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Trump Warns of Consequences for Journalist's Murder but Gives Saudis More Time to Explain; John Bolton, John Kelly Engage in Shouting Match Over Immigration; Manafort to Appear in Virginia Court; Sources: Mueller May Be Nearing Investigation's End. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired October 18, 2018 - 17:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. A few more days. The White House is prepared to let the Saudis keep trying to come up with an explanation for the apparent murder of the U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as the "New York Times" reports the Saudis are considering blaming an intelligence general close to their crown prince.

[17:00:28] Profanity-laced fight. Two top White House officials get into a heated shouting match laced with swear words. Sources say national security adviser John Bolton and chief of staff John Kelly had it out over border crossings. Will one of them resign?

Manafort in court. Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort is due back in court after making at least nine trips to the special counsel, Robert Mueller's office. Could a judge complicate that cooperation deal and Mueller's investigation?

And pope to Pyongyang? No religion is tolerated in North Korea, but dictator Kim Jong-un has invited Pope Francis to visit. Why is the pope even thinking about it?

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: The Trump administration is showing extraordinary patience in allowing the Saudis to come up with an explanation for the apparent grisly murder of U.S.-based -- a U.S.-based journalist in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. While the president calls that bad, bad stuff, "The New York Times" reports the Saudi rulers are considering blaming a general who's a high-ranking adviser to crown prince Mohammad bin Salman. Will that let the relationship get back to business as usual?

I'll speak with Congressman Ted Deutch of the Judiciary and Foreign Affairs Committee. And our correspondents and specialists, they are standing by with full coverage.

Let's begin with our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta. He's in Missoula, Montana, for us.

Jim, as "The New York Times" is reporting that the Saudis may be preparing to blame a top general for the apparent murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the president is hoping to change the subject tonight at yet another political rally.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. President Trump is now acknowledging what's been suspected for days, and that is that the Saudis viciously murdered one of its own journalists, Jamal Khashoggi. While the president is the saying he's willing to give the Saudis more time to determine and explain what happened, he is warning of consequences if the Saudis are behind Khashoggi's murder.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TRUMP (voice-over): On his way to a campaign rally in Montana, President Trump finally stated what was apparent to much of the world: that missing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi is dead.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you believe Jamal Khashoggi is dead?

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It certainly looks that way to me. It's very sad. It certainly looks that way.

ACOSTA: The president vowed there would be consequences if Saudi Arabia is found responsible.

TRUMP: It will have to be very severe. I mean, it's bad, bad stuff, but we'll see what happens.

ACOSTA: Nearly three weeks after the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi, the Trump administration wants to give Saudi Arabia even more time to explain what happened to the journalist who appears to have been brutally murdered by operatives tied to Riyadh.

MIKE POMPEO, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: I told President Trump this morning that we ought to give them a few more days to complete that so that we, too, have a full understanding of the facts surrounding that.

ACOSTA: The administration is hinging its response on the impending Saudi report, which critics worry is more likely to provide cover for the Saudi crown prince than be a full accounting of what happened to Khashoggi.

POMPEO: All of us will get a chance to make a determination with respect to the credibility and the work that went into that, whether it's truly accurate, fair and transparent in the very way that they made a personal commitment to me and the crown prince also made a personal commitment to the president when he spoke to him.

ACOSTA: After meeting with President Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stressed U.S. ties to Saudi leaders who are facing mounting accusations of a cover-up.

POMPEO: I think it's important for us all to remember, too, we have a long, since 1932, a long strategic relationship with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

ACOSTA: Still, the administration is taking steps to distance itself from the kingdom, with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin announcing that he won't be traveling to Saudi Arabia for a global investment summit later this month. Democrats argue that's not nearly enough and accused the White House of trying to block lawmakers from finding out what happened to the journalist.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It appears you've got an administration that wants to shut down our own intelligence agency and not let them tell members of Congress what's going on, so that President Trump can continue to be the mouthpiece, which is what he's become, for the Saudi regime and its denials. It's really an outrageous situation.

ACOSTA: The president appears eager to get back to campaigning for the upcoming midterm elections, and he's put his finger on the issue he wants to run on. A caravan of hundreds of Central American migrants making their way to the U.S.-Mexico border.

