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Deaths in Puerto Rico Undercounted?; Mueller Investigation Moves Closer to Trump Inner Circle; Trump Administration Makes Move on North Korea; Interview Texas Congressman Beto O'Rourke; 499 Deaths Missing from Official Hurricane Toll in Puerto Rico. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired November 20, 2017 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:22]

JIM ACOSTA, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: terror list. President Trump names North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism, rebranding the country with the notorious designation it carried until 2008. Will the increasing U.S. pressure make Kim Jong-un more or less defiant?

Special measures. Special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation is moving closer to President Trump's inner circle, with top White House officials to be questioned in the coming weeks. Will investigators reveal even more meetings and foreign contacts?

Not backing down. The Justice Department files a lawsuit to block AT&T's takeover of CNN's parent company, Time Warner. AT&T says it will take the case to court. Are President Trump's personal feelings influencing the decision?

And death toll. Our investigation reveals that the number of people killed in Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria may be as much as nine times higher than the government's official count. It's a CNN exclusive.

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

ACOSTA: New pressure on North Korea tonight from President Trump, announcing he's returning the country to the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. The move clears the way for more sanctions against the Kim Jong-un regime and it supports what Mr. Trump calls his maximum pressure campaign to isolate North Korea as it aggressively grows its nuclear weapons program.

We're also following the Russia probe by special counsel Robert Mueller. His investigators are schedule to interview key White House officials from President Trump's inner circle over the next few weeks. There are also reports that Mueller's probe may reveal more foreign meetings and contacts by members of the Trump campaign.

And there are troubling developments tonight in Puerto Rico's hurricane disaster. A CNN investigation exclusive has uncovered some 500 deaths that should have been attributed to Hurricane Maria, but were not, leaving the official death toll at 55.

We're covering all of that and more this hour with our guests, including Congressman Beto O'Rourke of the Armed Services Committee. Our correspondents and specialists, they're also standing by.

Let's begin with President Trump's decision to put North Korea back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Our CNN senior White House correspondent, Jeff Zeleny, is working the story for us.

Jeff, this is part of the administration's strategy to put maximum pressure on the Kim Jong-un regime.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: It is indeed, Jim. Good evening.

North Korea's being added to this list of the state sponsors of terrorism puts them in the ranks of Syria, Sudan and Iran. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson came to the White House briefing today largely conceding the fact this is a largely symbolic move, but it is a diplomatic move that puts more pressure on North Korea.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Today, the United States is designation Korea as a state sponsor of terrorists. It should have happened a long time ago.

ZELENY (voice-over): President Trump trying to tighten the noose on North Korea, putting the regime back on the list as a state sponsor of terrorism.

TRUMP: This designation will impose further sanctions and penalties on North Korea and related persons and supports our maximum pressure campaign to isolate the murderous regime.

ZELENY: During a Cabinet meeting at the White House today, the president unveiling the latest punitive action against Kim Jong-un. Later, in the White House Briefing Room, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the symbolism of the move outweighed the practical effects.

REX TILLERSON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: It is very symbolic on the one hand, because it just points out again what a rogue regime this is and how brutal this regime is, and how little they care for the value of human life.

ZELENY: The president's announcement reversed a 2008 decision by President George W. Bush, who removed North Korea from the terror list as part of negotiations for a nuclear deal that ultimately fell through.

GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And my hope is that the axis of evil list no longer exists.

ZELENY: With time running out this year, Mr. Trump also rallying support for the Republican tax plan.

TRUMP: We're going to give the American people a huge tax cut for Christmas.

ZELENY: After sailing through the House last week, the legislation faces far steeper hurdles in the Senate.

TRUMP: It's up to the Senate. And they approve it, the Senate and the House will get together. I will be there right in the middle of it.

ZELENY: Several Republicans are still undecided, including Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, who the president went after once again on Twitter.

"Senator Jeff Flake, who is unelectable in the great state of Arizona, was caught on mike saying bad things about your favorite president. He will be a no on tax cuts, because his political career anyway in toast."

[18:05:05]

The president was referring to a moment over the weekend where Flake was recorded saying this:

SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: If we become the party of Roy Moore and Donald Trump, we are toast.

ZELENY: A spokesman for Flake said he has yet to decide whether he will support the tax plan, despite the president's claim otherwise.

