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THE SITUATION ROOM
Interview With Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus; Stopping Trump; Trump vs. Romney; Democrats Preparing for Weekend Contests, CNN Debate; GOP National Security Leadership Blasting Trump. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired March 3, 2016 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, breaking news: civil war.
Republican infighting explodes with an unprecedented speech by former presidential nominee Mitt Romney attacking current front-runner Donald Trump, Romney making a scathing assessment of Trump as unfit for the presidency and now said to be looking at ways to block him at the Republican Convention. Is the party fracturing ahead of this critical election?
I will ask the Republican Party chairman, Reince Priebus.
Seeking donations. New reporting on CNN about a major turnaround by Trump. A source now telling us that his self-funded campaign will go after big donors after Trump secures the presidential nomination. Is the brash billionaire who brags of being beholden to no one now planning a huge fund-raising stream?
Fight night. The four remaining Republican candidates facing off tonight the first time since Trump's slew of Super Tuesday victories. Will Marco Rubio try to repeat the assault that seemed to throw Trump a bit off balance in their last meet-up, and will Ted Cruz join in to unleash a political bloodbath?
Answering questions. The U.S. Justice Department granting immunity to a Hillary Clinton staffer who set up her private e-mail server while she was secretary of state, an unexpected twist just ahead of the CNN Democratic presidential debate in Flint, Michigan. Will Clinton herself be questioned as part of the FBI investigation?
We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: The breaking political news this hour, the extraordinary war of words between Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump and Mitt Romney. The man who was the Republican nominee just four years ago laying out a blistering indictment of Trump in a speech carefully designed to slow if not stop Trump's momentum.
But it also reveals just how panicked the party establishment is right now at the prospect of Trump as the GOP standard bearer. And tonight, CNN's Jamie Gangel has learned from her sources that Romney is instructing top advisers to explore the possibility of stopping Trump at the Republican National Convention.
We're also following the Democratic race. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders preparing for a critical weekend with more than 150 delegates up for grabs in caucuses and primaries and the CNN Democratic presidential debate Sunday night in Flint, Michigan. We're covering all of that, much more this hour with our guests, including the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus. And our correspondents and expert analysts, they are also standing by.
Let's begin with Mitt Romney's remarkable attack on Donald Trump today. He's firing right back in his classic style.
Our chief political correspondent Dana Bash is in Detroit, where Trump and his rivals, they will be debating tonight.
Dana, this is quite a spectacle that is going on right now inside the GOP.
DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Quite a spectacle indeed.
And the fact that Mitt Romney declined to endorse any of Donald Trump's opponents gives a bit of a hint as to what his and other members of the Republican establishment's strategy is, which is to basically run out the clock and try to figure this out at the convention. Whether or not that's going to work is to be determined.
But, regardless, what Mitt Romney did today will be something for the political history books.
BASH (voice-over): An unprecedented takedown of a Republican front- runner by a former Republican standard-bearer.
MITT ROMNEY (R), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Donald Trump lacks the temperament to be president.
BASH: The most exactly part of Mitt Romney's message, he wasn't just blasting Donald Trump as bad for the GOP. He was calling him perilous for America.
ROMNEY: Donald Trump tells us he is very, very smart. I'm afraid that when it comes to foreign policy, he is very, very not smart. If we Republicans choose Donald Trump as our nominee, the prospects for a safe and prosperous future are greatly diminished.
BASH: Romney's carefully crafted speech was aimed at exposing Trump as a phony.
ROMNEY: But you say, wait, wait, wait, isn't he a huge business success? Doesn't he know what he's talking about? No, he isn't and no he doesn't. (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
BASH: Romney effectively called Trump a loser, an attempt to undermine Trump's core rationale for his candidacy, that he's a winner.
ROMNEY: Whatever happened to Trump Airlines? How about Trump University? And then there's Trump Magazine and Trump Vodka and Trump Steaks and Trump Mortgage. A business genius, he is not.
BASH: But the 2012 GOP nominee is an imperfect messenger, since he courted Trump's endorsement just four years ago.
ROMNEY: Having his endorsement is a delight.
BASH: Then Romney even praised the business acumen he criticized today.
ROMNEY: Donald Trump has shown an extraordinary ability to understand how our economy works to create jobs for the American people.
BASH: But the straight-laced Romney is also clearly disgusted with Trump's demeanor as a presidential candidate now.
ROMNEY: Think of Donald Trump's personal qualities. The bullying, the greed, the showing off, the misogyny, the absurd third grade theatrics.
BASH: Romney even tried to preempt Trump's response.
