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Interview with Mazie Hirono (D-HI) White House Counsel Don McGahn to Step Down; Florida GOP Gubernatorial Candidate Accused of Racial Language; New Details on Why Cohen Pled Guilty. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired August 29, 2018 - 17:00   ET


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT/ANCHOR: Thanks to all of you. Appreciate it. Our coverage continuing in just a few moments here with Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

[17:00:11] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. McGahn's exit. President Trump announces White House counsel Don McGahn will soon leave. McGahn reportedly threatened to quit last year if the president fired Robert Mueller and later spoke extensively with Mueller's team. The president says he's not concerned about that, but could McGahn's exit mean he'll not try to shut down the Mueller probe?

Accused of racism. After winning his party's nomination for governor, Florida Republican Ron DeSantis says voters would, quote, "monkey this up" if they elect his African-American opponent. Democrats call that -- and I'm quoting now -- "a racist dog whistle."

The fixer who flipped. After pleading guilty, the president's former fixer makes it clear he had no choice but to protect his wife and family. As he awaits sentencing right now, Michael Cohen indicates he's now ready to serve his time in prison.

And honoring McCain. Arizonians pay their respects to the late Senator John McCain as official ceremonies marking his passing begin in his beloved home state. Tonight, tears and tributes to an American hero.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You are in the SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news, President Trump announces that White House counsel Don McGahn will leave his post this fall, calling him a very good man, even though a source says the two have not had a good relationship for more than a year.

The move comes after it was revealed that McGahn spent more than 30 hours cooperating with the special counsel, Robert Mueller's, team. But the president says he's not concerned about that, saying -- and I'm quoting him -- "We do everything straight."

I'll speak with Senator Mazie Hirono of the Judiciary and Armed Services Committees. And our correspondents and specialists are standing by with full coverage. Let's begin with our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.

Jim, the White House counsel, Don McGahn, he'll leave his job soon after cooperating with the Mueller probe. What's the latest?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. President Trump confirmed reports, including one from CNN, that White House counsel Don McGahn is on his way out this fall.

McGahn is little known outside of Washington, but what he knows is potentially very critical to the Russia investigation. But as the president told us earlier today, he's not worried about what McGahn told Special Counsel Robert Mueller, insisting that he's done, quote, "everything by the book."


ACOSTA (voice-over): President Trump put an end to the speculation, confirming that his longtime aide and White House counsel, Don McGahn, will leave his post in the coming weeks.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He's been here now for almost two years. And a lot of affection for Don.

ACOSTA: McGahn is one of the central figures in Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation in more ways than one. When the president has toyed with the idea of firing Mueller in the past, McGahn was one official who stood in the way.

But more critically, McGahn has spent about 30 hours in front of Mueller's team, answering questions.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. McGahn, was it a mistake to have you speak without limits to Special Counsel Mueller?

ACOSTA: Still, the president told us he's not worried about that, despite CNN reporting that Mr. Trump was unnerved by the extent of the interview.

(on camera): Any concern about what he said to the Mueller team?

TRUMP: No. Not at all. I knew he was going also.

ACOSTA: You're aware of what he said?

TRUMP: No, I don't have to be aware. We have -- we do everything straight. We do everything by the book. And Don is an excellent guy.

ACOSTA (voice-over): The president's announcement of McGahn's departure first came in a tweet this morning that appeared to take much of Washington by surprise, including the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Charles Grassley, who tweeted, "I hope it's not true McGahn is leaving White House counsel. You can't let that happen."

TRUMP: Thank you. ACOSTA: Republicans will soon find out in the upcoming midterm elections whether the president's leadership is helping or hurting the party. Florida GOP gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis, a Trump loyalist, appeared to use a racist dog whistle on FOX and slamming his Democratic opponent Andrew Gillum.

RON DESANTIS (R), FLORIDA GUBERNATORIAL CANDIDATE: The last thing we need to do is to monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda with huge tax increases and bankrupting the state. That is not going to work. That's not going to be good for Florida.

ACOSTA: FOX later said DeSantis went too far.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We do not condone this language and wanted to make our viewers aware that he has since clarified his statement.

ACOSTA: The president claimed he had not heard the comments.

TRUMP: He's an extreme talent, and he will make a fantastic governor of Florida. So I think Ron is -- he's extraordinary in so many different ways. I haven't heard that at all, no.

