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White House Downplays New Trump Attacks on GOP Leaders; GOP Leaders Say No to Government Shutdown; Interview with Representative Ruben Gallego; Aired 6-7p ET

Aired August 24, 2017 - 18:00   ET


[18:00:00] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, the White House isn't ruling out a paralyzing government shutdown, threatened by the president if Congress doesn't fund the border wall that Mexico was supposed to pay for. Will Mr. Trump take drastic action that could back fire on him and his party.

A mess. The president won't stop beating up on the top Republicans in Congress, accusing them of creating a new political mess, further alienating the people he needs to get his agenda passed. Is there any strategy behind the relentless attacks?

Over-sharing. As critics dream of shutting down the president's Twitter account, he is stirring up even more controversy by re- tweeting a jab at President Obama posted by someone known for making anti-Semitic statements.

And hurricane threat. A dangerous storm is gaining strength right now and could hit the Gulf Coast in a matter of hours. Is the Trump administration ready for what could be the first natural disaster on the president's watch?

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

BLITZER: Breaking tonight. President Trump is briefed on a major disaster likely to unfold in the hours ahead. A new warning was just issued on the danger from Hurricane Harvey. It is on track to hit the Texas coast as early as tomorrow night with life-threatening and catastrophic flooding expected.

Harvey rapidly gaining strength as it churns through the Gulf of Mexico. People are racing for supplies and evacuations are under way.

Also breaking, the White House says the president remains committed to building a border wall, leaving open the possibility that Mr. Trump will make good on his threat of a government shutdown to make that happen. GOP leaders are warning about the political danger of that. Some lawmakers in both parties balking about funding a wall that Mr. Trump promised Mexico would pay for.

Also tonight, the White House is firing back at a Republican senator who's questioning Mr. Trump's stability and competence, calling the concerns ridiculous as tensions between the president and his own party ratchet higher.

Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders is trying to downplay the president's feud with GOP leaders, but Mr. Trump is pouring more fuel on the fire in new tweets. He is again slamming Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell for the failure to repeal and replace Obamacare and he accuses McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan of making a, quote, "mess" out of efforts to raise the nation's debt ceiling.

This hour, I'll talk about those stories and more with Congressman Reuben Gallego. He's a Democrat on the Armed Services Committee. And our correspondents and specialists are also standing by.

First, let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.

Jim, the president certainly isn't backing away from multiple fights with fellow Republicans.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, the list keeps growing, Wolf, and the president is continuing to air his complaints about congressional leaders from his own party just as the White House is trying to ease tensions, tensions that may shift into overdrive with the White House openly considering the idea of government shutdown to force Congress to pay for a wall on the border, the same wall the president promised Mexico would fund. Over here at the White House, it's starting to sound like border wall or bust.


ACOSTA (voice-over): President Trump is once again trolling one of his favorite Twitter targets, his own party, tweeting, "The only problem I have with Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell is that after hearing repeal and replace for seven years, he failed. That should never have happened." No big deal says the White House.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY: I think the relationships are fine. Certainly there are going to be some policy differences, but there are also a lot of shared goals.

ACOSTA: Despite that talk of shared goals, the president is threatening to shut down the government if Congress refuses to fund a wall on the border with Mexico. A threat the White House isn't knocking down.

HUCKABEE: We know that the wall and other security measures at the border work. We've seen that take place over the last decade and we're committed to making sure the American people are protected. And we're going to continue to push forward and make sure that the wall gets built.

ACOSTA: Still outraged over his defeat on health care, the president is also playing the blame game on the need to raise the nation's debt ceiling. A battle set for next month that could rattle financial markets.

Mr. Trump claims he tried to attach a debt ceiling measure to a bill to help veterans. Tweeting that, "McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan didn't do it. So now we have a big deal with Dems holding them up as usual on debt ceiling approval. Could have been so easy, now a mess." Ryan's response, don't worry.

REP. PAUL RYAN (R), HOUSE SPEAKER: The path for the debt ceiling is we will pass legislation to make sure that we pay our debts and we will not hit the debt ceiling.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Does it get tiring us asking you about the president every time we see you?

ACOSTA: McConnell is also trying to lower the temperature, refusing to take questions about his relationship with the president while explaining what he's up against in the Senate.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), SENATE MAJORITY: I'm often asked what is being the majority leader of the Senate like? The best answer I've been able to think of is it's a little bit like being a groundskeeper at a cemetery. Everybody's under you, but nobody's listening. That's what you get with 52 to 48.


