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THE SITUATION ROOM

Trump Puts Rubio on Notice; Trump, Cruz, Rubio Jockey for Position; Obama Submits Plan for Closing Gitmo; Sanders and Clinton Make Final Push For Voters In S.C.; Senate GOP Says No Hearing for Supreme Court Nominee; Apple Challenges Court Order to Unlock iPhone. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired February 23, 2016 - 17:00   ET

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


[17:00:14] BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN GUEST HOST: Happening now, Donald Trump said he wanted to punch a Nevada protester, and now he's looking to knock out his rivals in tonight's caucuses and warning Marco Rubio, "Hit me and see what happens."

Talk of the town. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton getting ready for tonight's CNN town hall with South Carolina's crucial primary just days away.

Also, supreme rejection. Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee say, if President Obama sends up a Supreme Court nominee, they will not even hold hearings.

I'm Brianna Keilar, in for Wolf Blitzer, and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

And we begin tonight with some breaking news. In less than three hours, Republican voters in Nevada will head to caucus sites, and they'll choose a nominee. Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, the top three in reason polls, but polling in this state can be pretty tricky, which means we could see some surprises tonight.

We're covering it all for you, starting with CNN's Jim Acosta. He is with the Trump campaign in Las Vegas.

And, Jim, Trump preemptively took a swipe at Rubio, right? This is what everyone's waiting for. Do you think this is foreshadowing a possible fight?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Brianna. Donald Trump is the odds-on favorite to win here in Nevada, but his campaign co-chair tells me, while they are confident this is a caucus, so the results are unpredictable, Trump's rivals spent the day warning the GOP of what will happen if he becomes the nominee.

Rubio noted the party establishment is lining up against Trump. While Ted Cruz said the brash billionaire simply can't be trusted as a conservative, now Trump just wrapped up an event in Sparks, Nevada. He foreshadowed, as you said, Brianna, what he sees as the potential battle to come with Rubio. Rubio said -- Trump said that Rubio is a nice, young man but he better be ready, is what he had to say. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Nikki Haley, who backed the wrong horse, she had -- who the hell did she back? Yes, Rubio. Who, by the way, I've been very nice to. Very nice. People are saying, "Why are you so nice?" Because he hasn't hit me. When he does, he will -- he will see what happens.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ACOSTA: Now, Trump also tweeted today that he's the candidate that can unite the Republican Party, and he joked -- Brianna, get this -- he joked that his supporters are so loyal they would overlook Trump's involvement in a murder, but Trump did appear to be kidding when he said that, Brianna.

KEILAR: He said something similar before, as well. And we've gotten used to him, as well, hitting Ted Cruz. What's he saying about that?

ACOSTA: That's right. He went right back to hammering Ted Cruz today, again, hitting on a theme that the Texas senator is dishonest. But Trump, as he often does, added a new wrinkle to his line of attack, calling Cruz basically an infant. Here's what he had to say about that.

Oh, I should point out, we don't have that sound there ready to go. But he said that Trump -- he said that Cruz is basically a baby, but in terms of liars, he's the best that he's ever seen.

You know, Brianna, Trump is still trying to appeal to evangelicals, as well, to try to cut into Ted Cruz's base of support. He was trying to get his supporters to get out there today to go and caucus on behalf of the GOP front-runner.

But at this rally today, in Sparks, he said, nobody reads the Bible more than he does. Last night here in Las Vegas, Trump said he wanted to punch a protester in the face. For the last 24 hours, it has been vintage Donald Trump. He has not dialed it back one bit heading into these Nevada caucuses, Brianna.

KEILAR: All right. Jim Acosta in Las Vegas, thank you so much.

Marco Rubio spent six years growing up in Las Vegas. He's really counting on that local connection tonight. He's currently neck and neck with Senator Cruz, coming off a rough news day after the firing of his communications director.

And although Senator Rubio has already moved on, he's at a rally now in Minneapolis, and he is heading to Michigan later tonight. He's really looking for a boost back in his old hometown, Las Vegas, which is where we find CNN's Jason Carroll now.

So Jason, you have the caucuses just a few hours away. You have Rubio hoping for his momentum to continue. The question, though, is how much momentum does he actually have in Nevada? Can we tell? JASON CARROLL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, you know, that is a good

question. I think it's safe to say, Brianna, that the Rubio camp wishes they had more momentum, at least here in Nevada. They certainly have a number of GOP leaders who are stepping up in support of Marco Rubio. Will that translate into votes, though? That's the big question. And at this point, you know, it's really, really tough to answer.