ROMNEY: Will he talk about our policy differences? Or will he attack me with every imaginable low road insult? This may tell you what you need to know about his temperament, his stability and his suitability to be president.
TRUMP: Mitt was a disaster as a candidate.
BASH: Trump responded, true to form.
TRUMP: And I backed Mitt Romney. I backed him. You can see how loyal he is. He was begging for my endorsement. I could have said, Mitt, drop to your knees. He would have dropped to his knees.
BASH: Trump claimed Romney didn't run for president this time around because he feared the real reality star.
TRUMP: I will tell you the real reason he chickened out. It wasn't Jeb. It was me.
BASH: But it was clear Romney's criticism of Trump's business record hit a nerve. The billionaire came armed with a list of accomplishments.
TRUMP: They don't want to talk about 92-story buildings all over the place. They don't want to talk about the Bank of America Building in San Francisco, 1290 Avenue of the Americas. Frankly, it's ridiculous.
BASH: Now, at the end of this whole back and forth, Mitt Romney actually tweeted the explanation for why he accepted Donald Trump's endorsement. He said four years ago, had Trump said things like he's said about the KKK, Muslims and Mexicans, he would not have accepted his endorsement.
But, Wolf, I have to tell you we're here in Michigan. This is where the debate will be tonight. It's also where there will be a Republican primary this coming Tuesday. And I just spoke to a senior Republican here who has not endorsed anyone who said that they believe what Mitt Romney did was potentially hand the nomination to Donald Trump because he just doesn't get what's going on out in the country, but especially hard-hit places like Michigan.
BLITZER: He's been doing well in the polls over there. That's at least according the recent polls. Dana, thank you very much.
I want to bring in CNN's Jim Acosta. He's in Salt Lake City, where Mitt Romney gave that powerful speech.
Jim, he certainly did not mince any words when it came to Donald Trump. But what's the latest?
JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. This is as heated as Mitt Romney can get, and this was personal for Mitt Romney.
A source close to the former GOP presidential candidate told me he would not have been able to look his grandchildren in their faces had he not delivered this speech. That's how much he deeply dislikes Donald Trump.
It was a stinging indictment of Trump's business and personal affairs, even touching on the real estate tycoon's infidelities, sounding like the new leader of the #neverTrump movement. Romney said his party's current front-runner is a bully who must be stopped.
Here's what he had to say.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ROMNEY: This is an individual who mocked a disabled reporter, who attributed a reporter's questions to her menstrual cycle, who mocked a brilliant rival who happened to be a woman due to her appearance, who bragged about his marital affairs, and who laces his public speeches with vulgarity.
Donald Trump says he admires Vladimir Putin, at the same time he has called George W. Bush a liar. That is a twisted example of evil trumping good.
(END VIDEO CLIP) ACOSTA: Now, Romney's critics note the former Massachusetts governor was all too willing to accept Trump's endorsement four years ago. I was there for that.
It was a controversial endorsement at the time. And it was notable, Wolf, as Dana mentioned, that Romney did not talk about this in his speech, instead saying in that Twitter message that he essentially regretted Trump's support.
As for the future, though, Romney avoided the question as well of whether he'd accept his party's nomination during a fractured convention later this summer, July, in Cleveland. But a source close to Mitt Romney tells me he's keeping his options open, Wolf. That cannot sound good to the likes of Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and John Kasich, who probably wish that Mitt Romney would stay out of this race, Wolf.
BLITZER: Interesting stuff. All right, Jim Acosta, thank you very much.
Let's get some more on what's going on.
The chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, is joining us from Detroit right now.
Reince, thank you very much for joining us.
Fascinating developments. I have covered politics for a long time. I don't remember when two previous Republican presidential nominees both seemed to suggest they couldn't support the current Republican presidential front-runner if that front-runner gets the nomination.
Have you ever seen anything like this before?
REINCE PRIEBUS, REPUBLICAN NATIONAL COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: Another day, another fascinating development, huh, Wolf?
Have I ever seen anything like this before? Not really, but, you know, I haven't been around that long. So I can't really tell you. You know what? Nothing surprises me anymore.
But the truth is, this process is going to come to a head soon, and we're going to get to a nominee. And when we get to a nominee, this party is going to support that nominee 100 percent with the best political organization that we have ever put together.
So that's my position on it and I'm looking forward to the day that we have got a nominee.
BLITZER: Even if the nominee is Donald Trump?
