Return to Transcripts main page


Interview With California Senator Dianne Feinstein; Trump Uses Charities to Benefit Business?; Trump, Clinton Battle Ahead of First Debate; U.S. Blaming Russia for Aid Convoy Attack; Terror Investigation; Trump Jr. Ignites Furor With Skittles Tweet. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired September 20, 2016 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news: missed warning. The father of the suspect in the New York and New Jersey bombings said he called the FBI in 2014 when his son was acting violently. But an investigation found no ties to extremists. So, why did his father allegedly call him a terrorist two years ago?

Terror ramblings. A source tells CNN a notebook found on the bombing suspect contained rambling writings about terrorists, including a notorious al Qaeda leader. The Boston Marathon bombers are also allegedly mentioned. Did the bombing suspect self-radicalize?

Foundation trouble. A new report accuses Donald Trump of using his charities to benefit his businesses. The GOP nominee has allegedly settled four lawsuits with funds from his family foundation. Is Trump breaking the law and using other people's money?

And candy controversy. Donald Trump Jr. sparks an uproar comparing Syrian refugees to Skittles. His tweet is being widely rebuked not only by Democrats and the Clinton campaign, but also by the company that makes the candy. What is Donald Trump saying about the controversy tonight?

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: There's breaking news tonight in the probe into the New York and New Jersey bombings. CNN has learned that the FBI interviewed the father of the suspect, Ahmad Khan Rahami, about a domestic violence dispute back in 2014.

The father allegedly called Rahami a terrorist at that time, but investigators found no ties to extremism. There's also new information about Rahami's wife, who left the U.S. just before this weekend's bombing attacks. She is said to be cooperating with investigators and has spoken with U.S. officials in the United Arab Emirates. And, tonight, a leading explosives expert is telling CNN that the

ingredients in the New York bomb device had the potential to produce an explosion significantly more powerful than the devices used in the Boston Marathon bombings. The expert says the use of a powerful, unstable explosive may point to terror training overseas.

We're also following a new report about Donald Trump's charitable foundation. "The Washington Post" says on at least four occasions the foundation paid to settle lawsuits against Trump businesses. The foundation's funded primarily with other donors' money and using to it benefit Trump businesses potentially could be illegal.

We're covering all of that and much more this hour with our guests, including the vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California. And our correspondent and our expert analysts, they are also standing by.

Let's begin with the investigation into the New York and New Jersey bombings. New information coming in.

Our chief security national correspondent, Jim Sciutto, is working the story for us.

What are you learning, Jim?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, just a short time ago, the FBI released a statement.

They say that in 2014 they made an assessment. They conducted multiple interviews in and around Rahami's family. They spoke to other law enforcement agencies. They checked their databases and found no evidence of terror ties, this in 2014. These are difficult judgment calls. As it turned out, two years later, in fact, just a few yards behind me, here Rahami would carry out an act of terror.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): Tonight, U.S. officials tell CNN that the FBI interviewed the father of Ahmad Rahami in 2014 after a violent domestic dispute. This led to a tip alleging the father was calling his son a terrorist.

After the father then downplayed the accusation, the FBI ultimately concluded it was a domestic matter. Today, Rahami's father told CNN more about the violent altercation.


QUESTION: Why did you call the FBI two years ago?

RAHAMI: Because he was doing bad.

QUESTION: He was doing bad? What did he do bad?

RAHAMI: He stabbed my son, because he hurt my wife, and I put him to jail two years ago. SCIUTTO: Investigators are now attempting to question Ahmad Rahami,

though police say he still is not talking. One urgent question, did he have help in carrying out the alleged attacks?

(on camera): Do you still believe that he acted alone with these attacks and attempted attacks?

JAMES O'NEILL, NEW YORK POLICE COMMISSIONER: Well, Jim, it's very early on in the investigation. So, as we move through this, we're going to determine who his acquaintances were, family, friends, go through his social media, see if he had any phones. We will go through all that to make that determination.

SCIUTTO (voice-over): Pointing to possible inspiration for the attacks, a notebook that Rahami was carrying when captured referenced American AQAP leader an Anwar al-Awlaki, killed in 2011 by a U.S. drone strike.


It also contained references to the Boston Marathon bombers. Investigators are also scrutinizing Rahami's travels to Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he married and had a child and spent time in areas with a heavy Taliban presence, this to determine if he was radicalized overseas. The Afghan Taliban has denied any involvement in the bombings.