Tonight, the controversy over Moore, Alabama's political radioactive GOP Senate nominee, is still hanging over the White House. Republican leaders have distanced themselves from Moore among sexual misconduct, including the alleged sexual abuse decades ago of Leigh Corfman, who was only 14.

She told her story on NBC's "Today Show."

LEIGH CORFMAN, ROY MOORE ACCUSER: He basically laid out some blankets on the floor of his living room and proceeded to seduce me, I guess you would say.

ZELENY: The White House sending conflicting signals on Moore. Senior adviser Kellyanne Conway said it was critical to have enough Republican votes for tax reform.

KELLYANNE CONWAY, TRUMP SENIOR ADVISER: I'm telling you that we want the votes in the Senate to get this tax bill through.

ZELENY: When asked whether the White House would be pleased with Moore in the Senate, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said this:

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Obviously, the president wants people both in the House and the Senate that support his agenda. But, as I have said, and as the Hatch Act prohibits me from going any further, we certainly think that this is something that the people of Alabama should decide.

ZELENY: As the president ignored questions about Moore, he did make time to fire back at the father of a UCLA basketball player who played down Mr. Trump's role in releasing three players from jail in China after allegedly stealing sunglasses.

On Twitter, the president making the extraordinary statement, saying: "I should have left them in jail."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY: Now, Sarah Sanders went on to say the president was happy and thankful those players were released. So asked again why he said that those three U.S. citizens should have remained in jail, Jim, she said the president was simply being rhetorical.

ACOSTA: Well, we're glad they're out of jail. Jeff Zeleny at the White House, thank you very much.

We're also following special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation now moving closer to President Trump's inner circle. Mueller's team is scheduled to interview several senior White House officials in the coming weeks.

CNN justice correspondent Jessica Schneider is here with the latest.

Jessica, this investigation is gaining momentum.

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It is, Jim, but there is still really a lot of work left for the special counsel to do.

Those interviews of key White House staff, those will happen in the next few weeks. And now we know the British publicist who set up the Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer and Donald Trump Jr., he is ready to talk.

In addition to that, there could be more bombshells to come if hints from witnesses already interviewed are any indication.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Tonight, indications that new revelations could soon emerge from the special counsel's probe.

"The Washington Post" reports investigators are witnesses about foreign contacts and meetings that haven't yet been made public. The investigators are specifically focused on President Trump's fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and his foreign contacts, according to "The Post."

Flynn is under scrutiny for the undisclosed lobbying he did during the presidential campaign on behalf of the Turkish government, according to sources. The special counsel is also asking about the possibility that Flynn was part of discussions in a plot that was never carried out seeking the removal, possibly by force, of a Turkish cleric, Fethullah Gulen, living in exile in the U.S.

The special counsel will be interviewing key White House staffers in the coming weeks, including Communications Director Hope Hicks, who has been a crucial part of the president's inner circle since his campaign began in June 2015, and White House counsel Don McGahn.

Meanwhile, the British publicist who arranged the now infamous July 2016 meeting at Trump Tower between a Russian lawyer and Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort is now breaking his silence. Rob Goldstone tells "The Sunday Times of London" that he has accepted special counsel Mueller's invitation for an interviewing, saying he feels: "It's time for me to explain what happened" and dismissing any suggestion he was part of a Russian plot to influence the election.

"I thought it was the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard. That doesn't mean that maybe there wasn't any Russian interference or Trump campaign collusion in other ways. I don't know. But I'm sure I wasn't part of it."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: And no date has been set just yet for Goldstone's interview with Mueller's team.

But Goldstone is insisting in that interview as well that he didn't mean to say outright that the Russian government supported candidate Trump when he wrote that e-mail to Donald Trump Jr. Instead, Goldstone now says that he was speaking generally about the adoration he had seen for Donald Trump in Moscow and said the misinterpretation was likely the result of his rushed e-mail -- Jim.

ACOSTA: The story gets more interesting every day.

CNN's Jessica Schneider, thank you very much.

Let's get more on all of this with Democratic Congress Beto O'Rourke of Texas. He's vice ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee and a candidate for the U.S. Senate against Ted Cruz.

Thank you very much for joining us, Congressman.

What does it say to you that there could be even more meetings that have yet to come to light? The White House makes it sounds as if, their legal team make it sounds as if all the meetings we've heard about, that's all we're going to get at this point.

