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Trump Commutes Ex-Illinois Governor's Sentence, Pardons Ex-NYPD Commissioner And Others; Sanders Leads New Democratic Poll, Bloomberg Rises To Second; Bloomberg Qualifies For His First Debate; Coronavirus Kills Second Key Doctor, Worrying Experts. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired February 18, 2020 - 17:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, pardoned, President Trump commutes the sentence of former Illinois governor and "Celebrity Apprentice" contestant Rod Blagojevich, and pardoned several others including former New York City police commissioner and Giuliani ally Bernard Keric.

Total confidence. President Trump insist he is the country's chief law enforcement officer even as he backs the man who actually is the Attorney General Barr. And the President says he's allowed to get involved in Roger Stone's case, but chooses not to.

Gaining momentum. Bernie Sanders leads the Democratic pack by double digits in a brand-new national poll just days before the Nevada caucuses. And Michael Bloomberg rises coming in second and qualifying for his first debate tomorrow night.

And doctor dangers. Coronavirus claims the life of a second key doctor as the number of cases near 75,000. Tonight, new concern about the risk that medical workers are facing.

I'm Wolf Blitzer, and you are in THE SITUATION ROOM.

A former Illinois governor and former police commissioner and a former junk bond king are among a group granted clemency today by President Trump who proclaimed himself the country's top law enforcement officer.

Tonight he's also voicing confidence in his embattled Attorney General William Barr.

And the President says he's allowed to be involved in Roger Stone's case adding that Stone was treated unfairly.

We're also following the Democratic presidential campaign, and a new national poll that has Bernie Sanders with a double-digit lead over the second place candidate, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. His sudden rise has qualified him tomorrow night's debate just days before the Nevada caucuses.

Our guest this hour includes Sanders' campaign senior advisor Jeff Weaver and Senator Chris Van Hollen. And our correspondents and analysts are also standing by.

First, let's go straight to the White House. Our Chief White House Correspondent Jim Acosta is standing by.

Jim, the President announced these pardons as he was leaving for a West Coast swing.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right Wolf. President Trump is flexing his muscles in the American judicial system declaring himself the chief law enforcement officer of the U.S., and announcing pardons for high profile convicted criminals who are connected to his friends. The President is using his pardon powers just as he is pushing for shorter sentences for two of his own convicted former associates Roger Stone and the former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.

But today the President sprung from prison former Illinois governor, Rod Blagojevich who was convicted after attempting his own quid pro quo.


ACOSTA (voice-over): Beating his chest over the U.S. justice system, President Trump is standing by embattled Attorney General Bill Barr who is coming under mounting criticism for his involvement in the cases against convicted dirty trickster Roger Stone and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: But I think he's doing an excellent job. He's a strong guy. I never spoke to him about the Roger Stone situation.

I think Roger Stone has been treated unfairly. I think General Flynn has been treated very unfairly.

ACOSTA: The President insisted he wasn't involved in the Stone case before going on to declare himself the top law enforcement officer in the country even though that's the job of the attorney general.

TRUMP: The attorney general is a man of incredible integrity.

Just so you understand, I chose not to be involved. I'm allowed to be totally involved. I'm actually, I guess, the chief law enforcement officer of the country.

ACOSTA: Mr. President Trump is flexing his presidential powers announcing he's commuting a prison sentence for disgraced Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich as well as offering pardons for former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Keric, junk bond trader Michael Milken, and former football team owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr.

TRUMP: Rod, you're fired.

ACOSTA: Blagojevich who once appeared on the Trump reality show "Celebrity Apprentice" was convicted of trying to sell the Senate seat of Barack Obama after he became president. A crime the FBI caught on tape.

ROD BLAGOJEVICH, FORMER ILLINOIS GOVERNOR: You know what I mean? I mean, I've got this thing, and -- golden.

ACOSTA: The President even took a jive at former FBI director James Comey claiming he had some sway over the Blagojevich conviction. But that's not true because Comey became FBI director years after the Blagojevich case.

TRUMP: He was on for a short while in the "Apprentice" years ago. He seemed like a very nice person. I don't know him. But he had served eight years in jail. It was a prosecution by the same people, Comey, Fitzpatrick, the same group.

