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Republicans And Democrats Warning President Trump Not To Fire Special Counsel Bob Mueller; New Poll Shows Democrats With A Double- Digit Lead Over Republicans; Two Detainees Have Been There Since Last Year, Accused Of, Quote, "Hostile Acts," While The Other Has Been Serving A Ten-Year Sentence On Espionage Charges. Aired 4-5p ET

Aired March 18, 2018 - 16:00   ET

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


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[16:00:51] FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN HOST: Happening now in the NEWSROOM --

JAKE TAPPER, CNN CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Do you think that the President is laying the groundwork to fire Mueller?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I just hope it doesn't go there, because it can't. We can't in Congress accept that.

CHRIS CHRISTIE, ABC NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: I don't think the President will fire Robert Mueller. I don't think it would be appropriate for him to do so. And I don't think he will do it. And if he did do it, it would be inappropriate.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: If he tried to do that, that would be the beginning of the end of his presidency, because we are a rule of law nation.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (R-CA), RANKING MEMBER, HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: This would undoubtedly result in a constitutional crisis. And I think Democrats and Republicans need to speak out about this right now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't see the President firing him. I think the White House has said ten times, maybe more, that they are not going to fire Robert Mueller. They want to be able to finish the investigation.

WHITFIELD: CNN NEWSROOM starts now.

All right. Hello again and welcome this Sunday. I'm Fredricka Whitfield. Thanks for being with me.

All right. We start with a red line in Washington. Cries from both sides of the aisle, with a clear message for the U.S. President. Do not fire special counsel Robert Mueller.

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TAPPER: Are you worried that the President is preparing to order the firing of Mueller? It sure looks that way from his tweets.

GRAHAM: Well, as I said before, if he tried to do that, that would be the beginning of the end of his presidency, because we are a rule of law nation.

SCHIFF: This would undoubtedly result in a constitutional crisis, and I think Democrats and Republicans need to speak out about this right now. Don't wait for the crisis. But I would hope that that would be the result, that we would affirm our system of checks and balances and appoint an independent counsel.

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WHITFIELD: All of this as Trump once again lashes out in a slew of tweets, hammering the Russia probe, denying collusion, and calling out Mueller by name.

CNN's White House correspondent, Boris Sanchez joining us now.

So Boris, so we heard today from a top White House official, defending the President's frustrations.

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Fred. The direct of legislative affairs, Marc Short, was one of the Sunday morning talk shows, essentially saying that the President's frustrations are justified, because the Russia investigation has lingered on for more than a year. It's cost millions of dollars. And yet, it has not proven collusion, that there was a direct link between Russians and the Trump campaign during the 2016 election.

The President's anger, obviously, as you noted, boiling over on twitter, directed at a number of different people, at the special counsel, who called it bias this morning. He also went after the state department, the FBI, the entire department of justice. And one of his more recent favorite targets, the former deputy FBI director, Andrew McCabe.

The President tweeting this out. Quote "spent very little time with Andrew McCabe, but he never took notes when he was with me. I don't believe he made memos, except to help his own agenda, probably at a later date, same with James Comey. Can we call them fake memos?"

That, of course, in response to the news that McCabe apparently kept memos of his interactions with the President and that those memos are now in the hands of special counsel Robert Mueller.

McCabe's attorney put out a counterstatement a short while ago. He writes quote "we will not be responding to each childish, defamatory, disgusting and false tweet by the President. The whole truth will come out in due course." But the tweets confirm that he has corrupted the entire process that led to Mr. McCabe's termination and has rendered illegitimate.

Back to Marc Short. I want you to listen to more of what he said. There is a key takeaway here. Listen.

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MARC SHORT, WHITE HOUSE LEGISLATIVE AFFAIRS DIRECTOR: Everyone in the White House has cooperated on this will. And that I have said is that we have cooperated in every single way, every single paper they have asked for, every single interview, and I think the reality, Margaret, is that yes, there's a growing frustration that after over more than a year and millions and millions of dollars spent on this, there remains no evidence of collusion with Russia. I think the President is expressing his frustration, which is well-warranted and merited.

