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The Situation Room

U.S. Military Leaders Testify On Afghanistan, Contradict Biden; Divided Dems Heading For A Showdown Over Biden Agenda; Pfizer Submits Data To FDA On Vaccine For Young Children. Gabby Petito's Family Speaks as Feds Scale Back Manhunt for Brian Fiance, Laundrie; North Korea Claims Successful Hypersonic Missile Test. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired September 28, 2021 - 18:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Our coverage continues now with one Mr. Wolf Blitzer right next door in "THE SITUATION ROOM." I will see you tomorrow.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, U.S. military leaders testify about missteps in the Afghanistan withdrawal, appearing to contradict President Biden on a key point. And the nation's top general defends his controversial call to China during president Trump's final days in office.

Also tonight, divided Democrats are headed toward a showdown over the Biden agenda as Speaker Pelosi backtracks and progressives revolt. I'll talk with the chair of the progressive caucus about Democrats' desperate moves to salvage their priorities as the clock ticks toward a possible government shutdown.

And Pfizer takes an important step toward COVID-19 vaccinations for younger children, submitting new data to the FDA. But why did the company hold off on asking for emergency use authorization?

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

We begin with very revealing testimony by top U.S. military leaders, senators asking tough questions about the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and about the reported actions of General Mark Milley during the final days of the Trump presidency. Our Pentagon Correspondent Oren Liebermann is covering it all for us.


OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice over): The Pentagon's top military leaders making clear their views on Afghanistan were heard but not followed.

GEN. FRANK MCKENZIE, U.S. CENTCOM COMMANDER: I recommended that we maintain 2,500 troops in Afghanistan.

I also have a view that the withdrawal of those forces would lead inevitably to the collapse of the Afghan military forces and eventually the Afghan government.

SEN. JAMES INHOFE (R-OK): I understand that, and, General Milley, I assume you agree with that in terms of the recommendation of 2,500?

GEN. MARK MILLEY, JOINT CHIEFS CHAIRMAN: What I said in my opening statement and the memoranda that I wrote back in the fall of 2020 remained consistent, and I do agree with that.

LIEBERMANN: Republicans seized on the contradiction between those views and what President Joe Biden said in August about the advice he was given by military leaders.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS HOST: They wanted you to keep about 2,500 troops?

JOE BIDEN, U.S. PRESIDENT: No, they didn't. It was split. That wasn't true. That wasn't true.

STEPHANOPOULOS: They didn't tell you that they wanted troops to stay?

BIDEN: No, not in terms of whether we were going to get out in a timeframe all troops. They didn't argue against that.

SEN. TOM COTTON (R-AR): Is that true?

LIEBERMANN: Republican Senator Tom Cotton went after Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on this point.

COTTON: It's a simple question, Secretary Austin. He said no senior military leader advised him to leave a small troop presence behind. Is that true or not? Did these officers and General Miller's recommendations get to the president personally?

LLOYD AUSTIN, DEFENSE SECRETARY: Their input was received by the president and considered by the president, for sure.

LIEBERMANN: Lawmakers grilled top military leaders on the rapid collapse of the Afghan military and the failure of the U.S. to see it coming after pulling U.S. advisers three years ago.

MILLEY: When you pulled the advisers out of the units, you no longer can assess things like leadership and will. We can count all the planes and trucks and automobiles and cars and machine guns, everything else. We can count those from space and all the other continental (ph) assets, but you can't measure the human heart with a machine. You've got to be there.

LIEBERMANN: Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley said it was an open question whether an evacuation that moved 124,000 people should have begun earlier, but, ultimately, it was a State Department call.

SEN. DAN SULLIVAN (R-AK): You and I have discussed this. Would you use the term, extraordinary success, for what took place in August in Afghanistan?

MILLEY: That's the noncombatant evacuation. And I think one of the other senators said it very well, it was a logistical success, but a strategic failure.

LIEBERMANN: The Pentagon knew the Afghan government and armed forces critically relied on U.S. military and financial support. What surprised everyone was the speed at which it all fell apart in a matter of days, not months.

AUSTIN: Well, we certainly did not plan against a collapse of the government in 11 days.

