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ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT

Trump Signals Wider Shakeup Among Senior Staff Soon; Polls Closing Soon In Pennsylvania High-Stakes Race, Awaiting Results; Dems Furious After GOP Shuts Down Russia Probe. Aired 7-8p ET

Aired March 13, 2018 - 19:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[19:00:13] ERIN BURNETT, CNN HOST: Good evening, I'm Erin Burnett. Welcome to special edition of OUTFRONT. We're watching special congressional election in Pennsylvania that could be a sign of serious trouble for President Trump and Republicans, and we're going to be getting first results very shortly.

First, more breaking news, we are following breaking news from the White House tonight, a number of late developments to tell you about. President Trump is signaling an even bigger shake-up. Prepare to dismiss top aids that he has clashed with. Our Jim Sciutto has new reporting on some of the big names who may be on the chopping block tonight. It's pretty stunning how quickly the story of chaos is developing. We have more on that in a moment.

We are learning that the President meantime is seeking to oust his embattled Veteran Affairs Secretary David Shulkin. Sources are telling us President Trump has grown irritated with him and he's now seriously considering causing another vacancy to possibly replace him by taking the Energy Secretary Rick Perry and putting him over to take over Shulkin's spot.

This comes just hours of course after the President fired his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson without warning. Tillerson, finding out over Twitter. Trump naming CIA director Mike Pompeo to replace him and naming Pompeo's deputy Gina Haspel to lead the CIA.

It is a pretty stunning day of development. I want to start with the next possible dramatic shake-up inside the West Wing which we are learning about his evening. Jim Sciutto is out front breaking these details. And Jim what are you learning?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Erin, my colleagues Pamela Brown, Jenna McLaughlin, Kaitlyn Collins and I are told this evening that President Trump is considering a wider shake-up among senior staff as he seeks more like-minded advisers.

National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster appears poised to depart soon following months of speculation about his standing, people familiar with the matter tells CNN. Outside advisers to the President have also felt out potential candidates to replace Chief of Staff John Kelly, a person approached about this position tells CNN, Kelly's departure seen as less imminent than McMaster's.

And Trump publicly praised his chief of staff on stage in California today, though, he suggested that Kelly prefers life in the military. Officials said there is no solid sense of how long Kelly will last in the West Wing where he's brushed up against members of Trump's own family, including Jared Kushner, and Ivanka Trump.

Senior administration officials said that a further shake-up of senior staff could happen as soon as this week. Other officials suggesting a longer time line saying Trump could execute changes over the course of the next two months. Earlier today, Trump told reporters at the White House that he was nearing his staffing ideal.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I've gotten to know a lot of people very well over the last year. And I'm really at a point where we are getting very close to having the cabinet and other things that I want.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCIUTTO: I should note that we are told that these removals will happen once replacements have been identified and chosen.

BURNETT: Obviously, that's a crucial point, right. You have to have people who have agreed to do it, want to do it. And it's a lot of tumult they'll be walking into. Do you know, Jim, from your reporting on McMaster who the president is considering to replace him?

SCIUTTO: This is what we are learning,. The current candidates include John Bolton. He is the former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. under President George W. Bush, Oracle executive, yet executive Safra Catz, the current director of the NSA Admiral Mike Rogers, also Stephen Biegan, he's the Vice President of Ford Motors and a former senior staff member in the George W. Bush Administration.

We should note that Bolton has met personally with the President several times including during an Oval Office meeting just last week, he has also maintained a heavy presence on Fox News over the past week including we should know praising President Trump's decision on North Korea, Erin.

BURNETT: All right, Jim, thank you very much. And OUTFRONT now, our experts for the hour. And thanks to all of you. Sam Vinograd, obviously you worked as former Security Adviser for Obama, for President Obama. This is a major shake-up when you look at it obviously timing TBD and we know the President likes to spring that on people with surprise as he did this morning with Rex Tillerson. What does this mean, McMaster, possible Kelly, what?

SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, FORMER SECURITY ADVISER TO PRESIDENT OBAMA: I think it could all actually be a red hearing, Erin. You know, the President does not use his staff like other Presidents have in the past. So we're hearing about this personal changes let's take the state department for example. Rex Tillerson was a lame duck. He wasn't functioning as Secretary of State. So his removal may not really throw anything off course. It can be outstanding question is whether Mike Pompeo is going to be authorized to act like a Secretary of State to suggest policy, to implement policy or if he is just going to be another figure head sitting in foggy bottom waiting for the President to make policy via tweet or from the podium or elsewhere.

BURNETT: Scott, you know, you've been in the White House, right? You worked for George W. Bush.