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SANCHEZ: Now Fred, every indication is that the White House has cooperated with the special counsel, just about in every way. The suggestion has been that they will continue to do that. But these tweets from the President, specifically the one we saw today about bias in the special counsel, is really something new. It's a much more aggressive way to directly question the legitimacy of Robert Mueller's investigation.

We'll see if that continues, though we have already heard from some Republican lawmakers, like House speaker Paul Ryan a short while ago, making the case through a spokesperson that Robert Mueller should be allowed to continue his work and should not be interfered with, Fred.

[16:05:24] WHITFIELD: All right. Boris Sanchez, thanks so much.

All right. Joining me now to discuss all of this, CNN political commentators John Thomas and Brian Fallon. Good to see you both.

All right. Listen to what Republican senator Jeff Flake had to say this morning about the prospect of the President firing Robert Mueller.

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TAPPER: Do you really think that Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan will stand up and say no, Mr. President, you can't do this?

SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: I hope so. I mean, talking to my colleagues all along. It was, you know, once he goes after Mueller, then we will take action. I think that people see that as a massive red line that can't be crossed. So I hope that that's the case. And I would just hope that enough people would prevail on the President now, don't go there. Don't go there. We have confidence in Mueller. I certainly do and I think my colleagues do, as well. I hope that the pushback is now to keep the President have going there.

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WHITFIELD: And now, Paul Ryan's spokeswoman has released a statement saying this, on behalf of the House speaker, as the speaker has always said, Mr. Mueller and his team should be able to do their job.

All right, so, John, compared to what we have heard from other Republicans who say, you know, it would be a constitutional crisis, better not cross that line, is that strong enough of a statement coming from the House speaker?

JOHN THOMAS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: You know, the fact that the House speaker is even weighing in on this matter I think speaks to the seriousness of which the speaker takes it.

I imagine there are much stronger conversations going on off the record directly with the White House. And look, I think this is healthy. While I think senator Flake is right, I would be surprised if the President took the step to fire Mueller.

It's always good to remind the President to let Mueller complete his investigation, no matter how frustrated the President and many of us in the Republican Party are at the breadth and scope and the duration of the investigation. He does have the right to do this and the President just has to sit tight and let it happen.

WHITFIELD: So, Brian, are parties on both sides carrying out their responsibilities, particularly those on Capitol Hill, you know, to make a statement on this. To support the investigation, to demonstrate a real checks and balances? Balance of power?

BRIAN FALLON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: No, Fredricka. I think we need to hear more from the Republicans. In that clip that you just played, Jeff Flake gave a good strong answer. He expressed his confidence in Bob Mueller and said it would be a red line if Trump tried to fire him. But that statement from Paul Ryan's spokeswoman unfortunately is pretty lukewarm. And we haven't heard anything from Mitch McConnell on the other side of the aisle in the Senate.

WHITFIELD: Why is that?

FALLON: Well, I don't know. And to be quite honest, I have heard more questions asked of Democrats today and yesterday about whether theoretically they will continue to support Nancy Pelosi as speaker if Democrats win back the House in November than you have heard questions to Mitch McConnell about what he would do if Donald Trump crosses this red line.

This is go time. We have been preparing for this worrisome scenario for months now. Donald Trump couldn't be leading a bigger trail of bread crumbs. The next action they actually be an order that he give to Rod Rosenstein to take the action of firing Bob Mueller. So we can't wait for more clear signals to come from Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell. Because if Donald Trump is watching TV today and he has been trying to float this weather balloon, he may very well conclude from this lack of reaction from the two Republican leaders that there will not be any blowback if he proceeds with the firing of Bob Mueller. So they need to send a much clearer signal.

WHITFIELD: So John, quickly, why so silent from Mitch McConnell?

THOMAS: Well, first of all, there is bipartisan agreement that Nancy Pelosi has to go. So that's why everybody is talking about it.

