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THE SITUATION ROOM
Saudi Tensions; Interview With Florida Senator Bill Nelson; Hurricane Michael's Aftermath; American Pastor Freed in Turkey; Melania Trump's Favorability Up in New CNN Poll; Dem Accuses GOP Rival of Suppressing Black Votes in Georgia; Death Toll Rises for Hurricane Michael; Trump: 'We Don't Know' What Happened to Missing Saudi Journalist Believed Murdered. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired October 12, 2018 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Rescue crews and residents are confronting the horrific destruction from Hurricane Michael, as the death toll climbs again. Tonight, search teams are going to new lengths to find survivors.
American pastor released. Two years after he was detained in Turkey, Andrew Brunson is beginning his journey back to the United States. President Trump is speaking out about the pastor tonight. Does he deserve credit for his freedom?
International murder? A source tells CNN that disgusting evidence exists that allegedly proves a Saudi journalist was murdered and that Saudi officials are to blame. Even as the U.S. demands answers, is Mr. Trump sticking with the Saudis?
Affairs of the heart. In a rare interview, the first lady insists she has more important things to do than think about the president's alleged infidelities. She is delivering a terse assessment on the state of their union.
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.
We are getting a fuller picture of the death and the destruction unleashed by Hurricane Michael, the death toll rising to 16 just a little while ago. The victims found along the path taken by the brutal storm from Florida all the way up to Virginia. This as rescue crews are using special equipment to try to find survivors who may have been trapped in the rubble along the ravaged Florida Peninsula.
Some residents are now returning to Mexico Beach to see firsthand that their homes and their entire community were decimated by Michael's power.
This hour, I will talk with Florida Senator Bill Nelson about the rescue and recovery operation, and our correspondents and analysts are also standing by.
First, let's go to CNN's Brian Todd in the devastated community of Mexico Beach in Florida.
Brian, you have been talking to rescuers and to residents. What are you hearing?
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right, Wolf.
A team of rescuers just returned from another round of house-to-house searches. They are combing through the rubble here, looking for survivors. For those who did stay, did ride out the storm, and those who are returning, this is a day of sheer anguish.
TODD (voice-over): This is all that's left of Laurie June's home.
LAURIE JUNE, HURRICANE VICTIM: What did we do to you?
TODD: Three days ago she and her husband, Randy, lived in a two-story townhome. Now its contents are thrown across a canal.
L. JUNE: We are renters, so we don't have renter's insurance. We can't replace this. This is it. This is our life.
TODD: Today, she came home, hoping to find the fire-proof box where she kept her marriage license and other critical documents. Instead, she found despair.
RANDY JUNE, HURRICANE VICTIM: We're going to rebuild somehow. I just don't know how yet. If we don't get no help, we will damn sure be living under a bridge somewhere.
TODD: While Coast Guard crews rescued survivors from the air, CNN is learning search-and-rescue teams are using specialized equipment and dogs to look under the rubble for anyone who may be trapped.
Mayor Al Cathey is trying to help pick up the pieces for those who survived. His family helped found this city in 1949.
AL CATHEY, MAYOR OF MEXICO BEACH, FLORIDA: We are a just mom-and-pop business community. People come here to pick up a shell and read a book. So, you know, we it is so difficult, mainly because of the close-knit -- we're so close-knit.
TODD: Today, Florida Governor Rick Scott toured the devastation, saying the state is offering all of the assistance it can.
GOV. RICK SCOTT (R), FLORIDA: We're getting food, water. We're working on shelter. We're working on communications.
TODD: Recovery will not be easy. Block after block, Mexico Beach is a hellscape. Many homes are now just piles of splintered wood and broken glass. Others were blown off their foundations, even swept from the beach across the street. Nothing here seems habitable. Dan and Julie (sic) Krupp rode out the storm and want to make sure
their kids know they're safe. Like so many people who stayed in their home and survived, Dan's decision to stay is only now catching up to him.
DAN KRUPP, HURRICANE VICTIM: You know, there was three hours of terror. It was terror. You didn't know if the hurricane was going to turn around and slam you from the other side, and you got your wife, and you're afraid you made a mistake and you're going to kill her.
TODD: A short time ago, I asked Governor Rick Scott about people like Dan and Julie Krupp, about people like Laurie and Randy June, who you saw in our piece. Where are they be going to be staying?
