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Interview With Utah Congressman Chris Stewart; Interview With South Carolina Congressman Mark Sanford; Hurricane Florence Targets East Coast; Trump Doubles Down on Puerto Rico Hurricane Response Praise; Mueller Team Prepping for Second Manafort Trial Despite Report of Talks on Possible Deal; Despite Charm Offensive, U.S. Intel Questions Kim Nuke Intentions; New CNN Poll: Trump Trails Mueller By 20 Points In Handling Of Russia Investigation. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired September 12, 2018 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Interference order. The president takes new action to punish foreigners who try to influence U.S. elections. Is it just a show to try to tamp down concerns that he is soft on Russia?

And Kim's diplomatic dance. After his summit with President Trump, North Korea's once-reclusive dictator is reaching out to world leaders right and left. CNN is inside North Korea right now assessing Kim's motives and his next big move.

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: Breaking news tonight: A new forecast is driving home the danger from Hurricane Florence, as the Carolinas brace for impact from this powerful storm.

Right now, time is clearly running out for nearly two million people who are under orders to evacuate before the storm starts lashing the coast as soon as tomorrow. Florence now is expected to stall and turn south, battering coastal areas with fierce winds and heavy rain for days and days.

We could see 13-foot walls of water and 40 inches of rain, triggering catastrophic flooding in the Carolinas and beyond. More than 25 million people in the forecast zone from Virginia to Alabama, they are at risk tonight.

We will get live updates from CNN's Severe Weather Center and the National Hurricane Center. And our correspondents and analysts and other guests who are also standing by.

First, let's go to CNN's Martin Savidge in Sea Breeze, North Carolina.

Martin, what is the latest where you are? MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, residents who once had days

to make a determination as to whether to stay or go now have only hours. In fact, in this community, they have got two hours, and experts say how they answer that question could mean life or death.


SAVIDGE (voice-over): The warnings for this monster hurricane could not be more dire.

GOV. ROY COOPER (D), NORTH CAROLINA: North Carolina, my message is clear. Disaster is at the doorstep, and it's coming in.

JEFF BYARD, FEDERAL EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT AGENCY: This is going to be, you know, a Mike Tyson punch to the Carolina coast.

SAVIDGE: Officials can't stress enough, this is the last chance to get out of its path.

BYARD: This is a dangerous storm. We ask that you heed the warnings. Today's the day.

SAVIDGE: The National Hurricane Center tweeting today that waves up to 83 feet were measured within the churning storm. That's water cresting at roughly the same height as an eight-story building.

This as storm projections suddenly turned southward, potentially delivering a days-long deluge on cities such as Charlottesville, South Carolina.

JOHN TECKLENBURG, MAYOR OF CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA: I know a lot of folks have been watching the weather reports over the last few days, and thinking, well, we might just dodge this bullet. Well, now is the time to make that decision to go ahead and get out of town.

SAVIDGE: Hurricane Florence now threatens more than 25 million people, with a forecast cone larger than every state east of the Mississippi, 1.8 million Americans now under mandatory evacuation orders. Many in the Carolinas are boarding up and clearing out, as what were once boat-filled marinas now sit empty.

All this as the cavalry is already coming in. Crews of first- responders from California to New York are gearing up and heading out, readying for rescues, as teams in Texas also prepare to join the effort.

In North Carolina alone, more than 2,800 National Guard troops are ready to serve in what has been called the storm of a lifetime.

REP. DAVID PRICE (D), NORTH CAROLINA: Nobody should have any false assurance about this. I think we all better just get ready to the maximum.


SAVIDGE: Despite all of those dire warnings, there were still a lot of people that hadn't made up their mind. Many had hoped this storm was going to suddenly veer away. That is not going to happen. Now it is time for them to decide -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It is time for them to get out and get out quickly. Martin Savidge, thank you very much.

Let's go live to the National Hurricane Center right now. We're joined by the acting director, Ed Rappaport.

Ed, thanks so much for joining us.

So, what is it about Hurricane Florence that makes the risk so great right now?

ED RAPPAPORT, ACTING DIRECTOR, NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER: There are a couple of extreme risks from Florence.

The first is going to be along the coast, where we are expecting storm surge to be at life-threatening levels. And we are taking a look at a map now of the South Carolina and North Carolina coast, where in this red we have a storm surge warning. That is for life-threatening surge.