ACOSTA: Potential big looming issue for the midterms, the government's handling of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, where the estimate number of deaths from the storm was just raised to nearly 3,000 people. The president insisted his administration is getting the job done.

TRUMP: I think we did a fantastic job in Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico was actually more difficult because of the fact it's an island. It's much harder to get things onto the island.

[17:05:10] ACOSTA: And two days after the president told Christian conservatives there could be violence if Democrats take control of Congress, we tried to ask Mr. Trump what he was talking about.

TRUMP: If you look at what happens, there's a lot of -- there's a lot of unnecessary violence all over the world. But also in this country. And I don't want to see it.


ACOSTA: The president was also asked about the state of negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear program, the problem he claimed he solved at that summit with dictator Kim Jong-un earlier this year. The president blamed China for stumbles in those nuclear talks, though Mr. Trump insists he still has a, quote, "fantastic relationship" with the North Korean dictator -- Wolf.

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

As the White House counsel, Don McGahn, prepares to leave his post. Let's dig deeper with our crime and justice correspondent, Shimon Prokupecz. Shimon, could McGahn's departure actually impact the overall Mueller investigation? SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, absolutely, Wolf. Any of that is possible. Look, when Don McGahn was there, has been there, you know, spent a lot of time with the president, and as we've said, reported in the last year their relationship has not been good.

You know, but Don McGahn was there when the president had ordered Mueller fired. Or at least that's what our reporting has said. And when he was there and ordering that firing of Robert Mueller, Don McGahn did not follow through on that, thought it was ill-advised. There were other parts of the White House that Don McGahn was being briefed on, things that were happening there.

So certainly, with him gone now, you know, Robert Mueller, though he has already spent about 30 hours with the investigators, with the special counsel team, a lot of time, they could decide that, now that he's gone, they may want to bring him back and just talk to him again, now that he's gone, to see if anything new has come up.

But certainly, the idea that he had been already before the special counsel for 30 hours is pretty significant. And who knows what else? He could potentially provide other information since he's gone now, Wolf.

BLITZER: That's a good point. McGahn is key to what Mueller has been investigating. Right?

PROKUPECZ: Absolutely. Look, he has been there. He's been at the front seat, front row for everything. You have the Comey firing, the Flynn situation, when the former attorney general went to Don McGahn, Sally Yates, raising concerns about Michael Flynn. Certainly, like I said, the Comey firing.

Also the relationship -- the relationship between the president and Jeff Sessions, a key part of the Mueller investigation. We know that they have been looking at that. That's -- in this obstruction investigation.

So there -- you know, Don McGahn has been there through it all. He was there before -- before the president was elected, during the campaign. Obviously, those -- that aspect of the investigation still ongoing and important to Mueller. So Don McGahn, you know, with the two years that he's been there, had

that front-row seat to a lot of the dealings, a lot of things that the president did that are now being scrutinized by the special counsel, Wolf.

BLITZER: Certainly. Shimon, thank you very much. Shimon Prokupecz, reporting.

Joining us now, Democratic Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii. She's a key member of both the Judiciary and Armed Services Committees.

Senator, thanks very much for coming in.

SEN. MAZIE HIRONO (D), HAWAII: Thank you. BLITZER: Do you believe that the president is actually pushing out Don McGahn, out of the White House, as part of an overall effort to end the entire Mueller probe?

HIRONO: I know the president keeps trying to end the Mueller probe, but anything he does with regard to the Mueller probe can be deemed part of an obstruction effort on the president's part. So he should be very careful.

On the other hand, we know that Don McGahn had talked to special counsel's people for 30 hours. I'm sure the White House is very concerned as to what Don had to disclose. And now with his departure, as your previous person said, he could very well be brought before the Mueller people to ask what else?

So anything that the president discusses with Don McGahn now can be all part of whatever questions, further questions the Mueller people have.

BLITZER: Well, do you think those 30 hours of testimony that McGahn gave Mueller's probe will be key to the Mueller investigation?

HIRONO: I think it will be one of the important aspects of the Mueller investigation, which first and foremost, has got to continue without any interference from the White House or any other political interference.

BLITZER: As you know, you heard what the president said today. He said he's not worried about McGahn's testimony before Mueller and his team. But sources have told CNN -- and we've been reporting this for a while -- that news of McGahn's cooperation with Mueller, in the words of these sources, unnerved the president.

