Return to Transcripts main page


Russian Build-up Complicates Obama's ISIS Strategy; Rivals Trashing Trump's Tax Plan; Interview with Rep. Michael McCaul; Jeb Bush Reacts to Donald Trump's Tax Plan; House Republicans Ponder New Leadership. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired September 29, 2015 - 17:00   ET


[17:00:00] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, foreign fighters. A disturbing bipartisan report finds U.S. is failing to stop would-be jihadis from joining ISIS and other terror groups. Even more disturbing, the attacks these foreign fighters make when they return back here to the United States. I'll speak with the House Homeland Security Committee chairman.

Ready to strike. Moscow has deployed some of its most sophisticated weapons in Syria, and a top U.S. official says Russian airstrikes there could come at any time. But who will the target be? And do they really pose a threat to U.S. and coalition forces?

And $10 trillion? Donald Trump says he'll slash income taxes. Many Americans will wind up paying -- paying nothing. But some studies say his tax plan will cost the country trillions. I'll ask Trump's campaign manager about that.

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

Shocking new evidence tonight that the United States failed to stop the flow of would-be jihadis to Syria and Iraq. A bipartisan congressional task force reports that more than 250 Americans have gone to join ISIS or other terror groups, and some have now returned home in all.

More than 25,000 foreign fighters have travelled to the region, 7,000, so far, this year alone.

The grim numbers come as President Obama vows to prevail over ISIS, chairing an anti-ISIS summit a day after meeting Russia's President Putin. The president makes it clear that the Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad, must go. But al Assad's ally, Russia, now has sophisticated air war capabilities in Syria, leaving NATO's defense chief to openly wonder what they'll be used for at the same time. A U.S. official says Russia's poised to strike in Syria at any time. The question is, against whom?

I'll speak with the Homeland Security Committee chairman, Congressman Mike McCaul. He's standing by.

Our correspondents, analysts and guests have full coverage of all of the day's top stories. Can the United States and Russia find common ground when it comes to fighting ISIS?

Let's begin with our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta. He's joining us from the White House with the very latest -- Jim.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That is the question, Wolf. President Obama is back at the White House, after a tense 48 hours of clashing with Russian President Vladimir Putin over Syria and ISIS. And if there's one big takeaway in the president's trip to the U.N., it's that his plan for ISIS just got a lot more complicated.


ACOSTA: With his strategy for defeating ISIS coming under fire from Russia, President Obama conceded at the U.N. his approach will take time.


ACOSTA: Leading a summit of more than 100 countries on the battle against the terror group, the president defended his plan for beating ISIS that includes the removal of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, a move that puts the U.S. at odds with Russia's Vladimir Putin.

OBAMA: Defeating ISIL requires, I believe, a new leader. We are prepared to work with all countries, including Russia and Iran.

ACOSTA: It's a heated debate that played out behind closed doors. Mr. Obama and Putin locked horns for 90 minutes over Assad's future. The White House and Kremlin released photos, each side showing its leader in command. Putin was unmoved.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): I relate to my colleagues, the American and French presidents, with great respect, but they aren't citizens of Syria and so should not be involved in choosing the leadership of another country. It is serious business.

ACOSTA: Putin insisted Russia's buildup in Syria won't lead to ground forces battling ISIS; and White House officials said Putin agreed to work with the U.S.-led ISIS coalition to avoid any military accidents. Analysts still see huge risks.

WILL POMERANZ, THE KONNAN INSTITUTE: The Assad forces are in retreat. So the question becomes, is if, indeed, a retreat becomes a rout, potentially, is that when Russia decides to enter the fray?

ACOSTA: Putin is entering the scene just as the U.S. is halting its failed program to train and equip Syrian rebels to fight ISIS. And there are more problems: namely, a new congressional report finding the U.S. and its partners are struggling to control the flow of foreign fighters joining up with the terror group, 25,000 since 2011, 7,000 in the last 9 months, including an estimated 250 Americans.

(END VIDEOTAPE) ACOSTA: Now White House officials are not as pessimistic about the battle against ISIS, noting the president did pick up the support of more countries to help stop the flow of foreign fighters.