[17:05:03] Mr. Trump tweeted a warning that if the caravan continues its journey, he will halt foreign aid to the region and may freeze his new trade agreement with Canada and Mexico, adding, "In addition to stopping all payments to these countries which seem to have almost no control over their population, I must, in the strongest of terms, ask Mexico to stop this onslaught. And if unable to do so, I will call up the U.S. military and close our southern border."

The president playing the immigration card comes right out of the campaign playbook, as former Trump strategist Steve Bannon told CNN's Fareed Zakaria.

STEVE BANNON, FORMER WHITE HOUSE CHIEF STRATEGIST: You're going to see more of this. You're going to see more of the central beating- heart issues. Immigration is definitely going to be one.

ACOSTA: But other conservatives like Republican Congressman Mark Meadows insist the president should not take the blame if the GOP loses the House come November.

REP. MARK MEADOWS (R), NORTH CAROLINA: I don't think he should take the blame. I can tell you, any place he goes, he gets unbelievable support.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: Now, as for Jamal Khashoggi, the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is appearing to, at this point, advise caution to his pres -- or to his father-in-law, to the president, as to how he should handle this issue; and for now the president appears to be taking that advice.

And Wolf, we're told there are conversations going on inside the White House to try to get a handle on what the regional implications might be if the U.S. were to come down pretty hard on the Saudis in retaliation for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. But Wolf, how this administration responds is also going to send a huge message to the world as to where this administration stands on human rights and, of course, freedom of the press -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Good point. Jim Acosta, thank you very much. Now to that extraordinary West Wing shouting match between the

national security adviser, John Bolton, and the White House chief of staff, John Kelly.

Let's bring in our White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins.

Kaitlan, you've been doing a lot of reporting on this. So what set these two guys off?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It got really ugly today. They were talking about this recent surge in border crossing, something we know has infuriated President Trump, because he's been tweeting about it, threatening to shut down the border today.

But it got really ugly between John Bolton and John Kelly today to where it startled other people in the West Wing. That's not normal. There's a lot of fighting in this White House. It's bitter. It's divisive. But this was even more dramatic than that, and someone essentially equated it to me as a falling out.

Now, they were talking about the surge in borders crossings, but really what set John Kelly off was when John Bolton, the national security adviser, criticized the DHS secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen. Now she is a protege of John Kelly's. He brought her when he became chief of staff to the White House for a couple of months, and he was the one who persuaded President Trump to nominate her to lead the DHS.

John Bolton criticizes her, saying that she essentially needed to start doing her job. That's a sentiment that we know President Trump agrees with. And he took John Bolton aside on all of this today, and it set John Kelly off to where people thought he genuinely could resign today. Now, he's threatened to resign before over disagreements with President Trump, but today was dramatically different, I'm told by multiple people who were witness to this argument, and especially that John Kelly was even more angered by the fact that he saw President Trump as siding with John Bolton over all of this.

Now, what's going to happen going forward is an open question. Some officials are denying that anyone is going to resign over this, but we do know that John Kelly didn't travel with President Trump to where Jim is in that rally in Montana. He wasn't scheduled to, but he's not by the president's side. And also John Bolton continued on with his regularly-scheduled meetings and whatnot today.

But seeing such a dramatic fight, the question is how do these two then, after getting in such a fight like this, not your average West Wing argument, how do they continue working together? Because we know John Bolton carries a lot of weight in this West Wing, and when he came in, he didn't have to answer to John Kelly like most people in a typical West Wing would. President Trump really emboldened him to do his own thing.

So the question is how does this affect dynamic with them going forward? What is the response? And does John Kelly stay on in his job? BLITZER: Yes. So John Kelly defending Secretary Nielsen. But

remember, it was only a few weeks ago there were reports that the president was really critical of her.

COLLINS: That's right. So it's not just John Bolton. President Trump dressed her down during that cabinet meeting over immigration, essentially saying what John Bolton said today: "You're not doing your job. You need to step it up." That was a pretty ugly cabinet argument, as well, to where Kirstjen Nielsen even pushed back on President Trump, saying that she was doing the best she could. And the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, stood up for her.

