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THE SITUATION ROOM

Russia Meddling in Election to Help Bernie Sanders?; Interview With Rep. Denny Heck (D-WA); U.S. Officials Tell Sanders Russia Trying To Help His Campaign; On Eve of Nevada Caucuses, Dems Spar and Seek Campaign Cash; 34 Coronavirus Cases Confirmed in U.S. As Officials Defend Evacuation Flights. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired February 21, 2020 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:13]

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM with breaking news.

Another bombshell revelation about Russian election interference here in the United States. U.S. officials have told Senator Bernie Sanders that Russia is trying to help his Democratic presidential campaign. In a new statement, Senator Sanders says he stands firmly against Russia's efforts and he says, unlike President Trump, he doesn't consider Vladimir Putin to be a good friend.

This comes just a day after we learned that House members were formally briefed on Russia's efforts to help President Trump get reelected.

Let's go right to Shane Harris. He's a CNN national security analyst, correspondent for "The Washington Post." He first broke the story just a little while ago.

Shane, thanks for your excellent reporting. Thanks for joining us.

Let's talk a little bit about this. What did intelligence officials tell Senator Sanders about Russia's interference?

SHANE HARRIS, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, we know that they told Senator Sanders that Russia was trying to assist his campaign.

Now, we don't know exactly the form that that assistance has taken. Senator Sanders spoke to reporters a little while ago and said he was briefed on this about a month ago. He didn't offer a lot of new details.

But we do know that the intelligence community has been very attuned to watching for the ways that particularly Russia manipulates social media and tries to seed disinformation on those various platforms.

And in a statement to "The Post," Sanders actually kind of made a veiled reference to the possibility that some of his own online supporters might not authentically be who they claim that they are.

So I thought that was a bit of a potential tell for what the substance of this briefing might be, but important to underscore, we don't know precisely the tactics that he was warned about.

BLITZER: Just a little while ago, Senator Sanders, Shane, spoke to reporters out in Bakersfield, California. I want to play this clip.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Let me just say a word about Russia. Mr. Putin is a thug. He is an autocrat. He may be a friend of Donald Trump's. He's not a friend of mine.

Let me tell Mr. Putin, the American people, whether you're Republicans, Democrats, independents, are sick and tired of seeing Russia and other countries interfering in our elections. The intelligence community has been very clear about it.

Whether Trump recognizes it or not or acknowledges it or not, they did interfere in 2016. The intelligence community is telling us they are interfering in this campaign right now in 2020.

And what I say to Mr. Putin, if elected president, trust me, you are not going to be interfering in American elections.

QUESTION: Senator, when were you briefed on this?

SANDERS: I'm guessing about a month ago.

QUESTION: And what are you going to do now that you know this?

SANDERS: Well, it was not clear what role they're going to play. We were told that Russia, maybe other countries, are going to get involved in this campaign.

And, look, here is the message to Russia. Stay out of American elections. And what they are doing, by the way, the ugly thing that they are doing, and I have seen some of their -- their tweets and stuff -- is, they try to divide us up. That's what they did in 2016, and that is the ugliest thing they're doing, is they are trying to cause chaos, they're trying to cause hatred in America.

It's an ugly business, and all of us have got to say, sorry, you're not going to do this in this election. And, again, as president of the United States, Mr. Putin, you will not interfere in our elections.

QUESTION: How do you think it came out now, if you had the briefing a month ago?

SANDERS: I will let you guess about one day before the Iowa -- the Nevada caucus.

Why do you think it came out? It was "The Washington Post"? Good friends.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Not exactly sure what he meant by "The Washington Post," good friends.

But, Shane, what do you make of all of that?

HARRIS: Well, I think it's important to note what Senator Sanders is not saying, which is that he has doubts about the intelligence that he has been briefed on.

He actually seemed to embrace it and really tried to draw a contrast between himself and President Trump, who he has repeatedly criticized for not doing enough to combat disinformation and this kind of division online.

I can also add our subsequent reporting just in the past half-hour or so since the story went up. We understand that President Trump has been briefed, as we say in the story, on this assistance to Bernie Sanders' campaign, but also the analysis that Russia is trying to sow dissension within the Democratic primary field.

So, I think that gives a little bit more insight into what Russia may be trying to do, because it's a little bit discordant to think about them trying to help Bernie Sanders, but also, as we have reported, having a preference for President Trump.

It does seem that there's at least some thinking that this Russian maneuver here is meant to sow dissension within this very crowded Democratic primary field.