Should he be concerned about what the White House counsel revealed already and what he might still reveal?

HIRONO: I think he should be concerned. Not just by what Mueller -- by what McGahn knows, but yes, I just wanted to comment on what the president said that -- with regard to McGahn, they just follow the book. And I say it must be the president's book, which involves a lot of lying on the part of the president and his people.

[17:10:04] So it's not just what McGahn knows, but Steve [SIC] Cohen, Manafort --

BLITZER: Michael Cohen.

HIRONO: Yes, Michael Cohen, yes. There is a Steve Cohen, but Michael Cohen. And Manafort, all of these people. It's all of a piece.

BLITZER; Do you think that the president is going to pardon Paul Manafort, his campaign chairman, who was convicted on eight counts just in recent days?

HIRONO: I think that the fact that the president has continued to say very nice things about Manafort, and the fact that Manafort, given the option, opportunity to consolidate these two cases -- the next one is coming up soon -- and he didn't take it, leads me to think that he was hopeful that a pardon was coming forward. But I think that a pardon would also be part of an obstruction assessment of what -- of what the president is contemplating.

BLITZER: In his tweet this morning, the president said McGahn would be leaving after the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation before your committee, the Senate Judiciary Committee before he's confirmed as the next United States Supreme Court justice.

You're on that Judiciary Committee. The hearings are supposed to begin for Kavanaugh, what, next Tuesday, and they continue Wednesday and Thursday. They're going to go on for several days. How do you plan to address the Mueller probe in terms of your questioning of Kavanaugh? Because if he does become a sitting member of the U.S. Supreme Court, some of these issues go up to the Supreme Court. He could play a significant role.

HIRONO: I think it's in the context of what Judge Kavanaugh has said about the extent of executive privilege, executive powers and whether or not a sitting president can be subject to either criminal or civil proceedings.

So, yes, there is an aspect to it that is very concerning. I think this is one of the reasons that the president selected Kavanaugh over all of the other Federalist Society, Heritage Foundation picked of potential nominees, because Judge Kavanaugh is the only one who said, "Well, you know, the president should not have to respond to criminal or -- or civil proceedings while he or she is sitting."

So I think that has definitely been brought to this president's attention. And so I am not surprised that he picked Judge Kavanaugh.

All of these -- these issues have got to be brought out in his hearing. And I intend to -- to probe him on his positions regarding environmental protection laws. There are definite patterns to Judge Kavanaugh's dissents.

BLITZER: I'm sure there will be a lot of questioning. You were going to sit down and have a meeting with him last week , but at the last minute, you decided to cancel that. Has it still been canceled? Have you met with him yet?

HIRONO: Yes, it's canceled. And the reason remains. And it was after the Michael Cohen guilty pleas and Manafort's conviction on eight counts that I said, considering that the president picked Judge Kavanaugh, in my view, because of Judge Kavanaugh's position in terms of the president's powers and the limitations to any civil or criminal proceedings, I thought you know, the president does not deserve my sitting with his nominee.

But of course, I will be at the hearing, and I will ask Judge Kavanaugh all kinds of questions relating to this and so many areas.

BLITZER: But if he is confirmed by the U.S. Senate, even by a very narrow margin, if he is confirmed, he will be, in your eyes, a legitimate U.S. Supreme Court justice?

HIRONO: My being -- my saying that I would not meet with Kavanaugh has little to do with the so-called legitimacy. The president got to nominate, gets to nominate. He has not been impeached. He's still the president. So that was not the reason that I chose not meet with Judge Kavanaugh.

But you know what? The judge will have every opportunity under oath to put his best foot forward as to why he should be confirmed as a sitting Supreme Court justice and probably the fifth vote and many 5-4 decisions that will come down the pike that will impact people's health care, voting rights, individual rights. And certainly, a woman's right to choose will be on the line.

BLITZER: We'll have extensive live coverage of those confirmation hearings starting on Tuesday here on CNN.

I want to get your reaction to the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Florida, what he said. This is Ron DeSantis. He's a congressman from Florida. He just won last night in that election. He's being -- he's being challenged by the Democratic mayor of Tallahassee, Andrew Gillum, who is African-American.

Listen to what DeSantis said earlier today on FOX News.


DESANTIS: The last thing we need to do is to monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda with huge tax increases and bankrupting the state. That is not going to work. That is not going to be good for Florida.


