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THE SITUATION ROOM

Early Voting In Nevada; Giuliani Associates Potentially Facing Additional Charges; Calls Increase For Attorney General Bill Barr To Resign; Democratic Candidates Zero In On Nevada Ahead Of Crucial Caucuses; Twelve-Plus American Evacuees Test Positive For Virus After Leaving Ship; Humanitarian Crisis In Syria Worsens. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired February 17, 2020 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:05]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now: personal bidding.

Hundreds and hundreds of former Justice Department officials now say the attorney general of the United States is pursuing the president's partisan agenda, and it's time for him to resign. As William Barr faces growing pressure, I will talk to a former top prosecutor who wants him out.

Closing in on Rudy? Sources now tell CNN that the feds are weighing new charges against Giuliani associates, including Ukraine scandal figure Lev Parnas. Could the president's personal lawyer be next?

Up for grabs. The Democratic presidential race is getting more intense, as early voting is under way in the next 2020 battleground. Who will hit jackpot in Nevada?

And quarantined. More than a dozen U.S. evacuees who tested positive for the coronavirus are now back in this country. I will ask one of the nation's top experts if Americans are a greater risk tonight.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. This is a SITUATION ROOM special report.

The condemnation of Attorney General William Barr is reaching a new level tonight. The number of former Justice Department officials calling for his resignation now tops 2,000. They all signed on to a letter accusing Barr of doing the president's personal partisan bidding by intervening in cases involving Trump associates Roger Stone and Michael Flynn.

These critics of the attorney general served in Republican, as well as Democratic administrations. They know the law, they know the Justice Department, and they say they are outraged.

This hour, I will talk with Donald Ayer, a former deputy attorney general in the first Bush administration who has very tough words for Barr tonight. And our correspondents and analysts are also standing by.

First, let's go to our Chief White House Correspondent, Jim Acosta. Jim, the president, at least for now, is standing by Barr, as he calls

-- as the calls for his resignation grow louder and louder.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

And on this Presidents Day, the president stayed out of sight, as Attorney General William Barr faced more calls to resign amid concerns he is coming to the rescue of Trump associates like Roger Stone and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.

Hundreds of Democratic and Republican veterans of the Justice Department are now urging Barr to step down. And one former deputy attorney general from the Bush 41 administration says Barr may be turning the U.S. into a -- quote -- "banana republic."

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): More than 2,000 former Justice Department officials from both parties have signed onto a letter demanding that Attorney General William Barr step down, and the list is growing.

The officials accuse Barr of politicizing his department with moves favorable to Trump associates, like the president's convicted dirty trickster Roger Stone.

"Those actions," the officials write, "and the damage they have done to the Department of Justice's reputation for integrity and the rule of law require Mr. Barr to resign."

Democrats are seizing on the letter as a sign of an administration that's gone rogue.

JOSEPH BIDEN (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Something unprecedented has happened; 1,100 former Justice Department officials, who in fact are Republican, as many -- as well as Democrats, call for his attorney general to step down for the abuse of the office.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

BIDEN: Folks, I'm serious. No one has ever, ever weaponized the Justice Department like he has.

ACOSTA: In a separate op-ed in "The Atlantic," former Republican Deputy Attorney General Donald Ayer went further, writing: "Bill Barr's America is not a place that anyone, including Trump voters, should want to go. It is a banana republic, where all are subject to the whims of a dictatorial president and his henchmen."

Over the weekend, top White House officials defended the president's close relationship with Barr, saying they work -- quote -- "hand in glove."

KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO THE PRESIDENT: The president of the United States has not asked or directed his attorney general privately to do anything in any criminal matter, including Roger Stone. Number two, he works hand in glove with the attorney general, as we all are privileged to do, on any number of matters that affect this country.

ACOSTA: Aides to the president say there is no way Mr. Trump will stop tweeting his opinions about federal cases, even as critics note those social media posts involve friends he wants spared in court and enemies he wants punished by prosecutors.

