Return to Transcripts main page


President Trump Boasts of U.S. Response to Puerto Rican Disaster; White House Chief of Staff Speaks Out on Trump Statements to Military Family; Interview With Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta; Trump Rates Puerto Rico Hurricane Effort "10 Out of 10". Aired 6-7p ET

Aired October 19, 2017 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news: Stunned. A truly remarkable statement by the president's chief of staff as the controversy over the commander in chief's condolence call rages. Retired General John Kelly says he's stunned by criticism of the president's call to the widow of a fallen U.S. soldier. But will his remarks only fuel the uproar?

Perfect score. President Trump meets with Puerto Rico's governor and scores Washington's response to the island's hurricane disaster as a 10 out of 10. The president says he believes Puerto Ricans are seeing the effort. We will get a reality check from CNN's Bill Weir. He is on the ground and he will join us live from Puerto Rico.

Yes and no. President Trump further muddies the waters surrounding a bipartisan plan for a short-term fix to Obamacare, after flip-flopping several times about his support. Tonight, his legislative director tells CNN the White House will not, repeat, not support the current deal. Is the bipartisan compromise dead?

And public rebuke. Former President George W. Bush denounces bigotry and white supremacy in a thinly veiled swipe at Trumpism. Without mentioning the current president by name, the former president bemoans what he calls the casual cruelty, the bullying, the and nativism.

What is his plea to America's leaders right now?

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, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly inserting himself further into the controversy over President Trump's condolence call to the widow of a U.S. soldier killed in Niger.

The family and a Democratic congresswoman described the president's word as insensitive. Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general and a Gold Star father, tried to calm the uproar with a very emotional and deeply personal remark, saying he was stunned at the criticism of the president's call. He also revealed he advised the president against making it, but also

offered thoughts on what to say.

Meanwhile, Defense Secretary James Mattis says that an investigation is under way right now into the Niger ambush that killed four American soldiers. Critics are voicing frustration at the lack of information, including Senator John McCain, who says a subpoena, a subpoena may be required to learn more about the attack.

Mattis is said to be privately discouraged about the lack of details but he says publicly that accurate information will eventually be released as soon as it's available.

Also tonight, President Trump is rating the federal response to Puerto Rico's hurricane disaster in Puerto Rico a 10 out of 10. The island's governor was over at the White House today to discuss continued urgent needs. More than three-quarters of the island still without electricity a month after the hurricane hit.

We will go live to Puerto Rico this hour for an exclusive look at the effort to restore desperately needed power.

We're covering all of that and much more this hour with our guests, including former Defense Secretary, former CIA Director Leon Panetta. And our correspondents and specialists are also standing by.

But let's begin with the breaking news out of the White House, the very rare and truly remarkable statement by the White House chief of staff, John Kelly, about President Trump's condolence calls.

Our senior White House correspondent, Jeff Zeleny, has the very latest.

Jeff, the president and his team clearly want to move on from this controversy.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, there's no question that the White House is eager to turn the page on this and Chief of Staff John Kelly, though, is eager to set the record straight.

You could see the emotion in his face and you could hear the emotion in his face as he talked about his own son's military death and then went on to blast a Florida congresswoman.


ZELENY (voice-over): White House Chief of Staff John Kelly forcefully defending President Trump's call to the widow of an American soldier killed in Niger.

JOHN KELLY, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: So, he called four people the other day, and expressed his condolences in the best way that he could.

And he said to me, what do I say? I said to him, sir, there's nothing you can do to lighten the burden on these families.

ZELENY: Trying to defuse a firestorm the president himself sparked this week, Kelly said he guided the commander in chief through condolence calls to families of four troops killed two weeks ago in an ambush.

KELLY: let me tell you what I tell them. Let me tell you what my best friend, Joe Dunford, told me, because he was my casualty officer. He said, Kel, he was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1 percent.


ZELENY: The president's call Tuesday to Myeshia Johnson, the pregnant widow of Sergeant La David Johnson, stirred controversy after the soldier's mother, as well as Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, said Mr. Trump disrespected Sergeant Johnson by saying "He knew what he signed up for."

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Did not say what the congresswoman said. Didn't say it at all. She knows it.

ZELENY: Kelly blasted the congresswoman for recounting the president's private conversation, but he sought to explain the president's words, not retract them.

