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Source: Trump And Barr "Cooling Off" After Attorney General Signals He May Resign Over Trump's Tweets; Sanders Facing Questions Over Withholding Full Medical Records Despite Heart Attack; Lawyer For WikiLeaks' Assange Claims Trump Offered Pardon In Exchange For Help With Russia Investigation; Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) Is Interviewed About Senator Sanders' Decision Not To Release His Full Medical Records; Top Pentagon Policy Official Who Warned Against Withholding Ukraine Aid Resigns At Trump's Request; Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) Is Interviewed About Attorney General Barr's Threat To Resign; Bloomberg & Sanders Spar Ahead Of Ex-Mayor's First Debate; CNN Poll Of Polls: Sanders Well Ahead Of 2020 Rivals; Japan Criticized As Coronavirus Spreads On Quarantined Ship. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired February 19, 2020 - 17:00   ET

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


[17:00:00]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Follow me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter @jaketapper. Tweet the show @TheLeadCNN. Our coverage on CNN continues right now. Thanks so much for watching. See you tomorrow.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, the politics of health. Democratic presidential frontrunner Bernie Sanders faces questions over his decision not to release his full medical records while trading attacks from Michael Bloomberg ahead of his first debate tonight.

Barr threat, Attorney General William Barr sent signals he may resign over President Trump's continued tweeting about the Justice Department. Tonight, we're learning new information about their strained relationship.

Pardoning Assange, a lawyer for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange claims his client was offered a presidential pardon in exchange for help with the Russia investigation.

And quarantine crisis, growing criticism of Japan's decision to isolate thousands of people on a cruise ship where more than 600 are now infected with coronavirus.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We're following the Democratic presidential campaign in a new dynamic that begins tonight. All eyes are on Michael Bloomberg as the former New York mayor takes the debate stage for the first time amid increased sparring with frontrunner Bernie Sanders.

We're also following the public rift between President Trump and Attorney General William Barr over the President's continued tweets about the Justice Department. Tonight, a source is telling CNN that the two are cooling off after Barr sent signals he was considering resigning.

We'll talk about that and more with the co-chairman of the Bernie Sanders' campaign, Congressman Ro Khanna and Senator Chris Coons of the Judiciary and Foreign Relations Committees. Also standing by, our correspondents and analysts will also join us.

First, let's go to our Senior Washington Correspondent Jeff Zeleny. He's in Las Vegas for us. Jeff, Michael Bloomberg and the frontrunner Bernie Sanders, they are really going after each other ahead of tonight's debate and Saturday's Nevada caucuses.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, they are indeed. They are fighting over electability, ideology, health and even wealth. Bernie Sanders saying it's obscene how much of his fortune, Michael Bloomberg, is trying to spend to rewrite the rules of this Democratic presidential contest.

Michael Bloomberg, as he makes his first appearance on stage, is trying to cast this as a two person race saying he's the most electable. If that's true, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar say Bloomberg is the one who's unvetted. Wolf, a fight is breaking out here tonight in Las Vegas.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY (voice-over): Bernie Sanders and Michael Bloomberg on a collision course tonight in Las Vegas.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Mr. Bloomberg has every right in the world to run for president, but I don't think he has the right to buy this election.

ZELENY: It may be the ninth Democratic presidential debate, but it's a whole new political world. As Bloomberg makes his debut on the stage, Sanders is now the clear frontrunner in the primary.

Tonight, a new CNN Poll of Polls shows Sanders with a commanding lead in the race at 28 percent, overtaking Joe Biden as the long time Democratic leader. Now, Biden, Bloomberg and the rest of the field are trailing behind. Ordinarily, that would put Sanders in the direct line of fire.

SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR (D-MN), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And yes, I think you should show how you're going to pay for things, Bernie.

ZELENY: But this race is no ordinary one, and Democratic rivals are racing to confront Bloomberg, who's using his vast personal fortune to bypass the close up look from voters in the first four contests in hopes of raking in delegates in big states starting on Super Tuesday.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you think Michael Bloomberg is trying to buy the Democratic nomination for president?

PETE BUTTIGIEG (D) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Yes. Yes. I mean, what else do you call it? KLOBUCHAR: I don't think that when people look at Donald Trump they automatically say, hmm, can we get someone richer? I just don't think that's what they say.

