Return to Transcripts main page


Trump Blasts Obama; Democrats Prepare for First Debate; Interview With Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard; Sanders Campaign: Gabbard Can Sit with Us at Debate; ISIS Suspected in Suicide Bombings in Turkey; Obama: Clinton Private E-Mail Server "A Mistake"; Ex- Staffer: House Panel Targeting Hillary Clinton. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired October 12, 2015 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Or will her closest rival, Bernie Sanders, steal her spotlight?

Trump's shadow. Donald Trump's domination of the GOP contest continues, but, today, he finds himself in front of an audience, and there's a big problem. His tough talk and brash persona may not be playing as well. Can Trump convince them he's a consensus-builder?

Disinvited. A Democratic congresswoman, a top party official says her invitation to the debate was revoked because she criticized the DNC. Democratic officials are denying it. Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard joins me live this hour to talk about the controversy.

And provocative launch. CNN is learning an Iranian ballistic test likely violated the United Nations resolution that bans the country from conducting such launches. What repercussions, if any, will Tehran face?

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 counting down to the CNN Democratic presidential debate, the first face-off between the candidates battling for their party's nomination. Hillary Clinton is the woman to beat tomorrow night. New polls are showing her with a strong lead over Bernie Sanders in over two key states, but there's a controversy shadowing the contest.

Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, says she was disinvited after calling for more debates, something the DNC is denying. Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard joins us live this hour. We will talk about that and more.

We're also following the provocative missile launch by Iran just hours before the country's parliament approved a nuclear deal with Western nations. Sources are now telling CNN that launch likely violated a United Nations resolution banning ballistic missile tests by Iran. We're covering all that and a whole lot more this hour with our correspondents, our expert analysts and our special guests.

And we're also live this afternoon at the Wynn Hotel here in Las Vegas, where Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders will share the stage tomorrow night with former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, former Senator Jim Webb and former Rhode Island Senator and Governor Lincoln Chafee.

They and their teams, they are making final preparations and so is CNN as we prepare to host this first critical Democratic presidential contest.

Our senior political correspondent, Brianna Keilar, is here with me. She begins our coverage this hour.

We're getting a sense, a new sense, Brianna, of the candidates' strategies.


Hillary Clinton's team hoping she can really cut through the politics, as one aide said to me, with her strategy, but she has been preparing in earnest with lawyers who have been involved in other debate preparations, for instance, President Obama. These lawyers have been playing the roles of Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley, but to talk to the Bernie Sanders camp, he hasn't been engaged in as formal a process.

Keep in mind there is always some expectations management that goes into this. But he has been to hear his camp tell it studying up on the issues and he's just starting to practice what they are referring to as exchanges.


KEILAR (voice-over): As Democratic presidential contenders get ready for their first debate in Las Vegas, Hillary Clinton is the candidate to beat in two states that could be key to slowing a Bernie Sanders surge. A new CNN/ORC poll of likely Nevada caucus-goers shows her besting Sanders by 16 points.

The spread is even bigger in South Carolina. Clinton leads Sanders by 31 points. And the Vermont senator sees opportunity in this debate to draw contrast with Clinton.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (VT-I), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I don't get into personal attack attacks. You know that. But are there differences of opinion that should be discussed? Of course there are. That's what an election is about.

KEILAR: Sunday on NBC, Sanders tried out one of his main debating points, that Clinton is late to positions that he always supported, like her now opposition to a trade deal she backed as secretary of state.

SANDERS: So people will have to contrast my consistency and my willingness to stand up to Wall Street and corporations, big corporations, with the secretary. KEILAR: Sanders trails Clinton nationally in the polls, but his lead

in the all-important first primary state of New Hampshire makes him tough competition for Clinton. In 2008, she came from behind to win the New Hampshire primary after this moment went viral.

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I just don't want to see us fall backwards.

KEILAR: She spoke about it in a BuzzFeed podcast.

CLINTON: When it was over, I just felt drained. I didn't feel anything other than that. I didn't realize it was going to be such a big deal, to be honest.

KEILAR: Tuesday night, the five Democratic contenders will take the stage at the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas. For the lesser known candidates, like former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, the debate is a chance to find support that has so far alluded them.

But one of the biggest potential challengers to Clinton and Sanders won't even be there. Vice President Joe Biden is still weighing whether to run. On CBS, President Obama said he understands why Biden might get in.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If you're sitting right next to the president in every meeting and, you know, wrestling with these issues, I'm sure that for him he's saying to himself, I could do a really good job.



