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THE SITUATION ROOM
Friend of Trump Defends Him; Interview With Congressman Jim Himes; California Fires; President Trump Threatens Puerto Rico; Wildfire Death Toll Climbs to 29, Hundreds Missing; Kelly: Trump Tweet on Puerto Rico "Exactly Accurate"; Kelly: North Korea Developing Nuclear Re-Entry Vehicle. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired October 12, 2017 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: More wind is forecast. More evacuations are being ordered. And the smoke is so bad, flights are being canceled as far away as San Francisco.
And giving up? President Trump threatens Puerto Rico with a tweet warning that federal aid can't stay forever. And he blames the island for its own bleak financial situation. His attacks prompt a fierce backlash, including from San Juan's mayor, who calls the president -- and I'm quoting her now -- "hater in chief."
We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: Breaking news, remarkably candid comments by President Trump's chief of staff, John Kelly. The retired Marine Corps general made a rare appearance in the White House Briefing Room, where he said despite reports of tension and turmoil inside the West Wing, he's not quitting, he's not getting fired and he's not frustrated.
He added that his job is not to control President Trump.
Also breaking this hour, the death toll has climbed again in the wildfires blackening large swathes of Northern California. Officials now say 27 people have been killed and hundreds are still reported missing. Entire towns have been evacuated. And, tonight, the weather forecast is ominous, with strong winds expected to return to the area.
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, meanwhile, is defending President Trump's tweets on another disaster, the hurricane that devastated Puerto Rico. Mr. Trump is blaming the island for its own financial difficulties and he's adding, and I'm quoting him now, "We cannot keep FEMA, the military and first-responders in Puerto Rico forever."
Kelly says the president's tweets are exactly accurate.
And Kelly revealed that North Korea is developing what he calls a pretty good nuclear reentry vehicle. Kelly says that Americans should be concerned about North Korea's ability to reach the United States with a nuclear-tipped missile.
We're covering all of that and much more at this hour with our guests, including Congressman Jim Himes of the House Intelligence Committee. And our correspondent and specialists are also standing by.
Let's begin with the very blunt remarks by the president's chief of staff, John Kelly.
Our White House correspondent, Sara Murray, is joining us with the latest.
Sara, Kelly confronted reports of tension and turmoil head-on.
SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.
In a rare appearance today in the Briefing Room, Kelly made it clear that he is not going anywhere and despite what some may believe, his performance should not be judged on whether he can block the president's Twitter-happy finger.
JOHN KELLY, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: I'm not quitting today.
MURRAY (voice-over): Retired Four-Star Marine General John Kelly making his debut in the White House Briefing Room as chief of staff.
KELLY: I just talked to the president -- I don't think I'm being fired today. And I am not so frustrated in this job that I'm thinking of leaving.
MURRAY: And insisting that a White House that often looks chaotic from the outside is, in fact, running smoothly.
KELLY: I was not sent in or brought in to control him, and you should not measure my effectiveness as a chief of staff by what you think I should be doing, but simply the fact is, I can guarantee to you that he is now presented with options, well-thought-out options. Those options are discussed in detail with his team and then he comes up with the right decision.
MURRAY: As Kelly insisted, his primary role is not to block Trump's Twitter tirades. He also pulled back the curtain on the commander in chief's key frustrations.
KELLY: The Congress has been frustrating to him.
MURRAY: Kelly channeling Trump's exasperation with Congress as Trump aims to use the power of presidency to overhaul Obamacare. That's after efforts to repeal and replace the legislation hit a dead end on Capitol Hill.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I will sign an executive order taking the first steps to providing millions of Americans with Obamacare relief.
MURRAY: Trump unveiling an executive order to expand short-term insurance plans, study ways to allow small businesses to join together to buy insurance, and broaden employers' abilities to give workers money to buy their own health care.
TRUMP: The competition will be staggering. Insurance companies will be fighting to get every single person signed up. And you will be hopefully negotiating, negotiating, negotiating, and you will get such low prices for such great care.
MURRAY: While Trump touted the expected upsides, some experts warned the plan could increase costs for sick Americans and chip away at protections for people with preexisting conditions.
In another shot to President Obama's legacy, Trump is also expected to move forward tomorrow with decertifying the Iran nuclear deal.
TRUMP: I think it was one of the most incompetently drawn deals I have ever seen, $150 billion given. We got nothing.
