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Puerto Rico Braces for Maria; Puerto Rico Braces for Maria; Trump Debut at U.N.; Rouhani Talks U.S. Deal; Iran President: North Korea Aware Of Our Experience With U.S.; U.S. Government Wiretapped Former Trump Campaign Chairman; GOP Senators Push New Plan To Replace Obamacare. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired September 19, 2017 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:00] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Dominica as a category five monster. The island's prime minister says they have lost all that money can buy and replace. We're watching this monstrous storm's path.

Let's go to our meteorologist, Chad Myers. He's joining us with the very latest.

How does it look, Chad?

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Well, I think the good news for Dominica is that we have had contact. If you remember what happened to Barbuda, where we didn't have contact for eight to ten hours, at least we have heard from the prime minister.

Let me take you back to overnight when the eyewall made landfall right on the island here of Dominica. This would make the north side of the eye, really the worst side on the north tip. But on the backside, near Roso (ph), that also saw significant wind damage and up through Emerald Pool (ph) and all of the higher elevations.

Now, think about -- think about this, Wolf. Hurricane hunter just flew through the storm and at 600 feet above sea level found a wind gusts to 188 miles per hour. So the higher you go in a hurricane, the higher the wind speed as well.

Then Guadeloupe, right here by (INAUDIBLE), did see a significant impact with the northern eyewall. And now it's back in the ocean gaining more strength.

So this is still a very big storm. Likely to be a category four or five landfall in Puerto Rico. It's hard to tell whether it will be north, in the northeast corner, or to the south, because the entire island is still inside the cone. But this would be Kolebra (ph) and Biacous (ph). This here would be the Conquistador (ph) resort, all the way down here to Obacaw (ph). This is going to take a direct impact likely over El Yunque, too, the big national forest there. It's a rain forest. And then the eye directly over Puerto Rico's San Juan. The city of San Juan.

Now, Puerto Rico has 3.5 million people. The last time this got hit, it was 1.5 million people. A significant increase in the population and also a significant increase in the infrastructure. How many power lines are up and how many power lines are going to come down with this storm?

The storm does turn to the right. Every single model, Wolf, does take it away from the U.S. But the U.S. is also down here. The U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, Biacas (ph), will all see 10 to 15 inches of rainfall. That could even cause more flash flooding.

So we have everything. We have storm surge. We have flooding. We have mudslides. And significant wind damage with this storm right over the U.S. V.I., likely the .B.V.I., and also Puerto Rico itself.


BLITZER: All right, Chad, thanks very much. We'll continue to check back with you.

President Trump has already issued an emergency declaration for Puerto Rico. The island is bracing for what could be the most powerful hurricane to ever hit there, certainly within the past 85 years.

Our correspondent, Nick Valencia, is joining us from San Juan right now.

I assume folks are taking prep -- making major preparations?

NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The preparations are well underway and have been. We're seeing just behind us shutters being put up at the hotel we're staying at, people boarding up their small businesses. And certainly a lot of anxiety.

We are nowhere near the height of this storm or how bad it's going to get, Wolf, but conditions have already started to deteriorate. Just check out the swelling of those waves. A little while ago we saw a wall of rain form just off in the distance out there, in the ocean. Clouds starting to eat up what's left of this blue sky.

It is an ominous warning from government officials here. Earlier the governor of Puerto Rico, Governor Rossello, spoke to CNN's "NEW DAY" and said this could be as bad as it gets.


GOV. RICKY ROSSELLO, PUERTO RICO: Well, some people might think that -- might not really understand the magnitude of this hurricane or might think that it won't hit us hard. And all indications are that this is going to be devastating and catastrophic.


VALENCIA: Hurricane Irma was -- caused some devastation here on the island territory, but it's nowhere near what's expected to happen when Hurricane Maria makes landfall. But even still, there's still noticeable damage here in the areas. Roofs in parts of the island still devastated. There's still people without power in this community. And you can only imagine the emotion that people here are going through, just having gotten over one hurricane and looking down the eye of another. Wolf.

BLITZER: Nick Valencia in San Juan, Puerto Rico for us.

All right, good luck over there.

Just minutes from now, President Trump will leave Trump Tower in New York City for his debut appearance on what could truly be called the world stage. A president whose questioned, challenged, even derided U.S. global leadership and alliances will speak before the United Nations General Assembly, an institution founded on U.S. global leadership and alliances.

The White House says the address will be both deeply philosophical and pragmatic, with Iran and North Korea held up as particular threats to world peace.

Let's go to Jeff Zeleny. He's over at U.N. headquarters for us right now to set the scene.

