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Live: Angry Voters Erupt at Republican Town Hall; Democratic Leadership Debate Tonight CNN 10PM ET; Interview With Congressman Adam Smith; Town Hall Fury; Mission to Mexico. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired February 22, 2017 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news: mending fences. President Trump dispatches top officials to Mexico. The secretary of state has just arrived, hoping to ease relations strained by the president's politics and rhetoric. Is Mr. Trump's aggressive new immigration enforcement making the job even harder?

Boiling over. GOP lawmakers are facing angry voters in raucous town hall meetings voicing outrage at President Trump's agenda. Are the flaring tempers scaring off some Republican members of Congress?

Under fire. The Pentagon reveals that U.S. troops had been wounded by ISIS fighters in Iraq, as military leaders weigh whether to recommend sending more American forces to Syria. How will U.S. casualties impact their decision?

And debate night. Candidates for Democratic Party chairman lay out their strategies and make their cases in a CNN special tonight. Who will lead the party out of the political wilderness?

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in the THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're following breaking news.

President Trump's Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has just arrived in Mexico on a mission to strengthen ties badly strained by the president's call for a border wall and now his immigration crackdown. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly also is taking part in the talks in Mexico.

Ahead of the talks with his American counterpart, Mexico's foreign minister said his country doesn't have to accept measures imposed unilaterally by the United States.

Also breaking this hour, an administration official tells CNN the president's new executive order on travel restrictions will now be issued next week. It had been expected this week. Sources also say it's being carefully tailored to try to avoid the kind of legal challenges that sidelined the president's previous travel ban. And we're monitoring town hall meetings tonight by Republican

lawmakers. Some have faced by angry constituents loudly voicing their opposition to President Trump's agenda in rather emotional and sometimes sharp exchanges which the White House blames on what it is calling in part at least professional protesters.

We're covering all of that and much more this hour with our guests, including the top Democratic of the Armed Services Committee, Congressman Adam Smith. And our correspondents and expert analysts are also standing by.

Let's begin with the breaking news on the president's new travel ban.

Our White House correspondent Sara Murray is joining us with the latest.

Sara, we were expecting that new revised order this week, but now it's been delayed again.


We were expecting it any day now, but now we're told by an administration official that that timeline is moving into next week either early or midweek. Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, said today that essentially the new version of this order is completed, they're just putting on the finishing touches and making sure all the various agencies had guidance about how to implement that.

Apparently, it's taking a little longer than they anticipated. The other thing that he said today that was interesting is they're going to continue to fight for the original travel ban in court. Listen to what he said in the briefing.


SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president was very clear in his executive order these were countries that we didn't have the proper vetting for when it came to ensuring the safety of Americans. That's what the executive order said.

The authority is very clear to having done it. And I think you're going to see the president take the steps necessary to protect this country. That's why he's talked about, you know, fighting this on both fronts, making sure that we keep evolving through the court system on the existing E.O. and then looking towards the next draft of the executive order that will continue to achieve the goal of protecting the American people.


MURRAY: Wolf, the White House really moving on two tracks on this. One, they say they're going to continue to fight for the original travel ban in court, but, two, move forward with this new action, which we're now expecting next week. BLITZER: Sara, Vice President Mike Pence, he paid an important visit

today to the vandalized Jewish cemetery in Missouri amidst the spike in anti-Semitism these and incidents across the country.

What are you learning about the vice president's visit?

MURRAY: That's right, Wolf.

This is a cemetery where tombstones were knocked over and were desecrated over the weekend. Obviously, earlier this week, we saw President Trump denounce those incidents, but Mike Pence was in Missouri to visit a factory earlier today. And he also stopped by this cemetery. Listen to a portion of what he had to say there.


MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There is no place in America for hatred or acts of prejudice or violence or anti-Semitism.


I must tell you, the people of Missouri are inspiring the nation by your love and care for this place, for the Jewish community in Missouri, and I want to thank you for that inspiration, for showing the world what America is really all about.


MURRAY: Now, after he made those comments denouncing anti-Semitism, he stuck around for a little while and helped some folks there clear brush, clear debris from the cemetery as they try to clean it up and beautify it in the wake of the incidents over the weekend.

And it's worth mentioning the Anne Frank Center, which was very critical of Donald Trump, essentially said he was just putting a Band- Aid on this issue, applauded Mike Pence's action today, his visit to the cemetery and sticking around -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, that was really significant, not only his words, but his actions, helping in the cleanup of that Jewish cemetery.

