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THE SITUATION ROOM

Interview With Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL); Bloomberg Set To Debate Democratic Rivals; Trump Commutes Sentences Of Controversial Figures; Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Presidential Candidate Opens Double-Digit Lead In New National Poll; Americans Released From Quarantined Cruise Ship Must Wait 14 Days Before Returning To U.S. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired February 18, 2020 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:00]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Tonight, Mr. Trump admits he's making Barr's job more difficult.

Pardon power. The president grants -- grants clemency to some well- connected convicted criminals, including the former Illinois Governor and "Celebrity Apprentice" contestant Rod Blagojevich. Who might be spared next?

Set in Stone. Roger Stone's sentencing will happen Thursday, as a judge tries to ignore President Trump's angry tweets and the political furor surrounding the case. But the longtime Trump ally could get a new trial anyway.

And up for debate. Michael Bloomberg is just hours away from the first face-off with his Democratic opponents. The billionaire qualifying for tomorrow's debate, as a new national poll shows he's gaining and Bernie Sanders is dominating.

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

Tonight, President Trump is making the most of his executive power and claiming authority that others might dispute. He's now declaring that he is the nation's chief law enforcement officer, while insisting he has confidence in his attorney general, William Barr.

Mr. Trump spoke out about the controversy swirling around the Justice Department and his decision to grant clemency for a slew of high- profile convicted criminals. He commuted the sentence of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, and he pardoned former New York Police Commissioner Bernie Kerik, among others.

I will get reaction from Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi, a member of the Oversight and Intelligence committees. And our correspondents, legal experts and other analysts are also standing by.

First, let's go to our Chief White House Correspondent, Jim Acosta.

Jim, the president has his thumb on the scales of justice tonight. JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: He certainly does,

Wolf.

President Trump is flexing his muscles in the U.S. 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 advisers, Roger Stone and Michael Flynn. But, today, the president sprung from prison former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, who was convicted after attempting his own quid pro quo.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): Beating his chest over the U.S. justice system, President Trump is standing by embattled Attorney General Bill Barr, who's 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 with incredible integrity. Now, 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. 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 Kerik, 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 (D), FORMER ILLINOIS GOVERNOR: You know what I mean? I have got this thing. And it's a (EXPLETIVE DELETED) thing, golden.

ACOSTA: The president even took a jab at former FBI Director James Comey, claiming he had some sway over the Blagojevich conviction.

But that's not true, as Comey became FBI director years after the Blagojevich case.

TRUMP: He was on for a short while on "The Apprentice" years ago. Seemed like a very nice person. Don't know him. But he 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's 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 has 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: Yes, there is. It's not so much a search.

QUESTION: Who do you think it is?

TRUMP: I know who it is.

QUESTION: Who is it?

TRUMP: Can't tell you that.

QUESTION: Why not? Why not? Why not?

TRUMP: But I know who it is.

ACOSTA: The 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 -- quote -- "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.

[18:05:03]

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

(CROSSTALK)

PETER NAVARRO, DIRECTOR, WHITE HOUSE OFFICE OF TRADE AND MANUFACTURING POLICY: It was a horrible economy during the Obama years.

HARLOW: OK.

NAVARRO: We had the new normal. We were sending our jobs offshore, and Barack Obama himself said 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.

(END VIDEOTAPE) ACOSTA: And the president is already getting some bipartisan pushback

on his decision to commute Blagojevich's sentence with the current governor of Illinois, as well as GOP lawmakers in that state 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 that the president said he knew he was making life more difficult for his attorney general as he continued to insist he has the right to intervene in criminal cases. Wolf, it does not sound like the president is heeding some of the cautionary language from Bill Barr last week -- Wolf.

BLITZER: That's absolutely right.

All right, Jim Acosta, thank you very much.

Let's take a closer look at the Roger Stone case right now, as he faces sentencing on Thursday.

Our Political Correspondent, Sara Murray, is here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Sara, he is on track now to be sentenced on Thursday. What are you hearing? What's the latest?

