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Democratic Presidential Candidates Comment on Trump Impeachment; Jared Kushner Downplays Russian Interference in 2016 Elections; Interview With Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA); Buttigieg Addresses His Ouster of Black Police Chief And Secret Tapes Controversy During CNN Town Hall; Source: ISIS Suspect Gave Advance Warning of Deadly Easter Bomb Attacks in Sri Lanka. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired April 23, 2019 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Democratic division. Top 2020 presidential candidates drive home their differences over impeaching President Trump during a CNN town hall event.

Tonight, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is jumping back into the impeachment debate.

And staring down Moscow. The U.S. Navy puts on a show of force, sending a message to Russia about its military expansion and aggression. CNN is on board, getting an exclusive look at warning signals from Vladimir Putin.

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're following breaking news on the Trump administration open defiance of Democratic investigators in Congress.

The IRS refusing to meet a deadline in the last hour to turn over the president's tax returns. The treasury secretary telling the House Ways and Means Committee he needs to consult with the Justice Department on whether the demand is legal.

Also breaking, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is calling the Trump administration's fight with House Democrats over the release of the Mueller report an existential threat to U.S. democracy. But on the question of whether Democrats should launch impeachment proceedings, Pelosi says she's not there yet.

I will get reaction from Congresswoman Jackie Speier, a Democrat on the Oversight and Intelligence Committees. And our correspondents and analysts are also standing by.

First, let's go to our congressional correspondent, Phil Mattingly. He's up on Capitol Hill. Phil, the Treasury Department just responded to demands to turn over

President Trump's tax returns after missing the deadline. So what is the treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, saying?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Wolf, two deadlines set, now two deadlines missed.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin giving the proverbial stiff-arm to House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, saying in part in this letter: "Although the committee has asserted that any response from the department other than production of the requested materials," the tax returns, "will be interpreted as a denial, that would be a misinterpretation. The committee's request has not been denied or granted at this time. The department expects to take final action on the committee's request by May 6, after receiving the Justice Department's legal conclusion."

So, according to the letter, they are not complying or denying compliance here. But if you actually take the time to read the letter, five-page letter, five-page appendix, it is made very clear that the Treasury Department and its lawyers are laying the groundwork for a potential legal battle ahead, and it is very unlikely they are going to comply.

They lay out several issues that they have with the request from the House Ways and Means Committee for six years of President Trump's tax returns, as well as eight of his business entities' returns, going from legislative intent, past comments from members of Congress saying that they might release the tax returns.

Overall, what it is, is kind of an initial document that will likely lead to a court fight in the future. That is the expectation of pretty much all parties involved, but, for now, asking for an extension, asking for more time to work with the Justice Department.

Now House Ways and Means Committee Richard Neal, who -- chairman -- who has been very methodical about this entire process, giving them one deadline, giving them a second deadline, said in a brief statement that he's now going to consult with counsel before next steps.

But when you talk to Democratic aides, those next steps are pretty clear. It just depends on when they are going to come. Now, the committee could subpoena the tax returns. They could also file a lawsuit for the tax returns.

The endgame, though, seems pretty clear at this point. The Treasury Department, the IRS, the Trump administration generally, Wolf, does not plan, at least at this point it doesn't appear they plan, that they will comply with the House Democratic request.

And that means a prolonged and protracted court fight is certainly in the offing over this issue that has become central to Democratic efforts to investigate and underscore -- or overlook the president now that they are in the majority in the House.

BLITZER: That is certainly a signal of this 10-page single-spaced letter from the treasury secretary.

But the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, Phil, was just asked about the possibility of impeachment. I want you to listen to what she just said at the TIME 100 event in New York.


REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: I do believe that impeachment is one of the most divisive forces -- paths that we could go down to in our country.

But if the facts -- the path of fact-finding takes us there, we have no choice. But we're not there yet.


BLITZER: This is notable, Phil, especially after seeing how the split emerged among the Democratic presidential candidates when it came to impeachment questions at last night's CNN town halls.

MATTINGLY: Yes, no question about it.

Look, the politics of this are complex. The reality of what Democrats are facing, both on Capitol Hill and on the campaign trail, is a little bit complex.