[19:05:01] The turnover here is something we've never before seen. Many multiples 43% and George W. Bush try to remember between that and Obama 69, one of them -- they both were in single digits. What do you do when you're facing a moment like this, five people gone in the past two weeks, Rex Tillerson gone today, McMaster could be gone imminently, and that could be just the beginning, I mean of course there are still those swirling questions about Kelly himself.

SCOTT JENNINGS, FORMER SPECIAL ASSISTANT TO PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Yes, I mean regarding specifically the secretary of state, this is actually the one candid officer. There can be no daylight between the President and Secretary of State. When the Secretary of State speaks the world must believe he speaks for the President. Clearly, Tillerson has lost that confidence which made him ineffective.

So from that perspective if you want the state department, which I do, to have a bigger voice in the Oval Office and around the world, this is energizing for people who believe in the mission of the State Department. Regarding the wider issue of staffing, this president needs to have a team that he can trust. And I think to your point there were staffers that he's not using or not, you know, listening to, it's because he didn't have confidence in or didn't trust them, so at the end of the day, a President --

BURNETT: So you think this is good? All this turnover is a good thing?

JENNINGS: I will tell you this, I think having staffers that the President trust, that he will listen to, that he will deploy to implement his agenda is better than having a whole cabinet or a bunch of staffers that he just ignores which is what he was doing to Tillerson.

BURNETT: Who is he going to trust, Paul?

PAUL BEGALA, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Nobody.

BURNETT: Even some other people he trusted are gone. Keith Schiller is gone, Hope Hicks is gone, I mean the people he trusted aren't even sticking around.

BEGALA: He -- our President has had longer relationship with a porno star than with his secretary of state. OK.

That's what I'm concern about, what this says about --

BURNETT: I'd always trust you Paul to deliver a line like that.

BEGALA: It's an alleged affair. But sure she got paid $130,000 for not having an affair with Donald Trump. But we are seeing a president in meltdown and this has real effect. There's so many stories I think that got me, Fred Pleitgen from our network reporting from Moscow said that on Russian television, big show -- big popular show, he said there was a version of 60 Minutes. The anchor went on air talk about Tillerson, placing the blame for this nerve gas murder in England on Russia.

BURNETT: But Tillerson did aggressively loudly --

BEGALA: Yes.

BURNETT: -- and before the White House --

BEGALA: And this anchor pointed that out and said and immediately after he was fired by Trump then she went on to say, and I "We own Trump". When the Russians are boasting to the world that they own the American President, that's a crisis, then matter which staff he has around him. We have a president who seems to be in meltdown.

BURNETT: (INAUDIBLE).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I wouldn't believe Russian propaganda. I don't have much credence in it as Paul does. This was a long time coming with Rex Tillerson. He's a good man, he's accomplished man --

BURNETT: Can I just state the president, let's all just remember, when this all came out but he was going to fire Tillerson, maybe that was the time he should've done it, but he doesn't like it when people find out what he's doing so he called it fake news on Twitter. And then he had to wait a month or two to actually do it because he has to be able to say it's fake news. Obviously, it was real news. And now he's finally done it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Clearly shouldn't have fired him on Twitter, OK. But Tillerson, he didn't have any constituency in the building didn't have any constituency press core, didn't have any constituency Capitol Hill and didn't have relationship with the President. That is a failure to launch as secretary of state.

So this is a good move. Mike Pompeo actually has relationship with the President, shares his instincts, is smart and quick study and has proved at CIA he can run a large organization. So, yes, there's been a lot of chaos, a lot of it isn't good, but this is a good day for the administration to get rid of Tillerson and get in someone who has a better chance of success.

BURNETT: Well, Pompeo, Mark, is one of the few who really the President does seem to trust who he didn't know before. He talked about Pompeo, here's what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: I've worked with Mike Pompeo now for quite some time. Tremendous energy. Tremendous intellect. We are always on the same wave length.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BURNETT: Is Pompeo there for the long run then? And this is the only guy he's saying these positive things about he spent.

MARK PRESTON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: And he rolled those dice. I mean who knows how long he's there. Here is what they want Mike Pompeo, he has become very close to the President does spent an incredible amount of time with the President. Prior though to him becoming named the CIA director, you know, he did not know Mike Pompeo. They actually had no relationship whatsoever.

The good thing about Mke Pompeo is having him there, can he be a conduit to Congress, because right there doesn't seem to be a really strong conduit. I know Paul Ryan does a good job, I understand that. However, with the issues that he's going to be dealing with specifically when you are dealing with Iraq, Iran, North Korea, any of these foreign policy hot spots right now, you have to have a good relationship with Congress, hopefully Mike Pompeo can do that.

BURNETT: Joan.

JOAN WALSH, NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT, THE NATION: And also will he be able to convince the President. Pompeo actually does believe that the Russians meddled, that they meddled on the side to help Trump. Will he convince the President to begin to accept that and perhaps move on sanctions and perhaps move on sanctions and perhaps take that threat seriously as the 2010 -- 2018 midterms approach?

