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White House Defense Trump Attacks on NFL Players; Apocalyptic Devastation after Hurricane Maria; Senator Collins a "No" on GOP Health Care Bill; Interview with Ricardo Rossello. Aired 8-9p ET

Aired September 25, 2017 - 20:00   ET


[20:00:18] ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: Good evening.

With tens of millions of Americans wondering what becomes of their health coverage, with millions in Puerto Rico without electricity, many without running water, with tension between the United States and North Korea rising, we begin tonight with what President Trump is focused on instead, athletes in the NFL and elsewhere taking a knee during the national anthem to protest what they see as racial injustice.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners when somebody disrespects our flag to say get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He's fired. He's fired! Wouldn't you love it?


COOPER: The president Friday night in Alabama.

Over the weekend, protests spread across the NFL. Suddenly, SOBs as he called them were everywhere.

But yesterday evening, he was tweeting, quote: Sports fans should never condone players that do not stand proud for their national anthem or their country. NFL should change policy, change the rules, fire the SOBs.

What San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick begun doing last year, and what candidate Trump once said was his absolute right to do even though he disagreed with it. This weekend became in the president's eyes a firing offense, something that -- someone to -- something to speak out against.

Someone must have forgotten to tell his press secretary, however, because today, she said that's not what he's doing at all.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Look, this isn't about the president being against anyone, but this is about the president and millions of Americans being for something, being for honoring our flag, honoring our national anthem and honoring the men and women who fought to defend it.


COOPER: This isn't about the president being against anyone, she says.

Keeping them honest, listen again to the president's own words and decide for yourself.


TRUMP: Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners when somebody disrespects our flag to say get that son of a bitch off the field right on you. Out. He's fired. He's fired!


COOPER: Again, you can decide for yourself what the president meant by his remarks, which he made about predominantly African-American players to a nearly all-white audience in the state of Alabama. Decide for yourself whether it's anymore patriotic to stand up for the flag or kneel with the aim of making republic for which it stands a better place, a republic, by the way, that was born before a stitch it was sewn or the anthem to it composed.

Decide for yourself what to make of what the president said yesterday about the racial dimension.


TRUMP: And you see those people taking the knee when they're playing our great national anthem.



COOPER: Those people, the president said.

He followed that up this morning with a tweet praising NASCAR, which is in its entire history has only had four African-American drivers in its premier racing series.

And the president is feuding with the NBA, since speaking in Alabama, he's tweeted 13 times either directly or indirectly about the NFL and the flag. He's tweeted seven times about health care and once about North Korea, and not a single time about Puerto Rico.

More now on all this, CNN's Jim Acosta joins us from the White House.

So, Jim, what's the latest?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Anderson, the White House was clinging to the fantasy today that everybody is out of bounds except the president, and we saw that in the White House briefing room earlier today. I tried to press Sarah Sanders, the press secretary, on the president's comments and whether he was trying to ignite some sort of culture war in this country when he spent the better part of the weekend as you mentioned going after predominantly African-American athletes while earlier this morning praising NASCAR and the way their fans honor and salute the flag.

Here is a bit of that exchange.


ACOSTA: Is he trying to wage something of a culture war?

SANDERS: Not at all. The president is not talking about race. The president is talking about pride in our country.

What you saw yesterday were players and fans of all races joining together as Americans to honor our service members. That's what the president is talking about. That's what his focus is on.

As you guys know, the president has got an event here in a few minutes, so we're going to close there. Thanks so much. Have a good day.


ACOSTA: Couldn't get a follow-up question there, Anderson, but we should point out, I talked to a Republican adviser who talks to this White House all the time, advises this White House on what it should do with its political strategy who said yes, the president is in fact waging a culture war. In the view of this adviser, he's winning the culture war by turning what he described as millionaire professional athletes into Hillary Clinton. This adviser sees as the president as essentially trolling those athletes in the same way that he trolls Hillary Clinton.