But I think what this underscores more than anything else is, first and foremost, Speaker Pelosi hasn't actually changed her position on this. She's been saying this now for a couple of months, both before the release of the Mueller report and after the release of the redacted Mueller report.

There is a couple of things that you have to consider when you listen to what Speaker Pelosi is saying. One, in the phone call she had, private phone call with the House Democratic Caucus, last night, she made clear repeatedly that investigations on all fronts -- and you see some of it with the tax returns, the House Oversight Committee, the House Judiciary Committee, the House Financial Services Committee -- will continue.


And those types of investigations, in some ways, will be very similar to what an impeachment inquiry would be about, at least in its initial stages.

But the other thing you have to consider here is, Speaker Pelosi is speaking for her entire Democratic Caucus, not necessarily a single Democratic candidate on the campaign trail looking to curry favor, looking to raise money, looking to maybe reach out to where the Democratic base may be.

She is also very, very carefully considering her front-line members, members that maybe come from Trump districts that flipped and became the majority makers in 2018. It's all of those calculations that have been weighed up to this point. Make no mistake about it. House Democrats, as they have been proving over the course of the last couple of weeks, plan to investigate fully and fulsomely. But impeachment, at least for the moment, according to the speaker and top Democrats in the House, that will have to wait -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Phil Mattingly up on Capitol Hill, thank you.

Let's get some more on the breaking news right now, the stonewalling the White House.

Our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, is joining us.

Jim, the Treasury Department just refused to give Congress the president's tax returns, at least for now.


The administration is pushing back against a range of demands from House Democrats, from that standing request to see the president's tax returns, to the subpoena for former White House counsel Don McGahn to testify.

Wolf, I can tell you, in just the last several minutes, I just spoke with a senior White House official who said that the White House is likely to fight the subpoena for Don McGahn, the former White House counsel, to testify up in front of the House, that coming in just a few moments ago.

So, it does sound as though the White House is going to fight this request, the subpoena from the House Democrats to have Don McGahn testify. It would be explosive testimony, obviously, based on what's laid out in the Mueller report.

And this showdown comes as a -- as the president's son-in-law, another key senior White House official, Jared Kushner, is downplaying Russian interference in the 2016 election.


ACOSTA (voice-over): President Trump is digging in his heels, as the White House seems to be stonewalling a slew of demands from House Democrats.

The president is not complying with a 5:00 p.m. deadline to turn over his tax returns to Congress. It's a battle that appears to be headed for the courts.

REP. BRENDAN BOYLE (D-PA): If the White House continues to stonewall this, we will have to turn to the courts in order to get to a final resolution and to force the White House to comply with the law.

ACOSTA: It's also unclear whether the administration will allow former White House counsel Don McGahn to tell the House Judiciary Committee what he knows about the Russia investigation and the president's demand for him to fire special counsel Robert Mueller. HOGAN GIDLEY, WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY: And I understand why they're doing it, because to drop the collusion narrative, the impeachment narrative, or going after the administration, they would be admitting to the fact the last two years of their life have been a complete and total waste.

ACOSTA: The White House is also insisting that a former official, Carl Kline, refused the House Oversight Committee subpoena to explain the granting of security clearances to top aides, including the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who told "TIME" magazine he thinks he's been vetted enough.

JARED KUSHNER, SENIOR PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER: I have had to divest of a lot of things and avoid a lot of things, but I think that I have been fully vetted now, after two years, of 19 hours of testimony different places.

ACOSTA: Kushner also raised eyebrows when he appeared to grossly downplay Russia's interference in the 2016 election.

KUSHNER: And you look at what Russia did, buying some Facebook ads to try to sow dissent and do it -- and it's a terrible thing -- but I think the investigations and all of the speculation that's happened for the last two years has had a much harsher impact on our democracy than a couple of Facebook ads.

ACOSTA: But that's not true. According to the Mueller report, which found the Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion.

Mr. Trump's former opponent Hillary Clinton believes the report also revealed potential obstruction of justice.

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D), FORMER U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: The Mueller report is part of the beginning. It's not the end. As I read it, basically, what I thought it was saying is, look, we think he obstructed justice. Here are 11 examples of why we think he obstructed justice.