Because these are people who are basically living out in the street. The governor said they have do a shelter that's in Panama City about 20 miles away. I asked the governor, he couldn't you put a shelter here in Mexico Beach? He said the situation around here is too unstable at the moment, Wolf.
They're going to try to get some of these people evacuated to shelters in nearby towns.
BLITZER: Brian, thank you, Brian Todd reporting.
Let's take another look at the area that has been really receiving a beating from Hurricane Michael.
CNN's Scott McLean is joining us from Marianna in Florida.
Scott, tell us what you have been seeing.
SCOTT MCLEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Wolf.
Marianna, Florida, is 50-miles plus inland, but even here this hurricane packed a major punch. The governor, Rick Scott, he toured this area today. He said what he saw of the devastation looked like a war zone, and it is not hard to see why. This is a historic black church, and I don't think it would be an exaggeration to say it looks like a bomb went off inside.
Now, it wasn't being used, but it was intact prior to. You can see the roof completely collapsed. You can see how much of the brick ended up on the ground, and then there are shingles scattered all up and down this street.
Most of the homes in this area as well have some level of damage, some minor, some much, much more major. We spoke to neighbors earlier today. Both had their chimneys actually blown off. In one case, the chimney ended up on top of a pickup truck. In the other case, it actually tore a massive hole in the person's roof. And, of course, all of that water got in after that. Now, even today,
the sheriffs say they are in search-and-rescue mode. They are still getting calls from people trapped inside of their homes, and they are still expecting that the death toll will rise as they get to some of the more remote parts of this county and as they start to clear the debris from power lines and trees that are down on the road.
Three people have died in this county already. They expect, again, that number to rise. Now, FEMA administrator Brock Long, he was on "NEW DAY" this morning and he seemed to be frustrated with the situation, you know, all of these hurricanes we have had in recent months and years. And he said, look, the long-term solution here is not going to be a bigger FEMA. It is going to be beefing up building codes.
I asked Governor Scott about that today and he seemed to be open to that idea of beefing up building codes, though he was not specific. I also asked him whether addressing climate change would be part of the long-term solution. He didn't answer that question directly. He did acknowledge that warm water in the Gulf of Mexico seemed to fuel this storm, but beyond that he would only say that his focus right now is on the short-term recovery, Wolf.
BLITZER: That's the most important issue, at least right now, helping people who are in such desperate need.
Scott McLean, thank you very much.
President Trump says he will visit Florida and Georgia early next week as his administration works to help the victims of Hurricane Michael. He has a major natural disaster on his hands right now, as well as a potential diplomatic crisis at the same time.
Let's go to our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.
Jim, there's a lot on the president's plate, but he is out there once again tonight on the campaign trail.
JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. The president is on his way to Ohio. Well, he's in Ohio right now for another campaign rally, even as the number of dead is climbing after Hurricane Michael.
The president is leaving behind yet another growing problem back in Washington, the mystery surrounding the disappearance of a Saudi journalist, this mystery that threatens to damage relations between the U.S. and a key ally in the Middle East. But the president just told reporters a short while ago he's not ready to accept the conclusion from Turkish officials, who believe Jamal Khashoggi was killed by Saudis in Turkey.
ACOSTA (voice-over): On his way to his second midterms rally in three days, President Trump, who has been chatty all week with reporters, left the White House without taking questions. Sticking to his campaign schedule is something of a political gamble for the president, as his administration scrambles to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Michael. In Pennsylvania earlier this week, Mr. Trump said he didn't want to disappoint his supporters, then fired up the crowd by touting his victory two years ago.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Donald Trump has won the great state of Pennsylvania.
ACOSTA: The president is rallying his base as the administration is still searching for answers behind the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. resident who vanished after visiting one of the kingdom's consulates in Turkey.
Even though Turkish officials are accusing the Saudis of murder, the president suggested to reporters he's not quite ready to reach the same conclusion.
TRUMP: We're going to find out what happened with respect to the terrible situation in Turkey having to do with Saudi Arabia and the reporter. And nobody knows quite yet. Nobody has been able to put it all together. People are starting to form ideas, and as they're formed, we will let you know. But it certainly is a terrible thing.
ACOSTA: The president vowed to discuss the matter with Saudi Arabia's King Salman.
TRUMP: I will be calling him. I will be calling at some point King Salman. We have a lot of very close relationships with a lot of countries, but this is a serious problem.
ACOSTA: But the president is making it clear he may only push the Saudis so much, noting the billions of dollars the kingdom is spending buying U.S. military equipment.
