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THE SITUATION ROOM

Interview With Brett McGurk; Dirty Bomb Fears; Clinton Defending Her Turf; Clinton Battle Sanders and Trump in NYC; Trump Reserves Remark About Abortion & Punishing Women; Conservative Women Urge Trump to Fire Campaign Chief; New Information on Terror Cell's Potential Targets. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired March 30, 2016 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:00]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hillary Clinton ramps up her fight to win the New York state primary with a TV ad that ignores her Democratic opponent, but takes direct aim at Donald Trump.

And dirty bomb fears. Are ISIS terrorists prepared to use a makeshift nuclear weapon in their next attack? On this, the eve of a high-level summit here in Washington, D.C., I will ask a top Obama adviser on ISIS what he's learning.

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: Let's get to the breaking news this hour, Donald Trump now backing off of new comments that's added fuel to voters' concerns about his views on women.

Earlier, he said that if abortion were to become illegal in the United States, women who get the procedure should face some form of punishment. But in a new statement tonight, he says women would not be held legally responsible, this as Trump's controversies may be catching up to him.

A new poll shows Ted Cruz now 10 points ahead of Donald Trump in Wisconsin less than a week before the state's Republican primary. Cruz's support has more than doubled since last month.

Also tonight, more backlash against Trump and his defense of his campaign manager who now stands charged with simple battery against a female reporter; 16 conservative women in the news media, they are now urging Trump to fire Corey Lewandowski.

The growing bitterness in the GOP race on full display at CNN's town hall event overnight, all three Republican candidates now backing away from their earlier pledge to support the party's eventual nominee.

We have our correspondents, analysts and newsmakers standing by as we cover all the news that's breaking right now.

Up first, let's go to CNN's Sunlen Serfaty. She's in Wisconsin with more on the breaking news.

Sunlen, Hillary Clinton already seizing on Trump's abortion comments, among others.

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf, Hillary Clinton jumping very quickly on this, calling Donald Trump's state horrific and telling. Donald Trump has been put on the defense over all of this very quickly tonight and moving to clarify and walk back his original statement as his rivals zero in.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SERFATY (voice-over): Donald Trump tonight stirring more controversy, saying, if abortion is banned, that women who undergo the procedure should be punished.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC: Do you believe in punishment for abortion, yes or no, as a principle?

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The answer is that there has to be some form of punishment.

MATTHEWS: For the woman?

TRUMP: Yes. There has to be some form.

MATTHEWS: Ten cents, 10 years, what?

TRUMP: I don't know. That, I don't know.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Well, why not?

TRUMP: I don't know.

MATTHEWS: You take positions on everything else.

TRUMP: I find -- I do take positions on everything else. It's a very complicated position.

SERFATY: Trump's remarks sparking an immediate backlash from Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, who tweeted -- quote -- "Just when you thought it couldn't get worse, horrific and telling."

Hours later, Trump scrambling to tamp down the firestorm, issuing a statement that said -- quote -- "The doctor or any other person performing this illegal act upon a woman would be legally responsible, not the woman."

He added -- quote -- "The woman is a victim in this case, as is the life in her womb," this as Donald Trump deals with another controversy surrounding his campaign manager.

SERFATY: This as Trump deals with the controversy surrounding his campaign manager. TRUMP: They wanted me to fire him.

SERFATY: The GOP front-runner today doubling down in his defense of Corey Lewandowski, who was arrested and charged with simple battery for grabbing the arm of reporter Michelle Fields.

TRUMP: Did anybody think it was a horrible thing what happened? I don't get it.

SERFATY: After questioning Fields' account at CNN's town hall Tuesday night.

TRUMP: Michelle Fields, who, by the way, is not a baby. OK? In her own worlds, exactly, "I was jolted backwards." Well, she wasn't. She's standing there.

"Someone had grabbed me tightly by the arm." Tightly. "And yanked me down." She wasn't yanked down.

SERFATY: His rivals are pouncing, criticizing Trump for setting the tone for his campaign.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Look, it shouldn't be complicated that members of a campaign staff should not be physically assaulting the press.

SERFATY: Both Cruz and Kasich saying they would have fired any staffer of theirs who did the same.

GOV. JOHN KASICH (R-OH), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: When you see things that are pretty clear -- from what I understand, the video is clear -- of course I would fire him.

SERFATY: The three remaining Republican candidates are also facing questions about the GOP loyalty pledge they signed last September.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Do you continue to pledge whoever the Republican nominee is?

TRUMP: No, I don't anymore.

SERFATY: All three backing away from their commitment to support the eventual nominee.

KASICH: If the nominee is somebody that I think is really hurting the country and dividing the country, I can't stand behind them.

CRUZ: I'm not in the habit of supporting someone who attacks my wife and attacks my family.