That would be a good thing. We're also not talking about the under secretary who got fired for telling the truth about the fact that Tillerson heard that he was fired on Twitter. The White House put out a statement, oh he was told last Friday. He knew. And the under secretary said no actually that's not true. He learned on Twitter, gone, you know, other administrations you get fired for lying. This one you get fired for telling the truth.

[19:10:10] BURNETT: For a guy who loves to say you're fired he's pre terrified by actually doing it or the way you should do it --

WALSH: But it got done.

BURNETT: All right. Thank you all you're all going to stay with me through the hour as we're getting a ready for this huge special election closing at 8:00. And top Republican also going to be reacting to the chaos in the Trump administration. The Governor of Ohio former presidential candidate John Kasich is OUTFRONT next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BURNETT: Welcome back to special edition of OUTFRONT. We're following the breaking news on several fronts this hour. A day of Major upheaval at the White House, sources telling CNN that President Trump has grown irritated with his Veterans Affair Secretary David Shulkin and is now planning to replace him possibly with Energy Secretary Rick Perry.

This comes just hours after Trump fired his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who found out about it on Twitter. We also told you National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Chief of Staff John Kelly are also on thin ice tonight. Senior White House Correspondent Jeff Zeleny joins me now with the latest. So Jeff, what else are you hearing about Secretary Shulkin?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Erin, there's no question that the President campaigned on veterans affairs and he's been disappointed by the output of his Veterans Affairs Secretary, he's been mired in controversy for weeks. So the President is looking to replace him we know. He hinted earlier today that he is trying to remake his cabinet.

[19:15:13] So Rick Perry, of course, the former Texas governor and Air Force veteran himself is one of the potential contenders here. The President wants to fix things and clean up house at the VA. We'll see if that happens. But, Erin, it sure feels like spring cleaning around here in the West Wing and throughout the cabinet, no question. So keep an eye on that as the week rolls on.

BURNETT: And when you say cleaning up, I mean, today the personal aide to the President Johnny McEntee is fired escorted from the building. What can you tell us about that?

ZELENY: Right. This is a long time adviser and body man if you will to the President who was with him all along through his run for the White House. He was removed from his office. And we're told he's under investigation by the Department Homeland Security for some type of financial irregularity or crime.

Now, we're told it does not relate to the President directly but he was escorted off the property. But at the same time this morning the same time this was coming out, the Trump election campaign 2020 said he's coming on as the senior adviser. So we still close to the President even though apparently, Erin, he's under investigation.

BURNETT: Possible criminal wrongdoing. Pretty stunning. Thank you so much Jeff.

ZELENY: Sure.

BURNETT: OUTFRONT now, two-term Republican governor of Ohio and former presidential candidate John Kasich. Governor thanks so much for taking the time to be with me. The news is moving fast and furious this evening. We are reporting Trump is making plans to dump his Veterans Affairs Secretary Shulkin. We're also reporting National Security Adviser McMaster is next. And of course, all of this comes on a day when the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson found out he was fired by a presidential tweet. Your reaction to this tumult.

GOV. JOHN KASICH (R), OHIO: Well, we're starting the NCAA tournament today, imagine if you were the coach or maybe that's not the best example. Were you are an NBA coach, OK, and you're going to have a game tonight and the owners just fired three of their people on the team, who you going to start? How are you going to play? I mean, look, I don't want to make light of it because we are talking about the President, we're talking about the administration. But being that governor of the seventh largest state, if I had all this turmoil, I wouldn't get anything done. I mean you have to have some stability to get things done. So I look at it and I'm just like, wow, I mean where is this going? And I don't feel good about it at all.

BURNETT: I mean, Rex Tillerson, before we even had the news that Shulkin and McMaster could be out the door, Rex Tillerson is the fifth top Trump administration official in the past two weeks, two weeks, to be fired or resigned. You can see the others there on the screen. You know, last week, as this was starting --

KASICH: Look, it's unprecedented. Nobody has ever seen anything like this. I know you want to have this team but what's the next team going to look like? And all I'm suggesting is I have --

BURNETT: I mean can you get eight? Remember he said there's 10 people for every job in the White House. Could that possibly be true at this point? Who would want to work for somebody who's doing this to the people --

KASICH: People that probably want to go in but the problem is then they go in, how do you get settled, how do you get going?

BURNETT: Yes.

KASICH: So when I started, I had a -- first of all, I had a game plan and I knew what I wanted. I knew the people I was going to take in and you have to get ahead of these things or how are you supposed to have anything done if everything is up in the air?

You know, and again back to a sports analogy, if the coach doesn't know who's going to be wearing a uniform, how are they supposed to have a game plan, how are they suppose win the game? And that's what's so concerning about all this.

