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Interview With North Carolina Senator Richard Burr; Race War; Republican Debate. Aired 18-19:00p ET

Aired November 10, 2015 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Security shocker. Armed officers board a flight in Miami, scaring passengers as they search for a man with a suspicious bag. How did the TSA lose track of someone who might have posed a threat?

Race war plot. The FBI now says it's arrested two white supremacists who were planning to ignite racial tensions by bombing black churches and Jewish synagogues. Stand by for details.

And Christmas crusader. Donald Trump is on the attack again. This time, he's targeting Starbucks and its new holiday cup. Will the controversy energize voters?

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news

BLITZER: The breaking news this hour, CNN has learned that Egyptian security officials have interviewed and investigated each person who serviced the Russian plane before it took off from the Sharm el-Sheikh Airport and then broke apart in flight.

The source says all airport cameras, sensors and related information were confiscated, even before the crash was public. Here in the United States, intelligence sources are telling us that they are sharing more detailed scenarios about this disaster and theories that an airport insider planted a bomb on board.

Some officials tell CNN the bomb was likely made from a powerful military-grade plastic explosive that's easy to obtain.

Also tonight, a dramatic new security scare is adding concerns that America's airports are vulnerable to terrorists. Armed officers stormed a flight preparing for takeoff from Miami to search for a man with a suspicious bag who had gotten through security. I will ask the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee about all of that. Richard Burr, there you see him. He's standing by live, along with our correspondents and analysts. They're covering all the news that's breaking right now.

Up first, let's go to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.

Barbara, you're getting new information from your intelligence sources. Tell us what you're learning.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Good evening, Wolf. Based on the limited, highly classified intelligence that the U.S. does have, some fresh ideas are developing about what may have happened.


STARR (voice-over): As the U.S. tries to connect the dots on what happened to the Russian airliner, a working theory is emerging inside the U.S. government about the possible makeup of the plot.

More than half-a-dozen U.S. officials in various parts of the administration now believe it likely was a bomb. Officials stress, understanding what happened is critical for ensuring airline security.

JEH JOHNSON, U.S. SECRETARY OF HOMELAND SECURITY: Given the ongoing investigation, we are particularly focused on what happened, understanding what happened and what more we could do in that region.

STARR: But without direct access to evidence, bomb residue, wreckage, the data recorders, or the bodies, the U.S. cannot come to a firm conclusion. But the U.S. does have intercepted communications, radar readings, videos and photos of the wreckage to assess.

Based on that, U.S. officials tell CNN a likely scenario is emerging. They believe it is likely jihadists planted a bomb with a timer on the plane using someone with access on the ground. It was set for enough time to initiate explosion after takeoff.

The heat flash of the explosion picked up by a U.S. satellite along with reports of an intense explosion picked up on a flight recorder add to the U.S. view a highly dynamic bomb exploded, one official told CNN. The bomb was likely made in part by an easily obtainable military-grade explosive, like C-4, according to two American officials.

ANTHONY MAY, FORMER ATF EXPLOSIVES EXPERT: The groups that operate in that region from ISIS to al Qaeda to even Hamas, yes, they would have access to military-grade type of explosives. That's not a problem.


STARR: Now, all of this, of course, still very preliminary. If the U.S. gets more intelligence, the assessment, the very informal assessment they have right now could change -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Barbara. Thank you.

If ISIS is proven to be responsible for this Russian jet crash that killed all 224 people on board, it would be another huge advance for the terror group and its ability to commit mass murder and mayhem around the globe.

We have a chilling new look at the expansion of ISIS right now. Our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, is

joining us.

Jim, map all of this out for us.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: It's an alarming expansion just over the course of the last year.

Remember, this is their home base, where they were created, ISIS, Iraq and Syria. But over the course of the last 12 months, both through expanding, but also some terror groups pledging allegiance, in effect, to ISIS, look at how far they have gone. You have a group in Sinai, where this attack is alleged to have taken place, all across North Africa, Tunisia, where you will remember there was a beach attack, killed many British tourists earlier this year, expanding down here into Nigeria, but also into Yemen, for instance, normally home base of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.


Some changing of colors there by terror groups into Afghanistan, across the border into Pakistan, even into Russia, but this, of course, of greatest concern for Americans, because look at here in the U.S. How many states have had active investigations under way? Fifty states. And a full 18 states have had arrests for people attempting to join ISIS or attempting to provide material support for ISIS.

