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Putin: Any Nuclear Aggressor "Will Be Annihilated"; West Wing Shouting Match; Interview With Illinois Congressman Mike Quigley; Trump Administration Providing Cover For Saudi Arabia?. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired October 18, 2018 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Saudi Arabia is reportedly pinning blame for the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi on a top Saudi intelligence official close to the crown prince. Tonight, President Trump is speaking out about the suspected murder.

Pushing back. The Justice Department pushes back against the idea that special counsel Robert Mueller needs to wrap up his Russia investigation soon. We're learning new information about when it might conclude.

Moving the FBI. Democrats say they were misled about President Trump's involvement in scrapping a plan to move agency headquarters. Did the president intervene to protect one of his hotels?

And base play. Partisan politics heating up with the midterm election less than three weeks away. We will get a preview of tonight's CNN Texas Senate town hall, where one of the candidates declined to appear.

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news tonight in the apparent killing of dissident Saudi journalist and "Washington Post" columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

"The New York Times" is reporting that Saudi officials are considering blaming the murder on a top Saudi intelligence official close to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. A short time ago, President Trump said it certainly looks like Khashoggi is dead and said consequences for Saudi Arabia will -- quote -- "have to be severe."

We're going to talk about the breaking news with Congressman Mike Quigley. He is a key member of the House Intelligence Committee. And our correspondents, analysts and specialists are also standing by.

First, let's go to our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta. He is in Missoula, Montana, for us, where President Trump will be holding another political rally later tonight. Jim, the president took a somewhat harder stance on the Khashoggi

killing as he left Washington, but he still wants to give the Saudis more time to investigate themselves.


He is moving in that direction. The president on his way to a rally here in Montana later on this evening. But just before he left Washington, he told reporters he is starting to acknowledge what has been suspected for days, even weeks, and that is that the Saudis appear to have murdered, viciously murdered one of its own journalists, Jamal Khashoggi.

The president says he is willing to give the Saudis time to explain exactly what happened, but he warned of severe consequences if the Saudis were in fact behind Khashoggi's murder.


ACOSTA (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.

QUESTION: Do you believe Jamal Khashoggi is dead?

DONALD TRUMP, 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 consequence if Saudi Arabia is found responsible.

TRUMP: It will have to be very severe. It's bad, bad stuff. But we will 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 complete 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, transparent in the 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 accuse the White House of trying to block lawmakers from finding out what happened to the journalist.

SEN. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D), MARYLAND: It appears you have 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 has become, for the Saudi regime and its denials.

ACOSTA: The president appears to be eager to get back to campaigning for the upcoming midterm elections, and he has 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.

Mr. Trump tweeted a warning that if the caravan continues its journey, he will halt foreign aid and may freeze his new trade agreement with Canada and Mexico, adding: "In addition to stopping all payment to the 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."


For the president, playing the immigration card comes right out of the campaign playbook, as former Trump strategist told Steve Bannon'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 this 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.


ACOSTA: Now, as for the case of Jamal Khashoggi, the president's son- in-law, Jared Kushner, is said to be urging caution to Mr. Trump as to how to handle the whole a situation. And the president for now appears to be taking that advice. Wolf, we understand there are conversations going on inside the White House as to what might happen to the region if the U.S. comes down too hard on the Saudis.

But, Wolf, of course, there is a flip side to all of this, and that is the U.S. will be sending a very big message to the world as to where it stands on human rights, where it stands on press freedom, depending on just how the president deals with the fallout of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jim Acosta, thanks so much for that report.

Also breaking tonight, we're learning about a very heated argument between the White House chief of staff, John Kelly, and the president's national security adviser, John Bolton, that had aides speculating one of these two men might resign.

Our White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins has been working this story for us.

Kaitlan, you're getting new information from your sources. Tell us about this.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It got ugly today in the West Wing. That's what happened.

They were having a conversation about this surge in border crossings, something we know that President Trump has been so incensed about, the fact that he is threatening to shut down the southern border. But it got really ugly between Chief of Staff John Kelly and the national security adviser, John Bolton.

They started off this argument in front of President Trump in the Oval Office while talking about this, and then it turned into a shouting match between the two of them, so loud that it was startling aides nearby, who are used to a lot of arguing and a pretty divisive West Wing.

