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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Anti-Trump Plot; Paris Massacre Suspect Captured in Belgium; Romney: I'm Voting for Ted Cruz. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired March 18, 2016 - 16:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[16:00:12]

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: They finally got him.

THE LEAD starts right now.

And breaking news: after four months on the run, the lone surviving Paris terrorist now captured and wounded. What does he know about the attacks that claimed the lives of 130 people and any attacks to come?

A senior Donald Trump aide warning of consequences if party leaders block Trump from getting the nomination. Could the Republican Convention turn into WrestleMania?

Plus, Trump hacked. The Secret Service now investigating after Anonymous declares war on Donald Trump and throws his cell and Social Security numbers online.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

SCIUTTO: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jim Sciutto, in again today for Jake Tapper.

And, today, breaking news in our world lead, explosions, gunfire, counterterror police in combat gear raiding locations across Belgium. It is still happening right now. The assaults have French and Belgian officials celebrating, one declaring on Twitter, "We have him."

Police capturing one of the most wanted fugitives on the planet, taking the terrorist alive after a shoot-out. Salah Abdeslam disappeared after he took part in the terror massacre across Paris in November, killing 130 people. His nine fellow terrorists died that night. But since that November night last year, Abdeslam has been a mystery.

But when we saw heavily armed tactical units move into a Brussels suburb of Molenbeek just hours ago, we suspected that something big could be under way.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO (voice-over): Guns drawn, Belgian police stream down a street in Brussels searching for one of the most wanted men in the world. After an exchange of gunfire, Salah Abdeslam, the one surviving terrorist behind the deadly November Paris attacks, is wounded, but captured alive.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: An ambulance has just arrived because there are two people who are in the apartment who are shot by the police and one apparently is Salah Abdeslam.

SCIUTTO: One terror suspect seen taken down by police here. It is unclear whether this is Abdeslam. The Belgian prime minister and French president together keeping close tabs, a crucial moment in Europe's fight against terror.

FRANCOIS HOLLANDE, FRENCH PRESIDENT (through translator): The Belgium and French intelligence services are cooperating on the investigation. This is an important moment, but we ought to let the Belgian police do their work without disturbance.

SCIUTTO: The arrest comes just two days after Abdeslam's fingerprints and DNA were found in another apartment raided by police, a lucky break in a manhunt that had gone cold for months.

In that raid, one suspect was killed, two others escaped, one possibly Abdeslam himself. Salah Abdeslam is the 10th ISIS terrorist behind the Paris attacks and the only one to escape alive from the deadliest terror attacks in Europe in more than a decade. Police nearly captured him during a traffic stop outside Paris just hours after the shootings, realizing who he was only after they let him go.

He then led authorities on a global hunt, extending from Belgium all the way to Syria, multiple allies involved, including the U.S.

JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The United States obviously has significant resources and significant capabilities and we have used them to assist the French and the Belgians.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO: CNN's senior international correspondent Nima Elbagir is on the ground in Molenbeek, Belgium. This is where Salah Abdeslam was captured.

Nima, we have been hearing that there is still police activity under way. Take us through what's happening where you are right now.

NIMA ELBAGIR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Still a very heavy police presence here. You can see the road behind me leading to the house where Salah Abdeslam was found hiding is still closed off.

Forensic experts combing through that street down there, picking through the shards of broken glass that were a result of the firefight and the raids. Several detonations heard during that raid. This is just a street away, Jim, from Abdeslam's childhood home.

This is not only his neighborhood, but this is an area he knew very, very well. I think it's really important to remind people that all of this actually began through pure happenstance. It was a raid on Tuesday where police went in pretty unprepared, very lightly dressed. It turned into a heavy firefight that lasted for three hours that put

into process this entire string of events during the days in which Salah Abdeslam went on the run that has led them to the biggest break in the case, the investigation around the Paris attacks the Belgian authorities have had so far, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Nima, we heard from a French security official earlier today who raised the possibility that Abdeslam had been in this same location for days, weeks, possibly months.

[16:05:07]

Are police learning anything about how long he had been holed up in this particular apartment?

ELBAGIR: Well, we know from neighbors that the apartment that he was previously believed to have been in Forest, that they -- that that apartment had actually been rented out -- that house, I should say, had been rented out for an entire month and that the cover there was this family with small children, very quiet, kept very much to themselves.

So this is clearly a property that had been part of this broader ring for a while. It was then -- it was in the incidents in that house that led him back here in the last few days.

But I think that the sense that we're getting from authorities is that all of this really is happening on the lam. They're really getting a sense of the situation, the circumstances surrounding it, minute by minute almost.

