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Zika Virus Spreading; Republicans Prepare to Debate; Trump Holds Rival Debate Event; Democrats Tangle in Iowa as Race Remains Close; U.S. Official: North Korea Possibly Tested H-Bomb. Aired 4- 4:30p ET

Aired January 28, 2016 - 16:00   ET



JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: In tonight's performance, the role of Donald Trump will be played by Darrell Hammond.

THE LEAD start right now.

Trump-less debate. Five hours to go, Donald Trump still planning to no-show and hold a rally down the block for the troops. What will the other candidates do with all that extra oxygen?

Spreading explosively, the new and disturbing warning about the mosquito-borne virus infecting pregnant women and their babies.

Plus, they are "Silence of the Lambs" scary and they are still on the run. New arrests in connection with the manhunt for three escaped inmates. Who helped break them out?

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jim Sciutto, in today for Jake Tapper.

And we today begin with the politics lead. In a world without Donald Trump, what would the Republican race look like? Well, the political universe will get a taste of alternate reality tonight. The Republican front-runner says the FOX News debate will happen without him, that he won't put up with what he claims is unfair treatment from the network.

While Trump may not be there, this is no disappearing act. Instead of lining up center stage, the mogul is going head-to-head with the debate in prime time, rallying his masses just down the street at Drake University.

CNN chief political correspondent Dana Bash is here with me in Washington today.

Dana, when you look at this, as you always do, with Donald Trump political moves, is there method to this madness here?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you often wonder, but at the end of the day, so far, in the last six months, the answer has been yes.

But right now, we're just four days away from when Iowans will be going to the caucuses, the first votes of 2016. And Donald Trump is making a huge gamble that his support is strong enough that he can afford to stay off the debate stage that Iowans will use in many cases to make up their minds.


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's called an eye for an eye.

BASH (voice-over): That's how Donald Trump explained on FOX his boycott of their debate tonight, and he spent the day trolling FOX on Twitter, tweets like, "The debate tonight will be a total disaster. Low ratings with advertisers and advertising rates dropping like a rock."

Trump did spar with FOX host Bill O'Reilly, who challenged the billionaire on how he'd hurled insists as president if he can't handle moderator Megyn Kelly.

TRUMP: I'm not walking away, Bill. I'm not walking away.

BILL O'REILLY, HOST, "THE O'REILLY FACTOR": Would you do me a favor?

BASH: What Trump says pushed him away was a snarky FOX press release this week mocking Trump. Now the reality star will compete with FOX's debate, hold his own rally in Iowa, one he says will benefit veterans.

TRUMP: We're going to have a tremendous event and I will have much more than 60 seconds, frankly, and we are going to raise a lot of money for the veterans.

BASH: Trump's absence from the last debate before the Iowa caucuses means Ted Cruz will take center stage.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And Donald is a fragile soul.

BASH: He's been taking jabs at Trump for boycotting, challenging the man he's neck in neck with in Iowa to go mano a mano. A Cruz campaign source involved in debate prep tells CNN they're expecting a lot more arrows to come his way tonight without Trump on the stage.

Most Trump competitors are dismissing him skipping the debate as a childish stunt.


SEN. RAND PAUL (R-KY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I don't think he will be missed.

BASH: But Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, two low-polling GOP delegates relegated to the undercard stage, now say they will go to Trump's rally, instead of watching FOX's prime-time debate.

MIKE HUCKABEE (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I offered, by the way, Wolf, I would take his podium at the 8:00 debate, and that was rejected, so I said, OK, well, I will find something else to do at 8:00.

BASH: Ironic, since both Santorum and Huckabee both used to work at FOX News. Huckabee even had his own show.

HUCKABEE: It's not an endorsement of Donald Trump's candidacy. I'm still running for president.


BASH: Rick Santorum, who is also still running for president, told our Brooke Baldwin in the last half-hour that he would have accepted an invitation like this even from Hillary Clinton, because it helps veterans, but, Jim, some vets groups, they are not liking this.

