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Sanders Meets With Obama; Trump Skipping Debate; Interview With Arizona Senator John McCain; Cruz's Wife Reacts to Trump's Insults; Obama Visits Israeli Embassy to Honor Holocaust Hero; Trump to Skip GOP Debate; Cruz's Wife Reacts to Trump's Insults. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired January 27, 2016 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, breaking news: hounding the FOX, Donald Trump announcing details of his plan to draw away potential viewers from the FOX presidential debate he's boycotting, the Republican front-runner waging open war right now with the network and taunting the moderator, Megyn Kelly. Could Trump's absence upend the Republican presidential race?

Bern notice. Bernie Sanders meeting privately with President Obama at the White House for only the second time, their Oval Office huddle coming as Sanders runs neck and neck with Hillary Clinton in Iowa? Why is the president reaching out to Senator Sanders now?

Libyan front. Tonight, we have new information about the possible movement of U.S. troops into Libya, where the ISIS presence is growing, thousands of terrorists forces believed to be building a new stronghold. Is American military action imminent?

American hero. President Obama at the Israeli Embassy in Washington to honor a Christian soldier who defied a Nazi officer to save his Jewish comrades during World War II. Is President Obama's unprecedented visit an effort to repair relations with one of America's most important Middle East allies?

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're following breaking news, Donald Trump now revealing specific details of the event he's planned for tomorrow night in Iowa in an effort to draw potential viewers away from the FOX presidential debate he's boycotting.

The GOP front-runner now in an open war with the network, protesting the role of FOX anchor Megyn Kelly as debate moderator, taunting her on social media.

We're also following the growing concern right now over ISIS in Libya and the Pentagon edging toward taking some military action against the thousands of terrorist forces now believed to be in that country. We will talk about all of that, and much more with our guests,

including the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator John McCain. And our correspondents and expert analysts, they are also standing by.

Let's begin with the escalating feud between Donald Trump and FOX News.

CNN's Sunlen Serfaty is in Iowa for us tonight.

Sunlen, Trump isn't even in the state right now. Instead, he's campaigning in South Carolina.

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. And the Trump campaign moments ago just making this official. As the debate starts tomorrow night, Donald Trump will be at his own venue just two miles away. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think they could do a lot better than Megyn Kelly.

SERFATY (voice-over): The GOP front-runner going rogue.

TRUMP: I probably won't bother doing the debate. I see they picked me as number one, not only number one, but number one by far. But, probably, I won't be doing the debate.

SERFATY: Donald Trump claiming unfair treatment from FOX News and its moderator Megyn Kelly, the Trump campaign saying no bluffing here, Trump will not be at Thursday's debate.

TRUMP: I said bye-bye.

SERFATY: Trump is now pushing ahead with his only counterprogramming.

TRUMP: We will have our own event.

SERFATY: What he claims will be a televised event in Des Moines, Iowa, to raise money for wounded veterans, the same night in the same city as the debate.

FOX News saying they -- quote -- "can't give in to terrorizations towards any of our employees," insisting Trump is still welcome at the debate, but he can't dictate the moderators or the questions.

The Trump campaign isn't budging.

COREY LEWANDOWSKI, TRUMP CAMPAIGN MANAGER: My guess is that people who bought advertising time thinking that Donald Trump was going to be on that stage are going to be very disappointed when nobody decides to watch that GOP debate tomorrow night.

SERFATY: And Trump is returning even more fire, calling the network a disgrace to good broadcasting and journalism and renewing his taunts of Megyn Kelly, tweeting that he refuses to call Megyn Kelly a bimbo, because that would not be politically correct. "Instead, I will only call her a lightweight reporter."

Ted Cruz is looking to turn the feud to his advantage, sending out a fund-raising e-mail to supporters depicting Trump as money-loving Scrooge McDuck for ducking out on the debate.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Apparently, Megyn Kelly is really, really scary. Donald is a fragile soul.

SERFATY: And issuing this challenge to his rival in front of Iowa voters.

CRUZ: If he's unwilling to stand on the debate stage with the other candidates, then I would like to invite Donald right now to engage in a one-on-one debate with me any time between now and the Iowa caucuses.


SERFATY: And the Cruz campaign tonight are quickly recalibrating their debate strategy to adjust to this new reality of tomorrow night's debate. Wolf, they say that there is this very real awareness within the campaign that now their candidate up there on the debate stage has a target on him. He has a lot to gain or potentially to lose -- Wolf.


BLITZER: Good point. All right, Sunlen. Thanks very much.

We want to dig a little bit deeper right now into the success so far of Donald Trump's extraordinary campaign.