[18:05:00]

BLITZER: Yes.

And we know that only the other day, last week, U.S. intelligence officials briefed members of the House Intelligence Committee that the Russians were trying to interfere, already interfere in the 2020 election with the goal of helping get President Trump reelected.

So all of this unfolding as we speak.

Shane Harris of "The Washington Post," thanks so much for joining us. Thanks for your excellent reporting.

HARRIS: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, let's bring in our crime and justice correspondent, Shimon Prokupecz, who is also working the story for us.

The reality, Shimon, is that the Russians were trying to help the Sanders campaign back in 2016, when he was running for the Democratic presidential nomination against Hillary Clinton as well. And the Mueller investigation clearly showed that.

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: It did, Wolf. You're absolutely right. It did clearly show that the Russians were trying to help Bernie Sanders even as far back as 2016. And the whole point of that was they wanted to hurt Hillary Clinton, as you will recall.

This perhaps is not really new for the intelligence community, for the FBI that the Russians would be so interested in seeing -- in helping Bernie Sanders, so that he could ultimately wind up the nominee, and, of course, face Donald Trump.

The question comes, what exactly did the intelligence community see, what exactly did the FBI see that concerned them so much that they would go ahead and brief the campaign about it?

There had to be something. So that is now the question, certainly, as to what exactly prompted this, because to take this step would indicate that there was something that concerned them and they felt they needed to go ahead and brief the campaign.

BLITZER: Based on what we have seen in the past, Shimon, is it likely that the interference by the Russians goes beyond just social media?

PROKUPECZ: Right. It certainly does.

We know about the social media efforts and the continued efforts by the Russians on social media to sow discord. This is the big thing in all of this, to create chaos, to create division.

Very clear that is what they are trying to do. The other thing that you will recall from what we learned in the Mueller investigation, there were other tactics used here. There was money. They tried to use Americans, unwitting Americans in some cases, to give money to campaigns.

There was also instances where they stole bank accounts of Americans and then they used money from PayPal accounts. They created these accounts off of these stolen names and identities and then they were using it to help and buy certain items for a campaign.

The other thing is certainly there could be people here in this country who are Russians and seemingly acting to try and help the Bernie Sanders campaign. So it could be any number of those things. Social media is one aspect, but certainly there's a lot of other things that they could be doing that we just don't know about yet.

BLITZER: It's a very important development indeed.

All right, Shimon, thank you very much.

As we're learning about Russia's efforts to help Senator Bernie Sanders' campaign, President Trump is refusing, refusing to accept the U.S. intelligence community's assessment that Moscow is trying to help him get reelected as well.

Let's go to our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.

Jim, the president, in fact, has been lashing out about all of this. JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

And we can report, we confirmed that the president has been briefed on this briefing that was given to Senator Bernie Sanders about Russian efforts to interfere in his campaign, perhaps assist his campaign.

But, as you said, Wolf, President Trump is accusing Democrats of weaponizing this new intelligence briefing on Russian interference efforts in the 2020 election. But sources familiar with the briefing say this is more than just a threat from Russia tonight in the upcoming election. Moscow's meddling is apparently already under way.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): At a rally in Las Vegas, the president seized on what he views as the latest threat to his reelection, the U.S. intelligence community's warning that Russia is already interfering in the 2020 race to benefit Mr. Trump.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Disinformation, that's the only thing they're good at, that Putin wants to make sure I get elected.

Listen to this. Doesn't he want to see who the Democrat is going to be? Wouldn't he rather have, let's say, Bernie?

ACOSTA: Earlier in the day, the president tweeted: "Another misinformation campaign is being launched by Democrats in Congress, saying that Russia prefers me to any of the do-nothing Democrat candidates who still have been unable to after two weeks count their votes in Iowa. Hoax number seven."

Sources tell CNN the president berated then acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire last week, one day after House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff and other Democrats clashed with Republicans during a classified briefing, where DNI officials warned of the Russia threat.

Days after Mr. Trump's heated meeting with Maguire, he tapped U.S. Ambassador to Germany Ric Grenell to be the new acting head at DNI. The top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes, told the president what happened at the briefing.

REP. DEVIN NUNES (R-CA): Vladimir Putin is not running some operation with Donald Trump. There's no evidence of that. And so all this is, is, they don't have anything to run on. And so they have got to make up Russia again.

[18:10:11]

Sources tell CNN committee Republicans, including Congressman Will Hurd, pressed intelligence officials for more proof that Moscow was meddling once again.

