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Interview With Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta; Trump's National Security Strategy; Train Derails in Washington State; CNN Probe Prompts Review of Puerto Rico Hurricane Deaths. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired December 18, 2017 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We have dramatic audio from the accident, as we learn more about ominous warnings about this new Amtrak service.

Fearing a meltdown. Sources tell CNN that the president is expecting the special counsel to exonerate him and that Mr. Trump might lose it if that doesn't happen. This as the man who organized that infamous Trump Tower meeting back in 2016 faces House investigators.

New Russia strategy. The president unveils a new foreign policy that is tougher on Moscow and acknowledges its election meddling, at least on paper. But is it at odds with Mr. Trump's personal views about Russia and Vladimir Putin?

And ruled out. A Trump judicial nominee who failed to answer very basic legal questions drops out after video of his humiliating performance went viral. Will it have any effect on the president's future nominations?

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 tonight, the debut run of a higher-speed train service turns deadly, as 13 cars derail, some of them plunging off an interstate overpass or left dangling above the road.

NTSB investigators are now heading to the scene out in Washington state. Multiple deaths are reported. Most of the 84 people on board were taken to the hospital. Some local officials had warned these new modified trains could be dangerous and might lead to a fatal accident like this.

Also breaking, President Trump unveils his new national security strategy, casting China and Russia as global rivals and revisionist powers. Mr. Trump did not mention Russia's election meddling in his formal speech, but it is referenced in the written version of his policy, despite reports that the president still doesn't believe Moscow interfered in the 2016 presidential election.

In the Russia probe, House investigators have been interviewing more key witnesses today, including the British publicist who organized that Trump Tower meeting back in 2016, when Donald Trump Jr. and others from the campaign expected to get Russian dirt on Hillary Clinton.

Sources tell CNN that the president believes the Russia probe is nearing an end and that he's expecting special counsel Robert Mueller to exonerate him in the coming weeks. We're told the president is even predicting that Mueller will write a formal letter clearing him of any wrongdoing, which would be highly unusual.

At least one source, though, is expressing deep concern that if that doesn't happen, Mr. Trump will have what is described as a meltdown.

This hour, I will talk with former Defense Secretary, former CIA Director Leon Panetta. And our correspondents and specialists are also standing by.

First, let's go to CNN's Rene Marsh with more on that deadly train derailment.

Rene, I know you're getting new information. What is the latest?

RENE MARSH, CNN GOVERNMENT REGULATION CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, about seven hours later, and we still don't have a good handle on just how many people died in this train derailment.

A law enforcement spokesman said a short time ago that there are still train cars that they have simply not been able to search yet, because it is not safe. And I'm quoting. He says he knows no one is still alive who's inside of those cars at this point.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Track 501. Emergency, emergency, emergency. We are on the ground. We need EMS ASAP.

MARSH (voice-over): Tonight, dramatic audio moments after Amtrak 501 left the tracks.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We were coming around the corner to take the bridge over I-5 there right north in Nisqually and we went on the ground.

MARSH: The 14-car train jumped the tracks and plummeted off an overpass and on to Interstate 5 during morning rush hour near Olympia, Washington.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm still figuring that out. We have got cars everywhere and down on to the highway.

MARSH: Police confirm multiple deaths and injuries on the high-speed train, which was on its inaugural run between Seattle and Portland. State police tell CNN there were 77 passengers on board, along with seven crew. More than 70 people were rushed to local hospitals. Witnesses describe the scene.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We felt a little bit of a jolt, and then at a certain point, the -- we could hear a crumpling of the train car and we were catapulted into the seats in front of us.

MARSH: Amtrak's CEO tells CNN, positive train control, a technology designed to slow down a train that's going too fast, was not activated on the tracks at the time of the crash. The National Transportation Safety Board is launching a full investigation, tonight dispatching a team of 20 investigators to the scene.

T. BELLA DINH-ZARR, NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD: This was called an inaugural run of this, this service. But we want to check and make sure what that exactly means.

MARSH: An NTSB official tells CNN the investigation will focus on recovering the train's data recorders to determine the train's speed. They will also examine the tracks and signals and conduct extensive interviews with the crew and passengers.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We went down an embankment. We had to kick out the window, the emergency window.

MARSH: And while no one knows for sure what caused this crash, just two weeks ago, the mayor of Lakewood, Washington, warned state transportation officials that the tracks were not suited for high- speed rail travel, saying, "Come back when there's that accident and try to justify not putting in those safety enhancements," adding, "This project was never needed and endangers our citizens."

The last major Amtrak crash was just two-and-a-half years ago in Philadelphia, when Amtrak 188 from Washington, D.C., to New York City derailed, killing eight and sending more than 200 others to the hospital. In that crash, the train's data recorder revealed it was traveling at 106 miles per hour around a sharp curve that had a speed limit of 50.