BURNETT: You know, the President last week tweeted, "The new fake news narrative is there is chaos in the White House. Wrong. People will always come and go and I want strong dialog for making a final decision. I still have some people that I want to change, parentheses, always seeking perfection. There is no chaos, only great energy."

I mean the reality of it is if you are looking at turnover versus any other administration is chaotic.

KASICH: I guess it would defend on what your definition of chaos is. For me, it's chaotic. You know, what can I tell you, but he has the right to have the people that he wants. But I have to repeat, Erin, it would be like if you were going to do a show, a live show but you didn't know who any of your guests were going to be, and then you thought you had some, and then didn't have them. How are you supposed to do this?

BURNETT: Well, you can't do a good show. Yes.

KASICH: No. In this case you are the President of the United States. So there's a lot of very serious issues. Look, if he wants to do this, he wants to get another team in there, fine, he has that right. But my concern is all the disruption makes it very difficult to be effective.

BURNETT: There's also a security clearance question. One of the people gone is Johnny McEntee who is sort of the body man. You know, always with the President any time he traveled, carrying his bags and always there with him. Under investigation by Department of Homeland Security, we're finding out -- you can he see him on the screen now, for serious financial crimes, perhaps related to taxes and gambling according to one government official.

He was actually granted permanent security clearance. You know, keep in mind -- you know, Rob Porter wasn't, right, because they were looking at domestic issues. He actually had been given that now has been fired. Does that concern you that someone like that was able to pass all this and get into such an important position --

[19:20:09] KASICH: I don't know exactly how that works, but I think the proper authorities had to be the ones to vet him and maybe they missed something. I can't tell you what happened on that and I don't -- I'm not familiar enough with that case.

So I don't know what to say other than, again, it's deeply troubling. And, look, I want us to win. This is a time we've got, you know, we got have people in England now, you know, a father, a former spy and his daughter, clinging to life. Another person just died who was a Putin critic. You've got the whole issue of tariffs. You got the negotiations with North Korea. You have to be solid. You have to move forward on all these issues. And if you do, you're going to have a better result.

So I don't want to spend all my time. You know, look, what I want is I want see a strong team. I want us to win some games and send a message to the world that, you know, they can kind of believe us, they can trust us. They know that things are stable.

BURNETT: Right. Which obviously instability, not the message they are getting, today or any other day recently. We are moments away from the polls closing in special congressional election in Pennsylvania. You're from Pittsburgh originally, essentially now neighboring that close to neighboring a district in Ohio.

KASICH: Yes. I couldn't stay there, I couldn't have been elected to anything because it was I'm a Republican and it was very heavy Democrat district. But now, apparently, it went Republican for many years, and now it's kind of flipping back. So it's another thing that shows pendulums and change.

BURNETT: Where do you and Trump won this particular district by 20 points. And now the latest polls, and who knows right?

KASICH: Yes

BURNETT: Were closing here in a few minutes, but the Democrat Conor Lamb could win or come incredibly close to doing so. Trump came into the huge rally on Saturday night for the Republican Rick Saccone. Why is this race so close?

KASICH: I think probably organized labors come back. That the organized labor people are saying that this -- that we're not happy with the candidate and you'd start to see them kind of migrating back to the party I think. Plus the big question for Republicans really are going to be suburban women, young people, can they get greater votes in minority community. Its close as it is. I think you're going see that organized labor played unusual role here.

BURNETT: Would be very interesting to see. All right thank you very much Governor Kasich.

KASICH: It's always good to be with you. You do a great job.

BURNETT: Thank you.

KASICH: Thank you.

BURNETT: And just ahead the Republican heading up the Russian probe in the House Intelligence Committee backing away from his claim that Vladimir Putin didn't try to help Donald Trump win the 2016 election. We're going to talk about that and more with the top Democrat on that committee with a memo out tonight Adam Schiff

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[19:21:30]BURNETT: Breaking news, the Republican running the House Intel Committees, Russia probe appears to be backtracking tonight. Last night he said Putin did not try to help Trump win. Tonight he says you could look at it either way.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. MIKE CONAWAY (R), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: He was trying to hurt Hillary either hurt her or, you know, make it more difficult for her to be effective president. With nothing trying to hurt Hillary -- help Trump whatever it is, it's kind of a glass half full, glass half empty, however you look at it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: OUTFRONT tonight, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee Congressman Adam Schiff.

Congressman, thanks so much for being with us tonight. When we listen to Congressman Conaway here, obviously it sounds -- feels like a backtrack. What does it sound like to you?

