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Interview With Rep. Harley Rouda (D-CA); U.S. Fighter Jets Intercept Russian Warplanes Off Alaska; House Democrats To Meet Tomorrow As Impeachment Pressure Builds; Mueller Team Hesitant About Special Counsel Testifying Publicly, Fearing It Would Seem Political; New Poll Shows Biden Tops Nearest Democratic Rival By Nearly 20 Points; CNN Hosts Iowa Town Hall As Former Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D) Texas Seeks Campaign Reboot; Millions At Risk From Severe Storms In Central U.S. After Tornadoes And Flooding Prompt Dramatic Rescues. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired May 21, 2019 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: More Democrats are supporting impeachment, questioning House Speaker Nancy Pelosi goes-slow approach. Tonight, Pelosi is calling a meeting that could shift the debate and intensify divisions within the party.

Mueller's silence. CNN has learned that members of the special counsel's team are wary about him testifying in public. We're going to tell you what they're worried about and why it could keep Robert Mueller from openly answering questions.

And Russian jets intercepted. The U.S. confronts a new show of force by Moscow in the skies near Alaska. Why did Vladimir Putin's military send warplanes so close to the United States?

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: We're following breaking news on Democrats making new demands of the Trump team, as pressure to impeach the president builds.

The House Judiciary Committee issuing new subpoenas tonight for the president's former adviser and confidant Hope Hicks, and to Annie Donaldson, who was chief of staff to former White House Counsel Don McGahn, this just hours after McGahn defied a subpoena to testify himself.

As Democrats grow more furious than ever about White House stonewalling, the push for impeachment is clearly intensifying tonight. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has called a meeting of all House Democrats tomorrow morning, and the impeachment debate is expected to be front and center.

This hour, I will talk to Democratic Congressman Harley Rouda, a member of the House Oversight Committee. And our correspondents and analysts are also standing by.

First, let's go to our Senior Congressional Correspondent, Manu Raju.

Manu, many Democrats are keeping the subpoenas coming, despite defiance by the White House.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: No question about it, another confrontation flaring up between House Democrats and the White House.

And if -- the pattern here has been that the White House has said no, even to congressional subpoenas, and that has led more calls from members, veterans, from freshman members, committee chairmen, to suggest it's time to open an impeachment inquiry.


RAJU (voice-over): One of President Trump's closest confidants now served with a subpoena, Hope Hicks, the president's longtime adviser and former communications director, compelled to provide records and testimony to the House Judiciary Committee next month about potential obstruction of justice at the White House.

Also, the Democratic-led committees serving a subpoena to Annie Donaldson, a former top aide in the White House Counsel's Office who served as chief of staff to Don McGahn. But the White House has resisted on all fronts, and has said that former top officials cannot be compelled to testify about their conversations with the president.

And that has prompted more Democrats to say their only recourse is impeachment.

REP. JOAQUIN CASTRO (D), TEXAS: Of course, nobody runs for Congress with the idea that I want to go there and start impeachment, but I think that's what it's come to.

RAJU: Tonight, there's a growing rift in the Democratic Caucus to launch an impeachment inquiry, the pressure building across the caucus, from veteran members.

REP. JOHN YARMUTH (D), KENTUCKY: The impeachment process is going to be inevitable, just a question of when, not if.

RAJU: To freshmen.

(on camera): Do you think it's time to move forward with an impeachment inquiry?

REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ (D), NEW YORK: I do. I personally do. We can't be scared of elections. We need to uphold the rule of law.

RAJU (voice-over): And even some skeptics are softening their opposition.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA: You know, I think the case gets stronger the more they stonewall the Congress.

RAJU (on camera): Are you there yet?

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D), MARYLAND: I'm getting there. I think what the president has done has put us in a position where we cannot get any information to do the oversight that we need to do.

RAJU (voice-over): But the most important person still not convinced.

QUESTION: Madam Speaker, are you under increased pressure to impeach the president from your caucus?


RAJU: That's House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who believes her caucus should methodically pursue their investigations while focusing on an economic agenda.

And in private meetings Monday night, Pelosi argued the strategy is getting results, pointing to a court ruling that could force a Trump accounting firm to turn over financial records to the House Oversight Committee.

Many of her allies agree.

