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THE SITUATION ROOM

Interview With Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus; Republicans Prepare to Debate; Trump Holds Rival Debate Event; Sources: Urgent White House Meeting on ISIS in Libya; Emotional Return for Reporter Held By Iran; Clinton, Sanders Battling Over Debates. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired January 28, 2016 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:15]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news: Trump's TV war. Donald Trump's fund-raiser for veterans is getting under way just three miles from the presidential debate he's boycotting as part of his battle with FOX. How many viewers will Trump lure away?

Debate drama. With Trump absent, Ted Cruz takes center stage and becomes the likely target of his Republican rivals. But he also has a chance to seal the deal with Iowa voters. Can he cement the victory in Monday's caucuses tonight?

ISIS on the move. An urgent White House meeting on the mass migration of terrorist forces from Syria and Iraq to Libya. Thousands of them now believed to be building a new stronghold in North Africa. How is the Pentagon planning to take them on?

And stunning twist. The widow of a small-town police officer who staged his suicide to look like a murder is indicted, charged with stealing thousands from a charity she and her husband founded. Was her husband's death an effort to conceal their alleged crime?

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 the breaking news, the extraordinary political drama unfolding right now in Iowa.

That's where front-runner Donald Trump is not only boycotting tonight's Republican presidential debate. He's staging a rival event set to draw viewers away from FOX. Trump now in open war with that network.

We're also following the growing ISIS presence in Libya. Sources now tell CNN it was the subject of an urgent National Security Council meeting today at the White House. Defense Secretary Ash Carter canceling his travel plans to attend. We're covering those details and much more this hour with our guests, including the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, and our correspondents and expert analysts, they are also standing by. Let's begin with the feud between Donald Trump and FOX News. The feud

that is overshadowing tonight's prime-time GOP debate in Iowa.

Our chief political correspondent Dana Bash is working the story for us.

Dana, this is happening just four days before the Iowa caucuses.

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It doesn't get more crucial than this in terms of timing. Donald Trump is taking a huge gamble that his support is strong enough that he can afford to stay off the debate stage just as Iowans left-wing make up their mind.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

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. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This is not a show.

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.

[18:05:03]

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

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I care for our veterans a lot. And if I can help in any way try to raise money for veterans organizations who are serving our veterans, I, frankly, don't really care who is hosting it.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: But some veterans aren't thrilled with Trump's event, calling it a political stunt. It's still unclear which veterans group or groups will benefit. CNN contacted about half a dozen of the largest groups. They said they hadn't heard from the Trump campaign yet -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Dana, stand by.

I want to bring in CNN politics executive editor Mark Preston. He's outside the auditorium.

Mark, this is taking place, what, just about three miles from where the Republican debate will take place. Set the scene for us where you are.

MARK PRESTON, CNN EXECUTIVE EDITOR: Well, Wolf, I have never seen anything like this in covering presidential politics. We have seen this line now that has just started to form here on the campus of Drake University.

Now, Donald Trump is going to land in less than an hour now. Wolf, he's going to land in Des Moines and he will be over. His event starts at 9:00. This comes as he's going to try to go head-to-head with FOX News on their debate. Now, Wolf, I have to tell you, we have seen Trump people have come out, workers, they are taking veterans, taking them to a separate line to get them into the hall.

However, we see a lot of students here. A lot of supporters. Everybody here says they will be supporting Donald Trump. Now, Wolf, in addition to that, we also have Ted Cruz's big supporters that have offered $1.5 million if they would give to veterans charities if Donald Trump will debate Ted Cruz before Sunday. We haven't had any word back from Trump whether that's going to happen.

But, again, Wolf, this is something we have never, ever, ever seen in presidential politics.

BLITZER: Already hundreds of people lined up, is that what we're seeing over there, Mark?

PRESTON: I got to tell you, all the way down the street, well more than hundreds of people. Wolf, the irony of this now is that just a few nights ago on CNN, the Democrats took the same stage. We had about 600 people in the audience at that time. Trump expects an overflow crowd. And in fact they have a large-screen television off to the side for an overflow crowd to watch Donald Trump's event if they can't get in tonight.

I have to tell you right now, looking at this line, Wolf, I tell you, I think they have enough people to get inside this auditorium.