That's how bad it was. It raises the question of why would these two men be arguing like this in this dramatic fashion over something like this? But we're told by sources who are familiar with this argument that John Bolton insulted the DHS secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, saying that she needs to start doing her job.

And that's a sentiment that President Trump agreed with during this argument, causing a lot of people to believe that President Trump had taken John Bolton's side. Now, the reason that infuriated John Kelly and set him off in this argument is because Kirstjen Nielsen is essentially his right-hand woman.

When he became chief of staff, he brought her over from DHS. She was in the West Wing with him for a while. And then he was the one who persuaded President Trump to nominate her as the secretary to lead the Department of Homeland Security. It was a really ugly fight. There are a lot of fights in this West

Wing, but what happened today essentially led people to believe that one of them was going to be leaving, and they didn't it was John Bolton, who went about with his afternoon with his regularly scheduled meetings, while people did not see John Kelly and they thought that he could resign over this, because he is someone who has threatened to resign over his arguments with President Trump before.

But this was such an ugly fight, he was so enraged over this argument with John Bolton, that it made people think he could be gone. The White House actually did not offer us a statement earlier when we first reported on this.

But they have just sent out a statement to the pool reporters, saying -- Sarah Sanders saying that: "While we are passionate about solving the issue of illegal immigration, we are not angry at one another."

She said: "However, we are furious at the failure of congressional Democrats to help us address this growing crisis."

So she is trying to play down this feud that happened today, but, Wolf, the people who witnessed it certainly say it's not like normal fights. They equated to it a falling out between the two men and said they just do not see how they can move forward working together after something like this.

BLITZER: And, apparently, it was profanity-laced, right?

COLLINS: That's right. It got really ugly.

That's not atypical for a fight in the West Wing. But to have the national security adviser and the chief of staff going at each other's throats with President Trump involved in this, and taking sides, is extraordinary, even for this White House.

BLITZER: Great reporting. Thanks very much for that, Kaitlan doing an excellent job for us.

There is more breaking news on the special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation, and when it might actually conclude.

Our political correspondent, Sara Murray, is joining us right now.

Sara, I take it we're getting some new information from a key source?


Our colleague Laura Jarrett spoke to a source familiar with the investigation in the Justice Department who says that Rod Rosenstein has not set any kind of specific date for special counsel Robert Mueller to wrap up his investigation, but it is expected to wind down by the end of the year.

Now, that does not mean that this is suddenly going to wrap up as soon as the midterms are over. There will be more investigation that continues after that. And this source wanted to make clear that Rosenstein is not placing any pressure on Mueller to speed things up, to wrap things up, for instance, the day after the midterms -- Wolf.


BLITZER: Mueller's questioning of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, Sara, is still ongoing. Manafort is due back in a federal courtroom tomorrow.

So what's expected, first of all, at this court proceeding?

MURRAY: Well, sure.

Remember, Paul Manafort was convicted of a number of crimes. And so they're expected to lay out sort of a timeline for Paul Manafort's sentencing. We have seen sort of a change in tune from Mueller's team.

Prosecutors initially wanted to wait to sentence Manafort until the bulk of his cooperation is over. Now they are saying they're open to sentencing him now. And one of the lingering questions is, what's going to happen to the 10 outstanding counts that Paul Manafort was facing? Remember, there was a mistrial when it came to a number of these counts.

The prosecution says they're not really ready to drop them yet. But we will how this all plays out in a courtroom tomorrow.

BLITZER: We will indeed. All right, Sara, thank you, Sara Murray reporting.

Let's get some more on this.

Democratic Congressman Mike Quigley of Illinois is joining us. He is a member of the Intelligence Committee.

Congressman, thanks for joining us.

REP. MIKE QUIGLEY (D), ILLINOIS: Thank you. Busy day.

BLITZER: It appears that a source is now pushing back on the idea that the idea that Robert Mueller is facing any sort of pressure on the timeline of his investigation. What do you make of that?

QUIGLEY: Yes, I think that the special counsel has felt pressure all along.

I don't believe that there is no pressure. Obviously, we have seen the administration pressure beyond comprehension the Justice Department, the FBI. I believe that Mr. Mueller absolutely believes he has a time pressure. Who knows what takes place after the midterms?