[18:05:13] ACOSTA: But top GOP aides on Capitol Hill have had it with one source telling CNN, "The president is attacking leaders while we're selling his agenda."

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And for our friends in the Senate, oh boy.

ACOSTA: A frequent target of the president's ire, Senator Lindsey Graham, said he sees a strategy in the president's outbursts.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: He running against Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham and others that Congress is very unpopular, particularly with the Republican base, so there's nothing unhinged about it. It's a political strategy that I'm not so sure is smart, but it's a very thought-out strategy. There's nothing crazy about it. It's a political strategy.

ACOSTA: The White House did address the growing chorus of criticism of the president's handling of Charlottesville. Asked about GOP Senator Bob Corker's stinging assessment of the president?

SEN. BOB CORKER (R), TENNESSEE: The president has not yet -- has not yet been able to demonstrate the stability nor some of the competence that he needs to demonstrate in order to be successful.

ACOSTA: Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders lashed out.

SANDERS: I think that's a ridiculous and outrageous claim and doesn't dignify a response from this podium.


ACOSTA: Now for the moment, the president's attacks on his party have yet to backfire inside the GOP. Poll after poll shows that while some support is slipping, conservatives are sticking with the president, proving once again the GOP is hardly the party of Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell. It's the party of Trump, but Wolf, government shutdown could shake all of that up.

BLITZER: Certainly can. All right. Jim Acosta reporting from the White House. Thanks very much.

Let's talk a little bit more about the internal battles between the president and Republicans in Congress. We're joined by our senior congressional reporter Manu Raju.

Manu, how do the Republican leadership -- how does the Republican leadership in Congress plan to get its agenda through if it keeps on fighting with the president?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's going to be difficult. But what they're going to try to do is work around the president. They know that they cannot afford a government shutdown. This is what Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, they lived through that in 2013 when that happened, and it was very difficult couple of weeks for their party, the damage lasted for some time.

You know, they did end up doing pretty well in the 2014 midterms, but they know that the damage will be done very significantly if that happens, more if there is a debt ceiling increase that fails to pass Congress and they actually lead to a debt default. Those are the two must pass items.

So the question is how does the president deal with this? He does not get his border wall money, because he's almost certainly not going to get that approved by this Congress. Does the president holds firm? Does he veto a bill that's passed by Congress that does not include border wall money? We don't know that yet.

An interesting signal from Sarah Huckabee Sanders today suggesting that they'd accept a debt ceiling increase that does not have strings attached to cut spending. That's what conservatives have demanded. So if the White House sticks to that position, they're willing to fight with the conservatives on that key issue.

But, Wolf, we're not even talking about the things that they want to get done. The big ticket items like tax reform, infrastructure, part of the president's agenda, uncertain how that even gets done. We're just talking about the basic essence of government right now. And that's what they have to worry about.

BLITZER: Yes. Congress passes that legislation without the funding for the border wall, he'll almost certainly have no choice but to sign it, just like he had no choice signing the Russia sanctions legislation that passed overwhelmingly in the House and Senate. He hated it. He said it was bad, but he went ahead and signed it into law.

RAJU: And I think that's the calculation of Republicans, they're going to end up taking, say, the president they believe a lot of these threats, this talk right now is bluster. I think at the end of the day, the president will back down when there's overwhelming support in Congress to pass something, to keep the government open. And maybe a veto could be overridden. The president may not want to go the government shutdown route.

So there could be a bit of game of chicken when it comes down to it. But Paul Ryan also suggested today, Wolf, that they may have a short- term extension. They may not get their job done in time but their deadline is September 30th.

BLITZER: So certainly encouraging if members of your own party think it's just bluster coming from the president of the United States.

All right, thanks very much, Manu, for that report.

Let's get some more on all of this. Congressman Ruben Gallego, a Democrat in the Armed Services Committee, is joining us right now.

Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.


BLITZER: So listen to what the White House had to say today on President Trump's threat to shut down the federal government over the funding issue, the funding of his proposed border wall with Mexico. Listen to this.


SANDERS: He campaigned on the wall, he won on talking about building a wall, and he's going to make sure that that gets done and he'll continue to fight for that funding, and ensure that it takes place.