KEILAR: And you can see why the poll numbers in this new CNN/ORC poll, particularly in South Carolina, really plays towards Hillary Clinton's advantage,but also why her camp is so concerned about what Joe Biden is going to decide.

She gets at this point 59 percent of the crucial black vote in South Carolina. You pull Joe Biden out of the race and it pops all the way up, Wolf, to 84 percent of the black vote that she gets compared to Bernie Sanders at 7 percent. It's really no contest.

BLITZER: He's not well-known obviously in South Carolina, much better known in New Hampshire, which is a neighboring state to Vermont.

All right. Brianna, thanks very much.

Let's get some more on the political drama that will unfold tomorrow night. CNN's John Berman is with us here in Las Vegas.

You have been doing some reporting. What can we expect to see?

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: I think you can expect to see, Wolf, these candidates working hard to deliver their message in a concise but forceful way. They get one-minute responses to the questions, 30- second rebuttals if they get called out by other candidates by name.

Now, this campaign, this debate will be a little bit different than the last one. There will be Facebook questions. People can post their questions and go to right now and post their questions there and they might get asked by Don Lemon, who will be asking the Facebook questions to the candidates themselves.

An enormous amount of work has gone into this debate by our colleagues at CNN, 150 people working in that debate hall, 10,000 person hours, 150 moving lights. My favorite statistic, 10 to 15 miles of cable to pull this off, not to mention 16 cameras in that room, and for these candidates, they will be speaking to the cameras, not the 1,300 people in the room, but to the cameras, because this is their first real chance to speak to the wide national audience and the first time to draw specific contrasts with the other four candidates will be on that stage with them.

BLITZER: Because the suspicion is that four of those candidates will go after Hillary Clinton, the clear front-runner right now.

BERMAN: That's one of the questions. Bernie Sanders has gone out of his way to say he wants to take the discussion to a higher plain. I will talk about me and my ideas, not necessarily the other candidates.

But when you start talking about contrast, contrast is another word for vote for me, not for the other person. Contrast can sometimes get pretty sharp.

BLITZER: Certainly can. John Berman, he is going to be with us for the duration as well. Thank you.

For the Republicans, Republican candidates, including Donald Trump, they were joined by some of the GOP and Democratic rivals at a bipartisan conference on trying to end Washington gridlock.

Our political reporter, Sara Murray, is there in Manchester, New Hampshire.

Sara, this wasn't the kind of crowd that normally shows up for Donald Trump, was it?

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, you're absolutely right. Instead of a room full of adoring fans, this is a more critical crowd of New Hampshire voters and even Donald Trump sounded his most bipartisan tone, he still faced a number of combative questions.


MURRAY (voice-over): Donald Trump trying out a new style today, consensus builder.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The word compromise is absolutely fine, but if you're going to compromise, ask for about three times more than you want. MURRAY: Speaking at an event hosted by the nonpartisan political

group No Labels, Trump touted his business deals as proof he can bring people together. The GOP front-runner facing some doubts that an expert in hurling insults can reach across the aisle.

QUESTION: I'm wondering if you're at all concerned that some of the divisive language you use on the campaign trail undermines your ability to solve problems?


TRUMP: I have to say what I do. You know what?


TRUMP: I want to Ivy League schools. I know what's divisive, I know what is not divisive, in all fairness. And what you do, I don't want to necessarily be politically correct.

MURRAY: Today, Trump,again confronting questions about how he treats women.

QUESTION: So, if you become president, will a woman make the same as a man and do I get to choose what I do with my body?


TRUMP: You're going to make the same if you do as good a job. You're going to make the same if you do as good a job. And I happen to be pro-life.

MURRAY: The event drawing Democratic candidates, Martin O'Malley, Bernie Sanders and Jim Webb, via video link. Conspicuously absent, Hillary Clinton. Her campaign cited a scheduling issue.

With the stage set for bipartisanship, Republicans landed some jabs, Trump taking on President Obama.

TRUMP: I thought he did terribly last night. I thought he did not do a good job. I think that our country has nothing but problems.

MURRAY: And Lindsey Graham taking on Trump, asking whether his style can succeed in a general election.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Can Donald Trump bring us together? I don't feel that Hispanics believe that he would be a good president for them. When 75 percent of the Hispanic community disapproves of your candidacy as a Republican, you're in trouble.

MURRAY: Now, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie taking aim at everyone in Washington.


GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R-NJ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You know what I want and what most of you want? How about they just do something?


