Return to Transcripts main page


Anti-Terror Operations Underway in Brussels; Trump & Cruz In War Over Wives; Trump Retweets Photo Mocking Heidi Cruz's Appearance; Cruz: Trump Is A "Sniveling Coward"; New Raids In Brussels In Investigation. Aired 8-9p ET

Aired March 24, 2016 - 20:00   ET


[20:00:14] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Good evening. I'm John Berman, sitting in for Anderson.

I want to go to the streets of Brussels. You're looking at live pictures right now. This is an ongoing operation over the last few minutes there's been a flurry of police action there. This is an apartment building on the streets of Brussels. Again, these are live pictures.

This is happening in Brussels. We're also told within the last few hours there's been a high level arrest just outside of Paris. Again, dual operations under way right now, a frenzy of activity. And there is much, much more, a very busy sobering night.

First, I want to get to CNN's Nick Paton Walsh. He is in the Schaerbeek section of Brussels, that is where this operation is under way right now. Again, you're looking at live pictures.

Nick, you are watching this as well. Why don't you tell us what you are seeing, how long this has been going on, and what exactly you're hearing from police officials?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: John, about two or three hours ago, police sealed off a substantial part of this Schaerbeek area. Now, we've been just being told that that building you're seeing here, police officers confirmed that's the source of their interest here.

Locals report that in the past two hours or so, they saw police move in and then after a pause, they heard a bang, an explosion of some description. Now, as you can see from the outside of that building, there is no discernible sign of damage to it. We've just seen a man in head to toe white forensic overalls come out go to a nearby van, take out a too toolbox and head back in again. He's clearly working, excuse me, in the top window of this building. Masked and armed police are in the streets all around it here.

Now, we've also seen what looked like a car taken away. The police were perhaps involved in that. We're not entirely clear if it's related to the investigation. But there's been a substantial presence here. As I say, a vast amount of this street cordoned off and now the focus entirely on that building there.

As you know, John, there are substantial number of individuals sought here, three potentially and two arrests, six arrests in total in Brussels at this stage. Some in the area called (INAUDIBLE). Some said to be here in Schaerbeek and some others in different parts of the capital itself.

But a night of heavy police activity, perhaps the largest number of detentions yet so far. And where we are here, this police focus concentrated on that particular building you're seeing there.

BERMAN: Again, you're looking at live pictures right now of an ongoing police operation in the neighborhood of Schaerbeek in Brussels. Nick Paton Walsh is watching this along with us. He's on the streets right next to where this is going on.

Nick, just tell me one more time. Six arrests in Brussels. Any at this location right here?

WALSH: It is thought that some had occurred here. We have not seen them ourselves, but some of the reports link them to here. Not entirely clear from officials exactly how many were arrested and what particular place but most reports suggest some detentions have occurred in the Schaerbeek area which has been the previous area of focus. I must say quite a substantial distance to where the two brothers involved the Brussels attack actually lived.

This house here we don't know who lived here. We don't know who they were after. There are forensic investigators working. I can see one in the top floor there. That's clearly part of their interest. We've seen someone in the bottom floor, too, going through property inside.

The front door periodically opens, the light switched on and off and masked police as per usual standing around in the street out front. But this police cordon has reduced back allowing locals back to their homes and much of the focus now has been that particular building -- John.

BERMAN: Again, you are looking at live pictures from the Schaerbeek neighborhood of Brussels inside Belgium. You're looking at a man in some kind of forensic gear there, a law enforcement officials looking for something obviously inside this apartment building.

Nick Paton Walsh is there. He's been watching this ongoing operation. It's been going on for a couple of hours. We're seeing our first pictures, live pictures from inside with this man obviously looking for something as he combs through this apartment.

Nick, give me a sense of this neighborhood. Any known connection between the Schaerbeek neighborhood and the known suicide attackers at the Brussels airport and metro station?

PATON: Khalid El Bakraoui and Ibrahim El Bakraoui are connected to an apartment on the other side of this particular neighborhood. Now, it's not known whether or not they had (AUDIO GAP) it is clear that the arrests that occurred tonight according to Belgian interior ministry officials relate to the airport and the metro attacks.

[20:05:05] But as you know, John, this investigation every day seems to yield new things, new suspects, new warnings that were overlooked by the authorities. So, we simply don't know if this cell relates to two or perhaps three, individuals we know are sought.