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALOFIRNIA: Well, look, I don't think you can seriously argue that the Russians weren't trying to help Trump and Hurt Clinton. As well as so discord in the United States, the evidence is quite overwhelming on this. It was the early conclusion the intelligence community, but that's only been furthered by all of the evidence we've seen in our investigation. And clearly what Bob Mueller has seen and what has showed us, he has shown us in the indictment. But I think what the Republicans are struggling with is they're trying to placate the White House. They're trying to tell the White House -- the story the White House wants to be told. That's not their job. And when you read their draft report, as I did parts of it today, you see it looks like a series of talking points from the White House and it's a fundamental betrayal of the commitment the majority made and we along with them, that we would follow the facts wherever they lead.

They haven't been able to do it. And they shutdown the investigation before we were anywhere near done and now they're making these claims that they have to quickly walk back because they just can't stand any public scrutiny.

BURNETT: Now, so you are saying now you've read, you know, parts of their report as they're working on it. Congressman Mooney indicated they may take as many as 10 days to get it done. But you have already, Congressman Schiff come out here with a 21 page report I'm looking at it right now. A status report as you call it on the investigation. Obviously, the GOP has declared it over but you're putting this as a status report with more witnesses you want to speak to and also you say new information never before revealed. Such as?

SCHIFF: Well, as we've gone through the investigation, you know, you start out with a group of witnesses you want to talk and they lead you to other witnesses and they lead you to other documents, and there are certainly things that have come to our attention over time that we weren't aware of at earlier stage at the investigation. Even within the last week, if you look at the public reports that George Nader had testimony before the special council reportedly that contradicts what Erik Prince said under LOTOR (ph) committee. We'd like to know who is telling the truth. The majority has decided they just don't care.

We saw reports just this week that Roger Stone may not have been truthful to our committee that there are witnesses contradicting him including people like Sam Nunberg and others that have come to our attention. We'd like to know whether he was telling the truth or not. We'd like to know about his communications with (INAUDIBLE) and Wikileaks and have been asking for months to subpoena Twitter to get those records but the majority has said they simply don't want to know.

BURNETT: I spoke to your colleague, Congressman Tom Rooney last night, and obviously Republican member of your committee. And he was very blunt. He says your committee overall was in indictment of Democrats or Republicans, it was about the committee. He said the investigation has lost credibility. And I wanted to play for you his words.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. TOM ROONEY (R), FLORIDA: We have gone completely off the rails and now we are just basically a political forum for people to leak information to drive the day's news.

[19:30:03] So, we've -- as you alluded to, we've lost all credibility and we're going to issue probably two different reports unfortunately. So, in that regard, I -- that's why I called for the investigation to end.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ERIN BURNETT, CNN HOST: Congressman Schiff, has your committee lost all credibility and gone off the rails?

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA), RANKING MEMBER, HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Well, the leadership of the investigation lost all credibility back in March of last year, when our chairman went to the White House and announced that he had received from a secret source information implicating the Obama administration and an unmasking conspiracy only to have it revealed he had gotten that information from the White House. And he continued to run the investigation even when he had said he was recused. He would continue to either approve or deny subpoenas, approve or deny hearings, and then we had, of course, the whole chapter with the partisan Nunes memoranda.

Where I take issue with Mr. Rooney and, frankly, I think those statements are a cop-out he was helping to run the investigation he was setting the template for how they would conduct the investigation and they decided very early on that they were not going to be serious about finding out what Russia did. They were not going to get to the truth and that has been the fundamental problem that put us in the position in the minority of either going along with what essentially would be a whitewash or standing up and speaking out and we had really no choice but to do so.

BURNETT: Congressman Rooney alluded to something important as well in that but that you haven't responded to, and that is there have been a lot of leaks from your committee. As a ranking Democrat, Congressman Schiff, are you to blame for that?

SCHIFF: Well, I haven't leaked anything, and I made it clear and I think all the reporters who dealt with me that I don't speak to confidential committee matters and I certainly don't speak to classified information. I'm very careful about what I say notwithstanding the attacks that the president makes and that are echoed on FOX News.

And I've told the members of my committee months ago that if I catch anyone from our side leaking I'm going to ask that they be removed from the committee. Now, I'm not going to say that none of the leaks have come from our side. This has been a problem that has plagued both sides.

But the difference that we have seen is on the majority side, in several instances, the leaks have not only taken place from the majority, but they've taken place under instructions from the leadership of the majority and that's a very different ballgame and that I think was a willful effort to impede the credibility of the investigation.

BURNETT: All right. Congressman Schiff, thank you very much for your time tonight, sir.

SCHIFF: Thank you. BURNETT: All right, and we are moments away here within the half hour polls closing in this crucial race in Pennsylvania. Why are Democrats confident they have a chance to flip a seat and what was solid read Trump country, up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[19:36:37] BURNETT: And we are just moments away from the first results in tonight's Pennsylvania's special congressional election. This is a race that could give us some major clues on how the midterm elections are going to go later this year. President Trump won this district that we're looking at tonight by nearly 20 points. So, you'd think, hey, shoo-in, right? No, Republicans worry the seat might be about to fall into Democratic hands and it may seem surprising when you hear that, that a Democrat is competitive in such a deeply red district.