And when it comes to the future of Assad, aides to the president said Putin did agree that some kind of transition out of power for the Syrian leader is necessary. At this point, Wolf, the White House considers that progress -- Wolf.

[17:05:07] BLITZER: All right. Jim Acosta from the White House, thank you.

A U.S. official says Russia is ready to strike any time in Syria, but Moscow's motives are unclear. And NATO's military chief says Russia's modern air defenses are certainly not needed against ISIS.

Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr. She's been looking into all of this for us. Barbara, what are you finding out?


U.S. military officials have their assessment, and they believe that the Russians could be ready to strike at any time. They have some three dozen aircraft in Syria right now, not knowing yet will they strike? Has Putin made that decision to go for it?

The Pentagon, today, said it will sit done with the Russian military and try and work out de-confliction details, make sure both militaries can operate without accidentally shooting each other down.

Now, the White House, the Pentagon may not want to talk about this in detail yet, but the American general who also serves as the military chief of NATO had no such delicacies. I want you to listen to General Philip Breedlove and what he had to say about the Russians.


GEN. PHILIP BREEDLOVE, NATO SUPREME ALLIED COMMANDER: Here's what concerns me about what's going on in Syria. We see some very sophisticated air defenses going into these airfields. We see some very sophisticated air-to-air aircraft going into these airfields.

I have not seen ISIL flying any airplanes that require SA-15s or SA- 22s. I have not seen ISIL flying any airplanes that require sophisticated air-to-air capabilities.

So what I am doing is what I've always done. I look at the capabilities and the capacities that are being created, and I determine from that what might be their intent. These very sophisticated air defense capabilities are not about ISIL. They're about something else.


STARR: The very blunt General Breedlove certainly indicating there that his military assessment is the Russians may be ready to strike against forces, militias that are fighting Bashar al-Assad, to beef up, to prop up Assad.

All of this coming as the U.S. still struggling to figure out what to do with its program to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels. We learned today that that program, it is basically in a pause.

No new recruits coming in. They'll train the ones they have. But until the White House makes some decisions about the way ahead, no new Syrian recruits coming into that very troubled program -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Barbara. Thank you.

Joining us now, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Republican congressman, Mike McCaul of Texas. He also serves on the foreign affairs committee.

Mr. Chairman, thanks very much for joining us.

REP. MIKE MCCAUL (R), TEXAS: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Let me get your quick reaction to what we just heard from the NATO supreme allied commander, General Breedlove. He says Russia's involved in Syria, the equipment is deploying. The anti- aircraft equipment, air-to-air equipment, nothing to do with ISIS. What does it have something to do with?

MCCAUL: I think Russia's feeling the power vacuum. We've had a failure in foreign policy in the region. We have not dealt effectively with Assad or ISIS, and I think Mr. Putin now sees an opportunity to move back into the Middle East since the first time really since the Afghan War. And now we have the Russian, Iran, Syrian geopolitical alliance. I think Mr. Putin has really kind of called checkmate now on the United States in this power move into the region.

BLITZER: It's not surprising they've worked out this intelligence cooperation with Syria. They support Bashar al-Assad's regime, or Iran, for that matter.

What is surprising is that the Iraqi government is part of this Russian intelligence cooperation right now, despite all the U.S. support, military equipment, economic aid and everything else the U.S. has done for Iraq. Are you surprised by that?

MCCAUL: Not really. When I was in Baghdad last May, meeting with the prime minister a week before Ramadi fell, he told me that they are relying almost completely on the Shia militias to fight ISIS. Remember that Shia militias are really a proxy of Iran.

And so Iran is very intent, I think, in moving into the region, into Iraq to control Baghdad. And it's again, been a complete failure of foreign policy and completely withdrawing from the region that has allowed this power vacuum to exist, which I believe created ISIS, created this problem, and now the most disturbing thing is that Russia now is in Damascus, in Syria. They are propping up Mr. Assad.

And I think Assad eventually has to be part of the solution. He is a magnet for the jihadists. And if we can't effectively deal with him, then we cannot solve the political problem in the civil war in Syria.