This will be a very important speech, Jeff.


President Trump, as you know, has been unsparing in his criticism of the United Nations. When he was running for president, he said it was not a friend of freedom. He has, you know, constantly derided the United Nations.

[09:05:09] But today, when he walks into the hall of the United Nations General Assembly and stands before a group of 170 other world leaders, he officially becomes part of that club. And he is softening his criticism considerably, taking a much more measured tone, which was clear yesterday when he dropped by here briefly.

In reality here, Wolf, he knows that he needs the United Nations Security Council particularly on North Korea and other sanctions as they are, you know, increasingly showing their nuclear program and the ambitions that -- what it can do.

But we are told that he is going to focus, you know, considerably on North Korea in this speech today, Wolf. He's going to call it a menace. H e's going to also be, of course, talking about the Iran nuclear agreement.

But this is also another chance for these world leaders to take a measure of this president, to get a firsthand look and feel of his America first agenda. He tweeted this morning a preview, perhaps, of what's to come, Wolf. He said this. He said it's a big day at the United Nations. Many good things, some tricky ones happening. We've got a good team behind us.

Some tricky ones, perhaps an underestimate, Wolf, given the challenge that are facing this president particularly on North Korea and the rising nuclear threat. We do expect him to talk about, you know, the fact that there are

military options, as well as other diplomatic options here. But, Wolf, the leaders here, hearing from President Trump for the first time in this setting. No doubt one of the biggest foreign policy speeches -- the biggest foreign policy speech he's given with so many challenges facing this president.


BLITZER: Yes, of course, we'll have live coverage in the next hour here on CNN.

Jeff Zeleny at the U.N., thanks very much.

I'm joined now by the State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert.

Heather, thanks so much for joining us. A very big day in U.S. foreign policy.


BLITZER: As you know, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, she says that at the U.N., the president, President Trump, in her words, slaps the right people, he hugs the right people. How are we going to see that play out in this big speech this morning?

NAUERT: Well, I know that the president is certainly looking forward to addressing the members of the United Nations today. It's a big speech for the president. I think we're going to see him talk about his approach of principle realism, and that's where we take a clear- eyed view of the world and we'll continue to promote American interests, but also try to bring greater stability to the world and encourage other countries to have strong sovereignty. And those countries with strong sovereignty can best work together with other nations to address some of the issues in front of us. As you mentioned, North Korea. And we're pulling together a tremendously strong coalition. It's not the United States that stands against North Korea, it's actually the world. And we've seen that best at the U.N. Security Council.

BLITZER: People are anxiously awaiting to hear what the president has to say about the North Korean threat in his speech today. How close is the U.S. to war with North Korea right now?

NAUERT: Well, I think everybody needs to calm down the rhetoric a little bit. First of all, diplomacy is the preferred approach. That i's our first line in dealing with North Korea.

I work for Secretary Tillerson and, of course, for the president as well, and the American people, so to speak. And one of the things I can tell you is that the secretary, when he sits down with nations all across the world, countries that you may never even think of have a relationship with North Korea. The secretary will call on them to kick out North Korea's guest workers who are essentially slave laborers.

These people working in various countries. You see them in African nations, in European nations, you name it, where they make their money, but the government confiscates all of it, if not most of it, and those -- that money goes back to North Korea's illegal nuclear ballistic missiles weapons programs, not to the people itself. So Secretary Tillerson has that peaceful push campaign and he keeps forwarding that and advancing that.

That's just one piece of what we're trying to do. You've heard Secretary Mnuchin talk about Treasury -- Treasury sanctions against North Korea and some countries that have businesses and entities that do business with North Korea. That's another piece of it. And then there is, of course, the military piece of it as well. But the first preferred approach is always diplomacy and we're pushing ahead with that.

BLITZER: But, as you know, most of North Korea's business is with China.


BLITZER: Ninety percent of the exports China -- without China, North Korea gets -- is out of business for all practical purposes.

NAUERT: Well --

BLITZER: Will the president be specific --

NAUERT: You're right.

BLITZER: In going after China and urging China to stop all trade, for example, with North Korea?

NAUERT: Yes. OK, an excellent point and you're absolutely correct that China is a huge piece of this. Russia is a huge piece of this as well. And a good sign is that China and also Russia sign on to the last U.N. Security Council resolutions, those unanimous votes, two of them recently. So that is a good step in the right direction.

The president has an upcoming trip to China later this year in which he'll continue the conversations with President Xi. He just spoke with President Xi about this last night. We are working with the Chinese government to ask them to do more. Certainly they've done some already, but they can do more and we're asking them to do that.