TRUMP: I would not be in favor of stopping a country from spending $110 billion, which is an all-time record, and letting Russia have that money and letting China have that money.
ACOSTA: Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin says he is still headed to a Saudi investment conference in Riyadh later this month, despite the fact that several corporations and major news organizations, including CNN, have pulled out of the event.
STEVEN MNUCHIN, U.S. TREASURY SECRETARY: Saudi has been a very good partner of ours in a lot of areas.
ACOSTA: For years, Mr. Trump has made it clear he values his relationship with the Saudis, from the president's first foreign trip to Riyadh, where his close ties were on display, to the Oval Office, where he welcomed Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
MOHAMMED BIN SALMAN, SAUDI ARABIAN CROWN PRINCE: You have talked today, Mr. President, about military deals, the implementation, and it's more than 50 percent.
TRUMP: One thing that you have been really focused on is the terrorism threat and the funding of terrorism. And whether it is Saudi Arabia or other countries, as we know, there will be no funding.
ACOSTA: And back to the campaign trail.
TRUMP: Saudi Arabia, and I get along great with all of them. They buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much.
ACOSTA: Even while the White House is pressing for details on the whereabouts of Jamal Khashoggi, the president is pointing to one foreign policy breakthrough, the return of American Pastor Andrew Brunson from Turkey, where he was detained for some two years.
The pastor is now on his way back to Washington, is expected to appear with the president tomorrow here at the White House, Wolf, but that moment may be overshadowed by this mystery surrounding Jamal Khashoggi, as the U.S. appears at this point to not have any real answers -- Wolf. .
BLITZER: Yes, good point. All right, thank you very much, Jim Acosta.
Joining us now, Senator Bill Nelson of Florida. He's a Democrat who serves on the Armed Services Committee.
Senator, thanks for joining us.
SEN. BILL NELSON (D), FLORIDA: Thanks, Wolf.
BLITZER: I want to get to the latest news on the missing Saudi journalist and the other issues.
But, first, let's talk about the recovery effort in your home state of Florida right now. You have been in public service in Florida for decades. Describe the extent of the damage you are seeing. Have you ever seen anything like this before?
NELSON: The short answer is no.
I just came from Panama City and Mexico Beach. It is unlike any other hurricane that I have seen, except Hurricane Andrew, which was 1992 south of Miami. It leveled Homestead, Florida.
This leveled all of the structures that were old in Mexico Beach. They are rubble. The newer ones under the building code stood up. But, as -- just as I was there today, I met two residents, one who survived on the second floor of a condominium overlooking the beach. And he said he thought he was going to die.
Another one who had evacuated and was coming back to see his business, and, of course, there was nothing left of the business, and yet his attitude was the can-do spirit, we're going to get through this.
And that's the spirit that you will see in a lot of Floridians as they recover.
BLITZER: The FEMA administrator, Brock Long, says he expects the death toll to rise significantly. The death toll currently stands at 16. Based on what you are seeing firsthand, do you agree?
NELSON: In and around Mexico Beach they did not think they were going to find anybody else. They had searched, but it is a very small community.
Now, the greater Panama City area, there are so many homes that they haven't been able to get to. Wolf, the only good news was the good weather that stayed for the last two days after the hurricane blew through. If FEMA will get them the blue tarps, then they get them on their roof, because most every roof is damaged.
But if they can get those blue tarps on, then it is not going to ruin their house, because the rains have not come.
BLITZER: The president says he plans to tour the damage in Florida and Georgia early next week. Will you be joining President Trump on that tour?
NELSON: If I am invited, certainly. But I didn't need that, to wait until then to get in.
Marco Rubio, my colleague, we are already reaching out to FEMA to make sure they get all of the supplies and equipment in. I saw trucks coming in as I was leaving, but I will tell you, Wolf, there's going to be a lot of anguish, because there's no electricity, and it is going to be down for quite a while.
And there, in fact, is very little communication, with the main supplier of cell phones. They're down. So it is a frustrating time for people.
BLITZER: Let me turn to the news, Senator, on Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist who worked -- works for "The Washington Post" who disappeared after entering a Saudi consulate in Turkey.
We have heard from some of your colleagues in the Senate who say they're convinced Khashoggi was, in fact, murdered by the Saudi regime. How do you see it?
NELSON: Well, of course, I have been in Panama City and Mexico Beach, so I'm not all up on it.