We helped build the state, Mr. Chairman, but we could not forge a nation.

LIEBERMANN: The Biden administration defended the president's decision not to heed the advice of his generals.

JEN PSAKI, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: What the American people should know is the president is always going to welcome a range of advice. He asks for candor, he asks for directness. And in any scenario, he's not looking for a bunch of yes men and women. And what that means is that, ultimately, he's going to have to make the decision about what's in the best interest of the United States.

Senator Cotton responding to learning President Biden didn't follow the military's advice.

COTTON: If all this is true, General Milley, why didn't you resign?

MILEY: This country doesn't want generals figuring out what orders we're going to accept and do or not. That's not our job. The principal control of the military is absolute, it's critical to this republic.

LIEBERMANN: Milley also addressed revelations in the book, Peril, about the final days of the Trump administration.


Authors Bob Woodward and Robert Costa wrote that on a phone call with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Milley agreed that the president was crazy. Today, Milley said he did not make that assessment.

MILLEY: I am not qualified to determine the mental health of the president of the United States.

LIEBERMANN: Milley was also worried, the authors wrote, that Trump would start a conflict with China to distract from his election loss. Milley defended the two calls he had with his Chinese counterpart in late October and January 8th after the Capitol insurrection.

MILLEY: My task at that time was to de-escalate. My message again was consistent. Stay calm, steady and de-escalate. We are not going to attack you.

LIEBERMANN: Milley says the calls were coordinated with Trump administration officials and he personally informed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows about the calls. (END VIDEOTAPE)

LIEBERMANN (on camera): Some Republican senators call for the resignation of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin as well as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Mark Milley, and that's certainly not going to happen. I think that's apparent at this point. But there is an open-ended question about what level of accountability there will be. The Dutch foreign minister resigned because of the Afghanistan withdrawal. The British foreign secretary was demoted because of the withdrawal. But there's been nothing near that level accountability to this point in the U.S. government. Wolf?

BLITZER: Oren Liebermann reporting from the Pentagon, I want to thank you very much.

Let's dig deeper right now. Joining us, our Chief National Security Correspondent Jim Sciutto, our Chief International Correspondent Clarissa Ward, she's in Kabul, our Special Correspondent Jamie Gangel, and retired Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, the former assistant secretary of state for political military affairs.

Jim, what do you make of the level of candor we heard from these top Pentagon officials.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: At times biting candor to the point where they're willing to contradict the tale, the telling of this withdrawal, as told by the White House and the president.

Now, I reached out to the White House today to ask them how they square that circle. Their story is when Biden said that no general recommended 2,500 troops, in effect, he was saying that no general had the position or military leader that those 2,500 troops would stabilize the country for the long-term.

The fact is, though, we have listened to a lot of comments from the president and this administration over the last several months that projected unanimity on this decision that was not there. And you heard from Milley and you heard from McKenzie state that in very clear terms today. We recommended 2,500, the president did not accept that recommendation.

The other piece of candor I thought was consequential was Milley contradicting again what has been an administration line, that this evacuation was, in reality, an extraordinary success, but he made clear, yes, from an operational perspective, in the circumstances that we were dealt, but strategically, a failure.

Now, to be clear, he's talking not just about the decisions of this president but prior presidents as well, but this is the president of the day, and he's the one who made the final decision to withdraw.

BLITZER: Well, let me ask General Kimmitt. What did you make of the fact these generals were saying they wanted at least 2,500 U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan? They thought that would stabilize the situation, at least temporarily, and the president rejected that. BRIG. GEN. MARK KIMMITT (RET.), U.S. ARMY: Yes. As I've mentioned to Jim this morning, 2,500 soldiers is a big number when they bring a lot of capability. Look what has happened in Iraq. In 2014, we put 2,500 American troops back on the ground, enabling the Iraqi security forces to, in fact, defeat ISIS inside the country. When you have got guys on the ground that can bring in airstrikes, can bring in logistics, can bring in intelligence, that's the backbone that was needed in Iraq to turn the situation around, and my view is the same thing would happen in Afghanistan.