MARSH: All right, so, of course, investigators will be looking at speed as well. We know along that track, the speed is 79 miles per hour. However, what investigators will need to pin down is what was the speed limit as it was going around the curve? And that's where the accident happened, where the derailment happened.

Also, Wolf, a big question is the experience of the crew. We know that there were seven members of the crew on board this train. Were they used to this route? What was their level of experience? All things that NTSB will be getting to the bottom of.

BLITZER: Yes, seven crew members, 77 passengers on that train as well. All right, Rene, thanks very much.

Let's get an update from an official on the ground in Washington state.

State Trooper Brooke Bova is joining us on the phone. She's a public information officer.

Trooper Bova, thanks so much for joining us.

What can you tell us about the search for people still trapped in the derailed -- in this derailed train?

BROOKE BOVA, WASHINGTON STATE PATROL: I can't give you much information on the search. That's actually -- that's going to be our fire and rescue teams right now. I can tell you that they are still searching.

There are some cars that are unsafe for them to go on and to do searches, though.

BLITZER: Do you have any update on the death toll?

BOVA: No. We aren't able to release that information until we're able to get on to all of the cars and check all of them.

BLITZER: So are you still working under the assumption you may still find some people alive?

BOVA: No, we are not.

BLITZER: So you assume if anyone's left on those trains, which search-and-rescue officials have not been able to get to, those people might be dead?

BOVA: If there's anybody on board, yes, there's a good likelihood. We can confirm there are casualties, but, unfortunately, we cannot confirm a number yet at this time.

BLITZER: What kind of resources are being used right now? Because the scene looks awful, 13 cars, some of them overturned. It seems like it's just an impossible mission.

BOVA: You know, we have got -- NTSB has arrived on scene a short time ago. Amtrak is on scene. We have got as many fire personnel that are there. Everybody is doing everything that they can.

Mutual aid has definitely been astounding. We have just about every neighboring agency possible here helping out.

BLITZER: How long do you think it will take to get answers to these questions, how fast the train was going as it went around that curve? And you know that curve. Is it really a very serious curve or just a little mild curve?

BOVA: I'm unfamiliar with the tracks. I'm sorry.

BLITZER: You're not that familiar with the curve.

How quickly did the responders arrive on the scene? How quickly did your state troopers arrive?

BOVA: Our state troopers and responders arrived pretty immediate.

JBLM Fire Department and JBLM Military Police were very quick on the scene, as this is right through the military base.

BLITZER: As you know, Trooper Bova, some local officials had raised deep safety concerns about this high-speed train that was going to go through that area. Were those concerns brought to the attention of the Washington State Patrol?

BOVA: I mean, unfortunately, I don't know about that. If it was brought to the attention of the state patrol, I wasn't aware of it.

BLITZER: Have you ever seen anything like this before?

BOVA: I have never seen a train derailment, no. There's a lot that we see as state troopers, but nothing of this magnitude, that's for sure.

BLITZER: What was the initial scene like for the first-responders when they got there? Because we're told that no one on the ground was killed, although there were people on the ground who were injured, right?

BOVA: You know, we're unclear on that right now. We can't confirm that there weren't any casualties on the ground.

We're still trying to -- this is a very large scene. It's still evolving. And because there's so many different fire departments and rescue teams and police departments out there, we're still trying to piece together where the casualties are and where the injuries are, but first on scene, it was just -- you know, it's just as tragic as you can imagine.

BLITZER: It's heartbreaking, indeed. I can only imagine.

Thanks, Trooper Brooke Bova, for joining us. We will stay in touch with you.


BOVA: Thank you so much.

BLITZER: There's other news we're following right now, including news involving President Trump and his unveiling his new America-first national security strategy.

I want to bring in our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.

Jim, some mixed messages are being sent when it comes to Russia and its involvement in the U.S. presidential election.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That is certainly the case, Wolf. President Trump mentioned the trail derailment, we should point out,

in his speech on national security earlier today here in Washington, but the speech was also notable for what it did and did not include on the subject of Russia.


ACOSTA (voice-over): In a speech on his national security strategy, which covered a range of global threats from North Korea to ISIS, President Trump used the R-word, Russia.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We also face rival powers, Russia and China, that seek to challenge American influence, values, and wealth. We will attempt to build a great partnership with those and other countries, but in a manner that always protects our national interest.

ACOSTA: But in the president's roughly 30-minute speech, there was no mention of Russia's meddling in the 2016 election. That's despite the fact that there's a reference to Moscow's interference included in the written version of the White House strategy, stating, "Actors such as Russia are using information tools in an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of democracies."

Over the weekend, the president tried to put to rest any questions over whether he would fire special counsel Robert Mueller over his handling of the Russia investigation.

TRUMP: No, I'm not. No.

