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THE SITUATION ROOM

Attorney General Barr Really Thinking Of Resigning?; Interview With Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT); Bernie Sanders Under Fire Over Medical Records; Bloomberg Set For First Democratic Presidential Debate; Sanders Camp Says Health Questions Are A Smear Campaign; CNN Poll Of Polls: Bernie Sanders Clear Leader Of Democratic Field; Experts: Cruise Ship Evacuees Could Spread Coronavirus. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired February 19, 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: Bernie Sanders faces questions about his refusal to release more medical records and his campaign's misleading comments about Michael Bloomberg's health. The two Democrats are sparring, even before they share a debate stage tonight.

And Trumpocrat. That's what former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich is calling himself after his sentence was commuted by the president. Stand by to hear his over-the-top thank you to the pardoner-in-chief for letting him out of prison.

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

We're getting a new window into President Trump's brazen meddling in federal legal matters and the tension it's created between him and his attorney general. A source tells CNN that William Barr has told people he's considered resigning over the president's interference, particularly his tweets.

Mr. Trump possibly rubbing salt in the wound today when he retweeted a call for Barr to clean house -- his words -- clean house over at the Justice Department.

Also tonight, a lawyer for Julian Assange has told a court that the WikiLeaks founder was offered a presidential pardon by a Trump ally. The lawyer says there was a clear condition that Assange would have to claim Russia was not involved in the DNC hack.

I will get reaction from the Senate Judiciary Committee member Richard Blumenthal. And our correspondents and analysts are also standing by.

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

Jim, first of all, what are you learning about the tensions right now between the president and his attorney general?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, I just talked to a White House official a few moments ago, who said there aren't any tensions any longer between the president and his attorney general, William Barr.

The White House is indicating tonight the president is patching things up with his attorney general after Barr made it clear he may resign if Mr. Trump continues to tweet about sensitive Justice Department cases.

The president is still tweeting out some comments, though, that may antagonize Barr, but, in the meantime, the president is facing a new trouble storyline, as lawyers for Julian Assange are claiming Mr. Trump offered a pardoned deal to the founder of WikiLeaks in exchange for some help in the Russia investigation, a claim the White House is slamming tonight as a big lie.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): With the president out West campaigning, his aides are scrambling to keep the peace 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 down 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 a Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat who now says he's a Trump supporter.

QUESTION: Are you going to vote for him, Governor?

ROD BLAGOJEVICH (D), FORMER ILLINOIS GOVERNOR: I'm a Trumpocrat.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A Trumpocrat, that's right.

QUESTION: Are you going to vote for him?

BLAGOJEVICH: If I have 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 officials 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, a 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 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.

DANA ROHRABACHER (R), FORMER U.S. CONGRESSMAN: It's a total brouhaha over nothing. The bottom line is that the Russians are not being accused -- 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 a 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 caution 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 this strategic competition with Russia."

The Pentagon is dismissing the notion that this was payback.

[18:05:00]

JONATHAN HOFFMAN, U.S. ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: That sounds speculative me. I have no information that would -- would lead me to that conclusion.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: Now, former Congressman Rohrabacher has released a statement this evening saying he never spoke to the president about Assange. But he claims he once told then Chief of Staff John Kelly Assange would offer information in exchange for a pardon, but he says nobody at the White House ever followed up with him on that offer.

In the meantime, Wolf, some breaking news just in this hour.

The president is expected to tap, from what we are hearing from our sources -- I just heard from a source in the last few minutes about this. He's expected to tap the U.S. ambassador to Germany, Ric Grenell, as the next acting director of national intelligence.

Wolf, Ric Grenell is well-known inside Republican circles. He is a former FOX News contributor. And so, once again, this is an instance where the president is watching FOX News and filling out his Cabinet, filling out top positions in the administration.

Ric Grenell is not universally well-liked inside the Republican Party. He has had sharp elbows over the years. But over his term in Germany, as the ambassador to there, he became pretty well-liked inside the White House over here, and he's a loyalist of the president, which obviously goes a long way -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, we will see how that develops. Jim Acosta at the White House, thank you.

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

Shimon, first of all, what are you learning about the pressure Barr's facing right now from inside his own Justice Department?

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Yes.

Certainly, inside the Department of Justice, folks here in Washington, D.C., who are interacting with him on a day-to-day basis and just going on about the daily business, there's some tension there. I think it's very clear that people are unhappy of how the president has been conducting himself, certainly very unhappy with what the attorney general did in the Roger Stone sentencing by meddling and getting involved in that.

