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Alabama Senate Election; Crisis in Puerto Rico; White House Staff to Be Interviewed in Trump-Russia Probe; Trump Touts Hurricane Response: "I Wasn't Preoccupied with NFL"; Saudi Arabia to Let Women Drive; Polls Close Soon in High Stakes GOP Senate Runoff. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired September 26, 2017 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And in the cities, gas is running out, leaving National Guard vehicles and ambulances idle. How long can Puerto Rico's residents hold out?

Show me the money. We are learning that after months of squabbling, the Internal Revenue Service is now sharing information about key Trump campaign officials with the special counsel Robert Mueller for his Russian investigation. This is a CNN exclusive.

And strange voting. A candidate in a high-stakes Senate race arrive on horseback to cast his ballot, after pulling out a gun at a campaign rally. The election is pitting President Trump against his former adviser Steve Bannon, each backing a different man. Whose candidate will win?

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You are in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news tonight, President Trump says a massive effort is now under way in Puerto Rico to help the hurricane-ravaged island, as he faces strong criticism for the federal government's response so far.

The White House is trying to shift focus from the President's days- long war of words with the NFL over players kneeling during the national anthem.

Mr. Trump insists he hasn't been preoccupied with the controversy he ignited and he says he plans to visit Puerto Rico next Tuesday. But his own FEMA administrator says that all access to the island should be limited to lifesaving missions.

Our crews on the ground in Puerto Rico are finding increasingly very disturbing conditions, with dangerous food and water shortages in some areas. Island officials are pleading for help tonight amid what one calls a humanitarian crisis.

We are going to get a live update from Puerto Rico in just a few minutes.

And there is more breaking news. CNN has now learned exclusively the Internal Revenue Service is now cooperating with the special counsel Robert Mueller on his Russia investigation. Sources say the IRS is sharing information about key individuals from the Trump campaign.

We're covering all of that, much more this hour with our guests, including Puerto Rico's congressional delegate, Jenniffer Gonzalez. And our correspondents and specialists are also standing by.

But let's begin with the president's response to the hurricane disaster in Puerto Rico.

Our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, is joining us with the very latest.

Jim, the president insists he is on top of the crisis, even while he is feuding with the NFL over players kneeling during the national anthem.


President Trump denies he is too obsessed with national athletes and not focused enough on the devastation in Puerto Rico. Today, the president claimed he is receiving -- quote -- "tremendous reviews" for his response to hurricane Maria. It's more like tremendous cries for help.


ACOSTA (voice-over): President Trump appears to be calling a time-out in his fixation on pro football players with the national anthem and turning his attention to more urgent matters, like the unfolding disaster in Puerto Rico.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I wasn't preoccupied with the NFL. I was ashamed of what was taking place, because to me that was a very important moment. I don't think you can disrespect our country, our flag, our national anthem.

To me, the NFL situation is a very important situation. I have heard that before about, was preoccupied? Not at all. Not at all. I have plenty of time on my hands. All I do is work.

ACOSTA: Now the White House is posting photos of the president on the phone with local officials in Puerto Rico and rushing federal officials to the microphones at the White House.

BROCK LONG, ADMINISTRATOR, FEDERAL EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT AGENCY: This is a logistically challenging, very unique event.

ACOSTA: The president is patting himself on the back, while noting bringing hurricane relief to the U.S. island territory is difficult.

TRUMP: We have had tremendous reviews from government officials, but the governor of Puerto Rico is so thankful for the great job that we're doing. Frankly, we're doing, and it's the most difficult job, because it's on the island, it's on an island in the middle of the ocean. It's out in the ocean. You can't just drive your trucks there from other states.

ACOSTA: But on the ground in Puerto Rico, there are still desperate pleas for assistance from island officials, from the mayor of San Juan.

CARMEN YULIN CRUZ, MAYOR OF SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO: When I say there is a humanitarian crisis, I am sorry. I know that leaders aren't supposed to cry and stuff. Perhaps it's a sign of weakness. But you know the weak out there are waiting for us. And we're not getting to everybody in time. People, especially the elderly, are being locked up in buildings.

ACOSTA: To the governor.

GOV. RICARDO ROSSELLO, PUERTO RICO: We need more help. We need more help we with sources. We need more help with people being deployed so that we can get logistical support elsewhere.

ACOSTA: Democrats are warning the president, help is not coming fast enough.