[18:10:02]

But it sounds like there may be more meetings to talk about.

REP. BETO O'ROURKE (D), TEXAS: These most recent revelations underscore the importance of special counsel Mueller's investigation, and ensuring its independence and his authority to follow those facts as far as they go, as high up as they go, and ensuring that we have accountability and justice.

I mean, the very essence of our democracy is at stake. This thing that has distinguished us from so much of the rest of the world the last 230 years that explains so much of our greatness is under attack and is open to question.

And we have to be able to resolve those questions. And I have great confidence in special counsel Mueller and I want to make sure that he's able to see this investigation through all the way.

ACOSTA: And based on what you have seen so far, Congressman, do think that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia?

O'ROURKE: They certainly tried to collude with Russia.

I think that special counsel Mueller is still following those facts to determine how effective they were in their ability to do that. And then I hope that he's going to continue to follow those, following President Trump's swearing-in and his attempt to obstruct justice and the investigation then ongoing from the FBI director that was later fired.

So there's certainly the evidence that there was an attempt to collude with Russia.

ACOSTA: And I want to switch to Roy Moore and what's happening with the Senate race down in Alabama, Congressman.

We have still not heard President Trump really comment on Roy Moore and the White House appears to be fumbling around for a consistent message in all of this.

Let's listen to the various lines we have heard from the Trump administration officials in the recent days.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CONWAY: We want the votes in the Senate to get this tax bill through.

MARC SHORT, WHITE HOUSE DIRECTOR OF LEGISLATIVE AFFAIRS: I think you can take -- you should certainly be able to infer by the fact that he's not gone down to support Roy Moore his discomfort in doing so.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: If the allegations are true, he should step aside.

MICK MULVANEY, WHITE HOUSE BUDGET DIRECTOR: He had thinks that the voters of Alabama should decide. I think that's probably the most commonsense way to look at it. He doesn't know who to believe.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ACOSTA: What do you make of the White House position on this, Congressman?

O'ROURKE: It's interesting. You have this extraordinary bipartisan consensus on Roy Moore in the Senate. You have the majority leader, Mitch McConnell. You have the minority leader, Chuck Schumer. And just about every single senator, even Ted Cruz, although he was one of the last to come to this conclusion, have withdrawn their support or disavowed Roy Moore and are vowing that they will not seat him or eject him from the Senate should he be elected.

I think it's incredibly important that we have leadership from the very top. And I think it's important that the people of this country know that someone who as a grown man preyed on children cannot be elevated to one of the highest positions of the public trust in the land.

And I think we're still waiting for that from the White House.

ACOSTA: And, Congressman, you probably have seen this. Another woman has come forward against Senator Al Franken, saying that he grabbed her behind while they took a picture together. This was while he was a sitting U.S. senator.

In your view, what is the appropriate response at this point? Should Senator Franken step down?

O'ROURKE: On this one, again, members of the Senate from both parties have said that Senator Franken should be referred to the Ethics Committee.

Senator Franken himself has agreed with that conclusion. He's apologized. He's acknowledged it. He's owned it. And I think that investigation should be allowed to take place. But, certainly, this kind of behavior is inappropriate and unacceptable and unbecoming of a member of the U.S. Senate.

And I certainly hope that this investigation is allowed to take its full course. And whatever the findings and the consequences are, I know that Senator Franken and the Senate agree that that's the best path for this to take.

ACOSTA: And not to put you on the spot here, Congressman, why is it OK for everybody to say that Roy Moore should be gone, but not Al Franken?

O'ROURKE: In the case of Roy Moore, you have someone who, as a grown man, was preying on girls in his community, sexually abusing and assaulting these girls and young women.

In the case of President Trump, you have someone who was boasting about sexual assault and preying on women and using his position of power to try to dominate women physically, boasting about it caught on a microphone.

In the case of Senator Franken, you have someone who was -- what he did was unacceptable, but I think in a different level of behavior, unacceptable still. But the kind of sexual assault that you had President Trump brag about, the kind of predation that you saw from Roy Moore a completely different level.

[18:15:03]

ACOSTA: And, Congressman, I want to get your reaction to the news that we heard this afternoon, the Justice Department saying it will sue to block the AT&T-Time Warner merger.