BLITZER: Mr. Chairman, your committee, the Homeland Security Committee in the House, today released a task force report -- and I've got it here. I've gone through it. A very strong report, bipartisan, not only Republicans. Democrats on board, as well.

And among the various conclusions, and there are many, there are several dozen of the 250 plus Americans who went over there, to work with ISIS, to support ISIS and Syria and Iraq, who are now back in the United States. Are these people at large? Are they operating? Are they under surveillance?

MCCAUL: Well, I have to be somewhat careful in my response. This is the report that we issued. It was a bipartisan report, as you mentioned. The terrorists don't check our partisan affiliation, but again, the numbers are startling. Thirty thousand and growing foreign fighters from 100 different countries, 5,000 with western passports that could possibly get into the United States and hundreds of Americans, many of whom have traveled back into the United States.

We obviously charge anybody that we can who have returned under our Constitution, if we have evidence.

The problem is, in Syria, we don't have a lot of good human intelligence on the ground to provide that evidence as a former federal prosecutor, to charge them. And if we can't charge them, we have to monitor them here in the United States to make sure that we don't have a terrorist event.

I will commend the FBI and homeland security for the 67 arrests of ISIS followers over the last year alone, and some of these being foreign fighters, many of them radicalized over the Internet out of the Syria directives coming into the United States, over the Internet.

BLITZER: Mr. Chairman, we have a lot more to discuss. This is a scathing report, eye-opening report. And one of the conclusions is the U.S. lacks a national strategy in dealing with these foreign fighters, a strategy that has not been in place for a decade now.

Much more with the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee when we come back.


BLITZER: We're back with the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Republican Congressman Mike McCaul of Texas. We're talking about a chilling new bipartisan report on the threat posed by foreigners who have gone off to join ISIS, including about 250 Americans.

Mr. Chairman, this report, among other things, it says -- and I'm quoting now -- "that the United States lacks a national strategy, a national strategy, for combatting terrorist travel and has not produced one in nearly a decade." Why hasn't that happened?

MCCAUL: Well, that's -- this is six months of investigations, and to find out we don't have a national strategy is very disturbing, given the high-threat environment that we're in now. Not only to eliminate the threat over there, as the president's been talking to world leaders to deal with ISIS and Mr. Assad, but also a strategy to deal with the countering violent extremists here in the United States, the radicalization of individuals in the United States who we know individuals in Syria are directing through the Internet to activate people, followers, that they have, to kill Americans, to kill and attack military installations.

I don't know why we haven't had a strategy, but that was one of the most glaring errors that we found. I think it's one of the single, biggest recommendations coming out of this report. There are a lot of security gaps in foreign travel, from the region of Syria and Iraq through Istanbul and Turkey into western Europe, and possibly into the United States that we're very concerned about, as well.

But we need to take a very close look at. That's a route that they take.

Every one of these foreign fighters are really a ticking time bomb that could go off anywhere, anytime. And the ones that have returned to the United States are just the ones that we know about, Wolf. I think the problem is, without the adequate human intelligence on the ground, there's a lot that we don't know about, and that's what keeps me up at night.

BLITZER: The fact that there's no strategy and hasn't been a strategy for ten years, nearly seven years of the Obama administration, then the Bush administration before that. I understand the executive branch of the U.S. government has a problem there. What about Congress? Could Congress come up with some strategy?

MCCAUL: Well, that is one of the legislative recommendations that we have in the report is for Congress to direct what the strategy should be in terms of dealing with this crisis. We've never seen numbers like this. We've never seen, you know, this sort of global jihad movement that we have seen expand across Northern Africa and the Middle East and other parts of the world. And as that threat grows over there, so too, are the threats to the homeland that concern me a great deal.

BLITZER: The whole issue of these terrorists, the report also says that Americans are being radicalized, authorities are too strained now. They're having difficulty monitoring, intercepting suspects. What's the problem?

MCCAUL: We have, you know, on the -- we have spent billions of dollars to attack militarily, to keep them out of the country. But we spend very little and have little manpower looking at the prevention side of this piece, to de-radicalize people, get them on the off-ramp, if you will, like Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the Boston bomber was kicked out of his mosque for being too radical. Yet, we didn't know about that.