ZELENY: Before the debate, Biden welcoming Bloomberg to the stage saying, "We have a lot the catch up on about Barack Obama's record." Bloomberg has risen to the field's top tier by spending more than $400 million in television and digital advertising, presenting himself as a partner of Obama's in the White House.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mayor Bloomberg and President Obama worked together --

ZELENY: It's been 11 years since Bloomberg was on a debate stage, then running for a third term as mayor of New York. Tonight, the lights are far brighter on the Las Vegas strip.

For his part, Sanders also facing questions over his decision not to release his full medical records, despite suffering a heart attack last year.

SANDERS: I think we have released a detailed report and I'm comfortable with what we have done.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: Just to be clear, you don't plan to release anymore records?

SANDERS: I don't. I don't we will, no.

ZELENY: The question of health prompted in unusual back and forth between aides to Sanders and Bloomberg, both of whom are 78. On CNN's "New Day," a Sanders' spokeswoman distorted Bloomberg's health record, suggesting he had a heart attack. She later said she misspoke. 20 years ago, Bloomberg did have a stent place for a blocked artery, not a heart attack. His campaign manager blasted the claim as an absolute lie.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

[17:05:04]

ZENELY: So that's where these candidates are going to pick up where their aides left off. And Wolf, they have been squirreling throughout the day, but we have gotten a sense of where Mike Bloomberg is going to be standing on the stage. So we have the far end of the stage next to Elizabeth Warren.

Those two, of course, have been tangling as well over ideology and some of those nondisclosure agreements for some of the complaints against Bloomberg's workplace. So Wolf, this is a new moment for this campaign, a new dynamic.

I am told by aides of Mayor Bloomberg that he arrived here last evening. He has been practicing and preparing throughout the day. One thing his rivals have on him is eight debates under their belt, this is his first. Wolf. BLITZER: It certainly is. We'll see how it goes. It could be very, very lively. Jeff Zeleny, thanks very much.

Now, the latest on the riff between President Trump and his Attorney General William Barr over the President's tweets about the Justice Department. Let's go to our Chief White House Correspondent Jim Acosta. Jim, you're getting new information from your sources.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. The White House is indicating the President is patching things up with his attorney general after William Barr made it clear he may resign if Mr. Trump continues to tweet about sensitive Justice Department cases. The President is still tweeting out, though, some comments that may antagonize Bill Barr.

But the President is facing a new troubling storyline as lawyers for Julian Assange are claiming Mr. Trump offered a plea -- a pardon deal to the founder of WikiLeaks in exchange for some help in the Russia investigation, the claim the White House is slamming as a lie.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): With the President out west campaigning, his aides are scrambling to keep the piece with Attorney General William Barr who is sending signals that he may resign over Mr. Trump's tweets on cases like the conviction of dirty trickster Roger Stone.

HOGAN GIDLEY, WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY: The attorney general has made his feelings known about the President's tweets. The President has also made his feelings known about the attorney general and his right to comment.

ACOSTA: A source close to the President said the two men appear to have calmed down. I think they're cooling off. But the President is still throwing his weight around the Justice Department granting clemency for the corrupt and well connected, like disgraced Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat he now says he's a Trump supporter.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you going to vote for him, Governor?

ROD BLAGOJEVICH, (D) FORMER ILLINOIS GOVERNOR: He's got to -- I' m a Trumprocrat (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Trumpocrat, that's right.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you going to vote for him?

BLAGOJEVICH: If I had the ability to vote, I'm going to vote for him.

ACOSTA: The President is defending his decision to spring Blagojevich from prison, splitting hairs in a tweet, insisting, "Rod Blagojevich did not sell the Senate seat. He served eight years in prison, with many remaining. He paid a big price." But the reality is Blagojevich did try to sell the seat. White House official say the President is just being compassionate. GIDLEY: The fact is the President is clearly against excessive sentencing.

ACOSTA: But that's not how the President sounded when he called for the death penalty for drug dealers just last week.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: States with a very powerful death penalty on drug dealers don't have a drug problem.

ACOSTA: But there's a new worry for the President in London, where lawyers for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange are claiming in court that Mr. Trump offered a pardon in exchange for help in the Russia investigation, the deal the attorney said would have been brokered by former GOP Congressman Dana Rohrabacher.