So, CNN talked to more than 150 people in 31 cities to try to find out what is driving this Trump phenomenon.

Our CNN political reporter Sara Murray is also in Iowa for us tonight.

Sara, in some respects, it's a very diverse group. What did we find?

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. They're young, they're old, they're farmers, they're teachers, but above all, they are concerned about the state of our country, whether it's the economy, national security or, of course, immigration.

All of that is helping to fuel Donald Trump's rise.


CURT HANDSCHUG, TRUMP SUPPORTER: I actually voted for Barack Obama four years ago. Biggest mistake of my life. Now it's either -- it's Donald Trump or nobody.

MURRAY (voice-over): In an extraordinary election year, Donald Trump is drawing them by the thousands.

TRUMP: I want to show the tremendous crowds that we get. It's not really a silent majority. It's a noisy as hell majority.

MURRAY: Frustrated voters, mostly white, unhappy with elites from both parties and the media, and fearful of immigrants taking their place. Above all, they are longing for an America that used to be.

TRUMP: We are going to make America great again. I love you.

MURRAY: Their distrust of President Obama runs deep. Some question whether he's a Christian, others whether he was born in the U.S.

PATRICIA SAUNDERS, TRUMP SUPPORTER: I just think he is pro-black. I don't know. I hate to say he's a racist, but I really believe he is.

MURRAY: Some sense racial tension in America, but believe it's white Americans facing discrimination.

SAUNDERS: White Americans founded this country, but we are being pushed aside because of the present administration and the media, the liberal media.

MURRAY: They feel left out of the economic recovery and worry about immigrants taking their jobs and getting ahead at Americans' expense.

HANDSCHUG: We do have an immigration problem in this country. It lowers the wages across the board when you got people that come here and work under the table.

MURRAY: And in the wake of terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, they are nervous.

SAUNDERS: And 999 of them could be good people. It only takes one terrorist to blow this whole place up.

MURRAY: Trump's explosive rhetoric speaks to those anxieties, labeling undocumented immigrants as dangerous criminals.

TRUMP: They are bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.

MURRAY: Even suggesting America ban Muslims.

TRUMP: Calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.

MURRAY: He's taken what was once seen as impolite conversation and made it socially acceptable to come. But his crowds are also raucous and sometimes violent. Trump's words have garnered a following.

TRUMP: There's a movement.

MURRAY: But there are millions who don't agree with him. They have their own fears.

ALI ALI, MUSLIM-AMERICAN DEMOCRAT: Being Muslim today is not easy. They are doing to Muslims today what they have done to Jews in 1938.


MURRAY: Wolf, there's no doubt that Donald Trump has already drawn far more support than we ever expected in this Republican primary. But the risk for him is that he turns off people like the last man we heard from there, that he turns off some Democrats, some independents and even some Republicans.

And that could hamper his success if he is the nominee in a general election -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Sara Murray, thanks for that report.

I want to get some more now.

Joining us, Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona. He's the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, also sits on the Homeland Security Committee. He was the Republican presidential nominee back in 2008.

Senator, thanks very much for joining us.

So, I want to get your quick reaction to what we just heard.

What do you think of this Trump phenomenon?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I think there's anger out there, Wolf, and I think there's frustration. Millions of Americans stopped looking for work. So many middle-class Americans have not seen any real improvement in their lives. In fact, in some cases, higher expenses and more difficult times.

There's always been a vain out there, of course, that worries about immigration, et cetera. It's been there for a long period of time. so he's tapped into that. But it's there and those of us who have

held public office had better understand it.

BLITZER: What do you think of his decision not to attend that Republican presidential debate on FOX tomorrow night?

MCCAIN: Well, I think, first of all, that anyone who is running for office and gets to pick who the moderator is, that's the destruction of free press as we -- as we know.


And, second of all, I think that part of it is to blame the media, they've basically given him a free pass. He calls in on the Sunday talk shows. He decides which programs he's on and which he isn't. He is now -- makes all these -- he's able to fill the room and take all the oxygen out of it at the same time.

And so the media, I think, in their desperation to have him on all the time to increase ratings has probably given him the confidence that he can decide to do what we call veterans event.

By the way, I wish he were not using a veterans event as a way to further his own political agenda.

BLITZER: Yes, he's -- he's just announced, by the way, and we just got the details, tomorrow night, exactly at 9:00 p.m. Eastern, when the FOX presidential debate begins, he will be at Drake University in Des Moines, Sheslow Auditorium, a special event to benefit veterans organizations timed exactly when that Republican debate.