PRIEBUS: I don't care who the nominee is. Our job is to support the person that gets the majority of delegates, and whoever that is is going to have the 100 percent support of the Republican Party. BLITZER: Because a lot of Republicans, establishment and many maybe
some not so much establishment, they are saying they could never support Donald Trump. More than 50 Republican national security leaders, they wrote this letter today saying that if he were the nominee, they couldn't support him as commander in chief.
Among other things, they said that he's not competent and his temperament is not ready for that. You saw that letter, right?
PRIEBUS: Well, sure. But it doesn't change the charge and the rules of the nomination process.
It's no different today than 100 years ago, which is you have a process. And whatever candidate gets a majority of the delegates is going to get the support of the party. That's how it works. It's not going to be any different. There's not going to be any shell games going on. That's the process and we're going to get it done.
BLITZER: Is the Republican Party, though, potentially falling apart at the seams?
The Republican Party has more people elected today across this country since 1900. You know, we have got to learn how to win a presidential election as a party. I will give you that. But, you know, this is a long process. We have got over 1,700 delegates to allocate still. We have got a long way to go.
And I think, ultimately, fighting in primaries is not indicative of losing in November. Take 2008. Mitt Romney -- excuse me -- Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton fought each other tooth and nail, tore each other's eyes out. They sued each other over delegates at the convention and they killed us.
So, I mean, OK, so there's some fighting and some intrigue. That's not going to be a problem.
BLITZER: But it certainly wasn't as brutal as it is right now. Let me read to you what John McCain said today, Reince.
He said: "I share the concerns about Donald Trump that my friend and former Republican nominee Mitt Romney described in his speech today. I want Republican voters to think long and hard about who they want to be our next commander in chief and leader of the free world."
How does the party come together if so many Republican leaders say they can't support Donald Trump?
PRIEBUS: It depends who the nominee is, Wolf. Obviously, we don't know who the nominee is.
But no matter who the nominee is, we are going to come together, we're going to talk to all those people. We're going to have months to do it. And as you know in politics, weeks feel like months and months feel like years. And you and I are going to be having an interview in the middle of July or August and we're not going to even remember the fact that you and I talked today in Detroit.
So, look, time heals, and it always has, and it will. And the reality is, we're running against Hillary Clinton, who is in the ditch, who people don't like, who might be indicted. So, look, the polls are very close. And I think that we're doing great. And I know this party will come together when it's all over.
BLITZER: Trump and all the other candidates signed a loyalty pledge. Should they refuse, any of these candidates -- let's say Trump is the nominee. Should they refuse to support him as the nominee, would the Republican National Committee penalize them for breaking their pledge?
PRIEBUS: Well, I mean, if they drop out, I don't know what I'm going to do to them.
But the fact is what the reality is everyone has to keep in mind is that these candidates are competing to join the Republican Party. That's what this process is. The Republican Party always is. These candidates are competing to join the Republican Party.
One of them is going to join the Republican Party in Cleveland or sooner. And when that happens, we're going to get behind that nominee. So, of course, these candidates have to sign and agree to be loyal to a party that they wish to be the nominee of. And so there's nothing unusual about that. And there's nothing unusual about our party coming around and supporting the person that becomes the nominee after getting a majority of the delegates.
BLITZER: Here's the question, Reince, because you have suggested -- you have said often the Republican Party is the party of Lincoln, the party of Reagan. But I will ask you this. Would you say today your party is the party of Romney or the party of Trump? Because it clearly can't be both.
PRIEBUS: Our party is the party of Lincoln and Reagan. I will put it that way.
And the fact is, is that it always will be. It's a party of freedom. It's the party of opportunity. It's the party of equality. And that's what our party is and that's what it always will be.
BLITZER: Because, as you know, he's gotten a lot of votes so far, Donald Trump. At least so far with 15 contests or so, primaries, caucuses, behind us, Republicans say Trump is the guy. He's got millions of votes.
PRIEBUS: OK. Great. I mean, and he very well might be. And, obviously, we're shattering records when it comes to turnout. We're crushing the Democrats when it comes to enthusiasm. We're crushing the Democrats when it comes...
BLITZER: Is that thanks to Trump?
PRIEBUS: ... to fund-raising, when it comes to infrastructure. In part, it is. But, in part, it's also thanks to serious
presidential campaigns that have serious operations in turning out voters. So, you know, you look at any of these states, you look at Iowa, you look at South Carolina, you look at New Hampshire, there's records across this country.
There's been different winners in a lot of these states. Trump has won most of them. But even in all of the states, there's been records that have been shattered. That's because I think the enthusiasm is on the Republican side of the aisle, and the doldrums and boredom is on the other side of the aisle.