COOPER: The chief of staff, I understand, has weighed in on this.

ACOSTA: That's right, Anderson. He talked to my colleague, Jeff Zeleny, earlier tonight, made a brief comment saying that he believes that everybody should stand up and honor the flag for what he described as a lousy three minutes.

[20:05:09] Now, earlier today, we were hearing from sources, my colleague Jeff Zeleny was hearing from sources, saying that John Kelly, the chief of staff was not pleased with what happened over the weekend with what the president had done in igniting this controversy. The president registered his displeasure with that. He put up a couple of tweets. We can show you those tweets, Anderson, if we can show them on screen.

Here is one. It says: General John Kelly totally agrees with my stance on NFL players and the fact that they should not be disrespecting our flag or our country.

And then there's another one that says that there's a tremendous backlash against the NFL and its players for disrespect for our country with the hashtag stand for our anthem. But, Anderson, I was talking to an associate of the president earlier

today who was saying that, listen, this is something -- these kinds of cultural comments, these incendiary makes at these rallies from time to time, he actually thinks about these in advance. These are premeditated in many cases and then he'll talk about these sort of comments with his aides, sort of batting them around before he goes out and makes these kinds of comments publicly. And sometimes, his aides and his advisers and friends will say, no, no, Mr. President, don't do that, but the president often goes with his gut and will make these kinds of inflammatory comments.

And I think that's what you saw over the weekend here. Keep in mind, Anderson, we spent the better part of today talking about the NFL and so on and not those items you mentioned at the beginning of this newscast, which is all of those people suffering in Puerto Rico and health care and so on. Those issues got short shifted over here at the White House.

COOPER: So, it's interesting. You say he plans these things out. I mean, is -- you know, a lot of people raise the question, is he just intentionally trying to do this, A, to distract from failures on health care or any other issues of the day or is it to stoke racial divide? I mean, is it about appealing to the base, you know, he referenced those -- he referenced those people. Is that what it's about?

ACOSTA: Anderson, I can't tell you what in the president's heart after covering him for a year and a half. But what is past is prologue. The president questioned whether Barack Obama was born in this country, the first African-American president just a few weeks ago over at Trump Tower. He described people in the white supremacist movement as having very fine people.

But again, Anderson, you know, when I talk to advisers, aides to the president, they claim and they swear up and down that he's not racist, but they do say -- they do admit privately that he does like to stoke these kinds of controversies because they do at times serve as a distraction and that bright shiny object that you hear from time to time and pulls our attention away from some of the other pressing issues that are out there.

This is a president who is losing on health care tonight. He is not going to repeal and replace Obamacare, something he said he would do the very beginning of his administration. We're not talking about that quite as much as we are talking about the NFL, Anderson.

COOPER: All right. Jim Acosta, thanks very much.

For Seattle Seahawks defensive end, Michael Bennett, the political and personal side of this story overlapped for him. He say police in Las Vegas stopped him as he and others were fleeing what sounded like gun shots after the Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor fight. He says officers singled him out in his words, quote, for nothing more than being a black man in the wrong place, in the wrong time. Bennett says police held a gun to his head and threatened he says to, quote, blow his F-ing head off if he moved. A police spokesman said he saw no evidence that racism played any rule in the incident.

I spoke with Bennett late today about his decision and his teammates to stay in the locker room for the national anthem.


COOPER: Michael, when you first heard what the president said Friday night, calling players who kneels son of a bitches, saying that they should be fired, I'm wondering just what went through your mind.

MICHAEL BENNETT, SEATTLE SEAHAWKS DEFENSIVE END: A lot of things are going through my mind. I don't know (ph) it would to stir controversy, and the first thing I did was start to think about my mom and how much she sacrificed for me as a child, and what she did for me, for our community. She dedicated most of her life to teaching in the inner cities in Houston.