BLITZER: do you have any idea how many can fit in that auditorium tonight? Mark, can you hear me?

I think Mark just -- I think we just lost Mark. We're standing by. We're going to see how many can get into that auditorium tonight.

We're also standing by to speak with Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee. He's going to be joining us. We have got a lot of questions for him and our political analysts are here as well. Let's take a quick break. Much more right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:12:08]

BLITZER: All right. Breaking news in Iowa, where two events are about to get under way, a Republican presidential event and a fund- raiser for veterans being put together by Donald Trump.

The GOP front-runner is boycotting the presidential debate as part of his war now with FOX News. He's hoping to lure viewers away with his event tonight.

Joining us now is the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus.

Reince, thanks very much for joining us.

I know you are out there in Des Moines getting ready for the debate.

Does it hurt the Republican Party that Trump is holding this separate event for veterans tonight?

REINCE PRIEBUS, REPUBLICAN NATIONAL COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: No, not at all, Wolf.

Obviously, we wish that all the candidates would compete in the debates that they qualify for. But they don't have to. Just like Rand Paul didn't a couple weeks ago, it's up to the candidates. If it's in their interest to compete, they will compete. If it's not, they won't.

There's a lot of reasons why candidates do the things that they do, and I'm not sort of going to put myself in the position to start analyzing every move made by every candidate. Obviously, we have got a lot of candidates, so I would spend all day talking about the reasoning and the rationale and the wisdom of every move made by a candidate.

BLITZER: We're showing our viewers, Reince, some live pictures, long lines gathering outside right now the Trump event for veterans, people waiting in line right now.

And at least two other Republican presidential candidates, Mike Huckabee, Rick, Santorum, after their earlier debate, they are going to be going over there. What do you make of that?

PRIEBUS: I think, listen, I don't really make much of it.

I think that it's fine. The first debate is going to be over. They may go to that other event. It's not a competition. I just don't look at it that way. The fact is, we have a nomination process. The delegates on the floor of the convention are going to decide who the nominee is of the Republican Party.

And that person in July is going to be the nominee of the party. Now, the debates are a big part of it. And so are all these events. But whatever happens, happens. And we're going to be there making sure that we're prepared for whoever that nominee is, much more so than we were four years ago.

BLITZER: Have you personally spoken to Donald Trump about his decision to skip the debate?

PRIEBUS: No. I mean, I do regularly speak to all the candidates, but I have not spoken to Donald about this debate issue.

BLITZER: I know it's very late right now. We're, what, less than three hours away from that debate. But do you think there's still a possibility he could change his mind?

PRIEBUS: In this cycle, I think anything is possible, Wolf.

You know, there certainly is a lot of intrigue and a lot of drama, but you look at the other side of the aisle, and they are up to their eyeballs over there with what they are dealing with. We have got, I think, all the excitement and enthusiasm and youth and diversity on our side of the aisle.

[18:15:02]

Look, there's going to be two people left that are going to run against each other in a general. I think, ultimately, the messages of freedom and opportunity, equality, all the things that founded the Republican Party, are going to be the things that save our country come next January when a Republican president is sworn in.

BLITZER: Trump says it was a statement, a public statement put out by FOX News ridiculing him and his attitude, if you will, that forced him to skip this debate.

Here's the question. Have you spoken to Roger Ailes, the head of FOX News, about that, asked him if there was some way he could apologize, maybe something along those lines to get Trump back on the debate stage?

PRIEBUS: Obviously, I have spoken -- we're here with FOX, and it's a FOX News debate. Obviously, we have spoken to a lot of people.

But, remember, the candidates back in November didn't want -- they wanted to be the ones involved with negotiating with the network. And so they're doing that. And so I'm just not going to get in the middle of every squabble with every reporter, every network, everything back and forth.

It would take up all of our time to do that. The candidates have to decide for themselves what's in their best interest, and we move forward.

BLITZER: Because Trump says it's unfair to participate in a debate where the host organization, in this case FOX, is attacking him. You understand his concern?

PRIEBUS: Well, look, I hear what he's saying, and I have heard that -- we go through this a lot. Obviously, there are things written, things said in every publication.

