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Interview With Texas Congressman Will Hurd; Republicans Target Obamacare Yet Again; Russian War Games; Nuclear Diplomacy; Senate GOP Working on Last-Ditch Obamacare Repeal; Trump Meeting with Latin American Leaders; Putin Watches Huge Russian War Games on NATO's Border. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired September 18, 2017 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news: Extremely dangerous. Hurricane Maria intensifies to a devastating Category 4 storm. We're tracking its power and path right now on the heels of two horrific hurricane disasters here in the United States.

Nuclear diplomacy. President Trump makes his debut at the United Nations, where the threat from North Korea is an urgent priority right now. Mr. Trump leaving U.N. members guessing about his next moves, as he mocks Kim Jong-un and his provocative missile launches.

Russian war games. Vladimir Putin presides over a powerful show of force right on NATO's border. Is he sending a troubling message to President Trump and the West?

And another try. We're following a new last-ditch Republican effort to repeal Obamacare. After multiple attempts and failures, could this compromise actually get through the Senate?

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: We're following breaking news tonight, an extremely dangerous hurricane. We just learned that Maria has intensified to a powerful Category 4 storm. It's expected to intensify even more as it heads toward the Caribbean islands of the Dominican, then on to Puerto Rico, where it's expected to make landfall.

Also this hour, President Trump meets with Latin American leaders as he makes his debut at the United Nations, giving U.N. members an initial taste of his unorthodox style and America-first agenda. On this, the eve of his big speech before the U.N. General Assembly, Mr. Trump is dropping new hints that he may scrap the nuclear deal with Iran, teasing that he will reveal his decision soon.

He's also vowing to keep the economic pressure on North Korea just hours after he mocked Kim Jong-un as Rocket Man. The U.N. is taking Kim's nuclear and missile programs very seriously, slapping North Korea with new sanctions to punish the regime. We're also following surprising new developments in the Trump/Russia

investigation. "The New York Times" reporting that White House attorney Ty Cobb was overheard talking publicly about the probe and disputes within the legal team about how much to cooperate with special counsel Robert Mueller. Cobb reportedly suggested that White House counsel Don McGahn was withholding documents that were locked in a safe.

"The Times" also reporting that White House officials fear colleagues may be wearing wires to record conversations for Mueller.

I will get reaction to those stories and more from Republican Congressman Will Hurd. He's a member of the Intelligence and Homeland Security Committees. And our correspondents and specialists are also standing by.

First, let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Jeff Zeleny. He's outside Trump Tower in New York City.

Jeff, the president will be staying there tonight as he prepares for his major speech before the U.N. tomorrow.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, President Trump has been here at home at Trump Tower working on that speech, I am told, throughout the afternoon. Aides describe it as one of the most important speeches he will give. Of course, it is going to fill in some of the blanks on the Trump doctrine, on Iran and, most urgently, on North Korea.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The main message is make the United Nations great. Not again. Make the United Nations great.

ZELENY (voice-over): President Trump striking a familiar tone at the United Nations today in his first visit since taking office. With foreign policy challenges rising in North Korea and Iran, the president started with the message to reform the U.N.

TRUMP: We encourage all member states to look at ways to take bold stands at the United Nations with an eye toward changing business as usual, and not being beholden to ways of the past, which were not working.

ZELENY: But his words today far more measured than on the campaign trail, when he blasted the U.N. as a bloated bureaucracy.

TRUMP: The United Nations is not a friend of democracy. It's not a friend to freedom. It's not a friend even to the United States of America, where, as you know, it has its home.

ZELENY: He even criticized the iconic emerald backdrop, where he will stand Tuesday in first address to the U.N. General Assembly, once saying on Twitter: "The cheap 12-inch square marble tiles behind speaker at U.N. always bothered me. I will replace with beautiful large marble slabs if they ask me."

But today far more pressing challenges sit on Trump's desk, a stand- off with North Korea and the Iran nuclear agreement hop atop the list of global flash points. The president is meeting with a parade of world leaders this week, starting today with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

TRUMP: We are going to be discussing many things. Among them, peace between the Palestinians and Israel will be a fantastic achievement. And we are giving it an absolute go.


ZELENY: The U.N. summit offers a chance for world leaders to take Mr. Trump's measure and to shower him with praise, as Netanyahu did today.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: Under your leadership, the alliance between America and Israel has never been stronger, never been deeper.

ZELENY: Chinese President Xi Jinping is not attending the U.N. summit this week, but spoke to Mr. Trump by phone today. The White House said the two leaders committed to maximizing pressure on North Korea through vigorous enforcement of United Nations Security Council resolutions.