REP. NYDIA VELAZQUEZ (D), NEW YORK: If you don't take this crisis seriously, this is going to be your Katrina.

ACOSTA: On social media, the president has made it clear where his focus lies, on the NFL players protesting during football games. He's tweeted about the NFL 24 times since Saturday, compared to a handful of times on Puerto Rico.

At a dinner with conservative leaders at White House, the president seemed satisfied with his comments on the NFL, telling attendees, "It's really caught on. It's really caught on."

But at a news conference with the prime minister of Spain, the president appeared ready to move on. Another dire warning to North Korea.

TRUMP: We are totally prepared for the second option, not a preferred option, but if we take that option, it will be devastating, I can tell you that, devastating for North Korea. That's called the military option. If we have to take it, we will.


ACOSTA: Now, the president says he will be heading to Puerto Rico on Tuesday.

That's despite the fact that his own FEMA administration told reporters here at the White House earlier today the only people who should be traveling to the island right now should be on a -- quote -- "life-sustaining, life support mission." Wolf, it is not clear that Puerto Rico is ready for a presidential visit next week -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jim, thank you, Jim Acosta over at the White House.

The president's words are at odds with the situation on the ground in Puerto Rico six days after the storm. The more than three million Americans on the island are still reeling. And they are increasingly desperate for help.

Let's go to our White House correspondent, Sara Murray.

Sara, the Pentagon is now sending a hospital ship to Puerto Rico, but a lot more is really needed.


And part of the reason President Trump is planning to head there is to prove that he has an eye on the ball. And he insists that the federal government is moving as fast as possible to assist residents in Puerto Rico.

But, in fact, other groups who are trying to aid people there say it's the federal government's own red tape, own regulations that might be slowing down relief efforts.


MURRAY (voice-over): President Trump laying the groundwork to visit storm-ravaged Puerto Rico early next week.

TRUMP: Everyone has said it's amazing the job that we have done in Puerto Rico. We're very proud of it. And I'm going there on Tuesday.

MURRAY: His hastily scheduled trip coming amid criticism that the federal government's efforts are falling short in providing aid to this U.S. territory that is home to 3.4 million people and entirely without power.

TRUMP: As we speak, FEMA, our great first-responders, and all available federal resources, including the military, are being marshaled to save lives, protect families, and begin a long and very, very difficult restoration process.

MURRAY: Today, Trump pointed to the heavily indebted island's existing infrastructure challenges, saying that has inhibited relief efforts.

TRUMP: The infrastructure was in bad shape, as you know, in Puerto Rico before the storm, and now, in many cases, it has no infrastructure, so you're really starting from almost scratch.

MURRAY: But airlines and other groups who have been struggling to provide aid to the island say it's the federal government's own red tape that's the hindrance.

One airline official said flight left Sunday night half empty because passengers couldn't be screened effectively. Broken equipment and power failures meant names couldn't be checked against TSA's no-fly list.

A spokesman for American Airlines also says they had a flight loaded with 50,000 pounds of supplies ready to take off for San Juan, only to be turned back by airport authorities. The airline says the number of flights to the island is being restricted and its plan to have 20 planes landing and taking off per day now down to just two flights per day.

The FAA tells CNN the tower at San Juan's airport is open, but that another federal agency, FEMA, is determining which flights are prioritized for takeoff and landing.

Meanwhile, Trump is insisting the government is working nonstop to restore airport operations.

TRUMP: These are airports. These runways are devastated and broken. The airports are broken.

MURRAY: Access to that airport a key challenge that's straining the U.S. government's ability to provide Puerto Ricans with generators, food, fresh water and medical supplies, top priorities, according to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

GEN. JOSEPH DUNFORD, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF CHAIRMAN: We are doing all we can do right now to increase the through-put of humanitarian supplies. That's something that the U.S. military can uniquely provide. We also are providing some generators and so forth for power. We don't expect them to have power for sometime.

MURRAY: While the federal government insists it's working as fast as possible, for those stranded on the island without power or means to contact loved ones, the frustration drags on.

SHERRY GONZALEZ, HURRICANE SURVIVOR (through translator): I had bought a plane ticket before the hurricane and I'm since Friday. And I haven't been able to leave. Sleeping on the floor without air conditioner, it's horrible, and I have to sleep here again.


