scottie Hughes is also standing by. She's about to join us. She's a major Donald Trump supporter. Much more coming up right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're following breaking news in the presidential race. Sarah Palin formally, publicly, endorsing Donald Trump for the Republican presidential nomination. We're standing by to hear from both of them at a rally in Iowa. We will have live coverage here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

[17:30:50] Let's get some more on the race right now. Donald Trump supporter and Tea Party leader, Scottie Hughes, is joining us. She's also chief political correspondent for USA Radio Networks. Scottie, thanks very much.

Will Sarah Palin, she'll be announcing this shortly. How much of a difference do you believe this is going to make?

SCOTTIE HUGHES, CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, USA RADIO NETWORKS: Well, I think honestly, Wolf, it's huge, to be honest with you. Because right now, what Donald Trump needed was to have a bump with the evangelicals within Iowa, and nobody speaks better to that base than Sarah Palin herself.

Granted over the past few years, he's not necessarily as dominant as she was when she first came out, but make no mistake: people do trust her.

Now, I love your commentary. Your panel is exactly on, correct as this being a positive thing. But this is something that was going to be obvious, Wolf. This was going to happen. Nobody has been beaten up, has been taken apart and literally taken to the woodshed more than Sarah Palin by what she considers to be the mainstream media and the establishment in Washington, D.C.

Nobody else is willing to stand up to them like Mr. Trump. So this was an obvious match that was going to be made. The question was the timing. And the timing could not be more perfect for Sarah Palin and Donald Trump both.

BLITZER: Comes on the same day that the governor of Iowa, the Republican, Terry Branstad, basically said -- he said it flatly, I should say, "Don't vote for Ted Cruz." He didn't endorse Donald Trump, didn't endorse anyone, but he said Ted Cruz should not be the Republican presidential nominee. Were you surprised by that?

HUGHES: I was surprised, but I also don't think that's the way we need to be handling that within the conservative base. Right now, you are seeing a big divide happen between the people who support both candidates. And I think we need to be taking the token right now, instead of sitting here and making our candidate rise up by pushing the other one down, maybe just talking about what's best about our candidate without destroying the other.

Here's the other thing people don't realize, is this not just about the principles and the policies. This is also about the people involved. The people who are surprised that Sarah Palin went with Mr. Trump, they shouldn't be. Michael Glassner, who's the political director for Mr. Trump, was also the chief of stuff for Sarah PAC back in 2011. There is long ties between the staffs between the two campaigns.

So this is not just something that might have happened overnight or last-minute attempt to try to get Iowa voters out to polls for Mr. Trump. This is something that's been developing probably even before Mr. Trump made his formal announcement becoming the nominee for the GOP nomination.

BLITZER: Having said that, Scottie, you make some good points, obviously, but remember Sarah Palin was elevated to the main stage eight years ago by the very man Donald Trump said was not a war hero, referring to John McCain. Trump said he's not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren't captured.

But McCain obviously does not have a good relationship with Donald Trump. They clearly don't like each other. But McCain's vice- presidential running mate now endorses Donald Trump. That was a little bit surprising.

HUGHES: Not necessarily. I think Sarah Palin -- Ms. Palin's been very, very loyal to Mr. -- Senator McCain through all of this. And in fact, her biggest loyalty majority of conservatives would like to see her run against Senator McCain in Arizona where she now resides.

But she's not going to do that. She stayed out of the race pretty much in 2012. She didn't endorse any of the conservatives. And now I think it was time she said, "You know what? I think I'm going to see a winner from my house, and that winner looks like Mr. Trump."

BLITZER: Scottie Hughes, thanks very much for joining us. Thank you. Scottie Hughes reporting, helping us appreciate the enormity of what's going on in the race in Iowa right now.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:38:47] BLITZER: We'll continue to follow the breaking news, Sarah Palin about to formally publicly endorse Donald Trump for president of the United States. We're going to have coverage of that. That's coming up soon from Ames, Iowa.

But there's other important news we're following, as well. One of the Americans freed in the deal with Iran is now speaking out about his years of captivity and the harrowing hours leading up to his release.