North Korea's nuclear threat is one of the biggest reasons the president is taking a softer approach to the United Nations. He lives only blocks away, but today made a rare trip to U.N. headquarters, a place he has not believed to have visited often since this stop in 2001.

The real estate mogul in Trump came through the moment he arrived in the towering building today.

TRUMP: I actually saw great potential right across the street.

ZELENY: Trump World Tower, the president said, became a successful project because of its proximity to the U.N.


ZELENY: Now, despite disparaging the United Nations over the years, the president knows he now needs them, particularly the sanctions help from the U.N. Security Council as he deals with North Korea.

The Iran nuclear agreement also on the president's mind. Wolf, he was asked this afternoon if he plans to re-up in that agreement on that October 15 deadline. He said, you will see very soon -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jeff, thank you, Jeff Zeleny outside Trump Tower in New York.

Also tonight, Defense Secretary James Mattis is talking once again about U.S. military options as far as North Korea is concerned, as President Trump works at the U.N. to keep the pressure on Kim Jong-un. Let's go to our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto,

who is joining us from the United Nations.

Jim, the North Korea nuclear threat clearly an urgent concern over where you are at the U.N.


And you have the odd situation of an American president who has repeatedly derided, even dismissed the U.N. as an institution dependent, in effect, since he's become president on U.N. Security Council resolutions to deliver punishing sanctions against North Korea, which are a central part of the U.S. strategy in responding to North Korea's military escalation, its progress with missiles, with nuclear blasts, et cetera.

That said, a message, consistent message of the last 24 hours from Trump administration officials has been that their patience for diplomacy is running out.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): For world leaders convening at the U.N. General Assembly this week, the most pressing threat is a nuclear North Korea.

REX TILLERSON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: I think the U.N. Security Council resolutions really speak for themselves.

SCIUTTO: After a unanimous Security Council vote to tighten economic sanctions on the North, Trump administration officials say their patience for diplomacy is running short.

NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: We wanted to be responsible and go through all diplomatic means to get their attention first.

If that doesn't work, General Mattis will take care of it.

SCIUTTO: Those military options range from limited strikes on North Korean launch sites to more comprehensive decapitation strikes intended to knock out North Korea's leaders.

TILLERSON: If our diplomatic efforts fail, though, our military option will be the only one left. We have said from the beginning we don't have a lot of time left.

SCIUTTO: Any military strike, however, involves enormous potential human costs, including devastating threats to civilians and U.S. service members in the South Korean capital, Seoul, a fact that the U.S. Army chief of staff made clear today with allies.

GEN. MARK MILLEY, U.S. ARMY CHIEF OF STAFF: And it's absolutely critical that we all, every one of our countries, does everything humanly possible in the months ahead to avert an armed conflict and convince North Korea that their path of seeking nuclear weapons is the wrong path. SCIUTTO: U.S. and South Korean forces are ramming up preparations.

The U.S., South Korea and Japan conducted a show of force with bombers and fighter jets over the Korean Peninsula and continuing drills with ground forces. China and Russia beginning naval drills as well.


SCIUTTO: I spoke to a senior U.N. official a short time ago who told me that the reception here to President Trump's comments this morning, to his various bilateral meetings, his willingness to engage diplomatically has been positive.

They say that -- this official says that their level of concern about a military escalation in North Korea not so great. General concern, though, greater concern about what President Trump will do with the Iran nuclear deal.


And we have we have heard this from his private conversations expressing real doubts about that agreement from the U.S. perspective and concern here. Remember, of course, Wolf, it was at the U.N. General Assembly that the first signs of diplomatic rapprochement between Obama and Rouhani had happened here.

The question now among at least the senior U.N. leadership is, will President Trump begin to reverse that at this year's U.N. General Assembly, Wolf?

BLITZER: We will learn a lot over the next few days.

Thanks very much, Jim Sciutto, over at the U.N.

Let's get some more on all of this. Republican Congressman Will Hurd of Texas is joining us. He's a member of the Intelligence and Homeland Security Committees.

Congressman, how do you interpret what the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, said when she said -- and I'm quoting her now -- "General Mattis will take care of it" if diplomacy fails?

REP. WILL HURD (R), TEXAS: Well, she's alluding to the fact that our military would take some type of action to stop the problem of Kim Jong-un trying to achieve nuclear weapons.

We should have all options on the table, and we should be looking at this problem and what can we be doing in the short term, what can we be doing in the medium term, what can we be doing long term.

And the reality is, this is a great week to increase diplomacy with our allies during the U.N. General Assembly. And I know this is going to be a topic that is going to consume most conversations.

