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Death Toll Rises to 31 in Record-Breaking Fire Disaster; Putin on Chat With Trump and What Came Between Them in Paris; Dems Retaking House Vow Tougher Oversight of Trump's Military; Interview With California Congressman John Garamendi. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired November 12, 2018 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: President Trump holes up at the White House, tweeting attacks and grievances, but deciding not to take part in any Veterans Day events here in the United States.

And hell on earth. The death toll rises and the destruction spreads, as large areas of California are being consumed by record-breaking wildfires. CNN is on the scene, where millions of lives and homes are at risk.

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're following breaking news on the Russia investigation with new charges possibly in the works right now.

Tonight, an associate of longtime Trump confidant Roger Stone says he expects to be indicted by the special counsel, Robert Mueller, within the next few days, this as CNN has seen at least eight of Mueller's prosecutors working today, on this federal holiday.

And another potentially important sighting, the former Trump fixer and lawyer, the now convicted felon, Michael Cohen, he's been here in Washington for most of the day as well.

I will get reaction from Democratic Congressman John Garamendi, and our correspondents and analysts are also standing by.

But, first, let's go to our senior justice correspondent, Evan Perez, and our justice reporter, Laura Jarrett.

Evan, what is the very latest?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Jerome Corsi one of the nine or so associates of Roger Stone who has come in for testimony to Robert Mueller, his investigators, as well as to the grand jury.

In Jerome Corsi's case, he spent hours and hours with Mueller's investigators over the last couple of months. And today on a live stream on YouTube, Jerome Corsi said that he expects in the next few days that he will be indicted by Mueller.

Now, we don't know exactly what these charges entail, but according to him on his LiveTube he said that he expects that it'll be for giving false information to the special counsel or to the grand jury. Now, take a listen to some of his comments today on his YouTube livestream.


JEROME CORSI, AUTHOR, "THE OBAMA NATION": I got served a subpoena on August 28 at my home. Two FBI agents show up unannounced. And I did not to the FBI. Of course, my wife is pretty startled. And we began a series of discussions with them that have gone on for two months.

And at the end of that two months, even though I did everything I could to cooperate, the entire negotiations and discussions have just blown up. And now I fully anticipate that, in the next few days, I will be indicted by Mueller for some form or other of giving false information to the special counsel or to one of the other -- grand jury or however they want to do the indictment, but I'm going to be criminally charged.

Now, the subpoena came to my home three days before my 72nd birthday. And this has been one of the most frightening experiences of my life.


PEREZ: And, Wolf, at this stage, we reached out to the special counsel's office. They declined to comment.

Jerome Corsi's lawyer also declined to comment. Look, there's a number of areas that they could go, from perjury, to making false claims, to obstruction of justice. We don't know exactly where this is going to go. But we know that obviously he's one of nine or so associates who have gone in already.

And what this tells us, Wolf, is that the special counsel is homing in on Roger Stone and his circle. And Jerome Corsi appears to be the first to fall.

BLITZER: Yes, we got a graphic of all the individuals who've been called and have already appeared. You can see all of them.

Roger Stone currently has not yet been question by the special counsel. Investigators are looking into whether Corsi was a back channel to WikiLeaks. Potentially, how problematic is that for the Trump administration, the Trump campaign?

PEREZ: Look, that's a big deal because, based on the questions that they have been asking Jerome Corsi and a couple of the other witnesses, it indicates that they believe or at least one of the theories that they're pursuing is that Jerome Corsi or someone else was another back channel to WikiLeaks and Julian Assange to Roger Stone. Roger Stone has previously said that Randy Credico, a New York radio host, was his channel to get information from WikiLeaks. And what this tells us, Wolf, is that the special counsel is homing in on the big task that they had, which is to answer the question of whether or not there was any collusion, everybody inside or associated with the Trump campaign who was getting some of this information beforehand, knowing what WikiLeaks had, which was damaging information Hillary Clinton and her campaign.

So, again, what this tells us is that we're getting closer to getting that answer. And that's a big deal.


BLITZER: Laura, some legal experts have suggested this may be an effort to flip Corsi right now, to get him on a perjury charge and get him to cooperate and go after some bigger fish.


I mean, the big fish is Roger Stone. It's not Jerome Corsi. It's not Credico. It's Roger Stone. And so we will have to wait and see whether this is something that is going to actually come to fruition and whether that's what he's really edging towards here. We just don't know yet.

BLITZER: The other development today -- and it's curious and potentially very significant that all of a sudden Michael Cohen, joined not by his family on this Veterans Day, but by his criminal defense attorney, they're on the train from New York to Washington, seen getting off at Union Station, spending hours here, and then taking a late afternoon trading with his lawyer back to New York.

And we also know that, what, several of Mueller's lawyers were working today on this federal holiday. They're supposed to be off.

