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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Clinton Leads Sanders in New CNN/ORC Poll; Syrians Skeptical Of Assad In Ceasefire; Suicide Attacks In Baghdad Kill Nearly 70 Sunday; U.S. To Target ISIS Operation In Cyberspace; Navy SEAL Recognized For 2012 Rescue Mission; Student Detained In North Korea Confesses To "Hostile Act". Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired February 29, 2016 - 16:30   ET

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


[16:30:04]

MELANIA TRUMP, DONALD TRUMP'S WIFE: He is with the momentum. He goes with the flow. He goes with the people. They are having fun. Everybody was cheering. And, you know, he said it, and the next day -- but he repeated the word. That was not his word.

COOPER: Right.

M. TRUMP: So...

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: He heard from you out that?

M. TRUMP: Yes. I told him that, yes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: You can see more of Melania Trump's conversation with Anderson on "A.C. 360" tonight at 8:00 p.m. Eastern right here on CNN.

She gave up her leadership post in the Democratic National Committee so she could take sides in the race for the White House -- why one Democratic congresswoman and veteran is not supporting Hillary Clinton -- that story next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:35:03]

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Continuing with our politics lead, with primary season in full swing, a brand-new CNN/ORC poll out today shows most Democrats want Hillary Clinton to be their party's nominee. She leads Senator Bernie Sanders 55 percent to 38 percent.

Clinton is coming off a huge win in South Carolina on Saturday, where she dominated Sanders. She had 73 percent of votes, and, significantly, more than 80 percent of African-American voters close Clinton. CNN's Jeff Zeleny is with the Clinton camp in Fairfax, Virginia,

today, right outside, you see.

Jeff, the former secretary of state is expecting a big win tomorrow night, but it doesn't look like Bernie Sanders will go anywhere.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Jake.

She's expecting a big win here in Virginia and elsewhere. And I can tell you yesterday you could feel the momentum shift in the Democratic campaign. One adviser to Secretary Clinton said the aircraft carrier is starting to turn toward the general election.

Of course,Clinton for her part is operating on dual track strategy, keeping one eye on Sanders, who is going to raise nearly $40 million this month, and the other eye on Donald Trump or whoever the Republican nominee may be.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Tomorrow is Super Tuesday. Massachusetts is right in the middle of it. And I need your help.

ZELENY (voice-over): Hillary Clinton is riding a wave, hoping her South Carolina landslide becomes an even bigger Super Tuesday victory lap.

CLINTON: I will work as hard as I can every single day. I will get up and go to work for you and fight for you.

ZELENY: The delegate fight with Bernie Sanders will go on, but a strong finish could make Clinton all but unstoppable, at least mathematically. Politically, it is a long race ahead.

CLINTON: If I were grading some of those Republicans, you remember the little box that used to be on your kids' report cards, play well with others?

(LAUGHTER)

CLINTON: I would have to put a big no. Democracy requires that we play well with others.

ZELENY: She's steadily shifting her focus from Sanders to Republicans, one in particular.

CLINTON: Yes, I don't think America has ever stopped being great. What we need to do now is make America whole.

ZELENY: In battleground Virginia, the early outlines of a potential general election fight starting today.

D. TRUMP: Bernie Sanders is over, unless he gets indicted.

ZELENY: Sanders didn't sugarcoat his 48-point blowout in South Carolina.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (VT-I), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We got decimated, George. We got decimated.

ZELENY: But he says the race is just getting started.

He is drawing big crowds from Oklahoma to Colorado to Minnesota, with thousands of supporters answering his call for a political revolution. And Sanders made clear he is far from finished with Clinton.

SANDERS: We are listening to the American people and their pain and their needs, rather than hustling all over the country collecting millions of dollars from the 1 percent.

ZELENY: He is also Winning notable endorsements, including Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard. On CNN's "NEW DAY," she said Sanders has far better foreign policy judgment.

REP. TULSI GABBARD (D), HAWAII: With Hillary, we have seen not only was she a champion for the Iraq War. She was architect for the war in Libya, which we have seen has resulted in tremendous loss of life.

ZELENY: She's one of the first female combat veterans in Congress, who stepped down as vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee to support Sanders.

GABBARD: We could look to Dick Cheney if we want to look for experience in foreign policy, but, to me, the real question is judgment.

ZELENY: A new CNN/ORC poll today showed a majority of Democrats across the country favor Clinton 55 to 38 percent over Sanders. But the poll also had warning signs; 59 percent say Sanders is more honest and trustworthy, compared to 36 percent who say Clinton is.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY: Now, those honesty and trustworthy numbers are a concern to the Clinton campaign, no doubt about it.

But for now, they're focusing on her march through March. In the next two weeks or so, they believe that they will have built enough delegates to have an insurmountable lead against Bernie Sanders.

But, Jake, we can't say it enough. Democrats elect their delegates differently. It is proportional all throughout. So, even if Bernie Sanders doesn't win as many states, he will still win as many delegates, or nearly as many, and this fight will still go on for months to come -- Jake.

TAPPER: Jeff Zeleny, thanks.