The IAVA -- IAVA, rather, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans association, the head of it tweeted that they're going to decline any proceeds if offered because they said they want smart policy prescriptions, not stunts.

SCIUTTO: Right, not to be taken advantage of. Dana, please stay right there.

I do want to bring in CNN political reporter Sara Murray to the conversation. She's in downtown Des Moines at the Republican presidential debate.

Sara, you have been talking to people in and around the debate hall today. As you speak to them, is it your sense that skipping the debate will help or hurt Donald Trump?

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's so interesting, because when you talk to political operatives about this here in Iowa, people who have been through the caucuses, they say if any other candidate were to do this, it would be a problem. You would not want to miss the last Republican debate just days before the Iowa caucus.

I was actually a media breakfast earlier this morning with Iowa Governor Terry Branstad and he said, while I wouldn't advise Trump to skip the debate, I can't really say it is definitely going to hurt him.


Trump has set his own rules throughout this campaign. That has applied to Iowa as well, and nobody is really sure that this is going to be the moment all of a sudden that it backfires.

SCIUTTO: So, Dana, as you know, some conservative commentators, they looked at the FOX News statement in response to this and they say to some degree FOX brought it on themselves. It was an excoriating statement, even comparisons to ayatollahs, et cetera.

BASH: Exactly.

SCIUTTO: What is the RNC making of this? BASH: They're trying to walk a fine line here because they sanction

these debates, they're involved in granting networks debates.

But they also -- I think it's a little bit difficult for them not only with FOX, but also with any candidate who makes such a big show of this. I will say, though, that I think you're referring to Bill Bennett, who is kind of a commentator, a longtime conservative who has a lot of respect within FOX News and elsewhere, and he said that he thought that FOX did go too far with that really snarky statement.

And you know what? We have done debates here at CNN and even just covering politics, we try to not make ourselves the story. And that is that FOX gave Trump an opening to make FOX the story.

SCIUTTO: Understood.

So, Sara, we talk about this veterans event tonight. As Dana noted, some veterans groups are refusing to take part and refusing even to take money from it. So who's actually showing up tonight and which groups will actually take the money raised this evening?

MURRAY: Well, Jim, that's an excellent question, because this is really starting to look and feel like a slapdash event.

CNN has reached out to about half-a-dozen of some of the most prominent, the biggest groups that help wounded veterans when they come back. None of them at this point have heard from the Trump campaign. As of right now, the only way we have even seen to give donations is a link that Donald Trump has tweeted out.

It directs you to a Web site where you can donate online, but those donations actually go to a Donald Trump foundation. They don't appear to be funneled directly to a vets group. Now, we have reached out to the campaign repeatedly to see if they can give us any more information. We are continuing to reach out to other veterans groups to see who might be the beneficiary here, but so far right now all we have is Donald Trump's word that this event is somehow going to benefit veterans.

SCIUTTO: Yes, just a few hours to go before that event kicks off. Sara Murray, Dana Bash, as always, thanks very much for joining me.

Joining us now is the national spokeswoman for the campaign. She is Katrina Pierson.

Katrina, thank you, as always, for taking the time to come on.


SCIUTTO: So, as you know, and you just heard the previous segment, Donald Trump, he has been called out by most of his rivals for deciding against showing up tonight. I just want to quote what Ben Carson said.

He said: "If you get into the presidency, I guarantee you that there's going to be unfairness, so this is just practice for that," in effect responding to Trump's contention that FOX was not being fair to him.

How do you respond to that criticism from Ben Carson?

PIERSON: Well, you know, there's always going to be detractors, Jim, but this isn't negotiation, foreign policy or warfare, or ISIS, for that matter. This is a FOX News debate.

Mr. Trump has done a FOX News debate. He's done six debates and he's done several events, several -- he's the most accessible candidate that there is. He's had the most town halls. He has press conferences, answers all the tough questions.