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

And there was a whole back-and-forth about this not necessarily in court today, but sort of, because it was over a conference call. Amy Berman Jackson held a call. She's the judge with Roger Stone's attorneys. Roger Stone was on the call, as well as federal prosecutors.

Stone has been pushing for a new trial. They have alleged jury misconduct. And the government has opposed that. And she basically said, look, I'm going to just deal with this separately from the sentencing. We're going to move forward.

We're going to do this sentencing on Thursday. What was really interesting, though, is she did not address the controversy that has been playing out in the background of this case. Obviously, the judge has been criticized by President Trump, who suggested that she has some bias here.

We saw the four prosecutors who were originally on Roger Stone's case resign from it after Bill Barr intervened and pressed for a lesser sentence than the seven to nine years prosecutors originally suggested for Roger Stone.

So this is all playing out in the background. Amy Berman Jackson address none of that on the call today.

BLITZER: She's the federal judge.

Even if Stone is sentenced to some time in prison on Thursday, the president, if he wants to, he could complete the sentence, pardon him, do whatever he wants.

MURRAY: Absolutely. He could do it by tweet. We have seen him do that before.

And I think we saw the present there saying, that's not something he thought of, there's a process for this. We do know that this is something that President Trump has thought about a lot. We know that he and Roger Stone have been friends. They have worked together over the years.

They have known each other for decades. So I think that that's certainly a possibility that we are on alert for, Wolf.

BLITZER: He could potentially pardon him even before he starts a prison sentence.

MURRAY: Absolutely. We have to be ready at any moment.

BLITZER: That's right.

All right, thanks very much, Sara Murray, for that.

Joining us now, Democratic Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi. He is a member of both the Intelligence and Oversight committees.

Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.

REP. RAJA KRISHNAMOORTHI (D-IL): Thank you.

BLITZER: So, what message do you believe the president is sending with these pardons and commutations?

KRISHNAMOORTHI: Well, I think that, in part, he's sending a message to folks like Michael Flynn and Roger Stone and others, which is that, if you stay on the team, you keep silent about any other information that you know with regard to the president, then you might be rewarded as well down the road.

BLITZER: The Republican congressmen from your home state of Illinois have signed onto a statement saying they're disappointed in the president's decision to commute the sentence of the former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich.

Among other things, they say this: "As our state continues to grapple with political corruption, we shouldn't let those who breached the public trust off the hook."

Do you agree with them, Congressman?

KRISHNAMOORTHI: In general, I do.

I mean, unfortunately, our state has a history of corruption. And in this particular case, Rod Blagojevich actually shook down the head of a children's hospital for a campaign donation.

And I think that he hasn't shown any remorse or contrition for what he did. And on top of all of this, the process by which Rod Blagojevich's sentence was commuted seems very whimsical. It seems random. It's not based on facts or fairness.

And so I think all of that just leads one to believe that this -- this particular commutation is inappropriate.

BLITZER: Just last week, the attorney general, Bill Barr, warned the president not to get involved in these politically sensitive cases.

But, today, the president is saying that he's the chief law enforcement officer of the country. What does that tell you?

KRISHNAMOORTHI: I think that's a bad sign.

I think that one of the reasons why we call the attorney general the chief law enforcement officer of the country is that in this person is entrusted the responsibility to administer our laws fairly, even if the application of those laws involves the executive branch, and even the president.

[18:10:02]

And so when the president basically decides to wear the mantle himself, obviously, people become very, very concerned about whether those laws are going to be applied evenly to the president and to his administration.

BLITZER: The attorney general, Bill Barr, is facing some serious calls for him to resign because of his involvement in the Stone and Flynn cases.

KRISHNAMOORTHI: Yes.

BLITZER: We certainly don't expect the attorney general to heed those calls.

So, what's next? What potentially could your committee, the Oversight Committee, do here to deal with this?

KRISHNAMOORTHI: I think there are two things that will probably happen in the House and in Congress.