And, of course, it's entirely possible that Bernie Sanders is going to have a good night tomorrow night.

Moving to the next story, as new attacks test the tenuous cease-fire in Syria, CNN is one of the few Western networks to travel inside the rebel-held regions. We will take you there.

And then the Pentagon now sending some of America's most elite fighting forces to Iraq. What's the mission they're going to have once they get there? We will tell you after this quick break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:43:39]

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I am Jake Tapper.

Topping our world lead today, the fragile cease-fire in Syria is being tested by both rebel forces and those loyal to dictator Bashar al- Assad. Many Syrians are skeptical of the two-week break in violence, concerned it will only allow the regime to regroup and tighten its grip on power.

More than 400,000 Syrians have been killed and millions more displaced since the civil war began five years ago.

CNN senior international correspondent Clarissa Ward was on the ground when the truce took effect. She was one of the only Western journalists to travel to the rebel-held areas in over a year, and she filed this report for us from the front lines.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CLARISSA WARD, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We are in the heart of rebel-held Syria.

And this entire area has seen some of the most intensive bombardment in the past few months. And we have been traveling all around here for nearly a week now. And, certainly, it is fair to say that, since the cessation of hostilities began, there has been a dramatic decrease in the number of airstrikes.

Now, having said that, earlier, we visited a town called Darat Izza on the outskirts of Aleppo. And people there told us that about 30 hours after the cease-fire began, there was an airstrike on a house. We were able to capture some video of the aftermath of that airstrike.

There have also been reports of clashes in other parts of the country, but, certainly, it does feel quite a bit quieter here.

[16:45:03] Now, what's interesting is that you won't find anybody here celebrating about the cease-fire.

And that's for a number of reasons. Firstly, in the run up to cessation of hostilities, there was a dramatic increase in Russian aerial bombardment. Secondly, the people here who live in rebel held territory simply don't trust the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

They see the ceasefire as a trick or ruse designed so that the regime can take more territory. And for that reason, many people we have spoken to are, in fact, actually against the ceasefire. Just a few days ago, we attended a protest where people were carrying signs that said this ceasefire is a betrayal of our martyrs, of those who have died for the cause. They were chanting over and over again we must keep on fighting and we must unite.

Even the imam in his weekly sermon was urging people not to heed the ceasefire and to continue fighting.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER: Clarissa Ward joins us now live from the Turkish, Syrian border. Clarissa, the Russians have said that they're targeting terrorist groups such as ISIS and the al-Nusra Front, which are not included in the ceasefire. Is there any evidence of that that you saw?

WARD: Well, I should just say all of the areas that we spent time in, Jake, have no ISIS presence whatsoever. So targets that were being hit certainly could not be ISIS targets. The al Qaeda affiliate does have a strong presence in the areas that we were in, and indeed it enjoys a great deal of support from many Syrians.

But the targets that we saw, hospitals, clearly not a military target. We were there and witnessed a Russian air strike on a market that was filled with civilians. Again, not a military target.

That's not to say that Russian air force is not hitting any terrorist targets per se, but certainly they're hitting civilian targets with impunity -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Clarissa Ward along the Syrian-Turkish border. Clarissa, a terrific job, thanks so much. Stay safe.

We turn to Iraq now where there is breaking news in our World Lead. The super soldiers are going in. CNN has learned that the U.S. Army's elite Delta Force is preparing for special operations to target, capture or kill top ISIS leadership in Iraq, including setting up safe houses, informant networks.

This comes as the self-proclaimed Islamic State takes responsibility for twin suicide bombings that tore through the capital of Baghdad yesterday killing almost 70 people.

Let's get right to CNN's Barbara Starr live at the Pentagon. Barbara, how significant an escalation of U.S. forces is this?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: It is very significant, Jake. These are troops that have the ability to operate covertly, and if it all works, what the Pentagon hopes is they will score significant gains against ISIS.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STARR (voice-over): In secret locations across Northern Iraq, the Army's elite Delta Force is now conducting its first operations CNN has learned. Today at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Ash Carter outlining what Delta and the Expeditionary Targeting Force, ETF, has been ordered to do.

ASH CARTER, DEFENSE SECRETARY: Seizing places and people, freeing hostages, prisoners of ISIL, and making it such that ISIL has to fear that anywhere, anytime it may be struck. And the only thing I'll say is the ETF is in position.

STARR: The timing and location of all operations remains classified. There are about 200 troops in Northern Iraq. They have been setting up safe houses, establishing and paying off informant networks, and gathering intelligence.

The plan, attack compounds, not just to capture or kill ISIS, but grab laptops, cell phones, anything that can provide more intelligence and leads to more raids.

COLONEL CEDRIC LEIGHTON (RETIRED), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Special operations forces I have vast experience in Iraq and Afghanistan using these kinds of tactics and techniques.

STARR: New techniques as well, with surprising openness, the secretary of defense detailed going after ISIS in cyberspace.

CARTER: To interrupt, disrupt ISIL's command and control, to cause them to lose confidence in their networks, to overload their network so that they can't function.

