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THE SITUATION ROOM
Trump Calls Trump-Russia Investigation a Hoax; Interview With Arizona Congressman Ruben Gallego; Latest Republican Obamacare Repeal Effort Nearing Collapse; Report: Two Dozen Private Jet Trips By Health Secretary; DHS Notifies 21 States of Election Hacking Attempts; Trump to Campaign for Alabama Senator. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired September 22, 2017 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JIM ACOSTA, CNN HOST: With a handful of his colleagues voicing serious concerns about the measure, is the latest Obamacare repeal effort doomed?
High-stakes tweets. President Trump and Kim Jong-un engage in a personal war of words with each other, calling each other crazy and unhinged. could their bickering boil over with North Korea's most provocative and dangerous nuclear test yet?
Strange race. President Trump steps into Alabama's Senate runoff election tonight campaign for recent Senate appointee and establishment candidate Luther Strange. But he is running against a deeply conservative rival who also has a loyal GOP following. Can the president's clout tip the race?
And jet-setter. Revelations of more pricey private jet trips by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price that cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. Did they violate federal rules?
We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Jim Acosta. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
ACOSTA: The breaking news tonight, a potentially fatal blow to the latest Republican effort to repeal Obamacare.
Senator John McCain has announced that he cannot back the last-ditch Senate deal without a Congressional Budget Office score detailing its real-world impact. The measure is now just one vote away from failure.
Republican senator Rand Paul has already announced he opposes the bill. And a handful of his colleagues are voicing serious concerns about it.
We are also following the high-stakes war of words between President Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, and they are now trading very personal insults, with Kim calling the president mentally deranged after Mr. Trump called him a madman.
And that was just one part of the latest tweetstorm.
We are also awaiting the president's arrival soon in Alabama. He will be campaign there tonight for Republican establishment candidate and Senator Luther Strange, who is running for the Senate seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
We are standing by to hear if the president comments on North Korea or John McCain's decision to vote no on the GOP health care bill, if that comes about.
We are also covering all of that and more with our guests, including Congressman Ruben Gallego of the Armed Services Committee. Our correspondents and specialists, they're also standing by.
Let's begin with the breaking news up on Capitol Hill.
CNN's Ryan Nobles is there for us.
Ryan, Senator John McCain's announcement, it seems to doom the latest GOP effort to repeal Obamacare once again.
RYAN NOBLES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Jim, there is no doubt the Graham- Cassidy plan was already on shaky ground up here on Capitol Hill.
But the fact that John McCain has announced he cannot support this legislation means that there are now two Republicans who are vocal nos on this plan.
This is what McCain said in a statement earlier this afternoon. He said -- quote -- "I cannot in good conscience vote for the Graham- Cassidy proposal. I believe we could do better working together, Republicans and Democrats, and have not yet really tried.
McCain went to say that -- quote -- "I take no pleasure in announcing my opposition. Far from it. The bill's authors are my dear friends. And I think the world of them. I know they are acting consistently with their beliefs and sense of what is best for the country. So am I."
And McCain's decision today isn't really that much of a surprise. He's been very disappointed with the process that the Republicans have used to get to this point in the health care negotiations. He believes there should be regular order, meaning committee hearings, debate and votes in committees as well. And none of this has happened.
So what happens next? Well, the bill is not completely dead yet, because Republicans have the 50 votes in their pocket necessary to pass the bill. But there are at least a dozen Republican senators who are undecided, and there are two in particular, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who appear to be leaning no.
Right now, Republican leadership has said they are not yet ready to abandon this effort. And Lindsey Graham, the author of the Graham- Cassidy bill, said that he see plans to press on. The question is, Jim, do one of these senators, Murkowski or Collins, announce their opposition to the bill over the weekend?
And if that happens, does Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell even bring the bill to the floor? We may not know the answer to that question until Monday -- Jim.
ACOSTA: All right, that bill is very much on thin ice, CNN's Ryan Nobles on Capitol Hill. Thank you very much.
If the bill dies, it will be the second time John McCain has played a role in sinking the Obamacare repeal effort.
Let's get White House reaction from CNN White House correspondent, my colleague Athena Jones. She is near President Trump's New Jersey golf club.
Athena, the health care setback comes as the president is engaged in this very bitter personal war of words with North Korea's Kim Jong-un. But no question, for the president today, a big setback on health care.
ATHENA JONES, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Jim.
That's right. On the health care front, a senior White House official said, though McCain's decision undeniably hurts the effort, we are still hoping to get to 50 votes, signaling the president isn't giving up yet after seven years of GOP promises.