[17:20:14] And I think reaching out to these communities and having those types of programs in the United States could go a long ways. But the resources are stretched very thin within the Homeland Security Department and the FBI. They have to prioritize.

And the fact is, the threat is getting worse, not better. The numbers are getting higher, not lower. And the chatter and the volume is getting extremely high right now. And that's what concerns me, I think, the most.

BLITZER: Yes, it concerns a lot of people. James Comey, the FBI director, told me a few months ago, ISIS now represents the most significant threat, terror threat, to the U.S. homeland.

Very quickly, a journalist with the U.K.'s "Daily Express," supposedly embedded with ISIS, now saying that ISIS is planning on trying to get a hold of nuclear weapons to kill hundreds -- hundreds of millions of people, several hundred million people, supposedly. I guess the bottom line question is, could ISIS get a hold of nuclear weapons?

MCCAUL: I think it would be difficult. I have had briefings on this. But their intent is very clear. They do want to obtain a nuclear device.

Wolf, if you look at the last issue of the ISIS magazine, they actually talk about their intent to obtain a nuclear weapon, use transnational criminal organization and corrupt officials to move that device into the western hemisphere and then across the border from Mexico into the United States. That's in their words, not mine. And when I read that piece, coming straight from ISIS's own publication, it was very chilling.

BLITZER: Very chilling, indeed. I recommend our viewers who are interested in this -- they should be interested -- go online, read your report, final report of the task force on combatting foreign fighter travel. It's, what about 60, 70 pages or so. It is chilling, eye-opening, important work done not just by Republicans but by Democrats, as well.

Mr. Chairman, thanks very much.

MCCAUL: Thank you so much, Wolf.

BLITZER: Coming up, Donald Trump's Republican rivals, they're jumping all over his newly-unveiled tax plan. And Trump's campaign manager -- there you see him -- Cory Lewandosky, he's here to defend it. My live interview, that's coming up next.


[17:27:08] BLITZER: The ink is barely dry on Donald Trump's newly- unveiled tax plan, and his rivals in the Republican race for the White House, they're jumping all over it. Trump is proposing a huge overhaul that would cut income taxes for most Americans, including the wealthiest.

Our chief political correspondent, Dana Bash, is digging deeper for us. Dana, what's been the reaction so far to Trump's tax plan?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, as you just said, M=most of his opponents are saying that they just don't buy it. As you can imagine, Trump is pushing back, saying his critics don't know what he's talking about.

But part of the issue is we still don't have all of the specifics of this proposal, which allows his opponents to dismiss the tax proposal as fantasy.


BASH (voice-over): If there's anything Donald Trump knows how to do, it's sell. And now, it's all about selling his new tax plan.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The economy's going to just be absolutely like a rocket. It's going to go up. This is my prediction. This is what I'm good at. This is really my wheelhouse.

BASH: But as much as Trump is trying to build up his proposal, where nearly half of Americans would pay no federal income tax, his rivals are urging voters to compare it to alternatives.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R-NJ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: All I caution people is to remember that anything that you propose as a presidential candidate, you have to be able to deliver on. We've had too many empty promises in this country over time.


BASH: Jeb Bush, who released his own tax reform plan several weeks ago, tweeted, "Finally saw Donald's tax plan. Looks familiar. I'm flattered, but he should have stuck with growth and fiscal responsibility."

Ben Carson, now running neck and neck with Trump in polls, says Trump's plan to bring money back from overseas is nothing new.

DR. BEN CARSON (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: There's over $2 trillion of American money sitting overseas. I've been talking about this for several months. Some people think that you just heard about it this week.

BASH: Experts are poring over the details, trying to figure out what his version of simplifying the tax code would mean.

One right-leaning group, the Tax Foundation, applauded Trump's effort at tax cuts but also pushed back on Trump's claim that his plan would not add to the deficit, concluding instead it would increase the federal government deficit by over $10 trillion.

But even that is hard to know for sure, since some specifics of Trump's plan are still unknown. Like exactly which tax loopholes he would get rid of. In fact, Rand Paul dismissed Trump's proposal as more of the same.