ACOSTA: Some of the president's possible opponents in 2020 are taking that one step further.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If there's going to be any accountability, that accountability has to come from the Congress. And the tool that we are given for that accountability is the impeachment process.

ACOSTA: The churning of investigations may explain the president's recent Twitter tirade of roughly 50 tweets in the last 24 hours, as the president complained: "In the old days, if you were president and you had a good economy, you were basically immune from criticism."

Mr. Trump is portraying himself as the victim of what he calls the radical left Democrats and the fake news media.

A former French ambassador to the U.S. says the picture inside the administration is less pretty.

GERARD ARAUD, FORMER FRENCH AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED STATES: A lot of offices are still empty two years after the inauguration of President Trump. In a sense, it's dysfunctional.


ACOSTA: As for the president's tweets, he has been complaining lately that Twitter has been discriminating against conservative voices on the social media app. Today, the president met with Twitter's CEO, presumably about that very issue.


The White House also announced the president will be visiting Britain and France later on in June, when Mr. Trump hopes to be out from under all these clouds of controversy swirling around him.

But, Wolf, if it pans out, what the senior White House official just told me several minutes ago, that the White House is likely to fight the subpoena of Don McGahn, that promises to stretch that controversy well into the summer, and could very well get tied up in courts that may ultimately be needed to sort out that controversy -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, the former White House counsel spent 30 hours answering questions during the Mueller investigation.

Thanks very much for that, Jim Acosta, with the breaking news.

Joining us now, Congresswoman Jackie Speier, a Democrat. She serves on both the Intelligence and the Oversight Committees.

Congresswoman, thanks so much for joining us.

As you just heard, the treasury secretary says they need until May 6 to weigh the law -- to weigh the law, the request for the president's tax returns.

Do you believe this is simply a delay tactic?

REP. JACKIE SPEIER (D-CA): Without a doubt.

This is very consistent with what the president has done over and over again in his administration. I want to be interviewed by Mr. Mueller. I want to be interviewed. And then, of course, he never is interviewed. I'm going to release my tax return. I'm going to release it once the audit is over. He has never released his tax return.

It is time for us to go to the courts. This is a fundamental abuse of power by one branch of the government. The language is very clear. It says, you shall release the tax returns. So there's no question here. It's released to the committee, the Ways and Means Committee, not to the general public, but that is clearly the law.

And it's intended to be used by Congress to determine whether or not there has been any misdoings relative to one individual in the government or another.

BLITZER: You heard Jim Acosta at the White House just report that the White House is also going to try to block the former White House counsel Don McGahn from testifying before Congress.

He's being subpoenaed, as you know. What can you do about that, if anything?

SPEIER: So, first of all, I think the president has waived executive privilege through the Mueller report. Don McGahn has already spoken to the special counsel.

Furthermore, you cannot use executive privilege, effectively, if in fact, what's being investigated is whether or not there's criminal conduct engaged in. In this case, it's obstruction of justice.

And I think that there is going to be a court battle on that as well. And that's precisely what the president wants, to extend this as long as possible, and never release information that will give us the truth as to whether or not he has evading taxes, whether or not he has favored certain countries because he has loans through them, and whether or not he's obstructed justice by having the former special counsel -- the former White House counsel testify before the committee.

BLITZER: I suspect the legal battles are only just beginning.

Congresswoman, on the question of impeachment, you heard the speaker, Nancy Pelosi, urge caution, at least for now. This comes after Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic presidential candidate, told our CNN town hall last night -- and I'm quoting her now -- "There is no political inconvenience exception to the United States Constitution."

What do you think? Where do you stand?

SPEIER: So I actually stand with both of them, because I think what they're saying is the same.

Basically, we're saying, we are in the discovery process. Before you can move articles of impeachment, you have to lay the foundation and do the discovery. And that's the process that's under way.

There's no question that special counsel Mueller was putting up a neon sign to Congress saying, I can't file criminal charges because of the Department of Justice policy of not indicting a sitting president, but there is clearly evidence of obstruction of justice.

He made it very clear he could not exonerate the president from the obstruction of justice issues. And I think that it's incumbent on us to move forward very deliberatively, and not politically, because it is about interpreting the Constitution at this point in time.