We have heard many Republican congressional leaders suggest that, well, he shouldn't fire Mr. Sessions or anybody else until after the midterms. Hey, if it's the wrong thing to do, it's the wrong thing to do now or

after the midterms. Let's remember, the Watergate investigation took at least 28 months from the day of the break-in to the time that the president left. This is a far more complicated investigation, and, frankly, a far more important one.

BLITZER: The deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, has spoken out, strongly defending the Mueller investigation, but he and the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, might not necessarily be all that safe after the midterm elections in 19 days.

Do you think Mueller needs to wrap up his work to get ahead of President Trump's possibly replacing the people who will decide what happens with Mueller's final report?

QUIGLEY: I think that's exactly what Mr. Mueller feels. I think it's unfortunate. It's a great concern.

I would like to think that he will have more time afterwards. I think some of this will depend on the outcome of the elections. This should be what the American public is considering when they go to the polling place. There is some real truth to the old adage that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Republicans have not shown the responsibility to investigate this White House and the Russia investigation thoroughly. The House Republicans have shut down the investigation. So be in mind of this, folks. This stuff really matters. Republicans haven't shown the willingness to truthfully find out what took place.

BLITZER: The former Vice President Joe Biden said he hopes Democrats don't try to impeach President Trump. Do you agree?

QUIGLEY: I think he's absolutely right.

I have told my colleagues all along, if we're telling the Republicans to let Mr. Mueller complete his investigation before we even consider such discussion, we should do the very same.

Let this investigation complete its course, and that includes the House investigation opening up again, because it had different purposes, different stated purposes. And, at that, when the report is done, and we look at both, and we see what the details are, then, if it is appropriate, we will talk about such things.

But right now, let's let this investigation take its course. Let the American public find out what actually happened.

BLITZER: Let's turn to the ongoing questions surrounding Jamal Khashoggi's disappearance and apparent murder.

Secretary Pompeo says the Saudi investigation will be complete, thorough and transparent.

Why do you believe the Trump administration is relying on the Saudis, rather than U.S. intelligence agencies? QUIGLEY: I have no idea why the administration, nor the president is

acting as sort of a quasi-legal counsel for the Saudi government.

Let's remember what we're talking about here. This is a crime scene. For Mr. Pompeo to suggest to the president, let's give them a few more days to investigate this, what he is really saying is, let's give them a few more days to clean up the crime scene.

If anyone trusts to Saudis to investigate this murder that took place on their own property, they're deluding themselves. I think that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee invoking thing the Magnitsky Act is an appropriate decision at this point in time.


Let there be a full-scale investigation, not by the Saudis, and not even by the White House. This should be an international investigation, and Congress should play a role. And then we should determine the proper punishment, including sanctions. It's also appropriate to talk about the role in Yemen at this time too.

BLITZER: Congressman, I need you to stand by.

I have got to take a quick break. But I want to ask you about some other news developing, including new allegations that you are raising, along with other Democrats, that President Trump intervened inappropriately in the decision whether or not to move the FBI headquarters to protect one of his hotels here in Washington.

We will be right back.



BLITZER: We're back with Democratic Congressman Mike Quigley of the House Intelligence Committee.

Want to talk to him about these new allegations by Democrats that President Trump intervened in plans to relocate FBI headquarters in order to protect his hotel here in Washington.

Congressman, stand by.

I want to get some details first from CNN's Tom Foreman, who is over there at FBI headquarters.

Tom, Democrats say Congress was misled about the president's involvement.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, and an inspector general says the same thing, Wolf.

The truth is we don't really know why the White House is being so cagey about the role of the president in what happens with this property. What we do know is that it could lead to taxpayers paying a lot more and getting less for their money.


FOREMAN (voice-over): Overcrowded, outdated, and crumbling. Plans to relocate and rebuild FBI headquarters have been in the works for years, with government studies showing how it could be moved from downtown D.C. to one of several possible sites in nearby Maryland or Virginia.

The cost, 3.6 billion tax dollars. But now a different plan is calling for the FBI center to be rebuilt right where it is, even though it would be smaller than the suburban alternative, likely have security risks, and be more expensive, $3.8 billion.