We do know, as you say at this point, Marco Rubio has moved on. He's going to be doing his campaigning in Minnesota and in Michigan. So actually, he won't even be here tonight at the watch party that he's holding. So perhaps some people out here saying that's some sort of indication of how the Rubio camp thinks he's going to end up doing here.

[17:05:12] So, momentum, yes. Is it enough? Still very much a question.

KEILAR: Yes, their travel schedules say so much about kind of where their minds are, but what is -- what is he saying about President Obama's plan to close Guantanamo Bay?

CARROLL: Well, as you know, that was one of the president's promises during his campaign to keep Guantanamo -- to close Guantanamo Bay. Well, Marco Rubio said today -- he's actually said this before -- that it is his intention to keep Guantanamo Bay open. He in no way wants enemy combatants anywhere near U.S. soil.

And when he said that during his rally a little earlier this morning, it was met by resounding applause, also applause when he said that it was a mistake to try to cut the U.S. military.

I mean, at the end of the day, Brianna, he definitely knows how to get his audience going. He knows how to get them to their feet. The question is, can he get them to the polls? And again, that's a question at this point that -- question that can't be answered -- Brianna.

We'll see. We'll see there in Nevada tonight. All right, Jason Carroll, thank you.

And we will have more on that Guantanamo fallout shortly, as we mentioned. Unless the polling turns out to be completely wrong. This is really a Cruz/Rubio battle for second place.

And reporting on the Cruz campaign tonight is CNN's Sunlen Serfaty, who's joining us now. You're there, someone at Ted Cruz's caucus headquarters in Vegas. What is the Cruz campaign expecting tonight?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, they seem to be avoiding setting expectations of any kind, Brianna. I asked Senator Cruz on the ground here, as he was campaigning throughout Nevada, how he expects to do tonight. And he said -- he didn't go far. He just said it's his hope to do well.

And as you referenced, really, the race for second is the big prize for him here tonight. They want to beat Marco Rubio coming out of tonight. They really think that is the main goal and that would do a lot, propelling him towards Super Tuesday, the Cruz campaign very much wanting to have a little wind at their back, have their candidate get a little swagger back.

Also very critical, though, is to be able to leave Nevada here with that key argument that Cruz potentially could make if he beats Rubio, that he is the alternative to Trump -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Cruz is rallying around Nevada today, trying for this final push for support. What is he saying in response to this latest criticism from Donald Trump, who called Cruz, quote, "soft and weak and like a little baby"?

SERFATY: Well, he's pushing back much more aggressively than we've seen in recent days. At his very first event this morning, first thing he brought up to his supporters, his crowd, he basically read what Donald Trump had said to him -- said about him last night, calling him sick, and saying in response, really launching a direct attack on Trumps character in response saying, "Look, this is someone who changes position to position. What does that reveal about his character," saying that someone who vacillates from position to position to position is -- shows that they are not coming from a corset of beliefs or principle.

This was about the most direct attack I've heard Ted Cruz launch specifically about Donald Trump's character -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Sunlen, tell us what he said, as well, about President Obama's announcement about Gitmo. This is something so many of the candidates have weighed in on. Did Cruz?

SERFATY: That's right. And he of course, did not waste an opportunity to weigh in on this, obviously was not in agreement with President Obama's speech today, and said that President Obama should not shut down Guantanamo Bay. He called for an expansion. He said, "Let's throw some more terrorists in there." You know, he never shies away from any opportunity to criticize President Obama. Today no exception.

KEILAR: All right. Sunlen Serfaty in Las Vegas, thank you.

Perspective now from the campaign professionals. We have CNN political commentators Geoffrey Lord and Amanda Carpenter -- Carpenter. He is a Trump supporter. He's a former Reagan White House political director. She's the former communications director for Senator Ted Cruz. And also joining us is Adam Kahn, Republican Party chairman of Washoe County, Nevada. And we have CNN political commentator Ana Navarro.

So Ana, to you first. You have Trump's comments about Senator Rubio today. He said he's been very nice to Senator Rubio, but if Rubio goes after him, quote, "he will see what happens." A lot of applause there from the crowd he was talking to. And there's a lot of people who have been waiting for Rubio to attack Trump. Why hasn't this boiled over yet? ANA NAVARRO, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Because the timing hasn't

been right, but I think it's going to boil over. We've seen this show on TV before. We saw it play out between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. You'll remember that, what, six months ago, they had a bromance going on. Ted Cruz was in New York visiting Donald Trump. They were posting pictures together. It was, you know, best friends forever going on. They were practically exchanging vows on TV.