So, right now, what we're seeing really is people sort of just trying to go on the daily business, the attorney general trying to show that he has their back, that he has -- that he's on the side of justice, that he is on the side of the Department of Justice.

And that's what we're seeing internally certainly. This idea that perhaps he's somehow going to resign, internally, there's no indication that that is going to happen anytime soon. And it just seems right now that people are just trying to go about the daily business, despite what's going on outside the Department of Justice, with all the political drama that that's now going on there.

BLITZER: How significant would it be if, in fact, Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, as his lawyer is claiming, if he, in fact, were offered a presidential pardon by a Trump ally, in exchange for him coming out and insisting that Russia had nothing to do with the hacking of the DNC?

PROKUPECZ: If that ever happened, it would be probably one of the craziest things that the president could possibly do.

To offer Julian Assange any kind of party would probably upset every intelligence agency, the FBI, people at the Department of Justice, people in the military, people in the CIA. Every intelligence person would probably be very concerned. And there be a complete uproar.

It's certainly very significant that someone, a former congressman now, felt that he had enough credibility, certainly with the president, that he could go in, meet with Julian Assange and say, you know what, if you do the right thing here, I could ask the president to give you a pardon.

That itself -- in itself is pretty incredible that someone like this, who we see who has some connections to the president, felt it enough -- with enough credibility that he could go in and do something like this is certainly significant.

And now what's key is, this is going to be using this trial. So we're going to see how this plays out. But that's going to be certainly an interesting moment in that trial when all of that comes out.

BLITZER: The allegation is former Congressman Dana Rohrabacher made the suggestion. We will see what happens on that front.

PROKUPECZ: Yes.

BLITZER: All right, Shimon, thank you very much.

Joining us now, Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat who serves on the Judiciary Committee.

Senator, thanks so much for joining. We have got a lot to discuss.

But, first, let me get your thoughts on Ric Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany. Do you believe he's qualified to serve as the country's top intelligence officer?

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D-CT): I think he has a lot of questions to answer. As of right now, I would not vote for him.

But there has to be someone to serve in that position. And I think that, based on my experience in the Armed Services Committee, that he has to justify and he has the burden of proof on whether he should be confirmed.

BLITZER: Because Grenell was confirmed by the Senate as his role as U.S. ambassador to Germany.

Is it your understanding that the president can use the Federal Vacancies Reform Act, as it's called, to bypass you and another potential Senate confirmation process?

BLUMENTHAL: He can bypass us for a while, but not permanently.

And I should add, Wolf, that this vacancy is one of many at the very top of both the Defense Department and other departments of government.

[18:10:05]

In the Defense Department, for example, one-quarter of all the top Senate-confirmed positions, 25 percent, 16 out of the 59 are now vacant, filled by acting people.

And that detracts from not only the morale, but also the policy-making expertise. The same is true in the NSA, the National Security Agency. Having someone who's a political appointee, with little or any background in intelligence, come there on an acting basis is really the wrong move.

And I hope that the president will appoint a real professional.

BLITZER: Let's turn to the other big news we're following right now, Senator.

The attorney general, Bill Barr, is considering, we're told, resigning over the president's continued interference. Do you see this as a real threat? Or do you believe there are other motivations at play?

BLUMENTHAL: Bill Barr is fast losing any shred of credibility in the Department of Justice and the wider law enforcement establishment.

If he has any self-respect or moral backbone, he will resign. He has been part of a pattern of political interference in the American justice system, really part of a perfect storm, a president intent on corrupting the Department of Justice with contempt for the rule of law. Bill Barr has acted as his henchmen.

And the Republican majority have been his enablers, really active participants, aiders and abetters. And so Bill Barr may stay. But he has enabled Rudy Giuliani to have a back channel to the Department of Justice with dirt on Ukraine.

He has skewed and distorted the Mueller report before it was even released. From the very start, before his confirmation -- and I voted against him -- he has given the president this unitary vision of the executive branch that the president has exploded to say that he is the chief of law enforcement and, therefore, can do anything he wants.

So, I would predict that the president will continue mocking and taunting him, as he did to former Attorney General Sessions. But, ultimately, Bill Barr is going to be humiliated. It's bigger than Bill Barr. It's about the rule of law.

BLITZER: But Bill Barr, as you heard the other day, publicly saying in that interview with ABC News that, if the president continues these statements and these tweets, it's going to make his job as the attorney general impossible.

