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Hurricane Maria Killed Nearly 3,000 People; Ohr Grilled by GOP; Judge Delays Manafort Trial; Giuliani Defends Handling of Legal Defense; Trump-Sessions Relationship; Trump Pressured to Honor McCain. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired August 28, 2018 - 13:00   ET


[13:00:00] DANA BASH, CNN ANCHOR: All right, everybody, thank you so much -- it's true -- for joining us on INSIDE POLITICS. "WOLF" tarts right now.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer. It's 1:00 p.m. here in Washington, 7:00 p.m. in Rome, 2:00 a.m. Wednesday in Pyongyang. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us.

A stunning new report shows nearly 3,000 Hurricane Maria linked deaths in Puerto Rico, up from just 64.

Also, a secret letter from North Korea to the United States that resulted in the cancellation of Secretary of State Pompeo's trip to Pyongyang. So what was in it?

And I'll be joined by Pennsylvania's attorney general who says he has evidence the Vatican knew about a systematic cover-up in his state to protect abusive priests.

All that coming up.

But let's begin with the breaking news.

Hurricane Maria killed thousands more than initially reported. That according to a new study commissioned by the government of Puerto Rico. Researchers from George Washington University here in Washington, those researchers say the correct death toll should be 2,975. That's up from just 64.

Let's go to our correspondent, Leyla Santiago. She's here in Washington. She's over at George Washington University.

Leyla, you've been doing a lot of excellent reporting on all of this. This is a massive, massive change. Now, remember, these are all U.S. citizens we're talking about. Update our viewers. What can you tell us?

LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I just finished talking to the two lead researchers on this study, and the big question now, Wolf, OK, this study commissioned by Puerto Rico has found 2,975 to be the number of excess deaths, but will the government of Puerto Rico now take this study, now take this number and make it the official death toll?

I have reached out to the government. Several hours now waiting on their response. They have not given that yet.

But I want to make clear exactly what this is. Again, 2,975 is what they believe is the excess in deaths over what they believe would be average at this point had Hurricane Maria not gone by Puerto Rico, not destroyed Puerto Rico. But this is not a list of nearly 3,000 deaths that they have causes for that they believe to be Hurricane Maria related. So for many of the families who were hoping for some sort of closure, for some sort of help financially by being counted, they will not be getting this from this statistical analysis.

One of the things I asked one of the researchers, you know, there have been other studies. You and I both, Wolf, have reported on the Harvard study that came out a few months ago that believed it was about 4,000 deaths. Our own investigation, which revealed back then in November that there were hundreds of people who died related to Hurricane Maria.

So what made this different? And the researchers say that what made this different was that they had access to cooperation from the government of Puerto Rico, access to information that the other studies did not have.

Now, this study, the researchers say, is not all the way complete. This is only phase one. They want to do a phase two, which would then go and talk to the families, talk to more people, possibly get that list of names and have a better understanding of what happened. But they also highlighted some of the trends, some of the things that they say could be used in the future to prevent deaths. They said vulnerably -- particularly vulnerable were old men in areas that were poor in Puerto Rico. That they saw more deaths in that, about a 60 percent increase in deaths among that population.

They also talked about lack of communication between health care and government officials, local municipality officials, central and federal government officials. They really did highlight some discrepancies in filling out death certificates and how doctors were not formally trained on how to do that and how that could lead in such a gap where today we stand at an official government death toll of 64 while this study stands at nearly 3,000.

But again, Wolf, the very big question, the next step in this is finding out, will the government of Puerto Rico change that death toll to reflect this number? When this study was officially commissioned, I specifically asked the governor of Puerto Rico that question. He told me that he would be accepting those findings. I have not had that response today. Waiting on that, Wolf.

BLITZER: We're waiting on that.

And just for some perspective, it was almost exactly 13 years ago this week that Hurricane Katrina wound up killing about 1,800 Americans in New Orleans and elsewhere along the Gulf Coast, 1,800, now close to 3,000 in Puerto Rico. [13:05:03] Leyla, we will stay in touch with you. When you get the

word from the governor, we'll, of course, put that on the air right away.

