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Trump Attempts Damage Control Over Bombshell Tapes; CDC Forecasts Up to 217,000 U.S. COVID-19 Deaths by October 3; Woodward Book Says, Trump Slammed His F---ing Generals, Accused Them of Being Weak; AstraZeneca Confirms Vaccine Trial Pause is the Second Suspension Since July; 100+ Active Large Wildfires Burn Across Western U.S. States; Trump Camp Bombarding Local Election Officials in Bid to Back-Up Allegations About Mail-In Voting. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired September 10, 2020 - 18:00   ET



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: We want to welcome our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Tonight, President Trump is on the defensive and on the attack, after he admitting he intentionally downplayed the coronavirus threat to the American people. He's trying to deflect blame to Bob Woodward after the veteran journalist's recorded conversations with the president were made public.

And Mr. Trump is still brazenly insisting that he's done a good job at handling the pandemic, this as a new CDC forecast just out now projects up to 217,000 coronavirus deaths here in the United States by October 3.

The U.S. death toll now exceeds 191,000, meaning another 26,000 Americans may die in the next three weeks alone.

Let's go to our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta. He's on the scene for us in Michigan.

Jim, the president getting ready to address a rally there. We see a big crowd behind you. He's been spending a lot of time at damage control. What's the latest?


President Trump is campaigning in the battleground state of Michigan in just a short while from now. And as we can already see, many of his supporters at this rally are not social distancing and many of them are not wearing their masks.

But one thing these supporters do have at this rally is the truth. They finally have the truth, that the president knowingly misled the public about the dangers posed by the coronavirus.

At a very brief news conference earlier this afternoon, the president claimed he was not lying to the American people about the virus.

For the White House, it's become operation blame Bob.


ACOSTA (voice-over): One day after bombshell recordings revealed the president intentionally downplayed the COVID-19 threat, Mr. Trump is claiming it was all about keeping Americans from panicking.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I didn't lie. What I said is, we have to be calm, we can't be panicked. I don't want to jump up and down and start screaming death, death.

ACOSTA: The president is even trying to shift the blame to the journalist with the tapes, Bob Woodward.

TRUMP: Certainly, if he thought that was a bad statement, he would have reported it, because he thinks that, you know, you don't want to have anybody that is going to suffer medically because of some fact.

If Bob Woodward thought what I said was bad, then he should have immediately, right after I said it, gone out to the authorities, so they can prepare and let them know. But he didn't think it was bad, and he said he didn't think it was bad. He actually said he didn't think it was bad.

QUESTION: Bob Woodward is not the president.

ACOSTA: Democrats aren't buying it, with Joe Biden tweeting: "Donald Trump said he didn't want to tell the truth and create a panic. So, he did nothing and created a disaster."

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): He hid the facts and refused to take the threat seriously, leaving the entire country exposed and unprepared. He didn't want to cause a panic. Why? Because of the stock market?

ACOSTA: The president has used the panic excuse before, way back in March.

(on camera): What do you say to Americans who believe that you got this wrong?

TRUMP: But I do want them to stay calm. And we are doing a great job. You can ask a normal question. The statements I made are, I want to keep the country calm, I don't want panic in the country. I could cause panic much better than even you.

ACOSTA (voice-over): But here's the problem. In February, the president warned Woodward the virus was deadly, but not the public.

TRUMP: It goes -- it goes through air, Bob. That's always tougher than the touch. The touch, you don't have to touch things, right? But the air, you just breathe the air, and that's how it's passed. And so that's a very tricky one. That's a very delicate one.

It's also more deadly than your -- your -- even your strenuous flus. This is more deadly.

ACOSTA: Even with Mr. Trump's admissions caught on tape...

TRUMP: I wanted to -- I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down...

WOODWARD: Yes, sir.

TRUMP: ... because I don't want to create a panic.

ACOSTA: ... top administration officials are trying to tell the public, don't believe your own ears.

MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I actually didn't sense the president was downplaying anything. We were giving the American people the facts as we knew them, as we learned them, every step of the way.

ACOSTA: The Woodward book has GOP senators running for cover, with Iowa's Joni Ernst telling CNN: "I haven't read it. I haven't seen it. So give me a chance to take a look."

And John Cornyn of Texas praising Mr. Trump, saying: "He's done as good a job as you can under the circumstances."

But there are other pressing questions for the president raised in the Woodward book, as to why Mr. Trump thought it was a good idea to tell the author about what sounds like a top secret nuclear weapons system.

TRUMP: But I have built a nuclear -- I have built a weapons system -- a weapons system that nobody's ever had in this country before. We have stuff that you haven't seen, even seen or heard about. We have stuff that Putin and Xi have never heard about before. There's nobody -- what we have is incredible."


ACOSTA: Now, all afternoon, we have watched hundreds of Trump supporters enter this airport hangar in Michigan without any masks on.


There are some using a mask, but they are few and far between. And as this hangar gets more crowded -- it's almost packed right now, Wolf -- people are simply not practicing social distancing.

It's as if they have been listening to the president downplay this virus all along. And, Wolf, I can just tell you, looking around this crowd right now, I'm seeing young Trump supporters, elderly Trump supporters not wearing masks, not taking basic precautions to keep themselves safe.

It is really scary to watch -- Wolf.

BLITZER: That's a big crowd that's gathered over there already. We will stand by and see what goes on. Be careful over there, Jim Acosta, reporting for us from Michigan.

Let's bring in our special correspondent, Jamie Gangel, who first broke the details of the Woodward book for us.

Jamie, you have some new information about the actual scope of the president's many phone conversations and sit-down personal interviews with Bob Woodward.


Despite what the White House is saying, there were, we now know, were 19 phone calls, a 19th call that came after the book was finished. And I have a list of all of the phone calls here.

The president was saying they were very short. They were not very short calls. There are almost 10 hours of calls here, Wolf. And we know that Bob Woodward recorded these calls, with the president's permission.

And just to go through them, I have checked. In any number of them, it was President Trump calling Bob Woodward, not what the president was saying.

Also, the president -- there's a report out of the White House that we're hearing that the president gave Bob his cell phone. I have checked with Woodward. That is not correct. And the president said today -- we just heard that sound in Jim Acosta's piece that Bob Woodward said it wasn't bad. Woodward never said that, and he has the tapes -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Some people in the Trump administration, I understand, were actually against the president speaking to Woodward.

Jamie, listen to what the president just said about all those interviews. Listen to this.


TRUMP: Bob Woodward is somebody that I respect, just from hearing the name for many, many years, not knowing too much about his work, not caring about his work.

But I thought it would be interesting to talk to him for a period of calls. So we did that. I don't know if it's good or bad. I don't even know if the book is good or bad.


BLITZER: What are you learning, Jamie, about why the president agreed to be interviewed by Bob Woodward?

GANGEL: So, look, we have been told that that was the president's decision. He wanted a Woodward book.

He thought that he could charm Bob Woodward. When you read through the book, there are all of these examples of Trump saying, you know, it would really be a great honor if you gave me a good book. He's constantly trying to impress him.

And he's also impressed with Bob Woodward. There is a scene in the book where the first lady walks in while he's on the phone with Bob Woodward. Woodward has the audiotape. And the president says: "Honey, I'm talking to Bob Woodward."

And when Woodward goes to the Oval Office, he shows -- we have a picture of it, where the Resolute Desk is filled with what Woodward describes as props to try to impress Woodward, pictures, different things that he's done.

Woodward writes in the book that he has interviewed Carter, Clinton, Bush 43, and Obama, in the Oval Office. None of them ever had any props on the desk. Woodward writes, it was a show.