Where we draw the line, of course, is when a publication actually takes an editorial position in a debate as to be all for a particular candidate or all against a particular candidate. That's not what's happening here. It's happened in other cases, and we have to do the right thing when it comes to these debate partners, and we have done it and we will continue to do it.

BLITZER: How fair is the debate going to be when the front-runner isn't participating?

PRIEBUS: Look, we have got a debate before -- we have two debates tonight.

They're both going to be fair. Obviously, all the candidates are going to have an opportunity to put their positions out to the public. But it's really important in Iowa. And I can tell you this. The people in Iowa are going to be watching this debate, because, as you know, anything can happen in Iowa. And there have been -- there are histories of all kinds of things that happen on caucus night that people predicted or didn't predict.

In Iowa -- and I know for the rest of the country, of course, but in Iowa, this is a really big night and all these candidates have an opportunity to make their case. BLITZER: Yes, you are right, because four years ago Santorum actually

won the Iowa caucuses. He wasn't doing well back in the polls going into the Iowa caucuses, Mike Huckabee eight years ago. Are you predicting we are going to be hugely surprised Monday night on the Republican side?

PRIEBUS: No. No, I'm just -- no, I'm not. I'm not saying one thing or the other, Wolf.

What I'm saying is that in a caucus state, where, you know, turnout is not huge, and it's different -- you sit in a gym for hours and you talk and you listen to other people and you take a vote. I'm just saying in these early states, if you don't live in one of these early states, you don't realize how seriously the people here take their responsibility in choosing these candidates early on in the process.

And that's all I'm saying. Tonight is an important time in that process, I think, for the folks in Iowa.

BLITZER: Which Democratic candidate do you fear the most, Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders?

PRIEBUS: Honestly, I would normally want to take the bait on that, because there's usually -- actually, when I was asked that about Joe Biden, I actually said Joe Biden was actually the hard guy -- harder guy to beat, because he's a person that a lot of people like and you might want to have a beer with him.

But the problem is Hillary is in all kinds of trouble. We don't know whether she is going to be indicted or not. Bernie Sanders is someone that totally -- a socialist that's not even a Democrat. So it's -- I don't know, six of one and half a dozen of the other. I couldn't answer the question. I think they are equally terribly flawed candidates.

BLITZER: What about the former New York City -- Michael Bloomberg, who is toying with the idea of running as an independent third-party candidate? Would he hurt the GOP candidate more or the Democratic Party candidate more?

PRIEBUS: I hope he does regardless of his formula of who has to win if he gets in or not. He should run, because then we're going to have New York in play, Pennsylvania will be in play, Connecticut might be in play. He has no pathway to 270 electoral votes.

Even if he did have some kind of pathway that he thinks, then we will leave it up to the majority in the House to decide, but tongue in cheek, obviously. I think it would be a blessing, but he's not going to do it.

BLITZER: So, just to be precise, you think that Bloomberg would take more votes away from the Democratic candidate than the Republican candidate? Is that what I'm hearing?

[18:20:05]

PRIEBUS: Absolutely. Yes, I think so.

I think that he would actually help the Republicans if he was on the ballot and he would put states in play that we used to be able to be competitive in, but we haven't been lately, like up in the Northeast.

BLITZER: That's it. We're going to continue these conversations.

Reince Priebus, bottom line right now, just want to be 100 percent sure, no chance Trump surprises all of us, shows up at the debate tonight?

PRIEBUS: Like I said, I'm not predicting anything anymore in this cycle. I don't know, Wolf. I doubt it, because that's what they have said, but who knows?

BLITZER: Reince Priebus, thanks very much. Good luck tonight.

PRIEBUS: Thank you, sir.

BLITZER: All right, let's get some more with our panel.

Joining us, our chief political correspondent, Dana Bash, chief political analyst Gloria Borger, CNN political commentator Ana Navarro. She's a good friend of Marco Rubio, and she's a supporter of Jeb Bush, and national political reporter for RealClearPolitics Rebecca Berg.

Gloria, you are just back from Iowa yourself. What's the mood out there going into this big Republican debate tonight?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I think people are scratching their heads, Wolf.

The supporters of Trump remain supporters of Trump. They don't really care whether he's at this debate or he's not at this debate. But I was at rallies for Cruz and Rubio which I ran into a lot of undecided voters. There are a lot of undecided voters right now. They are the ones who were saying to me, you know what? We think he should play, we think he should participate because we want to see them all on the stage together one last time.

