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Americans Freed by Iran Reunite with Families; Americans Left Behind Despite Iran Prisoner Swap; Cruz, Trump Trade Insults Before Caucuses; Cruz, Trump Trade Insults Two Weeks Before Caucuses; British Parliament Debates Donald Trump Ban. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired January 18, 2016 - 17:00   ET


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks very much. That is it for "THE LEAD" today. I'm Jim Sciutto in again for Jake. I turn you over to the very capable Wolf Blitzer in his usual habitat, THE SITUATION ROOM.

[17:00:12] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, free at last. Americans held captive by Iran are reunited with their families following their dramatic release. Soon they'll be heading home. Now we're learning harrowing details about Iran's last-minute moves that nearly caused the deal to collapse.

Still missing. It's been more than eight years since Robert Levinson disappeared in Iran. Why wasn't he part of the prisoner swap? Where is he now? And what about the other Americans still in Iran?

Give me liberty. Presidential candidate Donald Trump travels to Liberty University, making a play for the evangelical vote by quoting from the Bible and nearly getting it right.

And banning Trump. Members of the British Parliament, Christian and Muslim, debate whether Donald Trump's campaign rhetoric is so incendiary he should be banned from Britain. Can they really keep him out?

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're following the breaking news. New details emerging about the prisoner swap that freed "Washington Post" reporter Jason Rezaian and other Americans. Among the things we've learned: Iran's last-minute attempt to prevent Rezaian's wife and mother from joining him on the flight to freedom came close to scuttling the entire exchange.

Donald Trump calls the exchange another example of a bad deal by the United States. But Trump's speech at Liberty University is getting more attention for his attempt to court evangelicals and quote scripture.

Secretary of State John Kerry is here in THE SITUATION ROOM to take my questions about the Iran deal.

And our correspondents, analysts and guests, they will have full coverage of the day's top stories.

Let's begin with CNN's global affairs correspondent, Elise Labott. Elise, what are you learning about the U.S. prisoners who are now free?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, tonight the freed Americans enjoyed a long-awaited reunion with their families in Germany. Their release as part of a prisoner swap, the product of more than a year of secret talks between the U.S. and Iran.

But Iranian road blocks throughout the negotiation and a nail-biting delay at the last minute threatened to scuttle the deal.


LABOTT (voice-over): After being held 545 days inside Iran, tonight all smiles as Jason Rezaian is finally reunited with his family. His brother Ali spoke with Jason shortly after he left Tehran.

ALI REZAIAN, JASON REZAIAN'S BROTHER: He seemed in good spirits. He's, you know, together. He's really can't wait to get out there, see people, meet people. But right now he's got to focus on getting himself better.

LABOTT: Rezaian, former Marine Amir Hekmati and Pastor Saeed Abedini are now at the U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, undergoing medical checks after their ordeal.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They never gave in, and they never gave up. At long last they can stand tall and breathe deep the fresh air of freedom.

LABOTT: Today, Amir Hekmati also reunited with his family. And Congressman Dan Kildee, who worked tirelessly for his release.

REP. DANIEL KILDEE (D) MICHIGAN: Re-entering into the world as a free person will take more than just a deep breath. It will take a little bit of help.

LABOTT: In exchange for the American prisoners' freedom, the U.S. pardoned or commuted the sentences of an Iranian and six dual citizens of the U.S. and Iran.

In Iran, headlines of celebration. On the same day the Americans left Iran, the nation shed decades of sanctions as the Iran nuclear deal took effect. Iran's president praised his nation's perseverance.

HASSAN ROUHANI, PRESIDENT OF IRAN (through translator): Today is a historic day, an exceptional day.

LABOTT: But behind the scenes, it took 14 months of secret diplomacy between Washington and Tehran to free the prisoners, which the U.S. insists was separate from the nuclear deal. In November, Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran's Foreign Minister Zarif reached agreement on a prisoner swap, only to have it rejected back in Tehran.

There were fits and starts. Sometimes it came together; then it would fall apart again.

LABOTT: As the deal was coming together once again, Iran detained ten U.S. sailors picked up in their waters. With the prisoner swap in potential jeopardy again, the crisis was quickly averted when they were let go within 24 hours, keeping the prisoner swap alive.

Another nail-biting moment as they prepared to leave. Iranian authorities tried to prevent Rezaian's wife and mother from getting on the plane.