But the bottom line is President Trump does not feel that she's doing her job. He's incensed by these reports about the border crossing, and that causes problems in the West Wing, because John Kelly is really loyal to Kirstjen Nielsen; and that creates a divide between he and President Trump and now he and the national security adviser.

BLITZER: There was that article the other day in the "New York Magazine" where the president made a show of pretending that he really likes John Kelly.

COLLINS: That's right. He said he's going to stay on. You know when it was reported weeks ago, that he told John Kelly he'd like to see him stay on until 2022. John Kelly was quick to tell that to staffers, because he knew it would get out in the media.

That's something that actually agitated President Trump, that he was going about talking about that. I think pretty much anyone who either works in this West Wing or follows it as closely as I do does not think John Kelly will be around until 2020.

[17:10:06] BLITZER: Good point. All right. Thanks very much. Good reporting as usual.

The former Trump campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, has made at least nine trips to the special counsel, Robert Mueller's, office in the past month alone, but tomorrow he's due back in a federal court in Virginia. Could that complicate the cooperation deal that Mueller has worked out?

Our justice correspondent, Evan Perez, is getting new information. So Evan, what's expected at this -- at this court proceeding?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this is a hearing before Judge T.S. Ellis. He's the judge that, earlier this year, as you know, really held the special counsel, Robert Mueller's, feet to the fire and even accused him of really pursuing an investigation that was targeting at the president.

Now, we expect that T.S. Ellis, the judge, is going to pressure the special counsel to move towards a sentencing date for Paul Manafort. After all, he was found guilty back in August in -- in Virginia on eight counts. And what the judge is saying is essentially, "Look, in my court, when you are found guilty, you move to sentencing." The prosecutors in this care -- and it typically happens -- because

Paul Manafort is still cooperating, they would prefer to wait for the end that have cooperation in order to then decide how much of a deal, how much of a break to give Paul Manafort. We expect that tomorrow the judge is really going to press them to move to a sentencing date.

We also, by the way, Wolf, are expecting that he's going to pressure them to decide whether they're going to drop ten counts, that if you remember, Paul Manafort was found guilty on eight counts but on ten he -- the judge -- the jury could not come to a decision. So we're expecting that the judge is going to force the special counsel to perhaps drop those ten counts tomorrow at that hearing.

BLITZER: All right. We'll see what happens. Evan, thank you. Evan Perez reporting.

Joining us now, Democratic Congressman Ted Deutch of Florida. He's a member of the Judiciary and Foreign Affairs Committees.

Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.

REP. TED DEUTCH (D), FLORIDA: Thank you.

BLITZER: We've got lots to discuss. Let's start with Secretary Pompeo. He says the Saudi investigation will be complete, thorough and transparent. You've called for an independent investigation. Why do you believe the Trump administration is putting any stock in what Saudi Arabia is going to report?

DEUTCH: Yes. Thanks for having me, Wolf.

It's interesting. You just did a story about the president and his campaign rally. He's going to go out to his campaign rally tonight. He's going to demonize immigrants, and he's going to talk about the tough action he's prepared to take against -- against Mexico and other countries.

But in this case, where there's a journalist who lived in the United States, who was tortured, dismembered and decapitated, he is prepared still, it seems, according to Secretary Pompeo, to sit and let the Saudis come up with some story that -- that the secretary of state and the White House decide that they can accept.

This is a moment where the United States needs to stand very clearly in support of human rights and American values, and the president, when he continues to defer to the Saudis, seems to be diminishing our voice throughout the rest of the world. That's what's unfortunate as this continues to drag out longer and longer.

BLITZER: Secretary Pompeo says the Saudis should be given a few more days to investigate, then report what they've come up with. What are the concerns, if this is dragged out even further?

DEUTCH: Well, what I think most people would expect to hear from -- from the president is not that they're going to wait and let the Saudis come up with some story that -- that they can live with and that perhaps the White House can live with, but that the United States demands to know what happens, that we're going to devote maximum resources we have to determining what happens, that members of Congress have the ability to interact with the intelligence community about that, so that we don't have to rely on the president and the secretary of state to tell us.

The longer it drags out, the worse the message is that we're sending both to our allies around the world who wonder about our commitment to human rights and freedom of the press and the respect for journalists; and the message that we're sending to those around the world who would commit these sorts of heinous crimes and think that, if they simply drag it out, they might be able, at least with respect to the United States, they might be able to get away with it.