[17:10:06] But you know, then we saw how it turned into a very, very nasty fight between the two of them when it got close, and the race got competitive. I think you're going to see some of the same thing with Marco Rubio.

Look, Donald Trump goes after people. If he sees Marco Rubio inching up, if he sees Marco Rubio getting close to his position, he will attack him. I think Marco is going to need to attack back.

And Marco, at this point, is trying to attract a lot of the folks that were supporting Jeb Bush, that were supporting others that have dropped out. And I think that for a lot of us it's important to support somebody that has the will, the ability, and the backbone to confront Donald Trump head on.

KEILAR: Geoff, your guy, Donald Trump, has been saying some things that are really raising eyebrows, as he often does. He talked about wanting to punch a protester in the face. He called Ted Cruz crazy. He said he would be so angry if voters don't get out and caucus in Nevada. He was talking about tempering his tone and we did see it a little bit before the New Hampshire primary. Does this pay off tonight, this kind of language?

GEOFFREY LORD, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, first of all, I'm always, you know, a little cautious about caucus situations. They're not primaries. As we saw in Iowa, the results can be -- can be different. So you know, I have really no idea what's going to happen in this caucus situation.

As to his language, you know, that punch in the face thing, I went back and did some checking on this historically. This is what the American left did to, of all people, Hubert Humphrey, who was the Democrats' nominee in 1968. They did exactly then what they're doing to Donald Trump now. They showed up at his rallies. They shouted obscenities. They tried to provoke. They tried to get a reaction.

At one point Hubert Humphrey had the Secret Service and the police drag them out forcibly out of the arena. I think it was in Seattle. So this is a -- this is a standard tactic here. And I think Donald Trump not only is responding to it, but I had a little book event for something I was doing last night sponsored by a Philadelphia radio station. There were about 150 people in a sold-out thing, an event that they had arranged. And the comments to me, unasked by the participants, by the guests, were -- were very critical of the media. This is -- they are -- the media sort of writ large is not a...

KEILAR: But I guess -- I guess the bigger question, Geoff, is so he's not -- so is he pulling back on that attempt to temper his language? LORD: I think he does when he feels it's appropriate, sure. But I

think, you know, there are times when he feels -- and frankly, all of these candidates do. I mean, with Ted Cruz -- and I feel badly for his communications director, whom I know and like, but he got -- you know, he made a mistake here.

But the campaign, the Cruz campaign has been hit by Ben Carson, by Marco Rubio, and Donald Trump, all on issues going to, you know, truth telling and dirty tricks, et cetera. When you've got three candidates piling in after you, you know, you've got -- this is more than just Donald Trump doing this.

KEILAR: OK. Well, let me ask you, Amanda, about that. Because Senator Cruz had a pretty tough day yesterday. His coms director resigned over this inaccurate Rubio video. This came on the heels of a Photoshop picture that they put out of Rubio and the president. Does this hurt him in Nevada?

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Listen, Ted Cruz has had a lot thrown at him since the beginning. I think it's because a lot of people knew him as a threat.

Still, with everyone coming after him, placed first in Iowa, third in New Hampshire, tied for second in South Carolina. And so I think he'll still perform pretty well tonight, given all these dynamics.

But campaigns are about facing adversity. He's had a lot of these things thrown at them. In that midst of that, Rick Tyler made a bad judgment and suffered the consequences. I think it speaks a lot to Cruz's character that he did take action and terminated the staffer for doing it. It's a very hard thing to do.

But they're going to keep competing. The dynamics for their campaign have not changed going into Super Tuesday. And I think they have a very strong argument that they're the only ones to take on Donald Trump and beat him to date.

KEILAR: Can he pull out second in Nevada?

CARPENTER: We'll have to see. I've seen reports that the preregistered people for the caucus are higher, the number. I think that probably helps Trump and Cruz more than Rubio.

KEILAR: All right, Ana, I know that you've said from your perspective they're in Nevada, that Senator Rubio and Senator Cruz have both had a much stronger, more organized ground game than Donald Trump, but you have Trump leading in the polls there. And he is really leading in the polls. So how do you expect this to play out?

ADAM KAHN, REPUBLICAN PARTY CHAIRMAN, WASHOE COUNTY, NEVADA: I think it all on depends...