[17:15:04] BLITZER: Those words, "monkey this up," talking about an African-American challenger, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate. Some people say that's a racist dog whistle. What do you say?

HIRONO: I say that it was a conscious choice of words. And it's not just a dog whistle. It's a bullhorn.

BLITZER: So what do you -- what would you like Congressman DeSantis to do?

HIRONO: I think he should apologize for what he said. But I think, when people speak that way, they're really speaking their own -- you know, where they are coming from. And to the extent that this nominee is very close to Donald Trump, I would say that birds of a feather flock together.

BLITZER: Senator Hirono, thanks so much for coming in.

HIRONO: Thank you. Aloha.

BLITZER: Mazie Hirono of Hawaii. Up next, there's more breaking news. Now that White House counsel Don McGahn is leaving, will the president feel free to make a move against the Mueller investigation?

And Michael Cohen goes from defiance to acceptance as he waits for his sentencing hearing. CNN has new information on why the president's former fixer pleaded guilty.


[17:20:24] BLITZER: There's more breaking news now as we learn new details about what led Michael Cohen last week to his stunning guilty plea. The plea ended months of speculation about the fate of the president's longtime personal lawyer and fixer. And now he's gone from defiance to acceptance as he awaits his December sentencing hearing.

Our justice correspondent, Evan Perez, is here with us. Evan, what factored into this decision by Cohen to plead guilty?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, I think it's clear that there has been an evolution with Michael Cohen.

First, he had planned to fight these charges and this investigation by the Southern District of New York. But as time went on and he started realizing the high stakes for his family, and even his wife. At one point, prosecutors raised the possibility that not only would they increase the number of charges that he could be charged with, but his wife was also being implicated because of some of the documents that they were reviewing.

Keep in mind that some of the documents were still being gone through by the prosecutors. And so they raised the prospect that, if he waited perhaps until next year for them to finish doing all their document review, he would be facing a lot more time, a lot more trouble, a lot more legal fees, obviously.

And obviously, Michael Cohen is somebody who famously said that he would take a bullet for the president. And we talked to a friend of his who said, quote, "You know who Michael took a bullet for? His family." That underscores what we're talking about with Michael Cohen. He now knows that, obviously, he has to -- likely going to prison for at least some time as a result of pleading guilty to these charges in Manhattan.

BLITZER: He and his wife both signed their IRS joint tax returns, right? That was one of the concerns that he had. Maybe the authorities would go after her, as well.

PROKUPECZ: That's exactly right. They raised the prospect that she could face charges, because she was implicated in some of these alleged crimes that he has now pleaded guilty to.

BLITZER: What is he thinking now as he awaits his sentencing? It could be two years, three years, four years, five years. We don't know, as he awaits his sentencing in December. PROKUPECZ: Well, friends who've talked to our M.J. Lee tell us that he's got -- he's essentially arrived at resignation, the idea that he is going to go to prison for some period of time as a result of pleading guilty.

And you know, he doesn't believe that he's going to get a presidential pardon. Obviously, that's a big thing with regard to anybody associated with President Trump. He's sort of dangling this idea that there might be pardons in the offing. Michael Cohen says -- he's telling friends at least that he believe he's obviously not going to get one of those, given the fact that the president has now essentially labeled him a rat.

BLITZER: He certainly did. All right, Evan, thank you very much. Good report.

Coming up, there's breaking news. After cooperating extensively with Robert Mueller's team, the White House counsel, Don McGahn, will soon leave his post. So what could that mean for the Russia probe?

And even as the hurricane death toll in Puerto Rico rises to nearly 3,000, President Trump insists his administration did a, quote, "fantastic job."

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


[17:28:08] BLITZER: We're following multiple breaking stories right, now, including President Trump this afternoon offering words of praise for the departing White House counsel, Don McGahn. The president added he's not concerned about what McGahn has told special counsel Robert Mueller.

Let's get some insight from our experts. Susan Hennessey, do you think that McGahn's departure could have serious implications, though, for the entire Mueller probe?

SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN LEGAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: I think it's not as serious as, say, the departure of someone like Jeff Sessions.

That said, the White House counsel's office, the role of that office, is to be the sort of communication point between the White House and the Department of Justice. Now Don McGahn hasn't entirely been able to control the president, but he has sort of applied a process and constraint that has sort of saved Trump from his own worse impulses. For example, whenever Trump wanted to pressure the attorney general to unrecuse, that later became a subject, a focus of the Mueller -- the Mueller probe.

