Return to Transcripts main page


U.S. Special Ops Forces on the Ground in Syria; Report: ISIS Using Civilians as Shields in Raqqah; Secret Service Agent's Gun Stolen Near White House; San Bernardino Couple Met All Visa Requirements; Trump Uses Vulgarity in Attack on Clinton; Ted Cruz Rises in the Polls; No Charges in Sandra Bland Case. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired December 22, 2015 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, final assault. Fighting is brutal, as Iraqi troops push to reattack a city they lost to ISIS. Backed by U.S. airstrikes, do they now have what it takes to drive the terror group out of Ramadi?

[17:00:36] Secret Service slip-up. Another black eye for the people who protect the president, as an agent has his gun and badge stolen from his car in broad daylight not far from the White House.

Trump's vulgarities. The Republican frontrunner crudely mocks Hillary Clinton for taking a bathroom break and uses a nasty word to describe her 2008 campaign loss. But a new poll shows half of U.S. voters would be embarrassed to have Donald Trump as president.

And no charges. A grand jury decides not to indict anyone in the jail cell death of Sandra Bland. But one presidential candidate says she would be alive today if she were a white woman.

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news, U.S. boots are on the ground right now in Syria. A small group of U.S. Special Operations forces now back in northern Syria to advise local fighters battling ISIS. Officials call it the next step in the fight against the terror group over in Syria.

All this comes as Iraqi forces are fighting right now to retake a city captured by ISIS. Backed by Shiite fighters and U.S. airstrikes Iraqi troops pushing for the center of Ramadi. But the battle is brutal and made more difficult by concerns that the terror group is using civilians as human shields.

And Donald Trump is on the offensive with more vulgar insults on the campaign trail. Making a face, he mocks Hillary Clinton for a mid- debate restroom break and uses a somewhat obscene term from another language to describe her loss to Barack Obama back in 2008.

But there are signs that voters are turned off by all of this. A new poll shows half of them would be, quote, "embarrassed" if Trump became president. I'll speak Republican -- with Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz. And our correspondents, analysts and guests, they'll have full coverage of all the day's top stories.

Let's begin with the breaking news and our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.

Barbara, U.S. Special Ops forces, they're back inside Syria right now. What are you learning?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, very sensitive information. We are being told, and we have learned that they are back inside northern Syria, not the location, and not how many are there, very sensitive. Obviously due to security.

Not entirely unanticipated. The State Department openly acknowledge the several days ago an initial reconnaissance party had gone in to check things out. Now back inside northern Syria.

What will they be doing there? They are going to work with local fighters on the ground -- Kurds, Arabs -- and try and develop more of an anti-ISIS capability in northern Syria up along the border with Turkey. This has been a real effort over the last several weeks to get them in there, to keep them very low-profile but hope that they can make real progress in the Syrian portion of the president's anti- ISIS strategy -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara, across the border, in Iraq, there's a major battle under way right now to try to retake a major city from ISIS. What are you hearing?

STARR: Wolf, that battle is now raging. How long have we been talking, you and I, about the weeks and months of trying to get Iraqi forces ready to retake Ramadi? Now finally, the Iraqis seem to be making some progress.

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

Meantime, ISIS has been taking a pounding from the air in its self- declared capital of Raqqah. But the terrorists are hiding among civilians. They're using residents as human shields, and even precision strikes aren't precise enough to avoid innocent casualties.

CNN's Brian Todd has been looking into all of this for us. Brian, a real dilemma there. Some targets, they know there are terrorists there, but also are a lot of civilians.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: There are, Wolf. You know, tonight U.S. military officials are under intensifying pressure to target ISIS militants and officials inside Raqqah, the stronghold in that city in Syria.

A U.S. military official tells us tonight that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, not him, but this man, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, is under a more pressure but also able to move in and out of the city fairly freely under airtight security.

The question of whether to target leaders like him and avoid civilian casualties is weighing heavily inside the White House and on the minds of those who want to be the next commander in chief. And we have to warn viewers, some images in this story some might find disturbing.


[17:05:13] TODD (voice-over): The city bust into our consciousness with these horrific images, enemies of ISIS killed in battle, their severed heads displayed on poles in the city's center. Crucifixes of nonbelievers, out in the open for passing residents to see.

Western journalists can't get into Raqqah, but residents and human rights groups say atrocities are part of life in this ISIS stronghold. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights tells CNN city hall in Raqqah houses ISIS administrators, police and fighters. "The New York Times" reports the top floors of city hall are a dorm for fighters.

(on camera): Outside observers might think that city hall would be a prime target for coalition bombing. Why is that BUILDING still standing?

FAYSAL ILAN, THE ATLANTIC COUNCIL: The complicated thing the collection of buildings, it's sort of intermeshing of civilian and ISIS, and ISIS infrastructure. In one of these buildings, for example, civilian prisoners are being held for relatively minor offenses on one of the floors. On the floor above it is where those same civilians are being tried.