KELLY: I was stunned when I came to work yesterday morning and brokenhearted at what I saw a member of Congress doing, a member of Congress who listened in on a phone call from the president of the United States to a young wife, and in his way tried to express that opinion that he's a brave man, a fallen hero.

He knew what he was getting himself into, because he enlisted. There's no reason to enlist. He enlisted. And he was where he wanted to be, exactly where he wanted to be, with exactly the people he wanted to be with when his life was taken.

ZELENY: Kelly spoke as a retired four-star Marine general and a Gold Star father whose son Robert was killed in Afghanistan seven years ago. His son's death was injected into the controversy after he told Mr. Trump that President Obama never called him after his son died. It was Mr. Trump who made that private conversation public.

TRUMP: He asked me about previous presidents, and I said I can tell you that President Obama, who was my commander in chief when I was on active duty, did not call my family. That was not a criticism. That was just to simply say, I don't believe President Obama called. That's not a negative thing.

ZELENY: What Kelly did not say during today's extraordinary White House briefing was that President Trump first injected politics in the Rose Garden on Monday.

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

ZELENY: Kelly's voice cracked with emotion as he spoke about the week-long controversy, but would not answer questions about the president's role in it.

KELLY: When I listened to this woman and what she was saying and what she was doing on TV, the only thing I could do to collect my thoughts was to go and walk among the finest men and women on this earth. And you can always find them, because they're in Arlington National Cemetery.

I went over there for an hour-and-a-half, walked among the stones, some of whom I put there, because they were doing what I told them to do when they were killed.

ZELENY: His appearance in the Briefing Room was an attempt by the White House to turn the page from what has because an unseemly debate. It came after the president met with the governor of Puerto Rico and gave himself a perfect grade on the government's response to the hurricane-ravaged island.

TRUMP: I would say it was a 10.

ZELENY: The president went well beyond defending the administration, and three times gave the government top marks.

TRUMP: There's never been anything like that. I give ourselves a 10.

ZELENY: That conflicts with the reality on the ground, where less than one-quarter of the island has power and nearly one-third of people have no drinking water one month after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico.


ZELENY: So the congresswoman, Wolf, has not yet responded to our questions about what she has to say about the White House chief of staff, but taken altogether, Wolf, I'm struck by the president said he did not say those words.

Chief of Staff John Kelly today said in fact the president did say those words. He said they were misconstrued, and he said that he was furious at the congresswoman for listening in on them in the first place. He said, Wolf, that should have been a sacred conversation -- Wolf.

BLITZER: CNN's Jeff Zeleny over at the White House, thanks very much.

The controversy over the president's calls to Gold Star families follows the deaths of those four U.S. soldiers in Niger, and that ambush is now under investigation.

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

The Pentagon facing some serious criticism so far for a lack of answers.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Listen, it's been 15 days now since this deadly raid, where these four soldiers were killed, and even some of the most basic questions haven't been answered.

The exact time of the raid, when the White House was notified of this raid and the deaths of those soldiers, but also bigger questions, the circumstances of how and why that fourth soldier, Sergeant La David Johnson, was left behind, whatever language you would use, even though General Kelly from the White House podium today suggested that he knows, that he has some classified information that he hasn't shared yet.

This as we are reporting that General Mattis himself not satisfied with the questions he's getting from inside the Pentagon.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): Tonight, the head of the U.S. military is demanding answers on the deadliest U.S. combat mission of the Trump administration.

JAMES MATTIS, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: The loss of our troops is under investigation. We in the Department of Defense like to know what we are talking about before we talk, and so we do not have all of the accurate information yet. We will release it as rapidly as we get it.


SCIUTTO: Two weeks after the ambush, Defense Secretary James Mattis, officials say, is discouraged by the lack of information he's received from his own people on the ISIS attack in Niger that killed four U.S. soldiers and injured two more.

The 12-member U.S. Army team was meeting villagers in a town on the Niger/Mali border. They were walking back to their vehicles, which were not armored, when up to 50 ISIS-affiliated fighters attacked them with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. The Americans fought back, but were only armed with light weapons, such as rifles.

STEVE WARREN, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: There had been nearly 30 trips along this route already, so they had reason to believe that they were in a permissive environment.