So I do think kind of the big question here is who does McGahn get replaced with, whether or not it's somebody who can bring that sort of institutional discipline. Now, there aren't a lot of people sort of lining these days that are dying to have this job. BLITZER: Mark Preston, do you think this could signal that the

president eventually will want to pardon Paul Manafort, his campaign chairman, who was convicted on eight counts last week?

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, I wish I had that crystal ball that you could do this, and you would know what Donald Trump is going to do. But I don't even think he knows what he's going to do. He's very impulsive, as we know.

Look, we know what Don McGahn has done in the White House. Certainly has helped President Trump and has helped with his legacy when it comes to the courts. We also know that it's helped his legacy that he prevented President Trump from firing Robert Mueller. Right? I mean, "The New York Times" even reported that many, many months ago.

At this point right now, though, I think that -- that Donald Trump would be best not to be trying to let Paul Manafort off the hook. I mean, we've already seen that people are not necessarily supportive of that idea.

BLITZER: Yes. Sabrina Siddiqui, as you know, McGahn was influential in preventing the president from doing certain things Mark was just noting. Who is going to have that influence in the White House, if anyone, once McGahn is gone?

SABRINA SIDDIQUI, "THE GUARDIAN": Well, the greatest challenge --


MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: -- necessarily supportive of that idea.

[17:30:02] BLITZER: Yes. Sabrina Siddiqui, as you know, McGahn was influential in preventing the president from doing certain things Mark was just noting. Who's going to have that influence in the White House, if anyone, once McGahn is gone?

SABRINA SIDDIQUI, "THE GUARDIAN": Well, the greatest challenge for anyone would be that the president ultimately cannot fully be constrained by anyone. McGahn is someone who, on the one hand, did threaten to quit if the president were to fire the special counsel. But at the same time, upon the president's instructions, he had, as we know, gone and tried to lobby Jeff Sessions not to recuse himself from the Russia probe.

So it's very challenging, in part because, one, the president is going to probably try and replace him with a loyalist, with someone who he believes he can trust. But most importantly, because the president has fundamental misunderstanding of this job. He thinks of this person as his personal attorney, when this is a lawyer for the office of the presidency, who is tasked with ensuring that the White House is complying with the rule of law.

Now, the question will be, of course, even if Trump does put someone in place who is more of an ally, does that person then take the independence of that position more seriously or act as someone who's going to try and protect the president.

BLITZER: Yes, you made a good point, because Rudy Giuliani is his personal attorney. Jay Sekulow is his personal attorney. Don McGahn works for the U.S. government in the White House. He's a government attorney who represents the office of the presidency. You make a very important point on that.

Julia Hirschfield Davis, you've been working, together with your colleagues. You just posted a very important article in "The New York Times." A lot of news in that article. Among other things, the relationship that Don McGahn has had with Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump.

JULIA HIRSCHFIELD DAVIS, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Right. Well, I mean, Don McGahn had a previously existing relationship, obviously, with President Trump. He worked on the campaign, and they had developed something of a rapport. And he had his own relationship with the president.

But it has been really strained in recent months, and not helping matters has been the fact that his daughter, Ivanka Trump, and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, really have not trusted him; have felt like he needed to be gone from the mix, that he was pushing back too much on things that the president wanted to do and potentially a liability when it came to the Mueller investigation.

And when we reported last week, when my colleagues reported the degree to which McGahn has been cooperating with Mueller's investigation, answering questions, and you know, many, many hours of testimony and cooperating in the ways in which Mr. Trump's own lawyers had said that he could and should, I think that was of great concern. Ivanka Trump went and expressed that concern to the president.

And there's some talk around Don McGahn and his allies that they believe that it was her and the folks who are around President Trump who have never really trusted Don McGahn who basically planted a story this morning saying that he was on his way out in order to then go and persuade the president, now is the time to make a clean break with him.

BLITZER: The president had tweeted that he's out, apparently without even informing Don McGahn he was going to be tweet -- announcing that.

You also write in your article that the president actually wanted his former staff secretary, Rob Porter, to take that job. Porter, of course, was forced out after allegations of domestic abuse. Tell us more about this.