MURRAY: Now, all eyes will be on the Democrats tonight and those include Donald Trump. He says he will tune in for the debate, but he's only going to do it for a little bit because he won't be on stage, Wolf.

BLITZER: Sara Murray in New Hampshire for us, thanks very much.

Let's dig deeper on all of this.

Joining us, our senior political correspondent Brianna Keilar. She's still with us, as well as our political commentators Donna Brazile and Kevin Madden.

Donna, you say this will be a clash of ideas tomorrow night, not necessarily personalities. What ideas will cause the most fireworks among these five Democrats?

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, first of all, I'm looking forward to a real substantive policy debate because Democrats tend to create platforms, so that the American people understand what our agenda would be once we're elected to office.

Yes, there's no question on climate change, on trade, on education, yes, criminal justice reform, Democrats have -- even been foster care. I went back and looked at some of the policy papers by the leading candidates and they basically covered the entire textbook on how to make America...

BLITZER: Do they disagree on the sensitive issues or all basically agree?

BRAZILE: They agree on the premise that, yes, we have a problem, and climate change is a good example. Republicans are denying that it even exists. But they have different approaches of how to achieve their goals.

So you will see more differences in terms of their approach to how to get things done, as opposed to a clash of personalities or just having what I call a tit-for-tat just to fight each other.

BLITZER: What advice would you give, Kevin, Hillary Clinton when one of the candidates, whether it's Martin O'Malley or Bernie Sanders or whoever, Jim Webb, they go after her? What should her strategy be?

KEVIN MADDEN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, look, I think that's a big question is whether or not when her opponents start to get a little bit more aggressive and try to draw either implied contrasts or direct contrasts, does she engage or does she sort of kind of pivot?

I expect that what we will see is she will begin to pivot. I don't think she thinks there is anything to gain by having an attack and counterattack with her opponents. But instead is how do I pivot and make this about Hillary Clinton aligning herself with the voters on the issues?

We have heard the Clinton people, and even, as a Republican, I picked this up all the time, Hillary is at her best when she's fighting for people on the issues that they care about. I expect that is what she will try and do is pivot and try and use these issues as vehicles.


BLITZER: If one of these candidates attacks her and she doesn't respond, she looks weak.

MADDEN: That's right. That's one of the rules of debates, which is if you're not on offense, you're losing. But I think rather than going directly at her opponents, she has to again make this look like it's an attack on Democrat ideals and then align herself with those ideals and then very quickly pivot.

I expect she will do as much talking about Republicans tomorrow as she does her opponents that are on stage.

BLITZER: That's one of the strengths of Donald Trump, Brianna, because when he's attacked, he counterpunches right away and he hits hard and it's very, very effective certainly on the Republican side. We will see if Hillary Clinton follows Donald Trump's lead on that when she is attacked, and I assume she will be attacked tomorrow night. How is she preparing for all of this?

KEILAR: She preparing for this by really in earnest working through this with lawyers who have been big in other debate prep sessions with other candidates like President Obama.

But I think what she's really trying to get out of this, this is what a top Clinton campaign aide told me, is to try to cut through the politics. They don't want a big fight, just like you said, although I would actually say some of her instincts are to counterpunch.

But they don't want a big fight, so I think what she's going to try to do is reframe some of what she may feel are characterizations that are either mischaracterizations or that certainly don't serve her purposes. But, Wolf, I think it was Mike Tyson who said everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.

You never really know until you have really are facing someone who really does take a punch how you're going to respond. I think that could be the case tomorrow night.

BLITZER: Yes, I think if Martin O'Malley hits her or Jim Webb hits her, or Lincoln Chafee, they're not shy guys. Maybe Bernie Sanders, he will try to be a gentleman or whatever, but these other three, they have nothing to lose.

Donna, they will hit her. She has to make major decision. Does she punch back or does she just turn the cheek?

BRAZILE: I'm not one to use boxing metaphors a lot in terms of hitting someone, but I do know this about Hillary Clinton, is that she's battle-tested.

She knows the issues. She's principled, she's pragmatic, and she's going to the American people, look, you have been listening to all of these folks talk about my e-mails, but tonight I'm going to talk about you. And she's going to make the people out there the center of her conversation and not her opponents.

BLITZER: The RNC, Kevin, they put out another ad, "Not Telling Us the Truth Again."

They are obviously convinced that Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee and they are not putting out ads against Bernie Sanders or Lincoln Chafee or anyone else. They're going after Hillary. Let me play a little clip.



HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I did not e-mail any classified material to anyone.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The federal government watchdog has determined there was classified information.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Did in fact contain classified information.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Total lack of accountability. It's like my problems have nothing to do with me. They have to do with the Republicans.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They are playing it off as if it's a partisan witch-hunt.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Now you have the FBI and "The New York Times" chasing this story.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Those are not partisan organizations.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You think the American public is that stupid?

NARRATOR: The Republican National Committee is responsible for the content of this advertising.



BLITZER: They put that ad out today, the RNC.

MADDEN: Yes. This is something we're going to see more of and we have seen a lot of it to this point.

The Republican campaigns and the RNC as well, they see this as probably Hillary Clinton's most vulnerable issue right now, the issue of whether or not she's trustworthy, the issue on whether or not she's being straight with the American people. Every single time there is an opportunity when the focus is on the Democrats to drive that message, because you're right, Wolf, we're not exactly preparing for Bernie Sanders as the nominee, as much as he has had a boomlet in recent months.

Republicans fully expect Hillary Clinton will be the nominee and that this frame that we have put her in is probably the most effective in a general election.

BLITZER: How effective, Donna, is it?

BRAZILE: The only thing that is keeping the Republican Party together is Hillary Clinton.

She is the number one focus of the Republican Party, because if we talk about the party itself, that falls apart. Look, I don't know if that's an effective ad, but what I do know is that they have no other strategy at this point but to try to tear down Hillary Clinton. And, by the way, that's only going to backfire.

BLITZER: You know, we just found out here -- we're all in Las Vegas and we were asking just a little while ago will Bill Clinton be here with his wife for this debate tomorrow night?

We have just seen he has arrived here in Las Vegas. We saw him getting off a plane with John Podesta, who is the campaign chairman for Hillary Clinton. There is the plane. So Bill Clinton is here. I assume he's going to stay for tomorrow night. He's obviously -- within the Democratic Party and even outside the Democratic Party, he remains a formidable figure and he's going to be a huge asset for her, Brianna.


And he's someone who she sort of, I think, brings out selectively when she needs some help. He's someone who in the past at times has not always helped her, but there is also this feeling, I think, that he really carries a message better than a lot of Democrats, which when he's really on, I think Republicans, Democrats, that's something you would definitely be able to say.

But I also think he certainly -- they have a relationship where they are talking about sort of this debate moving forward. And the key for Hillary Clinton, as her campaign sees it, as she sees it, is to cut through the politics. She knows this has been a slog here for months for her with the focus on the e-mails, and they feel that her message and that her merits have been lost in that, and they really want to move past this and they see this as the big chance to do this.

BLITZER: This will be a huge, huge moment in this race for the Democratic presidential nomination. We will see what happens here.

Guys, stand by.

Much more ahead, as we count down to the first Democratic presidential debate. CNN is hosting it here at the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas.

We're going to talk also with Democratic Congresswoman and top party official who says she was disinvited to the debate. Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, there you see her. She's a U.S. Army war veteran from the war in Iraq. There is something that happen that we will discuss. She was supposed to be here with all of us in Las Vegas. She's in Honolulu right now. She's not coming. We are going to tell you why.



BLITZER: We're following a very surprising controversy that has sprung up just ahead of tomorrow night's Democratic presidential debate here at the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas.

Democratic Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, says she was disinvited from this debate after calling for more debates among the Democratic candidates.

Congresswoman Gabbard is joining us now live from Honolulu.

Congresswoman, thanks very much for joining us.

What happened? Because you were supposed to be here as a leader of the DNC and all of a sudden, you're still in Hawaii.

REP. TULSI GABBARD (D), HAWAII: Thanks, Wolf. Aloha. It's good to talk with you and your viewers today.

As you know, I have been pretty vocal about calling out for more debate debates. I have been calling for more debates to give the American people more opportunity to hear from these presidential candidates, to listen to what they have got to say, to hold them accountable for their views and their positions.

Because that differentiated from the decision that the chairwoman made from the DNC, I was told that I was no longer welcome to come to the debate.

BLITZER: So, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chair of the DNC, what you're saying is she ordered one of her aides to call up your staffer and say, you know what, don't come? Is that what happened?

GABBARD: There was a conversation between her chief and my chief.

Debbie's chief had called mine and basically spoke about an interview that I had had talking about the need and the call that the American people are having for more debates, for democracy, for increasing the engagement that we need in our society as we look to see who will lead our country into the future.