JARRETT: Yes. And you can imagine he wasn't hanging out with Guy Petrillo, his criminal defense lawyer, for nothing on a federal holiday.

And he wouldn't answer any questions when reporters asked him what he was doing here, what he was planning on saying to Mueller's team. He declined everything. He said he was having a nice ride. But, obviously, we have been waiting for months to see exactly what he can offer, if anything, to Mueller's team.

It may be the fact that he doesn't have anything that Mueller doesn't already know. We will have to wait and see on that as well. But certainly Mueller's team, eight prosecutors today, that's more than the normal amount. We usually see fewer than that. So clearly they're gearing up for something, we think, Wolf.

BLITZER: On another matter -- but, really, all of this is related. As you know, Democrats on the Hill, especially the new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, they're putting a lot of pressure on the acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker -- he took over for Jeff Sessions -- to recuse himself.

Is there any possibility, given where the president the United States stands on attorneys general recusing themselves, that this will happen?

JARRETT: Based on our reporting, it seems like that would run completely contrary to the exact purpose of putting him in to oversee the Russia probe, if he was then to recuse from the Russia probe.

So I think on his face it doesn't make much sense, Wolf. But I'm told tonight from the Justice Department that he is going to go through the ethics review, he's going to do anything that he needs to do, as warranted, a little bit of a caveat there.

So we don't have any indication at least so far that he's actually taken those steps, but he says that he will recuse, he will go through the process as necessary.

BLITZER: If he does recuse himself, I won't expect him to be on the job as an attorney general very long.


BLITZER: All right, guys, thank you very much.

We're also following other breaking news on the cliffhangers and the controversy in the midterm election that's still unfolding nearly a week later tonight.

Tonight, the Florida election officials are racing to finish a series of recounts triggered by razor-close contests, as President Trump is sharpening his unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud against Republicans.

Let's go to CNN's Ryan Nobles. He's joining us in the Florida state capital of Tallahassee.

Ryan, so where does the recount stand right now?

RYAN NOBLES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we're here in Leon County, where they are wrapping up their vote for the night. They believe they're going to have everything done here tomorrow by 5:00.

Now, each one of these counties, all 67 of them are on a different schedule. But they have to have this recount complete by 3:00 on Thursday.


NOBLES (voice-over): The recount is under way, a huge undertaking, 8.5 million ballots spread over 67 counties individually run through thousands of machines, with a goal of checking the results first released on Saturday afternoon.

As the machines churn, the politicians are playing a public relations game, attempting to convince their supporters they will be victorious. GOV. RICK SCOTT (R), FLORIDA: What Bill Nelson needs to do now is

what he would be asking me to do if I had lost the election, is say, look, you know, the election happened. Let's go forward. But he's not.

NOBLES: Governor Rick Scott, who is leading by just about 12,000 votes, believes he has won. A senior campaign official says he will travel to Washington this week and play the role of senator-elect, attending a photo-op on Capitol Hill and participating in leadership elections.

He's filed several lawsuits and as governor has called on law enforcement and Attorney General Pam Bondi to keep watch on the recount. Bondi, the state's top law enforcement officer and a Republican, sending a letter to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and secretary of state saying she was -- quote -- "deeply troubled" the two agencies don't see evidence to warrant a criminal investigation.

Scott's opponent, Bill Nelson, believes Scott, the governor, should not be involved in an election where Scott, the candidate, is running.

SEN. BILL NELSON (D), FLORIDA: Given his efforts to undermine the votes of Floridians, this is the only way that we can ensure the people's votes are protected.

NOBLES: Meanwhile, the recount moves along. In massive Miami-Dade County, election workers must work 24 hours a day to get done on time. In Palm Beach County, a spot of concern, the supervisor of elections once thought they might not be done on time. Today, she changed her tune, confident at least the Senate race would be done.


SUSAN BUCHER, PALM BEACH COUNTY SUPERVISOR OF ELECTIONS: We're fairly confident that we're going to meet the -- at least the machine recount by Thursday.

NOBLES: The Senate race has the best chance of flipping in a recount. But, if it happened, it would be unprecedented. The governor's race, while in a recount, is very unlikely to change, with a 33,000-vote margin.

And, as a result, the candidates are acting much different. Andrew Gillum, the Democratic nominee, not promising a new result, but vowing to make sure every vote is counted and perhaps auditioning for his next act.

ANDREW GILLUM (D), FLORIDA GUBERNATORIAL CANDIDATE: I'm simply here to say that, for the votes that have been cast, they ought to be counted, every last single one of them.


NOBLES: And the Republican candidate, Ron DeSantis, casting himself as governor-elect, staying above the fray, making only one taped public statement and not appearing in public since election night.


NOBLES: And, tonight, we're following a developing story out of Bay County, which, like where we are right now, is on the Panhandle of Florida and was ravaged by Hurricane Michael.