(on camera): You don't think it makes sense to open an impeachment inquiry right now?

REP. HAKEEM JEFFRIES (D), NEW YORK: The question is, why would we open an impeachment inquiry if we're winning?

RAJU (voice-over): But, today, Democrats did not get what they wanted, after Don McGahn was a no-show at a House Judiciary Committee hearing after the president directed him not to comply with a subpoena.

REP. JERROLD NADLER (D), NEW YORK: We will not allow the president to prevent the American people from hearing from this witness. We will not allow the president to stop this investigation.


RAJU: Now, one witness that the Democrats in the House Judiciary Committee have wanted to hear from is Bob Mueller, the special counsel.

And, Wolf, we have learned today why he has been reluctant to testify. And it's because he wants to do at least some of this testimony behind closed doors. That's what the special counsel's team has relayed to the House Judiciary Committee.


But Democrats are pushing back, including some members of the committee, including one, David Cicilline, who told me that the American people, as he said, have a right to see the results of the investigation and the person who led it.

And I had a chance to ask Jerry Nadler, the Judiciary chairman, about the idea of private testimony by Bob Mueller, and he said, "No comment" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Interesting.

All right, Manu, thank you very much, Manu Raju, up on Capitol Hill.

Now to the White House facing more subpoenas, as the president ramps up his legal battle to ignore them.

Our Chief White House Correspondent, Jim Acosta, is joining us.

Jim, the House Democrats are now demanding to hear from one of the president's longtime confidants, Hope Hicks . JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

And when you talk to sources over here at the White House, they essentially say that this president is going to have the same approach to Hope Hicks testifying up on Capitol Hill as he had with Don McGahn, that they're going to assert some kind of immunity over Hope Hicks and prevent her from testifying and complying with that subpoena.

And so it seems as if that confrontation is heading in the same direction as we have seen other confrontations, as this White House puts up this very stout defense in the face of all of these investigations coming from House Democrats.

White House officials are showing no signs of backing down tonight in their standoff with House Democrats over these investigations of the president. Aides to the president say the administration is prepared to battle out all of these things in court with Democrats.

And Mr. Trump is fighting back as well, as he's been escalating his rhetoric, once again accusing his adversaries of treason.


ACOSTA (voice-over): In another swipe at Democrats tonight, the president's legal team is aggressively fighting to appeal a federal judge's ruling that ordered Mr. Trump's longtime accounting firm Mazars to turn over his financial records to House investigators, who see those documents as a potential impeachment mother lode.

REP. JOHN GARAMENDI (D), CALIFORNIA: This is a very important loss for him. It sets the stage for the documents, his tax returns and other information to be available.

ACOSTA: Also tonight, an empty table that speaks volumes, as former White House counsel Don McGahn followed Trump administration instructions and defied a subpoena to testify before the House Judiciary Committee, where Chairman Jerry Nadler warned he's running out of patience. NADLER: Mr. McGahn has a legal obligation to be here for this scheduled appearance. If he does not immediately correct his mistake, this committee will have no choice but to enforce the subpoena against him.

ACOSTA: Despite threats from Congress to go to court, Mr. Trump is making it clear he's in no mood to cooperate.

(on camera): What do you have to say to Americans who feel that your administration is stonewalling all these investigations up on Capitol Hill? Why not let Don McGahn testify? Are you afraid of what he has to say?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think we've been the most transparent administration in the history of our country. Now what happens is the Democrats want a redo, and we've had enough, and the country has had enough.

ACOSTA (voice-over): The president is continuing to take his case to his base, lobbing accusations at unnamed forces in the Russia investigation.

TRUMP: It was treason. And it should never be allowed to happen to another president again, ever, ever, ever, ever.


ACOSTA: Drawing a new twist on a familiar chant at his rallies.

AUDIENCE: Lock them up! Lock them up! Lock them up!

TRUMP: Well, we have a great new attorney general who's going to give it a very fair look.


ACOSTA: That attorney general, William Barr, told "The Wall Street Journal" he's sympathetic to the president's complaints that he's been unfairly targeted, adding -- quote -- "I felt the rules were being changed to hurt Trump, and I thought it was damaging for the presidency over the long haul."

The president is clearly turning his attention to the campaign, hitting former Vice President Joe Biden in Pennsylvania.