Are you concerned that President Trump's personal views about CNN, about the media at large might have influenced that decision, even though the Department of Justice says that's not the case?

O'ROURKE: Yes.

I think we should begin with some genuine concerns about the increasing concentration of power and wealth in this country. And so I want to make sure that we look at all the facts of this case before we judge it.

But what certainly complicates it is someone like President Trump calling the press the enemy of the people, instead of the best protection against tyranny, circulating memes on Twitter of people who have CNN logos on their heads being body-slammed by wrestlers or hit by freight trains.

This calls into questions the motives behind this action. We shouldn't even be having to have this conversation, as serious an issue as this is and as potentially significant as this merger is.

So I want to make sure we give this case its due, read and understand all the facts, but it's too bad that President Trump, through his conduct, has forced us to even bring this question up, whether this is personally motivated on the part of the president.

ACOSTA: OK, Congressman, stand by, we have more news to discuss. We're going to take a quick break. We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:21:02]

ACOSTA: We're back with Democratic Congressman Beto O'Rourke of Texas, vice ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee.

And we want to talk to him about this concern over President Trump's authority to order the launch of nuclear weapons.

But, first, Congressman, let's get more on the story from our CNN Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.

Barbara, some blunt talk about this from a top general in charge of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Fascinating.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: It is fascinating, Jim. What's so unusual here is not necessarily what this general said, but when he was asked a question in public, he was remarkably candid about the answer.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STARR (voice-over): President Trump designating North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism also has a military objective.

TRUMP: The North Korean regime must be lawful. It must end its unlawful nuclear and ballistic missile development.

STARR: The president's hot rhetoric...

TRUMP: They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.

STARR: ... about North Korea's weapons causing deep worry by some he might suddenly order a nuclear weapons launch.

SEN. CHRIS MURPHY (D), CONNECTICUT: We are concerned that the president of the United States is so unstable, is so volatile, has a decision-making process that is so quixotic that he might order a nuclear weapons strike that is wildly out of step with U.S. national security interests.

STARR: General John Hyten, the respected four-star in charge of U.S. nuclear weapons, says if he got an illegal order from President Trump to launch nuclear weapons, he would not follow it.

GEN. JOHN HYTEN, COMMANDER, U.S. STRATEGIC COMMAND: I provide advice to the president. He will tell me what to do. And if it's illegal, guess what's going to happen?

QUESTION: You say no.

HYTEN: I'm going to say, Mr. President, that's illegal. And gets what he's going to do. He is going to say, what would be legal? And we will come up with options of a mix of capabilities to respond to whatever the situation is. And that's the way it works. It's not that complicated.

STARR: The weapon must be proportional to the threat, especially because nuclear weapons can kill tens of thousands of people.

STEVE WARREN, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: I think the general's remarks were very forceful. They were very plainspoken and they were very blunt, and, frankly, they were also very refreshing. It's very important I think for the American public to understand the types of safeguards, the types of security measures we put around our nuclear arsenal and our nuclear strike capability.

STARR: Commanders continue to say the obligation is on them to not obey an illegal order.

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: It might surprise you if I told you I have been in situations in combat where we have had to take orders that were given to us and go back to our commanders and say, hey, the lawyers say this might not be legal to do these things.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: All of this taking on more urgency because the U.S. intelligence community and the South Koreans believe it is possible, sometime in 2018, the North Koreans will have the ability to launch a long-range missile with a warhead on top that could be aimed at the United States -- Jim.

ACOSTA: This is becoming a critical issue.

Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thank you very much.

I want to get back to Congressman O'Rourke.

Congressman, how troubling is it for you that a top general in this capacity has to answer to these fears of an illegal order of a nuclear strike? Barbara and I were reporting last week that there are members of Congress who are concerned about this, even a major U.S. NATO partner who is concerned about this.

Do his remarks put you more at ease, make you more worried? What do you make?

O'ROURKE: They're really encouraging.

I feel like, at this time, perhaps unlike any other in our lifetimes, the institutions of this country are under a significant stress. We have talked about our very democracy earlier, the ballot box, the judiciary, and now our U.S. military.

And how encouraging that we are more than a match for this test and for this moment. And love hearing the general's answer. It only increases our confidence in his and those serve under him ability to meet these challenges.