The White House is blasting the allegation saying in a statement, "The President barely knows Dana Rohrabacher other than he's an ex- congressman. He's never spoken to him on this subject or almost any subject. It is a complete fabrication and a total lie." But that's not quite accurate as the President did meet with Rohrabacher at the White House in April 2017, right after he defended Mr. Trump on Fox News.

REP. DANA ROHRABACHER (R-CA): It's a total brouhaha over nothing. The bottom line is that the Russians are not being accuse -- even accused of actually getting involved and changing the course of the campaign.

ACOSTA: The President still appears to be settling scores in the impeachment inquiry, pushing out top Pentagon official, John Rood, who had warned Defense Secretary Mark Esper about cutting off aid to Ukraine.

In a letter to the President, Rood wrote, "It is my understanding from Secretary Esper that you requested my resignation from serving as Undersecretary of Defense for Policy." Rood had cautioned Esper in an e-mail that placing a hold on security assistance at this time would jeopardize this unique window of opportunity and undermine our defense priorities with a key partner in the strategic competition with Russia. The Pentagon is dismissing the notion that this was payback.

JONATHAN HOFFMAN, ASSISTANT TO THE SECRETARY OF DEFENSE FOR PUBLIC AFFAIRS: That sounds speculative to me. I have no information that would lead me to that conclusion.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: Now, as for this claim from Assange's lawyers that the President offered a pardon to the WikiLeaks founders, two senior White House officials who were in the west-wing at the time say that did not happen. But the White House statement on the matter doesn't tell the whole story.

President Trump not only met with Congressman Rohrabacher, he endorsed him for reelection in 2018. And Rohrabacher later told reporters that he was forbidden by top White House officials from discussing any kind of pardon deal with the President, Wolf.

BLITZER: Lots going on. All right, Jim Acosta at the White House, thank you.

Joining us now, Democratic Congressman Ro Khanna of California. He's a co-chair of the Bernie Sanders' campaign. Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.

[17:10:03]

Let's get to several of the issues that are now coming up at a critical moment in this campaign. First of all, Congressman, does Senator Sanders need to release his full medical records?

REP. RO KHANNA (D-CA): Well, Wolf, Sanjay Gupta has pointed out the senator has released three letters. One of them says that the senator's heart is in better condition than most men his age. He has none of the symptoms before the heart attack. We believe that's a full disclosure and that should answer people's questions.

BLITZER: Because he, himself, said that before the voting started he was going to release more information, but now he's saying he's done releasing information about his health. He is 78 years old. He had a heart attack about three months or so ago. Doesn't the American public deserve to know everything about his health, and some of the other candidates -- all of the other candidates for that matter as well, including Michael Bloomberg who is also 78 years old?

KHANNA: They do deserve to know. And I think Dr. Sanjay Gupta who is trustworthy has said that those letters actually are pretty comprehensive and most people can go read them. If there are further questions, I think they can be raised them.

But, frankly, I don't think that Michael Bloomberg's health should be an issue. I think they're both running -- they both have shown that they're going crisscrossing the states. Senator Sanders has released his letters and I think they should speak for themselves.

BLITZER: Because, Congressman, a few months ago after his heart attack, he was interviewed by our Dr. Sanjay Gupta, and I'm looking at the transcript right now, and he said, this is Bernie Sanders, we will make at the appropriate time all of our medical records public for you or anybody else who wants to see them. We will release all of the records. It's a fair conversation to be having about health, about age, that's what Sanjay said. And he said, of course, it is absolutely.

So what I hear you saying, what I heard him saying last night at the CNN Town Hall, he's done releasing medical information.

KHANNA: I think he believes those letters answer the American people's question about his health. It shows that his heart is in better condition than most people his age. I think you have to have some level of respect for even presidential candidate's privacies. I mean, I don't think we want to have a situation where every number after your health exam from your young age to when you're running should be released.

But he has released all of the information that should assure people he's in good health, and we're not calling on Michael Bloomberg to do anything. No one is questioning his health. I certainly haven't questioned it and Senator Sanders hasn't questioned it.

BLITZER: Yes. But I think the American public would like to know more details about Michael Bloomberg's health as well, given the fact that like Senator Sanders, as I said, he's 78 years old. He's had some heart-related issues. He hasn't had a heart attack like Senator Sanders.