MARC SHORT, CHIEF OF STAFF TO VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE:It is something that helped propel him to the presidency. It's one of the things that the American people love about him, is they can communicate directly with him. He's going to keep doing it. It's what he's -- it's what he's done from the beginning. And I think it's a very effective way for him to communicate to the American people.

ACOSTA: The president fired one alarming tweet over the weekend likening himself to a king, as he quoted a recent article in "The New York Times": "Ralph Waldo Emerson seemed to foresee the lesson of the Senate impeachment trial of President Trump, when you strike at the king, Emerson famously said, you must kill him."

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Gentlemen, start your engines.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

ACOSTA: That wasn't the only hair-raising tweet from Trump world.

After the president took what his supporters described as a victory lap at the Daytona 500, his campaign manager, Brad Parscale, got wrecked on Twitter when he tweeted a majestic photo of Air Force One at Daytona. But there was one problem. The photo was from 2004, when then President George W. Bush visited the racetrack.

[18:05:18]

Parscale deleted the tweet.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: And the president is looking to continue what he sees as a victory lap for much of this week as he travels out West to do some fund-raising and hold three separate rallies in Colorado, Arizona and Nevada, three states that will likely be critical in determining whether Mr. Trump can win a second term in office.

As for the attorney general, we should note the White House says the president continues to have confidence in Mr. Barr and that his opinion has not changed at all, in light of these calls for his resignation -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jim Acosta at the White House, thank you very much.

Let's bring in our Crime and Justice Correspondent, Shimon Prokupecz.

Shimon, now how unusual and significant is this letter calling for the Attorney General William Barr's resignation? SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: It's certainly the number, the number of people that are calling for this resignation.

These are former senior-level people at the Department of Justice. You have some that are now even defense attorneys representing people accused of crimes that are calling for the attorney general to step down.

There's a lot of concern. Very clear, in reading this letter, there is a lot of concern inside the legal community as to what the attorney general has been doing.

And the key thing in all of this is the integrity of the system. And a lot of them are very concerned that that is now lost. If you just look at the last week, at what the attorney general has done, in the beginning of the week, we had Rudy Giuliani, some of the information that he was getting in the Ukraine investigation.

There's now an -- that part has now been given to a U.S. attorney. You then have, of course, the Roger Stone -- him getting involved in the Roger Stone sentencing himself, saying that the sentence was just too much, filing a motion, a memorandum with the court saying that the sentencing the line assistance was too high, and they felt that it should be lower.

And then, of course, we end the week where we get word that he is now investigating the Michael Flynn investigation. So, time and time again, certainly, people in the legal community feeling that he in so many ways, the attorney general, is trying to help out the president.

And then when you look at the letter and what they wrote in this letter, they say that the attorney general's actions: "Mr. Barr's actions, in doing the president's personal bidding, unfortunately, speak louder than his words. Those actions and the damage they have done to the Department of Justice's reputation for integrity and the rule of law require Mr. Barr to resign. But because we have little expectation he will do so, it falls to the department's career officials to take appropriate action to uphold their oaths of office and defend nonpartisan, apolitical justice."

And, Wolf, essentially, here, they're saying, look, if you are an employee of the Department of Justice, and you see wrongdoing, come forward, report it to the proper officials, because that is the only way that anything could potentially be done to correct the problem -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, very significant point, indeed.

And related to all of this, Roger Stone, one of the president's longtime associates and friends, he is set to be sentenced later this week. What's the latest? What are you hearing?

PROKUPECZ: Right. That sentencing is supposed to take place on Thursday. But there's been so much drama surrounding the case that the judge,

Judge Amy Berman Jackson, has decided she needs to talk to the lawyers that are now involved in the case. She's called for a conference call tomorrow.

We're going to have obviously Stone's attorneys on the call, but we're also going to have the new prosecutors from the Department of Justice, who are now overseeing the case, after those four other prosecutors who tried Roger Stone, investigated Roger Stone for the past two years, all withdrew from the case.