But, look, I think it's just the fact that speaker Ryan, you know, has been consistent, I think in voicing his support for Mueller. I wouldn't be surprised, Fred, if we don't see tomorrow a statement from the Senate majority leader on this matter. But I think today's discussion is healthy to remind the President to sit tight and let Mueller do his job.

But at the same time, look, I don't think it's a bad thing that the American public remind Mueller that he doesn't have an unlimited -- although legally he does, he can take it as long as he want but the public have an appetite to wrap this thing up if in fact there is no Russian collusion.

WHITFIELD: All right. So Trump's rant on Mueller over the last 24 hours along with his personal attorney calling to an end of the investigation does have a lot of people weighing in. Listen.

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REP. TREY GOWDY (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: To suggest that Mueller should shut down and that all he is looking at is collusion, if you have an innocent client, Mr. Dowd, act like it. Russia attacked our country. Let special counsel Mueller figure that out. And if you believe, as we found, there's no evidence of collusion, you should want special counsel Mueller to take all the time and have all the independence he needs to do his job.

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[16:10:17] WHITFIELD: All right. So, John, that is essentially saying, take the time. That's the antithesis of what you were saying before, you know, representative Gowdy, that people wanted to, you know, be expedient and hurry up. But when you have Gowdy and others who say, it takes time and allow that to happen, is that the message that's received by the President?

THOMAS: No, and I think the challenge is, that as we see different organizations (INAUDIBLE) interviewed is that, you know, people like Paul Manafort are getting dinged for not registering as a foreign lobbyist. You know, things that don't have direct -- not paying their taxes. The things that don't have direct relation --.

WHITFIELD: But it was a wide-ranging probe. I mean, that was already established.

THOMAS: Well, you are right. But I think the point is, if it's about Russian collusion, I think Gowdy is 100 percent correct. Take your time, do it properly. But if it starts to go beyond the scope of Russia's collusion, that's a concern for the President and many others have. So it's one of those delicate balances. Take as long as you need, but no more.

WHITFIELD: OK, Brian, is that the concern, that it's just going too far? It's not staying focused on collusion and that's it?

FALLON: No, I mean, this criticism has been a go-to talking point for Trump surrogates, but I think it's ceased to hold water when Bob Mueller started producing these indictments against Russian nationals involved in the hacking of the emails and the influence of our election. And with all of these guilty pleas from individuals in Trump's orbit that are now cooperators in the ongoing investigation. So this idea that there's a witch hunt here, I don't think holds water anymore.

And here is a question I would put to Mitch McConnell. It is a very simple question that I hope Hill reporters this week will put to him. There's not a crowded agenda at all in the Senate these days. They are mostly just holding show votes to try to position themselves for the midterms.

Why not send a strong this week by putting on the floor the Coons/Tillis legislature that is Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, senator Tillis, a Republican from North Carolina have bipartisan legislation that would help insulate Bob Mueller, limit Donald Trump's ability to get rid of him. Why not put that on the floor? It would certainly commence 60 votes in the senate would send a clear signal to Donald Trump.

Because the bottom line, Fred, our norms, our constitutional system of checks and balances cannot uphold itself. If Donald Trump takes the step of trying to fire Bob Mueller, our constitutional system does not take over or kick in on auto pilot. The Congress has to actually exert agency and exercise its role in imposing that check and balance. And so, if we don't see action taken by these Republican leaderships, if we see more passivity, then Donald Trump gets to behave like a tyrant with no blowback.

WHITFIELD: So John, is there some consensus that among Republicans, particularly, there is an effort to try to insulate, protect Mueller, you know, from a potential action from the President to have him fired?

THOMAS: I think there is, from what I hear behind the scenes. I'm not holding my breath for what Brian suggested, that that's going to pass. But I think that the thing is, I would be very surprised if the President did something against Mueller beyond a tweet. Because I think even the President understands the blowback and the ramifications --

WHITFIELD: So you see this as just venting?

THOMAS: I do, yes. Because the ramifications that that would have towards the midterm elections I think would be far greater than my ramifications that he is suffering right now from Mueller probing around the Trump organization.

WHITFIELD: OK.

