Return to Transcripts main page

CNN NEWSROOM

Maria Devastates Puerto Rico; Maria Lashes Dominican Republic; Forecast for Hurricane Maria; Crews Search for Earthquake Survivors; Head: Special Counsel Seeks Trove Of White House Documents; Mueller Probing Oval Office Meeting With Russians; Storm Devastates Puerto Rico Amid Island's Fiscal Crisis; GOP Senators Scramble For Votes On Repeal Bill. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired September 21, 2017 - 09:00   ET

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


[09:00:00] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: As much as 20 inches of rain and a storm surge as high as six feet.

Also, Puerto Rico grateful for the daylight since the entire island, home to more than 3 million Americans, has lost electricity. The entire island of Puerto Rico. It may not have that back in many places for months.

Word on damage. Hard to come by, of course, because of the lack of communication and power, but officials say dozens of families were rescued overnight from flooding, as you see here, right near the capital of San Juan. That is where we find our Nick Paton Walsh.

And, Nick, in our show yesterday, you were being bombarded. It was so rough we could hardly see your shot. What does it look like as daylight comes?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's a little dryer now. But, yes, that thrusty (ph) of that wind we could feel, we saw the extent of the damage it caused. Actually in our drive away from where you caught us yesterday, Palm Delmar (ph), we had to evacuate the hotel we were in because actually the winds had severed a gas main and even put diesel fuel in the water flooding around us. Not a safe place to be.

But the drive we took back up Highway 3, around us, nearly every tree that was still standing was skeletal, its leaves torn off. Many thrown across the highway that we drove down. Electricity cables, pylons, torn up, smashed. Wind turbines, their propellers torn clean off. Remarkable devastation. And even highways, frankly, turned into rivers. We had to drive a mile through water at one point.

That's just the stuff you see on the surface. And the daily routine people are facing now upended each time they wake up. In the morning today, the first dawn they've seen with the full extent of damage visible to them. Cell phone service, gone. Electricity, gone. Drinking water, well, that's -- you know, that's been around but problematic as time continues. Roads often blocked. Do I go to work today? What exactly is going to happen tomorrow? The schools? All these questions people waking up to. And this is a state which had severe problems after Hurricane Irma.

That was a glancing blow that cause $1 billion worth of damage. This has hit them full on. We've seen the boards being taken down on some buildings now, life trying to edge its way back to normal. But every street has something that needs clean up on it. And that's something that Puerto Ricans, frankly, are just getting on with. They're not waiting for a broader, federal plan. They're getting on with life there. It's actually quite wonderful to see the resilience of the people here.

And one possible piece of good news, awful for the family involved, but only one man died during this. A piece of debris striking him. And that, in itself, will have some perhaps grateful there was less loss of human life, but also still too doesn't detract from the enormity of the challenge ahead here.

You know, we focus on the ferocity of the storm and the drama of the moment, but it is the months and years afterwards of rebuilding ordinary lives that it is the most exhausting, expensive, and important part of this.

Poppy.

HARLOW: Especially for this island that has been just ravaged economically. I mean they are in deep, deep debt. How do they rebuild given that? And month without power expected? That's pretty astonishing.

Nick Paton Walsh, thank you for the reporting. And, you're right, it's about the aftermath and the people that have to deal with that.

All right, let's go to the Dominican Republic now. The hurricane is repeating itself there. Two weeks ago it was Irma striking that nation. And now Maria doing the same.

Our Polo Sandoval in Punta Cana. He's on the phone.

Given they're in the midst of this, what are you seeing?

POLO SANDOVAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT, (via telephone): Hey, Poppy.

Let me tell you, it certainly has been a very busy night. We've watched these winds just sweep across the Dominican Republic overnight, especially as the eye of the storm was getting dangerously close to the coastline. But it's important to point out, it never actually made landfall here.

Now that the storm (INAUDIBLE) continue to move further away, the majority of the impact that we're seeing right now, the real affects right now, especially with the expected storm surge is really on the northern coast of the island here.

Now, eventually, when these winds do begin to die down, which is really what we're -- what we're noticing here, we will still see that lingering threat for rain that authorities have warned people to be on the lookout for. You know, this island, obviously, is -- the ground is still saturated. We also still have some of the rivers and streams that are swollen from Jose and also from Hurricane Irma. So, really, any drop in this bucket could potentially lead to some serious trouble, flooding, and, of course, possibly landslides as well. So that really is the focus, that's the warning from authorities for locals.

Now, when it comes to the people who have been visiting this country, they're hoping to get home and to leave this resort city of Punta Cana. There could be some hope later today as authorities think they may be able to open up these local airports here. But really they're going to give it some time now to assess any potential damage and see what mother nature has in store next before they make that determination.

