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At Least Nine Killed In Caribbean Islands As Florida Awaits Hurricane Irma; Trump Blindsides GOP Leadership, Strikes Deal With Dems; Mandatory Evacuations In Parts Of Florida Ahead Of Irma; Senator Menendez On Trial Facing Federal Corruption Charges. Aired 7:30-8a ET

Aired September 7, 2017 - 07:30   ET



[07:32:30] CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Hurricane Irma is happening right now and Puerto Rico is feeling the power. The storm did not hit the island directly but remember, you don't need a direct to have a bad hit.

Power knocked out to more than a million people. Thousands -- tens of thousands left without water and who knows for how long.

CNN's Leyla Santiago is live in San Juan with more. What is the situation on the ground?

LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Chris, the governor, right now, speaking at a press conference and he has told the people of Puerto Rico now it is time to work, he says.

Of course, there -- he is quite a bit that is -- quite a bit of problems coming from Irma, power being one of them. More than a million people without power right now and that alone isn't the issue.

This is an island with an economic crisis. They are very much in debt and so the power system here lacks maintenance and funding. So they are saying that it could take not days, but, rather, weeks, possibly months to restore the power for the people here in Puerto Rico.

Then there is the flooding. A lot of people dealing with that, especially on the eastern part of the island. Overnight, there were several rescues. At least several dozen people had to be rescued as a result of that.

And, you know, it's not just the flooding and the power but also water. More than 56,000 people right now on this island without water.

So certainly, you know, there's going to be some damage assessment today. FEMA has already said they will begin that as soon as possible.

But they are feeling somewhat lucky because compared to other islands in the Caribbean it's not as bad. You look at Barbuda and 95 percent of the buildings there have damage estimated to be $100 million, and an infant died. And then you look at St. Maarten and there you also have six deaths.

So certainly, yes, the governor is right. They will have to go to work now but they are feeling lucky compared to other islands in the Caribbean -- Alisyn.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Understood, Leyla. They do seem to have dodged the worst bullet there. Thank you very much for that reporting.

So, Hurricane Irma is causing thousands of flight cancellations, as you can imagine -- also, major traffic delays -- and that raises questions about price gouging.

Chief business correspondent Christine Romans is here to explain. What are you seeing, Christine?


Well, we're seeing the big airlines slashing prices to get people out of Irma's path, but only after some reports of sky high prices got a lot of attention on social media.

One Twitter user posted this screengrab of a Delta fare from Miami. The price jumped from $547 to more than three grand. She later tweeted that the airline had reached out and helped tremendously.

[07:35:10] Now, Delta blames that issue on an Expedia Website issue, not its own problem. It says it never raised fares due to Irma.

But now, all the major airlines are capping their prices. Delta says it won't charge more than $399 from flights out of Florida or the Caribbean, including first class. American Airlines has main cabin seats for $99 one way. JetBlue offering reduced fares between $99 and $159.

Now, those driving out of town are already paying higher prices at the pump due to the disruptions from Hurricane Harvey. Florida's average ticked up another penny overnight.

There's also some local reports of price gouging for things like water. Walmart trying to help combat that. Walmart's sending 1,300 truckloads of bottled water to its Florida stores, Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: Wow. OK, Christine. Thank you very much for all of that.

So, President Trump siding with the Democrats, angering Republicans. One Republican says the decision could cause serious problems. He's here, next, to explain.


[07:40:20] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We had a great meeting with Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, and the whole Republican leadership group. And I'll tell you what, we walked out of there -- Mitch and Paul and everybody -- Kevin -- and we walked out and everybody was happy. Not too happy because you can never be too happy, but they were happy enough.


CAMEROTA: Well, conservatives this morning expressing shock over President Trump's deal with Democrats. The White House says the deal gives the president flexibility to increase military spending which, of course, is a major concern because of the increased threat from North Korea.

So joining us now is Congressman Mac Thornberry, a Republican of Texas. He is the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

Congressman, great to have you.


CAMEROTA: Why do you think the president did the deal with the Democrats yesterday?

THORNBERRY: Maybe out of frustration. I don't know what his motivations were and frankly, I don't care who makes a deal with whom.