But I will just tell you, if they did murder him -- and that seems to be the reports from the Turks -- then I think we have got to have some serious consequences. Now, Saudi Arabia has been a good partner for us in the war against terrorism, and we certainly want to keep that assistance and relationship there. But we, the United States, that stand for human rights, you just can't
let a United States person who has a family of United States citizens, who is employed by a major newspaper, you cannot tolerate the fact that he would be lured into a Saudi consulate and brutally murdered.
BLITZER: Senator Nelson, thanks so much for joining us.
NELSON: Thanks, Wolf.
BLITZER: Good luck to all of the folks in Florida. They need a lot of help.
Just ahead, more stunning images of destruction, as we stay on the story of the hurricane catastrophe on the Florida Panhandle. We are following the rescue operations as they unfold.
And we're also told that Turkey has chilling evidence to back up its claim that a Saudi journalist was murdered. We are getting new information about the investigation. We will share it with you when we come back.
BLITZER: The breaking news tonight, President Trump says he will call the king of Saudi Arabia soon to discuss the fate of a missing journalist.
Turkey is accusing the Saudis of killing Jamal Khashoggi at their consulate in Istanbul.
And now we're told Turkish authorities have shocking evidence to back up their claims.
First, let's go to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr. She is following the story for us.
So, Barbara, tell us more about this evidence.
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, good evening, Wolf.
Some high-tech clues are beginning to emerge in this case, but still President Trump not ready to directly criticize the Saudi royal family.
STARR (voice-over): Tonight, Turkey claims it has the gruesome proof that Jamal Khashoggi was murdered shortly after he entered the Saudi Consulate.
According to a source familiar with the investigation, Turkey has obtained audio and video recordings allegedly showing he was beaten and interrogated before the murder, possibly by some of these men seen at Saudi diplomatic buildings after landing on private planes at the Istanbul Airport.
It is not clear if U.S. officials have yet reviewed the recordings, but the working assumption, Khashoggi is dead.
Still, the administration has no firm response.
JOHN BOLTON, U.S. NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: The United States does not have information it is not revealing. If we had information, we would know better exactly how to handle this. We have made it clear we want to know what the facts are. We are going to continue to do that.
STARR: Khashoggi had long worried his criticism of the Saudi regime would put him in danger. Three days before his disappearance, he told the BBC that he did not think he could safely go back home.
JAMAL KHASHOGGI, "THE WASHINGTON POST": I don't think I will be able to go home.
QUESTION: Do you put out some feelers every now and again, test the temperature or...
KHASHOGGI: See, when I hear of an arrest of a friend who did nothing worth to be arrested, it make me feel I shouldn't go.
STARR: The allegations against Saudi Arabia now raising questions about the cozy relationship between the Trump White House and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, MBS, as he's known, has emerged as the ambitious young reformer bent on stopping corruption, arresting senior princes, demanding their fortunes.
But senior U.S. military and intelligence officials have long been wary, even as President Trump and Jared Kushner got closer to the crown prince. Officials tell CNN the personality profile on MBS is a man of ruthless intolerance for dissent, someone who is never told no.
The State Department says the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. is traveling back to Riyadh for answers.
HEATHER NAUERT, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESWOMAN: My understanding is that he's on his way back there. We said, when you come back, we would like to hear -- get a report from you.
STARR: What nobody knows, did the crown prince miscalculate world reaction if, indeed, he ordered Khashoggi's death, or did he just not care and decide to send a deadly message to all opponents?
STARR: Now, President Trump got something he badly wanted out of this relationship with the Saudis. He has been able to claim that there's a $110 billion weapons deal with the kingdom, but, for now, only a fraction of that has turned into actual purchases -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Good point. All right, Barbara Starr, thank you.
All right. Now we are also getting new information about how the Turks obtained some of the chilling evidence about Khashoggi's fate.
Let's go to our international diplomatic editor, Nic Robertson. He is on the scene for us in Istanbul.
So, Nick, tell our viewers what you are learning.
NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Wolf, a pro- government newspaper here, "Sabah," said they have talked to trusted sources, which we take to mean the government, and this is a newspaper that had a drip-drip feed of what has turned out to be accurate information from their, we believe, government sources all week.
Now they're revealing how and why the Turkish authorities were so confident that they had material that proved Khashoggi's death, where it took place, how it took place, how brutal it was.
Jamal Khashoggi was wearing an Apple Watch when he went into the consulate. He had paired it with his iPhone, which he left with his fiancee outside. He set it to audio record when he went in.
