Return to Transcripts main page

THE SITUATION ROOM

Trump Promising Pardons in Exchange for Border Wall?; Interview With Rep. Denny Heck (D-WA); U.S. Virgin Islands Readies For Hurricane; Interview With U.S. Virgin Islands Gov. Albert Bryan; As Storm Bears Down On Puerto Rico, Trump Slams The U.S Territory As One Of The Most Corrupt Places On Earth; Officials Say, Trump Told Aides He'd Pardon Them If they Broke Laws While Meeting His Demand To Built Border Wall By 2020; Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) New York Drops Out Of Presidential Race; Former Defense Secretary James Mattis Takes Veiled Jab at Trump's Leadership; British Prime Minister Boris Johnson Moves to Suspend Parliament in Brexit Power Play. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired August 28, 2019 - 18:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[18:00:00]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Slamming Puerto Rico. As the U.S. territory is threatened by Dorian, it's also being bashed by the president of the United States. After famously throwing towels at Hurricane Maria victims, Mr. Trump is throwing insults, calling the island corrupt.

Back to the wall. We're learning more about the president's obsession with completing his border wall before the 2020 election. Is he encouraging aides to break the law by promising pardons?

And FOX aren't friends. Mr. Trump complains that his once favorite news network isn't doing enough to promote his presidency. Is he openly admitting he expects FOX to act like state-run TV?

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 a hurricane endangering millions of Americans.

A just-released forecast shows Dorian's winds intensifying as it thrashes the U.S. Virgin Islands and threatens Puerto Rico with heavy rain and potentially deadly flooding. Dorian is expected to grow more powerful as it heads towards the U.S. mainland, likely hitting Florida as a major hurricane over the Labor Day weekend.

As the storm bears down, President Trump has been very busy insulting Puerto Rico, which is a part of the United States, calling it -- and I'm quoting him now -- "one of the most corrupt places on Earth."

Also breaking, officials confirm to CNN that Mr. Trump is so desperate for victories ahead of the election that he told aides he would pardon them if they broke the law while trying to meet his demand to build his border wall by 2020. Our correspondents, analysts and guests are standing by as we cover

the hurricane disaster and all the breaking news this hour.

First, let's go to CNN's Polo Sandoval. He is in San Juan, Puerto Rico, for us.

Polo, Dorian clearly gaining strength and posing a significant threat to Americans in the Caribbean and on the mainland.

POLO SANDOVAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, you have seen Dorian on the weather map. This is what it looks like from our vantage point here on this beach in San Juan, those dark ominous clouds off in the distance.

Speaking to people on the beach tonight, they tell me they hope that that's as close as it will be getting. However, when you hear from experts, from emergency officials here on the island still recovering from Maria, and they say expect rain tonight and with that the potential for flooding.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SANDOVAL (voice-over): Tonight, Dorian is intensifying and shifting its path, now taking aim at the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico's eastern side. Hurricane Dorian tracking on the same course as Hurricane Maria two years ago, a Category 4 storm many residents are still trying to recover from.

LUCY BEASCOCHEA, HURRICANE VICTIM: This is all that Maria left. FEMA only gave me $1,000 which to repair.

SANDOVAL: But officials in San Juan say Dorian is not Maria, at least not in terms of wind, and they're expecting Dorian to have more of an impact on rivers due to rain.

CARMEN YULIN CRUZ, MAYOR OF SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO: We are certainly very much more ahead in terms of planning than we were two years ago. Our entire medical services organization is all powered by generators.

SANDOVAL: Puerto Rico could see up to six inches and more mountainous areas could see up to 10. Heavy rain already affecting parts of the British and U.S. Virgin Islands, which forecasters say could see four to 10 inches in just a couple of hours' time.

One resident capturing on camera a bright blue surge of electricity hitting a transformer in the midst of all the rain.

JAMES RUSSO, FEMA: This is not a good place to be in the next two or three days. The good news is, this will be a very quick storm. This will come through in six or seven hours. It'll be over, and we can assess the damage.

SANDOVAL: Tonight, Puerto Ricans aren't taking any chances, many homes and businesses already boarded up, boats removed from the water. Drivers are all filling up their tanks. Shelters are open on the island ahead of what could be a busy weekend.