This official also said the president is going to be pushing senators to support the repeal bill this weekend. Meanwhile, we are seeing an increasingly heated words between unpredictable leaders, President Trump and Kim Jong-un, Trump calling un Rocket Man and a madman, and Kim calling the president a rogue, a gangster, a frightened dog and a dotard, which essentially means an old, senile lunatic.
JONES (voice-over): It's an escalating war of words with no end in sight. President Trump tweeting this morning; "Kim Jong-un of North Korea, who is obviously a madman, who doesn't mind starving or killing his people, will be tested like never before."
This after North Korea's supreme leader fired back at Trump, the first time the regime has ever released a statement in his name, accusing the president of being 'a mentally deranged U.S. dotard."
The extraordinary personal barbs coming on the heels of the president's address earlier this week to the United Nations General Assembly, where he deployed his new nickname for the North Korean dictator.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime. JONES: Kim is warning that Mr. Trump would pay dearly for his speech
calling for totally destroying the DPRK.
TRUMP: The United States has great strength and patience. But if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.
JONES: Despite the apocalyptic rhetoric, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson saying today the U.S. has not given up on finding a diplomatic solution.
REX TILLERSON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: We will continue our efforts in the diplomatic arena, but all of our military options, as the president has said, is on the table. And once we can assess the nature of this threat, the president will make a decision regarding the appropriate actions.
JONES: Amid the rising threat from North Korea.
TRUMP: Russia is fake news.
JONES: The president taking to Twitter to reprise his long-running complaints about the Russia probe, writing: "The Russia hoax continues. Now it's ads on Facebook."
MARK ZUCKERBERG, FOUNDER, FACEBOOK: We will continue our own investigation into what happened on Facebook in this election.
JONES: The statement coming in the wake that Facebook will provide more than 3,000 Russia-linked ads to congressional committees investigating 2016 election meddling, this as Trump has his eyes focused squarely on another election, the Republican runoff for an Alabama Senate seat.
The race pits the establishment point, recent appointee Luther Strange, whom Trump also supports, against Judge Roy Moore, a conservative firebrand who is being backed by Trump's former chief strategist Steve Bannon.
ROY MOORE (D), ALABAMA SENATORIAL CANDIDATE: And there the a God in everyone that is in this campaign.
SEN. LUTHER STRANGE (R), ALABAMA: I don't think that God is just on your side. I don't think that God is just on my side. I think he is on both of our sides. I think he is on the president's side. But one thing I do know, the president is on my side.
JONES: Trump tweeting this morning: "Will be in Alabama tonight. Luther Strange has gained mightily since my endorsement, but will be very close. He loves Alabama and so do I."
JONES: And we will be watching closely the president's speech tonight to see just kind of what argument he makes for Luther Strange, whether he mentions McCain's announcement today, and whether he continues to bash Kim Jong-un in what is likely to be a red meat-filled speech before an enthusiastic crowd -- Jim.
ACOSTA: We will be watching for the fireworks. CNN's Athena Jones, thank you very much.
As Kim Jong-un and President Trump throw barbs at each other, a top North Korean official is upping the ante, threatening an above-ground test of a hydrogen bomb.
CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr is working that part of the story.
And, Barbara, an H-bomb test above ground, not below ground, above ground, that would hurtle this crisis to a whole new level, would it not?
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: It really would, Jim.
The question tonight is really could the North Koreans launch some sort of H-bomb attack or test, as they might call it, and what would the U.S. do about it?
STARR (voice-over): North Korea already is getting ready for its next missile launch, according to administration officials, possibly a missile that could hit the U.S. Kim Jong-un now threatening the highest level of hard-line countermeasure in history following President Trump's speech at the U.N.
North Korea's foreign minister suggesting the regime may launch potential devastation.
RI YONG-HO, NORTH KOREAN FOREIGN MINISTER (through translator): I think this could probably mean the strongest ever hydrogen bomb test on or above the Pacific Ocean.
STARR: Detonating a hydrogen bomb above ground could change everything.
COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: What you are looking at is from a radioactive standpoint is large areas of East Asia, the Western Pacific, all the way potentially to the West Coast of the United States being blanketed by radiation.
STARR: The U.S. intelligence community will now watch for very particular signs.
LEIGHTON: So, what they could potentially see is special work being done on the missile itself. They could see certain things being moved around that would potentially indicate that a warhead of particular variety was being put inside the missile.
STARR: Kim matching Trump on the battle of words: "I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged U.S. dotard with fire." President Trump responding: "Kim Jong-un of North Korea, who is obviously a madman, who doesn't mind starving or killing his people, will be tested like never before."