So, I just wouldn't -- I didn't understand why the president thought to stoop so low to call my mom the B-word. I just couldn't fathom that that would come from a leader of America. But at the same time, I know that it will be something that will unite us as players and us as people and the only shape (ph) us as the NFL, we all came through together collectively and just stood together. And I thought that was a powerful message.

COOPER: You know, two teams, the Steelers, your team, the Seahawks, decided not to take the field during the national anthem. Can you talk about what was behind your team's decision to do that?

BENNETT: We talked for maybe two or three hours. And we just kind of talk about, I think it was less about Donald Trump and more about equality in America, things that people saw what was going on with all types of minorities and just people in general, the hate and discrimination going on right now. And we just felt to show your unity, on top of what happened with Donald Trump and more about the equalities, they just seem to bring our team together and we just wanted to not isolate who play or who was scared to go and want to be able not to find a way not to put anybody in the limelight.

[20:10:01] Just to know that we made a decision as a team to stand for what we believe in.

COOPER: I'm wondering if you think the president's comments were motivated by race or racial attitudes that he may have?

BENNETT: I think it have lot to do with race. I think so. I think a lot of people agree with that. But for us, it's just -- we just want to find a way to change our community. And I know a lot of people don't like it because we're empowering people of color, empowering people who chose what to believe in.

COOPER: And just to someone who doesn't understand, you know, the idea of taking a knee during national anthem or linking arms -- to you, what is the message of it? What is the purpose of it? BENNETT: It's about us taking a stand for equality in America, all

the people that's being discriminated against right now. And we just want to break up the issues and have a conversation. And people -- you know, they think we're attacking military, that's not true, we believe in the military. And we do so many thing with the military from working with families, to working with the kids and doing camps, and just our families have been in the military.

So, we love the military. All we're trying to do is bring the issues up in equality, police brutality, all these things against minority, people in America. That's what we believe in and we just want to bring up those issues every single weekend.

People get mad about it, what are we supposed to do? These are challenging times and we can't let our jobs define who we are. We -- outside of football, we're human beings and we want to be able to express the love for other humans.

COOPER: So, to those who say it's disrespecting the flag or patriotic, what do you say?

BENNETT: No, I say it's the opposite. We're honoring the things that everybody in America fights for -- equality, liberty, justice and freedom for all.

COOPER: I'm wondering, when you saw, you know, the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Alejandro Villanueva, who is a former -- served in the military, he came out and stood during the anthem, everybody else in his team did not. I'm wondering what you thought of that decision.

BENNETT: I thought, that shows that America -- that's freedom to express what he believed in, he expressed what he believed in and that's what it really about. What's a difference between a guy kneeling for what he believes in and what he did standing up for what he believes in. We're all saying the same thing.

But I don't think we should be judged as an un-American because we believe in equality. Just like he believes in what he believes in, I applaud him for standing up for what he believes in, and that's what America is about. And I'm very honored to have somebody like that in the NFL and just to be able to go through what he's been through and still standing up for what he believes.

COOPER: I saw that that his jersey has become a top seller just in the last 24 hours. I'm wondering what you make of that.

BENNETT: I mean, Kaepernick jersey was -- it's still the number one selling jersey as the team of San Francisco and he hasn't played for the team all year. So, there's just to show, there's people who believe in what certain people do and other people believe in what other people do. And at the same time, that doesn't make either of them wrong.

COOPER: You were detained. You were handcuffed after the Mayweather- McGregor fight in Vegas last month. I'm wondering, what about that incident has, if anything, has impacted your views on speaking out or demonstrating during the national anthem?

BENNETT: It just makes me know that everything that we're talking about, every issue that we bring up, there's a reality for anyone of us anytime. And it happened to me and it can happen to anybody.

But at the end of the day, I don't hate law enforcement. I don't hate any police officers. But I think there's people out there that could judge -- will judge you on the color of your skin.

And I don't want people to say, hey, you're bashing every single officer. I don't believe every single officer is a bad person. You know what I'm saying? I'm not going that way.