I like our chances, Wolf. Yes, drama. Yes, intrigue. But there's enthusiasm, there's excitement there's and an opponent on the other side that looks like she's going to get in trouble with the FBI and the DOJ, who just gave immunity to one of her employees. And I can tell you the DOJ doesn't hand out immunity agreements for fun and just for games. Something is going on over there.
BLITZER: Let me get your reaction to what CNN's Jamie Gangel just reported.
She reported that in case let's say Donald Trump doesn't get, what, the 1,237 pledge delegates you need to be guaranteed the nomination, but gets close, he gets more than others, there could be this contested convention and maybe Mitt Romney or someone else could emerge, your fellow Wisconsinite, let's say, Paul Ryan. Do you think that's at all realistic?
PRIEBUS: Not really.
This is the kind of conversation that's so far away from where this process is at. There has been, you know -- there are 1,700-plus more delegates to go. We have a long way before we even need to think about something like that. So I just think it's a waste of time playing those sort of matrix games right now.
BLITZER: Did you have any conversations with Mitt Romney leading up to his blistering speech today?
I mean, I didn't talk to Mitt at all about it. I didn't know he was going to do it until I saw it. I have talked to Mitt Romney. I do talk to Mitt Romney. I talked to Paul Ryan, as you know, but certainly not about the speech today and, obviously, didn't know about it.
BLITZER: When you heard about that he was going to deliver the speech, you didn't call him, you didn't talk to him? Is that right?
PRIEBUS: No, did not.
BLITZER: You talk to Donald Trump at all out there on the campaign trail? Give him any advice? Any consultations?
I will see him tonight. I will see him tonight. I talked to him on Tuesday night. We talk to all the campaigns. It just -- we are down to four candidates. When you go through a process like this and we're on our 10th debate, maybe the 11th at this point, you go through together.
You talk about things that are going well. You hear about things that people don't think are going well. You adjust. You know, you are going through quite a process together. And our job is to try to provide the best possible situation we can for our candidates, but also to be prepared for one of them.
So, in that process, Wolf, you are building relationships as you move forward. You aren't building enemies as you move forward. You aren't trying to find ways to get at each other's throats. It's the opposite. You're trying to find ways to work together and you're trying to find ways so that when you do get a nominee, so that there's a feeling, you know, of cooperation that's involved when that happens.
So it's a lot different, I think, than what a lot of the folks think is going on out there. It's a much tighter process than it may appear.
BLITZER: Interestingly, Donald Trump says that if he doesn't get along with the speaker, Paul Ryan, if for some reason they don't work things out, Ryan is going to have to pay a big price. You heard those words from Donald Trump.
He's the highest ranking Republican in the federal government, the speaker of the House. He will have the gavel, as you know, at the convention this summer. If Donald Trump gets into a fight with Paul the way, let's say, he has with John McCain or Mitt Romney or Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz, what will that do to the party?
PRIEBUS: Well, I'm going to chair the convention along with Paul Ryan.
And so I don't know if that's your angle. But you know what? Paul is a nice guy. He understands that there's political hyperbole and rhetoric. He doesn't care at all about that. And my guess is that Trump probably laughs it off, too.
So I think some of this stuff, to react to every little comment that people are making is kind of just a waste of time. It's a lot of fun to talk about, but, quite frankly, you know what? I talked to Paul since then a few times. It's a nonissue. No one talks about it.
Seriously, we don't sit around and kind of rehash everyone's comments and say, what do you think of that? It doesn't happen.
BLITZER: You have got a tough job over there. Reince Priebus, he's in Detroit getting ready for this Republican presidential debate.
PRIEBUS: I love my job.
BLITZER: You still love it? Is that what you're saying?
PRIEBUS: I have been in politics my entire life, from high school to the College Republicans to the putting up yard signs and working for everyone that you can imagine as a volunteer in Wisconsin.
And this is -- being in the middle of all of this is quite an opportunity, and we're going to do the best we can in order to make sure we get to a nominee and then take it to Hillary Clinton, so that we can win in November.
BLITZER: Reince Priebus, thanks very much for joining us.
PRIEBUS: You bet. See you.
BLITZER: There's more breaking political news we're following, including new details of the war between Mitt Romney and Donald Trump right now, the epic battle that may play out at the Republican Convention in July.
Plus, the potential major turnaround by Trump. Is the self-funding billionaire about to change course with a huge fund-raising spree? We have new information.