Let's not forget that there were a lot of Democrat senators that also voted for border security and a border fence, and hopefully some of those same individuals will talk to members in their current party, and maybe we can get a bipartisan group to support that and make sure it happens because this president is going to see it through.


[18:10:11] BLITZER: All right. So what are the chances, Congressman, that you and your Democratic colleagues in the House would support funding for the president's proposed border wall with Mexico?

GALLEGO: Well, first of all, we're not going to support the border wall. It is not our job to fulfill his campaign promises and his ego. He made a promise, he said Mexico was going to pay for it, that there would be no American taxpayer dollar, and he should find the money over there.

To begin with, the border wall is stupid. It's not smart border security. That's not the actual way that you want to secure the border. And at the end of the day, there's many more important things that we need to worry about. And we have to get to the debt limit. We're about to start shaking up markets if we don't fulfill our debt or at least start threatening or continue to threat that we may not fulfill our debt.

You know, in general, this is just typical Donald Trump administration, a lot of bluster, a lot of instability. But at the end of the day, he is not going to get what he wants.

BLITZER: Well, as you know, he won the White House at least in part on that familiar promise about the border wall and Mexico paying for it. Listen to this.


TRUMP: We are going to build a great border wall. We will build a great, great wall. We're going to build the wall, don't worry about it. We're going to build it. We will build the wall 100 percent. I promise, we will build the wall. And who's going to pay for the wall? Who's going to pay for the wall? Who? It will be a great wall. Mexico is going to pay for the wall. Mexico is going to pay for the wall. Mexico will pay for the wall. And Mexico is going to pay for the wall and they understand that. Mexico is going to pay for the wall. Believe me. 100 percent.


BLITZER: But in a leaked transcript as you remember of one of the president's first phone conversations -- his one of the first phone conversations with the Mexican president, Enrique Pena Nieto, the president agreed not to say that Mexico would pay for the wall. He said this, this was in the transcript that was leaked, his conversation with the Mexican president.

"You cannot say any more that the United States is going to pay for the wall. I am just going to say that we are working it out. Believe it or not, this is the least important thing we are talking about, but politically this might be the most important thing that we're talking about."

So what do you think, Congressman? Are the Trump voters in your state, Arizona, upset that the president seems to be at least in their private conversation with the Mexican president backing out of that campaign promise?

GALLEGO: No, not really. I mean, the president is playing his base, you know, for fools, not just on the border wall but on so many other issues. You know, promising to be pro-worker, he is not being pro- worker. I mean, there are just so many things that he has lied about, you know, whether he was going to not attack Medicaid, you know, he said he wouldn't do it, he did it.

The man continues to lie. At this point, Trump supporters, though, are still supporting him. However, the overall voter in Arizona, at least polling that I have seen shows that the border wall is not popular. As a matter of fact it's not popular in any of the border states and there are no border Republicans right now that are supporting the border wall.

So in reality, you know, we have to focus on making sure that we're representing the majority of America. The president won the election for many reasons, including some Russian involvement, including some voter suppression, but he did lose the popular vote, and I'm not -- I can't for 100 percent say that the border wall was the thing that put him over the top, but let's just look at the reality.

Spending $1.6 billion on something that doesn't give any more security just to fulfill the ego of the president is just bad policy, and then playing chicken with the debt limit or government shutdown at the same time is not a good way to go, but if they want to do that, Republican Party wants to play that game, I don't think there's going to be much good political payback when it comes to that.

BLITZER: Yes, that $1.6 billion I think would just be a down payment because building the entire wall is going to wind up costing many billions of dollars more.

Also Tuesday night in your city, Phoenix, I think it was probably even in your district in Phoenix, maybe, maybe not.

GALLEGO: It was.

BLITZER: But he did carry Arizona in the presidential election, as he reminded all of us when he was speaking in Phoenix. The president, he expressed skepticism that the NAFTA talks, the North American Free Trade Area talks will be successful and speculating that the U.S. will, quote, "end up probably terminating the trade deal."

How would that impact, Congressman, your constituents?

GALLEGO: Well, anything that -- you know, obviously anything that disrupts markets, especially trade, without any glide path is going to be horrible.

[18:15:04] Look, we can make some works -- do some work on NAFTA, but if you're just going to abruptly change it, I think that's going to be problematic. At the same time, it is a treaty. The president does not have carte blanche power to get rid of anything, he still has to go through the Senate at the end of the day, and I don't see that happening, but I mean, I'm not surprised.