REP. RAJA KRISHNAMOORTHI (D-IL): I can't comment on the specifics of the briefing. But what I can say is that, unfortunately, I think folks on the other side still have not internalize some of the conclusions from 2016, namely, that the Russians interfered in that election on the president's behalf.

ACOSTA: Mr. Trump's foe in 2016, Hillary Clinton, went on the attack, tweeting: "Putin's puppet is at it again, taking Russian help for himself. He knows he can't win without it, and we can't let it happen."

The president has repeatedly questioned the intelligence community's conclusion that Russia interfered in 2016. His comments at the Helsinki summit with Russia's Vladimir Putin...

TRUMP: I have great confidence in my intelligence people. But I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.

PROKUPECZ: ... came just days after former DNI Dan Coats warned U.S. elections are at risk.

DAN COATS, FORMER U.S. DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: And here we are two decades -- nearly two decades later. And I'm here to say the warning lights are blinking red again.

ACOSTA: With the Russians eying the 2020 election, the president appears to be struggling to find a new permanent DNI. After the president floated GOP Congressman Doug Collins for the position, the Georgia Republican said he didn't want it.

REP. DOUG COLLINS (R-GA): To mention my name and, among others, to be this position. But let me just tell you right now that's -- I know the problems in our intelligence community, but this is not a job that interests me at this time. It is not one that I would accept.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: Now, a source present for this briefing on Russian interference efforts said the information relayed to lawmakers made it clear that Russia has already begun interfering in the 2020 election.

The source told me -- quote -- "Sure looks like it."

Asked whether the information presented was alarming, the source responded -- quote -- "very."

Another thing we should note this evening is that the president's former acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker just touched on the Russian threat during an appearance at Oxford in the U.K. earlier this evening. He told the crowd there -- quote -- "I am never going to deny that Russia tried to interfere 2016. They tried to interfere in 2018. And they're trying to interfere in 2020."

Wolf, that's from the president's former attorney general. The question is whether or not the president will accept that information -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We will see if he does. All right. Jim Acosta, thank you very, very much.

Joining us now, Congressman Denny Heck. He's a Democrat who serves on the House Intelligence Committee.

Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.

So, first of all, what's your reaction to Senator Sanders getting this formal briefing that Russia is also trying to interfere to boost his chances in 2020?

REP. DENNY HECK (D-WA): Well, Wolf, obviously, anything I may have learned in that closed and classified briefing last week, I can neither confirm nor deny.

But, look, let me say this. I have not endorsed in this presidential rates. I have no skin in this game. But I saw Senator Sanders' statement on this, and I find them to be highly authentic.

Furthermore, I can guarantee you that Senator Sanders will never hold a press conference and openly invite Russia to interfere in our election, like candidate Trump did, nor will anyone on Senator Sanders' staff ever meet with cutouts or operatives from the Russian government, like those on behalf of candidate Trump did any number of times.

And that's because Senator Sanders' position in this regard reflects the whole -- the consensus opinion of Americans, that foreign governments have no right to interfere in our elections, period, full stop.

BLITZER: Well, you heard Senator Sanders formally publicly just a little while ago confirmed that he was briefed by the U.S. intelligence community, he says maybe a month ago, that the Russians were trying to interfere to help his campaign.

Why do you think, Congressman, the Russians want to help the Bernie Sanders campaign?

HECK: Well, I think they do in fact want to sow division.

It may be that they think Senator Sanders will be easier for President Trump, who is clearly their ally, to defeat, but I don't know that. In and of itself, sowing division seems to be a strong objective of theirs, but, you know, look, this is what we're going to get.

This is President Trump, denial that it ever happened. He's not going to change his colors. And after three years, anybody that thinks he's going to change his trajectory in cozying up to Russia, all paths, all roads lead to Putin, is whistling past the graveyard.

This is who he is. And we can be outraged and have our heads explode or our hair catch on fire with this admittedly outrageous behavior. But it is what it is. And there's only one remedy, and it's November.

BLITZER: All this comes, as you mentioned, after you and your colleagues on the House Intelligence Committee, Democrats and Republicans, received this classified briefing.

[18:15:08]

I understand you can't provide details on Russia's preference for President Trump to win reelection. The president, though, now publicly is calling all of this, in his words, a misinformation campaign launched by Democrats. What does it tell you? What does that tell you?

HECK: More of the same.

It's -- as I asserted earlier, Wolf, he denied it, even though the Mueller report laid it out abundantly clear that Russia interfered in the 2016 election with a preference for Trump to be elected. And they have been paid off, have they not?