Meanwhile, in Florida, major preparations are also under way. The storm expected to make landfall there during the Labor Day weekend.

LENNY CURRY, MAYOR OF JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA: We have done this before. We have been through this together. This is no time to panic. We don't know what will develop in the days ahead, but it's time to know your evacuation zone.

CARLOS GIMENEZ, MAYOR OF MIAMI-DADE COUNTY, FLORIDA: These are things that we should all have been prepared for, if not Dorian, then maybe some other storm. But it is the height of the hurricane season. And we all need to be prepared.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SANDOVAL: Back on Puerto Rico's main island, of course, conditions still continue dry. Things expected to change later tonight, but not all of Puerto Rico is dry at this moment, Wolf.

Authorities, emergency officials here on the island are very closely monitoring the situation in two islands that are part of Puerto Rico just a few miles off the coast. This is the island of Vieques and of Culebra.

[18:05:03]

These are two regions that were devastated during Hurricane Maria. So officials are certainly concerned for anybody who's on those islands that did not evacuate. Authorities saying, as soon as Dorian passes, which is about 40 miles off the coast, then they do expect to head that way to make sure everybody's OK.

BLITZER: All right, Polo Sandoval on the scene for us, Polo, be careful over there.

Let's go to Puerto Rico's East Coast right now. That was devastated by Hurricane Maria two years ago.

CNN's Omar Jimenez is on the scene for us there.

Omar, residents, I understand, there have been bracing for this hurricane. What are you hearing? What are you hearing?

OMAR JIMENEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, residents here were prepared for the worst, but hoping for the best.

And while they may not have seen, in some cases, the amount of rainfall they feared, they did still see some. And there were still real risks to be assessed.

One of the main and more pertinent situations right now at this moment is just east off the island of Puerto Rico. And that is in the middle of the Virgin Islands. That is where the epicenter of Dorian is sort of sweeping through at this moment, really causing devastating damage from high winds.

And there were some portions to the south of that, that were seeing sustained winds over 80 miles per hour, wind gusts over 100 miles per hour. And one thing that is more concerning even on a long-term scale on that is, the director of disaster recovery for the Virgin Islands said that one of the issues they have seen since Hurricane Maria struck is, they haven't been able to build permanent solutions for many of the issues that were caused nearly two years ago at this point.

And then you have what is now a second hurricane season since Maria and a storm like Dorian, with the strength that it has coming through, you can see what sort of long-term problems that is going to pose for recovery officials and rebuilding officials once this storm has actually passed through.

Now, back here on the island, obviously, Hurricane Maria and the devastation it brought still very much top of mind. It is part of why FEMA has tried to work even more closely with the government here. In fact, the governor's office telling us that there were about 500 FEMA or so employees on the islands ready to go before Dorian's effects were even felt here.

And, of course, the granting of the emergency disaster declaration would have allowed them to be deployed very quickly. And on -- one last count of concern was in regards to the power grid. Would people's lights still stay on?

At least here on the east coast of the island, we have seen that. But power authority officials said that they -- that Hurricane Maria made them just a little bit stronger on that front trying to rebuild as much infrastructure as possible, including installing a generator they say would have been able to power the island if things got really bad on that front.

So we will continue to monitor that, but, for right now, the storm is moving what seems like away from the eastern portion of this island. And while, again, people were preparing for the worst, they were hoping for the best -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, we will stay in close touch with you. Omar, thank you very much.

(WEATHER UPDATE)

[18:10:35]

BLITZER: We're now joined by a journalist who lives on the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Todd Hecht is joining us on the phone from Saint Thomas.

Todd, the U.S. Virgin Islands are seeing the worst of this hurricane, at least right now. We're showing some of the videos you have taken. Describe what you have been seeing, what you have been hearing. What are the conditions like right now?

TODD HECHT, JOURNALIST: Basically, the storm has pretty much moved to the north of us this point. And it's calmed quite a bit. The early part of the storm was probably the worst part. And it did

hit more of the western part and the southern part of Saint Thomas. But, overall, the storm really was nothing compared to what we experienced in Irma about two years ago.

BLITZER: How bad is the flooding?

HECHT: There is a lot of water. There's a lot of runoff. You can see in the video that there's -- we had a drought for a while, So a lot of the mud is washing off, but I think we were pretty well prepared for it.