But again, Poppy, that gives you an idea of what we're looking at here in the Dominican Republic and this storm continues to move through the Caribbean.

HARLOW: Polo Sandoval in Punta Cana, the Dominican Republic. Thank you very much.

[09:05:03] We also have some new pictures this morning of the aftermath of Hurricane Maria on Dominica. A CNN crew flew over the island, captured entire homes that were ripped apart, debris scattered everywhere. Officials say at least 14 people were killed there as a result of Maria. Residents have now gone into survival mode. More recovery and relief flights headed to the island this morning.

Let's go to Chad Myers in the CNN Weather Center for more on Hurricane Maria.

So, what else does she have in store?

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: I believe it's gaining strength at this hour. If you take a look at where we were with the eyewall being very big, now it appears the eyewall's trying to get smaller. When that happens, we get intensification. Possibly rapid intensification with this, like we saw before Dominica.

But what we're seeing right now is a very strong event here for the north shore of the D.R. Our reporter, right there, Polo, thank you for your work there, but you are not on the worst side of this. If you are along this line, that's where the flash flooding will be and that's where the wind right now is 85 or 90 miles per hour.

Back to here, back to Puerto Rico, back to all the people that are without power right now. The wind is still blowing. The rain is still coming down, especially on the west side of the island. And think about this, when Florida loses power, you grab some trucks from South Carolina and Georgia and Alabama and you drive down there. You can't drive trucks to Puerto Rico. This is going to be a long what you see is what you have. The normal infantry of trucks, those bucket trucks, is what you have on an island like that. And so that's what we're going to see. That's why it's going to take so very long to get everything back up. Sure, there could be some cars ferries to bring some things over, but it's not like taking the interstate to Puerto Rico.

So far overnight, the models have all been offshore. That is fantastic news. Now, there still is this wiggle on almost every model. The wiggle turns back left for a while, aka, you know, it's Sandy, but so far everything turning back to the right again after that small little wiggle. We'll keep watching the wiggle because even the European and the North American model have that small little wiggle. But then finally, at the end, turning right.

And we know that this is six or seven days away and there's not even a forecast that's a seven day hurricane forecast. Barely a three-day forecast. That's here. That's where we should be. Turks and Caicos, you're going to get it. Then into the Atlantic, and that's fantastic. Just let it sit out there and miss everything. Now, there is Bermuda in the way possibly too inside the cone.

But for now, Poppy, the United States is no longer in any cone from Maria. We'll see if that continues for the next few days.

HARLOW: I hope we will. Chad, thank you so much for tracking this along with us and our reporters, of course, on the ground.

MYERS: You're welcome.

HARLOW: Let me take you now to Mexico City. There is breaking news. We're continuing to follow it there. Rescuers racing to save a little girl who has been trapped in the rubble of a collapsed school for more than 36 hours. Take a look at this, because this is the school and there is enough debris that has been cleared out of the way to get this little girl water and oxygen.

You might remember on the show yesterday John and I were walking you through as they were working then, 24 hours ago, to rescue her. It's been 36 now. It is a delicate mission. There's a lot of fear that this structure, this school, could further collapse. At times, crews hold up fist to quiet their workers. They're trying to listen and communicate with her and any other possible survivors. This as the death toll climbs from that earthquake.

Our Rosa Flores is on the scene.

Rosa, it's remarkable. I mean 36 hours she's been under there. They got her water. They can communicate with her. They got her oxygen. How is it going for them as they try to rescue her?

ROSA FLORES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, I just talked to one rescuer who was removing debris, and he had just finished a 36-hour shift. And, Poppy, he described it as a roller coaster of emotions. He says that the rescue workers are at an all-time high when they hear that there are signs of life or that someone has been rescued, and then the mood just plummets when they have discovered that someone inside is dead.

But they, of course, continue this relentless look, this digging through the debris and the very careful removal of that debris, he explained, because, of course, they want to remove the degree, but they don't want that building to collapse further. And that's been one of the big challenges here. It rained overnight. Rain is heavy. Rain moves through those crevices, just like everything else. So was a huge concern.

They also believe that the building could further be collapsing. So what are they doing? They are listening for signs of life. And probably about two hours ago, rescue workers here raised their hands up like this, Poppy, and that is a huge sign for people here. It means you need to be silent because we are listening to signs of life. We're listening for signs of life because they're trying to follow those signs of life, trying to follow whatever they can to make sure that they can get to that little girl, and perhaps her other classmates who are reportedly missing and trapped inside.

[09:10:14] Now, the sad news that we received overnight is that the death toll here has increased to 26. A 50-year-old woman was recovered from the rubble, unfortunately dead. Twenty-one of those bodies recovered were children.