REP. DONALD PAYNE (D), NEW JERSEY: The officials are trying to determine if he had help in this endeavor. It would have taken some time to get all the materials to put these bombs together.

SCIUTTO: The devices were made with easy-to-obtain ingredients and with recipes that are accessible online. But those materials, considered by experts to be a high explosive, had a potential explosive power bigger than what was seen in the Boston Marathon bombings.


SCIUTTO: Today, I asked the New York police commissioner, James O'Neill, what message does he have for New Yorkers and for Americans about the terror threat today?

His answer was, in his words, do not be governed by fear. I have to say, Wolf, as I'm standing here where the bombing took place, this is clearly that a neighborhood that is not governed by fear. You get that sense in New York as well.

But the commissioner also said that people have to pay attention, that this is a community effort to look out for the signs of terror. It was certainly a community effort in responding to this attack. That's part of his message to Americans tonight as well -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Jim Sciutto in New York for us, Jim, thank you very much.

We're also learning new information right now about the bombing suspect's wife.

Our justice correspondent, Pamela Brown, is working this part of the story for us.

Pamela, she left the country just before the bombings. What are you learning?


In fact, tonight, the suspected bomber's wife, Asia Rahami, is cooperating with federal authorities and has spoken to U.S. officials in the United Arab Emirates. Officials say it's believed that she was on her way to the United States from Pakistan this week after leaving on this overseas trip before the bombings. She has not been accused of any wrongdoing.


BROWN (voice-over): CNN has learned Ahmad Rahami married his wife in Pakistan in 2011. In 2014, he and his father, seen here coming out of the family's home, contacted a New Jersey congressman's office for help bringing her to the U.S.

REP. ALBIO SIRES (D), NEW JERSEY: My staff dwelt the father most times. Mr. Rahami only showed up in Elizabeth once. And he was kind of abrupt and got a little nasty with the staff.

BROWN: Rahami claimed his wife was having trouble with her passport and visa, even though her application to come to the U.S. had been approved in 2012, according to a U.S. official.

SIRES: She needed a new passport. Then after they got a new passport, they found out that she was 35 weeks pregnant and they were not given the entry visa. And they said that they would give her the visa once she had the baby.

BROWN: A U.S. official says she eventually made it to the U.S. and described her relationship with Ahmad as -- quote -- "distant." Tonight, officials continue to speak with those who knew the suspect personally.

CNN has learned Rahami went to the Taliban stronghold of Quetta, Pakistan, and his birth country, Afghanistan, in both 2011 and again for a year in 2013 with his brother, Mohammad. When he returned to the U.S., he was taken into secondary screening. A U.S. official says he claimed he was visiting his wife.

Tonight, officials want to know whether he may have been radicalized during his time overseas.


BROWN: And law enforcement officials say that CBP notified law agencies, including the FBI, about Rahami in 2014 because of his travel to high-risk areas. A federal law enforcement official says his name was in a batch of people and that this type of notification is common, but it was issued before that August inquiry into him was opened up. The sources say that investigators looking into him would have seen this CBP notification. As we know, Wolf, Rahami was never interviewed around that time.

BLITZER: It's an intriguing development, indeed.

All right, Pamela Brown, thank you very much.

Let's get some more on all of this.

The vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, is joining us.

Senator, thanks so much for joining us.


BLITZER: So, what's the latest information, Senator, you're learning from the briefings on the investigation? What can you share with our viewers?

FEINSTEIN: Well, what I'm learning is that this is a real problem case.

He had that domestic violence incident. I believe he stabbed his brother in the leg. I think he hurt his sister. He did some time, I think, six months. He had violated a restraining order.

I think going to Quetta in this situation, where the father was concerned and had said, whoa, my son may be a terrorist at one time, going to Quetta, which is a hotbed of jihadis, also causes some concern.

The other thing, I think, is what was that about the explosives and who makes this bomb. What were the chemicals? My understanding is they were more -- as has been said in one way, more sophisticated than other bombs.


But here is someone who clearly was a problem, but the problem was never defined sufficiently to prevent him from coming back into the United States. So, I think we have got to be more aware of this self- made radical lone wolf than we have been. And I would suspect that others may have conspired in making the bombs.

It's also...


BLITZER: Let me interrupt you for a second, Senator, because that's an intriguing point you just made. Others helped him make those bombs? So he was not necessarily a lone wolf; he was part of some broader cell? Is that what you're suggesting?

FEINSTEIN: Well, what I'm suggesting is that we don't know that. But we need to look at it, because, as you know, there were a number of bombs. They were strangely placed.