But this is not an isolated phenomenon. Let's get to John King with more.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: An intensity advantage or an enthusiasm gap is what Democrats are counting on tonight in Pennsylvania they have reason to believe their voters are coming out to play if they do they think they can win a district that President Trump carried just months ago by 20 points.

Why are the Democrats confident they have this intensity advantage? Well, they look at when the party even in defeat showed that its voters were ready to come out and play.

Let's start in Kansas. Now, to be clear, look at the red bars. Democrats lost both times, 2016 and 2017 in the state of Kansas, but look at the performance improvement. In 2017, Democratic performance up more than 20 points, Democrats want to play. Even in defeat, that makes the party happy.

Same thing in Montana, Democrats lost this House special election in 2017, but look at 2016, look at 2017, Democratic performance up by 15 points.

Now, Georgia was the exception. A House special election here, Democrats not only lost the seat, they saw their performance from 2016 drop a little bit. So, everybody studying this race, what did the Democrats do wrong? Is there something the Republicans can do right? They'll study Georgia, but Georgia was the exception.

Case in point: South Carolina, another House special election. Democrats lost the seat but they see reason to be happy in this -- their performance in 2017 up more than 15 points in that district from the 2016 presidential election. Democrats have intensity they're coming out.

Virginia was a big sweep in 2017 for the Democrats. Their performance only up a little more than three points, but in a state trending blue, they win the governor's race. They pick up state legislative seats, Democrats coming out to play, especially in key places. Then you move on here to the state of New Jersey, it's a blue state. So, the Democrat numbers are even, that's fine for the Democrats. If their voters come to play at the presidential level in 2016 and now in 2018, Democrats will do just fine some House seats at play in New Jersey, on the Republican side.

This, the crown jewel of 2017 from a Democratic perspective. Alabama, ruby-red Alabama now has a Democratic senator. How did that happen? Look at the performance jump, nearly 30 points in up from 2016 because Democrats want to play, want to win they're coming out with great intensity.

This is what the Democrats do -- they look back at 2017, they look at that intensity advantage, that enthusiasm gap. They think if they can carry this over into the 2018 midterms, then they can take back the House, possibly the Senate.

The first test of this in Pennsylvania tonight and that first test about minutes away, Erin, as we start to count the votes: Will there be Democratic intensity? Will Conor Lamb get the surge as many Democrats did in 2017? This is where we'll look, four counties in the district but Allegheny County, the lower slice of it here is part of the 18th congressional district. This is where most of the Democrats live. It's more than 40 percent of the vote in the district.

If Conor lamb is winning the southern part of Allegheny County and winning it big, he's in play tonight and Democrats here and will have a chance to steal a seat in Trump country.

[19:40:04] BURNETT: And obviously, that is -- would be a major coup for them.

Thank you very much, John King.

And a panel back with me. Also joining me, columnist Catherine Rampell for "The Washington Post".

So, let me start with you, Catherine, since you've just joining us. According to the filings, latest FEC filings we have, GOP supporters spent nearly $11 million, $10.7 million either directly trying to help the Republican here or trying to directly oppose the Democrat. Democratic groups only $2 million. Trump won this district by 20 points.

How in the world is it even close?

CATHERINE RAMPELL, COLUMNIST, THE WASHINGTON POST: Because Trump is floundering. And, by the way, given the numbers that you just mentioned, this is one of the most expensive House races on record when you adjust for the expected number of days in office that this winner will be serving, right, because this is a district that is not going to exist in a few months because of redistricting in Pennsylvania. So, when you adjust for that there's a lot of money being poured into this race for a person that will have to turn around and run in a different district fairly soon. Look, Trump has been an albatross around the neck of a lot of Republicans, so far so you can understand why the voters in this district may not be so thrilled about a candidate who's basically given him a bear hug.

BURNETT: Now, what's interesting, Mark, is that, you know, you heard Governor Kasich who obviously grew up near this area and is state now borders it, saying he thinks unions are coming back and they're coming back for Democrats.

But again, Trump won this 20 points and he went to that big rally for the Republican Rick Saccone. He went there this weekend. You know, we all heard it.

Here's what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Go out on Tuesday and just vote like -- you got to get out there. The world is watching. This -- I hate to put this pressure on you, Rick, they're all watching because I won this district like by 22 points. It's a lot. That's why I'm here.

Look at all those red hats, Rick, look, look at all those hats. That's a lot of hat.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: The Trump way mark of saying, right, if I did fine. Don't blame it on me if you can't pull it off, guy.