All right, thanks very much, Sara Murray, over at the White House.

We're also monitoring the town hall meetings by Republican lawmakers tonight and the anger boiling over among constituents opposed to President Trump's agenda.

Our congressional correspondent, Phil Mattingly, is working the story for us.

Phil, we're seeing some rather tense exchanges.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, no question about it.

You can see it live on air just last hour. Senator Bill Cassidy, down in Louisiana, Republican, facing some constituents who were shouting and some constituents who had to be escorted out of the event altogether.

The emotion right now, it's real, even if the issues, Wolf, may vary. The big question, what impact will this have on the Republican Party and its ambitious agenda in the months ahead?


PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Tonight, tempers are flaring, congressmen and constituents tangling at town halls across the country, Republican lawmakers back home from Washington.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Everybody needs to yell out something.

MATTINGLY: Facing emotion, sharp, and often shouted questions on their plans to repeal and replace health care.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If you answer any of that, and I will sit down and shut up like Elizabeth Warren.

MATTINGLY: As well as pushback on President Trump and his immigration policies.

ZALMAY NIAZY, PROTESTER: Being a person from a Muslim country, and I'm a Muslim, who is going to save me here? Who is going to stand behind me and save me? I have been stopped two times. I have been roadside bombed once, but nobody cared about me. But I was with the United States armed forces back in Afghanistan, and I didn't shout because of my mom and dad.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

MATTINGLY: The outcry now raising questions as to whether the GOP agenda driven in part by the president or even the Republican majority could be in danger.

Republicans say their hold on Congress is safe. On Twitter, President Trump dismissed confrontations as being concocted by liberal activists, calling them "so-called angry crowds."

Today, at the White House, his spokesman tried to stake out a middle ground.

SPICER: I think some people are clearly upset, but there is a bit of professional protester manufactured base in there.

MATTINGLY: The GOP says the anger at the town halls is not the same as the frustration vented against Obamacare during the early days of the Tea Party movement back in 2009.

SPICER: When you look at some of these districts and some of these things, it is not a representation of a member's district or an incident. It is a loud group, small group of people disrupting something, in many cases for media attention.

MATTINGLY: Still, from reliably red district and states to the swingiest of swing districts, the demonstrations are real and are getting attention. GOP lawmakers are now grappling with the same reality faced by their Democratic counterparts just eight years ago, whether to avoid the face-offs altogether or to openly embrace the raucous opposition.

REP. DAVE BRAT (R), VIRGINIA: I don't mind boisterous. I'm having fun. So that's -- I like having debates.


MATTINGLY: Wolf, that is the big question the GOP leaders are grappling with right now. Do they want their rank and file to face down these town hall crowds or they want them to avoid it altogether?

I'm told multiple GOP sources saying they want their members to address this issue, to attend the town halls. They think it's better. But they also recognize the optics of this is not good and it's the type of thing that could motivate Democrats, Democratic lawmakers making very clear they believe these are the seeds to the type of energy they could for electoral victories going forward.

The big question is, how much of that energy can they harness, Wolf?

BLITZER: Phil Mattingly, our congressional correspondent, reporting for us. Thanks very much.

We're getting word in U.S. injuries in the fight against ISIS. The Pentagon says American troops have been taking fire from terrorist forces fighting to keep control of Iraq's second largest city, namely Mosul.

Our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, has the very latest for us.


Barbara, what are you learning about American troops wounded on the front lines of Mosul?


What we now know is over the last six to eight weeks, U.S. troops have moved closer at least to that front line in Mosul. They have mainly been focusing on trying to help Iraqi forces target ISIS areas in the fight to retake Iraq's largest second city.

As they have moved closely in that advise and assist role, you can predict what has happened. They have come under attack multiple times from ISIS forces, we now know. A U.S. official telling me earlier today over the last six to eight weeks, there have been incidents where U.S. troops have had to be medevaced off the battlefield.

We know, for example, on December 23, five U.S. troops were wounded in battle. We have no details about exactly where that happened, because the Pentagon officially doesn't talk about the troops who are wounded -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara, you're also getting reporting on U.S. options troops in Syria. Could U.S. troops be sent there next?

STARR: The deadline to get those options to President Trump essentially is early next week, so the finishing touch is being put on it.