Let's just take a step back and look. When he was in Helsinki, he told the world that he believed Putin, over the unanimous consent of his own intelligence community. Furthermore, when it came to the Ukraine, he withheld military assistance from our vulnerable ally, which Russia very much appreciated, because they are occupying Eastern Ukraine.

And when it came to Syria, we turned our backs on our longest allies in the area, the Kurds, who had actually fought the war against ISIS on our behalf and gave 12,000 of their fellow Kurds lives up in defeating ISIS, and the Russians delighted in us turning or back on them.

He has paid them off for their help in the 2016 election, and that alliance seemingly continues.

BLITZER: Congressman Denny Heck, thanks so much for joining us.

HECK: You're welcome, sir.

BLITZER: All right, we're going to have a lot more on the breaking news right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:21:03]

BLITZER: We're back with the breaking news.

Senator Bernie Sanders now confirming publicly that he was told by U.S. officials that Russia is trying to help his presidential campaign.

This comes after lawmakers were briefed on Russian efforts to help President Trump get reelected as well.

Let's break all this down with CNN legal analysts Jeffrey Toobin and Preet Bharara. Also, the former top lawyer for the director of national intelligence, Robert Litt, is joining us in THE SITUATION ROOM as well.

And, Bob, let's talk a little bit about what the Russian interference is all about. What is the goal? What are they trying to achieve?

ROBERT LITT, FORMER GENERAL COUNSEL, OFFICE OF THE DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: Well, whatever Putin is trying to achieve, he is a very strategic thinker.

Whatever he's trying to achieve, it's in Russia's interests, and not in America's interests. The intelligence community has assessed essentially two things, number one, that he has the goal of sowing confusion and dissension in the United States, internal dissension, and, number two, that he has the goal of helping Donald Trump get reelected.

I haven't seen the underlying intelligence, but I have no reason to doubt the good faith of the conclusion that the intelligence community reached in that regard.

BLITZER: Preet, it's interesting, because we learned in one of the Mueller indictments against these Russian trolls, these Russian entities back in February of 2018, the indictment says that the Russians were directed to -- quote -- "use any opportunity in the 2016 election to criticize Hillary and the rest, except Sanders and Trump. We support them" -- close quote.

So, should these two campaigns right now, the Trump campaign and the Bernie Sanders campaign, have expected this?

PREET BHARARA, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Yes, look, past is prologue, and you know that since there wasn't any particularly serious harsh rebuke, and the president himself didn't issue one the last time around in 2016, that the Russians might try again to try to help their own interests in all of this.

The interesting thing about this is that Bernie Sanders seems to have known for about a month. Unlike Donald Trump, he made a strong statement saying that he doesn't want interference in our elections. Doesn't seem to have doubted the intelligence that was briefed to him.

I think he seems to have at least today diluted that strong statement a little bit by suggesting there's some kind of conspiracy theory involving Jeff Bezos and "The Washington Post" and the timing of this information coming out, which I don't think is a great thing to do.

I also don't know what the nature of the aid is. I haven't seen any reporting on it. Does it have to do with social media, like the case that you mentioned? Or are there attempts to hack and are there going to be more attempts to aid certain campaigns, to the detriment of others? I guess we will have to wait and see?

BLITZER: What do you think, Jeffrey?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I think it's worth pointing out that the president always says, oh, I have been so tough on Russia, why would Putin want to help me?

He hasn't been that tough on Russia. Look at how our alliances, particularly in Western Europe, have disintegrated and declined under President Trump. You know, this president is always berating France and Germany and all the countries of the West, you know, for not contributing enough to NATO, when, in fact, NATO is the tremendous bulwark against Russia.

So, the idea that Putin wanted to help Trump makes a lot of sense, and he made a useful, effective investment in the Trump campaign, so I see no reason why he wouldn't do it again.

BLITZER: You know, it's interesting, Bob, because the president does have a long history of questioning the U.S. intelligence community's nearly universal assessment that the Russians have been trying to interfere in domestic American politics.

Watch this, some clips of the president.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: If you don't catch a hacker, OK, in the act, it is very hard to say who did the hacking.

With that being said, I will go along with Russia. Could have been China. Could have been a lot of different groups.

What I said there is I believe that he believes that, and it's very important for somebody to believe. I believe that he feels that he and Russia did not meddle in the election.

[18:25:01]

I have great confidence in my intelligence people. But I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.

QUESTION: Mr. President, Robert Mueller said last week that Russia is interfering in the U.S. elections right now. Did you raise that with Vladimir Putin?