MURRAY: While not pulling out of the deal completely, the White House says the president will lay out a strategy to counter Iran's aggression I nation Middle East and more closely rally behind allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia, who oppose the deal.
Amid all of this, the White House is still confronting a humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico. Most of the island remains without power and many don't have access to water. Still, Trump took to Twitter today to warn that aid to Puerto Rico will have an expiration date.
"We cannot keep FEMA, the military and first-responders who have been amazing under the most difficult circumstances in P.R. forever, "leaving his chief of staff to explain what he meant.
KELLY: Our country will stand with those American citizens in Puerto Rico until the job is done, but the tweet about FEMA and DOD, read, military, is exactly accurate. They are not going to be there forever, and the whole point is to start the work yourself out of a job and to transition to the rebuilding process.
MURRAY: Now, the White House is making clear that federal responders will not be in Puerto Rico for good, but they are not saying what the timeline is to depart the storm-ravaged island.
And there's still no explanation from the White House as to why the president is adopting this kind of a tone at a time when so many people there are still suffering -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Sara, thank you, Sara Murray reporting from the White House. The president also provoked anger among so many Puerto Rican officials
with that series of tweets blaming the hurricane-ravaged island for its own financial problems and saying that the federal government can't help Puerto Rico forever.
Let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta. He is also working this part of the story for us.
Jim, what led the president to publish those tweets?
JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I talked to Republican sources in touch with people here at the White House, who said that essentially that tweet was posted by the president earlier this morning to go after the San Juan mayor, Carmen Yulin Cruz, who has been seen here inside the White House as a thorn in the side of the president.
In the last couple of days, the perception is here at the White House that she was back in the headlines criticizing the president, and so that that tweet was sent out this morning basically to respond to her to say, listen, this aid to your island is not going to be going on forever.
Obviously, that struck a lot of people as being very insensitive to the people of Puerto Rico. I talked to a Republican source who is actually in touch with the administration on relief efforts there, and I asked this source, Wolf, whether or not the feeling is, is that the president just doesn't like the people of Puerto Rico, has some sort of bias against the people of Puerto Rico.
And this source said it's more serious than that. It really reflects, in the opinion of this source, that the president doesn't understand what his administration is doing, because in the feelings of this source, the administration is hard at work trying to get things going again in Puerto Rico.
But, Wolf, when you go back to the tweets this morning and even the president when he made that visit down in Puerto Rico, you remember that video of him throwing the paper towels to the people in Puerto Rico. I talked to another Republican source who advises this White House on a routine basis who said the optics of that were just terrible, and that the White House has to do something to get this image problem turned around.
BLITZER: What about the chief of staff, John Kelly? What was he trying to accomplish over at the White House Briefing Room today making his debut in front of reporters?
ACOSTA: I talked to a very plugged-in source, Wolf, who said that John Kelly essentially went out there today to address and correct the record of all of these stories that have been floating out there in recent days that suggest that he is thinking about leaving this White House, that he has run out of patience with this president.
You heard John Kelly going into the Briefing Room earlier today sort of -- he seemed to be enjoying himself with that deadpan humor, needling reporters a little bit, telling them to go back and get better sources.
But, Wolf, at one point, I thought it was very interesting. He said, I'm not here to control what the president does. I'm here to control the information he receives.
Wolf, I hear that countless times from sources here inside the White House, that the feeling is that the president just needs to get a better information flow, so he can essentially communicate better to the American people. Whether or not that is actually panning out, that is going to be the judgment of a lot of Americans out there.
But, Wolf, I talked to a source earlier today who said, listen -- and this is a campaign source who worked on the campaign and worked for this administration -- who said, listen, if you think that John Kelly is going to be able to control the president's tweeting habits, think again.
There were thoughts throughout the campaign, throughout the transition, throughout the first months of this administration that the president is going to stop tweeting. This source told me Donald Trump is never going to stop tweeting -- Wolf.
BLITZER: I suspect you're right.
All right, Jim Acosta at the White House, thank you.
Let's some get more on all of this. Democratic Senator Jim Himes of Connecticut is joining us. He's a key member of the House Intelligence Committee.
Congressman, let's start in North Korea. You heard the White House chief of staff, John Kelly, today say -- and I'm quoting him now -- "Let's hope diplomacy works. Let's hope diplomacy works."
But President Trump, you know, he told the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who was engaged in diplomacy with North Korea, don't waste your time. He seems to have abandoned diplomacy. Does that concern you?