Key tomorrow is that it's going to be the first time we could potentially hear any kind of reaction from the judge as to the prosecutors withdrawing, and, of course, the attorney general filing that new sentencing memorandum.

BLITZER: All right, Shimon, we will see what happens tomorrow. Thank you very much, Shimon Prokupecz, reporting.

Joining us now, one of the former Justice Department officials calling for Barr's resignation. Donald Ayer served as the deputy attorney general under Republican President George Herbert Walker Bush.

Thanks so much for coming in.

DONALD AYER, FORMER U.S. DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL: You bet.

BLITZER: So, you're not just the former official. You were the number two official...

AYER: I was.

BLITZER: ... at the Justice Department, deputy attorney general.

In an article in "The Atlantic," you just wrote this. And I will read a couple sentences for our viewers: "Bill Barr's America is not a place that anyone, including Trump voters, should want to go. It is a banana republic, where all are subject to the whims of a dictatorial president and his henchmen. To prevent that, we need a public uprising demanding that Bill Barr resign immediately, or, failing that, be impeached."

[18:10:03]

Those are your words.

Why do you believe he's such a threat?

AYER: Well, it -- I think the immediate uproar about it clearly relates to the interference in these criminal cases. And the criminal cases that the department handles are in many ways the most sensitive. That's the area where the government has the greatest impact on people.

And that's where I think everybody has a very strong feeling that politics and personal bias have got to be kept entirely out of it. And now we're seeing that, in fact, biases and politics are creeping into it.

But it's only the tip of that iceberg that we're talking about there. One of the ultimate reasons that Bill Barr needs to go is that he has made clear his views for a very long time.

And the clearest statement of them was in the memo that he wrote. He wrote a memo back in the middle of 2018, in June of 2018, when he was talking about, essentially, that the Mueller investigation was ill- conceived. It's a 19-page memo.

And he...

BLITZER: This before he became attorney general.

AYER: It was. It was.

And some people think it was sort of an audition memo to be attorney general. It talks about the powers of the president are such that even having this investigation was improper. And he specifically says that the president is the executive branch, and that he necessarily has complete and unlimited discretion to oversee criminal cases.

He actually said the thing that the president said not long ago, when the president said, I have the power to interfere in Justice Department matters and investigations, but I choose not -- I haven't done so yet.

So, Barr has that view. And then that vision that Barr expressed well before he became attorney general has been carried through in many, many things he does. Many people will remember back in March, when he whitewashed the Mueller report, which had very powerful evidence of obstruction of justice.

And Mr. Barr, before anyone saw the report outside the department, wrote a letter saying there was no sufficient evidence. And then he had a press conference. And then, finally, it was released. His view was clear that this was legally insufficient. But, in fact, when people read the report, they saw it wasn't.

He contradicted the finding of the inspector general, who found that the FBI investigation of the Russia messing around in our election was properly predicated and overseen in an unbiased way.

He said, no, that wasn't true.

BLITZER: You have known Bill Barr for about 40 years. Right?

AYER: I have.

BLITZER: Forty years.

And now you're calling him in this article in "The Atlantic" un- American. You say: "Given our national faith and trust in the rule of law no one can subvert, it is not too strong to say that Bill Barr is un-American."

Un-American, strong words. Has he changed over these 40 years, or what?

AYER: I don't -- I don't know that he's changed, because he's always had a very strong view that the executive ought to have a great deal of power.

I have never known quite how far it would go. And there was never any reason to test it, because, when he was attorney general under George H.W. Bush, George H.W. Bush had no interest in being an autocrat. So, now we're faced with a situation where Bill Barr has won the job of attorney general under a president who apparently does want to be an autocrat.

Now, the reason that I say he's un-American is because I think it's fair to say -- and I think most people would agree with me -- that the central tenet of our legal system and our justice system is that no person is above the law.