BLITZER: Yes. But, obviously, it didn't happen in Afghanistan.

You know, Clarissa, you're there in Kabul for us. The Joint Chiefs chairman says the enemy is in charge in Kabul right now. You're there on the ground. Is he right? What does he mean for Afghan -- what does that mean for Afghans?

CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, you know the old adage, one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. And I do think it's really important to be transparent about the fact there are large parts of Afghanistan who are delighted that the U.S. has left, who are delighted that the Taliban is in charge, who are happy to see an end to drone strikes and airstrikes and it is important to note as well that security situation is better now, right? There isn't as much fighting.

But for countless other Afghans, particularly those living in cities, particularly for women, there are huge concerns and, honestly, a desperate panic as they stare down the barrel at an uncertain future. The Taliban is treating this as a transitional period. They're trying to adapt a more pragmatic tone, in large part because they seek recognition from the international community. They want to see aid unfrozen. This country is on the precipice of an economic crisis.

But, already, we're starting to see girls can't go to school right now after the age of sixth grade.


Women can't go to university. They can't teach in university until a proper Islamic environment is created, whatever that means. And then we have also seen a return to the sort of medieval justice that we have come to expect from the Taliban in the 1990s, over the course of the weekend, four bodies hung in public in the city of Herat. These were apparently, according to the Taliban, kidnappers who had been killed in a raid to stop them from carrying out criminal activity. And this was some kind of a warning to ordinary people. So, naturally, a lot of people very scared of what the future holds.

BLITZER: You know, Jamie, it was very interesting, I thought, General Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, he disputed the reporting from Bob Woodward and Robert Costa in the brand-new book about what he thought about former President Trump's mental capability. You have done a lot of reporting on this. What did you think?

JAMIE GANGEL, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: So, I think we should say he disputed it sort of. He put forth another opinion. Look, General Milley is a blunt guy, but two things can be true at the same time. And he adlibbed part of his statement today, and he made a point about he was not qualified to know what the president's state of mind is. That doesn't mean he didn't have an opinion. And he did not contradict the reporting in Woodward and Costa's book.

I think it is fair to say, if you look at all of these books, including Woodward and Costa, General Milley has made it very clear that he thought President Trump was unstable, unpredictable, could go rogue, and that what he wanted to do today was say, look, I was acting within my authority. I didn't overstep a line.

On the other hand, he was worried that something could happen. In the book, Speaker Pelosi says, in effect, he's been crazy for a long time. You know he's crazy. And General Milley is quoted as saying, quote, Madam Speaker, I agree with you on everything. And Woodward and Costa stand by that reporting.

I would just add, Bob Woodward is known to record a lot of these interviews and General Milley didn't come out and say he never said that.

BLITZER: And General Milley did confirm he spoke to not only Woodward and Costa, but a lot of authors, and there are new books.

General Milley, Jim, also admitted that the Afghanistan withdrawal, the way it unfolded, has undermined U.S. credibility. The adversaries are happy, allies are upset. What does this do for U.S. national security?

SCIUTTO: Listen, I have heard from European diplomats, diplomats with our closest allies who are concerned about this very thing. And we know that America's adversaries watch. We know that they watched the gulf war, made conclusions about American capabilities. They watched America's long involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan, learned about America's vulnerabilities to fighting insurgencies and so on. We know they watch the exit as well.

And the question is, does Russia look at U.S. departure from Afghanistan and leaving its allies and say, what does that mean about the eastern members of NATO? What would happen if we meddled in Estonia again? Would the U.S. react consequentially? An open question.

China looks and says, what would happen if we go into Taiwan, which is something U.S. military leaders are concerned they might do in the next several years. Would the U.S. go to war over Taiwan? I don't know what they'll conclude. We don't know. But it's reasonable to believe that they watched Afghanistan and learned.

General Kimmitt, as you know, the war on terror continues, although there's no U.S. ground presence in Afghanistan anymore, and presumably, Al Qaeda could rebuild over there. Is the U.S. going to learn from the blunders, the mistakes of this 20-year war in Afghanistan? Because it seems like the U.S. didn't learn much from Vietnam, either. KIMMITT: Well, I think those are two different things. The issue of the war on terror and the mistakes that we made in Afghanistan, in many ways, are completely different. The mistakes we made in Afghanistan were primarily those that we got in there to win a war, but we stayed in there for the purposes of doing good. And that's incompatible, as we have seen for 20 years of war.