I think that, overall, we're going to recover from this pretty quickly.

BLITZER: What about the damage that you're seeing to homes and to infrastructure, for example?

HECHT: Well, mostly, there are some downed power lines, a few downed telephone lines.

But, overall, the level of damage that you're seeing, at least central on the island, is not as bad as it might be on the western end, which is a little more remote, an area that will be a little bit more difficult to get to.

There's a lot of trees in the road, a lot of water running down the road in certain areas, leaves, which make it slippery for driving. But there is a curfew right now. So there's not a lot of people on the road. And I think this is going to be not nearly anything like what we have experienced in storms in the past.

BLITZER: Todd Hecht, on the scene for us over there in Saint Thomas, thank you very much.

Let's get another update right now from the governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Albert Bryan is joining us. He's in Saint Croix.

Governor, thanks so much for joining us.

And, as you know, the U.S. Virgin Islands were bracing for a hit with hurricane-force winds and heavy rains. You have had some flash flood warnings. What are you seeing right now? How bad is it?

GOV. ALBERT BRYAN JR. (D), U.S. VIRGIN ISLANDS: Well, I'm in Saint Croix.

Good evening, Wolf.

And things are looking pretty good over here. We took an initial assessment of the island from Christiansted all the way to Frederiksted, which is the western end of our islands. And the roads look pretty good right now.

We do have roaming power outages, as there are some downed lines on Saint Thomas. This storm is not to be trusted. It jumped all over the place and really started forming off of the west end of Saint Thomas. And they really took a battering late in the day today around 2:30, 3:00.

And those winds pounded them for about an hour, two hours over there. So we got to get over there in the morning and really take a look at what's happening.

I have crews out there already clearing the roads. The main arteries are clear, but we're still worried about all of the side roads that -- where people live on.

BLITZER: So, people are losing power, clearly.

But are you expecting major damage to roads and bridges?

BRYAN: In Saint Thomas, it's a very mountainous terrain. And we have had a lot of problems with runoff before, and the roads are always getting damaged.

So, yes, we're looking for that over there. We did a lot of prep work in terms of preparing the gutters and all of the off-loads off the island. So the drainage systems are doing their job, but we do expect to have road damage.

We have declared a state of emergency locally. And we're waiting for the federal government to approve our federal declaration of emergency.

BLITZER: Governor Bryan, good luck to you. Good luck to all the folks over there. We will stay in close touch. We appreciate your joining us.

BRYAN: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, just ahead, President Trump insults Puerto Rico, even as millions of U.S. residents on the island were preparing for Hurricane Dorian to hit.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:19:04]

BLITZER: We're following all the breaking news on Hurricane Dorian hitting the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, with Florida expected to be in the bullseye next.

As Americans are in danger, President Trump has been escalating his feud with Puerto Rican officials and insulting the entire U.S. territory.

Our White House correspondent, Boris Sanchez, is joining us right now.

Boris, the president picked a very, very sensitive moment to pick another fight.

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. As Hurricane Dorian looms over Puerto Rico, President Trump returning

to his attacks on the island, all of this happening as mounting signals indicate a potential downturn in the economy going into 2020.

Sources say that President Trump is rattled by that, that he's putting intense pressure on aides, and that he's reaching for victories to try to reenergize his base going into what will be a tough reelection campaign.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SANCHEZ (voice-over): Tonight, President Donald Trump signing an emergency declaration, securing aid for Puerto Rico, but not without insulting the island, reigniting a feud with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, and demanding credit for offering aid.

[18:20:10]

Trump tweeting: "FEMA and all others are ready and will do a great job. When they do, let them know it. And give them a big thank you, not like last time. That includes from the incompetent mayor of San Juan."

Later adding: "Puerto Rico is one of the most corrupt places on Earth. Their political system is broken and their politicians are either incompetent or corrupt. Congress approved billions of dollars last time, more than anyplace else has ever gotten. And it is sent to crooked politicians. No good. And, by the way, I'm the best thing that's ever happened to Puerto Rico."

The president once again alluding to the false claim that Puerto Rico received $92 billion in disaster relief following Hurricane Maria in 2017. In reality, Congress allocated about $40 billion in aid, with the island only receiving a fraction of that.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have taken better care of Puerto Rico than any man ever.