We have a government, as Edward Levi said back when he really reformed the Justice Department after Watergate, it's a government of laws and not men was the word he used.

And Bill Barr's vision is quite different. Bill Barr's vision is that there is one man, one person who needs to be above the law, and that is the president. And he's carried that out. This is the really important thing.

He said that before he became attorney general, but he's now carried it out in many steps, since he became attorney general.

BLITZER: Well, what did you think of what he said in that ABC News interview last week, when he urged the president to stop tweeting, because that's interfering in the Justice Department's legal actions?

AYER: Well, I think -- I think that was an effort, essentially, so that he would maybe encourage the president -- I don't know if he expected it to happen, and it sounds like it's not going to -- but maybe he hoped the government wouldn't blow his cover.

He didn't say anything about stopping doing the things that he was doing. He didn't say that he was going to stop interfering in criminal cases that had been handled in a usual and ordinary way. He didn't say that he was going to stop pursuing these lawsuits to defend the stonewalling against efforts of Congress to perform their traditional oversight functions.

He didn't say that they were going to stop litigating the case involving the border wall, where the president has put out a phony emergency declaration to avoid the appropriation power of the House, which denied the money for the border wall.

They're litigating everything they can to give the president virtually unchecked powers. And that's Bill's vision of -- and it really, I think, always has been his vision. He's just never been able to try to realize it, the way he is now.

BLITZER: Donald Ayer, the former deputy attorney general during the first Bush administration, thanks so much for coming in.

[18:15:03]

AYER: Thank you.

BLITZER: We will continue this conversation down the road.

AYER: Great.

BLITZER: Appreciate it very much.

Just ahead, you know what? We're learning more right now about the legal risks that Rudy Giuliani is facing tonight in his case against his indicted associates.

We will have and much more. This is a SITUATION ROOM special report.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Tonight, Rudy Giuliani may be feeling some new heat from federal prosecutors in New York.

Sources now tell CNN that additional charges are under consideration in the case against Giuliani's associates.

Our political correspondent, Sara Murray, is working the story for us.

So, Sara, what are you learning about the case and what it means potentially for the president's personal attorney?

[18:20:03]

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, there could be more legal trouble ahead for Lev Parnas and some of his associates.

And that is not good news, potentially, for Rudy Giuliani.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY (voice-over): Federal prosecutors are weighing whether to bring a new round of charges against Rudy Giuliani's associates, in a move that inches the investigation closer to the president's personal attorneys.

Lev Parnas and three of his business associates were arrested and charged in October. But people familiar with the investigation tell CNN that prosecutors in the Southern District of New York are considering whether to add additional charges against Parnas and at least one of his business partners for misleading potential investors in a company called Fraud Guarantee.

That's the same Florida-based company that paid Giuliani half-a- million dollars, a payment that came around the same time as Parnas and his associate Igor Fruman were helping Giuliani arrange meetings in Ukraine to dig up dirt on President Trump's political rival former Vice President Joe Biden.

LEV PARNAS, INDICTED GIULIANI ASSOCIATE: I went from being a top donor, from being at all the events where we would just socialize, to becoming a close friend of Rudy Giuliani's, to eventually becoming his ally and his asset on the ground in Ukraine.

MURRAY: The continued scrutiny of Fraud Guarantee's business activities raises questions about whether Giuliani played any role in the company's marketing. A lawyer for Giuliani says the former New York mayor never discussed investor pitches or marketing with Parnas.

Parnas, since his arrest, has publicly turned on Giuliani. And, in turn, Giuliani has railed against Parnas' credibility.

RUDY GIULIANI, ATTORNEY FOR PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Lev is someone I'm -- I was close to. Obviously, I was misled by him. I still feel sorry for him. I'm not going to respond to him for each and every one of the misrepresentations he's made, because there are so many.

MURRAY: Meantime, federal prosecutors in Manhattan have spent months investigating Giuliani's activities, including his encouraging an investigation into Biden and his efforts to oust former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch.