And the prevailing message of that was because I continued to call for more debates, that I should not go to the debate there in Las Vegas. But, really, Wolf, that's really the issue here. The issue here is not about me saying boo-hoo, I'm going to miss the party.

The issue here is one of democracy, of freedom of speech and defending that which so many have sacrificed and given their lives for.

BLITZER: Have you called Debbie Wasserman Schultz? She's a congresswoman. She's the chair of the DNC.

GABBARD: You know, I reached out to her after I got that message and didn't really get much of a response from her directly.

She said she would talk about it in person, but the message that her chief delivered to mine stood. The thing that I would really like to focus on, though, is not one of personalities. It really is one of the issue at stake here, which is about democracy. It's about how our Democratic Party should actually represent democratic values.

Wolf, I just came from this Punchbowl National Cemetery of the Pacific where I had the privilege and honor of being promoted from captain to the rank of major by the Hawaii Army National Guard, and being there in that place, being reminded of the sacrifice so many have made, some people who I have known and so many who came before us fighting for freedom, fighting for democracy, this is why I feel so strongly about this, that each of us, no matter if you served in the military or not, should be standing up and speaking out for what is right and for the strength of our democracy.

BLITZER: The DNC put out a statement, spokeswoman Holly Shulman saying, among other things, saying: "All that was asked of Ms. Gabbard's staff was to prioritize our candidates and this important opportunity they have to introduce themselves to the American people."

It went on, basically suggesting that you should just keep on the positive and not talk about what you may disagree with the party chair on and you were also quoted as saying: "When I signed up to be vice chair of the DNC, no one told me I would be relinquishing my freedom of speech and checking it at the door."

Those are strong words on your part.

GABBARD: Those comments were not the comments that I got from my chief of staff from that conversation.

But I can think of nothing more positive to talk about than the strength of our democracy, the strength of the freedoms that we cherish and we celebrate here in our country, and calling for more opportunities for the American people to be able to hear from those who are offering to lead our country into the future. We have got some very important, huge challenges that are facing our country today that are taking us into the future, domestic issues, national security issues, issues relating to foreign policy.

And the American people deserve more opportunities to be able to hear from those who are asking them to hire them to be president, to be commander in chief. BLITZER: Could you see yourself being chair of the DNC?

GABBARD: That's not a job that I'm interested in and that's not what this is about.

This is about making sure that our party and making sure that our country represents the Democratic ideals that I feel so strongly about and that so many have served to fight and defend.

BLITZER: Bernie Sanders' campaign manager said on CNN earlier today, they have a ticket, they have a seat for you if you still want to fly over here to Las Vegas for tomorrow night's debate. Would you like to take them up on it?

GABBARD: Yes, you know, I'm grateful to Senator Sanders for offering to give me a ticket to the debate. I politely declined to accept it because I think if I were to do that, then this would turn into a political conversation, rather than a conversation about our principles, our Democratic principles, our ideals as a country and really what I think is most important for us to be focused on.

BLITZER: Why is the party leadership, the DNC so fearful of having more debates? They have only scheduled six so far. Why are they so scared of that?

GABBARD: I can't speak for anybody else, Wolf.

But I think that the more we have these debates, the more opportunity that we have to increase the conversation, to really forward the goals of the Democratic Party, to increase Democratic engagement, to allow for this discourse between our presidential candidates and the American people, so that we have got a very clear path and a clear idea of exactly who is offering to serve as president, what they represent, the kind of judgment that they will have on these important issues that we have going forward, and, frankly, whether or not the American people will trust that person to be able to lead us into the future.

[18:30:07] BLITZER: All right. Tulsi Gabbard, I want you to stand by. We have much more to talk about, including what's going on in Syria right now. You're a veteran of the war in Iraq. You're in the reserves and congratulations on being promoted from captain to major on this day. Much more from Tulsi Gabbard when we come back.


[18:35:14] BLITZER: We're back with Democratic Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard. She's a member of the House Armed Services Committee and Foreign Affairs Committee. She's also an Iraq War combat veteran, promoted today from captain to major in the Army Reserves.

We want to talk to her about the twin suicide bombings at a peace rally in Turkey, whose government suspects ISIS is to blame. Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

Barbara, do the Turks think they know more about who was behind this horrible terror attack?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Horrible attack, indeed, Wolf. Ninety-seven people in Turkey killed, some 250 wounded. A terrible scene in the aftermath of this peace rally attack.

The Turkish government has not yet seen a formal claim of responsibility but strongly believes at this point, according to a officials, that ISIS is behind it. Turkish officials saying earlier today the method of the attack, some of the things they saw, and how the attack was carried out matches ISIS attacks that happened in Turkey earlier this year.