SERFATY: Trump insisting he doesn't care whether Cruz supports him.

TRUMP: Honestly, he doesn't have to support me. I'm not asking for his support. I want the people's support.

(END VIDEOTAPE) SERFATY: And Senator Cruz has just responded to Donald Trump's controversial remarks over abortion today, Senator Cruz saying that Trump hasn't seriously thought through, he says, these issues and will say anything to get attention.

[18:05:07]

The Cruz campaign clearly trying to cast these comments as evidence that Donald Trump is just coming around to being a conservative. They say he doesn't have a full grasp yet on conservative principles -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Sunlen, thanks very much.

Let's get some more from inside the Trump campaign on the front- runner's comments about abortion.

Our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, is covering Trump out there on the campaign trail.

So, what else are you hearing from the Trump camp right now, Jim?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, earlier today, the Trump spokesperson Hope Hicks, she tried to put out this fire. She tried to put out a statement clarifying all of this.

Obviously, that didn't work. And that's why you got that second, more declarative statement from Donald Trump that we featured earlier this afternoon. And the Trump campaign, Wolf, is not saying the candidate misspoke or didn't understand the question. This is simply something we don't see very often from Donald Trump. It's a total reversal.

He's walking back something he said hours earlier. And it's pretty clear why. He did not only unite Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz and John Kasich about these remarks. He somehow managed to unite both the pro- and anti-abortion rights forces on what's arguably the most sensitive issue in American politics, and he did that while competing for the Wisconsin primary, where conservative Catholics are going to be a crucial voting bloc.

The other problem for Trump is that this is yet another twist and turn in his evolution on the issue of abortion. He once described himself as very pro-choice back in 1999. But as Trump and his campaign have said repeatedly, he's just evolved on this issue, just as Ronald Reagan did.

But, Wolf, it's hard to imagine the Gipper having a difficult day like this that Donald Trump is having on this issue. This was just a major gaffe on a critical policy issue. It has, meanwhile, changed the focus away from his campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski. But this is not how you want to manage the narrative out there on the campaign trail -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Clearly a reversal within a span of a couple of hours or so. All right, Jim Acosta, thanks very much. Let's bring in our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, our senior

political reporter, Nia-Malika Henderson, and our CNN political commentator, David Axelrod, a former senior adviser to President Obama.

Gloria, your take on this little reversal, shall we call it.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it took him just a short time to kind of completely do a reversal.

I think the irony here, Wolf, is that Donald Trump was clearly trying to appeal to pro-life voters. And what he didn't understand is the position of pro-life voters vis-a-vis women and abortion. And even somebody like Mike Huckabee has said in the past -- and nobody is more socially to the right than -- Mike Huckabee has said that should abortion become legal...

BLITZER: Illegal.

BORGER: Illegal -- it would be the doctors that you would try and prosecute, not the women. So, in attempting to pander to pro-life people, it was clear that Donald Trump didn't really understand their position on this.

BLITZER: He certainly understands what's going on right now.

The other thing that got him into trouble, at least with some women, and I saw the reaction online, if you will, is, he said originally in the MSNBC interview, he said women should be punished, some form of punishment, but then when he goes, what about the man who impregnated the woman, should he be punished as well? He said no.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, He said no. Again, I think this is an example of what Cruz has been trying to say all along, which is that Donald Trump isn't a warrior in terms of these conservative issues.

He hasn't been there as long as Ted Cruz has been there. That's been the Ted Cruz argument. And I think it gives kind of fuel to that argument. And that's why you've seen Cruz come out so vehemently on this end -- just kind of unification and pro-choice and pro-life sides of this.

It also just comes at a terrible time for Donald Trump, because we have spent this last week or so talking about Michelle Fields and the Corey Lewandowski thing. We have been talking about the Heidi Cruz thing. And now we're in a situation with Donald Trump where the field has winnowed and we have got this big contest coming up and polls are showing that he's losing to Ted Cruz so far.

We will have to see what happens on Tuesday. The question has always been, is this the end of Donald Trump? We have been asked that question so many times.

BORGER: No.

HENDERSON: This certainly seems to be something a turning point.

BLITZER: What did you think of the way he handled this, David Axelrod, the original statement he made that some form of punishment for the woman should go forward, and now clarifying in another statement, saying: "The doctor or any other person performing this illegal act upon a woman would be held responsible, not the woman, illegally responsible, not woman. The woman is a victim in this case, as is the life in her womb."

How would you have advised him to deal with this?

DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, you know, obviously, you would have sent him into that town hall a little bit better prepared for a question like that.

[18:10:03]

You would think, at this stage in the campaign, he'd have a more sophisticated grasp of that. But what is interesting is what Jim Acosta said, which is it is very rare for Donald Trump to back up. You can see how he handled the incident with his campaign manager. He's giving no quarter on that issue, but on this one, a 180-degree reversal.