So who came up with that?

TRUMP: I'm a real estate guy. I build buildings.

FOREMAN: A study by the inspector general of the General Services Administration traces a series of meetings in which the suburban plan was pushed aside by the Trump administration amid claims that keeping the headquarters downtown would be cheaper.

The I.G. report shows team Trump's math is wrong. Nonetheless, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders insists: "The president wanted to save the government money and also the FBI leadership did not want to move its headquarters."

Skeptics, however, suspect a hidden motive. For years, Donald Trump had been all for freeing up that FBI land downtown for private development, with his brand-new hotel close by, even talking about getting in on the action.

But congressional Democrats in a letter to the GSA say something important changed. After he was sworn in as president and became ineligible as a federal employee to obtain the property, he reportedly became dead opposed to the government selling the property, which would have allowed commercial developers to compete directly with the Trump Hotel.

He was directly involved with the decision to abandon the long-term relocation plan and instead move ahead with the more expensive proposal. There is no proof so far, and the White House insists once again House Democrats have it all wrong, but those Democrats are demanding the paperwork to prove it.

NORMAN EISEN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: The government won't turn over the information on the president's exact reasoning. Why is the president doing this?


FOREMAN: We know that this property in downtown D.C. is worth hundreds of millions of dollars, which could also be a savings to taxpayers, at least in theory here. We also know that just beyond those trees, that spire right up there,

that is Trump Hotel. Whether all of that played a role in the president's decision, that's what we don't know and what Democrats and others are hoping to find out -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It's only a block away. Tom Foreman, thank you very much for that report.

Let's bring back Congressman Mike Quigley of Illinois, a member of the Intelligence Committee.

Congressman, you signed to this letter asking for more information on the president's role in all of this. But even the e-mails that were already released from GSA officials mention direction from the White House, what POTUS directed everyone to do, and the president's instructions.

So what else are you hoping to learn?

QUIGLEY: Well, let's understand something.

Last April, I asked the GSA administrator under oath whether the president or anyone at the White House was involved in the discussions in this decision about the FBI building. She said no.

The inspector general said that she misled us. I suppose that's a D.C. euphemism for a lie. So, I would like her to come back before my subcommittee and answer that question accurately.

Who was at that meeting in the White House when they made this decision? What was said? What did the president say? Was anything said about the Trump Hotel? The bottom line is, as a result of this opaque administration, we are less safe and we're spending more money.


BLITZER: Because if they sell that property on Pennsylvania Avenue where the current FBI building is, they could sell that for hundreds of millions of dollars, which would dramatically reduce the cost of building a new FBI headquarters, whether in Maryland, suburban Maryland, or suburban Virginia.

If you try to knock it down and rebuild it where it is right there, it's going to cost a lot more.

QUIGLEY: And we were told post-9/11 time and again during Democrat and Republican administrations that it is extraordinarily important for them to move out of that location for security reasons, to have a bigger footprint, to have more operations there, to keep us safe, to deal with antiterrorism strategies.

So someone wants to tell me, someone wants to come before the committee or any other committee and explain how we're more safe, how it's cost-effective to be downtown with this facility, I'm more than willing to listen. But the only logical answer at this point is that it doesn't keep us

safe, doesn't save money. The only thing it does right now is benefit Trump Hotel. The president has not divested himself from this interest. And, in the end, when he stops being president of the United States, he gains to profit.

The fact that there is not a hotel across the street competing with him, he is the one that profits.

BLITZER: Congressman Mike Quigley, thanks so much for joining us.

QUIGLEY: Any time. Thank you.

BLITZER: All right, just ahead: Top White House officials get into a profanity-laced West Wing shouting match. Is President Trump taking sides in the dispute?

And touting his latest weapons. Vladimir Putin says Russia will never strike first, but vows it will annihilate, annihilate any attacker that uses nuclear weapons. So what's behind this latest warning?


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We're getting some new information, a tweet just posted by Michael Avenatti, the lawyer for Stormy Daniels. He tweets this. Let me read it to you and our panel.

[18:31:46] Quote, "We have set Michael Cohen's sworn deposition for the date after his sentencing, December 13, 2018. We have also requested all recordings he has of communications between him and Donald Trump. We look forward to disclosing the truth about what Trump's fraud and deceit."