It records the interrogation, the brutal beating and his final murder. Now, we understand from this newspaper, this pro-government newspaper that has been fairly accurate and reliable over the past few days on this story, that his interrogators discovered his watch, realized it might have been recording, tried to get the data out of it.
But the data had already been uploaded to his phone that was sitting in his fiancee's hands. When his fiancee alerted the Turkish authorities, they were able to retrieve that fateful audio recording from his phone.
In many ways, it seems here Jamal Khashoggi, in a terrible, terrible situation -- we know that he feared about what might happen to him when he went into the building -- has potentially here solved his own murder mystery.
The recording from his watch transferred to his phone, that information, the Turks able to retrieve and shared with intelligence officials around the world, Wolf.
BLITZER: Truly, truly stunning, stunning, stunning developments.
Nic Robertson in Istanbul, Turkey for us, thank you very much.
We are going to assess the breaking news right after this.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We're back with the breaking news in the aftermath of the Hurricane Michael,
[18:31:43] Let's go back to CNN's Brian Todd. He's in Mexico Beach, Florida, for us. That's ground zero of this storm. Brian, give us an update. BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right, Wolf. We have just been able
to confirm that there has been one death now reported here in Mexico Beach, one death at least here, but that brings the death toll now to 17 people overall killed in Hurricane Michael.
We're going to now take you to some video from the air of a drone we have just kind of flying over the area where I'm standing, and it can show you kind of a wide shot of some of the other areas.
We have a search-and-rescue team that's just returned to a staging area a few yards away from me. They're going house to house, busting down doors, climbing through windows, trying to find survivors. They're using specialized equipment. They're using cadaver dogs. They're using what they called live-find dogs, who are specially trained to smell out survivors underneath the rubble.
So they're just deploying every possible resource that they can. They are not finished yet. They can to this at least until darkness here, Wolf, which is what they're going to be doing. They've been here since yesterday, and they are just doing exhausting work.
We talked to the mayor and the governor earlier today, Mayor Al Cathey, telling people he does not want people to come back here yet. It is simply too unstable, too dangerous for them to return to their homes.
The governor, Rick Scott, says they're bringing every resource to bear that they can into this town. They're bringing food; they're bringing water, other supplies. And they need to do that, Wolf, because so many people who we met who are from here, who rode on the storm, who are just returning today to Mexico Beach, say that they have nothing left. They have no house. They have no job. They have no money. They're basically living on the street.
I asked Governor Scott about shelters here that these people could stay in. He said, "We have a shelter in Panama Beach," but that's 20 miles away. Then I asked the governor, "Could you possibly bring a shelter here?" He said, "It's too unstable."
So, Wolf, it's a very tenuous situation here. We can, again, confirm at least one dead here in Mexico Beach. That death toll now overall, 17 people.
BLITZER: An elderly man who was found dead. All right. Thanks very much, Brian Todd.
Let's bring in our analysts as we also watch other breaking news, very significant developments on the missing Saudi journalist and his alleged murder.
John Kirby, you heard Nic Robertson report from Istanbul, Turkey, just moments ago that Khashoggi's watch, when he walked into the consulate, the Saudi consulate in Istanbul -- that he had an iWatch -- was transmitting recordings from inside the Saudi consulate. And that's pretty damning evidence if they have that. ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY (RET.), CNN DIPLOMATIC AND MILITARY ANALYST: If
they have that, it is damning evidence. I don't know enough about the technology to know how easy that kind of thing is to get and to actually record. But it's really important that, if there is such evidence, that they bring it forward, they make it a part of the investigation. At the appropriate time, that they be as completely transparent about the evidence as possible.
BLITZER: Why has the U.S., the Trump administration, at least so far, Rebecca, been reluctant to issue a very firm declaration, a very farm statement?
REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Right. Well, of course, we don't have all the information yet, Wolf, but you also can see this very sort of transparent cost-benefit analysis playing out with the Trump administration and with President Trump.
On the one hand, they recognize, or seem to recognize, that this is potentially egregious, that this is the sort of thing that the United States needs to take some moral leadership on.
[18:35:00] But on the other hand, the president said we have this important arms sale agreement with Saudi Arabia. They're an important trade partner. Steve Mnuchin said that they're a very good partner in many areas. And so strategically, the Trump administration is saying, "Well, wait, do we want to cross the line here and ruin our relationship with this important partner?"