TRUMP: Oh, you don't really believe this. Do you believe this?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: You used to work in the intelligence community for the director of national intelligence, Bob. What do you make of that?

LITT: Well, I think what's happening here is President Trump feels that his -- the legitimacy of his election is called into question if the Russians were trying to help him get elected.

And he can't tolerate the idea of his legitimacy being called into question, so he reasons backwards and says, therefore, the facts must be false.

If you read the Mueller report and the indictment that Mueller rendered against the Russian operatives, there is a wealth of detail establishing that the Russians interfered or that they did so for the purpose of helping Trump. And it simply denies reality to suggest otherwise.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Yes, go ahead, Jeffrey.

TOOBIN: It also wasn't just people in Russia. It was the GRU, Russian military intelligence. That's how specific the Mueller indictment was from February of 2018.

So the Russian military intelligence does not do things that Vladimir Putin doesn't want them to do.

BLITZER: It's a 37-page indictment, Preet, that Mueller -- he was then the special counsel -- filed against all these Russian entities.

And, you know, Jeffrey is right.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: It goes through enormous detail about what the Russians were up to. Clearly, the U.S. intelligence community had this information, Preet.

BHARARA: Yes. No, it absolutely did.

Look, I think, in some ways, the most impressive document to come out of the Russia investigation, the Mueller investigation, was the one you're holding in your hand, because Mueller understands and knows that not only is the president somebody who doesn't want this to be true, because it -- I think Bob is exactly right -- because it tends to undermine the legitimacy of his election, and he can't abide that.

So, that he didn't do press conferences with Bob Mueller, but they wanted to write down and set forth in that indictment in great detail, literally to the minute, when intrusions happened, when hacking happened, who was involved, because they also knew, by the way, there was never going to be a trial, because you were never going to get the bodies of these people who were charged in Russia to come to the United States.

So that's a document we thought we weren't going to hear from for a long time, and here we are talking about it because it's relevant, and more relevant today maybe than it has been in the past.

BLITZER: And in that document, it does on couple of occasions mention that not only are the Russians trying to help Trump's campaign, but also help Bernie, Bernie Sanders' campaign, because they really did not like Hillary Clinton, as we know as well.

A quick question, Bob, before I let you go. Some of the Republican lawmakers, we're told, in the House Intelligence Committee, they were so angry when they heard this briefing the other day, they said they don't just want the assessment of the U.S. intelligence community. They want the underlying evidence.

Is that normally made available to these members of Congress?

LITT: So this is really a bit of deja vu, because when they were briefed on the 2017 intelligence community assessment, they had exactly the same reaction: This can't be true. Putin couldn't possibly favor Trump. Republicans are much harder on Russia.

Typically, a certain amount of the underlying information will be provided to the Intelligence Committees, but, typically also you don't give them information that's going to compromise sources, indicate whose particular phones were tapped and so on.

And so I don't know exactly what they were asking for and exactly what they weren't given. But it's highly unusual for the intelligence community to provide all the information.

BLITZER: Yes, they don't want to undermine sources and methods, as they say.

LITT: Exactly.

BLITZER: Everybody, stick around. We're going to have a lot more on the breaking news.

We're also counting down to tomorrow's Nevada caucuses, as the Democratic candidates attack a rival who isn't even competing there, the former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

And, in a moment, we will discuss all the news with a Bloomberg campaign senior adviser -- there you see him -- Tim O'Brien. He's standing by live.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:30:00]

BLITZER: We're following breaking news on the Russians trying to interfere in the 2020 presidential elections here in the United States to help a Democrat as well as President Trump. Tonight, Bernie Sanders says he's been briefed formally by U.S. intelligence officials on Moscow's efforts to boost his campaign. We're also learning this on the eve of the Nevada caucuses.

Also tonight, Michael Bloomberg is offering to release three women from nondisclosure agreements they signed with him. And now, CNN has confirmed the identity of one of those women. She accused Bloomberg back in the 1990s of repeatedly saying crass things in the workplace.

Joining us now, a senior adviser to Michael Bloomberg's presidential campaign, Tim O'Brien. Tim, thanks very much for joining us, and let's discuss all the of the news.

Bloomberg says the women covered by the three nondisclosure agreements should contact the company, Bloomberg, the company, and they'll be given a release. Couldn't he simply release them from the agreements himself? TIM O'BRIEN, SENIOR ADVISER, BLOOMBERG CAMPAIGN: Well, look, I think the lawyers have to be involved. There're other parties in these NDAs as well. I think that has to be respected. I think the core takeaway here is there's been all of these headlines that have either directly said or insinuated that dozens and dozens of women have filed sexual harassment claims against Mike Bloomberg personally.