DAVIS: Well, as Sabrina mentioned, Don McGahn has been one of these people who has pushed back repeatedly on the president when he has wanted to do things that McGahn knew were of, you know, dubious legal validity and might get him into more trouble.

And so there were various points where he had asked McGahn to do things, including fire Mueller and do other things that he didn't think that were appropriate. And the president was looking for somebody who he could control more, who he could persuade to sort of say yes when he wanted to do things.

And so one of the things he considered and talked about with Rob Porter was whether he could take that role. Rob Porter basically said he wasn't qualified for that role and didn't want to do it. But those conversations were had, and it was all in the context of finding someone on the staff who could -- who would not say no to him when he wanted to take some of these steps.

BLITZER: Susan, the president said today he's not worried about those 30 hours of testimony that Don McGahn gave Robert Mueller and his team. Should he be worried?

HENNESSEY: So the subject of an investigation should always be concerned about testimony prosecutors might have that they don't know about. Don McGahn is in a position to know lots and lots of information.

Now, McGahn has said that he doesn't believe he implicated the president, though his testimony, in anything -- in any actual crimes, but apparently, he did provide some negative information. One of the challenges is you might know that your own testimony doesn't implicate the president, but you don't know how it fits in with other people's testimony. So I think, ultimately, what this does is raises the stakes for that ultimate interview between the special counsel and the president.

BLITZER: Because as you know, Mark, CNN has reported the president was unnerved when he got word of the extent of the testimony, 30 hours of testimony. How much trouble could all of that be, from your perspective, for the president?

PRESTON: Well, it could be an incredible amount of trouble. Remember, he was there during some very pivotal points. We've discussed it here at the table. It -- and as Susan says, what's very important, in many ways, he could be helping corroborate other evidence that the prosecutors have gotten from other witnesses that they've had come in to testify.

[17:35:04] So he might not have come out and said, "Look, President Trump did this, and I told him not to." That might not have occurred. But what he might have done is help fill in the blanks and put together the narrative so it's a complete book. And I think that's why this has been taking so long. Robert Mueller is trying to get that complete book. Donald Trump should be unnerved.

BLITZER: Everybody, stand by. There's more news we're following. We're going to talk about President Trump again insisting his administration did a fantastic job in Puerto Rico, just after state officials raised the death toll from Hurricane Maria to nearly 3,000.

And even though the president also told reporters the U.S. is doing well with North Korea, the White House just released a statement on behalf of the president, saying there's growing concern his deal about Kim Jong-un may be in serious trouble.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [17:40:23] BLITZER: We're back with our experts and our analysts. And Sabrina, let's talk a little about Puerto Rico.

The president took questions from reporters, including our own Jim Acosta, today over at the White House when he was doing a photo opportunity. And he was asked about this dramatic revision in the number of people who were killed as a result of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico last year.

The Puerto Rican government now accepts the estimate that 2,975 people were killed. That's up from the earlier previous estimate of 64 people killed. But listen to how the president reacted.


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think we did a fantastic job in Puerto Rico. We're still helping Puerto Rico. The people of Puerto Rico are great people. They work very hard. But Puerto Rico, I would say, was by far the most difficult of the group.

And you know, right now FEMA and all of the people that worked so hard there, they were very brave and they have done some job. But Puerto Rico had a lot of difficulties before it got hit.


BLITZER: What's your analysis?

SABRINA SIDDIQUI, "THE GUARDIAN": Well, this is consistent with the way the president has talked about Hurricane Maria before.

But think about the way in which he responded in real time. As Hurricane Maria was making landfall, the president was picking a fight with the NFL over protests among players. He then cast blame on the island itself, citing its infrastructure and its debt. He picked an open feud with the mayor of San Juan who was critical of the administration's lack of response.

When he finally went to visit, he was making a spectacle of throwing paper towel rolls, not really responding with a great deal of compassion. And he also downplayed its impact by suggesting it wasn't a real catastrophe like Katrina, when we now know, of course, that the death toll from Hurricane Maria is higher than that of Katrina.

And all the while, you have had people who have been languishing without access to clean water, without access to medical care, without power. In fact, according to our reporting at "The Guardian" as of July, so ten months after the hurricane hit, there was still as many as 1,000 households without power, mostly in poor and rural areas.

So make no mistake: the administration's failure to respond in a way that was effective, that was expedient, that was showing empathy, that's going to be a major piece of this president's legacy.