TODD (voice-over): Tonight a top challenge for U.S. military officials under extreme pressure to intensify their campaign against ISIS in the wake of Paris and San Bernardino, how to target key ISIS leaders and fighters who mix in with the civilian population in Raqqah.

ANDREW TABLER, WASHINGTON INSTITUTE FOR NEAR EAST POLICY: They've use then as human shields -- civilians as human shields. Second, they quarter troops in buildings where there are other civilians, as well. They also store weapons in civilian buildings, as well.

TODD: It's a challenge that's been a point of contention in the presidential campaign. Republican Senator Ted Cruz appeared to favor a scorched-earth offensive to target ISIS, then backed off.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We will carpet bomb them into oblivion.

You would carpet bomb where ISIS is, not a city but the location of the troops.

TODD: President Obama responded by telling NPR the risk of killing innocent civilians is not acceptable.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: That is not who we are. And that would be a strategy that would have an enormous backlash against the United States. It would be terrible for our national security.

TODD: Could the most sophisticated American officials strike places like Raqqah's city hall with precision and take out only ISIS's militants?

ILAN: By their own admission, there are no munitions that can do that from the air without being up close on the ground.


TODD: And there are no forces on the ground for the U.S.-led coalition inside Raqqah. Human intelligence there is limited. Analysts say there is good air surveillance, and that is how Jihadi John, believed to have been killed in mid-November by a drone, was targeted.

He was reportedly spotted in the city of Raqqah near the clock tower in the center of Raqqah. That's the clock tower. And he was spotted along this street in the open, in the predawn hours, and was hit with little or no risk of civilian casualties -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian, very much the opposite, we're told, of the way the -- the opposite of the way the U.S. is waging this air campaign. The Russians, they are bombing, as well. And if you believe what some analysts are suggesting, their targeting is much more indiscriminate.

TODD: That's right. They were accused of that, Wolf. Now Human Rights Watch says Russian airstrikes killed dozens of civilians in the city of Homs in October. And this past weekend human rights groups told British newspapers that Russian airstrikes killed scores of people in the Western Syrian city of Idlib. The Russians have consistently denied doing this.

BLITZER: Brian Todd with the very latest, thanks very much.

Joining us now, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Republican congressman Jason Chaffetz of Utah.

Mr. Chairman, thanks very much for joining us. I want to get your reaction to a wide range of these breaking developments right now. You heard Barbara Starr reporting U.S. Special Operations forces there now on the ground in northern Syria. Do you expect progress from this effort?

REP. JASON CHAFFETZ (R), UTAH: I expect progress overall. I want the president to develop a strategy, and I want to be able to convey that to the U.S. military. Our United States military can accomplish anything it chooses to do, if the mission is clear and there aren't so many politically correct hamperings of their ability to execute on that. So, set the mission, and let the military do it, they'll get it done.

BLITZER: What's your understanding, Congressman, right now? The current U.S. strategy in Syria, the fight against ISIS?

CHAFFETZ: I think the No. 1 thing in the fight against ISIS is we cannot allow them to hold any ground. They just cannot hold ground. And that doesn't mean you can just carpet bomb. That -- that's not going to actually win the war. You're going to actually have people on the ground. I'm not saying those are necessarily going to be U.S. troops, but we've got to be able to have a coalition and empower people to go in and clear it, literally room by room by room, in order to get it done.

BLITZER: Would you go so far, some have suggested, cooperating with regime of Bashar al-Assad, which is also fighting ISIS, to get their involvement, their support, in trying to destroy that so-called caliphate?

[17:10:02] CHAFFETZ: Again, this is what makes it terribly difficult and why the president needs to introduce a strategy that is crystal clear and execute on that. Thus -- thus far the president has not done that.

So that would make it terribly complicated. It's not necessarily the first choice in the way to get it done. But we've got to build a coalition of people, not just our allies but others in order to get it done.

BLITZER: Do you think there should be a congressional resolution authorizing the military -- the use of military force against ISIS in Syria?

CHAFFETZ: I do. I think we should call terrorists "terrorists." I think we should call a war "a war." I think we should provide clarity and then give the moral support, the funding that it needs, and the clarity that the families and those that are fighting that they need in order to get it done.

I do think Congress should have the president come, make the case, and then we should vote on that.

BLITZER: The administration says they're ready for such a vote, but it hasn't come up. You're a leader in the Republican majority in the House of Representatives. Why hasn't a resolution been put forward where members can stand and vote yea or nay on this authorization for the use of military force against ISIS?

CHAFFETZ: There does need to be such a resolution. It's something I would look forward to debating, but I think the administration also has to provide clarity as to what -- how long that would go. We don't want to give them a blank check to last forever. And I would look forward to having such a debate and having such a vote.