War on terrorism continues. In fact, it may be restarting. Al Qaeda inevitably is going to go back into Afghanistan. It's inevitably going to find safe haven and sanctuary again.

BLITZER: Yes. The general said Al Qaeda is already back in Afghanistan right now.

All right, guys. Everybody thank you, very, very much.

Just ahead, persistent questions about former President Trump's mental health during his final days in office. His former national security adviser, John Bolton, he's here in The Situation Room. we'll discuss.

And there's new uncertainty tonight surrounding the timetable for young children here in the United States to get COVID-19 vaccines.


Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: We're getting new reaction, the testimony by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. We heard General Mark Milley defend his actions near the end of the Trump presidency and address questions about the former commander-in-chief's state of mind.

We're joined by the former Trump national security adviser, John Bolton. He's the author of the book, The Room Where It Happened, A White House Memoir. Ambassador, thank you so much for coming in.

What do you make of General Milley's saying he wasn't qualified to determine former President Trump's mental health? You worked in the Trump White House. You worked with Trump for long time. Is that something that officials like you and others actually had to grapple with?


JOHN BOLTON, FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Well, I didn't think Trump was fit to be president. I have explained the reasons why in the book. And I think others could see the same issue. But I think for Milley, with all due respect, I think what he did and the controversy surrounding it is kind of overwrought. I think it's actually very undramatic.

The book says that, and Milley said today, that he was reading intelligence that the Chinese were worried that in this confusion and so on they would be subject to a wag the dog military attack, or at least that was possible.

Now, I have to say, quite apart from Donald Trump's state of mind, if the state of mind of the Chinese leadership was about to make that miscalculation, it was nothing more than common sense for several communications to be made to the Chinese, including a Milley to his counterpart conversation to say, don't believe what you read in the newspapers.

So those who say that Milley violated the civilian control of the military, undercut the chain of command, betrayed the president on the one hand, and those who say Milley saved the country from a psychopath on the other are both wrong. Milley did his duty.

BLITZER: Well, do you think former president Trump was mentally unstable in all the dealings you had? You said he was unfit to be president, but what about his mental capability?

BOLTON: Well, I didn't think very much of it, his mental capabilities. I thought he saw everything through the prism of what would benefit Donald Trump. And I think in those last days, you could see that at work, how he treated Mike Pence with respect to January the 6th and a range of other things. It was good to be prudent and I think there were a number of high level officials who were doing that. But the idea that somehow there was a mental breakdown in the White House, you know, I would say the same thing Milley did. I'm not a shrink. I can't judge that.

BLITZER: You heard Republican Senator Hawley say that Milley should resign because even during this withdrawal from Afghanistan and all of that, he was still talking to a whole bunch of reporters. What was your reaction to that?

BOLTON: Look, everybody in Washington talks to reporters, as you well know. And I think Milley could have felt that there was history at stake here with these authors writing these books. And he wanted to make sure that his version of it was out there. The idea that somehow that distracted from his duties on Afghanistan is just foolish.

BLITZER: You heard these Pentagon officials testify today. They were all under oath. They thought that Doha agreement that the Trump administration negotiated with the Taliban giving a date certain for U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan was a horrible, a horrible decision by then-President Trump. What did you think? Because the Afghan government wasn't involved in that, the allies weren't involved in that, that was strictly a deal between the Trump administration and the Taliban.

BOLTON: I think they were exactly right. I think Trump is the root cause of this failure by negotiating with the terrorist group. Our policy normally is we don't negotiate with hostage takers. We don't negotiate with terrorists, and we certainly don't negotiate with terrorists to the exclusion of the government we created.

We, by the Trump administration, Trump and Mike Pompeo, delegitimized the Afghan government, in effect, derecognized it, and contributed very significantly to the collapse of morale in the government and in the Afghan army.