BLITZER: There's more breaking political news tonight, a possible, possible major turnaround by Donald Trump, a source telling CNN that the GOP front-runner who boasts of funding his own campaign will, in fact, turn to major donors to finance his White House bid if and when he secures the Republican presidential nomination.
Our political reporter Sara Murray broke this story for us.
Sara, Trump has repeatedly berated his rivals as beholden to donors, but you're learning that that strategy, if he gets the nomination, could change.
SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.
This has been a big selling point for Donald Trump on the campaign trail, the idea that he's self-funding his campaign. He'd answer to no big donors. But a source tells us in private conversations, Donald Trump is acknowledging that he will fund-raise in a general election.
He's realizing that the Republican Party, as well as himself, they need to be well-funded, especially if they are going to be up against Hillary Clinton in a general election and her behemoth political organization. Now, remember, right now, Donald Trump prides himself on running an
efficient campaign, a shoestring campaign with just a couple of aides. And we know that's not the kind of thing you can maintain in the general election.
And, of course, if he is the nominee, they will continue working alongside the RNC to continue to build out this national organization. Now, when I spoke to the campaign about this, obviously, they weren't particularly thrilled about this story in light of the fact that Trump has touted his self-funding so far.
His campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, tells me that Donald Trump right now is focused on the primary, he's self-funding and they have not had conversations about the general election -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Sara, thanks very much.
Let's some more on all of this. Our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, is here. Our politics executive editor, Mark Preston, is with me. Joining us as well is our CNN senior political commentator, former Obama senior adviser David Axelrod.
As you know, Mark, he always boasts that doesn't need anyone else's money. Won't be beholden to K Street, special interest, big money, if you will. But if he gets the nomination, he may change that. That could be a significant reversal.
MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICS EXECUTIVE EDITOR: Yes, and quite a story by Sara actually today to actually get this out there now, at a time when the wind seems to be at his back and when we have a big fight now between Donald Trump and the Republican establishment.
But let's not be surprised by this. David will remember this. You go back to 2012; $1.4 billion was spent between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. Barack Obama had raised or spent $737 million, Mitt Romney $483 million. If Donald Trump is such a great businessman, as he tells us over and over again, well, a great businessman would rather have somebody else pay for his campaign than pay for it himself.
But I would say. He'd be very smart to take that money from the RNC or raise money and put it into the United States Senate and pay for the campaign himself if he wants to get friends on the Republican side.
BLITZER: What do you think of all of this, Gloria?
GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: That's a good idea.
Look, I think Donald Trump is going to have to become a party candidate at some point if he's the nominee. He's going to have to work with the RNC. He's going to want their money. He's going to have to fund-raise. It's going to be a little tricky to navigate this notion of, I haven't been bought. Nobody -- nobody -- I'm not corrupted by big money.
And he's going to have to figure out another way to thread that needle. I think your idea is terrific because all of these Senate candidates are so worried about running with Donald Trump at the top of the ticket, particularly if they are in blue states. If he starts funding them, they might sing a different tune.
BLITZER: David Axelrod, you know something about presidential candidates and fund-raising and money. What's your take?
DAVID AXELROD, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, one of the things that -- one of the questions about Donald Trump from the beginning is, does he have the liquidity that he claims? Could he actually fund a campaign at that scale?
And a lot of people think not. So the problem for him is that his stock in trade is, I tell it like it is. I'm not like other politicians. This would be a major flip-flop and it will take a marketing wizard like Donald Trump to try and justify a switch of this magnitude.
[18:30:08] BLITZER: Let's talk a little bit about this extraordinary -- this really extraordinary war that is now under way between Mitt Romney and Donald Trump. Romney blasted, David -- he blasted Trump today, but only four years ago, this is what Romney said about Trump. Listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MITT ROMNEY (R), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: Being in Donald Trump's magnificent hotel and having his endorsement is a delight. I'm so honored and pleased to have his endorsement.
Donald Trump has shown an extraordinary ability to understand how our economy works to create jobs for the American people. He's done it here in Nevada. He's done it across the country. He understands that our economy is facing threats from abroad. He's one of the few people who stood up and said, "You know what? China has been cheating. They've taken jobs from Americans. They haven't played fair. We have to have a president who will stand up to cheaters."
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: That was then, four years ago. Today, Romney tweeted after his blistering speech, he said, "If Trump had said four years ago the things he says today about the KKK, Muslims, Mexicans, the disabled, I would not have accepted his endorsement."
Here's the question, though. Is this war that has been unleashed now against Donald Trump actually going to help Trump?