And then you have this case as well in Texas. You will remember, the shooting in Garland, Texas, two men who were believed to be inspired, possibly directed by ISIS to their target, which was a fair, a convention showing portraits, cartoons of the Muslim Prophet Mohammed.

So, over the course of that time, a group that started just in Iraq and Syria expanding to Africa, Europe, the Middle East, South Asia and the U.S. as well, remarkable expansion in a short amount of time.

BLITZER: Very chilling information. All right, Jim Sciutto, thanks very much.

Now to the rising fears about airport security right here in the United States after an apparent blunder in Miami that ended with armed officers searching an American Airlines flight.

Our aviation correspondent, Rene Marsh, has more now on what happened and the fallout.

Rene, the timing of this incident seems especially bad for the TSA.

RENE MARSH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we know that the TSA was forced to call in the FBI to join the search for a man authorities believed may have brought a suspicious package on to a flight.

It caused delays for hundreds of passengers. Officers were walking through one of the nation's busiest airports with guns in hand. And now tonight officials with the TSA are left having to explain themselves about what went wrong.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Everybody up. Everybody up in the front.

MARSH (voice-over): Police rushed on board this American Airlines flight Monday in search of a man with a suspicious package. Passengers were ordered to place their hands on their head.

CHERI MCGUIRE, PASSENGER: Half-a-dozen or so very large officers in SWAT gear entered the plane. They proceeded down the aisle looking at each passenger in the eye as if they were looking for someone.

MARSH: TSA, at Miami International Airport, initially allowed the man through a security checkpoint with a bag containing wires and cell phones. TSA later determined the bag was suspicious. Authorities spent the next several hours trying to find him.

LISA GOLDEN, PASSENGER: They came in and told everybody to get out. The airport was being evacuated.

MARSH: Seventy-three flights were delayed. Nine were diverted to other airports.

Darin Doty filmed this video seated just one row from where the man was finally detained.

DARIN DOTY, PASSENGER: This is the guy. And they just kind of jumped on him and said, sir, let me see your hands. You know, when they started yelling get your hands out of the bag, let me see your hands, that's when things kind of get a little hairy.

MARSH: The passenger was questioned, and released, the bag deemed safe.

CHAD WOLF, FORMER TSA ASSISTANT ADMINISTRATOR: The way that the procedures were written at checkpoint this, shouldn't happen. This is obviously a fault. This is -- TSA missed it in this case.

MARSH: As U.S. and British officials suggest someone may have smuggled a bomb on board the doomed Russian passenger plane, scrutiny continues over vetting of airport workers with secure access to airplanes here in the United States.

PETER NEFFENGER, TSA ADMINISTRATOR: This is a trusted population or should be a trusted population. So, I think there's work to be done there.

MARSH: There are close to a million workers at the more than 450 airports the TSA runs nationwide, often with direct access to an aircraft.

A government audit recently revealed TSA's vetting process for those workers was not effective for finding some basic criminal history. The report says thousands of records had incomplete or inaccurate biographical information.

WOLF: It becomes a reputation issue for the agency and it becomes a public perception issue.


MARSH: The TSA just sent a statement acknowledging the error at Miami International Airport, but TSA does not specify how it happened, only saying that they stopped the X-ray machine to conduct further screening on a carry-on bag, and in the process of transitioning other passengers to a different screening lane, Wolf, they lost track of the passenger and that suspicious bag.

BLITZER: Rene, thanks very much for that. Underscores how worried people are right now.

Let's get back to the investigation of the Russian airline disaster.

I'm joined by the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Republican Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina.

Mr. Chairman, thanks very much for coming in.

SEN. RICHARD BURR (R), NORTH CAROLINA: Good to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: I spoke with Sameh Shoukry, the foreign minister of Egypt, just a few minutes ago, in the last hour. He said that any U.S. involvement in this investigation would be strictly limited to the engines of that plane, the U.S.-made engines. It was an Airbus, but that was basically it.


Is that OK with you?

BURR: Well, listen, I would love to see the United States play a much bigger role in the investigation, especially the forensics, because we have got the best team at doing it, but, right now, we're going to be relying on the Russians and the Egyptians.

And we have extended to them any, any help that the U.S. can provide in law enforcement and in investigatory tools, and we continue to supply to all countries any intelligence that we think might lead to any clues as to what happened.

BLITZER: Well, he says flatly, Sameh Shoukry, the foreign minister of Egypt, the U.S. has not supplied that intelligence it has collected about what happened over Sinai. They're still waiting to receive that information.