All after a doomsday warning from President Trump at the U.N. that if the U.S. is forced to defend itself or its allies:
TRUMP: We will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.
STARR: The head of the U.S. Strategic Command, who would help lead any attack on North Korea, making the case for U.S. firepower as a deterrent to Kim.
GEN. JOHN HYTEN, COMMANDER, U.S. STRATEGIC COMMAND: We're right there. We're watching all the time. If you want to go that way, we are ready so we can deter an attack on America or our allies.
STARR: But North Korea appears to be far from deterred. In fact, all indications are they continue to proceed with their weapons program, Jim.
ACOSTA: All right, Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thank you very much.
Let's get more on all of this Democratic Congressman Ruben Gallego of Arizona. He's a member of the Armed Services Committee.
And we want to talk about North Korea in just a moment.
But first let me just get your reaction to the news from Capitol Hill today that Senator McCain essentially saying, no, I'm not on board once again with this health care effort that the Republicans were hoping to come to fruition next week.
It's just not going to -- it sounds like it's not going to happen unless somebody changes their mind among those other undecided votes.
REP. RUBEN GALLEGO (D), ARIZONA: Well, as an Arizonan and American, I'm very proud of Senator McCain for making the decision he has, stuck to his principles.
And he is right. We need to have a deliberative process. There is no way that you should we be reordering one-sixth of the economy and potentially kicking off hundreds of millions of people off insurance or affecting their health insurance in a negative manner, without having the proper committee hearings and without actually talking to the public.
You know, this bill, the Graham-Cassidy bill, basically had just been -- has basically been introduced in the last week. And the fact that we're trying to rush it really tells you they are trying to hide something.
And they should, at minimum, wait for the CBO score, so Americans know exactly what they are getting.
ACOSTA: And how remarkable is it, just to look at this from a political standpoint, to see John McCain essentially saving not once, but a couple of times now, Barack Obama's signature legislative achievement?
GALLEGO: Look, at the end of the day, Senator McCain is a true public servant, has always been a true public servant.
And I think he is doing this for the right reasons. He wants to set the tone correctly in the Senate and bring us back to deliberative process. And I think that's why he is doing this. I'm sure he has many issues with the Affordable Care Act, as do many of us that want to see it fixed.
But by the end of the day, he wants to make sure that there is a legacy of the Senate getting back to the body that actually listens and debates openly, especially anything that has to do with reordering one-sixth of the U.S. economy.
ACOSTA: Let me ask you about North Korea, because we have seen this back and forth all week long between President Trump and Kim Jong-un.
And I suppose most Americans are sitting back and they're watching and they're just saying, oh, this is just talk. It's just bluster.
ACOSTA: When you look at it from your standpoint, is this just bluster?
GALLEGO: Well, the problem is, the is bluster, but it could easily get into what we call miscalculation, where one side decides that they have to take some kind of preemptive action to either protect themselves or to get some type of advantage.
But the president did some correct things. He finally entered into a sanctions regime that we think -- that I believe and many of us believe could be very helpful in compelling North Korea to the floor.
Now he has to follow through with our allies and make sure they're enforced. And if we do that, I think we're going to have a better chance of stopping North Korea. But this has to be a long-term strategy. It also has to be a comprehensive strategy, which the president really hasn't laid out.
And that's what he has to do next. Continue with the sanctions we have right now and then lay out the comprehensive strategy, not just to us, but our allies, so we have a predictive future and path that they could understand what's going on, because the last thing we need is any time of instability when you are dealing with two nuclear-armed countries, especially one North Korea as desperate as they are.
ACOSTA: And what about this worrisome threat that came from the North Koreans, that they may test a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific Ocean? Do you think that that's an empty threat? GALLEGO: This is the problem when you get into a war of words. You
actually can't take anything -- you can't say something is not a threat or a threat. We have to actually take it at face value.
It clearly would be a huge escalation when it comes to the use of nuclear weapons. And I think there would have to be some type of response to that. And part of that, I think, would be making sure the rest of the world now understands that you have essentially, North Korea has essentially created itself as a pariah state by acting in that manner.
And they should really join us, specifically Russia and China, in enforcing the sanctions that we have proposed. And there's lot more sanctions we could be doing. We are not doing them right now, including fuel sanctions. And it's something that --
ACOSTA: Cut off the fuel.
GALLEGO: Cut off the fuel to North Korea. It's something that we did many years ago to bring them back to the table. And we have not done that yet.
But I think that may -- we get to that situation, that may be the road we have to go down.
ACOSTA: And when you say there may have to be a response, if they carry out this threat of a hydrogen bomb test over the Pacific Ocean, does that mean a military reasons?