TRUMP: Don't forget, Biden deserted you. He's not from Pennsylvania. I guess he was born here, but he left you, folks. He left you for another state.

ACOSTA: The reality is, Biden moved to Delaware when he was a child.

Mr. Trump also appears to have his eye on South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, after his town hall on FOX.

TRUMP: Something strange is going on at FOX, folks, something very strange. ACOSTA: The president remains focused on border issues heading into

2020, tapping former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli to coordinate immigration policy at the Department of Homeland Security.

That's despite Cuccinelli's past criticism of Mr. Trump during the 2016 campaign, which peaked at the Republican National Convention, where he put his anger with the party on display by throwing his credentials on the floor.

KENNETH CUCCINELLI (R), FORMER VIRGINIA ATTORNEY GENERAL: Sometimes, I wonder if I'm watching my country commit political suicide, but I don't think it's really accurate to characterize him as a conservative.


ACOSTA: Now, there was one other top official on the move over here at the White House today.

One of Mr. Trump's most senior aides from the start of the administration, Johnny DeStefano, is leaving the president's team. That leaves the president without a key political adviser, as House Democrats are talking more and more about impeachment.


Democrats are saying McGahn's refusal to testify has made them more open to the idea of impeachment, as you were just showing a few moments ago. But people close to the president don't sound especially concerned about that kind of talk, Wolf, and argue that this is more of a worry at this point for the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is feeling the impeachment pressure from her own caucus -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jim Acosta at the White House, thank you.

Joining us now, Congressman Harley Rouda, a Democrat. He serves on the Oversight and Reform Committee.

Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.


BLITZER: The Judiciary Committee, as you know, has just issued these subpoenas for Hope Hicks, the former White House communications director, and Annie Donaldson. She was Don McGahn's chief of staff.

And the Mueller report relies heavily on her notes, notes she took at the White House. We're showing our viewers some of them that were included to the Mueller report. There were many of them there.

How important you think it is, Congressman, to get their testimony?

ROUDA: Well, it's important, but it's important to get everybody's testimony.

But I don't have a lot of faith in getting it under the current circumstances. We have seen this administration and this president thwart all of our efforts, whether it's subpoenas or requests for documentation.

And we're getting to the point where we're going to have to draw a line in the sand and ask that it be provided by that date.

BLITZER: And what happens if it's not?

ROUDA: I think we start impeachment proceedings. We're left with no other choice.

This is a simple right-and-wrong issue. This is how we raise our kids. You do what's right. And here we have a president who continues to, again, thwart what is clearly the obligations that they have and our rights under the Constitution.

And I'm just struck by the fact that we did not come here to Congress, any of these -- this freshman class, to start impeachment proceedings. We came here because we cared about climate change. We cared about bringing drug prices down. We cared about the corruption in government.

And to have a president who further extends that corruption is going to cause us to have to take action.

BLITZER: CNN has also learned that Robert Mueller is now apparently reluctant to testify before Congress publicly, over concerns that this would be seen as political, after two years of silence from the special counsel.

What do you make of that?

ROUDA: I'm not sure what to make of that, Wolf, I will be honest, because I -- like all Americans, I want to see Mueller testify in a public setting.

And whether that refrain of his unwillingness to testify publicly is truly his sentiments or what's being driven by the attorney general and the Department of Justice, I think we got to dig a little bit deeper to find out.

BLITZER: Should Democratic leaders accept a closed-door hearing with Mueller?

ROUDA: If that's the best we can get, yes.

But I would, again, prefer to see a public hearing .

BLITZER: The dramatic developments included a federal judge yesterday upholding a subpoena by your committee, the House Oversight Committee, for President Trump's financial records when he was a private citizen.

How significant is that?

ROUDA: Well, on one hand, it is significant. But, on the other hand, it isn't.

They simply followed legal precedent in doing exactly what the court should do. But we should all be assured that the court system is doing what is right, demanding that those tax returns be released to Congress. They have seven days to comply with it.

And I'm hopeful that, in spite of the appeal by the administration, we will see those tax returns soon, because the American public deserves to see them.

BLITZER: Back in February, as you will recall, Michael Cohen, the president's former fixer and lawyer, testified before your committee that the president's personal lawyer Jay Sekulow was at the very least aware of his false testimony to Congress on the Trump Tower Moscow project.