BLITZER: You know, it's significant, you know, Ron Brownstein. He must have been really worried when he went into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. He had his iWatch, and it was supposedly, according to this Turkish newspaper, recording. He left his iPhone outside with his fiancee, who was listening and monitoring all of these developments, according to this report we just heard from Nic Robertson. It's -- it's an indication of how scared he was.
RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: It's an incredible report from Nic and one that certainly shows, taking all the precautions you could, being in such a difficult situation.
You know, and I think -- you know, to Rebecca's point about kind of the ambivalence of the Trump administration, what's really unusual about this is that this entire debate about the Trump response is unfolding along two levels.
I mean, normally you would have the debate, kind of the first-tier foreign policy debate, about kind of realist -- realist considerations against standing up against something as egregious as this: murdering a columnist for a major American media outlet because they have been critical of you. So that debate would normally happen.
But now we have this whole second layer of debate, which is to what extent is the president and his son-in-law and others making this decisions not only on the question of the American national interests but their own personal financial issues? I mean, the president has talked extensively before his election about
his good relations with Saudis and how many apartments they bought, and certainly, the Saudi government has been spending a lot of money at his hotels after the election. And it's just another indication of how the -- the continued entanglement of the president in the Trump business enterprises just adds a whole other layer of uncertainty and complication to the choices we make around the world.
BLITZER: And I just want to be precise. The iWatch was transmitting the audio files to a cloud, which then went to the iPhone that the fiancee had. She wasn't listening to it contemporaneously at the time. But the Turks, apparently, were able to retrieve all this information, according to this Turkish newspaper, and as a result, they have this.
I assume you know the U.S. relationship with NATO allies. Turkey is a NATO ally.
KIRBY: They are, indeed.
BLITZER: Would they normally share that information with the U.S.?
KIRBY: They are supposed to. I mean, especially on something like this, where we've called for an active investigation, you'd expect that they would. And look, Erdogan is looking for ways to get back in American good graces. He released the pastor today. He's under a lot of pressure domestically. So he -- it's in his interests, in all of our interests for him to share that information as quickly as possible.
BLITZER: You know, Laura, this is not the first time the president seems to have ignored, at least for now, the allegation of a brutal murder. You remember Otto Warmbier, the American college student who was arrested and detained in North Korea. He was allowed to leave, but he was in a coma, and he died a day or two after he came back to the United States. It was a brutal, brutal death of this young University of Virginia student. And very recently, we heard the president say he's got a love affair going with Kim Jong-un.
LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, sure. Think about how he talks about Russian President Vladimir Putin. We've seen this before. We all remember him saying, "He says he didn't do this."
Now we'll see whether he takes a stronger tone with the Saudis. He says he's going to have conversations very soon. Questions why those conversations haven't happened already.
But Congress has a role to play here, which I think makes the whole thing really complicated and interesting. Because of the Magnitsky Act, the 22 bipartisan senators, Democrats and Republicans, have now called for an investigation; and they triggered a 120-day period, which means they're not going to be able to be silent forever about this.
BLITZER: Is -- is the FBI involved in this investigation? Will they have access to that Apple watch, for example? JARRETT: I mean, based off of everything we've seen so far, Wolf, and
based off of what we know, no. But obviously, there are partners overseas. They can talk to, you know, people that they have. They can call on their partners to do more. But as of what we know right now, they haven't been called to do any of that. At least so far.
BLITZER: The president keeps saying, as you heard, John, keeps saying we're not giving up $110 billion in military sales --
BLITZER: -- to Saudi Arabia over the next ten years. A lot of American jobs are at stake, this is huge. If the U.S. doesn't do it, Russia will sell the weapons; China will sell the weapons. That's the argument he makes.
KIRBY: It's an egregious argument. There should be no equivalence here between defense sales and what we're talking about, the potential murder of a journalist. And he should not take any tool of repercussion off the table.
And oh, by the way, Wolf, he may not have a choice. Because as Laura said, if Congress gets involved here, they can stop those arms sales, whether he likes it or not.
BERG: Right. And by the way, Congress has a track record on this. If you look at what Congress did vis-a-vis Russia, pressuring the president, essentially backing him into a corner on sanctions, they can do the same thing on this; and they might, in fact, be compelled to do so.
[18:40:14] KIRBY: Can I just say -- can I just say the argument that they're just going to the Russians and the Chinese, I mean, I don't buy that. They want American defense goods, because they know they're the best material on the planet. They're not going to run to Russia and China.