REP. JIM HIMES (D), CONNECTICUT: Well, part of what concerns me is just the fact that we hear one thing from the president.
In any number of tweets, he has said that the time for diplomacy is up. He contradicted his secretary of state, as you pointed out and, more recently, after threatening at the United Nations to destroy the country entirely, you know, was making additional threats. There's only -- he did that with Iran, too. Right? There's only one way to deal with this.
So his people, and in this case, somebody who actually understands what it means to go into combat, what it means to actually lose troops, what it means for civilians to get killed, John Kelly, who has seen this up close and personal, is out there trying to resurrect the case for diplomacy, which I think is really important, because, as we all know, would the United States prevail in a conflict with North Korea?
Of course, it would, and it would do so rapidly. But the devastation to a lot of U.S. troops, to a lot of civilians, a lot of American civilians and South Korean civilians in places like Seoul would be absolutely horrendous.
So, right now, those of us who are not in the Oval Office can only keep our fingers crossed that people like John Kelly and H.R. McMaster, people who really know what is involved in brutal combat, are advising this president as intensely as they can.
BLITZER: Let's get to some sensitive issues your committee, the House Intelligence Committee, now facing.
The Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg, she was asked if the targeting of those Russian-bought Facebook ads matched that of the Trump campaign. She refused to answer that question actually three times earlier today. You have been briefed on all those Russian-paid ads on Facebook and other social media. Do you have an answer?
HIMES: Well, I think it's -- I'm not sure that Facebook or Google or Twitter really know the extent to which the Russians used those platforms to try to influence our election.
You know, not only did they in some cases use Russian entities to buy ads and that sort of thing, but, of course, they will have used, you know, a puppet U.S. entities to do that as well. So we don't know the full extent. And I'm sure they don't know the full extent of this effort.
But I will tell you this, Wolf. Having looked at a lot of those ads that have been provided to my committee, I was just stunned by the sophistication of the effort that was made to really inflame some of the toughest fault lines in our country.
And the toughest, of course, is the racial division. I looked at ad after ad after ad which was very clearly designed to whip Americans up on both sides of the Black Lives Matter issue, both sides of the violence issue of the police against unarmed black men.
I got to tell you, this was Hollywood-level production that had a sophistication that I thought if I was trying to inflame U.S. racial tensions, this would be exactly how I did it.
And that's why it's so important that Americans see these ads so that they can understand what a foreign adversary looked at us and decided that they were going to manipulate us by using this issue.
BLITZER: What do you mean by puppet U.S. entities? Explain. Were Russians engaged in using what you call puppet U.S. entities?
HIMES: Well, we don't know the full extent of this.
But we know that they use -- the government uses outfits like Russia Today. It's a government-sponsored media channel. We know that they have relationships with WikiLeaks, with Sputnik, with all these other groups.
And while I can't get into specifics, it's not hard to set up a corporation in the United States. It's not hard to set up a limited liability company. I would assume that they did that and that there may be plenty of other entities out there that purchased ads that did things behind which is the Russian government.
BLITZER: But is that your simple assumption or do you know that for a fact, that the Russians had these puppet U.S. entities designed to foment unrest, political unrest, here in the United States?
HIMES: So the ads that I have seen that I was talking about before, which were clearly designed to foment racial unrest, to split the divide, to increase the divide in this country, and some other ads I saw that were really about voter suppression, these ads were about getting people to vote on their iPhones, because you could do that now, was the premise of these ads.
Those were the ads that were provided to the committee by Twitter, by Facebook, that they could identify as having come directly from the Russians.
I think there is a good chance -- and I won't go further than that -- I think there is a good chance that there were other purchases made by entities that were sponsored by the Russians. I don't think this is -- what we have seen is the whole thing.
BLITZER: Your committee is now also warning Roger Stone, a former adviser, a friend of the president, that he may actually face a subpoena on Friday if he doesn't reveal the name of his intermediary with the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange. Do you think he will cooperate?
HIMES: I don't know, Wolf.
But as was reported -- and we do try to kind of keep the substance of these interviews and of the investigation quiet. But, as was reported, Roger Stone did tell the committee that he communicated with WikiLeaks through somebody.
And both sides, actually, the Democrats and Republicans in the room, made the point that we really need to know who that is, because, of course, that would be an answer, one answer to the question of whether there was Russian involvement in that particular conversation.