BLITZER: Yes. In that picture in the Oval Office, we see the vice president, the White House chief of staff. We see counselor to the president. We see a press secretary to the president. They have all gathered to honor Bob Woodward, clearly, in that White House photo.

All right, Jamie, thank you very much, terrific reporting, as our viewers now know, for sure.

Let's get some more breaking news right now on the deadly toll of this coronavirus pandemic.

Our national correspondent, Athena Jones, is in New York for us.

Athena, tell us more about this new CDC forecast that is so alarming and disturbing.


The CDC forecasting up to 217,000 people could lose their lives to the coronavirus by October 3. That's 26,000 more people who could die in just over the next a little over three weeks.



DR. CELINE GOUNDER, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: This is medical malpractice, negligent homicide on a grand scale.

JONES (voice-over): Amid the fallout from President Trump's on-the- record admission to playing down the dangers of coronavirus on purpose, a consensus.

DR. CRAIG SPENCER, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY MEDICAL CENTER: I'm furious, because you want to talk about panic and wanting to reduce panic? I think of the panic of every single family I called on face FaceTime to let them now that their family member was dying or had died.


HOTEZ: This is the single largest public health failure in the modern history of the United States, certainly in the last hundred years, and it happened because of a refusal by the White House to launch a national campaign and a national strategy against the virus. So it's beyond upsetting.

JONES: The president's early and ongoing dismissals of the seriousness of the virus got in the way of any coherent public health communications strategy to combat it.

Fast-forward to now, the Kaiser Family Foundation finding 62 percent of Americans worry political pressure from the Trump administration will cause regulators to rush the approval of a coronavirus vaccine. Just 36 percent say they're not worried.

And as U.S. COVID deaths approach 200,000 and total hospitalizations near 400,000, a new analysis finds the country's incomplete testing may have led officials to miss more than 6.1 million COVID-19 cases by mid-April, including a substantial number of mild or asymptomatic cases.

At the time, there were just over 721,000 confirmed infections. A new study by a team at the University of California, Berkeley, published in "Nature Communications" supports the CDC's own estimates that the U.S. missed 90 percent of COVID cases.

Testing Czar Admiral Brett Giroir says the situation is improving.

ADM. BRETT GIROIR, U.S. ASSISTANT SECRETARY FOR HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES: This month, we should have the availability of over 100 million tests, and between 55 and 60 percent of those, that's 55 to 60 million, will be rapid point of care.

JONES: The majority of the country appears to be on the right track. Still, more than 40,000 COVID cases have been reported at colleges and universities in all 50 states.

And the White House Task Force is expressing new concerns and calling for intensified mitigation efforts amid surges in states like Pennsylvania and Missouri, where the NFL season kicks off tonight, with the Kansas City Chiefs facing off against the Houston Texans, a limited number of fans allowed in the stadium.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What is everybody looking for right now out there, but just joy and hope, something -- something to cling on to. And so this is the perfect time for the Chiefs.

JONES: Meanwhile in New York City, some indoor dining set to beginning again September 30, with precautions, including a 25 percent occupancy limit.

BILL DE BLASIO (D), MAYOR OF NEW YORK: We have to get it right.


JONES: Now, restaurants here in New York City will also be required to have enhanced ventilation. And one person from each party will have to leave their phone number

for contact tracing in case someone in the restaurant tests positive for COVID-19.

Governor Andrew Cuomo will decide if restaurants can go to 50 percent capacity on November 1 based on data -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Athena Jones in New York for us, thank you.

We're joined now by our chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

Sanjay, the president is insisting he's done what he calls the best job responding to this deadly pandemic. But we now know that, in early February, he fully understood just how deadly this virus was. He actually lied to your face about that. He misled the American people for months.

How different could our response to this virus have been if we had been getting straightforward information along the way, beginning, let's say, in early February?

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: I think it could have been exponentially different, Wolf.

And I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that. I think, you know, we could have had exponentially more lives saved and exponentially fewer infections.