The man in white in the CCTV airport video. The man seen outside of the metro attack carrying a large package who possibly left, possibly went inside. We don't know his fate. Or a man considered to be an accomplice of Salah Abdeslam, a man known as Mohammed al-Brini. There could be others who authorities are looking for as well.

The relationship to all of this and this particular building you're seeing here is unclear at this stage. As you point out, a neighbor looking around the corner of his curtain from one particular edge. But the focus of investigators, a man I saw come down here in white forensic overalls with an orange vest is in that top floor, possibly a bedroom, maybe. Maybe they are looking for DNA, it's really unclear. But a lot of attention on that upper floor.

We don't know if this whole building belonged to one group or family or whether it's divided into separate flats. But a lot of focus on that top floor now, John.

BERMAN: All right. Our Nick Paton Walsh in the Schaerbeek neighborhood. You are looking at live pictures of this operation. A man in forensic gear, we can see them in the white suit with the orange vest going through the apartment looking for something. Maybe DNA. We're not exactly sure.

This as we know there have been six arrests in the last few hours of Brussels connected to some kind of anti-terror operations. We do not know if there were arrests made at this very apartment. We'll keep our eye on the activity here because it is ongoing. And we are seeing these very interesting pictures. We'll get back here live as soon as there are developments.

In the meantime, there is activity tonight in France as well. Just outside Paris, what authorities are calling a high level arrest in a plot that they say was in the advanced stages.

Joining us now with the latest from France, CNN's Erin McLaughlin.

Erin, there was a raid northwest of Paris. What are we learning?


That police raid we understand is still ongoing. The situation is still fluid. Now earlier today, authorities here say they conducted a key arrest of a high-level operative believed to have been connected to that plot. Now, following his arrest, they conducted a raid in a suburb to the west of Paris. The bomb squad was deployed. An apartment building in that suburb was emptied out.

Now that raid is still under way. No word yet if authorities there have found explosives. No word yet on the exact nature, the details of this plot that authorities say was very serious and they believe now foiled.

BEREMAN: All right. Erin McLaughlin.

I just want to remind our viewers right now. What they are looking at are live pictures of Brussels right now, the Schaerbeek neighborhood where there's an ongoing operation in Brussels going through an apartment complex. Two guys going through that apartment looking for what, we are not sure.

Why that's happening in Brussels, Erin, you are in Paris where there was an arrest earlier of someone planning what we were told was an imminent terror operation. And I understand that French authorities say there's no tangible link to the arrest they made tonight and the attacks in November in Paris or the attacks earlier this week in Brussels. They say this was a totally separate terror investigation. Is that right?

MCLAUGHLIN: That's right, John. What they are saying is the individual that they arrested earlier today, as well as a number of other individuals yet to be identified, they say they have been under surveillance for weeks. And the interior minister of France tonight announcing that they believe that this plot was not connected to the attacks in Belgium. He made no mention, however, of the attacks that happened in Paris back in November.

But what tonight's raids really do seem to illustrate is the nature of the persistent threat facing France and how serious authorities are taking this threat. After all, we know that U.S. and European intelligence officials have warned Europe of the possibility of further ISIS attacks. Further ISIS plots. We certainly know that ISIS has threatened as much.

BERMAN: All right. Erin McLaughlin on the arrests made in Paris today, in an operation not connected to Brussels. No tangible link to what happened in Brussels. Erin, we'll check back in with you as soon as we learn more information from France.

Again, on the other side of the screen, you're looking at live pictures from Brussels, the Schaerbeek neighborhood where there's an ongoing operation in an apartment building.

[20:10:01] You're seeing police outside the building. There's a lot of activity going on inside the building as well with officials scouring one apartment on an upper floor.

We're going to keep our eye on that throughout the evening because there do appear to be things being carried out of that building right now. Again, we'll keep our eye on that over the next few minutes.

All this is happening with intelligence pointing to ISIS plans already in place for more attacks and possibly soon. The U.S. State Department travel alert, that was our first indication this was going on. Tonight, there are no indications.

CNN justice correspondent Pamela Brown has been working her sources and joins us now. And, Pamela, these terror plots in the works. What more are you

learning tonight?


Investigators, John, are aware of multiple additional ISIS plots in Europe, possibly linked to the Paris and Brussels networks. And these plots apparently are in various stages of planning so the concern is that some of them are imminent. The belief is that there are dozens if not more potential and known is operatives still in Europe with ties to these attackers. And officials have collected intelligence indicating those people right now are working to launch further terrorist attacks.