The supervisor of elections there in Bay County said that he did collect 147 ballots from his constituents that were ravaged by the hurricane via e-mail. That goes in direct opposition to specific guidance that was sent out by the secretary of state, who said that they weren't allowed to do that.

The question here, Wolf, this isn't a large number of ballots at stake, but did any other supervisors of elections in other counties allow this to take place? And could it set a precedent for how some questionable ballots in some of these conversations are handled as this recount likely goes to more and more lawsuits down the road, Wolf?

BLITZER: All right, Ryan, thank you, Ryan Nobles in Tallahassee for us.

And now to President Trump unleashing unproven claims about the Florida recount, even as he continues to aggravate U.S. allies following his weekend trip to Paris.

Let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Jeff Zeleny.

Jeff, we didn't see the president today, but we heard a lot from him up on Twitter.


We did not see the president, which was slightly unusual, given that the federal government is observing Veterans Day here today. He did not have any public events on his schedule. But, as you said, we did hear from him a lot, starting the morning out with some specific and inaccurate comments about the Florida recount, suggesting something nefarious is going on.

And in fact this is simply the Florida state law playing out as it normally does in a close election. But just a short time ago, late this evening, the Republican National Committee under the president's name sent out an e-mail solicitation looking for fund-raising for lawyers saying, stolen.

So it's clear the White House and Republicans here didn't get the message from that judge in South Florida today who urged all sides to ramp down the rhetoric.


ZELENY (voice-over): President Trump out of sight at the White House on the federal holiday observing Veterans Day, but airing one grievance after another on Twitter.

He's injecting himself squarely into the Florida recount, trying to tip the scales to Republican candidates for Senate and governor, who are locked in razor-thin races.

"The Florida election should be called in favor of Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis. Large numbers of new ballots showed up out of nowhere and many ballots are missing or forged," he tweeted. "An honest vote count is no longer possible, ballots massively infected. Must go with election night."

But there's no evidence to back up those claims. Florida law requires a recount in such close elections. And it's an odd message for veterans, considering votes from troops serving overseas have not yet all been counted. Their ballots are allowed to arrive after Election Day.

After a rocky weekend visit to Paris marking the centennial of the end of World War I...

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We are gathered together at this hallowed resting place to pay tribute to the brave Americans who gave their last breath in that mighty struggle.

ZELENY: ... the president taking aim tonight at U.S. allies in a series of tweets.

"Never easy bringing up the fact that the U.S. must be treated fairly, which it hasn't, on both military and trade. It is and always has been ridiculously unfair to the United States. It is time that these very rich countries either pay the United States for its great military protection or protect themselves."

It was likely a response to French President Emmanuel Macron, who confronted Trump for calling himself a nationalist, not a globalist.

EMMANUEL MACRON, FRENCH PRESIDENT (through translator): Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism. Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism. By saying our interests first, who cares about the others, we erase what a nation holds dearest, what gives it life, what makes it great and what is essential, its moral values.

ZELENY: Trump's whirlwind visit to Paris doing less to bolster the transatlantic partnership than to expose its cracks, a far different reception than on his visit for the 2017 Bastille Day Parade, when he and Macron radiated in the glow of their newfound friendship.

On this trip, the fallout from Trump's America-first world view on full display, with the president arriving alone Sunday at the Arc de Triomphe.


He was widely criticized for missing a ceremony at an American military ceremony during a rainstorm. The White House insisted the visit was scrapped for safety reasons, because the weather was too bad to fly. The next day, he hinted with his displeasure with the rain while addressing a handful of living American veterans.

TRUMP: You look so comfortable up there under shelter, as we're getting drenched. You're very smart people.

ZELENY: Meanwhile, the president also slamming California officials for the deadly wildfires devastating the state.

Before ultimately mentioning the victims hours later, he first tweeted this threat: "There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California, except that forest management is so poor. Remedy now or no more federal payments."


ZELENY: Now, that comment there from the president was pushed back by a variety of California officials and fire officials as well.

But, tonight, Wolf, the White House is paying increased focus on what special counsel Robert Mueller is doing. As we have been reporting all evening, his team of lawyers was in place on this federal holiday. The White House is watching what is happening there and if more things will come.

Now, we are exactly a week after the election. Things have been sort of quiet on that front, so the president, of course, keeping a close eye on that, even as House Democrats are preparing to also weigh in on this White House with new investigations.

Wolf, you get the sense on this late Monday evening here, it will be a busy week ahead -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, I anticipate you're absolutely right. Jeff Zeleny at the White House, thank you very much.

Joining us now, Democratic Congressman John Garamendi. He serves on the Armed Services Committee.

Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.

Let me get your thoughts on this late development. This Roger Stone ally, Jerome Corsi, now says publicly he expects to be indicted as early as this week.