BLITZER: "The New York Times" is reporting that the Saudis are thinking about placing the blame on a top intelligence official who's close to the crown prince, the general -- General Ahmed al-Asiri. Is that acceptable? Would that absolve Mohammad bin Salman, the crown prince, of responsibility, in your view?

DEUTCH: Well, I don't -- I don't think that we're in a position to say -- I think this is the sense that -- that we have of where the administration would like to go, which is getting to the place where we can absolve the crown prince of responsibility, giving them an opportunity to come up with some story so they can identify someone that doesn't -- that can take the blame.

[17:15:12] I want to know exactly what happened. We need to know who was involved in the decision-making. We need, simply, a full investigation into what happened to Khashoggi.

This is an important moment for the United States and our relationship with Saudi Arabia. They are allies of ours, it is true. We work with them in standing up to Iran and the threats of Iran in the region. That's true.

But we don't -- we can't simply, because of the relationship that the secretary talked about today, because of these arms sales that the president referred to, we can't simply look for ways to absolve anyone who might be responsible for what happened for this horrific killing, to absolve them of responsibility. We need a full investigation and then we have to take whatever action is necessary to show that we're committed to enforcing human rights and upholding American values.

BLITZER: Congressman Ted Deutch, thanks so much for joining us.

DEUTCH: Thanks, Wolf. Always a pleasure.

BLITZER: Up next. The White House is giving Saudi Arabia more time to come up with an explanation for the apparent murder of the U.S.- based journalist.

And top White House officials get into a shooting match laced with profanities. Is President Trump taking sides?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [17:20:55] BLITZER: Welcome back. We're following multiple breaking stories right now. Quickly want to bring in Laura Jarrett, our justice reporter.

You're getting new information on what Mueller is planning -- relatively quiet, at least publicly, right now but shortly after the midterm elections on November 6 we can anticipate some action.

LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: We'll, we've seen all of these questions looming about when will this end? The president tweets about it every day. The deputy attorney general, who's in charge of the probe, was asked about it by "The Wall Street Journal" yesterday. And while he wouldn't go into it, we're learning today that this is probably expected to wrap up, if all things proceed as we think that it will, by sometime by the end of the year. My colleague Evan Perez actually actually reported December is probably the time period, as he suggested yesterday.

But the idea is that Mueller is not under some sort of obligation to produce a report by a date certain, and so the sources that I've talked to and Evan have talked to, as well, are trying to make clear that it is not as if Mueller was given, "You have to finish this by November 7." He wasn't told, "You have to do this by a date certain." He's really been allowed to have the leeway to continue this and to produce a report on his own timetable.

But we do, obviously, see a ton of activity, as our colleagues reported yesterday. Paul Manafort has met with the special counsel's office at least nine different times, and so we'll wait to see what kind of fruit is borne from that.

BLITZER: We would submit this report to Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, who gave an interview to "The Wall Street Journal," saying he has total confidence in what Mueller and his team are doing, in marked contrast to what the president says: it's a witch hunt; it's a ruse; it's a disaster and all of that.

So we don't even know for sure what happens to Rosenstein after the midterm elections, what happens to Jeff Sessions after the midterm elections and, potentially, what happens to Mueller after the midterm elections.

JARRETT: There could certainly be a huge shake-up over at the Justice Department. I think we are all on guard for that possibility.

But the president has signaled, I think, pretty clear that Rod Rosenstein's job is safe, at least for now. I think we saw, after they took that plane ride on Air Force One, down to Orlando, he was pretty happy coming off of that plane ride. Now, who knows exactly what was said and what transpired? But he did now -- you don't see the same sort of vociferous outbursts about Rod Rosenstein as you do with Jeff Sessions. At least from the president lately.

BLITZER: I want to get Jeffrey Toobin into this. Jeff, I'm sure the president wasn't very happy with what Rosenstein told "The Wall Street Journal" yesterday. JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: No, but I also think it's

clear that the president is just going to lay low on this whole subject until the midterm elections which, after all, are only two and a half weeks away. I mean, it is not -- it is not a long time.