On the other hand, they also said, you know what? We know what Donald Trump thinks. So this will give the other candidates a little bit more breathing room so we can hear from them. They know who he is. Let's put it that way. They know who he is.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: This event for veterans that Donald Trump is at, you see the long lines, people gathering only three miles away from the site of the debate.

BASH: You wonder if the site is so long, it's going to go the three miles.

(CROSSTALK) BASH: It's true. It's very close. And I think it's just also fascinating that Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum kind of jumped on to this Trump bandwagon.

Look, we're talking about Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum. It was a smart move for them.

BORGER: For today.

BASH: For today. I don't want to be disrespectful, but it is true. And it is, in a way, telling as to where we are and how different it is from four and eight years ago when Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum won the Iowa caucuses. Now they're kind of going three miles away after their own undercard debate that they didn't poll high enough to be in the prime-time debate, so that they can be on TV with the reality TV show to help get more votes in Iowa.

It's like, what?

BORGER: They have nothing to lose.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: He's not going to be there, Ana.

ANA NAVARRO, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: You mean dignity didn't count as something to lose?

BLITZER: Ana, even though Donald Trump will not be at that Republican debate tonight, I assume his name will come up from time to time.

NAVARRO: You think?

BLITZER: Yes.

NAVARRO: Look, I think he's going to be the looming presence at that debate.

I think that you're going to hear a lot of the other candidates try to say to and convince the people of Iowa that Donald Trump not being there is an offense to the people of Iowa and it's disrespectful to the people of Iowa and try to make it something that's a negative.

But I think you're going to hear him be attacked, criticized. And I think it's going to come up a lot. I expect the moderators will bring him up. They have questions to ask as well as to what do the other candidates think about him. It's going to be interesting because, really, until this week, until two days ago, the only guy who has been taking him on front and center is Jeb Bush. It seems that that's changed in the last 24 hours.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: And Cruz is really going after him now.

(CROSSTALK) NAVARRO: Well, it only took him six months.

BLITZER: And Cruz is not mincing many words right now. He's really going after Donald Trump.

REBECCA BERG, REALCLEARPOLITICS: He is and he needs to, because Ted Cruz finds himself in a very difficult position in Iowa.

He was leading in Iowa at the beginning of January. Now he's pretty well in second place and dropping. He needs to do something to reverse the course of his polling and attacking Trump is really the only way to the top.

BORGER: But here's the challenge. You want to attack Trump when he's not there. You have to figure out a way to do it without sounding whiny about it.

And I think all of these candidates are struggle with that right now. And they are all in the meantime going to be attacking Cruz, and this is an opportunity for Rubio to kind of set himself apart and get another look from people. I think this is going to be an extraordinary opportunity for Rubio, if he can rise to the occasion.

NAVARRO: Rubio and Cruz are both such good debaters with such different styles, that I think it's going to be very interesting to see how they go at each other, how they interact with each other and how they try to rise to that number two spot.

But, you know, up until now, we have seen them have nothing but good debates, but they haven't broken through.

BLITZER: Last night, Bill O'Reilly was really, really appealing, some say begging, Donald Trump to reconsider, show up for the debate. Let me play this little clip.

[18:25:08]

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL O'REILLY, HOST, "THE O'REILLY FACTOR": I have bought you so many vanilla milkshakes, you owe me. Will you just consider -- I want you to consider. All right?

Think about it. Say, look, I might come back. Forgive, go forward, answer the questions, look out for the folks. Just want you to consider it. You owe me milkshakes. I will take them off the ledger if you consider it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: They used to have a lot of vanilla milkshakes. I could go for a vanilla milkshake myself right now.

What do you think?

NAVARRO: I think it's a little cold for a vanilla milkshake. (CROSSTALK)

NAVARRO: But, look, I think -- I don't think Donald Trump is going to show up. I think this is going to end up being a good thing for Donald Trump. It's his world and we're all living in it.

BLITZER: You think he's going to benefit by being absent?

NAVARRO: I think he's benefiting already. If there is one thing the guy knows how to do is how to dominate press headlines. He's been doing that for the last 24 hours.

BLITZER: Do you agree with that?