Whether or not he chooses to provide that name voluntarily -- and what he said was, if he could get permission from that individual, he would it voluntarily. If not, we're into the worlds of possible subpoenas. But I'm not sure we how that's going to come out yet.
BLITZER: All right, we will be watching closely.
Jim Himes, congressman from Connecticut, thanks very much for joining us. HIMES: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: Just ahead: One of President Trump's oldest friends and closest confidants talks exclusively with CNN about the president's frame of mind.
Plus, breaking news, new deaths reported in California's unfolding wildfire disaster. We will get a live update.
BLITZER: Now a CNN exclusive.
A conversation with one of Trump's oldest friends and closest confidants.
Our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, spoke to Tom Barrack.
Gloria, what did he tell you about the president's frame of mind right now?
GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: According to Tom Barrack, everything is great.
Tom Barrack has been a close friend of Donald Trump's for decades, Wolf. He's known as one of the president's whisperers, speaking with Mr. Trump regularly and offering his advice from the outside.
But in "Washington Post" piece today, he said he had been shocked and stunned by some of the president's rhetoric, saying -- quote -- "He's better than this."
Needless to say, he heard from the White House and he spoke with us to try and clear up what he says he really meant.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TOM BARRACK, FRIEND OF DONALD TRUMP: So, when I say that sometimes things have shocked me, it's not unlike all of us right? The president is disintermediating the establishment.
And that's what he sent there to do. And he's a revolutionary and a warrior of sorts. He has a brilliant aptitude of being able to take severe positions, which then allow him to draw back to a median.
BORGER: So, do you think he undermines himself in a way with the tweets and off-the-cuff comments?
BARRACK: Well, he undermines himself to the extent that you look at these constituencies and say, why is he doing that?
But, actually, he's been the best communicator in history. Right? His tweeting ability conveys the message to a much broader marketplace than institutional media. BORGER: Let me ask you about these reports that he is isolated,
angry, frustrated even at his own advisers and that he seems to be in a different place than, say, he was six months ago, feeling hemmed in, constrained.
Do you sense any of that when you talk to him?
BARRACK: No. Quite honestly, zero.
I think it's exactly the opposite. And he has a great team. What the president always did is curate points of view. He had Bannon, he had Reince, he had Jared. He had a whole series of people around that had different points of view.
As time has gone on, they have matriculated into other places.
BORGER: Or been fired.
BARRACK: Well, fired is a harsh word.
You move from campaign to candidate to transition to governing. It's different toolkits. But today you have the best adults in the sandbox you have ever had at the White House.
BORGER: But I don't have to tell you about Secretary Tillerson calling the president a moron privately and how upset the president was about that and what friction that causes, of course, in their relationship. Am I wrong about that?
BARRACK: Look, I don't think it causes any friction.
BORGER: It doesn't?
BARRACK: Because neither one of them take too seriously what the reports of those kinds of incidents are. And I think Secretary Tillerson did a good job in saying that is an irrelevancy to what he's doing.
And I can tell you President Trump is so far above worrying about words.
BORGER: But there seems to be kind of a disconnect, because, on background, lots of people at the White House are saying this is a president who is mad, frustrated, isolated, tweeting about Senate leaders, getting in fights, you know, with the leaders of the Senate.
And you're saying he's fine.
BARRACK: Absolutely. And, look, he's not...
BORGER: How do you reconcile...
BARRACK: Here's how you reconcile it. First of all, he's not isolated.
It's a president who has managed his whole life -- the 40 years that I have known him, he's been successful at everything, but he manages by conflict. So he brings in various points of view, he listens to them all, and then he curates a point of view based on differing ideas.
Nothing has changed. But what's made it better is General Kelly is creating a different menu for him to curate. So a lot of these issues that used to come to him impromptu of just the open door of the Oval Office have stopped.
General Kelly organizes an agenda. But I can tell you one thing. There's only one president. There's only one person who creates the agenda. There's only one person who makes those final decisions.
BORGER: And there are reports that he kind of chafes at these constraints.
BARRACK: I don't think he chafes.
I think he's learning to govern an ungovernable amount of work. Now he's governing a different way, and even the congressional agenda. You know, he didn't take on Senator Corker just on his own. Senator Corker made a statement.
And as we have talked about, the president is a fighter. So rather than taking the diplomatic way out, and saying, I'm not going to engage in this kind of dialogue with a member of the Senate...