BLITZER: So -- so, what I hear you saying is you want such a vote. You just want specific language. Because I know, at least on the Senate side, there is specific language, Senator Kaine, among others, they've been pushing this for well over a year.

CHAFFETZ: Yes, there's a lot of people that, on both sides of the aisle, that are resistant to this. Some would argue that that authority is already there.

Look, if there's a clear and present danger to the United States of America, the president could, should, and must, act decisively and immediately. But if you're going to engage U.S. troops in an ongoing war, then I think you need to come get that authorization from U.S. Congress. Presidents on both sides of the aisle have skirted past this, and I think it's wrong. I think it should change.

BLITZER: A lot of people agree with you on that. Let's talk a little bit about what's going on in Iraq right now. This assault to try to recapture the city of Ramadi by the Iraqi military. The U.S. is involved to a certain degree, from the air, but the Iraqi government says they don't want U.S. troops involved. They would rather be aligned with Iran right now and the Shiite militias. When you hear that, what goes through your mind?

CHAFFETZ: We have spent billions of dollars and an untold amount of U.S. blood in order to make that -- that opportunity for Iraq to be as free as we could possibly make it. And I want them to have nothing but success.

I hope, I hope, that that training and that money and those resources have been used wisely. But everything I've seen so far gives me real questions and doubt about that. But again, it's about seizing back the territory, and I feel for those people that are trying to make it happen.

Congressman, we have a lot more to discuss, including the latest problem that the U.S. Secret Service has. Your committee oversees the Secret Service. We'll assess what's going on. A major, major blunder not far from the White House. We'll be right back.


[17:16:13] BLITZER: We're talking with Congressman Jason Chaffetz. But I want to bring you a story first reported on CNN. Congressman, stand by for a moment.

In another black eye for the U.S. Secret Service, an agent's gun, badge, and other items have been taken from his car close to White House.

Let's go to our senior Washington correspondent, Joe Johns.

Joe, what are you learning?

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it's really surprising and more trouble for the Secret Service, not only because an agent's gun and badge are missing but also, because it appears to have been a brazen car break-in during the day in Washington, D.C., not far from Secret Service headquarters.


JOHNS (voice-over): The U.S. Secret Service, charged with protecting the president and first family, facing another blunder, this time an agent said to work in the presidential protective division has his service weapon, badge, and other items stolen from his car. It happened in broad daylight outside Secret Service headquarters about a mile from the White House.

RON KESSLER, AUTHOR, "FIRST FAMILY DETAIL": This is a total violation of basic security rules involving any law enforcement to allow a gun, a badge, to be locked up in a car, left unattended.

JOHNS: The D.C. Police report reveals what was taken: the black handgun, his radio, handcuffs, a flash drive, a backpack and a badge. Secret Service declined to comment on the incident, but a law enforcement official said the USB is encrypted and password protected, and its theft does not appear to be a threat to the agency.

But it's still fresh fodder for critics who had already been harping on the agency's record.

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D), MARYLAND: They are supposed to be guarding the president of the United States of America.

KESSLER: It goes back to a really rotten management culture in the Secret Service, which condones corner cutting, laxness.

JOHNS: The incident adds to a long list of Secret Service breaches and embarrassments in the last few years.

Just last month a man was taken into custody after jumping over a White House fence while the first family was inside celebrating Thanksgiving.

Also in November, a Secret Service officer assigned to the White House was arrested after he was caught in a sting, allegedly sending naked picture of himself to someone he thought was a 14-year-old girl.

Last September, a man jumped the White House fence with a knife in his pocket, reaching the mansion's doors and ran through much of the main floor, past a stairway that leads up to the first family's residence.


JOHNS: Now we understand from talking to law enforcement that there is a way to disable the Secret Service radio that was stolen, so there's not a lot of fear that someone could be using it to listen to proprietary Secret Service communications.

The D.C. Police report said the agent saw someone reach into the vehicle, but he did not see him take anything out -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Joe Johns, thanks very much.

We're back with Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz of Utah. He's the chairman of the House Oversight Government Reform Committee.

You just studied the U.S. Secret Service recently, putting out a very lengthy report. When you hear about this latest incident, Congressman, what's your reaction?

CHAFFETZ: These things can't keep happening. They have a deep-seated cultural problem. And one of the things that we unearthed in this bipartisan report that we did with Elijah Cummings is the deep lack of training.

The average person who works for the Secret Service goes through training equivalent to about 25 minutes per year. Per year. And so when you have somebody who's outside normal protocol, isn't adhering to the normal practices of any law enforcement agency, I want to go back and see, is it just one problematic person or was this something that is systemic throughout the organization?

But you can't do that. You can't leave your service revolver in a car that evidently, all it needed to do was be unzipped. It was just a plastic covering to get at this weapon, and that's just not right.