One of the ideas out there that remains is, could you send U.S. troops into Syria to help accelerate the fight to retake Raqqa, the major ISIS stronghold inside Syria? The thinking is that U.S. troops wouldn't engage in direct contact, but perhaps provide things like artillery support to the local Kurdish forces.

But dangerous business, we have seen it in Mosul now. This can take U.S. troops very much into a combat role. And we have now learned this evening that Senator John McCain, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, just wrapped up a secret trip to Northern Syria to talk to officials there, have a look for himself at how the fight is going and what some of those options might really be, Wolf.

BLITZER: Very quickly, Barbara, there are 5,000 troops, ground troops still in Iraq, but there are some U.S. troops already in Syria, right?

STARR: Yes. The limit is -- the top-line limit is about 500. It may not often be that many. But they are mainly special operations forces and some conventional forces mainly doing train, advise, assist, but what we're talking about is if additional forces go in, they will be providing much more direct support to the Kurdish and the Arab forces who are supposed to be on the front line to the fight in Syria -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, key words, supposed to be. All right, Barbara, thank you very much for that report.

Let's get some more on all of this with the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, Congressman Adam Smith of Washington state.

Congressman, thanks very much for joining us.


BLITZER: What's your response, Congressman, to the news that U.S. troops have now come under fire from ISIS terror forces in and around Mosul and that some American troops have been injured?

SMITH: Well, it's not surprising.

This was the plan that President Obama had put into place. They're going to have the local Iraqi forces be in the lead, and then we have several thousand support troops there that are there to help train and advise.

But, I mean, the fight is fluid, and they're not going to be able to stay completely out of it. And I do think that the plan basically to roll back ISIS in both Syria and Iraq is working. They have lost an enormous amount of territory, and I think that's important. I think the role that the U.S. troops are playing there has thus far been successful and helpful. BLITZER: Would you want more U.S. troops deployed on the ground not,

only in Iraq, but also in Syria?

SMITH: It doesn't sound like it's necessary at the moment.

And, again, the main point here is it has to be Iraqi forces or, in Syria, we're working with the Kurds in both Iraq and Syria. It has to be led by the locals. We are simply there to train, advise and assist. I don't think we need to send any more troops. I think we have about the right amount. And, again, the fight has to be led by the Iraqis.

BLITZER: You think the Iraqis can get the job done? Because it's, what, at least two years-plus that the terrorists ISIS forces have controlled the second largest city in Iraq, Mosul. We keep hearing the Iraqis are moving closer and closer to get the job done. They still haven't done it.

SMITH: Yes. I think there's any guarantee.

Now, Mosul is a very large city. They have taken significant portions of it. And they have been making progress. But, look, the lingering problem in Iraq is still the Baghdad government and whether or not it is going to be truly inclusive of the Sunni population.

In order to ultimately be successful against ISIS, the Sunnis in Iraq have to feel like they are part of Iraq, like the Baghdad government is supportive of them. That's what caused ISIS to rise in the first place, was when al-Maliki was the prime minister, and they shut out Sunnis, they threw them in jail.


They did not include them in the government. And they make it they were going to be a sectarian Shia government. And that's what drove the Sunnis into the arms of ISIS. And if Baghdad doesn't change, they are going to continue to have those struggles. And, frankly, there is nothing we can do about it and nothing we should do about it in terms of sending our troops into a battle that they can't win.

BLITZER: That's a fair point.

Congressman, I want you to listen to what the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, said today about safe havens for Syrian civilians in -- Syrian civilians. That's one of the president's top foreign policy priorities.

We don't have the clip. But I want your reaction that this is what the Trump administration wants,these so-called safe havens in Syria for refugees, so they don't have to be sent out of Syria.

SMITH: This is something we have talked about for a number of years since this conflict began.

And it's simply not as easy as it sounds, because if you're going to create a safe haven, that means you're going to have to have the military support in there necessary to keep not just ISIS, but also keep Assad and his Russian allies from attacking these areas. And that means airpower, that means a significant commitment of U.S. forces.

So, it would be great. Obviously, the preference here is to make Syria safe enough so that the Syrians can return to their homes. That's what we want. But I think the incoming president underestimates what it's going to take and the commitment of U.S. forces to create those safe havens.