Now the question has to be whether Belgium can hand him over to Paris. French authorities have very clearly signaled that they need an extradition and they need to see him brought to justice for those massacres that horrified not just France, but the whole world.

SCIUTTO: Nima Elbagir on the scene there in Molenbeek, Belgium, where it all happened just hours ago.

Joining me now to talk about this dramatic raid, its effects and Salah Abdeslam's capture, CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank, CNN intelligence and security analyst Bob Baer, and CNN contributor Michael Weiss.

Paul, if I could begin with you, how this raid materialized, because the manhunt, in effect, the trail had gone cold. This was a bit of luck that led them to him, was it not?

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Jim, that's absolutely right. The trail really had gone stone cold since he got back to Brussels the night after the attacks and melted away inside Brussels.

And if you go back to Tuesday afternoon in Brussels, police launched a search on a property, on an apartment in the Forest district of Brussels. They were not expecting to find anybody there at all, but they had some intelligence that that address was linked in some way to the Paris attacks.

Well, when they went in to try and search that property, there was a massive firefight, that the three terrorists inside opened up on the police. The police were forced to retreat. And one of the terrorists inside, Mohammed Belkaid, carried on, providing covering fire.

He was eventually killed by a Belgian sniper. He, by the way, thought to be a more senior figure than Salah Abdeslam in the Paris conspiracy, so a major get when they're able to neutralize the threat from him on Tuesday.

But that covering fire allowed the other two terrorists inside, including, it would appear, Salah Abdeslam, to get out of that property, to go again on the run. But now they're on the run. They didn't have a hiding place anymore. We understand from our colleagues at RTBF, the Belgian national state broadcaster, that they then made a mistake.

They called up an associate who had been under observation by Belgian security services whose calls were being listened into by Belgian security services and arranged a rendezvous with him in Molenbeek today. The Belgian security services were waiting for them.

SCIUTTO: Bob, I spoke to a senior French counterterror official earlier today as this was under way.

I think our viewers may might, well, it's crazy for him to have stuck around where he went in effect the night right after the Paris attacks, but this French counterterror official said, actually, no, that makes sense because when you try to move out of the country, you have to cross borders, you have to call people on telephones, et cetera.

Does it make sense to you that he would stay to hide in plain sight, as it were?

BOB BAER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, Jim, what clearly this man had, Abdeslam, was a network. And that's what he was depending on. I think for all of us it comes as a surprise that these North African communities in European cities are able to have these networks that go undetected by the police.

They're clearly -- they don't have informants in these networks. They can hide people as well as weapons and actually hold ground in this apartment with a combat situation. So if he had compatriots that would protect him, absolutely it makes sense to hold on in Brussels.

SCIUTTO: And that's the worry, that that network in Brussels is so extensive.

Bob Baer, Michael and Paul, please stick around because we are going to have much more on this after our break, including this question. How did Abdeslam hide seemingly in plain sight for so many months? How did he make it happen?

And in politics, breaking news. The face of the stop Trump movement, Mitt Romney, just revealed the candidate that he's going to vote for next week, and it's not the guy he did robo-calls for and stood side by side with on the campaign trail -- why Mitt Romney is voting for Ted Cruz. That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:13:41]

SCIUTTO: Welcome back to the lead.

Two major breaking stories that we're following right now. The last Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, takes to Facebook to tell the world that he is voting for Ted Cruz. That's how desperate he is to stop Trumpism.

And, of Trump, Romney said this. "Through the calculated statements of its leader, Trumpism has become associated with racism, misogyny, bigotry, xenophobia, vulgarity, and most recently threats and violence. I am repulsed by each and every one of these."

And our other top story that we're following now, Salah Abdeslam captured alive, ending a four-month global manhunt for the lone surviving Paris attacker.

Abdeslam should have been caught immediately after he and his ISIS co- conspirators slaughtered some 130 people, but he slipped through a police stop. And since then, police and intelligence agencies across the world appeared to have lost track of him, seemingly until two days ago.

Tom Foreman is in the virtual room for us.

Tom, so, what do we know about how Abdeslam evaded police capture for all these months since those Paris attacks?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, what we know most of all, Jim, is that it may not have been a whole lot in which he was working there.

Let's go back to November, when the attacks occurred, 130 people killed, hundreds more injured, 10 known attackers, nine of whom were dead either that day or within days with clashes with authorities, and one who got away, Salah Abdeslam.

[16:15:09] Authorities knew pretty early on this is someone they were looking for, but not quite early enough. As he was driven back toward Belgium by two people, this is where exactly what you describe happened, Jim. He slipped through.