I don't think there is any doubt -- Laura can correct me if I'm wrong -- but that Jeff Sessions is gone. I mean that he is gone. Rod Rosenstein is a separate question, and that's an extremely important question, because he is the one who supervises Mueller.

Once there is a new attorney general, that person may become the person who supervises Mueller. And then all bets may be off about Mueller's future. But, you know, I don't think anything is going to happen until the midterms.

BLITZER: Go ahead, Chris.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS CORRESPONDENT AND EDITOR AT LARGE: Just very quickly, because Laura mentioned it. And we had it in our -- in the piece that Evan and Kaitlan wrote, which I think was a great piece. It's right at the top there.

Bob Mueller's team. Bob Mueller, in particular. Bob Mueller and his team have spent 50-plus hours with Paul Manafort over the last 28 days. That to me is -- a couple things. No. 1, it suggests that this thing isn't going to -- you know, November 8, it's not -- it's not done and they're waiting until the election is over to press the button or to send it to Rosenstein.

But I also think it's interesting, in that Donald Trump, including as recently as his interviews this week, has emphasized this -- "The Manafort stuff has nothing to do with me. This is years ago." And he's right that what Paul Manafort pled guilty to has nothing to do with him. It's dealing with Ukraine.

But Bob Mueller and his team aren't spending all those hours talking to Paul Manafort about Ukraine in the 2000s. There's a reason -- and his plea deal, remember, is absolutely hinged to the level of coordination and information that he provides.

[17:25:06] So I would circle that with a big red pen and say, well, that's a lot of time --

BLITZER: Yes.

CILLIZZA: -- for the guy who was one of the three Trump people in the room at Trump Tower in that June meeting with the Russians, June 2016. Don't underestimate that that's important.

COLLINS: And the other -- well, I --

JARRETT: Go ahead, Kaitlan.

COLLINS: Another big question, also, is Don McGahn, who is now out of the White House, is someone who has --

BLITZER: The White House counsel.

COLLINS: The former White House counsel has also spent a lot of time with Robert Mueller to where even President Trump, though he signed off on him sitting down with him -- that was when they were in the "Let's all cooperate and do whatever they ask" kind of strategy -- was unnerved when he found out that it had been 30 hours of conversations. Because McGahn is a key witness to a lot of things, including when President Trump wanted to fire Robert Mueller last summer and he essentially according to our reporting --

BLITZER: Bianna, go ahead. I know you've got --

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think that's absolutely right. Don't forget that McGahn was actually a shield from the reporting for Rod Rosenstein, for Jeff Sessions and potentially Bob Mueller, as well.

I'm still curious as to know what the motivation and timing and strategy for that matter, for Rod Rosenstein to sit down with "The Wall Street Journal" yesterday and say what he did, especially following the fallout that he had with the president. And we'll see if there was a kumbaya after all after -- on that plane ride with the president down to Florida.

But here was a man who didn't do any media, for that matter, and to give an interview like he did yesterday, I'm just curious as to what the strategy was there. And I would assume that the White House had a head's up, maybe not, that he would be doing that.

BLITZER: Let me --

COLLINS: Just to that point.

BLITZER: Hang on one second. I just want to get Jeffrey to weigh in. The fact that Don McGahn, now the former White House counsel, has spent hours and hours and hours talking to Bob Mueller and his team, how significant, how extraordinary is that?

TOOBIN: Well, it's very significant particularly on the issue of obstruction of justice. You know, as I understand it, Mueller is preparing at least two reports. One of them is very much geared on the issue of obstruction of justice: whether the firing of James Comey amounted to an obstruction of justice by the president, that legal and factual question. Don McGahn is a very important witness on that.

That report, I think, will be coming out first.

As for the length of -- of time people are interviewed -- Paul Manafort, as Chris was saying for a very long time -- it's certainly relevant to any report that -- that Mueller may write. But remember, he still has a grand jury. He could still be indicting people. So, you know, the idea that he's closing up shop is not necessarily true, especially if more indictments come out.

BLITZER: Why did Rosenstein do this interview? JARRETT: So I think to Bianna -- Bianna's question, the issue is that

he clearly cares about the public perception of this investigation and, despite all of the tweets, I don't think it is that Rod Rosenstein is trying to set up a dichotomy between him and the president. But he sat down for a 30-minute interview on violent crime with "The Wall Street Journal." It was supposed to be about the uptick in gun prosecutions. Two questions come at the end that have to do with Mueller, and so that's what the article turns into. He did not sit down to do an article about --

BLITZER: But he knew that these reporters would ask those kinds of questions.