You support veterans. I assume you think at least that's a good idea, right?

MCCAIN: Well, I -- if he weren't using it for political purposes, the -- which is clearly what it is. And, by the way, I believe that Megyn Kelly is an outstanding journalist.

But whether she is or not, that a candidate can decide who the questioners are, it would be a breakdown, obviously, as you would know, of the system as we know it. The integrity of all journalists would be compromised if this kind of action is allowed.

BLITZER: Do you think it will hurt or help his campaign, the fact that he's going to boycott that debate?

MCCAIN: You know, Wolf, I've been wrong every time, so I'm very reluctant to say, except that I believe that, at some point, the American voters and Republican voters are going to look at the result of many of the things that Mr. Trump has said. For example, if you're going to deport 11 million people, shouldn't we know how that happens?

If you're going to make the Mexican government pay for it, how does that happen?

All these pronouncements and then there's no follow-up from the media. And he just says, don't worry, I'll get it done.

That's not a satisfactory answer. I think Republican voters and all voters deserve specific answers to commitments that Mr. Trump has been making. And I don't think that's an outrageous kind of demand.

BLITZER: The two front-runners, at least for now, Donald Trump and Senator Ted Cruz, who would you rather see as your party's nominee?

MCCAIN: Oh, I can't make that judgment, Wolf. I'm staying out of it. I have my own tough race to run, so I'm not -- I can't -- I will make no selection there.

BLITZER: So you're not going to endorse anyone, at least for now?

MCCAIN: No, I'm not.

BLITZER: Because your -- your friend Lindsey Graham, as we know, endorsed Jeb Bush. But you're staying away from that?

MCCAIN: I have my own tough race to run and anybody who's up for reelection and doesn't take it very seriously isn't very smart. And so I'm running my own race and working hard and I wish them luck. BLITZER: You've said it's -- quote -- "worth looking into" Senator Cruz's eligibility to run for president since he was actually born in Canada.

Do you believe he is a natural-born citizen?

MCCAIN: Yes, I do.

But I just like I knew that I was a natural-born citizen as well, and it was investigated in my case, just as my medical records were investigated.

So, it's a -- I mean it's worth -- of course you have to look into these things and be -- if for no other reason, to make sure that it's not challenged successfully once you get too far down the path.

But I certainly assume that he is a natural-born citizen.

BLITZER: There was a Monmouth University poll of Republicans nationwide and asked -- they asked if Senator Cruz was a natural -- is eligible to be president. Sixty-five percent said yes, 12 percent said no, 24 percent said they were unsure. A third either said no or unsure.

How do you -- how do you resolve that once and for all right now?

MCCAIN: Well, that's exactly why I said it needed to be looked into, to resolve those questions that are remaining. I think the first thing you might do is to consult a respected constitutional scholar and have that individual render a judgment that everybody supports.

In my case, in 2008, a resolution was passed 100-0 in the Senate saying that I was eligible to be the president of the United States.

I think that kind of action -- and I think it could be done very easily.

BLITZER: Because the difference was you were born in the Panama Canal Zone, but that was a U.S. territory at that time. It was a U.S. military base. Your father was in the Navy. He was an admiral.

He was born in Calgary, not on a U.S. military base, not on U.S. territory. So you see that as a difference?


MCCAIN: I think there's a difference but I -- I still think the interpretation of natural-born means your family, and I assume, and my judgment is that he is certainly eligible.

But when you see that large a percentage as you just mentioned, of Americans who aren't sure, let's just get it resolved. It would be easy enough to do.

BLITZER: I guess that's what Donald Trump has said, too, get it resolved so there's no cloud hovering over him. Quickly on Sarah Palin, your vice presidential running mate back in 2008, she -- as you saw on the national stage, she has endorsed Donald Trump, even though he said some nasty things about you, suggesting you're not a war hero. He says people -- he doesn't see heroes as people who were captured, held as POWs.

What does that say that Sarah Palin, your running mate, has now endorsed Trump?

MCCAIN: Oh, I respect and admire and have great affection for Sarah.

I -- many of my friends and people who I am -- supported and support me have endorsed Trump or Cruz. I mean, this is life in politics. I respect her decision and her views.

BLITZER: What about the former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg?

You and he have had a pretty good relationship. I'm told he introduced you at a rally back in 20 -- in 2008. You campaigned for him back in 2001.

If he were to run for president, do you think you could endorse him? Would you like him to run for president?

MCCAIN: Oh, I think that's a decision that only Michael Bloomberg can make. I am supporting the nominee of the Republican Party. So I really don't know how quickly he's going to decide. But it certainly is an interesting scenario.