At the border, he was questioned by authorities. They didn't know who they had and they let him go on up to Brussels, about a four-hour drive from Paris.

Up here, he had his last known contact with anyone authorities know of where he told a man at a train station, "You will never see me again." So they kept working on the clues. In December they had a bit of a

break. In this apartment sort of to the north and east of downtown, they found bomb-making material. They were building suicide vests. And importantly, they found fingerprints that told them Abdeslam had been there at some point.

So, authorities kept checking many, many locations talking to many, many people. And then, Tuesday, as the trail as Paul noted a little bit earlier had gone pretty much cold, they go into this apartment thinking it will be empty and here in the southern part of town is where that gun fight breaks out completely without warning.

One of the people inside the building is killed, he has an ISIS flag nearby according to authorities. Two more escaped. But importantly, once again they find DNA and fingerprint evidence telling them Abdeslam has been there and very recently.

Everything jumps into high gear and that leads to what we saw today, this raid out on the western part of town where Abdeslam, this 26- year-old suspected terror suspect, is taken alive, although wounded, and he is captured. The interesting part of all of this, Jim, is for all the speculation that he might have run off across Europe or gone to Syria or gone anywhere else, now it may seem that he spent all of his time within a few square miles here in Brussels as the dragnet closed in.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: It's incredible with all the police active in those few square miles. Tom, thank you.

I want to bring back our panel, Paul Cruickshank, Michael Weiss and Bob Baer.

Michael, if I could begin with you. One critical question here, what do the police do now? Obviously, there are legal proceedings to come. But I imagine the focus in these initial hours and days is going to be intelligence and interrogation to see who else they can net from the terror network, but also if there are any other attacks being planned.

MICHAEL WEISS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Yes. This guy was domiciled with two major ISIS operatives in Europe. One of whom was essentially the coordinator or on the phone with Abaaoud during the Paris attacks, basically guiding him.

So, this puts to rest one of the questions we had, which was -- was Abdeslam still in good order with ISIS? There had been reports in the British press that he was frequenting gay clubs in a district in Brussels, that he might have led a double life as a closet homosexual, which would have absolutely made him not want to go to Syria and rejoin the ranks of the caliphate.

Also, you know, I think they're going to try very hard in France to have him extradited there because they're still worried about active networks and sleeper cells scattered throughout France. You know, ISIS has re-escalated -- It's not really a new strategy. It's what I would call a new old strategy. Since the caliphate has contracted, they lost about 22 percent of

territory throughout Syria and Iraq in the last 18 months, two years. They have put a new renewed emphasis on waging these spectaculars throughout Europe. I don't have to tell you -- I mean, you talk to any U.S. or European counterterrorism official and intelligence officer, they are absolutely terrified that a replay of the Paris attacks will occur.

SCIUTTO: No question, Michael.

Bob, I wanted to go to you on that. I met with the French interior minister last week who was visiting Washington very much for the expressed task of getting more U.S. help in terms of preventing the next attacks. He told me that it's almost certain that there will be another attack this year. Describe just the level of the threat and maybe to some degree the numbers of people they're trying to track in a country like France.

BOB BAER, CNN INTELLIGENCE AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, Jim, it's thousands. You've got something like 5 million Muslims there. Of course, very few of those are radicalized, but it's determining who has been radicalized and who hasn't.

And, you know, it's hard to do for the French. The French have a very capable service, they keep track of this. They run down every phone number. But a lot of these cells are compartmented. Even if Abdeslam --

SCIUTTO: Paul, one criticism after Paris had been that just the Belgians, they don't have the resources, they're not talking and sharing intelligence internally, they're not sharing it with the French. Are we seeing any improvement in that kind of communication? I've heard from U.S. counterterror officials that it's a pre-9/11 mentality in Europe now about that kind of sharing necessary to stop these attacks.

[16:20:01] PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERROR ANALYST: Simple answer, Jim, yes. There's been better cooperation between the Belgians and the French over the last several months. They have been working very close together. When we had that raid in the southwestern part of Brussels on Tuesday, it was Belgian and French police officers working together to search that apartment.

They're sharing a lot of information, a lot of intelligence. They have a lot at stake. They have the safety of their public at stake as ISIS ratchets up its international attack plotting as Michael was referring to.

SCIUTTO: Well, everyone is nervous, it seems, and devoting a lot of resources.

Thanks very much for Paul Cruickshank, to Michael Weiss, and to Bob Baer, as always.