BORGER: Right. Why wouldn't he do that, though?
BARRACK: Why wouldn't he do it?
BARRACK: Because he's a fighter. That's who he is.
And he looks at his base and says, you know what, everybody would like to see me not put up with a statement like that, and I'm not going to put up with it because I don't need it.
BORGER: But when you saw that, and when you saw that he said Corker begged me to endorse him, and then Corker came back and said that wasn't the way the conversation went, what was your reaction?
BARRACK: Look, my reaction in all these instances is, I don't like to see the president get beat up.
So, my personal opinion would be, I'm always looking for a more conciliatory way, which was part of this "Washington Post" article. When I say sometimes I'm upset, I'm upset because he doesn't need to take a punch. He's doing a fantastic job. So, for me, if it were Senator Corker, I
would find a more conciliatory road. It's why I'm not president. It's why I have a day job. Right?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: So do you think, Gloria, that Chief of Staff Kelly and Tom Barrack were part of a so-called cleanup campaign today?
BORGER: You think?
BORGER: I think so.
This is a White House that been buffeted by stories that portray the president as isolated, as I was asking Tom Barrack about today, frustrated, angry.
And the fight with Tillerson became pretty public. And Kelly's upset that the fight with Tillerson also became pretty public. And then you had Tom Barrack's comments to "The Washington Post" which did not please the White House, and then you had General Kelly going out there today.
I don't think these things are a coincidence. I think that Tom Barrack is very loyal to the president. He's been a close friend of his for decades. He's done business with him back in the day, and they remain friends.
And I think that Barrack felt that he wanted to do some cleanup here. And you can see from this interview, from Tom Barrack, that that's exactly what he was trying to do.
BLITZER: You certainly can.
All right, Gloria, good work. Thanks very, very much.
Just ahead, we will have more on the breaking news from the White House. The chief of staff, John Kelly, surprised reporters by taking questions today. We will have more on what he had to say.
Plus, as the death toll rises as California's wildfires burn out of control, forecasters are warning right now that the flames could be pushed by 60-mile-an-hour winds.
BLITZER: The breaking news this hour, rare remarks by the White House chief of staff, John Kelly, who sources tell us wanted to confront reports of chaos and turmoil inside the West Wing of the White House. Wanted to confront those reports head-on. Kelly told reporters in the White House briefing room he's not quitting, he's not getting fired, and he's not frustrated.
[18:33:09] Let's dig deeper with our contributors and our specialists.
Rebecca Berg, not often that you see John Kelly show up for a news conference in the briefing room like that. What stood out to you from that appearance?
REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, he clearly, Wolf, projected someone who was calm, cool, collected, in control of the situation at the White House at the time when the White House has been in great turmoil, when every day over the past few weeks, we've seen something new unfold; and they're having to bat down these reports of chaos in the White House. And so he was there to try to bring some calm to the situation, tell everyone, you know, everything's going to be fine. And he did a good job of that today.
Also, really forthrightly answering questions from the press, which you could tell was appreciated, and even having a few moments of lightness, of humor, making fun of these pictures we've seen of him looking frustrated during some comments the president has made. He said, you know, "That's not my frustrated face. You just catch me at some bad moments." So it was a good public showing for the chief of staff in his first public showing with the press.
BLITZER: You know, it came on the day, Mark Preston, when the president started with this tweet about Puerto Rico that's getting a lot, a lot of reaction, suggesting the financial crisis there, largely of their own making, seemed to threaten full relief. Not going to go on -- FEMA, U.S. military presence there -- in his words, forever.
Listen to the reaction from this one U.S. congresswoman.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. NYDIA VELAZQUEZ (D), NEW YORK: Those tweets are unpresidential. The most basic, fundamental responsibility of the president of the United States, the president of the most powerful country in the world is to show up and make and provide the assistance and the relief that American citizens need.
[18:35:09] They don't need this type of insult. So to kick fellow citizens when they are down is shameful.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Congresswoman Velazquez is from New York. She's Puerto Rican, as well. You can see how passionate she is.
MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, let me channel my good friend from New York here, Mr. Toobin, and say why are we surprised what Donald Trump tweets in the morning? We shouldn't be surprised. He has a -- he has a lack of empathy at a time when it's needed and a lack of understanding about how to get things done.