SCIUTTO: After 30 minutes, French aircraft flew by to try to disperse the attackers from the air and later to evacuate the wounded.

The U.S. had to rely on a private contractor to airlift out the dead. In the chaos, Sergeant La David Johnson was separated from the team and left behind. Commanders launched a large joint U.S.-Nigerian and French search and rescue operation; 48 hours later, Nigerian troops recovered his body.

Today, Secretary Mattis attempted to answer hard questions about what went wrong. For one, why the military's own intelligence assessed it was unlikely the team would run into enemy forces.

MATTIS: This specific case, contact was considered unlikely, but there's a reason we have U.S. Army soldiers there and not the Peace Corps, because we carry guns, and so it's a reality. It's part of the danger that our troops face in these counterterrorist campaigns, but, remember, we do these missions by, with and through allies. It is often dangerous.

SCIUTTO: And as the families grieve, another question. Why was a U.S. soldier left behind on the battlefield?

MATTIS: The U.S. military does not leave its troops behind. And I would just ask that you not question the actions of the troops who were caught in the firefight and question whether or not they did everything they could in order to bring everyone out at once.


SCIUTTO: John Kelly faced another hard question about the Niger mission, which is why are U.S. forces there? And this was his answer.

He said that U.S. forces there in an advise-and-assist for Nigerian forces so that, in his words, thousands of U.S. soldiers and Marines don't have to go in their place.

As you know, that's a strategy that the U.S. has used in Afghanistan, Libya and many other countries. It's worked in some places, hasn't worked as well in other places here. Of course, here, we lost four soldiers, including Sergeant La David Johnson.

BLITZER: Yes, General Mattis, the defense secretary, says about 1,000 U.S. troops are in Niger right now.

Jim Sciutto, reporting for us, thank you very much.

Now back to the very dramatic and very emotional new developments, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, himself a Gold Star father, revealing that he advised President Trump against calling the families of the fallen soldiers, but also offered advice on what to say.


KELLY: He called four people the other day, and expressed his condolences in the best way that he could.

And he said to me, what do I say?

I said to him, sir, there's nothing you can do to lighten the burden on these families. But let me tell you what I tell them. Let me tell you what my best friend, Joe Dunford, told me, because he was my casualty officer. He said, Kel, he was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1 percent. He knew what the possibilities were, because we're at war.

And when he died -- and the four cases we're talking about Niger, in my son's case, in Afghanistan -- when he died, he was surrounded by the best men on this earth, his friends.

That's what the president tried to say to four families the other day.


BLITZER: Powerful words.

Joining us now with more on the breaking news, the former Defense Secretary, the former CIA Director Leon Panetta.

Mr. Secretary, thanks for joining us.

And I just want our viewers to know you worked with General Kelly when you were defense secretary. He was still on active duty as a four- star Marine Corps general. What did you think of what General Kelly chose to do today, come out and make that very emotional and very powerful statement?

LEON PANETTA, FORMER U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Well, Wolf, I have a lot of respect for John Kelly. He was my military aide when I was secretary of defense. He's a great Marine. He's somebody who has served in combat.


He absolutely understands what it means to lose a loved in battle and understands the compassion that has to be shown to these families that lose a loved one. So, I understand where John was coming from.

He is, at the same time, chief of staff. And I think he was trying to do some damage repair here on this whole issue, which has just gotten blown in a hundred different directions. What's happened here is we have lost the main focus, and the main focus should be on those brave and courageous soldiers that lose their lives in the line of duty, and it should be on those families who have lost a loved one.

That's where the focus ought to be. And, very frankly, we have lost that focus because of the politics of the moment.

BLITZER: I want you to watch, Mr. Secretary, another part of that statement, another part of the news conference in the Briefing Room that General Kelly had.


KELLY: It stuns me that a member of Congress would have listened in on that conversation, absolutely stuns me. And I thought at least that was sacred. You know, when I was a kid growing up, a lot of things were sacred in our country. Women were sacred, looked upon with great honor. That's obviously not the case anymore, as we see from recent cases.

Life, the dignity of life was sacred. That's gone. Religion, that seems to be gone as well. Gold Star families, I think that left in the convention over the summer.

I just thought the selfless devotion that brings a man or woman to die on the battlefield, I just thought that that might be sacred.