BLITZER: Well, we see what's happening in Afghanistan right now, 20 years of U.S. involvement with the NATO allies, completely destroyed.

BOLTON: I think this is changing the debate from, well, we wanted to get out but we didn't like the execution of the withdrawal, as the American people see the consequences of the withdrawal, the return of the terrorist threat, the negative reaction by our allies, the advantage our opponents may take of it, they will see that it's not just the execution. It was the decision itself that was wrong.

BLITZER: Ambassador Bolton, thanks very much for coming in.

BOLTON: Glad to be with you.

BLITZER: Coming up, President Biden is facing a crucial test as Democrats clash over key pieces of his agenda. Just ahead, I'll ask the chair of the congressional progressive caucus about the status of these negotiations.

Plus, former President Barack Obama officially breaks ground on his presidential center in Chicago.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.



BLITZER: Just in, President Biden is canceling his travel plans to Chicago tomorrow as he desperately tries to salvage his endangered agenda from Democratic infighting.

Our Chief White House Correspondent Kaitlan Collins got details for us. Kaitlan, the president met with key senators today at the White House once again. What's the hold-up right now? Was there any progress made?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, clearly not enough, if the president is canceling this trip to Chicago tomorrow, which was supposed to be a pretty brief trip on vaccines. But he clearly feels the need to stay here at the White House, as he is spearheading these negotiations, including, of course, those two meetings you noted that he had today with two moderate Democratic senators who are really at the center of all of this. That is Senator Joe Manchin and Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.

And when Manchin emerged from his meeting with the president, Wolf, that he said lasted about 90 minutes, he said he did not make any commitments to the president when it comes to the price tag of that much bigger reconciliation package. That's the one that Democrats are arguing over what exactly it's going to look like, given it's expected to be a massive package that has to deal with a social policy package that also deals with climate change. And that is something they have not agreed to. And he also said they did not make commitments when it comes to the timeline for all of this. And that is another very crucial aspect here.


Senator Sinema, when she left her meeting, also was pretty quiet on what she had discussed with the president, though, of course, we know what the White House and other Democrats really want to know is what is the number that they are willing to commit to. And that is something that is deeply frustrating their progressive colleagues who want to know and want to have a firm commitment from those two moderate senators before they vote on the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package, that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has now said she's going to bring for a vote on Thursday.

And, Wolf, we should note and remind viewers that that comes after she reversed course last night on something that she has been saying, the president has been saying, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has been saying for several weeks and month now, which is that those two bills must go together. She now says they are separating them. And, of course, that is something, Wolf, that is going to be a big concern because progressives say they will vote no on the bipartisan infrastructure bill if they don't have a commitment or if they don't have an actual vote on the bigger package because they say, essentially, they are scared that they will lose leverage if they don't have that.

And we should note, Wolf, a sign of the divisions here, Senator Bernie Sanders is now encouraging those House Democrats to vote no on the bipartisan deal if they don't have a firm commitment on the much bigger package first.

BLITZER: Okay, Kaitlan, thank you very much, Kaitlan Collins over at the White House.

I want to get reaction right now from the chair of the congressional progressive caucus, Democratic Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal. Congresswoman, thank you so much for joining us.

Your fellow progressive Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib says Speaker Pelosi's move to separate these two bills, vote on the infrastructure bill on Thursday, and Rashida Tlaib's words, is a betrayal. Is that how you would describe it as well, a betrayal?

REP. PRAMILA JAYAPAL (D-WA): Well, Wolf, thanks so much for having me on. I have been working closely with the speaker over the last several days, several months. And the speaker is really clear that we have to deliver both these bills. She is also very clear that if the bipartisan infrastructure bill comes up for a vote, that it would fail.

We have been clear that our members need to deliver the entirety of the president's agenda. And, frankly, we have 96 percent of all the Democrats in the House and the Senate who agree with us that we're ready to go forward on the bill, as it's written, the build back better agenda and the infrastructure bill, and there's 4 percent of the Democratic caucus that is saying they don't like it. But let's be clear, this is an agenda that is the president's build back better agenda. And it's also the American people's build back better agenda. 70 percent of Americans support giving child care to people, making sure that that's a universal thing that we offer to people, paid leave. I mean, what is in the build back better package? Paid leave, child care, housing, so we can house the unhoused across the country, and create good jobs through building more housing, making sure that we are addressing health care in the midst of a health care crisis, making sure that we are addressing climate change, Wolf.