REZAIAN: The Iranians, as they have done all along, continued to manipulate them, continued to try and mess with them and prevented Yagi for leaving for some period of time.


LABOTT: Now, both Rezaian's wife and mother were eventually allowed to fly out with him. Officials are still trying to get Iranian- American businessman Siamak Namazi released and to obtain answers about former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who disappeared on an Iranian island in March 2007. The U.S. says, as part of that agreement, Iran has promised to seek information about Robert Levinson's whereabouts, Wolf. They still say they have no idea where he is.

[17:05:20] BLITZER: Yes, they've got to find him. But everybody at "The Washington Post," I think it's fair to say journalists all over the world are relieved that Jason Rezaian is now free.

All right, Elise, thanks very much.

While this weekend's prisoner swap freed most of the U.S. citizens held in Iran, two mysterious cases remain very much unresolved.

CNN's Brian Todd is here. Brian, what do we know about those Americans?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, overall it took more than a year's worth of secret negotiations to get to those images we saw today, those of American prisoners released from Iranian custody.

But you just mentioned there were two Americans who were part of those negotiations who did not make it out of Iran. One of them is still missing. The other was released and chose to stay. Tonight their cases are leaving many more questions than answers.


TODD (voice-over): Along with the images of joy and relief for some released Americans and their families, there's renewed heartbreak and mystery tonight surrounding two Americans left behind in Iran. One is Robert Levinson, a 67-year-old former FBI agent. Levinson vanished in March 2007 from the tiny Iranian resort island of Kish. Iranian officials are promising to try to help find Levinson. The Iranians have denied holding him and say they don't know where he is. That doesn't fly with Levinson's family. DAN LEVINSON, SON OF AMERICAN MISSING IN IRAN: We all believe, I

think it's very obvious, that the Iranian government knows exactly where he is.

TODD: At the time he vanished, Levinson's family said he was working as a private investigator, looking into a case of cigarette smuggling. The family has since admitted Levinson worked as a contractor for the CIA. Neither the CIA, the FBI nor the White House have ever publicly acknowledged any connection between the CIA and Levinson.

A senior administration official tells CNN they've had reason to believe Levinson may have been held outside of Iran. In 2011, the family received these harrowing photos of Levinson in an orange jumpsuit. They'd earlier received this proof-of-life video.

ROBERT LEVINSON, AMERICAN MISSING IN IRAN: I'm not in very good health. I am running very quickly out of diabetes medicine.

REUEL MARC GERECHT, FORMER CIA OFFICER: I think the chances of the Iranians releasing live a former FBI officer, someone who was working for the CIA, are zero. I think the videos that came out showing Levinson actually were a way to taunt and toy with his family and the U.S. government.

TODD: Another American who was released, Nosratollah Khosravi- Roodsari, represents a different sort of mystery. It's not clear why he was imprisoned in Iran. A senior administration official tells CNN Khosravi-Roodsari chose to stay in Iran after his release, but neither U.S. nor Iranian officials are saying why.

AMBASSADOR JOHN LIMBERT, HELD HOSTAGE IN IRAN 1979-1980: If he has assurances that are satisfactory to him that he'll be allowed to live freely in Iran, he has family or business or for whatever reason choose -- chooses to stay there, it's understandable.

TODD: As for Robert Levinson's family, we got a sense of his wife's frustration when she described re-tracing his steps at the place he was last seen.

CHRISTINE LEVINSON, WIFE OF ROBERT LEVINSON: We went to the hotel. We saw that it is in an area of Kish Island where there is not much activity and very quiet. And it's a short distance from the airport. And we believe that something happened between the airport and the hotel.

TODD: What do you believe happened?

C. LEVINSON: I don't know. I have no answer. That's the hard part. I don't have an answer.

TODD: Now, adding to the mystery of Robert Levinson, one man who claims to be the last person to have seen Levinson alive. His name is Dawud Salahuddin. Now, he says he met with Levinson just before he disappeared to discuss the cigarette smuggling case. This is Salahuddin. Salahuddin says he and Levinson were both detained by Iranian police

on the day that Levinson vanished, but Salahuddin has some baggage of his own. He's an American fugitive given refuge in Iran after admitting that he killed a pro-western Iranian diplomat in the D.C. suburbs near here in 1980.