I think Donald Trump really just wants to talk as much as he can and you know, I think he believes the lies that he is saying and more importantly, the very hardcore Trump supporters do believe his lies and will continue to.

BLITZER: "The Wall Street Journal" is reporting that the Pentagon will soon receive guidelines from the White House, from the president, that would change the treatment of transgender Americans currently serving in the U.S. military, stop the military from admitting transgender Americans going forward.

You serve on the Armed Services Committee, you're a military veteran. What's your reaction to that?

GALLEGO: Well, I think it's deeply ironic and actually kind of sad that a person that did everything to stay out of the war such as Donald Trump who admires and basically holds up the military to a very high regard will try to stop brave American men and women that want to volunteer to join. And more importantly, the only reason he's doing it, it's not because of a security issue, it's not because these men and women can't serve and serve well, it's not because of financial issues. It's just because he wants to throw a bone to his very Christian conservative base.

And again, that's not how you should execute our Armed Services policy, our national security policy. We need everyone in the fight. We need the smartest people, we need the strongest people, and we need them all to be fighting with us, no matter who they are, and the fact that the president doesn't understand that really, you know, tells us where his mentality is.

BLITZER: Congressman Gallego, there's more we need to discuss. I've got to take a quick break. We'll resume our conversation in just a moment.


[18:21:33] BLITZER: We're following the breaking news. Hurricane Harvey gaining strength right now, barreling through the Gulf of Mexico heading toward the Texas coast. A new advisory just issued a warning of life-threatening rains, winds and flooding when it finally makes landfall as early as tomorrow night. We'll have much more on Hurricane Harvey. That's coming up.

But right now I want to go back to Democratic Congressman Ruben Gallego.

As the White House, Congressman, tries to downplay the president's latest attacks on members of his own party, the president's approval numbers as you know are right now below 40 percent, he is openly feuding with leaders in Congress, his fellow Republicans.

Who in your party is rallying voters to try to take advantage of this situation?

GALLEGO: Well, I think I'm happy to say that we actually have many people that are rallying our voters, even down at the local level. We first started with Tom Perez and Keith Ellison that are doing a nationwide unity tour. We have really, like, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, I could go on and on of Democrats that are really touring the country right now and really trying to energize our party.

But more impressive is the fact that this is a grassroots effort. If you saw who was coming out to protest the Muslim ban, that was not organized by some progressive party. It's not organized by the Democratic Party. That was everyday Americans realizing that American values were at stake and they were going to go out and organize themselves.

The women march that was organized by women that were -- you know, felt that they were -- they needed to voice their opinion that this administration was going to be bad for the agenda of women. That was organized by individual women, not by the Democratic Party. And even the individual movement that's being sprouted in every individual district in this country is being started again by the grassroots movement.

Those two -- those groups plus the activism of the Democratic Party are really going to be the key to winning the elections in 2018. And I am proud to say that we have a strong bench, I'm proud to say that we're going to do very well. But the reason we're going to do well is because really the American public has woken up, they realized that the Republican agenda, the Trump agenda, is the agenda that's not going to give us better jobs, better wages and a better standard of living.

BLITZER: So you really realistically think the Democrats can be the majority party in the House of Representatives in 2018 and in the Senate for that matter?

GALLEGO: I certainly think that in the House we can. I can't speak for the Senate, not being a senator, but, you know, from what I've seen traveling the country and the level of activism that is happening in every district, it is, you know, historical. You know, I have seen people from all walks of life that have never been involved in politics that are attending some very long Democratic Party activist local meetings called precinct meetings.

And normally you don't get, you know, a strong showing there but now you're seeing in some of these local meetings 200 people, 300 people showing up, and that's in Arizona, a so-called red state. I can't imagine what's happening in some other states and certainly what's going to be happening in some of these swing districts where Republicans are really on the bubble, so I do believe we have a chance.

We have to do a lot of things right, we have to keep fighting, we have to continue our message that we're the party for the working class of America and obviously there's a lot of runway to the election, but I think we're going to get there.

BLITZER: You guys got a lot of work to do. Republicans are the majority in the House, the Senate, they have the White House, they have most of the gubernatorial, the governor --

GALLEGO: I know.


BLITZER: Offices and the state legislatures. The Democrats have an uphill struggle right now.

[18:25:05] Congressman, as usual, thanks for joining us.

GALLEGO: Thank you. Thank you, Wolf. Have a good night.