Why? Because if you look at the polling over the last couple of months, he's had a steady decline among women. And that's been his real Achilles' heel in these races. This can only accelerate that movement, and they recognized it and they felt that they had to reverse it and reverse it quickly.

BLITZER: Is this reversal enough?

AXELROD: Gee, I don't know.

I think for -- I don't think Donald Trump's appeal was largely to the pro-life community. Gloria said he -- and I think she's right -- that he was pandering to that group. I think they're solidly in the Ted Cruz corner, but for those moderate voters with whom he's done well, I think particularly among women, this is going to be a cause for concern.

BLITZER: Certainly would be a cause for concern in a general election if he were to get -- the Republican nominee, let's say, in a contest against Hillary Clinton, I'm sure this would be an issue.

Gloria, in the Wisconsin primary, which is next Tuesday, this new poll that just came out, Marquette Law School poll, it has Cruz at 40 percent, Trump at 30 percent, Kasich at 21 percent. But Cruz has really gone up since a month ago. He has gone up 19 points. Kasich has gone up eight. Trump has remained the same at 30 percent.

BORGER: Right. And to David's point in this same poll, if you look at the gender numbers, Cruz beats Donald Trump by 15 points.

So far, in exit poll after exit poll we have looked at after these primaries, Trump has done well with Republican women. Better than Cruz. So this, you know, the question that I have -- and we don't know the answer to it -- is, is this the beginning of something among Republican women? Or not? Because this is the first time we have really seen Cruz do better than Trump with women.

We don't know what is going to happen in the polls, but I agree with David that they really had to stop the bleeding here. I would also say that with women nationally, that's Democrats and Republicans, Trump has a 74 percent unfavorable rating.

To say it is high is an understatement.

BLITZER: And in Wisconsin, let's not forget Kasich is now at 21 percent. There's a margin of error, a sampling error of 5.8 percent. He's a player there right now.

HENDERSON: He's a player, just nine points behind Donald Trump. And that is probably something that he can get some mileage off of as well.

We have had this never Trump movement. It's kind of worked in fits and starts, but mostly not worked. But this certainly I think gives it new urgency and we will have to see how they play this. But I think a state like Wisconsin is tailor-made for a Kasich. He's sort of been framing himself as the compassionate conservative.

I think for Donald Trump, it gets him off of that economic message. He's been so good about making everything, even foreign policy, in some ways, an economic issue. And here he's injecting social issues into this race in a way that we hadn't really seen.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: David, the controversy involving his reversal on punishing women if they were to have an abortion if it were to be made illegal coming on the heels of the Trump campaign, Corey Lewandowski, now facing a charge, all of this, is it simply a distraction or will it significantly hurt his campaign?

AXELROD: Well, obviously, Tuesday will give us some indication of that.

I think the aggregation of all of these things clearly has slowed him down. And one thing we should point out about Wisconsin is the entire Republican establishment has lined up against Donald there, including the top radio -- conservative talk radio culture there, which is very, very strong in Republican primary politics.

And there's been almost $2 million of negative ads run against him there. He's got a lot of stuff coming at him there and he just added to his problems today.

BLITZER: Everybody, stand by. We have more to discuss. There's other news coming into THE SITUATION ROOM as well. We will take a quick break and we will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:18:30]

BLITZER: Tonight, ISIS continues to plot new attacks against the West, even as the terrorists are losing territory in their home bases in both Syria and Iraq.

There are now grave concerns that defeats on the battlefield there are driving the leaders of ISIS to flex their muscles in new acts of terror overseas. And it's a dangerous dynamic, as the United States and its allies plan their next military moves.

Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr. She's got new information.

What are you learning about the situation, first of all, Barbara Starr, on the ground?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, tonight, the U.S. military ISIS targeting very crucial, very specific areas around Raqqa and Mosul. But as the old saying goes, it's getting complicated.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STARR (voice-over): On the battlefields of Iraq and Syria, ISIS is losing key ground, suffering crucial setbacks.

ASHTON CARTER, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: In recent weeks, coalition forces have severed the main artery between ISIS power centers in Raqqa, Syria, and ISIL in Northern Iraq, and begun the early stages to collapse ISIL's control over Mosul.

STARR: The U.S. exploiting what advantages it can, like the daring killing of ISIS finance chief Mustafa al-Qaduli. CNN has learned that in broad daylight U.S. special operations forces on helicopters flew at a very low altitude in front of Qaduli's car, firing warning shots to stop. When an occupant leaned out to fire with an AK-47 back at the helicopters, the U.S. team quickly obliterated the car.