BLITZER: As you know, the DNC, Democratic Committee Convention, had Khizr Khan, a Gold Star father, speak at the Democratic Convention. But President Trump went after the Khans for that criticism.

What do you make of that?

PANETTA: You know, I understand what John is saying. He's from Boston.

He's from a family that has had its roots in Boston and had its roots in the values of this country. But I also want to say that I don't think we have lost sight of the sacred duty that men and women perform who are in uniform and fight and die for this country.

Frankly, that's one of our great blessings. And I don't think we ought to demean that in any way. The fact is, it's sacred. It's one of the best things that we have going for us in the United States. And I would hope the president, his chief of staff and everyone in the Congress this recognize that we owe these men and women a great debt, and that we really ought to move on from this kind of politicizing of this issue, move on and try to figure out how we protect their lives in the future by avoiding the kind of wars that we have seen in the past.

BLITZER: Was General Kelly today politicizing this issue?

PANETTA: Well, you know, he's chief of staff to the president. He's doing damage control.

I think, in the end, when you engage with a congresswoman, one way or the other, it becomes politics, whether you like it or not. That's the reality.

BLITZER: But do you think the president pushed him, told him, go out there, go into the Briefing Room and do this?

PANETTA: I'm not so sure.

I think, look, I understand where John's coming from, and I think he probably, in many ways, was saddened by the fact that this whole debate began from the beginning. I believe that he really does understand that this is the wrong place and the wrong time to kind of raise these kinds of issues.

But the fact is, it happens. And I honestly believe that John probably did this pretty much on his own. But, again, he did it as chief of staff to the president, a president who began this issue by commenting on what past presidents did or did not do in talking to the loved ones of those that had lost their heroes in battle.

I think that was the wrong thing to say at the time. And, very frankly, I think we ought to drop it, move on, and deal with the real issues that involve the national security of this country. BLITZER: But would any -- I think you agree, none of this would have

been even discussed if President Trump hadn't tried to compare himself to previous presidents, brought up -- and, actually it was the president who brought up General Kelly's own loss, right?



No, I think that was the problem here. I think this president has a habit of, when he feels like he's on the spot and when he feels he's being asked something that is uncomfortable, looks to scapegoats to try to somehow excuse his behavior.

And that causes trouble, and it caused trouble in this situation. And now it's been politicized. And I really do think that we ought to go back to the main focus, which ought to be our men and women in uniform that bravely put their lives on the line. That's what we ought to think about.

And to some extent, I will tell you, this whole controversy, I don't particularly like this controversy because of the way it's handled and the kind of accusations that are being made.

But, in the end, if it makes Americans understand that there are men and women in uniform that are fighting and dying, and we have to realize that, sometimes we forget that -- that probably is a good thing.

BLITZER: General Kelly was also asked about the attack in Niger that killed those four U.S. soldiers.

What does it say to you that the defense secretary, James Mattis, and you were once a defense secretary, is openly disappointed by the information, the quality information, the accurate information that he's getting about this ISIS attack?

PANETTA: Well, you know, I can understand what Jim Mattis is feeling right now, because you lose four people in battle, and you wonder what the hell happened, and you want to find out.

And so I'm glad they are doing an investigation here. The fact is, we have special forces operating out of AFRICOM in that part of the world. They are fighting terrorism, whether it's Boko Haram Al- Shabaab or ISIS. And in this case, it was ISIS.

But the fact is, these are dangerous areas. And there's no question in my mind that there was an intelligence breakdown here. They did not know that there was ISIS in the area. There turned out to be 50 of them who opened fire on our forces. They were told that everything was OK.

And so I do think an investigation needs to finds out, what happened with the intelligence? Why was it that this one individual was, for whatever reason, left behind? And, thirdly, why do we not have our own U.S. airpower covering our forces? I think when you're operating in those regions, you need to have U.S. air cover and air protection.

BLITZER: Well, you know, because it is really -- and I'm a former Pentagon correspondent. You're a former defense secretary. You send these Green Beret troops, these U.S. Army specialists out into a dangerous area with only rifles, and the airpower that they have, these French Mirage jets, they are not even allowed, according to the Niger government, they are not even allowed to launch strikes.