BLITZER: Do you really believe, Congressman, there's a realistic military option? Because, as you know, along the militarized zone, the North Koreans have a million troops and thousands and thousands of artillery and mortars that could be aimed right at Seoul, the capital of South Korea, 15, 20 miles away.

And within a matter of hours, thousands, if not tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people would be killed.

HURD: One correction on that, Wolf. It's not a matter of hours. It's a matter of minutes.

With Kim Jong-un's long-range artillery, he can kill hundreds of thousands of people in Seoul. So is there a military option that's going to result in zero casualties to our allies? I think that is difficult to imagine.

But there are still some things we can be doing right now. I hope during the U.N. General Assembly that talking about cutting off all fuel to North Korea. What does that do? You need trucks to move fuel to fuel your missiles. You need trucks to move folks back and forth.

You need fuel in order to power your generators that keep the computers going, that manage many of these programs. We have to start now, because I'm sure they have stockpiled a bunch of fuel to last for some kind of situation like this, but that's something that we should be doing.

And the latest round of sanctions, which is a good sign, it's a good sign that China and Russia have agreed with us and our other European allies on this threat, but we can go even further. The difference with North Korea and any other country on this planet is that 90 percent of their economy comes through China, so we have an opportunity to tighten fuel.

And that impacts every part of their military operation and their nuclear program. As we have seen with the naval exercises by China and Russia, our military planners should be having conversations with the Chinese military planners on what would happen if shooting does begin.

China is nervous that they're going to have a refugee problem, that is, the millions of North Korean refugees that would probably run to China's borders if something were to happen. That's a level of conversation that we should be having. But we should also still be focused on diplomacy.

The current president of South Korea, when he was campaigning, was talking about trying to have a rapprochement with North Korea. That tune has changed. Secretary Tillerson has always said that the goal is to try to resolve this situation diplomatically.

But in order to resolve something diplomatically, we have to create a space in order to do that. And we have to get Kim Jong-un to think that can he stay in power without having nuclear weapons? And that's his calculations. Right now, he believes that the only way he can stay in power is to do what his father and grandfather hadn't done, and that is having nuclear weapons that could strike anywhere on this Earth. But we also have to show that if he did not move and stopped his

nuclear weapons program, that we can create a secure environment in which he would stay. There's examples. If he's looking at the rest of the world, he's probably looking to the example of Ukraine, where Ukraine willingly gave up their nuclear weapons after the fall of the Soviet Union.


And they were supposed to have security assurances. And what happened? Russia invaded. Nothing happened there. So, I think that is more of a long-term issue, where we can prove that giving up nuclear weapons, that there are certain security assurances you can expect from the world community.

BLITZER: He's also looking at Moammar Gadhafi, who gave up his nuclear program, and we know how he wound up.

Very quickly, put on your hat as a former CIA clandestine officer, Congressman. What happens when the president of the United States ridicules Kim Jong-un and calls him Rocket Man? How do the North Koreans react to that?

HURD: Well, I think Kim Jong-un has shown himself someone who reacts to provocations, whether that reaches the level of him responding in some way.

The problem is most of North Koreans, the average North Korean probably has never seen that or saw that comment, because the type of stranglehold that Kim Jong-un has on information coming in, in that country.

BLITZER: Stand by, Congressman. There's more we're going to be discussing.

I have got to take a quick break, resume all of our special coverage right after this.



BLITZER: We're back with Congressman Will Hurd.

Congressman, what's your reaction to that "New York Times" reporter who overheard President Trump's lawyers openly discussing very, very sensitive information about how much to cooperate with the special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation? The two lawyers were sitting outside a popular Washington, D.C., restaurant and "The New York Times" reporter was at the next table.

HURD: Well, I spent nine-and-a-half years as an undercover officer in the CIA and I have had a lot of private conversations.

I think if you were involved in one of the most high-profile investigations in the world right now, I would either learn how to whisper or get a quieter restaurant.

This is -- every piece of information that is said is going to be dissected and I think it's good for nobody for information to come out that way.

BLITZER: One of the lawyers, Ty Cobb, one of the president's lawyers, also mentioned documents that are being stored in the White House counsel Don McGahn's safe.

Will your committee, the Intelligence Committee, seek those documents?

HURD: Well, understanding those documents what they are or not is the first step in understanding whether it goes to our investigation.

Our investigation is to look at what actually did the Russians do to try to influence our election, what was the government's response to that, were there any Americans involved in working with the Russians, and then the issue of intelligence information being shared publicly when it wasn't supposed to.

And we're trying to do this in a bipartisan and a thorough way. We have to be methodical in answering each one of those four -- each one of those four issues.