ACOSTA: As for pardons for Stone and Flynn, the President said he's nowhere near a decision.

TRUMP: There is a process that people are going through. These are unrelated situations where people have done a great job with very, very strong recommendations. But we haven't thought about that yet.

ACOSTA: While he's looking for leniency for his friends, the President is hinting he's ready to punish more of his enemies like the mysterious writer of a scathing op-ed in "The New York Times" known as anonymous.


TRUMP: Together is -- it's not so much to you search.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Who do you think it is?

TRUMP: I know who it is.


TRUMP: I can't tell you that.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Why not? Why not? Why not?

TRUMP: But I know who it is.

ACOSTA: President and his team are also straining to take all of the credit for the U.S. economy as Mr. Trump's trade adviser claimed the Obama record was "horrible" even though more jobs were created on average during the last three years of the Obama administration than the first three years of Mr. Trump's presidency.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN HOST: I'm asking it.

PETER NAVARRO, WHITE HOUSE TRADE ADVISER: There is a horrible economy during the Obama years.


NAVARRO: We had the new normal. We were sending our jobs offshore and Barack Obama himself said that you need a magic wand to bring half a million manufacturing jobs back. And guess what, President Trump was the magic wand, because that's what he did.


ACOSTA: As for those pardons and commutations, the President is already getting some pushback on his decision to commute Blagojevich's sentence with the current governor of Illinois, as well as, GOP lawmakers in the states slamming Mr. Trump's move in making his decision.

Mr. Trump said he was leaning on recommendations from high profile friends and conservative media figures like outside attorney Rudy Giuliani and Rupert Murdoch who owns Fox News. It should also be noted the President said he knew he was making life more difficult for his attorney general as he continue to insists he has a right to intervene in the criminal cases. Wolf?

BLITZER: Lots going on. All right. Jim Acosta in the White House. Thank you.

Let's bring in our Senior Justice Correspondent Evan Perez. Evan, Roger Stone is what, a couple of days away from being sentence. What's the latest on his efforts, his legal team's efforts to delay the proceedings?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's going to have to wait, Wolf. The judge today had a conference call with the prosecutors and his defense team. They wanted to go ahead, and they wanted to try to get through his request for a new trial right now before he is sentenced.

The judge decided that she was going to ignore all those issues. She's going to go ahead with the sentencing Thursday. She is yet to even react, Wolf, to all of the things that happened last week with the President's attempted intervention with the Justice Department essentially overturning the decision by the original trial team and recommending a more lenient sentence. None of that has she touched. She said she's going to look at the trial issue after sentencing.

BLITZER: You also have some new reporting, Evan, on the new team of prosecutors assigned to deal with any of the cases involving Ukraine. What are you learning?

PEREZ: Yes. This is a very curious thing. The Justice Department today released a memo that they had issued last month. And according to this memo, Wolf, they are created -- they've appointed a new U.S. attorney in Brooklyn who essentially going to be in charge of traffic copping, making sure that there are no jurisdiction issues on everything having to do with Ukraine.

Now, this is the normally the job of the deputy attorney general. This is the job of main justice headquarters. It appears what this person, the prosecutor in Brooklyn is going to be doing is the effect of this is to perhaps put some fences around what prosecutors in Manhattan had been doing, essentially making sure that there are no more surprises that come out of the investigation.

You know that Rudy Giuliani is under investigation there, Wolf. And obviously, the big question is, what does this mean for politically sensitive cases. These are the cases that everybody is watching to make sure that Bill Barr or that the President doesn't do -- they don't anything that appears -- that brings political interference into the Justice Department.

So this -- the job of this new prosecutor perhaps is to perhaps make sure that none of this gets back to Bill Barr's fingerprints. But, again, it's something we're all going to have to watch, because we don't know exactly what this person is going to be doing.

BLITZER: Yes. Good point, indeed. All right. Evan Perez, thank you very much.

So let's get some more on all of this. Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland is joining us.

Senator, thanks so much for joining us. What message do you believe that the President is sending with all these pardons and commutations, in particular the commutations of Rod Blagojevich?

SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D-MD): Well, Wolf, it is good to be with you. This is President Trump totally unleashed after he got out of the impeachment trial. And what we are seeing is President Trump despite what he said during the campaign is now the ultimate swamp monster. He is using the power of his office to help other people who were convicted of political corruption charges to help very wealthy and powerful people.

And he is using the Justice Department to reward his friends and punish his enemies. That's what banana republic's do. That's what we go around the world asking other countries not to do, not to engage in that kind of political corruption and cronyism, but that is what President Trump is doing. He is, again, abusing the powers of his office.

BLITZER: Do you expect the President to ultimately pardon Roger Stone and maybe some other associates?

VAN HOLLEN: I think that is part of what he is doing here, Wolf. I think he is laying the groundwork.


And so when it comes to Roger Stone and some of the others like Michael Flynn, it looks like this is just a continuation of the series of pardons. This is such a gross abuse of power.

It's a very dangerous moment for our country in the aftermath of the impeachment trial. You had Republican senators saying that President had learned his lesson. You damn right he earned his lesson. He learned the lesson that he can abuse his power with impunity.

So, this is a very dangerous and rocky time for the country, especially when it comes to the administration of justice where President Trump has an attorney general who acts like he's the President's -- you know, the Justice Department is the President's personal playground.

BLITZER: The President today called himself, and these are his words, the chief law enforcement officer of the United States. What does that tell you about his mindset?

VAN HOLLEN: Well, it tells us that he thinks that he is king, that he can call all of the shots at the Justice Department, and what that means and why that is so dangerous is lady justice is supposed to have a blindfold. You're supposed to administer impartial justice without fear or favor.

And what the President is doing is wielding the Department of Justice as a cudgel to go after his enemies. I mean, they said they're open to receive materials that Rudy Giuliani may be bringing from the Ukraine as part of the, you know, political opposition effort. And at the same time saying to the attorney general and others, go light on my friends. Go light on people like Roger Stone. That is the total abuse of power.

Those are exactly the kinds of reasons that the President got himself in trouble to begin with, but with the Senate's action after a totally rigged trial, this President thinks he can do anything. He thinks he's above the law. The only way we're going to be able to hold him accountable at this point is in the November elections.

BLITZER: All of this comes as you know, Senator, as a group of more than 1,000 federal judges called an emergency meeting to address the recent interventions from the President in various criminal cases. How significant is that development?

VAN HOLLEN: Well, that's unprecedented. Over 2,000 judges, people --

BLITZER: Two thousand former federal prosecutors and officials of the Justice Department, but now a group of 1,000 federal judges has also come forward.

VAN HOLLEN: Right. And again, unprecedented to see so many people involved in the administration of justice coming forward to call upon attorney general -- an attorney general to resign. He has to resign in order to preserve whatever shred of legitimacy is left in the Justice Department.

The problem we've got, of course, is that the President will just look for somebody else, like Barr, to do his bidding. And that is why it's very important for the Senate if -- to weigh in on this. But what we saw was the Senate just totally disregarded its constitutional responsibilities.

So we are -- we're at this moment where the President is, you know, raging free. And as I said earlier, the only way to hold them accountable now is for the American people, people of all political persuasions to recognize that this is very dangerous. You do not want a President and an attorney general using our Justice Department to exact political revenge on people they don't like and to provide political favors to people they do. That is the opposite of what justice is all about, and for every American who is in any kind of trial before any kind of judge, hoping to get a fair shake, they should understand that what this President is doing is undermining that entire system of justice.

BLITZER: Senator Chris Van Hollen, thanks so much for joining us.

VAN HOLLEN: Good to be with you.

BLITZER: Up next, a very big day in presidential politics as a brand- new poll shows Senator Bernie Sanders alone in first place with a double-digit lead, and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg rising to second and qualifying for the next Democratic presidential debate. We'll discuss all of the developments and more with Sanders' campaign senior adviser, there you see him, Jeff Weaver. He's standing by live.