There are multiple threat streams, intelligence services are tracking, but they are essentially overwhelmed by the sheer volume of it. And there was a high level of concern tonight, another attack is going to happen in the near future based on this intelligence and just the fact it's so relatively easy for these ISIS operatives, many of them trained in Syria to launch these attacks.

Case in point, John, after the Paris attacks, some of the operatives remained in Europe and then went on to launch the Brussels attacks. Officials see that trend continuing in Europe. As one official I spoke to today said there's not calm between storms that we're used to seeing after terrorist attacks.

BERMAN: Pamela, are any specific information on what countries may be targeted or what types of places may be at the highest level of risk?

BROWN: We're learning more about that based on intelligence. The concern is really focused on Belgium, France, Germany, Spain and the U.K. And the belief is that the ISIS operatives will target run of the mill everyday places people go to like restaurants, metro stops and tourist sites which I think you saw that reflected in that State Department alert.

One big question is why haven't these plots been disrupted? There's a couple of reasons. Some of the information coming in is just too fragmentary. They don't have enough information, enough specific information to thwart them. And also, investigators may be trying to gather more intelligence about who these people may be talking to and that kind of thing.

And sources also stress the situation with these plots is very fluid and can change quickly depending on the opportunity for these operatives, some who have been trained in Iraq and Syria, sent back to Europe with a single goal of killing westerners -- John.

BERMAN: Pamela, I just want to remind our viewers. We're looking at live pictures of an ongoing operation in Brussels in the Schaerbeek neighborhood. This is an apartment building there. There had been police outside this building for some time and now inside this building, scouring an upper level apartment.

We saw people in forensic out outfits going over the curtains a moment ago, going through the walls. We're not sure what they are looking for. We're going to keep our eye on that throughout the evening.

Pamela Brown, thank you very much.

So, when we left you last night, there was only one fugitive in Brussels that we knew about. We had a picture of him from the airport. The guy we've seen in the picture, the one in the hat. Now, we're learning there's another fugitive as well.

CNN's Clarissa Ward is in Brussels with more on that.

Clarissa, now, a second person, a second fugitive. This one may have played a role in the subway attack. What are you learning?

CLARISSA WARD, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, John. As our viewers look at these pictures, let's remind them of who is still at large. Who are the primary focuses of this massive manhunt that is still unfolding?

As you said correctly, the third airport bomber who did not detonate his suitcase full of extremely powerful explosives. The man in the white jacket with the hat and glasses and apparent attempt possibly to disguise his facial features. He is still at large. Police have not released any information as to his identity.

And then today, Belgian authorities revealing they are looking for another man who may have -- who was likely involved with the metro bombing. Images were seen of him on surveillance video apparently carrying some type of a large bag outside the metro station near Khalid Bakraoui, who is the other bomber.

So far, Belgian authorities have not released any more information about these men. They haven't even released, John, the image outside the metro station to essentially alert the public to who this man may be, who they should be looking out for to possibly elicit some tips.

[20:15:11] But we've really noticed a shift with Belgian authorities keeping very tight lipped. You are seeing those pictures of them, this raid going on in a Brussels suburb. As of yet, we don't know what the focus of that raid is. We don't know exactly what it is that led them to there.

But you're seeing images almost reminiscent of some of the raids in Paris after the big raid in Saint Denis where the ring leader of the Paris attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was ultimately killed. And after that we saw these forensic experts going through, poring over every single detail, looking for DNA evidence, looking for clues, looking for possibly elements of explosives.

We know many of these raids have netted large amounts of these crudely homemade bombs with the TNT explosive. So, at this stage, really trying to work out exactly what Belgian officials may have found in these apartments. It's certainly fair to say they are under an enormous amount of pressure, John.

A lot of people here wanting to hold authorities accountable. We've heard, of course earlier today the interior minister actually offered his resignation. The prime minister declined. But certainly people here want to see justice for what has happened, John.

BERMAN: Indeed, they do.

All right. Clarissa Ward, thanks so much. Stand by.

Next, more on our breaking news. New information that our Paul Cruickshank just obtained about the ongoing terror raids in Brussels, including I imagine the one you're looking at. Namely, where three of the suspects were arrested tonight, where they were caught and what they may have been up to. He joins us along with the rest of the panel on that and the possibility that ISIS plans may include bombing -- may include building a radioactive dirty bomb.

Also, after what happened in Brussels, I'm going to speak to one of New York's top police officers on what's being done to keep this city's subway system safe.

Stay with us.


