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Interview With Texas Congressman Joaquin Castro; Attorney General Sessions Hesitant to Answer Questions Before Senate; Crisis in Puerto Rico Continues; Trump Faces Off Against Military; Sessions Contradicts Trump on Comey Firing; Struggling to Survive A Month After Hurricane Maria. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired October 18, 2017 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:21]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news: Politics or patriotism? President Trump defends his phone call to the widow of a fallen U.S. soldier after a Democratic congresswoman describes his words to the family as insensitive. Now the White House calls the lawmakers's comments appalling and disgusting.

Why is the president now sending a $25,000 check to the family of another fallen soldier months after he reportedly promised it?

Rough Sessions. Attorney General Jeff Sessions spends almost five hours in the Senate hot seat, facing sometimes sharp questions involving the Russia investigation and his meetings with Russian officials. Why did he refuse to answer conversations with President Trump about the firing of FBI Director James Comey?

About-face. Less than a day after appearing to back a bipartisan Senate plan for a short-term health care fix, President Trump comes out against it, calling the proposal a bailout for insurance companies. Now one lawmaker says, without the president's support, the compromise is stalled. Why did President Trump change his mind?

And in desperate need. A month after Hurricane Maria, we find Puerto Ricans in a remote area of the island struggling to live day by day, and volunteer relief workers frustrated by the lack of support from FEMA. Why is federal help still failing to reach so many people?

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 news tonight: The White House is defending President Trump's condolence call to the widow of Sergeant La David Johnson, one of four American soldiers killed in an ISIS ambush in Niger.

The family and Democratic Congresswoman Frederica Johnson (sic) say Mr. Trump told Johnson's wife -- and I'm quoting now -- "He knew what he signed up for, but I guess it still hurt." And the White House is confirming tonight that the president today sent a $25,000 personal check to the family of another U.S. fallen soldier, money that was reportedly promised months ago.

The White House also says the president cannot support a bipartisan Senate plan to restore Obamacare subsidies for the poor that were cut by Mr. Trump, who initially indicated his backing of this latest compromise agreement. Now the White House and the president are calling it a bailout for insurance companies and a top GOP senator says without the president's support, the plan is stalled.

And Attorney General Jeff Sessions was in the Senate hot seat today, testifying before the Judiciary Committee for almost five hours in sometimes rather contentious exchanges. He was asked about collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, which he denied, and about the firing of FBI Director James Comey, which he refused to discuss, citing confidential conversations with the president.

We're covering all of that and much more this hour with our guests, including Congressman Joaquin Castro of the House Intelligence Committee, and our correspondents and specialists are also standing by.

But let's begin with the controversy right now over the president's phone call to the widow of a U.S. soldier killed in an ISIS ambush in Niger.

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

Sara, the White House describes the president as respectful and sympathetic during that call, disputing strongly the Democratic congresswoman who heard it and called the president's words insensitive.

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

This is, of course, the most difficult duty for any president, to have to call a family member and awful condolences when a soldier has paid the ultimate price, but now President Trump is under scrutiny not only for his tone in one of those phone calls, but also why it took him nearly two weeks to address this attack on U.S. soldiers.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY (voice-over): The commander in chief sparking controversy again today, facing criticism for his handling of one of his most solemn duties, a condolence call to the widow of a U.S. serviceman killed in Niger.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I had a very nice conversation with the woman, with the wife, who sounded like a lovely woman. Did not say what the congresswoman said. And most people aren't too surprised to hear that. MURRAY: The president disputing an account that he told the widow

Myeshia Johnson her husband "knew what he signed up for, but I guess it still hurt."

Sergeant La David Johnson was killed in an ISIS attack in Niger in early October. The account of the conversation came from Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, a Florida Democrat who was present for Trump's call. She admonished the president Wednesday.

REP. FREDERICA WILSON (D), FLORIDA: This is a grieving widow, a grieving widow who is six months pregnant. This is a young woman. She's only 24 years old. When she actually hung up the phone, she looked at me and said, "He didn't even know his name."

[18:05:08]

Now, that's the worst part.

MURRAY: Sergeant Johnson's mother, who was also present for the call, confirmed the congresswoman's account to CNN.

Despite the president's denials, the White House isn't disputing the specific words he used, but aides insist Trump's tone was appropriate.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president's call, as accounted by multiple people in the room, believe that the president was completely respectful, very sympathetic, and expressed the condolences of himself and the rest of the country, and thanked the family for their service, commended them for having an American hero in their family. And I don't know how you could take that any other way.