And are we prepared to do what we haven't done at this point, which is to go toe to toe with Assad's regime and potentially with the Russians who are supporting him? It's going to take more than just saying we're going to draw a line and say, please stay out. It's going to take an enormous commitment of money and military might to make it happen.

BLITZER: Yes, the president said he wanted a plan to destroy and defeat ISIS within days. It's been 30 days. Supposedly, that plan is going to be ready in the coming days. We will see.

Meanwhile, Congressman, a former Guantanamo prison inmate is believed to have carried out an ISIS suicide attack in Mosul on Monday.

What can you tell us about that report? We're showing our viewers some pictures of this former Gitmo prisoner. He was captured in 2001, released in 2004, eventually, what, given about a million British pounds for what he endured at Gitmo. And now supposedly, a couple of years ago, he went through Turkey to Syria, joined ISIS and was engaged in the suicide bombing attack against Iraqi forces in which he was killed.

What else can you tell us about this?

SMITH: Well, I think those are basically the facts.

I think the most important thing here are the dates that you mentioned -- 2001 was when he was picked up; 2004 was when he was released. And that points to two problems. One, we were not at all careful about who we rounded up and put in there, and nor were we that careful about who we let go.

This was a conflict that we had with the British government over I forget how many. There were some number of inmates there that were British citizens and they wanted them released.

Back in 2004, that was done. A lot of people take that statistic and say, oh, my goodness, look at all the Guantanamo inmates that President Obama released. But all of those that President Obama released were carefully vetted and determined to be not a threat, to be releasable.

Back in the early part of the Bush administration, it was more chaotic. And, look, I understand that. After 9/11, when the Afghan war started, when the Iraq War started, there was a lot of chaos and uncertainty. And I think this particular inmate reflects that chaos and uncertainty, certainly having let him go the way he was let go, when he clearly was still a threat.

BLITZER: Yes, he was.

All right, thanks very much, Congressman Adam Smith of Washington state, joining us.

SMITH: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Straight ahead, a very difficult mission now for two top Trump administration officials, arriving just now in Mexico City. Can they smooth over badly strained relations? I will ask Mexico's former ambassador to the United States, Arturo Sarukhan. There you see him in Mexico City. He's standing by live.



BLITZER: More breaking news this hour.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has just arrived in Mexico City and Homeland Secretary John Kelly will arrive a bit later tonight. They're on a joint mission to try to ease relations strained significantly by President Trump's politics and rhetoric.

Our senior diplomatic correspondent, Michelle Kosinski, is joining us with the latest.

Michelle, the secretaries clearly have their work cut out for them.


Now that the secretary of state has landed, the U.S. side is trying to put the best face possible on this relationship, saying that the meetings will be positive and forward-looking. But even before he touched down, we're hearing a pretty hard line from Mexico, insisting again to CNN they're not going to pay for any wall, that they're under no obligation to accept any deportees except Mexican nationals.

It's unclear how difficult this will make this visit that once again has a hallmark of damage control.


KOSINSKI (voice-over): Mexico City, where thousands of people have taken to the streets over the last month protesting Trump White House policies.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly arrive today with a tall order for their first neighborly visit, get the U.S./Mexico relationship back on track. Mexico has threatened boycotts. President Pena Nieto canceled his trip to the White House last month with the tensions and Trump tweets.

Today, from the White House:


SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The relationship with Mexico is phenomenal right now. And I think there's an unbelievable and robust dialogue between our two nations.

KOSINSKI: A Mexican official, though, involved in the bilateral relationship tells CNN their side goes into these talks with President Trump's promises...

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We will build a wall. Mexico is going to pay for the wall.

KOSINSKI: ... a no-go. The official stating clearly, Mexico will not pay for a wall.

Also, with the new immigration order that could mean hundreds of thousands or even millions of people deported, Mexico says it does have an obligation to accept its own nationals, but not all the immigrants from Central America, the government official adding, Mexico needs to see the following in these meetings today, respect for the relationship that has been built over decades, acknowledgment that Mexico is an enormously important trading partner -- $1.5 billion a day in trade crosses the border -- and acknowledgment that the U.S. is lucky to have such a good neighbor in Mexico.

Such is the price now of moving forward after all the words from President Trump going back to the campaign trail.

TRUMP: They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. We have some bad hombres here and we're going to get them out.

KOSINSKI: He even used the phrase tough hombres on a phone call with the Mexican president this month, offering to send U.S. troops down there to help.