Senator Markey was on in the last hour, and he said there just really is no military response to these threats and these provocations, because the potential for things unraveling and descending into this nightmare scenario are pretty real.
Is there any kind -- from your perch on the committee that you serve on, is there any kind of military response that could be effective, if they were to carry out the threat?
GALLEGO: Look, there's a lot of military responses that would be effective. But it would be catastrophic.
We would win at the end of the day, though there would be millions of North Koreans dead. Many hundreds of thousands potentially of our own military personnel would be dead.
We could potentially draw into conflict China, because they have clearly stated that they would not allow a Korean conflict to occur under their watch.
ACOSTA: But when you hear the administration say, well, there are some options that we could carry out that are less catastrophic than that?
GALLEGO: Sure. Yes. ACOSTA: What are they talking -- do you know what they talking about?
GALLEGO: I do not believe that there is such a less than, than total catastrophe.
If you look at it right now, even the more than 5,000 artillery pieces that they have embedded into the North Korean countryside, just those artillery pieces can hit Seoul, Korea, and kill millions of people before we are even able to hit one cruise missile to hit, you know, one of those artillery pieces.
So there really is no good option. There's options, but to say that there are good options I think is a stretch. We have the option of not breathing oxygen, but I don't recommend it, much like this. All military options are not good options when it comes to this.
ACOSTA: And when the president earlier this week said he was happy that China was on board, he felt that China had been brought on board in all of this, are you confident in that at this point?
GALLEGO: No, I'm not, and I'm not confident in China's compliance when it comes to the sanctions regime.
They need to continue to go further with that, including freezing the assets of a lot of the money that is being laundered for North Korea officials and also some of the software and hardware that actually is being used for some of these ICBMs.
ACOSTA: Why is the president praising the Chinese then, do you think?
He has been so tough on them. He was tough on them during the campaign. He's been tough on them since he's been president. And then this week, he pronounced them on board.
GALLEGO: Look, the only consistent thing about the president is his inconsistency.
And I'm not going to try to figure out exactly where he's going and why he's doing it. But I can tell, at least from talking to other members of Congress and other people within this world, we don't believe that China is acting appropriately and has not been enforcing the full sanctions on North Korea.
And if they did, we do think that there would be a better reaction coming out of the regime in North Korea.
I want you to stand by. We're going to take a quick break.
When we come back, we are going to talk about Facebook yesterday and the announcement that they made. And the president, he referred to all of this today, this cooperation that Facebook is going to have with Congress turning over these ads that indicate Russian meddling in the election, he called it all a hoax, as you saw, Congressman.
Is he living the country vulnerable to more of Moscow's interference next year?
When we come back.
ACOSTA: We are back with Democratic Ruben Gallego of Arizona, a member of the Armed Services Committee.
One of the other stories that we wanted to talk about, Congress , is Facebook is announcing that they are going to turn over these ads that are linked to the Russians that were placed on their Web site, on everybody's Facebook pages last year during the campaign.
The president tweeted, though, this morning, that he doesn't really buy any of this. "The Russia hoax continues. Now it's ads on Facebook. What about the totally biased and dishonest media coverage in favor of crooked Hillary" -- referring to Hillary Clinton there.
What is your response to the president again referring to all of this a hoax?
GALLEGO: Well, I think the president actually knows that there was interference.
Clearly, at this point, there were actually some members even within his campaign that were at least communicating with the Russians. Whether they collaborated, that's a different story.
But the president should actually be looking out for the country. There should be no foreign entity that is getting involved in our elections. If you hack our voter databases, if you hack our democracy, that's just as bad as hacking a nuclear power plant or a water system.
No country should be allowed to that. And we should make it a matter of standard as a country that, if you do this, there will be consequences.
Now, what consequences are can be varied. They could be subtle. They They could be quiet, or they can be just as overt as we had done two months ago where we added sanctions against Russia. But we need to continue pushing forward.
I don't see the Russians stopping. I do believe they are going to pushing the envelope, especially when they see the president is going to continuing giving them cover. And 2018 is going to be a very important year. And they know that they can just target a couple congressional races. And if they really turn the tide and potentially get the type of politicians they want, that would actually be beneficial to Russian goals.
ACOSTA: And what should be done to the Russians? Because, obviously, there are questions about, well, should Facebook and Twitter come up on Capitol Hill and testify and what's their role in all of this, and why did they not have the proper controls in place?
But it just seems as though -- and I think it feels this way to a lot of Americans -- that the Russians have just gotten off scot-free in all of this.
GALLEGO: Well, two things need to occur.
First, our social media platforms need to start abiding by the standards that we make print and newspapers and everyone else abide by when people are buying media, any type of advertisement. There needs to be disclosure, things of that nature.