BLITZER: The House Oversight Committee chairman, Elijah Cummings -- and you're on that committee -- says he will be scheduling a vote to hold Carl Kline -- he's the former White House official who oversaw security clearances -- in contempt.

This comes after the White House ordered Kline not to appear before your committee today. But you apparently have no enforcement power right now. So, is all this essentially simply a symbolic move?

SPEIER: I'm afraid so, Wolf, because the only way we're going to get Mr. Kline to testify is by going to court and subpoenaing him.

I mean, this has come to our attention because of a whistle-blower who said in 25 cases she believes that they have ignored the intelligence community's recommendations not to provide security clearances.


She's worked within the White House in this role in both Republican and Democratic administrations, and, in 17 years, she's never seen anything like that.

So that's the kind of oversight we have to do. We are three equal branches of government. And the president still hasn't read civics 101, it appears.

BLITZER: So the subpoena power of the House Oversight Committee really doesn't have any teeth? Is that what you're suggesting?

SPEIER: I think the only subpoena that's going to carry the kind of clout necessary is through the courts.

BLITZER: Congresswoman Jackie Speier, thanks so much for joining us.

SPEIER: Thank you.

BLITZER: Just ahead, we will talk about the Democrats' internal struggle over impeachment and why House Speaker Nancy Pelosi apparently wasn't moved by the impassioned appeals at the CNN town hall that they begin immediately.


BLITZER: We're following the breaking news on the Trump administration's refusal to turn over the president's tax returns tonight, in defiance of a deadline set by House Democrats.

Let's bring in our analysts.

Jeffrey Toobin, the Treasury Department in this 10-page, single-spaced letter says they need more time, until, what, May 6, to consult with the Justice Department to see whether the request from the House Democrats is legal.



I bet the tension is building about whether they're going to turn over those tax returns, especially since the White House chief of staff already said they are never turning them over.

I mean, this is just part of how the Justice Department, the whole Trump administration, is dealing with the House of Representatives, which is, we're not turning over anything until the courts tell us to.

I mean, this one is particularly egregious, in the tax return department, because the law is so clear that the Internal Revenue Service shall turn over. That's what the law says, shall turn over a tax return.

But they are going to string this out as long as possible. And given the way the courts go, it's likely to be months before this issue is resolved, if it's resolved at all before Donald Trump's term is over.

BLITZER: And it comes when the White House is fighting all sorts of subpoenas...


BLITZER: ... including Don McGahn, the former White House counsel, who spent a lot of testifying during the Mueller investigation.

Now they want to investigate -- they want to him to come before Congress. And the White House says, even though he's a private citizen now, he can't do it.

BORGER: Well, have you ever heard of the word stonewall? I think that would be appropriate for everything that's happening here.

The interesting thing about Don McGahn, of course, is that he testified before the special counsel for 30 hours. Nobody in the White House invoked privilege. And I think, at the time, Don McGahn may have thought that they should have invoked privilege.

But the White House said, no, no, no, go testify, even though you, as White House counsel, had conversations with the president. So he testified. It is in great detail in the Mueller report.

Now they're saying, wait a minute, we don't want him to testify. The question is -- and maybe Jeffrey can answer this -- can they invoke privilege now that he's already kind of spilled the beans?

We will...

TOOBIN: Oh, pick me. Pick me.


BLITZER: All right, go ahead, Jeffrey. What is the answer?


BORGER: OK. I didn't think so.

TOOBIN: They can't. It's waived.

BORGER: Right.

TOOBIN: I mean, it's waived.

BORGER: Right.

TOOBIN: You can't say, well, I told everything to one part of the government, but I can't -- but now I'm going to invoke privilege on the other side.

BORGER: Right.

TOOBIN: I mean, that's just basic.

BORGER: It's ridiculous. It is. It's ridiculous.

So I don't know what their grounds are on this, other than the fact that the president doesn't want him in front of the television cameras. You also have the head of security there at the White House. And Democrats want to ask him about the vetting process and why people didn't get clearances.

And he's saying, I'm not going to testify, because they're all hoping they can drag this out, potentially through the election.