KEILAR: This is for Adam. How do you think it's going to play out?

KAHN: I think it all -- I think it all depends on turnout. What's interesting is Amanda was saying, you know, the vows that Cruz and Trump were married before. In classic Nevada fashion, I would say they're divorced now. Because I've got a chance to attend a Ted Cruz rally and a Donald Trump rally. And you think they're running just against each other. You think there's no one on the Democratic side, because they're more worried about each other.

But I think Donald Trump sees Ted Cruz as the biggest threat this election cycle. Now, whether he pivots towards Rubio, I actually think that tells us a lot more than the polls will tell us.

But I'll tell you what. In Nevada, you have to be registered as a Republican by February 13 to participate, and I think there's going to be a lot of Donald Trump voters that are registering today or yesterday or last week that are going to show up to those caucuses and that will be turned away, not allowed to vote.

[17:15:11] KEILAR: That will be a really interesting point.

All right. You guys stay right where you are. We have much more to talk about when we come back, especially on this Gitmo bombshell out of the White House. President Obama sending his plan for closing the facility there to Congress, and lawmakers are responding sharply. And all of it as we are seeing playing out on the campaign trail.

Also ahead the Democrats, they're heading into tonight's CNN town hall in South Carolina. They also have a big primary this weekend with Bernie Sanders fighting an uphill battle.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:20:10] KEILAR: We talked a bit about it before the break. Seven years after calling for the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, President Obama this morning sent Congress his plan for making it happen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Keeping this facility open is contrary to our values. It undermines our standing in the world. It is viewed as a stain on our broader record of upholding the highest standards of rule of law.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KEILAR: Some lawmakers beg to differ. One senator, Republican Pat Roberts of Kansas, wasted no time disposing of it. Check this out.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. PAT ROBERTS (R), KANSAS: This is what I think of the president's plan to send terrorists to the United States. (CRUMPLES IT UP AND THROWS IT IN THE TRASH)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KEILAR: So in a moment, more on the impact on the presidential campaign. Right now we want to get the very latest on this plan itself, the reaction in Washington to it.

And we have CNN's Michelle Kosinski following this story from the White House for us. Tell us more about this blueprint that the president put out today, Michelle.

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Brianna.

Right, so there are 91 detainees still at Gitmo. Thirty-five of those have been approved for transfer to other countries, as the White House has been doing over the last couple of years. The White House now wants to see if there are any more that could be transferred. They want to reform the military commissions that have been eventually trying these suspects. But ultimately, the president wants to find secure locations in the United States to move these people to.

We know that the Department of Defense has looked at Leavenworth in Kansas, Supermax in Colorado. But it was interesting. None of those were named specifically in the president's plan, and that just annoyed opponents of this plan even more, Brianna.

KEILAR: And this, of course, this point of contention between Obama and his opponents, his GOP opponents, since really the very beginning of his presidency. Tell us more about the reaction.

KOSINSKI: Well, from Republicans, it's as expected, very negative. And especially from some of the candidates. I mean, you have John Kasich making the argument that those who are left at Gitmo now are the worst of the worst terror suspects; don't bring them to the United States.

Marco Rubio saying, "We're not going to give back Gitmo to the Cubans," even though the White House isn't proposing that at all. That's not even on the table.

You have Donald Trump saying, "I could keep Gitmo open, but I could do it for a lot less money."

But the White House is saying, you know, among this opposition, it's just putting political pressures and political needs over our national security interests. And the White House says, you know, if you're a fiscal conservative, then you shouldn't want to continue spending more than $4 million per year, per detainee, at Gitmo, as it stands right now -- Brianna.

KEILAR: What about taking executive action? Is that something that you're hearing anything about from the White House?

KOSINSKI: Yes, that's a really good question. And it's complicated, because in the past couple of months, we've heard from people like the attorney general herself. We've heard from the joint chiefs of staff, saying, "Well, current law prohibits us from transferring these detainees right now to hold them in the U.S."

So the question then is, how can -- to the White House, how can you talk about executive action when everybody else is saying the law says you cannot do that? But the White House isn't going into any detail. They simply repeat

that they're not ruling out any executive action at this point. What that would look like under the law, though, truly remains to be seen, Brianna.

KEILAR: All options on the table doesn't necessarily mean he will use them. We will see. All right, Michelle. Thank you so much for that report.