BLITZER: The gun, the badge, the radio, the handcuffs, the flash drive, all stolen. Obviously, these individuals they're entrusted to protect the president's life, the first family. How does something like this potentially even happen?

CHAFFETZ: I don't know, but the problem is it keeps happening. And that's -- that's the -- look, when you have an agency as large as Homeland Security, somebody's going to do something stupid somewhere.

But the Secret Service, time and time again, continues to have a blunder in a no-fail mission, and that's, again, why we continue to highlight that. Not just embarrassing, because most of the people working there are good, patriotic dutiful people. But the problem is, they have this culture that allows these types of things to happen. And I'll be fascinated to see what kind of punishment this person gets.

BLITZER: As you heard in Joe Johns' report, and as you well know better than anyone, the agency certainly has been hit by a string of controversies and incidents in the past year or two. Do you have confidence in the current director?

CHAFFETZ: You know, three times in a row, we have had directors that have provided false or misleading testimony to Congress. The cultural problems have not improved. So I think we need to elevate that. I think we need to look at the secretary of homeland security, Jeh Johnson. Because we have the same problems happening with director after director. I think the question needs to go to the secretary and the president himself.

BLITZER: Let's move on talk about some other issues right now, really disturbing issues. And hearing last week, as you know, it was revealed that the government has no idea how many of the more than 9,000 people whose visas to the United States were revoked for possible ties to terrorism actually still remain in the United States right now. You heard that. Did this scare you?

CHAFFETZ: It scares the living daylights out of me. State Department in the written testimony said they revoked, since 9/11, 122,000 visas, but of those -- those that were revoked, 9,500 because of ties to terrorism.

And I asked them, where are these people? And they just -- it was crickets. They had no idea. And these -- somebody in the State Department knew that there was a tie to terrorism revoked a visa, and they're still here potentially? They've got to answer this question. I don't think they have a clear. BLITZER: We're also learning more about Tashfeen Malik, the wife of

the San Bernardino killer, Syed Rizwan Farook. The couple, as you know, met online. They had legal requirements to get her a visa, fiance visa in the United States.

We're now looking at that application. They've just released it. There were no red flags in her case at all. She passed accordingly, apparently with flying colors. But both of them were radicalized long before the visa was issued. How can this be?

CHAFFETZ: Well, as the House judiciary chairman, Bob Goodlatte, pointed out, they didn't necessarily pass with flying colors. You can't just go to and talk online and then suddenly expect to get a visa to come to the United States of America. I'm not saying they went to that particular website, but you can't just chat online and then come here. There is a requirement where you meet in person. And there was no evidence in that file that says that they actually met in person.

In fact, the person who was at homeland security, or at state that was supposed to be looking at this file, requested a translation, never got it. But the visa was still approved.

And so it begs the question, how did this visa get approved? And where is documentation that these people actually met in person in order to get this K-1 visa?

BLITZER: Well, there's a letter in the documentation that they released today from Syed Rizwan Farook, the husband, saying he was in Saudi Arabia, Mecca, performing the Hajj at exactly the same time she was. "My fiancee and her family drove from Riyadh to Mecca, so that we could meet. And it is on this day that we got engaged." That's what he claims in the affidavit that he provided the State Department.

CHAFFETZ: One of the people entered into Saudi Arabia starting in June, I believe it was June 4, on a 60-day visa. Are you telling me that he overstayed -- one of those people overstayed their visa. Because the other didn't enter into Saudi Arabia until October.

And so, I think, as pointed out by the Judiciary Committee, which I happen to serve, I think there's a legitimate question. Where is the proof that they actually met in person and fell in love, enough so that our government felt compelled to allow them to come in and into the United States of America? They did not follow that protocol. It certainly is a big question mark that we want some answers for.

BLITZER: I'm sure you do. So what's the most important thing they need to do right now to make sure this doesn't happen again?

CHAFFETZ: Well, you have Ben Rhodes out there, going on all of the Sunday morning talk shows, talking about how well these people are vetted, the deep investigations and they're checking all of the files. Not just for the refugees, but how about all of the other visas that are here? How about the 50-plus thousand people that claim asylum in this country? You know, most of these interviews, Wolf, happen on the telephone.

They don't even necessarily happen in person. In Lebanon, if you're trying to get this done, we have a team that comes in and does some quick interviews.

[17:25:13] I think we're deeply concerned that, if you're going to bring in people to the United States, they have to be vetted. I don't think that's an unreasonable ask. I really don't.

BLITZER: Ben Rhodes is the president's deputy national security adviser. Congressman, thanks very much for joining us.

CHAFFETZ: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Merry Christmas to you and your family, as well.

CHAFFETZ: Thank you.

BLITZER: Coming up, does the visa system provide terrorists with dangerous loopholes they can exploit? We're digging deeper with our experts. That's coming up. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


[17:29:03] BLITZER: We're learning that the San Bernardino couple played it by the book in their visa application. They got that fiance visa.