Just because you are social media, just because you're in the tech industry does not make you above the law when it comes to dissemination of political information.
Number two, we need to increase sanctions not just on Putin, but all of the Putin oligarchs and all the companies that are associated with them. We need to freeze their assets all over the world, including whenever it touches U.S. soil.
And we need to start looking through potentially other methods to basically combat this. If they want to continue playing down this road, they want to act like this rogue actor, then we need to go after the Putin regime and what they care the most about, the most about, is money.
They want to be able to get their money out of Russia. They want to be able to party and hang out in Western Europe. And if that's the case, then I think we should join with a lot of our democratic allies across the world and basically start punishing these oligarchs and hackers that are trying to undermine democracy.
ACOSTA: No more parties. That's a part of this.
ACOSTA: Let me ask you this.
It was just learned this afternoon that the Department of Homeland Security has been notifying secretary of state offices around the country to say, listen, your voting systems may have been breached during the 2016 campaign.
That seems like a very under-reported story that people are just not aware of, that perhaps these systems weren't breached in every case. And it appears that that was not the case. But these attempts were made. And it happened in your home state of Arizona.
GALLEGO: Absolutely, yes.
I just read a tweet out from our secretary of state who announced it as she got informed about that. The problem is, like, they're learning. These Russian hackers or
their allies are learning how to better manipulate these voter rolls. And every time they attack, they are going to keep and continue to get better and better at it.
We need obviously to have on a diplomatic front an understanding with the Russians that this is not acceptable behavior. But also on the defensive side, we need our systems to be modernized. We need to make sure we have paper ballots, so we could actually go back and recount should something be hacked.
And we need many of our secretary of states to start working with the federal government. The federal government should provide money to update these voter systems and protect them from hacking.
ACOSTA: Yes, because you hear people say, well, you know, our system is pretty safe because we have 50 different states and 50 different offices that these hackers would have to go into.
I think if they're capable of these troll farms and bot farms, they are capable of infiltrating Facebook and Twitter, they could probably handle 50 secretary of state offices.
Well, they don't need to handle 50 secretary of states' offices. Actually, as a matter of fact, they could probably just target a couple county offices, or county recorder's office, you know, if they get the right information and they work with the right consultant here. It's not that hard to actually target where you are going to be putting your efforts.
And a part of what's going on, I think right now in terms of investigations is we're trying to figure out who actually did help the Russians target American voters.
ACOSTA: But at the same time, going back to the president's tweet, as we said at the beginning of this segment, he's just not on board with investigating this.
ACOSTA: And every time there is a new wrinkle in all of this, it's a hoax.
ACOSTA: So how do you get the president on board? How do you get the White House on board?
Because when talk to various officials over there, they will concede, yes, Russia attempted to meddle in the election, they meddled in our election last time. But getting the president to say that out loud and clearly is just a totally different story.
GALLEGO: I don't think you are ever going to do it. This has more to do with his ego than anything else. He can't deal
with the fact that he actually lost the popular vote, basically lost the -- barely won the Electoral College. And when we talk about actual violations and norms when it comes to democratic practices, such as hacking, in his mind, it means that he is not a legitimate president, which he is correct. He is not a legitimate president, according to many people.
But, in the meantime, this is why we have other branches of government. The House and the Senate has concurred the something occurred. And we should continue pushing forward with both protecting a lot to voter register rolls, secretary of states, as well as putting more sanctions and deterrents against Russians, or any other country, for that matter.
ACOSTA: Are you being roadblocked, though, by Republican leadership on Capitol Hill getting to the bottom of what happened?
GALLEGO: We were roadblocked in the past when it comes to sanctions.
I feel, at this point, we are being roadblocked too specifically in the House Intel Committee. They should be cooperating more with investigators. But, you know, at the end of the day, this will come out.
You know, this affected Democrats this time around. Next time around, it could be Republicans, or it could be a Republican member of Congress. So I really urge my colleagues to recognize that this is not only an affront against Democrats or Republicans. This is a front against all American democracy. And we need to protect it.
ACOSTA: And how can the president call this a hoax when this is his Department of Homeland Security? His new chief of staff was the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.
Why did it take all of these months for the Department of Homeland Security to notify these secretary of state offices?
[18:30:17] GALLEGO: I don't know the answer to that, why they started notifying. We certainly heard that --
ACOSTA: Shouldn't somebody be asking these questions? Has anybody asked for a hearing on this?
GALLEGO: Yes, actually, there have been a lot of requests of hearing by Democrats, specifically hearing of -- from Democrats on the House Intel Committee. Have there been hearings? No.