U.S. officials have Salahuddin is not a credible source of information about Robert Levinson, Wolf.

BLITZER: And Brian, Robert Levinson's wife actually met with this fugitive at one point, right?

BLITZER: She did, Wolf. Christine Levinson says Salahuddin did not give her much when she met with him. She says he told her he had met with her husband, that Bob Levinson had checked out of the hotel on Kish Island, but not much else, Wolf.

BLITZER: And joining us now, the secretary of state, John Kerry.

Mr. Secretary, thanks very much for joining us here in our SITUATION ROOM. I know you spend a lot of time in another situation room here in town, as well.


BLITZER: You have said the prisoner release, in your words, was accelerated by the nuclear talks, the nuclear deal. Were these prisoners pawns, part of that deal?

[17:10:03] KERRY: No. No. We -- we really almost had an agreement -- and I thought we did have an agreement well before implementation day. And it got caught up in a snag on interpretation. We had to work it through.

And then it simply dovetailed in, and it dovetailed in fairly easily, but it was not linked distinctly.

BLITZER: But no one really believes it was a coincidence that, on the day the implementation of the nuclear deal goes forward, finally the Americans are released from Iran.

KERRY: Well, it became, as I say, it became convenient. It was not linked. And in the last weeks it just became almost automatic this was all going to happen in one fell swoop. But it was not linked for a year and a half. I guess it was, what, 15 months we had a series of meetings. I thought we had arrived at an agreement.

BLITZER: I covered this story for a long time. I never really thought these Americans would be released until that implementation deal would go through and the Iranians would get the money, the sanctions that would be released, the billions and billions of dollars. That's what I always assumed.

Finally, as part of that deal, they would let the Americans leave.

KERRY: I honestly didn't believe that as I said, but it's moot now. It doesn't matter. What's important, though -- let me just clarify one thing, because you raise billions of dollars.

I keep hearing on television and elsewhere this $100 million, $100 billion, 150 billion. It is not. It's not 150; it's not 100. There is about $55 billion that, over time, will go to the Iranians.

But there's a massive amount, billions of dollars, that the Iranians have tied up in debt to the Chinese, debt to other countries and so forth. And so there's much less.

Now, that's still a lot of money. And I'm not, you know, disavowing that. But they have needs somewhere in the vicinity well upwards of $500 billion to begin to renew their -- their oil extraction capacity, to do other things on infrastructure. They have massive amount of needs.

BLITZER: Jason Rezaian, Amir Hekmati, Saeed Abedini, were they tortured?

KERRY: I haven't had the debrief yet. I honestly don't know the answer to that. They're being evaluated at the hospital at Landstuhl. And then they'll return, and we'll have the full story.

BLITZER: The -- I guess there's a lot of suggestions that, after the Iranians, according to the U.N. Security Council, illegally tested ballistic missiles, the U.S. was ready to impose fresh sanctions against Iran, but you delayed that out of fear that it could jeopardize the release of the Americans. Is that true?

KERRY: Well, I think it's fair to say that we wanted to respect the sensitivity of everything that we were doing. But we made it clear we were going to do it. We made it clear weeks ago. We notified Congress, and we made it clear this was going to happen. We also made it clear at the time.

BLITZER: So they violated a U.N. Security Council resolution by testing these ballistic missiles. The Obama administration said they will be penalized; they will be sanctioned. And they have heard that. But you delayed that until the Americans were released.

KERRY: Well, the president always has the prerogative to choose the timing of what he does, but he made it clear he would enforce those sanctions, and he did.

BLITZER: It does raise the question, though, that even as you're trying to improve relations with Iran, they're breaking with the U.S. regards as commitments from the U.N. Security Council. This is a country that still supports terrorism. They're on the State Department list of countries that support terrorism. But you're willing to negotiate with them. Why?

KERRY: Because the alternative is far more dangerous for our country and for the region. It is imperative as a matter of fundamental principles of diplomacy, of multilateral relations and, frankly, of wielding the great power of potentially going to war that you exhaust all the diplomatic possibilities before you ask young men and women, Americans and others, perhaps, to put their lives on the line. That's fundamental, Wolf. And the president has been courageous and

steadfast in making it clear that he would pursue diplomacy first.

BLITZER: Has the Iranian mindset changed? Have they abandoned their ambition to have a nuclear bomb?

