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THE SITUATION ROOM

Trump Defends Puerto Rico Response Amid Cries for Help; IRS Shares Info with Special Counsel in Russia Probe. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired September 26, 2017 - 17:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. "Tremendous reviews." President Trump defends his response to the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico, insisting he's getting "tremendous reviews" and denying that he's been preoccupied by his feud with the NFL and the national anthem controversy.

[17:00:21] Follow the money. Breaking right now, a CNN exclusive. The IRS is now sharing information about key Trump campaign officials with the special counsel, Robert Mueller. What are they hoping to learn?

Russian targeting. We're learning new information about how Russians used Facebook ads during the election campaign to target divisions among American voters.

And a long-time Trump confidant appears before the House Intelligence Committee. I'll speak with the ranking member, Congressman Adam Schiff.

Plus, military option. As Kim Jong-un's regime repositions fighter jets and missiles, President Trump says the U.S. is totally prepared to use the military option, warning that would be devastating for North Korea.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: The breaking news: President Trump is defending his response to the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico, where Hurricane Maria has left catastrophic damage. Amid desperate pleas for help from officials and residents of the U.S. territory, the president says all available resources are being deployed to save lives. He plans to visit the island next week.

For days, the president was virtually silent about Puerto Rico while he tweeted and spoke repeatedly about his feud with the National Football League. Now he insists he wasn't preoccupied with the NFL but says the league should not allow people to kneel during the national anthem, calling it disgraceful.

Senate investigators, meanwhile, are due to review thousands of Facebook ads purchased by Russians, focusing in on the divisions among American voters. Lawmakers want to know how the Russians targeted those ads and what the impact was. And a longtime ally of President Trump, former advisor Roger Stone

talks with the House Intelligence Committee.

And President Trump is again talking tough on North Korea as Kim Jong- un's regime moves fighter jets and missiles to North Korea's east coast, where U.S. warplanes have made show-of-force flights. The president says the United States is totally prepared to use the military option, warning that would be devastating for North Korea.

I'll speak with the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff. And our correspondents, specialists, and guests, they're standing by with full coverage.

President Trump is defending his response to the Puerto Rico crisis while continuing to attack NFL protesters.

Let's begin our coverage with our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta. Jim, the president is shifting his focus today.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: He certainly is, Wolf. President Trump denies he's too obsessed with professional athletes and not focused enough on the devastation in Puerto Rico.

Today the president claimed he's receiving, quote, "tremendous reviews" for his response to Hurricane Maria, but it's more like tremendous cries for help.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): President Trump appears to be calling a time-out in his fixation on pro football players protesting during the national anthem and turning his attention to more urgent matters like the unfolding disaster in Puerto Rico.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I wasn't preoccupied with the NFL. I was ashamed of what was taking place. Because to me that was a very important moment. I don't think you can disrespect our country, our flag, our national anthem. To me, the NFL situation is a very important situation. I've heard that before about was I preoccupied? Not at all. Not at all. I have plenty of time on my hands. All I do is work.

ACOSTA: Now the White House is posting photos of the president on the phone with local officials in Puerto Rico, and rushing federal officials to the microphones at the White House.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is a logistically-challenging, very unique event.

TRUMP: People of Puerto Rico.

ACOSTA: The president is patting himself on the back while noting bringing hurricane relief to the U.S. island territory is difficult.

TRUMP: We have had tremendous reviews from government officials, but the governor of Puerto Rico is so thankful for the great job that we're doing. Frankly, we're doing, and it's the most difficult job, because it's on the island. It's on an island in the middle of the ocean. It's out in the ocean. You can't just drive your trucks there from other states.

ACOSTA: But on the ground in Puerto Rico, there are still desperate pleas for assistance from island officials. From the mayor of San Juan...

MAYOR CARMEN YULIN CRUZ, SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO: When I say there's a humanitarian crisis, and I am sorry. I know that leaders aren't supposed to cry and stuff. Perhaps it's a sign of weakness. Well, you know the weak out there are waiting for us. We're not getting to everybody in time. People, especially the elderly, are being locked up in buildings.

ACOSTA: ... to the governor.

GOV. RICARDO ROSSELLO, PUERTO RICO: We need more help. We need more help with resources. We need more help with people being deployed so that we can get logistical support elsewhere.