One is, I mean, increasing efforts to surface information, bring sunshine onto, for instance, the Roger Stone sentencing issue, the issue of the second-guessing or the second line of prosecutors who are micromanaging the Michael Flynn prosecution, and even this inbox that's been created at the Department of Justice to receive Rudy Giuliani's information or dirt about the Bidens and Trump's rivals, sourced from the Ukraine.

The second issue or the second effort that's going to probably happen is that, within the Judiciary Committee and other committees, where the Department of Justice and other Cabinet agencies come forward for requests for more money or new programs, I think there's going to be a lot of conditioning of that support on better behavior at the DOJ.

And I think that they're probably going to have to expect that when they come to Capitol Hill going forward.

BLITZER: We will see what happens on that front.

Congressman Krishnamoorthi, as usual, thanks very much for joining us.

KRISHNAMOORTHI: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Just ahead: Do President Trump's flurry of pardons foreshadow clemency for Roger Stone, Michael Flynn, perhaps others?

Also, a strong lead for Bernie Sanders and rising numbers for Michael Bloomberg in a brand-new national poll that qualifies the former New York City mayor for his first Democratic presidential debate.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:16:26]

BLITZER: Tonight, President Trump's attempts to defend his attorney general may be adding to questions about the Justice Department and its credibility, the president declaring that he, he is the nation's chief law enforcement officer, who has the right to intervene in federal cases if he so wants.

Let's bring in our legal analysts, the former federal prosecutor Jeffrey Toobin and former U.S. attorney Preet Bharara.

Preet, this comes as the president pardoned, among others, the former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik. Today, you -- he pardoned him today.

You were the U.S. attorney in Kerik's case. Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor, just tweeted this: "If anyone deserves a pardon, it's my friend Bernie Kerik. And, yes, I, along with many, did proudly recommend the pardon to the president."

What's your reaction to this decision to pardon Bernie Kerik by the president?

PREET BHARARA, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Look, it's the president's choice to pardon whoever he wants. This is not the first time that a case out of the Southern District that I had some supervision of resulted in a pardon by the president.

There was one of Dinesh D'Souza a year or two ago. So the president can exercise that responsibility and right without any avenue of recourse, without any appeal. It's the broadest power in the Constitution. So I respect that.

At the same time, I have got no personal or professional sort of skin in the game with respect to Bernie Kerik himself. But I do feel, as a private citizen who cares about the Justice Department about the even- handed application of justice and the president's authority, whether it's in the Constitution or not, is that he's exercising it in a wise and just and equitable way.

And the pattern of his of his pardons, which, again, repeat, again, for the critics, he has an absolute right to do, the pattern of pardons, including that person you just mentioned, Bernie Kerik, Rod Blagojevich, and some others, he seems to only want to pardon people who are famous in some particular way, some of whom have engaged in conduct that seems to mirror what the president himself has been accused of.

Maybe there's some sort of projection going on there. There are lots and lots of worthy people in the system who might be available to be commuted, have their sentences commuted or pardoned. Donald Trump doesn't seem to care about those folks, but only a certain kind of person that has brought to his attention by powerful people.

I'd like to know if, in addition to Rudy Giuliani, who was an associate of Bernie Kerik's and actually put Bernie Kerik on the map, if the president follow the normal protocols, which is to go through the pardon attorney, consult with the former prosecutors in the case, consult with the judge in the case, and see what their recommendation was.

And I'm betting it was different. Bernie Kerik should enjoy his time having been pardoned. He served his time in prison. I don't see any reason why he's a particularly worthy candidate for pardoning, given how many other people are in the system.

BLITZER: On that point, Jeffrey, Kerik's pardon, one of 11 new clemency grants that the president issued today, including Michael Milken, Rod Blagojevich, the former governor of Illinois.

What signal do you believe the president is sending?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it's about authoritarianism. It's benevolent authoritarianism, but it's still authoritarianism, the idea that the law doesn't matter, the systems don't matter, but what matters is the attention of the leader.

The leader gets to tap certain people on the side -- on the head and say, you are free, you are pardoned, and gets to gets to tell other people, you are going to be prosecuted.