And as we mentioned, Republicans turned this news into a rallying cry on the campaign trail today. This morning before leaving Las Vegas, Marco Rubio, who is of Cuban ancestry, weighed in.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: When I'm president, if we capture a terrorist alive, they're not getting a court hearing in Manhattan. They're not go to be sent to Nevada. They're going to Guantanamo, and we're going to find out everything they know.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KEILAR: Back now with our panel. We have Ana Navarro. I want to ask you about this, the president's push to close Guantanamo. The candidates are clearly wasting no time talking about this on the trail today. For Senator Rubio, Senator Cruz, they'll have to weigh if on this on Capitol Hill. And this isn't just a fight on the campaign trail, Ana.

NAVARRO: No, it's not. And I have to say that Marco Rubio was way, way ahead of the curve on this. He has been mentioning this issue about Guantanamo and saying that it will stay open. He will not be shutting it down. What he basically said today, he's been saying it for months.

And I do think that it's an important angle what you just brought up, that both Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are of Cuban ancestry, and are very well-versed on the Cuba issue.

Look, it might sound like a stretch to some folks, but I don't think it's any coincidence that Barack Obama, that President Obama is going to Cuba in three weeks and is announcing today something that's been a huge bone of contention with the Cuban government, which is the U.S. occupation of the Guantanamo navy base.

[17:25:05] I do think that it is yet another unilateral concession by the Obama administration to the Cuban government, despite the Cuban government having done nothing to deserve this, continuing to violate human rights, continuing to oppress and jail dissidents. And I think Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz come to it with enormous sensitivity and knowledge and will both address it very, very strongly.

KEILAR: Geoffrey Lord, let's talk about Donald Trump on this. You have Senator McCain, who's often cited by the White House as being the one that Republican -- he's really the one Republican who supports the closure of Gitmo. He was pretty critical of what the president put forward today, we should say. He said it could have been done earlier, that the plan is vague; it is incredible.

If he isn't even on board with it, it's going to be a tough fight for the president to get some bipartisan coalition in Congress together, right?

LORD: That's right. I mean, I totally agree with Ana. If there is -- if there is an issue that would unite every Republican running for president, this would surely be it. I mean, we've been attacked repeatedly over the years, 1993 with Bill Clinton through the World Trade Center with George W. Bush, you know, on to Ft. Hood, et cetera. The notion that terrorists should not be held there is something that just is not a sell, certainly within the Republican Party, and I don't think in the country as a whole.

KEILAR: On an issue like this, where you have senators Cruz and Rubio weighing in there in Congress, when you're looking at your candidate, Donald Trump, do you think that they seem more like more of an authority on this, having had that experience?

LORD: Oh, I don't -- you know, in that sense, I don't know that it particularly matters. I think that the point here is where you come out on this. And if you're tough on this and seen as tough on terrorism, which Donald Trump certainly is. So I don't know so much that the experience end of it matters as where you come out on this. And he comes out exactly where I think everybody else is coming out. And they're not alone.

KEILAR: What do you think, Amanda, about -- what do you think about how this plays out on the campaign trail? Does it -- does it really matter in the end?

CARPENTER: Yes, I think it does. And I think candidates who want to show some seriousness towards the issue have an opportunity to take it to a broader level. We see Donald Trump essentially saying, "Oh, we love Gitmo. We're going to put more people in it." No, that's not the right response to the president's remarks.

KEILAR: You don't see he -- where he is to be the same as where Senator Cruz and Senator Rubio is.

CARPENTER: What I'm saying is the president says we have to close Guantanamo Bay, because it's a recruitment tool for radical Islam and terrorists. We can close Guantanamo Bay. They are still going to recruit. They're not recruiting people because Guantanamo Bay exists. They're recruiting people, because they want to destroy the West.

We can put those prisoners wherever we want. They're still going to be upset the prisoners are there. It's safer to keep them outside the homeland, and that's where I hope presidential candidates will take that conversation.

KEILAR: Adam, does this matter in Nevada much?

KAHN: Well, it does, because we saw the attacks on San Bernardino. That was in California. That was our neighboring state. A lot of people are scared of what's going to be happening. And so when we hear news today, the day of the caucus, that President

Obama wants to shut down Guantanamo Bay, you know, the candidates are saying it. We've already been transferring people out of that prison. The people that are left are the worst of the worst. And we don't want those people anywhere else besides in Guantanamo Bay. And we don't want to send them back to their home countries, because we already see some of the people that we have released are right back on the battlefield.

So it does affect it. And I've seen Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz have been talking about it. They said they're not going to shut down Guantanamo Bay. They're going to keep it open, and they're going to protect this country.