Former Obama Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken says the strain between these neighbors across borders or fences could take far more than this visit to heal.

TONY BLINKEN, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: It helps, but it's not enough. It's turbulent because of all this talk of a wall and it's especially turbulent because of the various immigration executive orders. That's a conversation Mexico needs to be in on the takeoff, not on the landing.


KOSINSKI: The president of Mexico had canceled his visit to the White House. But there was a phone call between Presidents Trump and Pena Nieto after which they put out this joint statement.

But in the Mexican version, there was a line that said both presidents have agreed not to publicly talk about who will pay for the wall. The White House version didn't include it, although President Trump hasn't been talking about that lately. I think, Wolf, it will be interesting to see what kind of alignment comes from these meetings.

BLITZER: Michelle Kosinski is our senior diplomatic correspondent at the State Department. Michelle, thank you very much.

Let's dig deeper now with the former Mexican Ambassador to the United States Arturo Sarukhan.

Mr. Ambassador, the Mexican foreign minister, as you know, said today -- and I'm quoting him -- "The Mexican government and the people of Mexico do not have to accept measures unilaterally imposed on a government by another government."

What aspects of President Trump's policies is the foreign minister referring to?

ARTURO SARUKHAN, FORMER MEXICAN AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED STATES: Obviously, the wall and who pays for the wall has been at the top of that list.

But, again, on the eve of this important trip by Secretary Tillerson and Secretary Kelly to Mexico City, you have the directives and the memos on immigration practices and policies that will be implemented by the current administration which talk about deporting non-Mexican nationals across the border into Mexico.

This is a no-go. This is a nonstarter, because if you want to work with your neighbor to help you in processing, aiding you in ensuring that people who are coming through Mexico and that you are going to deport back across the border being received by your neighboring country, the way you go about doing is, you consult before crafting these policies.

And, again, a decision which poisons the environment of what should be a very important visit, because I think we have to recognize that the fact that Secretary Tillerson decided to do his first bilateral trip to Mexico is an important gesture, but it's going to take more than that to try and mend the direction of the relationship which seems to be in a tailspin for the past three, four weeks.

BLITZER: Does Mexico trust that Secretary of State Tillerson and Homeland Security Secretary Kelly actually speak for President Trump?

SARUKHAN: Well, I can't speak for the Mexican government.

I know that both secretaries are individuals who are very competent, who know the issues that they're dealing with. Secretary Tillerson, before he assumed the leadership of the State Department, had a long and deep interaction with Mexico, was the former CEO of Exxon for Mexico's opening of its energy sector.

General Kelly at Southcom had a profound engagement with Mexico across a number of issues, whether related to migration flows or security in the Americas.

So, these are two individuals who know the relationship very well. The challenge that they both have right now, obviously, Wolf, is that they still don't have their teams in place. You need undersecretaries and assistant secretaries in both DHS and State that will help both secretaries build and develop and flesh out an agenda with Mexico.

But I think that Mexico understands the role that they play and understands that they both have the trust of President Trump, and I think that their counterparts in Mexico City tomorrow will try to build a forward-looking relationship.

Remember, Wolf, this -- this relationship between Mexico and the United States is like a tandem bike. It has two riders, but if one of those riders decides to start peddling backwards or stop peddling or decides to go another direction from his companion, the bicycle is going to fall, and both are going to hit the ground. And this is the challenge that we have ahead of us in the coming weeks and months.

BLITZER: Realistically, Mr. Ambassador, how much can the U.S. and Mexico accomplish without President Trump clearly saying that the U.S. will pay for the border wall, that Mexico won't pay for it?

SARUKHAN: Well, I think -- I think what the U.S. does or does not do on its side of the border and how it enhances and how it decides to strengthen its border security is a sovereign decision of the U.S. -- of the United States, of the U.S. Congress and of the administration.

What I think will be extremely helpful, Wolf, is that this not be an issue that is tweeted about, and that is where statements continue to create a poison -- poisonous environment, for both government and government officials to work quietly and to work constructively in finding those soft landing spots on a roster of issues that are not only NAFTA, the wall, and undocumented immigrants, which make up this we complicated but very rich and very dynamic bilateral relationship.

BLITZER: Arturo Sarukhan is the former Mexican ambassador to the United States. Mr. Ambassador, thanks for joining us.