BERG: I think he could end up looking very good from all of this, but it's a risk and it's a calculated one. He knows what's he's doing. He wants to emerge as someone with greater stature than other candidates.

But when you're in a circus, you can either be the ringleader or the clown. I think there's a risk tonight that he could end up being either one of those.

BORGER: We don't know what he -- as Reince Priebus was saying to you, we have no way of knowing what's he's going to do tonight. Does he show up in the spin room after? I don't think so, but you can't predict what's going to happen with Donald Trump anymore. Right?

BASH: The other phenomenon that out of what you just played with Bill O'Reilly and Donald Trump and the milkshakes, it's just such a window, never mind into the fact that there's obviously -- there's some incestuousness going on that they have been friends for 35 years and they have this running thing about bets over milkshakes.

Never mind that.

BORGER: Who doesn't?

BASH: Exactly.

But the whole concept of FOX being kind of in this major pickle, I don't think it's a big secret that Megyn Kelly and Bill O'Reilly are major rivals and that Bill O'Reilly has him on, begging him to come back. He was tough on him, very tough on him, saying if you can't handle this, guys, how are you going to handle like terrorists and people who are actually very dangerous?

But just the pickle that Roger Ailes and FOX News is in right now trying to manage what they actually pushed away, which is Donald Trump, in a pretty snarky way.

BLITZER: All right, guys, stand by, because we're getting ready for all of these events. Long lines already gathering outside the Donald Trump veterans event. You see people gathering over there.

We are going to check in with what's going on over there. We're also standing by. Bill and Hillary Clinton, they are speaking at separate events tonight. We will see what they have to say.

Much more of our presidential coverage right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: With just four days to go before the Iowa caucuses, the new poll from Monmouth University shows Hillary Clinton with a five-point lead over Bernie Sanders. That's down from the 22-point lead she had just last month in Iowa. The tightening race has the rhetoric heating up at the same time.

[18:32:56] Our senior Washington correspondent, Jeff Zeleny is joining us from Iowa right now. Jeff, the Democrats, they're beginning to really go after each other, aren't they?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, they sure are. It's on policy differences, for sure, but it's also on a lot of process. In fact, when their next debate is going to be, how many debates they're going to have and who is going to show up.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

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

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (D-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, wants to change the rules. We are willing to say if she's willing to do a number of debates later on, fine.

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

SANDERS: That's right.

ZELENY: Sanders asked Clinton to sign onto debates in March, April and May. Tonight, here's what she told Wolf.

HILLARY CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: First things first, we have to agree that we're going to debate in New Hampshire. Both the governor and I have agreed, and we're waiting for the senator to decide to join us.

ZELENY: Still unclear if that breaks the impasse.

CLINTON: I am urging publicly that we do this debate next week in New Hampshire, and then I've said I am more than happy for us to start scheduling additional debates.

ZELENY: 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.

CLINTON: I'm not just shouting slogans. I'm not just engaging in rhetoric.

ZELENY: But Clinton says her rivals' 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. She says that you'll bring more gridlock to Washington.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (D-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: 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 OF THE UNITED STATES: You cannot be lured by the politics of division and distraction.

[18:35:06] 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: I don't want my integrity and honesty to be impugned. I have no idea who says this. This is a lie, An absolute lie. OK? We will win or we'll lose. We do it honestly. And I really dislike people suggesting we're going to bring students from out of state who are going to perjure themselves by saying they live in Iowa.

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...

ZELENY: You're in good fighting form?

SANDERS: Thank God I am in very good health.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY: So Wolf, after you talked to Hillary Clinton today and I talked to Bernie Sanders, we are still at an impasse in the debate over debates. She, of course, says she will do one in New Hampshire, but a few moments ago, Senator Sanders issued a statement of his own, saying he'll only sign on to that one if she agrees to those debates down the road.

So this impasse is going to continue here as they step up their campaigning over the weekend -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Thanks very much, Jeff Zeleny, for that.

Rebecca Berg, what are you hearing behind the scenes? What's going on this over this debate over Democratic debates?

REBECCA BERG, REAL CLEAR POLITICS: Well, obviously, we see that Hillary Clinton wants this debate prior to the New Hampshire primary, because she feels threatened. Because she sees polls in New Hampshire, just like we're all seeing right now, where she's losing to Bernie Sanders. She needs a little bit of a boost, in spite of the fact that her campaign hasn't really been receptive to this point to more debates.

