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First Lady Melania Trump's Plane Lands Safely After Turning Around Due to Smoke; Donald Trump: Don't Blame Me if GOP Loses House; Beto O'Rourke Trails Ted Cruz in Polls; Police Search for a Missing Wisconsin Teen After Her Parents Were Found Dead; U.S. Economy Strengthening Weeks Before November Elections; U.S. Futures Down After the Dow Soared Over 500 Points; Saudi Intel Officer Tied to Crown Prince Oversaw Khashoggi Mission. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired October 17, 2018 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:08] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: A very good morning to you. I'm Jim Sciutto.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Poppy Harlow in New York. We're glad you're with us.

This morning Saudi leadership and the crown prince in particular are facing more implications in the apparent death of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which they deny. And yet President Trump seems more determined than ever to defend the Saudis.

Sources tell CNN the organizer of a mission to interrogate and possibly abduct Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul is a top tier intelligence official with ties to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS. This does not prove that MBS ordered the mission, but several officials do tell CNN it could not have happened unless it went up that high.

SCIUTTO: President Trump who on Monday floated that rogue killer theory says that this is another case of guilty until proven innocent.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrapped up his fact-finding mission today after stops in Turkey, which is investigating Khashoggi's fate and of course Saudi Arabia, which is promising to as well.

Let's get to CNN's Clarissa Ward. She's in Ankara, the Turkish capital.

Tell us the latest on the investigation today. So many of those details coming from Turkish officials. What are they saying about what they're finding?

CLARISSA WARD, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: So there appears to be some progress, perhaps, today, Jim. An inching forward if you like. We're hearing that some Saudis are now at the consul- general's residence. Turkish officials, you may remember, have been trying to get inside for more than two weeks. They were allowed to search the consulate. They haven't yet been allowed into the consul- general's residence. But there is a sense there have been some movement outside the

residence that potentially it could be imminent that, in fact, Turkish authorities, investigators would be allowed to get inside. And that would be really important because essentially they're looking for a number of things. We know this president himself has said that they have found toxic substances inside the consulate.

We know, as well, that they have found evidence of a cover-up job that reportedly the Saudis had repainted parts of the consulate. And what they're doing now is collecting DNA evidence, trying to piece together the last moments of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. We do know, we're hearing from a Turkish official that his body was carved up into small pieces. But what happened before that? What precipitated that? What was this operation supposed to be? And of course the most important question, who ordered it?

HARLOW: Right. You know, Clarissa, when you look at the images out of the meeting that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had yesterday with King Salman, and then of course he met with Mohammed bin Salman, and then the images of him shaking hands today with the Turkish President Erdogan, they're strikingly different, right? Not too many smiles, et cetera, and those optics matter.

What do you know about what went on in the conversation between Secretary Mike Pompeo and President Erdogan?

WARD: Well, he had two meetings, one with Erdogan, one with the foreign minister. Each of them lasted about 40, 45 minutes. I think Turkish officials had been wanting to hear some tough talk from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo while he was in Saudi Arabia, a sense that the U.S. was going to hold their feet to the fire, a sense that there was some urgency, that this investigation needs to be carried out in a timely manner, and a sense, also, that this needs to be an impartial investigation.

A lot of people here saying, hold on a second. How can you have the Saudis investigate their own crime? That simply doesn't make any sense. What is not clear, Poppy, is whether Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was able to alleviate any of the very real concerns that Turkish officials had or to alleviate their sense of growing impatience, really a sense even that they're starting to get a bit fed up, that they want some answers and they want them imminently.

Very hard to believe or very hard to understand how it is that the U.S. administration has been so credulous of the Saudi narrative up until this point with very little skepticism injected there -- Poppy.

SCIUTTO: Yes. I mean, the question becomes, is this about getting to the bottom of this or is it about finding some sort of cover story that everybody could be happy with.


SCIUTTO: Clarissa Ward, thanks very much there.

One of the suspects who Turkish officials say was involved in the disappearance and possible murder of Khashoggi is a Saudi intelligence officer closely connected to the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. CNN has confirmed the man highlighted in this photo just feet away from the crown prince is a gentleman named Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb.

Let's bring in Sam Kiley. He's CNN senior international correspondent. He is in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Tell us what we know about this intelligence officer, his proximity to the crown prince, relationship with the crown prince, et cetera.