This decision was made because FOX News outed themselves as a biased media organization against Trump. And as you have seen reports today, that there is an executive's daughter who's working on Marco Rubio's campaign, but they haven't disclosed that yet, have they?

SCIUTTO: Let me ask you this, because this is an open question still and CNN has reached out to the Trump campaign to get an answer to this very simple question. Which veterans groups are taking part tonight and which veteran groups have agreed to accept money raised at this event tonight?

PIERSON: Well, you know, Jim, there is a Web site up now, and the money that is going to be raised will be in bulk and the disbursements will be spread all across the country to veterans organizations.

And those who don't want to receive the money, we will make sure not to send them a check.


PIERSON: But I will say, I do find it interesting that there's a lot of pressure in the media -- go ahead.

SCIUTTO: The money is going to a Trump organization now. Name one veterans organization that has agreed to accept that money.

PIERSON: I'm sorry. I can't hear you. Name one what?

SCIUTTO: The money right now is going to a Trump organization, which then you say will be disbursed.


SCIUTTO: Can you name one organization, veterans organization that is going to participate tonight and accept some of the funds raised tonight?

PIERSON: I believe there might be a list now on the Web site. There are a lot of organizations that are in queue to sign up for this.

There are veterans that will be attending tonight and will be doing some of the program as well. But I was going to say, with regard to veterans, we have seen a lot of pushback in the media from other veterans who don't appreciate what Mr. Trump is trying to do for veterans, considering how it's been one of the things that he's been talking about since he entered the race, Jim.


But, look, his senior policy adviser, retired Air Force. There's campaign staffers and supporters like Nancy Mace, who was the first woman to graduate from the Citadel. We have Skipper in Florida who came out and endorsed him just a week ago, Kathryn Gates Skipper.

And I have got to tell you, she was the first woman that saw combat as a Marine. And so there are veterans supporting Mr. Trump. And these are the people that he gets to meet all across the campaign trail that he gets to see and talk to and that's why this has become more of an issue for him to meet these people and see the things that they have gone through throughout their lives.

SCIUTTO: I want to take a moment now to ask about some tweets that have appeared on your verified account. You will remember that my colleague Brian Stelter asked you about a particular tweet you made saying that we need, in your words, pure-breed presidents.

You dismissed that as silliness and you noted that people in the Twittersphere call you half-breed. But I want to draw your attention to two other tweets that we found somewhat alarming, I will be honest with you.

October 4, 2012, you wrote "#2012, choice Mormon or jihadi, clear enough." Then on March 3, 2013, you wrote: "This corrupt country has a head Negro in charge."

Both the wording of those, but also the allegation in effect there, how do you defend those tweets?

PIERSON: Well, absolutely.

As an activist, we spend most of our time, particularly in 2012, fighting off liberal activists and other establishment activists. So, of course, you can pull any of those tweets out of one of those heated discussions, because a lot of time it's in the sphere of fighting off other liberal activists.

And I have got to tell you, it's interesting that this has made some sort of news cycle when we have all of the things that are happening in the world, including a presidential race, to go back 36,000 tweets, pull them out of context of the discussion and try to make that a news story. That's where we are today in the media.

It's very biased and that is exactly why Mr. Trump is not participating in one of the debates tonight.

SCIUTTO: Well, I'm just asking you to defend the specific language...


SCIUTTO: ... that you used.

You're saying that that language responded to other offensive language that was part of the conversation?

PIERSON: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. Yes.

Things get very heated in politics and there were two candidates that I was defending in 2012. One of those was Senator Ted Cruz and the other was House Speaker Newt Gingrich. So, in those fights -- and there's been a blog post on this in 2012 outlining a lot of those Twitter trolls that we were fighting against.

SCIUTTO: Katrina Pierson, thanks for joining us today.

PIERSON: Thanks, Jim.

SCIUTTO: On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders feeling burned.


SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (VT-I), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This is a lie, an absolute lie.