But at the same time, I know the issues that happened to me there just made me want to keep pushing toward and keep pushing forward no matter what happened and just keep going forward. You know, you can be scared or you can stand up.

COOPER: I understand that you've been having ongoing conversations with Colin Kaepernick, who's been in silence since the president's comments on Friday. I'm wondering, have you spoken to him at all since then?

BENNETT: Yes, I've spoken to him. I've spoken to him.

I wish that weekend, that unity that we showed for this weekend, I wish we could have shown that unity for him this year when he was out the league. I wish we could have brought together as a group of collective group and players to stick up for our brother when he went to something like this, but he was honored to still have that moment. And we talked about that. We just talked about the moment that we're living in now and to see everybody come together, I think that was -- at the end day, where he wanted to happen.

COOPER: I'm wondering, if the president is watching tonight, as you know, he watches a lot of TV, what would your message to him be? What would you want him to know? What would you want to say to him?

BENNETT: I would love to sit down with the president and talk about these issues and be able to find a way to fix them or be able to find a way to have the voice of the people, the people that don't have the voice that they're not listening to. You know, I don t -- I can't sit here and say that he's my president and he's not because at the end of the day, he is the president of the United States.

And for him to say that it's a privilege and we shouldn't speak on what we believe in because we're making money, I mean, he was a rich man too, and all of a sudden, he's speaking on what he believes in, and still stood up for what believes in and he's the president of the United States.

[20:15:02] So, what makes him different from us? I mean --

COOPER: Michael, it's a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you very much.

BENNETT: It's a pleasure talking to you. Thank you, man.


COOPER: Well, the president as we mentioned, is also at odds with the NBA, uninviting Golden State Warriors' Steph Curry from the White House visit after Curry said he plans to stay away.

LeBron James in a tweet called the president in his own words a bum. Then he said this.


LEBRON JAMES, NBA PLAYER: The thing that kind of frustrated me and pissed me off a little bit is the fact that he's now -- he used sports. He used the sports platform to try to divide us. And sport and sports is so -- is so amazing what sports can do for everyone no matter the shape or size or race or ethnicity or religion or whatever. I'm not going to let -- while I have this platform to let one individual, no matter the power, no matter the impact that he should have or she should have ever use sport as a platform to divide us, because the people run this country, not one individual, and damn sure not him.


COOPER: Two views now from two CNN political commentators: podcaster and former South Carolina state lawmaker, Bakari Sellers. Also, Paris Dennard, director of black outreach during the George W. Bush administration.

Bakari, so the White House says the president isn't against anyone. He's just pro flag. Do you buy that?

BAKARI SELLER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I mean, I think that that's an asinine discernment. But this isn't about the flag per se. This isn't about disrespecting the national anthem. This isn't about disrespecting the flag or disrespecting the military.

In fact, all of us, I know Paris included, but everybody who has taken a knee has the utmost respect for the people who died for our freedoms. One of the freedoms that they shed blood for and one of the freedoms that they fight for overseas daily is that freedom and right to protest, to express yourself.

This is fundamentally about police brutality and the fundamental inequalities that individuals and people of color face in this country every single day. The reason that we kneel, the reason that we take a knee, it's to fight systemic injustices. And I'm glad that people recognize that and I'm glad that people are now beginning to be aware of what's going on in these communities of color throughout the country.

COOPER: Paris, how do you see it?

PARIS DENNARD, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I disagree with Bakari on the sense of why the players are kneeling or refusing to acknowledge the national anthem or the Pledge of Allegiance. I think it's because the past 48 hours or so, it's been in protest to the president of the United States, Donald J. Trump. Because we recall when Colin Kaepernick first did this, you didn't have this widespread, quote/unquote, support or outrage, and people in the NFL and owners running to his defense because he was standing up or in the case kneeling down in solidarity with white supremacy or police brutality and things of that nature.