[18:35:05]

All of those, for the most part, actually involved the corporation, not Mike as an individual. And now we know that there's only three of them in which Mike has named personally out of all of these NDAs that were focused on and Mike is willing to make these public.

And he's willing to make it public because it's a distraction from the full record that he has had as a private individual, as a philanthropist and as a mayor and business owner who has worked his whole life to empower women, to create policies in workplace and a social space where women could feel safe and productive and put on the same level playing field as men. That's been his guiding principle forever.

He's made mistakes at times. He wants to apologize for those. He has apologized for those, but those NDAs don't define who Michael Bloomberg is as a person or a politician, and that's why he's willing to have those made public.

BLITZER: I want to play something for you that Senator Elizabeth Warren, another presidential candidate, said about all of this at our CNN town hall last night. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I wrote up a release and covenant not to sue and all that Mayor Bloomberg has to do is download it, I'll text it, sign it and then the women or men will be free to speak and tell their own stories.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: So was that part of his decision to change his position and say, yes, go ahead, we'll release these nondisclosure agreements?

O'BRIEN: Of course, Senator Warren flagging has played a role in the decision, and I admire Senator Warren greatly. She's an incredibly public servant. I was disappointed in how she conducted herself on the debate stage. She accused Michael Bloomberg of saying things he's never said. That's been a pace with a lot of quotes that have been attributed to him that he didn't say himself. I have to believe she knew full well that what she said on that debate stage wasn't something Michael Bloomberg had said himself. And, of course, Senator Warren knows what it's like to be on the other side of smearing and public abuse. President Trump has been doing it to her for the past two years or so.

Unfortunately, I think a debate that became a free for all, Mike had a big target on his back, she chose, I think, to take the position she did, which was to use some false information or unclear information to try to pretend that Mike Bloomberg doesn't support women and has not spent a lifetime helping to empower them. We have a campaign, a company, a philanthropy with women in powerful, high visible role -- highly visible roles who are extraordinary, and they're in this campaign with us because they know that Mike's track record is about empowering women.

We're happy to try to resolve this by becoming much clearer with the NDAs that have been in question. But I would point to you again that this is a small number of the NDAs that were in dispute. Mike is also changing policy at the company. NDAs won't be used any longer at Bloomberg L.P. to resolve sexual harassment claims. I think that's a healthy development. And I think Mike decided it was time to be proactive on this and get it out of the way to reassure the tens of millions of people in this country who are already supporters of Mike Bloomberg that there was no reason for them not to keep their faith in him.

BLITZER: We were just getting a statement just coming in right now as we speak, Tim, from Senator Warren. She just responded to the mayor's actions on releasing these three NDAs, these nondisclosure agreements. She says, and I'm quoting her now, this is a direct quote from Senator Elizabeth Warren, that's just not good enough. Michael Bloomberg, she says, needs to do a blanket release so that all women who have been muzzled by the NDAs can step up and tell their side of the story in terms of what Michael Bloomberg has done.

What's your reaction to what she just said?

O'BRIEN: We'll continue to do as much as we can around this. You know, it's interesting to me with Senator Warren's position on this. There was a lot of concerns about claims Senator Warren had made about her own ancestry when she applied to colleges. She acknowledged publicly that she had made a mistake. She asked the public to give her a second chance, and realized sometimes that people make mistakes.

I think it would behoove everyone involved in this particular discussion to be forgiving. Democrats have much more to gain by being unified around all the things that we share as values rather than trying to continue to take one another down because the only person who benefits from that in the long run is Donald Trump.

[18:40:03]

Mike Bloomberg is a uniter. I think Senator Warren has spent most of her career as a uniter. She clearly right now has found something that she doesn't want to let go of. I think there's a lot of good reasons she focused on this but I also think it's -- we are doing as much as we possibly can in real-time to address this, and I think voters are going to see that.

BLITZER: I want to play a clip. Our Anderson Cooper spoke to Senator Bernie Sanders for an interview on 60 Minutes and they had this exchange. I want to get your reaction. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: Were you surprised by how unprepared he seemed for some very basic obvious questions in the debate?

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Yes, I was. I was. And, you know, and if that's what happened in a Democratic debate, you know, I think it's quite likely that Trump will chew him up and spit him out.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: He says it's quite likely that President Trump will chew him up and spit him out. He's speaking about Mayor Bloomberg.