MURRAY: The incident adding to the scrutiny of Trump's response to the attack that left four U.S. soldiers dead. It was the deadliest combat incident involving U.S. troops since he took office.

When asked earlier this week why he didn't address it publicly for nearly two weeks, Trump turned it into an exercise in political scoreboarding, falsely claiming President Obama and others did not call the families of fallen soldiers.

TRUMP: If you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn't make calls, a lot of them didn't make calls.

MURRAY: The latest controversy enveloping the administration comes as Trump tries again to jump-start his legislative agenda. Today, Trump axed a bipartisan deal to reinstate Obamacare cost-sharing subsidies, which help low-income enrollees buy health care, insisting the payments are nothing more than a bailout for insurers.

TRUMP: They have been enriched by Obamacare like nothing anybody has seen before. I'm not going to do anything to enrich the insurance companies.

MURRAY: That's after suggesting he would be open to such a compromise just a day earlier. TRUMP: The solution would be for about a year or two years and it

will get us over this intermediate hump.

MURRAY: Today, the president shifted to tax reform in a meeting with the Senate Finance Committee, insisting the time is right for a major legislative overhaul.

TRUMP: This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, in my opinion. This is something that will be really unique. The timing is right.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY: Now, as the president turns to his legislative agenda, questions are not going to go away about this attack in Niger.

Arizona Senator John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, says the White House has not been forthcoming about this attack -- back to you, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Sara, thank you, Sara Murray over at the White House.

Also tonight, "The Washington Post" is reporting that President Trump promised the father of another fallen soldier $25,000 over the summer.

Our White House reporter, Kaitlan Collins, is working this story. She's got details.

Kaitlan, the White House is confirming that President Trump sent a personal check to the family just today.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Wolf.

Amid all this rising scrutiny over the president's claim that he's more attentive to the families of fallen soldiers than his predecessors have been, "The Washington Post" published a story today that said when the president called one grieving family, he offered them $25,000, but never followed through.

Now, "The Washington Post" reported that the president had called Chris Baldridge, after his son Dillon Baldridge, who was just 22 years old, was killed in Afghanistan over the summer. They say the president called him a few weeks later and during this 15-minute-or- so-long phone call with the father, they started discussing the military's survivor benefits program, that the president then offered to write him a check for $25,000.

Now, Chris Baldridge, the father, said he was floored by this offer, that he was surprised the president would offer something so generous during this conversation.

But he says that when he got a condolence letter from the president and from the White House, that there was no check in there, and that he was disappointed by that after the president had made this promise of this amount of money. Now, after "The Washington Post" published the story, the White House

issued a statement this afternoon saying that the check had been sent and that they were disgusted that the media was trying to advance its agenda by portraying this as anything except a generous gesture by the president, because the White House has confirmed that this was a personal check.

But my sources inside the White House are telling me now that this check was not sent until today, Wolf.

And this comes as everyone is disputing the president's claim about these calls to fallen soldiers, and it's just another story to add to the White House's list that they're going to have to respond to.

BLITZER: Is the White House explaining why the president never wrote the check until "The Washington Post" contacted the White House, informed them that there's no check? Is the White House explaining why the delay?

COLLINS: No, they're not explaining that.

Instead, when we asked why the check had not been sent, they confirmed that it had been sent and then went after the media for the way that they're portraying this story.

But the fact is, Wolf, this man was killed in June while serving. His father was contacted by the president weeks later, and that check was not sent until mid-October.

[18:10:05]

BLITZER: Kaitlan, thanks very much, Kaitlan Collins over at the White House reporting for us.

There's more breaking news we're following. Politico is reporting that the White House staff did draft a sympathy statement about the U.S. troops killed in the Niger ambush, but it was never released.

Our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, is working this part of the story.

And there are new details, I understand, Jim.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, that's right.

In fact, just moments ago, the White House confirming to CNN in a statement obtained by my colleague Sara Murray that this statement was drafted in the president's name the very day after the attack.

Here is the White House's explanation for why that statement was never released to the public. It goes like this. A White House official says that the statement was crafted by the NSC. When the communications department received the information, staff decided it would be more powerful for Sarah Sanders to deliver this information from the podium. It was more important to elevate it, this official telling CNN, and the issue from the podium.