[17:05:09] ACOSTA: Democrats are warning the president help is not coming fast enough.

REP. NYDIA VELASQUEZ (D), NEW YORK: If you don't take this crisis seriously, this is going to be your Katrina.

ACOSTA: On social media the president has made it clear where his focus lies: on the NFL players protesting during football games. He's tweeted about the NFL 24 times since Saturday, compared to just four times on Puerto Rico.

At a dinner with conservative leaders at the White House, the president seemed satisfied with his comments on NFL, telling attendees, "It's really caught on. It's really caught on."

But at a news conference with the prime minister of Spain, the president appeared ready to move on with another dire warning to North Korea.

TRUMP: We are totally prepared for the second option, not a preferred option. But if we take that option, it will be devastating, I can tell you that, devastating for North Korea. That's called the military option. If we have to take it, we will.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: Now the president says he'll be heading to Puerto Rico on Tuesday. That's despite the fact that his own FEMA administration earlier today told reporters that the only people who should be traveling to the island right now should be on a, quote, "life- sustaining, life support mission." So Wolf, it's not clear at this point whether Puerto Rico is actually prepared or ready for a presidential visit -- Wolf. BLITZER: Jim Acosta at the White House for us, thanks very much.

There's more breaking news we're following right now and a CNN exclusive. The Internal Revenue Service is now sharing information with the special counsel, Robert Mueller, about key Trump campaign officials, including a former campaign chairman.

Let's bring in our justice correspondents, Evan Perez and Pamela Brown. Pamela, tell our viewers what you're learning.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: This is now sharing information with investigators working with Special Counsel Robert Mueller. This comes after the two sides were at odds for months over the scope of Mueller's investigation into Russian meddling.

Now Mueller's investigators wanted information on several people associated with the Trump campaign, including former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn, the former national security advisor.

According to several sources, they tell our team -- myself, Manu Raju, Evan Perez -- that the IRS had concerns because of what were seen as far-reaching and a broad request for information from Mueller's investigators.

Now in the case of Manafort, Wolf, the case includes possible tax and financial crimes that date back to January of 2006, ten years before the Russian meddling in the presidential election last fall.

But after this summer clash, we're told it has been worked out. Information is being shared -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Evan, your reporting also indicates this dispute centers on the July raid of Paul Manafort's home. How does that factor in?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's right, Wolf. There were some tensions between the IRS and special counsel behind the scenes of that FBI raid on Manafort's home in Alexandria, Virginia. Multiple sources tell us that the IRS did not participate in the July raid because of IRS objections that the search would interfere with a separate IRS investigation of Manafort.

Now we're told that the IRS and the FBI initially were cooperating on their own Manafort probe because last year's election and before Mueller was even appointed. The special counsel's office went ahead with that search of Manafort's home with only FBI agents carrying it out. Now, that's unusual for the IRS to sit out a search and an investigation that centers on tax and financial matters.

BLITZER: Very unusual. Pamela, does this mean the special counsel, Robert Mueller's, investigators now have access to tax returns, including possibly the president's tax returns?

BROWN: Well, that's a big question, Wolf. It's not clear whether the special counsel has asked for or obtained the president's tax returns. Sources say if Mueller's office does have Trump's tax returns, the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the Russia probe, likely would have need to sign off, given the sensitivity surrounding the matter.

Now as for Manafort and Flynn, given the scope of those investigations, it's more likely that Mueller has obtained those tax records. And a former high-ranking Justice Department official told me today that the information shared by the IRS would include anything tax return related such things as real estate and meta data such as what years the taxes were filed or not filed.

And as you know, Wolf, the IRS is very restricted in what information it can share, even with other government agencies, and it would normally need a specific grand jury subpoena in order to share tax returns with another agency. As one former official told me, tax returns are among the most protected of government documents, Wolf.

BLITZER: So, Evan, what do we know about the previous IRS investigations involving former Trump campaign officials?

PEREZ: Well, Wolf, we know very little of it. But we do know that the IRS had been working with FBI well before even the election, before the election -- I mean, investigation involving Paul Manafort.

[17:10:00] Now that probe, similar to what Mueller is looking at, is centered on possible tax fraud and money laundering. It's unclear if the IRS had -- had been actually doing an investigation on Michael Flynn, as well. Sources say that Mueller's team is looking into payments that Flynn received from Russia and Turkey. Flynn's attorney declined to comment, as did the spokesman for Manafort. The IRS criminal investigation unit and the special counsel all declined to comment for the story, Wolf.