Let's discuss what we're learning with the former U.S. Congresswoman, Jane Harman. She was the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee. She's now the president and CEO of the Wilson Center here in Washington. Also joining us, our national security analyst, Peter Bergen; and our intelligence and security analyst, Bob Baer. He's a former CIA official.

Peter, these visa application, the 21-page application, I've seen it. It looks like they went through the regular route. But you heard what the congressman, Jason Chaffetz, said. There's no evidence the two of them actually met before the U.S. government allowed her in with that fiance visa.

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, and that's usually what you're looking for in these applications, is fraudulent claims that you're actually married. So forget about the jihadi influence, which of course, they weren't going to volunteer. The fact is that it doesn't -- we don't know for a fact that these people had ever met or in the way that they claimed in their visa application.

BLITZER: Let me ask Jane Harman. As you know, Congress has been holding hearings on this issue, finding gaps in the entire visa program. After reading the application, what more do you believe needs to be done to improve this process?

[17:30:16] JANE HARMAN, FORMER U.S. CONGRESSWOMAN: Well, I haven't read the entire application, I have to confess. But we have to know, we should have known that she went to a Madrassa where young women are radicalized. We should have known that. She might not have confessed ties to terrorism. I don't think she was asked about that. But certainly, that question has to be asked. And the people interviewing have to be very sophisticated in order to tease out answers.

And yes, I agree also with Peter, that we need proof that they actually met and that this isn't just a sham performance, which I think it was. And as we've discussed on the show before, Wolf, they had a baby; and that baby seemed to be a prop for what was an absolutely cold-blooded plot to inflict terror on the largest number of people in their community.

BLITZER: Yes, 14 people dead as a result.

Bob Baer, let's take a look at what's going on in Iraq right now. As you know, Iraqi military forces, they're moving steadily toward the ISIS city of Ramadi in hopes of taking back that city. It fell earlier this year. It's prompting questions about the Iraqi military's ability to even deal with ISIS. They certainly can't deal with ISIS in Mosul. Has anything really changed?

BOB BAER, INTELLIGENCE AND SECURITY ANALYST: Well, it has, Wolf. They've made progress the last couple days. They've gotten into almost central Ramadi, which is important for them. It's the first victory since, really, Tikrit. Absolutely crucial for them to get there, and they're not using militias. And they're able to get through the ISIS IEDs.

They're using what's called in-strike breaching, which lets them blow these things up and move very quickly into areas. So they are doing better. I mean, it surprises me, but I'm encouraged by this. But what they have to do now, of course, is set up, once they occupy that city, find a way to govern it without bringing in -- back the Shia militias.

BLITZER: Because, as you know, when the Iraqi forces ran away from Ramadi back in May, and simply abandoning their positions in the face of a few hundred ISIS terrorists who came in that that time the defense secretary, Ash Carter, questioned whether the Iraqis even had the will to fight, his words.

Does this show they have a renewed -- the U.S. should have a little bit more confidence in the Iraqi military? Because the fear is, the ISIS troops will regroup. They'll come back. They'll run away again?

BAER: I think they do. I mean, it's good. I think -- I think the Islamic State's in trouble. I think we talked about this a while ago, that this thing couldn't last forever. It's so violent, so repressed, totalitarian that it just could not govern in the long term.

And I think with an improved Iraqi army, things are starting to turn a corner here, and it's -- it's good.

BLITZER: Is Ramadi all that significant, Peter?

BERGEN: Highly significant, because it's one of the most, if not the most significant city in Anbar province, which is a third of the land mass of Iraq. And you know, it sort of ISIS central in Iraq, in addition to Mosul. If you can get Ramadi back, I mean, you're halfway to taking Mosul back. So I think it's highly significant.

BLITZER: Do you think the Iraqis can realistically, A, take Ramadi, Jane, and then eventually retake Mosul? It's been a couple of years. The largest -- second largest city in Iraq, a city of some 2 million people, which they abandoned and left a lot of U.S. armor, a lot of U.S. military equipment in the hands of ISIS?

HARMAN: It's a big test. They haven't passed even part one yet. It all depends on whether they trust, the Sunnis we're talking about, that we will protect them. And that's a question mark. I mean, their own government barely protects them. And keeping the Shia militia out is key. Making progress in Syria, which we're also trying to do, which is even tougher, is key.

But to remind, there's no military solution here. We have to regain the territory. But then we also have to find a diplomatic trust, a track, which is at the moment, to me, a little shaky. And -- and then combat the idea that they're putting out, which is a powerful idea. And we haven't made much progress on that either.

And one more point, Wolf. Yes, Congress should come back in special session and debate an authorization to use military force in a war that has contours that were never approved by Congress in 2001. I was there, and I voted on that old thing, which doesn't apply here.