How do you respond, Congressman, to those critics who say this is very similar to what President Trump has been doing as far as broken promises out there on the campaign trail? For example, the President promised very often he was going to release his tax returns, he still hasn't done so.

KHANNA: I don't think it's comparable. It would be one thing if the senator wasn't transparent. The senator said he had a heart attack. He then released three letters from doctors summarizing his condition. They described in detail what condition his heart's in. They say that none of the symptoms he had before the heart attack are going to come back. So I think he's been very transparent with people.

I think it's not comparable to what Trump does, which is hide the facts. I mean, Trump submitted a letter from a doctor saying he's in excellent health, the most fit person ever. Senator Sanders has never represented that. He has just represented that he is fit enough to do the job of President of the United States.

BLITZER: Let's look ahead to tonight's very important debate. This is the first time Michael Bloomberg will share the stage with the rest of the Democratic field. Give us a preview, Congressman, of how Senator Sanders plans to take on the former New York City mayor?

KHANNA: Well, the senator has run a grassroots campaign mobilizing millions of people around the country. Michael Bloomberg today called on Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar to drop out of the race. I'm wondering if he's going to call on Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump to drop out of the race.

I mean, the reality is that people like -- folks to earn this. Bernie Sanders has run an underdog campaign and he's going to talk about how he's actually built the movement to fight for people.

BLITZER: How is he going to deal with the issue of being as he's self described himself a Democratic socialist? Because as you know, a lot of Americans hear the word socialist, socialism, they get nervous.

KHANNA: I appreciate that, and Bernie Sanders believes in the free market. He is not going to nationalize any industry. He is an FDR Democrat. He wants to complete the new deal. Here's what he believes. He believes that people need health care, that they need education, that we need to invest in infrastructure so everyone can have a shot at the American dream. And I think that's going to come out and he's not going to let Republicans distort what he stands for.

[17:15:02] BLITZER: Ro Khanna, the Democratic congressman from California, the senator is lucky to have you as his co-chair. Thanks so much for joining us.

KHANNA: Wolf, thank you for giving me the opportunity.

BLITZER: Up next, the tensions between President Trump and the Attorney General William Barr. A source now says Barr has considered resigning. Plus, court papers reveal a shocking claim by the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Was he offered a presidential pardon?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: More now on the riff between President Trump and his Attorney General William Barr over the President's tweets and the retweets about the Justice Department. Our Senior Justice Correspondent Evan Perez is joining us. Evan, what have you learned, first of all, about the state of Barr's relationship with the President?

[17:20:01]

EVAN PEREZ, CNN SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, I think Bill Barr always thought -- he's only the latest of the Cabinet members of this President who thought that they could manage him, that they could be sort of the adults in the room who could help manage where the President goes and it clearly is not so. And I think that realization has kind of come down on Bill Barr like a ton of bricks in the past week or so.

You can tell that he's very frustrated with the tweets and the commentary that the President has made, even despite Barr telling him publicly and privately that this is a huge problem for the department, it's a huge problem for the attorney general.

Today at the department, you had officials behind the scenes trying to reassure officials -- employees rather, that the attorney general is not going anywhere, that he is not going to resign, that he plans to stick around, plans to go through some of the plans that they have in place. And so we'll see, Wolf, whether this relationship can survive what is clearly a very tense period.

BLITZER: He has said specifically, Bill Barr, the other day that if the President continues to make the statements and his tweets, it would make his job as the attorney general impossible to go forward and the President has since then continued to make the statements and continue to tweet and retweet in a very, very lively fashion.

Let's talk about the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange right now. You heard Jim Acosta's report. If in fact he was offered at some sort of presidential pardon in exchange for his help in the Russia investigation and all of that, how significant would that be?

PEREZ: Look, politically, it's a very damaging allegation. Again, the President -- as we've seen in the last couple of days, the President has pretty much unending pardon authority. It is politically, however, a very bad thing if the President is offering a pardon to someone who the United States is trying to extradite from the U.K.

Now, the person who allegedly made this -- who has tried to broker this deal, Dana Rohrabacher, he's --

BLITZER: Former Congressman.

PEREZ: Former Congressman from California, he has been public saying that the Russians had nothing to do with the interference of the 2016 election. So we know where he stands. The question is whether Julian Assange has any proof, has anything to show that this offer was made and whether we can even say that the President made this offer through Dana Rohrabacher.