BLITZER: And the president wants to sell them -- hold on for a moment, Ron. We've got to take a quick break. We're going to continue watching all of this as other news we're watching as well, including the first lady of the United States, her rising popularity. How far is she ahead of her husband in our exclusive brand-new poll?
Plus, her rare remarks about her marriage after being asked about President Trump's alleged infidelities.
[18:45:30] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: We're back with our analysts.
As the first lady, Melania Trump, is reporting on the state of her union with the president. Rebecca Berg, she gave a rare interview to ABC News. Let me play this clip. Watch.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) INTERVIEWER: You're not the first first lady to have to deal with her husband's alleged infidelities. Has this put a strain on your marriage?
MELANIA TRUMP, FIRST LADY: It is not concern and focus of mine. I am a mother and a first lady, and I have much more important things to think about and to do.
INTERVIEWER: You mentioned you still have a good marriage. Do you love your husband?
TRUMP: Yes, we are fine. Yes.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: So what do you make of that?
REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: We are fine is not exactly a great love sonnet, Wolf, but she is in a difficult position because there are these accusations out there against Donald Trump for his infidelity, and Melania doesn't want to answer those uncomfortable questions. You could sympathize that she would want to focus on her job as first lady, her role as first lady. Of course, she does have a relatively young son who is exposed possibly to this media coverage, and so it is uncomfortable for her.
She handled it gracefully and, you know, if her marriage is not exceptional, credit to her for not saying it is.
BLITZER: How do you interpret it?
LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, look, I know we're going to talk about her favorability rating which is obviously higher than the president's, and she seems to enjoy putting a little bit of distance between the two of them. You know, she picks her times. Her spokesperson is very out there and always makes it clear when she wants sort of her own independence, sometimes even what channel she watches.
JARRETT: We've seen that. But she also stands by him.
You know, we didn't play the clip, but what strikes me are her comments on the #metoo movement, her comments on what evidence women should have to put forward when they have claims of sexual assault. She is not always bifurcating when it comes to those issues, and clearly on issues of harassment her husband has faced she has stood fast in supporting him.
BLITZER: We have a new poll, Ron Brownstein. I'm going to put up on the screen. You see she has a 54 percent approval rating, favorable opinion of her, compared to only 41 percent for her husband.
RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. Look, I think part of it is that she in some ways to some voters looks like a sympathetic figure next to Donald Trump, exposed to the kind of behavior that has been alleged against him by Stormy Daniels and others right after she gave birth, I think all of that creates kind of sympathy.
I think the heart of that, Wolf, the reason those numbers are better is precisely for the same reason why they're essentially irrelevant. I mean, she is seen as someone who is really not part of the competition, is not in the arena, is not part of the political engagement. Even -- I mean, first ladies always have a level of distance from that. I think this goes even further.
You know, if you think about the comparison about how people look at her versus the polling we've seen at CNN and now ABC, "Washington Post", about Kavanaugh, for example, where women are pretty favorable toward Melania but you have a clear majority of women saying that the Senate should continue -- the Congress should continue investigating Kavanaugh after the election. The latter, I think, has political import and teeth, and this is just kind of, you know, out there, floating.
BLITZER: You know, let me read to you a tweet, John Kirby. I want you to put on your hat as a former diplomat, a former spokesman for the State Department. This was a tweet on the president, suggesting his daughter would be a great successor to Nikki Haley as U.S. ambassador to the U.N.
Here it is. So nice. Everyone wants Ivanka Trump to be the new United Nations ambassador. She would be incredible, but I can already hear the chants of nepotism. We have great people that want the job.
REP. ADM. JOHN KIRBY (RET.), FORMER STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: Well, look, I think Nikki Haley proved you don't have to have a wealth of foreign policy experience to be the U.N. ambassador. You do have to have a measure of intellectual curiosity and want to learn the job and really get out there and represent American foreign policy on the world stage.
Samantha Power once described the job as trying to be heard at an Irish dinner table. You have to have a story to tell, you have to be able to reach across the lines. And I think if I were President Trump, I would focus on trying to make sure your candidates have that kind of curiosity and that kind of energy to operate on the world stage.
BROWNSTEIN: But, you know, Wolf, can I add something real quick? It goes to something we were talking about in first section, which is the difficulty of disentangling the Trump family and personal interest from the U.S. national interest and how he doesn't really seem to make a separation there.