PRESTON: I'll tell you what, if you came from another world and you were beamed down and you watched that speech, you would think that Donald Trump himself was running in that district. He went up there to try to boost the candidate, right, Rick Saccone, to try to boost him up. He made it all about himself, except for a very little sliver, as we saw --

WALSH: And basically insulted him. And he's basically -- is throwing them under the bus, you're not a good candidate, I don't know what your problem is, but I -- it reminded me of Luther Strange when he campaigned for Luther Strange and he basically lost.

PRESTON: We do know that Republicans, too, are behind the scenes and I've had these conversations with them as well. Folks were involved in race. They said that he's a terrible candidate, they've already written him off, and we know that Trump believes that as well.

WALSH: And has said that, but Conor Lamb --

PRESTON: He is a terrible candidate.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Maybe they're such a big Democratic surge, it won't matter, but I suspect the Democrats take the House, it will be like '06 when a big element of it is running, impressive candidates like Conor Lamb who are fit for their district who distance himself from Nancy Pelosi and distance themselves from the liberal cultural agenda on issues like guns and abortion.

(CROSSTALK)

BURNETT: He loves it. You're not going to keep him off the campaign trail even if somebody says you're an albatross.

JENNINGS: Sure, well, he wants to be out there and there will be ways to deploy the president in places that could be helpful in some states. I went through this in the '06 cycle with President George W. Bush, he was able to campaign in some places, but not in others.

Regarding this district, Saccone, you know, everybody says he's a bad candidate, it shouldn't -- we shouldn't say he's a bad person. Great person served his country, but that doesn't make you the right fit for an individual race. He was not the right fit.

There were three Republicans considered by the local committee and they picked the worst one of the three because of local infighting and by the way, it is not Donald Trump's fault that the Republican congressman who resigned asked his mistress to get an abortion, painting this entire process that's not the president's fault and really pass --

(CROSSTALK)

BURNETT: Although interesting that the people should be arguing for Republican side here are far from endorsing and we're obviously just a few minutes away from the polls closing.

Paul, you're going to be first up next.

Just ahead moments away from the first results in the special election. So, stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[19:47:55] BURNETT: And welcome back to a special edition of OUTFRONT. We are counting the minutes down here special election, polls closing in a few moments that could shake up Congress and Pennsylvania, test the president and whether his party can win the midterms.

All right. Paul Begala, we're talking about the 18th district in Pennsylvania, crucial district, 20 points for Trump, favored Trump in this -- in the presidential election. The forecasting site FiveThirtyEight, though points out that in terms of registered Democrats, 46 percent, registered Republicans, 41. Does that make you look at this differently? Sure, they went for Trump, but it should go Democratic.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, it should if the Democrats have been doing their job for the last 10 or 15 years. It went for John McCain solidly. It went from Mitt Romney solidly. This is a snapshot, moving picture of the erosion of support the Democrats have suffered among the white working class and then Trump blew it out, Trump won in a landslide there.

BURNETT: Yes.

BEGALA: So, this is for Democrats sending a very good sign that Conor Lamb is bringing it back.

What if we were in a dead heat race in Brooklyn, what would it say to the Democrats -- if a Republican had a real shot at winning in Brooklyn?

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: So you'd say, so we need a bigger boat, Mr. President.

BURNETT: Did you hear Governor Kasich said? He thinks what this is about is labor unions. They're coming back and they're coming back to Democrats which, of course, we have seen a big shift in that at least a shift enough to make a big difference for President Trump. Do you think he could be right?

JENNINGS: I don't know. I -- again, I think local circumstances here I don't want to over read the national implications. I mean, clearly, there's been some erosion in the suburbs and the excerpts from Republicans since the president took over. But the White House will tell you their internal polling shows him in as good a shape today in this district as he was a month after the election.

I really think here, we got a look at the economy. You want to talk about labor unions, they just gift-wrapped the tariffs and 31,000 new manufacturing jobs on Friday.

(CROSSTALK)

RAMPELL: First of all, both candidates have endorsed the tariffs. Second of all, if you look at the polling, only 4 percent of the people in that district say that tariffs have influenced their vote at all.

WALSH: Really what matters is Conor Lamb. He's run a great campaign and then we say --

BURNETT: The Democrat.

WALSH: Yes, and when you say the unions are coming back to him, it's not just a magical force of nature kind of thing.

[19:50:01] It's something that he's gone out and done. He has courted them. He's done some things that Hillary Clinton didn't do. He's run a really smart campaign around economics.

(CROSSTALK)

BURNETT: Who wins, Rich? RICH LOWRY, EDITOR, NATIONAL REVIEW: Don't ask me like 20 minutes before the polls.

(LAUGHTER)

LOWRY: People might remember my prediction.

I just think of general analytical point and ignore that question. You know, Obama forging a coalition and then in midterms, he just could not turn out his base for other Democrats.