Anybody with -- what was it I read today, $44 billion, is -- and also, he has a record, a good job as running for mayor of New York.

I'm supporting the nominee of the Republican Party.

BLITZER: Senator, we have a lot more to discuss.


BLITZER: I want you to stay with us.

We've got some major national security issues to discuss, as well.


BLITZER: Much more with the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Senator John McCain, right after this.



BLITZER: We're back with the Republican senator, John McCain, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, a member of the Homeland Security Committee.

We're going to talk to him a little bit more about new signals the U.S. is edging toward military action against ISIS forces in Libya.

First, let's get some details from our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.

Barbara, you're getting this new information. What are you learning?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, tonight, the Pentagon is opening talking about growing U.S. military involvement in Libya,. one of the most sensitive subjects, preparing to fight the growing ISIS presence in that North African country.

And the question is, what are U.S. troops doing, and why have they already been there.

The Pentagon spokesman had this to say.


PETER COOK, PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY: They have made contact with people on the ground try and get a better sense of not only the threat that ISIL poses there, but the dynamic on the ground in terms of the security situation.


STARR: Now, you will recall -- look at this picture -- this is a picture that emerged last month, U.S. troops in plainclothes inside Libya.

They landed at a base. They came in, but they encountered a local militia that did not like the fact they had been were and ordered them out. That was some of the first photographic evidence of U.S. troops on the ground.

But it was just a few days ago, however, that other steps began to emerge, chairman of the Joint Chiefs talking about the need for defensive military action, and the Pentagon today openly acknowledging they are looking at military options -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Barbara, thank you.

I want to get reaction from Senator McCain, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee.

What do you think, Senator?

U.S. military personnel going into Libya, which is now completely a failed state, are you OK with that?

MCCAIN: Well, I'm OK with us trying to stop ISIS, which is metastasizing, not only there, but in other parts of -- even down into Africa, as you know.

But this is another case where the chickens have come home to roost. After we got rid of Gadhafi, we completely walked away. If we had of walked away from Germany and Japan after World War II, it would be very different, if we had walked away from Korea, where we still have 38,000 troops, if we had walked away from Bosnia.

We won. We killed Gadhafi and we walked away. And we did nothing and allowed -- so many of us predicted that this would happen. It's another case of failed American leadership.

So, yes, you have to go after ISIS. But I'm telling you, they are metastasizing and will be in other countries besides Libya.

BLITZER: Senator, I know you're angry that the U.S. -- and I just learned about this, thanks to you today -- the U.S. is going to spend millions and millions of dollars, maybe hundreds of millions of dollars, to purchase Russian rocket engines to help launch U.S. satellites into space.

Here's the question, though. Is there a U.S.-based alternative?

MCCAIN: Yes, there is. There's a more expensive rocket in being.

And we have a number of organizations, including SpaceX and others, that are working on rocket engines themselves. While we were subsidizing, believe it or not, this outfit called ULA, by -- to the tune of $800 million a year just to stay in business, it's the classic military industrial congressional complex that has disillusioned so many Americans about defense spending.

And it was done, by the way, in the middle of the night by the Appropriations Committee after -- in the Authorizing Committee, of which I am the chairman, we went through hearings, we went through debates, we went through votes, and we put it into the bill and they negated that in the middle of the night.


And then you wonder why Americans are fed up with Washington?

BLITZER: Aren't there sanctions against Russia in the aftermath of their taking over Crimea that would prevent this?

MCCAIN: There should have been.

But some of the people who are profiting by it, who are in the corporation that is selling these rocket motor engines, they have been sanctioned by the United States. They're a bunch of thugs and cronies of Vladimir Putin, some of them ex-KGB. It's amazing.

BLITZER: Senator McCain, thanks very much for joining us.

MCCAIN: Thank you.

BLITZER: John McCain is the chairman of the Armed Services Committee.

Just ahead, we will have more on the escalating war between Donald Trump and FOX News. Who has more to lose from the GOP front-runner's debate boycott?

Plus, we have new details of Senator Bernie Sanders' private Oval Office meeting today with President Obama. Why was Hillary Clinton's main rival at the White House five days before the Iowa caucuses?


BLITZER: He's certainly giving Hillary Clinton a run for her money. Today Senator Bernie Sanders met with her old boss, sitting down for a private Oval Office meeting with President Obama just five days before the Iowa caucuses.

[18:30:54] Our White House correspondent, Michelle Kosinski, is joining us with details right now. Michelle, I take it the meeting lasted, what, about 45 minutes?