What I care about are the results -- what the consequences are. And, unfortunately, this does not help fix our military situation. We have an increasing number of accidents, we have people -- our people are increasingly under stress and strain.

We have a world that's growing more dangerous, such as North Korea. And so, this will just have the -- have the stopgap funding measure that makes none of those problems better.

CAMEROTA: Well, why do you think the president thought that Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer had the better deal?

THORNBERRY: I don't know what the president thought. Clearly, to get things done you have to get them past the Senate, often by 60 votes, and so that is a political reality, no question. But again, what matters, I think, are the consequences.

What the country needs, what the military needs, what the world needs is some stability. So a three-month debt limit does not provide stability for the financial markets and it certainly does not provide the funding stability that the military needs to solve these readiness issues, to increase munitions, to beef up our missile defense as threats grow worse and worse.

Well, one of the ways it was explained -- one of the rationales was that if the president could clear the deck for September and postpone -- well, first of all, get Harvey relief funding, kick the can down the road for the debt ceiling, that then he could focus on tax reform.

What do you think of that plan? THORNBERRY: Yes. Well, of course, it's important. We've got to put money in FEMA immediately. Yesterday, the House passed a bill to do that. That is absolutely true.

But I don't like the kicking the can down the road for any purpose if kicking the can down the road means greater danger, more maintenance problems for our military. I'm for tax reform but in the meantime, men and women who serve our nation are risking their lives to help keep us safe and to hold back these adversaries.

And just look at what's happened in the past few weeks with, of course, the two Navy accidents.


THORNBERRY: But we've also had helicopters go down, we've had airplanes go down. Accident rates are going up and keeping everything the way it is -- kicking the can down the road does not solve those problems.

CAMEROTA: Well, and I know you have a hearing on all of that later this afternoon and I do want to get to that. But just help me understand how it's different.

So, he went with Pelosi and Schumer for a three-month deal instead of a six-month deal or an 18-month deal that the Republicans were suggesting. So how could your problems have been solved in a -- in six months if they can't be solved in three months? I mean, why do you see it, this current deal, as so much worse?

THORNBERRY: Well, I think you're -- we're talking about two different things.

You're focused a lot on the debt limits, which is important and I think we should increase the debt limit for 18 months to provide stability.

What I'm really focused on is the military budget and how we can provide that certainty so that companies can make the investments, increase their production. Military leaders can plan so -- more than three months so they can begin to solve these problems.

You're absolutely right. We will not solve our readiness problems. We can't fix our ships and planes, and so forth in three months or six months but we can get on a good trajectory.

In July, the House passed a defense bill by the largest bipartisan majority in the last eight years that does exactly that. Unfortunately, what this three-month stopgap measure will do will cut the funding by more than $50 billion that was designed to fix those problems.

[07:45:12] So you can't just say -- I'll put it this way. We are doing more of the same that got us into trouble and that's what my primary objection is. CAMEROTA: So in that case, do you agree with Speaker Ryan's assessment that the plan that the Democrats were pushing is quote "ridiculous and disgraceful?" He said that before the president closed the deal. But would you use those adjectives?

THORNBERRY: Oh, I'd probably use those adjectives and more but I wouldn't put Democrats on it because the truth is there is bipartisan responsibility for the cuts in the Defense budget and for not -- for not giving the military planners the stability and certainty that they need to do the job we expect them to do.

And so, we cut their budget but we say you've still got to defend us from North Korea, you've still got to protect us from terrorism, you still have to patrol the South China Sea and the Russian -- and watch the Russian exercises, et cetera.

We expect no less of them and yet funding has been going down. Airplanes and ships have been aging. They have not been getting the training they need and that's just wrong.

CAMEROTA: So, Congressman, let's talk about those catastrophic crashes that we saw with the USS John McCain and the Fitzgerald. What do you think went wrong?

THORNBERRY: I don't know the specifics. What I do know is that two years ago the general (sic) accountability office warned that we were asking too much of our Pacific Fleet.

Just as I was describing, the threats are not going down, these ships are staying at sea longer. The crew is not -- crews are not getting the training they need. So they are being stretched thinner and thinner and GAO warned that we were on a bad path.