So, Poppy, an agonizing wait, of course, for the parents of those -- that 12-year-old girl and those other children who are trapped inside. And at this hour, you can see all around me, there are a lot of resources here trying to get to her. But, of course, they're still not there yet.

Poppy.

HARLOW: Rosa Flores, thank you so much for reporting on that. Please keep us posted and we'll keep watching this extraordinary effort to free that little girl. Thank you.

Ahead for us, GOP scramble to stay (ph) until Republicans vote on their latest push to repeal Obamacare, but do they have the votes?

Plus, the president is holding two separate meeting with the leaders of Japan and South Korea. As tensions flare with North Korea, does the U.S. have a plan for the dictator that President Trump calls rocket man.

And she is a billionaire who runs the world's largest private, charitable foundation, worked at Microsoft. You know her name, Melinda Gates. Well, she told me she still faces hurdles and sexism because she's a woman. My interview with her coming up.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MELINDA GATES: I still walk in places with Bill, and people -- first of all, they assume he's the smartest person in the room, almost no matter whether it's a man or a woman who walks in, right? But as soon as I open my mouth, you can sometimes look at the person's face and they're like of like, wow, she knows something, too.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:15:54] HARLOW: New developments in the Russian investigation, the "Washington Post" is reporting that former Trump campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, offered to brief a Russian billionaire on the election just two weeks before President Trump accepted the nomination.

Also, CNN has learned that Special Counsel Bob Mueller has requested White House documents related to the president's own action some of them in the oval office including the firing of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and FBI Director James Comey.

Joining me now, Ron Brownstein, CNN senior political analyst and senior editor of "The Atlantic," and Matt Lewis, CNN political commentator and senior columnist at "The Daily Beast."

So, Gentlemen, there is a lot -- you know, there's the question of this is drip, drip, drip every day or is this more significant? So, Matthew first, the fact that Special Counsel Mueller now has requested according to these reports and CNN reporting sort of 13 different sets of documents in areas of focus.

Some of them that pertain to what the president has said and done inside of the oval office like that meeting with Ambassador Kislyak, of course, the foreign minister of Russia, that Russian media took those photos of and then leaked out. Is that significant or is that just another drip?

MATT LEWIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think both. I think obviously, this is accumulative. This has been going on for a long time and will probably continue. I also think it's significant. Very clearly -- nobody knows if there was, you know, coordination with Russia, collusion as we have called it.

But I have the sense that Robert Mueller is going to find out if there was. I mean, when you are wiretapping the former chairman of a presidential campaign who obviously had past ties to Russia, when you are doing a no-knock raid essentially on his house, you will find stuff out.

And I don't know why this is leaking to the press right now. I don't know if that's just because things leak or if that's to send a message to people like Paul Manafort that you've need to cut a deal.

I don't know what that is, but very clearly, I mean, if there's something here they will find it because every day there's another story.

HARLOW: Remember, Ron, the words that according to the "New York Times" the president uttered in that meeting with those Russians in the oval office was, "I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job. I face great pressure because of Russia. That is taken off."

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. Well, look, I mean, first, there are -- as the Manafort revelations underscore, there are just a lot more contacts with Russians and Russian individuals and people close to the kremlin and close to Putin that we have seen in other -- I mean -- other presidential campaigns. There's nothing like -- you talk about the drip, drip, drip. Just the meetings at Trump Tower, this kind of offer, one story after the other, the Trump Tower in Moscow. So, maybe there is no central core, maybe there is no central collusion, but there are a lot of pieces in this puzzle.

To Matt's point, you know, what this clearly shows is that in addition to looking at the individuals in the campaign and in the Trump orbit, and clearly looking to maximum pressure on people that the counsel -- the special counsel believes could ultimately provide damaging information.

There's no question that they are looking at decisions in the White House by the president. I mean, they have made that abundantly clear by what they are seeking in documents. So, this could not be higher stakes.

We don't know exactly where it's going to go. We don't know how long it's going to take, but it does seem to be moving faster I think than many people anticipated when all of this started.

HARLOW: Look, it shows what he is narrowing in on, and the fact that this is not just the people around the president anymore, or fired people around the president. It's the president's words, actions and documents.

I would note you said Trump Tower in Moscow, they talked about building that and it didn't end up happening, but I know what you are referring to. OK, guys, stick around, because we have a lot more to get to.

[09:20:04] I want you to weigh in on health care, this Republican push, the timing, et cetera, but before that this morning we are getting a better look at the damage in Puerto Rico before Hurricane Maria even hit the U.S. territory, the island was facing a crisis.

Puerto Rico's economy has been in recession for over a decade. The unemployment last month over 10 percent that's more than twice the national average, and last May, it filed for the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

Our chief business correspondent, Christine Romans, joins us now. A one-two punch to say the least for Puerto Rico.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN CHIEF BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. When you look at those pictures it's honestly just heartbreaking. By the time that this storm came through, Maria, some of those trees had already been snapped. They've already lost all their leaves from Irma.