SARUKHAN: My pleasure, Wolf.

BLITZER: Just ahead, Republican lawmakers facing town hall pressure from voters opposed to the Trump agenda. Take a look at this. This is a live picture coming in. Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas talking to his constituents there. It's getting very lively. We'll monitor that.

Plus, details of what's described as a combative conversation between top Trump advisor Steve Bannon and the German ambassador to the United States.


[18:37:14] BLITZER: We're going to show live -- the breaking news. We're watching another Republican try to handle an angry crowd at a town hall. This is the scene in Springdale in northwest Arkansas. A large crowd is on hand to ask questions of Senator Tom Cotton. Some of the questions have been rather tough.

Let's bring in our experts as we watch all of this go on.

Gloria, let me start with you, Gloria Borger. Give us your reaction to these angry town halls.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Look, I think this is democracy in action. I mean, it's kind of a little bit of deja vu to me, Wolf, because you remember what happened with the Tea Party when former President Obama was doing healthcare reform. And there were big rallies at town halls against Democrats who were going to vote for this and who had voted for this. And this was the birth of the Tea Party.

And I think what you're seeing here now is the reverse of that. I think that there are an awful lot of people who want to make sure that the things they like about Obamacare, including coverage for preexisting conditions and for their adult children, will not get taken away.

BLITZER: Phil Mudd, the president did respond to these boisterous town halls that have been popping up all along the country this week, when Congress is in recess. He tweeted this. I'll read it: "The so- called angry crowds in home districts of some Republicans are actually, in numerous cases, planned out by liberal activists. Sad."

What's your reaction when you hear the president making that statement?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: To me, I look at this and ask a simple question. Is this what we're going to face for four years? And can we govern this way, at least in the short-term?

Like it or not, Wolf, I think the answer is yes, but we've got to see a graduation in the White House from the minor leagues to the major leagues. We can't have governance like what we saw in the rollout of that immigration reform program a few weeks ago.

Three quick comments. No. 1, you've got to have discipline in the White House so that you don't have the political advisers saying one thing, as you mentioned, to a European ambassador and the vice president saying something different the day before.

No. 2, you've got to have a focus by the president on what he wants to think about. We've talked about everything from Iran to Korea to Russia and now we're talking about who sits next to me in a bathroom.

And No. 3, you've got to transition from executive orders to having a conversation with Congress about how to legislate without executive orders. I think we can govern this way in the short-term, Wolf, but I'm not sure we can in the long-term.

BLITZER: Jackie Kucinich, Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, said today that these angry constituents, in part, are a professional protestor manufactured base. Although we've spoken to a lot of these members. They say these people are residence of their districts, not necessarily all of them. There is some outside advice, though, coming in: how to agitate. [18:40:06] JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Sure. But I think

they underestimate this at their own peril. I mean, I remember Democrats saying the same thing in 2010 as they -- and switching to tele town halls, and they don't have to show up, and people can call in, and doing things to avoid these open forums, in order to basically not get yelled at.

And something like what Tom Cotton is doing, like you've seen some other members doing, just confronting it, is probably the best thing they can do. Because frankly, it's their job to communicate to both sides of their constituents: the people that -- that voted for them and the people that didn't.

BLITZER: You know, Rebecca, we've seen some Republican members decide to pass on these town halls; and some of their constituents are having some fun with that. They've put these missing signs -- I think we have some -- on milk cartons. How do members of Congress make the calculation, the optics of holding a town hall as opposed to passing on that town hall?

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, certainly, the optics aren't great of your constituents yelling at you or holding your feet to the fire. And there are alternatives, as Jackie mentioned. You can engage with your constituents in a lot of different ways: over the phone, conference calls. You can do smaller events, where you're talking more on a one-on-one or a two-on-one or a group sort of setting.

But the fact of the matter is that the optics aren't what's going to matter in the election next year. It's the underlying factors here that are making these constituents angry, making them yell, making them protest. That's what these members of Congress are going to need to address, whether it's at a town hall or in another setting. That's going to be the problem.

BLITZER: All right. Everybody stand by. We're watching Tom Cotton, the senator from Arkansas. He's got a rowdy little town hall going on there. We'll watch that. We'll continue our special coverage.

In the meantime, top Trump adviser Steve Bannon allegedly slamming the European Union to Germany's ambassador to the United States. We're learning some new information, some new details. Stay with us.