BLITZER: As we countdown to tonight's CNN Presidential Town Halls, we're following several major developments in the presidential contest. A new national poll of Democrats show Senator Bernie Sanders alone in first place with the double-digit lead with former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg rising to second place.

Let's bring in our CNN Political Correspondent M.J. Lee. She's joining us from Las Vegas right now. So what's the latest, M.J.? What's the latest where you are?

M.J. LEE, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we are just one day away from the next Democratic debate here in Las Vegas and all of the debate stage tomorrow night will be a new face, Michael Bloomberg, a candidate who is not even competing here in the state of Nevada.


SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And the Democratic establishment is getting nervous.

LEE (voice-over): Tonight, Bernie Sanders is feeling the momentum.


On the eve of the Nevada debate, a new national poll showing the Vermont senator rising to 31 percent with the double digit lead ahead of his Democratic rivals.

SANDERS: And they are trying to figure out all kinds of ways how do we stop Bernie and the movement. But they are not going to succeed.

LEE: And there is another White House candidate gaining traction, billionaire Michael Bloomberg. The former New York City Mayor placing second in the NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll at 19 percent, qualifying for his first 2020 debate.

Elizabeth Warren already taking aiming at Bloomberg's debate inclusion writing on Twitter, it's a shame Mike Bloomberg can buy his way into the debate. But at least now primary voters curious about how each candidate will take on Donald Trump can get a live demonstration of how we each take on an egomanic billionaire.

Sources telling CNN Bloomberg's top advisers are playing his rivals in mock debate sessions, including Sanders, Warren, and Pete Buttigieg. Bloomberg advisers expecting to be targeted a numerous policy positions, his record as mayor and allegations of sexist and misogynistic remarks.

JASON SCHECHTER, BLOOMBERG CAMPAIGN COMMUNICATION DIRECTOR: He's going to talk about his work record, Brianna. He's going to talk about what he has done to fight for gender equality for 30 years. Mike has never tolerated discrimination or harassment at his company.

LEE: As tensions rise between the two men, Bloomberg's campaign releasing a digital video slamming the aggressive online tactics used by some Sanders' supporters.

SANDERS: It is vitally important for those of us who hold different views to be able to engage in a civil discourse.

LEE: And Sanders hitting Bloomberg's record as mayor.

SANDERS: We say to Mr. Bloomberg, you are certainly not going to win when you have a record in New York City that included racist policies like stop and frisk.

LEE: Meanwhile, the 2020 democratic candidates are delivering their closing pitches to Nevada voters.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D-MA) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Thank you for being in this fight. I want to beat Donald Trump and I need your help to do it.

LEE: As the State's Democratic Party hopes to avoid the chaos that plagued the Iowa caucuses.

MOLLY FORGEY, NEVADA DEMOCRATIC PARTY COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: We are feeling confident, you know, we have our heads down working around the clock on the last three weeks, and we feel very good, very confident.


LEE: Now, as the Nevada Democratic Party is making preparations to make sure that everything goes smoothly over the weekend, early voting is already underway here in Nevada ahead of Saturday's caucuses. Wolf.

BLITZER: M.J. Lee in Las Vegas for us. M.J., thank you very much. And also joining us from Las Vegas right now is Bernie -- Senator Sanders' campaign senior adviser Jeff Weaver. Jeff, thank you so much for joining us.


BLITZER: You just saw some of the attacks that Michael Bloomberg is launching at your candidate. Senator Sanders is certainly going to have a target on his back after this latest polling showing he is number one at least in this latest national poll. How cut throat is this going to be on the debate stage tomorrow night?

JEFF WEAVER, SENIOR ADVISER, SANDERS CAMPAIGN: Well, look Wolf, I don't think it's going to be cut throat, but I do think the voters are entitled to a vigorous discussion of the issues. You know we saw it today, everyday we learn something new about Mike Bloomberg.

Today we learned that he said that in order to defend defense spending we had to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. We learned that he thinks farmers don't have a lot of gray matter. We learned that he is opposed to minimum wage, he's opposed raising taxes on the rich, and on and on it goes.