SANCHEZ: And now the Trump administration is slashing $155 million in FEMA disaster relief funding, according to documents newly obtained by CNN, rerouting $271 million within DHS toward efforts to cut migration along the southern border with Mexico.

In a statement to CNN, FEMA claims the move will not impact ongoing long-term recovery efforts across the country, this as sources say Trump is so determined to fulfill his promise of a border wall before the 2020 election, that sources say he's encouraged aides to ignore environmental regulations, fast-track billions of dollars in funding, and aggressively sees private property to build the wall.

CNN confirming reporting originally in "The Washington Post" that Trump is promising staffers he will pardon them if they break the law. "The Post" also reporting that Trump is demanding the wall be painted black, making it hot to the touch, and topped with steel spikes to make it more intimidating. Trump responding today that the story was made up by "The Washington

Post" "only to demean and disparage." Despite Trump's claim that the wall is going up fast, Customs and Border Protection tell CNN that zero new miles of border have been built, but that about 60 miles of dilapidated barrier have been replaced and that there are plans in place for roughly 110 miles of new wall.

Meantime, the White House is shying away from a major indication the president plans to host next year's G7 meeting at his Miami area golf resort. The White House tweeting out, "Trump shares the location of the next G7 summit" attached to a video of Trump talking to reporters about Doral at the G7 in France.

TRUMP: They went to places all over the country. And they came back and they said, this is where we would like to be.

SANCHEZ: But a White House official tells CNN the tweet may be removed because plans for the next G7 meeting have not been finalized.

Trump today also taking aim at his favorite news outlet, tweeting: "Just watched FOX News heavily promoting the Democrats. Hopeless and clueless. They should go all the way left, and I will still find a way to win. That's what I do, win. Too bad. I don't want to win for myself. I only want to win for the people. The new FOX News is letting millions of great people down. We have to start looking for a new news outlet. FOX isn't working for us anymore."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SANCHEZ: Now, Wolf, on that reporting that the president promised aides he would pardon them if they acted illegally to try to build his long-promised border wall, a White House spokesperson insists the president was only kidding -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Boris Sanchez at the White House for us, thank you.

Joining us now, Congressman Denny Heck. He's a Democrat who serves on the Intelligence Committee.

Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.

And you saw those tweets from President Trump about Puerto Rico. Why do you believe he's going after U.S. citizens like this while they are in harm's way?

REP. DENNY HECK (D-WA): It's a little overwhelming.

It seems like the last month, he's been a whole lot more focused on the island of Greenland than he has on the island of Puerto Rico, which is, of course, a part of U.S. territory, and where thousands and thousands of people, as a consequence of Hurricane Maria, are still living under blue tarps for their roofs.

Look, I think there's some things to remind people of here. First of all, Puerto Ricans have, in disproportionate numbers, volunteered, served and died in our wars. Second, they are U.S. citizens. I can come away from this with only a couple conclusions, one of which

is very painful. Namely, the presidency simply hates brown people, especially if they happen to speak another language.

Secondly, I suspect he's getting increasingly desperate and shrill and brittle as a consequence of 10 days of pretty bad news. He had bad news on the economic front, and the prospect that we may be headed toward or slipping into a recession.

And, of course, he's had a unbelievably bad news on the polling front. A recent poll -- and I suspect this is part of why he's attacking FOX -- even a FOX poll shows him getting beat by every major potential opponent in the Democratic Party, and, oh, by the way, not by a little.

[18:25:13]

BLITZER: Yes, there was a poll, another poll released today by Quinnipiac University.

At the same time, as you know, Congressman, the Trump administration is diverting millions of dollars from FEMA to fund immigration policy. Supporters of the administration say this is necessary because Congress hasn't allocated enough money to deal with this crisis.

How do you respond?

HECK: I respond by reminding people that he couldn't convince a Republican-controlled Congress, both the House and the Senate, to appropriate the funds, when he had them.

And now he has not been able to persuade a split partisan control House and Senate to do this thing. I remind people that Article 1 of the United States Constitution reserves to the Congress the sole authority to appropriate funds.

So this is illegal, certainly extralegal. And I don't think it's going to stand up over time. He's not a dictator. As much as he'd like to be one, he's not. He does not have the authority to unilaterally appropriate funds without Congress' approval.