Whether or not the president will call them out, as you say, today in the speech, that I don't know. But we are continuing to work with China to put pressure on them peacefully to do more on the issue of North Korea.

[09:10:27] BLITZER: The president continues to rail against the Iran nuclear deal, as you well know, Heather, but the Trump administration, your State Department, the secretary of state, has maintained that Iran is in compliance with the nuclear agreement. The next deadline for notification to Congress is October 15th. Will the State Department certify at that time that Iran remains in compliance with the nuclear agreement? NAUERT: Well, look, our whole Iran policy review is still underway. So

I don't want to get ahead of what that policy review will be. But you're talking about the J.C.P.O.A., and that's just one part of how we look at the issue of Iran. That just deals with the nuclear part.

Certainly an important part of it, but this administration prefers to look at the totality of our relationship with the regime in Iran, and what Iran does. We have seen incredibly destabilizing activities from the regime and Iran, including crisis in Yemen, which is people are at near starvation point. We've seen the crisis in Syria only worsen because Iran is sending weapons to Hezbollah and others there.

Yo name it, there's something bad going on in this world. Iran is probably going to be somewhat of a part of it. So we're taking an overall look and an approach at how we view Iran and I just don't want to get ahead of that, but it's coming up soon.

BLITZER: I know you've got to run. One final question before I let you go.


BLITZER: Our Christiane Amanpour interviewed the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, yesterday.


BLITZER: He warned that America, in his words, will pay a high cost if the Trump administration scraps the Iran nuclear deal. You want to respond to President Rouhani?

NAUERT: You know what, I'm not going to get in to responding to every world leader's rhetoric. We hear inflammatory talk come from world leaders all the time. That is just another instance of it.

If I may mention, I know you've been talking about the hurricane, Hurricane Maria. The State Department was a huge part of helping to getting Americans into safety from the last round of hurricanes. If I can just encourage any Americans who are traveling down there or any Americans here who have loved ones who are in the region to sign up for the State Department's STEP program online. And what that enables us to do is get in contact with Americans if we need to in emergency situations. That would apply for hurricanes or any disasters around the world.

BLITZER: Good point.

NAUERT: So I'd please encourage people to take a look at that as we hope and pray that all goes well with our American citizens and others in the region.

BLITZER: This Hurricane Maria looks awful, especially for the 3.5 million American citizens on the island of Puerto Rico and elsewhere in the Caribbean as well.

Health Nauert, the -- NAUERT: Yes, we're watching -- we're watching it carefully.

BLITZER: You're doing important work over there. Thanks so much for all of that.

NAUERT: Thank you.

BLITZER: Heather Nauert's the spokeswoman at the U.S. State Department.

Joining us now is our own Christiane Amanpour. She's our chief international correspondent. She's joining us live from outside the U.N.

So you had this important interview, Christiane, with the Iranian president. You heard the State Department spokeswoman say they didn't want to directly respond. What is the expectation, based on everything you are hearing, will the U.S. continue to certify that Iran remains in compliance?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, very interesting to hear the State Department spokesperson. I happen to be sitting at the French mission to the U.N. because shortly I'm going to be interviewing, in his first international interview, the president of France.

And why do I mention that, because it's really important. He has developed a friendly relationship with President Trump, although admits, and so do his people, that there are areas of agreement and areas of disagreement. One of the areas of disagreement is about the Iran nuclear deal, where the French and the other signatories to this deal believe that particularly in this context where you have nuclear crisis emanating from North Korea, you do not want to throw away an agreement that actually controls and secures the nuclear element of Iranian policy.

And so I put that to the Iranian president and he said, as you mention to the State Department, that there would be a price to pay, but he also put it in the context of trying to get North Korea to abide by the international community's will.


PRESIDENT HASSAN ROUHANI, IRAN (through translator): I think what the Iranian experience shows is a good experience that can be replicated elsewhere and executed elsewhere. But, keep in mind, please, that if the United States wishes to withdraw from the JCPOA, why would the North Koreans waste their time in order to sit around the table of dialogue with the United States, because they would think that perhaps after years of talks and potential agreement, the next U.S. administration could step over or pull out of the agreement achieved.


[09:15:12] AMANPOUR: So there he is saying in context of deals and honoring deals, but when he said to me that, you know, the U.S. and the rest of the world would pay a price for pulling out what he actually means is, that would mean Iran would go back to the pre-deal days where they would be rapidly enriching uranium.