Our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, has some new behind-the-scenes details of how this all came together, this prisoner swap.

Jim, what are you learning?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: That's right. We got our first firsthand account of this deal today, of course, from Amir Hekmati, one of the prisoners. But also from Bret McGurk. He is the U.S. diplomat who negotiated the Americans' release over 14 difficult months. He told us he was ready to call the whole thing off in the final hours as Iran blocked two crucial passengers from that flight to freedom.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO (voice-over): Jason Rezaian, in the first video since his release, seen laughing with his wife.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Happy.

SCIUTTO: Still Amir Hekmati, the first of the freed Americans to speak, says their detention ended only after one final night of fear and uncertainty.

AMIR HEKMATI, FORMER IRANIAN HOSTAGE: Up until the last second we were all worried and concerned. We were just put in a very small room, and we had no telephone or access to any information, we kept being told that we're be taking off in two hours and two became six, became ten. So a total of almost 2 1/2 days. It was really nerve- wracking

SCIUTTO: Bret McGurk, the American diplomat who negotiated the Americans' release over 14 months of secret talks, told us the first sign of trouble that evening was when he and his team could not locate Rezaian's wife and mother.

BRET MCGURK, AMERICAN DIPLOMAT: That was actually very concerning. So we stopped the whole thing.

SCIUTTO: Turns out they were being held on their own without any communication in a part of Tehran's airport controlled by the military.

MCGURK: They said no. They said the entire thing is off unless they're on the airplane.

SCIUTTO (on camera): It would have killed the deal if Jason's mother and wife were not on the plane.

MCGURK: Part of the deal, I mean, Yeganeh Rezaian was in the deal, so that's part of the deal. Period.

SCIUTTO: Do you think the Iranians were trying to change the terms? What were they trying to do?

MCGURK: It's unclear. I think there's a lot -- there's a lot of people in the Iranian system and the people who hold the keys to the prison cells that never wanted this to happen. SCIUTTO (voice-over): McGurk was not convinced the deal was back on

until the Swiss ambassador, America's diplomatic representative in Iran, narrated the scene second by second by telephone.

MCGURK: He then was on the tarmac and described the van approaching the airplane, couldn't see in the windows, and you know the doors opened and one by one, he explained that it was Jason's wife, his mother, Jason, Amir, and Saeed and described one by one getting in the plane, which was the key moment for us, and that was kind of the trigger for us. So I'll never forget his voice in my ear.

SCIUTTO: In fact, McGurk says the talks almost fell apart several times including this moment in October when McGurk, whose public role included only the war on ISIS, showed up unexpected on nuclear talks with Iran in Vienna. But again, hope disappeared.

MCGURK: And we did make a lot of progress with series (ph) there, but then when I got back together with my counterparts they kind of went back to square one.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO: I've spoken to other diplomats involved in these negotiations who described the urgency of the Americans' cases including this, fears that Jason Rezaian faced punishments not just of a long prison sentence but also, and this is alarming, the possibility of a death sentence -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Joining us now, the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, Adel al-Jubeir.

Foreign Minister, thank you very much for joining us. The Iran nuclear deal, as you know, has been implemented. We spoke last year. You told me, Saudi Arabia would not necessarily rule out the possibility of acquiring nuclear bomb for whatever reason, given the concerns from Iran. Is Saudi Arabia now pursuing that nuclear option?

ADEL AL-JUBEIR, SAUDI FOREIGN MINISTER: Wolf, I think there has been a lot of disinformation spread by the Iranian foreign minister when he said that Saudi Arabia is actively lobbying against this deal and that we're against it. The position of my government is that we will support any deal that prevents Iran from acquiring nuclear capability, that has a robust and continuous inspection regime and that has not backed provisions (ph).

We were assured by the -- President Obama that this was, in fact, the case. And as a consequence we supported the deal. The concern that we have is what Iran will do with the windfalls in terms of additional revenue it generates as a result of the lifting of some of the sanctions.