BLITZER: Evan Perez, Pamela Brown, guys, thanks very much. Excellent, excellent reporting for us.

Let's get some more on this. The ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff of California, is joining us.

Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA: You bet. Good to be with you, Wolf.

Do you know, will the House Intelligence Committee have access to this information, as well?

SCHIFF: Well, we won't have it in terms of getting the information directly from Bob Mueller. It would require us to get information through our own investigation.

I do think that many of the financial issues are within the scope of what we need to investigate. My primary concern, though, is an allegation that you didn't discuss just yet, and that is the issue of potential money laundering through the Trump Organization. That is, I think, among more serious allegations, because what concerns me is, frankly, anything that could continue to be leverage the Russians might have over the president. Now, we don't know that that's the case. But I do think, prudently,

we have to find out. Because the Russians have laundered money as a way of influence in Europe and the Caucasus and elsewhere, whether that was also one of the vectors in which they sought to use their active measures campaign.

BLITZER: Well, tell us. This is new information. Tell us a little bit more about your concern now about money laundering. Give us a little bit more on that if you can.

SCHIFF: Well, this has been a concern all along. And that is the Russians we have seen as part of their playbook have used, in Europe and elsewhere, a variety of tactics. They've used hacking and dumping, as they clearly did here. They've used social media, paid social media trolls and bots, as we now see quite clearly here.

They have also used the financial entanglement as a way of exerting influence. And of course, there was a long pattern of Russian money laundering generally, again to what your reporters just described, that special counsel may be looking as with respect to either Mueller [SIC] or Flynn.

So I think that's an issue that also has to be tracked out, to see whether there's anything there that we need to be concerned about. That could again direct U.S. policy in a way that's not in U.S. interests but owing more to Russian leverage.

BLITZER: Well, it's one thing for the Russians to engage in money laundering. It's another thing if there are officials in the Trump Organization engaging in money laundering. Is there any evidence to back up that assertion?

SCHIFF: Well, I can't go into any of the evidence. All I can say is these are the range of issues that have to be investigated, that I think we need to thoroughly vet. Because we have seen now a great many of the tactics that the Russians have used elsewhere were employed during the 2016 election. And we need to make sure that we do our due diligence and determine, is there any leverage the Russians have? Is there anything that would explain the president's policy towards Russian, which in many respects has been baffling to, I think, both Democrats and Republicans. So this is, I think this, a necessary part of our investigation.

BLITZER: Do you think the special counsel, Robert Mueller, needs access to President Trump's tax returns?

SCHIFF: Well, he may very well. You know, I think that what the special counsel is likely to do is to follow the money, as reporters were indicating, follow the money when it comes to those that are around the president or were around the president, like Manafort or Flynn. But as well as others within the Trump Organization.

If the Trump Organization was having trouble getting legitimate financing for its real estate, and the Russians were looking for a place to launder their money through real estate, and the two came together, that I think would be very much within the scope of Bob Mueller's investigation.

So I do think Bob Mueller ought to follow the money wherever it leads, and it may ultimately lead to the president's tax return.

BLITZER: Do tax returns, if there is a special counsel investigation, involving access to IRS documents, tax returns specifically, would they normally also be made available to your committee or other House or Senate committees?

SCHIFF: They wouldn't be made -- they would not be made available to our committee simply because they were made available to Bob Mueller. We have had a practice, generally, where documents are made available to the House investigative committee. They're made available to the Senate and vice-versa. But that's not the case of things that are produced to special counsel. So alone, that would not be enough.

BLITZER: As you know, a long-time confidant of President Trump's, Roger Stone, appeared before your committee today. Last year, Stone appeared to have advanced knowledge of the release of hacked emails from the Clinton campaign manager, John Podesta, tweeting this, quote, "Trust me, it will soon, the president's time in the barrel. It will soon be Podesta's" -- excuse me -- "It will -- trust me, it will soon be the Podesta's time in the barrel, #CrookedHillary."

[17:15:08] Stone says he told your committee today he had no advanced knowledge of the Podesta hack. Did his testimony give you any reason to believe he isn't telling the truth?