[18:25:10]

ACOSTA: It sounded like an issue that he's thought about, though, that he has had to process. He had an answer ready to go.

O'ROURKE: Absolutely.

Yes, because, remember, this isn't really Democrats talking about doing this. This -- or talking about the president's fitness. You have somebody who's the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Corker, who questions the president's very fitness, his competence, his, as the chairman's, confidence in the president's ability to make these decisions.

And there has to be some check on that. And the greatest check of course is the Constitution, which vests the power to make war on other people in the United States Congress, and it's about time that we reclaimed that power.

And you're seeing a bipartisan consensus forming right now around the president's use of a first strike capability against North Korea, but also the wars that we're fighting right now in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Syria, in Somalia, in Yemen, in Libya, and all over the world.

And it's about time that we once again think through what we're asking American service members to do on behalf of this country, the lives we're asking them to take and the lives that they're putting on the line and far too often losing.

Especially under this commander in chief, it's really time that Congress restore its right and the interest of the people that we represent in making sure that these wars are just, that they are necessary, that we can articulate a definition of victory and with a strategy that underlies that to achieve that.

And I think, right now, in the wars that we're fighting, much less adding new wars like North Korea, we don't have that.

ACOSTA: All right, Congressman Beto O'Rourke, thank you very much for joining us.

We should point out we also invited Senator Ted Cruz, whose seat you're trying to win, to join us, but he declined. He's enjoying Thanksgiving this week. We hope you do as well.

Thank you, Congressman. We appreciate it.

O'ROURKE: Thank you very much. Thank you.

ACOSTA: Just ahead, a woman who says GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore molested her when she was 14 years old speaks out and gives disturbing new details.

Plus, a CNN exclusive report -- did the government drastically undercount the death toll from Puerto Rico's hurricane disaster?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ACOSTA: A woman who says Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore sexually molested her when she was 14 and he was in his 30's is speaking out, giving disturbing new details of the alleged abuse.

[18:32:15] Let's dig deeper with our specialists and analysts. David Swerdlick, let me go to you first. Let's listen to her account. She spoke -- she's now spoken publicly for the first time. We have a bit of that. Let's play it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LEIGH CORFMAN, ROY MOORE ACCUSER: At 14, I was not dating. At 14, I was not able to make those kind of choices. I met him around the corner from my house. My mother did not know. And he took me to his home. After arriving at his home, on the second occasion that I went with

him, he basically laid out some blankets on the floor of his living room and proceeded to seduce me, I guess you would say. And during the course of that, he removed my clothing, he left the room and came back in wearing his white underwear and he touched me over my clothing, what was left of it, and he tried to get me to touch him as well. And at that point I pulled back and said that I was not comfortable, and I got dressed, and he took me home.

But I was a 14-year-old child trying to play in an adult's world, and he was 32 years old.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Roy Moore denies these allegations and further says he does not even know you.

CORFMAN: I wonder how many "me's" he doesn't know.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ACOSTA: David, how powerful is it to hear that in her words? And what does it do, you think, to the Roy Moore story?

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: So Jim, I think that it was powerful. I thought she was clear, and I thought she made some important points. I frankly though that it was powerful when my "Washington Post" colleagues reported this two Thursdays ago, but this was additional information. You now have the adult, Leigh Corfman, telling her story to us directly on camera.

One thing I think that was important that hasn't been talked about enough was this idea that this is exactly why, for those of us -- I will include myself in this -- who believe her story. It's important to point out that this is why we have a rule against children dating adults, because there's no such thing as consent in that situation. The way she laid it out, it was that she was young and unable to deal with the situation and an adult. That's why we have these rules.

ACOSTA: Jeffrey Toobin, very compelling interview. Hard to deny what she's saying. Let's listen to Kellyanne Conway talking about the Alabama race this morning.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO DONALD TRUMP: Doug Jones in Alabama, folks, don't be fooled. He'll be a vote against tax cuts. He's weak on crime, weak on borders. He's strong on raising your taxes. He's terrible for property owners.

BRIAN KILMEADE, CO-HOST, FOX'S "FOX & FRIENDS": So vote Roy Moore?

CONWAY: He's a doctrinaire liberal, which is why he's not saying anything and why the media are trying to boost him.

KILMEADE: So vote Roy Moore?