What would that mean for Mueller's investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians?

REP. JOHN GARAMENDI (D), CALIFORNIA: It's just coming closer and closer to the campaign and quite probably to the president himself.

One shoe after another keeps falling here. The result of it is, this investigation is moving forward. And we should make it very, very clear that the president, through his new acting attorney general, cannot and must not stop this investigation. It is absolutely critical to our democracy to understand exactly what Russia did.

And if there is any collusion, then let it be. Let's find out what happened.

BLITZER: You expect more indictments for potentially Roger Stone, a longtime Donald Trump ally, indictments in the coming days and weeks?

GARAMENDI: Well, that has been festering for months. Roger Stone himself said in his own interviews on television that he was aware of Assange and the WikiLeaks and what was going on there. All of those things were in play. And now we're seeing the follow-up of it.

And I suspect that, yes, there will be an indictment.

BLITZER: This all is happening as the Democrats won the House of Representatives after January. They will be the majority. You will be the majority in the House.

Congressman Adam Schiff of California, who is expected to be the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, wrote a piece just now posted in "The Washington Post" entitled "Matthew Whitaker, We're Watching You."

Matthew Whitaker, the acting attorney general. Democrats say they want to protect the special counsel, Robert Mueller. They're concerned about Whitaker.

What, if anything, can you do if Whitaker reins in, let's say, Robert Mueller?

GARAMENDI: Well, if he does that, he's obstructing justice, plain and simple.

There's an ongoing criminal investigation by the FBI, by the special counsel. And if this man were to somehow, acting, I think, unconstitutionally, because there's a major question about whether he has any constitutional authority at all, if he were to stop this investigation, I believe it would be obstruction of justice.

And I believe he should be held accountable for that. He's not above the law, and certainly the president...

BLITZER: So you want Whitaker to recuse himself?

GARAMENDI: Absolutely.

BLITZER: Let's talk about what Democrats are trying to do to protect Mueller and the Russia probe.

They want to get legislation attached to must-pass spending legislation in order to protect Mueller. How do you think your Republican colleagues will react to that?

GARAMENDI: They ought to act as though they're patriots. They ought to act as though they believe in the Constitution. They ought to act as though, if there's wrongdoing, let us find out what it is.

And if it takes a law to protect Mueller and his investigation, then they should support it. BLITZER: What do you make of the fact that Michael Cohen, the

president's longtime fixer and lawyer, showed up here in Washington today with his criminal defense attorney?

GARAMENDI: Perhaps that's why the president is hiding out in the White House and not doing the veterans ceremonies that are normal for a president to do.

I think it's a very serious problem for the president. This is the president's fixer. This is a man that knows what the president has done over the last decade or more. And here he is in Washington. Was he talking to Mueller? Probably so. Why?

BLITZER: Well, we know that at least eight of Mueller's lawyers on this federal holiday today, Veterans Day, were in fact seen working over at the Justice Department.


But I have got to say, we don't know if Cohen went there, although that's the widespread suspicion.

GARAMENDI: He showed up with his lawyer to have lunch in Washington? Probably to have a meeting with the Mueller team.

BLITZER: That is what everybody is suspecting.

Now, let me get your thoughts on the awful situation in your home state of California. You're a former lieutenant governor of California. The fires that are going on, this is what the president over the weekend tweeted about the fires.

"There is no reason for these massive deadly and costly forest fires in California, except that forest management is so poor. Billions of dollars are given each year with so many lives lost all because of the gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now or no more fed payments."

What's your reaction to that?

GARAMENDI: I don't think I can say it on television.

BLITZER: Say what you can.


BLITZER: By the way, we're showing some live pictures of Los Angeles County right now. You can see the smoke.

GARAMENDI: The president simply doesn't know what's going on. He doesn't understand that 31 people have lost their lives, that an entire community of 26,000 people is totally destroyed. It is gone. The homes are gone, cars lined up across the roads. He doesn't understand.

He has no empathy. He doesn't have any humanity. People have died, people have lost everything, and he comes up with this crazy, bizarre tweet that has no relevance to what is actually happening.

It's not a forest problem. It is a global climate change problem. It is hot. It is dry. It is California. In the future, we're going to have to make changes, to be sure. But when the president says no more money, come on.

OK. We will calm down here. We will go about protecting California as best we can, but we do need federal help. People need to be able to rebuild, and we must rebuild our communities so that they are sustainable and resilient.

BLITZER: We want to wish everyone in your district and throughout the state of California good luck.

GARAMENDI: Absolutely. These are my neighbors.

BLITZER: This is an awful situation. We have got some more reporting on this coming up this hour. We're going to go to the scene of those fires as well.

Congressman Garamendi, thanks so much for joining us.

GARAMENDI: Thank you.