SCHIFF: You know, I don't want to characterize his testimony. We've tried to avoid doing that with other witnesses, and I want to do the same here.

I will say that, you know, one of the key takeaways from the interview today was his unwillingness to answer some of the most important questions that we had considering -- concerning his relationship with Julian Assange and the potential use of an intermediary.

Mr. Stone has said publicly -- and all I can comment, really, is on what he said publicly -- at times he said publicly that he was in communication with Assange, and implication was directly. At times, he has said that he was in communication to an intermediary.

And I think both the chairman and I are in agreement that we need complete answers to the questions we asked today. And if we can't get those voluntarily, we'll have to subpoena him to come back.

BLITZER: Stone made another claim during the hearing today on Twitter. He said this. He said -- this is a Stone tweet: "Rep. Adam Schiff, Rep. Speier (ph) both claimed in my hearing today the DNC did turn their email server over to the FBI, contrary to Comey testimony."

Here's the question: Is that true?

SCHIFF: Mr. Stone, I think, misstates the discussion that we had, and I'll have to leave it at that. But I don't think that was an accurate representation of what was discussed. BLITZER: Well, can you tell us, did the DNC hand over the survey

[SIC]? The server, I should say?

SCHIFF: You know, the issue, Wolf, is whether the DNC was asked to turn over the server. Or whether the DHS or FBI was given the copy of the DNC server, and that satisfied what they needed. So there is some difference of opinion, potentially, on whether there was ever a formal request for the server. And that's something that the committee is looking into.

BLITZER: Let's take a quick break. There's a lot more happening. There's a lot more questions we need to ask you, Congressman. We'll resume our coverage right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:21:36] BLITZER: There's breaking news. President Trump is defending his response to the humanitarian crisis in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, where Hurricane Maria caused catastrophic damage. Almost all of the island is without power. Communications are cut off. Countless homes have been destroyed or very badly damaged.

The president spoke at length today about the federal government's role.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: A massive effort is under way, and we have been really treated very, very nicely by the governor and by everybody else.

As Governor Rossello just told me this morning, the entire federal workforce is doing great work in Puerto Rico. And I appreciated his saying it. And he's saying it to anybody that will listen.

The governor of Puerto Rico is so thankful for the great job that we're doing. The governor said we are doing a great job. In fact, he thanked me specifically for FEMA and all of the first responders.

We have had tremendous reviews from government officials.

This morning, the governor made incredible statements about how well we're doing.

The governor has been extremely generous, and I appreciated it. The governor has been so incredible in his -- in his statements about the job we're doing. We're doing a great job.

Everybody has said it's amazing the job that we've done in Puerto Rico. We're very proud of it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right. Let's go live to CNN's Leyla Santiago. She's in San Juan for us.

Leyla, you're hearing desperate, desperate pleas for help from so many, many people.

LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, you know, let me just address what the president said, Wolf, really quick.

When I asked the governor, I said, "Say 'yes' or 'no.' Are you getting the help you need?" His response was, "It's complicated."

He said, "In the immediate, yes, we're getting a lot of aid in. But in the long-term we need more help. We need the federal government, Congress to pass a relief package that will help us in the long-term. And we haven't gotten that yet."

Now, what I am seeing on the ground -- I spent my day going to hospitals -- and I am seeing hospitals that are days away from being in the dark. They don't have the diesel they need to run the generators to run a hospital for some of the most vulnerable people out here.

And when I talked to the mayor of San Juan, she was quick to note that some of those hospitals are in her very area, and she's becoming very frustrated and very upset by -- by the text messages of desperation, hospitals in the middle of the night saying, "Help us. We need fuel to keep operating."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CRUZ: It isn't the physical infrastructure devastation. That we will handle. We will overcome.

It is the pain and the sorrow of knowing that we couldn't get to somebody in time. So whatever needs to be done, you know, ship, drone, air, whatever, that SOS needs to be heard loud and clear. And, please, let's just talk about that. Let's not talk about the debt.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SANTIAGO: And let me paint the picture for you, Wolf. Right now, as we speak, there is a children's hospital whose director tells CNN there are about a dozen children on ventilators, and they are about to lose power.

[17:25:06] So, you know, as we talked to one of the hospitals today where two people died in critical condition overnight, the director was quick to say, "Look, their prognosis wasn't promising from the beginning. But why are we playing with people's lives here?"