FALLON: I wish we could - Fred, I wish we could take that as solace that Donald Trump would not cross this red line. But I think it was Maya Angelou who said, when someone shows you who you are, believe them the first time. And who could have predict that he would fire James Comey. He did that. He is very vindictively told Jeff Sessions to fire Andrew McCabe this past weekend. This guy keeps crossing red line after red line. At some point we collectively, Republicans and Democrats have to link arms and say, enough. WHITFIELD: We will leave it there. Brian Fallon, John Thomas, thanks

so much, gentlemen.

THOMAS: Thanks.

FALLON: Thanks.

WHITFIELD: All right. We continue to follow breaking news out of Russia. The polls have closed in today's Presidential election and not all the votes have been counted, but Vladimir Putin, the President, is talking like he is the winner again.

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VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): Thank you for being so enormous in your support. Many millions of you. Shout, yes. Unity is the most important thing. It is very important that you should have the choice to vote for other candidates. But the main thing is that we have to move ahead and to do that, we have to feel that we are together.

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WHITFIELD: And just outside of red square is where we find CNN's Frederick Pleitgen.

It's been, you know, a celebratory mood there. So, what are they waiting for?

[16:15:04] FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, they are not really waiting for anything anymore, Fredricka. Vladimir Putin has come out and he is essentially said that he believes that he has won this election. And certainly if you look at the exit polls, and I think about 40 to 50 percent of the vote is now counted here in Russia. It's of course, a very large country with 11 time zones, he is at over 74 percent at this point in time. So certainly, it seems, pretty much certain that he is going to be the next President of Russia, as well, for those six years.

As you just showed there, he came out and thanked his supporters. He also said that now was the time to get to work, that make Russia better for the children or for the current children. As you said, obviously, this is someone who is going to stay in power the next six years.

The big thing for Vladimir Putin to legitimatize, however, his election, Fredricka was not really how much of the vote he was going to get. Everybody would do that he was going to get a large chunk of it. That is going to be voter turnout.

Now we haven't seen exactly what voter turnout is. He wants somewhere between 60 and 70 percent. Seems as though right now he is a bit somewhere between that, a little bit over 60 percent. So we are going to keep an eye on that and wait for that. But it certainly seems absolutely sure that Vladimir Putin is going to be next President of Russia for another six years, Fredricka. WHITFIELD: All right. Fred Pleitgen, thanks so much, from Moscow.

All right, still ahead. Sweden is stepping in to help get three Americans detained in North Korea released. Could their case have an impact on the expected summit between President Trump and North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un?

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[16:20:42] WHITFIELD: All right. Happening right now, negotiations are underway in Sweden to free three American citizens who are being detained in North Korea. The talks come just ten days after we learned a meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong-un is in the works.

Two detainees have been there since last year, accused of, quote, "hostile acts," while the other has been serving a ten-year sentence on espionage charges.

Joining me right now, Balbina Hwang. She is a former senior adviser at the U.S. state department.

Balbina, good to see you. So last hour, we heard from the former U.S. envoy saying that releasing these prisoners would be a great opportunity. Do you think the political will exists in North Korea to allow this to happen?

BALBINA HWANG, FORMER STATE DEPARTMENT SENIOR ADVISOR: Well, the fact that there are North Korean diplomats apparently in Sweden working on this is certainly a very good indication. Frankly, it's not just an opportunity. It is absolutely the minimum requirement, I think, for any kind of Presidential summit to go forward. So it's a very positive sign, indeed.

WHITFIELD: So do you believe the North Koreans would have been caught off guard that the U.S., you know, so quickly accepted the invitation to negotiate without, you know, a precondition for their release of these prisoners? Because it almost sounds like this negotiation certainly came after the fact. The President never said anything about, you know, a condition like this.

HWANG: Well, no, he didn't. But on the other hand, no. I actually don't think the North Koreans were necessarily caught off guard. I mean, perhaps, they didn't expect that President Trump would accept it right there, at that meeting, when the South Korean head of intelligence arrived at the White House, just last Friday.