KERRY: The supreme leader agreed in the Iran agreement. It his firmly embraced within the agreement that Iran will never seek a nuclear weapon. And they have embraced a set of verification measures which give us the ability way -- I mean, as long as the agreement is in existence -- to be able to access sites that are questionable and to be able to enforce this through the IAEA. So we have lost nothing here. We have gained.

BLITZER: Have they abandoned their nuclear ambition?

KERRY: They say they have.

BLITZER: Do you believe them?

KERRY: That's why we have verification in this agreement.

BLITZER: So do you believe that they have abandoned that nuclear ambition?

KERRY: It is to be proven by the process going forward and the verification of this agreement. As President Obama has said, it's not built on trust. I've said that hundreds of time. This is not built on trust, Wolf. This is built on a meticulously negotiated set of verification requirements.

[17:15:21] BLITZER: If the U.S. intelligence community or anybody else has suspicions that something is going on that you don't know about, you notify the Iranians you want to inspect that facility, how many days do they have to potentially clean it up?

KERRY: Well, there's a 24-hour period before they have...

BLITZER: Twenty-four-hour period?

KERRY: ... before they have to respond to the request for access.

There's then a period of days, 14 days initially. And then it's reported to the joint commission, which is us, Germany, France, Britain, China, Russia. And we would decide whether or not we want to take action, go to the U.N. Security Council.

But our belief is that that is the kind of accountability that is going to allow us to continue to move forward with the -- with the implementation of this agreement.

BLITZER: Hold your thought for a moment.


BLITZER: We're going to take a quick break. There's a lot more to discuss. A lot of interest, obviously, in the release of these Americans, this nuclear deal. Much more with the secretary of state right after this.


[17:20:40] BLITZER: We're back with Secretary of State John Kerry. Mr. Secretary, you're a sailor. You were in the Navy. When you saw those ten American sailors with their hands over their heads, on their knees, was that enough for you -- Did you threaten the Iranians, Javad Zarif, the foreign minister, the U.S. was going to walk away from this deal unless they were immediately released?

KERRY: Suffice it to say I don't want to get into precise language. I think that's inappropriate.

But let me make it clear: I was extremely upset, frustrated. It was inappropriate. And I made it very, very clear to the Iranians that we needed those people back, and we needed them right away.

BLITZER: What would have happened if they wouldn't have returned?

KERRY: I'm not going to -- I don't think it does any purpose -- I want to -- you know, my counterpart, Foreign Minister Zarif, responded promptly. He could not have been more serious. He understood the gravity of the situation. President Rouhani, others engaged.

And within a matter of very few hours, we did what could not have been done a year ago, two years ago, three years ago. We wouldn't have known who to call three years ago. Maybe the Swiss; maybe the British. That could have become a major hostage situation. It could have been very, very dangerous.

But because we have a channel of communication, because we have worked on this nuclear agreement, we were able to resolve this. That is very important.

BLITZER: If things start moving in the right direction, could you see normalization of relations with Iran, reopening of embassies as you did last year with Cuba?

KERRY: Well, can I see it? Somewhere in time. I can't say...

BLITZER: While you're still secretary of state?

KERRY: I can't speculate on that.

BLITZER: You think that's realistic over the next year?

KERRY: I have no sense of timing, and we haven't had those discussions at this point in time. We need to work through some very serious issues before that's on the table.

But obviously, the world would be better off if we can move down a different road. And particularly if we can reduce the tensions between the Gulf states and Iran, because Iran's behavior actually changes. That's critical. BLITZER: On Syria, do you think that Iran will abandon Bashar al-


KERRY: I've never said that.

BLITZER: Do you believe they could?

KERRY: Here's what I know. That Syria -- that the Iranians have agreed to come to the table. They have sat at that table with Saudi Arabia and other countries. Nobody could have imagined that a year or so ago or even months ago.

They -- both the Saudis and the Iranians have agreed that they will not let their differences at this moment get in the way of a process of trying to work on Syria. And the Iranians have put forward their plan for Syria, which involves a ceasefire, a negotiation -- a reform with respect to the constitution of Syria, a re-writing of that constitution, a unity government, and an election.

That is very close to what Geneva has been trying to achieve over a period of time. So this needs to be explored. I'm making no promises. I can't tell you whether this can or can't work. I can tell you that, if you're going to have a political settlement, which everybody says is critical, this is the only way to get to it. And we are going to put it to the test.