GIULIANI: I forced her out because she's corrupt. There's no question that she was acting currently in that position and had to be removed. She should have been fired, if the State Department weren't part of the deep state.

MURRAY: Giuliani has not been accused of wrongdoing, but investigators are still pressing for more information. And Yovanovitch's name appeared on a recent subpoena from New York prosecutors that was inquiring about Giuliani and Parnas, a source tells CNN.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY: Now, Giuliani and his associates are set to go to trial in early October.

And, Wolf, that means we could be getting new information and testimony about Trump's circle in the weeks before the 2020 election.

BLITZER: This clearly is continuing.

Sara, good report. Thank you very much.

There's more news we're following.

Just ahead, tens of thousands of Nevadans vote early, as the 2020 Democrats face a crucial new test out West this coming Saturday.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:27:32]

BLITZER: Tonight, the Democratic candidates are converging on Nevada, as thousands of voters are weighing in ahead of the caucuses on Saturday.

Our senior Washington correspondent, Jeff Zeleny, is joining us from Reno right now.

Jeff, the 2020 Democrats, they will be tested in new ways in Nevada. Update our viewers.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, good evening.

They certainly will. This will be the first test of strength from a Western state, certainly more African-American voters, more Hispanic voters than in Iowa, New Hampshire combined. Joe Biden hopes that revives his candidacy. Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg hopes it continues their strength.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: With your help, we're going to win here in Nevada.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

ZELENY (voice-over): The fight is on for Nevada.

SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR (D-MN), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It is so wonderful to be out of the snow and in this beautiful sunny state of Nevada.

ZELENY (voice-over): The first 2020 Democratic contest in the West.

PETE BUTTIGIEG (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I know that people in Nevada are taking your responsibility, your influence, your power, that thumb on the scale that you have so seriously.

ZELENY: Five days before the state's caucuses, early voting is already under way, in the most diverse test yet for the Democratic field.

Front and center is a familiar debate over health care, but with a new twist. The state's powerful Culinary Workers Union strongly opposes Medicare for all, saying abolishing private insurance would take away their hard-fought health insurance plans.

It's one of the biggest challenges facing Bernie Sanders, whose support for Medicare for all is at the heart of his candidacy. His rivals are trying to capitalize on the divide, hoping to slow his surge.

JOSEPH BIDEN (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: No one should be able to tell them they can no longer have that plan. And I'll be damned if we're going to erase the unions' effort.

ZELENY: Joe Biden is trying to revive his campaign in Nevada, after lackluster showings in Iowa and New Hampshire.

The former vice president said he was counting on the diverse electorate of African-American and Latino voters in Nevada and beyond to weigh in. BIDEN: I think that we're just getting there. And we have had less

than 2 percent of the vote taken so far. And now we're here in Nevada, and it's going to be up to you decide how many of us move on.

ZELENY: Naomi Lovato has been uncertain about Biden's strength. But after seeing him today, she believes he still has what it takes to win.

NAOMI LOVATO, NEVADA VOTER: Before, he was a little bit kind of a -- didn't come across with that fire in the gut. But, this time, he really did. He can do it. I truly believe that in my heart.

[18:30:00]

NAOMI LOVATO, NEVADA VOTER: I really do.

ZELENY: One candidate not competing here is still hanging over the race, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. His Democratic rivals are piling on this self-funded billionaire.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Mr. Bloomberg, like anybody else, has a right to run for president. He does not have a right to buy the presidency.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY: So all Democratic candidates are piling on Michael Bloomberg, criticizing him in advance of the debate here later this week. We will find out at midnight tomorrow if Bloomberg qualifies for that debate. Well, I'm told he's preparing the make plans and he will be in Las Vegas for the debate if he qualifies. It is clear he will be front and center, the new bull's eye here in this field.

BLITZER: We're going to have a lively debate indeed.