SAM KILEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, he has been seen frequently in the presence of the crown prince.

[09:05:02] He is a very senior officer in Saudi intelligence. We know that. We also know that he was first secretary at the embassy in London for a period. So he is a powerful figure in this team, possibly the most senior. We don't know yet all of the ranks of the 15 members of this team that the Turks said were taken or flew in into private aircraft into Ankara and conducted this operation.

I have to stress that the Saudis whilst publicly saying that nothing untoward occurred in that consulate, privately are telling me that they are working on a statement that may go some way towards admitting a degree of Saudi culpability in what happened here and have privately confirmed that Mr. Mutreb, he may be a colonel indeed, was on that team, and is a figure that they're investigating -- Jim and Poppy.

HARLOW: OK. Sam Kiley, thank you very much.

We do have some breaking news just in to CNN on a different topic. We've just learned that the First Lady Melania Trump's plane has returned to Andrews Air Force Base. This is due to mechanical issues. And the pool reporters traveling with the first lady and her team just reporting this. They are returning to Andrews Air Force Base due to mechanical issues. At this time the atmosphere on the plane we're hearing is calm. That is according to the reporters that are on the plane.

SCIUTTO: Some other details from the pool note again, a group of reporters traveling with the first lady, about 10 minutes after take- off they say they saw Secret Service officers hop up, head toward the front of the plane. A few minutes later they could see a thin haze of smoke, smell something burning. That smell quickly became stronger.

Of course, just to remind you, we've talked about this and other incidents, smoke in a plane, smoke in the cockpit.

HARLOW: Right.

SCIUTTO: It is a very dangerous situation under any circumstances. In this case, again, though, we should say the pool saying that the reaction has been calm and we're going to keep you updated on this story throughout as the first lady's plane returns to Joint Base Andrews.

HARLOW: Right. Atmosphere calm, we hope. And one would assume from this reporting everyone is OK. And again they're back on the ground at Andrews. We'll bring you more as soon as we have it.

Let's get back to the Khashoggi story and let's bring in global affairs analyst Susan Glasser joins us, as well as Robin Wright of the "New Yorker."

It's nice to have you both here.

Susan, the president's words, OK, in this A.P. interview about all of this, quote, "Here we go again." And then he says, look, the Saudis are being found guilty until proven innocent. And he related it to judge, now Justice Brett Kavanaugh and the Supreme Court hearings. Is that what's happening here? Is the world just being too hard on MBS and King Salman?

SUSAN GLASSER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Look, you know, it seems to me that President Trump has done a classic very Trumpian thing of inserting himself right into the middle of a story that many in his own party would wish he wasn't. He seems to be acting more like a lawyer for the Saudis, more like a PR agent for the Saudis than he does the president of the most powerful country in the world.

My question is, number one, what's happened to American intelligence capabilities, which are either being not used and completely ignored, or have taken a pass on a very, very significant unfolding story? We do have an independent capacity to unearth some information and facts here.

The president is acting as if that's irrelevant, number one. Number two, I think what's happened as a result of his personalization of the relationship with Saudi is that President Trump has turned this from a horrifying story about the Saudi regime and the nature of their efforts to crack down on dissidents to a story not only about that but also about President Trump and his foreign policy, a Washington story.

SCIUTTO: Robin Wright, let's dig down a little bit more on just how specious a comparison it is between Kavanaugh and this. After all this is an alleged murder that took place two weeks ago. The U.S. has intelligence both in advance to this that the Saudis were considering an abduction here, planning an abduction here.

The Turks, a U.S. ally, NATO country, they have intelligence. They say they have intercepted conversations. They say they have other evidence from inside the consulate. I mean, it's -- the president in his intelligence briefing certainly has access to a lot of information here, which makes it a very different scenario, does it not, from the Kavanaugh investigation?

ROBIN WRIGHT, SENIOR FELLOW, WOODROW WILSON CENTER: Absolutely. And the comparison between a domestic issue and foreign policy is really quite striking. But the president has invested enormous amount in his relationship with Saudi Arabia and particularly with the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Three of his most important foreign policy objectives anywhere in the world really pivot around the kingdom.