Now, to be clear, the president himself did not comment at all on those fallen soldiers for some 12 days after the attack. And he, of course, had multiple opportunities to do so, from Twitter, his favorite, often his favorite means of communicating with the public, in numerous encounters with reporters, also, of course, the possibility of issuing a statement in his name from the White House during that time period.

But it never happened. And the president, as you remember, Wolf, during that time period made public comments about many things, from the NFL to tax plans and beyond. But he did not comment on those fallen soldiers for nearly two weeks.

I should say that hard questions are now being raised about what I think you might say is really one of the most important things here, and that's exactly what went wrong. Why did those four soldiers die? We have heard from Senator McCain, who of course is on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and he said that the White House is not being forthcoming in explaining.

The White House and the Department of Defense not being forthcoming in terms of what happened there. And these are the hard questions now facing the U.S. military. Did something go wrong? Was there search- and-rescue available enough to extract the soldiers, the wounded?

And you will remember, it was a couple days before that fourth soldier, that is Sergeant Thompson, who has been at the center of the flap today, before his body was found, so there are hard questions now to be answered, and some of those questions coming from Senator McCain himself saying that the White House has not been forthcoming to him as he asked those questions.

The military investigation, we should note, is under way -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What I don't understand is why do they think a statement from the press secretary would elevate the whole issue, as opposed to a statement from the president of the United States?

SCIUTTO: Well, frankly, Wolf, I can't explain that rationale. I don't see how it is elevated to go from the president's name to the name of the press secretary. It doesn't make a lot of sense, at least that explanation.

I should note that the circumstances -- my colleagues and I who were reporting on this raid that night remember that there was initial concern about a missing soldier. And there were operations under way to possibly rescue this soldier. They didn't know his status at that point. So you could make an argument, in the immediate aftermath, you did not want to have a statement about four deaths when you weren't sure about the fourth death.

But that does not give any explanation for the 12 days that followed, the nearly two weeks that followed that the president himself made no comment, and you could argue in the last 24 hours, somewhat fumbled communications with the families of those lost. BLITZER: Yes, not even a tweet during those 12 days from the

president. The original statement was drafted, the president's name and the first lady's name, and eventually was released in the name of the White House press secretary.

All right, Jim Sciutto reporting for us, thanks very much.

Let's get some more on all of this.

Democratic Congressman Joaquin Castro of Texas is joining us. He's a member of the House Intelligence Committee.

Congressman, what questions do you have about this entire Niger operation, how it unfolded, how the Trump administration handled the deaths of these four American soldiers?

REP. JOAQUIN CASTRO (D), TEXAS: Well, there are so many questions that really haven't been answered at this point, how we lost four service members, how they were ambushed and killed, what their mission was exactly at the time.

The president still has to explain that to the Congress, but even more than that to the American people. Now, the response to that and why the president didn't mention the four service members who were killed or reach out to the families for a few weeks is also something that he's got to explain.

I thought that he bungled the situation with Sergeant Johnson's widow yesterday. Whether the president -- whatever the president said, it's clear that she and her family perceived it to be belittling of her husband, and were offended by it and insulted by it.

[18:15:00]

And this is a president that, unfortunately, has shown a callousness in sensitive situations. I would say that when he talked about John McCain's service record and said that he wasn't a war hero, that's something that is sacrosanct among the American public, the issue of POWs.

This president is not very good when sensitivity is required.

BLITZER: So you believe the president should have immediately released that statement that was drafted by the National Security Council, in addition to the statement that the press secretary delivered the following day?

Because it did take the president, what, 12 days to comment on the deaths of these four American soldiers.

CASTRO: Right. He absolutely should have. And the longer he waited to do that, the more questions arose about why exactly he hadn't said anything and what the holdup was.

BLITZER: Let's turn to the other breaking news, the president's phone calls with Gold Star families. Do you believe the president was going to follow through on his

promise of that $25,000 check before "The Washington Post" actually contacted the White House and told them about that report which appeared today, and only after the report appeared did the president send the check?

CASTRO: It's very suspicious. It sounds like the president got called out on something, and so he had to follow through on sending $25,000.

What I don't get is why he would make that promise and then not immediately follow through on it. Again, this is a father and a family that's grieving, and to add to that grief by overpromising and then underdelivering is something that I just don't get.