And the numbers we are showing are the heights that we could see, the inundation. That's the depth the water will reach. So, nine to 13 feet along portions of the North Carolina coast. That's because the water is going to be driven inland along the coast by the very strong winds.


Now, there will be storm surge that's almost as high to the south and to the north, so the entire coast of North Carolina and South Carolina is at risk from storm surge. Then later we're going to have a huge risk from the hazard of inland flooding from excessive rainfall.

BLITZER: So what is the worst-case scenario, Ed, for the hurricane's path?

RAPPAPORT: Well, the worst-case is almost what we have got forecast now. Here is where the center is located, about 400 miles offshore. Here are the Carolinas. This is the coastline here.

What we are showing here is just the forecast for the center. I want to point out while this is where the center is forecast to be as it comes up to the coast, this is the size of the storm. It is huge. We have tropical-storm-force winds out almost 200 miles and here is the hurricane-force winds.

So as it comes ashore, we will have very strong winds over a large area. The problem is, we are going to have it slow down near the coast. That's going to extend the battering of the waves and the storm surge, and it is going to increase the chance for excessive rainfall inland.

Here is the map of rain that we're expecting, upwards of 20 to isolated 40 inches of rain, and the entire eastern portions of Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina are going to have well over five to 10 inches of rain, unfortunately, potentially catastrophic flooding.

BLITZER: It certainly is.

The hurricane, as you know, has been downgraded from a 4 to a Category 3. Do you worry that could cause some people to let down their guard?

RAPPAPORT: I would hope not. There's some slight solace in that the winds won't be quite as strong, but they're still going to be in the Category 3 range, which is damaging, potentially destructive.

And, unfortunately, even though those wind speeds have come down a little bit, the wind field itself has expanded. And tends to lead to even greater areas of large storm surge. While the winds have come down a bit, because we have a slow-moving storm, we will have a lot of rainfall, and because we have such a large wind field, we are going to have damaging storm surge along the coast.

BLITZER: How dangerous is the flooding going to be?

RAPPAPORT: Again, we could see record flooding. There's been talk about this being the storm of a lifetime. Depending on where it goes, it could well be for any particular place along the coast. A major hurricane comes only once every 20, 30 years in most places.

Wherever this does come ashore and in the nearby area, it will be a storm to remember. We hope everybody will survive it.

BLITZER: Ed Rappaport, the deputy director of the National Hurricane Center, Thanks to you. Thanks to all the men and women who work with you for your important work. We're grateful to you. Thanks so much, Ed.

RAPPAPORT: Thank you.

BLITZER: All right, take a look at this. This is a live picture coming in from Wrightsville Beach in North Carolina from our CNN air drone. It shows just how desolate the beach is as the waves start to pick up.

Wrightsville Beach was evacuated earlier today, very dramatic images you are seeing right there.

Now let's go to another location in North Carolina as the state braces for the worst from this Hurricane Florence.

Brian Todd is in the coastal community of (INAUDIBLE) Porter.

Brian, you have been following the storm preparations, the evacuations. What are you seeing tonight?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we are seeing a real sense of concern for the people who have elected to stay on North Carolina's barrier islands, especially very isolated islands like Ocracoke, which is about 25 miles east of here.

And the reason why is really right behind me, these ferries that can take people back and forth, and have been doing so for the last several days. They're stopped. They are moored down now. They are not going anywhere. They cannot get out to the islands.

They have warned people to get off the islands for the last few days. We were here earlier when a stream of people in several boats unloaded here. This one came last. It docked here about several hours ago with people coming off.

That vessel over there was one of the first to arrive, and people had a real sense of concern just and relief actually that they were getting actually off these vessels and leaving.

These two vessels over here are moored down also. They're going to keep these vessels here, and what is really concerning is that they don't know when they can get these boats back out to the barrier islands to bring food, supplies, even medical help to the people who have elected to stay there, Wolf.

So that is a real concern tonight. Here is what we know at this moment. We know from state officials that about 2,000 people evacuated from Ocracoke Island. That island is significant because it is only accessible by boat even in normal times, Wolf.

Right now, with no boats going back and forth, they're stuck. We think about maybe between 100 and 200 people elected to stay. There are 900 permanent residents of the island. The 2,000 people that were evacuated include a lot of the visitors who were here. And several -- more than 1,000 vehicles were also taken off the island, Wolf.