And our position and, of course, immigration, our position is we are not going to leave these things behind for a much smaller bill.

People might remember roads and bridges. I get that. That's great. It's important. We're going vote for that bill, but people will really remember how their is transformed when they have child care, when they have paid leave, and when they can protect the planet.

BLITZER: If the infrastructure bill, the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, does come to the floor on Thursday for a vote without any action, any formal action yet on the reconciliation package, the $3.5 trillion reconciliation package, how will you vote?

JAYAPAL: I will not be able to support that and neither will the majority of our members. And let's just be clear, we are ready to support that if people stick to the deal we originally made that was the deal coming out of the Senate. It's why 12 Democratic senators said that, you know, when signed a letter recently, saying that was the commitment they were given, is they vote for the bipartisan infrastructure bill and we in the House finish the reconciliation bill with the Senate, agree on that package, pass that package, and then we would pass the infrastructure bill.

So, you know, this is too important to leave people behind. We are not going to do that.

BLITZER: Are you at all concerned, Congresswoman, that you might be letting the perfect, in other words, both of these bills, be the enemy of the good, and there's no guarantee the $3.5 trillion reconciliation budget bill will pass, given the opposition of two Democratic senators?

JAYAPAL: Wolf, the main part of the president's build back better agenda that he came and delivered to us, to Congress in February, the main part of that agenda that we ran on as Democrats to get the House, the Senate, and the White House, is contained within the build back better agenda. So, 70 percent of the entire build back better agenda is in the Build Back Better Act. If we don't pass that, then we are saying to people, sorry, we promised, but we're only going to deliver a tiny sliver of things, and we're going to go back on our word to you as voters, and also as Democrats.


And so, no, I'm not concerned about the perfect being the enemy of the good. I'm concerned that 4 percent of the Democratic caucus in both the House and Senate is not coming to the table to negotiate in good faith what we thought we had already negotiated.

But, listen, we're happy to continue. We're working very hard to get to agreement. And we really believe that this is a great unity moment for us all to come together, for the people who don't love the infrastructure bill, because I have some of those folks in my caucus, who actually think it's a negative bill in terms of carbon emissions, but to get them. Every single one of them has been an adult in the room and said they're ready to vote for the infrastructure bill even though they don't like it, as long as we pass the reconciliation bill.

So, let's bring everybody together, let's get it done. Let's deliver both bills to the president's desk and go home and talk about transformational investments we have made to the American people

BLITZER: Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, you have got a lot going on right now. Thank you so much for joining us.

JAYAPAL: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Just ahead, Pfizer takes a step toward getting COVID vaccines for children ages 5 to 11, but holds off on an official request of the FDA. When will young Americans, these kids, get protection from the pandemic?



BLITZER: There are new questions tonight about the timetable for authorizing COVID-19 vaccinations for younger children.

Let's bring in CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Lena Wen, the former Baltimore City health commissioner and author of the important new book entitled, Lifelines, A Doctor's Journey in the Fight for Public Health. Dr. Wen, thank you for joining us.

As you know, Pfizer submitted COVID-19 vaccine data on children ages 5 to 11 to the FDA today, but did not request, repeat, did not request emergency authorization for the vaccine for the kids. Does that make sense to you?

DR. LEANA WEN, CNN MEDICAL ANALYST: Well, the ball is entirely in Pfizer's court at this point. I mean, I'm glad they submitted something to the FDA, but at this point, we really need them to submit for emergency use authorization.

There was this sense we could ideally get shots into the arms of kids in the 5 to 11-year-old range by the end of October. Well, that's coming up really soon because when you look at how long it took between submitting the application and authorization for the 12 to 15- year-old group, that took about a month. And so Pfizer really needs to get in their application right now if we are to meet that end of October deadline. BLITZER: A new poll, Dr. Wen, finds 79 percent of adults here in the United States say COVID-19 will persist in the U.S. as something we learn to live with, similar to the flu, for example, while just 14 percent of those polled think the virus will be eliminated. Where do you stand?