If exploded, they would have done a lot of damage. However, they were places that were quiet at that time. So this is kind of a problem and I think you need unravel it and see, are there other fingerprints? What does his computer show? What does his diary show?

But I suspect that we will find that he is a jihadist and he carried out an act of jihad. And it's a real problem in this country right now with lone wolves, as much as we suspected that it might become, and it has.

I want to say one other thing. I think New York City did us all proud. I think from the governor to the mayor to the police to the FBI to everybody that was involved, the quickness and the solidity with which the city moved was truly impressive, and the fact the people are all together and strong and resilient came through loud and cheer all across America.

BLITZER: And I think I would add the law enforcement authorities in New Jersey as well. They did an excellent job in dealing with this problem.

FEINSTEIN: That's right.

BLITZER: There were bombing attempts in New Jersey and New York.

The diary that you referred to, supposedly, there were references to the Boston Marathon bombing attack. We know that one of the sites he went after was the Seaside Park, New Jersey, where there was a Marine Corps five-kilometer race that was supposed to begin. It was delayed, fortunately, and the bombs went off before the race actually started.

Was he a copycat? Was he trying to emulate those Boston Marathon bombers?

FEINSTEIN: I can't answer that based on what I know right now whether that's correct or not.

Of course, the pressure cooker was used. The pressure cooker bomb recipe is easily available. The chemicals may have been a little bit different. But one of the things, too, is Anwar al-Awlaki figures into this.

I gather virtually every lone wolf or every attack in America since 9/11, the attacker has read the sermons of Awlaki. And Awlaki, as you know, died in 2012. But his sermons are all over the Internet. And in my mind, they form a very strong recruitment tool and we ought to find a way to do something about that.

BLITZER: Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula terrorist, killed in a U.N. drone strike years ago.

FEINSTEIN: That's right.

BLITZER: We spoke to Senator Risch, also a member of the Intelligence Committee, last hour. And he suggested it looks like this was at least an al Qaeda-inspired attack, as opposed to an ISIS-inspired attack.

Is that your sense right now as well, Senator?

FEINSTEIN: I can't answer that right now. I simply don't know.

I think, to a great extent, it was self-inspired. Who raised that self-inspiration in this man, I don't know. It could have been a number of things, but I think we really need to take a good look at his diary, his computer, the bombs, his associates, his wife, if that becomes possible.

And we have also got to take a look, I think, at the soundness of our immigration policies with respect to people going repeatedly of this type to a place where jihadism abounds.

BLITZER: Because you pointed out he spent almost a year in Quetta in Pakistan, which is a hotbed of Taliban activity.

FEINSTEIN: That's right.


BLITZER: But, as we all know, there's a lot of al Qaeda remnants in Pakistan right now as well.

If he was trained to build these bombs while in Pakistan, that is going to be hard to prove, unless he cooperates in the investigation.

FEINSTEIN: Well, we will have to see.


I think the ability of the FBI to trace elements is very strong. So, we will see when the work is fully done how it was put together and hopefully have some clue. I don't know what remains. Sometimes, there are fingerprints. Sometimes, there's identification on the Christmas tree lights that were used. Who knows?

But I think the investigation is really important in this one.

BLITZER: It certainly is.

Senator, we have a few more questions to ask you. I'm going to have you stand by.

We will take a quick break. We're getting new information on this investigation. Much more with Senator Feinstein right after this.


[18:20:03] BLITZER: The breaking news this hour, federal prosecutors just

moments ago filed four criminal charges against New York-New Jersey bombing suspect.

The charges includes weapons of mass destruction, bombing, destruction of property and use of destructive device. Sources telling CNN that the FBI interviewed the father also of the suspect in this weekend's New York and New Jersey bombings, that interview was back in 2014. The father allegedly called Rahami a terrorist at that time following an incident in which Rahami stabbed his brother.

The FBI decided it was a domestic violence incident. And Rahami was not placed on any terror watch list.

We're back with Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the vice chair of the Intelligence Committee.

Was that a mistake back in 2014 not to place him at least on some sort of terror watch list, knowing what we know right now, Senator?

FEINSTEIN: Yes, absolutely. But then hindsight is better than foresight. So, that's an easy thing to say.

But it's pretty clear to me that he should have been on some kind of a watch list.

BLITZER: Rahami's wife was traveling in recent days just as the bombings unfolded over the weekend. She is now scheduled to return to the United States from the United Arab Emirates later this week.