BLITZER: Just ahead, is Robert Mueller on the brink of major new moves in the Russia probe? We are going to talk about that potential indictment of a Roger Stone associate, also discuss Michael Cohen's visit to Washington with his criminal defense attorney, and a whole lot more, right after this.



BLITZER: We're following break news.

An associate of Trump ally Roger Stone says he now expects to be indicted in the coming days by Robert Mueller, this as Mueller's team has apparently been hard at work on this federal holiday, Veterans Day, and former Trump and fixer Michael Cohen has made an eyebrow- raising visit here in the nation's capital with his criminal defense attorney.

Let's break it all down with our analysts.

And, Mark Preston, Corsi, as you know, a close associate of Roger Stone, he expects to be indicted. How potentially significant would that be?

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL EDITOR: This could be really blockbuster news, in the sense that this could be one step closer to President Trump, if he was aware in fact that Julian Assange and WikiLeaks was working to release this information, specifically the John Podesta e- mails.

Again, you're talking about Jerome Corsi, who is saying he's now going to be indicted by Mueller regarding Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, who's then connected to Roger Stone. And Roger Stone, as we all know, is very, very close to President Trump.

BLITZER: And the U.S. intelligence community, as you know, Susan, has said that WikiLeaks got all that information about those hacked e- mails from the Russians. And so potentially that could be a legal issue as well.

Could Corsi's indictment, though, be part of a bigger legal strategy to go after some bigger fish?


So, I think everyone who's been watching this closely believes that Roger Stone is likely to be indicted. So the fact that Mueller is going to indict Corsi, if he does in fact indict Corsi -- remember, this is not an individual who is necessarily a reliable narrator -- that that means that either Mueller has decided he doesn't know anything, the cooperation isn't working, or potentially that he is looking to increase pressure in order to incentivize cooperation against Stone or others.

Now, Stone has said that the source of information for that prescient August 2016 tweet in which he indicated ahead of time before the public knew that he thought John Podesta was going to have his time in the barrel, Stone has said that that information came from Corsi.

So this is an individual that, if Mueller is able to get him to flip, potentially would know a lot of damaging information.

BLITZER: With the midterm elections now behind us, David Swerdlick, a lot of people expect some pretty quick movement now by the part of Mueller and his team, including more indictments, perhaps even in the coming days. What do you expect?


As we ran up to the elections, the focus was off the special counsel's investigation, but it's ramped back up again. And to Susan's point, you see a situation here where if indictments drop -- we don't know yet -- but if indictments drop against Jerry Corsi and against Roger Stone, the more people who are facing indictment, the more people who the special counsel has their stories, the more each of them will have to answer for any inconsistencies between one story and the other.

BLITZER: Rachael Bade, you're with us as well.

Stone says he hasn't been questioned yet by Mueller or his team, hasn't even been contacted by them. Corsi is one of only about nine, maybe even more, Stone associates who have been questioned at length about what happened.

How concerned do you believe Stone should be right now?

RACHAEL BADE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I mean, he should be shaking in his boots right now. Clearly Robert Mueller has a history of -- a track record of using

people to flip on people that are above them. I'm thinking of Rick Gates specifically. He went after Rick Gates, got him to turn on Paul Manafort, who was running the Trump campaign for a while.

And given that track record, he might be able to do the same thing here. Corsi is not the target. Corsi is not the big fish; he wants Roger Stone. And you know, when faced with jail time, Corsi is an older man. Does he want to spend time in jail? Of course not. He's going to turn.

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: In effect, you saw Corsi, he did his YouTube show today where he talked about this. He seemed very frightened in it. He actually -- and to your point, he is not a good narrator. He's a conspiracy theorist. He is a purveyor in false information, but boy, he looked scared today.

BLITZER: What about Michael Cohen all of a sudden? The president, for a decade his lawyer, his fixer. Shows up here in Washington with his lawyer and we see him getting off a train at Union Station, getting on a train heading back to New York. And we also know on this day, a federal holiday, about eight or nine of the lawyers that work for Mueller, they were over at the Justice Department. We don't know if there's a connection but there's a lot of suspicion.

PRESTON: Well, a couple things. One, I don't think it's by accident that he took an Amtrak train with his lawyer and walked out in Union Station and was seen by cameras. He could have just as easily either flown down here, which is most people do, or you know people -- or he could have gone down in a private car service, and he would have never been seen.

so clearly when he came down, we don't know what he was meeting with, we don't know what the discussions were, but the optics were certainly telling.

BLITZER: We do know that it follows by only a few days, David, that bombshell report in "The Wall Street Journal" detailing allegations that Donald Trump personally was involved in every step of the way in organizing the hush-money payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal.

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. I think there's something to mark's theory here about -- about Cohen wanting to be seen and wanting people to know what he's up to by coming out that publicly.