BURR: Wolf, I think we have supplied to everybody everything that we have. It may not be everything they want, but everything that can be provided to a partner has been provided, and I think it has eliminated missiles, but it... BLITZER: Surface-to-air missiles.

BURR: Surface-to-air missiles.

But, certainly, we had a catastrophic explosion at altitude. And you would understand that, if ISIL within hours of an explosion like that takes credit, that you have got to seriously look at what involvement they may or may not have had.

BLITZER: So, the U.S. assessment right now and the U.K. assessment, I know the Israeli assessment, they have studied it, is that this was almost certainly a bomb that someone planted on that plane?

BURR: Well, certainly, we had a catastrophic explosion, and one would believe, since you have got people that took credit, therefore, it must be an explosion.

But to look at intelligence before an event, we use intelligence to make our best guess. After an event, we use intelligence to try to establish a line of facts. And until we get the forensics from that aircraft, from individuals who were on the plane, from luggage, and it shows an explosive residue, then we can't with any certainty say this was the cause.

BLITZER: So, you seem to be frustrated. And you're the chairman of the Intelligence Committee. I assume U.S. intelligence officials are frustrated that the Egyptians are not letting the U.S. get direct access to the site of that crash.

BURR: Well, I certainly think that we could lend to the investigation in a supplemental way. And, so far, we have not been able to do that, even with the offer of the FBI involvement.

BLITZER: We're hearing that it was a military-grade explosive, like C-4. Is that what you're hearing as well?

BURR: Well, I think, Wolf, today I wouldn't rule out anything, because you're in a war zone.

But what we have seen from ISIL is that they will go to whatever lengths possible to try to create an explosive if it can be used. So, I think that the options are unlimited as to what this might have been. But, clearly, in a combat zone, there is the opportunity for weapons-grade explosives.

BLITZER: And the assumption is, it was is in Sinai or some affiliate group? Is that the working assumption?

BURR: Well, I think that ISIS in the Sinai has taken the credit for them. And I don't want to second guess the credit that you're taking.

The reality is that ISIS is probably found in 14 or 15 countries in a significant, threatening way today, and their reach is far outside of just those 14 countries. BLITZER: The mass murderer or mass murderers in this particular

case, they are still at large. The Egyptians, Egyptian security sources say they have interviewed everybody at that airport that had access to that Russian jetliner.

The foreign minister didn't know if anyone had been detained or arrested at this point. What are you hearing about who these people might have been and if anyone -- if there are specific names of individuals who may have committed this act?

BURR: Well, I think it's safe to say we don't have names today or we would share those with our partners.

We have got a great partnership with Egypt. We want to see tourism flourish there. We want to bring an end to what happened in this tragedy. But the type of detail that's needed only can come with time, and I think that both the Egyptians and the Russians have to understand that we have got to finish this investigation and use the facts that we find to be able to search for the individuals who might have committed this act.

BLITZER: We're going to take a quick break, Mr. Chairman. We have a lot more to discuss, including potential U.S./Russian cooperation in this war against ISIS.

Much more with the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee when we come back.



BLITZER: We're following the breaking news in the investigation of that Russian airline disaster.

We're learning that Egyptian officials have interviewed everyone who serviced the jet as they investigate whether an airport insider planted a bomb on board, possibly at the direction of ISIS.

We're back with the Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, Richard Burr, the Republican from North Carolina.

The status of U.S. airports. TSA, there are, what, almost 900,000 people who work at U.S. airports, 450 airports across the country. Is enough being done to make sure there's no similar kind of event here in the United States that occurred at Sharm el-Sheikh?

BURR: Well, Wolf, certainly, we go through a very extensive process of screening the luggage, the luggage underneath, as well as the handheld.


And I think we have taken the prudent steps abroad to target a number of airports, we haven't named all of them, that we're doing an enhanced security review. We want to make sure that the American public, as well as others

who fly to this country, feel 100 percent secure. And I think that TSA and the Department of Homeland Security have certainly done the prudent things.

BLITZER: Should they be reassessing, though, taking some additional steps at foreign airports that have direct flight service to the United States and at U.S. airports themselves?

BURR: Oh, I would tell you that they're doing that.

And the -- the thought process on aviation security will change frequently now because we have had an incident. And that requires us to think just like the individuals do that want to carry out these acts.

BLITZER: The U.S. and Russia, they have serious differences right now. There's almost like a new Cold War, if you will.