SEN. RAND PAUL (R-KY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: His plan will continue a lot of the cronyism and a lot of the special-interest politics that go into the tax code. Ours would eliminate all of that. You could file your tax return on one single postcard.

BASH: Trump, with typical bravado, is pushing back on critics.

TRUMP (via phone): Under my plan, that money would be able to flow back into the country. We're going to be reducing corporate taxes. Jobs will be created. The economy's going to expand tremendously, like it hasn't since Reagan but probably even before that.


BASH: And it's not just on policy that Trump is firing back at his fellow candidates who say that they don't like his plan. It is also happening on a personal level. He tweeted today that Rand Paul is going to drop out of the presidential race and, Wolf, Senator Paul himself said to you that that's not true. He said it's sort of silly season anytime that he opens his mouth.

[17:30:17] BLITZER: Tough words between Rand Paul and Donald Trump on that one. All right. Thanks very much, Dana, for that report.

Let's get some more now. Joining us is Donald Trump's campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski.

Corey, thanks very much for joining us. Let's get some -- your reaction to what Dana just reported, this conservative-leaning tax foundation, this group saying that the Donald Trump tax plan could race the national debt by $10 trillion over the next decade. Your reaction?

COREY LEWANDOWSKI, DONALD TRUMP CAMPAIGN MANAGER: Well, first and foremost, we're very pleased with the tax plan that Mr. Trump put forth. It's a true tax cut for every working American out there. It allows businesses to grow, reduces the corporate tax rate to 15 percent, which is the lowest it will have been since pre-World War II.

And if you think about that, their analysis -- I don't want to get into it tit for tat with them -- but their analysis basically takes into account zero accountability of the $2.5 trillion that are sitting overseas that we would get back as part of a repartition of money into this country. They don't take any stock in that whatsoever. And they say none of that money would go to deficit reduction or reducing the cost of this plan.

I think they probably put their thumb on the scale, decided they like the Jeb Bush tax plan, even though our tax plan reduces taxes five times more than Jeb Bush has done. They scored exactly the same. So I think maybe they need to go back and take a look at the actual plan itself.

BLITZER: So what is your estimate? How much will this Donald Trump tax plan cost U.S. taxpayers in terms of increasing the debt?

LEWANDOWSKI: Also, it's very clear. We project out at a 3 percent growth rate this plan is revenue neutral. If we're fortunate enough that the economy of this country continues to grow, which we think it would under this plan because of the incentives that the business will be given, the opportunity to bring that money back from overseas, cutting personal tax rates, then anything above a 3 percent growth rate, which is a very modest number, would allow us to continue to reduce the deficit. And we can see anywhere between 800 billion and 3 or 4 trillion reduced over a ten-year period.

The is a very feasible plan. It's economically feasible. And it's something that a true leader would put forth.

See, what many people don't remember or don't know is that Donald Trump is the only one in this field who's actually created jobs, understands the tax code, understands the loopholes there, is willing to close those loopholes that millionaires and the rich have been and the special interests have been taking advantage of. He knows them, because he's lived the system and taken advantage of the system in a good way, because that's what good businessmen do. It time to close that and put our money back to work for the American people and let them have their jobs back.

BLITZER: I know he's going to reduce the income tax rates for wealthy, for middle class. But which tax loopholes is he going to eliminate: deductions for home mortgages, for example?

LEWANDOWSKI: Well, no, we've said very clearly that we're going to get rid of the carried interest dividend -- carried interest deduction, which is what, you know, the hedge fund guys are using left and right to scam the system. But as it relates to mortgage interest tax deductions, that will stay in place 100 percent, just like it is today. Earned income tax credits stay in place as it is today. Charitable donations stay in place as they do today.

But what we do is we get rid of some of the redundancies. What we do is we give people the opportunity -- we have the opportunity to take 72 million people who are currently filing their taxes off of the tax rolls. Reduce the size of the IRS and the bureaucracy, because when the initial plan was put in place to collect an income tax, 1 percent of the people in the entire country were paying an income tax. We now have 150 million people paying taxes.

By reducing 72 million people from those rolls, we can actually reduce the size of the overzealous IRS and their 80,000-plus employees, who are looking at negative measures on the American people.