On the other hand, I believe that it's been very clear that this is exactly what Kim Jong-un has been planning for the last five years. We can see this in his very careful strategy. This is exactly what he has been doing, by shunning China very steadily for the last five years. And frankly speaking, this is the one piece where President Trump has been surprisingly consistent, in every single speech, he has made clear, and quite unexpectedly.

And frankly, I think, he should be praised for this. He has been very, very strong on condemning North Korea about its human rights. And so North Korea knew that if it wants to move forward with the United States, it absolutely has to do something with the three remaining American, essential, hostages.

WHITFIELD: And what does this say to you that this kind of negotiating could be taking place for the release of these three Americans in North Korea without a U.S. secretary of state, without a U.S. ambassador to South Korea, and without the U.S. envoy to North Korea, who just recently left that post?

HWANG: I think what's very important for people to understand is that despite seeming chaos up at the very top of the leadership, that, in fact, the very hard-working people within the bureaucracy, the much- maligned bureaucracy, these are people that have been at these professions, they are very experienced, very professional, and these people know what they're doing, they've been at their jobs, and they are very seasoned. In fact, also, on the North Korean side.

And so they know how to do their work. And this work goes on. And in fact, they probably will be able to accomplish this. And so, sometimes it's not just the people in the high-profile positions, but these people deserve credit.

WHITFIELD: Very optimistic. Balbina Hwang, thank you so much.

HWANG: Thank you.

WHITFIELD: All right. Coming up, is there trouble ahead for the GOP? Brand new poll shows Americans favoring Democrats in the upcoming midterm elections. But will Democratic candidates have to distance themselves from their party's heavyweights in order to win?

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[16:29:02] WHITFIELD: All right. With the 2018 congressional midterms closing in, a new poll shows Democrats with a double-digit lead over Republicans. Currently, 50 percent of voters want Democrats to control Congress while 40 percent prefer the GOP. It's a six-point jump since January.

Joining me again, CNN political commenters Brian Fallon and John Thomas.

All right. Welcome back.

All right, John, you first. Given the numbers, should Republicans be concerned?

THOMAS: There's actually plenty of reasons to be concerned. You look at a couple of these specials that we won, that we didn't win, that we should have won, but with that said, it's hard to nationalize examples like Conor Lamb, who essentially ran on a Republican agenda, you know, anti-Pelosi, shooting an AK-47 in his ads, talking about working with President Trump.

But here is what we can take away from these numbers, is that no Republican incumbent, or if it's an open seat, a lean Republican, can take their registration for granted. We have to run real races and we have to run on the economic process under the Trump administration that we have achieved and you just can't take anything for granted.

[16:30:07] WHITFIELD: So Brian, is that Pennsylvania win kind of a template for other Democrats in the upcoming races?

BRIAN FALLON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think it should spark concern on the Republican side for two reasons. Number one, Fred, is because this is the biggest race that has been conducted since the Republicans passed their big tax bill at the end of last year. And Republicans like Paul Ryan have been going around, saying despite the wave environment they're up against, that this tax law was going to be a cure-all for them.

That once people started seeing some of these bonus payments that some of these companies have announced, that this was going to help them stem the tide. They put that to the test. It was on the ballot in Pennsylvania 18. Conor Lamb ran on the other side of that issue. He opposed it. The Republicans outside groups spent millions of dollars, touting that tax law, and we know what the outcome was.

And the second reason why I think this is going to spark a lot of concern is because there are about 100 districts that are less Republican than the district that Conor Lamb just won in Pennsylvania 18. And so what this suggests is that the Republicans are not just vulnerable in some of these major metropolitan areas that we've known about for a year, places like Orange County, California, places outside Houston, Texas, Virginia suburbs outside of D.C.

But also in more rural, bad luck, less-diverse districts, Democrats now have the option of playing, moving pieces all over the chess board and contesting races up and down the map.

THOMAS: Brian's right, but here's the challenge. Candidates like Conor Lamb for the Democrats do not grow on trees. Conor Lamb did not have a contested primary. If you look at races like in Orange County with 8 to 10 Democrats running. The Democrat that gets through these primaries is probably going to succeed on single payer, on being completely pro gun control.