[18:46:42] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Senator Tom Cotton getting angry questions from Arkansans right now. This woman complaining that if the Affordable Care Act goes away, she and her family could die. She just asked the tough question and she got a rousing amount of applause.

Let's listen in.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And I'm not going to do that. My husband with dementia and Alzheimer's, plus multiple, multiple other things. And you want to stand there with him -- and expect us to be calm, cool, and collected. What kind of insurance do you have?


Now, now, now, Mr. Senator Cotton, listen to this. We just did a photo shoot here in Springdale. We're going Medicare my way, not your way. My way.

I've got a husband dying and we can't afford -- let me tell you something. If you can get us better coverage than this, go for it. Let me tell you what we have, plus a lot of benefits that we need. We have $29 per month for my husband. Can you beat that? Can you?

With all the congestive heart failures, and open heart surgeries, we're trying, $29 per month. And he's a hard worker. Now, $39 for me.

Here is my question. I have sent you one message after the other, sir, about our family, and do you know where we live?

I don't live three hours from here, I don't live two hours from here. I live just down the road a few places from your office. And I have invited you into our home. And not a word except a classic, regular letter sent.

Now, here is my question, yes or no. Will you come to my family's home? I promise you it will be safe. Sit down with the three of us and hear our stories from 1991 until now?


SEN. TOM COTTON (R), ARKANSAS: So, ma'am, I'll be happy to meet with you and hear more about your story. We've got staff here.


[18:50:01] Ma'am, we have -- we'll make a decision about where we'll meet but I'm happy to meet with you.


OK. We've got questions up here in the balcony we haven't gone there yet.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you. Thank you. You can hear me?

COTTON: I hear you loud and clear.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My name is Valerie Harris (ph), I'm from Prairie Grove, Arkansas. I want to say I'm a teacher first of all.


I work in a residential facility in Fayetteville, and I work with special needs kids.

I want to say this. I work three jobs, actually. And the reason I have to work two more jobs is because my health insurance at my first place of employment doubled in the last three years. I'd like to say that there are other stories and there are a lot of people in Arkansas that do support Senator Cotton.


And there are many people like myself, a single mom, OK, single mom who pays taxes. My family came here many, many years ago from Italy legally, OK?

And -- thank you. My question is this. My son, I have four children, three that went to the University of Arkansas, my son is graduating and he will be commissioned in the U.S. air force in May.

My son has written a letter and given it to your staff over here because his detachment is requesting that Senator Cotton come and speak and be a distinguished guest at the commissioning ceremony.

My question, number one, I'd like to thank you for your service to this country, and I would like to tell you there are many people, the majority of people in Arkansas that support you.



And I'm asking that you read his letter and his contact information is there. Thank you, Senator Cotton.


COTTON: Well, thank you. Thank you very much for your son --

BLITZER: All right. So he got a friendly question as well as some tough, angry questions. Senator Tom Cotton in Springdale, Arkansas, at a rather lively town hall.

It's not going on just in Arkansas but it's going on all over the country right now. We did see some anger as well.

Rebecca Berg, this is becoming sort of regular in these days during this recess Republican members facing some lively questions.

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: It is. As Gloria said, it's like deja vu, it really harkens back to what we saw in the lead up to the 2010 mid-term elections and we all know how that story ended.

It's worth noting, Wolf, the Republicans right now only have a margin of error in the House of 24 seats. That is far less than Democrats lost in 2010 to Republicans. Republicans won roughly 60 seats in that election to take control of the House.

If this is another wave election like that, Republicans could very, very easily lose the House and potentially the Senate. This is a serious issue for them and I think when they get back to Washington they're going to start talking very seriously about what their plan is going to be to replace it because politically this is clearly a live grenade.

BLITZER: Yes. At all of these town halls that we've seen, the rowdy ones, the tough questions, if you will, Jackie, the focus has been by and large on the future of healthcare in America.

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Absolutely. I just got an e- mail from someone who's watching and she asked, why are we just focusing on these Republican town halls?

I explained that this is -- it's because they're in charge. It's because they're the ones that have the power. Because they're the majorities in the House and Senate and they have the White House, they have the power to change the healthcare law right now. And that's why you see these people speaking out to them as they are. And, you know, perhaps they are Democrats but they're still constituents of these members of Congress and that's their best conduit to power right now.