So a lot of concern. And Turkey an important NATO ally, U.S. war planes flying over northern Syria out of Turkish air bases; and it looks like Turkey has been hit very badly here, Wolf.

BLITZER: After canceling that train-and-equip program last week that was clearly a failure, you're now learning about a new U.S. effort to try to arm the so-called moderate Syrian rebels.

STARR: Yes, Wolf, overnight we know now that the U.S. air dropped from C-17 aircraft some 50 tons of ammunition across that Turkish border into northern Syria to help out about 5,000 rebels in a coalition on the ground.

These are rebels that are already fighting ISIS. They were running out of ammunition. The U.S. made the decision to help them and continue to help them.

The hope by the Pentagon is this time it will work out, because these rebels are fighting ISIS. The program that got cancelled, those were rebels that were more interested in fighting the Assad regime -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara Starr reporting for us. Thank you.

Let's go back to Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard.

Congresswoman, in the interview that the president gave to CBS, he said -- he said president -- he said the Russian president, Putin, he acknowledged that President Putin was doing what he was doing in Syria, that the U.S. actually knew what his intentions were and that the U.S. was not caught off guard. Is that your understanding, as well?

GABBARD: Wolf, you know, there's been so many different accounts of this, of who knew what and when and whether people were surprised or not. I think the real issue is what are we doing about it? What's the strategy on the ground in Syria? Because that's something that I'm find very confusing.

There's no clear -- there's no clarity on exactly who our enemy is as the United States and what kind of mission we're trying to accomplish. We're seeing this very contradictory statement, saying that from administration saying that they're going after ISIS.

But in the same token, they are allowing Turkey to bomb the Kurds, who have been our most effective, trustworthy ground allies, fighting against ISIS both in Syria and in Iraq. They are saying that they are focused on getting rid of Assad and both directly and indirectly helping these rebels, many -- vast majority of which are made up of al Qaeda, al Nusra and other Islamic extremists groups, including ISIS. People who are sworn enemies, because they are working to overthrow Assad.

There are so many issues here with what's happening on the ground that I think have to be dealt with. Otherwise, we're going to continue to see what we're seeing, which is ISIS and the Islamic extremists groups getting stronger. And if Assad is over thrown, then we're going to see the establishments of an Islamic caliphate and a greater threat to the people there and people around the world than we've seen so far.

BLITZER: So what would you like to hear these Democratic candidates here tomorrow night at this Democratic presidential debate, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and others? What should they say on this sensitive issue?

GABBARD: There's a lot of ground to cover here. I think a recognition, first of all. I think many, if not all of them, have called for a no-fly zone in Syria. That's something that I actually agree with President Obama on that it would be a very bad thing to do. I'm strongly opposed to a no-fly zone because of what it would entail.

And this is where people should have to answer the question: are you willing to send American and coalition troops on the ground in Syria to enforce a no-fly zone? Are you willing to have American planes and service members from our Air Force there enforcing that?

If you think Syria and Russia are going to allow a no-fly zone and just lay down and let this thing happen without fighting back, I think that's a big mistake.

And so what we'll see, then, is kicking off of a major conflict that folks who are advocating for have not clearly explained what are the after effects of this? There are so many other issues with the no-fly zone that those proposing have not addressed that I think they should be put on the record to explain why they support it.

BLITZER: Yes. Hillary Clinton supports the no-fly zone. Bernie Sanders opposes the no-fly zone. That's one of the areas I'm sure will come up in the debate tomorrow night.

Tulsi Gabbard, thanks very much for joining us. Once again, congratulations, Hawaii Army National Guard. You've been promoted from captain to major on this day. Thank you for your service.

GABBARD: Thanks so much, Wolf. Aloha.

BLITZER: Aloha to you, as well.

Coming up, much more from here in Las Vegas as we count down to the first Democratic presidential debate. You'll see it right here on CNN.


[18:45:21] BLITZER: Right here at the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas, we are counting down to the first Democratic presidential debate tomorrow night. It will be hosted by CNN and an issue certain to come up is the controversy surrounding Hillary Clinton's use of private server e- mail during her time for four years as the secretary state, a decision President Obama says was a mistake.

Let's dig deeper on that and more. Joining us, our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, our senior political analyst Ron Brownstein, editorial director of "The National Journal", our CNN political commentator, the host of CNN's "SMERCONISH", that will be Michael Smerconish, and CNN's national security commentator, the former Congressman Mike Rogers.