But just moving beyond that, what is even more disturbing, at least for me, is when I looked at his tweet just about 30 minutes ago, 47,000, more than 47,000 people liked this tweet, thought it was -- thought it was good. It was a good message he was sending. Let's assume that half of those people are fake, you know, they're bots. That's still 20,000 people, Wolf, that think that what the president said today was smart.
And can I just add onto what Rebecca said? It's very interesting to see Tom Barrack come out, as we saw, with Gloria Borger, and then we see John Kelly, two men who are respected and well-liked by reporters, both coming out and singing off the same song sheet today, to try to defend the president.
BERG: It also does sort of have the effect of someone inside a burning house saying everything is fine. And so you have to take everything they're saying right now with...
BLITZER: You have a good understanding of why he started this day, Ron Brownstein, with this tweet about Puerto Rico on a day he announced some major health care reforms with an executive order? A day he announced the new secretary of homeland security. Why deal with Puerto Rico on a time that he wanted to focus in on other issues?
RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, we've seen this throughout, right? I mean, whatever -- whatever policy is supposedly in the headlines is almost always subsumed by the latest in the unending series of kind of personal feuds and conflicts that the president engages in.
And what we saw on the health care fight and I suspect what we're going to see on the tax reform debate is that the president can dominate the news cycle, but that doesn't mean he can drive a message. He was unable in the health care fight to provide, really, any air cover, to build any public support for what Republicans wanted to do, in part because he kept getting sidetracked into these kind of personal conflicts with various -- you know, kind of a rotating series of targets.
And you do wonder if on taxes we are going to see something of the same, because this is supposed to be the period where he is elevating tax reform and, instead, again we have these kind of -- these conflicts, one after the other.
The health care is kind of interesting, because it does plunge him back -- the executive order plunges him back into the exact same thicket as the health care repeal where the principal losers in what he set out today will be older working-age Americans. As we talked about many times before, two-thirds of everybody 45 to 64 in the country is white, and most of them vote Republican. And they will be the ones who could be facing higher premiums and less access to care as a result of the executive order that he's put forward today.
BLITZER: I spoke with Marc Short, the president's legislative affairs director. He says -- he wouldn't commit that they have the votes, the 50 votes that they need to pass the tax cuts. And he also said they're not going to deal with the repeal and replace of Obamacare until at least the spring of next year.
Let me -- Jeffrey Toobin, Senator Ben Sasse, Republican, Nebraska, he responded to the president's threat to pull the license of news organizations that he doesn't like. "Mr. President," Sasse wrote, "are you recanting on the oath -- the oath you took on January 20 to preserve, protect and defend the First Amendment to the Constitution?" How significant is that?
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, you know, the question now is sort of how outraged can we be by another Donald Trump tweet? I mean, this is the kind of thing that happens in authoritarian countries.
In Russia, the president, Vladimir Putin, is decertifying media operations so that there is almost no independent press. This is what happens in China. This is what's happening now in Turkey.
I don't think it's going to be happening here in the United States. We have an independent judiciary. There is no support for this, as far as I can tell, from anyone in Congress. But he still said it and he's still the president and this is -- you know, I finally -- you know, as a journalist, I don't know what the appropriate way to deal with this is. Do we ignore it, because it's not going anywhere? Do we pretend he didn't say it? Or do we exercise the outrage that, frankly, I think it deserves?
BLITZER: Here's the bottom line. You can't ignore it. He is the president of the United States.
TOOBIN: That's true.
BLITZER: And that's a pretty specific threat. A bad one, but we'll continue to watch what's going on.
Stick around. There's more news we're following. The death toll rising as California's wildfires burn out of control and the latest weather forecast calls for conditions to get even worse, with 60-mile- an-hour winds.
And President Trump warns Puerto Ricans that emergency responders can't stay forever. So what are the conditions on the island right now? We'll get a live update.
[18:44:42] BLITZER: Following breaking news, the death toll from the wildfires raging in Northern California has now climbed to 29, with hundreds of people reported missing. And there's fear that winds forecast tonight will spread the flames farther.
CNN's Dan Simon is joining us from Calistoga, right in the heart of wine country.
Dan, that entire town, I understand, has now been ordered evacuated.
[18:45:04] DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's exactly right, Wolf.
You can see some of the fire behind me. You can see firefighters off in the distance. They don't seem to be too worried about the flames going down this hillside. As you said, the entire community of Calistoga has been evacuated.