BLITZER: It's potentially significant development. We'll continue to follow up on that. Evan, thank you very much.

Let's get some more and all of this, Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware is joining us. He's a member of both the Judiciary and Foreign Relations Committees. Senator, do you think the attorney general is serious about this threat to resign?

SEN. CHRIS COONS (D-DE): Wolf, I hope he is. I think he should resign. Frankly, the fact that 2,000 former Department of Justice employees have signed a public petition calling on him to resign and the fact that four career prosecutors withdrew from the Roger Stone case after the unusual, even unprecedented interference by President Trump and the attorney general in sentencing recommendations for one of Trump's cronies, Roger Stone, suggests to me that he's lost the confidence of a lot of folks in the department.

And the President's ongoing public attempts to interfere in the independence of the Department of Justice should give the attorney general real pause and given that President Trump is unbounded is now handing out pardons like party favors to the corrupt and well connected, he should resign.

BLITZER: Do you think the attorney general, senator, is genuinely concerned about the President's interference in this ongoing criminal cases or is he simply upset that the President is doing so publicly?

COONS: I think it's the latter. Frankly, one of the reasons I voted against Attorney General Barr in his confirmation hearing was both his positions that are very expansive in terms of his view of presidential power and of the fact I just wasn't convinced in his confirmation hearing that he understood the role of the attorney general, his loyalty to the constitution, not to any individual president.

And I think some of the more recent developments in the Department of Justice have been alarming, and so I'm concerned that this is all for show. And frankly, he is just trying to throw us off of the scent.

BLITZER: What if anything can Congress do at this point?

COONS: Well, that's part of what I think is the tragedy of the outcome of the impeachment trial is that President Trump having not just -- not been removed following the two-week trial in the Senate of the United States, but now emboldened. We're going to see him behave more and more egregiously, I think, in terms of coloring outside of the lines, operating beyond the guardrails of the constitutional system.

So, I frankly think that as long as a Republican majority in the United States Senate will not in any way speak up against or challenge President Trump's unconventional behavior, his threats to our rule of law will simply grow in the weeks and months ahead.

[17:25:11]

BLITZER: You've endorsed the former Vice President Joe Biden. In our new CNN Poll of Polls --

COONS: Yes, I have.

BLITZER: -- as you notice Senator, Bernie Sanders is actually leading the former Vice President by double digits and Michael Bloomberg is right behind him. You can see the numbers there up on the screen. How is he going to turn this campaign around beginning with tonight's debate?

COONS: Well, Wolf, you're going to see a vigorous attack by Joe Biden on the records of some of his opponents and a defense of his own record of public service. There are three issues that I expect to hear from Joe on the campaign stage tonight.

First is healthcare. He deserves the accolades for having been side by side with President Obama fighting for the Affordable Care Act. Mike Bloomberg, Mayor Bloomberg, didn't support the Affordable Care Act, didn't support the Wall Street reforms of the Obama-Biden administration. And Joe Biden knows how hard it was to get the Affordable Care Act passed and why passing Medicare for All and taking away great health care from the culinary workers and other unionized workers of the State of Nevada isn't what they want.

Second, Las Vegas was the scene of one of the deadliest shootings in American history. Three years ago, 59 people were killed, hundreds injured. And Nevada's state legislature has passed stronger background checks to try and promote public safety in the State of Nevada. Joe Biden is the only man on that stage, the only candidate on that stage who has taken on the NRA and won, not once but twice.

And last, Joe has a long record of standing for organized labor. He was on the picket line with the culinary workers today, and I think that combination of his record is a real Democrat, not a Democratic socialist, not a Republican, but a real Democrat who has fought for labor, fought for health care, fought for our protection against gun violence. We'll stand him in good stead on that stage tonight and lead him to a strong finish in Nevada and South Carolina next week.

BLITZER: It sounds like he is going to go after Bernie Sanders and Michael Bloomberg. We shall see in a few hours.

COONS: Yes.

BLITZER: Senator Coons, thanks as usual for joining us. COONS: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. And stay with us for more in the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination. Will Senator Bernie Sanders be able to resist calls to release his medical records? That and a lot more when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:32:25]

BLITZER: We're following a new burst of very aggressive attacks as new polls show Senator Bernie Sanders leading the race for the Democratic presidential nomination with former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg on the rise. Let's discuss this with our political experts.