AXELROD: It may well. Look, Donald Trump is involved in a hostile takeover of the Republican Party. Mitt Romney is a member of the board, and they're desperately, frantically trying to fight this off. But Trump's supporters may be energized by what they saw today. The
question is whether Romney and others who are launching these attacks can hold off other Republicans from enlisting in Trump's cause and create enough of a resistance that Trump falls short of the number of delegates he needs to be the nominee.
BORGER: Well, you know, that's Romney's entire strategy. I mean, you heard him very clearly today, you know, it was a headline basically, saying "If you're in Ohio, vote for Kasich. If you're in Florida, vote for Rubio. In Texas, you voted for Cruz." What he wants to do is drag this thing out and get, potentially, to a contested convention.
I'm not sure what would happen if that -- if that were the case, because I'm not so sure you can tell millions of Republican voters that suddenly the establishment of the Republican Party is going to disenfranchise you and decide, perhaps, to nominate somebody else at a convention. But I think that, at this point, that seems to be the only option they have to fight Donald Trump, because they're not coalescing around any other particular candidate.
BLITZER: I think it's fair to say there's a civil war brewing right now inside the Republican Party
BORGER: It's not even brewing, Wolf. It's brewed.
BLITZER: Yes, all right. Stand by. There's a lot more we need to assess right now. We're also getting more information on this extraordinary development today. We'll be right back.
[18:37:33] BLITZER: The upcoming Republican presidential convention in July could be one of the bloodiest in decades as a panicked GOP establishment tries to block Donald Trump from becoming the presidential nominee of the GOP.
Mark, Jamie Gangel reporting Romney at least exploring, according to some sources, the possibility of a fight against Trump at the convention. You heard Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican Party, say he didn't think it was going to come down to that. What are you hearing?
PRESTON: Well, a couple things. So we've been hearing this for several days, that it's been the chatter here in Washington that they're looking for ways to try to stop Trump. One of them is to run a third-party candidate. One of them is to try to deny Donald Trump the amount of delegates, which new today, is kind of surprising, actually, is that Mitt Romney is now inserting himself in the process and having his team choose a small group of advisers that would be looking at this, which only leads to the speculation, is that does Mitt Romney want to end up in Cleveland and be crowned the nominee?
But the way that this would work, very simple for our viewers out there, is you need 1,237 delegates to be the nominee. What Mitt Romney was telling people today is that he hopes the governor of Ohio, John Kasich, wins Ohio. That way it would prevent 66 delegates going to Donald Trump. Same thing with Marco Rubio in Florida, 99 delegates.
BLITZER: March 15, winner-take-all.
PRESTON: Winner take all. Marco Rubio would win Florida. Ted Cruz would win a few states here and there, and by doing that, Trump would not be able to get to 1,237 heading into July.
BLITZER: That's the magic number, 1,237. Gloria, your take?
BORGER: Well, I think the question really is, I mean, look. Romney announced today, "I'm not a candidate." You have to take him at his word. I think, if he had a perfect world, and it would be Paul Ryan for Mitt Romney. He hired Ryan as his junior partner when he ran last time. And he loves Paul Ryan. And I think that's a generational shift.
I think we have to wait, and I think Romney's feeling is from talking to his people that, you know, you have to see how this plays out a little bit after -- after these winner-take-all states. And see -- and see where the race is. As John King does his delegate numbers, you know, the math is the math.
BORGER: And you have to see where that winds up after the 15th.
BLITZER: David, Senator Lindsey Graham spoke with you about a possible contested convention. I want to listen a little bit to what he had to say on your "Axe Files" podcast. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
AXELROD: There's been this thing floating around this town that maybe we can stop Trump and have a so-called brokered convention.
[18:40:09] SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Not really. That's not fair to him. It's not fair to those...
AXELROD: What would happen if that were attempted?
GRAHAM: He would leave, and he would have a right to leave. If he gets, say, two-thirds...
AXELROD: And his voters, as well.
GRAHAM: Yes, if he got two-thirds of what he needs, which I think he's well on his way to doing, for us to steal it from him is not going to help the party.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: All right, David. Your reaction? AXELROD: Well, what made that most remarkable was Lindsey Graham's
critique of Donald Trump was no less genteel than -- than Mitt Romney's, you know, or no more genteel than Mitt Romney's. I mean, he blistered him in that conversation.
But he's right. I think if they try and deny Romney the -- if they try and deny Trump the nomination, they're going to have a walkout of the base of the party that's been driving them.
You know, Reince Priebus who deserves a medal for valor for showing up on your show today and trying to explain all of this, you know, said, "Well, we're having record turnouts." Well, Donald Trump is driving a lot of that. And a lot of those folks are not going to follow the Republican Party if Donald Trump is leading going into the convention, and they hand the nomination to someone else.