The whole idea of how the justice system, especially the federal justice system, is supposed to work since Watergate was that it's a professional operation. It's dealt with by the Justice Department officials.

The president is saying, that's not how it works anymore. I decide who gets tapped, for good or for ill.

[18:20:03]

BLITZER: These pardons, Preet, today, they come, what, two days before Roger Stone, the president's longtime friend, associate, is set to be sentenced by a federal judge here in Washington. He was earlier convicted. The president said today he hasn't given any thought whether or not to

pardon Stone. Do you believe that?

BHARARA: No, I do not.

I mean, he has pardon the mind, on the brain. He knows it's an absolute power he has. He has opined on the legitimacy of the prosecution against Roger Stone. He's opined on the legitimacy of the first sentencing recommendation with respect to Roger Stone.

And, as I said, he has pardoning on the mind. The confluence of those events and the way that Donald Trump thinks makes it almost certain that that's a falsehood. Whether or not he will pardon Roger Stone, which is maybe your next question, I don't know.

But I think there's a great likelihood of that, depending on what the sentence is.

TOOBIN: And Michael Flynn, both of whom were prominent cases brought by Robert Mueller when he was special counsel.

We know how the president feels about the Mueller investigation. And the fact that he has been attacking the Stone conviction, the Michael Flynn conviction, which was a guilty plea, I think a pardon is a virtual certainty.

BLITZER: I want to get both of your thoughts.

When the president today, Preet, calls himself the chief law enforcement officer of our country, those are his words, what do you think?

BHARARA: So that's not how we usually think about it. We usually think of the attorney general as the chief law enforcement officer of the country, for various reasons, because that's supposed to be the independent enforcer of the law, without fear or favor, and everyone's supposed to be equal before the bar of justice.

As I think Jim Acosta posted just a short while ago on Twitter, the White House's own Web site, when it describes the various members of the Cabinet, refers to the attorney general as the chief law enforcement officer of the country.

But besides -- beyond that, the nomenclature that the president uses doesn't matter that much. If he wants to declare himself the king of Spain, that would be fine, I guess.

What's, I think, more important to me is, further to Jeff's point, which is that the president thinks, whether he has the right and authority to do it or not, if he thinks that it is his privilege that he's going to enjoy to single out people by name, forget about the pardon power, to single out people by name that he wants targeted and investigated, whether it's Jeff Bezos or Joe Biden or anyone else, and single out other people that he feels should be treated minimally and leniently because they're an ally of his, so, for example, Roger Stone, that is not what we think of as equal justice at law. That's not what we think about when we think about a democracy. Maybe

he has the authority to do it, like he has the authority to declassify the names of our CIA officers around the world. He has the authority to do that. It's not a crime to do that. But it's wrong. And it's improper, as is this declaration, if he means what I think most people think he means.

TOOBIN: Well, it's just another example of the president changing the norms by which presidents have operated for decades, the idea that the justice system is supposed to operate quasi-independently.

But it is true that the president is the boss of the attorney generally. He can fire him, he can hire him. And so, in that respect, he is above the law -- chief law enforcement officer. It's just not the way equal justice has been understood ever since Watergate.

BLITZER: It's also interesting, Preet, the president today admitted that he does, in fact, make the Attorney General Bill Barr's job more difficult because of his tweets and his statements.

But he says he's not going to stop tweeting. Social media, he says, is critically important for him.

BHARARA: It is. I mean, it's also been critically important to various lawyers in his own Justice Department and others, because he digs himself holes when he says things on Twitter that he otherwise has people in his department saying are not true.

So, in some ways, his Twitter feed becomes ripe evidence against him, because it betrays his state of mind on various things. And I guess it's magnanimous of him to say, well, he understands that he's making the attorney general's job more difficult.

Why he would want to do that, I don't know. He can say plenty of things on Twitter about trade policy and about financial policy and about his wall, if he wants. The one area that Jeff and, I think, agree on that he should stay out of, because it's not the way that we have been doing business in this country for decades and decades now, is to stay out of the business of law enforcement with respect to particular people.