And so it makes a lot of sense that Bernie Sanders is requesting that they add more debates to the schedule as a concession. Because that's what he's wanted all along. And his team, at least, thinks that it would help him be out there more.

BLITZER: Dana, what do you think?

BASH: I mean, similar. Look, it was very clear from the -- you tried very hard, but the non-answers that Hillary Clinton gave you, that they're trying to figure out how to thread this needle for the reasons that you just talked about.

The problem is, or maybe the good news is for Hillary Clinton, that she has been doing very well in these debates. So it wouldn't be a terrible thing for her to have a debate. I think that they're just trying to figure out how to sort of deal with the immediate future, Iowa and New Hampshire, where she very well could lose, and how a debate could help or hurt her going into the next states, where she's expected, the hope, at least, to do better.

BLITZER: The vice president, Joe Biden, Gloria, a man you know well, he weighed in today on what's going on in this presidential contest. Let me play the clip.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOE BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We may be given a gift from the Lord in the presidential race here. I don't know who to root for more. Cruz or Bush -- or what's that guy's name? He's having a -- he's having a fundraiser for veterans tonight, I'm told.

But all kidding aside, folks, you know, it's been a tough -- it's been a tough last couple cycles. But we should get up, man. There's a real shot here.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: What do you think about what the vice president is saying?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, he speaks the truth about how it's been a tough couple of cycles for the Democrats. Under this administration, they've been hollowed out at the state legislative level, at the gubernatorial level, at the congressional level.

And so what he's saying is, this may give us an opportunity to get back on our -- on our feet, win back control of the Senate, potentially the House, although I think that's -- that's, you know, less likely. And what -- you know, what he's saying is, "Oh, these guys are easy to beat."

I'm not so sure I believe that. But I think what he was talking about is the opportunities to recoup what they've lost.

ANA NAVARRO, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think what he was really saying inside his head was, "Oh, if only I were running. This would be so much fun."

BORGER: I don't even think that's even so inside his head.

BLITZER: It's interesting, Ana, because we heard Reince Priebus in the interview, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, with me once again saying what so many Republicans are saying, that Hillary Clinton may have a legal problem because of those e-mails, the private server, the FBI investigations. They're throwing that out all the time. I don't know how serious they are. But what do you think?

NAVARRO: I don't think it's just Republicans throwing that out. I think it's being widely covered in the press. There are more and more revelations. It is a story that is not going away. The investigations are ongoing. It is an existing question.

So I think it's a valid point to bring it up. You know, you just can't just erase the fact that there is an ongoing investigation going on.

BORGER: But he raises it every five minutes, and so do a lot of Republican candidates.

BLITZER: They keep saying that, if something were to happen, an indictment, the FBI comes in, and there's an indictment of Hillary Clinton...

NAVARRO: We're not talking chopped liver. We're talking, you know, an FBI investigation. This is serious stuff.

BASH: But I think even -- but put that aside for a second. Even if that doesn't happen, I think the Democrats who are chomping at the bit for a Donald Trump opponent.

[18:40:15] Or even Ted Cruz. I mean, even Republicans think Donald Trump would be a better opponent for them for Hillary Clinton than Ted Cruz.

But I just think that everything is so unpredictable in this electorate, not just in the Republican base, not just in the Democratic base, but just in the country, that they should be careful what they wish for.

BORGER: Well, Hillary Clinton, if she becomes the nominee, is a very polarizing person. Bernie Sanders is a Democratic socialist. And so, you know, those -- you know, those are difficult things to sell. She has a long history of being a polarizing politician.

NAVARRO: I don't think Republicans should be bringing up right now the e-mail issues.

BORGER: Right.

NAVARRO: Save it for the general. The best moment Hillary Clinton has had in this campaign so far was the 11-hour Benghazi.

BORGER: Benghazi, right.

BLITZER: That's a different issue.

All right. I want to go back to the Donald Trump veterans event that's about to get under way in a couple hours. There are long lines of people that have gathered. Mark Preston, our executive political editor, he's out there right now. He was describing the scene.