CONWAY: I'm telling you that we want the votes in the Senate to get this tax -- this tax bill through.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ACOSTA: Jeffrey Toobin, the White House says they want the votes.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Yes, I think what you're seeing now is basically an acknowledgement, on the part of anyone who is, you know, conscious, that Roy Moore did this, and abused all of these young girls, but he's going to be a loyal Republican. And so people should vote for him anyway. Kellyanne Conway said it today. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, in effect, said it today. The governor of Alabama, she said it yesterday.

Is that, you know, he's going to vote the Republican Party line, so we don't care who we abused. And that's sort of what -- that's the position of the Republican Party right now.

ACOSTA: And Abby Phillip, as you know, there's another accuser coming forward talking about Senator Al Franken and saying that she was groped or grabbed by the senator a few years back. What does it say if Democrats are demanding that Roy Moore leave the scene but saying, "Well, we'll let the Ethics Committee handle the Franken investigation"?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think there are some clear differences in the cases. I think we should be really clear about that. A 14-year-old is a 14-year-old. And Al Franken is -- what he did is photographed, and it's there.

I think Democrats need to be really careful. There are two camps of Democrats on this. There are some people who have been on this program and have said he needs to resign. And then there are others, many of them who are his colleagues in the Senate, both Democratic and Republican, that say, "Let's just let the Senate Ethics Committee handle this." And I think that that -- how they deal with this will show whether this is just partisanship for the sake of partisanship or if they are genuinely interested in dealing with the underlying issue here.

I think it's not really clear right now. There are -- there are too many differing opinions. No one is coming out strongly and saying, "Hey, we need to make an example of Al Franken and use him as an example of how these situations need to be dealt with." Nobody is quite ready to do that yet, but at the same time, I mean, Al Franken has also acknowledged that he did something wrong. So I think some people are drawing -- drawing some lines here between the different kinds of conduct.

ACOSTA: And Sam Vinograd, just to switch back to this topic that Barbara Starr was talking about a few moments ago, this top general in charge of America's nuclear weapons essentially saying he is going to refuse an illegal order from President Trump if the president were to call an order, what he believes to be an illegal nuclear weapons strike.

How is it that we're even having this conversation? And did that surprise you what the general had to say about this?

SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, FORMER SENIOR ADVISOR TO NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: That actually didn't surprise me. We have two related issues here. One is whether President Trump would order an illegal strike, and the second is whether the military would implement it.

On the latter issue, I actually think the general's comments are being somewhat overblown. The military has a long-standing policy of questioning, and ultimately not implementing, any illegal orders. So my sense is the general was restating that policy.

On the issue of whether President Trump would actually order an illegal strike, it's worth noting, in my experience working for two presidents, lawyers are part of the entire policy development process. So in this case, you'd have Pentagon lawyers, you'd have White House lawyers involved in developing nuclear strike options and presenting them to the president.

So President Trump would know, before he took any decision, whether something was legal or not. And I can't imagine he would order something that was illegal, knowing that the military will not implement an illegal option. That would just be a waste of time.

ACOSTA: Well, it is an interesting conversation to have, Sam, because obviously, you know, when the president talks about fire and fury, we all know what that means and, obviously, that conversation is something that's happening. We're hearing about it not only that general talking about it today. We've been hearing about it up on Capitol Hill and among NATO allies and so on. So it's an important critical topic. I think we'll be hearing about it again.

Guys, thank you very much.

Just ahead a death toll nine times higher than what the government is reporting from Puerto Rico's hurricane disaster. It is a CNN exclusive you don't want to miss.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:44:09] ACOSTA: Tonight a CNN exclusive. Hurricane Maria's devastating strike on Puerto Rico is now believed to have been much more deadly than anyone realized. The official death toll is 55, but CNN has learned funeral homes are reporting at least 499 people who should have been counted in that toll were not.

CNN's Leyla Santiago is in San Juan for us tonight. Leyla, that is a huge discrepancy.

LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And Jim, here's why those numbers are so important. Experts tell me, if you don't have a good grasp on how those deaths happened, where or why, then it could be a missed opportunity to protect people in the future. It's one of the reasons we decided to look into the death toll's accuracy.

And what we found is that there are plenty of reasons to question that death toll. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SANTIAGO (voice-over): These are the images they'd rather remember. The ones capturing Jose Pepe Sanchez joking with his family. But there's another image his daughter, Roxana, cannot stop thinking about.