We're going to turn now to our politics lead. As talk about a contested Republican convention grows louder, Donald Trump is striking back -- New threats from some members of his campaign.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:25:20] SCIUTTO: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

And just in: the Republican Party continuing to splinter as campaigns try to gain advantage if the race goes all the way to the convention. And now, the party's former nominee, Mitt Romney, saying that he is planning to vote for Ted Cruz and calling for an open convention.

Well, Donald Trump's reacting now. He just tweeted right back at Romney. He says, quote, "Failed presidential candidate Mitt Romney, the man who choked and let us all down is now endorsing lyin' Ted Cruz. This is good for me."

CNN political reporter Sara Murray joins me live from Salt Lake City, Utah, where Donald Trump is about to host a town hall this evening.

So, Sara, Donald Trump says this is good for him. Does this rally his supporters?

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: Well, Jim, it was interesting. I think if anyone is taking a blow from this, it's really John Kasich. Mitt Romney coming out saying he's going to vote for Ted Cruz in the caucuses. And then in his Facebook post saying a vote for Governor Kasich in future contests makes it extremely likely that Trumpism would prevail.

Of course, all of this happening as Ted Cruz and John Kasich both insist they are going to fight to the convention which could set us up for a wild ride for these next couple months.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY (voice-over): Back on the campaign trail today, Ted Cruz is repeating his calls for John Kasich to step aside.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think it's a critical moment where Donald Trump obviously has a lot of momentum, he's in the lead right now. I think the only way to beat him is for us to come together and unite as one.

MURRAY: The candidates heading out west, stopping at Arizona and Utah, as Cruz argues he could pull off a sweep in Utah, if the Ohio governor weren't in the way.

CRUZ: A vote for John Kasich is a vote for Donald Trump. If Kasich manages to pull enough votes in Utah to pull me below 50 percent, the effect of John Kasich will be giving Donald Trump 20 more delegates, which I think would be a big, big mistake.

MURRAY: Trump slapped back on Twitter saying, "Lyin' Ted Cruz lost all five races on Tuesday and he was just given the jinx, a Lindsey Graham endorsement."

As talks of a contested convention reach a fevered pitch, Donald Trump's team is warning chaos lies ahead.

SAM CLOVIS, TRUMP CAMPAIGN CO-CHAIRMAN: If the Republican Party comes into that convention and jimmies with the rules and takes away the will of the people, the will of the Republicans and Democrats and independents who have voted for Mr. Trump, I will take off my credentials, I will leave the floor of that convention and leave the Republican Party forever.

MURRAY: Trump predicting a contested convention could pour into the streets.

CROWD: We love Trump!

TRUMP: We're way ahead of everybody. I don't think that you can say that we don't get it automatically. I think you'd have riots. I'm representing a tremendous -- many, many millions of people.

MURRAY: His rivals panning the comment as more reckless talk from the GOP front-runner.

GOV. JOHN KASICH (R-OH), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: To even imply that there could be violence if he doesn't get his way, you know, he's not running for the presidency of the WWE, he's running for president of the United States. This kind of language is an outrage.

MURRAY: As Kasich's allies highlight the violence around Trump's events and cast the Ohio governor as the only candidate fit to take on Hillary Clinton.

AD NARRATOR: There was a time presidents were honorable, trustworthy. What's happened?

MURRAY: Meanwhile, Trump is facing threats beyond the political realm.

Members of the hacking collective Anonymous taking aim at Trump.

ANONYMOUS: This is not a warning. This is a declaration of total war, Operation Trump engaged.

MURRAY: The hackers posting online what they alleged to be Trump's Social Security and cell phone number. Trump's campaign says officials are seeking the arrest of people behind it.

In a separate incident, one of Trump's sons, Eric Trump, received a threatening note containing a suspicious powder. While it appears to be lemonade mix, authorities are investigating.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY: Now, Donald Trump has already been going after Mitt Romney on Twitter in these last couple hours saying he's a mixed-up man, saying he choked. We'll see if Trump continues that line of attack when he is here campaigning in Salt Lake City. Of course, Mitt Romney is very popular in Utah, there's a large Mormon population, so we will goes over with the crowd here, Jim. SCIUTTO: Sara Murray in Salt Lake City.

I want to get right to our panel now to talk about this. Bill Kristol, editor of "The Weekly Standard", Mary Katharine Ham, she's CNN political commentator and senior writer at "The Federalist", and CNN political commentator and Democratic strategist, Hilary Rosen.

So, we have a whole Twitter battle under way, Twitter mania, wrestle mania, whatever you want to call it and the tweets are continuing literally as we speak, Donald Trump versus Mitt Romney here.

Bill, maybe I can start with you. So, he says -- Romney says he's going to vote for Ted Cruz in the Utah caucuses.