Dana Bash, Senator Sanders now refusing to release his full, full records. He released a few letters a few months ago after his heart attack, but he hasn't released his full records. His campaign is also suggesting that the criticism he's getting is, you know, horrible criticism, not fair criticism and that Michael Bloomberg, at one point, one of the campaign spokespeople said had a heart attack, which simply is not true.

How big of a factor is this medical question going forward, especially when you have two candidates atop the field, Bloomberg and Sanders, who are both 78 years old, Biden is 77 years old, President Trump is 73 years old?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: It's a big factor, or it should be a big factor. And it's a question of transparency. I think though beyond just the question of medical records, and the candidates' age, really dependent, no matter what age they are, there's a broader question here.

And that broader question is whether or not Democrats as a party have decided that they are going to play the same game as Donald Trump, which is just say, no, I'm not going to release things, from his medical records to his tax returns, and everything in between, and kind of decide that Donald Trump changed the game. And so that's OK for Democrats too or whether Democrats are going to say, no, that is not the game we are going to play, that is not the world in which we want to live.

We have criticized Donald Trump for not being transparent for, you know, four years almost. And we have said that that is not leadership. And so we're going to act differently. And this is really considering where Bernie Sanders is right now as the frontrunner in every single poll. And particular the CNN's poll of polls, that is a question for the party given his leadership status right now.

BLITZER: After his heart attack, you know, David Gregory, Senator Sanders spoke to our Dr. Sanjay Gupta, our Chief Medical Correspondent, and he said this, listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: So people do have a right to know about the health of the senator and somebody who's running for president of the United States -- full disclosure, and we will make it at the appropriate time all of our medical records public for you, for anybody else who wants to see them.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Yes. He didn't release in that original letter a lot of details about his -- but it wasn't the complete full medical record, and some are suggesting that he was misleading the American people sort of like Trump does promising one thing during the campaign but not delivering.

[17:35:10]

DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Look, he had a heart attack. He's 78 years old and he had a heart attack. We got to get more information. And this is also an area where, guess what, news reporters tend to be a little bit annoying in this regard. But it's important, because this is not an issue until it becomes an issue.

Think back to 1992. And Paul Tsongas who was running for the Democratic nomination, and he said, falsely, that he had been cancer free. And unfortunately, he passed away from the disease and he would have been in office and died in office. And I remember I was saying this before we came on, Tim Russert, when I was at NBC, always said that he learned such an important lesson about the importance of journalists, pushing candidates on their health. And I think this is no different.

And look, Bernie Sanders has put a standard out there to say I'm going to be completely transparent on this.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: Yes.

GREGORY: You just got to live up to it.

HENDERSON: Yes.

GREGORY: I mean, the guy, he's 78. My mother is about a one week younger than Bernie Sanders. I inquire about my mother's health all the time. And I think it's appropriate when the guy is 78 and he had a heart attack.

HENDERSON: Yes. And listen, Bernie Sanders himself set this standard and he also said, this is completely on the table. This is a fair all line of questioning. His campaign spokesman made the ridiculous claim that asking about Bernie Sanders health was the same thing as, you know --

GREGORY: A smear campaign.

HENDERSON: -- a smear campaign and --

BLITZER: Raising questions about President Obama's origin. Yes. GREGORY: Yes.

BLITZER: The birtherism.

GREGORY: Right.

HENDERSON: Yes. So, I mean, their stance on this, we'll see if it's sustainable. But listen, Bernie Sanders key finds himself as a kind of different camp, you know, a different kind of campaign or a different kind of candidate. And here he is going back on his own word and his own standard, and we'll see if he can sustain his decision.

GREGORY: And that kind of a professionalism by the way comparing it to questioning Obama's were lineage, they are not even close.

HENDERSON: Right.

GREGORY: Bernie Sanders, if he's really ready for prime time, he's got to have a staff that's ready.

BLITZER: And if he's got nothing to hide, release the records and move on. You know, that's all the candidates should do that including the President of the United States. He wants to be reelected president. The American public has a right to know how he's doing health wise.

All right, everybody stick around. A lot more we're working on much more right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:41:48]

BLITZER: We're back with our political experts. And, Nia, tonight's going to be the first time that Bloomberg is going to be on the debate stage. How will the other candidates go after him because his numbers have been going up?