BLITZER: CNN has also confirmed, Congressman, that "Washington Post" report that the president has said he will pardon anyone who breaks the law to build his promised border wall with Mexico.

What sort of response is required when the president threatens to abuse his powers like this? His aides now insist he was simply joking.

HECK: Which is always what he follows up when he's made something so outrageous that it engenders blowback across the philosophical and partisan spectrum.

This is always what he does, claim that he was just kidding. And we all know that there is some part of that isn't just kidding. As it turns out, the power to pardon was one of the very last elements agreed to at the Constitutional Convention with our founding fathers.

And it was a very difficult provision to be included, because they were afraid of just this kind of behavior. And now we fully understand why.

Listen, there is no amount of strength of adjectives to resist and reject this suggestion on the president's part. You cannot speak too strongly, you cannot exaggerate how this is a corrosive effect on the rule of law.

BLITZER: When you hear that President Trump wants that border wall painted completely black, he wants spikes put up on the top of that border wall, what does that tell you?

HECK: Again, he hates brown people, Wolf.

You know, there's a rich irony going on here, I think, both with respect to -- both with respect to Puerto Rico and with respect to the border wall. And it has to do with his failure to grasp underlying causes, and being able to understand how to attack root causes of problems.

With respect to Puerto Rico, this is the same president who thinks that humans don't cause climate change, which results in increasing frequency of severe weather events, which is exactly what's going on here. We're seeing more and more severe hurricane. But yet he will not acknowledge or embrace the fact that we need to act to combat climate change.

And with respect to the border wall, by analogy, he cuts foreign aid to the northern countries in Central America, which is the root cause of why so many are seeking asylum. He just doesn't seem to be able to grasp that, if you want to solve a problem, you have got to pull it out by its taproot.

You have to solve climate change. And you have to make sure that those people who are fleeing those countries in Central America have a good reason to stay home, which is what they want to do.

BLITZER: Congressman Denny Heck, thanks so much for joining us.

HECK: Thank you, sir.

BLITZER: The breaking news continues next.

We're tracking Hurricane Dorian. And a state of emergency has now been declared, as it churns toward Florida.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:30:00]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN THE SITUATION ROOM: We have breaking news tonight. Wind and rain from Hurricane Dorian pummeling Puerto Rico as President Trump makes new attacks on the storm-battered island. Let's dig deeper with our correspondents and our analysts. And, Leyla Santiago, you spent a lot of time in Puerto Rico. You know the story well. People in Puerto Rico, they are dealing with a crisis. But the president is attacking them as they face this crisis. How are they going to react? How are people dealing with this?

LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Listen, Puerto Rico is kind of getting used to different blows, right? I mean, they've had the economic crisis and they had Hurricane Maria, then they had a governor that they were getting rid of through protests. And now, this storm comes with a lot of the anxiety and the uncertainty that they've been living with for years now.

So to now see that the president of the United States, you know, their president, because they're U.S. citizens, to see him going after them at a time where they're already dealing with so much, it's just one more thing to add. But they're pretty resilient people.

BLITZER: Yes. And he says in his Tweet that Puerto Rico is one of the most corrupt places on earth. I can imagine how the people of Puerto Rico are reacting with that.

Sabrina, in his Tweets, he's going after the Puerto Ricans for not being grateful enough to FEMA and to him for what they did.

[18:35:01]

What message does that send?

SABRINA SIDDIQUI, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it sends a message that the president, at a minimum, doesn't really seem to care that they are bracing for yet another storm, but also that they're somehow not worthy of assistance. I think that's what his tone really suggests.

And it goes without saying that the administration's response to Hurricane Maria was incredibly slow. It was, of course, widely panned. And it's not just that there's another disaster now nearing the island. They're still struggling when it comes to the damage that was inflicted by Hurricane Maria. The housing administration in Puerto Rico has estimated that 25,000 to 30,000 people still don't have a permanent roof over their head. That was according to some reporting in the Miami Herald.

They're still rebuilding infrastructure, like roads and bridges. There are places that went without electricity for nearly one year. And let's not forget, the death toll was nearly 3,000, according to some estimates. The president, of course, cast doubt on those estimates. He's suggested without evidence that it was inflated.