KEILAR: All right. Adam Kahn, thank you so much. And thanks to the other folks on our panel: Geoffrey Lord, Amanda Carpenter, and Ana Navarro.

It is a busy week here ahead for Republicans and also for us. Caucuses tonight, Super Tuesday coming up, and Thursday night, a CNN Republican debate from Houston. South Carolina Democratic primary on Saturday. Wolf Blitzer will be the moderator of this debate. Perhaps you have heard of him. Again, that is on Thursday night, 8:30 Eastern Time, right here on CNN.

And tonight, the Democrats will take questions from South Carolina voters and from moderator Chris Cuomo in a CNN town hall. We'll be taking a look at Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders' strategies ahead of the South Carolina primary, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KEILAR: Just about two-and-a-half hours from now Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders will take questions from voters in the final town hall before the Democratic primary in South Carolina Saturday.

[17:33:51] CNN senior Washington correspondent Joe Johns joining me now from Columbia with the latest from the Clinton campaign. And Joe, do you have a sense of what we're expecting to hear, what Secretary Clinton is trying to achieve tonight?

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, let me give you some sense of what's going on here, which is essentially the warm-up event before she actually goes over to the law school here in Columbia, South Carolina, to do that later town hall on CNN.

This is a gun policy event in an African-American church in Columbia, South Carolina. She's going to be appearing here with a group of mothers who have been traversing South Carolina in support of Hillary Clinton. Those mothers happen to be the mothers of victims of controversial shootings, including the mother of Trayvon Martin. So the campaign thinks gun policy is a good issue for her. Polling bears that out.

The latest CNN/ORC poll suggesting she's 20 points up on Bernie Sanders, 55-35. When it comes to gun policy, as far as African- Americans are concerned here in the state.

And make no mistake about it: This is an opportunity for her to tie herself to the legacy of President Obama. He said gun policy is one of the most frustrating things he's had to deal with in his administration. Hillary Clinton wants to make the case that this is the kind of unfinished business from the Obama administration that she can get done -- Brianna.

[17:35:13] KEILAR: All right. Joe Johns, thank you.

Bernie Sanders had a rally in Virginia earlier today ahead of the town hall, and he picked up director Spike Lee's endorsement.

CNN senior Washington correspondent Jeff Zeleny joining me now from Columbia, South Carolina, as well. And he -- you look at polls, Jeff. He is really far behind Secretary Clinton. Sanders acknowledged that he has this uphill climb, and it really has to do with how he's doing with African-American voters.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Sure, Brianna, no question about it. I mean, in 2008, the last time there was a Democratic presidential primary here, about 55 percent of the electorate was African-American.

Now, I talked to the state party chair, Jimmy Hurston (ph), yesterday. He told me did not think it was going to be quite that high this time, but it will still be around 50 percent. And that, without a doubt, is a challenge for the Sanders campaign.

But they believe they can make inroads with younger African-American voters who are really responding to this message of criminal justice reform, of economic inequality here. And they also are campaigning a lot on college campuses here.

So the young voters are supporting Senator Sanders, but the problem is for the Sanders campaign, they just don't come out in large numbers. Only about 14 percent of that electorate in '08 was actually voters under 30, Brianna. So it's difficult on the young score. So he's not going to win African-American voters overall. He's just trying to bring down the margins of the Clinton campaign.

KEILAR: OK. And it is really fascinating when you look at their travel schedules, Jeff. You have Hillary Clinton, who's spending the rest of the week in South Carolina, but you have Bernie Sanders focusing on Super Tuesday states. You know, what kind of tactic is this for his campaign, just a realistic one?

ZELENY: I think it is realistic for him. And you know this. You've been out there as much as I have. And she is -- really wants to win South Carolina in a commanding way. That would really sort of open, you know, the next phase of this campaign in a big way.

But he has his eye on a lot of those Super Tuesday states, and the Clinton campaign acknowledges he'll win some of them. The Minnesota caucuses, for example, the Colorado caucuses, maybe the Massachusetts primary. So they view this as sort of a smarter strategy, rather than planting the flag in South Carolina all week long for something he's not likely to win. They're looking beyond to next Tuesday, one week from tonight, Brianna.

KEILAR: All right, Jeff. Thank you so much.

And joining us now, we have CNN chief political analyst Gloria Borger and CNN senior political commentator and former Obama senior adviser David Axelrod.