ACOSTA: Even as top Cabinet members don't seem to be completely ruling it out.

STEVEN MNUCHIN, U.S. TREASURY SECRETARY: I don't have any reason to think that the president is going to do that, but that's obviously up to him.

ACOSTA: The president's message on national security was muddled by his own lack of discipline. His first tweet on the train accident in Washington state didn't mention the loss of life there. Instead, he made a pitch for his policies, tweeting: "The train accident that just occurred in DuPont, Washington, shows more than ever why our soon-to- be submitted infrastructure plan must be approved quickly."

Mr. Trump made sure to mention the victims later on in his speech.

TRUMP: Our deepest sympathies and most heartfelt prayers for the victims of the train derailment in Washington state, all the more reason why we must start immediately fixing the infrastructure of the United States.

ACOSTA: The president also used his national security speech to tout his tax cut plan that's on its way to final passage.

TRUMP: We are days away from passing historic tax cuts. ACOSTA: Mr. Trump has pointed to the Reagan tax cuts from the 1980s

as proof his plan will work. But back in 1991, the then-businessman slammed the Reagan cuts as devastating for the economy.

TRUMP: So, this tax act was just an absolute catastrophe for the country. I truly feel that this country right now is in a depression. It's not a recession. We're in an absolute depression. And one of the reasons we're there is what happened in 1986.

ACOSTA: The White House is also responding to criticism for the president's picks for the judiciary just days after a fellow Republican blasted one of his selections, Matthew Petersen, at a hearing.

MATTHEW PETERSEN, JUDICIAL NOMINEE: I understand the challenge that would be ahead of me if I were fortunate enough to become a district court judge.

ACOSTA: Louisiana GOP Senator John Kennedy urged the president to scrap the nomination. Petersen has now withdrawn his name from consideration, a move the White House has accepted.

SEN. JOHN KENNEDY (R), LOUISIANA: He's never been in a courtroom before. And no disrespect, but just because you have seen "My Cousin Vinny," you're not qualified to be a federal judge.


ACOSTA: Now, despite Republicans falling into line to support the president's tax cut plan, there appears to be some worries about the package ultimately making it to the president's desk.

Case in point, Vice President Mike Pence has just announced in the last hour, Wolf, that he is delaying a trip to the Middle East to stay in town in case he has to cast a deciding vote. And keep in mind, Wolf, don't forget, at the end of this week, the Republicans still have to avoid a government shutdown when the government runs out of money on midnight, Friday.

Still no development there as to how that is going to be avoided, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, the vice president was supposed to be in Israel and Egypt later this week. Now that trip has been delayed, at least until mid-January.

Thanks very much, Jim Acosta, for that report.

Tonight, we're also getting new insights into the president's thinking about the entire Russia investigation that's ongoing and why some of his allies fear he may be heading toward some sort of a meltdown.

Let's bring in our White House correspondent, Sara Murray. She's got some exclusive reporting for us.

So, the president, apparently, is expected to be fully exonerated. Is that right?

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: He is. He is expecting Mueller's team to issue him this letter of exoneration. The good news for those around the president is that it's made him less agitated about the special counsel's investigation.

But they may be setting up unrealistic expectations for the president. Trump's lawyers have a very optimistic view of Mueller's timeline. They believe the president is going to be cleared, likely early in the new year.

But there are others who are close to this investigation, other lawyers who are involved in it, who view that timeline with a lot of skepticism and say that Mueller appears to be ramping up more than anything else.


So Trump's allies, Trump's friends worry if they blow through this timeline, it's going to irritate, it's going to infuriate the president, and that he could do something rash, like, for instance, fire Mueller, even though we saw him just a day ago insisting that's nowhere on his list of considerations right now.

BLITZER: Yes, key words, right now.

The lawyers for the Trump transition, they wrote a letter to Congress complaining that Robert Mueller, in their words, unlawfully obtained tens of thousands of e-mails from the transition team, a claim Mueller's team strongly denies. What are you learning about this?

MURRAY: Well, yes, Mueller's team denies this, and it's rare for them to come out and comment at all, for the special's counsel's office to say anything. It is a claim by Trump's transition lawyers, saying that Mueller obtained tens of thousands of e-mails unlawfully.

This is a letter they issued publicly. They didn't go to a judge with it. So, many are claiming this is just a P.R. stunt. But it's an indication of how some of Trump's allies are growing more disillusioned, more convinced that they're not getting a fair shake in the Mueller investigation.

And it could be a signal of what's to come if the president realizes that he's not going to be cleared anytime soon. We may see him, we may see his allies take an even shaper tone when it comes to Mueller.

BLITZER: Good reporting. Sara, thank you very much, Sara Murray, reporting for us.

Let's talk about all of this and more with Leon Panetta. He served a as the defense secretary and the CIA director during the Obama administration.

Mr. Secretary, thanks for joining us.


