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Interview With Maryland Senator Ben Cardin; President Trump in South Korea; Authorities Investigate Texas Church Massacre; Election Day; Standing By For Polls to Close in Virginia. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired November 7, 2017 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news: Election night. All political eyes on the governor's race in Virginia, where polls close in less than an hour. With President Trump's approval rating hovering at a record low, will his backing help push the Republican candidate to victory?

Implicating others. President Trump's close confidant and former bodyguard is questioned in the congressional Russia probe. And now we're learning new details of what former campaign adviser Carter Page told investigators about more Russian contacts. Did his testimony incriminate anyone?

Tone shift. President Trump tamps down his rhetoric around North Korea just hours before a major speech he will give only miles from the Kim regime's doorstep. We will get reaction in a live report this hour from inside North Korea. It's a CNN exclusive.

And calling it insane. President Trump's nominee for a top Pentagon post speaks out about the Texas church massacre, saying it's insane that a civilian can buy a semiautomatic weapon like the one the gunman used. Tonight, we're learning new details about his disturbing past, including his escape from a mental health center.

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 final ballots are being cast in an election seen as a test of President Trump's popularity and influence amid his plummeting approval rating.

Polls close right at the top of the next hour, where voters are choosing their next governor. President Trump has been tweeting his support of Republican candidate Ed Gillespie, who shares many positions with the president, but has kept his distance from him as well.

Tonight, President Trump also is in South Korea, where he will deliver a major prime-time address from the country's National Assembly, just a few dozen miles from the border with North Korea. The president has taken a much less fiery tone toward the Kim Jong-un regime since arriving in South Korea and is expected to use his speech tonight to reassure the country he's committed to preventing war.

And there are new questions emerging tonight about the Trump campaign's relations with Russia, following the release of testimony by former foreign policy adviser Carter Page before the House Intelligence Committee. Page revealed previously unknown contacts he had with Russian officials during that 2016 trip to Moscow and he testified he told top campaign officials all about that.

We're covering all of that, much more this hour with our guests, including the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Ben Cardin.

And our correspondents and specialists are also standing by.

But let's begin with President Trump's major prime-time speech in South Korea scheduled to begin in just a few hours.

Our White House correspondent, Sara Murray, is traveling with the president. She's in Seoul.

Sara, ahead of the president's speech, the president is now talking negotiations, rather than war.


And all the more reason people are going to be closely parsing the president's words in this address. Will we get this bombastic President Trump we're used to seeing stateside, or the more measured tone we have heard from him in the last 24 hours?


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: North Korea is a worldwide threat that requires worldwide action.

MURRAY (voice-over): President Trump aiming to send a muscular signal to North Korea.

TRUMP: The United States stands prepared to defend itself and its allies using the full range of our unmatched military capabilities, if need be.

MURRAY: Even as the commander in chief known for his fiery rhetoric dialled it back in a visit to the nation with the most at stake.

TRUMP: I really believe that it makes sense for North Korea to come to the table and to make a deal that's good for the people of North Korea and the people of the world.

MURRAY: Appearing alongside South Korean President Moon Jae-in after the two men shared tea with their wives and took part in a ceremonial friendship walk, Trump offered a rosier take on diplomatic efforts. TRUMP: We sent three of the largest aircraft carriers in the world.

And they're right now positioned. We have a nuclear submarine also positioned. We have many things happening that we hope, we hope -- in fact, I will go a step further -- we hope to God we never have to use.

MURRAY: For a president who once took to Twitter to suggest his secretary of state was wasting his time trying to negotiate with lil' Rocket Man, it was a sharp change in tone.

There was no taunting North Korean leader Kim Jong-un with disparaging nicknames, no threats of fire and fury, though the president did leap at the opportunity to blame his predecessors for the diplomatic conundrum he now faces.


TRUMP: This is a problem, by the way, that should have been done over the last 25 years, not now. This is not the right time to be doing it, but that's what I got. That's what I got.

MURRAY: But even when his attention trained on international threats, Trump wasn't able to avoid questions about the latest horror at home.

TRUMP: Well, you know, you're bringing up a situation that probably shouldn't be discussed too much right now. We can let a little time go by, but it's OK if you feel that that's an appropriate question.

MURRAY: Trump didn't acknowledge the Air Force's admission that it failed to inform the FBI of the killer's domestic violence conviction and he insisted additional gun control measures wouldn't have prevented the mass shooting at a Texas church.