BLITZER: Ruben Gallego of Arizona.

Just ahead, is the president serious about shutting down the federal government to get his border wall with Mexico built or is he simply bluffing? We're going to talk more about that.

And we're also tracking Hurricane Harvey right now, its path toward the Gulf Coast and the potential for catastrophic damage. New details just ahead.


[18:30:10] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: We're following multiple breaking stories this hour, including hurricane Harvey gaining strength tonight, now expected to strike the Texas Coast as a major hurricane.

Also breaking, the White House is refusing to walk back President Trump's threat of a Federal government shutdown unless Congress funds the border wall with Mexico, he campaigned on and insisted Mexico would pay for it.


SHANNON PETTYPIECE, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, BLOOMBERG: On this threat of the government shutdown if Congress doesn't secure funding for this wall, how is that not a concession from this White House that Mexico isn't actually going to pay for this wall and American taxpayers will?

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Again, this is something the president is committed to, he's committed to protecting American lives and doing that through the border wall is something that's important, it is a priority and we are moving forward with it. Noah?

CECILIA VEGA, SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, ABC NEWS: He's not saying that Mexico is going to pay for it.

SANDERS: He hasn't said they're not either.


BLITZER: All right. Let's dig deeper with our correspondents and specialists. Nia, how seriously should people take the president's threat of government shutdown if there's no funding for the border wall?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: Well, the White House certainly isn't backing down from this, this is something that President Trump talked about in the spring, this idea of maybe it's time for a good old fashioned shutdown. Unclear whether this is sort of a stunt, is it a political strategy, is it the opening bid in negotiation that he wants to have with this Congress. I think the problem is his political capital is kind of little at this point, his relationships with folks on the Hill aren't great either.

And not a lot of people actually want this wall. It's $20 billion. Even if you talk to border states, on governor's border state centers and border state representatives, they don't think this is a good use of spending. I think what's clear, if he follows through on this threat, essentially it will be him getting divorced from the Republican Party. The fallout would be tremendous and it would essentially be him saying that he is on his own, and essentially independent actor and separate from the Republican Party.

BLITZER: But he won the election, Kaitlan, with that familiar promise. Listen to what he said.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We are going to build a great border wall. We will build a great, great wall. We're going to build a wall, don't worry about it. We're building the wall. We will build the wall 100 percent. I promise, we will build the wall. And who's going to pay for the wall? Who's going to pay for the wall? Who? It will be a great wall, Mexico is going to pay for the wall. Mexico is going to pay for the wall. Mexico will pay for the wall. And Mexico is going to pay for the wall and they understand that. Mexico is going to pay for the wall. Believe me. 100 percent.


BLITZER: But in that leaked transcript of his first phone conversation with the Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, he basically acknowledged Mexico wasn't necessarily going to pay for the wall. He said this, you cannot say any more that the United States is going to pay for the wall. I am just going to say that we are working it out. Believe it or not, this is the least important thing that we are talking about, but politically this might be the most important thing we're talking about.

So, is that -- was that an admission in that conversation with the Mexican president that Mexico is not necessarily going to pay for the wall, just don't talk about it anymore, I won't talk about it, you won't talk about it, and then at his rally in Phoenix the other night, you didn't hear him say Mexico would pay for the wall.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Absolutely. He's known since January that Mexico is not paying for this wall. You could see that from that very frustrated transcript. And later on during that call, he said whoever is paying for the wall, it would all come out in the Wash, and just stop talking about it in the media because the biggest thing he doesn't like is criticism in the media saying he is not going to pay for the wall. But clearly what this all comes down to when it's coming to fruition is, he wants this wall, he promised this wall time and time again during the campaign, and now he knows that Mexico is not going to pay for it, and Congress doesn't want to pay for it, so he doesn't know what to do because he knows that if this wall is not built, his base is not going to be happy and that's the reason they elected him, and he doesn't want that blame falling on his shoulders. So what we're seeing him do now is put the blame on Congress for not getting the wall built.

BLITZER: How does he get out of this mess right now, Rebecca?

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, there are kind of a few layers to this mess, right? Wolf, I mean, you need to fund the government, first of all. There's the political issue of Donald Trump wanting the money for this wall, and then you have all of these other agenda items, all of these other Republican priorities that he and Republicans in Congress want to get done, so how do you balance all of these demands at a time when Donald Trump is also attacking Republican leaders and his fellow Republicans on Twitter.