All right, Jeff, I want you to stand by. I want to bring in our analysts. And, David Swerdlick, already 26,000 Nevadans, they participated in early voting. They'll continue the caucuses on Saturday. But some of them are already expressing fears that there could be a repeat of the disaster we saw in Iowa. How concerned should we be that maybe they're not ready for the new way of counting all these ballots in Nevada?

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, Wolf. Nevada Democrats and Democrats nationally are really on the hot seat with this. There're fears that there might be a repeat of Iowa. They have switched away from that app that caused problems in Iowa but they switched to this Google-based system and you still have reports coming out of Nevada that some of the people who are volunteering at the precincts were saying, look, we haven't been trained sufficiently on this. There're questions about why they are not using a paper system.

And I think we could get to a point, if things sort of discombobulate in Nevada in any way, like they did in Iowa, that you're going to have knives out for Tom Perez, the head of the Democratic Party, the head of the Democratic Party in Nevada, and also real question about whether in future elections there should be a caucus system because you don't see this problem with primaries.

BLITZER: Sabrina, Nevada, this coming Saturday, a week from Saturday, South Carolina, both unlike Iowa and New Hampshire, diverse states. How critical is this now for the former vice president, Joe Biden?

SABRINA SIDDIQUI, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think that this next pair of contest could really prove to be a do or die moment for former Vice President Joe Biden's campaign. When you look at the state of his campaign, his entire rationale for staying in the race despite finishing fourth in Iowa caucuses and fifth in New Hampshire was that he stands to do well among non-white voters in Nevada and South Carolina.

And so it's not enough, in fact, to simply do well. He's going to have to at least win, certainly in South Carolina, which his campaign still sees as his firewall. It's also an opportunity for someone like Senator Elizabeth Warren to try and steady her campaign. She has one of the stronger organizations on the ground in Nevada. It didn't do the task in Iowa or New Hampshire.

But it really is an opportunity for some of these candidates who struggled to reset the narrative. But on the flipside, if the results mirror those in Iowa and New Hampshire and once again you see Bernie Sanders and/or Pete Buttigieg come out on top, then this could very well quickly become either a two-person or a three-person race with, of course, the unknown factors surrounding Michael Bloomberg in Super Tuesday coming up afterwards.

BLITZER: Well, speaking of Michael Bloomberg, he's already spent, what, $400 million in advertising. But he's not competing in Nevada officially or South Carolina. He's not on the ballot but he will be on Super Tuesday, March 3rd. He's hovering over this contest right now.

SWERDLICK: Right. And he's testing that proposition that you can win this thing by going to an air war, skipping these early states where people do a lot more hand-to-hand campaigning, going to diners, kissing babies and seeing if, in the big states on March 3rd, he can blanket the airwaves, and with name recognition come in, Wolf, I think this debate is going to be a test for him because of some of the news coming out about him and some of his past comments in the past couple of days.

If I were the campaign, I almost think I would be crossing my fingers if they don't qualify and save it for another date.

BLITZER: We will see if he makes that debate. We should find out tomorrow.

Everybody stand by. An important note to our viewers, stay with CNN this week for presidential town hall events just ahead on the Nevada caucuses. Sanders, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Biden and Warren, they will take part live from Las Vegas tomorrow and Thursday 8:00 P.M. Eastern.

Just ahead, American evacuees test positive for coronavirus and are allowed to return to the United States anyway. We're getting new information. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:35:00]

BLITZER: Tonight, the number of Americans known to have the coronavirus is growing. More than a dozen U.S. travelers tested positive after they were evacuated from a cruise ship in Japan. They were still allowed the board flights to quarantine zones at U.S. military bases here in the United States along with more than 300 other evacuees.

Joining us now, the renowned immunologist, Dr. Anthony Fauci. He is director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases here in Washington. Dr. Fauci, thanks so much for joining us.

Let's talk about these passengers. They were allowed off of these two cruise ships, the Diamond Princess and Westerdam, only to find out later that some of them tested positive for the virus. What does that mean for the spread of this disease?