We may see the similar phenomenon with Trump where he had a coalition appeal to the kind of voters in this district, but can he actually get them to turnout for someone else? Probably not.

BURNETT: Right, and that's the big question. Of course, whether there's internal polls showing him up so much are true or not, that we won't find out yet as we await those first results in this crucial special election in Pennsylvania just moments away.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[19:55:17] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: We're just minutes away from the first results in tonight's special congressional election. I'm Wolf Blitzer. We want to welcome our viewers here in the United States and around the world.

The polls are about to close in the 18th congressional district in western Pennsylvania, concentrated in the suburbs just south of Pittsburgh. Tonight, President Trump could see a pocket of his blue- collar base turn on him and his party. It's been a Republican stronghold that went overwhelmingly for President Trump back in 2016, but Democrat Conor Lamb is running a very competitive race against Republican Rick Saccone who's fighting to keep the seat in GOP hands.

With help from President Trump who campaigned with him this past weekend, will soon get a sense of whether the president's involvement in this race paid off or backfired.

Jake, over to you.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this is another important testing ground ahead of the battle for control of Congress. In this year's midterm elections, Republicans are watching tonight's contest closely.

Let's get to our senior congressional correspondent Manu Raju for reaction from Capitol Hill.

Manu, are you sensing some nerves from Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill tonight?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Jake. Several Republican officials tell me tonight that they are expecting that Republican Rick Saccone will lose tonight to the Democrat Conor Lamb, and already, Jake, before the polls have even closed, the blame game is intensifying, pointing the fingers at two areas. One, the Saccone campaign and two, on President Trump himself which some Republicans believe that Saturday night rally that he had in this western Pennsylvania district may have helped Democrats more than it did help the Republicans.

Now, first on the Saccone campaign, some key Republicans say this is a lackluster campaign that did not do enough to define this opponent early and this is one key Republican is Corry Bliss who's the head of a super PAC that is tied to Speaker Paul Ryan.

Now, this is what Corry Bliss just said to me. He said: This is a very challenging environment for Republicans, we need good candidates to run good campaigns. This may not be nice to say. The fact is the Saccone campaign was a joke. If we had a candidate who could walk and chew gum at the same time, we would have won that race.

Now, other Republicans have also agreed with that assessment but, Jake, also the finger being pointed at President Trump himself with some Republicans believing it's turning up Democratic votes maybe up to three to one tonight. But we'll see what happens at the end of the night, Jake.

TAPPER: Thanks, Manu.

And you can tell just how worried some Republicans are in Washington, D.C. because of all the money that's been pouring into the race more than $10 million to help the Republican Rick Saccone in the district that might not even exist after November because of redistricting.

So, the question tonight the reason we're watching this race and covering it tonight is because the big question is whether Democrats can hang on to the momentum, Dana, the momentum that they had since President Trump was elected with the elections in New Jersey and Virginia and then, of course, in Alabama.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, and Democrats really believe that if they are successful the way that they think they will be tonight, that they will prove across the board to the energized resistance as they like to call themselves that it's worth it, that they can harness that and especially when they have candidates who they believe are the right fit for the district and who are just authentic personalities as they believe Conor Lamb the Democrat is.

Just bouncing off of what Manu said, I'm hearing the same thing. Republicans sometimes say, oh, we're going to lose, it's an expectations game. This time, they really seem to mean it and it is remarkable given the fact that Trump -- Donald Trump won by 20 points that this district has been in GOP hands for 16 years.

Republicans are hoping this is a wake-up call for their candidates to take this Democratic momentum seriously.

TAPPER: And not just a Trump winning it by 20 points. Mitt Romney won this district by 17 points, Wolf.

BLITZER: Lots of stake tonight.

Let's go over to John King over the magic wall.

Set the scene for us in this 18th congressional district.

KING: As you can see, it's southwest Pennsylvania. The district stretches over four counties, green, Washington, a small slice of Allegheny County at the south, in Westland County. Again, everyone's been talking about the history. President Trump won it over Hillary Clinton by 20 points, including -- this is key tonight -- Hillary Clinton carried Allegheny County, the largest county in this area.

But in this slice, the precincts that are in the 18th district, Donald Trump carried. So, this is the big test tonight for Conor Lamb. This is the most Democratic area of the district. Can the Democratic candidate turnout votes here in big numbers.

Remember in 2017, we saw all this Democratic intensity, the enthusiasm gap. This is what will look for the suburbs south of Pittsburgh, the part of Allegheny County, still in this district and the challenge for Rick Saccone, did the president convinced Republicans in these more rural counties to turn out tonight, Wolf. We'll start counting votes any second.

BLITZER: We're just moments away from polls closing in this key special congressional election tonight. It will be a very important test for the president of the United States.