Leyla Santiago is in Washington with this really stunning report.

There's other important news we're following here in Washington. Back in court, attorneys for Paul Manafort are discussing the terms for his next trial. The judge agrees to a delay. Manafort's lawyers push for a change of venue.

And on the hot seat, a Justice Department official gets grilled by Republican lawmakers in a closed door hearing up on Capitol Hill. Bruce Ohr is under fire for his contacts with Christopher Steele, the former British spy who compiled that infamous dossier on Donald Trump during the campaign. Republicans point to Ohr as evidence of bias within the U.S. Justice Department that led to the special counsel's Russia investigation. Democrats say the GOP is pushing conspiracy theories. But a Republican lawmaker at today's hearings is raising questions about the dossier. Listen.


REP. MARK MEADOWS (R), NORTH CAROLINA: Not only did the FBI know that the dossier was unverified, but they also knew that there was real credibility issues where it would never end up in a courtroom because of the inherent way that it was collected and the bias that was associated with that.

It appears before we actually ended up initiating that first FISA application that there were credibility issues with regards to the dossier that the FBI knew about. And that's very troubling.


BLITZER: Let's bring in our crime and justice reporter, Shimon Prokupecz, who's joining us now.

Shimon, Bruce Ohr, he's testifying behind closed doors. First of all, why is it behind closed doors, and why is it just Republicans who are asking the questions?

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, Wolf, obviously it's the Republicans who have taken issue with some of the work that went into the dossier, with the FISA, the Carter Page FISA. They are the ones predominantly who have been raising this issue. Some feel, you know, on behest -- because this is what the president has wanted them to do, to try and discredit the entire Russia investigation.

A lot of this is closed door because they're talking about internal issues, Department of Justice issues, things that just have not been public perhaps. Also there's supposed to be a classified briefing on some of this information as well.

And, you know, as we all know, Bruce Ohr has been under attack by the president, recently threatening to remove his security clearance. And keep in mind, this is a career employee of the Department of Justice. It would be pretty difficult. They would have to find cause to try and fire him. Of course, the Republicans arguing that these conversations that he had with Christopher Steele, who put this dossier together, those conversations continued even after the FBI stopped using Christopher Steele as an informant.

The other thing that they're looking at is Bruce Ohr's wife, Nellie Ohr, who had worked for Fusion GPS. This is the company obviously that was hired by the Clinton campaign to do the dossier.

BLITZER: We mentioned that Paul Manafort's lawyers, Shimon, were back in court today. Fill us in on what was decided and the efforts to move this trial, if that's supposed to take place at the end of September.

PROKUPECZ: Right. So the attorneys for Paul Manafort today raised the idea of perhaps that they're going to say, they're going to asked the judge to move this trial out of Washington, D.C. All this as they were in court today arguing about the jury instructions and questions that could be asked.

Two things that came up. Most importantly, one is that the judge has agreed to delay the start of the trial, that is the opening statements, by a week. Supposed to begin on September 17th. It's now going to start on September 24th. Jury selection, however, will still begin on the 17th.

The other thing that came up is whether or not the president, President Donald Trump, and Paul Manafort's work for the campaign would be brought up at the trial through witnesses, through evidence. The judge there saying today that that's not going to happen. This is something that the defense team, like in the first trial, was trying to keep out of the jury.

BLITZER: Shimon Prokupecz with the latest on both of those fronts.

Shimon, thank you very much.

Let's bring in our experts for some analysis. We have the former Department of Justice prosecutor Joseph Moreno and A.B. Stoddard, associate editor and columnist for RealClearPolitics.

A.B., what do you make of this "Wall Street Journal" report that Manafort and -- that his team actually met with lawyers -- that Manafort -- Manafort's lawyers met with Paul (ph) Mueller's team to see if there's some sort of deal potentially, even as the first trial was underway that potentially could be work the out?