Now a transcript from his closed-door testimony before the House Intelligence Committee shows Cohen believed President Trump also had seen that false testimony.

How does your committee plan to pursue this?

ROUDA: Well, on one hand, I take anything Michael Cohen says with a shaker of salt. He is a known liar. But we have to ascertain whether he is telling the truth here, because he has no reason to lie.

So that's really going to come down to working with Chairman Cummings and the rest of the Oversight Committee to determine how to approach the best way to further dig in on this information.

BLITZER: On the issue of the House launching impeachment proceedings, there's going to be a big meeting with Nancy Pelosi, the speaker. All the Democrats and the caucus will be there. I assume you will be there as well.

ROUDA: Right.

BLITZER: What do you think? Do you think she's shifting her attitude?

ROUDA: I think she's been very clear all along that, if we continue to be stymied in our desire on behalf of the American people to have the subpoenas honored and the information provided, then we're getting closer and closer to have no other choice but to take further action.

Whether that's first through the court system and drawing a line in the sand, as I suggested earlier, or going straight to impeachment proceedings, that's going to be one of the things we will want to talk to her about.

BLITZER: How much pressure is she getting?

ROUDA: You know, it's hard to say.

I think it depends on who you talk to, right? It's a large caucus with a lot of opinions. But we also are seeing the pressure come from the Republican side, as we saw with Congressman Amash.


But I will tell you, just today, I was in an elevator with another Republican. And it was just the two of us. And I said, come on. What's going on here? You guys know this is black and white. This is right and wrong. And he said he can't do it because he knows that there's evidence of obstruction of justice, but, for political reasons, will not get on board with Congressman Amash.

And I think that's horrible. That's not what we came to Washington, D.C., for, to check political winds. We came here to do our job. And if our job requires us to take the president on, that's exactly what we should do.

BLITZER: Are other Republicans telling you that as well? And do you want to share who told you that?

ROUDA: Well, I don't want to share, because I don't want to breach the confidence.

But I can assure you -- and you know this too, Wolf -- there are Republicans in both houses, both chambers, who privately talk about how our Constitution is being challenged by this president, but have the unwillingness or the backbone to do what is ethically correct and call him out for what he's been doing.

BLITZER: You think any of them will do that? We know Justin Amash has done it. Do you think others will?

ROUDA: Well, I think, if we get the evidence that we deserve and the subpoenas are honored, and it tells a tale that requires them to start getting on board, then, yes, they need to get on board.

But it may very well be that the evidence -- evidence doesn't support it, and they can maintain their position. But we will never know unless we get the opportunity to have those subpoenas honored and that evidence explored.

BLITZER: And, finally and very quickly, did you ask that Republican congressman to go public?

ROUDA: No, no, because he had made it very clear he wasn't.

BLITZER: Congressman Harley Rouda, thanks so much for your going public, and we're grateful to you for that.

ROUDA: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: More breaking news just ahead on the new subpoenas for former White House officials, including Trump confidant Hope Hicks. What might she reveal if she testifies?

And when House Democrats meet in the morning, are they likely to reach a consensus on impeachment?



BLITZER: We're following a lot of breaking news, including new subpoenas just issued by the House Judiciary Committee demanding testimony and documents from former White House officials Hope Hicks and Annie Donaldson.

Hicks was one of the president's closest confidants while she was in the White House. Donaldson was the chief of staff for former White House counsel Don McGahn. She was known for taking meticulous notes. Anyone who read the Mueller report has seen all those notes.

Let's bring in our analysts.

It's a significant development.

But very quickly, Jamie, what's your reaction to what we just heard from Democratic Congressman Harley Rouda saying he spoke -- he's spoken, even today, with a Republican congressman and others who say, you know what, they don't like what's going on, but they're clearly not going to go public?


None of these Republicans, as long as those polls say that Donald Trump's approval rating is 88 percent or 91 percent, unless everybody stands up together -- I mean, I hear this from Republicans all the time, but no one is going to go public, or they end up Mia Love. They're going to be primar ied.

BLITZER: Well, we had one Republican who went public, Justin Amash.

But he's also said this one Republican said to him he knows -- the Republican said he knows there's evidence of obstruction.