He was critical of the president.

BLUMENTHAL: What he was really saying there was: I know what the president wants. I will do anything the president wants. Please, I wish he would just stop tweeting and, in effect, humiliating and embarrassing me.

And the president seems to continue tweeting and embarrassing him, humiliating and mocking him, which is really an insult to the entire system of justice and the Department of Justice. Tomorrow is the Roger Stone sentencing. So we can anticipate more

tweets and more humiliation. But it's really bigger than Bill Barr. It's about the rule of law, which is also demoralized. And those brave and dedicated professionals in the Department of Justice, 2,000 former members, have written a letter of protest.

And I would see continued revolt. I think Bill Barr faces eventually a full-scale revolt in the Department of Justice, if he continues to be the president's henchmen, indeed, his lapdog.

BLITZER: Senator Blumenthal, thanks so much for joining us.

BLUMENTHAL: Thank you.

BLITZER: All right, just ahead, it could get ugly, as Mike Bloomberg makes his presidential debate debut later tonight, amid new attacks by his Democratic rivals.

Did Senator Bernie Sanders' camp cross the line? We're getting some new information.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:18:19]

BLITZER: We're back with the breaking news.

President Trump appears poised to fill the critical job of director of national intelligence with a loyalist. Sources say his current ambassador to Germany, Ric Grenell, is expected to be named acting DNI, director of national intelligence.

Let's bring in our analysts.

And, Carrie Cordero, you used to work at the -- for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. What do you make of this possible choice?

CARRIE CORDERO, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: It is actually a stunning choice if he is put forth as either the acting DNI or a nomination for confirmation.

I think Richard Grenell would be the least qualified person to ever hold that role. The first five directors of national intelligence who were confirmed by the Senate had been people with decades of professional intelligence community experience or extensive careers in the diplomatic corps.

Or there was one who was a former admiral -- two that were former admirals in the U.S. Navy. So these are people usually who have absolute decades of executive leadership in the military or in the intelligence community.

As far as I know from his background, he has no intelligence background whatsoever, except for, in his current capacity as an ambassador, he would be a consumer of intelligence information from some perspective.

But, really, his background as a communications professional, as I understand, is one that would be more suited to the spokesperson for the DNI than to serve as DNI.

BLITZER: What do you think, Shan?

SHAN WU, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Well, I think that the president said he was going to drain the swamp.

He thinks he's doing that by getting rid of non-loyalists, and he's -- now he's filling the swamp up again. It seems like the best credential is being on FOX News these days.

[18:20:05]

BLITZER: Let me switch with you, Elie.

What do you what do you think of this threat now from the attorney general, Bill Barr, to resign if the president keeps tweeting and making these statements that Barr sees as undermining his role as the attorney general of the United States?

ELIE HONIG, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Wolf, I'm not buying it. I'm not buying this whole Hamlet, to resign or not to resign, routine from the attorney general.

The fact is, Bill Barr knew exactly what he was getting into from day one on the job, from before then. Donald Trump was tweeting about and interfering in Justice Department cases before Bill Barr became attorney general and throughout Barr's entire first year on the job.

Now, look, it came to a head this week or last week with the Roger Stone sentencing, when Bill Barr stepped in, undermined his own prosecutors, and it blew back on him when the four prosecutors resigned, I believe, in protest. And then we saw this letter.

I'm one of almost 2,500 now former DOJ officials who made a statement against Bill Barr. So, look, Bill Barr is putting on this public display of independence. But his actions over the last year I think make clear he's there to protect Donald Trump. I think he lacks the independence to really stand up for the Justice Department.

BLITZER: Let me get Shan's thoughts.

You're a former federal prosecutor. I think you signed that letter as well calling on the attorney general to resign. Do you think he's serious about this threat?

WU: Absolutely not. He might be able to survive under oath saying that he -- quote -- considered it."

But he auditioned for this job. He really likes the job, and he's staying there until the last act of this play.

BLITZER: What do you think, Carrie? CORDERO: I think that it's pretty disingenuous for him to use tweets,

the president's tweets, as the reason for his current unease in his position, because the tweets about cases, the tweets about judges, the president's running commentary about criminal cases and about the Justice Department has been in place from before Attorney General Barr became the attorney general and throughout his entire tenure as attorney general.