Look, why is the president doing this? Again, we can't answer that. But it's our job in Congress to basically check against the president. His ego cannot handle the fact that he had aid from a foreign country, whether it was collusion or non-collusion. That's beside the fact. We'll find out, as Congress, what happened, and then we're going to do our best to make sure we block it from this election, ongoing elections in the future.
ACOSTA: OK. Congressman Ruben Gallego, hopefully, you can break through some of the stonewalling efforts on this.
GALLEGO: I would love to.
ACOSTA: Thank you very much for joining us.
GALLEGO: Thank you.
ACOSTA: Breaking news next, more on Senator John McCain's potential fatal blow to the GOP health care bill. Will President Trump take him to task when he speaks in Alabama tonight? That's coming up very soon. We'll be watching for that. And will the president fire off more insults to Kim Jong-un, escalating their increasingly personal war of words?
[18:35:58] ACOSTA: Breaking news tonight, a potentially fatal blow for the latest Republican effort to repeal Obamacare. GOP Senator John McCain has announced he's voting against the measure, as he did on another recent Republican healthcare bill.
We're standing by to hear what the president's reaction is going to be. He'll be campaigning tonight with Luther Strange, the senator there from Alabama.
CNN White House reporter Kaitlan Collins is there for us. Senator Trump -- or excuse me, Senator Strange, I should say -- we can see a sign for him in the background. It looks just like the signs for the president there. It's all decked out for this campaign-style rally tonight. Isn't that right?
KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it definitely is. And Luther Strange is going to love that. In the debate with his opponent, Roy Moore, last night in Montgomery, Alabama, a little further south from here, he constantly touted his relationship with the president, that he has a personal friendship with him. And he's used his endorsement to really help bolster his support. He's been trailing in some polls behind Roy Moore.
But what really makes this race interesting, Jim, is that the president is backing the establishment candidate this time. We know in the presidential election, Trump was the anti-establishment candidate.
But Steve Bannon, that former White House chief strategist who was fired last month, is backing Roy Moore.
Roy Moore is this guy who's been kicked off the bench twice here in Alabama. Once for refusing to remove a statue of the Ten Commandments from a state building. And a second time for refusing to uphold the U.S. Supreme Court decision to legalize gay marriage.
So it's definitely going to get interesting in here tonight. It's also a rally, where Trump feels like his most authentic self. He's going to come in here tonight and be surrounded by people who are wearing his "Make America Great Again" hats and chanting his name. And it's very likely that we're going to hear the president bring up
that controversial -- excuse me, that decision by Senator McCain today to vote "no," that he would be a "no" on the Graham-Cassidy bill.
The president has often showed his disdain for McCain, dating back to his last rally in Arizona, where he didn't name him specifically, but he made his hard feelings clear after McCain voted "no" on the last effort to repeal Obamacare. And then at that press conference at Trump Tower that you were at, Jim, where the president made his very controversial Charlottesville remarks, the president said that McCain was the guy who, quote, "voted against good health care."
Now, he's made his hard feelings about the people who are a "no" on this latest effort very clear. Just 12 hours ago, he tweeted about Rand Paul, who has been a "no" from the beginning, and said that anyone who votes against healthcare this time would be known as the Republicans who saved Obamacare. Which is certainly not a branding that any Republican wants.
So we'll be looking for the president to mention most of those things here tonight, Jim.
ACOSTA: OK. Kaitlan Collins. John McCain doesn't mind the brand of maverick. So he'll take that one. But Kaitlan Collins, we'll be watching tonight in Huntsville, Alabama. Thank you very much.
Let's dig deeper with our specialists and analysts. I guess first let me go to you, Rebecca Berg. I can't imagine that John McCain is going to be too surprised tonight if the president goes after him?
REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: No. That's part of the territory here. And certainly, John McCain knew that he was going to be unpopular among many Republicans for this decision that he made to oppose this health care bill.
This is the last chance for Republicans, essentially, to get this done with only Republican support. The deadline for reconciliation, as you know, is September 30, next week. So this is really their last best chance. And that's why the president has made this such a priority, pushing this, by surprise, really, within the past week or so. And it's not looking good now with McCain coming out against it.
ACOSTA: Right. And Jeffrey, earlier today, you know, Kaitlan was saying, well, he went after John McCain at that rally in a subtle sort of way in Arizona earlier this year.
But on Twitter this morning, the president went after a different Republican, didn't mention John McCain: "Rand Paul or whoever votes against health care bill will forever, in future political campaigns, be known as the Republican who saved Obamacare."