So we'll look at the specific cause of each of these accidents but I think some of the responsibility comes back to this dysfunctional budget process that both parties share responsibility for.

CAMEROTA: So you have this hearing this afternoon. What can Congress do about this?

THORNBERRY: Well, number one, we can ask the questions about what we know about the accidents. We can also understand the shape of the Navy today, and I think you will hear hearings -- I mean, you will hear testimony this afternoon that shows it's worse now than it was two years ago. Fewer of our ships are certified as ready for action than there were two years ago so the problem's getting worse.

What Congress could do about it, working with the president, is to pass an adequate military budget on time. And that's one reason I'm just disheartened by what we were talking about earlier. We have an opportunity to begin to fix these problems. Unfortunately, they're just getting worse and all we're doing is delaying, and the same old thing.

CAMEROTA: Congressman Thornberry, thank you very much for coming on and sharing your viewpoint with us. THORNBERRY: You're welcome.

CAMEROTA: Chris --

CUOMO: All right, back to Florida not taking any chances, gearing up for a potential direct hit from Hurricane Irma. How is the state preparing? Are the right people getting out?

We have an emergency official, next.


[07:52:05] CUOMO: All right. So, Monroe County, which includes the Florida Keys, has declared a state of emergency. They've issued mandatory evacuation orders, pushing everyone to get out before Irma hits.

Now, did everyone get out, will everyone get out, and what happens to those who remain behind?

Joining us to talk about the situation is Monroe County administrator Roman Gastesi. He is on the phone from Key West this morning. Can you hear us?

ROMAN GASTESI, COUNTY ADMINISTRATOR, MONROE COUNTY, FLORIDA (via telephone): Yes, I can hear you fine, thank you. Good morning.

CUOMO: Good. We should take advantage of the good connections while we still have them.

What do you know about the state of play in your county? Are the people evacuating? Do you believe people will stay behind?

GASTESI: Yes, they are evacuating, as a matter of fact.

I drove down yesterday from Marathon down to Key West and the Keys are pretty empty. They're looking pretty good down here in Key West. I drove around and probably 90 percent of the businesses are closed and things are looking pretty good.

You know, the Keys residents are very connected to the weather and they know when to take things serious and obviously, this is a very serious storm.

CUOMO: What do you believe the reality is about whether or not everyone will evacuate, and what does it mean for those who stay behind?

GASTESI: Well, I think, you know, again, as it gets closer and closer I think they'll be more people leaving, or I certainly hope so. Again, folks know how to take these things serious and this is a big, you know, bold storm that is causing a lot of havoc throughout the Caribbean.

We're watching those images and those videos that you all have been playing and thinking that that could happen here. I know it gets my attention. I'm sure it gets the attention of the rest of the residents.

I certainly expect people to leave and if they don't leave we are telling them that they're on their own because we're leaving. We're not going to be able to deal with something like that. Nobody's going to be here and you can't expect our first responders to risk their lives for their irresponsibility.

So, we're telling them that and we're telling them very boldly, very straightforward. And if they're going to stay, you're on your own.

CUOMO: Why is Irma different, you know?

People down there are so storm savvy. We've seen them supposed to hit and they don't. We've seen them hit and not be as bad. And even when they are bad, it's still an advantage, in some people's minds, to be able to be there to get through the work of rebuilding and recovering right away instead of being locked out.

What do you say to that?

GASTESI: Well, they say that this is the biggest storm ever. I mean, you guys have been covering that. You were one of the folks that have been covering that. The strongest ever in the Atlantic.

And then, the way that it's coming through the Straits of Florida. Usually they hit Cuba, they go up and hit the Bahamas. There's a bank called the Cay Sal Bank that slows them down a little bit -- breaks them up a little bit.

But in this case it's tracking right through like the little slot -- a nice open, you know, warm water and it's just continued to stay strong. So if it does that, that doesn't happen very often.

And usually, like I said, it hits Cuba, it hits Puerto Rico or something and slows it down, but in this case it's almost like the -- I hate to say it but the perfect storm. It's really coming right at us.

[07:55:12] CUOMO: And look, you know, one of the best situations to make people do the right thing is to make them realize what the reality is if they don't.

You're saying you're going to get out of there. How much of the services will be left in place?