[18:20:03]

GEN. JOSEPH DUNFORD, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF CHAIRMAN: The pressure we put on ISIL in Syria has degraded their capabilities, limited their freedom of movement, and reduced their resources.

STARR: But there are still huge problems to resolve.

DUNFORD: In Iraq, we have a partner, but the relationship is complicated by the political landscape, sectarianism and Iranian influence.

STARR: Iraqi forces are fighting to retake villages west of the key city of Makhmour. But once again, U.S. officials say there are isolated instances of Iraqi troops running when they come under fire.

The area is a critical approach to Mosul, Iraq's second largest city. The Pentagon is sending President Obama recommendations for possibly hundreds of additional U.S. troops to help train and advise Iraqi forces for that fight.

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: The number of Iraqi units it will take to get into Mosul, to secure it, to surround it and then to dig out ISIS, you're talking about between 12 and 16 Iraqi army brigades.

STARR: It could mean more than 25,000 Iraqi forces are needed, trained and willing to fight.

In Syria, after bloody fighting and with Russian help, forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad retook the area around the ancient city of Palmyra. Those regime forces are now moving north. The U.S. watching to see if they fight all the way to Raqqa, the ISIS stronghold the U.S. wants local forces to capture.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: Now, the fight ahead in Syria is getting very complex. A defense official tells me tonight that the Russians have stopped their withdrawal from Syria, that there are still dozens of Russian aircraft there, tanks, artillery and Russian fighters on the ground -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thanks for that report.

Joining us now, President Obama's special envoy for the global coalition to counter ISIS, Brett McGurk joining us from the State Department.

Brett, thanks very much for joining us.

BRETT MCGURK, SPECIAL PRESIDENTIAL ENVOY FOR THE GLOBAL COALITION TO COUNTER ISIL: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: I want to get to the war against ISIS. But, as you know, there are these reports out right now there that the ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, may have been arrested, may have been picked up.

What, if anything, can you tell us about that?

MCGURK: Wolf, we have nothing on those particular reports.

But I will say that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's days are numbered. We just targeted and killed, as Barbara just mentioned, one of his key deputies, a terrorist named Haji Imam. And we're going to continue to unravel a network that leads to Baghdadi.

So, we're after this. We're after it every single day, but I have nothing on those specific reports.

BLITZER: Yes, these unconfirmed reports suggest that Syrian troops loyal to Bashar al-Assad's regime backed by the Russians may have grabbed him or picked him up.

There's been no official confirmation either from the Syrian regime or from the Russians right now. But once again, you have heard those reports. Do they have any credibility at all? MCGURK: I have seen absolutely nothing to support that.

I would say, we're getting closer to him every day and we're going to stay at it. Our forces are focused on this every single moment of the day.

BLITZER: Is he in Iraq or is he in Syria?

MCGURK: He's probably in Syria, Wolf.

BLITZER: In Raqqa, the capital of the so-called ISIS caliphate?

MCGURK: Most likely. Look, he used to be in a town called Shadadi. Shadadi is a town in Northeastern Syria. He used to be based there.

And we, of course, worked with the coalition of Syrian Kurds and Arabs, a force 6,000-strong. It was about 40 percent non-Kurdish force, a very inclusive force. And they took Shadadi from ISIL. ISIL was prepared to defend that town. They dug tunnels. They dug trenches. They tried to reinforce it.

We thought it would take about three weeks. Actually, we thought it would take about six weeks. Excuse me. It took about six days. And their leadership is really dispersing. And it's not a surprise that we were able to target and kill the overall military emir of ISIS, Omar Shishani, just south of Shadadi.

So, places for him to go are increasingly limited. So, I would suspect one of their strongholds, most likely Raqqa.

BLITZER: All right, let's talk a little bit about the setbacks that ISIS is suffering on the battlefield in Syria and Iraq.

Some are suggesting they may now further step up their attacks, their terror attacks, in Europe and maybe even here in the United States. Is that the U.S. assessment right now that as they lose ground there, they may launch new terror strikes in Europe, let's say?

MCGURK: Well, Wolf, if you track what Baghdadi has said for years, you go back to his writing from many years ago, he's always wanted to attack the West. That's always been an aspiration for him.

And they have had external plotting networks in place for many years. The attacks we have seen recently in Europe, it's a network; it's a network led by one of Baghdadi's deputies, Muhammad Adnani. And they train operatives in Syria to plot and then they send them out of Syria into Europe.

We think the Paris attackers probably came through that network last summer. So this is something that they have been trying to do for a long time. We believe that, to get after it, we have to work with our European partners. We were of course just in Brussels last week with Secretary Kerry, not only to pay our condolences to the victims of that attack, but also to talk to the Belgian authorities about tightening up some of their networks.