In terms of "The Wall Street Journal" story, right, the president has problems on two fronts now. This -- the issue with the payments to Stormy Daniels is both a legal problem and a political problem. Because this is something that has captured people's attention in a way that some of the details of the Mueller investigation haven't.

He has denied full-throatedly any involvement in this on camera. And now you have, potentially, a situation where that's being -- that can be refuted factually. BLITZER: In the past several days the president of the United States,

he's seemed very, very nervous, grumpy if you will, at that news conference, elsewhere. Do you suspect he knows what is about to unfold?

SWERDLICK: I mean that would be certainly, Wolf, one plausible explanation for the president's behavior and comportment over the last few days. And when you go to Saturday when he didn't show up at Belleau Wood, these are the things he likes. He likes the pomp and circumstance of the office and just disappeared from the event.

BLITZER: What does it say to you that about eight of Mueller's lawyers were working today over at the Justice Department on this federal holiday?

SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN LEGAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, it means that they're crashing on something, potentially an indictment. Look, we're left kind of reading tea leaves here, trying to look for the signals of what the Mueller -- what Mueller's activities might mean about the investigation.

One thing we do know for sure is that, with the firing of Jeff Sessions and the installment of a new acting attorney general who is -- who has said disparaging things about this investigation, that has ramped up the pressure quite a bit. You know, Robert Mueller has certainly planned for this day. And I think any reasonable observer would think that his days may be numbered.

BLITZER: With the elections over, the midterm elections, Rachael, everybody is expecting a lot of activity on Mueller's part.

BADE: That's right. And I think House Democrats right now, not just -- they are also watching everything playing out. I mean, Adam Schiff was on TV saying that -- basically putting out a warning saying, "Listen, we are watching every step you're taking right now" to Whitaker.

Jerry Nadler was on TV yesterday saying that one of the first subpoenas he's going to be issuing is going to be to Whitaker to find out what he intends to do in terms of Robert Mueller and trying to push him out if he's going to do anything.

So listen, I think there's a lot going on here in Washington. Democrats are about to take the House; and right now the question is going to be what are they going to do about this, as well.

BLITZER: Yes. The headline in "The Washington Post" article that Adam Schiff just published, "Matthew Whitaker, We're Watching You."

BADE: Right, exactly.

BLITZER: "We're Watching You," that's the headline in "The Washington Post."

Everyone stand by. There's a lot more we're watching right now, including the breaking news. Florida election officials racing to meet the recount deadline and finally declare the winners of the Senate and governor's races.


[18:37:25] BLITZER: We're back with our analysts. We're following the breaking news on the Florida recount. Election officials over there, they're poring over ballots around the clock in very high- profile races that are still too close to call.

Mark Preston, the votes are being counted. Where do things stand right now?

PRESTON: Well, let me just say very confusing and lawsuits filed left and right hourly, hourly. Let's go through the week just very quickly.

We will see ballots right now are supposed to be in, supposed to be in by 3 p.m. now on Thursday. And by doing so, all 67 counties will have gone through about 8.3 million ballots.

If you go and talk to some counties, they say they can do it. If you talk to somebody like Palm Beach County, they say they can only do one race, and that's the United States Senate race. What's going to happen, we don't necessarily know there.

But on Thursday, though, we also know that 3 p.m. deadline might be pushed if there is yet another lawsuit. And then of course, on Wednesday there's going to be another lawsuit looked at regarding provisional ballots. Florida is a mess.

BLITZER; We're looking at live pictures, by the way, Susan, of people counting ballots in Lauderhill. That's in Broward County, Florida. That's one of the counties that's had some problems.

What legal battles are emerging, given all the lawsuits that are now being filed?

HENNESSEY: So the recount in the Florida senator's race is actually automatic, because it falls within the margin. Now the legal fights are largely going to be over which votes get re-examined and which votes are actually going to count.

We've seen Senator Bill Nelson' team sue, asking for a reexamination of ballots that have been disqualified because of lack of signature match. We've seen a lawsuit asking that Governor Rick Scott recuse himself from any involvement in overseeing this recount because, of course, he is a candidate. So I think what we're going to see is lots and lots of fights over which ballots get relooked at and what ultimately they mean.

BLITZER: Rachael, the president tweeted this: "The Florida election should be called in favor of Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis" -- those are the Republicans -- "in that large numbers of new ballots showed up out of nowhere. Many ballots were missing or forged. An honest vote counting is no longer possible. Ballots massively infected." Then he says, "Must go with election night." BADE: Yes, look, the president has a reputation on the line here. He

came out the night after the election and he declared victory saying, you know, "We might have lost the House but everywhere I campaigned, including Florida, the Republicans won."

And now the Republicans are in jeopardy of losing those positions. So he is clearly trying to defend his position here.