[20:20:56] BERMAN: All right. The breaking news: anti-terror operations unfolding tonight. Right now, you're looking at live pictures of them in fact. And we also have new information about these raids unfolding across the city of Brussels.

Major operations we are now just learning details about. This is one location in Schaerbeek, that's a neighborhood in Brussels. The other location truly chilling, three suspects taken into custody right outside a major government office.

Now, the backdrop to all of this is intelligence suggesting the Brussels bombings were part of a larger ISIS plan.

Joining us now, former CIA officer Bob Baer. He's our intelligence and security analyst.

Also, CNN national security analyst Juliette Kayyem, who served as U.S. assistant secretary for homeland security and was homeland security adviser for the commonwealth of Massachusetts, and CNN terrorism analyst, Paul Cruickshank. He is editor in chief of the CTC Sentinel, that is part of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.

Paul, I want to start with what we're looking at right now. This is happening in Schaerbeek. You have information about what we're seeing and also information this is part of what is going on that is much, much bigger.

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: John, what's you are seeing on the screen is part, only part of a major counterterrorism operation, at least three locations in Brussels. This information coming from the Belgian federal prosecutors' office briefing Belgian media. There is a helicopter that has been involved in this.

The army has been brought in at this location in Schaerbeek to reinforce their efforts. Belgian special intervention commandos have been involved as well. And so far, six people have been brought into custody. It appears possibly one at this location that it's not absolutely clear yet, two in Jette, which is a northwestern district of Brussels.

But the most sort of stunning development of all potentially is the rest of three men in a vehicle outside the Belgian federal prosecutor's offices at the heart of Brussels. Not clear what they were doing there, but as part of this counterterror operation they've arrested three people in a vehicle outside the Belgian federal prosecutor's office.

Why were they there? They are not telling us at this point. We do not know the circumstances, but it certainly raises all sorts of questions why three people would be arrested in a counterterrorism operation right outside a major government building in Brussels.

BERMAN: Not just a major government building. We're talking about the Belgian federal prosecutor's office. This is the office, the leading edge in the counterterror battle and in the investigation into the terror attacks at the airport and subway station, correct?

CRUICKSHANK: They are leading the charge against this cell. The cell they are worried may strike again. And so, very interesting indeed, three men who have been arrested in this counterterrorism operation. Were they just acting suspiciously? Were they arrested out of abundance of cautious or something more sinister going on here?

We don't know. It's the middle of the night. Belgians are keeping their cards very, very close right now, John.

BERMAN: About 1:30 in the morning, in fact, in Belgium right now, 1:30 in the morning as you are looking at these pictures in the Schaerbeek neighborhood in Brussels, separate from the arrests outside the federal prosecutor's office.

Bob Baer, if you're with us, we've been looking at these pictures for some time. Men in these forensic outfits scouring the drapes, looking like they are going over the walls. You've been watching this along with us.

Any sense of what they are doing exactly inside this building?

BOB BAER, FORMER CIA OFFICER: Well, since the bombing of the metro and airport, clearly the Belgians had to change tactics. They are trying to break the momentum of the Islamic State. And they are adjusting their tactics appropriately.

You hit a build, collect intelligence, move on to the next one. You know, visit the usual suspects, and just to really interrupt any planning, and I'm sure that there is something being planned.

[20:25:07] And they are also looking for people that are doing casing because the Islamic State cases targets before they hit them. It's the only proper way to do it. They are out looking for that. This was really, truly, in so many ways a wake-up call for the Belgians that they are at war in their own capital, and the gloves are off.

Call it what you will, preventive detentions, you know, going around the constitution doesn't matter, but they have to react and they are.

BERMAN: At a basic level, they are looking for traces of explosives, perhaps DNA that could lead them to identities of people planning future attacks?

BAER: Yes. I mean, they are looking for any evidence to keep these people in jail whether it's explosives or, you know, gun powder or DNA or finger prints. Anything they have to hold them. They have to keep these people out of circulation, or they will attack again.

I think that's fairly clear based on the State Department warning, you know, raids in France and general chatter in the air. The Islamic State is on the offensive. They are upset about losing territory in Iraq and Syria, and they will strike back at Europe. It's an assumption everybody is working off of.

BERMAN: And, Juliette Kayyem, you agree. Bob was saying, this is ISIS on offensive, but this is now also the Belgian officials, the investigators perhaps trying to get on the offensive, as well trying to get out ahead of what might be being planned right now.