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN COMMENTATOR: You're referring to Congressman Amash?

BLITZER: Harley -- no, Harley Rouda said -- the Democratic congressman said, in a conversation with an unnamed Republican, the Republican said that.


Yes, but, again, I think that goes right to Jamie's point, which is that Republicans other than Congressman Amash appear cowed by the president, because they know they rely on the same voters that the president does.

And, as you pointed out, the president has roughly 90 percent approval ratings among Republican voters. And this should be a message to Democrats that this is what they're facing if they go forward with impeachment. BLITZER: What do you think, Jackie, of these latest subpoenas including Hope Hicks and Annie Donaldson being called to come before Congress?

JACKIE ALEMANY, REPORTER, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Yes, well, these are sort of, I think, would be the crown jewels of testimonies.

These are people who were just as close to Don McGahn and just as close to Donald Trump as many of the other people who have been called up to testify before Congress.

I think they can help fill in a lot of gaps here. You know that "The Post" has called Annie Donaldson's meticulous note-taking, which came out as a result of Don McGahn's meetings with the president which have become sort of infamous in the Mueller report, as an equivalent to the Watergate tapes here.

But if -- I think really what this is, is another test of the White House. If they continue to stonewall, then it's another incremental step towards initiating impeachment proceedings. That's exactly what this is.

GANGEL: The chances that these two women are going to testify are not slim to none. I think they're none to none.

We're going to end up in the same situation, where the White House is going to want to take it to court.


And what we do know about these two people as well is that they have been really shy of the limelight. Annie Donaldson move back to the South. Hope Hicks is in L.A. These are two characters who have been very reticent to be public figures in any way, and have been stung by their experiences in Washington.

BLITZER: These latest two subpoenas, Phil, what does it tell you about the Democrats' strategy right now?


The point is, it's not just subpoenas about people. It's subpoenas about information like documents. You're talking about meticulous note-taking. This is Pelosi saying, facts first, fight later.

Some of the Democrats have said, fight first, facts later. You get those documents, you get, for example, from Hope Hicks documents, maybe, if they're out there, relating to how the president might have changed language about his son's meeting with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower, those documents are worth 1,000 words, if you follow me.


I think what the Democrats are doing is to say, we can't let the horse get in front of the cart. We need some facts -- pardon me, the quote -- whatever that phrase is.

We need some facts before we go through an impeachment process, so we can tell the American people, this isn't just about us. This is about information from Trump's own people that tell us that something wrong happened.

BLITZER: Everybody, stick around. There's a lot more news we're following.

We will take a quick break. We will be right back.



BLITZER: We're back with our team of experts. Jamie, the Democrats, they appear to be split on this whole issue of whether to begin impeachment proceedings in the House of Representatives against the President. You've been speaking a lot of Democrats. What are you hearing?

GANGEL: Well, we heard all day today people coming out and saying we're getting closer. You know, I think we're there. Nancy Pelosi, I am told, feels no pressure. She is not there yet.

I spoke to a very senior Democrat who said to me impeachment would be political suicide. It would be giving Donald Trump a gift. We can't go there unless there is, as Nancy Pelosi said weeks ago, something clear, something convincing.

So Nancy Pelosi, she controls that place. I would not underestimate her keeping the discipline together.

BLITZER: Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez strongly disagrees. Listen to this, David.


REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ (D-NY): Just as pursuing impeachment without grounds could be a political -- could be interpreted as having political motive, I think impeaching and choosing to not impeach when there is an abundance of evidence could be also be construed as politically motivated as well. And we can't be scared of elections. We need to uphold the rule of law.


BLITZER: So is her message resonating?

SWERDLICK: Look, I think the Congresswoman chose her words carefully there and she has a point, you know, to borrow from Rush (ph) if you choose not to decide, and you still have made a choice. And I think she's right about that.

But I also think that Jamie's point makes sense. Speaker Pelosi has been doing this a long time. And she understands, and the leadership of the Democrats understand that if you go for impeachment, and even if you get it in the House and then you don't get a conviction in the Senate, it ultimately chalks up as a win for President Trump and Democrats are trying to sort of ward that off, and that is the danger.

BLITZER: What are you hearing, Jackie?