BLITZER: So, from your perspective, what were the strengths of President Trump's national security speech today?

PANETTA: Well, I haven't read the document, but I did get a preview of it from General McMaster when he spoke to the Reagan Defense Forum out here in California.

And, frankly, I think, the principles that are laid out in that strategy are principles that past presidents, Democratic and Republicans, would have embraced. Protecting the homeland, protecting prosperity, preserving peace through strength, advancing U.S. influence in the world.

Those are all principles that I think are more traditional principles of foreign policy. I think the real question is going to be whether or not this president adheres to the principles that were laid out in this document, because, frankly, you're not going to advance U.S. influence in the world by withdrawing from trade agreements in a global world.

You're not going to enhance U.S. influence by being the only country to walk away from the Paris climate change accords. You're not going to be advancing U.S. influence if you go against our allies with regards to Jerusalem or supporting the Iran agreement.

So I think the real question is going to be, whether or not this president, in fact, is going to adhere to the principles that were laid out by his national security team.

BLITZER: Well, to your point, Mr. Secretary, the president's speech over at the Reagan Building here in Washington was different in many key respects than the actual national security strategy document, 55 pages, which, as you correctly point out, goes through a lot of specifics.

For example, the document says this. And let me put it up on the screen. "Russia uses information operations as part of its offensive cyber-efforts to influence public opinion across the globe. Its influence campaigns blend covert intelligence operations and false online personas with state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media users or trolls."

Did you hear anything at all from the president in his speech today that mirrors that?


Obviously, the president didn't make those references. But, again, the document that has been presented does a pretty good job of saying that both Russia and China are rivals who want to undermine the United States of America.

And I think it's pretty clear, certainly, in listening to General McMaster, that there's a recognition that Russia deliberately used cyber-efforts to try to undermine our election. I think I think it would be in the president's interests to

acknowledge what Russia has done here, because, clearly, questions have been raised about whether or not the president, himself, truly believes that that was the case.

BLITZER: Yes, when he does say something along those lines, it's very grudging, and then he talks about China and others who hack into the U.S. system.

In the document itself, it speaks of Russia and China as revisionist powers who want to shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests.


It's clearly a different tone than what we hear from the president.

Let me get your thoughts on something else that I noticed. The president in his speech today, as he always does, he referred to the threat of radical Islamic terrorism. That's a phrase that clearly does not show up in these 55 pages of the document.

It refers to jihadist terrorists. It may sound like it's not significant, but, as you know, he often railed against President Obama, railed against Secretary Clinton for refusing to use the phrase radical Islamic terrorist.

Is this significant that the document avoids that phrase and comes up with a phrase that Hillary Clinton used to use, jihadist terrorists?

PANETTA: Well, again, I want to commend the national security team for being very responsible in the language that they used in presenting this strategy, because I think they really are trying to say it in a way that doesn't antagonize the Muslim community.

The president, on the other hand, kind of marches to his own drummer on this issue, and goes back to the words that he used during the campaign. So he's going to use radical, you know, Islamist, words that will antagonize the Muslim community. He's done that before. He continues to do that.

I think the fact that he decided to go with Jerusalem, against our allies, both our Europe allies, as well as our Arab allies, was in many ways fulfilling a campaign commitment that he made during the campaign, as opposed to doing what I believe would have been much more important in trying to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace.

So, he kind of marches to his own drummer on these issues. And that that makes it a real question mark with regards to this strategy today, because I think the real test is going to be whether or not this president adheres to the principles laid out in that strategy or basically does his own thing.

BLITZER: You served as the CIA director during the Obama administration. How do you read the two recent phone calls over the past few days between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin?

PANETTA: Well, you know, taking the last call, that made some sense if the CIA, in fact, provided information that was provided to the Russians regarding a security threat in Russia.

And it's frankly the kind of information that we have provided as well when I was director of the CIA. If we found information that raised the threat to Russia, we would share that information with them. So, I'm glad the CIA did that.

And I think it is -- it's important, then, that both presidents acknowledge that that was help that was received from this country.


BLITZER: But when you did that, Mr. Secretary -- let me politely interrupt.


BLITZER: When you did that, when you provided, let's say, the Russians with intelligence, sensitive information to try to thwart some sort of terrorist operation, did you then go out and publicize it and make that information public, because a lot of times, in the U.S. intelligence community, you worry about compromising sources and methods if you do that.

PANETTA: No, you're absolutely right, Wolf.

We did not go public with that information. And it's important that you try to protect the sources of that kind of information, so that lives are not jeopardized. In this instance, I'm assuming that they had a discussion. Hopefully, they did not reveal what the sources of that information were.

But, again, you know, look, I think it's pretty obvious this president has a very different relationship with Putin than past presidents. And Putin seems to have a very different relationship with this president. And I guess it raises -- it raises questions about just exactly why there is this relationship.