They can only fly over and try to scare these ISIS terrorists. They can't fire at them. That sounds incredibly ridiculous.


When I read that, that we have got French airpower there and that all they can do is fly over and not engage with the enemy, I was astounded, because, very frankly, this is dangerous territory. We're fighting dangerous terrorists who will not hesitate to shoot and kill our men and women in uniform.

And if you're putting our troops in that kind of situation, I just think you have to back them up, not only with good intelligence to make sure they know where the enemy is, but also to give them the air support that would come in and help protect them when a firefight breaks out.

BLITZER: And, you know, General Mattis, the defense secretary, today said there was about 1,000 U.S. troops in Niger. This is a clearly a dangerous operation. They don't have airpower. No U.S. warplanes are allowed in there.

They've got some French Mirages that can't launch any support, can't launch strikes. If you were defense secretary right now, Mr. Secretary, what would you do?

PANETTA: Well, look, I think it's important that we have special forces there. We are fighting ISIS. We are fighting terrorism.

This is a war that we have engaged in since 9/11. We haven't defeated them, even though we have had some success against ISIS in Mosul and Raqqa. We're still going to be fighting ISIS in different parts of that region, if not the world.


And so deploying our special forces makes sense. But you can't deploy them without the backup they need in order to make sure that we're able to fulfill the mission that they're involved with.

BLITZER: We've got to take a break, a quick break. We're going to have a lot more.

But, very quickly, some have suggested, for the Trump administration, this is Benghazi. Do you agree? PANETTA: Well, you know, I was offended that Benghazi became a

political football, in which we lost sight of the people who lost their lives there.

I hope this doesn't become a political football, because, very frankly, what we ought to focus on is the lives that were lost and what do we do to make sure that doesn't happen again.

BLITZER: We have got a lot more to discuss, Mr. Secretary, including the incredibly tense situation on the Korean Peninsula right now.

We will take a quick break. We will resume our conversation right after this.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: A very grim new assessment with North Korea as the tensions between the Kim Jong-un regime and the U.S. escalate.

[18:30:58] We're back with former defense secretary, former CIA director Leon Panetta.

Mr. Secretary, one of your colleagues, the former CIA director John Brennan, yesterday seemed to estimate that the chances of an actual military conflict with North Korea are now either one in four or one in five. Do you think the chances are that high?

LEON PANETTA, FORMER DEFENSE SECRETARY: You know, I hate to put odds on whether or not we're going to be in a nuclear war. That -- that strikes me as -- as really taking a shot in the dark.

I mean, the reality is, the tensions have gone up. The reality is that we have had an exchange of rhetoric between the leader of North Korea and the United States that I think has increased tensions there between North Korea and South Korea and the United States.

But as to whether or not, you know, we, in fact, will have a war and what are the chances of war, I think a lot still depends on whether or not there is diplomatic leadership on the part of the United States, working with our allies, to try to determine whether or not there isn't a way to try to avoid that kind of horrible conflict that would take place.

So I'm still betting that if we squeeze North Korea, increase the sanctions, that we'll have a better chance of trying to, hopefully, bring them to a negotiating table.

BLITZER: When President Trump visits South Korea next month, part of an Asian tour, there's a discussion now whether he should actually visit the Demilitarized Zone. You've been up to the Demilitarized Zone that separates North and South Korea. What do you think? What advice do you give him? Do you think he should actually go up there?

PANETTA: I'd be very careful about doing that, only because, you know, it could be an incendiary move in terms of how the North Koreans react to that. And right now we don't need to engage in that kind of effort.

I do think that it would be important for the president to visit South Korea, to visit Japan, to visit our allies, to reinforce that relationship; to visit China and put additional pressure on China with regards to that conflict. But as to visiting the 38th Parallel, I'd be very careful and try to at least get the best intelligence possible as to what the ramifications might be of such a visit.

BLITZER: Yes. I think you make some good points, as you always do. Mr. Secretary, Leon Panetta, thanks very much for joining us.

PANETTA: Good to be with you.

BLITZER: All right. There's more breaking news coming up. More on the remarkable and emotional defense of President Trump's condolence call by the White House chief of staff, General John Kelly, and his reaction to criticism by a Democratic lawmaker.