MURRAY: Now, Wolf, there is also a robust U.S. military effort under way, about 16 Department of Defense ships, as well as 2,600 Department of Defense personnel.

And one of the big goals is to try to get flights moving in and out of these airports more quickly, of course, to get people off the island, but also to get more supplies in.


BLITZER: Yes, to get those military troops, National Guard forces on the ground there. They're desperately, desperately needed.

Our White House correspondent, Sara Murray, reporting for us, thank you very much.

Let's get some more all of this.

Puerto Rico's congressional delegate, Jenniffer Gonzalez, is joining us.

Congresswoman, thanks so much for joining us. I know you are in close touch with the leadership there in Puerto Rico.

What is the situation right now like?


Puerto Rico, this is not the Puerto Rico we saw a week ago. We are surviving three major disasters, the financial dire situation we've got back home, Hurricane Irma and now Hurricane Maria. That makes things worse.

And I just arrived lasted night from the island. So I was there during the whole hurricane. And I will tell you this. Seeing the Coast Guard and the military operations that are being taken there, moving patients to take dialysis from Vieques, Culebra, to Fajardo, and even deploying people, patients from the island to the mainland, because we don't have enough resources working in our hospitals that are working at full capacity.

They're crippled. They're working with generators, except just one hospital that got electricity. The rest of the island is without power, without communications. So that made things worse.

And if it's not for FEMA and the 10,000 federal employees that are down on the ground in the island, making things happen with the logistics, with the Air National Guard, and all the National Guard that are being deployed there from many states, West Virginia, Indiana, Virginia, and many other places, I don't know what will be for the island.

But we still need a lot of help in that matter. I got a meeting today with Vice President Pence. And the people from the White House are helping out to have a relief package for the island. And Speaker of the House Paul Ryan today allowed me to brief the GOP Conference in terms of the current situation on the island, the flights to our international airport.

There were three planes a day. Now there are 18. And they're going to raise that number to 24. The problem is that we got -- our radars are working at minimum capacity.

That makes it almost impossible for the people in the mainland, more than five million Puerto Ricans living here, to communicate or even send things to the island. And then that's the worst problem. That's -- the difference between Louisiana, Texas and Florida is that we are an island.

So everything has got to go there by ship or by airplanes. And we've got the ports open, and thank God the Coast Guard is doing that job. And they all opened nine of the ports to receive gas, to receive diesel, LNG, and some food, were opened the first on Thursday and then during the weekend.

But we still need five of those ports to be opened. We will need more than help to rebuild Puerto Rico. All crops and all agriculture is crushed, devastated; 80 percent of them, it's not a system anymore.

BLITZER: So let me ask you, Congresswoman, and a practical question, when is there going to be legislation introduced in Congress funding this recovery? And you are going to need billions and billions of dollars.

GONZALEZ-COLON: Right now -- exactly.

Right now, the local officials are making the assessment of the damage. I will tell you that more than nine bridges were washed away by the floodings. We still got towns that are incommunicative.

There is a lot of debris on the highways. So we will need a lot of assistance from all federal agencies. I know that the president allowed to have some Department of Defense personnel on the island. And that number will been increasing in the next days.

And that will help to manage the logistics. You know that we are using a curfew, locally, to manage the situation, the devastation we got there. It's a humanitarian crisis.

BLITZER: So, Congresswoman, when you many with Speaker Paul Ryan, he's a Republican like you, he's the leader of the Republicans in the House -- what did he say? When is that money going to be made available to Puerto Rico?

GONZALEZ-COLON: He expressed his commitment to take care of the people, the four million American citizens living on the island.

Vice President Mike Pence just did that today, too, and even the president and all his staff. So, in October, there is going to be another relief package for the hurricanes and the victims of hurricanes, and especially of course Puerto Rico and Hurricane Maria.

But this is a dire situation. We never got in this situation before. This hurricane throw us back from 54 years. This is not the same Puerto Rico we were looking for, so we will need to rebuild our island. Our tourism is crushed.


Our (INAUDIBLE) industry that represents 30 percent of our GDP are going to zero revenue, because they are operating with generators at this time, without the employees to do the job.

You saw the lines of the people, just 600 cars to get a $20 bucket of gasoline. And that -- we never expected to have this kind of situation.