There's countries around the world that have done this, Wolf, as we have talked about many times. And they had the same resources that we did. They had their patients, the first patients diagnosed around the same time that we did.

And, you know, as we have talked about, Wolf, they measure their death counts in the hundreds, not the hundreds of thousands.

I have a hard time believing that this is the best that we could do. I hear this a lot. I interviewed Admiral Giroir today, and he says, basically, we did the best we could with regard to testing.

I just don't believe that this is the best the United States could have done by a long shot. You know, there's all sorts of different reasons for that, and I'm sure that will be a topic of great discussion.

But, to your point, Wolf, we could have done a lot better and a lot of people's lives could have been saved.

BLITZER: Yes, some of your colleagues believe tens of thousands of Americans would be alive right now, as opposed to being dead, if the U.S. had taken those kinds of steps early on.

The lack of honesty from the president isn't just problematic when we think back, Sanjay, over the past seven months .It will continue to be an issue, for example, when a vaccine is proven safe and effective and the federal government must urge Americans to trust it. Tell us about that.

GUPTA: I have never seen this sort of erosion of trust in these, you know, big public health institutions.

I mean, you know, when it comes to the CDC making these basically non- scientifically-based information, saying people without symptoms don't need to be tested, of course they need to be tested.

They're responsible for 50 percent of the spread in this country, creating an emergency use authorization for something like hydroxychloroquine, which, you know, had absolutely no evidence behind it, it's really led to this erosion of trust.


And you're right. Fundamentally, what is going to happen with the vaccine? We know that, as things stand now, just around 56 percent of people say that they would take this vaccine. That's according to a CNN poll; 56 percent of people say they would take it if it was authorized, you know, this fall.

That's not enough, Wolf. I mean, the whole goal is to get enough people vaccinated that the virus has a harder time finding a suitable host, because we have immunity. If only half the country, roughly, is getting the vaccine, we're still, despite having the vaccine, which is something that, you know, we have aspired to for so long, despite having that, we still may not get to that level of immunity that is necessary.

That's what the erosion of trust leads to.

BLITZER: You had a very important conversation today, Sanjay, with the U.S. testing czar, Admiral Brett Giroir, who told you that asymptomatic people here in the U.S. actually need to be tested.

But that seems to contradict what we have been told by the CDC. So, which is it?

GUPTA: Yes. Well, I mean, no surprise there's a lot of confusion out there.

What it should be -- and people should remember this -- is that even asymptomatic people should be getting tested. If you are someone who has had contact with somebody who is known to have COVID, you need to get tested.

I just want to make that really clear, because you're absolutely right, Wolf. The CDC did have these recommendations that came on their Web site where they said even close contacts don't necessarily need to be tested. That's not true.

And that's why I really wanted to ask Admiral Giroir about this today. And, look, he conceded, asymptomatic people need to be tested, full stop. That's how he phrased it, being unequivocal about this.

Half the spread in this country is coming from people who don't have symptoms. That's why we say, wear a mask. You may not know you have the virus. You couldn't get a test. If you wear a mask, at least it could help prevent you from spreading it to other people.

But getting tested is so critically important.

BLITZER: Because asymptomatic people can clearly transmit this virus as well.

GUPTA: That's right.

BLITZER: Sanjay, thank you very, very much.

An important note to our viewers, be sure to join Dr. Sanjay Gupta and Anderson Cooper for a new CNN global town hall, "Coronavirus: Facts and Fears." That's tonight, 8:00 p.m. Eastern, only here on CNN.

Just ahead, we are going to break down the Woodward bombshells with another top journalist who has written a book about the chaos in the Trump White House.

There you see him, Michael Schmidt of "The New York Times." He is standing by.

We will discuss when we come back.



BLITZER: We're following the breaking news at President Trump's attempt at damage control after admitting to Bob Woodward that he deliberately downplayed the danger from the coronavirus.