BLITZER: Amidst all of this, Sabrina, the president's son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, he was basically dismissing the Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election, saying what the Mueller team did was a lot worse. Listen to this.


KUSHNER: I think the investigations and all of the speculation that's happened for the last two years has had a much harsher impact on our democracy than a couple of Facebook ads.


BLITZER: I mean, that's a brazen simplification, completely wrong.

SABRINA SIDDIQUI, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: It's completely rewriting history.

This was a lot more than a couple of Facebook ads. There was a very sophisticated operation waged on the part of the Russians to attack the U.S. democratic process and sow discord in this country.

House Intelligence Committee put out data last year showing that the Russians were able to purchase 3,500 ads on Facebook alone. They spent $1 million a month and were able to ultimately target roughly 10 million people.

And that doesn't even take into account the other social media platforms they used, such as Twitter and other means, to disseminate propaganda against Hillary Clinton.

But, look, Jared Kushner is not exactly a neutral observer here. He is someone who was not just a senior member of the campaign, but is mentioned a great number of times in the Mueller report, in part, of course, for participating in the infamous Trump Tower meeting in June of 2016, where, at a minimum, he went into that meeting being receptive to help from the Russians.

And the only reason that they didn't act on it is because the Russians didn't actually come forward with the damaging information about Hillary Clinton that they promised.

BLITZER: David, what do you think?

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN COMMENTATOR: Yes, I mean, there was no finding in the report of a conspiracy to defraud the United States.

You would expect Jared Kushner and others in the administration to tout that, to say, look, there was no crime committed, or, as the president says, no collusion.

But to spin these facts their own way, that the Face -- that what was going on, on Facebook was fine, and that the Mueller report or the Mueller investigation itself was more damaging to the country is just completely mischaracterizing what was an orderly process of justice in their own Justice Department, by their own appointed special counsel, who was reporting to their own attorney general.

BORGER: I think he's mimicking the president. I mean, it's absurd. It's ridiculous.

First of all, members of the Trump campaign openly welcomed, welcomed, with open arms, the Russians into their midst to help either find dirt on Hillary Clinton or help them with the campaign.


And, by the way, Jared Kushner is not talking about volume two of the Mueller report, which talks about how the president was telling people to lie, trying to remove Bob Mueller, special counsel, from his job.

Well, what was that? I mean, is that bad for the American people to know? No, I don't think it is. I think the American people need to know this about their president.

And I think Jared Kushner sort of didn't even get there. He was being so dismissive about this little thing called the Mueller report.

TOOBIN: Well, and he also didn't mention the whole hacking part of the investigation.

BORGER: Right, of course.

TOOBIN: But, when you're the president's son-in-law, part of the nepotism deal is, you do what he wants.

And he's doing what his father-in-law wants.

BLITZER: The Mueller report concluded that the Russians interfered in sweeping and systematic fashion.

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: Much more on all the breaking news right after this.



BLITZER: We're back with our analysts (ph) and the comments tonight by the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on the impeachment debate that's dividing her party and the Democratic presidential field.

And Gloria, listen to Nancy Pelosi, just a little while ago, putting the brakes on the start of an impeachment proceeding in the House of Representatives, listen to Elizabeth Warren last night in contrast at the CNN Town Hall.


REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): I do believe that impeachment is one of the most divisive forces - paths that we could go down to in our country, but it's the facts, the path of fact finding takes us there where we have no choice.

But we're not there yet.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D-MA): Mueller believed because of the directions from Donald Trump's Justice Department, that he could not bring a criminal indictment against a sitting president.

I think he's wrong on that, but that's what he believed. So he serves the whole thing up to the United States Congress, and says in effect if there's going to be any accountability, that accountability has to come from the Congress.

And the tool that we are given for that accountability is the impeachment process.


Are Democrats going to remain divided on this?

BORGER: I think so for a while. Look, Nancy Pelosi and Elizabeth Warren are appealing to two very different groups right now. Elizabeth Warren is trying to win the Democratic nomination, she's got the very liberal base of the party, she's trying to appeal to you, she's trying to appeal to younger voters whom she was speaking in front of last night.