Gloria, here is the clip. This is what the president said about it while she served as secretary of state. He said this on CBS.


STEVE KROFT, CBS: Did you know about Hillary Clinton's use of private e-mail server?


KROFT: While she was secretary of state?


KROFT: Do you think it posed a national security problem?

OBAMA: I don't think it posed a national security problem. I think it was a mistake that she's acknowledged. I do think that the way it's been ginned up is in part because of politics.


BLITZER: Is this going to be a huge issue at this debate tomorrow night?

BORGER: I don't think so because 68 percent of Democrats -- don't forget, this is a primary fight here -- 68 percent of Democrats believe Hillary Clinton is honest and trustworthy. If you're another candidate on the stage with Hillary Clinton, you're not going to say you're dishonest or not trustworthy.

And remember when Barack Obama said in 2008 she wasn't likable enough?


BORGER: That was a problem for Obama. So, I think they are going to stay away from that. As for Republicans in the general, absolutely. Absolutely.

BLITZER: Mike Rogers, you were chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. You agree it's not a real national security issue? MIKE ROGERS, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY COMMENTATOR: I don't think you can

say that until you have all mails. Were there classified emails on that server? If they're saying that that's the only server in the United States that didn't get hacked and if they say that, it would be the only server in the United States that hasn't been hacked, then that is a national security issue.

I just think it's too early to tell. I think the investigation needs to unfold and they need to determine if, in fact, there were classified information on that email.

BLITZER: Michael, you say this is an opportunity to regain a lot of that trust, that confidence among Democrats. This will be an opportunity for her tomorrow night.

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think an opportunity for her to distinguish herself on that stage and to remind people of the bona fides that she brings to the table. She's got vast experience, even her worst critics would have to knowledge that.

I just -- to Gloria's point, do not see her opponents -- maybe Jim Webb, maybe Linc Chafee or O'Malley, but certainly not Bernie Sanders going after her in any significant way. They're gong to leave that to the CNN questioners and hope that that's what comes out.

BLITZER: How smart is this new strategy, apparently relatively new strategy of Hillary Clinton on certain sensitive issues distancing herself from her former boss?

BROWNSTEIN: There is a pattern on domestic issues. She's moving to position herself to his left on foreign policy issues when she's differentiating -- she's positioning herself to his right. No fly zone in Syria. I'll be tougher on Putin. I'll support the Iran agreement but distrust and verify.

So, look, I mean, that's the balance. You see a generational change already in the Democratic Party. Barack Obama on domestic policy is to the left of Bill Clinton and this entire field is positioning themself somewhat to the left of Barack Obama. It's a general election issue maybe, but in the primary, it reflects the evolving nature of the Democratic coalition.

BORGER: But I think she leaves herself open to the question of what do you believe in and what Bernie Sanders is going to talk about tomorrow night is his own consistency on issues, you know, he always likes to say I believe these things for 30 years.

SMERCONISH: And they have caught up to him. I mean, he's been talking about minimum wage. He's been talking about infrastructure. He's been talking about income inequality and now, finally, the nation is also in that place.

BROWNSTEIN: That is a much safer line of argument for them to pursue against Hillary Clinton, than e-mails. We're against the backdrop of the staffers allegation on CNN this weekend and Kevin McCarthy's comments. I think it could appear you're doing the Republicans bidding, as one of the other candidates raising it.

But this question of consistency and can you trust her to be in her commitments I think is a much safer ground for those Democrats.

BLITZER: Let's talk about from the Republican perspective watching this debate tomorrow night, what would be her strategy going forward?

ROGERS: I think she just holds in her lane, just holds her lane tight enough that it doesn't attract the ire of the other candidates. I think her biggest concern is that question that comes from not necessarily a candidate but from one of the interviewers on something that she doesn't feel comfortable answering.

She knows she's going to get the e-mail question. It has to happen.

I think she's going to be prepared. I think she's going to try to minimize it. And if they don't go after each other, which you hear coming out of those camps, then maybe not a very exciting debate, really, for all the Democrats.

[18:50:00] BORGER: But you never know what will happen from the candidates who have nothing to lose.

ROGERS: Well, Jim Webb or O'Malley is not doing well.

BORGER: Chafee -- right.

ROGERS: How you score a zero on a poll, that's not a good day for a candidate.

BLITZER: No, three of those candidates, they don't have a lot to lose right now. They are scoring 0 or 1 or 2 percent. I suspect they will come out swinging at her and Bernie Sanders and that could make a lively debate.