And if the U.S. would re-impose sanctions which the president did not this month was very clear not to reimpose nuclear sanctions on Iran then that would cause a reaction as I just mentioned from Iran.

And again, here, about to speak to the French president in the context of what you have been reporting, the breaking news, Hurricane Maria before that Hurricane Irma and Harvey, the French president and the rest of the international community wants to try to persuade President Trump to rethink pulling the U.S. out of the international U.N. climate change accord that was signed in Paris back in 2015.

BLITZER: We look forward to the interview that's coming up with the French president, Emmanuel Macron. Christiane Amanpour in New York. Thank you so much.

There's a lot more news happening right now including wiretapping. CNN broke the story first. The U.S. government was listening in on former Trump campaign chairman, Paul Manafort's conversations both before and after the presidential election. What did they find out?

Just minutes ago, the president's long time personal attorney and confidant, Michael Cohn, there you see him, he arrived on Capitol Hill in Washington. He is about to face questions behind closed doors from Senate investigators, at issue, the investigation into Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election. We will update you on that and a lot more. Stay with us for our special coverage.



BLITZER: CNN has learned U.S. investigators wiretapped the former Trump campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, both before and after the November presidential election. Sources telling us the surveillance continued into early this year covering a period in which Manafort was known to be talking to President Trump.

CNN's Shimon Prokupecz is part of the team that broke this exclusive CNN report for us. So, Shimon, tell us what you and your colleagues have now learned?

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE PRODUCER: That's right, Wolf. Sources tell us that the FBI got permission from the surveillance court to monitor Paul Manafort before and after the election. This is an extraordinary step for the FBI to do this kind of surveillance of a high-ranking campaign official.

And of course, Manafort is now at the center of the Russian meddling probe. We are told that there are intercepted communications that raised concerns about whether Manafort was encouraging Russians to help the campaign.

Other sources tell us that this intelligence was not conclusive, and as expected Special Counsel Bob Mueller's team has been provided all of these communications -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What do you mean by encouraging?

PROKUPECZ: Well, there's a lot we don't know, Wolf. Certainly, the FBI has been listening to some of these communications and other intelligent officials and these are suspected Russian operatives that were relaying what they claimed were discussions with Manafort as well as communications involving Manafort himself.

None of this has amounted to what people consider a smoking gun in this investigation. There's still more work being done to determine whether there's a criminal violation here. Manafort, Wolf, it's important to note, has denied ever knowingly communicating with Russian intelligence during the election and he's also denied helping Russia undermine U.S. interests.

BLITZER: Do we know, Shimon, whether President Trump ever communicated directly with Manafort while he was under FBI surveillance?

PROKUPECZ: Yes. So, this, Wolf, has been a hot topic on social media and elsewhere, people have been wondering this. What we have been told by sources is that the president and Manafort were still talking early this year, well after the campaign and after the president took office.

During that time, the FBI was listening to Manafort's phones so it's possible those conversations were collected -- Wolf.

BLITZER: So, was the president right when he tweeted several times that he was being wiretapped by the Obama administration?

PROKUPECZ: Yes. So, this is another question that a lot of people now have. The Justice Department has denied that they tapped any of the president's phone lines. What we are told, though, is that basically, you know, this is still ongoing.

They don't have any information indicating -- the sources we have talked to, that the phones of the president were ever tapped. It's still possible, as we have been reporting, that communications between the president and Manafort were picked up during this surveillance.

BLITZER: Interesting stuff. Good reporting. Shimon Prokupecz and his team doing excellent work for us. Thank you very much.

Joining us now to discuss this and more, Republican Senator Corey Gardner of Colorado. He is a key member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Senator, thanks for joining us.


BLITZER: Very frankly as you know it's not an easy thing to be able to carry out this kind of FISA-approved surveillance. You have to make a case before the FISA Court to prove that there's just cause to do this. So, what is your reaction to this reporting that Paul Manafort was under surveillance both before and after the election?

GARDNER: I think it shows an appropriate level of seriousness for the investigation and that's why Congress is taking a very strong bipartisan approach to this investigation.

I commend both Mark Warner, the Democrat ranking member of the Intel Committee as well as Richard Byrd, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee in the Senate, who have done a tremendous job bringing in the witnesses talking about the case making sure they get the facts before any conclusions are drawn.

As it was mentioned on the show earlier, there seems to be a lot of finger-pointing but no smoking gun and so I think it's important that we continue this bipartisan search for the answers and make sure that we get to the bottom of it as we also support the Mueller investigation going forward.