[18:55:00] BLITZER: Gloria Borger, is this just the beginning?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think it is. I think the problem that you see, Tom Cotton and other Republicans having right now is that they don't have a plan. If they had had a plan that they could take home to their constituents, they would be explaining exactly what they are going to do to save your preexisting condition coverage, for example, or how much less it will cost you if you are, you know, now if you're premiums have skyrocketed, for example.

But the problem they have is that they had six years to come up with a plan and they don't have a plan yet.

Now, I know that Dr. Price took a while to get confirmed and I understand that. But, if they had had something, an outline even to go home with, they would be in much better position standing in front of angry constituents because they would be able to answer their questions.

BLITZER: That's a fair point.

In the meantime, a party in the political wilderness and now at a crossroads, Democrats are poised to pick a new leader. The candidates will make their cases tonight in a CNN special debate.

CNN's Sunlen Serfaty is joining us with the preview.

Sunlen, the stakes for the Democratic Party right now extremely high.


This is a very uncertain time for the Democrats right now. They're in the minority, having to deal with a new Trump era and the outcome of Saturday's vote will bring huge implications for what direction they take the party going forward. This is a party badly in need of a reboot and the big question the race will answer, who will hit the reset button? (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TOM PEREZ, DNC CHAIR CANDIDATE: We've got to organize, organize, organize.

SERFATY (voice-over): Democrats are a party in search of direction and a new leader to help guide them.

REP. KEITH ELLISON, DNC CHAIR CANDIDATE: We've got a fight ahead of us. We've got to come together and we will --

SERFATY: Enter these eight candidates battling it out to be the next chair of the Democrat National Committee.

PEREZ: We need a DNC chairman who can inspire, who can make sure we talk to the entire big tent of our party, who can bring us together.

SERFATY: That outcome could send a huge signal on where the Democratic Party goes from here.

ELLISON: We win elections and that is how we get the majority back.

SERFATY: The two front runners represent a proxy war between the Sanders and Clinton factions of the party. In one corner, Tom Perez who served in both the Clinton and Obama administrations with the backing of the establishment Democrats like Joe Biden. And just today, Perez ruling out the endorsement of the heads of four DNC caucuses. In the other corner, Keith Ellison representing the more progressive wing of the party backed by Senator Bernie Sanders.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I), VERMONT: I think it's time to take a reassessment of where the purpose of the Democratic Party is and where it wants to go. And I think what we need to do right now is to become a grassroots party, which is what Keith Ellison believes.

SERFATY: And as they prepare to debate tonight on CNN, neither candidate has the race locked up, presenting an opportunity for other Democrats like South Carolina Democratic Chairman Jamie Harrison and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, to help their outsider status and potentially alter the race.

MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG, DNC CHAIR CANDIDATE: I believe the DNC needs a fresh start too, and I believe that I can deliver that fresh start.

SERFATY: Buttigieg picking up the endorsement of former DNC Chair Howard Dean today.

HOWARD DEAN, FORMER DNC CHAIR: He's the outside of the beltway candidate. This party is in trouble.

SERFATY: The Democratic Party is in trouble. They've been relegated to minority status in the Trump era, still reeling after suffering a big loss in November and their majorities in the House and Senate before that.

JOE BIDEN, FORMER U.S. VICE PRESIDENT: It's the contest of ideas as to which direction to take the party. After every single loss when the political party that loses, they go and do a retrospective of what happened, where did they make a mistake, what did we do wrong.

SERFATY: The new leader will help define the course correction.

BUTTIGIEG: Our party has got some issues and let us not for one moment shrink from the knowledge that there is no majority for Trumpism in America.

SERFATY: As the group looks to make gains in 2018 --

PEREZ: You need a turnaround artist --

SERFATY: -- to retake the White House in 2020.


SERFATY: And going into this Saturday's vote, a candidate will need the majority of 447 committee members to win, but none of the candidates have secured enough votes just yet. Aides to several of the candidates tell us that they think Tom Perez has a very narrow lead over Keith Ellison. So, it will be very likely happen as this is going to several rounds of voting on Saturday until they settle on a winner -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, the Democrats have an enormous amount of work. They're the minority in the House, the Senate. They lost the White House, governor's races, state legislatures. They need some action and need it quickly.

All right. Sunlen, thanks very much.

And you can see the Democratic leadership debate right here on CNN, 10:00 p.m. Eastern later tonight.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.