BLITZER: You know the Saudis, they've severe severed diplomatic relations with Iran after the Iranians ransacked their embassy, Saudis executed a top Shiite cleric.

The Saudis really, like the UAE, like several of the Sunni moderate Arab states, like the Israelis, for that matter, they hate this rapprochement, if you will, this improved relationship with Iran, the billions of dollars that are going to be flowing.

KERRY: No. They don't -- they don't hate -- what they hate is what Iran is doing in the region and engaged in in their country, they believe, and in Yemen and elsewhere. That's what they don't like.

BLITZER: Because they still might -- not even ruling out the possibility...

KERRY: They don't like -- they don't like any more than we like. We don't like the fact that Hezbollah and the IRGC, and Syria propping up a dictator who is killing his people and who is the principle attraction of jihadis. Nobody likes that.

So that's why we are pushing forward on this Syria negotiation in an effort to see if we can come to an agreement where there's a transition government and where the people of Syria can choose the leadership going forward and we can resolve this challenge.

BLITZER: Because the Saudis have not, even ruling out the possibility, given their concern about this nuclear deal with Iran, they could go forward and buy some -- maybe buy a nuclear bomb, maybe from Pakistan. You've heard those concerns. [17:25:09] KERRY: Sure, we've heard those things. But you can't just

buy a bomb and transfer...

BLITZER: Why not? They've got a lot of money.

KERRY: There are all -- there's all kinds of NPT consequences. I mean, there are huge implications of that. And Saudi Arabia knows, I believe, that that is not going to make them safer. Nor is it going to be easy, because the very things that Iran went through they would then be subject to with respect to inspection, NPT and so forth.

BLITZER: Bob Levinson, the American former FBI agent, contractor for the CIA, disappeared during a 2007 business trip to Iran. Is he still alive?

KERRY: Bob Levinson is very, very much a part of our negotiation, very much a part of every conversation we have had with the -- with the Iranians. He is, in fact, in the agreement itself specifically by name and process going forward. The Iranians have agreed to continue to help us try to find the whereabouts. Whatever may or may not have happened to Bob Levinson, we are going to continue that effort.

I feel horrible for the family. I know it's very difficult for them to see people coming back. We do not have evidence at this point as to where he is. We have been very clear about that. We are tracing every lead...

BLITZER: But you believe he is alive?

KERRY: We don't -- we are trying to find out where he is and what the circumstances are. We are proceeding as if he is. We want him to be. We hope he is. We don't have capacity at this point to draw any kinds of conclusions. But we are working on it.

And the Iranians are cooperating with us. There are efforts that we have made to actually trace leads. And I know it's very, very difficult for his family to see these other folks come back and not have answers.

BLITZER: Two other Americans...

KERRY: I just want to make clear. We will not stop. We are continuing in every respect to try to follow up to get the answers with respect to Bob Levinson.

BLITZER: Two other Americans are still being held by the Iranians, Siamak Namazi and Nizar Zakka. Why weren't they part of this deal?

KERRY: Well, as you know, this has been a secret negotiation for a long period of time. I know you know that particularly. And we have kept everybody part of our discussions. There is nobody who is an American who has not been part of these discussions. And I'm not free to go into details about what will happen, but there are people who came out, as you know, separately from the airplane that brought Jason and the others out.

And we will make certain that every American is home. And we know pretty much where we're heading with respect to that process.

BLITZER: Donald Trump, he keeps saying you're the worst negotiator ever. You want to respond to him?

KERRY: No. No. I have no need to, really.

BLITZER: Do you want to say anything?

KERRY: No. I think I'll let the process take care of itself, Wolf. I'm not involved in politics. I'm not involved in the presidential race. And I really just prefer to keep focused on my job and what I'm doing.

BLITZER: Twenty years from now how will history judge this deal?

KERRY: Twenty years from now, Iran will not have a nuclear weapon. And if they start to break out and do, the United States of America will have done something about it, because we'll know about it. So I think this deal will stand the test of time.

BLITZER: Mr. Secretary, you've been very generous with your time. Thank you very much for joining us.

KERRY: Thank you.

BLITZER: And up next, we turn to the presidential race. Donald Trump versus the -- visits, I should say -- Donald Trump visits the university founded by the Reverend Jerry Falwell and talks about his favorite books.