Is she -- and we're told she is cooperating with the investigation. Is that your understanding as well?

FEINSTEIN: No, I have no understanding.

I know very little about her, candidly, so I don't want to comment.

BLITZER: Donald Trump criticized the entire screening process for people entering the United States. As you know, Rahami got through secondary screening even after he spent almost a year in Pakistan and Afghanistan, for that matter.

Is Trump right that there is a problem right now on the screening process and potentially dangerous terrorists are slipping through?

FEINSTEIN: Well, I think, in this case, the screening has to take place for people who are here that go to places that teach terror or teach fight, and then want to come back to this country, to pick them up and prevent them from coming back to this country.

I think that's part of it. I think we can always improve our screening, except it is very hard to do. The numbers are large. And it is very hard. And then we have programs that people can come in without a visa, like a visa waiver program that brings in 23 million Americans every year. So, this is not a simple system. Tens of million of people go in and

out of our nation every year. So, can we do better? Yes. Can we try to catch guys like this? Yes. Will we succeed? Some of the times, yes, and some of the times, we won't. That doesn't mean we should not try on improve.

BLITZER: So, four federal charges have now been leveled against Ahmad Khan Rahami, and there are separate charges, New Jersey criminal charges the other day leveled against him yesterday, I should say.

Here's the question. Now, your Republican colleague Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who is a JAG officer in the Air Force, he says he should be identified as an enemy combatant and not given all the legal rights, protective rights of a U.S. citizen.

Your reaction to that?

FEINSTEIN: Well, I don't agree with Lindsey on this, because this gets into detention and all of this.

This man has now been charged under federal law. I think that makes Lindsey Graham's argument moot. He has been charged. He will be tried. And the federal prosecutors are very good. They get legitimate convictions and people go away for a very long time, and our process of judgment is maintained.

So, I think it is important that we follow this course, four charges against him, federal law violations. Hopefully, there will be a speedy trial, and he will go to prison if he survives.

BLITZER: Senator Feinstein, one final question before I let you go on a totally different subject. The U.S. now says all evidence points to Russia being responsible for that airstrike on a United Nations humanitarian aid convoy in Syria.

It hit 18 trucks delivering critically needed aid to refugees in Aleppo, Syria, killed 20 civilians, including the director of a local branch of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.

What is the proper U.S. response to that?

FEINSTEIN: Well, the proper U.S. response, I think, is to be very transparent and point out, did we alert the Russians before the attack what we were attacking?

There's a mixed view here. Some say yes. Some say no. But the Russians knew before we attacked. If we're going to work together and one side is making a mistake, and the other side knows it, they ought to say, look, be careful. This isn't what you think it is.


Now, you have had on your show, I think, some distinguished senior commentators who have pointed out that the signature of the Syrian army is very different from the air than the signature of ISIS. So, there is a lot still to be known about how these attacks happened, why they happened and whether deconfliction is going to function with Russia.

BLITZER: In two separate incidents, the U.S. mistakenly hit a Syrian army convoy, killing a whole bunch of Syrian soldiers. The U.S. says that was a mistake.

But, separately, the U.S. is now saying the Russians have attacked a U.N. aid convoy, killing a lot of humanitarian workers trying bring in badly needed supplies to Aleppo to those Syrian refugees. That's a separate airstrike or ground attack, whatever it was.

Well, we're going to continue to watch that, Senator, as well.

FEINSTEIN: Yes, it was quite terrible.

Thank you.

BLITZER: Senator, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, thanks very much.

FEINSTEIN: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Want to go quickly to our justice correspond, Evan Perez. He's getting new information on the charges the federal government has now leveled against Ahmad Khan Rahami.

Go ahead and tell us what you know.


These charges were filed just minutes ago here in Manhattan by the U.S. attorney for Manhattan. Preet Bharara. We're told that these are four charges now that have not filed, including carrying out a use of weapons of mass destruction. This is the bomb that was carried out, the bombing here that was carried out in Manhattan, bombing charge, as well as destruction of property and the use of a destructive device.

Now, these are the first federal charges, Wolf, that have been brought. We know that the Union County prosecutor down in New Jersey had brought out -- brought out charges for the injuries made against the police officers in that firefight during which he was arrested. Those are state charges now.

Now this brings the full force of the federal government in this case. We're going through the papers that were filed in federal court again just a few minutes ago in federal court here in Manhattan, and we will provide some more information as we get that, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Thank you very much, Evan. I know the information is just beginning to come in. We will share more of that information up ahead.