So we're looking ahead to this town hall tonight, the CNN town hall. What do these two candidates need to do?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: To pick up on what -- on what Jeff was saying -- and I'm not sure what Bernie Sanders could do -- but Bernie Sanders got 22 percent of the African-American vote in Nevada. This is somebody who has to broaden his coalition. And he's got to talk to African-American voters in ways that clearly he didn't -- he didn't do in Nevada.

And if he can't do that, he may be able to pick up primary here and there, a caucus here and there. But this is a big part of the Democratic coalition that he needs to speak to.

DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: And picking up on what Joe Johns said, I think three words you can expect to hear a lot from Hillary Clinton: guns, Barack, and Obama. And I think that's what she's hitting hard here, because that's the key to her support in the African-American community.

KEILAR: That gun event that he's at, I think, is sort of a tip of her hand about what she doesn't want to focus on tonight. We heard Bernie Sanders stressing that, hey, some of the things I'm talking about Secretary Clinton is now talking about. What do you read into that?

AXELROD: Well, he's right. The fact is that he...

KEILAR: Is he sort of saying, "Look, I'm now shaping the race, maybe not going to win it"? What he's saying is "I'm the authentic guy. I'm the authentic progressive. She's now mimicking me. I'm the real thing." I think you're going to hear that argument tonight.

BORGER: And he's already effectively accused her of pandering by embracing Obama, and we'll have to see if he does that tonight.

KEILAR: All right. Gloria Borger, David Axelrod, thank you guys so much. I do want you to weigh in on this after the break. What we're going to talk about, top Senate Republicans, they are saying flat out, they are not holding hearings on anyone that President Obama chooses to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:43:49] KEILAR: Tonight, escalation in a supreme battle. Senate Republicans on the Judiciary Committee promising not just to block President Obama's effort to replace the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia saying today they will not even meet any potential nominees, much less hold confirmation hearings.

Joining me now, we have CNN chief political correspondent, Dana Bash, along with Gloria Borger and David Axelrod. So this is a decision by Republicans. At this point, Dana, how unprecedented is this?

DANA BASH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It is unprecedented, and that's according to the Senate historian who said no Supreme Court nominee has ever been denied a confirmation hearing, except if that nominee voluntarily pulled out, like Harriet Miers during the Bush years.

But today on Capitol Hill, Manu Raju, our colleague, asked Mitch McConnell about not just the fact that the Senate Judiciary Committee is not going to hold hearings but asked whether or not he would even meet with any potential nominee. Listen to his answer.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY LEADER: I'm now confident my conference agrees that this decision ought to be made by the next president, whoever is elected. I don't know the purpose of such a visit. I would not be inclined to take one myself.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: So, Republicans are absolutely, you know, in lock step on this. They feel that they are in the right place politically. Even somebody like Lindsey Graham, who is on the Senate Judiciary Committee, who has voted for President Obama's nominees in the past.

(CROSSTALK)

KEILAR: He says elections have consequences.

BASH: Right. Exactly. Because elections have consequences they are all unanimously saying, in this particular case, they do not believe that it's even worth having a hearing. That they will not --

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: And here's my --

BASH: -- move the nominee.

BORGER: Here's my question for you, David, is how would this affect the type of person that President Obama would nominate? Would he take somebody off a job, a sitting judge, for example, to become a sacrificial lamb?

(CROSSTALK)

KEILAR: Because it would be a one-shot thing, right?

BORGER: Right.

DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: They wouldn't have to get off the court but they would probably have to stop doing what they're doing right now.

BORGER: Exactly. Exactly.

AXELROD: Which is -- which would mean to me he wouldn't take people off the D.C. Circuit.

BORGER: Circuit, right.

AXELROD: Because those cases are critical cases and there are several of them before them right now. I think he'll look elsewhere for a nominee.

KEILAR: And let's say, and also I would wonder to that point, if he does pick somebody to be the nominee and it's sort of in a way a bit of a figure head, let's say the next president is a Democrat, where do they go? Are they now pigeonholed into picking the person that President Obama wanted?

BASH: Probably not. But I think --

KEILAR: So then they really are a sacrificial lamb.

BORGER: Exactly.

BASH: Yes. I mean, that's -- the Republicans just made it very clear today that it will be a sacrificial lamb. But just kind of looking at the politics from now until November, Republicans have historically I think -- you correct me if I'm wrong, David -- been more sort of energized by the idea of who a Supreme Court nominee would be.

AXELROD: Yes.

BASH: But this could --

AXELROD: Not this time.