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I wrote "The Art of the Deal." I wrote many best sellers, like "The Art of the Deal." I did write "The Art of the Deal." Who has read "The Art of the Deal" in this room? Everybody.

I always say -- I always say a deep, deep second to the Bible. The Bible is the best. The Bible. The Bible blows it away. There's nothing like the Bible.



BLITZER: Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are trying to capitalize on a contentious debate with a series of escalating attacks, some of them getting a little bit personal.

[17:30:52] The two top contenders in the Republican field are both in New Hampshire tonight. They're fighting for votes in the nation's first GOP primary contest. Our Sunlen Serfaty is following the Republican presidential campaign. Right now she's joining us live from Keene, New Hampshire.

Sunlen, what's the latest? SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are very close tonight. They are just 40 miles away from each other here campaigning in New Hampshire. And it is this new dynamic. These fierce new attacks are now really launching into each other, a bout that is largely dictating their messages.


SERFATY: The frenzy between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz now dominating the campaign trail.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE (via phone): You know, everybody hates Ted. It's a very tough thing. They all hate him.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Donald seems to be a little rattled.

SERFATY: Trump sharpening his attacks on Cruz's personality.

TRUMP: He's a nasty guy. Nobody likes him. Nobody in Congress likes him. Nobody likes him anywhere once they get to know him.

SERFATY: The multi-front battle unfolding on the airwaves, with a super PAC backing Cruz using Trump's once kind words about the Texas senator against him.

TRUMP: Now, one of the reasons that I like Ted Cruz so much is that he's not controversial. But the truth is he shouldn't be controversial, because what he's doing is right.

SERFATY: And in a series of exchanges on Twitter, Trump calling Cruz a hypocrite for taking loans from Wall Street banks for his Senate campaign while denouncing New York values. A charge today Cruz immediately shot back on.

CRUZ: We need a leader who is prepared to do whatever is needed to keep this country safe. And that typically doesn't include spending your time on Twitter.

SERFATY: Today, both candidates making a big play to poach voters in the other's territory, Cruz campaigning in New Hampshire, where polls show Trump with a commanding lead, casting doubts about the frontrunner's conservative credentials.

CRUZ: And I'm pretty sure that Ronald Reagan didn't write checks and support Democratic politicians like Andrew Cuomo, like Anthony Weiner, like Hillary Clinton.

SERFATY: And Trump today courting the evangelical vote at Liberty University, the site where Ted Cruz announced his candidacy.

TRUMP: The Bible. The Bible is the best, the Bible.

SERFATY: As Trump stumbled, trying to cite scripture.

TRUMP: Two Corinthians, 3:17, that's the whole ball game. SERFATY: Wrongly referring to it as "two Corinthians" instead of

Second Corinthians, drawing laughter from the religious crowd.

The Trump campaign also looking to soften the frontrunner's image, launching a new radio ad featuring his daughter, Ivanka.

IVANKA TRUMP, DAUGHTER OF DONALD TRUMP: My father's a man who is deeply grounded in tradition. He raised my siblings and me to work hard and strive for excellence in all that we do.


SERFATY: And tonight here in New Hampshire, Trump did dial back the criticism of Ted Cruz, never mentioned him once by name at his town hall earlier today in Concord, Wolf. Certainly, this marks a really big, much different strategy coming from Trump even in the last 24 hours.

BLITZER: Let's see if that lasts, Sunlen. Thank you very, very much.

Let's turn to our experts for more analysis on today's top political stories. We're joined by our CNN political commentator, Ryan Lizza. He's the Washington correspondent for "New Yorker" magazine. CNN politics executive editor, David Preston. And David Swerdlick; he's an assistant editor at "The Washington Post."

Guys, I want you to stand by for a moment. We have a lot to assess. Much more on the race for the White House right after this.


[17:42:01] BLITZER: We're back with our experts to discuss today's top political stories.

David Swerdlick, your take on Donald Trump's statement, a bold statement, today exactly two weeks before the Iowa caucuses, that Senator Ted Cruz, he says everybody hates Ted.

DAVID SWERDLICK, ASSISTANT EDITOR, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Yes. He said he's a nasty guy. They've been trotting out this "he's a nasty guy" line.