You know, stop and frisk, gentrification. And thinks that the ending red line there -- ending red lining, the racist policies that kept credit out of black neighborhoods that by ending that, it led to the great recession we had in the 2007, 2008 time period, this is not in line with democratic voters. And I think when we get on the stage this week people are going to be shocked to find out what Mike Bloomberg is really trying to sell them.

BLITZER: You're just there to point out some of those positions you just spelled out, he said years ago, and some of them he has already apologized for. But you don't necessarily believe he still believes all of those things, do you?

WEAVER: Well, what -- the way you are telling me, Wolf is that he has changed on all of those things and people really have to think about, you know, candidates can evolve on an issue or two or have a different way of looking at something over time.

But a candidate who is completely remaking himself, so that virtually every position he's ever had, he's now repudiating. You know, folks going to worry about what they're being sold. And I think that being to sold, the bill of goods here. And look the answer to truck -- Trump's right-wing reactionary politics is not a hostile corporate takeover of the Democratic Party or of the White House that's not the answer.

BLITZER: Bloomberg is attacking, you know, Senator Sanders for how some of his supporters go after his critics online, does that behavior reflect on Sanders' ability to bring the country together? You've seen all those reports?

WEAVER: I have. And you know, Wolf as you know, Bernie Sanders has spoken up quite strongly against those few people online who are acting in a way that is offensive, you know, he has told them he does not want them to be part of the movement.


But let's be clear, those people aren't running for president. Bernie Sanders is running for president, and Mike Bloomberg is running for president, and others are running for president.

And I'll tell you Mike Bloomberg would much rather talk about a few people online who were -- who are offensive than talking about his own record. You know, when you say that the farmers don't have a lot of gray matter to do their jobs, I -- you know, I think that shows somebody who's grossly out of touch with much of America.

BLITZER: One person who does appear to sympathize with Senator Sanders is President Trump. Watch what he said earlier today. Listen to this.


TRUMP: It just seems unfair what's happening to Bernie Sanders, to be honest with you. I watched it happen four years ago. It seems they're being taken advantage of like they were four years ago.


BLITZER: It worrisome out there, some voters that the President, President Trump seems to be so eager to run against Bernie Sanders. What does that say? What do you say to them?

WEAVER: Well, what I say is, look, you have to look at those private remarks that he gave to a group of funders when he thought no one was listening where he talked about the danger that Bernie Sanders poses to his presidency.

He knows very well that the working class voters or many of them that he lied to and tried to tell them that he would be their friend, he knows that when he is in a general election against Bernie Sanders, those folks are going to come home to the candidate who actually does give a damn about working class voters and that's not Donald Trump, and frankly it's not Michael Bloomberg.

BLITZER: After the chaos of the Iowa caucuses, do you trust the Nevada Democratic Party to deliver accurate results Saturday?

WEAVER: Well, we were just in a meeting with the Democratic Party folks here in Nevada a few hours ago going over their process and needless to say a lot of us are concerned, as I know a lot of folks in the media are as well. We want to make sure that the will of the voters is accurately reflected in the voting results and those are produced in a timely matter.

So, you know, we are watching it as a number of other campaigns, frankly. And I know the media is as well and, you know, time will tell.

BLITZER: Well, we'll be covering it every step of the way on Saturday at the Nevada caucuses coming up. Jeff Weaver, thanks so much for joining us.

WEAVER: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: We have a quick and important programming note for our viewers. There are five presidential town halls coming up on CNN starting tonight. Bernie Sanders is first at 8:00 p.m. Eastern, followed by Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar. Thursday night at 8:00 p.m. Eastern there are town halls with Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren.

Coming up next, more reaction to President Trump declaring himself the chief law enforcement officer in the United States, and issuing high some profile pardons and sentence commutations, including one for one time governor and "Celebrity Apprentice" contestant, Rod Blagojevich.



BLITZER: President Trump today issued several high profile pardons and commuted a sentence of one time governor and "Celebrity Apprentice" contestant Rod Blagojevich.

Let's bring in our political and legal experts to discuss. Laura Coates, you're a legal expert. He has the authority. He has the right to do it. Is he sending a message, though?