BLITZER: Hold on. I want to remind our viewers they can listen to "The Axe Files" podcast, CNN.com/podcast. But go ahead.
BORGER: I think that what you're seeing is so remarkable. You're seeing the establishment of a party think about leading an insurrection against its own base. It's called eating your own.
And this is a base of the party that has shown up to vote in record numbers. They believe they have finally found a voice, and for the establishment to then say to them, "Eh-eh-eh-eh, sorry. It's not the right voice," I think is really, really difficult.
BLITZER: Reince, you agree, deserves some sort of medal for showing up today?
PRESTON: Listen, I'm in absolute -- he deserves two medals. The fact that he would go on national television and have to be the arbiter between a warring party right now that is coming apart at the seams, yes, I give him a lot of credit for doing that.
BLITZER: David Axelrod, he said to me, Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican Party, he doesn't remember ever seeing anything like this. Do you?
AXELROD: Well, I'm a little older than he is. And in 19 -- Gloria mentioned this the other night. She read it in history books, I'm sure.
BORGER: Sure. Yes.
AXELROD: But in 1964, in 1964, you saw the same kind of thing happening in the Republican Party when Barry Goldwater was nominated; and the establishment of the party walked away from Goldwater. George Romney, the governor of Michigan, Mitt Romney's father, was one of those who was very dissatisfied with that -- with that development.
BLITZER: You remember 1964, David?
AXELROD: I do. I hate to admit it.
BLITZER: Or did you just read about it -- you just read about it in the history books?
AXELROD: No, no, I was...
BORGER: Brush up on it.
BLITZER: He's right. And in 1976, there were a lot of establishment Republicans who were worried about Ronald Reagan emerging as the party leader.
BLITZER: He didn't in '76, but he did in '80. That's a date some of us can clearly remember.
BORGER: You know, it's so interesting, though, as David points out, that it was George Romney who at the convention was one of those standing up against -- against Barry Goldwater. And now you have Mitt Romney earlier, of course, standing up against someone who looks like to be very much a potential nominee in Donald Trump.
BLITZER: Yes, he -- that was a blistering speech, though, today. I heard a lot of Mitt Romney's speeches. I never heard him speak like that.
PRESTON: And we were talking before we came on. And it was blistering, but it was only delivered in a way that Mitt Romney could deliver it, which was very awkward in many ways. And, you know, it was forceful, but it was awkward.
But I've got to tell you, the most important thing that stood out to me is that he called into question his ability to lead the country in his temperament which, again, I go to this all the time and say, "Code word: Don't give him the nuclear codes. We can't trust him because of his temperament."
BORGER: And you know, I think this is one of the more, or maybe the most memorable speech of Mitt Romney's career. And it's ironic that he delivered it and he's not a candidate for president.
BLITZER: At least not a candidate now. We'll see what happens down the road. Guys, thanks very much. Don't go too far away.
Straight ahead, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, they're battling for delegates in a series of weekend primaries and caucuses and preparing to face off Sunday night in the CNN presidential debate. So what's at stake for the Democratic candidates?
[18:49:10] BLITZER: A critical weekend coming up for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders with more than 150 delegates up for grabs in primaries and caucuses on Saturday and Sunday, and the CNN Democratic presidential debate Sunday night in Flint, Michigan.
Our senior political correspondent Brianna Keilar is joining us now with the latest on this Democratic race. What is the latest, Brianna?
BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the Clinton campaign is shifting its focus now to Donald Trump. They're pretty confident that Clinton can beat Bernie Sanders, but that doesn't mean that he can't damage her during this upcoming primary contests.
Hillary Clinton raking in the cash she needs.
KEILAR (voice-over): Hillary Clinton raking in the cash she needs --
HILLARY CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Good evening, everyone!
KEILAR: -- for the general election at a star-studded fund-raiser in New York.
With a lineup featuring Katy Perry, Julianne Moore, Jamie Foxx and Sir Elton John.
SIR ELTON JOHN, HILLARY CLINTON SUPPORTER: Even in the face of fear tactics and smear tactics, she has the grit and the grace to look back and laugh.
[18:50:07] KEILAR: She's taking a break from the trail today. Two debates on the schedule for next week against Bernie Sanders -- commitments her campaign now regrets as she shifts her rhetoric, positioning herself as the compassionate alternative to Donald Trump.
CLINTON: America has always been great. We do not have to make it great. What we have to do is we have to make America whole. And that means working with one another.