We're joined now by "New York Times" Washington correspondent Michael Schmidt. He's the author of a very important brand-new book entitled "Donald Trump V. The United States: Inside the Struggle to Stop a President."

There you see the book cover.

And, congratulations, Michael. I know it's a major "New York Times" bestseller already.

Well, let's talk about the book, but I want to begin with your take on something Joe Biden revealed to our own Jake Tapper when asked about a classified nuclear weapons system that President Trump apparently accidentally revealed to Bob Woodward on the record.

Listen to Biden.


JOE BIDEN (D), PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: You wonder why people in the intelligence community wondered from the very beginning whether they could share data with him, because they don't trust him. They don't trust what he'll say or do. He seems to have no conception -- I know I sound -- he seems to have

no conception of what constitutes national security.


BLITZER: The reporting in your book seems to support Biden's theory that many of those around the president don't actually trust him or his instincts.

Tell us about that.

MICHAEL SCHMIDT, WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Yes, my reporting in the book showed the people around the president were surprised by how little he understood about how Washington worked, whether it was the filibuster, or the fact that the president couldn't do something unilaterally.

In the book, I report about how the president wanted to do something. They say, well, you can't do that, Mr. President. He goes, well, we will just let them sue me.

In the same vein of that, when he thought the Mueller investigation was moving in on him, he said to aides, if it's getting close, I will just settle with him, as if it was a civil lawsuit.

So, and whether it's intelligence or law enforcement or separation of powers, the president has struggled to understand some of the basics of what the presidency requires.

BLITZER: In your book, you also write, Michael, about the struggle those close to the president actually face in trying to contain the chaos inside the White House.

That certainly seemed to hold true yesterday, as advisers were stunned by Bob Woodward's revelations.

How much frustration is there? In all your reporting you have done, how much frustration is there behind the scenes?

SCHMIDT: Wolf, what I tried to capture is this highly unique thing.

For much of American history, we have focused on how presidents use their power, how the people around them help them do that. In this case, the people around the president are trying to stop him.

And what is that like? What is that human experience like to stand between the president and the abyss and be that person that is looking the president in the eye and trying to thwart him from either hurting himself or hurting the people around him?

And that is what I tried to capture, that rare, rare thing that we usually don't see in administrations, where the people around the president are trying to help him.

BLITZER: Does it surprise you at all, Michael, based on your reporting, that the president actually agreed to all those conversations, 19 conversations, we're now told, that he had with Woodward?


SCHMIDT: The president is his -- believes he's his best spokesman, that he can convince people of anything.

As I write in the book, the president wanted to do the interview with Bob Mueller. He thought that he could sit down and explain to Mueller why there was nothing there and he had done nothing wrong.

It was only his lawyers who stopped him from doing that, who knew that was a bad idea, because of the president's relationship with the truth and the precedent that it would set.

So, that is -- it doesn't surprise me at all that he would try to win over Woodward and think that he could talk Woodward into it. And, as we've seen, Woodward was able to hold the president accountable for his statements.

BLITZER: Your book goes into Russia's interference in 2016 here in the U.S.

It seems to be happening as we speak once again. Is there any sense that the U.S. is in better shape right now to deal with it than we were back in 2016, because the president certainly doesn't even want to acknowledge it's happening?

SCHMIDT: As I write in the book, 2016 was the greatest intelligence failure since September 11, 2001.

After 9/11, we had a commission that looked at the best way to prevent something like that from happening again. We certainly had not had that full approach and accounting. And we are now heading into 2020 with largely a similar posture, if not a little bit reduced posture, from 2016, without any really new overhaul of government to deal with a multidimensional threat that involves everything from hacking and disinformation and old-school espionage.

And I think that that's something that people have failed to appreciate, just what a catastrophic intelligence failure 2016 was, and how we're just coming at it, at best, with the same tools from then.