So I find that part disingenuous. I do think he feels some pressure, probably most significantly from within the Justice Department ranks itself. And so that is pushing him to say something publicly and try to at least provide some public messaging that he is distancing himself from the president.

But it doesn't change the conduct of the president, or it doesn't change the conduct of all of the things that Attorney General Barr has done that have contributed to the appearance that the department is acting politically.

BLITZER: Because, Elie, as you know, last week, the attorney general said the president was making his job impossible by these statements of these tweets.

And since then, the president has continued with these statements and these tweets, and the attorney general is still there.

HONIG: Yes, when you say it's making it impossible for me to do my job, and then it continues to happen, really, the only principled thing to do is resign or make a show of force.

And Donald Trump is clearly sort of asserting his alpha male status here by saying things like, I'm the chief law enforcement officer. I beg to differ. I'd actually be interested to hear what Shan and Carrie think, as alums as well.

The attorney general is the chief law enforcement officer. Yes, the president can nominate and remove him. But that is Bill Barr's job. The president has clearly shown, I do not intend to give you the independence and room that you need to really run that department.

So Bill Barr's got a big decision to make. We will see if he's really about independence of the department or just doing Trump's business.

BLITZER: They will tell us their thoughts, but at a later time, because we're going to move on right now.

We got more news just coming into THE SITUATION ROOM.

Is Bernie Sanders taking a page from President Trump's playbook by keeping some of his medical records under wraps after his recent heart attack?

And there are growing concerns right now that quarantines are not stopping the spread of the coronavirus here in the United States.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:28:25]

BLITZER: Health questions are likely to be center stage at today's Democratic presidential debate in Nevada.

Bernie Sanders is on the defensive for refusing to release his full medical history after his heart attack three months ago. And his campaign is under fire for misleading comments about Michael Bloomberg's health.

The Bloomberg campaign senior adviser Tim O'Brien -- there you see him -- he's standing by live. We will discuss with him in a few moments.

But, first, let's go to CNN's Ryan Nobles. He's in Las Vegas for us.

Ryan, Sanders and Bloomberg, they're sparring right now hours before the debate.

RYAN NOBLES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Wolf.

And we expect the questions about Bernie Sanders' health to be front and center here tonight in Las Vegas. But put this in perspective. It is pretty remarkable that Bernie Sanders finds himself as the front- runner in this Democratic nomination just a few months after suffering that heart attack.

But as he sits now, in the pole position for the Democratic nomination, it's clear that his health is going to be an issue that he is going to be forced to confront.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

NOBLES (voice-over): Tonight, Bernie Sanders is facing new questions over his health. After suffering a heart attack last fall, Sanders pledged to release his medical records before the primary.

In late December, he released three letters from doctors who treated him that included a summary of the senator's health and some test results. At Tuesday night's CNN town hall, Sanders said that's as far as he plans to go.

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

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I don't. I don't think we will, no.

NOBLES: That after telling CNN this in October, just days after his heart attack.

SANDERS: At the appropriate time, all of our medical records public, for you or for anybody else who wants to see them.

[18:30:00]

NOBLES: A Sanders spokeswoman telling CNN today that additional requests for the Vermont senator's medical records are unfair.

BRIAHNA JOY GRAY, NATIONAL PRESS SECRETARY FOR BERNIE SANDERS: And what you're seeing right now is really reminiscent of some of the kind of smear, kind of skepticism campaigns that have been run against a lot of different candidates in the past.

NOBLES: Then going further by distorting Michael Bloomberg's past heart issues.

GRAY: It's really telling giving that none of the same concern is being demonstrated for Michael Bloomberg who is the same age as Bernie Sanders, who has suffered heart attacks in the past.

NOBLES: That's not true. Bloomberg underwent a coronary stint replacement in 2000 for a blocked artery but did not have a heart attack. Bloomberg's campaign firing back, calling the statement, a quote, absolute lie and saying facts matter. This isn't the way we defeat Donald Trump in November.

Sanders' Press Secretary later tweeting that she misspoke but the back and forth comes as Bloomberg and Sanders prepare to face off on the debate stage for the first time tonight.