SCIUTTO: What has the Democratic presidential candidate so upset today?

That's right after this break.


[16:17:05] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to THE LEAD. More now in our politics lead.

With Democrats still locked in a tight race in Iowa, Bernie Sanders is fighting to pull off an upset and derail Hillary Clinton's campaign. He is jabbing Clinton for fund-raising last night while he was stumping in Iowa, and tangling with her over the up and coming debate schedule.

For her part, Clinton has prodded the 74-year-old senator to release his medical records, which Sanders did today.

CNN senior Washington correspondent Jeff Zeleny is in Des Moines, Iowa.

So, Jeff, in the CNN town hall on Monday, Sanders said he was a pretty good athlete. Do his medical records show that he's a pretty healthy guy at 74?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jim, based on the limited information we have, and again, it was a one-page letter from the attending physician of Congress, which office has overseen the senator's health for more than 25 years, they say that he is in very good health overall. His blood pressure is pretty normal, his cholesterol is normal.

Our own Dr. Sanjay Gupta reviewed it and he said, based on this limited piece of information, Senator Sanders looks fine. Of course, if he ever becomes the Democratic nominee, I believe he would be pressed to release more of his medical records.

But that issue aside, this Democratic race is heating up even more. Now, it's a contest, a fight all over debates.


ZELENY (voice-over): It's not just Republicans. Democrats are locked in their own debate over debates.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: She can't just dictate the rules of the game.

ZELENY: "She" would be Hillary Clinton, who wants to add a new debate in New Hampshire, where she's running well behind Bernie Sanders.

SANDERS: Now, you know, she's falling apparently behind in New Hampshire and wants to change the rules. But we are willing to say if she's willing to do a number of debates later on, all right.

ZELENY (on camera): And if she's not, you will not be there in New Hampshire next week?

SANDERS: That's right.

ZELENY (voice-over): Sanders asked Clinton to sign onto debates in March, April and May. The Clinton campaign is now agreeing to that demand. The bottom line: this Democratic race has no quick end in sight. Four days until the Iowa caucuses open their race for the White House, Sanders and Clinton are in a fierce fight.

HILLARY CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm not just shouting slogans. I'm not just engaging in rhetoric.

ZELENY: But Clinton says her rival's plans aren't realistic. She said he would be unable to achieve his goals of universal health care or work with Republicans to break Washington gridlock.

CLINTON: I fear it would lead to gridlock, not action.

ZELENY (on camera): She also says that she wants real action, not gridlock.


ZELENY: She says that you'll bring more gridlock to Washington.

SANDERS: No, not at all. Quite the contrary. We have too much gridlock right now. The idea that I can't work with Republicans is nonsense.

ZELENY (voice-over): In Iowa today, former President Clinton stayed out of the Democratic fight and focused on the other side.

BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT: You cannot be lured by the politics of division and distraction.

ZELENY: Vice President Joe Biden had words of his own on the unruly GOP race.

JOSEPH BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We may be given a gift from the Lord in the presidential race here.

ZELENY: But Democrats have their own fight to contend with. Sanders exploded in fury when a reporter said some Clinton allies were concerned his campaign could recruit out of state young voters to Iowa.

SANDERS: This is a lie, an absolute lie. OK. We will win or we'll lose, we do it honestly.

ZELENY: Sanders did put one issue to rest, releasing a medical report from his doctor, saying the 74-year-old senator was in very good health.

(on camera): You say you're in very good health. How do you feel?

SANDERS: I feel good.

ZELENY: You're in good fighting form?

SANDERS: Thank God I am in very good health.


ZELENY: So you see Senator Sanders right there in a good mood being asked about that. He's also in a good mood about his place in this race. It is very close here in Iowa, no question. But in New Hampshire he still is holding on to a substantial lead there.

But, Jim, this whole conversation could change when it looks like the Democrats are headed toward another debate next week and the potential of more in April and May.