And I want to thank all the men and women in uniform that are doing their job on the island, helping the local officials to manage this devastation, that we do not know at this time the amount of money we are going to need to reestablish our power grid, our communications, our hospitals, our bridges, our highways and even our economic area.

BLITZER: As you know, Congresswoman, there are a lot of Puerto Ricans who have suggested America has forgotten Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, as you say, 3.5, maybe four million American citizens down there. Do you feel America has forgotten Puerto Rico?

GONZALEZ-COLON: No, that's not what I'm seeing.

Actually, I was there during the whole situation. And seeing our men and women in uniform from the Coast Guard, from the Air National Guard, from the Navy, the Department of Defense, FEMA. We are talking about more than 10,000 people coming from states to help us out.

Not after the hurricane. I will tell you this, if FEMA and personnel from the Corps of Engineers, HHS, Secretary Price, sends a bunch of people before the Hurricane Irma, during Hurricane Irma and after the hurricane, same thing with Maria.

As you know, our problem is bigger, because we are living on an island, so that's a bigger challenge. I don't think the United States has dealt with this kind of massive destruction and before with an island, because we are not contiguous to the states.

In the states, you can send by trucks, by train all the supplies, all the resources, all the help. To go to the Caribbean and help the U.S. U.S. Virgin Islands, and we are sisters and brothers here receiving that kind of attention.


BLITZER: Congresswoman, very quickly, will President Trump's visit to Puerto Rico next Tuesday be helpful?

GONZALEZ-COLON: It will be more than helpful. It will show that he cares. It will show that he is sending the right amount of resources to the island.

And to the people who are there, waiting to get food, to get water, gasoline, to have their power grid -- actually, a lot of people, patients, our hospitals are being closed because they can't manage the amount of patients.

So, his visit, the visit of Speaker Ryan and the rest of the leadership, will help. It's not the same thing looking at the images of TV than actually being on the ground, feeling the devastation and this crisis that we are living there.

BLITZER: Good luck, Congresswoman Jenniffer Gonzalez of Puerto Rico.

GONZALEZ-COLON: Thank you. BLITZER: The Puerto Rican representative in the U.S. House of


Good luck to all the people in Puerto Rico.

GONZALEZ-COLON: Have us in your prayers.

BLITZER: And our prayers are with all of you.


BLITZER: Thank you so much for joining us.

There is more breaking news coming up. We are about to go live to Puerto Rico on the latest on the very grim situation facing so many hurricane victims. Food, water, gas, all right now running dangerously low.



BLITZER: We are following breaking news, the worsening crisis on Puerto Rico six days after the island was ravaged by Hurricane Maria.

CNN's Bill Weir is on the scene for us once again tonight.

Bill, President Trump says the hurricane response is getting tremendous reviews. Does that match what you are seeing on the ground there?

BILL WEIR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Not at all. Not at all.

We took a two-hour trip out of the capital today, Wolf, up into the Central Mountains and got a little slice of life for the three million-plus people on this island. Their lives have been stripped down to the most primal needs, the hunt for water, food, fuel and any, any sliver of hope.


WEIR: Beside a highway, this is the most dependable utility in rural Puerto Rico these days. A pipe tapped into a mountain spring is now the watering hole for a community of over 30,000. It's a natural spring.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A natural spring. It's always here.

WEIR: And are you boiling it or are you drinking straight?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You can drink it straight. This is cleaner than the water you get from the public...


WEIR: OK. Well, that's good you got that. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is cleaner than that.

WEIR: How is everything else in life? You got enough food, power?


WEIR: Awful.


There's people that have a shortage of food. The National Guard is not working up to the way it should be. They're all just standing there doing nothing. No electricity, no water for the city. And it's going to take like about maybe six, seven months for anything to happen here.

WEIR (voice-over): While saved from coastal storm surges, Maria brought hellish mudslides to mountain towns like this, cutting off families for days, and forcing desperate decision-making. Do you burn precious fuel searching for supplies or stay put and pray for help?

Lydia has two cars with no gas, two grandkids to keep alive on a ration of crackers. With no way to reach that highway pipe, they drink rainwater.


"No water, no food," she tells me. "It's nobody's fault. It's the weather. You have to go on."

(on camera): The anxiety. I can tell. My heart breaks for you.

(voice-over): "What worries me the most is my family doesn't know how we are doing," she says. "We don't have cell phone connection."

(on camera): On a scale of one to 10, 10 being horrible desperate, where are you?