ALEMANY: Well, I just think the big question here though that is really frustrating a lot of members though is that impeachment does seem to be the most effective enforcement mechanism at obtaining all of this information that Democrats -- that oversight is seeking.

And what a lot of constituents are expressing to their bosses is a frustration that it feels like Congress can't even do their job on a day-to-day basis. I mean, you had someone like Representative Cicilline who put out a messaging memo on the end of last week encouraging his colleagues to stick to policy items, talking about healthcare, to really reset and stop talking about Mueller and Trump's bait. And then you saw him yesterday go back on that and say that today was the red line. If Don McGahn didn't show up to testify, he was going to call for initiating impeachment proceedings.

But there is a difference at the end of the day of filing an impeachment article and initiating proceedings in order to leverage subpoenas to obtain more information.

SWERDLICK: I think that's totally right except, I think, that the Trump administration, the White House, the President will spin it as impeachment once the word impeachment is in that sentence.

BLITZER: And, you know, Phil, we're also learning now that Robert Mueller's team is hesitant to let him go appear publicly before Congress.

MUDD: Only one word in that question you need to think about and that is that word, publicly. People are going to interpret that to me they don't want him to testify. I testified a lot of times. When you go into public testimony, that is in front of a camera. The senators or congressman are going to sit there and say, how do I play to my constituents, how do I play to CNN?

I think the debate is about not whether the testimony -- not whether it happens, whether it's public or private. You go into private. When I testified, Wolf, people who attack you in public, senators and congressmen and congresswomen, they can't bother to show up in private because they know that's a serious conversation. I think this is a debate about whether the Special Counsel shows up in public and that's a hot mess or whether he shows up in private and that might be a serious conversation.

BLITZER: What do you think?

GANGEL: But if it happens in private, for the American public, is that good enough? They have been waiting a long time to hear from Robert Mueller. So I think there's tremendous pressure for a public hearing. I spoke to a source who said that you thought it would happen, that they were negotiating out the terms now. BLITZER: I want to play for you. This is the President at his political rally last night speaking about the FBI supposedly spying against the Trump campaign. Listen to this.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They were spying. They were spying on our campaign. I'll tell you what. If that ever happened to the other side, this thing would have been over two years ago. And, you know, it would have been treason. They would have called it treason. And that's what it is. It was treason. And it should never be allowed to happen to another president again, ever, ever, ever.


BLITZER: You, at one point, here worked with the FBI. What's your reaction to that?

MUDD: Let's go. Let me tell you something. There was spying and encouragement of spying. It's a presidential candidate encouraging a foreign adversary to steal information about an American presidential candidate. That's the American presidential candidate, in this case, Donald Trump saying, hey, Russians, where are Hillary's emails?


That's the President's son encouraging a foreign adversary, in this case, a lawyer, going to Trump Tower and saying, I know there're stolen information, maybe I'd like to see it. That's the presidential adviser.

Roger Stone knowing that there's stolen information from a server saying, I'm happy to talk to the intermediary that is WikiLeaks that will public that information. If we want a foreign adversary and Rudy Giuliani went out there and said this was okay, talking about the Russians, if we want a foreign adversary to steal stuff and publish it, let me tell you who encouraged that, that's the President. That's stealing. That's spying.

BLITZER: And when he throws out the word treason, what's reaction to that?

MUDD: Treason means an American citizen sold out their government to a foreign power. Can you explain what FBI official said, I would purposely serve the Russians before the Americans? I didn't see it, Wolf. I didn't see it.

BLITZER: You know, Jackie, a very different Exchange that occurred up in Congress today. The Housing and Urban Development Secretary, Ben Carson's testimony, and he had this exchange with a lawmaker. Listen to this.


REP. KATIE PORTER (D), CALIFORNIA: I'd also like you to get back to me, if you don't mind, to explain the disparity in REO rates. Do you know what an REO is?


PORTER: R -- no, not an Oreo. An R-E-O? R-E-O.

CARSON: Real estate.

PORTER: What's the o stand for?

CARSON: The organization.

PORTER: Owned, real estate owned, that's what happens when a property goes to foreclosure. We call it an REO.


BLITZER: That was pretty awkward, that whole exchange right there. What did you think?