Let's take a quick break. We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: We're continuing to track the breaking news of the New York and New Jersey bombing investigation. But we're also following other developing stories.

[18:32:14] We're just six days from the first debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. And the rhetoric out on the campaign trail today may be foreshadowing a rather searing showdown.

Our senior political correspondent, Brianna Keilar, is covering the campaigns for us. Brianna, some especially sharp attacks, especially from Donald Trump.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. In fact, Donald Trump was goading Hillary Clinton today, insinuating that she's taking time off not for debate prep but to recover some more after her recent bout of pneumonia. As he tries to convince voters that she is weak both physically and when it comes to foreign policy.





KEILAR: Donald Trump out on the trail in North Carolina today, slamming Hillary Clinton for quoting George W. Bush's former CIA director. Michael Hayden called Trump a recruiting sergeant for ISIS.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: It demonstrates a level of ignorance about the terror threat that really is disqualifying for a person seeking the presidency. When she says my opposition to radical Islamic terror provides aid and comfort to the enemy, we know that Hillary Clinton has once again demonstrated that she's really unfit for office.

KEILAR: As Clinton takes a break from the campaign trail to get ready for the first presidential debate, Trump is taunting her about her health, saying on Twitter, "Hillary Clinton is taking on have the day off again. She needs the rest. Sleep well, Hillary. See you at the debate."

With less than a week to go until the nominees share the stage, we're getting a preview to Trump's approach.

TRUMP: I mean, I can talk about her record, which is a disaster. I can talk about all she's done...

BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS HOST: I suspect you'll do that any way, though, right?

TRUMP: ... to help ISIS become the terror they've become. And I will be doing that. So I mean, we're going to go back and forth. And she's got a lot of baggage.

KEILAR: But what about personal attacks? He wouldn't rule them out.

TRUMP: If she treats me with respect, I will treat her with respect. It really depends.

KEILAR: Clinton is preparing for the debate to get contentious, telling "The Steve Harvey Show" she's not worried about it.

HILLARY CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE (via phone): I've been at this. And, you know, I understand it's a contact sport. But I'm not going to take what he says about everybody else, you know...


CLINTON: ... his attacks on African-Americans and immigrants and Muslims and women and people with disabilities.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, there you go. There you go.

CLINTON: It's just -- it's just something we cannot tolerate.

KEILAR: As the candidates gear up for their showdown, Trump's son is having one of his with a candy company. Donald Trump Jr. tweeting this image of a bowl of Skittles with the caption, "If I had a bowl of Skittles, and I told you just three would kill you, would you take a handful? That's our Syrian refugee problem."

The comparison sparked outrage and a rebuke from Mars USA, the parent company of Skittles, which tweeted, "Skittles are candy. Refugees are people. We don't feel it's an appropriate analogy."

And there was more scrutiny today for Trump's foundation. The "Washington Post" reporting the charitable organization spent more than a quarter million dollars to settle lawsuits against Trump's business interests, a possible violation of the country's tax laws.


KEILAR: And that's something that builds on an issue, Wolf, that Donald Trump has had. And partially, that is because the Trump Foundation is something that Donald Trump himself has not donated money to for several years. It's actually quite unusual, Wolf, for a family foundation where he, the namesake has not given money.

And we've seen that he has been fined previously by the IRS for another violation, breaking the law when he gave a donation from the Trump Foundation to Pam Bondi, the Florida attorney general.

BLITZER: This is a subject that I assume the Democrats, the Clinton campaign are really going to be going after him in the days to come.

KEILAR: They certainly are. They've had their liability on the Clinton Foundation, and they feel, certainly, that this is much more of an issue. It doesn't at all stand up to Donald Trump's standards for their foundation and that this is much worse.

BLITZER: Ron Brownstein, the statement, Jamie Gangel reporting... RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes.

BLITZER: ... that George H.W. Bush, 41, telling a group of about 40 people he's going to vote for Hillary Clinton.


BLITZER: Not Donald Trump. Give us some perspective.

BROWNSTEIN: First of all, actually, we don't have confirmation from them, but the reporting seems pretty solid, and they have not denied it. First of all, it is unprecedented. I think -- I'm going back, racking my brains in American history. I do not believe we have had a president of one party endorse or say they're going to vote for a presidential candidate of another. So it is an extraordinary moment.