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. And Sanders asked for this meeting. He's been trying to send it up for about a month. He arrived with his wife and spokesman.

But it was just him and the president in the Oval Office for 45 minutes. And this is also a perfect opportunity for him to then come out to the cameras and talk about what a productive meeting it was, talking about the issues that matter to both of them. So you know they don't agree on everything. They talked about about President Obama's time on the campaign trail.

Sanders also took this opportunity to laud the president's record, though he said he neither asked for nor did he get an endorsement from the president. This comes only a couple of days after the president did this interview with Politico that many see as essentially an endorsement of Hillary Clinton.

I mean, he praised her multiple times. And at the same time, whether intended or not, he seemed to refer to Sanders as a bright, shiny object. He said when you're president you need to focus on more than one thing. And he said if Sanders does win Iowa, he's going to face tons of scrutiny over things like how much his tax proposals are going to cost.

Sanders dismissed all of that, though. Listen.


SANDERS: I think he and the vice president have tried to be fair and even-handed in the process, and I expect they will continue that way.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: ... Hillary Clinton?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Was there any point of disagreement...

SANDERS: Look, let me -- I think everybody knows that, for the last seven years, well, before that, you know, I -- Barack Obama when he was a United States senator was kind enough to come to Vermont and campaign for me. And I've never forgotten that.


KOSINSKI: The White House denied that interview was a tacit endorsement for Hillary Clinton. Although the question is there. I mean, she was his secretary of state. Why wouldn't he endorse her now?

It's not as if that would be a big surprise. But the White House says the president sees this robust debate that's been going on as good for the party, good for democracy. He doesn't want to head off that debate. And he's determined to remain at least publicly neutral, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Michelle, thanks very much.

I want to get some more now.

Joining us, our chief political correspondent, Dana Bash; CNN Politics executive editor Senator Mark Preston; CNN political commentator Ana Navarro. She's a good friend of Marco Rubio. She's a supporter of Jeb Bush. And "The Washington Post" assistant editor, David Swerdlick.

Mark, Sanders said he did not ask the president for an endorsement. He said he doesn't believe President Obama is tipping the scales. What's the word on the street, though? Do you believe that?

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICS EXECUTIVE EDITOR: Well, Wolf, first of all, I think it was pretty smart of Senator Sanders to come out to the cameras, as opposed to just walking by the reporters and not making any comment.

It was also very smart for Senator Sanders to praise Barack Obama for turning -- or at least what he says, help turn the country back around a little bit from the economic calamity.

Listen, I think that Bernie Sanders, the best hope he can have with Barack Obama endorsing Hillary Clinton is to try to hold him up as much as he can. And I think that meeting -- today's meeting was probably as much about that as it was anything. Trying to keep Barack Obama out of the race.

Now, as far as Barack Obama goes, he does have to be careful. He's the president of the United States. He's also the leader of the Democratic Party. He's got to make sure there's no backlash, if he were to go out and endorse Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders, certainly this early in the contest, Wolf.

BLITZER: Dana, there's now this unsanctioned Democratic presidential debate that's supposed to take place just before the New Hampshire primary in New Hampshire. MSNBC is supposed to televise it.

Hillary Clinton says she's ready. Martin O'Malley says he's ready. But Bernie Sanders says, and I spoke to his press secretary today, if it's unsanctioned by the DNC, he probably will not attend.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: This is the latest edition of 2016 bizarro world. I mean, can you imagine it was just -- you know, it seems like a few weeks ago, probably a few months ago, that we were talking about how the Democratic National Committee stacked the deck against Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley in favor of Hillary Clinton because they had so few debates, and they thought that that would benefit her.

Now she's chomping at the bit to debate, because she's good at it; and she's got Bernie Sanders nipping at her heels. So I think it's just fascinating.

One thing I want to say, adding to what mark was talking about, Bernie Sanders at the White House today, and Michelle touched on this. This is also very much about the optics. You have Hillary Clinton giving as many bear hugs as she can to Barack Obama, because that's good for her in a Democratic primary process.

Bernie Sanders wants to stand outside on Barack Obama's White House lawn or there before the microphone and signal to Democratic primary voters that he is one of them, and he is still liked by his Democratic...

BLITZER: Walking around that driveway outside the West Wing.

BASH: Exactly.

BLITZER: That makes that point. You're absolutely right.

David, so it's all set. Donald Trump's people have just released the details of this event honoring wounded warriors, benefitting wounded warriors tomorrow night, 9 p.m. Eastern, exactly the same time that FOX is televising the Republican presidential debate. It looks like there's no backing away from this now. He won't be at that debate.