STARR: The ultimate goal, drive ISIS off the dark web that the U.S. cannot monitor.

CARTER: Sometimes we drive them to other means, but it cuts both ways. Sometimes the other means are easier for us to listen to.

STARR: But it could have unintended consequences.

[16:50:03]LEIGHTON: You're going to end up basically not knowing what they're doing. They could be using everything from couriers to carrier pigeons in order to get the job done for them.

STARR: All of this as Carter is considering sending even more troops for the upcoming Iraqi operation to retake Mosul, Iraq's second largest city.

CARTER: Because of our strategy and our determination to accelerate our campaign, momentum is now on our side and not on ISIL's.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: So why telegraph so much information about Special Forces, cyber operations? Well, one analyst we talked to said, look, this is now a PR war as much as anything. The Pentagon has to show progress in all of it -- Jake.

TAPPER: Barbara Starr live for us at the Pentagon. Barbara, thanks so much.

Special recognition for a war hero in today's National Lead. Today President Obama presented Navy SEAL Edward Byers the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest medal of valor in combat.

Byers helped rescue Dr. Dilip Joseph, who was captured by the Taliban and held hostage back in Afghanistan in 2012. Senior Chief Edwards and the legendary SEAL Team 6, which he was part of used night vision goggles to navigate the mountains, eventually reaching their target, taking on enemy fire.

Byers used his body to shield Dr. Joseph from Taliban attacks. He called that rescue mission a no fail mission. Today President Obama echoed that thought.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: Whenever Americans are taken hostage in the world, we move heaven and earth to bring them home safe. We send some thunder and some lightning. Our special operator forces, folks like Ed Byers.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: That 2012 rescue mission was not completely successful, SEAL Team 6 lost a comrade, Chief Petty Officer Nicholas Check. Byers said, "Nick embodied the essence of what it means to be an American hero." We thank Ed, Nick, and the entire SEAL Team 6 for their bravery and their service.

An American college student detained in North Korea breaking down into tears, telling the world that he committed a hostile act. Is that North Korea's story, not his? What does that mean for his release? That story after this quick break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:56:26]

TAPPER: Welcome back. More on our World Lead, an American college student detained in North Korea, making a tearful, desperate plea in his first public appearance.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Please, I made the worst mistake of my life.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Otto Frederick Warmbier, a 21-year-old University of Virginia student has been in North Korean captivity for nearly two months for allegedly committing a, quote, "hostile act."

Let's bring in CNN correspondent, Will Ripley, in Beijing. Will, what is this young man exactly accused of doing?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That hostile act, Jake, is what many Americans would consider the equivalent of a college prank. North Korea says he snuck into a staff holding area at his hotel, he went to the staff area looking for a DPRK propaganda banner, poster that he could fold up and take home in his suitcase.

But when he took down the banner, he realized it was too big, left it on the floor, went back to his hotel. He was at the airport, about to get on the plane to go home when he was arrested and has been detained for more than two months.

It just goes to show how seriously North Korea takes any actions, especially by American citizens, and now this emotional confession.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I wish that the United States administration never manipulated people like myself in the future to commit crimes against foreign countries. I entirely beg you and the government of DPR Korea for your forgiveness. Please, I made the worst mistake of my life but please act to save me.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RIPLEY: We have no way of knowing, Jake, if he made that confession under duress. North Korea says he was doing this after he was prodded by the CIA through his hometown church and a university semisecret society at the University of Virginia. We reached out to all those agencies who said they're not involved in this -- Jake.

TAPPER: Will, are there any efforts being made to bring this young man home?

RIPLEY: We reached out to the State Department. We know that they're working through diplomatic back channels because the U.S. and North Korea have no official diplomatic ties. Swedish Embassy usually serves as an intermediary in these cases.

The State Department did put out a statement on their website, saying, quote, "The department strongly recommends against all travel by U.S. citizens to North Korea. To reiterate and highlight risk of arrest and long term detention."

Also we are hearing from his parents, Fred and Cindy Warmbier in Ohio, who say, quote, "I hope the fact that he's conveyed his sincere apology for anything he may have done wrong will now make it possible for DPRK authorities to allow him to return home.

We urge the DPRK government to consider his youth and make an important humanitarian gesture by allowing him to return to his loved ones. His parents tell us that they were pleased to see him apparently in good health after the two months in North Korean custody.

TAPPER: Will, quickly, why was he in North Korea?

RIPLEY: He was in North Korea on a private tour with a tour group and he was detained just a few days before North Korea's purported H bomb test, then subsequent satellite launch several weeks later.

Now he essentially is a valuable political pawn for the regime as they try to gain leverage, about to get major new sanctions slapped on them, unprecedented sanctions that even here in China, the Chinese government says they will carry out.

So North Korea facing harsh penalties, and a young American right at front and center, he could faces criminal charges, prison time, even hard labor as a result of essentially trying to steal a political sign.

TAPPER: Will Ripley, thanks so much.

That's it for "THE LEAD." I'm Jake Tapper, turning you over to Wolf Blitzer, who is in THE SITUATION ROOM. Thanks for watching.