But it is, in some ways, the culmination of what we have been seeing, particularly on the national security side of the Republican Party. The list of former Republican senior national security officials -- starting with Robert Gates, who was George H.W. Bush's CIA director and his son's defense secretary; and Brent Scowcroft, his national security advisor -- who have said that they are not going to vote for Donald Trump is also, I believe, unprecedented, far beyond what we saw with Barry Goldwater.

Does it matter? Well, look, there are going to be voters who say that these the elites who have failed us. But the fact is that the voters are -- in the way between where Donald Trump is stuck in the low 40s and where he needs to be in the mid to high 40s, are primarily the college-educated white voters who ordinarily lean Republican.

And this bombardment of messages from senior national securities in the party they usually vote for, saying this is not someone you can make commander in chief, it is very hard to believe that it's not having an impact. And in fact, 60 percent of those college whites say he's not qualified; and I think this reinforces that perception.

BLITZER: It's an important development indeed.

David Swerdlick, Donald Trump yesterday, in the aftermath of the New York/New Jersey terror attacks, he suggested, he called for profiling people he considers to be suspicious. He did not use the term "racial profiling"; he said "profiling." But a lot of people are pretty upset about that, because they think it effectively means racial or ethnic profiling.

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, I think it's fair to say that it does effectively mean that. A couple of things.

First of all, after he was asked about it last night, he used words to the effect of, "We have no choice." He was asked, "Muslims, will you profile Muslims or Arab?"

And he said, "We have no choice" very shortly after that. Though there was a longer explanation. The other thing about it is, look, if you take race out of it and

police or national security folks are just using behaviors or other characteristics, you don't call it profiling. You just call that good police work. Right? I mean, that's -- profiling -- you could call it behavioral profiling. But when people think of profiling, they think of race.

But finally, Wolf, one just more quick point, is that, you know, the Trump campaign, in the last few days has done a couple of things where they've sort of denied that they ever put something on the table. It was like last week with the birther issue.

Donald Trump has been the main proponent for years of the birther controversy. And then he came out last Friday and was like, "No, no, we did a public service with that. Nothing to see here."

This to me feels sort of similar. Right? It's this idea that, "Look, we put this on the table, but we don't want to own it." You can have a debate about it, but just admit that you put it on the table.

BLITZER: He was shouting -- some reporter shouted questions to him today at an event to explain his decision, reversal on the birther issue. He didn't answer those questions.

Rebecca Berg, the other issue that's come up, and it's an embarrassment to the Trump campaign, presumably right now, this whole issue of comparing Syrian refugees to Skittles. Donald Trump Jr. tweeted, "If I had a bowl of Skittles and I told you just three would kill you, would you take handful? That's our Syrian refugee problem." That tweet causing a lot of uproar out there right now.

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. What's interesting is that this message is not entirely off-message for the Trump campaign. Donald Trump still thinks that we should limit or totally ban Syrian refugees from coming into the country because of concerns that some could be affiliated with ISIS or other terrorist groups. So it is what the Trump campaign and Donald Trump believe.

What seems to be causing the controversy here, especially among Democrats and Hillary Clinton's campaign, is the idea that you would demean these refugees and their situation by equating them with a candy.

[18:40:03] And so Donald Trump Jr. and the Trump campaign saying, you know, obviously, the message here was that there are concerns about Americans' safety by bringing in these refugees. But it's creating a story that is ultimately a distraction for them. There was a way to send this message and make this point that wouldn't have created this controversy.

BLITZER: The whole notion of these terror attacks, what just happened over the weekend in New York and New Jersey, if there are more between now and November 8, how does that play out, Ron Brownstein, politically?

BROWNSTEIN: It's really hard to say. I mean, I think that, on the one hand -- first of all, the evidence is that the terror attacks of San Bernardino and Paris definitely boosted Donald Trump within the Republican primary. But there's really no evidence so far that it's affected polling between him and Hillary Clinton. And the reason is, I think people are somewhat conflicted.

He draws -- he draws good marks on strength. People see him as strong. And generally on who can handle terror, he is competitive: sometimes ahead, sometimes behind.

But on who is more capable of handling foreign policy or who is more capable of being commander in chief, or who has the temperament to succeed as president, she has a big lead.

So I think to some extent you would say, "Well, the first thing will be if there's disruption in the world, you'd want the strong hand." But I think it also reinforces her advantages in steadiness and temperament and experience. It has been something of a wash so far, and I would be surprised if you see a decisive advantage for either.

BLITZER: And David, only six days away from that big Monday night presidential debate. I assume both of these candidates are getting ready for a serious debate on terror, fighting terror.