GASTESI: There will be no services. If you decide to stay -- and people are listening -- this is a very, very serious storm. If you decide to stay in the Keys, you are on your own.

The hospitals are closing. Our emergency managers, we're leaving -- we've moving. If it's coming to Key West we're going to go off the Keys and vice versa. So there will be nobody around. There's just no need to stay here when you see it coming.

We're providing you transportation. We're getting you -- we're helping you get out of here if you don't have transportation. There's just no need to risk it with such a big, powerful storm.

CUOMO: All right, Roman. Listen, if there's information that you discover as the process continues and you want to get it out, see us as a resource. We're here to help.

Be well, be safe.

GASTESI: OK, thank you.

CUOMO: Alisyn --

CAMEROTA: Well, as Hurricane Irma barrels toward Florida, FEMA is running out of money.

As of Tuesday, a spokeswoman for FEMA says the agency's disaster relief fund has been depleted from more than $2 billion down to $1 billion. That cash is being used for response and recovery efforts related to Hurricane Harvey, and another $7 billion of funding for FEMA is now included in that Harvey aid package that was passed by the House. That is now awaiting Senate approval.

CUOMO: All right. An emotional start to the federal corruption trial of New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez.

This is not something that we see. A Democrat senator -- it doesn't matter the party -- but a sitting senator being on trial. He was choking back tears, proclaiming his innocence.

Let's bring in CNN justice reporter Laura Jarrett, live from Newark.

Very interesting strategies at play, somewhat proforma for the prosecution saying that this was about selling your seat. The defense, at least for the dentist involved in this, saying we're not disputing the facts, we're disputing the intent.


That's right and day two of opening statements getting underway here in New Jersey very shortly.

And while yesterday, the lawyers did most of the talking, we did hear from the senator very briefly as he went into court. Take a listen.


SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ (D), NEW JERSEY: Never, not once, not once have I dishonored my public office. I started my public career fighting corruption -- that's how I started -- and I have always acted in accordance with the law. And I believe when all of the facts are known I will be vindicated.


JARRETT: Now, Chris, the implications of this case are obviously very serious for Menendez. If he's convicted he's facing some serious prison time. But there's also political consequences to think about here. If he's

convicted and forced to step aside for whatever reason before January, then Republican Gov. Chris Christie would be the one to select his replacement.

The other interesting thing to watch here is that the facts are not in dispute. Defense attorney Abbe Lowell says this is about what happened -- about what didn't happen. And we will see opening statements continue here in New Jersey later today -- Chris.

CAMEROTA: OK, Laura. Thank you very much.

Some very high stakes -- well, not just for Menendez, himself, but for all of the implications and what it does to the political --

CUOMO: There's no question. And it is an interesting reflection of whether or not the judge cares, and I mean this in a positive way, not as a criticism.

They put in a motion to let the senator leave and do important votes. And the judge said no, this is a trial, this is about your guilt or innocence and we're not going to allow that affect this process. So that was a big deal --

CAMEROTA: Interesting.

CUOMO: -- and we'll be following this very closely.

CAMEROTA: OK. We're following a lot of news for you this morning including the latest, of course, on Hurricane Irma, so let's get right to it.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

CAMEROTA: Good morning, everyone. Welcome to your new day. It is Thursday, September seventh. It's 8:00 in the East.

And, of course, we're following breaking news.

Hurricane Irma is tearing through the tropics as we speak. Right now, the massive category five hurricane is bearing down on Haiti and the Dominican Republic. It is expected to move then towards the southeastern U.S. next.

People in Florida are gearing up for a possible direct hit. There are mandatory evacuations underway in parts of the state ahead of this expected landfall this weekend.

CUOMO: Puerto Rico slammed by Irma, dodging the worst of the storm. But we keep telling people you don't have to get hit by the eye to get a bad hit.

More than a million customers are without power. More than 56,000 people don't have water, and who knows how long it will take to have it restored. The tiny island of Barbuda did not escape the storm's powerful wrath. Look at this. This is what 185 mile an hour winds does to standing structures. It's a disaster zone.

The prime minister there flew over the island. Says 95 percent damaged or destroyed, barely habitable. And remember, there are more storms coming.

The death toll rising.