JARRETT: Absolutely. Absolutely, but I think it was a way to elegantly get out there, "Here's my position, and I think that the public will have confidence in this investigation."

BLITZER: And he said once again, in marked contrast to what the president keeps on saying and I suspect the president will repeat once again at his political rally tonight.

There's more breaking news that we're following. President Trump just a short time ago telling reporters it certainly looks like the U.S.- based journalist Jamal Khashoggi is dead, but he's waiting for three separate investigations to wrap up.

[17:30:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: We're back with our political and legal specialists. You know, Kaitlan, this shouting match that developed in the West Wing of the White House, between the White House Chief of Staff and the National Security Adviser to the President of the United States, apparently everybody over there is talking about this.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It is, and they were all talking about it today because the minute that we got wind of it and then you asked other people, they're, like, yes, we overheard that. And it even surprised some people in the West Wing which is kind of hard to do at this point because this isn't just another average West Wing argument, as we were discussing during the break. Yes, there are arguments all the time, there are heated discussions over disagreements all the time. This was not that situation. This was much more dramatic than that. It was described as a falling out between the two of them, and it left a lot of people questioning that one of them was going to be leaving. Whoever they -- whoever it was going to be, they weren't sure, but they truly thought this fight was so bad that John Kelly or John Bolton could leave the administration over this.

BLITZER: And apparently, there was a lot of profanity, bad words being used.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS EDITOR-AT-LARGE: Yes, I mean, look, Kaitlan is right in the difference, right. We know -- Donald Trump created an entire reality series based on the idea of watching people who want to work for him fight and then him deciding who he's with, right? So, we know he fosters this environment, but we're talking about the National Security Adviser and the Chief of Staff and also the Department of Homeland Security head. I mean, this is not -- these are not like junior staff, these are the highest people, and Donald Trump -- and again, this is Kaitlan's reporting, Donald Trump is taking sides in this? That's even more problematic.

COLLINS: Yes, that's a big factor. President Trump was there, even though later when he was asked about it, when he was headed to Montana, he said, I don't know what you're talking about, I haven't heard about a shouting match. President Trump was there and he took sides. The President was involved. It wasn't just some low level fight.

CILLIZZA: Correct.

[17:35:03] BLITZER: And Bianna, the issue -- the large number of people crossing the border into the United States from Mexico right now, illegally.

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, don't forget, there may be history between some of these staffers there and advisers and some bad blood, but that having been said, it's the issue that really does seem to give this extra credence because this is what the President ran on initially. This is his number one issue. There is no wall as of yet. We have a mid-term election coming up, and if there are reports that, in fact, you're seeing more migrants crossing into the United States, it shows a sign of weakness, that the President, when he goes out on these rallies hates to admit. So, for him, you would imagine this is probably something that puts extra pressure on him in these weeks, the final weeks leading up to a midterm election for an issue that he has really taken on as his own from day one.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: And he's apparently -- Jeffrey, go ahead.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Oh, I just can't get over the fact that profanity might have been used. I mean, my goodness -- I mean, fortunately, I've never heard any profanity at CNN, so I mean, I wouldn't even know what it was like. I mean, I just, you know, that's --

BLITZER: Some very, very bad words, very bad words in the West Wing of the White House. But Jeffrey, the President has apparently seized right now on this caravan of migrants from Honduras moving up through Mexico towards the United States, and he's making all sorts of dire threats to Mexico and to Honduras and El Salvador. Other countries in the region are saying, if you let these people go through all U.S. financial assistance to your countries is going to stop.

TOOBIN: Well, I mean, you know, it's just a question of, you know, who you -- who are you going to punish and what are you punishing them for? I mean, you know, these are desperate poor people who are traveling to try to find economic opportunity and, you know, it's a terrible situation. I don't know how punishing the government of Honduras is going to make this situation any better. You know, poor people go where they think they can find -- improve their lives, and that's what happens. And, you know, I don't see how that solution of punishing these governments is going to make the situation any better, but it is a very difficult situation.