JULIETTE KAYYEM, FORMER U.S. ASST. SECY. FOR HOMELAND SECURITY: That's absolutely right. Just picking up on what Bob said. This is what we call a sweep.

Who knows if something will result from what we're seeing on air right now, and there will be lots more of them. They are going to be what's call, you know, overbroad. They are just going to try to find people or evidence that may stop the next terrorism attack, and they will figure out who they have under custody.

I want to pick up on something Paul said that's very important about the arrest in front of the ministry. Let's not forget that Abdeslam, who was captured on Friday is being held in Belgium, in the ministry -- not in the ministry, but they have jurisdiction over him.

In the last couple of hours, he -- his lawyers have said he's no longer going to fight extradition and now wants to go to Paris. That is a complete turn around from what happened before. What he was saying before the terror attacks.

So, it's not just that it's a ministry of justice dealing with the Belgium attacks. They have in custody the man we all think, his arrest essentially triggered this series of events both on Tuesday and the arrest and sweeps that we're seeing right now.

BERMAN: Paul Cruickshank, what about Salah Abdeslam and the idea he no longer wants to waive extradition and is apparently is not cooperating or talking to those questions him in any way?

CRUICKSHANK: He was never cooperating, Belgian officials believe. They believe he not only knew about this attack in Brussels but was going to be part of a bigger attack they were planning for days or weeks ahead, but the part of the cell which wasn't neutralized, which wasn't with Salah Abdeslam accelerated their plans, officials believe. Abdeslam would have known about these plans because he was in that safe house with the overall commander of the Paris attacks and the Brussels attacks, the overall commander of the entire operation. It beggars belief that he wouldn't have known about what was going to happen.

So, whatever he told Belgian official, Belgian interrogators and he did admit to be a stadium bomber at the French national stadium, whatever he told wasn't information that allowed them to save lives.

BERMAN: Bob Baer, any use, Salah Abdeslam, if he isn't talking, of what use is he right now?

BAER: I don't think he's of any use. I agree with Paul. He didn't reveal this plot in advance, the airport, the metro. He's a believer, in spite of his not blowing himself up in Paris. And he' not going to cooperate with police.

The Belgians and French don't torture. I don't think torture works anyhow. You know, he believes in the cause and he's going to keep his mouth shut and spend his time in jail for the rest of his life not talking. So, he was never any use.

I totally agree with Paul as a source to prevent an attack.

BERMAN: All right. Juliette, Bob, Paul, stick around. We have a lot more to ask you about.

Again, what you are looking at is an ongoing operation, 1:30 a.m. local time in Brussels right now. This is an apartment building. Police have been on the scene for several hours. These forensic operators have been going through this apartment scouring the walls, scouring the drapes looking for what, we are not sure. We'll discuss more right after this.


[20:33:39] BERMAN: All right. We are covering developments right now out of Brussels police. Military Forensic Operations under way as we speak here.

Looking at live pictures. This is part of a large anti-terrorist sweep at several locations in Brussels. The one you are looking at right now is in Schaerbeek.

Separately, there were three arrests outside the headquarters of the Belgium federal prosecutor's office. Three arrests outside that federal prosecutor's office.

The federal prosecutor has been leading the counter terror investigation and operation since the attacks on the airport and the metro station.

Three arrests there. Also, three separate arrests elsewhere in the city, including where it shall possibly one in this building or at least in this neighborhood you're looking at right.

It's after 1:30 in the morning in Brussels right now. So, the operations going on literally all night.

We're joined again by our panel of Security and Intelligence Experts, Juliette Kayyem. You're looking at this right now.

This is the investigators. This is the counterterrorism operators now trying to get out ahead of the terrorists, who we understand are planning more attacks.

KAYYEM: And they have to base everything on that assumption.

At the stage, they know that there are at least two men involved with Tuesday's attacks who they don't know where they are.

And there's no way that a network like that doesn't have other pieces, other people involved that are supporting them.

[20:35:00] So, you know, for people looking at the, you know, look, this is typically how it works. They found a location. There were people outside protecting neighbors, there's a bit of an evacuation going on.

There are people inside in protective gear for obvious reasons, because we don't know what kind of explosives will be in there. Pictures everything else are being taken.

What we don't know and what we just always have to be careful of is, in big sweeps like this, particularly in urban settings, there are going to be a lot of false-positives. Right that there are going to be sweeps like this and a number of apartment and number of apartment houses. Some will come to fruition, others will not.