[18:25:01]

I met here with the head of Interpol today at the State Department about drying up the foreign fighter networks. But, most importantly, Wolf, we have to shut down this territory that they still control in Syria. There's just no substitute for doing that. And that is why we're so focused on the heart of this phony caliphate in Syria and Iraq.

BLITZER: There's a lot of concern, as you know, and you have seen the reports, that ISIS may be trying to obtain what is called a dirty bomb, some sort of radiological dirty bomb that would wind up killing a lot of people, poisoning a lot of people. How concerned are you about that?

MCGURK: It's a concern of ours.

It's also something that we're focused on every single day, particularly around Mosul, where we know that they have had a chemical weapons network, trying to produce chemical weapons. They have, of course, launched chemical munitions and mustard gas at our colleagues the Peshmerga fighters, who are those heroic fighters on the front lines there.

We're actually doing a pretty good job of unraveling that particular network. But it's something we're focused on every day. That's why President Obama is bringing together almost 50 countries here in the nuclear security summit to talk about not only protecting nuclear materials all around the world, but also that very dangerous intersection between chemical weapons, nuclear materials and terrorist groups, one of, of course, is ISIL.

We're focused on this on a global scale and we're focused on it particularly in Iraq and Syria. And I will just say, the more we operate, the more information we get, the more our special operators are out there, the more we learn about the networks and the more we're able to unravel them.

And one of the networks, in addition to the external plotting network I mentioned, is this chemical weapons network that ISIL has, particularly inside Iraq, particularly near Mosul. But we're uprooting that network as we speak.

BLITZER: Can you blow it up using airpower, destroy that chemical weapons factory?

MCGURK: Yes, it's a great question. We're very careful about that. Our targeters who do this, I defer to my colleagues in the Department of Defense, but they look at everything from the way the wind is blowing and everything else to make sure that we're able to destroy those facilities without undue harm to the civilian population.

We're being very precise about it. But we're not -- we will not allow a terrorist group like ISIL to experiment with these types of lethal munitions when we find out what they are doing and where they are doing them. BLITZER: Because what really worried me was that video that they

found, what, hours of ISIS terrorists in Europe monitoring some Belgian nuclear scientist, monitoring the Belgian nuclear reactor.

They had to shut it down in Belgium out of concern. How close are they to getting their hands on some sort of dirty bomb?

MCGURK: Yes.

I think, look, our colleagues in Belgium have really advanced security protocols around those sites. But we want to have security protocols that advanced all around the world. And that's why we have more than 50 countries here this week in Washington and President Obama will be leading that very important summit meeting.

But, look, it's an aspiration of ISIL. They're a global terrorist network. They don't only want to expand their territory in Iraq and Syria. They want to attack us at home. They want to attack our partners. It's something they have talked about for years. And if they can get hands on munition like that, they wouldn't hesitate to use them. That's why it's so dangerous.

That's why we have built this coalition of more than 60 countries to go at it on a global basis, not only in Iraq and Syria, but also the foreign fighter networks, the propaganda networks, the financing networks.

But this intersection of chemical weapons and weapons of mass destruction and terrorism is something, of course, we have been concerned about since 9/11, and we're working to make sure that groups like al Qaeda and groups like ISIL cannot get their hands on these materials.

And that's why so many heads of state are here in Washington this week to focus on that very issue.

BLITZER: It's a huge issue, indeed.

One final question right before I let you go. Donald Trump says he would fight ISIS by going after their oil, destroying their oil revenue, if you will, asking Saudi Arabia to do the fighting on the ground. He also says he would favor going back to using water- boarding against ISIS terror suspects. What's your reaction when you hear that kind of talk?

MCGURK: We're going after their oil.

It takes intelligence. This is really hard, complex work. You don't just go after and bomb oil facilities. You have to find out, how are they getting the oil? How are they producing it? Where are the trucks going? What are the networks? Who are the leaders? And then target them and root them out. And that is exactly what we're doing.

And that information came from a raid by our special forces about eight months about against Abu Sayyaf, a terrorist who was one of Baghdadi's deputies running their financing network. We got more information out of that raid than we have in any special forces raid in history, just our heroic operators out there.

And because of that, we're able to fuse the intelligence and then destroy the networks. So, ISIL is now paying their fighters about 50 percent of what they were paying them only months ago. And that's going to continue to go down.

So, we're completely uprooting their financial infrastructure, and we're going to continue to do it.

BLITZER: Brett McGurk, thanks very much for joining us.

MCGURK: Wolf, thanks so much.

BLITZER: Brett McGurk is the special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter ISIS.

Just ahead, has Donald Trump defused his explosive new comments about abortion and the prospect of punishing women who get them? We will have much more on that.