BLITZER: "The New York Times" also reporting, Congressman, that White House officials, at least some of them, fear their colleagues may be wired, walking around with microphones to record conversations for the special counsel, Bob Mueller.

That would be extraordinary if staffers in the White House were wired by the special counsel. What do you make of that?

HURD: Well, I think everyone is going to be suspicious because of the nature of the investigation.

Special prosecutor Mueller obviously is onto something. The fact that he's still hiring people is an indication that there is work being done. I think everybody is going to be looking over their shoulders just because this is probably one of the most talked-about and focused-on investigations that we have seen in the United States in America for a really long time.

BLITZER: You just returned from a visit to Ukraine, Congressman. Is Russia still interfering in Ukraine? What would you like to see happen?

HURD: The Russians are absolutely interfering in Ukraine.

And, unfortunately, some people are still referring to what's happening in Crimea in Eastern Ukraine as a separatist movement. It's not a separatist movement. It was an invasion of a sovereign country by Russia. There are 920 tanks in Eastern Ukraine.

There are more Russian military officers in Eastern Ukraine than there are Ukrainians. This is unacceptable and a violation of another country's sovereignty. The Russians are using their latest and greatest tools and techniques

in electronic warfare in Eastern Ukraine and we're seeing those tools and techniques exported to other parts of the world. Vladimir Putin recently floated the idea of having peacekeepers come.

Well, this was not a -- this is not a conflict. It was an invasion. And so if President Putin wants to see the problem resolved, he should leave Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. I'm sure this is going to be a topic of conversation during the U.N. General Assembly over the next few days.


And I hope nobody thinks to delink the issue of Eastern Ukraine from Crimea. The Ukrainians are our friends, are our allies. We should be supporting them, and they are on the front lines of defense of Europe. And what happens in Ukraine could potentially happen in the rest of Europe.

BLITZER: Congressman Will Hurd, thanks for joining us.

HURD: Always a pleasure, Wolf.

BLITZER: Just ahead: Vladimir Putin keeps a very close watch on new moves by Russia that are making NATO nervous right now.

We're tracking a powerful new Category 4 hurricane at the same time. When will Maria hit land and where? Stand by, a new forecast coming up.


BLITZER: The attorney hired by the White House to oversee the legal and media response to the investigation into Russian meddling in the presidential election was reportedly heard talking openly about the case at a restaurant here in Washington, D.C.

Let's dig deeper with our specialists and our analysts. And David Swerdlick, it's pretty amazing, these two lawyers, they're having lunch outside a big restaurant, major restaurant in Washington. A reporter from "The New York Times" sitting at the next table, he's hearing a conversation about some of the most sensitive issues involved in the legal case.

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, and two lawyers who really should know better, right? They're not at some obscure spot, which also they shouldn't be talking about sensitive matters anywhere, but especially at a place that's such a common location in Washington, D.C.

I think in terms of what it means politically is that, you know, the White House has gone with this narrative all along, not on the legal side but the political side, that there's nothing to see here; they have nothing to hide; there's no connections with Russia.

But if the reporting is right and there are documents that are being held back by the White House, at least at this point, it puts a hole in that narrative that there's nothing to see here.

BLITZER: Jeffrey Toobin, what are the ramifications of a conversation like this being overheard by a "New York Times" reporter?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, one of the first things you learn in law school is that if a third party is present when two lawyers or a lawyer and client are discussing privileged matters, the conversation is unprivileged. So Ken Vogel of the "New York Times," hats off to him. He was well within his rights in just sitting there and listening to this conversation.

So legally, there's certainly no problem with this disclosure, but I think what they were talking about is something that every White House under investigation tries to deal with, which is how cooperative to be. And there are often factions within the White House.

Here it appears these two lawyers, the outside lawyers, Ty Cobb, who is -- who is the main outside lawyer at this point, wants to be more fulsome in the disclosures, whereas the White House does not. And that's the tension.

The real curiosity of this scoop by "The New York Times" is the reference to some documents in a safe that the White House counsel may be keeping. That is something that will certainly attract the interest of congressional investigators and, of course, the Mueller team, as well.

BLITZER: You know, Phil Mudd, there's also, according to The New York Times, a sense of paranoia among White House staffers, some believing that other staffers have been wired by the special counsel, Robert Mueller, to record conversations. How realistic do you think that is?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: These guys are squirming at the end of a hook, Wolf, but they're squirming for the wrong reason. I think they're like their boss. They're watching too much TV. I would not be worried about wires. I'd be worried about other things.