BLITZER: After accusing a previous presidents, Congressman, of not calling the families of fallen soldiers, President Trump brought up the death of his White House chief of staff's son in Afghanistan back in 2010, but listen to how the White House responded to all of this earlier today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HUCKABEE SANDERS: I think that General Kelly is disgusted by the way that this has been politicized and that the focus has become on the process and not the fact that American lives were lost. I think he's disgusted and frustrated by that. If he has any anger, it's towards that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The question, though, is, it was the president who brought General Kelly's name and his fallen son into all of this. What's your reaction to what you just heard from the White House press secretary?

CASTRO: I don't think the president should have done that to his chief of staff. Again, that's a sacrosanct thing.

And for him to mention John Kelly's son in a political conversation, a back-and-forth that he was having about what other presidents have and have not done, unless his chief of staff gave him permission to do that, and that's not been said, but I don't think he should have done it.

I think he was wrong to do it, and I think the American people agree.

BLITZER: Congressman Joaquin Castro of Texas, thanks very much for joining us.

CASTRO: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Up next, more on the sometimes tense testimony by the attorney general of the United States, Jeff Sessions, as he faces some rather sharp questions from senators about his meetings with Russian officials during the presidential campaign.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: No, Mr. Chairman, I don't have to sit in here and listen to his...

(CROSSTALK)

SEN. AL FRANKEN (D), MINNESOTA: You're the one who testified...

SESSIONS: ... charges without having a chance to respond. Give me a break.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:22:52]

BLITZER: Meetings with Russians, the firing of the FBI Director James Comey, the president's power to pardon, all of that, much more came up during almost five hours of sometimes rather tense questions and answers between the Senate Judiciary Committee and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

He denied being part of what one lawmaker called a Russian facade, and he was pressed on his initial denial of meetings with Russian officials. Over the summer, it was revealed he discussed the Trump campaign with the Russian ambassador to the United States.

Listen to this one very heated exchange.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

FRANKEN: First it was, I didn't have communications with Russians, which wasn't true. Then it was, I never met with any Russians to discuss any political campaign, which may or may not be true.

Now it's, I didn't discuss interference in the campaign, which further narrows your initial blanket denial about meeting with the Russians.

Since you have qualified your denial to say that you did not -- quote -- "discuss issues of the campaign with Russians," what in your view constitutes issues of the campaign?

SESSIONS: Well, let me just say this without hesitation, that I conducted no improper discussions with Russians at any time regarding a campaign or any other item facing this country.

FRANKEN: OK.

(CROSSTALK)

SESSIONS: And I want to say that first. And that's been the suggestion that you have raised and others, that somehow we had conversations that were improper.

FRANKEN: May I suggest that... (CROSSTALK)

SESSIONS: No, no, no. You had a long time, Senator Franken. I would like to respond.

(CROSSTALK)

FRANKEN: We will note that Senator Cruz went two minutes over, so I don't want -- they're going to cut me off, and so I want to ask you some questions.

SESSIONS: No, Mr. Chairman, I don't have to sit in here and listen to his...

[18:25:03]

FRANKEN: You're the one who testified.

SESSIONS: ... charges without having a chance to respond. Give me a break.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Let's get some more right now with CNN senior legal analyst Preet Bharara. He's a former U.S. attorney.

Preet, do you believe, as some of his fierce critics have suggested, that the attorney general perjured himself in his characterization of his meetings and his contacts with Russians?

PREET BHARARA, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, that's a very loaded question, Wolf. And it's a legal conclusion that I will leave for other people to decide. I'm out of that business now.

I think what's clear, two things are clear from the exchange you just showed. One is that Senator Al Franken and the attorney general are not best friends. I don't think they like each other very much. That was more contentious than even the ordinary contentiousness you find at these kinds of hearings.

And the second thing is it's clear that Jeff Sessions, based on earlier testimony, has shifted his story somewhat. Some of the things that he said in a blanket way have turned out not be fully true. It's hard to prove what is in someone's mind and what their intent in making a statement when they later say that they didn't recall something.

It's hard to prove that someone recalled something when they claim they didn't recall something, which is complication in making an assessment of perjury in this or any other kind of circumstance.

BLITZER: The attorney general, he stuck to the original explanation for the president's decision to fire the FBI director, James Comey, even though the president has himself publicly contradicted that initial account. Why do you think Sessions made that decision? BHARARA: I don't know. As you're pointing out, the attorney general

decided to stick with the explanation that Jim Comey was fired because of the way he treated Hillary Clinton.