HENDERSON: Yes, he's 15 percent in couple, I think, in our CNN poll of polls, and you can see the steady rise with all of those ads and we've all seen on our TV over and over again. They're going to focus on his weaknesses, and they are many. They're going to try to vet him on issues like stop-and-frisk and the way in which it was implemented and targeting a black and brown men, something he defended for years and years and years, even after the practice was ended.

We'll talk about the climate that some women say he created at his own company that they say was discriminatory, particularly to pregnant women. So I think those are issues that will come up. And also this idea of whether or not someone should be able to buy their way onto the debate stage and by the nomination in the presidency, right. This is a big issue for Sanders. It's a big issue for Warren as well. So I think that'll be the way that they'll go after him.

They also have to keep in mind where they are at Nevada. They want to do well with those voters there. Bloomberg is actually not on the ballot. So they got to really use their time wisely. You've got some really nimble debaters and Buttigieg, Klobuchar and as well as Warren, Biden not so nimble in terms of going after people, but I imagine he's got to figure out a way to stop Bloomberg's rise because it's comment (ph) by in his expense.

GREGORY: Right. I actually have a different movie reference. I wanted to mention the internship for my son, but I'm thinking more "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" where everybody gathers around to see who's coming off the spaceship, and it's Michael Bloomberg. Oh my gosh, what's he going to do? How about we remember that Bernie Sanders is the frontrunner in this Democratic race dynamically.

HENDERSON: Exactly.

GREGORY: And there's a huge demand and need for a Joe Biden to really go on the offensive here and to not just worry about Bloomberg, but to worry about the frontrunner at the moment, and to create a kind of ideological contrast, which I think Biden and Klobuchar and Buttigieg want to do. And if Elizabeth Warren's got any future, she's got to try to reclaim some of that progressive voice, which is, you know, which she has lost in the first couple of content.

BLITZER: Go ahead, Dana.

BASH: And I think what David said is so important to remember. Of course, there's focused on Bloomberg because he's the new guy in town. We haven't seen him on the debate stage through any of this campaign. But we also have to remember how much the dynamic has changed since July, in the summer when these debates started, eight debates ago, which is Joe Biden at that time in the latest ABC News poll, he was by far the guy who everybody thought was the best to beat Donald Trump. He was, you know, up in doing better than everybody else.

Now, in the latest poll today, he's at 19 percent. Bernie Sanders is now at 30 percent. He's the guy who people see as the most likely to beat -- or one of the most likely to beat Donald Trump. And before he was about where Joe Biden is. So it's not just that the Bloomberg factor, it's that Bernie Sanders is doing well and he's also being seen differently by Democratic primary voters not just as a spoiler, not just as a movement guy, but as somebody who they want as their nominee and that is no small thing.

[17:45:00]

HENDERSON: Yes, and somebody who's able to put together a coalition, right? He's doing well winning among Latino voters, essentially tied with Joe Biden, among African-American voters, and does well with white voters too. This is something that I think Biden came into the race thinking he would be able to do, not able to do. Sanders also has money and organization. So he's a real force in this race.

GREGORY: And let's remember, these debates have mattered a lot.

HENDERSON: Yes.

GREGORY: If you're Michael Bloomberg, you have to do a number of things. You have to somehow confront and deal with the progressive moment we're in as a Republican mayor of New York who's a billionaire. He's got to be able to deal with that. He's also got to have a broader narrative of how he's going to beat Trump.

And he's got to be a decent debater and what is still a big field when everybody's coming for him. When he's not particularly, he can get defensive. He's not necessarily a great debater, and he is not in shape. The rest of these people on the stage have been doing --

HENDERSON: Debating, yes.

GREGORY: -- for a while, been debating for a while.

BASH: Eight times.

GREGORY: Yes. So for a made-for-TV moment, I think that matters and it's not so easy to break through.

BLITZER: And we told he's been practicing, practicing, practicing these mock debates with his aides and several of them have a lot of experience in politics, have helped other candidates go through debates. We'll see how he does later tonight.

All right guys, stick around. There's more news we're following including this. The coronavirus spreading on a quarantine cruise ship. More than 600 people are now infected.