BLITZER: A quick question, Leyla. You've been there, now. Do you see evidence of a lot of U.S., for example, military personnel, National Guard troops, others on the ground that are working? We know many are on the way right now. But are some at least already there? Do you see them?

SANTIAGO: Yes, we do. I have seen FEMA. I have ridden with the National Guard as they were making their way through neighborhoods, pulling people out from the floods. I spoke to someone from FEMA today. But he said that his task is to

go in there and assess the damage. And even expressed some frustration, as he said, it's hard to go in and say, "Hey, what's the damage? OK, we'll send someone later." But that's his task and that's his job.

So it does seem that FEMA is here. I've seen them. They are out there assessing the damage. But the big frustration, as I'm talking to people, is the lack of power and communication, and that there is aid here. That there is diesel here. But they aren't able to distribute it to some of the most remote locations and to some of the most vulnerable people.

BLITZER: Truly, truly awful situation. Unfortunately, it's going to go on for a long time. Our Leyla Santiago on the ground for us there in Puerto Rio. Leyla, thank you very much.

We're back with the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, Congressman Adam Schiff of California.

You tweeted this last night, Congressman. You tweeted -- and I'll read it. I'll put it up on the screen: "Puerto Rico suffered catastrophic damage from Hurricane Maria. Millions without power or water. Congress should take up emergency aid ASAP," as soon as possible.

When is Congress going to pass an emergency aid package? And how much funding will Puerto Rico need?

SCHIFF: I think we ought to take it up this week. I think the administration ought to propose one. The Congress ought to take it up immediately.

And I wish the president would spend less time telling us what a wonderful job he's doing and more time focused on what we'll need to do in the immediate aftermath of this terrible disaster and over the long term.

Because I think he really risks being perceived the same way that George Bush was, as being in different to the plight of people, in this case, in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

This could get a lot worse in the next days and weeks. It ought to demand all of our attention. Let's stop, you know, this focus on NFL and let's put the focus where it ought to be right now. There are millions of Americans hanging by the edge here. So I want to see us take up a package this week.

In terms of how much it will cost. I would imagine, Wolf, what we take up this week is just going to be the down payment. The magnitude of this disaster is just really hard to comprehend.

But all efforts have to be made right now to get the emergency relief to those that need it. Get the medical relief to those that need it and stop the self-congratulations which we haven't earned yet in response from Congress. Blitzer: Here's what I don't understand, Congressman, the hold up.

Why is there a hold upright here? 3.5 million citizens, American citizens in Puerto Rico in extreme danger and you would think that Congress would involve expeditiously to get funding and get legislation passed. I don't understand why there has been this delay?

I don't understand either. What I would love to see happen, frankly, love to see the president saying we are going to put a package together immediately and send it to Congress. I'd love to see the leadership that is running the Congress right now saying we are not going to leave town this week without passing this package. These are our fellow Americans who are in dire need. And this is our top priority right now.

But this is not what we are hearing. Instead we are hearing the president say, "Oh, the governor is telling me I'm doing a wonderful job. I'm doing the best job ever." And that just doesn't help the people in Puerto Rico. Let's focus on what needs to be done. And what needs to be done right now is getting every asset to Puerto Rico we possibly can. And getting a package of aide off the House and floor and Senate this week.

BLITZER: I agree. You've got to do it, and you've got you to do it immediately. Adam Schiff of California thank you very much for joining us.

SCHIFF: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Coming up, as Kim Jong-un's commanders move military equipment and jet, President Trump is now warning that the U.S. is totally prepared for devastating military action against North Korea.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're following multiple breaking stories right now, including President Trump's insisting he hasn't been preoccupied with the NFL players' protest at the expense of paying more attention to the very dire situation in hurricane-devastated Puerto Rico.

[17:34:40] Let's bring in our specialists to discuss.

Gloria Borger, the president says Puerto Rico has his full attention, but his Twitter use suggests otherwise. Over the last three days, as we've reported, he's tweeted more than 20 times about the NFL controversy, only four times about Puerto Rico. So what does that tell you about his priorities?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: I think his priorities are himself, quite honestly. I think you could look at this a bunch of different ways.