But at the same time, the Russians hate ISIS, the U.S. has ISIS -- there's a war against ISIS. Should there be greater collaboration, cooperation between the U.S. and Russia right now, including intelligence-sharing, in going after ISIS?

BURR: Well, that's certainly something that's going to be discussed in the future, but included in that is not just the United States and Russia. It's our coalition partners in the Gulf states. It's individuals who surround the battle space today.

Turkey is a great example, Jordan. And I think we will come to something that we think is a workable agreement, or we will continue to prosecute the terrorism that we find and the barbaric acts of ISIL separately. But, at the end of the day, ISIL has to be eliminated.

BLITZER: And if the Russians take the lead in that, that's OK with you?

BURR: Well, I think that's OK. I'm not sure that any of us can do it by ourselves.

And the reality is that it -- this is probably one where a joint effort would be more productive and would shorten the timeline greatly.

BLITZER: It's a good -- a good point.

The whole notion of the motive for this destruction of this Russian plane, if it were ISIS, were they going after Russia, which is increasingly aggressive in Syria right now against ISIS, among others, or was it against Egypt, the government of President El-Sisi? These ISIS terrorists in Sinai, they hate this Egyptian government right now. What was the target?

BURR: Well, let me just say, I haven't seen a catastrophe in the region where ISIS hadn't taken credit for it. So, this is consistent. Even the things that they didn't do, they have taken credit for. At the end of the day, I think this probably, if it was an act

that was carried out that was not mechanical, it's probably an act that was directed to Russia. And I would expect that in the next 24 to 48 hours, if the Russians come to the same conclusion that many have publicly, then they will take some actions.

BLITZER: Last time we spoke here in THE SITUATION ROOM, you were concerned that the U.S. right now doesn't seem to have an overall strategy in dealing with this threat in the region. Are you still concerned about that?

BURR: I'm -- I'm probably more concerned today that we don't have a strategy. So, it's difficult to understand right now how we dovetail that into a Russian effort.

When Russia entered the space in Syria, it eliminated, really, the option of a no-fly zone where we can stop this massive fleeing of refugees.

Wolf, over 240,000 people killed in Syria, over four million refugees on their way either to border countries or to Europe, this is unsustainable. It's got to be stopped.

BLITZER: Four million refugees, external refugees, another seven million internally. They have been forced to flee their homes. This is the worst refugee crisis since World War II.

BURR: Without question.

And I think, had this happened at any other time, there would be an international coalition that would remove the individuals that caused it. Yet, we're still sitting here talking about Assad and...


BLITZER: So, what do you expect this Russian response to be? And you expect it to be soon, right?

BURR: Well, certainly, Russia has a tremendous amount of resources in the Syrian battlefield.

If they feel that ISIL has committed an act against Russia, then I wouldn't even try to guess what they might do.

BLITZER: But it could be pretty aggressive?

BURR: I think it could be pretty aggressive.

BLITZER: Within, what, 24 to 48 hours?

BURR: Oh, I think that that's a time frame, that they're the ones that are carrying out the investigation.

They can certainly tell whether there's explosive residue. If they don't take action, then we may be back talking about structural challenges to the plane, and that maybe it wasn't an explosive device. BLITZER: They have canceled all flights to Egypt, not just Sharm

el-Sheikh, but Cairo as well. So, I assume they think this was a terrorist attack.

BURR: Well, sometimes, when you look at a road map, it becomes very clear where you're headed, but you have still got to question the details.

BLITZER: So, what I'm hearing from you is, we should brace for a very aggressive Russian response.

BURR: Based upon what their action has been in Syria, I would expect that they would have a response.

BLITZER: Mr. Chairman, thanks very much for joining us.

BURR: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Richard Burr is the chairman of the Intelligence Committee.

Just ahead: the FBI's case against two men now accused of trying to ignite a race war here in the United States. Stand by for details on this alleged plot.


And tensions are still running high at the University of Missouri right now, after protests against racism forced two top officials to resign. How much will a change in leadership really matter?


BLITZER: Breaking news: two Virginia men, alleged white supremacists, arrested by the FBI and accused of plotting to bomb black churches and Jewish synagogues as part of a plan to start what they wanted, supposedly a race war in the United States.

Our justice correspondent, Pamela Brown, with details right now.

Pamela, tell us what you're learning about this alleged plot.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: I've been speaking to officials about this case, Wolf, and what we've learned is that these are two alleged white supremacists in Chesterfield, Virginia, who the FBI says plotted to kill black people and people of Jewish faith in furtherance of their extremist beliefs.