[09:10:05] His elusive plan to create a Middle East -- final Middle East peace, his kind of tourism policy in the age of ISIS, and his attempt to squeeze change in Iran or potentially even regime change in Iran hinge on that relationship. And so the president has taken a very risky position that could affect his legacy on foreign policy, his public opinion in the run-up to physical midterm elections. There is a lot at stake here in this one case.

HARLOW: And Robin, I mean, our Barbara Starr is reporting yesterday from a senior adviser to the president was this is the most consequential decision he will make so far in his presidency. How he chooses to handle this.

You're a former diplomatic correspondent at the "Washington Post," a former colleague of Jamal Khashoggi. Mike Pompeo, secretary of State, going over, meeting with King Salman, meeting with Crown Prince Salman as well, and then saying, when asked by journalists after the meeting yesterday, you know, why are you giving the Saudis the benefit of the doubt. He said, quote, "They gave me their word."

How good is the Saudi word? What does history tell us?

WRIGHT: There is no Robert Mueller in the kingdom. And the idea that there is an independent judiciary or an investigative body that could come up with anything that resembles the real story, you know, is challenging the reality of the kingdom.

This is a place that for decades has abused its own citizens and it took the incredible step of trying to silence one of its critics in a foreign -- on foreign soil. And they did it in such a gruesome way in a country that had the intelligence to track what was happening that for the first time it's actually being held accountable, and this is really groundbreaking.

SCIUTTO: Susan Glasser, I asked Marc Short yesterday on our air, former adviser to the president, if he could explain why the president often praises or gives a pass to foreign autocrats, whether it's Putin, Kim or in this case the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. He didn't have a good answer on that.

Do these leaders, when they see and hear those words from the U.S. president, did that lead them to respect President Trump or does it lead them to believe this is someone they can play?

GLASSER: Well, you know, there is an answer to your question imbedded right in it. It seems to me that policy is made by the president's words as well as by his actions. And this is probably one of the most notable examples of it. He not only makes policy by appearing to endorse a view of Saudi innocence and a disregard for the evidence that is being presented by Turkey, a NATO ally of the United States, I should point out, whereas Saudi Arabia is not.

And so I believe that not only do the president of the United States have words, but in particular, for autocrats who already tend to have a view of the world that is both very cynical and also whereas man-to- man diplomacy is a thing that they value.

When I lived in Russia, I once was at an interview with President Putin after he was criticized for his handling of a major terrorist attack, including by the United States government, and the then secretary of state. And you know what Vladimir Putin said? He said, I didn't hear it from my friend George. I didn't get this criticism from the president. And it's his words who matter.

And I've always taken that to mind when I think of an example like the incredible comment that President Trump made yesterday. It undercuts almost any kind of diplomacy or any kind of criticism that might come from the U.S. Senate, for example.

SCIUTTO: Yes. You know it's interesting we know from the U.S. intel assessment of Russian interference in the election that one reason they had it in for Hillary Clinton was her often very public, very critical comments of Putin and elsewhere so they certainly listen to comments, whether good or bad.

Susan Glasser, Robin Wright, thanks very much.

HARLOW: Thank you, ladies.

SCIUTTO: We want to get back to the breaking news that we reported on just a few moments ago. The first lady's plane has now landed safely at Joint Base Andrews, this after a mechanical problem on board, including smoke seen by the pool of reporters in the cockpit.

HARLOW: Right.

SCIUTTO: Our Abby Phillip is at the White House. What's the latest we know? First of all, safely on the ground.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Jim and Poppy. What we are hearing, first of all, is that it seems that the situation has been calm since they took off and decided to turn around and return back to Andrews Air Force Base. Reporters traveling with the first lady who was on the way to Philadelphia said that about 10 minutes into that flight, the cabins began to be filled with a haze of smoke. They could smell burning and the flight attendants on the plane even handed out wet towels just in case the burning smell became too much for them.

About 10 minutes into that flight, they turned around, headed back to Andrews Air Force Base and it sounds like the situation has been contained. It is possible that it was a mechanical issue, although we're still awaiting more details about what might have happened on that flight.

The first lady was headed to Philadelphia to visit children at a hospital who had been affected by the opioid crisis and that trip is being re-evaluated according to the pool -- Jim and Poppy.

HARLOW: OK. All right.