Both candidates are 78 and would be the oldest president ever elected to a first term. Bloomberg released a letter from his doctor in December saying he was, quote, in outstanding health with, quote, no medical concerns present or looming that would prevent him from serving as president of the United States. And Sanders' doctors letter says that he is, quote, in good health currently, and then engaging vigorously in the rigors of your campaign, travel and other scheduled activities without any limitation.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You think I'm not in good health, come on out with me on the campaign trail and I'll let you introduce me to the three or four rallies a day that we do. How is that?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

NOBLES: And we asked our own medical expert, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN's Chief Medical Correspondent, as to what he thought about the transparency or lack thereof from the Sanders campaign. And he said that while Sanders has not released his full medical records, these three letters that he released from his doctor do give us quite a bit of insight into his health and his recovery from the heart attack.

He also said, Wolf, that letter like these are pretty standard forms of communication between doctors and their patients. Wolf?

BLITZER: Ryan Nobles in Las Vegas for us, thank you very much.

Let's get some more on all of this. We're joined by Bloomberg Campaign Senior Adviser Tim O'Brien. Tim, thanks so much for joining us.

Let me get your reaction to what's going on. First of all, as you know, the Sanders national press secretary says she misspoke on CNN earlier today when she falsely said Michael Bloomberg had suffered heart attacks in the past in response to her comment. You tweeted this and I'll read it to our viewers.

It's a dangerous time when Sanders goes all in with Trumpism. I want you to explain what you meant.

TIM O'BRIEN, BLOOMBERG CAMPAIGN SENIOR ADVISER: Well, I think we owe it to the public right now to argue on the facts, to debate one another respectfully, to look at the policies we're considering and the solutions we're trying to give to voters as a unified party.

Every Democrat campaigning right now, there's probably 85 percent of things we agree on, 10 to 15 percent of things we don't agree on. That 10 to 15 percent shouldn't separate us permanently from one another because we need to unite to beat Donald Trump.

On top of it, I think one of the most dangerous and disturbing facets of the Trump era is his war on objective facts and his delight in smearing people personally or lying about people or threatening people. And I think in the last couple of weeks, we have seen a lot of this behavior out of the Sanders camp.

Wolf, I've covered Donald Trump since 1990. As you know, he sued me and he's come after me repeatedly and directly. I'm fine with that. That's part and parcel of the world we're in. But the Sanders people have come after me equally, strongly in recent weeks, saying they're going to end my career. I'm also fine with that. But I have colleagues on the Bloomberg campaign who they are also threatening.

We know that the Sanders threatened the Culinary Workers Union in Nevada for not supporting Bernie. And now, they are just getting onto T.V. and they're saying blatant lies. Michael Bloomberg has never had two heart two attacks. And they do a disservice to voters in the process wherein on lying about people to win. And it is very Trump- esque. And I think it's unfortunate. I don't think any of the other Democrats are doing it, but Bernie Sanders and his supporters sort of revel in it.

BLITZER: I suspect this is going to be an issue in the debate tonight.

As you know, Mayor Bloomberg himself has released a letter from his doctor that says he's in, quote, outstanding health. Will Mayor Bloomberg, who is also like Sanders, 78 years old, release all of his medical records?

O'BRIEN: Yes. Our campaign will be transparent on Mike Bloomberg's health and Mike Bloomberg's finances because we owe that to voters. As you know, Mike has been questioned about a number of things in the last few weeks that he should be questioned about. We see it as part of the vetting process for voters. We honor the media coming at us strong with good, tough questions. I find it a little perplexing that Bernie Sanders actually hasn't been vetted in the same way, whether it's his health records or his legislative history or his statements about women or his stands on any number of other issues.

[18:35:11]

And I think that's also very Trumpy.

Donald Trump ran during the primaries in 2016 without a lot of scrutiny because the media didn't think he'd be a leading candidate. And by the time he was, he hadn't been vetted. Bernie Sanders has sort of stealthily run along thus far without being really vetted his legislative or career, personal life.

We have -- we're open to that. We think it's important. But it's a little mystifying to me that Bernie Sanders hasn't.

BLITZER: Well, do you think the mayor, Mayor Bloomberg, tonight is going to go after Senator Bernie Sanders, who is now clearly in our poll of polls, as the frontrunner?

O'BRIEN: I think the debate will speak for itself. And I don't want to get out in front of Mike. He's better at this than I am. Clearly, we have been surging in the polls because voters are recognizing that Mike has more governing experience than anyone else on that debate stage tonight. He's actually delivered solutions for years on the problems voters care about, affordable health care, education, job growth, the climate crisis, gun violence. He certainly will be arguing to his record and I think he's surging in the polls because people recognize he has a depth of experience that the other candidates don't.