The complaint says that they planned on, quote, "shooting or bombing the occupants of black churches and Jewish synagogues, conducting acts of violence against persons of the Jewish faith, and doing harm to a gun store owner in the state of Oklahoma."

The FBI says that the men, Ronald Chaney and Robert Doyle, had planned to kill businessmen, a jeweler as well as the owner of a gun shop, in order to steal money, acquire weapons, and then take over land from there.

And they actually, the FBI says, met with an undercover agent, who was acting as an illegal arms dealer, in order to buy weapons as part of this scheme.

And they actually had -- were suspicious about this undercover agent. According to taped conversations, one of the men was suspicious that the agent was part of the ATF, but despite those suspicions, the men allegedly went forward with their plans to buy these weapons, and that is when they were arrested earlier this week. The FBI says they were trying to buy automatic weapons, explosives, and a pistol with a silencer -- Wolf.

BLITZER: In this criminal complaint, which I've read, the U.S. district court for the eastern district of Virginia, one of the two men says they were doing all this in preparation of what was described as a race war. What do we know about that?

BROWN: Very similar to what we heard by Dylann Roof. You remember the shooter in Charleston who killed nine, nine black members of a church there. These men had the same mentality, we're told, that essentially, sources say, the FBI says that they wanted to acquire money by killing a jeweler, killing a businessman, and then purchase land, according to this criminal complaint, stockpile weapons and train for, as you say, the coming race war; that they essentially wanted to begin paramilitary training on a compound by all this money they acquired from killing these businessmen.

But as one of the sources I spoke with said, these men were far off from actually accomplishing this goal, Wolf.

BLITZER: But they did have a plot, allegedly, if you read...

BROWN: Very concerning.

BLITZER: ... the U.S. district court criminal complaint. Very disturbing, indeed. All right, Pamela, thanks very, very.

Let's get some more. Joining us, our CNN anchor, Don Lemon; and the former federal prosecutor, our CNN legal analyst, Sunny Hostin.

Sunny, what's your reaction when you hear about these alleged white supremacists wanting to kill blacks, wanting to kill Jews? We all remember that Dylann Roof, a horrible situation, murdering nine people as they attended a Bible study class in that South Carolina church.

SUNNY HOSTIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I think it's horrifying that these kinds of plots are still in existence. We know in law enforcement that they really took place oftentimes in the '60s and early '70s, during the civil rights movement.

And so, I think the kudos goes to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the FBI, for, you know, stopping this type of plot. And I think that we have seen, at least with the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, that certainly, the FBI has been very proactive in making sure that these kinds of assassins, really, are stopped before their plots are hatched.

BLITZER: Don, you know, it's interesting that these alleged white supremacists, they obviously hate blacks; they hate Jews. That's sort of a common feature over the years, the FBI going after these so-called white supremacist groups.

DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, it certainly is, and it speaks to just how insidious and how awful and how engrained race and racism is in our society.

As someone who grew up in Louisiana, where the KKK -- this was back in the '80s -- would pass out literature on the corner of my high school, I'm not surprised that this happens. But this is just how insidious it is.

These men apparently were turning racism into a science. They were part of a sect, a Neopagan amalgam of Norse mythology and race science. So to them, this was a science, and they wanted to go off on land and, you know, create their own white culture or own white society.

It's insidious. I'm glad the FBI got them. And it just shows, again, just how engrained it is in our society.

BLITZER: I've spoken with some FBI agents who focus in on these threats, Sunny, and they say that potentially, there are more white supremacist terrorist threats out there than, let's say, al Qaeda or ISIS threats right here in the United States. What have you heard about that?

HOSTIN: I've heard the same thing. I mean, I have, certainly, a lot of friends in the Department of Justice, certainly people that are in the Civil Rights Division, just working on cases like this. And so, certainly, this isn't just a blip on the screen. This isn't sort of fringe activity that doesn't happen very often. You have people in the Department of Justice that are dedicating all of their time and careers to combat this kind of action.

LEMON: Right.

HOSTIN: So, you know, I think we all need to be aware that, as President Obama says, that you know, in order to perfect our union, we have to address this deep-rooted issue of racism that we have in our society.

LEMON: And Wolf, we spend a lot of time talking about, you know, jihadists and Muslim terrorists or what have you, but this is, according to the New American Foundation, that more people have been killed on American soil by white extremists than Muslim jihadists in the 14 years since 9/11.