ANTHONY FAUCI, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ALLERGY AND INFECTIOUS DISEASES: Well, they were taken back to the United States and put in a specialized compartment of the airplane that evacuated the entire group. So having returned to the United States, several of them were shipped to the University of Nebraska, which has extensive experience in taking care of patients under these restricted conditions of containment.

[18:40:03]

The others, as you mentioned, Wolf, will have to undergo 14 days of quarantine because coming from that ship, which was really kind of a hot spot of transmission on that vessel in the Yokohama Harbor.

So things worked actually out well. We got our people out of there. They're here now. They're going to be safely quarantined and those who need medical care will get it.

BLITZER: How effective are, Dr. Fauci, these quarantines? Do we know 100 percent that a two-week quarantine is sufficient?

FAUCI: We're pretty certain of that, Wolf. I mean, the median incubation period is about five to six days. So the range is about 2 to 14. So we feel really rather confident that if you give you them a 14-day period of quarantine that you'll be well beyond the incubation period.

BLITZER: How great do you believe the risk is here in United States?

FAUCI: Well, if you're talking about right now, Wolf, the risk is really very minimal, because there really are only 15 cases now in addition to those who were shipped here. They were identified, they were isolated and the contacts were traced. Obviously, things could change. If this spreads more diffusely throughout the world is the possibility we may actually have a global pandemic. So although I'm saying that the risk right now is minimal in the United States, and we should just go about our daily business, we need to keep an eye on it because it can change and that's the reason why we're taking it very seriously.

BLITZER: Why do some people die from this virus?

FAUCI: Well, some people die, Wolf, because it can give serious pulmonary infection which infiltrates any respiratory insufficiency. The mode of death is almost always to do primarily with pneumonia or some sort, which can then lead to multiple organ system failure. The mortality is about 2 percent. It probably is much less because the denominator doesn't count. Rather large number of people likely who are either infected and without symptoms or only minimal symptoms.

So right now, the calculation is about 2 percent mortality. It's probably considerably less than that.

BLITZER: How long do you think before there's a vaccine that can deal with this?

FAUCI: It's going be a year to year-and-a-half. We're going to be starting testing of a vaccine in about two months in a phase one trial for safety. It will take about three months to show that it's safe. And then after six months, what we're going to do is go to a Phase 2 trial will determine if it works. Add up all those months. You're talking at least a year to a year-and-a-half.

So the solution now to address this is much more public health measures than relying on a vaccine. If this goes into next year and cycles on a yearly basis, then vaccine becomes much more relevant.

BLITZER: Well, let's hope they come up with something because it's a serious, serious problem in an enormous sphere, even though it might not happen as a pandemic, as it always spread to a couple of dozen countries, as we know.

Dr. Fauci, as usual, we're grateful to you for everything you do. Thank you very much for joining us.

FAUCI: Good to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. We're going to have much more news right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:48:11]

BLITZER: The Syrian regime is refusing to let up on its Russian backed military against the country's last rebel held territory. The United Nations now says more than 850,000 civilians have been forced to flee the fighting since December, most of them women and children.

Our senior international correspondent Arwa Damon is the only Western journalist reporting from inside Syria. Here is her exclusive report that contains disturbing images.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice over): There is barely enough light to see as we head towards Samia's (ph) tent, in one of Idlib's sprawling camps. A couple nights ago, temperatures dropped well below zero and the family didn't have enough to burn.

I fed my baby and he went to sleep, Samia tells us, still in shock. At 6:36, the children woke me up screening. I touched him and he was icy. The doctors told them he froze to death.

Her husband walks out before he breaks down. She doesn't have a photograph of Abdel Wahab (ph) alive, just this image as they said their final good-byes.

She can't forgive herself. She can't understand how life can be so cruel. Few people here can.

We have made multiple trips into Idlib province. None like this. Roads throughout the province are clogged with the traffic of those on the run. Unending waves.