KEILAR: She's fund-raising on her promise to keep Trump out. But Bernie Sanders is trying this tact as well.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Almost all of the major polls that have come out have me beating Donald Trump.
KEILAR: And in the labor stronghold of Michigan, where Democrats hold their primary Tuesday, he's attacking Clinton on trade.
SANDERS: She has supported NAFTA. I opposed NAFTA.
She supported permanent normal trade relations with China. I vigorously opposed PNTR with China.
KEILAR: Clinton may have another distraction to deal with. The Justice Department has granted immunity to Bryan Pagliano, the staffer who set up her private e-mail server while she was secretary of state. It's part of the FBI investigation into whether classified information was mishandled due to the setup. And despite her initial months of refusing to turn over her server, her campaign is emphasizing her cooperation.
BRIAN FALLON, CLINTON PRESS SECRETARY: She was willing to answer any question, so have all of her aides been. We had wanted Bryan to do the same. He decided not to. But we're pleased that he's at least cooperating with the Justice Department review.
KEILAR: But Donald Trump is promising to keep the issue alive should he and Clinton square off in the general election.
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm not going to let go of the e-mail things. I mean, if you think about it, and Benghazi, of course.
KEILAR: And that certainly is a concern for the Clinton campaign. You will recall, Wolf, that when Bill Clinton was heading out on the stump in North -- pardon me, New Hampshire, to campaign for his wife, it was around that time Hillary Clinton had said Donald Trump had a penchant for sexism. He turned that around on Bill Clinton and he really undermined Bill Clinton's ability to be an effective surrogate for his wife.
BLITZER: I remember that very vividly.
All right. Brianna, good report. Thanks very much.
The Democratic contest moves to the Midwest. The next debate once again live from Flint, Michigan. The CNN Democratic presidential debate this Sunday night 8:00 p.m. Eastern, only here on CNN.
Just ahead more attacks on Donald Trump from inside the GOP. What top national security experts are saying about the Republican frontrunner?
[18:57:04] BLITZER: It's not just Mitt Romney blasting Donald Trump. A group of Republican foreign policy and national security leaders has written an open letter condemning Trump and pledging to oppose his candidacy.
Our global affairs correspondent Elise Labott has more on this scathing letter indeed, and a lot of familiar names.
ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.
And they run the gamut from really conservative, hawkish even, if you will, to moderate Republicans. They started the day with 65. Now, they have 100 signatures or so.
And these are former retired military officials, top CIA, State Department, ambassadors, even a cabinet secretary, and a former homeland security secretary, Michael Chertoff, and former World Bank president Bob Zoellick, all saying that they believe that the foreign policy vision laid out by Donald Trump is dangerous. They are citing his threat to wage trade wars, the talk of use of torture, a lot of anti-Muslim bias and then the charge he'll make Mexico build a wall, his praise of dictators like Putin, very dangerous, sending a very threatening message to U.S. allies around the world.
I want to read a quote that really gets to the heart of it. Mr. Trump's own statements lead us to conclude that as president he would use the authority of his office to act in ways that make America less safe and which would diminish our standing in the world.
And today, I interviewed Mary Beth Long, a former top Pentagon official, who had a dire warning about what would happen and what message it would send if Donald Trump was elected.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MARY BETH LONG, FORMER ASSISTANT DEFENSE SECRETARY: The problem is we'll have an incredibly weakened president who already has skeptics abroad as to his personal seriousness, the seriousness of the presidency, and therefore the seriousness of our foreign policy. Our enemies must be delightfully hands saying this is not a thoughtful person. This is not a person who will lead the most incredible army and bureaucracy and government workers in the world against us and defeat us.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LABOTT: Now, of course, a lot of these officials are risking their future careers by speaking out in the event that Trump was elected. But, Wolf, they're saying that they felt they need to take a principled stand. Of course, Donald Trump really dismissing this as a lot of sour grapes, if you will, by officials who have worked for losing campaigns and campaigns really have failed in the past.
BLITZER: They clearly are hoping that this letter will convince a lot of voters out there not to support Donald Trump.
All right, Elise. Thank you very much for that report.
The Democratic contest moves to the Midwest. Remember, the next debate is live from Flint, Michigan, the CNN Democratic presidential debate this Sunday night 8:00 p.m. Eastern, only here on CNN. Anderson Cooper will moderate.
Remember, you can always follow us on Twitter. Please tweet me @wolfblitzer. You can always tweet the show @CNNSitRoom.
But sure to join us tomorrow.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.