Sabrina Siddiqui, how significant, potentially, is this development, if Michael Avenatti representing Stormy Daniels in this lawsuit, get access to any recordings that, for example, that Michael Cohen may have made between himself and Donald Trump?

SABRINA SIDDIQUI, POLITICAL REPORTER, "THE GUARDIAN": Well, we certainly don't know if Michael Cohen has agreed to this or will, but it's significant, because we do know that Michael Cohen has said he has recordings of his conversations with the president.

One of those we did hear a couple of months ago, in which it appeared that the president, then candidate Trump did, in fact, have prior knowledge of a payment that was made to Karen McDougal, one of the women alleged to having an affair with him, that then the "National Enquirer" bought the exclusive rights to her story to try and, of course, engage in a catch and kill practice.

You have to kind of take a step back, though. Michael Cohen is someone who has been so intimately involved with the president as his personal attorney in the past who obviously has overseen both his personal and professional dealings. And so the insight that he has is unparalleled. And that's why any access to, you know, recordings or documents that Cohen may have, that's very significant, what the president and his legal team have been concerned about this entire time.

BLITZER: Yes, clearly, Phil, the feds already have those recordings, in fact if a lot of them exist, whether the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Robert Mueller and his team. But it's another thing if Michael Avenatti gets access to all those recordings.

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Yes, but there's the law and there's politics. Let's put the feds here, and let's put Avenatti here.

Look, the feds have had access to documents for months now. They've had access, obviously, to Michael Cohen for conversations, because he's talking to the feds. You can have either the Mueller investigation or they can transfer investigations over,, as we've seen to the Southern District of New York.

If you're sitting in the White House and you're counselling the president, I would say, "Look, Mr. President, if I'm worried, I'm putting the feds up here, because they've had access and documents for months, and Michael Avenatti, who has already said maybe he has a political interest, I think he's trying to make sure he -- his sort of 12 minutes of fame turn into 13 minutes as opposed to whether or not the White House really has to worry about whether this compares to the feds." The feds win on this one.

PHILLIP: Abby, you cover the White House for us. How do you think they're reacting to this?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think this is actually significant but for a slightly different reason.

The White House is always concerned in some ways about the Mueller investigation, but the thing about this Avenatti case is that it can surface some things that are more politically damaging to President Trump than they might be for his legal -- his legal prospects.

So Avenatti is trying to basically create a scenario in which he potentially deposes President Trump and potentially unearths embarrassing information about the president.

We know that he's been so nervous about this Stormy Daniels situation, in part because this pertains to his marriage, his personal life; and also it pertains to something that's really unsavory, an alleged extramarital affair. So this may not be a case where President Trump is in legal jeopardy, but it certainly could serve as a lot of damaging information.

And Michael Cohen has already made it clear he wants to go after President Trump. He's -- we've heard from our sources telling M.J. Lee that he's willing to campaign with Democrats in this next cycle. This is all about Michael Cohen settling scores against someone who has burned him in a major way. And President Trump continues to try to diminish him in the media, in part because of this dynamic.

[18:35:10] BLITZER: You saw what the president said about him in that Associated Press interview earlier this week: "Basically, he was just some low-level P.R. guy. He had a little work, minor work. I barely knew the guy," although he spent ten years working with him.

SHAWN TURNER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Ten years. Ten long years. And he did a lot of work for President Trump.

Look, Michael Cohen has made a decision that he is going to protect himself and he is going to protect his family, and he's going to go after President Trump.

I think it's also worth noting that, with regard to Avenatti getting access to this material, that unlike the feds, Avenatti is much more likely to leak some of this information out and to strategically place this information in the public space in order to embarrass the president.

So I think this is the kind of thing that has been said that the president really should be concerned about. Because this information is not going to be protected. It's going to be used, both for Avenatti himself as well as for Stormy Daniels.

BLITZER: He should be worried about Michael Cohen, the president, right?

MUDD: He should be. But let me give you a timeline that will give you some clarification on this.

We're talking about after the midterms. So you have the potential, if the press reports are right, that you're going to have some Mueller -- some of the final elements of the Mueller investigation dropped versus whether Michael Avenatti furthers his legal case against the president.