You get the sense that the president was trying to -- to maybe ease back a little bit on John McCain, give him that space, you know, at the very last second here to see if, perhaps, he wouldn't make this decision that he made today. [18:40:09] JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, that's
right. But you know, I -- I'm not sure. I mean, the president has never been engaged on the substance of health care. He's just said, "Obamacare is a disaster. And the replacement is going to be great."
You know, there is now going to be a bipartisan effort in the Senate, led by two real legislators -- Senator Murray of Washington, Senator Alexander of Tennessee -- the people who got an education bill passed over the, you know, surprise of a lot of people. They're going to try to do a bipartisan bill.
And you know what? The president likes deals. And he likes that he got more popular after he made a deal with the Schumer and Pelosi. He may switch -- switch gears. And he may say, "Look, let's fix Obamacare and take credit when it happens."
So I'm not sure he's, you know, going to -- going to poison the well with the Senate.
ACOSTA: Ron Brownstein, are we about to see Chuck and Nancy part two? Is that what -- that what's going to happen here?
RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: It's an interesting idea. But I think it -- it's going to be more complicated on the Democratic side. Because what they saw and the criticism they received was that, by making the deal on the fiscal side, they cleared more space for the Republicans, more time for the Republicans to immediately launch this kind of one-party, again, effort to undo Obamacare.
And you know, I don't know what's more striking: that John McCain in the end would say that he was unwilling to vote for a bill that would reconfigure one-fifth, one-sixth of the U.S. economy without committee hearings, committee votes or even a score from the Congressional Budget Office; or that so many Republicans were willing to do exactly that.
And I'm not sure, you know, the last stake is driven through this. But you do have a situation where, even though this bill primarily redistributes money from blue states to red states, there are a number of Republican senators in states that would be hurt by this -- West Virginia, Ohio, Colorado, among them. And I kind of question whether they are going to be -- want to be put in the position of having to cast a vote on the floor next week. But we'll see.
TOOBIN: But that's why -- that's why I don't think McConnell will allow a vote on this. I mean, if it's going to lose, why force, as you were saying, you know, these vulnerable senators to take a difficult vote in what's clearly going to be a losing effort?
ACOSTA: John McCain may have done Mitch McConnell a favor by putting out this statement today. Mitch McConnell does not want to see John McCain put the thumb down for a second time.
BERG: Certainly, the advance warning is helpful. And I think John McCain really upset a lot of Republicans with the way he handled it last time, surprising leadership right before that vote was set to take place.
But look, he's not helping Mitch McConnell by opposing this piece of legislation. Even though, on -- from a policy perspective, this was not going to be an easy vote for a lot of Republicans and maybe could have come back to haunt them or still could.
From a political perspective, Republicans seem to be of the mind that they need to fulfill this promise that they made for years to their voters. And that's why we have seen this rush to try to do something, anything at the last minute.
TOOBIN: Like what --
ACOSTA: We'll see.
TOOBIN: -- Senator Grassley said: "Well, it's a bad bill, but we promised. So what the heck?" Some rationale.
BERG: Exactly that.
ACOSTA: A true candid moment in Washington and a rare one.
ACOSTA: Thank you very much, all of you. We appreciate it.
Tonight, stay tuned for a special "CNN Special Report," "Twitter and Trump." That is at 9 Eastern only on CNN.
Just ahead, revelations of more pricy private jet trips by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. Did they violate federal rules?
[18:47:56] ACOSTA: There are new questions tonight about Health Secretary Tom Price's use of private jets.
CNN's Rene Marsh is here with an update.
Rene, were these expensive taxpayer-funded trips have been revealed? It's amazing.
RENE MARSH, CNN GOVERNMENT REGULATION CORRESPONDENT: Yes. It is amazing, Jim, I can tell you more flights on private jets uncovered and the costs to taxpayers so far in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
But tonight, the spokespeople for Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price are defending the flights while the agency's watchdog has opened a fresh inquiry.
TOM PRICE, HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES SECRETARY: We need to end Washington's spending binge.
MARSH (voice-over): He's been a supporter of slashing government pork.
PRICE: The deficits that we've seen over the past few years are truly jeopardizing the future of our nation.
MARSH: Now, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price is the subject of an inspector general's inquiry, following reports of dozens of flights on private jets. Like the Learjet 60, similar to this one. "Politico" found Price has taken at least 24 trips on private jets since early May at a cost to taxpayers of at least $300,000. The agency's inspector general's office says it's looking into whether Price's travel complied with federal travel regulations.
WALTER SHAUB, FORMER DIRECTOR, OFFICE OF GOVERNMENT ETHICS: All they were willing to say was we're complying with the rules. If they're not going to identify which one it was or how they concluded it was applicable, they're basically telling the American people that it's OK for him to spend tens of thousands of dollars to hop around on jets.