And we have to clarify a little bit about the term mandatory evacuation, because as the people of these barrier islands are demonstrating, mandatory evacuation does not mean they go and physically pull you out.

Mandatory is relative in these cases. I talked to one local official, Tom Pahl. He is the commissioner of Hyde County. He says you can't go in and physically force people out. He has been trying to get people out of their homes. It is considered a very powerful suggestion. And now they're really concerned about the people who have elected to stay back on those barrier islands, Wolf.


BLITZER: Yes, it is a very dangerous situation, Brian Todd reporting for us. Thank you.


BLITZER: In South Carolina tonight, we're told at least 300,000 people have been evacuated so far.

Joining us now from Charleston is Congressman Mark Sanford of South Carolina. Congressman, thanks so much for joining us. I know you guys have a

lot going on right now.

What's the biggest risk facing your state right now and your constituents?

REP. MARK SANFORD (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Well, people being complacent.

For a while, people thought it would run inland after it hit North Carolina and not take the southern dip, and yet it is going to, at this point, look like it is going to take the southern dip. And that's catching some people by surprise.

And so I would say complacency is probably the biggest danger as you think about Charleston, Edisto, Kiawah, the areas down this way.

BLITZER: How concerned are you about the flooding in Charleston and along the South Carolina coast?

SANFORD: Well, it depends on the storm track.

You know, if we're on the southern side ultimately of the eye, it is good news as it relates to storm surge, because typically it is on the northern side, the right-hand side, if you will, where you really see considerable storm surge.

And so it depends on storm track, ultimately. But if the models hold true, it will put the bulk of the storm surge to the north side of Charleston, and it would leave Hilton Head, Buford, Bluffton, the historical low country, if you will, unscathed from the standpoint of storm surge, but still horrific rains and the flooding that would come with that.

BLITZER: We have heard a lot of reports, Congressman, of people deciding to stay and hunker down. What is your message to these people? Because they still have a few hours left to get out of there.

SANFORD: It is a mistake. You know, I was governor for eight years. Went through a long series of different storms then. You know, grew up on the coast, saw storms then.


And universally, you talk to people who stayed during Hugo, for instance, which was the last major storm to hit the coast of South Carolina, though we have had another 1.5 million people come to the state of South Carolina since that storm hit.

A lot of newcomers, and you talk to the old-timers and what they say is, I will never do that again. And I just would say, let's listen to them, because what people say is, there is no reason to put yourself in harm's way when it doesn't have to be the case.

Stuff can be replaced. Lives can't.

BLITZER: Yes, Hurricane Hugo, what, was in 1989. The storm surge was really powerful then. You expect something along those lines right now?

SANFORD: Don't know. That was more of a direct hit coming in from the Atlantic, if you look at the actual track of Hugo. But think about this.

North of Charleston, places like McClellanville and (INAUDIBLE) you had people who had gone into the second floor of their homes to avoid the storm surge, and they were grabbing chain saws and cutting up into the attic and ultimately into the roof, because the water kept rising.

And so, you know, you can talk about horrific storm surges on the northern side of storms like this one.

BLITZER: Yes, I remember seeing those images in Katrina 13 years ago as well.

We will stay in close touch with you, Congressman. Thanks for joining us. Good luck to you. Good luck to all of the folks down in the Carolinas.

SANFORD: Yes, sir.

BLITZER: Just ahead, we are going to have much more on this major and menacing, life-threatening hurricane, with just hours to go before it starts lashing the coast.

And we will have the latest on the president's reaction to the coming storm and his continued boasting about the response in Puerto Rico a year ago, despite thousands of deaths.



BLITZER: We're following breaking news on the major hurricane that's about to hit the Carolinas.

There's a new warning out tonight from President Trump about the storm danger for millions of Americans. There are also new questions about whether his administration is prepared for the worst after his stunningly upbeat take on the hurricane response in Puerto Rico a year ago.

Let's bring in senior White House correspondent, Jeff Zeleny.

Jeff, we heard from the president just a few moments ago.


The president not mincing any words tonight. We heard from him in the East Room just a few moments ago, and he urged Americans to follow the instructions of local and state officials. He said the U.S. government is already responding, standing by. But he said again this is going to be one of the biggest storms he has seen. He said God bless everybody and be careful. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY (voice-over): President Trump issuing dire warning tonight about the powerful force of Hurricane Florence as it roars toward the Carolinas.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have some really big situation confronting us. It is coming in fairly fast, and it is going to be one of the biggest to ever hit the East Coast, one of the biggest to ever hit our country.