So step one, stop tweeting, stop angering your own party, stop angering people in Congress who you need to help you pass these priorities. Step two, prioritize. This is something that this administration has not done well and you have to question why is this the time that President Trump wants to get the money for this wall when he needs a victory in Congress, he doesn't need another loss at the hands of Congressional Republicans.

[18:35:19] And he needs to fund the government. So layout these priorities in a way that makes sense.

BLITZER: And he was busy tweeting earlier this morning, he criticized the Senate Republican leadership. Listen to what he tweeted early in the morning. He said, I requested that Mitch M., McConnell and Paul R., Ryan tie the debt ceiling legislation into the popular V.A veterans bill which just passed for early -- for easy approval. They didn't do it, so now we have a big deal with Dems holding them up as usual on debt ceiling approval. Could have been so easy. Now a mess.

And then he tweeted this. The only problem I have with Mitch McConnell is that after hearing repeal and replace for seven years, he failed. That should never have happened. So, this feud that he has going on with the majority leader, the speaker of the house, how is that going to impact all these critically important issues because they're coming to a head next month?

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, NEWS AND FINANCE ANCHOR,YAHOO! NEWS: Yes. They're coming to a head rapidly. And look, the president does have a point. The Republicans had seven years to come up with a health plan, that did not come to fruition but now it's time for him to move on. I mean, it's just unbelievable that he is playing a game of chicken not with the Democrats, not with the rival party but within his own party and obviously his own legacy is in peril. We're just weeks away from a potential budget crisis, from a debt ceiling crisis.

You know, what struck me is something that Leon Panetta said on this very network earlier this week. And he said the biggest mistake a president can make is to come across or think that he is the smartest man in the room. He is very inexperienced when it comes to politics. True, these Congressional leaders are very unpopular as well, but they are more experienced and they are more pragmatic. And we may see a point where they start working around him as opposed to trying work -- to work with him. There was a report that came out this afternoon that said Congress and the Senate may just release their own tax plan without a White House tax plan to accompany it.

BLITZER: It's a -- it's a really a significant issue. Right now, both of those matters because billions and billions of dollars of U.S. taxpayer money is at stake and the markets could react very negatively as well. Just ahead, a controversial retweet from President Trump taking a dig at President Obama. Was it appropriate?


[18:42:11] BLITZER: The breaking news. Millions of people in the path of hurricane Harvey right now are being warned tonight to prepare for what's now being called a life-threatening storm to hit the Texas coast. We're going to have the latest forecast in just a few moments. Stand by for that.

Meantime, I want to get back to our correspondents and specialists. You know, Nia, BuzzFeed just got -- obtained from the CIA this memorandum that the former CIA Director John Brennan wrote the staff back in December of last year during the transition in which he discussed how significant the Russia meddling in the U.S. presidential election was. But then he had these words, many talking about his briefings with members of Congress, many but unfortunately not all members understand and appreciate the importance and gravity of the issue and they are very supportive of the process that is under way. What jumped out at me is unfortunately not all, in other words, some members of Congress didn't see it as very important.

MALIKA-HENDERSON: Back then. And it's clear that from Donald Trump's perspective he thinks that members of Congress of his own party are too interested at this point in this Russian investigation and not really running cover from him. We've seen other reporting on that, Manu Raju has reported on that, this idea that he's had these very tough conversations with members of the Republican Party because they are investigating it. But we have seen over this last period going back to last year when there were reports and there was information that the Russians were meddling in this -- in the election.

Some members of Congress didn't want to go public with that, right? Mitch McConnell, Barack Obama went to him and said is this something that we should talk to the American people, but he didn't want to. So, you know, that sort of reflects that. But not a lot of -- not some people I guess on the Hill didn't always take this seriously. Donald Trump now thinks maybe Republicans are taking it too seriously.

BLITZER: Kaitlan, on another issue, The New York Times is reporting that the new White House Chief of Staff John Kelly is controlling the flow of information to the president. Let me read a couple of sentences. Mr. Kelly's first day on the job, he held a small meeting with top aides to the president after a fuller staff meeting. He told them that Oval Office access to Mr. Trump which was once nearly universal to people coming through the West Wing would be strictly limited to appointments only. The exceptions Mr. Kelly said were the president's wife and his 1-year old son. And he added, turning to Ivanka Trump who was seated near him, the president's eldest daughter if she speaking to him as a daughter and not a member of his staff. Mr. Kushner and Ms. Trump quickly gave in to Mr. Kelly's new system to White House official said. So, it looks like there's a much more streamlined situation unfolding in the West Wing right now.