On the other hand, you know, I'm willing to give the president the benefit of the doubt. If he thinks he can work with Russia, work with Putin to try to advance peace, then he should do that.

But at the same time, I think this president ought to be very honest with the American people and with the world that Russia is not a friend, Russia is an adversary and will try to do everything it can to try to undermine the United States of America.


BLITZER: Secretary Panetta, there's more we need to discuss.

I'm going to take a quick break and resume our conversation right after this. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're back with former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

We're following multiple breaking stories, including the president's new national security strategy.

Secretary Panetta, I want you to stand by, because we're also getting some breaking news on the Republican tax bill.

Let's go to our congressional correspondent, Phil Mattingly.

Phil, two more key GOP senators, they have now revealed how they will vote.

MATTINGLY: Yes, that's right, Wolf. And the answer is, yes, for both Senator Mike Lee and Senator Susan Collins, two votes that all but ensure Republicans in the U.S. Senate will have the votes to pass their tax plan when it comes up over the course of the next 24 or 48 hours.

[18:30:18] Wolf, it's no small thing that Republicans not only have gotten to this point -- not only have gotten to this point over the course of a couple of months, but are taking this to the floor with limited drama, whatsoever. There's a chance that every single Republican who is present will end up voting for this bill.

Obviously, Senator John McCain has flown home to Arizona. He will not be there. Vice President Mike Pence just announcing that he's going to stick around for this tax vote, but it won't be because he's supposed to cast the tie-breaking vote. Every Republican adviser I've spoken to said they are in good shape. The only answer they're still waiting for now is Senator Jeff Flake, and the expectation, Wolf, is that he will also be a yes.

BLITZER: The House is expected to vote, what, tomorrow on the tax bill. Then the Senate could take it up as early as tomorrow night or Wednesday, rate?

MATTINGLY: Yes, that's exactly right. The House should move tomorrow afternoon. Again, there's no drama expected in the House. They had a big vote the first time around, 227 Republicans voting for it. They only needed 117 at that time. They expect to have around that number this time, as well.

And as you noted, the Senate is expected to take it up shortly after the House passes it. There's a chance, Wolf, they might try and push through the night and actually get it done late Tuesday, very early Wednesday morning. The possibility it pushes a little bit further into Wednesday.

But the reality is President Trump said he wanted this bill done before Christmas. And as of right now, Republicans are on the verge of delivering that possible signing ceremony on Wednesday at the White House for the passage of something, Wolf, that hasn't been done in 31 years. A tax overhaul. BLITZER: Big win for the president. Big win for the Republicans once

the president signs that legislation into law. Phil, thank you very much, Phil Mattingly up on Capitol Hill.

Let's get back to former secretary, Leon Panetta.

Mr. Secretary, the Republicans see this as a huge accomplishment. They believe it will help them win elections in the midterms next year. How do you think it will play out?

LEON PANETTA, FORMER SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Wolf, I remember when the -- when the Reagan tax cut early in the Reagan administration passed. Howard Baker, who was then the majority leader, I believe, said that it was a giant river boat gamble.

I think what the Republicans are doing with this tax bill is a giant river boat gamble. Because just as the Reagan tax cuts exploded the debt, and ultimately, we had to face a huge deficit, facing this country, this bill is going to add not just 1.5 trillion, but with the gimmicks that are part of it, it could add, in addition to other proposals Congress is working on, almost $4 trillion to the national debt.

And that means that we are going to have slower growth in the future. We're going to have interest payments that will dramatically increase; and ultimately, our children and our grandchildren are the ones that are going to pay the price for this irresponsible tax bill.

BLITZER: Just curious where you came up with the $4 trillion number, because the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation, they say $1 trillion or $1.5 trillion. I know you're a former OMB head. I know you're a former chairman of the House Budget Committee, a former White House chief of staff. Where'd you come up with the $4 trillion number?

PANETTA: Well, it -- it adds up this way. The tax bill itself is about $1.5 trillion. But it has temporary provisions in the bill that involve tax cuts. If those temporary provisions are extended, that will add another $2 trillion to the debt.

And then if you look at what Congress has to do this week, in trying to repair sequester, in dealing with disaster funding, in dealing with funding for CHIP, as well as other tax extenders, that could add almost another $1 trillion to the national debt.

So we are -- we are on the path towards a national debt that could very well reach 100 percent of GDP, which would really be a disaster from a fiscal point of view.

BLITZER: Certainly would be. All right, Mr. Secretary, as usual, thanks so much for joining us. Really appreciate it.

PANETTA: You're welcome.

BLITZER: Just ahead, we're going to get an update on that deadly train derailment as NTSB investigators are now rushing to the scene. And we'll also talk more about the president's new national security

strategy and whether it's at odds with his personal views when it comes to Russia.