It's well known for its wineries and spas and firefighters are doing everything they can to prevent that community from burning.
SIMON (voice-over): Across California, more than 8,000 firefighters are working around the clock to battle multiple blazing burning out of control. More than 190,000 acres have burned. At least 3,500 structures destroyed as 22 wildfires burn across the state, some with little to know containment.
GOV. JERRY BROWN (D), CALIFORNIA: This is one of the biggest, most serious and it's not over.
SIMON: Northern California is bearing the brunt of the damage. Evacuations for several parts of the wine country, including the counties of Napa and Sonoma. Mandatory evacuations were ordered for the entire city of Calistoga.
MAYOR CHRIS CANNING, CALISTOGA, CALIFORNIA: Your presence in Calistoga is not welcome if you are not a first responder. Your choice to stay -- and there have been very few of them -- is a distraction to our first responders. If you're trying to visit Calistoga, you are not welcome.
SIMON: Together, the fires span roughly 200 square miles, four times the size of Washington, D.C.
In the city of Santa Rosa, entire neighborhoods have been reduced to ashes.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's no words. It's a nightmare. It's a real- life nightmare.
SIMON: The fire swept through so quickly here, residents say they didn't have time to grab even the most basic belongings.
ERNEST CHAPMAN, SURVIVOR: I didn't grab anything, really. You know, like a laptop right sitting there, stuff that is easy to grab, I just took off. Seconds could have made a difference between life and death, so there was no waiting.
SIMON: Many residents lost everything.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You know, that part of our life is gone. That's what hurts the most.
SIMON: It's been four days since the fires began. But officials warn that conditions could still worsen.
Low humidity and dry conditions in the area are further complicating the battle to contain the multiple blazing. But the biggest concern, winds. Forecasters warn that winds could reach 30 miles per hour on Thursday and could climb even higher on Friday to 60 miles per hour -- spreading the flames and making battling the fires even tougher for already fatigued firefighters.
SIMON: Twenty-seven people have been confirmed dead as a result of these fires and still, Wolf, a lot of people are reported to be missing, that number at 285. Hopefully, that number will be pared down as people report that their loved ones have been found. But it is a scary number and officials anticipate that the death toll will rise -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right. Dan Simon reporting for us from the scene, thank you.
There's more breaking news. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly is calling controversial tweets by President Trump about Puerto Rico exactly accurate, his words. The president blamed the island for its own financial problems, and warned that the federal government can't help with hurricane recovery efforts forever.
CNN's Ed Lavandera is joining us from San Juan right now.
Ed, you visited a part of the island today still very much in need of help.
ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf.
Well, we spent the day in a little town called Yabucoa, which is on the southeast corner of this island. It is the area where Hurricane Maria made its landfall here, so you can imagine the devastation that we saw here on the water's edge, incredibly devastating and intense even here now three weeks afterwards.
I asked several people that we met along the way today about those tweets from President Trump and, as you can imagine, the reaction rather heartfelt and intense and disgusted in many ways. One man we spoke with, who I said, I explained to him what -- you have to remember also that many people haven't -- aren't really getting these tweets as quickly as the rest of the world are getting them. It takes some time because of communications issues for this news to kind of filter down. So, when you explain to people what was said, I said, you know, talking about FEMA and first responders not being here forever and many people simply responding with a -- but they haven't even gotten started yet.
So, many people here facing possibly a year without electricity, a long, daunting task. Many people here feel like they're not even out of the starting gates and the recovery process. One man we spoke to who I told about President Trump's tweet said, I wish I could talk to that guy. He needs to come here and walk in our shoes to see what we're dealing with.
So, you know, that reaction very intense and one of the things that we didn't really see a whole lot of today, Wolf, as we drove from San Juan down to the southeast corner of the island and back here this afternoon, one thing, for example, power crews, downed power lines wherever you see and no real sense that the power is coming back online -- Wolf.
[18:50:07] BLITZER: So, what do you see about, you know, food and water, for example, the distribution. I know in San Juan, it's pretty good. But what about when you drive a half an hour, an hour, a few hours outside of the capital?
LAVANDERA: Once you get outside of the capital of San Juan, life becomes very complicated. At least what I picked up on today is many people scrambling to try to figure out how to make ends work. One guy I spoke with says he has a job at a high-end resort in corner of the island. There was a resident there who has a multi-thousand dollar water purification system and because of that, he's able to get some clean water and bring it back to his house. So there are people who are just kind of scrambling in trying to figure out ways of keeping themselves with the bare necessities here at this point.