BLITZER: And it's a big issue coming up in the next 2-1/2 weeks in the election.

CILLIZZA: It is, and it's an issue that very much motivates the Republican base which needs motivating.

BLITZER: Right.

CILLIZZA: The other thing I want to add to Bianna's point, Wolf, is don't forget, we know that Donald Trump up berated Kirstjen Nielsen earlier this year over this exact same issue, not the caravan but over the number of people coming to the border. So, Bianna mentioned there's history -- there is history here, and we also know John Kelly and Kirstjen Nielsen are very much allies. So, it's not as though this fight is that unexpected, that it got to Kaitlan's point, that it got not only this nasty but that the President chose sides, I think, is the thing that's --

(CROSSTALK)

GOLODRYGA: Well, and he recommended -- and Kelly recommended Nielsen for this job. Kind of seems like his protege.

COLLINS: And that is why he was so incensed because Bolton said she needed to start doing her job, whatever you want to take from that, take from that. But that's why John Kelly got so angry about.

BLITZER: And the President said the same thing about her only a few weeks ago, right?

COLLINS: Yes.

BLITZER: All right, guys, everybody standby. We're about to go live to Texas. We're counting down to tonight's CNN Texas Senate Town Hall. Will the controversy over the border help Democrats or Republicans? Plus, we'll have more on the breaking news, a source pushing back on the idea that the special counsel Robert Mueller has been told to wrap up his investigation soon after the midterms.

[17:40:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Tonight, with less than three weeks to go until the midterm elections, our Chief Political Correspondent Dana Bash will moderate a live Texas Senate Town Hall with Congressman Beto O'Rourke, the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate. O'Rourke's campaign has broken fundraising records, but he still trails the incumbent Senator Ted Cruz in the polls. CNN invited Senator Cruz multiple times to appear tonight in his own town hall but he declined. Dana is joining us right now from McAllen, Texas. So, Dana, how tight is this Senate race in Texas?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, right now, according to CNN's latest poll, Wolf, it's a seven-point race, and Ted Cruz has that seven-point advantage. It was a bit tighter at the end of the summer, but the fact that we are even here in Ruby Red Texas talking about a very hot Senate race, a headliner Senate race is very telling, and one of the big reasons is because of the Democratic challenger Beto O'Rourke. He has gotten national buzz in a very big way, particularly among Democrats from the East Coast to the West Coast and, of course, here in Texas as well, particularly in the big cities. And you mentioned the fact that O'Rourke has been unbelievably proficient in raising money. Just in the last quarter alone, so we're talking about a three-month period, $38 million. That is a record and then some.

BLITZER: Is immigration going to be a big part of the discussion tonight, especially with the President making it an issue just ahead of the November midterm elections?

BASH: Absolutely. It was already before the President kind of threw down the gauntlet again on immigration, it was already a huge issue in this race. Voters say it is their number one issue that will decide their vote, and it's one of the reasons, Wolf, we came here. We're in McAllen, Texas, it's about 10 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, and it is probably one of the issues that divide these two candidates more than any other.

[17:45:07] I mean, they certainly don't agree on a lot of issues, but immigration is the most stark example, the approach that each candidate takes, Ted Cruz and Beto O'Rourke could not be more stark. Cruz going with the more traditional Republican point of view, saying that there should be a wall, saying that there should not be any path to citizenship for anybody who came to this country illegally. And Beto O'Rourke does not want a wall and does support a path to citizenship, and, of course, never mind the very real situation of this caravan of potential immigrants, potential undocumented immigrants coming from Honduras through Mexico as we speak, which, as you mentioned, is something that the President is focused on as well. Wolf?

BLITZER: 19 days until the midterm elections. All right, Dana, thank you very much. And once again, CNN invited Senator Ted Cruz multiple times to appear tonight in his own town hall but he declined. Be sure to watch tonight at 7:00 p.m. Eastern right after THE SITUATION ROOM as Dana Bash moderates the Texas Senate town hall, that's live.