[18:39:25] BLITZER: Once again, the breaking news tonight, the deadly Amtrak derailment in Washington state that left multiple people dead and train cars dangling over Interstate 5, about 50 miles south of Seattle.

Thirteen of the train's 14 cars jumped the tracks, some of them crashing onto vehicles out on the highway. More than 70 people were taken to hospitals. It happened on this, the inaugural run of a new Amtrak route between Seattle and Portland. The National Transportation Safety Board is sending a team to investigate. That investigation only now beginning.

We're also following President Trump's unveiling of his administration's national security strategy and a discrepancy between the document and the president's speech.

Let's dig deeper with our correspondents and our specialists. And John Kirby, let me start with you. Because in the document itself, 55 pages, this lengthy document, very detailed, very carefully written, it has this line: "Russia uses information operations as part of its offensive cyber efforts to influence public opinion across the globe. Its influence campaigns blend covert intelligence operations and false online personas with state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media users or trolls."

When the president spoke over at the Reagan Building here in Washington, did you hear anything at all similar to that?

JOHN KIRBY, DIPLOMATIC AND MILITARY ANALYST: No, not at all. And look, the devil's advocate in me would say as a former speechwriter, look, it's a 30-minute speech. It's a 55-page document. You're not going to be able to get everything in there.

But this is, without question -- with maybe the exception of China's rise, this is the single biggest national security story and issue of the year. And it was a missed opportunity for him to not pull some of that language, which was so soberly and seriously written in that document. I think that was a mistake. And it raises for me the question, again, about why he just has this incredible aversion to criticizing Putin and Russia publicly.

BLITZER: How do you see it, David?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Well, I would just add to that, and it seems to me that that would be the perfect data point for the president to include that Russia is on the rise as a competitor, also. Right?

KIRBY: A great segue to that.

CHALIAN: That would have been a data point to support that.

Here's -- here's the thing. This document is going to live on in capitals across the globe, in ways that the speech doesn't. So this document will become the thing that people are reading in capitals and using as to what the Trump administration national security strategy is.

The problem is, does President Trump live up to this document? His team clearly put a lot into this, put a lot of concern about the challenges they see on the horizon. And you have to ask the question: if President Trump doesn't see it quite this way, are the folks that wrote this able to keep President Trump on track with the goals in this document? Or does he freelance on his own?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: And just to point out, Trump has also spoken with Vladimir Putin several times in recent days. So what is he communicating to him? Because what Putin is listening to is what the president is saying to him. And there was a lot of daylight from the president's speech today and the very strong language used against Russia in that document, where it says that they're trying to weaken American influence on a global scale.

But then when the president was speaking today about Russia, he wasn't speaking in those harsh terms. He actually spoke pretty glowingly about Putin, recalling one of their phone calls, where Putin thanked Trump for the CIA information that foiled a terror plot in Russia.

So it just goes to show the difference in what his national security team is putting in this document and what the president himself feels about Vladimir Putin and Russia.

BLITZER: He's really pleased, I assume, the president, when Putin publicly praises him, saying, "Oh, the stock market's doing great. The economy in the U.S. is doing" -- when he flatters him like that, the president, President Trump is clearly pleased.

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: President Trump likes praise from everybody and anybody, including President Putin, but also to go back what Admiral Kirby said, I think part of the reason for the disconnect that you're asking about, Wolf, between the report and the speech is that politically, President Trump wants to position himself both as better as making friends with Russia and tougher on Russia, at the same time. That Obama was weaker and that Obama was meaner to Putin at the same time. And that's why you see this -- sort of these two different messages coming out.

BLITZER: Why is it so hard, David Chalian, for the president to publicly say what is in this document and what all of his national security and intelligence officials have publicly said that, yes, Russia interfered in the U.S. presidential election? There's no doubt about that. They had a mission. They were trying to undermine U.S. democracy. They were trying to help Hillary Clinton. They were trying to -- I mean, they were trying to hurt Hillary Clinton and help Donald Trump.

CHALIAN: I mean, I think if the president were sitting here right now and you asked him that, he would say to you, Wolf, "Wolf, I've said it. I said it was Russia. I said it last January. I said it was in my press conference..."

BLITZER: Very grudging.

CHALIAN: He would put to places where he said it. But you're right, it is grudging. It's not unequivocal. It is -- it is something he has to revisit time and again, because in the intervals, he backtracks from it. So he hasn't just been consistent and clear on it. Why? I can't answer that question.

BLITZER: Because the assumption is, David, that he fears that if he highlights that, it undermines his win. It gives credence to this notion that the Russians helped him. He wouldn't have been elected if the Russians hadn't been...

CHALIAN: By talking about it at all, he seems to think he gives credence to the idea that he's an illegitimate president. That's -- nobody's making that argument.