TOOBIN: But he says that's what he's going to do.

And what we learned is that there is no check on him in the Republican Senate. The House sometimes holds hearings, and they will call Barr on May 31 -- March 31. But I think the lesson of the impeachment trial is that the Senate is a rubber stamp for anything the president wants to do.

And so he's going to continue to accumulate these powers and use them, until someone stops him, which doesn't seem likely anytime soon.

BLITZER: Good conversation, guys. Thank you very, very much.

There's more news we're following right now. Bernie Sanders and Michael Bloomberg, they are trading jabs, as they are about to share a debate stage for the first time. We're following major developments in the Democratic presidential contest.

[18:25:03]

Also, the death toll from the coronavirus just hit a disturbing new level. We have details, much more, coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: There's a big movement in the Democratic presidential race just four days, four days, before the next contest in Nevada.

Bernie Sanders has opened a double-digit lead over his rivals in a new national poll.

[18:30:03]

And Michael Bloomberg has risen into second place, earning him a spot in his first 2020 presidential debate.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny is in Las Vegas for us. Jeff, Sanders and Bloomberg, they're trading jabs even as they get ready to share a stage for the first time tomorrow night.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Bernie Sanders just wrapped up a campaign rally here on the campus of UNLV. And he offered a bit of a preview for what he plans to say tomorrow against Michael Bloomberg. He said, elections are not for sale. Of course, that's a not so veiled mention of the fact Bloomberg is spending hundreds of millions of dollars of his own fortune in this race.

They have been trading barbs from afar for months now. Certainly, it's intensified in the last several days. Tomorrow night, they come face- to-face here. It's going to be a debate unlike any we have seen.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And we're going to win this election not because we are buying the airwaves, as Mr. Bloomberg is --

ZELENY: Bernie Sanders is laying out the welcome mat for Michael Bloomberg's debate debut.

SANDERS: We're going to win this election because we are putting together the strongest grassroots movement that this country has ever seen.

ZELENY: Sanders is establishing himself as the candidate to beat in the Democratic primary fight, taking a commanding lead over Bloomberg in a new national poll, with long-time frontrunner Joe Biden falling behind.

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

ZELENY: Bloomberg will get his first face-to-face opportunity on Wednesday after qualifying to join his Democratic rivals on stage for the first time.

The former New York City mayor, who is spending more than $400 million on ads alone in hopes of making a Super Tuesday splash has already been tangling with Sanders.

His campaign using an online video of accuse Sanders of failing to control the vitriol from of his supporters. Still, Bloomberg enters the debate with a giant target on his back. He's been holding mock debate sessions preparing to defend a controversial stop-and-frisk policing policy, allegations of sexism in his business and other parts of his long record in public life.

His Democratic challengers have been waiting for this moment, with Elizabeth Warren saying, 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 to get a live demonstration of how we each take on an egomaniac billionaire.

Hoping to win over Democratic primary voters, Bloomberg is turning to yet another T.V. ad, presenting himself as a partner to former President Barack Obama, one of the most revered figures in the party.

BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: He's been a leader throughout the country for the past 12 years, Mr. Michael Bloomberg is here.

ZELENY: The ads are also an implicit shot at Biden, who Bloomberg hopes to replace as the favorite of the party establishment.

All this as Democrats scramble tonight to prepare for the Nevada caucuses now just four days away. Party officials hope to avoid the embarrassing meltdown in Iowa earlier this month. But even as early voting finishes after long lines and days of confusion, several campaign advisers tell CNN they are concerned how smoothly Saturday's caucuses will go.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY: Now, as for the debate tomorrow night here, Wolf, there's no question, Michael Bloomberg has been preparing for quite some time. They've been holding practice sessions, members of his staff have been posing as other presidential candidates. They've been using podiums. They've been going through his record and everyone else's record as well.

We've seen so many debates this cycle but this will be the first one with Michael Bloomberg at the center of the stage. Now, of course, he is not competing in the Nevada caucuses. But what happens at the debate here tomorrow night certainly is going to set the tone for the next week of campaigning. He is keeping his eye on Super Tuesday states.