So I think it's time we look at this in two ways. Not just the number of people who are filing but also those businesses that will actually put money back into the system and put people back to work.

BLITZER: Let's talk about another critically important issue: health care. Donald Trump recently said he wants -- he'd like to promise health care for everybody. He's on the record, as you know, say he actually would support single-payer -- a single-payer healthcare system. How do you put that in place?

LEWANDOWSKI: Well, I think what he's talking about is, look, if you're on a fixed income, and you need health care, you should be entitled to it. You should have an opportunity to get that health care. And we can't just, on a humane basis, kick people out of the healthcare system.

Now, he's said very clearly that he's going to replace Obamacare. Obamacare has been a disaster. We understand that. It's a terrible program. It's way too expensive. The real premiums kick in next year in 2016. We've seen 30, 40, and 50 percent premiums on people.

Look, it's a basic function that we should have an opportunity to have good health care, be able to take care of people. There's nothing wrong with that. And I think what we have to understand is that the Obamacare model does not work, and it's time to replace it with something that actually does.

BLITZER: Does he support a single-payer system, something along the lines that Canada has?

[17:35:02] LEWANDOWSKI: No, he said he doesn't support a single-payer system. He's been very clear about that. And look, as the wealthy have the opportunity to pay for it, they should be able to pay more. There's no question about it.

But that doesn't mean that the people who don't have financial resources are or on some type of assistance don't also have the right to have some type of health care and take care of them and their family.

BLITZER: I spoke earlier today with Senator Rand Paul, who's also running for the Republican presidential nomination. He was reacting to what your boss predicted Rand Paul would do, namely drop out of the race because of his poll numbers. Listen to what Rand Paul told me.


PAUL: There is a certain celebrity phenomenon going on that's skewing the polls. But I think we've started to see a shift. He's down about ten points. And I think there's going to be a time when he will be marginalized and seen somewhat for the comedic individual that he is but not really as a serious contender. And I think that's where he'll wind up. We just need to move along and get closer to that point when all Americans will see that he's not a serious contender.


BLITZER: Your reaction to his saying that Donald Trump is not a serious contender?

LEWANDOWSKI: Well, I think if Rand Paul had Donald Trump's poll numbers as opposed to being at 1 percent, he'd be very happy. You know, he barely made the last debate being the 11th person on the stage. He can't decide if he wants to run for president of the United States or U.S. Senate for the state of Kentucky. I think the people in Kentucky should hold him accountable.

And "The Hill" reported yesterday that he stopped raising money for his presidential campaign, because the campaign's in such disarray. I think Rand Paul should probably focus more on his aspirations to continue to be a U.S. senator and -- than worrying about what Mr. Trump is doing, who's the clear frontrunner in this race for the Republican nomination.

BLITZER: As you know, "Forbes" magazine just came out today with their new wealth list, the 400 richest people, saying Trump is worth $4.5 billion, not the $10 billion plus that Trump himself says he's worth. What was your reaction? I don't know if you had a chance to speak to Donald Trump when he saw that $4.5 billion number that "Forbes" put out.

LEWANDOWSKI: Well, I haven't seen it. But the way that "Forbes" does their analysis is they do it based on the value of a piece of property. As an example, when Mr. Trump filed his financial disclosure statements, he simply checked the box that said the value of Trump Tower at 725 Fifth Avenue is worth more than $50 million. That's clear. You know, the building across the street from him at that same location sold for $1.8 billion last year. I think "Forbes" might put the value of the building somewhere around $500 million. Obviously, property values are very subjective.

Regardless, I think Mr. Trump has been one of the very most successful people our country's ever seen and has built an amazing brand and has some of the most iconic properties in the U.S. and abroad. And we're very pleased with his success.

BLITZER: Not bad, 4.5 billion, by the way, Corey, is not too shabby either, as we all know. Corey Lewandowski, thanks very much for joining us.


BLITZER: We want to dig deeper into all of this. Dana Bash is still with us. Also, our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger and our senior Washington correspondent, Jeff Zeleny. Actually, guys, I want all of you to stand by for a moment. There's a lot to digest there. Much more right after this.