We have just received a statement from Drake University, where this event, this Donald Trump veterans event, will take place in the Sheslow Auditorium.

Here's the statement: "Drake University has been made aware that tonight's event at Sheslow Auditorium has been significantly over- ticketed by the Trump campaign. Fire code limits occupancy of Sheslow Auditorium to approximately 700 persons. Therefore, based on our understanding of the number of tickets distributed, only a small percentage of ticketholders will be admitted into the auditorium. Please be advised of the venue's limited seating as you plan your evening."

Gloria, only 700 people inside. Thousands of people are waiting outside. Clearly, there's high interest.

BORGER: And Trump will say our cameras don't show them. Right?

BLITZER: We're talking about the high interest right there. You have a huge crowd, 700. But there are a lot of people are going to be disappointed they're not going to get in.

BORGER: You know, part of the stage craft, as you call it, is -- you know, is packing -- is packing your stadium and the lines waiting outside. And the people being unable to get in. And I think that's what we're -- I think that's what we're going to see tonight while there is a competing event, which will no doubt be a little more sedate and less raucous.

BLITZER: All right. We'll see what's going to happen at both of these events. All right, guys. Thanks very much.

Just ahead, another story we're following. An urgent White House meeting about growing ISIS presence in Libya. Is the U.S. about to open a new front in the fight against the terrorists? Plus, a new twist in a shocking story. A police officer who staged

his suicide to look like a murder. Why has his widow now been charged?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:47:21] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: There's growing concern right now about the increasing ISIS presence in Libya where terrorist forces are now believed to number in the thousands. Sources tell CNN there was the subject of an urgent National Security Council meeting today over at the White House.

Our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr is working the story for us, getting new information.

Barbara, what are you learning?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, so much concern that Defense Secretary Ash Carter even canceled his travel plans outside of Washington today to attend the White House session. No word on what was decided. But when Carter met with the Pentagon press corps, he made clear why he is so concerned about ISIS in Libya.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ASHTON CARTER, DEFENSE SECRETARY: They are establishing the installations where they train people. They're welcoming foreign fighters to flock there the way in years past they did in Syria and Iraq. And they are trying to take over the reins of the economy and taxing. That's one reason why we develop options for what we might do in the future.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STARR: What we might do in the future. The chairman of the joint chiefs has already talked about the need for decisive military action that may be coming. No word on what that will be. Some officials are pointing to increased drone strikes.

The estimates right now, there may be upwards of 3,000 ISIS fighters in Libya, and just in the last weeks and months of 2015, perhaps several hundred, perhaps as many as 500 additional ISIS fighters going there.

Libya, why so important? Just look at the geography. It is really on Europe's southern border. Very easy to cross over the Mediterranean into Europe. A lot of concern what ISIS may have planned from its new front in Libya -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Certainly become a failed state now in the aftermath of Gadhafi and it's a disaster that's unfolding potentially right now.

Barbara, thanks very much.

An emotional return to "The Washington Post" today for the reporter Jason Rezaian who was held by Iran for a year and a half. Secretary of State John Kerry was on hand at Rezaian revealed some disturbing new details about his captivity.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JASON REZAIAN, FREED WASHINGTON POST REPORTER: For much of the 18 months I was in prison, my Iranian interrogators told me "The Washington Post" did not exist, that no one knew of my plight, and that the United States government would not lift a finger for my release. Today, I'm here in this room with the very people who helped prove the Iranians wrong in so many ways.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

[18:50:04] BLITZER: Our chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto is with us right now here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

You were there when "The Washington Post," they opened a new facility, a new building here, and he was the guest of honor.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: No question. And you can say, there wasn't a dry eye in the room. It was obviously a happy event, but an extremely emotional event. You saw Jason Rezaian shedding a tear there. Secretary of State John Kerry who spoke as well, he was brought to tears describing this as welcoming soldiers home, never leave one behind.

But it was interesting, Jason Rezaian also at times poking fun at this situation. He said it was the first time he's been in front of a crowd in a wild, of course, noting we should note, that he was in solitary confinement for a significant portion of his time in that Iranian prison, but also expressing pride at the enormous that went into getting him released.