SCIUTTO: A relief to hear that news.

HARLOW: Everyone is OK.

SCIUTTO: Smoke in the cockpit. No small thing. HARLOW: Yes.


SCIUTTO: Abby Phillip, thanks very much. The president says don't blame him if Republicans lose the mid-terms. But did he tell voters to pretend that he's the one on the ballot? Plus, Texas show-down, Beto O'Rourke trailing Senator Ted Cruz in the polls. And at last night's debate, the Democrats took a very different tactic in his attacks. Was it the right move?

HARLOW: Yes, we'll dive into that. Also a frantic search this morning for a 13-year-old Wisconsin girl after her parents both found dead in their home, we'll have the latest.


HARLOW: All right, in just under two hours, the president will hold a cabinet meeting. Cameras will be in the room, this as he faces numerous questions about his response, the apparent murder of "Washington Post" journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside of a Saudi Consulate.

[09:20:00] SCIUTTO: Joining us now is Cnn political analyst Jackie Kucinich and Alex Burns, thanks to both of you for joining us. That comparison of Kavanaugh to Khashoggi, somewhat out of the blue you might say.

Apples and oranges, you know, might understate the differences there --


SCIUTTO: What is the president, Jackie, trying to accomplish with this?

KUCINICH: You know, it seems like the president likes to believe whatever is the most expedient. He's not someone who is looking at the larger picture of how the United States is viewed in the world. No matter what he says is that it's just not something he is particularly concerned about when it comes to human rights, when it comes to just reputation.

So it's -- the Kavanaugh comparison, you can just see Kavanaugh say somewhere, saying, please leave me out of this.


KUCINICH: But it does seem to be part of a larger pattern. You saw that in Helsinki with Putin. Well, he said it's not true --

SCIUTTO: He firmly denied --

KUCINICH: So let's move on --

SCIUTTO: Right, yes -- KUCINICH: So I think -- so that seemed to be where this is rooted.

SCIUTTO: It might be more credible if this president hadn't run with conspiracy theories multiple times. I mean, if he was making a principled argument for innocent until proven guilty -- I mean, Obama birth certificate, Ted Cruz's father and JFK. I mean, it's just --

HARLOW: Oh, that's a good point --

SCIUTTO: Like you said, it's expediency here.

HARLOW: There's also, Alex, the issue that Thomas Freeman points out in his column in the "Times" today of a fantastic -- you know, you -- we don't have an ambassador to Saudi Arabia in place, an ambassador to Turkey in place. Freeman writes "you can't fix stupid. And when your ally does something as sick and as stupid as the Saudis apparently did in Istanbul, there is just no easy fix.

But the president might start by appointing an ambassador to Saudi Arabia. He has never had one and it shows." It gets lost in a lot of the headlines. But what really matters?

ALEX BURNS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, and part of the reason why this is so sort of close to home for the president is that his ambassador to Saudi Arabia is effectively Jared Kushner, right?

HARLOW: Right --

BURNS: The notion that there is not a relationship with Saudi Arabia, there's not somebody who owns that account. I would kind of push back on that. There is somebody who owns that account, and it is somebody who is by any political definition in this administration too big to fail, right?

He can't turn around and say, how did you let this happen, get lost. Which you might well do under ordinary circumstances with an ordinary ambassador.

SCIUTTO: Jackie, what are the politics to this? Help me understand, you know, the president clearly has invested a lot in Saudi Arabia, made his peace deal, wherever that stands, you know, conflict with Iran, et cetera. But does it appeal to Trump voters for the president to run water for the Saudis on this?

Does it make him look strong domestically? You know, does it benefit him politically in his mind?

KUCINICH: It's hard to say whether it benefits him politically. But you hear him talking about jobs. He immediately goes to jobs, that's why he doesn't want to scuttle --

SCIUTTO: Right --

KUCINICH: This arms deal. So -- and the fact that he said his supporters like that they feel like he's standing up for them, that would help him. But I think on the Hill is where he's going to run into problems because you've heard --

HARLOW: Yes --

KUCINICH: People like Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, they are upset --

HARLOW: Yes --

KUCINICH: About what happened and we've seen them break with the president before on foreign policy. So the fact that there is another fissure between Congress and the president --

HARLOW: Yes --

KUCINICH: On a foreign policy level on that, that's not helpful.