Also, Hillary Clinton hitting Donald Trump hard on their mutual home turf. We're talking about New York. Is it part of her primary strategy or an early general election attack?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're back with the breaking political news. A day of conflicting comments from Donald Trump about abortion. First, Trump said that, if abortion became illegal in the United States, women who get those abortions should face some form of punishment. But tonight Trump now reversing that position, saying the women would not be held legally responsible.

[18:35:09] Let's go back to our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta. He's covering Trump for us in Wisconsin tonight.

Are they acknowledging this is a reversal of his position within a matter of only a few hours, Jim?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, they're not putting it that way, Wolf. But you're right: Donald Trump carved out a very hardline position on abortion today, only to walk it back hours later. His comments came during an interview with MSNBC earlier today when he says women who undergo abortion should be punished if the procedure were ever made illegal. And here's what he had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST: Do you believe -- do you believe in punishment for abortion, yes or no, as a principle?

TRUMP: The answer is that there has to be some form of punishment.

MATTHEWS: For the woman?

TRUMP: Yes, there has to be some form. MATTHEWS: Ten cents, ten years, what?

TRUMP: That I don't know.

MATTHEWS: You take positions on everything else.

TRUMP: I do take positions on everything else. It's a very complicated position.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ACOSTA: But then Trump did a complete 180. His campaign originally tried to put out a statement massaging those comments. Then Donald Trump released a statement saying it would be the doctors who would be punished, not women.

Here's that statement. We put it up onscreen. It says, quote, "If Congress were to pass legislation making abortion illegal and the federal courts upheld this legislation or any state were permitted to ban abortion under state and federal law, the doctor or other person performing this illegal act upon a woman would be held legally responsible, not the woman. The woman is a victim in this case, as is the life of her womb -- in her womb. My position has not changed," Donald Trump goes on to say. "Like Ronald Reagan, I am pro-life with exceptions."

But, Wolf, the damage may already be done. Not only did Trump's rivals slam his original remarks earlier today on abortion, saying you don't punish women who undergo this procedure. He united both sides of this very hot-button issue. That is something you don't see every day. He obviously changed the narrative that was swirling around his embattled campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski. But this is certainly not the way you do that.

BLITZER: Certainly. You're right. All right. Thanks very much for that, Jim Acosta in Wisconsin.

Of course, Trump's position on abortion just one source of controversy surrounding his campaign right now. He's also facing more fallout tonight for refusing to fire his campaign manager now that Corey Lewandowski faces a simple charge of -- a charge of simple battery, as it's called, against a reporter.

Let's bring back our political team to talk about that. Nia, he was asked about that last night. He had this town hall. Anderson Cooper spoke to him about the charges that he's now leveling against the reporter whose arm was touched, if you will, by Corey Lewandowski. He's firing back at Michelle Fields. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: "I almost fell to the ground. I almost fell to the ground." She didn't almost fall to the ground. She -- he got in the way. And by the way, she was grabbing me. Am I supposed to press charges against her? Oh, my arm is hurting. Anderson, my arm is just killing me. It's never been the same.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: You suggested you might.

TRUMP: Excuse me. Excuse me. I didn't suggest.

COOPER: Yes, you did.

TRUMP: I tweeted. No, no, I tweeted.

COOPER: A tweet is a suggestion.

TRUMP: I asked, "Should I press charges?" Sure.

COOPER: Are you going to?

TRUMP: I don't know. Maybe I should, right? Because you know what? She was -- she was grabbing me.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: I guess the question is our political team has been looking into that's claim by Donald Trump. What are they -- what are you learning?

HENDERSON: So they essentially looked at the video here. And what the video shows is that Michelle Fields approaches Donald Trump. She -- she has said that she wanted to ask him a question. Any political reporter is familiar with this kind of scenario where you approach a candidate to ask a question.

At that point, you see Corey Lewandowski essentially grab her arm and pull her away from -- her left arm and pull her away from Donald Trump. Now, because of the quality of the video and the angle, it's not clear if Michelle Fields really even touches Donald Trump. Perhaps at some point she touches him because she wants to get his attention for whatever reason. But that's not clear on the video.

What is clear is that she at no point grabs him, as he said there in that town hall. So we raised his claim there as false.

BLITZER: As false. That's what our political team rates that claim as.

So far, though, Gloria, all these controversies that seem to emerge from time to time pretty regularly involving Donald Trump, they don't -- they don't have much of an impact, at least not yet. Some are suggesting he's got this Teflon coating, if you will.

BORGER: Well, now we've had sort of a cascade of issues regarding women and Donald Trump. Whether it's, as you were talking about earlier, whether it's Heidi Cruz versus Melania, whether it's Corey Lewandowski, did he or did he not shove a reporter? It's Donald Trump last night in the way he seemed to be belittling what Michelle Fields was saying. The question today on punishing women who have abortions. You know, all of these things tend to add up at a certain point. And what we've seen in the polling in Wisconsin today, for example, is

that suddenly Cruz is beating Trump among women by 15 points. Donald Trump has been doing well with Republican women. The sort of polling that we have is that he has 59 percent favorable rating with women. But the numbers have been trending downwards.