The president should set -- send a revised draft up, and they should debate the whole thing. What is our strategy? What are the time limits? What about boots on the ground? And what are the other things we're going to have to do to win this huge fight against ISIL?

BLITZER: We'll see if he makes that -- takes that initiative in the State of the Union address that's coming up in about three weeks before a joint session of Congress. All right, guys. Thanks very much.

Coming up, Hillary Clinton talks about bullies after a new round of personal, even vulgar attacks from Donald Trump.


[17:35:07] DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm watching the debate, and she disappeared. Where did she go? Where did she go? I know where she went. It's disgusting. I don't want to talk about it. No, it's too disgusting. Don't say it. It's disgusting.



BLITZER: A new poll not only shows Senator Ted Cruz solidly in second place in the Republican primary feel he's closing in on the frontrunner right now, Donald Trump. For his part, Trump is catching lots of flak right now for using a vulgarity during his latest attack on Hillary Clinton.

CNN's Sunlen Serfaty is in Nashville, following this Republican race for the White House.

Sunlen, tell us about what Donald Trump said and how people today are reacting.

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, when Donald Trump launched into that series of heated and personal attacks on Hillary Clinton, the crowd absolutely went wild. They seemed to really love it. A big round of applause at each time he hit Hillary Clinton. And it, again, demonstrates showing how well this sort of line of attack works to his base.


SERFATY (voice-over): Donald Trump's rhetoric takes a vulgar turn, crudely mocking Clinton for taking a bathroom break during the debate Saturday night.

TRUMP: I'm watching the debate, and she disappeared. Where did she go? Where did she go? I know where she went. It's disgusting. I don't want to talk about it. No, it's too disgusting. Don't say it, it's disgusting. Let's not go. We want to be very, very straight up, OK?

SERFATY: And using offensive language to describe her loss to Barack Obama in the 2008 campaign.

TRUMP: She but was going be -- she was favored to win, and she got schlonged. She lost. I mean, she lost.

SERFATY: Clinton today in Iowa hinting at Trump's rhetoric.

HILLARY CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We shouldn't let anybody bully his way into the presidency.

SERFATY: Her campaign, though, tweeting, quote, "We are not responding to Trump, but everyone who understands the humiliation this degrading language inflicts on all women should."

As Trump focuses his fire on Clinton, Ted Cruz, meanwhile, is steadily chipping away at his dominance.

[17:40:16] SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The energy we're sending is incredible.

SERFATY: While Trump is still on top, his lead over Ted Cruz has shrunk. A new national poll showing that Cruz has gained eight points in the past four weeks and now within striking distance of Trump, behind by just four percentage points, meaning the two are now the clear frontrunners, significantly ahead of the rest of the field.

CRUZ: I think it could easily end up being a two-man race between Donald Trump and me. And I think that presents a good choice to the American people. SERFATY: And beneath the surface, more red flags for Trump, the same

polls showing 50 percent of voters say they would be embarrassed to have Trump as president.


SERFATY: And Ted Cruz today here in Tennessee would not take the bait and respond to Trump's rhetoric against Hillary Clinton. Cruz today here, Wolf, saying he will let Donald Trump speak for himself.

BLITZER: All right, Sunlen. Thanks very much.

Joining us now, in THE SITUATION ROOM, our CNN political commentator, the Atlantic Media contributing editor, Peter Beinart; also joining us, our political commentator, S.E. Cupp; and our chief political correspondent, Dana Bash.

Peter, you just heard Cruz says he's going to let Trump speak for himself. In the past Trump has said the two have similar views. So why isn't Cruz calling Trump out right now in his effort to distance himself, because he's clearly moving up to No. 2?

PETER BEINART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It's because the people who like Cruz also like Donald Trump. And Cruz's strategy is that, as Trump destroys himself, those Trump supporters will go to Cruz, because Cruz is the candidate who is basically sucking up to Trump the most, to be honest, and also adopting policies that are closest to Trump.

So, he's kind of riding behind Donald Trump. He doesn't want a conflict with Trump. He wants to ultimately take Trump support.

BLITZER: So he's hoping Trump destroys himself. But so far, there's no evidence, at least if you believe the polls, that Trump has destroyed himself.

BEINART: Well, if you look at Iowa, for instance, actually, I think you're starting to see the shift. It's not just that Cruz is up in the polls. It was a very interesting "New York Times" piece a couple of days ago, showing that Trump's organization in Iowa may genuinely be weak, they may not be able to get people out to caucuses. And so I think Trump, from Cruz's point of view, they are beginning to start to make their move.

BLITZER: S.E., Jeb Bush spoke out about Donald Trump's comments today in New Hampshire. Let me play a clip for you.