WEIR: You are an eight?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Eight. Yes, an eight.

WEIR (voice-over): "Eight and getting better," the young mayor tells me. "If the gasoline arrives, it will fix our problems, because people are starting to get desperate."

Gas is more precious than water up here. National Guard vehicles can't move. Worthless ambulances sit idle. The hospital has one day's worth of generator fuel left and one volunteer doctor because the rest of the staff has no way to get to work.

(on camera): Are people starting to turn on even other?

(voice-over): "Yes," he says. "There's been situations where people are stressed out, crying, folks with dialysis, patients with cancer, bed-ridden patients who need ventilators."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Everything you can help with the voice on the outside, because I need gasoline and diesel.

WEIR (on camera): I will tell. I will tell the world.

(voice-over): The fuel shortage is even more evident in San Juan, where lines are miles-long.

(on camera): They open this particular service station at 6:00 in the morning. They run out of gas by 3:00 p.m. So some people at the end of this line may not get the fuel they need.

The folks here are telling me that a local ring of gangsters called (INAUDIBLE) drug dealers, actually commandeered a gas station, took over two lanes, just so their guys can get fuel.

How would you describe the level of desperation?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, to the highest level. And not only here in the metropolitan area, but in the center of the island, it's very, very bad. And they are suffering. Everybody is suffering. And I think how we can work it out and begin again.

WEIR: You are putting a brave smile on, but...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I will always do that, of course.

WEIR (voice-over): And some day, after the most primal needs are met, parents will have to figure out how to send their kids back to school.

And at Wesleyan Academy, this is what awaits. There is so much to rebuild and so many now considering leaving this island for good.

(on camera): What message would you have for folks back on the mainland?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, we just have to keep calm. That's all I can say, just keep calm, because, like I said, if this week, we -- I told my family, if this week, if we don't see anything getting better, I'm going to have leave the island.

I have been here already like 20 years, and I'm going to have to leave the island. I don't have any other choice.


WEIR: I heard that from more than one person, the theory that America will see Puerto Rico as too much of a liability, with all the debt before, the rebuilding debt now, and that the most valuable thing they have is their American passport to get out.

Of course, many others have a Puerto Rican resolve to stay and rebuild. But the mayor, that young mayor of Utuado, Ricardo, who walked six hours in the hurricane to go to work, and then walked home to find his home had wiped out, says, we got two days max before things turn really grim, before people and society breaks down.

Good news from the governor, 185 gas stations were opened yesterday. Today, that number is up to 450. The big problem is distribution. They can't get guys to drive the gas trucks. Even though the fuel is on the island, they can't get guys to drive the gas trucks because they can't get to work or they don't want to go out without security.

And they can't find enough cops or soldiers to ride shotgun up into the mountain towns, into the rural villages.

So, Wolf, today hammers it home more than any day before as long as we have been here. This place is in desperate, desperate need of as much help as they can get.

BLITZER: And you are saying six, seven months it could to really get Puerto Rico back? Because that's a long, long time for people who will need power and water and food.

WEIR: That's exactly right.

And that's why you will probably have to brace for a big exodus of people off this island and wait for that to take effect. The infrastructure, the grid in Puerto Rico was really creaky. And they're used to rolling blackouts in the best of times on this island.

But Maria dealt such a devastating blow. They almost have to rebuild it from scratch. And just what from I saw, it will take helicopters, with a big sort of engineer projects that we saw in the '30s in the United States, to actually get this island back anywhere near it was before.

BLITZER: On behalf of all of our viewers, Bill, thank you so much for your really, really important reporting for us. We really appreciate what you are doing over there. We will check back with you, obviously, tomorrow.

Thanks very much, Bill Weir, in Puerto Rico.

There's other news that's breaking. The IRS, the Internal Revenue Service, is now cooperating and sharing information with the special counsel, Robert Mueller's, Russia investigation. It's a CNN exclusive. Details next.


[18:35:04] BLITZER: Breaking news, a CNN exclusive. Sources are telling us that the Internal Revenue Service is now sharing information with the special counsel, Robert Mueller, about key Trump campaign officials as Mueller's Russia investigation clearly moves forward.