TRUMP: There would have been no difference three days ago, and you might not have had that very brave person who happened to have a gun or a rifle in his truck go out and shoot him and hit him and neutralize him.

And I can only say this. If he didn't have a gun, instead of having 26 dead, you would have had hundreds more dead.


MURRAY: Now, this is a president who certainly has not shied away from setting off policy debates in the wake of other tragedies. But he certainly seemed reluctant to weigh in on the issue of gun control -- back to you, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Sara, thanks very much, Sara Murray traveling with the president in Seoul, South Korea.

We're also following new developments in the congressional investigations into Russian election interference.

Let's go to our senior congressional correspondent, Manu Raju. He's up on Capitol Hill with late-developing information.

Manu, newly released testimony by Trump campaign adviser, Carter Page raising lots and lots of new questions.


This after Carter Page had said publicly for months that his trip to Moscow last year was not campaign-related and he did not meet with any Russian officials. It turned out, according to his testimony, that he did interact with at least one senior Kremlin official and he kept senior Trump campaign officials in the loop about his trip.

Now, at the same time, at this hour, Wolf, one of President Trump's closest confidants is getting grilled behind the scenes.


RAJU (voice-over): Tonight, the congressional investigations into Russia meddling move closer to President Trump. His longtime body man, Keith Schiller, grilled today by House investigators about Trump's interactions with Russians before he became president, as well as the president's firing of FBI Director James Comey.

When it happened, CNN captured the moment Schiller delivered the letter to the FBI.

And the president's eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., soon could have his turn to answer questions about his June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower, where Russians promised dirt on the Clinton campaign.

The Russian lawyer at the meeting suggested this week that Trump Jr. signaled his father was open to rethinking Russian sanctions if elected, something that has drawn attention on Capitol Hill.

(on camera): What's your reaction to that?

SEN. MARK WARNER (D), VIRGINIA: Well, we have still got a couple of additional people to talk to. And then we hope to talk to Mr. Donald Trump Jr.

RAJU: And when do you think that may happen?


RAJU (voice-over): At the same time, Carter Page, a former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser, once again in the spotlight after the House Intelligence Committee released more than 200 Pages of his testimony from last week.

Many questions centered on a July 2016 trip he took to Moscow.

CARTER PAGE, FORMER TRUMP FOREIGN POLICY ADVISER: It was terrific to have the opportunity to help clear the record.

RAJU: Page had repeatedly said that his trip to Moscow was not campaign-related and he didn't meet with any Russian officials.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: So, you say you only met with academics essentially when you were on your trip to Russia?

PAGE: And a few businesspeople who I had known for over a decade, yes.

RAJU: But Page's testimony tells a different story, saying he interacted with the Russian deputy prime minister, Arkady Dvorkovich, and he wrote an e-mail to the Trump campaign last July that he gained some incredible insights and outreach from a few Russian legislators and senior members of the president's administration here.

He even floated the idea that Trump travel to Russia. Plus, he acknowledged a meeting with a top executive with the energy giant Rosneft, this he's denounced the dossier about Trump-Russia connections that said Page met with a different Rosneft executive on that trip in an effort to broker a deal to ease U.S. sanctions.

Page, however, denies he's part of any quid pro quo with the company. Page also told senior campaign officials about his Moscow trip, including campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, Hope Hicks, who is now the White House communications director, and Jeff Sessions, now the attorney general.

Asked if he spoke with national co-chairman Sam Clovis after his trip, Page said, "I did."



RAJU: Now, Wolf, no comment tonight from Sam Clovis or the attorney general, Jeff Sessions.

And we're still awaiting whether or not Hope Hicks has any comment about the interaction with Carter Page, as well as Corey Lewandowski, but we did get a response from J.D. Gordon, who was one of the national security advisers who did get one of those Carter Page e- mails.

And he told me pretty clearly that he actually tried to reject notion of Carter Page going to Moscow. He said it was a bad idea. But he said that Carter Page actually went around his back and got approval from other senior people within the Trump campaign.

And Carter Page himself, Wolf, he came before this committee without an attorney. He did not turn over documents to this committee, but he has recently spoken with Bob Mueller, as well as the FBI several times. And, of course, he denies that he was involved in any collusion with the Russians, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Manu, thanks very much, Manu Raju reporting for us.

Let's get some more on all of this.

Democratic Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland is joining us. He's the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Senator, thanks for joining us.

SEN. BEN CARDIN (D), MARYLAND: Wolf, it's good to be with you.

BLITZER: Is this -- what we just heard, is this evidence of collusion?