ZELENY: The president calling the storm even bigger than anticipated and extremely dangerous, as his administration braces for the first major hurricane of the season.

TRUMP: Well, God bless everybody and be careful.

ZELENY: But those words of caution still overshadowed tonight by his continued bragging about the government's response to Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico one year ago and killed nearly 3,000 people.

TRUMP: I think that Puerto Rico was an incredible unsung success.

ZELENY: That description hardly meets the deadly reality of the storm, yet he doubled down on Twitter saying, "We got A-pluses for our recent hurricane work in Texas and Florida, and did an unappreciated great job in Puerto Rico, even though an inaccessible island with very poor electricity and a totally incompetent mayor of San Juan."

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz recoiling at his remarks, saying the president is adding insult to injury.

CARMEN YULIN CRUZ, MAYOR OF SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO: I'm sorry, sir. Shame on you. You did not do a good job in Puerto Rico. If he thinks that 3,000 people dying on his watch is a good news story or is an unsung success, nobody could be singing his praises, because this was a despicable act of neglect on the part of his administration.

ZELENY: All of this as Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley saying nearly $10 million if FEMA funding, less than 1 percent of its budget, was given to Immigration and Custom Enforcement in June to spend on detaining or deporting undocumented immigrants.

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY (D), OREGON: Well, I'm simply saying it will have $10 million less than it would have. And $10 million is significant. It just goes to the judgment of the administration at the very time hurricane season is starting.

ZELENY: But FEMA Chief Brock Long pushing back, saying that money didn't come from the disaster relief fund and won't slow recovery efforts.

BROCK LONG, ADMINISTRATOR, FEDERAL EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT AGENCY: It does not come out of the disaster relief fund that funds everything behind me, that funds everything in the field. So, it is a non-issue for us at this moment.

ZELENY: Meanwhile, the president signed an executive order today to punish foreign entities for interfering in U.S. elections. The White House hopes the order will dispel the notion Trump has been soft in his response to election meddling.

But Republican Senator Marco Rubio and Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen said the United States can and must do more.

TRUMP: No collusion, no nothing.

ZELENY: While the president has spent months trying to discredit the special counsel's investigation, a new CNN poll tonight shows Robert Mueller's approval rating stands at 50 percent. Trump's approval for his handling of the Russia investigation is at 30 percent.

And asked whether Trump should be impeached or removed, 47 percent saying yes, 48 percent no.


ZELENY: And that number there, of course, very significant, 47 percent saying the president should be removed or impeached. That is up about 5 percentage points from earlier this summer when we asked that question.


Wolf, the key group that is making that change, independent voters, up some 10 percentage points in their view of that question. Of course, all of that is being put on hold for right now. The White House, of course, is saying that all hands are on deck in its response to Hurricane Florence.

Look for the president to perhaps visit FEMA tomorrow, we're told, or talk to other officials. He has already canceled two campaign rallies, one tomorrow in Missouri, one on Friday in Mississippi. The president knows that he and his administration will be judged on their response to this hurricane as well, Wolf.

BLITZER: They certainly will be. All right, Jeff, thank you very much, Jeff Zeleny over at the White House.

Joining us now, Republican Congressman Chris Stewart of Utah. He's a member of the House Intelligence Committee.

Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.

Let's get to the issue.

Do you think the president should be calling his administration's response to Puerto Rico, the hurricane there last year, an unappreciated, unsung success?

REP. CHRIS STEWART (R), UTAH: Well, before we talk about it, Wolf, can we say -- and you and I think agree on some, disagree on other things, but we do agree that there's a danger laying ahead for these people.

Our thoughts and prayers are with them. And we hope that they respond. And I spent a lot of time yesterday with first-responders. This is another great example. We rely on these guys, and God bless them. And we just hope for the best over the next few days.

Now, to your...

BLITZER: Let me just say, we totally agree on that.


BLITZER: Of course we hope for the best, and we're praying for the best, and we're relying on first-responders. You are absolutely right.

STEWART: Yes. Yes. Thank you.

It is really too bad to see this tragedy in Puerto Rico. This was a devastating form storm. And it was a remarkable event. And for us to be talking about it in a political way, for either party, either individual, either the mayor or the president to be talking about it in a partisan way, I just don't think is helpful.