BLITZER: He said on April 30, John, he said, "Hackers could have been -- it could have been from China or a lot of different groups. Knowing something about hacking, if you don't catch a hacker, OK, in the act, it's very hard to say who did the hacking. With that being said, I'll go along with Russia. Could have been China. Could have been a lot of different groups."

KIRBY: It's like David says. I mean, he hedges and makes it as vague as possible, because he does feel it challenges his legitimacy. But look, I mean, the entire intelligence community came to the same conclusion. There's no doubt about this. I mean, it's not like it's even a debatable point. Yes, it's not -- It's not worth arguing over. It happened. They did it. And so, now, what we've got to do is focus on not letting them do it again. We have another midterm coming up here in 2018. And that's where the focus needs to be and he simply can't just get past that one hurdle.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Kaitlan, you cover the president. Have you ever heard him go into specifics similar to what's in this document about Russia interference of the election?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: No, and we've also heard him, he said that begrudgingly, it could have been them, it could have been a 300-pound person on their bed, or whatever he said on that one time. But he also said that he believes Putin believes it when he denies that Russia meddled in the election and that he can only ask him so many times before you need to move on.

But you're right, moving on -- I mean, another election is going to happen. They will likely try to do this again. So, it's something the administration does not seem to be taking seriously. And I think that's the problem that a lot of people have with this.

BLITZER: The document -- this document, the 55-page national security strategy of the United States of America, has this line in ere. We must upgrade our diplomatic capabilities to compete in the current environment and to embrace a competitive mind-set.

But, David Swerdlick, you know they're significantly cutting the budget of State Department. They're not hiring people for key slots. And a whole bunch of people are leaving, many of them in protest.

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, again, you have this disconnect between what seems like a very sober, well-laid-out policy document and then the political realities of what the administration wants to project out there in speeches and among their surrogates. This idea that they're cutting costs, they're slashing waste, they're doing things differently than the previous administration and that they have an America first program instead of, you know, sprinkling this largess all over the rest of the country.

BLITZER: John, you remember the spokesman over at the State Department during the Obama administration. When you hear this line, we must upgrade our diplomatic capabilities to compete in the current environment and to embrace a competitive mind-set. Very strong statement.

KIRBY: Yes, it is. And I think it would probably give the State Department employees some heart if it also, they had in Rex Tillerson, a leader who they really believed had their best interests at heart and was fighting for their budget.

But he's not. I mean, he just rolled over to get a 30 percent cut to their budget and that hurts. Plus, I don't understand what competitive diplomacy is supposed to be. The document lays out, I think in a very nuanced way, all the dynamics of nation state relations, and the fact that you have to seek corporation, even while you're competing.

But in his speech today, he talked about nation state relations as if it was a football game. Win and lose. It's not a zero-sum game. There has to be a balance. And I think that's what was missing again from what he had to say.

BLITZER: You know, David Chalian, I listened closely to the president's speech at the Reagan building outlining this. And I give the administration credit. They came up with this document very early, I think earlier than a lot of other administrations and they've been required under the law for 30 years to release a detailed document like this.

The president personally released it. But if you listen carefully to his speech, and I'm sure you did, a lot of it was almost like a campaign speech.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Well, that's exactly right. He wanted to close out this year, you know, he's finishing getting tax cuts passed. That's a win. The economy, the stock market's doing well. He wants to continue to tout that. And he saw this as an opportunity to get out there and say, and my strength on the world stage is great. We're going to keep America strong, and it was an opportunity to tout the wall again, back to a campaign promise.

So, he saw this as an opportunity to fulfill the first-year campaign pledges that he's trying to score victories with at the end.

COLLINS: And going back to John's point, this all comes as the president has been at odds with his own secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who wasn't scheduled to even be at that speech today, and once there were a lot of requests, then he showed up after the president started speaking, they said he had another meeting to be at. It was a little unusual for the secretary of state to not be at this meeting on national security.

So, this all comes with mixed messages with the State Department, as the president himself is at odds with his own secretary of state.

BLITZER: You go ahead, David.

SWERDLICK: The only thing I was going to add with regard to that speech, just to go back to David's point, it was very reminiscent of a campaign speech, specifically that April 2016 first big policy speech on foreign policy that President Trump gave as a candidate. A lot of the themes were the same, as if he hadn't had a year to work on them, sort of, we're going to do this or we're going to do that, not necessarily saying what we have done or how we've changed things.

KIRBY: I think the people who drafted that had an interesting job. They had to draft a coherent national security strategy, and I think they have. You can quibble with things and I don't like the idea that climate change is not in there, but they have. But they also had to marry it to the president's campaign speeches. And that's a tough sort of sock to put in that shoe.

BLITZER: When you were the State Department spokesman or the Pentagon spokesman during the Obama administration, did you use the phrase radical Islamic terrorism?