(CROSSTALK)

KEILAR: You think Democrats --

BASH: Yes, right?

AXELROD: Every election you hear candidates say, well, this is about the Supreme Court, we have to think about the Supreme Court. I think this may be the first election which the Supreme Court actually is a decisive issue for people on both sides of the aisle.

BORGER: I agree.

BASH: Exactly.

AXELROD: But the issues that the court is dealing with, whether it's choice or the environment or guns, they tend to be Democratic oriented positions. When you look at the majority of where Americans are.

BORGER: And you --

AXELROD: I think this is -- this is a classic case of the problem the bind that Republicans are in because they tend to be responsive to their base but the majority is somewhere else including on whether they should go ahead with this nomination.

BORGER: And I agree with Dan. This is going to motivate the Democratic base and you have a lot of Senate races in which you have Republicans running in blue states and this is going to become a huge issue in those Senate races.

AXELROD: And on that point, you saw Senator Mark Kirk, who's one of the embattled Republicans in Illinois announced yesterday that he thought they should move forward on the nominee.

BASH: Exactly.

KEILAR: All right.

BASH: And he's the only one, by the way.

AXELROD: Right.

KEILAR: Dana, Gloria, David, thank you, guys, so much.

And we do have a quick reminder that Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders will be taking questions from voters tonight at CNN South Carolina Democratic town hall. This is going to be moderated by CNN's Chris Cuomo tonight 8:00 Eastern here on CNN.

And just ahead, new developments in the battle over the iPhone at the center of the San Bernardino terror investigation. The Justice Department says Apple is flip-flopping by refusing to follow a court order to find a way for the FBI to hack the phone. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:52:45] KEILAR: New developments tonight in the standoff between Apple and the FBI over an iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino terrorists.

The Republican presidential candidates have not been shy about weighing in on this. Donald Trump has called for a boycott of Apple products. And as you may know a judge has ordered Apple told write new software to allow the FBI to hack the killer's iPhone. Apple has vowed to fight the order.

Today Microsoft founder Bill Gates weighed in and tonight the Justice Department is accusing Apple of flip-flopping on the legal issue.

CNN justice reporter Evan Perez joining me now with the latest.

So we're learning, you know, this isn't really the first time that Apple and the Justice Department have tangled in court.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely not, Brianna. We now know that there are a dozen cases around the country in which Apple says that it is fighting the Justice Department over orders to break into the -- its customers' iPhones. It goes to show you how far reaching this battle could turn out to be. It began with a judge's order for Apple to begin helping the FBI to break into the iPhone used by one of the terrorists in the San Bernardino attacks. But Apple says that there are many more clashes ongoing including one in Brooklyn over a meth dealer's iPhone. But the DEA wants access to.

The number of cases has grown since December and that's after a federal judge in Brooklyn first expressed doubts about a 1789 federal law that the Justice Department has been using in these cases. The Justice Department told the judge last night that Apple has a long history of complying with these orders and it says the company only come up with these objection since publicity has grown over the San Bernardino case and Apple says that it is fighting this fight, Brianna, because it is trying to protect the security and privacy of its customers.

KEILAR: They say it's a bigger issue. But what did Bill Gates say about this?

PEREZ: Well, Bill Gates has had an interesting 24 hours. This morning he did an interview with the "Financial Times" in which he said that Apple was overstating this fight with the FBI and what the FBI is looking for, he said, pretty much what the FBI has been saying that asking Apple to help break into a terrorist's phone is no different from information that the government gets from phone companies.

However, a few hours later Gates told Bloomberg that that was a misunderstanding and he says that he is very concerned about government overreach -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Bill Gates has had an interesting 24 hours as you put it.

PEREZ: Yes, he clearly did.

KEILAR: All right, Evan Perez, thank you so much.

And as we said at the top we are getting closer by the minute to a very big night in presidential politics.

[17:55:05] The latest on tonight's CNN Democratic town hall and the all-out battle royale over the Republican side -- on the Republican side, I should say, in Nevada. We have that and more ahead in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KEILAR: Happening now, Gitmo reaction for and against President Obama's plan to close it. Plus a conversation with one of President Bush's top legal advisers on the facility.

Final pitch. Republicans take their last shot at winning tonight's caucuses taking plenty of shots at each other including a new warning from Donald Trump.

Carolina conversation. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton getting ready for tonight's CNN town hall in Columbia, South Carolina, with primary day fast approaching for them. We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the

world.