So, any thought that this contest was going to be a short one is probably not going to happen. This race could go on perhaps as long as it looks like the Republican one may as well -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Yes, more debates something the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton had resisted before.

Jeff Zeleny in Iowa.

Well, coming up more, an ominous warning. The World Health Organization saying the Zika virus is spreading explosively. Now, more new cases are reported here in the United States. As one expert says, a vaccine could be as many as five years away.

Plus, breaking just this hour. Did North Korea really test a hydrogen bomb this month as they initially claimed? We're getting the first results on CNN. The answer is not good.


[16:26:01] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

SCIUTTO: Breaking news now in our world lead, this coming in just in the last few moments. It is first on CNN.

The U.S. now believes that North Korea may have tried to test a hydrogen bomb earlier this month.

I want to get straight to CNN's Barbara Star. She broke the story. She's live at the Pentagon.

Barbara, initially U.S. officials doubted that claim from North Korea. What are they learning now?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Jim, a story you and I have been following closely since January 6th when the North Koreans conducted some type of test underground. At the time, January 6th, the U.S. dismissed the notion that it was a hydrogen bomb as the North Koreans claimed.

But since then, sampling of the air in that region by U.S. spy aircraft has proved inconclusive. That has led them, we are told, by U.S. officials, to go back and look at the seismic data, the disturbance in the earth when this explosion happened. They now are looking at the notion it was very deep underground, two times more than they expected. That is consistent with some kind of hydrogen device.

But the key here is while the North Koreans claim it was a hydrogen bomb, the U.S. isn't so sure. They believe it is possible the North Koreans tested some kind of component related to a hydrogen bomb, not a full-on device. Nonetheless, extremely concerning because this does put North Korea on a path that is a real leap ahead in their weapons of mass destruction -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Hydrogen bombs, tens, possibly hundreds of times stronger than atomic bombs.

Barbara, there's also growing fear that North Korea is planning to launch another long-range missile, possibly an ICBM in the next few days. What is the evidence that the U.S. intelligence is seeing to support that?

STARR: Well, we can show our viewers some of it from commercial satellite imagery of a launch site in the northern part of North -- pardon me, North Korea. This is a satellite launch facility.

The imagery shows a good deal of activity at the site. The U.S. believes the North Koreans are moving in -- pardon me, people, equipment, even maybe fuel propellant.

Now, here's the key. This is a site where everything is moved in out of visual range. It's all concealed until the last minute, until it goes on the launch pad. If there is a satellite on the top end of this, then it's a satellite launch. But if there is a warhead or some type of warhead device, then by definition, it's an intercontinental ballistic missile.

Either way, again, another step in North Korea's march forward with its advanced weapons technology. It's extremely concerning to the U.S. -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Two concerning developments. Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thanks very much.

We want to talk about this more. I'm joined by Jamie Metzl. He's a former National Security Council official, also a state department official. So, Jamie, first to this news about a step in the directions at least of a hydrogen bomb for North Korea. In the hours, the days after this I spoke with U.S. officials, I played this down. They said initial indications were not. That is changing.

How concerning a development, even if they haven't developed a complete hydrogen bomb, that they have taken a step in that direction, how concerning is that?

JAMIE METZL, SR. FELLOW, ATLANTIC COUNCIL: Well, it's all concerning. Certainly, that North Korea is aspiring to develop a hydrogen bomb and to miniaturize it and make it deliverable is concerning and should be concerning for everybody. Now, whether it was just a regular nuclear device or a boosted fission device that some people were talking about after January 6th or something more than that, the question is, is how far along this path are they? And they certainly are making big progress. Whether this was a full hydrogen bomb or not, it's the directional issue that's most concerning.

SCIUTTO: Covering this issue, and I'm sure many of our viewers might feel the same way, with North Korea there were these incremental steps. They move a little bit closer, more successful nuclear tests, possibility of a step towards a hydrogen bomb. They're also launching a missile which could have intercontinental ability which means it could strike the U.S.