I found that rather bizarre, because I think no reasonable person who has seen the news unfold over the last few months has any reason to think that Donald Trump, who made the ultimate decision to fire Jim Comey, had in his mind in fact the mistreatment of Hillary Clinton and the way that he handled the Hillary Clinton investigation.

In fact, a lot of reasonable people think at the end of the day, what Jim Comey did with respect to Hillary Clinton gave Donald Trump the election. I don't know why Jeff Sessions went that route. Maybe he doesn't like the implications of the other explanation, which is that Donald Trump fired Jim Comey to put an end to the Russia investigation, which is much more consequential if you think about it.

BLITZER: Yes, potentially, that could be obstruction of justice. That's why this investigation is going on by the special counsel, Robert Mueller.

Can the attorney general, Preet, refuse to provide details of his private conversations with the president, even though the president has not formally used the executive privilege issue?

BHARARA: That's been a gambit that has been used by Cabinet officials, in particular attorneys general, from time immemorial. It happened with Alberto Gonzales when he was the attorney general. It happened with John Ashcroft.

You can get away with what you can get away with. A Senate Judiciary Committee hearing is not a court of law, where there's a judge there who can rule on invocations of privilege or not and force someone to tell what they know about something, unless it becomes an argument in court, which I don't see happening anytime soon.

BLITZER: One of the things that Attorney General Sessions was grilled about is that President Trump has interviewed some nominees for U.S. attorney.

What are your concerns about that? And I should point out, you were a very well-known U.S. attorney in New York.

BHARARA: I was.

And as I think you know, Wolf, I was interviewed by the president- elect of the United States way back in November, who asked me to stay. But notwithstanding that, if you look at all things we know between now and then, then and now, that the president has, and we credit this, doesn't understand an arm's-length relationship between political figures in the White House, including himself, and law enforcement.

There's evidence that he asked Jim Comey to drop the case against Mike Flynn. There's evidence that he told Jeff Sessions he should figure out a way to drop the case against Joe Arpaio. And it does not look good for the first president in modern history who has not revealed his tax returns and who has failed to divest this much money from his portfolio, such that there are conflicts of interest and possible investigations into him and associates, for him to be hand-picking personally and interviewing personally select United States attorneys.

I understand that he has personally interviewed the potential applicants for U.S. attorney in Manhattan, in Brooklyn, and in Washington, D.C., which happen to be places where Donald Trump has property and assets and companies, and not interviewed personally U.S. attorneys for other positions, and I think that reasonably raises a number of questions.

BLITZER: Very quickly, you were named U.S. attorney, nominated by former President Obama. Before that, did he interview you? Did you meet with him?

BHARARA: No, I never spoke to President Obama at any time in my confirmation process.

And an informal survey of other people indicates that nobody that I know that became a United States attorney was interviewed personally by the president. That includes Richard Blumenthal. And it also includes Jeff Sessions, who was a former United States attorney himself.

BLITZER: All right, Preet Bharara, our senior legal analyst, thanks very much for joining us.

BHARARA: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Breaking news next. More on the $25,000 personal check President Trump finally sent to the family of a fallen U.S. soldier, reportedly months after it was initially promised.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The breaking news this hour: "The Washington Post" is reporting that President Trump promised the father of a fallen U.S. soldier $25,000 over the summer, and tonight, the White House is confirming that President Trump sent a personal check to the family just today.

Let's dig deeper with our reporters and specialists. And Phil Mudd, do you believe the president would have followed through on that offer of $25,000 if "The Washington Post" hadn't reported that nearly, what, four months later, hadn't reported that the check still hadn't been sent?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Heck no, but I don't think this is necessarily, believe it or not, on the president.

When he gets on a phone call, I served at the White House. I listened in on presidential phone calls. When he gets on a phone call, there are a lot of people listening in. And they have the responsibility not only to write down what he says but to white down what he promises. My question is a question about who gets to bring bad news to the

president. Who get to walk in and say, "Dude, you need to cut a check for 25 grand, because you promised that"? My sense is nobody wants to do that.

By the way, Wolf, we just heard that -- a similar story earlier this week. The president is with the Greek prime minister and appears to be surprised at a question where somebody says, "Did you know, basically, the Greek prime minister referred to you as evil and what do you think?"