KIRBY: No, we didn't couch the fight against violent extremism in religious terms. I still think that's the right approach.

[18:50:00] Now, I know they're using jihadi terrorism in this and he didn't use that today. I think, for their purposes, it is really a distinction without much of a difference because they still believe that the terrorists believe it's a religious based extremism. We did not use that frame inside the Obama.

BLITZER: The document itself uses jihadi terrorists. A politically more correct phrase than radical Islamic terrorism, right, David?

CHALIAN: Well, right, I mean, there's the debate inside the national security community about concerns about how overall the Muslim community writ large reacts to that kind of rhetoric. And if you're trying to get to partner with the Islamic community, to help actually solve some of these challenges, that perhaps you don't want to couch it entirely in religious terms.

BLITZER: The president's speech today, Kaitlan, the president's speech, he referred to radical Islamic terrorism. But I wonder why if this document reflects the president's strategy, they're not accepting the president's words? COLLINS: Well, that's right. And during his campaign, he went on and

on about how the previous administration would not say it, and how he was going to say and how Hillary Clinton would say it. But he would say, if he was president and then during your interview with the NSC spokesman, Michael Anton, he said there wasn't a different between, there was no daylight between what's in that document right there and what the president said today.

But then if there is no difference, then why didn't they just use the president's clearly preferred term in this document?

BLITZER: You know, it's a lengthy document and a lot of it is very good. But you got a final thought?

KIRBY: I do. I think, normally, I'm going back to something David said earlier, normally, in a normal administration, the document and the speech would be married up pretty well, and you would be marching off with both of them as a song sheet. In this case, the document and the speech are not very much -- there's key differences. And I wish that we could all say that that is going to be the thing that endures for years and that's the bible. But I don't think it is.

I really think that the speech gives you a sense of where the president really is, and he's the guy who sets national security and foreign policy, if he doesn't continue to use that as his guide then that's going to be a problem.

BLITZER: The president's words are clearly a lot more important than what is in this lengthy 55-page document. As important as it is, and other countries and leaders and diplomats will read it, but they'll also be listening to what the president of the United States.

KIRBY: Most important are the president's actions and if he follows through on a philosophy like his administration put together here, and then today's speech may not be the be all and end all of his policies.

BLITZER: All right. Everybody, stand by. There's more news we're following.

A CNN investigation prompts Puerto Rican officials now to review the toll from Hurricane Maria. Why have hundreds of deaths simply gone uncounted.


[18:57:26] BLITZER: New tonight, Puerto Rico's governor is ordering a review of the deaths from Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island three months ago, this week. The actual toll now is 64. But a CNN reveal the actual tool is much, much higher, maybe at least.

CNN's Leyla Santiago is joining us right now with the very latest.

Leyla, you spent a lot of time in Puerto Rico, this latest information was prompted by your investigation. What are you hearing? What's the latest? LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Listen, we certainly are hearing a

change of tone from the government of Puerto Rico. Weeks ago, when we first asked about the death toll, they told us they stood by those numbers, which at the time by the way, was 55. Since we aired our investigation showing that the number could be hundreds, possibly more than a thousand higher, that now they're saying, let's look into this.

Today, the governor of Puerto Rico put out a statement acknowledging the need for a thorough review. He's calling on two different apartments to look into the death toll. No matter what a death certificate may say -- a gap in which we show in our investigation.

So, really today, that announcement really showed that the government of Puerto Rico was changing its tone. Acknowledging that the death toll may not be what is official in that tally. When we called 279 funeral homes, we reached half of them, they told us they reported the funeral directors reported 499 deaths, again, at a time when the death toll was only 55. Since then, multiple other media outlets have questioned the death toll and also gotten numbers that are higher than what is being reported out of Puerto Rico, after Hurricane Maria.

BLITZER: Why wouldn't they acknowledge, Leyla, the actual number of people who were killed? What's the down side to saying that hundreds of people were killed in that hurricane as opposed to, you know, 60 or 70?

SANTIAGO: Well, certainly, that's the point that the government brings up, they say, look, we don't have anything to hide. But take a look at the visit from President Trump, when he went shortly after Hurricane Maria. That's one of the things he used to praise Puerto Rico and its response, saying, look, there's a low death toll. But the government of Puerto Rico now acknowledging that perhaps they ought to look into those numbers.

And as a matter of fact, Wolf, they actually included one of the cases we highlighted in our investigation, the case of Jose "Pepe" Sanchez. They had added him to the death toll. And as a matter of fact, we spoke to the family who said, since our piece aired, FEMA has reached out to them, even helped them with the paperwork to get benefits that they now qualify, now that it's a certified death. For example, funeral expenses that will now be covered.

BLITZER: Leyla Santiago joining us from Mexico City, she's done amazing reporting from Puerto Rico -- Leyla, thanks very much.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.