What we have seen over the past 48 hours is a gross miscarriage of justice in my opinion because instead of doing what Bakari is talking about and focusing on the issues that Colin Kaepernick was originally talking about, we're focusing on whether or not President Donald J. Trump is a racist or if he's race-baiting. If we want to have a real teachable moment, conversation about culture, about American history, pride, nationalism and pride in our country and respect in our flag, the president could be opening the door for that.

But instead, what we focus on is whether or not he's a racist and I think that's unfortunate.

COOPER: But, Paris, you know, to talk about opening a door and having that conversation I think is a completely valid point. The president, though, is the one who called, you know, those people sons of bridges to use the president's words and, you know, said that that they should be fired. Do you believe those sons of bridges, to use the president's words, should be fired? Is that right for the president to say?

DENNARD: Well, the president can say what he wants. If I were president, I would not have used the term to describe someone in that public setting. But I would say when you look at corporations or businesses, you have standards.

The NFL won't let players wear pink in honor of breast cancer awareness outside of the month of October. The NFL won't let their players put certain markings on their helmets in honor of police. So, they have certain standards.

And when you are in the private sector, the CEO or the owner can make decisions about what you can and cannot do.

And so, I think if Donald Trump or if I were the head of an organization and part of what my team or my staff needed to do or was required to do was we would play the national anthem or say the pledge of allegiance and if that's what I wanted them to do, I have the right and the prerogative to do that in the private sector.

But the president cannot dictate or force anybody to do it, but I'm sure if he were the owner and that was the standard, he would have them go. And I think he's well within his right to do that, as are the owners. I think the NFL should come out and make a statement and say, if we're going to play the national anthem, which is new because it started in 2009, then players have to do X or Y.

[20:20:10] If not, they're going to have the slippery slope argument on whether or not you can do certain things or whether you can do other things, which in this case I believe is just offensive. That's the issue.

COOPER: Bakari?

SELLER: It's not offensive.

DENNARD: Let me -- just real quick. You can protest. You can be so upset at which I agree with some of the things that are going on especially to our community, Bakari, but when you do something like protest in a way that is so offensive to the flag or to the soldier, veterans or to soldiers and to the national anthem, you detract from the message. So I hope they can find a different way to keep this on message.

SELLERS: OK. First of all, Paris's view is not one that's new. Paris's view is actually not one that's new for some African Americans. In fact, 61 percent of individuals during the 1960s felt like the Montgomery bus boycotts and the freedom riders were unpopular, were doing the wrong thing. They should have done it another way.

When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer decided they were going to start a sit in movement, do you think that was comfortable? Do you think that people were cheering them on? They were not.

Protest is messy s. Protest is uncomfortable. Protest is supposed to shock the conscience and that is what we're doing.

And you know what? Military people, they will tell you today they go overseas and fight so we have the freedom to protest in this country. And I'm glad that it's making you uncomfortable, Paris. And I'm glad that it's making people uncomfortable because now we are dealing with the original sin of this country. We're dealing with race.

And if anybody thinks, anybody thinks that Donald J. Trump went to Alabama. He was in Alabama talking about black athletes and calls them sons of bitches, we've heard this before and it's the same ten or, the same tone. We've heard this language before from white people in the Deep South referring to African Americans and especially black athletes who they feel is taking their place.

And so, this wasn't a dog whistle. This was a bullhorn and we're going to keep protesting. People are going to keep kneeling. Colin Kaepernick, his mother Theresa Kaepernick, is not anybody's bitch.

And we're going to make sure that we understand there are fundamentally inequalities in this country. Oppression and white supremacy run amok and we're going to shatter those systems one knee at a time.

COOPER: Paris, when you see Donald Trump -- I mean, to Bakari's point in front of an overwhelmingly white crowd in Alabama with the history of all that happened there not too long ago, calling, you know, referring to those people who are kneeling during our anthem, calling them sons of bitches, do you see a racial element in that?

DENNARD: Look, you can see a racial element in every single thing that anybody does.