A.B. STODDARD, ASSOCIATE EDITOR AND COLUMNIST, REALCLEARPOLITICS: I was stunned because all along Paul Manafort has made it very clear he wanted to fight this out through two trials, that he was going to proclaim his innocence and defend himself to the end, that there would be no deal, no cooperation. He ended up in solitary confinement because of witness tampering. He has been -- he's been pretty defiant all along. The idea that during those deliberations he actually so last minute, so 11th hour, sought to come to some kind of agreement. It obviously fell apart. Our understanding is he wasn't willing to go as far in full cooperation as those deals require is interesting. But he -- but it doesn't seem that he, in the end, really wants to cooperate. The timing of it was very, very strange, to wait until he had so little leverage.

[13:10:27] BLITZER: What do you think?

JOSEPH MORENO, FORMER DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE PROSECUTOR: Well, to A.B.'s point, I think the public surprise at this is that Paul Manafort has had this public face of defiance, right? I will fight the charges. I'm not interested in a deal.

But the reality is, as these trials progress and you start to see the weight of the evidence against you and you see the jury is kind of nodding their heads at the prosecution's story that they're telling about you and you're getting closer and closer to that final day of judgment, people's minds can easily change. And having, you know, to Shimon's point, another trial around the corner in a probably even more hostile venue with even more dramatic charges against him, I have to think that a plea has to be on Mr. Manafort's mind. And if negotiations have broken down, it would not shock me a minute if they are restarted at some point.

BLITZER: Would you be surprised, Joseph, if they move the trial outside of the District of Columbia?

MORENO: That's a fairly extreme measure. I can see why Mr. Manafort's defense team would make the argument. He'll say, I can't get a fair hearing in D.C. because the president has single-digit popularity in this jurisdiction. But that's an extremely difficult decision to get from a judge. More likely they'll have a vigorous (INAUDIBLE). They will vet the jurors. They will ask them, as they did in Virginia a few months ago, can you -- can you view the evidence fairly and make a fair decision? And the criminal justice system will work as it's supposed to.

BLITZER: Rudy Giuliani, the president's lawyer, A.B., told our Dana Bash yesterday that it's been about three weeks since they responded in a letter to Mueller -- Mueller's team about the possibility of the president actually sitting down for an interview. They haven't heard anything back since then. Does anybody really think there's going to be an interview? Because the various options are a subpoena to testify before a grand jury if that's what -- if that's what the Mueller team wants to do.

STODDARD: Right. I heard Alan Dershowitz on your air this morning basically saying that the Trump team made an offer that Mueller couldn't accept. And they'll always argue that it was an offer, but all along they've known that the president was not going to sit down for an interview.

Are they waiting for a subpoena? We don't think. If we -- the study we've made of Bob Mueller is that he's really a by-the-book guy. And after James Comey's intervention 11 days before the 2016 election, it's not likely for him to get into a huge subpoena battle late into the month of September with the president and his legal team. There's also a ruse afoot perpetrated by Rudy Giuliani and other Trump

allies that Trump -- that Bob Mueller's going to finish the entire investigation by this weekend, which is not true. It's going to go on and on and on. Is he going to intervene with the midterm elections? That's not likely. But we -- we're looking probably at a long pause, but also an investigation that's likely to carry on much longer than the president's team is willing to admit.

BLITZER: And if there's a subpoena to the president to testify before a grand jury, that could drag through the courts for a long time.

MORENO: It can and it will. I mean, ultimately, my view, and I think the view of most of us in the field, is that a president would ultimately have to submit to a subpoena or else plead the Fifth. But, you're right, it will take months to weave its way through the courts, possibly even getting to the Supreme Court to make a final decision.