And Nancy Pelosi on the other hand is trying to keep the party together, she's got a large group of Democrats who won in districts that were Republican or that Donald Trump carried, and these are people who are saying to her look, we don't want to occupy all the time and space of what we've got to do in Congress talking about impeachment. Our constituents want to talk about healthcare and they want to talk

about the issues, the pocketbook issues that matter to them. So she's trying to put the breaks on it and Elizabeth Warren is trying to win a primary and those are two very different things.

BLITZER: Sabrina, how's the Trump administration, the Trump campaign going to try to use this to their advantage?

SIDDIQUI: Well we've already seen a preview of what that message will look like, the president dismissed the investigations that Democrats in the House are trying to pursue as presidential harassment.

And I think that's how he's going to try to frame any conversations that they may have about impeachment. Now it's important to note that there is a distinction between what Democrats in the House will do and those on the campaign trail will do.

And I think that when you look at the candidates in the 2020 Democratic field, they're actually not talking a great deal about impeachment when they're asked about it they sort of say that that's the appropriate roll for Congress to play and they recognize I think that they need to make more than just an anti-Trump case to the American people and that's why you hear them focusing a lot more on policy issues and leaving matters of impeachment to Democrats in the House.

BLITZER: You know, Jeffrey, on another sensitive issue both senators Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris, they're facing some criticism for what they said last night when asked about whether convicted felons, including killers serving life sentences, like the Boston Marathon Bomber for example, should be allowed to vote even while incarcerated.

Listen to the two of them.


SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (D-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If somebody commits a serious crime, sexual assault, murder, they're going to be punished. They may be in jail for 10 years, 20 years, 50 years, their whole lives. That's what happens when you commit a serious crime.

But I think the right to vote is inherent to our democracy, yes even for terrible people. But I do believe that even if they are in jail, they're paying their price to society, but that should not take away their inherent American right to participate in our democracy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: People who are in - convicted, in prison, like the Boston Marathon Bomber, on death row, people who are convicted of sexual assault, they should be able to vote?

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS (D-CA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think we should have that conversation.


What's your reaction, Jeffrey? TOOBIN: Well that's - it's peculiar because there is a big movement in the Democratic Party for - for enfranchisement of former felons, people who are out of prison. There was an initiative in Florida that passed with Republican support.

And that is a sort of core Democratic, capital D, principle at this point. The notion of people in prison voting is something that was news to me, I'd never heard - I'd never heard that as a - as a political issue.


And I think it's going to be actually pretty hard to defend. Kamala Harris looked sort of stunned by the issue, I don't know if she'd ever thought about it before. Bernie Sanders decided to embrace it, but I doubt - and Pete Buttigieg later said he didn't want any part of it, he thought that people in prison should not vote.

But I doubt that's an idea that's going to take the Democratic Party, much less the country by storm.

BLITZER: What do you think, David ?

SWERDLICK: So I mean at the philosophical root of this, Wolf, is this idea that when you're incarcerated, there are certain things you give up, you're locked in. You can't move around, you also can't have other certain basic rights.

And so people think of voting as something that's on hold as Jeffrey said until you're at least released from prison. It's one thing for Democrats to entertain this discussion, but I think part of their problem here, and you saw it in both of the answers from Senator Sanders and from Senator Harris is that if you have a big umbrella idea of what your campaign is about then you can drill down into some of these other issues.

But when your whole campaign is these little individual policy positions, that's what you're going to be judged on and it's not clear to me that the American people are quite as far as those answers were that they gave.

BLITZER: All right everybody stick around, there's more breaking news we're following, including some exclusive reporting. CNN is now on board as U.S. Navy warships deploy to a region where the Russian military is trying to expand its influence.

Is Vladimir Putin getting the message?



Tonight the United States is flexing its military muscles as a powerful and urgent warning to Russia. Our senior international correspondent Fred Pleitgen is in Italy for us after getting exclusive access to the mission. Fred, you were on board as U.S. warships deployed to the


FREDERIK PLEITGEN, SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT, CNN NEWS: You're absolutely right, Wolf, and of course all this comes after the Russians have been beefing up their presence in the arctic, in the Black Sea, and very much in the Mediterranean Sea as well.

And now the U.S. with its own show of force deploying two Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, here's what we saw on board.