This is a president, when he first spoke about the NFL, he was at a rally in Alabama. And this is a president who understands he need to shore up his base. And he was throwing out some red meat because, don't forget, he's cutting a deal on DREAMers. He cut a deal on the debt ceiling. The Democrats are saying maybe they'll cut a deal with him on the wall. And he's endorsed Luther Strange, who is an establishment candidate.

If you put all of that together, this is a president who understood intuitively, and he knew that the audience would react well, that he needed to shore up his base.

I also feel that it's a diversion for him. The news hasn't been great. The narrative today, of course, is health care has failed yet again. And, you know, I believe that he's also full of grievance about the NFL and about the way these players, he believe, have disrespected him. And he says the American flag. But I would argue that it's largely about him.

BLITZER: You know, Ron Brownstein, when he did talk about Puerto Rico today, the president spent most of his time insisting that his administration is doing a great job, that everything is going well. Does that match what's actually happening on the ground?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, look, you can tell from your own reporting. I don't think there are many people in Puerto Rico who describe this as a great job.

FEMA has been a very professional agency in responding to these serial disasters, but it is stretched very thin. And we are looking at conditions in Puerto Rico, not only in the near term, not only in the immediate problem, but as, you know, several people who have been interviewed today have talked about, in the long-term. We're talking about months, potentially, without power. Is that acceptable for American citizens? I mean, are we willing to accept the idea that this entire island will be without power for months?

So while FEMA has been professional, there is -- there's no question that there is not the same sense of urgency that we would expect, given the underlying conditions. Again, not only this week, not only the immediate life-threatening conditions, but what may be unfolding for years and for months.

And I would tell you one just step beyond that, again, there needs to be a conversation about the severity of these hurricanes and the submerged debate about what climate change means, in fact, for the safety and security of cities in the U.S. and in Puerto Rico.

BLITZER: I want to show our viewers, Nia, some pictures before and after. You can see before, you can see Puerto Rico. You can see the lights there booming. You see after, very few lights in that same area in Puerto Rico. And it underscores -- it underscores an enormous problem that's not just today or tomorrow. This is going to go on for weeks and months, Nia.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Weeks and months. I mean, there are fuel shortages. That means people are going to have problems fueling those generators. Not a lot of people have those generators. And folks I talked to who do have the generators, maybe they only last two or three hours. Hospitals, they are running out of fuel for their generators, as well.

Food shortages, as well. Water purification issues. So this is a massive, massive problem. You heard the mayor there of San Juan essentially say the SOS needs to be heard. In other words, it hasn't been heard yet.

I mean, the president can sort of talk about his good, glowing reviews in terms of FEMA's response, in terms of his response, but I think if you talk to the people on the ground there, as Leyla Santiago has been doing over these last days, they are afraid; they are frustrated. They are really at their wit's end in terms of getting help, not exactly knowing when that help is going to come.

So we'll see over these next couple of days. We know this is a president who pays attention to the news, who watches cable news, spends a lot of time of his day doing that, so we'll see if what happens over these next days, if he's paying more attention to this as this gets more coverage. Those awful pictures of those houses that are dilapidated, those hospitals that aren't in working order. We'll see what happens.

There has been conversation about how you get -- how you get aid there. You heard the mayor there say, you know, planes, drones, ships, whether or not that actually ends up happening. There's been some sort of back and forth about whether or not ships should be allowed to go there. Whether or not they should waive regulations.

And now you see some private companies, private cruise ships trying to send supplies there. So hopefully, a lot of these pictures that we'll be showing and sort of the stories that we're highlighting here from Leyla Santiago and other folks on the ground there will really speed things up.

BROWNSTEIN: And the failure with the health care bill, I think the likelihood is that has been taking up a lot of the space. I mean, there is going to be a lot more attention to this in the coming days. This will be much more front and center.

BORGER: Well, and you heard the president today at his press conference. The first thing he did was come out and talk about what he's going to do in Puerto Rico. And it's very clear, to your point, Nia, that they're growing very sensitive to the fact that they're getting a lot of criticism for not putting the same amount of effort into this that they put into the other hurricane relief efforts.

HENDERSON: Yes.

[18:40:11] BLITZER: You know, Gloria, amidst all of the devastation in Puerto Rico that's devastating, the president also today had some more threatening words for North Korea.

He said the United States is totally prepared to use a military option which would be, in his words, "devastating for North Korea." The North Koreas believe that the president's past comments amount to what they call a declaration of war.