I'm going to tell you, if the president drops a dime on the investigation that somehow gets closer to the White House than we've seen so far, that compared to whatever Michael Avenatti says is going to trump, if you will, Avenatti any day.

Avenatti wants some time in front of the camera. Mueller crush the White House if he actually brings indictments against people there.

BLITZER: Let's move on to another sensitive issue, Sabrina. Our justice reporter Laura Jarrett reporting that Robert Mueller, the special counsel, is not feeling the political pressure to wrap up his investigation shortly after the midterm elections.

What does that tell you?

SIDDIQUI: Well, certainly I don't think that Robert Mueller's taking any of his cues from the midterms and a lot of the political considerations around the investigation. The special counsel has been conducting, of course, a very thorough inquiry that entails the cooperation of several former officials, both in the Trump campaign and the early days of the Trump administration.

And I think a lot of this come downs to the role that Rod Rosenstein has played, and that's where there's been so much attention as -- around his job security, because he has effectively acted as the gatekeeper of the Mueller investigation.

And so that raises additional considerations around what the Justice Department looks like after the midterm elections and whether there might be more Trump loyalists at the top of the Justice Department who might not, as Rosenstein has done, allowed Mueller's investigation to continue unimpeded.

BLITZER: There could be a lot of activity going on right after the midterm elections, what only 19 days way.

PHILLIP: Yes, and I think that there is already evidence that they're ramping up towards something. You know, I don't think that it tells us a whole lot about what Mueller is actually doing, that he could wrap it up by the end of the year, but it does tell us that the investigation is ongoing. It is not -- there was -- I think months ago a theory that perhaps some of the indictments that we saw over the summer was a sign that this was Mueller giving us the best that he's got. I don't think that we know that yet. We don't know almost anything about this investigation, because it's been happening behind closed doors.

But I will say that Rod Rosenstein is trying to make it very clear that this investigation is legitimate. It's moving forward, and it's not being impeded by President Trump. And by President Trump giving him a longer lease on his job, it allows him the space to do that. And I think that's the important part about this.

BLITZER: Everybody stand by. There's more news we're following. The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, talking nuclear war. So who were his comments directed at?

Plus, CNN's town hall tonight, in one of the most watched Senate races. We're to be get a live preview. Stay with us.


[18:43:21] BLITZER: Coming up right at the top of the hour, CNN hosts a town hall in the closely-watched Texas Senate race, pitting Democratic challenger Congressman Beto O'Rourke against Republican incumbent Ted Cruz. Senator Cruz -- and CNN, I should say, invited Senator Cruz multiple times to appear tonight in his own town hall, but he declined.

Our political reporter Rebecca Berg is joining us with a little preview right now. Rebecca, how tight is this Senate race in Texas?

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it is not as waiting to as Beto O'Rourke and Democrats would like. Our latest CNN polling showing Ted Cruz with a comfy lead over O'Rourke, 52-45 in that poll. And so what Beto O'Rourke needs is a game-changing moment. Potentially, he could get that here tonight in this town hall.

But one of the problems for Beto O'Rourke, of course, is that he is fighting a long history of Republican support here in Texas. This state has not elected a Democrat statewide since the 1990s. Meanwhile, the president's support in our latest CNN polling remains

relatively high here in Texas, compared to what we've seen in some other states, at 49 percent approval. That is also helping to boost Ted Cruz. And the president will be here on Monday campaigning for Ted Cruz, rallying his supporters. So the Republican showing expected to be strong.

O'Rourke needs to get Democrats out to vote. He gets -- needs to get Latinos out to vote. He has his work cut out for him. He's also been going after Ted Cruz recently, going on the attack. A change in tone for his campaign, and we'll be watching tonight to see if he continues with that aggressive strategy, Wolf.

BLITZER: Immigration, I assume that's going to be a big part of the discussion tonight, specifically, especially because the president is making it a huge issue in these days leading up to the November midterms.

BERG: Absolutely. It's been a huge issue across the country, consistently rating right up there with health care, which has also been one of the top issues. And we of course are here in McAllen, Texas, right on the border with Mexico. This was a town that was at the forefront during the child separation controversy we saw earlier this year. And this has been a major issue, of course, here in Texas. One of the big dynamics we're seeing here, you know, we've talked about the gender gap apropos the country in some of these races.