So, one-two here and it's against a backdrop of an economy that is simply reeling, $74 billion in debt. It hasn't made a payment on that in a year. Filed for bankruptcy, now struggling to figure out how to reorganize underneath that.

Compare that to Detroit, $18 billion or Jefferson County, $4 billion, those are other largest bankruptcies. The population has been losing people. They are going to Florida. They are going to Houston frankly for skilled jobs.

There are 446,000 people, Americans, in Puerto Rico have left the U.S. mainland just in the past decade or so and 40 percent of that is job related. The unemployment rate here about 10 percent. So, this is really a tough situation here.

You have three or four months without power. That would be critical for the rebuilding period. FEMA, Congress and private insurers will bear the brunt of the damages. We don't have preliminary damage estimated get here.

One think that I think is really interesting, though, is that when you look at those pictures, the devastation is pretty clear. You will need new roads and bridges. You will need new air strips. You will need to fix ports. You will need to rebuild beaches where there are beautiful resorts.

In some cases, those private companies will be bearing that cost. Rebuilding, I am hoping, will be a lure for skilled labor jobs so people will have a clean slate in terms of trying to have an economic engine here. But it comes against a backdrop of a bankruptcy filing --

HARLOW: It doesn't dig them out of this $70 billion in debt or bankruptcy.

ROMANS: No.

HARLOW: Christine Romans, thank you.

ROMANS: Markets by the way right now looking like the Dow could be down a little bit but we had records pretty much all week. The Dow is up 13 percent. It's still -- investors are still riding high even in the face of what could be a short-term economic hit from these big storms.

HARLOW: All right. We'll see the market open in just about 8 minutes. Romans, thank you so much.

Last ditch health care pushed just days until Republicans set to vote on this newest effort to repeal Obamacare, but they do not have the votes locked in yet.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:27:09]

HARLOW: Just days until senators are set to vote on their latest attempt to repeal Obamacare. Right now, Republicans don't have the votes to pass it. It is close-door deal making time it appears. There are still a lot of questions of what is in the bill.

Here's what the president wrote this morning, "I would not sign Graham-Cassidy if it did not include coverage of pre-existing conditions. If it does, a great bill repeal and replace."

Our MJ Lee is here, who knows all things health care and all things Washington. Help me fact check that just for a moment here.

M.J. LEE, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS REPORTER: Yes. You know, there's a ton of confusion about what this bill would do to pre-existing conditions, which is unfortunate because so many people have them. You know that it covers everything from cancer to diabetes to obesity.

So, this is a deal on Graham-Cassidy and what it would do to people with pre-existing conditions. So, it's true that insurers could not, you know, outright reject people for having a medical condition.

However, states under Graham-Cassidy could ask for more flexibility and they could allow insurers to charge more based on peoples' medical conditions. Now, what Republicans would say in response to that is that states would have to provide some kind of assurance that everybody would get affordable and adequate coverage.

But, of course, that is problematic because that leaves a lot to open interpretation and I think that's actually precisely the reason that Jimmy Kimmel has really struck a nerve with everyone.

Because he actually has done a really good job of explaining in a way that people could easily understand what someone who is in the position of his son who have a serious heart condition, what this bill would do to someone like him and his family.

Let's actually listen to this incredible exchange between Senator Bill Cassidy and Jimmy Kimmel last night.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BILL CASSIDY (R), LOUISIANA: I'm sorry he does not understand. Under the Graham-Cassidy bill more people would have coverage and we protect those with pre-existing conditions.

JIMMY KIMMEL, HOST, "JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE": I get it. I don't understand because I'm a talk show host, right? Help me out. What do I not understand? Is it the part where you cut $243 billion from federal health care assistance? Am I not understanding the part where states would be allowed to let insurance companies price out of coverage for having pre-existing conditions? Maybe I don't understand the bill in which federal funding disappears completely after 2026?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LEE: Just to put everything in perspective, yesterday in my reporting, I spoke to a doctor who work for the Boston Children's Hospital has dealt with children with this precise condition. He says that all of the operations and the surgeries that go into treating this could easily and very quickly reach upwards of $1 million.

HARLOW: Yes, about what his son, for example, is dealing with and that he said it can't just be Jimmy Kimmel that can afford this stuff. It has to be everybody. Thank you, M.J. Appreciate the fact check on that.

Back with us, Ron Brownstein and Matt Lewis. So, Matt Lewis to you, that's the fact check, those are the facts. There are no alternative facts. They are just facts. What is in this bill and out of this bill, OK? Jimmy Kimmel explained it pretty well last night. Is the president misleading with this statement?