DAVID SWERDLICK, ASSISTANT EDITOR, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, Wolf, Trump has proven to be unpredictable. Right? So I'm not going to say absolutely for certain that he won't be there. There could be 11th hour deal made. He says he's a deal-maker.

But assuming that he doesn't show up at the debate, that he does boycott the debate, in the short term it benefits him, because he has dominated yesterday's, today's, maybe tomorrow's news cycle, not allowing Cruz, his closest rival, to get his message out.

On the other hand, down the road, if he's in a general election, he has, at least a little bit, undercut this idea that he's not afraid to go head-to-head with anybody. He's apparently said he doesn't want to go head-to-head with Megyn Kelly.

BLITZER: Ana, he tweeted this a few -- a little bit -- a little while ago. I'll put it up on the screen: "It was the childishly written and taunting P.R. statement by FOX that made me not do the debate, more so than the lightweight reporter, Megyn Kelly." What's your opinion to that?

ANA NAVARRO, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: You know, he doesn't miss any opportunity to take a shot at Megyn Kelly. Certainly, the Megyn Kelly factor was part of his decision for not wanting to do it. I think it's Donald Trump throwing a tantrum, because he can't control who FOX News puts to moderate the debate.

But I also think that, you know -- I also think that it ends up being a win for him. He has dominated the news cycle since he announced he wasn't doing it. He's basically ignoring Ted Cruz, not giving him the dignity of even a response. He's, you know, going to be not only not showing up. He's going to be competing with the event. And we're all going to be talking about it and covering it.

So I think it's, you know, a very well-thought-out plan by Donald Trump.

BLITZER: Mark, how much concern among Republicans is there that Trump is causing division within the party?

PRESTON: Well, Wolf, you know, I was talking to conservative activists today around the country. And in particular, the whole idea that the conservative movement right now is starting to become fractured. We're seeing that along the evangelical side as well as the hard-core conservative side.

And what this one person told me today, a very prominent person said that now friends are starting to attack each other, at least privately. And things are getting very angry between them.

And that if things were to go on as Trump and Cruz were to fight for the nomination there is concern the long-lasting consequences could be a conservative movement that is fractured going into next year.

So there is some concern right now amongst conservatives about them being split at a time when they're trying to come together, Wolf.

BLITZER: Donald Trump special event to benefit veterans organizations. He says it will take place at Drake University in Des Moines tomorrow night, 9 p.m. Eastern.

Let's take a quick break. Much more right after this.


[18:48:22] BLITZER: Let's get some more now. The Republican race for the White House. Dana's still with us.

Dana, you had a chance to sit down with Heidi Cruz, Senator Ted Cruz's wife, and she spoke openly to you about misconceptions about her husband.

BASH: Right. And certainly, she considers the biggest misconception that her husband, Ted Cruz, is not likable, is not personable. We started there.


BASH: You probably heard Donald Trump is really now going after your husband very hard on this likability issue. He calls Ted Cruz nasty, a whack job, someone who can't get along with people. What do you, Ted Cruz's wife of 15 years, want to say to Donald Trump about that?

HEIDI CRUZ, WIFE OF TED CRUZ: Well, I want to tell the American people who Ted is. And he is...

BASH: Who is that?

H. CRUZ: An incredibly thoughtful person, a person who never misses a birthday, who never misses Valentine's, who reads bedtime stories to his daughters.

BASH: Even from the Senate floor.

H. CRUZ: Even from the Senate floor. And more importantly, at home. A person who, when I'm really busy running around the house the other day to pack when he had a lot more on his plate, sat down and packed my suitcase for me.

BASH: So to say to the American people, so you know the way in -- especially where we are in the campaign, when you have someone like Donald Trump, who's successfully called, you know, Jeb Bush low energy. He's trying to make this Ted Cruz's label. How do you push back on that?

H. CRUZ: Well, we don't need to go through the eyes of other candidates. We can give the voters in this country the chance to meet us directly, to meet Ted directly.

BASH: Probably not going to come as a surprise to you that your husband is sort of actively disliked by a lot of his colleagues in the Senate, Republican colleagues in the Senate.

[18:45:01] But you chose to spend your life with him. Why are they wrong?

H. CRUZ: When you go out and campaign with Ted, you see why they are wrong. When you go to a rally, a town hall, a one-on-one, Ted is personable. He has a conversation with people. He describes the fundamental principles of the founding of this country. He answers people's questions. And those that say they dislike him are the very ones that the American people are trying to vote out of office.