BLITZER: Ed Lavandera in San Juan for us -- Ed, thank you very much.
There's more breaking news we're following. The White House chief of staff says Americans should be concerned about North Korea and he reveals that the Kim Jong-un regime has some new nuclear projects.
[18:55:50] BLITZER: Breaking news tonight: the White House Chief of Staff John Kelly says Americans should be concerned about North Korea's ability to reach the United States, revealing that the Kim Jong-un regime is developing what Kelly calls a pretty good nuclear reentry vehicle.
CNN's Brian Todd is here with more.
Brian, weapons are only part of North Korea's strategy right now in dealing with the United States.
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.
There's another part of Kim Jong-un's strategy we're drilling down on tonight. At the same time Kim has been test-firing missiles and even recently launching a cyber attack against the U.S., the regime has been generous with American journalists and has reached out to analysts from conservative think tanks in the U.S. Experts say the North Korean dictator is probing for more intelligence on President Trump.
TODD (voice-over): Tonight, Kim Jong-un appears to be burning both ends of a dangerous candle with the United States. On one end, the North Korean ramps up its public threats. North Korea's foreign minister telling a Russian state news agency that President Trump in his recent U.N. speech, quote, lit the wick of war against us, and Kim is going beyond words, allegedly ordering a cyber attack on American infrastructure. The cybersecurity firm FireEye says it detected spear phishing attempts in recent days on American electric companies, attacks which likely came from North Korean hackers. BRYCE BOLAND, FIREEYE INC.: As the U.N. sanctions come in, we only
anticipate that North Korea will need to use even more of its cyber capabilities in order to prop up its economy.
TODD: But as Kim continues those attacks, plus missile and nuclear test, he's also trying to learn more about his adversaries North Korean officials have recently tried to set up meetings with experts from conservative leaning think tanks in the U.S., like former CIA analyst Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation.
BRUCE KLINGNER, THE HERITAGE FOUNDATION: They perceive that we would likely have a greater entree to the Trump administration.
TODD: Klingner turned down an invitation to visit Pyongyang.
REPORTER: Have you guys ever met an American before?
TODD: Also, the regime's recently allowed several American journalists to travel to North Korea, including reporters from CNN, "The Wall Street Journal", "The New Yorker," and Nicholas Kristof of the "New York Times" who came back and recounted even with the outreach, North Korea is still on a war footing.
NICHOLAS KRISTOF, NEW YORK TIMES COLUMNIST: There was much more military mobilization in the capital of Pyongyang. Everywhere you go, there are billboards showing North Korean missiles striking the U.S. Capitol. Students are parading with these kind of military marches and there's an element of menace in the air frankly.
TODD: North Korea's recent missile tests are celebrated, commemorated with collector's stamps like these. Analysts say by alternately threatening and reaching out, Kim is pursuing a purposeful dual strategy with America.
SUE TERRY, FORMER CIA KOREA ANALYST: I think what Kim Jong-un is trying to do is figure out the Trump administration and what the policy is going to be and because it's a little bit unpredictable, he has to be prepared.
TODD: And specifically, Klingner believes Kim's after a crucial piece of intelligence.
KLINGNER: Is the Trump administration going to do a military strike to prevent North Korea from completing development of its ICBM? We've seen statements from the president, the secretary of state, the national security adviser which would suggest that.
TODD: Beyond trying to figure out President Trump's mindset and learn whether the president might order a preemptive attack on his regime, analysts say Kim Jong-un has a broader, long-term goal with this dual strategy. To get the United States to negotiate with North Korea, as an equal partner, to recognize it as a nuclear power. That goal, most analysts believe, Kim Jong-un will likely never reach -- Wolf. BLITZER: But at the same time, Brian, chief of staff John Kelly's
comments today hint that the North Koreans could be on the verge of a huge breakthrough right now with their missile capabilities.
TODD: That's right, Wolf. Kelly said North Korea is, quote, developing a pretty good nuclear reentry vehicle. Now, for a North Korean long-range missile to be able to hit the continental U.S., it has to be able to reenter the earth's atmosphere without disintegrating. We've been reporting that they may not have that capability yet, but if what Kelly says is true, that could be very alarming.
BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting for us, Brian, we'll watch this story very, very closely. Thanks very much.
And to our viewers, thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.