GEN. JOHN KELLY, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: It stuns me that a member of Congress would have listened in on that conversation. Absolutely stuns me.


[18:37:58] BLITZER: We're following breaking news. A truly remarkable statement by President Trump's White House chief of staff, trying to calm the controversy over the president's condolence call to the widow of an American soldier killed in Niger.

Retired U.S. Marine Corps General John Kelly, who lost his own son in Afghanistan back in 2010, says he first advised the president not to make the call, but he also offered advice on what to say.


KELLY: He said to me, "What do I say?"

I said to him, "Sir, there's nothing you can do to lighten the burden on these families. But let me tell you what I told them and let me tell you what my best friend, Joe Dunphy, told me, because he was my casually officer. He said, 'Kell, he was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1 percent. He knew what the possibilities were, because we're at war. And when he died -- and the four cases we're talking about in Niger and my son's case in Afghanistan -- when he died, he was surrounded by the best men on this earth, his friends.'" That's what the president tried to say to four families the other day.

[18:40:21] I was stunned when I came to work yesterday morning and broken-hearted at what I saw a member of Congress doing. A member of Congress who listened in on a phone call from the president of the United States to a young wife. And in his way, tried to express that opinion, that he's a brave man, a fallen hero. He knew what he was getting himself into, because he enlisted. There's no reason to enlist. He enlisted. And he was where he wanted to be, exactly where he wanted to be and with exactly the people he wanted to be with when his life was taken.

That was the message. That was the message that was transmitted.

It stuns me that a member of Congress would have listened in on that conversation. Absolutely stuns me.


BLITZER: Let's get some more with our correspondents and analysts right now.

And John Kirby, you know General Kelly. You worked with General Kelly at the Pentagon. What do you make of his appearance today?

JOHN KIRBY, CNN DIPLOMATIC AND MILITARY ANALYST: I can tell you it's not something that he would have wanted to do, and it was gut- wrenching to watch, crushing really, to listen to him have to go through that. I can -- I can just imagine how painful that was for him to have to talk about his son and his own loss in that very personal way. And there's nobody I know more credible on the pain and suffering that Gold Star families go through like John Kelly, and that certainly came across there.

I was, though, Wolf, sorry to see that the press conference and his comments got as political as they did, especially towards the end and his takedown of Representative Wilson. I think we need to remember, she knows this family. She was in that car. The phone was on speaker. It's not like she wiretapped this call. They wanted her there. They wanted her to listen to it. And I think we need to keep that in mind.

I also think it's really important -- he talked about the message that was transmitted to those families, and I get it. And I've heard those words before inside the military. But transmission of a message isn't receipt, and we need to at least allow for the possibility that a young 24-year-old woman with two kids and one on the way just became a widow. Her whole life is devastated. Is going to hear those words a little differently than when he did when he was an active-duty, three- star general hearing it from another general friend. I think we just need to allow for that.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: And he also kept saying, "This is what the president tried to say." He said he said it in his own way. And we don't know exactly how the president said it or what exactly he said and clearly wasn't interpreted that way. It clearly wasn't.

BLITZER: You know, Kaitlan, you cover the White House on a day-to-day basis. Do we know why General Kelly decided to come out and deliver that powerful statement today?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I think it's pretty clear that the only person in that White House who was qualified to come out and answer these kinds of questions was John Kelly, because not only does he have the credibility of being a four-star Marine general, but he has the experience of someone who has gone through something so devastating like this.

And also he was brought into this situation by the president when he invoked his son and implied that Barack Obama had not called the Kelly family when his son Robert Kelly died, which John Kelly confirmed today. He said he didn't mean that as a criticism when he said that he hadn't call. He just stated that he hadn't called.

But I think both things can be true here. I think the president could have called Sergeant La David Johnson's wife and tried to convey the sense of grief and empathy to her; and I think it can also be -- which is what John Kelly just defended right there by saying he was trying to say what Joseph Dunford had said to him -- but I think it can also be true that the wife received it in a much different manner. I mean, she was at the airport about -- when her husband's remains were being brought in.

So I think both of those things can be true, and it could have been a mixed message.

BLITZER: Jeffrey, I just want -- I just want you to weigh in. How did you see it?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I think it's also worth remembering what started this whole controversy.

BORGER: Right.