Many have been displaced multiple times before, but this time, it's different. They feel like no matter what they do, they won't be able to outrun the war.

These children walked for seven hours in the middle of the night to get away from the bombing near their village.

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But it's not far enough.

(on camera): They want to leave from here, but they -- they need to try to figure out transport or something, because if they try to go walk, it would just be impossible.

(voice over): Down the road, Deema (ph) and Batulik clutch their stuffed animal for the last time. For theirs is a world where toys are not considered essential. Survival is. They don't cry or complain as they are loaded into the truck.

There is a sense of finality, claustrophobia, compounded by the collective misery of those trapped here, with their regime rapidly closing in and emptying out entire areas.

One village settled down among these third century ruins two weeks ago. A little boy shows us a picture in his father's phone of the bombing overnight.

(on camera): This is Mohammed (ph) and he's 10 and he said that he was very scared the last night because this entire area, the hillsides, all around it were being bombed.

(voice over): They almost took off walking in the dark. I would rather die than not be able to protect my children, Sief Adeim (ph) vows.

He used to be the village's elementary school director. His tent is considered a palace by this wretched existence's standards.

(on camera): Two of his kids have fallen over into the stove. Oh, and her face -- her face was burned.

(voice over): His children are too young to know anything but war and hardship.

Let Trump get a bit angry and send a couple tomahawks, Sief Adeim (ph) says, half joking. For those here know too well that in the world's view they are dispensable. The last nine years have taught them that.

Obay's (ph) tent is perched on a hilltop away from the countless other makeshift camps.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator); Warning! Russian fighter jets in the air.

DAMON: Our conversation is broken up by warnings from an app he has on his phone about where the planes are flying and bombing.

His elderly mother lies in the corner. She's been that way ever since they found out that his brother died in a regime prison. And the regime is getting closer.

(on camera): Yes, you can hear that.

This is his brother who was detained in 2012 when he was part of the protests. And then, in 2015, they got notification that he was dead.

This is the photograph they got of him dead in prison.

(voice over): All I have is this photo. Just this memory, he says, haunted by his pain. Even if the regime tried to reconcile, it's impossible, he swears. You can't trust them.

Nothing in this forsaken place in guaranteed. Gone is the schoolyard laughter and crowded classrooms. They have been converted into shelters and smoke-filled living spaces. But even as new families arrive, some of those here are getting ready to flee again.

Sief Adiem (ph), who we met at the camp in the ruins, sends me a distressing voice message.

(on camera): He's saying that the bombing was all around them overnight and that the aircraft are flying over the camps.

(voice over): When we arrive, the sounds of the violence closing in echo through the hills. Sief Adiem's children are playing in the mud, seemingly oblivious to the encroaching danger, or just used to it.

(on camera): They've called for a truck, but they're being told that there's no one who can come here that quickly because it's so -- the roads are so crowded and clogged up with other people fleeing.

(voice over): Those who manage to get transport are packing up. They still cling to a hope that someone, something will save them. That the world will realize it can no longer turn away. That they won't be abandoned to desperately search for a lifeline that doesn't exist.

Arwa Damon, CNN, Idlib province, Syria.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Awful, awful situation. Arwa, thank you for that report.

We're going to have more news in just a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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BLITZER: I'm back here in Washington, from the NBA's all-star weekend in Chicago. I've gone to this event for many years, one of the highlights of being the NBA newsmaker brunch. This year, it included a surprise guest, former President Obama.

I shot a brief clip as he got emotional speaking about Kobe Bryant.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT: That loss is something I know many are still grappling with. Particularly Kobe, because he was with his daughter and those families and those children and those of us who have -- had the joy and privilege of being parents and taking kids to ball games, and then moving for our children and seeing our dreams and hopes passed on to them, nothing's more heartbreaking. And so, I want to offer the NBA family and show them my deepest condolences and obviously the families of the Sterns and the Bryants.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Very emotional moment indeed.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.

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