BLITZER: Well, what do you say to those candidates like former Mayor Pete Buttigieg who say that your candidate, Mike Bloomberg, is simply trying to buy the Democratic presidential nomination?

O'BRIEN: First and foremost, I would ask what's the right price to save democracy from Donald Trump? Michael Bloomberg is doing this right now because he sees this as the culmination of his life's work. As we have said repeatedly, this big electoral machine we're building, we're in 45 states and territories, 21,000 people on the ground we'll be in the service of the party of whoever the nominee is.

What Mike is doing is buying exposure. If you could buy an election, Tom Steyer wouldn't be polling at 1 percent. He's not going to be on the debate stage tonight. He has spent robustly. Mike Bloomberg is on the debate stage because he has an incredible record of public service. He's a proven success in the business world, a self-made man who put himself through college as a parking lot attendant and a generous philanthropist. And those are good arguments why he should be president.

BLITZER: There's another sensitive issue that's come up in the past few days that goes against your candidate, Mike Bloomberg. CNN itself as examined two lawsuits that paint what's described as a picture of a culture of pervasive harassment at Bloomberg's company, including some crude comments he made against women, including women's bodies, their sex, lives. Tell us about that. Is this the way your candidate has addressed women in the past? And if so, why should voters out there trust him on these issues right now? O'BRIEN: That's a great question, Wolf. Our campaign robustly supports the empowerment of women in the workplace, in politics and socially. The grotesque comments that are being attributed to him largely come from a book of jokes that was given to him 30 years ago as a birthday present that was written by other people. Mike has repeatedly said he did not say any of the things in that book of jokes. He's embarrassed that it was a gift given to him and that women would feel demeaned by it. He would apologize always for any statements that women would feel demeaned by.

These actual harassment suits that you're referring to were filed against Bloomberg L.P. A number of them happened when Mike wasn't even at the company. He was mayor of New York. There's been a lot of headlines, 45 women or 64 women have filed sexual harassment suits against Mike Bloomberg. That's simply not true. They are corporate lawsuits. And he has denied the substance of the suits in which he has been named.

And his record, I think, speaks louder than his words here, Wolf. He has a long career of protecting women's reproductive rights, an advocate for women in the workplace and then politics. Patti Harris, who is the chairwoman of our campaign, was Mike's deputy mayor and his closest confidante in city hall. She ran Bloomberg philanthropies, which is run by women. Again, it's astounding to me there hasn't been a good long profile of the successful women at Bloomberg philanthropies who've turned that into a force for good in society.

On this campaign, Patti plays a senior role. I have a number of women who support me in my role. Mike's partner, Diana Taylor, is a substantive woman and a trained economist who would never let Mike Bloomberg get away with being a sexual harasser. And I would emphasize that right now in the White House.

[18:40:00]

We have someone who is a known sexual predator who revels in that. And Mike Bloomberg couldn't be further apart from that.

And I think if Democrats don't keep their thinking hats on and really look at the fact that Mike Bloomberg is the only person on that debate stage tonight who can go to November and take Donald Trump down and stop his bullying, we're all going to be in trouble.

BLITZER: Tim O'Brien, the Senior Adviser to the Bloomberg campaign, thanks so much for coming in. We're all anxious to see this debate tonight and where this contest goes from there. I appreciate it very much.

O'BRIEN: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Let's discuss all of this and a lot more with our political experts. We'll do so right after a quick break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:45:19] BLITZER: Let's bring in our political experts.

So, David Chalian, you're out there in Las Vegas. We're going to be watching the debate tonight.

Look at the CNN poll of polls. Bernie Sanders, he's clearly the front- runner right now.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: He is clearly the front- runner. He's consolidated a huge swatch of that liberal progressive wing. He's got voters under 45 by a big majority. And that's powering where he is.

He also had a significant chunk of the non-white vote. So, he's got a coalition to put him where it is. And what's significant there, Wolf, is that the way these delegates are awarded proportionally, if he performs at the level he's polling at right now in some of these key states, he can build up a significant and almost impenetrable delegate lead.

BLITZER: And, you know, Abby, it's the first time that we'll see Mayor Bloomberg on the stage tonight, and there's going to be some bitter words, I suspect, exchange.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, a lot of the candidates have a lot of reason to take Bloomberg down a notch. This is their very first opportunity to do it. And particularly for the moderates whose path to competing with Bernie Sanders, frankly, has been complicated by Bloomberg. There's a lot of interests in the moderate lane in bringing Bloomberg down and then Bloomberg himself wants to have this fight with Bernie Sanders.