BLITZER: Yes. It looks like there is some pretty good bipartisan cooperation both in the Senate Intelligence Committee as well as the Senate Judiciary Committee.

[09:25:07] Let's get to some other major issues facing the country today. As you know the president is set to address the U.N. General Assembly in the next hour. We are told the speech is expected to be what officials describe as philosophical, and we are expecting the president to issue some harsh warnings to both Iran and North Korea. What would you like to hear the president say?

GARDNER: I think the president needs to layout a clear delineation about what we expect to see happening in Iran and North Korea and terrorism around the globe and other activities that the United Nations should be leading in where they have fallen behind.

As it relates to North Korea, there are 160 nations that maintain some kind of trade relationship with North Korea, some kind of diplomatic relationship with North Korea. There are 21 that have diplomatic commissions in North Korea. That have embassies in Washington, D.C.

He needs to make it clear that countries and businesses have a choice to do business with the United States, the largest economy in the world or do business with North Korea, but they can't do both.

We need to make it absolutely clear that there is no room for China to simply talk about what they are going to do and say they object to North Korean missile programs, but it's time for China to take the responsibility of a leading nation, a leading global power and actually deal with the madman in Pyongyang.

It's far overdue to address the nuclear crisis and the president needs to make it crystal clear that he is going to address it with or without anybody's help.

BLITZER: Yes. As you pointed out, you are calling on what you described as 21 nations, including China, which has a huge economic relationship with the United States to cut all diplomatic and economic ties with North Korea. And in a letter to China's ambassador to the United States, you wrote this and I will put it up on the screen, "Maintaining official diplomatic relations with the regime that continues to defy international law and threatens nations across the globe only serves to reward nefarious behavior," closed quote.

So, what are you saying, that all economic ties between the U.S. and China should be severed if China continues to maintain a commercial relationship with North Korea?

GARDNER: What I am saying is this. There are over 5,000 businesses in China that are currently doing business with North Korea. It's time they stop. It's time that China stand up to those businesses and say enough is enough. We need to sanction those businesses.

If they are doing business with the United States, if they are trying to have access to the U.S. financial system, they need to be denied that access. We need a full economic embargo, a global embargo of North Korea.

And let me tell you one other thing that China has done. China has actually carried out its vindication, it's a vindictive campaign against South Korea. Vindictiveness over the deployment of a missile defense system in South Korea.

China has cost South Korea's economy $7 billion, $8 billion, $9 billion. If they were to take that same aggressive approach to North Korea, we could actually see something different today. We can actually see a regime in North Korea that is moving toward denuclearization. So instead of aiming their fire at South Korea it's time for China to actually aim it at North Korea.

BLITZER: One final question, a different subject, while I have you, Senator. House Speaker Paul Ryan is urging senators to pass the health care legislation proposed by Senators Graham and Cassidy calling it, "our best last chance to get repeal and replace done."

If it passed the Senate Ryan said he would bring it up for a straight vote on the House floor. The first hearing on the bill is set for Monday. Where do you stand on this Graham-Cassidy legislation?

GARDNER: I think there's more information that we need to get in terms of its impact on the states. Obviously, there are some governors who are now coming out in support of the legislation. It's important that we understand how this is going to work.

I have been told that states like Colorado actually receive more dollars in the coming years than under this proposal than they would under the Affordable Care Act, under the status quo.

But we have some questions about those numbers and we are looking for those numbers. We are going to continue to get them, but I will say absolutely, we have to replace the Affordable Care Act with something that actually works to drive down the costs.

In Colorado, we've seen double digit increases being certified once again by the Division of Insurance Commissioner this year. Average rating freezes 27 percent, and 14 counties will have a choice of one provider to choose from.

What we have right now is not working. I hope we have a bipartisan solution going forward and a bipartisan fix, and I know a lot of people have been talked to on both sides of the aisle about this proposal, and I just hope we can come together as a Congress and nation, and get something better.

BLITZER: Well, it doesn't look like this one is bipartisan. You need 50 votes with the vice president in order to get Graham-Cassidy passed. You are as of this minute still undecided?

GARDNER: That's correct. That's what I have told my colleagues tha I am still getting more information. I've talked to a number of senators about their concerns. I've talked to Senator Cassidy about those numbers trying to get, and they have been responsive to us.

But again, we have to work together as a country to come up with something that is going to work. We can put something in place to reduce the cost of health care, increases the quality of health care and I don't think that's a Republican-only issue or Democrat-only issue, but it's something that we are all interested in.

BLITZER: Senator Gardner, thanks for joining us.

GARDNER: Thanks, Wolf. Thank you.