Our justice correspondents, Evan Perez and Pamela Brown, are joining us with details. Mueller's team and the IRS were at odds for a while. But Pamela, things were moving, apparently, in a different direction.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. After a summer clash, the IRS is now sharing information with investigators working with Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

This comes after the two sides were at odds for months. There was a back and forth over the scope of Mueller's investigation into Russian meddling. Mueller's investigators wanted information initially on several people associated with the Trump campaign, including former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn, of course, the former national security adviser.

And we're told by sources that the IRS initially had concerns because what they were seeing was a far-reaching, broad request for information from Mueller's investigators. In the case of Manafort, the scope includes possible tax and financial crimes that date back to January of 2006, ten years, Wolf, before the Russian meddling in the presidential election last fall.

BLITZER: Evan, your reporting also indicates this dispute centers on the July raid of Paul Manafort's home in the Washington suburbs. How does that factor in?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's exactly right, Wolf. There were some tensions between the IRS and special counsel behind the scenes of that FBI raid on Manafort's home in Alexandria, Virginia. Multiple sources tell us that the IRS did not participate in the July raid because of IRS objections that the search would interfere with a separate IRS investigation of Manafort. We're told that the IRS and the FBI initially were cooperating in their own Manafort probe well before last year's election and certainly, well before Mueller was appointed.

The special counsel's office did go ahead with that search on Manafort's home, but only with FBI agents carrying it out. That's unusual for the IRS to be sitting out a search in an investigation that centers on tax and financial issues.

BLITZER: Does this mean, Pamela, that the special counsel, Robert Mueller's investigators now have access to tax returns, including possibly the president's tax returns?

BROWNS: It's a big -- it's the big question, Wolf. It's not clear whether they have asked for or obtained President Trump's tax reforms. But sources say if Mueller's office does have Trump's tax returns, then Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the probe, likely would need to sign off, given the sensitivity surrounding this matter.

As for Manafort and Flynn, given the scope of those investigations, it's more likely that Mueller has obtained their tax returns.

And you know, I talked to a former high-level Justice Department official today who tells me that the information shared by the IRS would include anything tax-return related, things like real estate, and banking records, meta data, such as what years tax returns were or were not filed.

The IRS, as you know, is very restrictive, Wolf, in what information it can share. Tax returns are among the most protected documents in the government. And the IRS would normally need a specific grand jury subpoena in order to share tax returns with another agency. As one official told me, tax returns as I mentioned, they're very protected. So that is why -- that is a part of why you're seeing this back and forth, Wolf.

BLITZER: Evan, what do we know about the previous IRS investigations involving former Trump campaign officials?

PEREZ: Well, we've learned, Wolf, that the IRS had been working with the FBI well before the election in an investigation involving Paul Manafort. That probe, similar to what Mueller is now looking at, centered on possible tax fraud and money laundering.

It's unclear if the FBI had been investigating Michael Flynn, as well. Sources say that Mueller's team is looking into payments that Flynn received from Russia and Turkey.

Flynn's attorney, by the way, declined to comment for this story, as did a spokesperson for Manafort. The IRS criminal investigation unit and the special counsel also declined to comment for this story, Wolf.

BLITZER: Evan Perez and Pamela Brown with excellent reporting for us. Thank you to both of you.

Let's dig deeper with our contributors, our specialists. And Rebecca Berg, I'll start with you. What does it mean? What does it say about this investigation that the special counsel is now working in cooperation with the IRS?

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it really shows us, Wolf, that Mueller and his investigators are following the money and doing so very aggressively as a part of this investigation.

Now Trump, you'll recall, in his interview a few months ago with "The New York Times," said that his business interests would be a red line of sorts for him. That if Mueller started looking into his finances, that he would take that as maybe an affront or a sign that this investigation was going off course.

But what we're seeing is, in fact, this is, indeed, relevant to Mueller's investigation, these potential financial crimes. So we could be talking about money laundering, for example.

[18:40:00] And there are also some signals that this is much broader than just the cooperation we're hearing about with the IRS. Mueller and his team have also been working with New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, as we've seen reported in recent weeks, including by CNN, looking into potential money laundering, including by Manafort.

And also in past weeks, you've had a key attorney, a very high-profile attorney, who was formally working for the Department of Justice on money laundering issues, joining Mueller's team. So clearly, this is an angle that they're pursuing very aggressively, potentially a key piece of the puzzle that they are putting together.

BLITZER: Indeed. David Swerdlick, will the special counsel request, if he hasn't yet, access to President Trump's tax returns?