This one at 1:30 in the morning looks pretty serious but it could very will be in 12 hours or 14 hours we learn this was not the place that they were hoping for. And there are going to be these throughout the city. This is what major investigation looks like when you have pieces that are still at large.

BERMAN: Bob Baer, is your sense right now that they are likely to be looking for specific people or ties to specific people or they are just casting as wide of a net as possible?

ROBERT BAER, FORMER CIA OFFICER: I think they are casting as wide a net as possible. They are on a steep learning curve. And I even look at their vests they have got soft armor. You know, in this situation where people have kalashnikovs, you need ceramic plates. That's clear. So the Belgians are learning about guerilla warfare as we speak.

They're going to be narrowing down the hunt. But and Juliette absolute right, this could be a lot of false-positives. This could be a lot of angry people going to have their doors knocked down. Very time consuming going into these places. You have to go slowly. They're looking for rigged bombs in these places. All sorts of things, you know, behind these doors they have to worry about. So I think these raids are going to go on for a long time before they can root out this network which seems to get bigger by the day.

BERMAN: Paul, any sense if the officials there suspect that the fugitives they are looking for are in Brussels? Salah Abdeslam hiding, you know, in plain sight in the neighborhood he grew up in that. Do they think they are being in the neighborhoods where they've lived comfortably for some time or any reasonable believe they try to get out of that. Get out of Brussels?

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYTS: Well, the Belgium public broadcaster tonight saying this operation was aimed at the people linked, they believe, to this attack in Brussels. Not clear whether they've been able to arrest key suspects, people who played a key role in the operation or not but there are six arrests, and that's just so far tonight. There may be more arrests later tonight. This is a very large operation right across Brussel.

We understand now that there were no arrests at this location in Schaerbeek. These are searchers. But as Bob Baer was pointing out, they have to take a lot of precautions when they go in and do these searches. Because if you rewind to last week, you rewind to last Tuesday, they had intelligence about an address they believed was linked to the Paris attacks.

But they were not expecting anybody to be inside. When they went in, they found Salah Abdeslam and two other gunmen opening fire on them as they tried to get in. Several Belgian and french police officers were wounded. Luckily none lost their lives. They got into a fire fight. A Belgian police sniper managed to take out the senior terrorist inside, Mohamed Belkaid.

But Abdeslam and his accomplice managed to get away over the roofs, and it took another three days before they arrested them. And all of that accelerated these attack plans. There is sometimes when authorities go and make these arrests, that's can have the effect of accelerating attack plans because these cells believe that they are about to get arrested.

BERMAN: All right, Paul Cruickshank, Bob Baer and Juliette Kayyem stand by. More shortly as we continue to monitor this anti-terror operation underway right now in Brussels at this apartment building going on that for sometime clearly not close to over yet.

Up next we'll going to turn to politic Ted Cruz and Donald Trump locked in a battle over their wives. If you thought the discourse couldn't possibly get any lower, you were wrong. Trump's latest point seems to be that his wife is better looking than Ted Cruz's. Yes, somehow we're talking about presidential politics, not fourth grade recess. The details next.


[20:43:15] BERMAN: All right, it is official. The Republican presidential primary has devolved into tactics usually reserved for elementary school playgrounds. Sunlen Serfaty down in Staples has a report.


SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Tonight, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are escalating their nasty spat involving their spouses.

SEN. TED CRUZ, (R-TX) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's not easy to tick me off. I don't get angry often. But you mess with my wife, you mess with my kids, that'll do it every time. Donald, you are a sniveling coward. Leave Heidi the hell alone.

SERFATY: That after Trump re-tweeted this split screen image of Cruz's wife, Heidi, and his wife Melania with a caption, "The images are worth a thousand words."

CRUZ: Real men don't try to bully women. That's an action of strength, that's an action of weakness. It's an action of fear, it's an action of a small and petty man who is intimidated by strong women.

SERFATY: Fox News anchor, Megyn Kelly, a regular Trump target, also joining the fray with a one-word tweet to Donald Trump, "Seriously?" Cruz today blasting Trump for bringing his wife into the middle of their campaign showdown.

CRUZ: Let me be absolutely clear. Our spouses and our children are off bounds. It is not acceptable for a big, loud New York bully to attack my wife.

SERFATY: The attacks were first sparked by a Facebook ad from an anti-Trump super PAC, not the Cruz campaign that used old modeling photo of Melania Trump posing nude. But Trump still insists his rival was involved.

DONALD TRUMP, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I thought it was disgraceful and Ted Cruz knew about it.