ALEMANY: Yes. I mean, from Betsy DeVos to Ben Carson, I think, it shows how underqualified and underprepared a lot of these cabinet secretaries are. Ben Carson has managed to skim by these past two years. He's already announced that he's retiring by the end of the Trump administration. But, you know, the fact that he doesn't know basic terminology as it relates to his every day duties is pretty troubling.

BLITZER: And he thanked -- he made a joke out of it. He Tweeted, oh, R-E-O, thanks, at Rep. Katie Porter. She is the Congresswoman who asked the questions, enjoying a few post hearing snacks, sending some your way, that he tried to spin it with a cute Tweet.

All right everybody stick around. There's much more news we're following. CNN is live in the lead off presidential caucus State of Iowa as a Democratic candidate was trying to stand out from the crowded field. We're going to take a closer look at tonight's CNN Town Hall with Beto O'Rourke.

And we'll tell you how the U.S. military has now responded to a new show of force by Russian war planes.



BLITZER: Tonight, a new national poll shows Joe Biden holding a nearly 20-point lead over his nearest Democratic presidential rival, Bernie Sanders. We're following new developments in the 2020 race, including CNN's Town Hall with Beto O'Rourke tonight in Iowa.

CNN's Leyla Santiago is in De Moines for us. So, Leyla, O'Rourke clearly is trying to jumpstart his campaign.

LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I just spoke to him a little while ago. He says he feels good. He reiterated that he believes this Town Hall will be an extension of the other Town Halls he's been a part over the last few months. He is traveling with senior advisors. We typically don't see on the campaign trail, all of them, hoping that what happens on this stage tonight will resonate with voters.


SANTIAGO: Beto O'Rourke is entering a new phase of his 2020 campaign.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How do you feel you have changed and evolved in this process?

FMR. REP. BETO O'ROURKE (D-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I don't know. You have been here for a lot of it, so you might be --


O'ROURKE: You might be the one to ask.

SANTIAGO: Here is what we've noticed. The former Texas Congressman has gone from sleeves rolled up to more sports jacket, from counter tops to a different platform and at times a different approach on how to reach voters.

O'ROURKE: Meeting you eyeball to eyeball to me is so much more satisfying than being on cable TV.

I can do a better job also of talking to a national audience.

SANTIAGO: And how to change perception.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Would you say those are mistakes being on the cover of Vanity Fair?

O'ROURKE: Yes. So --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It looks elitists? What? What's wrong?

O'ROURKE: Yes. I think it re-enforces that perception of privilege.

SANTIAGO: According to a source close to the campaign, staffers are working to make O'Rourke appear more presidential as the candidate offers more specifics recently on policy, like climate change, and just last night, a few critiques of his own.

O'ROURKE: There was no person more inspiring in public life in my life than Barack Obama. One of the frustrations though during those eight years is so many people who were willing to walk through walls no longer felt connected to the mission, to the policies and to the goals during that administration.

SANTIAGO: O'Rourke today joining with several of his Democratic rivals and voicing support for abortion ban protests around the country, including six hopefuls who rallied at the U.S. Supreme Court.

SEN. KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND (D), NEW YORK: I think this is something that President Trump has unleashed. He apparently wants to have a war on women in America. And if this is war that he wants to have, he will have it and he will lose it.

SANTIAGO: President Trump is keeping an eye on the wide Democratic field, especially former Vice President Joe Biden, whose Pennsylvania roots he targeted at a rally there Monday night.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Don't forget, Biden deserted you. He's not from Pennsylvania. I guess he was born here but he left you, folks. He left you for another state. Remember that, please.

SANTIAGO: Biden's family left Pennsylvania when he was 10 years old. As the president continues to take aim at Democrats, each will have to make the case to voters why they are the best to defeat him.

O'ROURKE: We got this guy in the White House who seeks to further divide and already polarized the country. It seeks to undermine an already badly damaged democracy. How do we meet that? My entire's life work has been about bringing people together.


SANTIAGO: And O'Rourke is hoping to see not only a boost in energy and support but also in hard numbers. That means in the polls and the bank account. He's actually already sent out an e-mail tied to this event for fund raising, Wolf.

BLITZER: Not surprised.

All right. Leyla, thanks very much. Leyla Santiago in Des Moines for us.