DAVID SWERDLICK, ASSISTANT EDITOR, "THE WASHINGTON POST": So, Wolf, I think we have to wait and see. But here's the thing: when you start with Manafort and Flynn, you're talking about people who are already suspected of having these direct financial ties to foreign governments. Manafort with work for pro-Russia interest in Ukraine, Flynn with ties to Russia and possibly Turkey. And there's a qualitative difference there between that and just looking generally at President Trump's tax returns.

But depending on what the special counsel finds in Manafort and Flynn's tax information, if they do find specific information, that might make it easier for the special counsel's team to then go back to that special grand jury that Evan and Pamela were talking about and make the case that they have to look into President Trump's tax returns. So that may be the case as we get down the road.

BLITZER: Bianna Golodryga, let's talk about the "Washington Post" story. It's reporting that some of the Russian Facebook ads sought to actually divide Americans over very sensitive issues like gun rights, groups like Black Lives Matter, and much more. What does that tell you about the level of sophistication of this Russian operation?

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, YAHOO! NEWS: Well, it's been a Russian propaganda tool long before Donald Trump, long before Hillary Clinton, frankly, long before Vladimir Putin came along. I mean, during the Soviet era, obviously, without as much technology, they would take out ads in newspapers. The KGB would propagate that the CIA created, for example, the AIDS virus.

Now we're seeing a more modern technologically-advanced twist. You could go back to a couple of years ago, when Vladimir Putin, in a "60 Minutes" interview, was really focused on exploiting the racial tensions in this country. Race tensions, in particular, have been something that the Soviet Union and Russia really wanted to focus on to increase and divide the already increasing wedge in this country when it comes to race relations. RT, Russian Television, for example, really honed in on Occupy Wall Street movement and the Black Lives Matter movement.

So this isn't something that's novel. It is something, obviously, that we're seeing and now really focusing on for the first time when it comes to social media sites like Facebook.

But Russia, as "USA Today" just reported a couple of weeks ago, has now meddled in some 24 countries in over ten years. It's not new.

BLITZER: Phil Mudd, could these developments actually threaten the integrity of the 2016 presidential election?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: I think they could for a simple reason. We've already seen half this story, Wolf. That is, political operatives spend hundreds of millions of dollars on attack ads. And when you look at the margin of victory in key states in this election, it's relatively narrow. That's because attack ads work. They change the way American voters think. I think what she would be viewing the Russian intervention as, as

another version of an attack ad. In this case, not by a political party but by a foreign security service or a foreign government.

Here's where this game gets complicated and where I think your question about the integrity of the election becomes more in question. Over the course of, let's say, the next six-to-12 months, in my estimation, the special counsel will come up with some judgments. Not only about money laundering, but about whether people in the Trump campaign participated in conversations with the Russians on issues like, where did they insert themselves? Florida, Pennsylvania.

If we find not only that Russia was intervening in the campaign with hate ads, but that that was done in cooperation with people affiliated with the Trump campaign, game on in terms of American conversations about how the integrity of the American electoral process was compromised, Wolf.

BLITZER: Everybody, stand by. Because there are other new developments coming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now. We'll assess, we'll report, right after this.


[18:49:01] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: The breaking news this hour, President Trump is insisting his war of words with the NFL hasn't distracted him from the Puerto Rico hurricane disaster. And he says the government's response is getting tremendous reviews.

Let's get back to our panel.

David Swerdlick, the president says he wasn't distracted as you know by this NFL controversy. But since the weekend, he tweeted 24 times about the NFL, only four times about Puerto Rico. What does that tell you?

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It tells me that he's distracted and it's not just the ratio of NFL tweets to Puerto Rico tweets, Wolf. It's also what he is saying in some of those tweets. At one point in the last couple of days, he tweeted comparing the success of Florida and Texas recovering from their hurricane disasters to the relative lack of success of Puerto Rico, recovering from their disaster, at least so far, as if it's a competition and as if Puerto Rico is losing the competition.

What it is, is that if Puerto Rico is not successfully coming back, even in the last few days, from their hurricanes, it means that at least in part, it's President Trump's fault as president for not addressing the needs of those American citizens in Puerto Rico.

[18:50:08] He's the president of Florida, Texas and Puerto Rico.

BLITZER: You know, Bianna, the president also seemed concern about getting credit for the hurricane response in Puerto Rico, didn't he?