JEB BUSH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: She's great at being the victim. You know, this whole -- this whole hamster (ph) victimology status, this is what -- this is what she loves doing. Trump is not going to be president, because he says these things, it turns people off. I mean, for crying out loud, we're two days before Christmas. Lighten up, man.


BLITZER: So Hillary Clinton likes being a victim, and Donald Trump, it turns people off. Your reaction?

S.E. CUPP, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, two things. For someone like Ted Cruz, he has to keep in mind that, come general elections, if Ted Cruz is the nominee, Democrats are still going to insist that Ted Cruz is just like Donald Trump, and that we're still running a Donald Trump.

Jeb understands that, if he gets to a general election, they're not going to be able to do that effectively with Jeb. So that's why he's saying that.

On the Hillary thing, he's absolutely right. I mean, Hillary today was named the worst ethics offender of 2015 by a government watchdog group. The word most people think of when they think of Hillary Clinton is "liar," and yet, Donald Trump manages to completely take away all of those negative -- all of those negatives and inch her closer to the White House with everything that he says.

So yes, this plays exactly right into Hillary Clinton's hands, that she's a victim of Donald Trump, a victim of the Republicans, a victim of the media, a victim of, you know, all the vast right-wing conspiracy.

BLITZER: She's doing well on the Democratic side. Bernie Sanders is showing strength, both in Iowa and New Hampshire, showing strength against Donald Trump, Ted Cruz.

Dana, look at this Quinnipiac University poll. Trump, 28 percent, but Cruz is up to 24 percent. That's not too far behind.

Rubio, he's lost some support, 12 percent. Carson, 10 percent. Christie, 6. Everybody else way, way down. Is it shaping up Cruz and Trump?

DANA PERINO, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: He said today, he, Cruz, said it is. He said he thinks it's going to be a two-man race, and he thinks that that's a good choice for Republican voters. You're breathing deeply.

But -- but, you know, I think that's actually an interesting tactic, since usually, at least at this stage of the game, it's all about lowering expectations. And now he's saying, "I'm going to be the alternative to Donald Trump." You know, we'll see if that happens. Maybe he's just exuberant because today is his 45th birthday.

BLITZER: Were you breathing heavily or something?

CUPP: Yes. I mean, the idea that -- A, the idea that there's much of a contrast between -- you know, a good choice for Republicans between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, I think, is sort of a false -- false idea.

[17:45:10] But also that these are going to be the two sort of flag bearers of the party going into the election, you know, is not -- it's not good news for a general election. Nothing against Ted Cruz, I think he's a very principled guy and Donald trump is certainly entertaining but I think either of them would deliver Hillary Clinton a win.


BLITZER: All right. So, Peter, so when Ted Cruz says this would be a good choice for the American people if it were Trump versus Cruz for the nomination, your reaction?

PETER BEINART, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, ATLANTIC MEDIA: Oh, no, I mean, I think Ted Cruz could win maybe eight or 10 states. I think Donald Trump could win, you know, four or five. I think you're talking about a massive historic demolition of the Republican Party outside the deep south were they to be the nominees. But I don't think it will be between two of them. Since many Republicans feel like S.E. does, that they would leave the party to disaster.

They will rally around someone else. I think the real question now is, is Marco Rubio still that person, or is there a possibility that could be Chris Christie? Whoever emerges -- whoever beats expectations out of those two, or even Jeb Bush, potentially, although I think it's unlikely, in New Hampshire will be the person the Republican establishment rallies around in their desperate effort to prevent it from being Trump or Cruz.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Although I will say one thing about Cruz nominee, his whole arguments since he launche from -- came from behind and one his Senate primary just a couple of years ago. His whole argument was the reason why Republicans are losing nationally is because they run to the, you know, right during the primary but then they run to the middle during the general election and that Republicans don't know what they stand for and they don't -- and they're depressed and they don't go out to the polls because they don't think that there's a real conservative.

If he ends up the nominee, big if, but if he does, it will really test that because there hasn't been a tried and true conservative as far as the base is concerned as a nominee for a long time. So it will really help determine where the party wants to go for the next cycle.

BLITZER: Donald Trump is well known to a lot of people out there after all of these years on television. Ted Cruz not so much.

CUPP: Yes.

BLITZER: But if you speak to people who know him well, Alan Dershowitz, the retired Harvard Law School professor, says in the 50 years he was teaching brilliant law students at Harvard Law School, Ted Cruz was one of most brilliant.

CUPP: Yes.

BLITZER: That says a lot.

CUPP: He's very smart. He's also very nice. He's a very nice person. He's definitely cultivated a reputation on the hill for being stubborn, should we say? And I think if he does win the nomination his veep choices are going to be limited. However, you know, there's a stark difference, tonally, between Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. But he seems to be taking on a lot of Trump's policies which doesn't make it a good choice for Republicans.

BLITZER: All right, guys, stand by. We have more coming up on this race for the White House.