Be sure to watch CNN's Democratic presidential town hall with former Congressman Beto O'Rourke. Dana Bash hosts live from Iowa later tonight, 10:00 p.m. Eastern, only here on c CNN.

And just ahead, Russian warplanes intercepted by U.S. fighter jets, uncomfortably close to Alaska.

And after devastating flooding threatens lives and forces rescues in Oklahoma, we're going to tell you who is at risk from dangerous weather, tonight.


[18:51:11] BLITZER: Tonight, a new source of tension between the United States and Russia. U.S. fighter jets intercepting a half dozen fighter warplanes off the coast of Alaska.

Let's go to our Pentagon Correspondent, Barbara Starr.

Barr, this clearly was a show of force I taken by the Russians.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: It was indeed, Wolf. Two incidents in which the U.S. responded of on the coast of Alaska by

sending up four U.S. F-22 fighters. There were a total of 11 aircraft involved when you added it all up between the U.S. and Russians. The Russians had four bombers and two fighters jets. The U.S. also had another reconnaissance plane up. Eleven fighters -- 11 aircraft up in the sky.

You see one of the images hear taken from one of the U.S. aircraft. It all worked out fine in this case. The Russia aircraft in a safe manner came into a zone of air space that extends 200 miles off the Alaska coast. What were they doing there when they got intercepted and encouraged shall we say to move out by the U.S.? All indications are that the Russian were having a show of force. They wanted to demonstrate that they could train, that they could operate in a complex manner and they achieved that goal. They got the U.S. attention here.

Now, this one was all safe and professional by all accounts. But, you know, lock at some of the video we have seen in 2015, 2016 in some other places in the world in the Black Sea and the Baltic when we have had very unsafe, unprofessional -- we have some of the video to show you and remind you, Russian aircraft coming up against U.S. aircraft, coming up against U.S. Navy warships.

So, there is always the concern that one of niece instances could, you know, suddenly spiral out of control due to miscalculation. It didn't happen here but got everyone's attention -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It certainly did. Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thank you.

Just ahead, after a tornado and severe flooding forced an urgent round of rescues, more dangerous weather is threatening a large portion of the central U.S.


[18:57:46] BLITZER: Tonight, we are following the risk of severe weather in the central United States. After dangerous storms unleashed heavy flooding and multiple tornadoes overnight, dozens of people were rescued from fast moving waters that swamped middle Oklahoma. We could see more dramatic rescues in the hours ahead with storms expected in parts of the Plains and Midwest.

Our meteorologist Tom Sater is over at the CNN severe weather center for us.

Tom, are more Americans in danger tonight?

TOM SATER, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yes, with different aspects and elements. I mean, everything you see here in red is over six inches of rain. Wolf, we talked about the outbreak of tornadoes yesterday Oklahoma City and westward. Tulsa had a flood emergency overnight. So, the other edge of the sword besides tornadoes were the swift water rescues, that will continue, and more rain is on the way in a couple days in that same area. Look at the light green. That is a large amount of real estate all

flood warnings typically it's just the Mississippi River. So, several states, 25 tornadoes yesterday, another 15 already today. It gives us a year total at 700.

That's above the seasonal average and we still have more in our general area from Little Rock to St. Louis. It's different, however, we're not seeing the large super cell thunderstorms. We're seeing a line, a linear of equation here where we still have tornadoes but they're smaller.

We still have tornado watches including areas all the way into St. Louis area. So, now larger populated regions. We've got a tornado warning, that includes St. Louis County. We've got two of them now and that's moving toward in area. They have cancelled the St. Louis Cardinal game outside because of the inclement weather.

More of this is continuing to spread, and as it makes its way, a few more tornadoes this evening and overnight but not as severe as yesterday. Thursday's the big day where we have a level three in the same region, Wolf. The Storm Prediction Center putting this out two days in advance. They could up it like yesterday to that level 5.

If there was any good news at all -- I know this is no consolation to those that had damage and the tractor trailers that were tipped over today -- cloud cover yesterday kept us from getting the sun, heating it up and giving us the large EF-4s and EF-5s. Hopefully, the sun will stay away on Thursday when we have another outbreak like this.

BLITZER: All right. Thanks very much, Tom Sater, reporting for us.

To our viewers, thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.