Here that is not as much of a dynamic. Instead we're seeing really a Latino gap with Latino voters favoring O'Rourke by a wide margin over Ted Cruz. But the problem for O'Rourke and other Democrats in states like Arizona and Nevada is that those voters tend to turn out less in elections like this one. So the challenge is going to be not only making this an issue on Election Day, but getting those voters who care about it and would support Democrats out to the polls.

So I'm sure you're going to hear tonight a lot about immigration from O'Rourke and audience members asking him these questions.

BLITZER: Well, I'm sure we will.

All right, Rebecca, thank you very much. Once again, the Texas town hall with Beto O'Rourke hosted by our own Dana Bash starts right at the top of the hour. Stick around for that. It should be good.

Let's get back to our panel right now.

And, Abby, I want to get your thoughts on the reporting we've been doing here on CNN that there was a huge fight in the West Wing, profanity-laced between the White House national security adviser and the White House chief of staff.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Right. Not exactly an unusual dynamic for people within the White House to be fighting with each other, sometimes loudly and angrily. But in this case, it was so -- the dispute was so strong that many people around them who were witnessing it thought that it would lead to one of the two men, John Bolton, the national security adviser, and John Kelly resigning from their post.

But the issue is obviously the issue of immigration across the border. The president is incensed by this caravan coming up from Central America, and the other central issue is whether or not Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen is doing enough about it. Arguably, the president wants to shut down the border. He wants to cut off aid.

But the real question is that really going to be enough to stop this? And is there more that Kirstjen Nielsen can do? I think some would argue perhaps not.

BLITZER: You've been doing some reporting, some important reporting, Sabrina, on the Republican Party's immigration policy as it's emerging. What are you learning?

SABRINA SIDDIQUI, POLITICAL REPORTER, THE GUARDIAN: Well, I did a review of political ads by Republican candidates and outside groups, and they show just how far the party has gone to really embrace the president's tone and agenda when it comes to immigration. A majority of the immigration-related ads by Republicans have such an emphasis on the threat posed by MS-13.

There is a very clear attempt in the ads to link immigrants to violence and crime and it's juxtaposed with Republican candidates touting their support for the president's border wall. And it shows the way in which the party is really trying to play up the politics of fear which was a successful ploy for the president in 2016.

Now, you know, immigration is not the top priority for the American electorate, but it certainly does rank high for Republican voters. And it's also important to note that more than $150 million have been spent by Republicans both in terms of candidates and committees. That is the five times what was spent on immigration related ads in 2014. So it does also show how the president has successfully turned this into a core election issue as voters head to the polls.

BLITZER: She makes an excellent point. Shawn, the base, the Trump base out there wants to hear more and more about illegal immigration.

SHAWN TURNER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Right. The base does, but I also think that the administration is smart enough to take a look at some of the recent polling on Hispanics and the likelihood that Hispanics will come out and vote. Look, they understand that on this immigration issue, thre was the possibility that Hispanic Americans would kind of rise up and push back very hard on the president's hard-line stance on this issue.

But some of the recent report hearing at CNN, some of the polling suggest there's may be a degree of apathy out there in the Hispanic community. So, the president and his team are looking at that, and they're saying look, we think this is an issue we can push hard on and not have a lot love blowback on as we get into the election.

BLITZER: Interesting. Let me get your thoughts on Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist, U.S.-based president. The president says now like everyone else he is unfortunately dead. But you saw "The New York Times" reporting today that it looks like the Saudis are going to pin the blame on a top Saudi intelligence official saying he simply ran amok.

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Let me take you inside baseball and tell you to watch the language. It sounds boring, but watch the language. Are we going to come out in the American system within the next two or three or four days and say do we have definitive intelligence, almost evidence that indicates the Saudi leadership was responsible for that?

[18:50:10] That's one way to frame it. Do we have evidence that you could use in a court? Or would a reasonable person look at this and say, let me get this straight, 15 individuals, including forensic experts in death, show up on two Saudi planes at a Saudi diplomatic facility and murder someone, evidently in seven minutes?

Is it framed to say, do we have evidence? That means we're going to let them off the hook. We do not have evidence for this.