O'BRIEN: You know the only thing that Donald Trump chews up and spits out is fried chicken. Michael Bloomberg is going to bounce Donald Trump around like a beach ball this year. Donald Trump is focused on Mike Bloomberg quite a bit lately because he's scared of Mike Bloomberg.

All of the news this week, Russia has been trying to interfere in the 2020 elections. Donald Trump didn't want that news to come out. We now know in the news today that the Russians were trying to help get Bernie Sanders elected. Why would the Russians, who have been greatly aided in recent years by the president of the United States, want Bernie Sanders to be the nominee in this race? I would submit it's because they know that Donald Trump can beat him.

And voters should also focus on that fact. We are at a dangerous time in our history, a constitutional crisis that probably is the most severe moment since the civil war. American voters need someone who can protect their interests against Donald Trump. That is not Bernie Sanders. Bernie Sanders is going to torch everyone down ballot in this race. Progressive Democrats know it. Moderate Democrats know it, and they're worried about it.

I think that Mike could have been far more on his game in that debate. I think you're going to see a like Bloomberg on Tuesday who's at the top of his game. And we're confident and optimistic about that.

BLITZER: We'll be watching very closely. Tim O'Brien, thanks so much for joining us.

O'BRIEN: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Coming up, we'll have more on the 2020 campaign as the Democrats are just hours away from the Nevada caucuses. We'll go live to Las Vegas. That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:47:23]

BLITZER: The Nevada caucuses begin in last than 24 hours, and tonight, the Democratic candidates are going for broke with new attacks and new appeals for campaign cash. The top target, Michael Bloomberg who isn't even competing in Nevada.

Let's bring in CNN's Ryan Nobles, he's in Las Vegas, and our political correspondent Abby Phillip, she's here with me in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Ryan, you're there on the ground, they're focusing in their attacks largely on Michael Bloomberg. But politically speaking, wouldn't they be better off going after the front runner right now? We're talking about the other candidates, namely Senator Sanders?

RYAN NOBLES, CNN WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: You'd think so, Wolf, but it seems as though that Michael Bloomberg has served as a good foil for these Democratic candidates and at this point they're trying to enthusiastically push out their base. And this is a trend that we've seen throughout the campaign, even before Bloomberg got in the race, there's been a reluctance for some reason by many of these Democratic candidates to really take on Bernie Sanders directly.

Now, the Sanders campaign would tell you because most polls show Democratic voters like Sanders in general even if he may not be the first choice so you run the risk of backlash if you go after him. But you can see, though, Wolf, just in the closing days of the campaign that you're starting to see that turn, for instance, Senator Elizabeth Warren has been pretty critical of Senator Sanders, in particular his ability to actually get something done, arguing that she's been able to do that a bit more effectively.

So, we'll have to see if that gamble pays off at this point, because you're right, for the most part, and we saw it on the debate stage earlier this week, Senator Sanders has been largely unchecked by his fellow opponents in this Democratic field.

BLITZER: We show some live pictures, Abby, of Senator Sanders out there on the campaign trail. He's not only leading in the polls, he's also leading with the -- in the very ingredient, namely cash on hand for his campaign, and that's significant.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I mean, frankly that might be the most significant thing right now because without money, none of these campaigns really can afford to continue onward.

I mean, Bernie Sanders has always had an advantage when it comes to cash but mostly because he doesn't have to rely on traditional fundraising means in order to raise it. He can just go to his supporters and he raised, for example, $25 million in January alone. None of the other candidates are doing anything similar.

And for a lot of the candidates who are both relying on traditional methods of fundraising and they're struggling in the polls, they're really going to start to feel that pain once we get past South Carolina, because just three days later, it's Super Tuesday, it's a tranche of states that are extremely expensive. It requires television advertising, and if they don't have enough money to make payroll and to pay for those ads, they're not going to have any choice but to get out of this race.

BLITZER: It's very interesting. You know, Ryan, voter turnout apparently in Nevada where you are is

pretty high, 75,000 Democrats have already done early voting in these -- in these caucuses.

[18:50:03]

But what's going on now? Because I'm wondering, some of these party officials, the state party officials have now been told they have to sign nondisclosure agreements, what's that all about?

NOBLES: Yes, Wolf, this apparently seems to be some of the fallout that we saw in Iowa and party officials here attempting to try and rein in control of this caucus, a ballot counting process, and we did talk to one official here who was -- signed up to participate in the process, who refused to sign one of these nondisclosure agreements and a four-page letter or statement that basically prevented him from talking to members of the media should something go wrong tomorrow.