Why didn't a staffer walk in before that meeting and say, "You know, this guy, the Greek prime minister, has said highly negative things about you." My concern is nobody wanted to do that.

I think the question, putting these two stories together, is who gets to deliver bad news to the president, and is he resisting receiving bad news because he's got a temper? We all know that, Wolf.

BLITZER: Fair question.

You know, David Swerdlick, this latest report comes from your organization, "The Washington Post," and it follows some of the Pulitzer Prize-winning work done by "Washington Post" reporter David Fahrenthold, exposing charitable donations that the president promised and didn't initially deliver on, some he never delivered on. What do you make of this pattern?

DAVID SWERDLICK, ASSOCIATE EDITOR, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Yes, Wolf, so I agree with Phil that this is a staff problem. But it's also a problem for the president, in two ways.

No. 1, the president likes to be this sort of "who's your daddy?" figure, right? Promising to give out these charitable contributions, promising according to the reporting of my "Washington Post" colleagues, $25,000 from his personal account, not you know, going over the fact that he is the president of the United States for the next three to seven years. If he feels like there's a problem with the way the government is interfacing with families, Gold Star families, there is something he can do about that besides give a charitable contribution.

The other thing -- and this is what's truly unfair to Sergeant Baldridge's family, is that if he promises this in June, then the president should not wait until my colleagues at "The Post" reported today to issue a check, per that reporting by Kaitlin Collins earlier in this hour.

BLITZER: Yes. Bianna Golodryga is joining us, as well. Bianna, the president was already facing incredible backlash for reportedly telling the widow of one of the U.S. soldiers killed in Niger that, quote, "He knew what he signed up for."

Listen to how the Democratic congresswoman who represents that family and knows that family well, characterized that call.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. FREDERICA WILSON (D), FLORIDA: For him to say that this young man stayed in school, did all the right things, went into the service, became a sergeant and so quickly, that he signed up for his own death? That is so insensitive.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: How did she hear it? What was her response?

WILSON: She was crying. She broke down. And she said, "He didn't even know his name."

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The family of Sergeant La David Johnson has confirmed the congresswoman, Congresswoman Wilson's account of President Trump's phone call. She also heard the exchange; it was on a speaker phone.

So how do you think this happened?

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, YAHOO! NEWS: Look, Wolf, it's a heartbreaking situation. None of us were on that phone call. We weren't privy to what was discussed.

And let's give the president the benefit of the doubt. Let's say that this was heartfelt, that in his own words, what he was trying to express, that Sergeant La David Johnson knew that he was putting his life at risk, but to defend this country, he went off to fight and enlist.

It's not so much the president's initial actions, but it's his reactions that always cause these kind of problems. I mean, from watching CNN and your reporting earlier on this week, Barbara Starr talked about this man and talked about the fact that he rode his bike to Wal-Mart every day for work, that he went through mentorship programs in Florida, that he was a wonderful husband and father. I mean, I have a feeling that, if the president had expressed some of those details, all you have to do, as someone who watches TV as much as he did, if he expressed details like that to Myesha Johnson, maybe we wouldn't be here.

But let's say that didn't happen. When you come out of a situation like this and you hear this kind of backlash, there's one thing you can do. You pick up the phone and you rectify the situation. You don't lash out. You don't go into defense mode in these types of situations.

[18:40:06] These are heroes, and these families will forever be changed because of the sacrifice that their loved ones made for this country.

BLITZER: Yes, good point. Rebecca Berg, how do you see it?

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Bianna, I think, hits the nail on the head. It's absolutely right. And what we have seen from the president, Wolf, has really been a

pattern with President Trump, with this White House. When he feels that he is backed into a corner, he doesn't do the right thing. He doesn't apologize. He doesn't rectify the situation. He goes into attack mode. He gets defensive. He lashes out.

And that's exactly what we have seen in this situation. Instead of taking responsibility for not calling or making the wrong calls or not saying what he should have said to these Gold Star families in their time of great sorrow and mourning, the president has blamed the media. He's blamed Frederica Wilson and Democrats for going after him, in his -- in his mind. And not taking responsibility himself. Not acting like the president of the United States.

And you have to ask, where does the buck stop with President Trump? Because the pattern has been that it does not stop with him. He doesn't take responsibility in these situations.