I think Trump realizes that Cruz has support among evangelicals in Iowa. He's got Congressman Steve King. He's got some of the conservative radio hosts in Iowa. So he's trying to get the idea out there that Cruz doesn't play nice with others, that his colleagues don't like him on either side of the aisle. And they're going to try and see if that sticks and see if that can separate a few voters away from him.

BLITZER: But Ryan, there's a risk there for Donald Trump, because some of these conservative radio talk show hosts, for example, they don't like this nastiness between Ted -- between Donald Trump going after Ted Cruz.

RYAN LIZZA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes. That's been one of the fascinating developments this week is you're starting to see some of the biggest Trump boosters, like Mark Levin and some of the other online conservatives say, "Wait a second. We may have been there for Trump, promoting him, liking his message on immigration, liking his attacks on political correctness, but now you're going after Cruz. Now you're going after a committed conservative, someone who grew up in the conservative movement, more than anyone else in the field, really."

And I think it's starting to -- some of the ideological conservatives who have given Trump a pass up until now are starting to pause and say, "Wait a second."

BLITZER: Are you seeing that, as well?

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICS EDITOR: Yes, I mean, look. I think it was fine when Donald Trump was going after Jeb Bush. It was fine when Donald Trump was going after Marco Rubio.

What we're seeing in the centrist lane right now for the race for the nomination is four guys fighting it out, Donald Trump knocking him. We haven't seen this fighting in the conservative lane, which is really the Ted Cruz lane by himself.

Donald Trump, who is in his own lane, is trying to bleed over a little bit. And as has been said, he's trying to pull some of that support back.

So Donald Trump's got to be careful not to alienate folks, not to go too far in his attack on Ted Cruz, but yet he does have to attack him.

BLITZER: David, exactly two weeks before the Iowa caucus, one of the big unknowns is new people potentially that Donald Trump is bringing into the Iowa caucuses, people that perhaps never participated before.

SWERDLICK: Right. And I think that's -- his appeal is to try and pull away some of the hard conservative voters in Iowa, as well as to appeal to these independents or Reagan Democrats or disaffected voters who like the fact that he's brash, like the fact that he takes on the establishment.

As you said, Mark, Cruz is sort of not establishment quite, but he's in that conservative movement lane, and that makes it tricky for Trump when they're neck and neck in the polls.

BLITZER: It suggests to me that maybe the polling this time around, especially in Iowa, may not necessarily be all that accurate, because if he's bringing in people who haven't participated -- correct me if I'm wrong -- usually we ask people who have participated in Iowa caucuses about their thoughts this time around.

PRESTON: Right. And that's the big battle right now, going between the Republican establishment and those who support Donald Trump. Those who support Donald Trump say, "We're bringing all these people in."

The Republican establishment and those, certainly, in Iowa who don't back Donald Trump say, "Where's his organization on the ground? Are these people going to get together?"

[17:45:07] This isn't a normal primary where you just go vote. You have to show up and spend a couple of hours in a fire house or someone's living room or at a school or what have you. So Donald Trump, while he has his support, will those supporters be voters? And that remains to be seen.

BLITZER: Is this strictly Trump versus Cruz right now in Iowa? Or is it possible Rubio or someone else could surprise a lot of us?

LIZZA: Always possibility, right. You know, there have been -- Santorum was a very, very late surprise in 2012.

BLITZER: Huckabee in 2008 as well.

LIZZA: Huckabee. On the Democratic side, John Edwards was a late surprise in both 2004 and '08, I believe. So it can happen. But, you know, I was there last week and mostly it's a Cruz-Trump race. On the polling issue, man, we just -- I don't think we know. You could argue that the polls are overemphasizing Trump support in Iowa. You could argue that they're undercounting Trump supporters because maybe some Trump supporters are embarrassed to be Trump supporters and don't want to say so publicly.

But the one metric we do have is Republican Party registration in Iowa has been steady. So we have not seen a mass of new voters registering to become Republicans. That would be a sign that one of the candidates most likely Trump is bringing in new Republicans. That hasn't happened yet.

BLITZER: But two weeks, two weeks to go. And that's a long time because a lot of people don't really make up their mind until the final two weeks.

PRESTON: Well, and that's absolutely right. And not only are we going to see that in Iowa, we're going to see that in New Hampshire. And while our focus right now two weeks is in Iowa, let us not take the ball off of New Hampshire and down to South Carolina because this is going to start snowballing very quickly.