COLLIINS: That's true. Because we -- as we saw before when Reince Priebus was the chief of staff, people could walk in and out of the Oval Office, he didn't have a lot of control over who the president was seeing and he did have a ton of respect for Reince Priebus, he didn't see him as his equal. And with John Kelly, he does see that. He -- that's like in the mood with everyone in the White House, they're all understanding that John Kelly is in charge and they're listening to him because Reince Priebus issued pretty similar memos to this back in January about what information is getting to the president and people just didn't heed his warnings.

[18:45:26] People are heeding John Kelly's warnings a lot more seriously and we're seeing that people can only go into the Oval Office by appointment now. But what we have to remember with all of these reports is that the president is still the same president and is largely still the same staff. So this may be a honeymoon phase for now where he is controlling what information the president is getting but the president still talks to a lot of people, he still calls a lot of people outside the White House for advice on issues, so he is still getting a lot of information that John Kelly may not know about.

BLITZER: So who gets to decide rather Ivanka Trump could just walk in, speak to her dad as a daughter, or whether she has to wait and go through the process as senior adviser.

BERG: Well, it sounds like that's up to her discretion, Wolf. But you bring up an interesting point here which is that Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump still, you know, even when they're operating as senior advisers to the president, they're never going to be totally separate from their roles as members of his family. And that gives them special status and it also potentially gives their advice special status which, you know, could be detrimental to the president potentially when maybe they're not giving the best (INAUDIBLE)

WILSON: Bianna, the same time the staff may be more disciplined, thanks to John Kelly, but the president, he basically can still do whatever he wants. He wants to tweet, he tweets. He want to give a speech at a campaign rally, and Phoenix that may at least (INAUDIBLE) off the rails, he can do that as well. He is the president.

GOLODRYGA: Yes. Some may call Kelly's honeymoon, a honeymoon from hell. Remember, during this honeymoon is when the president went off and said there were good guys on both sides following what we saw last week in Virginia and comparing anti-fascist protesters to thousand people who were there with the fascists and neo-Nazi protesters as well. So I'm not sure what kind of a wonderful honeymoon Kelly is having but he is trying to put along some discipline in this White House and I think from all of the reporting he does seems to acknowledge that there is only so much he can do with a 71-year-old man who takes to Twitter whenever he wants to. I believe he just tweeted three minutes ago, some of these tweets are presidential, some obviously are not.

BLITZER: We'll check that out as well. Everybody stand by. Much more coming up including the breaking news. We're following on hurricane Harvey, closing in on the United States tonight. It could be the most powerful system to make landfall since superstorm Sandy. Parts of Texas right now are being warned to brace for almost three feet of rain. We'll be right back.


[18:52:44] BLITZER: We're following breaking news. The National Hurricane Center is now warning of a life-threatening storm surge wind and rain from hurricane Harvey taking direct aim tonight at the Texas coast. Our meteorologist Tom Sater tracking the storm in the CNN's hurricane center. It's hurricane Harvey expected to make landfall as a major hurricane. Possibly the most powerful storm to hit the United States since superstorm Sandy and we're now hearing some areas could see almost three feet of rain.

TOM SATER, CNN METEROLOGIST AND WEATHER ANCHOR: Unfortunately, that's the story. The computer models have been kind of playing games all week, but now they are agreeing with land fall. But it's what happens after landfall, that's the big problem here. Ironically that we're talking about this today when this is the 25th anniversary of hurricane Andrew. That was a category five across Homestead, Florida. One of only three category fives to ever make landfall.

But when it comes to Harvey, early this morning, upping in its status to category one hurricane. It's been nine years since anywhere in Texas has had a land fall of a hurricane but 12 years where we had a major hurricane. Yes. Some want to say, well, what about Sandy, technically that wasn't a hurricane but that's for another day. This system is mostly likely going to make it to at least category three strength, maybe even stronger. So, category there, four, and five are major. Right now, sustained winds, 85 miles an hour.

At landfall, we could see winds sustained at 111, 120, gusts to maybe 140, 150. 16 million are shaded in colors here. Red is the hurricane warning, and that gives us a good idea of where evacuations are going to take place where ground zero is, near Corpus Christi or just to the north and northeast. After the midnight hour tomorrow night. More likely during the darkness of the wee hours of Saturday unfortunately. But when you look at the computer models, this is what you want to see, Wolf, you want to see them all agree.