[17:42:36] BLITZER: All right. Let's dive deeper in the race for the White House right now, where it stands. Once again, Dana Bash, Gloria Borger, Jeff Zeleny are with us.

Gloria, I thought Corey Lewandowski had some specific information there. He explained what Donald Trump is trying to do. He didn't mince any words.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, and he's still saying that Donald Trump's tax plan will grow the economy, and that's why it won't add to the deficit. And he talked about curbing waste, fraud and abuse, which we've heard for, what, 25, 30 years in this -- in this country.

But he did -- you know, he continued to make Trump's case that it's going to inspire job growth and that put people, you know, where they need to be, economically, and that that's why it won't add to the deficit. Chris Christie, a little bit more skeptical. Jeb Bush, a little bit more skeptical. BLITZER: Millions of -- tens of millions of families are not going to

pay any income tax.

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: Under this Trump plan. That's a pretty popular notion for voters.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: That's, I think, the heart of his whole plan. Boy, doesn't this sound good?

And it's impossible, really, to quantify the numbers of this, because this is something that's pretty impossible to score. But sure, it sounds good on the campaign trail.

One thing I was struck by what he said. He said Mr. Trump has taken advantage of the system in a good way. I think that this is something we're going to see coming up here, more of an inspection of Donald Trump's own taxes. This opens the door to a lot more investigative business reporting and other things about how much he's paid over the years. And he's said himself that he has used the system in a good way. He's tried to, I think, sort of get out of paying a lot of taxes.

So I was sort of struck by that. But no, this plan sounds good. It sounds very good.

BORGER: They all do.

ZELENY: We'll see how possible it is, actually.

BASH: I think that you both hit on something really important, which is the fact that, first of all, he's putting meat on the bone, which everybody has said he's had to do. And he's doing that with an actual policy proposal. There are some holes in it that we're just not sure about, but it's pretty significant.

And talking about the fact that a lot of people won't have to pay taxes under this plan, if you kind of look at his voter base, you know, there are a lot of people out there who feel like they're not getting a fair shot, who don't make a lot of money, and who think that, you know, this will be terrific, in his words.


BASH: And so he's really speaking to his base but also trying to expand it.

BLITZER: He says -- he says if you're a single person and you make $25,000 a year, you pay zero income tax. If you're a family, you make 50,000, you pay zero, and you write to the IRS, "I win." Those are his words.

Let me get your quick reaction to this. Because

[17:45:01] Jeb Bush tweeted his reaction to Trump's plan. He said, "Finally saw Donald's tax plan, looks familiar, I'm flattered. But he should have stuck with growth and fiscal responsibility."

So he's sort of associating himself with Donald Trump's plan.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, that's because Donald Trump's plan is Jeb plus. It's as if he took, you know, Jeb's plan and added to it, say, I'm going to one-up you, I'm going to reduce taxes just a little bit more. I'm going to reduce the corporate tax rate just a little bit more than you did. I'm going to reduce taxes completely for a certain level of people. You know, they both get rid of the estate tax. You know, they're very -- they're very similar plans.

You know, the question is, I think for Jeb Bush's plan who predicts 4 percent growth, right, which is, you know, very hard to imagine, for Jeb Bush and for Donald Trump, and for every other presidential candidate, the proof is in the pudding. Will these things actually produce growth? And we don't -- you know, we just don't know the answer to that right now.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Associating with it because I think because he knows how it's going to be received by voters. This is -- this sounds good.


ZELENY: This sounds very, very good. So why not -- but he took a bit of a ding. But overall this is something you want to -- you know, it sounds pretty positive.

BLITZER: This is a critical moment, these next several weeks, for Jeb Bush because his numbers, as you well know, Dana, they've been going down, down, down.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It is. Talked to a lot of people who are involved in the Bush campaign, close to the Bush campaign today, about this, you know, they mainly argue that all of this kind of huffing and puffing and, you know, concern that you're reading about in sort of Washington echo chamber is misguided. They argued that, you know, the Jeb Bush campaign has a long-term strategy and organization.

Having said that I also spoke with some donors, some pretty significant donors, who said that they are concerned and they're waiting to get a return on their investment.