BLITZER: Sabrina makes a good point, Mark. In the president's statement today, he said -- he said, "I think we did a fantastic job in Puerto Rico." You heard what he -- I didn't hear any condolences for the nearly 3,000 people, their families as a result of Hurricane Maria. Maybe we should have done this, anything along those lines.

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, last week he gave himself a 10 out of a 10 when it comes to disaster recovery relief, his administration.

You know, the biggest problem, I think, of -- how dare I say that -- one of the problems for President Trump is that he lacks authenticity. When he comes out and says, "We did a fantastic job," no they didn't, but nobody did. And there was a lot of people that died. More than double that we saw that happened down in Katrina.

You know, but yet, because it's an island, and it's off the coast of Florida, it's down in the Caribbean, people don't seem to pay attention to it. So in many ways, he may get away with it, but you know what? The lack of authenticity is going to catch up with him.

BLITZER: And let's not forget the people who live on Puerto Rico, these are U.S. citizens.

PRESTON: U.S. citizens.

BLITZER: Just like you and me and all of us. These are American citizens.

Let me put the numbers up, Julie, on the screen. You can see the hurricane death tolls. Recent hurricanes, Maria in Puerto Rico, 2,975; Katrina, 1,833. Then you go down much lower: Sandy, 147; Harvey, 68; Irene, 49; Irma, 44. The death toll this time is so much, so much higher.

JULIA HIRSCHFIELD DAVIS, "NEW YORK TIMES": I mean, you think back to Katrina, Hurricane Katrina and how disastrous that was, and the degree of the political challenge that that posed for President Bush at the time. That everyone had expected that they were going to have their hands around this problem and they so -- it was so woefully inadequate, the response. And how President Bush took it upon himself at the time to, you know, at first he did a lot of what Donald Trump is doing now, "a heck of a job" and all of that. We all remember.

but then when it became clear how horrific the impact had been, that was seen as a real crisis. This administration, I don't think, views this as a crisis at all. We heard no compassion from the president today, nothing about, you know, this is a horrible thing. The death toll, you know, rivals that of the September 11 terrorist attacks, and he didn't acknowledge that at all.

But in a way, what's striking to me is that nobody expects him to do that. So I feel like they are not getting called on this crisis the way that they should. This is not being seen as a huge liability for Donald Trump, even though the death toll is, as you said, out of whack with anything we've seen in recent memory.

BLITZER: Yes. Nearly 3,000 U.S. citizens dead. All right, guys.

PRESTON: And how many could have been prevented, Wolf, had there been a better response?

BLITZER: All right. Stick around. There's more we're following. Growing concern right now about the relationship between the U.S. and North Korea, even though President Trump says the U.S. is doing well with the North Koreans.

And a new White House statement says he sees no reason at this time to hold war games with South Korea.


[17:45:00] JULIE HIRSCHFIELD DAVIS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: -- out of whack with anything we've seen in recent memory.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Yes. Nearly 3,000 U.S. citizens dead. All right, guys --

MARK PRESTON, CNN EXECUTIVE EDITOR OF POLITICAL PROGRAMMING: And how many could have been prevented, Wolf, had there been a better response.

BLITZER: All right, stick around. There is more we're following.

Growing concern right now about the relationship between the U.S. and North Korea even though President Trump says the U.S. is doing well with the North Koreans. And a new White House statement says he sees no reason at this time to hold war games with South Korea.


[17:50:07] BLITZER: There is breaking news. The White House has just put out a new statement, amplifying what President Trump told reporters earlier this afternoon that the United States, in his words, is doing well with North Korea.

The statement goes on to say the President believes there is no need at this time to spend large amounts of money on war games with South Korea.

However, there is serious concern about what's ahead with the two countries despite all the smiles, the handshakes, during the President's summit meeting with Kim Jong-un.

Let's go to CNN's Brian Todd. He's been working his sources for us.

All right. Brian, tell us more about the statement and the current state to play.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right. Wolf, there is gathering criticism tonight that President Trump has oversold this deal with Kim Jong-un and that it could be on the verge of breaking down.

But the President, as Wolf mentioned, just issued a statement from his Twitter account, tweeting, quote, the President believes that his relationship with Kim Jong-un is very good and -- is a very good and warm one. And there is no reason at this time to be spending large amounts of money on joint U.S./South Korea war games. Besides, the President can instantly start the joint exercises again with South Korea and Japan if he so chooses. If he does, they will be far bigger than ever before.