Remember, Don Jr., when he lied about the intent behind his meeting with that Russian lawyer, he initially claimed it was to discuss immigration issues. And it turned out it was to find dirt on Hillary Clinton. That wasn't a wiretap. That was an e-mail chain. These guys have to worry about years of financial, e-mail, phone records.

They also have to be worried about interviews. People on the periphery and the center of this conversation are going to have lawyers who tell them, don't lie to a federal investigator. If there was dirt, you've got to reveal it.

And finally, Wolf, you've got to worry about flips. If somebody walks in and the FBI says, "You're going to be charged with a federal crime," that person has to be careful about whether they want to go to prison or whether they want to talk about what they saw.

It's not the wires that these guys should be squirming about. It's the arrogance of what they left in e-mails and phone records, and it's what other people say in FBI interviews about what they heard. BLITZER: Yes, Donald Trump Jr. originally said it was about adoption

issues, which is a form of immigration, adoption of kids from Russia here into the United States. That was the original explanation that he gave about that conversation at Trump Tower.

But what does it say, Rebecca Berg, about the overall White House right now when there seems to be this sense of paranoia that some officials are actually wired and eavesdropping on conversations?

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, clearly, it's creating tension in the workplace, Wolf, on a massive scale. Also feeding into these tensions, these frustrations that you would have in any sort of office, but the stakes here are incredibly high. This is the White House we're talking about and a special prosecutor.

And you also have to consider that this is something that's in the background every single day at the White House. So as the president is at the United Nations, as he's engaged in these hurricane recovery efforts, as he's doing what a president does, the shadow is constantly over the White House, constantly on the minds of the people working within the White House. And it begins to impact the way you do your everyday job.

[18:35:10] If you're suspicious about your colleagues wearing a wire, you're wondering about what, when it comes time for them to interview with Mueller, what they could potentially be disclosing to him. This has a big impact on how the White House functions every single day.

BLITZER: The question of the legitimacy of the election, a very sensitive issue, Jeffrey Toobin. I want you to listen to this exchange that Hillary Clinton had with Terry Gross of NPR on this very, very sensitive issue. Listen to this.


TERRY GROSS, NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO: I want to get back to the question, would you completely rule out questioning the legitimacy of this election if we learn that the Russian interference in the election is even deeper than we know now?


GROSS: You're not going to rule it out?

CLINTON: No, I wouldn't rule it out.


BLITZER: That's pretty extraordinary when you hear that, Jeffrey.

TOOBIN: Well, it is, but perhaps we may be reading a little too much into what Hillary Clinton says. I don't think she is saying she is going to somehow go to court or go to Congress and try to have this election overturned. Obviously, that would be impossible at this point. She may say, if there are further disclosures, "I think Donald Trump

is an illegitimate president, I think this election was not conducted in a fair or appropriate way." That's what I think she's talking about.

I don't think that statement -- and perhaps others disagree with me -- was any sort of indication that she's going to somehow challenge the results of the election at this late date.

BLITZER: Well, Phil, what do you think?

MUDD: Well, I am so tired of this. I think the context is broader. Remember, she keeps saying -- she keeps telling us that she takes responsibility. And then it's Jim Comey, and then it's Russians, and then it's Bernie Sanders and now, maybe if there's more information about how the Russians were involved when she lost to the worst candidate in history, she's going to go back and relitigate this. I don't mean that formally, as Jeffrey said.

Can she either choose to go high and found a national security or other issue she's going to talk about, or get off the stage? I've had it with relitigating the last election. Done.

TOOBIN: It just happened a few months ago. Why should she not talk about it? I mean, it's like, "Oh, it's ancient history." It was last November; it wasn't even a year. And...

MUDD: It's excuse after excuse. Enough already.

TOOBIN: But you know, human events have multiple causes. It can be that she was a bad candidate. It can be that she takes responsibility. It can also be that Bernie Sanders hurt her. It can also be that James Comey hurt her. I mean, I don't see why she's barred from talking about this. It's an appropriate -- it seems like a very appropriate topic and of interest to a lot of people.

BLITZER: And she's talking about it a lot. She's out there promoting her book, as we all know.

Everybody stick around. Senate Republicans, they are gearing up for a new long-shot effort to repeal Obamacare, but time may be their biggest obstacle.


[18:42:20] BLITZER: Yet another effort to repeal Obamacare is gaining some momentum in the U.S. Senate tonight with the Republicans trying to rally support for a last-ditch long-shot effort.

Let's go to our Congressional correspondent Phil Mattingly, who's working the story for us. Phil, I know there's a very, very tight deadline.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's exactly right: 12 days, Wolf. That's how much time they have to get something that, over the course of the last nine months, they have not been able to succeed in.