All right, guys.

ROGERS: We hope so.

BLITZER: Thanks very, very much.

And please be sure to join us here tomorrow night for the CNN presidential debate. We'll have much more on that and a whole lot else when we come back.


[18:55:21] BLITZER: A long, simmering probe is suddenly starting to boil over right now. A former investigator with the House Select Committee on Benghazi now says the Republican-led panel is carrying out a politically motivated investigation targeting Hillary Clinton instead of the fact-finding mission for which it was created.

Our chief Washington correspondent Jake Tapper talked to the man at the center of this new storm.


JAKE TAPPER, CNN CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Bradley Podliska at first blush seems an unlikely target of the wrath of his former bosses, the Republicans on the House Benghazi Committee. An Air Force reserves intelligence officer, Podliska is a self-described conservative Republican who once interned for the conservative Media Research Center.

MAJ. BRADLEY PODLISKA, U.S. AIR FORCE RESERVE: I just want to state for the record -- I'm not here to absolve Hillary Clinton of any wrongdoing. Hillary Clinton, in the end of this, is going to have a lot of explaining to do.

TAPPER (on camera): What do you think Hillary Clinton needs to explain?

PODLISKA: Unfortunately, I'm not permitted to get into any more details than that.

TAPPER (voice-over): Podliska says in March, the investigation took a turn after the "New York Times" broke the story of Hillary Clinton using a personal e-mail server for State Department business. After that happened, the investigation's broader focus narrowed, he says.

PODLISKA: And I was told that things were now changed. That this was going to be what they termed an agency-centric investigation. This actually meant they were going to focus on Hillary Clinton and on the State Department.

I was focused on other agencies, other individuals, other organizations that, you know, for the post-attack piece were responsible and I thought were culpable and should be held accountable for what they were doing.

TAPPER: Podliska had been mainly investigating the intelligence agencies and the post-Benghazi talking points, why the administration initially blamed the attacks incorrectly on an anti-Muslim video.

PODLISKA: In June, I was meeting also once again with senior leadership. And they told me -- they were angry at me. They said we know that you have your post-attack piece, only right wing nut jobs care about that.

And what they were referring to is they referring to Representative Jim Jordan. I'd worked very closely with Representative Jordan. I will say he's an honest, decent, trustworthy man. This guy rolled up his sleeves. He was willing to investigate any organization, any individual, any agency, as long as he could find the truth for the victims' families.

TAPPER: But now, Podliska is preparing to sue the committee for firing him he says because of his need to take time to serve in the Air Force Reserves and for objecting to what he calls a partisan hyper-focus on the Democratic presidential candidate.

The committee denies these charges saying in a statement that Podliska never mentioned Secretary Clinton at any time during his counseling for deficient performance or when he was terminated. The committee says as the mediation process prepares to wrap, he is demanded money from the committee. The committee has refused to pay him and he has now run to the press with his new salacious allegations about Secretary Clinton.

(on camera): As you know the committee says they fired you for other reasons including putting classified information on an unclassified system.

PODLISKA: Complete and total fabrication. I was accused of a security violation, along with several other people. When I asked them, "Hey, what here is classified, what classification manual did you use? He said, I didn't use a classification manual."

I said, "Honestly, like you could have gotten that information from Wikipedia that I put in there. How is this classified?" He backed down and he said, "Look, it's not classified. It's just sensitive information."

And I left it at that. The next thing I know, I was being charged with it for a security violation.

TAPPER: What do you say to any viewers out there who think you may have an ax to grind, that you're only talking because you were fired?

PODLISKA: I have a conscience. There's wrongdoing here and I think it needs to stop.

TAPPER (voice-over): Today, Democrats set out what they said was further evidence that the committee is only focused on Clinton, including abandoning plans to interview intelligence and defense officials and conducting monthly hearings with defense, state and intel officials involved.

(on camera): There are Democrats out there who want to disband the committee. Should the committee be disbanded?

PODLISKA: I don't believe so. No. I think this is a very important topic and I think that we have answers to provide both the victims' families and the public. The truth is, you know, it's out there. And I don't want to disband it.

TAPPER: Do you think that the results of the committee, based on what you saw, will be fair, comprehensive, thorough, professional, honest?

PODLISKA: No, it's not possible. The victims' families are not going to get the truth and that's the most unfortunate thing about this.

TAPPER (voice-over): Jake Tapper, CNN.


BLITZER: That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Las Vegas. "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.