BLITZER: Gloria, you've been doing some reporting. Is it recoverable for him? What are you hearing from your sources?

BORGER: Well, I've been talking to people in the Bush campaign who say that this kind of panic is ridiculous, that that's not what they're hearing from their donors. And I had one senior adviser say to me, look, I would rather have the momentum in the winter than now. That's not to say that they're going to have it in the winter. But their point is they've got the money and they've got the organization to continue to Iowa and New Hampshire, spend the money there when they need to spend the money, and we'll see how much his campaign has raised tomorrow.

BLITZER: All right.

ZELENY: They need to get their ballots shore up. Their donors want to see more from Jeb Bush, regardless.

BASH: Exactly.

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: A tough situation.

BORGER: From Jeb Bush, the candidate. Right?

BLITZER: Jeff, Gloria, Dana, guys, thank you.

Coming up, the behind-the-scenes political drama unfolding up on Capitol Hill right now as House Republicans prepare to pick a new speaker.

Plus, Vladimir Putin's troubling military buildup in Syria. What's the real reason behind it?


[17:52:17] BLITZER: House Republicans are meeting to try to figure out where they're -- where are they headed after last week's stunning announcement by the House Speaker John Boehner, that he's stepping down. The heir apparent would seem to be the majority leader Kevin McCarthy. He was asked today how he'd be different than Boehner.


REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R), MAJORITY LEADER: I won't be as tan. A lot of people in Washington, concerned about power and institutions. I'm concerned about making a difference in everybody's lives.

We want to make sure that we're closer to the people. That they feel this is their government. They're in charge and we serve them. Now that's not easy and it won't change overnight, but that's our mission.


BLITZER: Our congressional reporter Manu Raju was up on Capitol Hill watching all of this unfold. It looks like pretty much a done deal, does it?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, for Kevin McCarthy, it certainly does. Right now I'm standing right outside that House Republican conference meeting where the Republicans are really engaging their first extended family discussion about the way forward for their party.

Kevin McCarthy is meeting with various groups, different segments of the Republican caucus, the conservatives and the moderates alike, to try to convince them that he's the best guy for the job. Right now he doesn't have nothing more than a nominal challenge from a man named Daniel Webster of Florida, who's unlikely to really unseat Kevin McCarthy, or prevent him from taking that position.

The other bigger question is who will fill that number two spot. There are two men who are competing for that position right now, Tom Price of Georgia and Steve Scalise of Louisiana. We have also heard that Trey Gowdy from South Carolina will not seek that position even though he was being pushed by Republicans to take that job. But it's all part of a larger debate over how to pursue tactics that could advance the Republican agenda. And there certainly is no consensus right now in that room right next to me -- Wolf.

BLITZER: How concerned are Republicans, Manu, about the turmoil that led to Boehner leaving early?

RAJU: Quite concerned, Wolf. I mean, if you talk -- I spent time talking with Republicans about really what it means for their party's future. And there certainly is not a consensus on what it means. They are -- the Republican leadership is looking for an orderly succession. They hope to have these leadership elections done by next week some time. But when you add this stuff that's happening when the Republican conference with the Republican presidential contest, Republican senators here tell me they're very -- worried about the vision that they are presenting their party right now.

They want to show that they can govern effectively. They want to convince voters that they are a reasonable alternative to Democrats. And they need to -- they realized they need to do something right away to show that they're the right alternative to Hillary Clinton and the rest of the Democratic Party.

[17:55:07] BLITZER: All right, Manu. Thanks very much. Manu Raju, reporting from Capitol Hill.

Coming up, Vladimir Putin deploys some of Russia's most sophisticated weapons in Syria. And a top U.S. official says Russian airstrikes, they could come at any time but who will they target? What is Putin's game plan?

And Bill Clinton speaking to CNN about Donald Trump. What does he think about the way Trump and other Republicans have criticized Hillary Clinton?


BLITZER: Happening now, American terror. A chilling new investigation of U.S. citizens waging holy war with ISIS. Why is the United States failing to stop the flow of foreign fighters overseas?

[18:00:09] Putin's battle plan.