BLITZER: Michael's book, once again, is entitled "Donald Trump V. The United States" -- there you see the book cover -- "Inside the Struggle to Stop a President."

Thanks so much for joining us, Michael. Congratulations once again on the new book.

SCHMIDT: Thanks for having me.

BLITZER: And just ahead, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff -- there you see him -- he's standing by live. We have lots to discuss on the president's downplaying of the coronavirus. Also, there's breaking news on foreign interference in the United


We will be right back.



BLITZER: Tonight, top Democrats are hammering President Trump for downplaying the coronavirus, calling it a disgrace, even as the president is struggling to defend his actions.

Joining us now, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Congressman Adam Schiff. Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.

Let's -- I want to get your reaction from this truly bombshell reporting from Bob Woodward. The president continues to defend his decision to downplay the threat of the virus, downplay it to the American people. And he actually is now going so far as to assert that Woodward, not he, that Woodward should have warned the American public about the dangers if he thought they were a big deal. What do you say to that?

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA): It's the president's responsibility. He can't foist it off on anyone else. The president knew that this virus was deadly. He knew that the virus could be transmitted through the air, was highly communicable through the air and he lied to the public about it. And he lied to the public about it because he thought it would be harmful to his reelection campaign. That is unforgivable.

Literally, the blood of tens of thousands of Americans, maybe over 100, now 190,000 Americans, are on the president's hands for that callous judgment he made to deceive the American people. And there's no foisting that off on anyone else, notwithstanding his repeated claims of I take no responsibility. The buck does stop with the president of the United States.

BLITZER: Another 1,206 Americans died just yesterday from coronavirus, almost a thousand Americans a day are still dying, and the numbers are horrific.

You're the chairman of the Intelligence Committee. When did you know, Congressman, how serious, how deadly, what a major problem this was? When were you briefed by the experts?

SCHIFF: We started getting briefings in February, in early to mid- February. And at that time, at least the briefing is that we were getting were not, I think, quite as detailed as what the president is outlining to Bob Woodward. We did know that this was a deep concern. We couldn't tell, as I recall, in those very early briefings what the mortality rate was that people were infected because we didn't know how many people had been infected with the virus.

So I think we knew that it was communicable and communicable through the air. But in terms of how deadly it was, the president appears to have known more than we did at that time, because as I recall, in those briefings, there was some ambiguity on that question.

BLITZER: It's interesting, he was sharing what he knew with Bob Woodward but not necessarily with the House Intelligence Committee.

As we head towards a possible vaccine, and we all hope that it comes sooner rather than later, how much faith in what the president says is going to be essential? Will a vaccine be effective without the American public's trust?

SCHIFF: It won't be successful unless the American people feel it's safe enough to take and that they can rely on the government having done and overseen the clinical trials and done the due diligence that's necessary.


You know, we already have that problem with other vaccinations. There's a strong anti-vaccination movement that pushes out a lot of false information online. But here, where it has been so clear, time after time, that the president is contradicting his own scientists, that he's pressing for them to say and do things that -- you know, that are at odds with their ethical and moral obligations, he is creating doubts in the minds of the American people about the efficacy of whatever comes out of this process. That's dangerous.

So, someone is going to have to establish public trust, so that when we do have a vaccine and we know that it's safe, the American people use it. Otherwise, it will continue to spread and continue to kill people.

BLITZER: I want to ask you, Congressman, about this new whistleblower complaint accusing Trump appointees of actually downplaying Russian election interference. Just a little while ago, the president said he hadn't seen the complaint. And he actually asked if you, if you, were the whistleblower. How do you respond to these statements from the president?

SCHIFF: You know, it's one absurdity heaped upon another absurdity. The whistleblower complaint that we just got is a very serious one, from the former head of the intelligence agency at the Department of Homeland Security, who outlines, just as we had feared, that, you know, from the top on down, coming from the national security adviser, coming from the secretary of DHS himself, they were instructing the intelligence agencies to make things up, to hype certain threats that were not prevalent, like terrorists coming in on the southern border, to stop collecting intelligence on the Russian efforts to interfere in our election, to lie to Congress about these things. It's inexcusable.