Are we about to see another round of personal insults traded between the president and Kim Jong-un?

BORGER: Well, it wouldn't surprise me, Wolf, since we've seen a few rounds of those before. And so we might see it again.

I mean, the one glimmer of some kind of hope I took from the president's press conference today, was that he actually talked about ensuring the regime's complete denuclearization. He wasn't, you know -- he did say it would be devastating if there were any kind of attack, et cetera, et cetera.

But he did talk about our allies. He did talk about trying to denuclearize them, which is different from destroying them. So in a way, in the world in which we live now, I saw that as a little bit of a ratcheting down of the hot rhetoric. I'm not sure that it is. And I'm not sure it's going to last. But when I heard that, I thought, "Oh, that's a little bit of a different tone."

BLITZER: Ron, how do you see it?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, look, I mean I think it is important that everyone in the North Korean leadership who supposedly are spending money trying to better understand what's happening in Washington, recognize that the president is right when he says that any U.S. military action would have devastating consequences for North Korea.

But I think it's equally important for everyone in the U.S. leadership to recognize that any military action would have devastating consequences not only for North Korea but also for South Korea and Japan.

There is a reason why presidents since Bill Clinton have chosen not to exercise the military option on North Korea. And it's not simply because they were all weak or feckless or spineless. It was because the consequences in terms of damage and loss of life in South Korea, even from conventional North Korean weapons, let alone any nuclear response, would be overwhelming.

So I think, you know, it is important for both sides to understand both the damage that we can do and the damage that could be done in response.

BLITZER: You know, Nia, "The Washington Post" reported today the North Koreans have even tried to arrange some talks with Republican- linked analysts in Washington in an attempt to understand the president's intentions. Does that underscore the risk of miscalculation, potentially?

HENDERSON: It certainly does. And it underscores the fact that the North Koreans don't have a good reading on this president. They don't know what to make as what he says: the bellicose rhetoric at the U.N., calling the North Korean leader "Rocket Man" that's since been amended to "Little Rocket Man."

So they are reaching out to folks in Washington, people at think tanks who have connections with this White House to get a sense of what it all means.

It also underscores the fact that they don't -- there is no diplomatic relationship, right, government to government between North Korea and the United States.

Gloria made the point that the president now seems to have this goal of denuclearization. The problem there is that the North Koreans aren't interested at all in denuclearization. They see other regimes that have given up their nuclear weapons and what's happened to them.

You think of Libya, for instance; Ukraine, for instance. And leaving those countries vulnerable to attack from outside countries. So that's the problem. I mean, essentially, we are always where we have always been with North Korea, at loggerheads with this really bellicose rhetoric, and we don't know where this leads. Is it ultimately to some sort of diplomatic resolution? But what is North Korea willing to do in terms of getting to the table to have those talks?

BLITZER: You know, Gloria, you've also done some new reporting on the special counsel, Robert Mueller's investigation into the Russian election meddling. Tell us more about what you're learning.

BORGER: Well, my colleague, Pamela Brown, and I have reported today that the special counsel could start interviewing current and former White House staffers as early as later next week. That could potentially slide until next week.

And we know that -- that he's expressed interest in speaking with these people, particularly as it regards the firing of former FBI James Comey, also the firing of the former national security adviser, Flynn. So this is kind of a natural progression, Wolf.

Now that they've had the documents that the White House has gathered to present to the special counsel, the next order of business is naturally to start interviewing people they think can help them with their investigation.

They're particularly interested, for example, in that Oval Office meeting that the president had with Russian officials in which he bragged about the firing of James Comey.

And of course, that, aboard Air Force One, when people were trying to sort of figure out what kind of statement they were going to release about Donald Trump Jr.'s interaction with Russians when he thought that they were going to deliver him dirt about Hillary Clinton.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Yes. And there's more news we're following, guys. Stick around.

The President now warning not only North Korea that the U.S. is totally prepared to carry out devastating military action, but he is going further. Kim Jong-un's military, by the way, and his jets, they are also, right now, on the move.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:50:19] BLITZER: More breaking news. President Trump issues a new warning to North Korea amid indications that Kim Jong-un's regime has repositioned both fighter jets as well as missiles. The President says the United States is totally prepared to use, what

he calls, the military option, saying that would be devastating for North Korea. Our Brian Todd has been digging into tall of this for us.