CARDIN: Well, it's certainly very troublesome.

We know that there is direct contact and we know that Donald Trump Jr. talks about perhaps the Russian sanctions issue. So these are very troublesome contacts, and we need to see what the investigation comes forward.

BLITZER: When do you believe that President Trump himself may have learned about this coordinated Russian outreach?

CARDIN: Well, we don't know that. We don't know exactly how much was shared with Donald Trump himself. We know that a lot of people around him knew about these meetings. They previously denied any knowledge.

Now we find that they were in the loop. This clearly needs further investigations.

BLITZER: How does Carter Page's testimony -- and we have now read the transcript of that testimony -- help explain what we have already learned from the George Papadopoulos guilty plea and the charges against Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, other top Trump campaign officials? Paul Manafort was the campaign chairman.

CARDIN: Well, here we have another person associated with the Trump campaign, Carter Page, who met with Russian officials. The Trump campaign came up during that discussion.

One would believe that Russia thought that the Trump administration would be more favorable to their cause. That raises major concerns.

BLITZER: Does Carter Page's testimony, from your assessment, Senator, confirm more of that so-called Russia dossier?


I mean, I think it points out that there were numerous contacts made by Russia, that Russia had a game plan to influence our election, certainly affect the credibility of our election. We don't know exactly how much cooperation they got from the Trump people, but we know that Russia was actively engaged and now we know a lot more about it.

BLITZER: The former CIA Director John Brennan said back in May that -- and I'm quoting him now -- 'People who go along a treasonous path do not know they are in a treasonous path until it is too late" -- close quote.

In your opinion, Senator, does that statement -- and it's a tough statement -- the word treason is obviously very powerful -- apply to any people within the Trump orbit?

CARDIN: I think you have got to be very naive to believe that Russia was just innocently involved in learning about our campaign.

They have had design to affect our way of life, our democracy. And Americans should understand that, in cooperating with Russia, it's not in the interests of the country, and could very well be against our laws.

BLITZER: I mean, when he uses the word treasonous, Senator -- and he's a former CIA director during the Obama administration -- the question jumps out in my mind, what does he know? What is he signaling? I assume the same as far as you're concerned?

CARDIN: Oh, absolutely.

That's why we think the Mueller investigation, the Intelligence Committee and their investigations must be allowed to follow all the information. Anyone who is accountable, we need to know about it.

BLITZER: CNN has now reported that the current CIA director, Mike Pompeo, met with someone who argues that the Democratic National Committee hack was really an inside job, flatly contradicting the conclusion of the U.S. intelligence community that Russia was behind the meddling in the presidential election, the cyber-attacks, the hacking.

And that meeting came at the request of President Trump himself. Is that appropriate, do you believe, for the president to have asked the CIA director to go ahead and speak with this individual who believes that it was an inside job, rather than Russia?


CARDIN: We know that the cyber-attacks that we saw during this past campaign originated from Russia.

They used private contractors to get information to use against our own elections. That has been confirmed by numerous sources within the intelligence community.

BLITZER: Senator Cardin, thanks, as usual, for joining us.

CARDIN: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Just ahead, it's election night 2017. As President Trump's popularity reaches new lows, is that impacting the voting?

The first polls are closing soon in Virginia, where we're watching a key race for governor.



BLITZER: It's election night 2017. We're following breaking news. Polls clues soon in Virginia, where the very closely watched governor's race is seen as a test of President Trump's impact as his approval rating hits a new low in our CNN polling.

CNN's Ryan Nobles is covering the campaign of Republican candidate Ed Gillespie.

Ryan, he didn't appear once with President Trump during the campaign.

RYAN NOBLES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Wolf.

And, quite frankly, this is a race that even Republicans know that they are not expected to win. But, somehow, Ed Gillespie, the former aide to George W. Bush, has found a way to close the gap here in the closing days of this campaign.

And you make a good point, Wolf. Ed Gillespie found a way to distance himself from Donald Trump. He walked a very tight line with the president, embracing many of his policies, without necessarily embracing the president himself.

His campaign making the decision not to campaign with President Trump, even at the last minute. So, now Gillespie hoping that a last-minute push from the president through direct-mail pieces and a robo-call will get Trump voters to the polls, while, at the same time, not alienating some moderate Republicans and independent voters that may not necessarily support the president.

Now, Ed Gillespie has spent all day working the polls across Virginia. We're told that he's just outside Richmond right now in Hanover County, talking to voters right up until the last minute. He will end up here at a Hilton Hotel in the suburb of Short Pump just outside Richmond to watch the returns with his family.