And more than that, it's just dangerous, because if they're not sharing this information with the American people, the country isn't protected. But this is clearly part of a pattern where they put pressure on the agencies to adopt, manipulate, color their analysis, because if they tell the truth, it will be embarrassing to the president. Well, they need to tell the truth, because without it, we can't protect the country.

BLITZER: That's absolutely correct. Congressman Adam Schiff, thanks so much for joining us, we really appreciate it.

SCHIFF: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Just ahead, the unrelenting wildfires in the western United States are setting records and claiming more lives.



BLITZER: We're learning more about another shocking admission President Trump made to Bob Woodward for his new book, the veteran journalist writing, the president boasted that he protected the Saudi crown prince after Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in a Saudi Consulate.

Let's discuss with our Chief International Correspondent, Clarissa Ward. She's also the author of an excellent brand new book entitled, An All Fronts, The Education of a Journalist, a really excellent book. Clarissa let's talk about that in a moment.

But I want to begin with your reaction to something we're now learning from Bob Woodward's new book. He writes that after the Jamal Khashoggi was murdered at the Saudi Consulate in Turkey, the president of the United States actually bragged that he protected the Saudi crown prince, saying he saved his, A, word. Can you give us some context here, because you spent a lot of time covering this?

CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, one can only go by the words on the page. But, certainly, this sends a very chilling message to journalists and dissidents around the world who the U.S. has traditionally purported to protect.

The president unabashedly saying exactly that, that he protected the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, this after the CIA had concluded that there was no doubt that the crown prince had indeed being responsible for orchestrating the brutal, brutal murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

And I think what so striking, everyone understand that foreign policy is often a very cynical thing, Wolf, but when you read the way he talks about that unabashedly saying that, essentially, this was done because the Saudis were providing America with billions of dollars in weapons sales. That certainly sends a very chilling message, Wolf.

BLITZER: Woodward also reports that the president reflected on his relationships with various authoritarian leaders around the world, including Turkish president, Erdogan, saying he gets along best with the tough, mean leaders. What do American allies in Europe and elsewhere make of the president's relationships with these so-called tough, mean leaders?

WARD: Well, it's no secret that the president has a lot of respect for these authoritarian leaders. We know President Erdogan has quashed public discourse, arrested political opponents. But still, for leaders here in Europe who are facing some of the greatest challenges in recent history, Wolf, to liberal democracy, we're seeing this sort of tidal wave of populism spreading across the continent. Of course, there is very real concern, and it's deeply disconcerting for them to hear this kind of talk coming from the president of the United States.


BLITZER: In your new book, you tell a lot of amazing stories from your 15 years covering wars and humanitarian crises all over the world. I wonder when you look back, Clarissa, at some of these conflicts that you've chronicled, which ones stand out to you the most, and why?

WARD: Syria is the conflict, Wolf, that grabbed my heart and would not let go. I kept going back and it kept getting more dangerous. I have honestly never seen much brutality and such suffering as I did in the Syrian civil war.

But I think that journalists are now facing a new set of challenges. And they're very real, as we slide into this sort of dystopian post- truth world, where journalists have become the target, where they're constantly being disparaged. I think young journalists really have their work cut out for them, to try to tune out the noise, stick to the facts, keep doing what they're doing. In this book I wrote, Wolf, in its essence it's a love letter to journalism.

BLITZER: It's so important and I'm grateful to you for writing it, Clarissa. Thank you. Thank you so much.

Once again, the book is titled "On All Fronts: The Education of a Journalist." It is must-read.

Thank you very much, Clarissa Ward, in London for us.

Just ahead, raging out of control, wildfires out of the West Coast are claiming lives, destroying homes, and burning millions of acres.