Tonight an exclusive look as the U.S. military sends a message of deterrence to Russia, moving two aircraft carriers to the Mediterranean and in a rare move, bringing America's ambassador to Moscow, Jon Huntsman, on board, a clear signal to Russia.

JON HUNTSMAN, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO RUSSIA: When you have 200,000 tons of diplomacy that is cruising in the Mediterranean that is cruising in the Mediterranean. This is what I call diplomacy, this is forward deployed diplomacy.

Nothing else needs to be said, you have all the confidence you need when you sit down and you try to find solutions to the problems that have divided us now for many, many years.

PLEITGEN: CNN was on board at the USS Abraham Lincoln and the John C. Stennis are going to conduct operations on a scale unseen here since 2016.

REAR ADMIRAL JOHN WADE, U.S. NAVY: Our senior leadership has mandated that our Navy become more lethal, more tactically proficient. It's very important in the area of competition that we're in.

PLEITGEN: All this in an area where Russia is trying to expand its influence, deploying more warships and submarines with cruise missiles. The U.S. military is extremely concerned about Russia's increasingly strong military posture in this region.

And with this deployment, America is making clear to Moscow that it (ph). Even as President Trump's associated claim, there was nothing wrong with his campaign seeking information stolen by Russian military intelligence in the run up to the 2016 election.

The U.S. Navy is also assuring America's allies that it won't waiver on commitments to protect against Russian aggression. A Spanish ship even sailing as part of the carrier strike group.

ADMIRAL JAMES FOGGO, U.S. NAVY: We're not going to be deterred by any potential adversary and we are going to support our interest as Americans and also those of our allies as we steam throughout the world.

PLEITGEN: With Russia increasingly assertive in the entire Northern Atlantic and Arctic region, the U.S. Navy is putting on its own show of force for the Kremlin to clearly see.


And of course the Russians themselves trying to, Wolf, cement their presence in the Mediterranean Sea, trying to sign a long term lease for a port in Syria to make sure they can keep their warships and their submarines in that area as well, Wolf.

BLITZER: Lots of signals coming from the U.S. Fred Pleitgen, thanks for that exclusive report. Just ahead, why a battle of secret recordings is now hanging over Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the Democratic presidential contender who's been rising in the polls.

How is he addressing this controvery?


[18:49:02] BLITZER: Tonight, as Mayor Pete Buttigieg is rising in early presidential polls, he's been pressed about why he forced his city's first black police chief to resign. The episode in South Bend, Indiana, involved secretly recorded tapes and raised questions about racism. Buttigieg addressed the controversy during CNN's town hall event overnight.

Our senior investigative correspondent Drew Griffin is with us.

Drew, we heard from Mayor Buttigieg. You've been looking into this incident as well.

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN SENIOR INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it's tough for the mayor to talk about this issue because back home in South Bend, Indiana, as we found in the black community, there is always been this perception or question as to why this mayor appears to be protecting the privacy rights of white allegedly racist cops.


GRIFFIN (voice-over): Shortly after Pete Buttigieg became mayor of South Bend, Indiana, he became embroiled in a controversy he's still trying to explain seven years later.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What are on the secret tapes regarding the demotion of the South Bend's black police chief, Darryl Boykins?


[18:50:01] GRIFFIN: The secret tapes are phone conversations between four white officers including a top detective recorded by an internal police department system. The officers made derogatory racial slurs including comments about the city's first black police chief, that's according to a lawsuit by one of the only people who's heard those recordings.

Once Chief Darryl Boykins heard about the conversation in 2011, he asked the recordings continue. Buttigieg forced him to resign because of the way the chief handled the situation, causing an uproar in a time of racial tension in South Bend and across the country.

MICHAEL PATTON, NAACP SOUTH BEND BRANCH PRESIDENT: The Trayvon Martin situation just happened in February. Chief Boykins' situation happens in, I believe, March of that same year 2012, and our nation is infuriated. Our city, the people in our city, especially African- Americans, are infuriated.

It just raised a lot of questions, and I think as well created some mistrust behind a lot of different things happening at the same time.