They need to do that by September 30, pass something, if they want to be able to do it under budget rules by a simple majority vote. And that's exactly why you see Republican senators today still trying to get their heads around what's actually happening.

Just seven days ago this wasn't even an option. It wasn't something Senate leaders were taking seriously. Now they are. And the reason why? Well, their conference said they want to give it another shot.

But what is actually in this bill, Wolf, is extremely important. It's a bill that Democrats, including Chuck Schumer, the Senate Democratic leader, is calling in the midst of a red siren moment. That's how seriously everybody is taking this.

Now this bill has some elements of a traditional repeal and replace plan. It repeals the individual and employer mandates. It ends the Medicaid expansion in Obamacare by 2020. But there are also significant differences.

Past plans have kept a less generous version of the Obamacare tax subsidy in place. This changes that entirely. While it keeps most of the Obamacare taxes, it uses that money to fund block grants that would go to individual states. Now, that is something, on its face, that conservatives like very much, states' rights, federalism, something we hear about a lot up here.

But the funding allocation, how that money would be dished out to states, could cause a lot of concerns for senators that come from Medicaid expansion states.

We have individuals like Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who says because this bill keeps the taxes of Obamacare, it doesn't go far enough. That means he's a no.

Now, when you look at the whip count right now, it's still very much up in the air. Republicans leaders, I'm told, count Rand Paul and Susan Collins, who voted against the bill in July, as pretty firm "nos." That means they can't lose anybody else. As it currently stands, other senators who have been up in the air, including Senator Lisa Murkowski, is undecided.

And Wolf, I spoke to Senator John McCain, who obviously cast the deciding thumbs down vote in that dramatic moment in July. He says he's not there yet either. He's very upset with the process, as he was in July, and says it's not a guarantee that he's going to be there.

One thing we know for sure, Wolf: over the next couple of days there's serious work that's planned behind the scenes. Again, compressed timeline. The only option they have is to get this on the floor by next week. That is the goal right now. Whether they get there, though, is still an open question, Wolf.

BLITZER: Will the Congressional Budget Office, Phil, have enough time to really assess this legislation to determine, for example, how many people would lose health insurance?

MATTINGLY: Yes, the short answer is no. And that's not a small thing. What the CBO said today is by early next week they will have a preliminary score that will decide whether or not the bill complies with budget rules. It won't tell how many people would lose coverage or fewer people would have coverage based on this bill. It won't go into details like we've seen in past iterations of this.

Democrats are already crying foul. Republicans have made no secret that they have serious problems with the CBO's methodology. So, they are as concerned, but one senator has made clear that's a problem, Susan Collins, who just put out a statement, saying she wants to study that CBO score. When reporters told her preliminary was the best she was going to get, said that was very troubling, Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: What does it do as far as Planned Parenthood is concern?

MATTINGLY: It effectively would defund it for one year. Then you go, that immediately brings you back to somebody like Susan Collins, but also Lisa Murkowski, the Alaska senator who was a no the first time around. They've made very clear, defunding Planned Parenthood is essentially a red line or at least one of their red lines. So, whether or not that stays in could dictate where this is going.

But as of this moment, an effective defunding of Planned Parenthood for one year is in the bill. It's something conservatives want desperately. It's something the outside groups have called for repeatedly. But again, that creates math problems for them. There's still a definite threading of the needle that needs to occur if this is going to happen, and again, on a very compressed timeline.

But the fact that this is even alive at all, Wolf, given that most members haven't even gotten their heads around the bill yet, it's no small thing and definitely an indication that this is a very serious effort, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, I know the White House supports it. Would it be a done deal -- let's say the Senate does pass it narrowly -- would the White House of Representatives pass it as well?

MATTINGLY: I mean, this is a great question, because if they get it done next week, the House essentially has to eat it whole. They can't make changes and send it back, because again, that budget window would be closed.

Now, House Speaker Paul Ryan tweeted in support of the bill last week. Earlier today, at a tax reform event, which is supposed to be next up on the agenda, he said he's urging all senators to support this, but you talk about funding allocations. There are a lot of Republicans in blue states in the House that would see their states lose a lot of money on Medicaid because of the allocations, how they would be set up.

There will be problems over there but there's no question they're hoping momentum will carry the day here, Wolf. BLITZER: Phil Mattingly, up on the Hill.

I want to go to New York right now. The president meeting with Latin American leaders over at the United Nations. They're at a hotel in New York City. These are live pictures. You see some members of the U.S. delegation.

The president's going to be sitting down and meeting with these Latin American leaders. We just saw General McMaster, the president's national security adviser, Latin American leaders. The president has been meeting most of the day with world leaders. Earlier in the day, he met with Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel.