We call them the spaghetti plots. So this gives authorities a good idea where evacuations take place. But here is our fear, and we saw this a couple of days ago, there is no dominant steering current. So this could be catastrophic. Watch what happens to the computer models. They meander everywhere. That says stalling and the last thing you want with a major hurricane is to stall. Some go down to the left, some go up to the -- to the north but a few of them come back offshore, regenerate its strength and take it back in for a second landfall. If it's close enough to continue to feed on that moisture source, it's going to continue to be strong.

[18:55:07] So besides the deadly winds and the storm surge, the heavy rain is the big fear. As this system stalls, everything in purple from west to San Antonio up to Austin, that's 10, 20 inches of rain fall. Other models drop even more. In f act, areas of white, 20 maybe 30 isolated 35 inches, that is crazy when you are talking about from Corpus Christi, victoria to the Houston area. This system that moves in Friday night, Wolf, we could be talking about this in the same area come late Tuesday and into Wednesday. Some of these numbers, 37, 38, Galveston, 31. This could be a disaster. There is no doubt about it. I think this is really going to stretch the emergency services in the State of Texas in the days ahead.

BLITZER: We'll have extensive live coverage throughout the day tomorrow and all of us remember exactly 12 years ago this week, Katrina hit the gulf coast of New Orleans, a category three as well. We'll watch Harvey in the coming hours. Meanwhile, there is other news we're following. Later tonight at 10:00 p.m. Eastern right here on CNN, CNN Films presents the story of Elian Gonzalez, the young boy whose mother drowned as they fled Cuba by sea back in November of 1999. Elian was rescued, he was placed with relatives in Miami. But his father and the Castro regime demanded his return sparking an international drama.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They were summoned by President Fidel Castro for what he calls the second stage of the battle of the masses. Thousands demonstrated again in front of the U.S. diplomatic (INAUDIBLE) in Havana.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The boy's father joined other Cubans at a weekend rally demanding the child be returned.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: American immigration officials will interview the father here in Cuba, give him a chance to assert his right and prove his paternity.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We had this very unusual circumstance of a father in Cuba asking for the son to be returned to him. It was pretty unprecedented. I mean, typically people who came to the United States from Cuba came because they wanted to stay here.


BLITZER: The standoff ended in April of 2000 when Federal agents took Elian from his Miami relatives at gun point and returned him to Cuba. Our political commentator Ana Navarro is joining us. Now from Miami with more. You know, Ana, you remember Elian Gonzales, the protests from your time in Miami over these years. How significant was that moment for U.S.-Cuban relations?

ANA GONZALES, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It was a huge moment, not only for U.S.-Cuban relationships. It was a huge moment for Cuban and Cuban relationships. He became the symbol, he became the pawn of the struggle between the Cuban-American exile and the Cuban Castro regime in Cuba. They were fighting over this kid. Protests were going on in Havana, protests were going on in Miami. It was such a -- it was such a dramatic five months. He came -- they -- he was rescued right before thanksgiving. He was taken right before Easter.

And Wolf, I remember the hurt of this community. It was also something that I think had great political significance. I remember how many Cubans kept saying, we're so angry at the Clinton administration, at Janet Reno, who was then the attorney general and remember was from Miami. So a lot of her friends from South Florida felt betrayed by that decision and a lot of those Cubans I remember saying, come November, we will remember and came out in droves to vote against Al Gore in a -- in a deficient, in a state that was decided by 534 votes.

You will remember that we had a Democrat Cuban American Mayor in Miami Dade at that point who didn't endorse Al Gore because of the Elian decision. Alex Penelas. And, so, there was political ramifications. There was ramifications on family law and precedence that was set and it was a very, very hard time for the Cuban-American community in Miami.

BLITZER: And a lot of people thing we're still feeling the effects from the Elian Gonzales issue all these years later. Ana Navarro, thank you very, very much. An important note to all of our viewers. The CNN Film Elian airs later tonight, tonight, 10:00 p.m. Eastern only here on CNN. That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in The Situation Room. Erin Burnett OutFront starts right now.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: OutFront next, President Trump lashing out at critics questioning his fitness for office, including the country's former top spy. I talked to General James Clapper about Trump's angry response. I'll give you his revealing side of the story.