GRIFFIN: Buttigieg later rehired then demoted the chief. The controversy led to an extremely complicated chain of lawsuits that have gone on for years with litigants appear lawyers prevented from speaking about what's on the tapes. The former police chief's attorney has seen a summary of the recordings and says what's alleged could raise question base white cops interacting with black suspects.

TOM DIXON, ATTORNEY FOR FORMER SOUTH BEND POLICE CHIEF: If we've got the head of the metro homicide unit dropping racial epithets, you know, how long is about before the Innocence Project comes in here and starts looking at all these prior convictions.

GRIFFIN: The lawyer for the officers who are recorded say there is nothing racist on the tapes but continues to fight their release.

Gina Williams-Preston is on the city council and taking her own city to court, demanding once and for all the tapes be played.

REGINA WILLIAMS-PRESTON, SOUTH BEND CITY COUNCIL: This mystery around the tapes that has been looming over the community for so many years, it's like a cloud. Because every time there is some kind of incident, you know it just kind of rips that band-aid off and brings us back to the question, is there clear evidence of some sort of racism and bias within our police department?

GRIFFIN: As for the mayor, he says he has not heard the tapes and will not release them without a court's decision because he doesn't want to violate wiretap laws, which leaves him trying to explain his actions as he campaigns for president.

BUTTIGIEG: I was, frankly, a little bit slow to understand just how much anguish underlay the community's response to this, because for people in the community, it wasn't just about whether we were right or wrong to be concerned about the Federal Wiretap Act, it was about whether communities of color could trust that police departments had their best interests at heart.


GRIFFIN: This issue is far from over. The city council called the common council continuing to press the mayor and both the city administration to release these tapes. And just yesterday, a judge ruled that that case can continue, so during this campaign, we could actually foresee or see what was on those tapes.

BLITZER: Yes, let's see what happens. Good reporting, Drew. Thank you very, very much.

BLITZER: Just ahead as ISIS claims responsibility for the horrific attack in Sri Lanka, we are getting exclusive new details of an early warning that might have prevented the attack.


[18:57:46] BLITZER: Tonight, ISIS is claiming responsibility for the Easter bombings that killed more than 300 people in Sri Lanka. We are getting new information about early warnings of the attacks.

Let's go to CNN's Will Ripley. He's on the ground for us in Sri Lanka.

Will, what are learning, first of all, about the specific intelligence authorities received ahead of these terror attacks?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we are learning that it wasn't just days before the attacks here in Sri Lanka but weeks before that Indian authorities and U.S. intelligence agencies were warning the government here that ISIS was plotting some kind of attack on the streets of Sri Lanka.

Indian authorities interrogated an ISIS suspect who said he trained a man by the name of Zahran Hashim. Zahran Hashim has been identified on a video that ISIS released when they claimed responsibility, a video that ISIS says is proof that the suicide bombers who entered hotels, just three hotels within a couple hundred meters of where I'm standing right now and also several churches across the Sri Lanka, those bombers in the ISIS video purportedly were trained by ISIS.

They left Sri Lanka, received training, and came back here to carry out this attack, which U.S. intelligence agencies have acknowledged was very much indicative of an ISIS-style assault in terms of the timing, the targets -- you know, Christian churches, hotels full of foreigners, and, of course, the shock of it all, happening on Easter Sunday, Wolf. So, there is a lot of outrage here on the streets wondering why the government ignored these signs.

The nationwide curfew was just lifted. Obviously, there is still a lot of heavy security out here. You see armed guards all over the city. Cars are now starting to return to the streets here, but there's still a state of emergency in effect and people are being warned to be vigilant. The government says they are concerned that there could be a truck or van full of explosives on the streets here in Colombo right now at some point, potentially wanting to detonate those explosives and launch another attack.

So, you have this kind of chilling silence at the moment, Wolf. People are really on edge. Every noise you hear, you perk up, you look around, that is what life is like here in Sri Lanka right now.

BLITZER: It's really a sad -- I know they had a day of mourning there. And it's heart wrenching to think of all the Christians who were at Easter Sunday church services when the terrorists went in there and just started killing people and so many remain injured right now. Our hearts go out to all of them.

Will Ripley, continue to be safe over there. Be careful. There could be more we're hearing potentially on the way.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.