There's also political fallout over the case of an African-American woman's death in a Texas jail. Bernie Sanders says it never would have happened if she had been white. Coming up, what the grand jury says also.

A mystery intruder at one of the nation's major airports. Who was he? How did he get away? And will he be back?


[17:51:41] BLITZER: There's new political fallout after a grand jury decided not to indict anyone in the death of an African-American woman in a Texas county jail last summer.

Sandra Bland was pulled over for changing lanes without signaling, then was arrested after getting into an argument with the white state trooper. Officials say she hanged herself in her jail cell several days later. After the grand jury's decision, Democratic senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, he's actually independent senator, I should say, he put out this statement.

"There's no doubt in my mind that she, like too many African-Americans who die in police custody, would be alive today if she were a white woman." That statement from Senator Sanders.

Let's bring in our legal and political experts. Our law enforcement analyst, Tom Fuentes, is joining us. He's a former FBI assistant director. Our legal analyst, Sunny Hostin and our senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin.

Sunny, was the decision by the grand jury to not bring any indictments relating to her death wrong?

SUNNY HOSTIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, you know, I don't want to say that the grand jury acted inappropriately, but I will say this. We all have heard of the old adage that a prosecutor can indict a ham sandwich. Well, that is really true. The power is with the prosecutor. And if a prosecutor, Wolf, wants to indict a case, guess what, the case gets indicted. So we know in this case that there were special prosecutors assigned. I think there are five of them.

I am shocked that the prosecutor, the special prosecutor, could not get an indictment. When you talk about and you look at what happened at the jail, now my understanding is the arresting officer is -- you know, this non-indictment doesn't have to do the arresting officer, but it certainly has to do with what happened with -- at the jail and with the jail staff. I think it's really clear to anyone that's been following this case

that at the very least, we're talking about criminal negligence because if someone like Sandra Bland goes to the jail and admits that she has tried to commit suicide a few times and admits that she suffers from depression and that person is not placed on watch, that person's jail cell is not cleared out of anything that she can use to harm herself, that in and of itself, for me, is a classic definition of criminal negligence.

So I just don't understand how the prosecutors here could not get an indictment. It really, really is an injustice.

BLITZER: Do you agree, Jeffrey?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: I'm a little less sure. I mean, criminal negligence is not a crime in a lot of states. In Texas, I don't think has a statute just like this. Look, this is an example of many things that can go wrong in the criminal justice system. Why was a police officer so incompetent and inept that he escalated a meager traffic stop into something that wound up taking -- sending this woman to jail?

Why was she charged $5,000 bail? And she had to produce $500, which her family couldn't do? What purpose did that serve? I mean, those things are systemic problems in the legal system that Texas could fix if it wanted to. I'm somewhat less certain than Sunny is that a criminal case should have been brought. But this case does illustrate a lot of what's wrong in the system.

BLITZER: What's your analysis, Tom?

TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: You know, Wolf, in my opinion, when you bring in special prosecutors and you bring in five of them, they're looking for someone to indict.

[17:55:05] And I don't think it was a lack of effort on their part or ability on their part that the indictment wasn't returned. I think that as hard as they tried, they just couldn't find enough to say this is who killed her other than her doing it to herself. So absent any other evidence that they could find, I don't think there's any choice. Who would they charge for her death if it wasn't her that did it?

BLITZER: Jeffrey, you agree with Senator Sanders that she would be alive today if she were white?

TOOBIN: Well, I'm not prepared to say that. I don't know the facts well enough. I mean, it is certainly true that African-Americans deal with the criminal justice system in a very different way from white people. I mean, that has been established with cell phone cameras, if nothing else, over the past couple of years.

This case, in particular -- you know, that's a politician's statement, and I certainly understand why he said it. But it's not something that I'm prepared to say.

BLITZER: Sunny, are you prepared to say that? HOSTIN: I am prepared to say it. I mean, the bottom line is would a

white woman have been arrested? Would a white woman have been treated the same way? We know that black people that are arrested, 21 more times than their white counterparts. And so I think the stats bear it out.

BLITZER: All right.

HOSTIN: We shouldn't be unafraid, I think, to say that this probably would have had a very different outcome had she not been an African- American woman.

BLITZER: Sunny, Tom and Jeffrey, guys, thanks very much.

Coming up, we've got breaking news. U.S. boots there now on the ground in Syria. Special Operations Forces advising local fighters battling ISIS.

And a troubling security breach at a major U.S. airport where a man is spotted on a taxiway and then simply vanishes.


BLITZER: Happening now, ground invasion. Iraqi troops storm the center of the key city seized by ISIS, getting U.S. help to pull off a sneak attack. We're tracking the brutal warfare. And grave concerns that ISIS is using human shields.

Security failure. As the holiday travel season heats up, police are now investigating a major breach at one of America's busiest airports.