BASH: Are there times you say, you know what, honey, maybe given the fact this is the wrap on you, maybe you can try it this way or that way? Are there ever those moments?

CRUZ: You know, they're not. And here's why. It's because he's fighting for the American people, and they want him to be unwavering. He's unwavering for principle, for them. We should be compromising moving forward, not compromising moving backward. So, I don't want him to give up any of the fight.


BASH: So, there you see Heidi Cruz in a more traditional role of a political spouse, trying to be the character witness for her husband. But I can tell you that this public role is new. She has been working like a dog behind the scenes for, what, the past 10 months since Ted Cruz first announced. She primarily has been a chief fundraiser. She told me that she made 600 calls to donors in the first quarter alone, so in three months.

She's been very successful because he, actually, has raised a lot of money. She's really an integral part of the campaign, I think probably more than any other spouse certainly on that side of the aisle.

BLITZER: She has an MBA from the Harvard Business School. She worked -- still works although on leave from Goldman Sachs. So, she's accomplished in her own right.

How much of a role, Mark Preston, could she play in helping Ted Cruz?

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICS EXECUTIVE EDITOR: Well, Wolf, can I first say that if he is packing his wife's suitcase and he is running for president, he is raising the bar pretty high for the rest of us out there. So, thanks a lot, Senator Cruz, if you're doing that to us.

But, look, and Dana and I have spent a lot of time talking to the Cruz campaign and her role. And that interview I think encapsulated what exactly they want out of Heidi Cruz to do for Ted Cruz.

In many ways, if you listen to that and weren't able to watch it, it sounded like Ann Romney. Back in 2012, she played the same kind of role for Ted Cruz, or rather for her husband. She tried to humanize him. Ted Cruz is not somebody who is warm and fuzzy, nor was Mitt Romney. Ann Romney played that role.

So, Heidi Cruz, as one of his top supporters, said to me, is as tough as Ted Cruz is but she has a softer touch, Wolf.

BLITZER: Ana, Ted Cruz has proposed a one-on-one debate with Donald Trump, maybe with a moderator, maybe no moderator, 90 minutes. He's even selling these "make Trump debate again" hats.

Have you seen Donald Trump ever accepting that challenge from Cruz?

ANA NAVARRO, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: You know, I cannot tell what Donald Trump is going to do. I cannot read his tea leaves. But I don't think so. I think he's going to say, look, why I should I debate you when I don't know you're qualified to run for president because you might be a Canadian citizen. He's been hammering on that over and over again.

And I will -- I just want to say, you know, as you know, I actively dislike Ted Cruz. Find him very hard to swallow. But this woman is terrific. I just want to say to the Cruz campaign, put this woman out there. I

wish she was the Cruz that was running. I think there are some incredible spouses out there on the trail this time around, Jane Sanders, Mary Pat Christie and certainly Heidi Cruz is impressive, beautiful, soft edges. Everything that I think people find, you know, difficult to deal with about Ted Cruz, she is the opposite.

He should -- she should be his American Express. Do not leave home without her.


BLITZER: David, what do you think?

DAVID SWERDLICK, ASSISTANT EDITOR, THE WASHINGTON POST: You know, I agree. It was a great interview, Dana. I agree with Ana and I agree with Mark about Ann Romney. I also thought of Michelle Obama, someone who people see as the mother two of young daughters and successful in the financial world. Michelle Obama is a lawyer. Definitely an asset to the Cruz campaign.

BLTIZER: Is she going to go out there and be more assertive, more visible, you think, Dana?

BASH: Yes, she's out there on the campaign trail and she's doing a lot of it on her own because she's so good in the campaign, though she's so strong. She is a surrogate and people are excited to see her as her husband but almost.

BLITZER: All right, guys. Let's take another break. We'll have much more coming up right after this.


BLITZER: Now, a CNN exclusive and a troubling update on the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, where dozens of children have been exposed to dangerous levels of lead in city water. But officials are bracing for a much higher tally. Listen to what the governor, Rick Snyder, told CNN's Poppy Harlow.


GOV. RICK SNYDER (R), MICHIGAN: That's the problem here is, we know the ones that have higher levels to do appropriate follow-up care. It's really, we need to establish the right medical protocols, the public health pieces, the educational process things. To watch these kids for years that didn't have higher blood levels in terms of a blood test, because they could be affected.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: So, you're saying there's 100 children as of now that have tested for these high levels of lead, but because it's harder to test for it after an extended period of time, there be many, many more.

SNYDER: There could be many more and we're assuming that.

HARLOW: You're assuming many more?


HARLOW: So, say, we're sitting back here in five years, will those lead pipes be replaced?