BLITZER: All right. Everybody stand by. There are other developments we're following right now. We'll resume all of this analysis right after a quick break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:46:03] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: More now on the lengthy and sometimes rather tense questioning today of the Attorney General Jeff Sessions by members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

At one point, Sessions stuck to the original explanation for President Trump's decision to fire the FBI Director James Comey, even though the president himself publicly later contradicted that original account.

David Swerdlick, how effective was Sessions in defending the president's firing of Comey?

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Wolf, in that moment, not very. You know, he did, as you say, stick to this idea that the firing of Director Comey had to do with Secretary Clinton and the e- mail investigation going all the way back to the middle of last year, but then Senator Graham asked him what was sort of an obvious follow- up question. If that was the case, what happened between inauguration day and may that changed when Director Comey was actually fired? Why did it take so long, he asked. The question that wasn't asked is, then why in the president's May 9th letter did he reference the investigation and not Secretary Clinton?

Those questions still remain unanswered by Attorney General Sessions.

BLITZER: You know, Bianna, the attorney general also didn't say that President Trump invoked executive privilege, but at the same time, he refused to detail their conversations. How frustrating was that to members of this committee?

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I don't know what else they could have expected. Clearly, everyone, including Jeff Sessions, knew that the president was watching. He's on thin ice with the president. It's just been a few weeks or months since the president was berating him over twitter on a daily basis.

It seemed we saw multiple versions of the attorney general. He seemed a bit more prepared on broader issues and a bit more relaxed. However, when it came to Russia, and any sort of Russian involvement or who he had met or who he had seen, he was very defensive, especially with his exchange with Senator Al Franken. It was almost as if he was accusing Al Franken in the past of trapping him and making this out to be a bigger situation than it was, his interactions with Russians, and not being forthcoming.

But let's not forget, he recused himself for a reason. So, it wasn't just semantics that maybe I met someone and I didn't disclose I did. He recused himself from anything regarding the Russian investigation for a reason. And so, I think given that, I would have expected a bit more preparation from the attorney general when it came to questions about Russia.

And also, he seemed a bit uncomfortable when he was asked point blank, do you think that enough is being done to combat any sort of Russian interference in future elections. And he said no. It's a serious threat, and not enough is being done.

BLITZER: Very quickly, Phil Mudd, were you surprised that the special counsel Robert Mueller's team has not yet asked Sessions for an interview?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: No. Simple reason why, if you go in a room with him, he's a key witness. You want to box him. That is you want to finish all the investigation on everybody's e- mails, everybody's phone calls, so by the time you walk in the room with him, you have data that allows you to understand whether he is shucking and jiving tonight or not in that conversation, because we know from today that his story changes over time.

Don't interview him until the end of the investigation, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, guys. Stick around. There's more news we're following.

We're about to travel to a remote area of Puerto Rico where we found hurricane victims struggling to survive day by day, a month after the killer storm. This is a CNN exclusive.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:54:00] BLITZER: Now a CNN exclusive. The desperate plight of some Puerto Rico residents a month after Hurricane Maria devastated the island.

CNN's Bill Weir is joining us now live from San Juan.

Bill, you found a very grim situation on one part of the island.

BILL WEIR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's been the case for the last month, Wolf, and we've been trying to sort of chase the recovery efforts and see a status report. So, we went to the western side, Las Marias, where they grow oranges and coffee there. We got up early, flew about 200 feet above the tree line, all the way across the length of the island and really found a tale of two responses.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

AUTOMATED VOICE: Caution, terrain, caution, terrain.

WEIR (voice-over): As dawn brings Maria's one-month anniversary, we head out of San Juan by air and low to the ground.

AUTOMATED VOICE: Terrain, terrain, pull up. Pull up.

WEIR: All the better to see the mudslides, broken bridges, shattered homes. We pass Arecibo, one of the biggest radio telescopes in the world, but we're looking for intelligent signs of life in the western mountains where people have been waiting for help for weeks.

We land and inside Mayaguez Airport, a group of bighearted military veterans has turned baggage claim into a bunk house and operations center.

ERIC CARLSON, WARFIGHTER DHT: I think we're at, like, 30,000 meals, 35,000 meals. And I don't know how many crates --

WEIR (on camera): Wow.

CARLSON: And that's just with the small trucks we've had and by hook or by crook getting supplies.