Let's listen in and see what they're saying.

I assume they're going to sit down at the table and have a little conversation but maybe the president will open it up with some remarks. Maybe we'll hear from some of these Latin America leaders as well.

This is a moment, David Swerdlick, that the president clearly enjoys these meetings with world leaders.

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes. I mean, for one thing, you see the president right there, you know, doing the ceremonial aspects of being president, making his debut in front some of these leaders, expressing his American leadership. As long as he has stuck to scripts so far today, it has gone fairly well for him. He still has tomorrow and a bigger speech to get through, but right now, this is the kind of presidential duty that you've seen presidents do before and he's carrying it out in a fairly traditional way.

BLITZER: There's the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley. Rex Tillerson is there. You see Mike Pence, the vice- president of the United States there. This is a major dinner that the president's having.

He's asking everyone to sit down. I think he's going to make a little statement. I want to listen in as they get ready for dinner and to hear from the president.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you very much, everyone. It's a great honor.

I had a long conversation with President Xi of China this morning. We discussed some of the obvious things and we discussed trade and we also discussed a place called North Korea. It was a long call. It was a very good call.

We have a very, very fine relationship, and let's see what happens. I think we're making great progress.

So -- and we are going to be going to China on -- during the month of November. You probably have it in your schedules. I look very much forward to that. And I'm thrilled to host this important dinner with leaders of some of

the greatest allies in the western hemisphere and that is so true. We're here to discuss the growing crises in Venezuela, the socialist dictatorship of Nicolas Maduro has inflicted terrible misery and suffering on the good people of that country.

[18:50:05] This corrupt regime destroyed a thriving nation by imposing a failed ideology that has produced poverty and despair everywhere it has been tried. To make matters worse, Maduro has defied his own people, stealing power from their elected representatives to preserve his disastrous rule.

The Venezuelan people are starving. And their country is collapsing, was one of the wealthiest countries in the world, for a long period of time, and now, the people are starving and the country is collapsing. Who would think that's possible?

The democratic institutions are being destroyed. The situation is completely unacceptable. As responsible neighbors and friends of the Venezuelan people, our goal must be to help them regain their freedom, recover their country and restore their democracy.

I would like to thank the leaders in this room -- we have some great leaders in this room. I want to thank them for condemning the regime and providing the vital support to the Venezuelan people. Most of the media, the press, a lot of other leaders have no idea the tremendous job that the people -- without exception in this room -- are doing as leaders of their country, and helping the people of Venezuela, and I can tell you, we really appreciate it and the world really appreciates it. Thank you all very much. We appreciate it so much.

The United States is taking steps to hold the regime accountable. We're prepared to take further action if the government of Venezuela persists on a path to imposing authoritarian rule on the Venezuelan people. We are fortunate to have incredibly strong and healthy trade relationships with all of the countries gathered here today. They're doing very well with the United States. We want to try to change that a little bit, so we can turn the tables just a little bit.

You're doing very -- I congratulate you all. Nikki knows exactly what I'm saying, and Rex knows exactly what I'm saying. But we have great relationships and we do great trade.

Our economic bonds form a critical foundation for advancing peace and prosperity for all of our people and all of our neighbors. I ask every country represented here to be prepared to do more to address this unbelievably serious crisis. We call for the full restoration of democracy and political freedoms in Venezuela, and we want it to happen very, very soon.

So, again, I'd like to thank everybody. We look forward to having dinner with you, and we will talk individually about what ideas you may have concerning Venezuela and other situations that we're always dealing on, including trade.

Mr. Vice president, thank you very much for being here. Would you like to say a word, Mike?

MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you, Mr. President. It was my great honor to represent you.

BLITZER: All right. We're going to continue to monitor this meeting, and this dinner that the president is having with leaders from Latin America. The president making a strong statement about Venezuela.

Lots of issues, Rebecca Berg, on the president's agenda. This is a critically important week as he makes his debut at the United Nations. Venezuela, we just heard, North Korea, we just heard the president said they're making -- he's making very great progress following his phone conversation today with the Chinese president. Iran, high on the agenda, terrorism, high on the agenda, all of these issues he'll discuss in his speech tomorrow morning before the U.N. General Assembly.

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Absolutely. So, the stakes are high, Wolf, and it will be interesting to see what progress if any the president can make in firming up the partnerships the United States has with some of its international allies, and trying to get countries like China to cooperate more with the United States against our shared adversaries like North Korea.

I will be very interested to see what if anything comes out of the president's conversations with China because, as you know, he has been pressuring China to do more in terms of pressuring North Korea. He has threatened -- President Trump has threatened a trade war with China, and hinted at that in his comments today.