SNYDER: Well, I hope -- a lot of work has been done on that topic. It's too soon to tell because I can't tell you how many pipes and where they are. But as a practical matter, we should be working on that very clearly.

HARLOW: Isn't that the safest thing, Governor, I mean, given what they've been through?

[18:55:02] SNYDER: It's the safest thing. It's a question of how to work through it in robust fashion, to make sure we're getting all the resources because I view this lead infrastructure, the water system --


HARLOW: What would stand in the way other than money? What would stand in the way of replacing them?

SNYDER: Well, we've got a statewide issue, too, in terms of lead pipes.


BLITZER: You can see Poppy's full exclusive interview with the Michigan governor, Rick Snyder, later tonight, "AC360", 8:00 p.m. Eastern.

Three decades after his death, a hero of the Holocaust may be playing a key role in repairing relations between the United States and Israel.

CNN's Brian Todd is here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Brian, President Obama is taking part in an extraordinary event right now.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: He is, Wolf, right at this moment. After months of tumultuous and some say dysfunctional relations between the Obama administration and Israel, President Obama has made a remarkable gesture, traveling tonight to the Israeli embassy in Washington. It comes on Holocaust Remembrance Day, marking the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and many are hoping this will be a critical moment that might pivot this relationship back to where it once was.


TODD (voice-over): An extraordinary trip across town for President Obama, the first time an American president has come to the Israeli embassy to honor non-Jewish heroes of the Holocaust. The president's appearance as unique as the event itself, the Righteous Among the Nations Award is the highest honor Israel bestows to non-Jews. Presented by the Israeli Holocaust Memorial Museum, Yad Vashem, it goes to people who risk their lives to save Jews during the holocaust. This year, for the first time, an American soldier is one of those honored, Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds, at a ceremony attended by Director Steven Spielberg.

Tonight's event comes on the heels of significant tension between the Obama administration and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the nuclear agreement with Iran.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R), OHIO: Benjamin Netanyahu.

TODD: Tension boiled over last March surrounding a Netanyahu speech to Congress never cleared by the White House.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: We must all stand together to stop Iran's March of conquest, subjugation and terror.

AARON DAVID MILLER, THE WOODROW WILSON CENTER: I think this really created a tremendous amount of bitterness. The relationship between Netanyahu and the president is probably the most dysfunctional on a personal and policy level among -- in modern history.

TODD: Friction which seemed at least for tonight to melt away. A top Israeli official tells CNN the president's gesture is very much appreciated inside the Israeli government and the official hopes this will help bring the relationship back to where it was before the disputes. Both sides can certainly agree the Edmonds story is inspiring. At a German POW camp in 1945, a Nazi commander tried to force Edmonds to betray his Jewish soldiers.

LESTER TANNER, JEWISH WORLD WAR II VETERAN: This German major angry takes out his luger, points it at Edmonds' head and said, you will order the Jewish-American soldiers to step forward or I will shoot you right now.

TODD: Edmonds refused. The German officer backed off and Lester Tanner and several other Jewish soldiers were saved.


TODD: It's a story which thanks to the heroism of Roddie and others tonight helped bring two bickering allies closer together, at least for the moment, with the year in President Obama's term in office, both sides are hoping this could be a springboard to a better overall relationship.

But, Wolf, they've got a lot of repair work to do.

BLITER: They certainly do. But this American hero, this American soldier, Roddie Edmonds, I take it, never told anyone about that really, really important moment.

TODD: It's unreal and not necessarily unusual for people of that generation, Wolf. He never shared it with anyone, not even his own son. His son Chris Edmonds didn't find out about that moment about what his father did in 1945, until 2008 when his son read an account in "The New York Times" from that gentleman, one of the soldiers that his father saved, Lester Tanner. By the time his son had found about this, Roddie Edmonds had been dead for 23 years. He never shared that moment with anyone, not even his own family.

BLITZER: Honored right now, being honored right now by the Holocaust Museum, Yad Vashem, in Jerusalem at this event, at the Israeli embassy here in Washington, the president of the United States by the way is there. He's speaking right now, paying tribute to this American soldier, this hero.

Let's listen in for a quick second.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And then the extraordinary honor of walking through Yad Vashem with Rabbi and Lau seeing the faces and hearing the voices of the lost a blessed memory. And then taking my own daughters to visit the Holocaust Museum because our children most know this chapter of our history that we must never --

BLITZER: A moving moment, a very moving moment at the Israeli embassy right now.

Brian, thanks very much. That's it for me. We'll continue to follow all the news.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.