[18:50:00] And the idea he would consider this I kinds of questions that come up when you have a president who has brought family into the White House, who has not separated himself from the business interests and there just is not that kind of clear, clean line that says I am making this decision because it is in the national interest of the U.S. as opposed to the personal interest of me or my family.
BLITZER: You've been looking into the anti-nepotism law that's out there. What did you discover?
JARRETT: I mean, I think somebody has made it pretty clear to him, you can't do this. The federal law is pretty clear that his daughter would count as a close relative in a government agency. This is not going to happen.
I mean, obviously, we sounded the alarm. Everyone raised concerns about Ivanka and Jared in the White House. Obviously, that was an issue. He had to get an opinion from the justice department about it. But this one is pretty clear cut.
BLITZER: Yes. All right, guys. Stand by.
There's more news we're following, including very serious allegations in a key race we're following just weeks before Election Day. Is one candidate seeking an advantage by suppressing the black vote?
[18:55:50] BLITZER: Tonight, allegations of voter suppression are hanging over one of the most closely watched governors races. That would be Georgia where Democrat Stacey Abrams is vying to be the first African-American woman to lead a state. She's accusing her Republican opponent of blocking minority voters from casting ballots.
We're joined now by our CNN Washington correspondent Jessica Dean.
Jessica, tens of thousands of potential votes are at stake right now.
JESSICA DEAN, CNN WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.
So, let's take you through a potential situation here. They go to the voting poll on Election Day, only to find out that their voter registration has been placed on hold. Now, the voter can still vote as long as they put out the proper identification. But it's that extra step that has people worried that some people may just decide not to vote at all.
DEAN (voice-over): A major dust-up in the state of Georgia weeks before voters go to the polls to choose their governor. The latest point of contention, allegations Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp is using a voter verification law to effectively suppress thousands of African-American voters. Kemp is running on the Republican ticket against Democrat Stacey Abrams.
STACEY ABRAMS (D), GEORGIA GUBERNATORIAL CANDIDATE: Now, lets go get it done.
DEAN: In the latest twist, a nonprofit advocacy group has filed a lawsuit against Kemp in his official capacity as secretary of state. This after reports that Kemp's office placed a hold on more than 50,000 voter applications, more than two-thirds of which were made by African-Americans for not meeting an exact match requirement. This means anything as minor as a typo or missing hyphen between a valid voter ID and a registration can be flagged.
KRISTEN CLARKE, PRESIDENT, LAWYERS' COMMITTEE FOR CIVIL RIGHTS UNDER LAW: The reality is that minority voters are often the ones with unusual names that are sometimes harder for state officials to capture accurately in the state's database, and they are being penalized for that. Our end goal, our end objective with this lawsuit is making sure that there's a level playing field where everyone's voice can be heard in Georgia.
DEAN: The Kemp campaign calls the claims bogus and points to Georgia increasing its voter rolls under his leadership. Quote: Under my tenure as secretary of state, Georgia has shattered records for voter registration and turnout across all demographic groups. Despite any claim to the contrary, it's never been easier to register to vote in Georgia and actively engage in the electoral process.
The Abrams campaign says Kemp is using his authority as secretary of state to boost his chances, saying in a statement: This isn't incompetence, it's malpractice. Brian Kemp needs to resign his position so that Georgia voters can have confidence that their secretary of state competently and impartially oversee this election.
The Kemp campaign strongly denounces the accusations as a, quote, sad campaign tactic and says it's Abrams who's up to dirty tricks, calling this whole thing a, quote, manufactured crisis to turn out her base.
The secretary's website points out voters with registrations on hold can vote on Election Day if they show an acceptable form of identification, which is already required to vote in Georgia. Kemp's team says it's this controversy itself that's suppressing the vote. Quote: By telling people they can't vote, they actually think they can't vote, and that's a sad state of affairs.
As for Abrams, she has long believed Kemp has worked to suppress the minority vote.
ABRAMS: We live in a nation that has spent centuries denying the right to vote. And spent decades creating barriers to that right to vote, and I have an opponent who is a remarkable architect of voter suppression.
DEAN: A recent poll shows a very tight race in Georgia within the margin of error there and that means that these accusations of voter suppression are all the more pressing for people who think they could impact thousands of voters, Wolf.
BLITZER: Good report. Jessica Dean, welcome to CNN, by the way, your first report of what's probably going to be a very long and distinguished career.
DEAN: Well, I hope so. Thanks for having me, Wolf. BLITZER: Good to have you. Thank you.
And that's it. Thanks very much for watching.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.