WEN: I think it's hard to prognosticate exactly what's going to happen long-term. I do think that medium term, as in the next few years, when there is still so much coronavirus, not just in the U.S., but also around the world, we are going to have to figure out how to live with it.

Having vaccines for younger children will be very important, because otherwise, parents are living as if they're unvaccinated, trying to protect their young kids, also getting rapid tests available, ideally free to all Americans, that would also be a game changer. The U.K. actually distributes for every -- for everybody in the U.K., to get rapid tests free of charge twice a week.

Now, imagine if we could do that, if all students and teachers and workers, even family members, can take a rapid test before seeing one another. I think that would really change how we think about living with COVID.

BLITZER: Yes. 2,000 Americans on average are dying here in the United States still every single day, according to the Johns Hopkins University, the same number as last week.

The NBA star, LeBron James announced today he is vaccinated, admitting he was initially skeptical about getting the shot. How important is it for people to hear from folks like LeBron James, for example, on this?

WEN: I think it's really important. We know that the messenger matters as much or even more than the message itself. And I also think there's something very compelling about hearing people who change their minds, who said initially I didn't want to get the vaccine for whatever reason, but now I'm doing it for the following reasons.

Of course, I wish that LeBron James would go even further and encourage other people to get vaccinated, but I think it's good that he's telling his own story and explaining why getting the vaccine is something that protects him and his family, it's safe and effective, and of course, all Americans who are eligible to be vaccinated should get vaccinated right now.

BLITZER: They certainly should. Dr. Lena Wen, thank you, as usual, for joining us. I appreciate it very much.

Coming up, new information coming in on a camping trip taking by Brian Laundrie and his family shortly before his fiancee, Gabby Petito, was officially reported missing.


[18:48:24] BLITZER: This just in. CNN has confirmed new details about the whereabouts of Brian Laundrie and his family soon after he returned from a road trip without his fiancee, Gabby Petito, who was later found dead in Wyoming. According to officials, the Laundrie family went camping together in early September, just days before Petito was reported missing.

CNN's Athena Jones has all the latest developments.


ATHENA JONES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Gabby Petito's family held a news conference today on Long Island, New York, taking the time to focus on remembering Petito and the light they say she brought to the world.

UNIENTIFIED FEMALE: I just hope that people are inspired by her.

JONES: Her family also said they are starting a foundation in her name.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're just hoping that through our tragedy with losing Gabby, that in the future, that some good can come out of it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This same type of heightened awareness should be continued for everyone, everyone.

JONES: This as a local law enforcement official says the FBI is scaling back its search for Petito's fiance, Brian Laundrie.

For more than a week, teams have searched through the 25,000-acre Carlton reserve near North Port, Florida, after his parents told investigators on September 17th that he went missing on September 14th.

Today, the Petito family renewed calls for Laundrie to turn himself in.

RICHARD STAFFORD, PETITO FAMILY LAWYER: The laundries did not help us find Gabby, they sure is not going to help us find Brian. For Brian, we're asking you to turn yourself in, to the FBI or the nearest law enforcement agency.

JONES: People have been gathering outside the Laundrie's home.


Some leaving flowers for Petito, some yelling at Laundrie's parents.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What were you thinking helping your son? What were you thinking? Huh? You guys have blood on your hands, too.

JONES: Monday night, the Laundrie family lawyer, Steven Bertolino, released a statement about the search saying, they don't know where he is, and the speculation by the public and some in the press that the parents assisted Brian in leaving the family home or in avoiding arrest on a warrant that was issued after Brian had already been missing for several days is just wrong.

The search for Laundrie ramped up after authorities found Petito's remains on September 19th in Wyoming's Bridger Teton National Forest. A coroner ruled her death a homicide.

GABBY PETITO, YOUTUBER: Gabby Petito never goes outside.

JONES: Laundrie and Petito had set off on a cross-country road trip in her van in June, posting regularly on social media sites like YouTube.