Look, there was probably nothing we could do to save every life on the island. It was just such a powerful storm. I do think the president has been, I think, overly criticized for his response. I think that the FEMA director and others who were there, I think they did everything they possibly could.

But in an enormous endeavor like this, not everything is perfect. And I just think if we can keep politics out of it, help those people who are suffering, I just think that's a better response. I think most Americans feel that way as well.

BLITZER: We now know almost 3,000 people died as a result of that Hurricane Maria. Originally, the number was about 60 or 70 or something, but now almost 3,000, by the government of Puerto Rico, have been confirmed dead.

We just showed our viewers in the last hour, Congressman, some really awful pictures. Take a look at this. You see about 38 million bottles of water were deployed to Puerto Rico during the height of the hurricane to be distributed, and they're still there. The people needed water. They were desperate for water, and that water is still over there in crates.

So, that doesn't sound like a huge success to me.

STEWART: Yes, well, I just don't think that's the only measure, Wolf.

And the other thing too is that it is not only the federal government's responsibility to respond to these. There's local governments. There are mayors. There are governors and other people who have shared responsibility in this. But I got to tell you, I mean, I don't know. It's been a year now.

It's been a while since we have talked about this. If that's true, it is too bad. Let's do better. But I don't think it helps to just point fingers at the president or the mayor. Let's just go in and fix it.

BLITZER: Yes, well, you know what? The situation in Puerto Rico was a disaster, and once the government there said 3,000 people died as a result, it is hard for a lot of us -- and I'm sure it is for you too -- to hear the president claim this was -- it was a great success, right?

STEWART: Well, again, you have to kind of separate the two.

I don't think there was any way that we could preclude every death. I think what the president is trying to measure, and that is the federal government's response to that. But, in addition to that, you have the local government, you have the Puerto Rican governor and others. And they all need to be held accountable for this.

BLITZER: Let's move on to some other issues while I have you. CNN's new poll shows that only 30 percent of the American public right now believe that President Trump is handling the Russia investigation the right way.

Take a look at these numbers. He is trailing Robert Mueller, the special counsel, by 20 points. Why do you think that is?

STEWART: Yes, I don't have any idea.

And, honestly, Wolf, this is one of the things where you and I may disagree. I don't think it is meaningful at all to ask this question about, do people support the Mueller investigation? I mean, if it was 90 percent, that doesn't necessarily mean that he should go forward.

I want him to conclude his work. If it was only 10 percent, that wouldn't mean to me that he shouldn't go forward. I think we should keep this out of this public polling. It should be something that we just allow him to do his work, we support him while he's doing his work.

As I have said to you many times, Wolf, I hope he does it as quickly as he can, so he can report to the American people. But then let's see what conclusions he comes to and deal with that once we know what he's found.

BLITZER: Yes. All of us want to see what he's found, and we're anxious for that, and I know you are as well.

Congressman Stewart, thanks so much for joining us.

STEWART: Thank you, Wolf.


BLITZER: All right, just ahead, officials now say it's the last good day, only hours away to escape before Hurricane Florence hits. We're keeping a very close watch on the evacuations and the forecast.

And we'll talk more about Robert Mueller getting better marks, at least right now, than the president in our exclusive new CNN poll. What does that all mean, as the Russia investigation moves forward?


[18:35:08] BLITZER: President Trump's almost daily attacks on Robert Mueller's Russia investigation don't appear to be undermining the special counsel according to a brand-new exclusive CNN poll. Let's dig deeper with our correspondents and our specialists.

Susan Hennessey, look at these numbers, the handling of the Russia investigation, only 30 percent approve of the job the president is doing. Fifty percent approve of the job Mueller is doing.

SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY & LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I think this is really bad news for the president. Trump's strategy from the beginning has been to fight this from the Court of Public Opinion. There is one group we know doesn't care at all about this poll numbers and that's Mueller and natural Department of Justice. Rod Rosenstein has said over and over again, we're going to let the indictments speak for themselves.

And so I do think what we're seeing on this poll numbers is as we see indictment after indictment, guilty pleas, criminal convictions, people are starting to realize that this is a serious meaningful investigation. It's a fair investigation that's getting results.