[18:40:11] And so the question is, again, going forward, does the Teflon remain or is this the beginning of a change that could really hurt Donald Trump, because you do need some women to support you if you're going to win an election?

BLITZER: All right, guys. Stand by. There's more coming up. Hillary Clinton's furious response to Donald Trump. Her campaign's chief strategist getting ready to take our questions.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:45:14] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, Hillary Clinton is fighting on two fronts to defend her home turf against Bernie Sanders in the upcoming New York state primary, also against Donald Trump in the general election.

Our senior Washington correspondent Jeff Zeleny is joining us from New York right now.

Jeff, Hillary Clinton doing battle on the campaign trail today. Also on the TV air waves.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, she is. The Clinton campaign is doing battle in both places with two rivals.

Now, you may wonder if Clinton is getting ahead of herself, running ads against Trump in the New York primary. After all, he's on the Republican ballot. But it's all part of the Clinton strategy, showing her strength to Democrats by convincing them she's the strongest candidate to stop Trump.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HILLARY CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It is a thrill to be live at the Apollo. It is wonderful to be back home in New York.

ZELENY (voice-over): Hillary Clinton back home, but hardly taking a victory lap. Even after winning 9 million votes so far.

CLINTON: That is more than a million that Donald Trump has received, and 2.5 million more than Senator Sanders.

ZELENY: She has her eyes fixed on both rivals.

CLINTON: New York, 20 million people strong.

ZELENY: In a new television ad for the New York primary in just three weeks, she took on Donald Trump.

CLINTON: When some say we can solve America's problems by building walls, banning people based on their religion and turning against each other -- well, this is New York.

ZELENY: She also has Bernie Sanders in mind, imploring Democrats to be practical as they pick a president.

CLINTON: Now, some folks may have the luxury to hold out for the perfect, but a lot of Americans are hurting right now and they can't wait for that. They need the good and they need it today.

ZELENY: Worried about next week's Wisconsin primary, Clinton is looking ahead, but not Sanders.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I can't do it alone, really can't.

ZELENY: A new Wisconsin poll shows Sanders with a narrow four-point lead over his rival. He's hoping a win in the Badger State, eats away at her lead in delegates and keeps the race alive.

SANDERS: The powers that be are too powerful. We need a movement.

ZELENY: Sanders told CNN's Erin Burnett that anger among Americans is justified.

SANDERS: For your average guy, he is asking why he has to work longer hours for low wages. What Trump is doing is taking that anger and saying it's the fault of the Mexicans or it's the fault of the Muslims. We've got to scapegoat people. Well, beating up on Mexicans who make 8 bucks an hour is not going to deal with the real issues.

ZELENY: Trump ignored Sanders, but took note of his starring role in Clinton's new ad campaign.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Did you see the ad? It's a New York City ad. It's talking about New York.

Except for one problem, she used a sign that's on Pennsylvania Avenue. I'm building a big hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue because if for some reason this doesn't work out, I'm going to live in Pennsylvania Avenue, no matter what happens.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY: Now, it's an open question whether Trump would leave New York behind and move to Washington, even if he didn't win. But setting that aside, his tone was clear he's eager to take on Hillary Clinton. For now, though, that's what's Sanders is doing as she's attending a fund-raiser right now in New York City. He's sending out an appeal to his donors, asking them to send him $27, saying he's busy talking with voters in Wisconsin tonight and he needs all those small contributions -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Jeff Zeleny.

Let's get some reaction from the Clinton campaign. Right now, the chief strategist Joel Benenson is joining us.

Joel, thanks very much for joining us. Lots of issues, limited time.

First of all, your reaction to Donald Trump earlier in the day saying there should be some form of punishment for women who have abortions if it were to be made illegal in the United States and then issuing a clarification or reversal more recently saying any other person performing this illegal act upon a woman would be held legally responsible, not the woman. The woman is the victim in this case, as is the life in her womb.

What's your reaction to that reversal if you will? Are you OK with that?

JOEL BENENSON, CLINTON CAMPAIGN CHIEF STRATEGIST: Well, look, I think the first thing is the reaction to his statement which is, you showed very clearly on tape. And he said something that's completely outrageous and anathema to most people here in America. No matter what their positions are on these issues. And that's been the case all the way through.

He clearly also, you know, showed, if you look at the videotape, he looked like he was thinking about it on the fly, hadn't thought through it. And that's the kind of risky approach that Mr. Trump takes to a lot of things. His foreign policy interview was kind of startling and a lot of journalists have pointed that out, but look, we're campaigning hard in New York. I think that created a lot of problems for him and they've reversed. Whether they're call it a reversal or not, they're trying to clean up a mess he made today.