And so, a lot of these campaigns are right now in a wait and see mode. They're cautiously hopeful that we aren't going to see the same problems we saw in Iowa, but they certainly are not confident and until these votes are cast and it seems that the ballots have been counted in a responsible and accurate way none of them will take anything for granted.

And I should also say this, Wolf, this early voting aspect of this, this is new to the Nevada caucus. And, you know, 75,000 people voting this time around almost equals the entire total from four years ago. Does that make the process easier or more difficult? That's one of the big, open questions that we won't know until Saturday afternoon.

BLITZER: And let's all hope that we saw in Iowa, and all of us were there in Iowa, doesn't happen tomorrow in Nevada.

We're watching all of this very closely.

How worried are you, Abby, that what we saw in Iowa might happen in Nevada?

PHILLIP: I think it is very possible there could be problems. But caucuses are problematic for a number of reasons and part of it because they have the second choice issues. And so, if people at the precincts aren't able to count them on the night of the caucuses, I think we're going to have potentially some problems.

BLITZER: All right. Everybody, stick around. There's a lot more news we're following.

We'll be right back.

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[18:56:28]

BLITZER: U.S. health officials are confirming more coronavirus cases in the country. Brian Todd is working the story for us -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it's getting more serious tonight because U.S. officials are doing some damage control over how they're handling some important cases of coronavirus, as the numbers tonight get to some concerning new levels.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): Tonight, a rising toll of coronavirus in America. More than 30 cases now confirmed. Sacramento reporting a new case, someone who recently traveled to China.

The new numbers reported as U.S. officials deal with continuing fallout over their decision to airlift more than a dozen Diamond Princess cruise ship passengers who had tested positive for coronavirus on the same planes with passengers who were not infected.

DR. NANCY MESSONNIER, CENTERS FOR DISEASE CONTROL: When you make those kind of complicated decisions, there are going to be different perspectives that are brought to the table.

TODD: Officials responding to a "Washington Post" report saying the Centers for Disease Control did not want to fly the infected passengers on the same planes as non-infected people, but the State Department did, and that after arguments, the State Department got its way. Two planes with infected and non-infected passengers in the same cabins flew from Japan to the U.S. earlier this week.

Today, State Department officials didn't deny there was disagreement saying there was a, quote, robust interagency discussion.

DR. WILLIAM WALTERS, MANAGING DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONAL MEDICINE, STATE DEPARTMENT: At the end of the day, the State Department had a decision to make informed by our interagency partners and we went ahead and made the decision and the decision, I think, was the right one in bringing those people home.

TODD: U.S. officials say those airlifted passengers who had tested positive were not showing coronavirus symptoms at the time of the flights and that they were segregated from non-infected passengers, but non-infected people on the evacuation flight also have criticized the decision.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're on the plane.

TODD: Cheryl and Paul Moleski (ph), without symptoms, were sharing the plane with those suspected of being infected.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They were put in an area towards the back of the plane, but they were kind of like wrapped in plastic. We had to walk past there to go to the bathroom. Our food was in the back of the plane.

TODD: The Moleskis (ph) are now in 14-day quarantine at a base in Texas. One public health expert believes the State Department bungled this.

ERIC FEIGL-DING, PUBLIC HEALTH EXPERT, HARVARD UNIVERSITY: I think even if you keep passengers separated in a tarp, it is not an air- tight bio lab safe environment in terms of segregating the air and all of the potential exposures. It would have been much more prudent to completely keep them on separate planes or fly them back separately at a later date.

TODD: Eighteen of the more than 30 confirmed coronavirus patients in the U.S. are from that Diamond Princess Voyage which experts say has been nothing short of disastrous.

FEIGL-DING: I think the ship was just the perfect Petri dish for spreading of this virus. Passengers were also in inner cabin, sharing the same ventilation as people in the rest of the ship even though they were isolated and a lot of the crew were working elbow to elbow, sharing the same kitchen. They were all sharing the same buffet line.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: And State Department officials out now with a new warning saying Americans should re-consider taking cruises in Asia for a while or saying flat-out to Americans, if you're in Asia and you might be sick, don't expect any more of those repatriation flights to the U.S., that that's' not their standard practice. They didn't say if that warning was a result of the internal fight between officials over flying back those infected cruise ship passengers -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Very disturbing developments.

Brian Todd, excellent report. Thank you very much.

And to our viewers, thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.