MARSH: Price's office, citing commercial flight delays and cancellations, defended the use of private jets as necessary when commercial aircraft cannot reasonably accommodate travel requirements. An about-face from 2009 when Price slammed colleagues for publicly funded private flights.
PRICE: This is just another example of a fiscal irresponsibility run amuck.
MARSH: For many of the Price's predecessors, charter planes were usually the exception, not the rule.
[18:50:01] Elsewhere in the administration, a spokesman at Housing and Urban Development says Secretary Ben Carson flies commercial. The Department of Agriculture says Secretary Sonny Purdue does, too. A spokesperson at the Department of Commerce says Secretary Wilbur Ross mostly flies commercial, but when he flies private, he foots the bill. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos owns a private plane and pays her own way.
MARSH: Well, there are cases when cabinet secretaries can take a charter or a government plane, but according to the federal rules, it has to be justified and the less costly options must be considered -- Jim.
ACOSTA: Really important story. Thank you very much, Rene Marsh. We appreciate it.
Much more news is coming up ahead.
[18:55:27] ACOSTA: This Sunday at 9:00 Eastern, the premier of the CNN film "Legion of Brothers", about an elite team of U.S. Special Forces secretly deployed to Afghanistan right after 9/11.
CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr joins us again with a preview.
Barbara, this is a remarkable story.
STARR: Good evening, Jim.
It really is. Some 16 years after the 9/11 attacks, we have an extraordinary look at some of those special operations forces who led the way in the opening days of the war.
GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT: On my orders, the United States military has begun strikes against al-Qaeda terrorist training camps and military insulations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
STARR (voice-over): Less than a month after the 9/11 attacks, President Bush publicly went to war.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That is foreign Taliban.
STARR: But a secret war was already underway. In the documentary, "Legion of Brothers", CNN presents for the first time, the personal stories of special operations forces in Afghanistan that led the way to bring down the Taliban that sheltered Osama bin Laden.
PETER BERGEN, PRODUCER, "LEGION OF BROTHERS": Any film about war is about heroism, and about sacrifice and loss. It's not a pro-war film. It's not an antiwar film. It's a film about actually what happens in war.
STARR: It would turn into America's longest war. Sixteen years of fighting, dying and the anguish of those who survived and the families left behind by the fallen.
CAPT. MARK NUTSCH (RET.), U.S. ARMY: It's a stream of combat environment as you can fathom. It tested you in every way, physically, mentally, emotionally.
STARR: Then-Captain Mark Nutsch led a team into the mountains of northern Afghanistan in the fall of 2001. Team 595 rode horseback with thousands of local fighters to begin the liberation of the country. Another team in the south led by then Captain Jason Amerine.
On December 5th, 2001, in a friendly fire incident, every member of Amerine's team was either killed or wounded when an American bomber inadvertently dropped a bomb on their position.
Master Sergeant J.D. Davis would become the first U.S. soldier killed after 9/11.
MIKYONG DAVIS, WIDOW OF MASTER SGT. J.D. DAVIS: This is the first letter I received from him. Hello, sweetheart. Today is the 31st of October. This has been hardest trip for me. I really didn't want to go. I just didn't want to leave you and the kids.
STARR: Families and wives carrying on.
AMY NUTSCH, WIFE OF CAPT. MARK NUTSCH (RET.): While they're doing what they do, you do what you have to do and that's just the way we are. That's the way this group of ladies are.
LT. COL. JASON AMERINE (RET.), U.S. ARMY: The notion of fighting from a distance of fighting with these air strikes, it didn't sit well with me. I mean, it -- it almost promoted the -- just the promiscuous use of military power. I didn't know how to explain it. It's just -- I mean, we would have died otherwise. There was no alternative.
STARR: The film bringing survivors back together still struggling with life after war.
MASTER SGT. SCOTT NEIL (RET.), U.S. ARMY: Each one of our stories are almost similar. How we isolated ourselves, our family, everything else, started reaching out and found you know, the only way we're all going to heal each other is to get back together.
STARR: And so, even as these troops and their families still struggle with their memories, the Trump administration is now sending more than 3,000 additional troops to Afghanistan to continue on in this war that certainly doesn't seem to have an end in sight -- Jim.
ACOSTA: Extraordinary story and yes, the war goes on.
Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thank you very much.
The CNN film "Legion of Brothers" premiers this Sunday night at 9:00 Eastern, right here on CNN.
I'm Jim Acosta. Thank you very much for watching. Wolf Blitzer will be back next week.
And "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.