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Yes. Well, he was talking about the rave reviews he's been getting. I'm not sure how he could get those reviews given that the 3-plus million people on the island don't have power, and as you so rightly focused in the first half of this program, you focused on the suffering there and the devastation, the towns people telling Bill Weir that they're just a matter of days away from things turning into sheer chaos.

So, I'm not sure where the rave reviews are coming from. I think it's a bit premature to say the least the president made it clear that an island has its own limitations, obviously, as he described to us. It's surrounded by water, so you can't just drive here. But other than that, I think the president, he may not be distracted, but it did appear that he was at least prioritizing the NFL over the disaster relief for millions of American citizens.

And I just think it would be disheartening if these citizens there who are suffering would know, given that they don't have any electricity and don't have access to television, to know what the main focus of the president seems to have been the past 48 hours, and it wasn't necessarily their plight but it was that of the NFL. I think that would be a bit distressful for them to hear.

BLITZER: Yes, fair point.

You know, Rebecca Berg, another story we're following after another last-minute push for health care repeal and replace, as they say, there won't be even a vote on Graham/Cassidy. What does that say right now about the Republican Party?

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, a few things, Wolf, and none are very positive, actually.

First of all, math. Republicans don't have a commanding majority in Congress. Even though they control all of the branches of Washington -- they control Congress and now the White House -- they don't have enough of a majority in the Senate or the House to get some of these big things done that they wanted to get done.

Unless Republicans could come together and compromise among the moderate and conservative wings of the party on some of these key issues, but what health care has shown us is that at least right now, they aren't able to do that. And it really puts a question mark on some of these big things moving forward that the president wants to get done and that congressional Republicans say they want to get done. Tax reform is one where you have some major areas of disagreement, even among Republicans, and with such a narrow majority, especially in the Senate, you wonder how are they going to come together if they couldn't do it on health care.

BLITZER: Good point. Just ahead, a gun-toting candidate on horseback, backed by Steve Bannon. But President Trump is backing his opponent. We're going to get the latest on a high-stakes Senate race.


[18:57:27] BLITZER: New tonight, a major change in store for Saudi Arabia. It's announcing that women there will be allowed to drive legally by next summer for the first time in that country's history. The United States is calling this very welcome news.

It's the latest in a series of reforms being implemented by Saudi Arabia's new 32-year-old crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman.

Also breaking tonight, there's just over one hour of voting left in a very closely watched Republican Senate runoff election pitting one candidate backed by President Trump against another candidate backed by his former adviser, Steve Bannon.

Our White House reporter Kaitlan Collins is in Homewood, Alabama, for us tonight.

Kaitlan, this is a rather unconventional race.


It definitely is unconventional, but it also has some pretty huge implications here. What we're witnessing is really a fight for the soul of the Republican Party between establishment conservatives like Luther Strange and these grassroots, populist-types like Roy Moore. It almost mirrors the 2016 presidential election where this insurgent candidate gave the establishment candidate a run for their money, except this time, the president is on the establishment side. He's backed Luther Strange, as has Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a super PAC aligned with him has funneled millions of dollars into ads for Strange.

And then on the other side, we have Roy Moore, this very contentious figure who has been kicked off the bench here in Alabama two times. And he's backed by former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon. He's promised that if he gets elected to the Senate, that he will be a disrupter, and that's exactly what people like Mitch McConnell are worried about. They think that if Roy Moore can pull off a win here tonight, that he will encourage other people like him to run again next year and create a pretty bitter primary season.

BLITZER: The polls, what, close in about an hour, right? So when do you think we're going to have some results?

COLLINS: We should find out soon. We're here right now at this headquarters for Luther Strange. There are people filing in. We were at a polling place earlier watching people come in and vote for their candidates. But we are expecting low voter turnout, and we'll see who that favors here shortly, Wolf.

BLITZER: You said low voter turnout? I'm surprised because it's gotten so much publicity.

COLLINS: That's right. But they are expecting that, and that's why the president was here last Friday, rooting for Luther Strange, trying to rally some support for him. But we had reported last week that after the president initially endorsed strange in early August with a tweet, he was a little hesitant after he saw some poll numbers that saw Strange, but we'll find out shortly what the outcome will be, Wolf.

BLITZER: And stay with CNN for the early results.

Kaitlan, thanks very much.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.