I think that you also have to look at the margins in the Senate. We're talking about the difference between potentially 52 Senate Republican seats and 54 Republican seats. And if it ends up 52, that could be the difference between passing another Obamacare repeal bill or getting a new attorney general confirmed in the Senate.

[18:40:00] So he's concerned about that, Republicans are concerned about that and they think the way to do this is to call everything voter fraud right now. But clearly that's not going to hold up in court. There's no proof of that right now.

BLITZER: He's probably irritated that his Republican candidates for Senate lost in West Virginia, Montana, and we think probably in Arizona, as well.

SWERDLICK: Right. As the days have gone on, his coattails have proven to be not as long as he might have thought on election night.

Rachael makes a good point about this could determine a couple of Senate votes, which could determine legislation in this Congress.

But Wolf, I feel like at this point, what's almost more important than how many Senate seats get shaken out of Florida or maybe Georgia at this point is that there's some confidence restored in the voting process.

We were talking before the break about Jerry Corsi not being a reliable interlocutor. The president is not a reliable interlocutor when it comes to voter fraud.

His voter fraud commission fell apart. His claims in 2016 about millions of fraudulent votes, that never came to pass. His tweet is a little bit, you know, iffy there.

BLITZER: He said 3 to 5 million illegal votes. Not happening.

All right, guys. Stick around, there's more we're following. The urgent fire danger in California as the death toll climbs and the destruction reaches unprecedented levels. We'll be right back.


[18:46:01] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Tonight, the most destructive wildfire in California history is growing more deadly. At least 31 people have been killed in this devastating outbreak of fires, most of them perishing in the biggest of three infernos raging across the state.

CNN's Nick Watt is near one of the scenes of this disaster in southern California.

Nick, millions of people are at risk.


And, listen, Wolf, two more small fires popped up around here in the Los Angeles/Ventura County area this morning. These warm, dry Santa Ana winds are still gusting, still fanning those flames.

And, in fact, you know, where we are in the Woolsey Fire, this is not a remote area. Authorities are there today said that they fear as many as 57,000 structures could still be in danger.


WATT (voice-over): Ferocious flames burning in the north and south of the Golden State, scorching an area larger than all five boroughs of New York City since Thursday, forcing 300,000 people from their homes.


WATT: Through the flames.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: God, it's so hot.

WATT: In the north, the camp fire, now the most destructive in California's history. Around 6,500 homes destroyed. Scores of firefighters working to contain the inferno as many learn they have lost their own homes. This blaze now tied as the deadliest ever in the state with more than two dozen dead. The town of paradise, home to 26,000, is now no more.

COLE WYATT, PARADISE RESIDENT: A whole town was wiped off the face of the earth in the matter of eight hours.

WATT: The dead found in their homes or in their cars trying to escape, but too late. Coroner's search and rescue teams trying to identify charred remains. Roughly 100 people still missing.

JAKE HANCOCK, BUTTE COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY INVESTIGATOR: We're just going door to door, house to house, looking for families' loved ones that are missing.

WATT: Here in southern California, the Woolsey Fire tearing through Malibu. Two lives lost and around 370 structures destroyed.

DAVID FRANZONI, SAVED HIS HOME WITH HOS AND POOL WATER: Everything was coming over the fence unto our property.

WATT: Malibu screenwriter David Franzoni ignored evacuation orders and was able to save his own home with a hose, a pump and the water from his pool.

FRANZONI: We had a choice, do we stay and save our house or leave? So we stayed.

WATT: In Malibu Park, Craig and Stacy Clunisross own two properties now little more than ash.

CRAIG CLUNISROSS, LOST TWO PROPERTIES IN FIRE: It was a 100-foot wall of flames. I mean, it was roaring. It was like a --


CLUNISROSS: A tornado. It was not defendable, not without putting my life in serious jeopardy.

WATT: What sparked these flames still under investigation, but more than half of California's most destructive wildfires in the past century have burned since just 2015, many pointing to climate change as fanning these flames.

GOV. JERRY BROWN (D), CALIFORNIA: This is not the new normal, this is the new abnormal.


WATT: And what might that new abnormal look like? So far this year, 800,000 acres of California have burned. Normally by this time that figure is around 200,000, so we're talking four times the average. Ands for this fire, well, the winds up in northern California have died down a bit today, but here in southern California, we're expecting those Santa Ana winds to keep on gusting, maybe hitting 50 miles an hour into today, into tomorrow and maybe later in the week. They're going to move onshore Friday, bringing much-needed humidity -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Awful, awful, awful.

All right. Nick Watt, thank you very much.

Just ahead, Vladimir Putin says something came between him and President Trump in Paris, but they managed to have a good chat anyway. We're going to explain. Stay with us.


[18:54:03] BLITZER: Tonight, Russia's Vladimir Putin is speaking out about his newest encounter with President Trump and accusing France of trying to come between them.