Or would a reasonable person say the crown prince was involved? Yes, they would, and I'm going to say the White House is not going to say that because then that means sanctions.

BLITZER: You were a senior U.S. intelligence official. What do you think?

TURNER: Well, look, I think Phil's right but the most important thing Phil said here is whether or not the intelligence community has evidence.

This administration has to ask one question here. The president has to can ask one question. When it comes to determining who has the authoritative account of what happened to Jamal Khashoggi, the president has to ask himself, is he going to trust and believe in the findings of the U.S. intelligence community or is he going to, as he did with Vladimir Putin, with Kim Jong-un, is he going to take the word of Mohammed bin Salman and -- when he says that he had absolutely nothing to do with this and that the Saudis had nothing to do with this?

This is another instance in which we see the president looking to bad actors and trusting in what bad actors say over his own intelligence community and analysts. There's too much evidence here for anyone to suggest that the Saudis aren't aware of what happened.

BLITZER: It's worked in Saudi Arabia for the Saudis. You think they're going to come up with some reasonable explanation or just a cover?

MUDD: No. We've already gotten the proof of that. Let me be very clear on this. If the Saudis are saying we've got to investigate this, what are they telling us? The leadership wasn't responsible. If the leadership wasn't responsible, why would you have to investigate? They would say, I'm sorry, we did this, we made a mistake. What they've already suggested is we're going to come back and say, we

dependent really know this but a bunch of our subordinates went out and murdered somebody without authorization. Oh, come on, that's not going to fly for me. I think it might fly for the administration.

BLITZER: Everybody, stick around. Don't go too far away.

Just ahead, the Russian President Vladimir Putin's nuclear warning. Who was he threatening to annihilate?


[18:56:51] BLITZER: A strong warning from Russian President Vladimir Putin to potential nuclear aggressors.

Let's go to our senior international correspondent Fred Pleitgen. He's joining us live from Moscow right now.

So, Fred, what is Putin saying?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Wolf, you know, normally when world leaders speak about the use of nuclear weapons, they do so in a very careful way and they make sure to say they believe nuclear weapons are something that never should be used and while Vladimir Putin at a discussion panel said that Russia would never preemptively use nuclear weapons, he talked about their use in an almost nonchalant way and said that if nuclear weapons were to be used, if there was a nuclear war, that Russians would go to heaven.

Let's listen in to what Vladimir Putin said exactly.


VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): Well, yes, but then the aggressor should still know that vengeance is inevitable, in fact, he will be destroyed, and we are the victims of aggression and as martyrs, we will go to heaven and they will simply die, because they will not even have time to repent.


PLEITGEN: So, Russian President Vladimir Putin garnering some laughs there with some of the things that he said, also raising some eyebrows as well, just because of the way that he said it and you saw the body language there as well. It's interesting because that was a pretty important forum that Vladimir Putin does tend to go to pretty much every year. He also talked about his relations with President Trump, and he still says that those relations are very good but he does believe there's others in the U.S. who are trying to undermine them but he also said he believes the meetings with President Trump are very important and could lead to positive developments in the relations between Russia and the United States.

BLITZER: You know, Fred, Putin also spoke about the suspected killing of the Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi. What did he say? PLEITGEN: Yes. Well, he seemed to have varying messages on that. On

the one hand, he certainly said that Russia would not try to, as he put it, risk its relations with Saudi Arabia over this case because he said that they don't have all the facts yet. He also believes there is a responsibility on the part of the United States because, of course, Khashoggi is someone who was a resident or who is a resident in Virginia so he does believe that there is some sort of responsibility on the part of the United States.

It was interesting, though, he also tried to make a relation to the recent poisoning by Russia of spies in England where he said, look, in that case, also, not all the facts were out. But there are already sanctions that have been levied against the Russians but in this case, while people already seem to have some of the facts, no sanctions have been levied yet. It's a message that we've been hearing from the Kremlin where the Russians are saying they believe that internationally, they're not being treated fairly, that they're being treated more harshly than other countries, so you seem to be trying to use that platform to make that case once again, Wolf.

BLITZER: Fred Pleitgen reporting the latest from Moscow -- Fred, thanks very, very much.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. Thanks very much for watching.

The Texas town hall with Beto O'Rourke begins right now.