His aides acknowledge to me tonight that even though they believe that he can win, that pretty much every scenario has to break in his favor for them to cross the finish line with a victory. But they believe right now as they look at these exit polls and the returns and the voter turnout that that possibility is certainly something that could happen -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Ryan, thanks very much, Ryan Nobles reporting.

Let's get to the Democratic candidate, the lieutenant governor, Ralph Northam.

Our senior Washington correspondent, Brianna Keilar, is working that part of the story for us.

Brianna, Northam says this is a bellwether election.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, and so many Democrats supporting him, operatives feel exactly the same way, Wolf, that this is really a test case.

And that's the point they're trying to make, especially as Donald Trump, showing his support with robo-calls with Gillespie, they're hoping that that's something that actually will motivate Democratic voters.

But they just don't know at this point. And we are here in Fairfax, Virginia, at the Northam headquarters. The beers are on ice already in the hallway. Volunteers getting ready to come in. Pretty empty at this point in time, although Governor McAuliffe was working the room earlier.

And, you know, this really is a night where, even though you have Democrats looking at turnout, hoping that it's going to go their way, whether-wise, this is a terrible day here in Virginia, cold, rainy, and you could almost argue that it matches the bitter tone that we have seen in this race.

Of course, Democrats are hoping that's not going to impact the turnout and that things are going to swing their way. They're feeling pretty good, but this is very, very competitive, Wolf. So this is nail- biting time.

BLITZER: Certainly is. All right, Brianna, thanks very much, Brianna Keilar reporting.

Just ahead, we will have much more of our special coverage for election night 2017.

A year after sending Donald Trump to the White House, how do voters feel about him right now? Some critical races may give us a clue.

And ahead of a major speech he will be delivering later tonight in South Korea, President Trump is toning down his rhetoric about Kim Jong-un. We're going live to North Korea for reaction in a CNN SITUATION ROOM exclusive.



BLITZER: Breaking news on election night 2017.

We're standing by for the first results from the governor's race in Virginia, where polls close right at the top of the hour. It's a contest seen as a sort of a gauge of the impact President Trump will have on next year's critical midterm elections.

Let's bring in our analysts.

And, Gloria, let's start with you.

The president's approval numbers, as we know, hit a new low. The favorable view of Democrats, though, also hit a 25-year low as well. So how does that play out in tonight's election?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Nobody much likes either party.

I think we're seeing that in the early exit polls in Virginia. What's interesting about the early exit polls we're seeing in Virginia is that 49 percent of the folks thus far have said that Trump is not a factor, was not a factor in this race, that opposing him -- only 32 percent said they came out to oppose Donald Trump, but almost 50 percent said no.

So his approval rating is only about 40-something percent in the state, low 40s percent. So there is this inescapable backdrop to this election, which is that voters are dissatisfied with both parties, and that Donald Trump is kind of the elephant in the room here for both of these candidates.

And the Democrat has tried to tie the Republican, Ed Gillespie, to Donald Trump as much as he can. Ed Gillespie has embraced him on cultural issues but hasn't invited him to the state to appear for him.

[18:30:15] BLITZER: Not yet. There's not much time left.


BLITZER: Maybe, what, a half an hour?

BORGER: Yes, a half an hour, if that. The president is far away.

BLITZER: Yes. He's in Seoul, South Korea. What are you looking for tonight, you know, Rebecca?

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Wolf, I think this is going to tell us a lot, potentially, about how both parties are running for office in the age of Donald Trump.

So on the Democratic side, the question many of us are asking is will the anti-Trump feeling among Democrats buoy Northam, as much as, you know, potentially Democrats have expected their candidates to be buoyed?

And on the Republican side, does Donald Trump act as sort of an anchor around the neck of someone like Ed Gillespie or Republicans in general moving into 2018 and the midterm elections?

What we have seen, though, is that Ed Gillespie has embraced Donald Trump in many ways; has tried to harness the support among the Republican base for Donald Trump, which is really counter to the conventional wisdom that a lot of us have been hearing in Republican and Democratic circles.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: And he picked an issue. I mean, the issue that he has pushed in his advertisements as much as possible is anti-immigration cities, anti-immigration, threats of gang violence, none of which are particularly relevant to Virginia. There are no sanctuary cities, but it is a cultural issue that is very much in the Trump wheelhouse.