So I think a lot of this has been more to try and deflect blame than to actually make a concerted effort to help the island in its time of need.

BLITZER: David Swerdlick, he also Tweeted today that -- he said, and by the way, I am the best thing that ever happened to Puerto Rico, you know? Does he respond differently to natural disasters that affect that support him as opposed to places that don't necessarily support him?

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes. Clearly, I think, he does, Wolf. Compare his reaction to Puerto Rico and natural disasters to his reaction to Texas and Florida and other places with natural disasters.

The thing that jumped out to me today from the president's Tweets the words, as usual, Puerto Rico, another hurricane, as usual. Can you imagine the president of the United States saying, Wichita, Kansas, a tornado, as you are usual? Red River, North Dakota, a flood, as usual. He uses this derisive language to suggest, as you said, that Puerto Ricans should be grateful and maybe don't fully deserve his assistance as the president of the United States.

And in terms of the political ramifications, although we don't talk about it a lot, President Trump surely knows that Puerto Rico doesn't have any electoral votes. And so in some senses, if you're totally cynical, he can disregard it in terms of the upcoming election.

BLITZER: It's interesting, Susan, on another sensitive issue. CNN has now confirmed this report in The Washington Post that the president has actually offered pardons to aides if they go ahead and break the law and make sure that the wall with Mexico is being built.

Now, White House officials are insisting the president was simply joking, but people are taking that seriously.

SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY AND LEGAL ANALYST: Yes. So let's start by acknowledging that the spin that the president was merely joking here is absurd. It's insulting to our intelligence for the White House to be suggesting that this was merely a joke. The president has made similar claims. There is no indication that he's joking here.

This really is an egregious, outrageous abuse of office. It's a violation of the oath of office and of the constitutional mandate that the president take care that the laws be faithfully executed. If we want to get into the legal technicalities, when two people agree to break the law in advance and then take a substantial step towards that, usually, we talk about that as being a conspiracy, a criminal conspiracy.

But setting aside sort of the legal technicalities of the issue, this is really sort of textbook impeachable offenses. The founders, when they decided to vest the president with this extraordinarily broad pardon power, they thought about precisely these types of abuses, they were worried about it. And what they said was, well, the chuck on a president abusing this would be for the House of Representatives to initiate impeachment proceedings. That's why it is so surprising to see again sort of an anemic response, kind of a shrug from the Democrats.

And it also speaks to the extent to which the president is desperate about this wall. He has failed to deliver on his signature campaign promise, even in years in which his party controlled both Houses of Congress. And so now having completely failed on the politics, he is having to resort to basically circumventing Congress and raiding the Pentagon and FEMA, and offering these pardons.

BLITZER: There's a lot going on right now. Everybody stick around, there's more news we're following, including more news on the Democratic presidential contest.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, she has now withdrawn from the Democratic presidential race.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:40:00]

BLITZER: We have breaking news and the race for the White House. Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York has just announced she is ending her campaign. Our Political Reporter, Arlette Saenz, is joining us right now.

Arlette, Gillibrand, she clearly failed to qualify for the next Democratic presidential debate.

ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: That's right, Wolf. And the Democratic primary field is slowly shrinking. Kirsten Gillibrand now the fourth candidate to drop out of the 2020 race in just the past two weeks. A Gillibrand aide telling our colleague, Dan Merica, that the senator made the decision to drop out of the race after a conversation with her family last night, and that not making that debate stage was a factor.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SAENZ: The next Democratic primary debate in Houston one step closer to being set. The debate likely a one-night event with ten candidates. And for the first time, Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren are preparing to take the same stage.

[18:45:03]

JOE BIDEN, FORMER U.S. VICE PRESIDENT, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm just going to be me and she'll be her and let people make the judgment. I have great respect for her.

SAENZ: The tougher polling and donor standards leaving out half the Democratic primary field, with Tom Steyer missing the cut by one poll. Some of the candidates off the debate stage remaining undeterred for now.

JOHN DELANEY (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Oh, yes, I'm absolutely staying in the race.

GOV. STEVE BULLOCK (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's missing something by not having my voice. But, you know, again, it is what it is.

SAENZ: But tonight, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand dropping her presidential bid. SEN. KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND (D-NY): After more than eight incredible months and ending my presidential campaign, I know this isn't the result we wanted. We wanted to win this race. But it's important to know when it's not your time.