Now, this is directly at odds with what the Defense Secretary told reporters about these military exercises just yesterday. Meantime, the North Koreans seem to have gone back to their playbook on all of this, to dodge, to mislead, and now to try to bully the Trump administration.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We will have a terrific relationship, I have no doubt.

TODD (voice-over): Tonight, growing signs that President Trump's enormous personal gamble on Kim Jong-un is in serious trouble. Diplomacy is going nowhere. Tensions are rising, reflected in a letter in recent days sent to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo by Kim's top spymaster and henchman, Kim Yong-chol.

Sources telling CNN the letter said denuclearization talks, quote, may fall apart. A letter that, when Pompeo showed it to Trump, according to "The Washington Post," prompted the President to cancel Pompeo's scheduled trip to Pyeongchang.


TODD (voice-over): Since Trump's June 12th summit with Kim, North Korea has not only failed to cut back its nuclear weapons, there are strong indications it has pressed ahead with the program. Producing more nuclear and missile material.

A clear sign, analysts say, that the President may have been played by the young dictator and has oversold what he got in Singapore.

GREEN: He did not end the nuclear program in North Korea. He hung it all on his relationship with Kim Jong-un as if it were a real estate deal in New Jersey.

He didn't pay attention to the history. He didn't pay attention to the negotiating record. He assumed that every Democrat and Republican administration before him was just dumb. He oversold it.

TODD (voice-over): Even today --

TRUMP: Thank you very much. It is an honor to be here.

TODD (voice-over): -- as the fallout from that harsh letter from the North Koreans continued, President Trump was still upbeat.

TRUMP: I think we are doing well with North Korea. We'll have to see. I have a fantastic relationship with Kim. And Kim, as you probably know -- TODD (voice-over): One veteran diplomat sees that optimism as


EVANS REVERE, FORMER UNITED STATES DIPLOMAT IN SOUTH KOREA: It not only inflates expectations, it raises expectations about where we are with respect to North Korea. It steers the American people and our allies and partners in the international community in the wrong direction.

The constant insistence that everything is on track with respect to North Korea defies the reality of the situation that we're dealing with right now.

TODD (voice-over): Tonight, as the uncertainty grows, the U.S. military which had suspended three previous military exercises with South Korea said no decisions have been made about future exercises.

Analysts say the pressure is now growing on the Trump administration to show some results, to show that Kim's regime is taking this seriously.

REVERE: They need to provide a declaration of all their nuclear holdings and weapons, plutonium, uranium, and the list of facilities that they have including the covert facilities that they have. The North Koreans will be very reluctant and may reject that idea out of hand.

TODD (voice-over): If they do, experts say, it's time for Trump and his allies to ramp up sanctions on Kim. And even take them to a new level.


TODD: Despite the criticism of President Trump for overselling diplomacy and letting Kim Jong-un play him, analysts say it's that same personal dynamic between the two men that just might actually resurrect this effort to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.

One personal letter between them, one phone call, possibly another one-on-one meeting, could get the diplomatic momentum going again, Wolf. Let's hope it does.

BLITZER: Yes. Brian, we are getting indications tonight that the North Koreans are actually really hung up about the idea of signing a formal peace treaty with the United States. And that was reflected in that letter to Secretary Pompeo, right?

TODD: That's right, Wolf. The North Koreans want a peace treaty which would, in effect, be a formal end to the Korean War. There are indications that that was agreed upon in Singapore.

[17:54:59] In that letter, recently, sources say, the North Koreans indicated they couldn't move forward on denuclearization because the U.S. was not taking steps toward that peace treaty. But Trump and his team have been reluctant to do that because it could

give more momentum to a key North Korean aim, and that is pulling U.S. troops out of South Korea and an end to an era of a tight military alliance with South Korea. So this peace treaty may or may not happen.

BLITZER: Lots going on. Brian Todd, thank you very much.

Coming up, the breaking news. The White House Counsel, Don McGahn, is due to leave his post after cooperating with the Mueller team. The President says he is not concerned by what McGahn may have told investigators, but will he feel emboldened to move against Mueller?


[18:00:03] BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. Leaving Trump. The President says his White House Counsel is on the way out after Don McGahn told Robert Mueller what he knows about critical events in the Russia probe.