These are not center issues. They're going to pop out of a general election. And it's hard for them to come back to the center when they start out so far left.

WHITFIELD: So what will be the other kind of messaging for the GOP, John?

THOMAS: Well, I think we should be running on the economic progress. I think we need to be running not just on the tax bill, but we need to run on results. For instance, unemployment is at a record low. We need to run on those issues, but also, what I learned from Pennsylvania. And it's a reminder, you can't replace issues and hope you can do that.

You need a good candidate at the foundation. Rick Saccone was not a good candidate. So we've got to look at certainly these open seats, make sure we're running good candidates. Because without a good candidate, you can put lipstick on as much as you want, but they're still pigs.

WHITFIELD: OK, so Brian, in that same poll that we referenced earlier, Trump's approval rating has inched up 43 percent. So how are Democrats going to leverage if at all this kind of chaos in the White House or reflections of some sort of disorganization in the White House?

FALLON: I don't think there's any question that regardless of small upticks or down ticks in Donald Trump's approval rating, we're still talking about a President that is only hovering around the 40 percent mark. He is a net drain on any candidate that's running any Republican that is given truth serum will tell you that.

And I just have to disagree with what John said a moment ago. There are a number of actually 9/11 generation veterans that have been recruited that are running in a lot of these rural districts. So there's a lot more Conor Lambs that will be running, representing the Democrats in some of these mid-term races.

And also, Republicans are trying to mischaracterize what Conor Lamb's agenda was and what he ran on in this race. He ran against cutting social security and Medicare. He ran against repealing Obamacare. He ran against the tax law. That is going to be an agenda that is very common among the Democratic candidates running in the midterms.

So that's what should scare Republicans, that a progressive agenda like the one that Conor Lamb ran on, won on in a district as pro-Trump as Pennsylvania 18 when there are 100 or so other districts that are less Trumpian than Conor Lamb's.

WHITFIELD: All right. We shall see, the countdown is on, Brian Fallon, John Thomas, thanks so much.

FALLON: Thanks a lot.

WHITFIELD: All right, so much more straight ahead in the Newsroom. But first, today, we begin another year of introducing you to everyday people who are changing the world, our CNN Heroes. After Carol Rosenstein's husband was diagnosed with dementia, she began to feel him slipping away, and so she started to lose hope. And then one day he sat down at the piano.

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UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I was seeing something magical happening before my eyes. The doctor told me that we were watching the power of music changing brain chemistry. Playing a musical instrument is like a full-body workout for the brain. The music actually resurrected him.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WHITFIELD: Amazing, right? Well, to get an inside look at the band Carol created for her husband called the Fifth Dementia. [16:35:01] And to see their full story, go to CNNheroes.com, and

while you're there, nominate someone you think should be a 2018 CNN hero.

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WHITFIELD: All right. Welcome back. We're learning new details about a missing 16-year-old Pennsylvania girl who was found this weekend in Mexico with a 45-year-old man. Amy Lew's mother reported her missing March 5th after she didn't come home from school.

[16:40:00] Amy's now back with her family, and the much-older man she was with is in custody. CNN's Jean Casarez joins us with more on this. How did it all happen?

JEAN CASAREZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we're learning more information. How it all happened, it is sort of amazing, because Amy Lew, 16 years old. Her family had known Kevin Esterly's for at least five years. It was through the church and the two families, he's married with four children and a wife, and they had all gone on vacations together.

They had gone to amusement parks together. And now she is back home with her family, reunite safe and sound. He is currently in Miami, facing extradition back to the Commonwealth. He was arrested in Mexico yesterday and charged at this point with interference with the custody of a child. And that is out of Pennsylvania.

We don't know if there are going to be federal charges at this point. But just as you say, it was on February 9th that Amy's mother contacted police because her daughter had been signed out of school by Kevin Esterly. Come to find out, Amy herself had put him down as her stepfather so that he could check her out, and the academy confirmed with police that at least ten times in the last few months, he had checked her out.