But, Wolf, there is sure to be a clash between Bernie Sanders and Michael Bloomberg. Both of them see it in their interests.

BLITZER: And what are you learning, Jeff, about the early voter turnout in the past few days in Nevada? ZELENY: Wolf, we are learning some new information now this evening. The Nevada Democratic Party is saying that 36,000 people have come out early voting on Saturday, Sunday and Monday. That does not include the total so far yet a Tuesday here. People will be voting until this evening here.

The question though, Wolf, this early voting is very unusual. They have never done it in caucuses before. So how they blend the early vote with the actual participation on Saturday when people are showing up to their neighborhood meetings across the State of Nevada, that is the potential area for concern.

Several campaign officials are telling me that is the thing that they are keeping an eye on. Can they avoid an Iowa-like meltdown, if you will, because blending that early vote with the in-person vote is something that no one has tried before? They say it's for convenience. They want to increase participation. We'll see if they can pull it off. Wolf?

BLITZER: Yes, lots of -- they learned some lessons from Iowa in the process.

[18:35:01]

Jeff Zeleny reporting for us, thank you.

There's certainly a lot to discuss. Our political experts are here. They are standing by. We'll discuss right after a quick break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're counting down to the first of CNN's back-to-back presidential town halls in Las Vegas starting tonight, 8:00 P.M. Eastern. Our political experts are here.

And let's talk, Ryan, about Bernie Sanders. You've been out on the trail. You've been watching. This debate potentially could shape up between Bernie Sanders and Michael Bloomberg who is doing really well in these polls even though he's not even on the ballot in Nevada.

[18:40:05]

RYAN NOBLES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. I don't think that Bernie Sanders' campaign would be all that disappointed if it turned into a contest between he and Michael Bloomberg. They like the distinctions that can be drawn between their two campaigns.

Obviously, Bernie Sanders' entire campaign is railing against billionaires and their influence in the political system, and they have been particularly critical of Michael Bloomberg's role in this race. They don't think it's fair that he's been able to gain access to the debate stage, despite the fact that they do think he should be vetted in a forum like this.

So I do expect them to take specific aim at Michael Bloomberg, especially because because as these polls are starting to show, he is emerging as at least the biggest competitor to Bernie Sanders, at least at this stage.

BLITZER: He certainly is. Even though in the first four contest, he is waiting for Super Tuesday, March 3rd. So is this debate, Nia, going to help or hurt Michael Bloomberg?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: It depends on how he does. Listen, Michael Bloomberg hasn't debated in some time. He's obviously practicing now, as Jeff Zeleny said. This will be the first time where his record is going to be vetted on stage with his opponents who very want to take it to him, not only Bernie Sanders, if you're Elizabeth Warren, if you're Pete Buttigieg, if you're any of these people who have been losing altitude. Joe Biden has been losing a lot of altitude among moderate and conservative voters. They have been going to Michael Bloomberg.

So he's got to get up there and prove in some ways that he is the person we have been seeing on these ads, right? He's been flooding American's homes, $400 million in ads. How close is he to that person that some people have come to like and respect? I think he will have a problem in terms of he's not the necessarily the most charismatic person. He comes across as wooden (ph) in some instances. So I imagine that's something he's going to have to work on, but we'll see how he goes.

BLITZER: Certainly. Yes, go ahead.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. I mean, the other problem is that Michael Bloomberg is incredibly wealthy and he's not used to people coming at him and challenging him. I mean, it seems to me the biggest challenge for him on the debate stage is going to be keeping his cool.

He's going to have a lot of people questioning his record and also his motivations for being in politics for saying some of the things that he said, especially on racial issues. And he has to really kind of keep calm. Otherwise, I think things could really go sideways.

And I think -- but at the same time, I do think the bar is a little bit low for him. I mean, I think people are kind of expecting that he's going to be a little rusty compared to the other competitors. Who have been doing this for so long. So he just needs to really tread water tomorrow night.