Ted Cruz beats Donald Trump in Iowa. He's going to go into New Hampshire and Ted Cruz might have momentum potentially to win New Hampshire if you can imagine that. Donald Trump wins in Iowa, who knows.

BLITZER: If Donald Trump wins in Iowa, that really hurts Ted Cruz because he's not doing as well in New Hampshire as he has been doing in Iowa.

DAVID SWERDLICK, ASSISTANT EDITOR, THE WASHINGTON POST: Yes. I think that's right. I mean, Trump would both have momentum and he'd be going to a state that I think has been -- he's been more successful in recent polling and that Cruz has less popularity and support right now.

BLITZER: And what about people in Iowa, for example, who like some of the second tier candidates, whether Kasich, let's say, or Christie, even Marco Rubio, but they come to the conclusion, you know what, these guys are not going to win. I'm going to go with somebody who's going to win. That could switch the balance as well.

LIZZA: In Iowa, yes. One of the interesting things that's happened over the last few cycles is the Iowa Republican electorate has become much more conservative, become much, much less hospitable to anyone like the Rubios or Bushes or Kasichs that are spending all their times in New Hampshire. And the New Hampshire electorate has become more like New England Republican electorate. It's become where moderates and independents have actually grown in importance.

So you really have a story of two different races. I still think you're going to have one winner in Iowa, one winner in New Hampshire and those are going to be the two that battle it out.

BLITZER: Getting close on the Democratic side as well. We're going to talk about that in a little while, guys. Stand by.

Coming up, the British parliament debates banning Donald Trump from entering their country. Why are some UK lawmakers so upset with the Republican presidential frontrunner?


[17:52:34] BLITZER: The British parliament has wrapped up a debate on a proposal that would ban Donald Trump from entering the United Kingdom. The debate took place in response to a petition that calls on barring Trump and has gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures from British citizens.

Listen to one member of parliament explain why she wants to keep Donald Trump out of the country.


TULIP SIDDIQ, MEMBER OF BRITISH PARLIAMENT: People often say that the public are apathetic about politics. This online petition signed by nearly 600,000 people shows that when people feel a sense of justice, when people feel that we need to stop a poisonous, corrosive man from entering our country, they will act in good conscience, but this is not just any man that we're talking about. This is a man who is extremely high profile, involved in the American show biz industry for years and years. A man who is interviewing for the most important job in the world. His words are not comical. His words are not funny. His words are poisonous. They risk inflaming tension between vulnerable communities.


BLITZER: Our London correspondent Max Foster is joining us right now.

So, Max, what is the very latest?

MAX FOSTER, CNN LONDON CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's interesting, I mean, you heard some very strong words there but the sort of insults we heard in parliament I haven't heard in a very long time. Haven't had a debate like this for a very long time, talk about banning one person, spending three hours debating in fact. He was called stupid at one point, poisonous you just heard there, but also bonkers and he was even called a wazak at one point.

Extraordinary scenes in parliament, but what you actually found at the end of this as many politicians find Donald Trump's opinions objectionable here, they don't think a ban necessarily is the best solution. In fact some thought it would be counterproductive, it would bestow victimhood, one of them said, on Donald Trump, which may help him in the U.S. election campaign.

Far better, they said, for him to come over to the United Kingdom so they could challenge him, face on in the United Kingdom. He's also talked about no-go zones here in the U.K. They want to question him on that, want him to show them where they are. They want to talk about this policy on Muslims in the United States and why he thinks that would be a good idea and what sort of message that sends out about America.

Ultimately, this debate didn't really matter, though, because it doesn't have any legal power. It can't install a ban. But it does perhaps play into the home secretary's decisions on these matters. She has the final say on that and certainly has had a lot of publicity today.

[17:55:10] Meanwhile, we did hear from Donald Trump's representative in the U.K. who said this was all an absurd waste of time and he's thinking about possibility stopping a billion-dollars worth of investment in Scotland that he was planning.

BLITZER: Max Foster in London for us. We'll stay on top of this story, as well. Thank you.

Coming up, unresolved mysteries despite this weekend's prisoner swap between the U.S. and Iran, why have some Americans been left behind?


BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. Heading home. American prisoners freed by Iran are reunited with their families and begin returning to U.S. soil. Tonight, new details on the secret talks that led to their release.