Let's go to our senior international correspondent, Fred Pleitgen. He's joining us live from Moscow.

Fred, tell us more about this new interview with President Putin.

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: You're absolutely right, Wolf. There was an interview with Vladimir Putin with Russia Today where he said that things went really well for him in Paris and Russian media also reporting that President Putin and President Trump were visibly glad to see one another and managed to speak despite all the odds.

Here's the view from Moscow. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PLEITGEN (voice-over): A jovial Vladimir Putin giving President Trump the thumbs up in France this weekend. Asked by Russian state TV whether he had managed to speak to the U.S. president, Putin, smiling, said yes and it was good.

Today, Russian state media with a clear narrative. The Europeans were trying to prevent contact between Putin and President Trump to no avail.

EVGENY POPOV, HOST (through translator): Putin finally managed to talk to Trump, despite President Macron personally trying to do everything to stop them from speaking.

PLEITGEN: While in France, President Emmanuel Macron wanted to keep attention focus on the soldiers who fought and died in World War I, but Russia's leader said he spoke to President Trump about America's decision to leave the treaty for intermediate range nuclear weapons.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): We are ready for dialogue. It's not us who are leaving the INF Treaty, it's the Americans who plan to do so.

We are aiming to restore dialogue. It's important to maintain dialogue, not only at the top or high levels, but at the level of experts as well.

PLEITGEN: And while President Trump in a tweet ripped into France's leader, Emmanuel Macron, for wanting to build Europe's military capacities, Putin welcomed the move, which some believe could weaken the NATO alliance.

PUTIN (through translator): In principle, Europe is a powerful economic entity, a powerful economic union, and it's quite natural that it wants to be self-sufficient and sovereign in matters of defense and security.

I think all in all, it is a positive process in terms of strengthening the multi-polar world.

PLEITGEN: After a short but successful trip to Paris, the Kremlin says it's now looking forward to a more in-depth, one-on-one meeting between Vladimir Putin and President Trump, hoping to normalize relations with the U.S. and possibly get relief from sanctions.


PLEITGEN: And, Wolf, that next in-depth meeting will probably happen at the G20 summit later this month. However, we were on the phone with the Kremlin earlier today. They say none of that is set in stone yet, but that's certainly what they're planning on and hope will happen, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Thanks very much, Fred Pleitgen in Moscow. Also tonight on this federal holiday honoring America's veterans,

President Trump may be facing new political battles over the way he's leading the U.S. military.

Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.

Barbara, the Democrats taking over the House, they're promising strengthened oversight of the Defense Department and the commander in chief.


That's exactly right. Defense Secretary James Mattis says he will be able to work with the Democrat-led majority, but that majority has plenty of questions for the Pentagon.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're going to have the strongest military our country has ever had.

STARR (voice-over): That promise made after the midterm election is about to get a lot more scrutiny, says the powerful Democrat congressman likely to lead the committee in charge of military affairs.

REP. ADAM SMITH (D), RANKING MEMBER, ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: I think the armed services committee definitely needs to step up overnight.

STARR: Congressman Adam Smith told CNN he is determined to make the Pentagon more transparent. It is Congress' duty to make sure this incredibly reckless administration does not go unchecked.

Smith is vowing cuts to the more than $700 billion in military spending, including cuts that could be made to the $1.5 billion price tag on new nuclear weapons.

SMITH: We just cut taxes by almost $2 trillion, increased spending by somewhere in the neighborhood of $500 billion in the face of a now nearly $22 trillion debt.

STARR: Defense Secretary James Mattis will now have to vigorously and publicly defend what he wants.

SETH JONES, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: The secretary of defense will be put in a very difficult situation, particularly if he's got to make choices about base closures, cutting back over the next year or two the defense budget and priorities, pulling U.S. forces out of some areas.

STARR: He already had to answer critics over sending more than 5,000 troops to the southwest border.

JAMES MATTIS, DEFENSE SECRETARY: We don't do stunts in this department, thank you. STARR: Fresh scrutiny also likely puts Mattis publicly at odds with

President Trump.

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: He's not going to get away with I don't worry, I cause other people to worry. That's not something a cabinet secretary does when he's asked to comment on what the threats are that the United States faces.

STARR: Mattis will have to answer critical questions on countering the Russian and Chinese cyber threat and support for regimes in Syria and North Korea, how to deter Iran with military force if it closes Persian Gulf shipping lanes and counter its missiles that can hit Europe.

And support for Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen, a major humanitarian crisis where U.S.-supplied bombs have killed civilians. Smith wants to cut U.S. support. Already, U.S. refueling of Saudi jets is ending.


STARR: And there is the threat of terrorism, al Qaeda and the Islamic State still very much out there -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Absolutely. All right, Barbara, thank you. Barbara Starr at the Pentagon.

And to all military veterans, thank you so much for your service. We are totally grateful.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.