SWERDLICK: Yes. No, getting ready for it, I think they want to reinforce the narratives that they've been sort of reinforcing...

BLITZER: They have very different narratives.

SWERDLICK: ... all along the way. Right. Clinton, steady, experienced and also thinking through these issues methodically. Trump projecting strength. Whether or not, you know, that leads to a different policy conclusion is anybody's guess with Trump, in my view.

BLITZER: And you reported today, Brianna, that Trump, in one of his latest tweets, making fun of Hillary Clinton: She's off the campaign trail. She's probably sleeping. She doesn't have any energy. That kind of issue once again being revived.

KEILAR: That's right. And she is doing debate prep. He was not doing that today. And I think, well, one, it's smart of her to be doing debate prep. This is an issue -- this is going to be a moment that so many people will not have been paying attention to what has been going on. I mean, we find that almost impossible to believe.

BROWNSTEIN: Right, yes.

KEILAR: But it's true. There's a lot of people who won't have done a deep dive into some of the issues, so they're not going to be well- versed in some of the controversies and the areas of disagreement. And this is going to be so key to that.

But I just thought it was so interesting, how Trump, you know, trying -- when she had pneumonia was kind of trying to -- he would insinuate some things, but he was having a lighter touch with it. And this, he basically is just trying to keep it going with her health. He's trying to create this idea that Hillary Clinton is weak, not just on foreign policy, for instance, but even physically.

BLITZER: And he points out during all those Republican debates, he did well; and he's suggesting, "You know what? I don't really need all this debate prep. I'm ready to go."

BERG: And certainly, on style, we've seen that he can be very successful. But the difference between -- and this is a key difference between Republican primary debates and this format with Hillary Clinton -- is you had up to nine other people on that stage along with Donald Trump, taking the attention away from him, eating up time. This is just going to be Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump for the entire program. And so the focus is going to be on him constantly.

BLITZER: Very quickly.

BROWNSTEIN: I think the tendency for each of them is to try to tattoo the other and to drive home more of their negatives. But that is not their problem. It's hard to imagine Donald Trump comes out of this debate without reducing the share of people who say he's not qualified as a success for him. And Hillary Clinton has the same problem. She's made the case against Donald Trump. She hasn't made the case for herself that would put her in a place where he can't reach.

BLITZER: All right, guys. Stand by. There's more coming up. Also, the scandal had helped derail Chris Christie's presidential bid roars back to life.


[18:48:33] BLITZER: The scandal that dogged Chris Christie's presidential campaign is roaring back to life. A prosecutor on a trial of two former Christie aides says the New Jersey governor knew they ordered lanes closed on a major bridge to create traffic for political retribution.

CNN's Phil Mattingly is joining us with the latest.

Phil, Governor Christie thought he had put this so-called Bridgegate scandal behind him. What's the latest?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, no question, Wolf, but it's the storm cloud that simply won't stop pouring all over Chris Christie's political plans, the scandal launched by that now infamous text, "time for some traffic problems in Ft. Lee" now once again looming large over Chris Christie's political future.


MATTINGLY (voice-over): As far as Chris Christie has fallen politically, there has always been one saving grace.

OFFICER: Hey, 2-11, Fort Lee traffic is a nightmare.

MATTINGLY: No evidence existed to tie him to the deliberate 2013 closure of lanes on the George Washington Bridge -- until now, prosecutors say.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: I've been investigated by three different entities, two of them led by partisan Democrats who, you know, have all found that I had no knowledge to this incident and no involvement in it.

MATTINGLY: During opening statements of the fraud trial involving top Christie administration officials, prosecutors told jurors they would prove Christie was aware of their activities as the closures were happening.

For Christie, it is the scandal that helped turn a leading presidential contender into an early primary drop-out.

CHRISTIE: It's both the magic and the mystery of politics that you never quite know when, which is going to happen even when you think you do.

[18:50:11] MATTINGLY: Even as he maintained from the very beginning that he had no knowledge of the alleged political retribution carried out by his aides.

CHRISTIE: Well, let me tell you, everybody -- I was blindsided yesterday morning. That was the first time I knew about this. It's the first time I had seen any of the documents that were revealed yesterday.

MATTINGLY: But questions about whether that's actually the case have long simmered, as charges against his allies have moved from the court, including the revelation uncovered in court documents in August of a December 2013 text from a campaign aide saying Christie, quote, "flat out lied" about what he knew.