LEMON: This is a huge terrorist problem, as well, that we don't focus on enough.

BLITZER: You're absolutely right.

All right, let's move on, Don. Let's talk a little bit about what's been going on at the University of Missouri. The NAACP president, Cornell William Brooks, he told me yesterday right here in THE SITUATION ROOM that the problem on that campus is not just on that campus, but it extends beyond that one campus, and you can go all over the country and find similar problems. What's your reaction when you hear that?

LEMON: Well, I think he's right. I mean, it's -- listen, we're talking about the story of these guys who were neo-Nazis or whatever sect they belong to down in South Carolina. So, what makes us think that it's not going to exist on college campuses?

These kids come from homes where they grow up and people have certain beliefs about certain types of people. So, yes, I think it definitely exists on college campuses.

I think it's great that the students there are standing up. I think the young people there did a great, great service to America, really, not only to the campus there, but to America, really, by pointing this, you know, what they believe is happening there, by pointing out what's going on, on campus.

BLITZER: And Sunny, Cornell William Brooks also told me that the football team there at the University of Missouri threatening not to play this coming Saturday, that was pivotal in the president's resignation, the chancellor's resignation, as well. I assume you agree.

HOSTIN: Yes, I think it was pivotal, because we now know that, had they not played and forfeited that game, it could have cost the university up to $1 million. And athletes and athletics, there's real power there.

I mean, I went to the university of Notre Dame. I know how powerful a message is coming from the athletic department, coming from the football team. And let's face it: we sort of hold these kids up as role models. And so, to have them, I think, take a stand, not just the black players, but really, almost the entire team, black and white, you know, sort of joining forces and making sure that their voices are heard in an act of student activism, I think is very, very important.

And we have seen, I think, many athletes sort of take up these important social justice issues that are going on right now. We remember many of the athletes wearing the "I can't breathe" T-shirts, just to name that one instance. So, I think that there's real power in athletics and real power in money.

BLITZER: I'm sure you're right. Sunny...

LEMON: That was a part, though, that had to, you know, make the change, because you know, the student was on a hunger strike for days.

BLITZER: Yes. LEMON: And then after the football team, 36 hours later, "Oh,

the money. We've got to do something."

BLITZER: Right. All right. Sunny Hostin, Don Lemon, guys, thanks very much.

Important note: Don will be back later tonight, much more on this, all the day's really important news, 10 p.m. Eastern on his program, "CNN TONIGHT."

Just ahead, Donald Trump's take on the race to the White House. Why is he calling it a strange election?


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If you try and hit your mother over the head with a hammer, your poll numbers go up! I never saw anything like it.



[18:43:29] BLITZER: Republican presidential hopefuls are preparing to face off tonight in Milwaukee in their latest debate. And for the leading candidates, the pressure, the attacks, the scrutiny have all ramped up significantly since their last contest almost two weeks ago.

Chief political correspondent Dana Bash, is in Milwaukee for us.

Dana, it's a big night for Donald Trump, for Ben Carson, for Marco Rubio, and especially, shall I say, for Jeb Bush.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, for all of them, but Ben Carson in particular. You know, he is notoriously mellow at these debates, but a source close to him tells me that he's actually been pretty fired up behind the scenes, mostly because of all of the scrutiny of his past statements, and we may see a different side of him tonight.


TRUMP: People are getting away with murder. I never saw anything like this.

BASH (voice-over): Without a hint of irony, the billionaire reality TV star who rewrites political rules every day is calling out Ben Carson for an unconventional campaign.

TRUMP: You stab somebody, and the newspapers say, "You didn't do it!" This is the only election in history where you're better off if you stab somebody.

BASH: For Carson, anecdotes about overcoming a pathological temper as a child, like attempting to hit his mother with a hammer, is a selling point for many GOP voters, enthralled with his story of redemption, but Trump is trying to reframe it as just plain crazy.

TRUMP: If you try and hit your mother over the head with a hammer, your poll numbers go up! I never saw anything like it.

BASH: The Carson campaign is now trying to diffuse that situation with some humor, releasing this new top ten spoof video of Carson's youthful indiscretions.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Then Ben Carson checked out a library book and returned it two days late.

BASH: While Carson and Trump battle for front-runner status, another drama will be playing out tonight -- Jeb Bush versus his former protege, Marco Rubio.

JEB BUSH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Or just resign and let someone else take the job.

BASH: Bush's direct hit on Rubio in the last debate two weeks ago back-fired, big time.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you.