And stay with us for more on the breaking news, a source pushing back on the idea that special counsel Robert Mueller has been instructed to wrap up his investigation soon after the midterms. Also, coming up next, another brazing diplomatic move by the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. He's inviting Pope Francis to come to North Korea for a visit. So, how is the pope reacting?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:51:14] BLITZER: Tonight, we're getting reaction to another rather interesting move by the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. He's inviting Pope Francis to come visit North Korea, which officially is an atheist country. Let's bring in CNN's Brian Todd. Brian, tell us more about this invitation.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Kim's invitation was passed to Pope Francis at the Vatican today by South Korean President Moon Jae- in. This is seen tonight as a cynical and pretty brassy move from a dictator who's got thousands of Christians in labor camps.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: In the exalted halls of the Vatican today, an audacious gesture made by a brutal dictator. South Korean President Moon Jae-in telling Pope Francis he had been asked to convey an invitation from Kim Jong- un for the pontiff to visit Pyongyang. The Pope said he'll consider going.

GREG SCARLATOIU, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, COMMITTEE FOR HUMAN RIGHTS IN NORTH KOREA: What Kim Jong-un probably intends to get out of this is more good P.R. for the regime.

TODD: Analysts say today's invitation is a little more than an extension of Kim's charm offensive. Another effort to be seen among the world's great statesmen, following his multiple visits with the South Korean President. With Chinese leader Xi Jinping and with President Trump.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Excellent relationship. Thank you.

TODD: In reality, experts say the North Koreans have always seen religion as a threat. Evangelist Billy Graham did visit North Korea twice in the 1990s, but Kim's grandfather, the founder of North Korea, held himself out as god-like and prevented all other forms of religion.

SCARLATOIU: Religion was exterminated with extreme prejudice over a period of only a few years under Kim Il-sung.

TODD: The U.S. government in a recent report said Kim regime's approach to religion is among the most hostile and repressive in the world, "known to arrest, torture, imprison, and even execute religious believers." Christians are major targets.

MICHAEL GREEN, SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT FOR ASIA AND JAPAN CHAIR, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC & INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: There are defector reports of North Koreans trying to sneak bibles across the border from China being caught, lined up, huge fishhooks put through their ears, chained together, and marched off to (INAUDIBLE) camps, to concentration camps precisely because they were Christians.

TODD: And Americans have been swept up. Kenneth Bae was in a labor camp for nearly two years from 2012 to 2014, accused of planning a religious coup.

SCARLATOIU: Fundamentally it came (AUDIO GAP) Christian missionary, and he was basically accused of proselytizing.

TODD: Bae said he carried rocks and shoveled coal every day, got very sick, nearly died, and was given no hope.

KENNETH BAE, AMERICAN DETAINED IN NORTH KOREA: There was a one prosecutor assigned to my case for the last year of my imprisonment. He came to me almost every week and say, no remember you. You have been forgotten by people, your government --

TODD: So, what message would the Pope be sending if he goes to Pyongyang?

GREEN: They do see a role for the Pope and the Vatican in encouraging diplomacy and encouraging peace. I just don't think going to North Korea would be worth that in terms of the message it would send about how the Vatican itself understands the situation on the ground, which is tragic.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: Experts say if he does go to Pyongyang, the pope could at least make a display of calling for more religious freedom and the release of religious prisoners. They say Kim's regime would likely respond with pleasantries, would reiterate that their constitution calls for religious freedom and then they would promptly do nothing since the only religion ever really tolerated in North Korea is the cult of Kim Jong-un. Wolf?

BLITZER: It's even more ironic, Brian, considering that Kim's grandfather had religion in his background, right?

TODD: That's right, Wolf. Kim Il-sung was raised as a Christian. The Asia Times Newspaper says his father was a graduate of a Christian school and his mother was actually a deaconess in a Presbyterian church. Kim Il-sung used Christian images to build his own cult of personality that analysts say to Kim Il-sung, it was all about repression and power.

[17:54:55] BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting for us. Brian, thank you. Coming up, the breaking news, the White House now giving the Saudis time to come up with an explanation for the apparent murder of a U.S.- based journalist. As the New York Times report, the Saudis are considering blaming a top general. And Robert Mueller's investigation is expected to wind down by year's end, but a source insists the special counsel is not being pressured.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news: placing blame, Saudi Arabia is reportedly considering pinning blame for the killing of a dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi on a top Saudi intelligence official close to the Crown Prince. Tonight, President Trump is speaking out about the suspected murderer.