Yet even as his own presidential campaign fizzled and the trial loom, Christie's role with the man he endorsed, Donald Trump, continued to grow.

CHRISTIE: There is no one who is better prepared to provide America with the strong leadership that it needs.

MATTINGLY: But even there, the scandal known as Bridgegate helped cost Christie what aides say he desperately wanted, to be Trump's running mate.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, MSNBC ANCHOR: How much of a factor do you believe the trouble with the Bridgegate was a factor in you not getting picked for vice president?

CHRISTIE: I'm sure it was a factor.


MATTINGLY: And, Wolf, it played a role in costing Christie the Republican nomination. And as he noted, it clearly played a role in Donald Trump's decision not to name Christie as his running mate. Now, the question becomes, should Trump, will Bridgegate also cost him a position in the Trump administration?

Now, Wolf, the reality is this, according to a number of Trump advisors I spoke with, Christie is firmly encamped inside Trump's inner circle, that's not changing anytime soon. Trump values his loyalty, his advice, most importantly, his work as Trump's transition chief.

But as one GOP official told me, Senate Democrats, the people who would have to confirm Christie in a Trump administration, they are unlikely to be as understanding -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Phil Mattingly, thanks very much.

Just ahead, North Korea's Kim Jong-un personally supervises a test of a powerful rocket engine. What is he planning to use it for?


[18:56:30] BLITZER: We're following ominous new developments in North Korea. The country claims to have tested its most powerful rocket engine yet, raising new concern about its missile and nuclear missile program.

CNN's Brian Todd has the very latest for us.

Brian, Kim Jong-un personally supervised this test?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: He did, Wolf, and tonight, this rocket engine test from Kim is reverberating all the way to Washington. A State Department official telling us they are calling on North Korea to stop these, quote, "menacing actions".

The fear that Kim's engineers are close to perfecting technology for a long range missile which could reach the United States.


TODD (voice-over): Beaming with satisfaction, Kim Jong-un watches from the top of a ridge as his commanders ignite a high powered rocket engine. This ground test was successful, Kim's regime claims, with a thrust of 80 tons of force.

MICHAEL ELLEMAN, INTERNATIONAL INSTITUTE FOR STRATEGIC STUDIES: If it was indeed an 80 ton thrust, it is considerably larger than anything that they've had before.

TODD: The North Koreans say this rocket engine will be used to lift geostationary satellites into the orbit. It means Kim's engineers could soon launch another multi-stage rocket like this one from this past February. The regime says this rocket launches are meant to put satellite into space. Experts say they could also be working on something more sinister.

ELLEMAN: It can be used to acquire knowledge and information that's applicable to ICBM development. TODD: Kim's trying to perfect intercontinental ballistic missiles

which can reach the United States, with nuclear warheads mounted on them. Analysts say it would be a game changer if North Korea can successfully flight-test those long range missiles to be able to re- enter the atmosphere, they could be within only a few years from having that capability.

Kim's race to do that, along with his two nuclear bomb tests and 15 missile tests just this year have given this young dictator a swagger we haven't seen before in a North Korean leader.

JONATHAN POLLACK, THE BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: He's a very different person from his father. His father was quite introverted. He is not.

TODD: A bravado on display in a recent stage production in Pyongyang -- a "Saturday Night Live" style comedy which mocked President Obama.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): I smacked my head on the bathroom floor. I was so shocked by North Korea's hydrogen bomb detonation.

TODD: In the comedy, South Korea's president is called a granny, indicators of a regime that seems to have gotten cocky toward its rivals and allies.

(on camera): Are we at a stage where no one can rein him at this point, not China, not Russia, not the U.S.?

POLLACK: What people fear is that possession of these capabilities as they do advance will mean he is no longer inhibited against various kinds of coercive actions because people would therefore -- others would be fearful that it could trigger even the use of nuclear weapons.


TODD: And it appears tonight that Kim also feels little pressure from inside North Korea. Most analyst we speak to believe he's strengthened his hold on power with all the nuclear missile test and by executing some powerful members of his regime. Could a disgruntled general move against him? Possibly. But we're told top generals are the most closely surveilled people in North Korea -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian, after this engine test, when could Kim launch another long range missile or rocket test?

TODD: It is believed, Wolf, that he could do that maybe as early as next month, maybe on the anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers Party. That's on October 10th. If he does that, it means he'll have conducted two nuclear bomb test, 15 or 16 missile tests, and possibly two rocket launches just this year.

BLITZER: Brian Todd, thanks very much for that report.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.