The moment she opened the door and found him on the ground.

(on camera): So, she says if Maria had not passed straight through here, she believes her dad would still be alive today.

(voice-over): She believes his nerves, stress, during hurricane Maria led to a heart attack when Maria struck in September. He had a heart attack in February but the family says he had recovered, boarded up windows himself the day before the storm.

Just minutes before Maria made landfall, she tells us her father complained of breathing complications. When her uncle called 911, he says help was not available in the interior part of the island.

(on camera): No one has come to ask questions regarding the cause or the situation surrounding his death.

(voice-over): Over the same month last year, the number of deaths increased by 472. The government is reporting 55 people died at the hands of Hurricane Maria.

HECTOR PESQUERA, SECRETARY OF PUBLIC SAFETY, PUERTO RICO: It's accurate based on the factual information we received, yes.

SANTIAGO: This is Puerto Rico's secretary of public safety, in charge of the death count.

MAYOR CARMEN YULIN CRUZ, SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO: It appears for whatever reason, that the death toll is much higher than what has been reported.

SANTIAGO: Politicians, news outlets like CNN have raised questions about the accuracy of those numbers. So, we decided to count for ourselves.

CNN called 279 funeral homes. We were only able to reach about half of them. We asked how many of the deaths were believed to be related to Maria. Despite the official death toll, they claim 499 hurricane- related deaths in the month after the storm. That's nine times the government's numbers.

(on camera): Why the gap?

PESQUERA: Because as I said before, I work on factual. I can't work on I believe.

SANTIAGO (voice-over): So, we described Pepe's case.

(on camera): Gentleman is at home, he has a stroke, the person with him calls 911. Nine-one-one says we can't get to him in time because 150 mile per hour winds are pounding us right now.

PESQUERA: Sure.

SANTIAGO: Is that a hurricane related death?

PESQUERA: Absolutely.

SANTIAGO: OK. Allow me to introduce you to Jose, Pepe, that was his case.

(voice-over): A case not included in Puerto Rico's death toll. The discrepancy begins here, the death certificate. A doctor marked Pepe's death natural. Cases marked natural aren't supposed to go to forensics. And forensic says if they don't get the cases, there's no way to investigate if it's related to the hurricane. On the certificate, doctors are not obligated to report if the hurricane contributed to the death.

PESQUERA: Quite frankly, they should, but you're right. Will they be obligated to do it by law? No. But I still submit to you that there's a moral and ethical responsibility to do that.

SANTIAGO: Pesquera plans on asking legislatures to change the law, require doctors to flag natural disasters on death certificates. And that's not the only issue. He admits he needs people to flag cases, too.

PESQUERA: And you're the first person, the first media outlet, and I'll say it publicly, that brings in information for us to verify.

SANTIAGO (on camera): But is that the media's job or is that your job?

PESQUERA: So, it's our job to take care of 2,900 bodies, doing every month, to see that the doctor -- the doctor certifies that the deaths occur in the way that it happened.

SANTIAGO (voice-over): Pesquera tells us he will investigate the multiple cases CNN brought to his attention.

(on camera): Why is the government of Puerto Rico not double checking it? And why isn't the government of Puerto Rico doing what CNN did, calling these funeral homes one by one, visiting these families one by one?

PESQUERA: Funeral homes to begin with are not the person to tell us what the people die or not die of.

SANTIAGO (voice-over): He says families should be notifying the government if they believe Hurricane Maria is responsible for a death. Loved ones like Pepe's wife who tells us at the time, the priority was not to make sure their loved one was counted in a statistic, rather to make sure he had a proper good-bye.

(on camera): They were married when she was 20 and she misses him.

(voice-over): Families trying to make sense of tragedy and a death toll.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SANTIAGO: And, Jim, according to forensics, they visited cemeteries, funeral homes, even hospitals to pursue suspicious cases and forensic says that many of those were not true, they even called them rumors.

[18:50:02] You heard the secretary in our piece say that CNN was the first to flag specific cases that could be hurricane-related. He has given us his word that he will be looking into them, investigating them, getting back to us and adding it to the death toll if justified.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN ANCHOR: Leyla, so important that the deaths in Puerto Rico be certified properly and that we get a proper accounting of just how many people died there. It could mean FEMA assistance for the families.