BLITZER: How is this playing out politically right now, A.B., because we are -- we are only, what, 70 days or so from the midterm elections? Is it likely that -- there's no way it's going to be wrapped up before then. It's going to go on. But the question is, does Mueller, for political reasons, because there is a tradition at the Department of Justice, you don't make these kinds of announcements, major statements in advance of an election by those who are part of the election. I guess the president's part of the election, even though he personally isn't running. There's a tradition you avoid that.

STODDARD: I just think he -- it's going to be dark from now through well after November 6th. And I think that this idea that you can see conservatives on Twitter saying, Special Counsel Mueller, it's time to get everything wrapped up by the weekend. He's going to have a report to Congress. This is -- this is -- we're looking at a long, long road. It could go well into 2019. But, yes, is it going to affect the midterms? It is because there's new news out of the Southern District of New York and new legal peril for the president that's going to be part of the Democrat's narrative in the campaign.

BLITZER: And let's not forget, the Iran Contra investigation went on for seven years. The Whitewater investigation during the Bill Clinton administration, that went on for six or seven years too. This has been going on for just more than a year so far.

Guys, thank you very, very much.

Up next, a new push for President Trump to fire his Attorney General Jeff Sessions. This time coming in from some evangelical leaders here in the United States. Is he losing support for his remaining allies at the same time in the U.S. Senate?

[13:14:57] And a rare reversal. What's behind President Trump's decision to finally praise Senator John McCain? Republican Senator Mike Rounds, he's standing by live, we'll discuss that and much more with him when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: Damage beyond repair. That's how the relationship between President Trump and the attorney general of the United States, Jeff Sessions, is being viewed. Listen to this.


SEN. LINDSAY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: But we need an attorney general that can work with the president, that can lead the Department of Justice. This relationship is beyond repair, I think. The president's lost confidence in Jeff Sessions. And I'm telling you what everybody in the country knows, this is a dysfunctional relationship. We need a better one. Is there somebody who's highly qualified that has the confidence of the president that will also understand their job is to protect Mueller? Yes, I think we can find that person after the election if that's what the president wants.


[13:20:08] BLITZER: Let's discuss that and more. South Dakota Senator Mike Rounds is joining us. He's a Republican. He's a member of the Armed Services Committee.

Senator, thanks so much for joining us.

Let me get your quick reaction to what we just heard from Lindsey Graham. Is Jeff Sessions the right man for the job right now, or as Senator Graham suggestions, the relationship with the president can't be fixed?

SEN. MIKE ROUNDS (R), SOUTH DAKOTA: I think Lindsay probably does as good a job as anybody does in terms of trying to analyze the situation. That doesn't mean that Jeff Sessions has lost the confidence of folks within the United States Senate. We really think the president made the right choice in the first place. We thought he was a great choice as the attorney general. We understand that relationships are strained right now. We just simply think the president did make the right choice in the first place and we think that Attorney General Sessions has made the right choice when he stepped aside to begin with, with regard to the Mueller investigation. And he -- he did what he thought was the right thing to do. And that's the one thing about Jeff Sessions, he's going to do what he thinks is right. And that's what this department needs right now.

BLITZER: Are you OK if the president does go ahead and fire Sessions after the midterm elections?

ROUNDS: Look, I hadn't really thought about timing on this stuff as much as I have just the thought that it sends a message of distrust or a suggestion that he -- that the president would want someone who might very well take a different approach to the Mueller investigation. And if he would be terminating Attorney General Sessions because of the Mueller investigation, then I think we're going to have some serious issues because most of us believe that we should follow this through until it is complete. And at the same time, we still have this huge amount of respect for a man that we really think is doing things for the right purposes. And I -- look, times can change, and no one should ever say someone

should be in a position forever. But I think this is something that Attorney General Sessions and the president need to look at each other, sit down, and come to an appropriate decision. But if it's simply a matter of coming after Mr. Sessions because the president feels that Jeff made the wrong choice when he excused himself or recused himself, then I think there's going to be some real hard political questions for the president to have to answer.