TOOBIN: And as you were doing the introduction, I was thinking, like, "What planet are we on?" You said, "The controversy over the president's condolence calls." Like -- like what country has controversy over condolence calls?

I mean, it just -- it's an example of what a surreal moment we are in.

But remember what started this was when President Obama -- I'm sorry. President Trump made false statements about President Obama's practices with regard to Gold Star families.

I mean, it wasn't -- like, no one told Donald Trump to make these false statements. No -- and can you -- you saw how Obama's staff was -- was enraged by this, because this is something, you know, he took seriously, as virtually all presidents take seriously.

So, you know, yes, maybe there was some misinterpretation of what went on in this particular phone call, but there's no misinterpretation that Donald Trump made false statements about Barack Obama's practices in this area.

BORGER: And what -- General Kelly did not do today is talk about how he felt when the president injected his son into this entire conversation, when he said it was on talk radio to ask General Kelly because he didn't -- you know, he didn't get the phone call. I doubt that General Kelly was pleased that his private conversation with the president about what happened during his own grief was made public and now he had to go out there and do a little bit of cleanup for the president which is what he was doing.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: A very significant day. Jeffrey, let me back to you because we also heard from two former presidents today. I want to play for you a clip. This is President Obama today. He's out in the campaign trail in New Jersey, trying to help the Democratic candidate there for governor, and he took a swipe at President Trump without mentioning, of course, his name. Listen to this.


BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT: But what we can't have is the same old politics of division that we have seen so many times before that dates back centuries. Some of the politics we see now, we thought we put that to bed. I mean, that's called looking 50 years back. It's the 21st century. Not the 19th century.


BLITZER: Yes. Jeffrey, I want your reaction.

TOOBIN: I remember him. I thought he was in the witness protection program.

It's just so startling. He has really disappeared as a public figure and, you know, I think Democrats are going to be very glad to see him again because it is a party without a clear leader and he remains certainly very popular among Democrats and probably certainly compared to the incumbent president, is very popular. And, you know, in his indirect way, I don't think anyone can mistake who he's talking about.

BLITZER: All right. Let me play a clip from another former president, George W. Bush, also criticizing Trumpism.

Kaitlan, listen to this, without mentioning the president's name.


GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT: We've seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty. At times, it can seem like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together. Argument turns too easily into animosity. Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions, forgetting the image of God we should see in each other. We've seen nationalism distorted into nativism.


BLITZER: Pretty strong words from him as well.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: It was a remarkable speech that we listened to earlier from that former president because though he did not mention the current president's name, a lot of those remarks were directed to him as he spoke about bullying and instilling these civic values and how do you instill them in children if you don't live up to them yourself? And also about rejecting white supremacy and bigotry. And it reminded me of a statement that George Bush and his father both

put out after those deadly clashes in Charlottesville after President Trump said there was violence on both sides. Now, they didn't name Trump in that statement either, but they were clearly talking to him, saying that you must reject this, you must reject anti-Semitism, and all of those things. But that was a very stunning speech from him, those thinly veiled remarks at Trump because we rarely saw him say anything, if ever, when President Obama was in office.

BLITZER: Very stunning indeed.

All right, guys. Stand by. There's much more ahead, including President Trump seeking praise from Puerto Rico's governor in response to the hurricane disaster and gives his own administration a 10 out of 10. We're going to go live to the island for a reality check.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: When we came in, did we do a good job? Military, first responders, FEMA, did we do a great job?



[18:53:56] BLITZER: More than three quarters of Puerto Rico is still without power tonight, a month of Hurricane Maria ravaged the island. Its governor over at the White House today as President Trump praised the federal disaster response.


TRUMP: I'd tell you it was a ten. I'd say it was probably the most difficult when you talk about relief, when you talk about search, when you talk about all of the different levels. And even when you talk about lives saved, you look at the number. I mean, this was, I think it was worse than Katrina. It was, in many ways, worse than anything people have ever seen.


BLITZER: CNN's Bill Weir is in San Juan for us tonight.

He's been spending a lot of time in Puerto Rico.

Bill, the president rates the federal response a ten out of ten. What do you rate the federal response and do residents in Puerto Rico there seem to agree with the president?