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I mean it's good to be the king, right, in this moment in time. He has the ability to do so. But the message he's clearly sending is that, on a case by case basis, if you have rubbed the elbow of the President or maybe Rudy Giuliani or someone you know, you may get the grace of a pardon.

The overall umbrella here is clemency. And the President can say, as the head of the executive branch of government, what he would like to excuse, what he'd like to lessen as a sentence, but think about the theme here. Lying, tax fraud, and the idea of people trying to sell a Senate seat, all of the things that struck around the integrity of an office, he is now emboldened to say it doesn't matter. I believe it's unfair.

And the problem here, Wolf, is if he is believes the range is unfair or the length is unfair, well, the guideline range is the appropriate mechanism to attack, not on a case by case basis depending upon preferential treatment.

BLITZER: The -- what -- I mean, it's curious what's behind the timing of this announcement right now. Because the suspicion is, he is sending a message out there to Roger Stone, Michael Flynn, perhaps others.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Sure. The President is saying I can do whatever I want, and he is sending a message to the attorney general that I'm not going to stop doing whatever I want. And I don't really care about all those people in the Justice Department who think that I shouldn't be doing things like this or I shouldn't be tweeting about my friends.

But if you look at these, if you look at these pardons, a, we know that Roger Stone's sentencing is coming up Thursday, this is not a coincidence. If I were Rudy Giuliani, I probably be a little bit worried, and less worried about what the Southern District of New York might have in store for me, given these presidential pardons. If I were Flynn, I'd feel the same way, and maybe even Manafort, who knows?

But this is a president who clearly feels unbound now after his -- he was acquitted by the Senate. He can do whatever he wants. And by the way, the Democrats can complain about it, but what are they going to do? And the Republicans may complain about it, but they are all in with him, so what are they going to do? So this is Donald Trump unbound.

BLITZER: And, John, how would you cover the White House for us? How do you see this playing out?


JOHN HARWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, first of all, I don't think we can forget the psychological element of this as well. People often say that Donald Trump projects. What is his reaction often when wealthy powerful people get in trouble, that's so unfair they're being put upon. He is a wealthy powerful person who consistently gets into trouble, so I think he's identifying with some of those people.

But I also think he is flooding the zone with this kind of an action so that if he eventually takes the action of pardoning Paul Manafort, Mike Flynn, Roger Stone, it's going to in the context, well, I do that for a lot of people.

BORGER: And, you know, you think of most presidents, they don't do it until the end of their term.

COATES: Right.

BORGER: Donald Trump does it whenever he wants, when the timing works for him. Maybe he wants someone to raise money for him. There are a lot of wealthy contributors who were supporting the pardons of some of these.

HARWOOD: I don't think we've ever had a president who incorporated clemency and pardons as part of a re-election campaign.

BORGER: A re-election strategy.

COATES: He does. And, of course, you make a good point about psychology of it because, Wolf, of course, he tied Rod Blagojevich in some way in this mind to someone like James Comey, and thought about the idea of rogue prosecution in a theme here. And kind of this is the week where he is undercutting the convictions by a jury, by the way, of someone like Roger Stone, undercutting the power and the autonomy of the prosecutors. And saying in the same vein, you know, even those who have plead guilty, even you've plead guilty, it seems like it's unfair. You've taken responsibility, have had a conviction and even they are commuted as well.

And there's a whole pardon office, by the way, whose job it is looking the overarching of it, where are they in this? I'm wondering.

BORGER: Well, he says also that he is the chief law enforcement officer in the country. Last time I checked, I think that was the attorney general of the United States. And you have to wonder what the attorney general is thinking now. He already publicly said, the president is making it impossible for him to do his job. Well, has it gotten any easier?

HARWOOD: And finally on the projection point, one of the things he has reacted to with Blagojevich is, well, he didn't do anything all that different from what other politicians do. That's the same reaction he had --

Borger: Some in office, yes.

HARWOOD: Well, that's the same reaction he had when people say, why did you take the meeting with the Russian, any politician would take that. A lot of that is about what's in Donald Trump's head, what he might do in a similar situation.

BLITZER: And we got a lot more to do discuss, there's more developments unfolding as we speak. We'll take a quick break, we'll be right back.