He's been saying for a while now that he thinks it's a Bloomberg, Bernie Sanders race. So, I think we'll see that show up on the debate stage.

BLITZER: Clearly, David, no love lost between these two guys.

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: No love lost. And I agree with Abby and I agree with David, although I think that if you're Sanders tonight, you might want to hang back, let those moderates battle it out for the moderate votes that are there, trying to fight with Bloomberg, and he has enough of a polling lead, Sanders ahead by 12 in that CNN poll of polls, ahead by 14 in the Nevada polling average. He can afford to be sort of above it all, sit on his lead.

If he does well in Nevada, Wolf, if he does even reasonably well in South Carolina next week, he's in the poll position. He can -- he might want to throw Bloomberg a bone by giving a more full throated apology over that heart attack comment. But I think he is in a position where he can do what he wants tonight.

BLITZER: How big of a deal, David Chalian, is it that Senator Bernie Sanders now says he's not going to release anymore of his medical records? CHALIAN: Well, we'll see how voters respond to that. I mean, you

played the sound bite there saying what he promised, full medical records, comprehensive. You heard also what Sanjay Gupta said.

I'll just say this -- it is clearly not the same standard that Barack Obama practiced of a full medical record. We'll see if voters demand that of Bernie Sanders or if his three letters are sufficient. But, you know, when you're 78 years old and you got a heart attack just a couple of years ago and you profess transparency as a key quality, you would think that you would release the most information you possibly can.

BLITZER: What do you think, Abby?

PHILLIP: When it comes to the debate tonight, here's how it's going to play out. This issue is going to play right into Bloomberg's hands. He's been trying to say for a while that Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are basically the same.

Both his -- the Bernie spokeswoman comments this morning, which were not true, and also the fact that Bernie seems to be going back on this issue of releasing medical records, I think it's going to only make it easier for Bloomberg to make this case, well, this is essentially what Donald Trump has been doing for the last two years.

BLITZER: I want everybody to stick around. There's more news we're following, including this, urgent new concerns right now about the coronavirus quarantines being ineffective.

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BLITZER: There are new coronavirus concerns tonight as more passengers testing negative are released from a quarantined cruise ship. But some experts fear the evacuees could still unknowingly spread the virus.

CNN's Nick Watt reports on how U.S. officials are trying to tackle the threat.

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NICK WATT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Thirteen suspected coronavirus sufferers remain quarantined here at the medical center in Omaha, at least through the end of the month. All of them passengers from the Diamond Princess cruise ship docked off Japan, the site of so many infections.

DR. ARNOLD HOPLAND, ON BOARD THE DIAMOND PRINCESS: The first day there were ten cases. The next day, I think 30 some, and the next day, 60.

WATT: Two more former passengers in isolation in Napa, California. And Delta Airlines and Hawaiian officials also now investigating the movements of a Japanese couple who tested positive shortly after a trip to the islands earlier this month.

The CDC recommends Americans returning from China to self-quarantine, 26 doing just that right now in Westchester, New York.

DR. SHERLITA AMLER, WESTCHESTER COUNTY HEALTH COMMISSIONER: These people are not ill, but we still have to monitor them.

WATT: U.S. officials trying to avoid what has happened in China. Nearly 75,000 cases so far, 2,000 deaths and counting. And more than half the country's 1.4 billion people still under some sort of travel restriction or quarantine.

DR. MARK RUPP, CHIEF, DIVISION OF INFECTIOUS DISEASES, UNMC: It is possible that we would see community wide outbreak, person to person spread, more widely throughout the United States.

[18:55:03]

And if that's the case, every institution needs to dust off what we called their pandemic plan.

WATT: After two weeks in floating quarantine, those left aboard the Diamond Princess are finally allowed ashore. But U.S. officials have said the 100 or so Americans among them now won't be allowed home for at least another two weeks.

KENTARO IWATA, PROFESSOR OF INFECTIOUS DISEASES, KOBE UNIVERSITY: I think these countries didn't trust what Japan is doing, and I agree with them.

WATT: Professor Iwata went aboard the Diamond Princess this week and says the quarantine was chaotic.

IWATA: Even in front of Ebola, even in front of SARS, I never got this scared.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Nick Watt reporting for us.

Stay with us. There's more news just ahead.

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BLITZER: Thanks very much for watching,

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.

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