And the question is, will that work? I mean, I think that's going to be -- if it works, if Gillespie wins an upset victory, I think next year, you are going to hear so much about sanctuary cities from Republican candidates everywhere.

BORGER: Also, the NFL, taking a knee.

TOOBIN: Right.

BORGER: That became an issue. So you have this establishment Republican who has suddenly become a cultural conservative in the era of Donald Trump.

BLITZER: How do you see it, David?

DAVID SWERDLICK, ASSISTANT EDITOR, "THE WASHINGTON POST": If Democrats can't have success tonight, they're going to have to really re-evaluate. A state where, at the presidential level, they've had success in the last three presidentials, a diverse state, a big state that they've trended towards blue, they're going to have to say to themselves, "We need better candidates, a better platform, better everything at the..."

TOOBIN: Northam, Northam has a wonderful resume. I mean, this guy's a physician. He has, you know, impeccable character. He's been pretty boring as a candidate.

SWERDLICK: Yes, he's not a good retail politician.

TOOBIN: He's not. But I mean, it's hard to imagine a better resume for an electorate that doesn't much care for politicians.

BORGER: Well, that's right. Because he's against a Washington, D.C., lobbyist, who also happened to be, of course, the head of the RNC and a senior adviser to both W. Bush and Mitt Romney. But -- so he is establishment, but also the sort of lobbyist, whom, by the way, Donald Trump is supporting in this race.

BLITZER: In our -- in our new poll, you know, Jeffrey, we said, we see that 44 percent of the American people, according to our poll, are very concerned about Russia right now.

And now we've got the transcript of Carter Page, a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, providing some new details about his contacts, his visit to Moscow, meeting not just with a bunch of academics, the deputy prime minister, and then reporting back to senior Trump campaign officials about that, which was something that so many of them earlier denied.

TOOBIN: Well, what's so peculiar about how all these Trump campaign officials have behaved, from Jeff Sessions on down, is that they have all, let's put it politely, dissembled about their conduct -- their contacts.

However, it should be pointed out, Carter Page, Jeff Sessions, all the rest of them, it's not illegal. I mean, it's not illegal to talk to Russians during the campaign. So the fact that all of them have not been fully forthcoming is just, you know, an example of how Washington scandals always work, which is that the underlying issue often gets swallowed up into an issue of who's telling the truth.

BLITZER: Rebecca, how do you see it? BERG: Well, agree with you, Jeffrey. I mean, you have to look at the

statements that have been made over the course of this whole controversy and how they stack up with what we're learning now. And there are major inconsistencies, and the public is going to see that and start to recognize that. And that starts to play into the public opinion of this.

BLITZER: There was another, David, major development today. When I say "major," I mean, major development. Twitter now doubling the character limit on tweets from 140 characters to 280 characters. A pretty significant development right now.

SWERDLICK: Yes, two things. First of all, I consider this a sacrilege, Wolf. It's like turning haikus to 34 syllables. It's a bad idea, in my opinion.

And as far as the president goes, look, if he's had success with these, it's because he's been able to be succinct and punchy. I don't know if he'll be able to do that as effectively when he's got more running room on these. So we'll just see how it goes.

[18:35:07] TOOBIN: The good news is, my mentions, they'll be able to say something other than I'm a moron and that I'm an idiot. There's sort of more room for criticism, I think.

BORGER: Well, and the bad news is that we're going to waste twice as much time on Twitter.

BLITZER: You don't have to go the full length.


BLITZER: You can keep it to 140, even though you have...

BORGER: Stop reading.

BLITZER: ... you know, you can go up to 200...

SWERDLICK: And the president is known for moderation.

BLITZER: Sometimes he -- you know, when the limit was 140, he'd have two or three...

TOOBIN: Too or three, yes.

BLITZER: ... tweets in a row and he would continue.

BORGER: Tweet storm.

BLITZER: And we get the point. All right. Everyone, stand by. Much more ahead here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Our breaking news coverage of election night 2017 continues.

Plus, a CNN exclusive. We'll go live to North Korea's capital for the latest on the Kim Jong-un regime's reaction to President Trump's South Korea visit. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:40:35] BLITZER: Our special SITUATION ROOM coverage of election night 2017 continues.

President Trump is set to address the South Korean national assembly later tonight, as North Korea is vowing to boost its nuclear weapons program, accusing the United States of raising tensions on the Korean Peninsula to an extreme level.

Let's get an exclusive report right now from CNN's Will Ripley. He's inside North Korea on this, his 17th trip to the capital of Pyongyang.