BLITZER: Welcome back. We're joined now by more of our political experts, including David Chalian, our CNN Political Director. He's in Las Vegas getting ready for the first night, two nights of CNN presidential town halls. This new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll as you know, David, has Bernie Sanders with 31 percent, Bloomberg 19 percent, Biden 15 percent, Warren 12 percent, Klobuchar 9 percent, Buttigieg 8 percent. How significant is this right now? How strong is Senator Sanders' position?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Yes, Wolf. NBC/Wall Street Journal poll just came out showing similar numbers, a double-digit lead for Bernie Sanders nationally in this Democratic race right now. That is a substantial and significant lead. It is largely built on a very strong base from younger voters, from liberal voters, and he's getting a significant chunk of the African-American vote.

As you know, Joe Biden had that as his calling card, but he is losing some of that critical constituency, both to Bernie Sanders now and to Michael Bloomberg who's making gains in these polls.

So Bernie Sanders is in the driver seat of this nomination battle right now. After a very strong showing in Iowa, and a win in New Hampshire, heading into the Nevada caucuses where folks on the ground believe he is very well-organized and perhaps positioned to come away with a win here, too.

He is in the driver seat. Of course, there's a whole new element getting introduced to this race tomorrow, and that's when Michael Bloomberg takes the debate stage.

BLITZER: He will tomorrow night. And, Gloria, how much of a threat is Michael Bloomberg to Bernie Sanders and the other Democratic presidential candidates?

BORGER: He's a huge threat. First of all, he has unlimited resources. I think the only person right now who is funded well enough to really go toe to toe with him for a while is Bernie Sanders, who's raised an awful lot of money. I say, raised an awful lot of money, it hasn't come out of his own pocket.

But I think Bloomberg takes -- and if you just look at both of these polls, he takes from Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar, who is getting up a head of steam and sort of a moderate alternative in the race, and Buttigieg also as a moderate alternative in the race. And so I think you see that these people are struggling. And tomorrow night will be really important to watch how Bloomberg gets attacked and whether anybody else like a Klobuchar can gain traction the way she did in the last debate and distinguish herself so much.

BLITZER: Sabrina, you think this potentially could wind up as a two man race, Bernie Sanders, Michael Bloomberg?

SABRINA SIDDIQUI, NATIONAL POLITICS REPORTER, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL: Well I think as Gloria pointed out, this is still a very crowded field. And there are a number of candidates who are vying to be that alternative to Bernie Sanders. And they're not about to step aside, having competed now for nearly a year for someone who jumped into the race at the last minute in November, and who has largely gained traction in part because he has spent his own money, and poured roughly $380 million into the race.

Having said that, you know, Pete Buttigieg, despite leading the overall delegate raise going into Nevada and South Carolina, more diverse states might hit the first real stumbles of his campaign because he has failed to really gain traction with non-white voters.


Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren down, but not entirely out. They're going to need another breakout moment in order to still remain competitive. And I think really Joe Biden, his failure in both Iowa and New Hampshire has paved the way for Bloomberg in the national polls.

You are seeing some of those candidates also now, you know, effectively go after Bloomberg on the stump in a preview of what's to come in tomorrow's debate. And that is also a sign of the fact that they -- then seeing Bloomberg increasingly as a very real threat when it comes to the race for the nomination.

BLITZER: David --

BORGER: And that was going to handed to Bloomberg.

BLITZER: Yes. I want David to weigh -- to listen to the President, President Trump, weighing in today on the Democratic race. Listen to this.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It just seems unfair what's happening to Bernie Sanders, to be honest with you. I watched it happen four years ago. It seems they are being taken advantage of like they were four years ago.


BLITZER: I see a little smile on your face, David. What's your thought?

CHALIAN: Well, my thought is the President likes to sow discord in the Democratic race. He wants there to be sort of chaos and confusion. And by the way, I think he would be pretty psyched about facing off against Bernie Sanders. I think he's developed a pretty clear message against him. I'm not sure everyone in this camp feels that way. But my god, he is trying to get discord on the Democratic side.