BILL WEIR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I won't put a 1-10 on it. I give you these numbers, imagine if Donald Trump tried to sell an apartment building where 80 percent of the apartments had no power and over half had no water.

[18:55:06] There are about 2.6 million Americans in the dark here in Puerto Rico tonight. So, power is very much on the minds of the people.

So, I went in search of answers and I started in a place you might recognize.


WEIR (voice-over): It is the most popular music video, ever. Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee's "Despacito has been viewed on YouTube over 4 billion times.

(on camera): But most of that massive audience probably didn't realize the video was shot in one of the most notorious neighborhoods in all of Puerto Rico. Welcome to La Perla.

For years, this place was written off as being drug and gang-infested. Community organizers fought against that stigma. Hasn't been a murder here in six years.

And then came "Despacito". And suddenly, this rough side of town was a tourist destination. And the economy started to blow up. People felt good. But then came Maria.

Now, you've got an outbreak of conjunctivitis among the children. The clinic is without power. There's no roof on the school. And there is no hope that help is coming anytime soon.

(voice-over): Tourists wanted to come here, she tells me. They came from Africa, China, South America. After Maria, nobody comes. It's like a ghost town.

(on camera): So, the doctors will see people in the dark here?

(voice-over): Dr. Rosita shows me around a powerless hospital where cardiograms and electronic medical records are worthless.

(on camera): Is it true that Luis Fonsi donated a generator? Five generators.

(voice-over): They are trying to get it installed, but they are going to the mayor's office to fill out paperwork, she tells me.

(on camera): You need permission? Oh my gosh.

(voice-over): The excited scramble for a single bag of ice is proof that potable water and power are still elusive luxuries over a month after Maria, which puts enormous pressure on the men paid to electrify Puerto Rico.

(on camera): There are powerless hospitals, (INAUDIBLE) homes depending on power that runs through those lines over there. That's the artery, the main spinal column of a power system. Maria devastated it, crushed it.

So, how do you fix it? Guys like Troy and Nick, guys who aren't afraid of heights and you send them up to heal the lines. (voice-over): They are journey linemen contracted by Whitefish

Energy, a small, 2-year-old company out of Montana. They raised a lot of eyebrows when they were given a $300 million contract without any input from the Army Corps of Engineers.

(on camera): You know the headline down here for a couple of days was, how the hell did you get the contract? You are a brand-new company, right?

ANDREW TECHMANSAKI, CEO, WHITEFISH ENERGY HOLDINGS: We have been around for a few years. You know, we specialize in difficult and mountainous terrain projects. So, all I can say is we took the call. And we're here.

WEIR: They called you?

TECHMANSAKI: We called each other.

WEIR: He struck a deal with the PREPA, the publicly owned utility, notorious for high prices, rolling blackouts and a $9 billion debt.

Is it a risk for you as a businessman to take this big?

TECHMANSAKI: It's a risk. It's a risk. But, you know, when you come down here and see what I see and you have that skill set that can have an immediate impact on the people here, it becomes a mission. So, we --

WEIR: Not just a job.

TECHMANSAKI: It's not a job. It became a mission.

WEIR: How long before juice is flowing through these?

TECHMANSAKI: It's a good question. And we hope to have this line up in the next three to four days.

WEIR: The governor is promising 95 percent power back by Christmas.


WEIR: Is that reasonable? Is it a (INAUDIBLE)

TECHMANSAKI: It's going to take a lot of people to reach that deadline.

WEIR: A lot more?

TECHMANSAKI: A lot more than we have today.

WEIR: Than we have here today. Yes.

(voice-over): Whitefish says they have 300 linemen on the island with 700 on the way, while they wait for bucket trucks and bulldozers still stuck in Florida ports.

(on camera): You're welcome.

(voice-over): So, it is anyone's guess as to when they will have the lights back on La Perla. Until then, there is little to do but take care of each other. The kids with no school, the elderly with no hospital and they clean up just in case the tourists ever decide to come back.


WEIR: Now, Whitefish isn't the only power company working. Today, there was another big multimillion dollar contract awarded to a much more established company. Marco Rubio, the senator, says they are trying to figure out the plan to get power back to the island, Wolf, more than a month after the storm.

BLITZER: Bill Weir, great reporting for us. We'll see you back here tomorrow as well.

That's it for me. Thanks for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.