And I think that he just needs to get through this period of time, the South Carolina debate, and that it's onto Super Tuesday and then we'll see whether he has what it takes to actually pick up these delegates and be the nominee.

BLITZER: The $400-plus million that Bloomberg has already spent advertising on his campaign, it's his money. He's not raising it from other sources.

NOBLES: Yes, and that's right. And that's been a big criticism not only from Bernie Sanders but many of these Democratic candidates.

And what's interesting that he's now going to make it on the debate stage without one of the key criterias that the DNC set for debate access, and that was a certain number of donors to your campaign. Bloomberg has no donors.

BLITZER: He's got one donor.

NOBLES: He's the only donor. And this was something that the DNC really tried to reform the process. They wanted to get more investment from grass root supporters, which is really the foundation of the Bernie Sanders campaign.

So the fact that he was still able to gain access, you see Elizabeth Warren being very critical of it. Obviously, Sanders is being critical of it. It seems as though, in many ways, they're allowing Bloomberg onto this stage despite the fact that some of these other candidates who are no longer around, people like Cory Booker and Julian Castro didn't have that same opportunity.

I'll be interested to see how this plays with the average Democratic voters. Is this something that they care about that he kind of sidestepped these rules especially given the fact that there was not too long ago that Michael Bloomberg wasn't even a Democrat.

HENDERSON: Or do they just care about the fact that he has $60 billion to spend, right?

BLITZER: And the average Democratic voter wants a Democratic candidate to beat Donald Trump.

HENDERSON: -- electability. Who can take on Donald Trump? How willing are they going to be to put aside some of these issues about billionaires and influence in politics? And listen, I don't think sort of middle of the road Democrats necessarily care that much about that as do the Bernie Sanders supporters.

I think it is these other issues around race, around gender, some of the comments he's made, some of the lawsuits that he's faced because of the culture that some people say he created at Bloomberg. That's probably going to be an issue for him as well as the racial issues around stop-and-frisk.

PHILLIP: In some cases, it feels like the fact that he has an unlimited pot of money to dig into for this race is a proof point for some voters that he has what it takes to go up against Trump. They understand that Trump is raising a ton of money and that being able to have money at their disposal in November is going to be a big part of it.

But I also think that these candidates really need Michael Bloomberg to be on the stage tomorrow. They need to be able to take him down a notch because these ads are having an effect. People -- Michael Bloomberg is running an ad featuring Barack Obama prominently. A lot of people think that President Obama has endorsed Michael Bloomberg. They need --

NOBLES: Or that Bloomberg endorsed Obama.

PHILLIP: Neither of which are true.

[18:45:00]

And so, on some level, I think the candidates need him to be there so they can take him down a notch and have an opportunity to counter $400 million in ads, blanketing this country, getting him to every single living room and those ads are having an effect.

NOBLES: Yes, my kids know who Bloomberg is because he's on YouTube so much. And that's what they're watching more than anything else.

BLITZER: Also, if you're in some of those Super Tuesday states like California or Texas or Virginia, his ads are all over the place.

HENDERSON: No matter where you are, in many ways. I mean, they're in South Carolina because he's doing this national ad buy. He's on stations that African-Americans watch a lot, CNN, OWN, We Television. So, he really has blanketed the airways.

BLITZER: That's why his numbers are growing up right now.

PHILLIP: Those Super Tuesday states start now. It's three days after South Carolina. There's not a lot of time to campaign. So, the ads that are airing right now, they matter.

BLITZER: Fourteen states, a big chunk of the delegates who are going to go to the convention in Milwaukee.

Everybody, stand by. There's more news we're following.

An important note to our viewers, stay with CNN for not one but two presidential town hall events starting tonight. Bernie Sanders is first at 8:00 p.m. Eastern, followed by Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar. Thursday night, Thursday night, 8:00 p.m. Eastern, there are town halls with Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren.

Just ahead, a new jump in the global death toll from the coronavirus. We'll have the latest on the cases right here in the United States as well.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:51:00]

BLITZER: As the global death toll from the coronavirus outbreak passes 2,000, passengers on board a quarantined cruise ship who tested negative for the virus are set to be released from the vessel starting tomorrow.