BASH: Ahead of tonight's debate, team Rubio released a video called "before the phony attacks," Bush in his own words praising Rubio.

BUSH: I'm a huge Marco fan.

BASH: The Bush campaign released its own game-day video featuring their candidate the way they wish voters would see hem, an energetic, conservative leader.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE) affirmative action, pro-life --

BUSH: We're always different, everyone's different. Everyone's different.

BASH: Team Bush says they're being bombarded by often conflicting advice about how to resurrect his fledgling candidacy. "The New York Times" reports the Bush super PAC, legally forbidden from talking to the campaign, is testing an attack on Rubio as unelectable, in part because he opposes any abortion exceptions.

RUBIO: When there is conception, that is a human life in the early stages of its total development, and it is worthy of the protection of our laws.


BASH: Now, going after Rubio as unelectable because he is too extreme on abortion may be a good line of attack for a Democrat in a general election, but, Wolf, when you're talking about Republican primary voters, the idea that he is conservative and maybe sticks to principle on that is only potentially helpful, not hurtful. WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: All right, Dana, I want you to stand

by. I want to bring in our senior political reporter, Nia-Malika Henderson, our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger and our CNN national political report Maeve Reston.

Gloria, Donald Trump calling this a strange election. It is a very strange election.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Right, I would say, he's one of the reasons it's a very strange election. We're not used to somebody calling an opponent a lightweight, as he called Marco Rubio today.

But I must say, I agree with Donald Trump, and Dana played part of that clip, where he said, this is the only election in history where you're better off if you stabbed somebody, referring to Dr. Ben Carson. And that is true, because it's part of his narrative about his personal salvation. And I must say, he's right, it is strange.

BLITZER: It's very strange what's going on right now.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: There is, and we'll see how that plays out tonight in the undercard debate and the main stage debate. Do they mix it up, Carson and Trump, or do they have a kind of bromance like they did in the last debate?

BORGER: I don't think they're going to have that this time.

HENDERSON: We'll see -- we'll see what happens, because I think before, Trump went after him, but then couldn't really pull it off in a debate, but we'll see.

BLITZER: Do you think any of this, Maeve, is going to come up tonight, for example, the questions about Dr. Ben Carson's personal history, if you will, the autobiography, some of the questions that have been raised about the accuracy of some of those assertions in his story?

MAEVE RESTON, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER: Well, I think that this is something, certainly, that Donald Trump has been talking about over the last couple of days. And Ben Carson's campaign, which has refused to cooperate with us since the beginning asking -- we've asked them to connect us to some of the victims and eyewitnesses in these incidents -- has said that, you know, the public has moved on.

But Donald Trump, apparently, doesn't see it that way. We know that Dr. Carson has raised a lot of money off of this, and you know, we're just still waiting and hoping that more of these people who were involved in these violent incidents will come forward and talk to us. We have not been able to find any eyewitnesses thus far in our own reporting, and it's just sort of a weird twist to the campaign.

BLITZER: The campaign, as you know, is pointing to that "Parade" magazine article back in 1997, including an interview with Dr. Ben Carson's mother in which she confirmed his violent past. What have you discovered about that? RESTON: Well, that was a very interesting story. I mean, we

know that Dr. Carson has told a lot of people this story over the years. He has talked about it openly on the campaign trail. And I mean, what the "Parade" story told us is that it's something that he also discussed with his mother.

But as I said, we have not been able to find any classmates who can recall these kinds of repeated, violent outbursts that he's described, hitting other kids with bricks and bats and rocks. And so, we're continuing to do that reporting, and maybe some people will come forward and confirm those accounts.

BLITZER: Gloria, do you think the candidates, the Republican candidates, the eight candidates on the main stage tonight, are really going to clash, or are they going to stick to the substance? We know that the moderators want to talk about the economy and other significant jobs-related issues.

BORGER: You know, I think it depends very much on the questions they're asked, Wolf. If they're asked about the Federal Reserve and they're asked about the debt ceiling and they're asked about the budget deficit and their health care plans, they may clash on substance.

[18:50:07] But if they're prodded to say and if the moderators say you said this about this one, and what did this one say, then they will clash.

I was just communicating with somebody who works for Marco Rubio who said, look, he's going to answer substantive questions and he's going to project calm, confidence and control. So that's what they all want to do to tell you the truth.

BLITZER: Dana Bash is there in Milwaukee covering this debate for us tonight. This is a huge moment for Jeb Bush tonight, as well. We know he's got a media coach. He's been gearing up for it.