And so, as we move forward, I think that especially as things start to get closer to the president himself, closer to his inner circle, he's not going to be able to just dismiss it this as a witch hunt. He's going to have to substantively answer for his conduct. You know, I think that's one of the reasons why he's so terrified of sitting down for an interview with Robert Mueller because he really is between a rock and a hard place.

He either, you know, might have to face the choice between lying under oath or admitting to some very incriminating and potentially very politically-damaging conduct.

BLITZER: And Mark Preston, there's more bad news in the new poll for the president. On the question of whether he should be impeached, removed from office, in June. Thirty-eight percent of independents thought the president should be impeached and removed from office. But that number among independents has now jumped to 48 percent.

MARK PRESTON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: And why that's so significant is, A, that's a huge increase. I mean a 10 points in one month is significant. Secondly, we all know that's going to be independents who decide who controls the House and the Senate next year and will decide who the next president is.

And if you couple that number, that 10 percent drop, and you look at support amongst Republicans just for his overall approval, we saw that number drop eight points. It's still in the 80s. But when you see the significant drops, just could imagine if Mueller comes out with something that is extremely damming, what the drop will be.

BLITZER: You know, Samantha Vinograd, the anonymous op-ed writer in "The New York Times", the administration official, he talked about a two-track presidency. Today, the president signed an executive order that aims to punish foreign entities for interfering in American elections. But you have concerns about the effectiveness of this.

SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: I think this E.O. should be titled much ado about nothing because it actually isn't anything that is very new. We already have under an existing national emergency, which is a legal distinction, the authority to punish foreign actors, foreign countries, and foreign entities, for doing exactly what the president said he is punishing, which is interfering in our elections.

And guess what? We've had these sanctions. They've not deterred election interference. And at the same time, this new executive order really relies on a process, a new process after elections with the director of national intelligence and various other actors within the executive branch.

We know that President Trump isn't really a huge fan of processes or listening to his intelligence community. So I don't think that this is really going to lead to more punitive actions.

BLITZER: And Marco Rubio, Chris Van Hollen, a Republican and Democrat, they issued a joint statement saying, this is clearly not enough, much more needs to be done. All of this could clearly impact, David, the midterm elections. I want you to listen to what the senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, is now saying about his deep concern.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), MAJORITY LEADER: On the Senate side, I'll just list you a bunch of races that are dead even Arizona, Nevada, Tennessee, Montana, North Dakota, Missouri, Indiana, West Virginia, and Florida. All of them too close to call. And every one of them like a knife fight in an alley, I mean just a brawl in every one of those places. I hope when the smoke clears it will still have a majority in the Senate.


BLITZER: Are you surprised to hear him speak so bluntly about his deep concerns that potentially the Democrats, not only the House but the Senate as well? The Democrats could be the majority?

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: No, I think as a party leader he's sounding a general alarm, Wolf. I mean first of all, you've got a good economy and his party is not polling well.

Second of all, as the consummate inside player he wants to go into the next Congress and remain the majority leader, not minority leader but even if Republicans hold on to the Senate, he knows that this applies to the House, too. Because if Democrats even take one House, they get subpoena power and that changes the equation on all of these questions swirling around the president.

I also think there's a qualitative component to this, Wolf, which is that he knows that if they lose Montana, if they lose or rather if Democrats hold Montana, Democrats hold West Virginia, that's not a huge story. If Democrats win Arizona or a Congressman O'Rourke beats Senator Cruz in Texas, it's a long shot, that's a big story and changes the narrative.

[18:40:06] BLITZER: Do Democrats really have a chance, Mark Preston? You have done a lot of studying of this. We assume the Democrats have an excellent chance of being the majority in the House, but in the Senate as well?

PRESTON: They do. I mean, look, anything is possible at this point. The Beto O'Rourke phenomenon is amazing in some ways --

BLITZER: In Texas.

PRESTON: -- in Texas. But let's not count out Ted Cruz. I do think that Ted Cruz is a fighter and we'll see what happens. But in addition to that, there is one race that I'm looking at and I know you're looking at too that could decide the fate of the Senate and that's down in Florida, described as a knife fight between Bill Nelson and Rick Scott. You're going to be moderating a debate next month.

BLITZER: Yes. Looking forward to it, on October 16th in the Tampa area, I will moderate that debate, be televised right here on CNN.


BLITZER: It's going to be a big fight in Florida.

PRESTON: Yes, big one.