HARLOW: Just a fact check the president keeps repeating, and Jim and I talked about this a lot, the $110 billion arms --


HARLOW: Deal --

KUCINICH: Right --

HARLOW: It's you know, a sort of an MOI, a memorandum of intent.

KUCINICH: It's a good point.

HARLOW: Much of that has not gone through, much of that is not yet in writing, and one of the key deadlines passed for one of the major sales of that without Saudis signing on that -- it's out of line. So the promise of all of these jobs for all of these sales is not a totally done deal yet.

Turning the page here, keeping on jobs, but to the mid-terms. A big headline yesterday that's very good for Republicans, it's very good for the president that didn't get a lot of attention is on jobs and wages. What we saw happen yesterday is that not only is the unemployment rate at a, you know, 69-year-low, wages went up in the third quarter, 3.3 percent, the first time it surpassed inflation at 2.6 percent, 20 days out from the mid-terms.

Alex, the Democrats won argument on jobs was, but wages aren't going up, and now they are.

SCIUTTO: Right --

HARLOW: So how do you run against that if you're a Democrat?

BURNS: Well, what you do is you run against all the other things that the president is saying and doing every day. And that seems to be working relatively well for them. If you imagine an alternate universe where you had a president who wasn't sort of running cover for the Saudis and attacking Stormy Daniels in these very sexist terms, maybe that's something that Republicans would have run on yesterday. And when you look at the debates around the country that are happening in Senate and House races, you do hear Republican candidates talking about being on the right economic track, don't change horses in mid- stream right now. But that message doesn't break through in a much bigger way.

So the question for Republicans is, even though voters aren't necessarily hearing that from them, are they feeling it enough to vote --

HARLOW: Yes --

BURNS: As though that's their primary interest.

HARLOW: Yes --

SCIUTTO: Jackie, the deficit is way up --

HARLOW: Way --

SCIUTTO: Way up and predictable when you have a massive tax cut, right?

HARLOW: Right --

[09:25:00] SCIUTTO: The -- you heard Mitch McConnell yesterday blame that on spending as opposed to reduced tax revenue. If the tables were reversed, if it was a Democratic president, you know, Republicans would be running on --

KUCINICH: Deficit spending, yes --

SCIUTTO: On deficit spending and so on. Of course, it's not coming up now. Is it -- is this a voting issue in these mid-terms?

KUCINICH: I think healthcare is much more a voting issue than deficit spending, because Republicans don't care about the deficit right now. And you actually heard --

HARLOW: No one cares about a trillion dollar deficit next year apparently.

KUCINICH: Well, apparently, and the president said in that "AP" interview, he's not going to cut -- he's not going to do entitlement reform, he doesn't want to cut Social Security. And Mitch McConnell is already talking about that. Good luck doing that if you have a Democratic house.

In addition to all the other things they want to do, but I don't know that, no, because Republicans don't care about it, I don't know that, you're going to -- no one is waiving the flag like you saw --

SCIUTTO: Right --

KUCINICH: In 2010 for example.

BURNS: It is so underplayed as a force behind Trump's rise in the Republican Party.

HARLOW: Right --

BURNS: His recognition that actually Republican primary voters do not care about spending in the abstract. They care -- they might care about specific spending that's pioneered by a Democratic president they don't like, but the biggest, you know, along with immigration and trade, Trump's recognition that the base of their Republican Party is with him on spending and not --

HARLOW: Yes --

BURNS: With Mitch McConnell is so core to the coalition he has put together --

SCIUTTO: Everybody is for spending if you're not handed the bill, right? I mean, if you don't see the bill and you hand it on to the next generation, everybody is fine with it until --

HARLOW: Until --

SCIUTTO: You see the bottom line.

HARLOW: Yes, until it comes home to roost, right?

SCIUTTO: Jackie and Alex --

KUCINICH: Thanks --

SCIUTTO: Thanks very much. Coming up, a fire debate for a key race in Texas and an attack line from 2016 makes a funny comeback, we'll explain.

HARLOW: It does, but first, a quick check on the market here before the opening bell. Dow futures down after stocks soared over 500 points yesterday, earnings season is in full swing.

Companies reporting big profits once again, we'll check on the markets in just a few minutes.