BLITZER: Phil Mudd, you think the U.S. is making great, very great progress, making great progress in dealing with North Korea right now? You just heard the president say that.

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: You mean except for missile tests and nuclear explosions? I don't think so.

I think what you have here is a remarkable reality check. When you saw the president through the campaign, critical of the U.N., critical of China, obviously very negative about immigration, and these areas, dealing with the Iran nuclear program.

[18:55:03] That's the United Nations. Dealing with sanctions in North Korea, that's the Chinese in United Nations. Dealing with Venezuela, that's the Latin Americans.

I think what he's realizing in the transition from campaign to governance, is that you can't critique all these people around the world, because the U.S. can't go it alone. And you just heard that in his comments about partners in Latin America, Wolf.

BLITZER: Jeffrey, it's a big week for the president.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Oh, it is. I was particularly interested in what he said at first about his conversation with President Xi in China, because, you know, this is something very controversial within his own White House, because he wants to reach out to China for help with North Korea about other things, but the Steve Bannon wing -- Steve Bannon himself is gone now. But sort of the populist conservative wing, they want a trade war with China. They want to confront China over jobs and trade. And the tension of reaching out with one hand for partnership on North Korea, but challenging with the other on jobs and trade, it's a very difficult line to walk.

BLITZER: It certainly is. And amidst all of this, NATO is keeping a wary eye on huge Russian military drills thundering right now in the border of NATO allies and personally being supervised by the Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Let's go to our senior international correspondent Fred Pleitgen, he's in St. Petersburg for us tonight.

Fred, these are some of the largest war games, what, since the end of the Cold War?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. That certainly what some experts are saying, Wolf, and they go on along hundreds of miles of the border between Russia and several of America's NATO allies and certainly those NATO allies are very, very concerned. Here's what they saw today.


PLEITGEN (voice-over): Russia unleashing massive fire power right on NATO's border. Under the watchful eye of President Vladimir Putin, tanks, rockets and aircraft showed their capabilities in choreographed war games named Zapad, Russian for the West.

LIEUTENANTT-GENERAL ALEKSANDER DUPLINSKY, RUSSIAN ARMY (through translator): You're able to see in action, different types of aircraft, tactical army, long range and military transport planes operating under the protection of fighter jets. About 50 planes and more than 30 helicopters also participated.

PLEITGEN: Russia is conducting the drills together with Belarus. The Russians say the exercise simulates an attack by a fictitious country against Russia and Belarus and their response.

(on camera): Russia and Belarus are putting on a massive display of firepower at these drills. They say there's at least 250 tanks involved, about 70 combat aircraft. But they still say that these drills are defensive in nature.

(voice-over): But the U.S. and its NATO allies are concerned. Some officials saying they believe as many as 100,000 troops might be amassed here. The Russians say that's not true, and claim less than 13,000 troops are taking part.

NATO also fears Russia might leave troops behind in the border area after the exercise is finished, to gain a competitive advantage. Moscow rejects those claims as well.

NATO recently conducted its own air defense drills in Eastern Europe with U.S. involvement.

This is the first exercise of this type, and they are necessary because the air defense of the eastern NATO plank is the weakest spot for our defense. It needs more investment, the president of Lithuania said.

The Russian military did allow observers from NATO countries to watch the drills, calling that a display of transparency. And Russia made sure to show the world that its military appears better equipped and prepared than at any time since the Cold War.


PLEITGEN: And, Wolf, it was certainly remarkable to see how much firepower the Russians unleashed there. And also how choreographed all that was.

You can easily see why some of those small, Eastern European and NATO countries are really concerned about some of the things that are happening there on the border. The one thing the U.S. is going to be looking at in the next couple of days as this maneuver ends is whether or not the Russians really are going to withdraw all of those troops back to where they came from, Wolf.

BLITZER: It's interesting that Putin decided to go to these war games in Russia, as opposed to coming to New York for the United Nations General Assembly. Was that the reason he wanted to be behind?

PLEITGEN: Well, he certainly -- I'm not sure if that's the exact reason. But he certainly did say through his spokesman, that these drills were so important to him, that he wanted to see them, especially in these very important times in these drills, the last couple of days, the biggest part of those drills taking place. And his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, he came out and said, yes, these are the most important drills, the biggest drills that this country is going to have this year. And that's why the president most certainly wants to be there and you're absolutely right, didn't go to New York for the U.N. General Assembly, Wolf.

BLITZER: Fred Pleitgen in St. Petersburg, Russia, thank you very much.

That's it for me.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.