BLITZER: We're going to watch it very, very closely. But we're watching all of these states very closely because so much is at stake right now, guys. Stand by. There's more breaking news we're following.

The new forecast for Hurricane Florence, we have details of growing states of emergency and more evacuations. Plus will former Trump campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, strike a plea deal with Robert Mueller to avoid a second trial?


[18:45:58] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: There are new filings tonight by the special counsel Robert Mueller's team as they prepare for the second trial of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. But now, there are new questions about whether Manafort is having second thoughts about another day in court.

Let's dig deeper with our CNN senior legal analyst, former U.S. attorney, Preet Bharara.

Preet, as you know, "The Washington Post" is reporting that Paul Manafort is in talks with the Mueller team on a possible plea deal.

Do you think he would -- he would actually decide to cooperate and provide information or would prosecutors accept a guilty plea and possibly consider a reduced sentence?

PREET BHARARA, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Yes, I don't know. It seems unlikely. We've heard these stories from time to time earlier on when the investigation was closer to its infancy, that maybe there were talks going on, and then at various junctures between the time he was charged and the trial proceeded against him in one court, he didn't plead guilty. Those discussions didn't lead to anything. Prosecutors are really in the cat bird seat here and it's unclear what, if anything, will come from these talks.

I think, you know, stories that swirl around the idea that a person who is going to trial or has just been to trial and is going again to trial are having conversations with the prosecutors often amount to nothing.

BLITZER: The Mueller team, as you know, succeed in convincing a jury to convict Manafort on eight counts in his first trial. Does that change their calculations on a possible plea deal?

BHARARA: Yes, look, all right. The prosecutors are in the driver's seat here. They generally are given their track record and usual rate of success, but here, they have in their pocket guilty convictions on a number of counts and they still have outstanding counts they may go back on and they have another trial starting in 12 days.

So, the maximum pressure is on Paul Manafort. And to the extent there are some hang-ups about, you know, who has leverage and who doesn't, the prosecutors obviously can make it very clear they're the ones who have the leverage. And if there's some, you know, impasse on something, I don't see any reason why the prosecutors have to give any quarter unless it's true that Paul Manafort has been, you know, keeping under the vest, you know, important information about Trump and others that he's only now prepared to provide.

BLITZER: If they do reach a deal, how could that impact Manafort's chances of potentially getting a pardon from President Trump?

BHARARA: I don't know it has any effect at all. I think for the immediate term, because of a lot of things going on including the upcoming elections, that the likelihood of Paul Manafort being pardoned is low, but I do think there seems to be some kind of, you know, signaling going back and forth.

There was some reporting that I'm sure you saw that suggested that Paul Manafort is trying to make it clear if he does plead guilty it will be a straight-up plea to the charges, not part of cooperation, maybe signaling to the president that I'm still on your side, I'm still going to keep my mouth shut, I'm not going to be like other people who may have flipped against you to increase his chance of a pardon but I think it is too early to tell.

BLITZER: Bob Woodward in his new book "Fear" reporting the extent to which the president's legal team was in contact with the Mueller team over a long period of time. It was apparently very, very extensive. Were you surprised to hear that, or is that typical?

BHARARA: I wasn't surprised at all. Good lawyers try to find out what the prosecutors are thinking and good prosecutors try to find out what the potential legal defenses will be. There's this myth, although it is true in some cases, but there's a general myth that the prosecutors do everything behind closed doors, never divulge anything that they're thinking, and that the defense never knows anything that's going on.

But in sort of open and notorious, especially white collar prosecutions and investigations, where the legal theories can be discussed, where the legal theories are not clear, where the prosecutors want to make sure they give the other side the opportunity, and we did this all the time. We would have lawyers in on high-profile cases and low-profile cases, come in and say why they thought we were barking up the wrong tree, why they thought we were wrong. And sometimes, you know, we believed this. Often we didn't.

But if people came in in good faith and tried to offer their understanding of events or tried to explain gaps in our understanding of things, that was very helpful.

[18:50:08] And it was a good back and forth and that's the way it's supposed to work in I think a fair criminal justice system typically.

BLITZER: If you were still a U.S. attorney and prosecutor, would you bring additional indictments between now and the midterm elections, only about six weeks away, or do you hold off until after the elections?