What can you tell us about that?

SANTIAGO: Right. Yes, there's actually a program, it is a FEMA program that assists families in paying for funeral expenses, maximum of $6,000, but for that -- for a family to qualify for that program, they must be a certified or the family member must be a certified death for FEMA to even consider helping with those funeral expenses.

ACOSTA: All right. Leyla Santiago with a very important, exclusive story from Puerto Rico -- Leyla, thank you very much. We know you'll stay on top of that. We appreciate it.

Just ahead, President Trump a game changer for late night TV.

(COMMERICAL BREAK)

[18:56:07] ACOSTA: Coming up tonight at 9:00 Eastern, a CNN special report "Late Night in the Age of Trump".

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is got to be a crazy one.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Every day, there's something nuts.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're not the POTUS, you're the BLOTUS.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Wait, how long does this wall have to be?

BRIAN STELTER, CNN SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): He's the most mocked man in America.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That is the problem with the media.

STELTER: Monopolizing late night.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's hard night to feel like you're being redundant.

UNIDENTIFED MALE: Kim Jong-un as rocket man.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Kim Jong-un as rocket man.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Kim Jong-un as rocket man.

STELTER: Dominating SNL.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She's a nasty woman.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's like a mime producing raw material.

STELTER: He's blowing up scripts.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The pace of the news.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Stop it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So much faster.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Me first.

STELTER: Making and breaking careers.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's like a little Churchill.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Excuse me.

STELTER: Would you say you're on a mission to take him down?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I would like to see him brought down to the ground, preferably in handcuffs.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're turning into a real (EXPLETIVE DELETED) dictator.

STELTER: Has late night gone too far?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Has it gone disrespectful of the office of the presidency? I think so.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: Let's get more with the host of tonight's special, CNN senior media correspondent, Brian Stelter. He's also the host of "RELIABLE SOURCES".

Brian, it looks huge your special tonight. As President Trump permanently changed the late night landscape and who has the best impersonation? Is it still Alec Baldwin?

STELTER: Let me think about that. But to your first question, yes. I think Trump has permanently changed the late night world. He has given these shows endless amounts of fodder and that's why we decided to do this documentary, because President Trump has inspired these comments whether Stephen Colbert or Seth Meyers or Jimmy Kimmel or Jimmy Kimmel, mostly men who host these shows. Some of them were not having that much success in the ratings until

Election Day last year, and now, these shows are channeling the hopes and fears of Trump's critics. They're like a release valve for blue state America. In some ways, these comics are saying this is a crisis moment in the America but for the comics, it's a career opportunity and the ratings are way up for shows like Stephen Colbert's.

ACOSTA: And, Brian, for this documentary, you go behind the scenes as these shows get put together. What's a normal day like with these programs in the Trump era? Do they literally rip up the scripts before they go on?

STELTER: They do. That's one of the most interesting things to see. Normally, these the time of day that 11:30 or midnight shows are taped. But they end up having to tape later in the evening because of all the news developments that you're covering on programs like this one.

And to your impersonators, you know, Alec Baldwin gets a lot of attention, a lot of press on SNL. But I think Anthony Atamanuik has an amazing Trump impersonation.

ACOSTA: Oh, wow.

STELTER: He's on comedy central and we interviewed him for this documentary. It takes him two hours to put on the makeup, to put on a fat suit, he says he wears, a bald cap for a special hair piece, but he's fascinating. And in the documentary, he really sounds like a biographer, he's really had to learn a lot about his character and I think you'll be surprised by what he says tonight.

ACOSTA: And what's the most surprising thing you learned in this documentary, Brian?

STELTER: You know, I think it's that these comics, they have second thoughts. They wonder, are they only preaching to the choir? Are they only talking with folks who already agree with them? In some ways, these shows are part of the polarization of America.

But like I said, viewers are tuning in. The ratings are still sky high for these shows, even though the election was last year.

ACOSTA: And as we know, these programs are a big release.

Brian Stelter, thank you very much. You'll be wrapping it all up tonight in the "Late-Night in the Age of Trump". It airs tonight at 9:00 Eastern, only right here on CNN. We'll all be watching for that. Thank you very much.

I'm Jim Acosta. Thank you very much for watching tonight.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.