BLITZER: All right. Guys, stand by, there's more news we're following including this. A top doctor dies from the coronavirus raising serious concern about the risks to medical workers.



BLITZER: Tonight, China's reporting more deaths from Coronavirus including a senior doctor. CNN's Brian Todd is working this story for us. So, Brian, medical experts, they clearly are worried.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They are, Wolf. Medical experts in the US are worried on a couple of fronts over this, concerned about whether the Chinese have the right equipment to fight this virus and whether the manpower is there. Tonight, on the frontline of the war against coronavirus, there's been a heartbreaking and costly casualty.


TODD (voice-over): Tonight, Chinese officials say Dr. Liu Zhiming, director of hospital in the city of Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, has died of the virus. Liu was a neurosurgeon. The most senior healthcare worker known who have died during the epidemic. Experts say Dr. Liu's death is sounding more alarms over the dangers face by caregivers who are treating coronavirus patients directly.

WILLIAM SCHAFFNER, PROFESSOR OF PREVENTIVE MEDICINE, VANDERBILT UNIVERSITY: It's dangerous because the patients who are ill are the ones who are at the greatest risk of transmitting the infection. When they breathe out, their -- the air they breathe out is full of this virus.

TODD: Dr. Liu's death comes a couple of weeks after death of another doctor. Li Wenliang, the man who warned of the coronavirus early on and was vilified by Chinese officials.

Tonight, medical experts are worried that appropriate equipment to treat coronavirus may be in short supply in China, that some health care workers there may not be properly trained. A key concern whether the deaths of the two prominent doctors will scare other doctors off from the crucial fight against the virus.

SCHAFFNER: It may provide a caution to some doctors but I think the vast majority, whether in China or here, will live up to the oath that they have taken and want to take care of the patients.

TODD: So far, there are more than 73,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus worldwide and nearly 1,900 people have died.

ANTHONY FAUCI, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ALLERGY AND INFECTIOUS DISEASE: If this spreads more diffusely throughout the world, it's the possibility we may actually have a global pandemic.

TODD: In the US, about 350 people air lifted out of Wuhan and quarantined at two California bases were released after two weeks. Doctors say they pose no threat of transmission.

JULIA ZHU, EVACUATED FROM WUHAN: They're trying to be very transparent, so I feel comfortable.

TODD: An American woman who tested positive for coronavirus onboard the crew ship, the Diamond Princes, has been isolated at a hospital in Japan.

REBECCA FRASURE, AMERICAN WITH CORONAVIRUS HOSPITALIZED IN JAPAN: It messes with your mind. I've never really felt so alone. I haven't actually had physical contact with anybody outside of somebody, you know, taking my blood pressure or checking my lungs with the stethoscope in 12 days.

TODD: In China, coronavirus has caused some 780 million people to live under some kind of restrictive movement. That's taking a significant toll on China's economy and America's. Apple has told investors its profits are down, and for the moment it's not making or selling as many devices as it usually does in China.

NICK LARDY, PETERSON INSTITUTE FOR INTERNATIONAL ECONOMICS: Apple makes almost all of its products in China and the problems for the rest of the world are part -- China is a key component of the supply chain system. This is a big headwind for the global economy. I think it's going to take off a couple tenths of a percentage point from the global economy.


TODD: Meanwhile, there is news tonight about that ill-fated cruise ship, the Diamond Princess, in Japan which had hundreds of people test positive for coronavirus. Some passenger on board who tested negative for the virus are set to start leaving that vessel within hours. They will start to transition to shore side facilities to be checked out further and some are going to get on chartered flights tomorrow. [17:55:04]

But as for the Americans who are leaving that ship tomorrow, the State Department has told them they still have to wait two weeks to return to the US. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right, Brian, thank you. Brian Todd reporting. Coming up, a flurry of presidential pardons plus the sentence commuted for former Illinois governor and "Celebrity Apprentice" contestant, Rod Blagojevich.


BLITZER: Happening now, "Chief Law Enforcer" President Trump suggests he has the ultimate authority over matters of justice despite claiming he has confidence in the Attorney General William Barr. Tonight, Mr. Trump admits he's making Barr's job more difficult.