Will, what will North Korea be listening for in the president's major address before the South Korean assembly later tonight?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: He'll be listening very closely, Wolf. One, for any insight on U.S. policy towards North Korea. Specifically, will they be re-added to the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Also listening to the president's tone. Will they get "fire and fury" Trump or "let's make a deal" Trump, the kind of rhetoric that we heard yesterday in South Korea.

BLITZER: Any indications, will, that the Kim regime is preparing for a launch of a missile, another nuclear test, while the president is in Asia, in the region?

RIPLEY: One thing we know about North Korea is that they pride themselves on being unpredictable. When everyone think they're going to do something, they often don't do it.

But that said, Kim Jong-un is under a lot of pressure to send a very strong message to show North Korean strength, given that President Trump is here in the region. So it's really anyone's guess. That's why we're here watching and waiting.

BLITZER: We heard, Will, President Trump say that progress is being made with diplomacy. Have you seen any progress on that front?

RIPLEY: Indications on the ground here are, no, Wolf. Obviously, there are still three American citizens being held in North Korea, and the U.S. says any discussions about a deal would have to involve the release of those U.S. citizens. North Korea says that's not on the table.

Also not on the table, de-nuclearization, which is something that North Korea wants. They feel that they're very close to, in their words, rounding off their nuclear capability, which likely means more nuclear tests and missile launches in the very near future.

Kim Jong-un gave a speech about a month ago, hinting that North Koreans should brace for even more sanctions as a result of the tests that he is likely to order, perhaps very soon.

BLITZER: We know that the president is delivering the speech, not very far away in Seoul, which is what, about 30 to 35 miles just south of the Demilitarized Zone. You're North of the Demilitarized Zone in Pyongyang.

Do we anticipate that the North Carolinians will react to the president's speech shortly after his remarks, because you're our man on the scene right now?

RIPLEY: We're going to be relaying information as we hear it from the president to North Korean officials, but an instant response may be difficult, because often these kinds of things have to go through multiple layers of bureaucracy before an official statement is made.

However, we have been having a lot of discussions with the North Koreans, and they are anticipating President Trump's speech; and we will bring you the reaction from here inside North Korea just as soon as we get it.

BLITZER: Over the past few years, you've made many trips. This is your 17th trip, Will, to North Korea. Do you sense any change, any dramatic change in the way you're being received in the attitude of the North Korean government?

RIPLEY: The temperature here gets hotter and hotter with each trip. Even though things behind me seem relatively normal, beneath the surface, officials say it's extremely tense. A bad situation with the United States has gotten worse.

And they're also furious about the fact that, in just a matter of days, major naval drills will once again resume in the Pacific involving three U.S. aircraft carrier strike groups. You could have dozens of ships just on the U.S. side. And that's exactly the kind of show of force that North Korea tries to respond to with their own demonstration of military strength.

And we know in recent weeks, they have threatened an above-ground nuclear test. They have threatened to fire a salvo of missiles towards the U.S. territory of Guam. They haven't followed through on those threats yet. It could be posturing, or they could be preparing to send a major message to President Trump, and he still has a lot of time here in the region. He heads to China later today.

BLITZER: Well, speaking of China, any indication that China is squeezing the North Koreans to become more restrained in their tests, their missile tests, their nuclear tests?

RIPLEY: Well, we have seen exports from North Korea drop off sharply in the areas that have been banned by U.N. Security Council sanctions, everything from textiles to coal and iron. But China also has had some friendly communications, or at least cordial communications, as of late, between Chinese President Xi Jinping and North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-un. There were letters exchanged between the two of them just in the last few weeks -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Will Ripley, we'll get back to you after the president's speech. Thank you so much.

We're also counting down to the polls closing in Virginia. The first results from the closely watched governor's race. Our SITUATION ROOM, special election coverage continues, right after this.


WILL RIPLEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: But China also has had some friendly communications or at least cordial communications as of late between Chinese President Xi Jinping and North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un.

[18:45:05] There were letters exchanged between the two of them just in the last few weeks -- Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Will Ripley, we'll get back to you after the president's speech. Thank you so much.

We're also counting down to the polls closing in Virginia. The first results from the closely watched governor's race.

Our SITUATION ROOM special election coverage continues, right after this.


[18:50:12] BLITZER: Welcome back to a special edition of THE SITUATION ROOM. I'm Wolf Blitzer in the CNN Election Center.

One full year after President Trump's stunning election victory, he's being tested in new ways tonight in key political races here at home. And a high stakes speech overseas. We're awaiting the president's remarks on the Korean peninsula, addressing the urgent threat from one of America's most dangerous adversaries, Kim Jong-un.