You know, the affidavit of probable cause calls it a secretive relationship. Well, here's what we know. We know that she took, on March 5th, when she went missing, out of her home that morning, money, jewelry, and her personal identification. Esterly, last seen by his wife at 6:00 in the morning on that date, March, he took personal belongings, personal identification, and his wife realized, Fred, that $4,000 had been taken out of her bank account.

WHITFIELD: Wow. OK, Jean Casarez, thank you so much.

CASAREZ: Thanks.

WHITFIELD: All right, six months later and the devastation in Puerto Rico have not stopped. Up next, why Hurricane Maria is still showing up as a factor on death certificates across the island.

[16:45:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WHITFIELD: All right. Many Puerto Ricans will tell you that they are the forgotten people. It has been nearly six months since Hurricane Maria ripped through the island, but the death toll linked to the storm keeps growing. CNN's Leyla Santiago reports.

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LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It shouldn't be so difficult for Miriam Rodriguez seeing this machine.

MIRIAM RODRIGUEZ, HURRICANE MARIA VICTIM: That takes me back. It makes me so angry.

SANTIAGO: When this machine for sleep apnea stopped working, her husband, 77-year old Natalios stopped breathing in the middle of the night in Maunabo, the southeastern part of the island.

RODRIGUEZ: Suddenly, he started to shake, and I saw him like get on the floor. And I couldn't do nothing to help him. That's why I say that if we had electricity, normal electricity at that time, he could be alive still today. He could be alive.

SANTIAGO: She blames Hurricane Maria for wiping out the island's power. At least 120,000 customers still don't have power nearly six months later. The night her husband died, months after the storm, Miriam says their generator ran out of gas, leaving her home without power for the machine her husband needed to breathe.

Natalio's grave is one of many this year. CNN has identified at least five deaths from 2018 identified by families, doctors, or funeral homes has related to Hurricane Maria. Among them, Braulio Salina Santiago, his family tells us he died of a heart attack in the parking lot of Maunabo's clinic, waiting for the clinic to open. The mayor says after Maria, the town can't afford to run the once-24-hour service.

Carmen Rodriguez Martinez, her family tells us she died because she didn't have power for the machine she depended on for oxygen. Dr. Arturo Torres listed Hurricane Maria as a contributing factor on her death certificate.

SANTIAGO: Is Maria still killing people?

DR. ARTURO TORRES, MAUNABO DOCTOR: Yes. Yes. I am sure that in many case, it's not an isolated case, since there is no electrical power in many places that would accelerate the end of the life of that person.

SANTIAGO: Cemetery workers tell us the number of deaths has doubled since the storm, pointing to dozens of graves they believe is related. Graves that cemetery workers tell us will not be getting a headstone anytime soon because families can't afford them after Maria. Natalio's family paid $4,000 for his funeral, still owes $1,000.

To qualify for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the death must be certified as hurricane-related. But Puerto Rico's list of certified deaths hasn't changed since early December. The official death toll stands at 64, even though the government's own death statistics in 2017 show an increase of at least 1,000 more deaths after Hurricane Maria compared to the previous 2 years. The Puerto Rican government has now ordered a review of deaths since

Maria. Dr. Torres says the elderly and those with complicated health conditions are too vulnerable to resist the changes brought on by Maria. So just last week, just last week, they had a death.

[16:50:02] Do you think you'll have to write Maria again on a death certificate?

TORRES: I don't discard it, in my opinion, yes.

SANTIAGO: That's hard to hear. Is that hard to say?

TORRES: It's hard to say, yes.

SANTIAGO: Even harder to accept, that six months later...

RODRIGUEZ: It wasn't a normal death. That wasn't.

SANTIAGO: Maria is still destroying lives. Leyla Santiago, CNN Puerto Rico.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WHITFIELD: A very important story we continue to follow. Thank you so much to Leyla Santiago and her team for bringing us that.