WEIR: They came down on their own dime and shake their heads in frustration with FEMA. If it were up to them, they would bring in the National Guard, 15,000 at a time on two-week rotations.

CARLSON: I thought you had to pay these guys anyway to sit at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin and for two weeks --

(CROSSTALK)

WEIR: Right, right. Yes.

CARLSON: You're wasting your money.

All of this stuff bringing contractors, these security contractors, riding shotguns on the trucks, I'll get you 5,000 military vets who will do it down here for free.

WEIR (voice-over): We head into the hills in search of answers, but soon get a taste of the logistical headaches here. Maria obliterated this stretch of highway. And with little hope for road crews, the neighbors are building their own bridge.

(on camera): Do you feel like Americans in moments like this? Do you feel taken care of as citizens?

(voice-over): We're not people that say the government must help us, Santiago says. We're all part of humanity. Every person does the best they can.

(on camera): What kind of help are you getting from the outside? Have you seen FEMA or?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We've seen FEMA. We've seen other group. They came from America. They purify the water.

WEIR: Are these the veterans? ? The guys, some are soldiers --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, that's right.

WEIR: We met them at the airport?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, yes, they are beautiful people.

WEIR (voice-over): Thanks to Junie (ph) and his mini-monster truck, we get past yet another mudslide and soon track down one of FEMA's top men on this island.

(on camera): Couldn't you use National Guardsmen in two-week rotations? Are you begging your bosses for more men?

JUSTIN HERNANDEZ, DEPUTY FEDERAL COORDINATING OFFICER: No, I'm not.

WEIR: Why?

HERNANDEZ: Because we have 4,500 National Guardsmen coming in.

WEIR: But just as a point of comparison. Two weeks after the Haiti quake, the U.S. had 22,000 troops on the ground in a foreign company?

HERNANDEZ: I don't know how much we can bring without actually impacting the economy of Puerto Rico. If I keep flooding the place with food and water, when is it that they knock neighbors (ph), are going to open their supermarkets?

WEIR: Is it true that FEMA had a presence in New Orleans for like seven years, right? People were living in FEMA trailers for years.

HERNANDEZ: We were in New Orleans just two years ago and we left 5,000 mobile homes there.

WEIR: Right.

HERNANDEZ: And we were there for seven or eight months, responding there. And we're Florida. And we're in Harvey. And we're going to be in Puerto Rico and now, we are in Virgin Islands also, for as long as it takes.

WEIR: For as long as it takes?

HERNANDEZ: For as long as it takes.

WEIR: Despite what the president says?

HERNANDEZ: You know what? We don't follow -- I don't see TV. So, I don't even pay attention to them. I pay attention to the mission that I have in my heart, which is fixing Puerto Rico.

WEIR: In just a few hours, we've been out shooting, an amazing development here at this abandoned airport, the Air National Guard out of Tennessee and Kentucky has arrived and are militarizing this airport. They tell me off camera they have 500 guys, more are coming. They have been sitting at home for two weeks chomping at the bit to come, but there are so many layers of bureaucratic red tape. They just couldn't pull the trigger.

But the good news is, they're here now. They got supplies and they're going to start pushing them into the mountains as soon as they possibly can.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WEIR: So, a month after, they're finally starting to give numbers the locals are hoping for. And those guys were saying, we were saying goodbye to our kids back in Tennessee every night for two weeks, thinking when we're going to get shipped. And for whatever reason, it didn't happen.

When we talked to those ex-military, the combat vets, they call themselves the Warfighters DRT, disaster response team, these guys see it from the ground up. They see the need first. They see exactly how to help and not from the bureaucracy head down.

So many different agencies, Wolf, here trying to coordinate. Dozens of them, federal, local, different municipalities, and it's just been a thicket of red tape, just as gnarly as any of the devastation left by the hurricane itself.

BLITZER: And a month into this disaster, power, that's still the big problem for so much of the island, right?

WEIR: It is, something like 83 percent of the island is just black. You know, there's no power at all. And so, there's no refrigeration. No air-conditioning, a lot of people, holes in their roofs, so that is the case. And tomorrow, hopefully, we're going to go out with American power crew from Montana that got a surprising bid to rewire this island, to see how fast they can get that juice flowing again.

BLITZER; Bill Weir, thanks very much for what you're doing. The reporting, you and your crew, very, very significant. Appreciate it very much. We look forward to your report tomorrow.

That's it for me.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.