What else are you finding out, Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, there are new warnings tonight about the ratcheting up of these aggressive statements and personal insults being leveled by President Trump and by Kim Jong-un.

This comes as we do get new information that Kim has repositioned his fighter planes to possibly confront American forces in the region.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): North Korea's Supreme Commander moves his warplanes, bolsters his defenses along his east coast.

Tonight, U.S. defense officials tell CNN, MiG fighter jets, some equipped with missiles, have been spotted by satellites. It's seen as a response to American bombers and fighter jets who've just flown off North Korea's east coast, patrolling further north of the DMZ than at any time this century.

North Korea has threatened to shoot those planes out of the sky. And Pyongyang releases a propaganda video, showing what that kind of encounter might look like, followed by a U.S. aircraft carrier in flames.

JUNG PAK, SK-KOREA FOUNDATION CHAIR IN KOREA STUDIES, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: President Trump's statements and the follow up was a propaganda boon for them.

TODD (voice-over): Today, the President again warned of the consequences of a U.S. military option if Kim Jong-un strikes first or if there is intelligence that he is about to.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If we take that option, it will be devastating. I can tell you that. Devastating for North Korea.

He is acting very badly. He is saying things that should never, ever be said, and we're replying to those things.

TODD (voice-over): But tonight, there are new warnings about the President's own comments, his increasingly personal insults of Kim Jong-un recently.

TRUMP: Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself.

Little Rocket Man. We can't have mad men out there shooting rockets all over the place.

TODD (voice-over): Those remarks prompted Kim to issue a rare personal statement with his own name on it, calling President Trump mentally deranged, a dotard. Experts warn, to avoid losing face, Kim might feel he has to take this showdown beyond just words.

A prominent defector in Seoul spoke to CNN.

KANG MYUNG-DO, NORTH KOREAN DEFECTOR: Kim Jong-un is a god-like figure. And if the godlike figure says such things to the U.S., it is not going to stay as words. It needs to be put into action. That's what makes this situation serious.

TODD (voice-over): Experts say Kim has been willing to kill to warn his rivals not to cross him.

A former South Korean intelligence researcher told "G.Q. Magazine," the murder of Kim's half-brother at Kuala Lumpur's airport this year was part of a master plan. He says Kim, quote, wanted to send a worldwide message by murdering Kim Jong-nam in this gruesome public way.

Kim's regime denies ordering the hit. But tonight, there is concern that President Trump might be painting Kim into a dangerous corner.

PAK: My concern is that, cumulatively, this will all lead to some sort of horrible miscalculation where Kim doesn't take something seriously, and he reacts. Or he thinks there's going to be a U.S. or they think -- he thinks that there will be a U.S. attack, and he has a use or lose situation where he lobs the first nuclear weapon.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: We reached out to the White House and asked them why President Trump has gotten so personal regarding Kim Jong-un and whether the President's advisers have cautioned him to dial it back. A White House official would not comment on either question -- Wolf.

BLITZER: You know, Brian, also today, the parents of Otto Warmbier, the American student who was returned to the United States from North Korean custody in a coma and died shortly after that, made some very strong statements in T.V. interviews. Tell us about that.

TODD: That's right, Wolf. Fred and Cindy Warmbier spoke to CNN earlier today. They say the North Koreans had tortured their son, which the North Koreans deny. The Warmbiers also want the U.S. to designate North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism.

Now, a State Department official told CNN, they'll do that if there is evidence that warrants it, and they're always reviewing the information. But you got the serious impression that the State Department is very non-committal on taking that action, at least tonight, Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting for us. Brian, thank you.

Coming up, President Trump denies that he's been preoccupied by the national anthem controversy and his feud with the NFL. And he is strongly defending his response to the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico right now, insisting that he is getting, quote, tremendous reviews. [17:55:01] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. Not preoccupied. President Trump insists his war of words in the NFL hasn't distracted him from Puerto Rico's hurricane disaster. He says his response is getting tremendous reviews, but, tonight, Puerto Rican officials are pleading for help.

Desperate to survive. Food and water are in dangerously short supply for so many of the hurricane victims, some isolated in remote mountain communities with no communication and no way out.

[18:00:06] And in the cities, gas is running out, leaving National Guard vehicles and ambulances idle. How long could Puerto Rico's residence hold out?