BLITZER: Where do you stand on having another debate in New York with Bernie Sanders?

[18:50:04] BENENSON: Well, I think the candidates agreed to have a series of debates back in March, which we've had. They also agreed that they'll talk about having a debate in April, which we're doing. Today most people know both campaigns are in discussions. Whether that's in New York or Pennsylvania, but there's discussions about having a debate in April.

You know, as I think you know from moderating some of these and covering these, Wolf, these debates are national wherever they are. People are watching them. They're interested in this race. There's a lot of excitement, a lot of enthusiasm on Senator Sanders' part, a lot of enthusiasm on our part, which as I heard Hillary Clinton talked about.

You know, we've been showing that enthusiasm at the polls with roughly 60 percent of the popular vote that's been cast throughout the Democratic primaries, a 2.5 million vote lead over Senator Sanders in addition to our pledged delegate lead which is really virtually impossible to Senator Sanders to overtake at this point.

BLITZER: You saw the new poll that Marquette University Law School put out today. It has Bernie Sanders, 49 percent, Hillary Clinton, 45 percent, a 6.3 percent sampling error. He's gone up. She's gone down a little bit.

What do you think? Is that consistent with your internal polling?

BENENSON: I mean, look, our polls have shown this race close. There was a poll just a few days ago that showed Hillary Clinton ahead by four or five points. Now you have one with Senator Sanders. The key thing here is we've always said Wisconsin would be close.

Whatever happens, the outcome will not materially change our lead in net delegates, which is over 230 among pledged delegates now. And then, we go to the period between the 19th of April through the 26th when close to 700 pledged delegates will be decided, Wolf. And these are going to be decided in states that have the kind of diverse populations that reflect the country that Hillary Clinton has dominated in.

You know, our lead among voters over 30 in our primaries is almost 2- 1. We're winning with women by over 30 points, and we're winning with African-Americans and Latinos across all the primaries that we have competed in by almost 3-1. That's the kind of diverse coalition Democratic candidates have to put together to win not just in their primaries, but in the general election.

And that's what Hillary Clinton has been doing.

BLITZER: Joel Benenson, thanks very much for joining us.

BENENSON: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Just ahead, a frightening discovery as investigators sift through clues left behind by the Belgium terror bombings. Members of the terror cell apparently had some other major targets.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:57:14] BLITZER: Tonight, we're learning more about additional potential targets of the terror cell behind the attacks in Brussels. Let's bring in our terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank.

What information, Paul, are you getting?

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Wolf, a source close to the investigation tells me that Belgian police found on computers left by the Bakraoui brothers outside the bomb factory pictures and plans of the Belgian prime minister's office and other government buildings in Brussels, suggesting that the cell wanted to also strike these Belgian government buildings, which may also have included the Belgium parliament, which is right next to the Belgian prime minister's office, Wolf.

All of these buildings literally just around the corner from the U.S. embassy in Brussels. Investigators believe that the cell accelerated their plans when Salah Abdeslam was arrested and only launched a more modest attack against the airport and against metro, but they had a much more ambitious plan to strike at the heart of Belgian's political institutions.

BLITZER: As you know, Belgian officials, they've been hunting the Bakraoui brothers since 2015. What are you learning about why they weren't able to stop these guys before these terror attacks?

CRUICKSHANK: Well, what we have now established from officials is that Belgian authorities were searching for both of these brothers urgently in late 2015. They, after the Paris attacks, they established that Khalid el Bakraoui was linked to terrorism, but they also wanted to find his brother Ibrahim because they wanted to track down Khalid.

Really, it was the fact that they were not able to find them, Wolf, when they were hiding in plain sight in Brussels, that was the failure, if there was one, which failed to prevent the Brussels' attacks. The fact that they failed them rather than any miscommunications with the Turks because they were already looking for them before the Brussels attacks.

BLITZER: You heard Brett McGuirk, the president's top adviser in this war against ISIS, say they're deeply concern about the possibility of these ISIS terrorists could get their hands on what's called a dirty bomb, some sort of radiological device.

How concerned are the sources that you deal with about this?

CRUICKSHANK: Well, it's certainly a theoretical concern, and ISIS would have no qualms about deploying such a device, a radiological device. And those concerns were only elevated when Belgian police found in the residence of the Paris plotters, Mohamed Belkaid, somebody who is related to the Brussels attackers as well, surveillance of a Belgian nuclear official, video surveillance, more than 10 hours in that residence.

BLITZER: Very worrisome indeed.

All right. Thanks very much, Paul Cruickshank.

That's it for me. Thanks for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.