CNN's Nick Watt is outside the University of Nebraska medical center where several Americans previously evacuated from the ship are being treated.

Nick, what are you learning?

NICK WATT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it is amazing to think that more of the coronavirus cases outside of China were on that boat, the Diamond Princess. There are still around 100 Americans either on the boat or in hospitals in Japan. And the CDC has just told them that they will now have to wait another 14 days before they are allowed back into the United States.

Now, the U.S. is already evacuated more than 300 people that were flown late Sunday, early Monday into the U.S. And as you mentioned, the 13 people amongst that group who were deemed to be the most high risk are now here at this medical facility in Omaha.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JERI SERATTI-GOLDMAN, CRUISE SHIP PASSENGER: I'm not able to leave this room at all.

WATT (voice-over): For 13 Americans evacuated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, this is home for at least the next two weeks. There's a TV, Wi-Fi, expert care, but --

SERATTI-GOLDMAN: No clothes, no tooth brush, no brush, no nothing.

WATT: She's in the quarantine unit right now. But Jeri Seratti- Goldman's husband Carl has tested positive for novel coronavirus and is in the bio-containment unit.

We spoke to him on the phone, sounds upbeat. He's being treated by nurses and a doctor all wearing hazmat suits.

DR. MARK RUPP, INFECTIOUS DISEASE SPECIALIST, NEBRASKA MEDICINE: We feel like we are a resource and doing something for the national good. So, these are U.S. citizens. They need to come home. We want to make sure that's done safely.

WATT: Three Ebola patients were treated here in 2014. The unit is designed and staffed for victims of a bioterror attack or hazardous communicable diseases like this one.

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ALLERGY AND INFECTIOUS DISEASES: Although in the United States, right now, the risk is minimal. This day, it's minimal. But if it turns into a global pandemic, we could have a significant problem.

WATT: Meanwhile, scientists still scrambling to assist just how this coronavirus spreads. Earlier this month, researches found other coronaviruses can survive outside the body on glass, metal or plastic for up to nine days if the surface hasn't been disinfected.

China Central Bank is now even deep cleaning or destroying potentially infected cash. Chinese authorities have also now calculated this coronavirus' death rate at 2.3 percent among those infected, and that may fall. Right now, it's higher than influenza, which hovers around 0.1 percent, but a lot lower than previous viral outbreaks. SARS had a 9.6 percent death rate, and MERS, a staggering 35 percent.

This morning, just outside San Diego, some very good news for about 160 Americans. Evacuated from the outbreak's epicenter Wuhan earlier this month.

JULIA ZHU, EVACUATED FROM WUHAN: The quarantine, it was -- I feel good. It was great. They're doing a very good job. So, we have very appreciated.

WATT: Their two-week quarantine finally over.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Nick Watt, thanks very much.

Much more news right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:59:01]

BLITZER: I've asked Michael Bloomberg about running for president several times over the years. Here's what he told me back in 2007.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I need another candidate and I am not a candidate. And I've told you what, I'm going to speak out though. I have every intention of speaking out and traveling around this country and trying to get people to say, look, you who are running, tell us what you'll do and how do you stop this constant fighting that has immobilized Congress, both parties and incidentally both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

We've got to get a federal government that gets us to rebuild relations internationally and a global world, because we have to fight terrorism globally and trade globally, and have science globally. We've got to have answers on how we're going to fund medical care and Social Security. I don't hear any of this stuff.

BLITZER: Because a lot of people are clamoring. They like to see you. They're not happy with the Democrats. They're not happy with the Republicans. Michael Bloomberg, you got a lot of money, you could be that third party candidate that some people want.

BLOOMBERG: Well, I'm very flattered that you would even bring it up. But, nevertheless, there are plenty of candidates. They'll be able to raise lots of money and they'll have the spirited battle. And it's up to the fourth estate to make sure that that battle is informative to the public.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.

[19:00:00]