Here's what he said to say on that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REZAIAN: I'm truly fortunate to have this opportunity to thank Secretary Kerry and Ambassador Brett McGuirk, who negotiated with the Iranians for my release and who constantly advocated on my behalf within the U.S. government. No other country would do so much for an ordinary citizen, and I know that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCIUTTO: And that effort truly down to the wire. You may remember that weekend that he was released, they actually had a 12-hour delay, Wolf. We talked about this. They were meant to take off on Saturday, but Jason's wife Yega and his mother were meant to be on that plane.

And Secretary Kerry revealed he got a call from the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif who told him we can't find Yega, that's his wife's name, and Mary. Eventually, they were found in a military- controlled part of the airport, really just reiterating they didn't know for sure until those final minutes that that plane took off that this exchange was going to work out and that he was going to leave the country safely. BLITZER: Happy he is back here in the United States right now. I'm

glad you went to that event today as well. I know you were moved. Thanks very much, Jim Sciutto, for that.

Just ahead, a police officer tries to kill himself and tries to make it look like murder. Now, his wife is charged with embezzlement. We're learning new details of this latest twist in this truly shocking story.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:56:34] BLITZER: There's another twist tonight in the shocking story of a small town police officer who staged his suicide to look like a murder. Our justice correspondent Pamela Brown has the latest.

Pamela, there are new developments tonight. Share with our viewers what we've learned.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, in that remarkable turn of events, a grand jury in Chicago indicted the wife of that disgraced officer, Lieutenant Joe Gliniewicz, on six felony counts for an elaborate embezzling and money laundering scheme.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN (voice-over): Melodie Gliniewicz grieved publicly following the death of her husband, a police lieutenant in Fox Lake, Illinois.

MELODIE GLINIEWICZ, FOX LAKE OFFICER'S WIDOW: He truly will be missed by all of us.

BROWN: But Lieutenant Joe Gliniewicz's story soon unraveled. Authorities determined his death staged to appear as though he was killed in a line of duty was actually a carefully orchestrated suicide. And now, his authorities say his wife is a criminal.

REPORTER: Any comment, Melodie?

BROWN: Melodie Gliniewicz, seen here in handcuffs, is accused of stealing thousands of dollars from the Fox Lake Explorers Program. A program she ran with her husband for teens aspiring to become police officers.

DET. CHRISTOPHER COVELLI, LAKE COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE: The account where money was going for the Explorer Youth Program in Fox Lake had been used to fund many personal purchases.

BROWN: Investigators say the couple used money from the explorers to purchase things such as a trip to Hawaii, 400 restaurant charges and movie tickets.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I belong to the American Legion and we had a big fundraiser for them. And, basically, they kept the money.

BROWN: Authorities say the pair stole from the charity for years, but it wasn't discovered until after Lieutenant Gliniewicz's shocking death in September. Police say the well-known officer staged his suicide to look like murder in an attempt to cover up the alleged embezzlement.

Deleted text messages from the lieutenant's cellphone show the couple allegedly discussing the illegal transactions. In one text, Gliniewicz allegedly told his wife, "Use the Explorer account for the flight, $624.70."

CMDR. GEORGE FILENKO, LAKE COUNTY MAJOR CRIMES TASK FORCE: A lot of what these monies were spent on were very unusual. Health clubs, Starbucks, adult websites.

BROWN: In other words, not expenses for a group of teens?

FILENKO: No. Not pizza parties.

BROWN: In a statement, Melodie Gliniewicz's attorney says she is, quote, "a victim of her husband's secret actions and looks forward to her day in court to show her innocence."

REPORTER: Any comment to the public who supported you through this?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: And Gliniewicz posted the $50,000 bond yesterday. She's expected to appear in court next week. Also, initially, investigators suspected the son DJ (ph) may have been part of this scheme, but we're being told by investigators that they didn't have enough evidence to charge him. And investigation -- the investigation into the Explorer Post funds has now been closed -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What a story this is. Pamela Brown, thanks very much for that report.

And this important note to our viewers out there. You can see much more on this remarkable story tomorrow night in a CNN special report "The Secret Life of 'G.I. Joe'". That airs at 10:00 p.m. Eastern Friday night, only here on CNN.

Remember, you can always follow us on Twitter. Please tweet me @wolfblitzer. You can tweet the show @CNNsitroom. Please be sure to join us again tomorrow, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.