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[17:51:14]

BLITZER: Now the latest on the coronavirus outbreak and growing criticism of Japan's decision to quarantine thousands of people on a cruise ship. CNN's Brian Todd is working the story for us. So Brian, hundreds of people on the ship now have been infected by this virus.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. And as you mentioned, the Japanese government as well as Princess cruise lines, the operator of the Diamond Princess are being skewered tonight over the handling of this quarantine. When a veteran infectious disease specialist who went on board comes out and says he was horrified at what he saw, you've got a problem.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): And Australian passenger films her exit from the Diamond Princess cruise ship. Some 800 passengers from the vessel were allowed to disembark today in Yokohama, Japan. They all tested negative for coronavirus. But more than 600 other passengers on the Diamond Princess tested positive. And tonight, there is serious concern over whether cruise line officials and Japanese authorities have done enough to contain the virus.

KENTARO IWATA, PROFESSOR OF INFECTIOUS DISEASES, KOBE UNIVERSITY: Inside, Princess Diamond have us so scared. TODD (voice-over): Infectious disease expert Kintaro Iwata has handled Ebola and SARS outbreaks. But he says when he went on board the Diamond Princess to check on conditions, he was horrified.

IWATA: Everybody was not careful about it. There was no single professionally infection control person inside the ship and there was nobody in charge of the infection prevention as a professional.

TODD (voice-over): A passenger, Dr. Arnold Hopland, is even more blunt.

DR. ARNOLD HOPLAND, PASSENGER QUARANTINED ON DIAMOND PRINCESS: They have now confined me to another two weeks on the ship. And I'm sitting in a petri dish, waiting to be infected.

TODD (voice-over): Hopland says his wife tested positive for coronavirus and is now hospitalized. He says the quarantine on board not only has it worked, it's made conditions worse.

HOPLAND: They were going to quarantine 4,000 people in tight quarters, supervised by restaurant and hotel workers who had no medical training of any kind, and the crew were not quarantined. And so they would- could spread it amongst themselves, which of course they did do. Our cabin steward, for instance, was infected.

TODD (voice-over): And the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has weighed in, saying while the agency commends the Japanese government for implementing a quarantine on the Diamond Princess, "It may not have been sufficient to prevent transmission among individuals on the ship. CDC believes the rate of new infections on board, especially among those without symptoms, represents an ongoing risk".

When we contacted the CDC, they wouldn't say whom specifically they blamed for that. The CEO of the cruise line says it was not their call.

JAN SWARTZ, PRESIDENT AND CEO, PRINCESS DIAMOND: You know, I think the entire operation from a medical and public health perspective has been run by the Japanese Ministry of Health.

TODD (voice-over): Could the passengers have been kept safer?

PROF. CHRISTOPHER MORES, GLOBAL PUBLIC HEALTH EXPERT, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: They need to engage in a much more strenuous protocol of infection prevention. And so that could have been achieved on the ship by carefully keeping separation between people ever in their cabins, by maintaining, you know, social distances on people who are serving them or that all could have been done off the ship.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: Japanese officials have not responded specifically to the CDCs concerned about how the quarantine on the Diamond Princess was handled. But they have said they believe the best way to have kept everyone safe was to keep them quarantined in their rooms. Japanese officials admitted quarantine is not 100 percent effective,

but they say that's been the best option they've had so far. And they claim that most, if not all of the infections on the ship, were contracted before the quarantine started. The passengers and medical experts have expressed doubts about that claim, Wolf.

BLITZER: I know they have. All right, Brian Todd reporting. Thank you very much.

Coming up, a lawyer for the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange claims his client was offered a presidential pardon in exchange for help with the Russia investigation. And former Illinois Governor and Celebrity Apprentice contestant, Rod Blagojevich, declares himself a Trump- ocrat, as he speaks out about having his prison sentence commuted by the President.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:59:33]

BLITZER: Happening now, threat to quit. We're told the Attorney General Bill Barr has gotten so fed up with the President's interference that he talked of resigning. Was Barr serious about giving his critics what they want?

Pardon offer. Julian Assange's lawyer tells the court that the WikiLeaks founder was offered a presidential pardon by a Trump ally with a catch. Was he willing to deny Russia's involvement in the DNC hack?

Health and attacks. Bernie Sanders faced his questions about his refusal to release more medical records and his campaigns misleading comments about Michael Bloomberg's health.