BHARARA: That's a great question. I mean, I think it depends on the nature of the crime you're charging. I think that if it's something that relates closely to the president and that could have a political impact and there's no harm to the case or no harm to the interest of justice in bringing such a case or taking such an action after the election, then I think you wait.

On the other hand, I can't predict what the facts might be, hypothetically, but you can imagine a situation in which there's somebody who has some connection and may have a political impact, but they're about to flee the country or they're about to destroy documents, or they're committing an ongoing crime of great significance. Then you have to balance those things but I don't think you can let, you know, people flee and destroy documents, maybe you do it under seal if it's possible or take some other less restricted measure.

I mean, you're loath to do something like this when the whole world is watching and has a sense tat dramatic action shouldn't be taken close to an election, even though Donald Trump, by the way, is not on the ballot. I think (AUDIO GAP) to that but if (AUDIO GAP) there's danger to the case, you may be having to take action even though you hate to do it, but if not, you wait. BLITZER: Preet, we're grateful for your expertise. We always learn

something in the course of these conversations. Thanks so much for joining us.

BHARARA: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Breaking ahead, millions of people along the East Coast are being warned right now to prepare for days and days of disaster as Hurricane Florence closes in.

Plus, Kim Jong-un's charm offensive, is he using it to cover his real nuclear intentions? We're going live to North Korea for an exclusive report right after this.


[18:56:40] BLITZER: For years, he was one of the world's most isolated dictators but North Korea's Kim Jong-un has undergone a dramatic transformation in a very short time.

CNN's Will Ripley is in Pyongyang on his 19th assignment inside North Korea.

Will, despite Kim's charm offensive, U.S. intelligence is questioning his nuclear intentions. What's the latest? What are you hearing?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, tonight, we're learning some are wondering if all of this charm offensive is just Kim Jong-un putting on a show while continuing to develop his nuclear program. But what is clear, world leaders are now lining up to meet with him from the Japanese prime minister to Russian President Vladimir Putin and a major summit happening here in Pyongyang next week.


RIPLEY (voice-over): North Korean leader Kim Jong-un waited more than six years to make his international diplomatic debut. Now, he's getting ready for yet another round.

Next week, Kim meets for the third time with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, a fourth meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping is reportedly in the works, and the White House says Kim is seeking a second summit with President Donald Trump after writing the president a personal letter.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: This was a very warm, very positive letter.

RIPLEY: President Trump praised the North Korean leader for leaving his nuclear missiles out of Sunday's military parade in Pyongyang, reviving stalled diplomacy with the U.S. after Trump abruptly cancelled Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's Pyongyang visit last month.

HEATHER NAUERT, STATE DEPARTMENT PRESS SECRETARY: We have some hard work to do. We also have a tremendous opportunity. RIPLEY: Anti-American propaganda has disappeared from the streets of

the North Korean capital.

(on camera): I remember standing in front of this exact poster last year and it said all of the mainland U.S. is within striking range. Now, it's talking about building up a socialist economy. The change in tone in such a short amount of time is just extraordinary.

(voice-over): U.S. intelligence questions whether the North Korean leader is really serious about giving up his nuclear weapons. North Koreans we talked to with government guides just off camera say they have no doubts about their supreme leader's sudden diplomatic U-turn.

(on camera): It seemed like this country was so focused on the nuclear program, to go from that to this, does it seem odd to anyone here? Or what do people think about it?

(voice-over): I don't think many local people feel surprised by this sudden turn, says Kim Bong Hyang, because we trust our leader. He's trying to make our lives better.

They also tell us they're optimistic about the possible next meeting between Kim and Trump, despite lack of progress on the nuclear issue.

The two leaders made a strong commitment, says Ro Gyong Ho, and our marshal has a strong will to keep the promise he made at the summit.

Analysts in the U.S. are much more skeptical. Some say it's all a show designed to tamp down the angry rhetoric that had Trump and Kim on the path to war, and give North Korea enough breathing room to continue secretly developing weapons, but while Kim's motivation may not be fully apparent yet, what is clear is after nearly 70 years of hostility and hiding, what was once called the hermit kingdom is now coming out on the global stage.


RIPLEY: As for a second Trump-Kim summit, still no time or place has been set yet, but diplomatic sources are telling me tonight it will likely be after the United Nations General Assembly which kicks off next week in New York -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Will Ripley reporting from North Korea -- Will, thank you very much. Thanks for your excellent work.

Thanks very much to our viewers for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.