BLITZER: Do you agree with Senator Lindsey Graham that any potential replacement, a nominee to become the attorney general of the United States, has to promise the U.S. Senate during confirmation hearings that the new attorney general would allow the special counsel, Robert Mueller, to do his job, to finish the job, even if he's ordered by the president to fire him, to end the investigation.

ROUNDS: You know, I think that's part of the reason why we keep saying that Attorney General Sessions is the right guy for the job right now. As long as he's in office, you don't have that question being asked. And you also don't have the president of the United States being reminded of the need for that investigation to continue on. So I think regardless of who is in that position of being the attorney general of the United States, that question is always going to be there in terms of, do you support the independent investigation that is currently moving forward? And we just want to see it get completed. We'd like to see it expedited. We'd like to see it complete.

The president's been right when he says there has been no evidence of collusion. And so when you move forward, you can understand the reason why he is frustrated. He'd like to get on with things that he wants to get done. We don't blame him for that.

BLITZER: Yes. Well, we have no idea --

ROUNDS: This is the tough part of it. Yes.

BLITZER: We have no idea what Mueller may have collected, you know, behind closed doors. There's been very little, if any, leaking coming out of Mueller's team. So we don't know what evidence he has or doesn't have. But, you're right, let him finish his job, issue a report to the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, who oversees him, and then Rosenstein can submit it to Congress and you guys in the House and Senate can do with it what you want.

Let's move on to John McCain. A man you knew well. I'm sure you admired him, like almost everyone else. What do you think of the criticism the president has been receiving for his lack of an early response in praising Senator McCain as an American hero and the role that he played?

ROUNDS: I wish it wasn't so. I met John back in 2008 when he was on the bus and I rode with him from Rapid City to Sturgis, where he spoke to 40,000 bikers there on an evening. That was -- it was one of the most memorable events I've ever been at. I'll never forget it.

And John got up there and he just wowed them. And they loved him. And at that point you realized just what an impact he had and how revered he was.

And so, look, we'd love to see the president be able to step in and to have that same type of respect for the body of work this man has accumulated over literally decades. Look, he truly is an American hero. He truly represents some of the finest things that this country has to offer.

But I can also share with you, John could be cantankerous. And that was part of the -- part of what I think we loved about him was -- I remember telling him one time, I said, John, I haven't had anybody yell at me in over two weeks. You feeling OK? And so I -- he could be a character. But we all knew that.

[13:25:14] And sitting in the committee, you knew what his focus was. It was on the men and women who wear the uniform. You knew his focus was on what was right. But he also held the Department of Defense accountable.

I remember on numerous occasions where he would step up and say, I think they're out of line with their budget. I think they're asking too much. They're wasting money over here. So he was a hard driver. And in doing so, he wasn't afraid to -- he wasn't afraid to ruffle feathers.

And you have another strong personality in President Trump. And he doesn't like it when somebody is ruffling feathers.


ROUNDS: So you can see where the two would conflict. The difference is, is with John, most folks have been able to come back in, sit down and say, look, I get it, that's his personality. I don't think those two were ever able to resolve their differences. That's very unfortunate.

BLITZER: And very quickly -- very quickly, we're out of time, you support this proposal to rename the Russell Senate Office Building the McCain Senate Office Building?

ROUNDS: I think that's one proposal that would be a very good one. There's another one to rename the Armed Services Committee Room. I think Mitch has got the right idea. Mitch McConnell has got the right idea, let's get a regular order committee put together. Let's go back in and look at all the different ideas and then let's lay out a planned strategy after we get all the ideas. But I think the Russell Building is one very good idea.

BLITZER: Senator Rounds, as usual, thanks so much for joining us.

ROUNDS: Thank you.

BLITZER: Up next, Pennsylvania's attorney general standing by to join me live. He says he has evidence the Vatican knew about a systematic cover-up in a state to protect abusive priests. We'll have more with him. Stand by for that. And the defense secretary of the United States, James Mattis, now

weighing in on the future of joint U.S. military exercises with South Korea. What that could mean to the relationship between the U.S. and North Korea.