SAENZ: With the next debate two weeks away, a new Quinnipiac National poll shows Biden leading his closest rivals by double digits. Similar to his advantage in a CNN survey released last week.

The Quinnipiac poll showing the top five contenders each beating President Trump in hypothetical head to head match-ups.

Today, Biden taking his pitch to South Carolina, where black voters make up the majority of the Democratic primary electorate.

BIDEN: We can't just campaign to beat Donald Trump.

SAENZ: Black Democratic voters are a key component of Biden support, with 46 percent saying they back the former vice president. Biden telling a group of black reporters this week: People know me, or at least they think they know me after all this time. They have a sense of who my character is and who I am -- warts and all.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SAENZ: Biden also told that group of reporters that he would prefer to pick a woman or a person of color as his running mate. But he did add that he wasn't quite ready to commit to that just yet. He wants to make sure that his choice is authentic and that that person will be on the same page as him -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Arlette. Arlette Saenz in South Carolina for us tonight -- thank you very much.

Just ahead, President Trump's former Defense Secretary James Mattis speaks out with dire new warnings for the country.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:51:45] BLITZER: Dire warnings for the United States and a veiled jab at President Trump by his former defense secretary, James Mattis.

Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

Barbara, Mattis is speaking out right now. He's got a brand-new book coming out, what, eight months after leaving the Trump administration.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

Good evening. Well, if you thought Jim Mattis was going to stay silent, think again.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STARR (voice-over): Tonight, the first news conference by a secretary of defense and chairman of the joint chiefs in a year. On the same day, the last Secretary of Defense James Mattis penned a

dire warning in a preview of his upcoming book published in the "Wall Street Journal", writing what concerns me most as a military man is not our external adversaries. It is our internal divisiveness.

We are dividing into hostile tribes, cheering against each other fueled by emotion and a mutual disdain that jeopardizes our future.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Things can change.

STARR: Mattis never directly criticizes President Trump. But cautions leaders must do more than launch verbal attacks. But at a private 2017 meeting with troops recorded only by cell phone, Mattis did more than hint at his views about the state of the nation.

JAMES MATTIS, FORMER DEFENSE SECRETARY: It's got some problems, you know it and I know it. It's got problems that we don't have in the military. And you just hold the line, my fine young Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines.

STARR: General Joseph Dunford, Trump's top military adviser and a longtime Mattis colleague flat-out refused to even discuss President Trump's leadership.

GEN. JOSEPH DUNFORD, JOINT CHIEFS CHAIRMAN: I will not now nor will I when I take off the uniform make judgments about the president of the United States or the commander-in-chief. I just won't do it.

STARR: But politics can't be ignored. Some troops are carrying red "Make America Great Again" hats. Trump has not shied away from bringing partisan politics into the ranks. During this year's government shutdown, he tore into Democrats before a Pentagon audience.

TRUMP: The party has been hijacked by the open borders fringe within the party. The radical left becoming the radical Democrats.

STARR: But Dunford insists the majority of the force obeys the rules about not mixing the military and partisan politics.

DUNFORD: It has been a very politically period of time, and yet, almost 80 percent of the American people still have trust in the United States military as an institution.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: Dunford was also asked about an important matter, the upcoming potential peace agreement in Afghanistan with the Taliban. Dunford said even now, however, the fragile Afghan government just yet is not ready to look after its own security. America's longest war may be ending but American troops may be very involved there for some time to come -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Barbara, thank you. Barbara Starr at the Pentagon. Just ahead, political drama rocking Britain right now with critics

accusing Prime Minister Boris Johnson of committing a constitutional outrage.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:59:29] BLITZER: Protests in London tonight denouncing the decision by the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to have Queen Elizabeth suspend parliament. The move gives his opponents less time to block Britain's departure from the European Union without a deal. Critics call Johnson's surprise tactic a constitutional outrage and it's drawing fury from even some members of his own conservative party.

Brexit, by the way, is scheduled for October 31st. And Johnson says it will happen with or without a deal with the E.U. in place.

To our viewers, thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. Follow me on Twitter and Instagram @WolfBlitzer. Tweet the show @CNNsitroom.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.

[19:00:00]