We're also counting down to the first election results of the night in state and local races across much of the country, including the battles for governor in Virginia and New Jersey. The New York City mayor's race, and a special congressional election in Utah.

Just minutes from now, polls close in Virginia, where the Trump factor could be decisive in the governor's race, the most competitive contest tonight. The Democratic lieutenant governor, Ralph Northam, is vying for the top job, getting an assist on the campaign trail from former President Obama. For his opponent, former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, he has notably avoided campaigning with president Trump, but he has embraced some of Mr. Trump's tactics and signature issues.

That race and this night will give us an early read on whether the Democrats loss to President Trump last year has fired them up, fired them up enough to make gains next year in the important midterm congressional elections.

As we await the first polls to close, let's go over to Jake Tapper -- Jake.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, as we headed into this evening, the Virginia governor's race tightened in the closing weeks of the campaign with the Democrats losing some of their early advantage.

We have reporters at the headquarters of both candidates in Virginia.

First to CNN's Brianna Keilar, she's covering the Democratic candidate, Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam.

Brianna, they're hoping for a win, of course, this evening, but the polls have been tightening. And not in the direction Ralph Northam wants them to.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: That's exactly right, Jake. And that is one of the reasons why Democrats involved in this race are nervous. But they are hopeful because I spoke with one Democrat very deeply involved in this race who said that in every internal poll for the last three months, Ralph Northam has been leading. Some of the leads have been small, but it has been consistent. He hasn't been behind Gillespie in a single one, they say.

And that's different when you compare it to the public polling. But at the same time, that is based on the assumption their polling model is correct. And that is the specter of 2016 that is hanging over this race.

I also understand that Democrats involved in this race are looking at the turnout in northern Virginia. They think it's higher than 2013, which is really what they're modeling this race off of, and they think that is going to be good for them. But what's really nail biting is they haven't been able to get a good handle on what's going on in southwestern Virginia.

So, they're concerned that there could be gained there which, of course, would favor Ed Gillespie, which could eclipse some of the gains they're expecting in northern Virginia. That is why they're watching the polls so closely tonight, Jake.

TAPPER: Worried Democrats haunted by the ghost of Election Day past, Brianna Keilar.

Let's go now to Ryan Nobles. He's with the Ed Gillespie campaign in Richmond, Virginia.

And Ed Gillespie, no matter what happens this evening, he has been closing strong.

RYAN NOBLES, CNN WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: No doubt about that, Jake. And I think the story of the Ed Gillespie campaign after this election is all over is how he responded to Donald Trump and his support. For the bulk of his campaign, and he's been running for more than a year, Ed Gillespie really kept Donald Trump at an arm's length. He ran on many of the policies the president has champions. He really got onboard with the culture war that Donald Trump has talked about, but in terms of the president himself, Ed Gillespie didn't talk a whole lot about Donald Trump.

That changed in the closing days of this campaign. His campaign sent out a targeted direct mail piece that showed the numerous tweets that Donald Trump sent out in support of Ed Gillespie, and then just last night, his campaign sent out a robocall to specific voters in areas where Republicans are strong. That's Southwest Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley.

I'm told by the campaign that call went out to 155,000 voters last night, and then a second call this morning went to another 155,000 voters. And it was Donald Trump himself encouraging his supporters to get to the polls and help Ed Gillespie. They're hoping that that pushes their candidate over the top tonight -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Ryan, thank you so much.

Let me bring in my colleague, Dana Bash, and, of course, President Trump has also been doing some international tweeting on behalf of Ed Gillespie.

It is interesting how he has run a Trump-like campaign, although he has not campaigned with Donald Trump himself, and has kept the president himself at a distance.

[18:55:03] DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: And think about who Ed Gillespie is. We have all known him for some time. He was chairman of the Republican National Committee. He worked for George W. Bush. He kind of has been the ultimate Republican insider.

TAPPER: A Washington lobbyist.

BASH: Washington lobbyist for big business.

So, he's been the ultimate insider, the ultimate establishment Republican. Very un-Trump-like in terms of what the now president appealed to voters with, that sort of draining the swamp and things like that. He has, as Ryan was talking about, embraced some of the president's tactics recently, particularly on cultural social issues, on immigration, on sanctuary cities.

So, if Ed Gillespie comes from behind and wins, having closed with some of those themes, it is going to be a real indicator to a lot of Republicans running in 2018 that maybe they should try that, too.