BLITZER: Following more breaking news right now. At least 7 people have been killed as more than 100 active wildfires are devastating Western U.S. states. California alone just surpassed 3 million acres burned this year, an area twice the size of Delaware.

Authorities say a fire in northern California is now the biggest in the state's history. Smoke from the wildfires is damaging air quality, even turning the sky orange, as you can see in some places.

We'll stay on top of that story.

Now to the 2020 election here in the U.S. CNN has learned that the Trump campaign has launched an operation to lay the groundwork for future legal battles over mail-in ballots.

Our senior White House correspondent Pamela Brown is joining us right now.

Pamela, what are you learning?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, tonight, election experts are sounding the alarm ahead of November's election warning that unprecedented circumstances because of COVID-19 could lead to days, even weeks of legal battles, contested results.

And now CNN is learning that the Trump campaign is grilling, officials are grilling local election clerks who are already busy over mail-in ballots in preparation for future battles.


BROWN (voice-over): As President Trump continues to rail against mail- in ballots without evidence to support his claims --

TRUMP: They'll be dumping them in neighborhoods. People are going to be picking them up. They'll be bribing.

BROWN: CNN has learned the Trump campaign is bombarding local officials in swing states with phone calls and details digging for details on mail-in ballots, apparently hunting for information to back up Trump's claims.

DAVID BECKER, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, CENTER FOR ELECTION INNOVATION: You would normally see campaigns try to help learn about the process so they can help their voters. But this is at least as much focused on what happens after the election.

BROWN: In some states, local officials have received forms by the Trump campaign and obtained by CNN with detailed questions about how ballots will be verified, what is being done to store them and secure them.

In Wisconsin alone, more than 1,800 clerks have received a two-page questionnaire seeking personal information and raising questions about whether remote voting processes are trustworthy.

And in Georgia, clerks received this long list of almost 60 questions primarily focused on mail-in ballots with questions like what additional security processes are in place to protect mail-in ballots.

Election experts say the questions seem more like a deposition than an effort to collect basic facts.

BECKER: They're looking to catch election officials maybe in a gotcha or something like that, rather than to help their voters and their campaign navigate the process.

BROWN: A Trump campaign spokesperson says as part of a campaign effort to ensure free and fair election, we have asked county clerks for information so that we can gain a detailed understanding of absentee voting processes. Courting clerks and gathering information ahead of an election isn't unusual, but election officials tell CNN this is more ramped up, aggressive and targeted than in years past. The expansive effort comes as the White House indicates it may not accept elections after Election Day. KAYLEIGH MCENANY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We want election night

to look like is a system that's fair, a situation where we know who the president of the United States is on election night. That's how the system is supposed to work.

BROWN: But election night results are never official. And if the election is contested in court, the responses to the questionnaires could be used by Trump's lawyers.

Election experts say one possible election scenario is what is known as the blue shift. With Trump ahead on election night and Biden pulling in front after election night through mail-in ballots.

BECKER: There is no such thing as election night results. They're only partial results and they always have been partial results. It's because states want to do their jobs and validating that every vote has been properly cast and that all of them have been counted.


BROWN: And the Biden campaign is also involved in early outreach to election officials, though it is more scaled back as of now, according to officials.


It is clear, Wolf, that both sides are gearing up for possible battles ahead.

BROWN: Pamela Brown reporting for us. Thank you.

And more news just ahead.


BLITZER: Finally, tonight, we remember some of those we lost in the coronavirus pandemic.

Elizabeth Batista of Connecticut was 57 years old. Her niece describes her as the official family event baker and beautiful church family choir singer. She's survived by a daughter, Candida.

John Harrison Gresham of New York was 70. He was a Vietnam War veteran, a father of four, grandfather of 15, married to his wife Sharon for 49 years. His son Tydall (ph) says he misses his Sunday conversations with his dad.

May they rest in peace, and may their memories be a blessing.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.