Our concern is that that will be used to support terrorism and to spread instability in the region. Our concern is that it will not be used to develop the country and improve the lot of the Iranian people who desperately need to develop their country.

BLITZER: So is -- but just to be precise, is Saudi Arabia abandoning any possibility of a nuclear option?

AL-JUBEIR: Wolf, I would not discuss these things in a public forum, certainly not on television. The kingdom of Saudi Arabia is committed to two things. I always say two things we do not negotiate over, our faith and our security. Saudi Arabia will do whatever it takes in order to protect our nation and our people from any harm. And I will leave it at that.

BLITZER: Because when I spoke with Secretary Kerry. We discussed the possibility -- the reports out there that Saudi Arabia potentially could go shopping for a bomb, maybe in Pakistan.

You were just in Pakistan. Did you discuss nuclear cooperation with the Pakistanis?

AL-JUBEIR: I discussed the bilateral relationship with Pakistan, which is a strategic one. We discussed the regional situation. We discussed ways to promote security and stability in the region. And we discussed the negative and aggressive Iranian interference and the affairs of the region.

BLITZER: So the issue of Pakistan potentially providing nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia, did that come up?

AL-JUBEIR: I am not going to get into details of discussions we have with -- with foreign governments, and certainly not allied governments, Wolf. I'm sure you understand.

BLITZER: There are a lot of suggestions that many friendly countries to the United States, Sunni Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, others have lost confidence in the United States.

[17:45:05] Have you lost confidence in the United States?

AL-JUBEIR: We have -- we don't have confidence in Iran. We have confidence in the United States.

BLITZER: What do you need -- what do you want Iran to do now to restore diplomatic relations?

AL-JUBEIR: Very simple. Iran should seize interfering in the affairs of the countries of the region. Iran should cease to support terrorism. Iran should cease to assassinate diplomats and blow up embassies. Iran should cease to support militias whose objective is to destabilize countries in the region. Iran should cease its policy of negative propaganda in the region. Other than that, things should be fine with Iran.

BLITZER: Are you OK with the billions of dollars that Iran is about to get as a result of the nuclear deal?

AL-JUBEIR: Wolf, I think most countries in the world are not OK with it. I think most countries in the world are concerned that Iran will use these funds in order to fund its nefarious activities rather than use them to develop its country and improve the living standards of its people. I hope I'm wrong.

BLITZER: Foreign Minister, we have a lot more to discuss. We are only just getting started. Please stand by.

We'll take a quick break. Much more with the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, Adel al-Jubeir, right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: And joining us again, the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, Adel al-Jubeir.

Foreign minister, you write in "The New York Times" about how Iran is promoting terrorism, but for you this is also very personal. And you mentioned this in the article. You -- the Iranians, through an agent in Washington, tried to kill you. Do you have confidence that this Iran deal now will work and that you no longer will be on their hit list?

AL-JUBEIR: Wolf, I've said before when you asked me about this question that this is not personal. This is not about me. This is about my nation, this is about my region. This is about a country that is aggressive in its policies that has -- had no inhibitions in using terrorism. This is a country that occupied the American embassy in Iran for 444 days, including taking American diplomats hostage.

This is a country that has blown up the American embassy in Beirut, killed the U.S. Marines at Beirut International Airport, killed French soldiers in Lebanon.

[17:50:01] This is a country that has blown up embassies, that has assassinated diplomats, including three Saudi diplomats, in Thailand. This is a country that's implicated in the Khobar Tower bombings. In fact, it's planned it and its officials directed it, and the people who perpetrated this crime moved to Iran and have been sheltered by Iran for the past 20 years.

This is a country that harbors the leadership of al Qaeda, including one of Osama bin Laden's sons. This is a country that has no inhibitions about engaging or supporting terrorism, death and destruction. This is a country that has provided troops and recruited troops in a sectarian war in Syria that has allowed Bashar al-Assad to murder more than 250,000 of his people and to render 12 million of them refugees or displaced persons.

So if you put all this together, that's where the problem is, that's where the lack of confidence is. It's not about me.