But Laundrie returned home in Petito's van without her on September 1st. Her family reported her missing ten days later. Today, her family said they will continue their fight for justice even taking the time to show off tattoos inspired by Petito.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We all did it together.


JONES (on camera): And we now know the Laundrie family stayed at a campground about 75 miles away from their home in early September. County officials confirming Laundrie's mother Roberta was checked in at the Fort Desoto campground in Pinellas County from September 6th through September 8th so -- and the Laundrie family attorney also confirming that Brian and his family were at that campground during that time and left together.

So we are getting a few more details about what was going on before Brian Laundrie, himself, went missing -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Athena Jones, thank you very much for that update. Athena Jones reporting.

Just ahead. Disturbing news out of North Korea where officials now claim they have successfully tested a hypersonic missile. We have details of the potentially groundbreaking development for Kim Jong Un's missile program.



BLITZER: Breaking news. North Korea claims to have successfully tested a hypersonic missile. A move clearly designed to rattle its neighbors, and provoke the United States.

Our Brian Todd is tracking this story.


BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): North Korea's aggressive, young dictator is back to tweaking, agitating, clamoring for the West's attention and getting it.

North Korea's news agency claims Kim Jong Un's military has test fired a hypersonic missile which can travel several times faster than the speed of sound, and has a warhead that detaches and glides.

That was just minutes before North Korea's envoy to the U.N. spoke to the General Assembly, accusing the U.S. of, quote, antagonizing Pyongyang, blasting the U.S.-South Korean military alliance, and making an implied threat of his own.

KIM SONG, NORHT KOREAN REPRESENTATIVE TO U.N. (through translator): We have been very much accustomed to the U.S. military threat. And we know well how to deal with the U.S., the most hostile country.

TODD: After a period of relative calm, military tensions on the Korean peninsula have recently been boiling. This is North Korea's third missile test this month, following another ballistic missile test in mid-September and tests of long-range cruise missiles before that.

South Korea tested a submarine launched ballistic missile on September 16th and is deploying a 3,000-ton sub capable of firing it.

ADAM MOUNT, FEDERATION OF AMERICAN SCIENTIST: On the peninsula, it's clears there's arms racing dynamics going on. North Korea is signaling its missile arsenal is moving to sea so South Korea is doing the same. That means that both countries will in a crisis be looking in many different directions. That increases the risk of miscalculation and increases the risk that an accident could occur.

TODD: The blur of activity on the peninsula in recent weeks includes a bizarre parade through Kim Il-Song square in Pyongyang, featuring a hazmat squad, a K9 unit, horses, and at the stroke of midnight, an image that got North Korea watchers into a lather. Kim Jong Un in a tailored light-colored suit looking strikingly thinner than he had a few months ago.

EVANS REVERE, FORMER U.S. DIPLOMATIC IN SOUTH KOREA: I see no threat to the stability of North Korea or to his rule of North Korea except the sort of health problems that have run in his family over the years, and he probably knows that and that may be one of the reasons why he is doing his best to -- to stay in -- in fighting trim, so to speak.

TODD: Kim was even shown in propaganda footage appearing to enjoy a bright green drink with a twisty straw. The visuals, the missile test signal a reemergence of Kim Jong Un on the world stage. But what's his calculation?

REVERE: I think the message is that North Korea is prepared to talk but on its terms and those terms include a desire to -- to talk about what they describe as South Korean and U.S. hostility and they are not particularly interested in talking about what the United States wants to talk about and, that is, of course, denuclearization. The North Koreans have made it very clear they are not going down that path.


TODD (on camera): And again, the breaking news tonight. North Korea has just claimed that the missile it test-fired several hours ago is a hypersonic missile which can travel several times the speed of sound. The North Koreans say this missile also has a warhead that can detach and glide on its own. Now, what makes this missile really concerning now is that these missiles can maneuver very unpredictably can avoid certain defenses, Wolf, so U.S. and South Korean now to figure out what to do about it.

BLITZER: Yeah. This is significant. Brian Todd reporting for us. Thank you, Brian Todd, very much.

And that's it for me. Thanks for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.