SERFATY: The sharp personal attacks eclipsing the divisions over national security now emerging as a flash point between the 2016 candidates on both sides in the wake of the Brussels terror attacks.

[20:45:10] Tonight, Hillary Clinton angling for a symbolic contrast sitting down with Muslim leaders in California. The democratic front- runner blasting her GOP rivals for pursuing policies that she says will only saw division.

HILLARY CLINTON, (D) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Cannot allow our nation to be pitting groups of people against one another. We cannot give in to panic and fear. It's not in keeping with our values.

SERFATY: This comes as a brand-new CNN/ORC poll shows if Trump and Clinton face off in a general election, 56 percent of voters believe that Clinton will win compared with 42 percent who think Trump will. And while Clinton also has an edge when it comes to who would be a better commander in chief and who is more in touch with the middle class. She and Trump are tied on the question of who is a stronger leader. Sunlen Serfaty, CNN, Janesville, Wisconsin. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: Joining us now in the playground USA. Radio Network National Political Commentator Scottie Nell Hughes, who supports Donald Trump and CNN Political Commentator Tara Setmayer, former Communications Director for Representative Dana Rohabacher.

Scottie, you know, Ted Cruz called Donald Trump a sniveling coward for taking shots at Heidi Cruz. Do you think Donald trump went too far here? That retweet, is that too much?

SCOTTIE NELL HUGHES, CHIEF POLITICAL COMMENTATOR USA RADIO NETWORK: Let me say this. It's good to know that chivalry is not done within the GOP because both men have stood up for their wives. And I think that something speaks very well about how the GOP feels about women.

But when I look at -- I don't always have to agree with everything Mr. Trump does. And I never want to encourage anybody to base their comments or base any hate or negativity on looks, superficial looks.

So in this case, I don't think it was the best approach for Mr. Trump to do. But also we need to put the blame where it belongs. And I think it belongs on this make America awesome pac again who has caused this Grand Canyon between these two candidates. And it's not a -- I don't think it's a coincidence.

I think this is based on the fact that last week there were rumors the Cruz delegates and Trump delegates were getting together and coming up with a plan to make sure that if we went into a brokered convention that nobody else's name would be able to be brought from the floor. That's what this results from. It scared the fire out of the establishment folks who said, "Nope, we need to make sure these two groups hate each other." And unfortunately I think this is going to continue if we see that we'll go toward a brokered convention.

BERMAN: Tara, somewhere in there, Scottie, actually said she didn't like the fact that Donald Trump and did that retweet there, you know, comparing his wife to Heidi Cruz. But she also said the people going after Donald Trump they started it. Does it matter who started it?

TARA SETMAYER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENATATOR: No, it doesn't matter who started it. And the fact is that Super PACs are going to do what they do. It was a nice pivot for Scottie to get off the subject because it is indefensible.

You know, I as a woman, as a stepmother to two young girls OK, who are 11 and 9 who get bullied in school because of how they look. They get called ugly, they called you look different, and we hear we have a presidential candidate that have a history -- this isn't the first time he's done this.

Let's hold Donald Trump accountable for his own actions and words. He did not -- this is standing up to his -- standing up for his wife? This is chivalrous? By him objectifying his own wife and comparing and also comparing her to somebody else's wife, what she looks like? This is a man who is superficial, who has made terribly derogatory statements about women his entire career.

This is a man who went through a divorce in public, here in New York. I remember. I'm from here. Who was bragging about his sexual pleasure with his mistress and demeaning his wife of his -- the mother of his children. This is the man that Scottie Hughes is supporting and making excuses for every single week because he continues to do these kinds of things.

How do I explain to my 11 and 9 year-old daughters -- stepdaughters a man that calls women fat pigs, he talks about having a nice piece of blank on his arm. Look, he doesn't matter what people say about you. That calls people like Megyn Kelly bimbos. Who goes after women in so many derogatory ways. This is the man you support as a woman. He continues to make excuses for in the presidential election, there is no excuse for this and I don't know how you reconcile it.

BERMAN: All right, that's deserves a response. We're going it from Scottie right after the break.


[20:53:09] BERMAN: Back with Donald Trump supporter Scottie Nell Hughes and CNN Political Commentator Tara Setmayer. Before the break, Tara leveled some strong allegations about Donald Trump and women. And the fact that Scottie, you have decided to defend him. Essentially what Tara was saying, how can you defend the retweet that he put out there essentially comparing the looks of his wife to Heidi Cruz and how can you defend the message that that sends to young women across the country?