BLITZER: Minister, let's talk about the Shiite cleric who was executed, beheaded, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and 46 others on the eve of the nuclear deal. The suspicion was that the timing of this was designed in part to undermine that deal. Was it?

AL-JUBEIR: Absolutely not. Nimr al-Nimr is not a religious scholar, he's a terrorist. He's as much of a religious scholar as Osama bin Laden was. Nimr al-Nimr was a man who recruited, he justified, he funded, he equipped, he plotted and he engaged in terrorist attacks that left a number of security personnel dead. He was caught in the middle of a raid, and so he was jailed. He went to -- he was sent to court. The decision went from the courts to the appellate court to the Supreme Court. He was found guilty and he was punished, and that's the end of it.

BLITZER: The criticism, though, of Saudi Arabia, as you know, Foreign Minister, is that the Saudi Arabia beheadings is what ISIS does. They behead individuals as well. And there's been a negative light shined on your country as a result. Any second thoughts?

AL-JUBEIR: Well, Wolf, I think people tend to be too superficial. We have the death penalty. So does the United States. If we were to use the same methods that the United States uses and then tomorrow ISIS decides to use those same methods, does that mean that they got it from us? Does this mean we have to change our method again? The death penalty is part of our legal system, and people who commit crimes that lead to the death of the innocent are punished.

And this is something that the world has to respect just like we respect the laws of other countries, including countries that do not have the death penalty.

With regards to the numbers, the 47 people who are put to death, I think that if a United States Air Force had bombed 47 ISIS members, including those who decapitated and killed the Americans in one day, I think people would be cheering on the streets.

BLITZER: The price of oil is now, what, under $30 a barrel. There are concerns this has to do with Saudi Arabia's manipulation of the oil markets. How low are you willing to let the price of oil go?

AL-JUBEIR: Well, first of all, Wolf, I think I want to clarify that the oil price is determined by supply and demand in the market, and the -- there was an oversupply in the market because of production or overproduction in a number of countries that led to a drop in the price. And Saudi Arabia refused to cut its production in order to support high-price producers because this would have just set the stage for a drop in both prices and volumes down the road.

And so we let the market determine where the equilibrium should be, and what we're seeing now is the market price.

BLITZER: The allegation against Saudi Arabia is as the prices going down, A, you want to hurt Iran, which is clearly an adversary of yours, also to stop the development of alternative energy sources. Your reaction to that?

AL-JUBEIR: I think that people should go back to Adam Smith and basic economics. It's about supply and demand. You cannot manipulate the market and be able to do so consistently. And so if you let market forces play out, then the equilibrium is set naturally. But if you try to manipulate it one way or another, eventually, you overshoot or you undershoot and you pay a tremendous price for it.

I think there is a lot of speculation and a lot of theorizing about why something is happening, and it reminds me of the conspiracy theories we have in the Middle East. In the Middle East the conspiracy theories have to do with what the great powers are doing. In the West, the conspiracy theories have to do with what the oil powers are doing.

BLITZER: The Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia, Adel al-Jubeir. Foreign Minister, thank you very much for joining us.

AL-JUBEIR: Thank you. Always a pleasure, Wolf.

BLITZER: He is joining us from Riyadh in Saudi Arabia.

[17:55:03] Coming up, we'll get back to what's happening in the world of politics. We're standing by for Donald Trump's rally in Iowa. He'll have a special guest with him, Sarah Palin. There she is. She's getting ready to publicly endorse Donald Trump for president.

And we also have study, new poll numbers in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. Senator Bernie Sanders, he's surging ahead of Hillary Clinton, surging in New Hampshire.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news, bombshell endorsement. The former vice presidential nominee and Tea Party favorite, Sarah Palin, endorsing Donald Trump for president of the United States just hours after Trump rival Ted Cruz gets slammed by the Republican governor of Iowa.

Trump and Palin appearing together tonight in a rally that's about to get under way. We'll have live coverage. Will Sarah Palin's backing for Trump over the top in the critical Iowa caucuses?

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.