TAPPER: And Democrats are terrified. I talked to one Democrat who was talking about whether or not the Democrats are going to compete in the Alabama Senate race where a very far right candidate, Roy Moore, got the Republican nomination. And they -- this Democrat told me that that depends on what happened in Virginia today. If Democrats win, then maybe Democrats will feel momentum going to Alabama. But if they do not win, if they can't pick up a state the Democrats carried in the last three presidential elections, that the momentum will be gone.

BASH: And that's an important point, is that Hillary Clinton didn't win the White House, but she did win Virginia. It has gone Democratic for the past several cycles.

TAPPER: All right. Dana, we're getting early clues from our exit polls about what voters are thinking as they cast their ballots. CNN political director David Chalian has some brand-new information

for us.

David, what are you being told? What are you learning?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: We're talking about the Trump factor in Virginia, Jake. You guys were just talking about it. We asked voters in Virginia today in the exit poll if they approve or disapprove of the job Donald Trump is doing as president.

Look at that. 42 percent approve of Donald Trump's job performance, 55 percent disapprove. Now, that 42 percent is a little bit better than what we have seen nationally in polls of late. Our poll just out yesterday showed him at 36 percent. But that is still underwater and underwater by 13 points. So, that's not exactly where any Republican candidate would want their Republican president to be on Election Day.

We also asked how big of a factor is Donald Trump in your decision making? Look at this: 47 percent at the bottom there, Trump not a factor at all.

But take a look above, Jake -- 17 percent said he was a factor, and I went out to vote in favor of him. Support him, 33 percent, a third of Virginia voters today, are telling us in the exit polls that they went out to vote to cast a message in opposition to Donald Trump. That's two to one in opposition versus support for those that do consider Donald Trump a factor in their vote.

TAPPER: That's interesting. Ed Gillespie has run state-wide before. So, the question is, is it possible that a enough people who oppose Donald Trump still would have voted for Ed Gillespie in Virginia.

Let me bring in my colleague Wolf Blitzer -- Wolf.

BLITZER: You know, I want to go to John King.

John, you have been looking closely, studying Virginia. We always watch Virginia in presidential contests. Tonight is going to be significant, what happens in various parts of the state.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Very close race in a state that has been trending more and more blue. The challenge for Ed Gillespie, and these votes tend to come in early, Wolf, run it up big, run it up big out here in rural Virginia, especially southwestern Virginia. Not just win, but win big, to prove that he can get the Trump voters out.

Remember during the primaries, he ran against a Trump-like candidate. He was establishment id to a lot of these Republican voters in the primary. They have to come out tonight and he has to win these areas, Wolf, not just win them but by big margins.

The key for the Democratic candidate, right up here, right across the river, the Washington suburbs, the biggest area of the states. If you've been through this before, let's go back. This is 2013, the last gubernatorial election, a close race, Terry McAuliffe won with 48 percent. Ken Cuccinelli did just fine out there, ended up well, but was not competitive at all in the Washington suburbs.

Go back to the last time Republicans won statewide was Bob McDonnell when he won the governor's race in 2009. Notice the difference. See how competitive he is up here? Terry McAuliffe ran through the suburbs. Bob McDonnell was competitive.

This is the changing demographics of Virginia. We see it in presidential races as well. If you go back to the 2016 race, in a very close national election, Hillary Clinton won quite comfortably here in the state of Virginia. Why? Because even though Donald Trump did fine down here where Ed Gillespie has to do well tonight, Hillary Clinton ran it up in the Washington suburbs.

This is the story of Virginia in the last 17 years, the Washington suburbs. Look at the voter registration growth, up 37 percent, up 27 percent, up 132 percent in the formally Republican, now blue landing Loudoun County, Prince William County up 72 percent. If Ed Gillespie is going to have a chance tonight, Wolf, he's going to have to do well in suburban Washington, especially in these big counties. That's what we'll be watching most closely.

BLITZER: We certainly will. Right now, the polls are closing in Virginia. We're only seconds away. We're standing by for the first results in the close and hard-fought governor's contest. It's a race to watch tonight. We'll have significant potential ramifications down the road.

We have a key race alert right now in Virginia. The governors race too early to call. No projection, no ability yet to take a look.

We're getting early results, we're going to share those results with our viewers. Ralph Northam, the Democratic candidate. Ed Gillespie, the Republican candidate. We'll get those numbers, and we'll share them with you as soon as they start coming in.

In the meantime, let's go over to Erin.