This is really significant, right, Dana?

BASH: Of course. Having said that, I think at this point after watching him so many times on the debate stage, nobody is expecting him to hit a home run and completely change the course of his campaign. It's just -- it's not going to happen in a debate unless something really, really dramatic changes.

And so, I think just in talking to Bush sources, the goal is to do no harm and to try to be as much as who he is as possible. He has really been getting so many conflicting pieces of advice over the past 13 days or so since he had very -- I mean, he admits, a terrible debate performance in Boulder, Colorado.

So, you know, talking to his campaign, talking to the sources who I'm talking to, my question has been is he going to pull a "go after Rubio" stunt, frankly, again? And the answer is, we'll see how the debate goes. They're not ruling it out. But it's hard to imagine trying that again when it didn't go well last time. BLITZER: It was awkward, Nia, the last time when he tried.

HENDERSON: It was awful. It was terrible. Rubio certainly got the best of him and was prepared for it. And Bush wasn't prepared to sort of follow through and wasn't prepared for a comeback. So, he -- I think that's one of the reasons why he has finally decided that he needs that debate coach.

I do think it is dangerous to go into a debate with all these competing voices in your head, whether it's your debate coach, or your campaign manager, or pundit and then, of course, your own sense how you need to do.

BORGER: You know, he has to be comfortable. And the truth of the matter is that Jeb Bush is not an attack dog.


BORGER: It's not where he comes. It's not what he does. He'd rather be discussing the debt ceiling and budge deficit and health care.



BORGER: And if he sticks to that tonight, maybe he'd show himself to be substantive, which is what he wants to do.

BLITZER: Let's see how it goes. Guys, thanks very, very much.

This important note to our viewers, please be sure to join Anderson Cooper for a special "AC360" post-debate wrap-up, looking at the issues that dominated the discussions, some fact-checking of the candidates, seeing who came out ahead. That airs tonight live at 11:00 p.m. Eastern right here on CNN.

Just ahead, Donald Trump weighing a Starbucks boycott as he joins the fight against the so-called "war on Christmas".


[18:57:32] BLITZER: Conservative Christians who think there is a so-called "war on Christmas" here in the United States are getting some high-profile backing. Donald Trump is supporting their cause, possibly picking up critical support for his campaign in return.

CNN's Tom Foreman is with us here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Trump is jumping into this whole battle right now.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, absolutely. Wolf, he is embracing the "War on Christmas" meme, he is talking about Starbucks, talking about Christian values and clearly trying to talk himself into good graces of evangelical Christian voters.


FOREMAN (voice-over): Call it an early holiday gift, call it the Starbucks bonanza, but now, the Starbucks consumers can get their Joe with no cream, no sugar, no obvious sign of Christmas, Trump is joining the slow boil of outrage among some conservatives.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES: You can call this anything you want, but if I become president, we are all going to be saying "Merry Christmas" again -- that I can tell you. That I can tell you.

FOREMAN: There is more than coffee at stake. Religious voters are a cornerstone of the GOP base. In 2012, evangelicals accounted for a majority of votes in the early states of Iowa and South Carolina. And 42 percent of all Mitt Romney support in the general election.

No wonder this year's candidates are eager to talk faith.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We're a nation that has enjoyed God's blessing.

MIKE HUCKABEE (R), PRESIDENTIL CANDIDATE: Knowledge can be googled, but wisdom comes from above.

BEN CARSON (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And I don't in any way deny my faith in God.

FOREMAN: Still, Trump is in a unique spot.

TRUMP: I have one of the most successful Starbucks in Trump Tower. Maybe we should boycott Starbucks. I don't know. Seriously. I don't care.

By the way, that's the end of that lease, but who cares?

FOREMAN: After all, look at this 2010 card from his hotel chain with "Happy Holidays" looming large. The same is true with many of his tweets. Even as late as last year, he was routinely using the phrase he now wants to toss out like day-old coffee.

TRUMP: The "happy holiday", you can leave that in the corner. Happy holiday, everybody. Enjoy it. But I'm saying merry Christmas who whoever the hell wants to hear it.


FOREMAN: In fairness, we don't have all of Trump's tweets or corporate messages. Or maybe he's used "Merry Christmas" a lot, too -- but, clearly, not as exclusively as he's using it now with a big debate looming and a big election at stake -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Tom Foreman, thanks very much.

That's all the time we have today. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.