Still so much more straight ahead in the Newsroom, but first, an all- new episode of Pope, the most powerful man in history premieres tonight.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Two weeks after Benedict XVI's resignation, Pope Francis is elected and the Papal Crown is handed from one man to the other.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We have two Popes, but only one is the Pope. The problem with having two Popes is that you have to decide who do you listen to?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Benedict was 85 when he resigned. He inherited the financial mess. He inherited the mess of sexual abuse. He inherited the administrative chaos. Benedict resigned because he realized that these problems were simply too great for him.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's not like other human institutions. It's a creation, we believe, by God, and this man is resigning from all of that. That's not what a Pope is supposed to do.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: For 20,000 years, the legacy of St. Peter has been a divine office passed down from one Pope to the next. But can two men hold a legitimate claim to one godly office?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WHITFIELD: Pope: the most powerful man in history airs tonight at 10:00 on CNN.

[16:55:02] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WHITFIELD: The Stormy Daniels story and the potential of many more like it raises obvious questions about how it's affecting the first lady, who this week will be front and center as she hosts tech leaders from Amazon, Facebook, Google, Twitter, and SnapChat to address issues affecting children and how they handle social media.

Melania Trump has not spoken about Stormy Daniels publicly and has largely stayed out of the public eye since the news broke. But this is not the first time she's had to choose what to say or not to say after her husband makes news. Here's CNN's Randi Kaye.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you think the President is watching right now? I like to imagine him.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't want to imagine him.

RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Stormy Daniels may be speaking out, but Melania Trump certainly is not. Despite the porn star's claims that she had an affair with Donald Trump, the first lady has remained silent on the matter. In fact, soon after the story broke, Melania Trump canceled a previously announced trip to Davos, Switzerland, with her husband, quietly visited the Holocaust Museum in D.C., and made an unexplained solo trip to Mar-A-Lago.

The White House telling CNN the First Lady is entitled to some privacy. Instead of the vulgar headlines and talk of hush money, Mrs. Trump has remained focused on her duties as first lady, and at least at times, keeping her distance from the President. The Stormy cloud hung over the President's state of the union address, with the First Lady arriving separately from the President, a break with a long- standing tradition.

That was January 30th, and the first couple hadn't been seen together at an official public event since New Year's Eve. Weeks later in mid- February, news of another alleged affair from 2006, with a former playboy playmate, Trump denied it, but after the story broke, as the couple departed for Mar-A-Lago, Melania Trump chose to skip the ride on Marine One. Instead, taking her own motorcade to Andrews Air Force Base where she met her husband on Air Force One.

That same month, Mrs. Trump did appear briefly with the President after the shooting in Parkland, Florida. And she also went along on a day trip to Ohio, though she skipped his speech, instead taking a motorcade to Cincinnati Children's Hospital. The couple met up again onboard the flight home. Reports that Stormy Daniels received a payoff reportedly blindsided the First Lady, which may explain her low profile.

Still, this was hardly the first time she's had to deal with her husband being accused of cheating or inappropriate behavior. DONALD TRUMP, UNITED STATES PRESIDENT: I am automatically attracted

to beautiful women. I just start kissing them. It's like a magnet. I just kiss.

KAYE: Mrs. Trump was quick to dismiss that whole saga as mere boy talk.

MELANIA TRUMP, UNITED STATES FIRST LADY: He was lead on, like egg on from the host to say dirty and bad stuff.

KAYE: She defended her husband again when multiple women came forward, accusing him of kissing and groping them. Mr. Trump has denied it all.

TRUMP: I believe my husband. I believe my husband. Did they ever check the background of these women? They don't have any facts.

KAYE: Facts may be just what Melania Trump is waiting for before she breaks her silence again. Randi Kaye, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WHITFIELD: All right, thanks so much for joining me. I am Fredricka Whitfield. The next hour of the CNN Newsroom starts right now.

[17:00:01] ANA CABRERA, CNN NEWSROOM HOST: You are in the CNN Newsroom. I am Ana Cabrera in New York. Hello on this Sunday. President Trump starting the day today with a barrage of tweets, that's nothing new, of course, insisting the Russia special investigation, is unfair to him, again, nothing new, announcing in all caps, no collusion, nothing new.