HUGHES: OK. We've got it, Tara. You don't like, Mr. Trump. And I think really interested to say if he could ever say anything that might actually persuade to say nice about him.

SETMAYER: That has nothing to do with it. Answer the question. Come on, stop it. Whether I like Trump or not, answer the question. Go ahead.

HUGHES: Give me a second, please.

SETMAYER: Go for it.

HUGHES: And I really do respect your passion and I hope you are ready to show that same passion against Hillary Clinton, regardless of who our nominee will be that you'll be able to use that. Because I like being on the same team as you because you do bring up some excellent points. That being said though this campaign has come down to actions and policy versus words.

And people that want to take out Mr. Trump try to focus on his words to distract from the actions and the policies that he puts out there. Actions that we need right now when we're $19 trillion in debt, when we have a poorest border and we need actually leadership and security when it comes to lead in this country.

BERMAN: Scottie, Scottie, Scottie, hang on. You are being critical for people listening to what he says? Paying attention to what Donald Trump actually says? Does what a candidate says matter?

SETMAYER: And what is done.

HUGHES: Well, it does. I think ...


HUGHES: What he's done. It's actually good. That's the reason why he's winning in the polls right now because he's demonstrated and you can sit there and focus on his words. You might not like, you might like some of the things you're saying or not like. I'm in that same boat but that being said, going forward you have to actually look at what he is going to do for this country.

And I'm sorry, when I look at my daughters, I'm going to say it doesn't matter what a man says to you. You don't need to base yourself and your actions based on it.

[20:55:00] Be your own self regard who whether it's the president of the United States or your own mother. You to what you want and what you think is right.

SETMAYER: So you're a hypocrite ....

HUGHES: I'm not a hypocrite.

SETMAYER: Then, you're a hypocrite. Yeah, you are.

HUGHES: It doesn't matter what a man says to me. I don't care. I'm going to create my own path.

SETMAYER: OK, so, it's more than what he said.

HUGHES: What's does he done? Tell me what he has done to women, please?

SETMAYER: Why should people believe -- what did he done to women? I just told you what he did to his ex-wife ...

HUGHES: No, those are words here. What's are his actions?


HUGHES: He's actions are he has more female CEO's ...

SETMAYER: He cheated very publicly on his life. Are you going to tell your daughter stay with a man who cheats on them because, you know, because you should? I mean, this is ...

HUGHES: You know, it's funny those thing on your lives are actually speaking very ...

BERMAN: All right, guys, guys, guys, guys.

SETMAYER: I'm speaking factual truth ...

HUGHES: At attacks his ex-wife Marla.

STEMAYER: And you're in denial about it, because I don't know why.

BERMAN: Quick, I want to get it quick ...

SETMAYER: So, you never answered the question about how you can support him.

BERMAN: A quick last words from Tara. Tara, Ted Cruz is called Donald Trump a sniveling coward. If Donald Trump gets the nomination, do you think Ted Cruz will agree to endorse him?

SETMAYER: Well, I would hope that he didn't, you know. This is about character and integrity.

HUGHES: And he's right there.

SETMAYER: No, there are some things that are bigger than ...

HUGHES: Joining Hillary's present there.

SETMAYER: ...unity. It's about principle, character and integrity and the soul ...

HUGHES: And Hillary has that?

SETMAYER: Well, I'm not talking about Hillary Clinton. No, she doesn't either, but ...

HUGHES: That's what you get.

SETMAYER: But Donald Trump unfortunately, is supposed to be representing my party and he does not.

And I actually have more principle and character than to put party, unity over to support someone that is this despicable when it comes to women and other things.

He has no character ...

HUGHES: Hillary Clinton's negative pro ...

BERMAN: Obviously, obviously guys.

SETMAYER: ...selling this to the American people and you're falling for it. Shame on you for it.

BERMAN: It leaves a lot more to discuss the next hour and in the weeks and months ahead. Scottie Nell Hughes, Tara Setmayer, thank you so much.

One programming note, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and John Kasich. They will take questions in a CNN Republican Town Hall in Milwaukee moderated by Anderson Cooper.

That's this coming Tuesday, 8:00 p.m. Eastern right here on CNN. And in the next hour of "360," the latest on the investigation into the Brussels attacks, new raids and new arrests.

That is the Belgian capital also arrests outside Paris. We are getting a lot of new information just over the last few minutes.

We'll give you everything when we come back.