COOPER: I was wondering if you see it?

DENNARD: No, I don't. I look at the president -- wherever the president goes where there's a large majority of his base in terms of political rallies, they're probably going to be predominantly white audiences because only 8 percent of the African-American community gave him his vote. So, that's probably going to be the norm. So, let's just take that off the table.

I think what you saw in Alabama and you know very well they take their football very seriously was a president who was talking to the base and got them riled up about an issue that he knew they were going to care about which is the American flag, which is the national anthem which is pride and country. That is what that was about. And he knew that they cared about football --

COOPER: So it's about riling up the base, you're saying?

DENNARD: I think it was about riling up the base about an issue that is a very, very important issue. And I think, again, Bakari, I agree with you. I wish the president would not have used that phrase, son of a bitch, but I will say this -- I think we should be just as upset when we hear rappers and other people refer to women in that same regard, because I think it has no place.

COOPER: Paris, so --

DENNARD: So, if you're going to criticize one, let's be consistent across the board. You should not use that phrase.

COOPER: Is it appropriate to use the flag that people have fought and died for to rile up the base?

DENNARD: Again, what I was saying was he used it as a point for a base that was going to respond in a way to raise awareness about this issue. So, yes, when somebody --

COOPER: You said it was to rile up the base.

DENNARD: Because they were doing something so disrespectful, the president knew by raising this issue with them, that would get attention.

COOPER: Right. He was bringing up an issue about Colin Kaepernick who --

DENNARD: Disrespecting the flag.

COOPER: But that was last season. He's not even employed any more as a football player because of what he did, in all likelihood. But that's an arguable point.

But he's not employed as a football player, so the idea that the president would reach back and to bring this up in front of this particular audience to rile them up, as you say, doesn't that seem inappropriate? I mean, isn't that using the flag?

DENNARD: Well, in September 9th, an NFL player who happens to be Caucasian walked out and tweeted about him wanting to actually stand for the national anthem and said he was going to write Pat Tillman's name on his shoe.

[20:20:10] And so, this is -- this is not an issue that is just somehow just coming bang to the mind-set of American people. That tweet had thousands of retweets back in September 9th, well before the president made this comment. And I think it's an important moment for the president to make and he should be able to opine about cultural issues.

COOPER: So, Bakari, is it to -- I mean, to use this about riling up the base?

SELLERS: I mean, it was about riling up the base. It was about the number one currency we have in this country right now.

I mean, it's not gold. It's not silver. The number one currency we have in this country right now is race. And the president used that. And he knew he was using it and he knew where he was using it.

And, yes, it riled up his base because I think that people -- the irony in this discussion, Anderson, is that people take more offense to a knee while we're singing the national anthem than they took to a knee in the back of Freddie Gray when he was murdered in Baltimore. I mean, you think about the fact that Paris Dennard and others sit here over the last two weeks and defended Confederate monuments that are up throughout the South and throughout the country saying that they should be able to stay there. Many of those same people in Alabama fly the Confederate flag.

So, you're telling me that something is wrong with me and I'm not patriotic for actually protesting, which is my First Amendment right, but yet you want to glorify, memorialize and fly treason. So, there is so much hypocrisy in this. And, fundamentally, we have to begin to deal with this issue of race in a substantive fashion.

That's why I'm glad that you had Mr. Bennett on for me, because people need to see that these are real athletes. These are real people.

LeBron James goes home every day. He's a father to two sons and one daughter, and he has to make sure that he leaves this country for them as brown kids better than the one that he inherited. And if they can write on his nigger on his fence, on LeBron James' fence, then imagine what they'll do for a poor kid that look like me and Paris.

DENNARD: Well, they do do it. Anderson, just briefly, the reason -- the issue what I was bringing up about confederate monuments was they've been up there for years. And I missed the Democrats and liberals trying to pass these laws to take them down until President Trump said something.

SELLERS: I marched from Charleston, South Carolina, to Columbia, South Carolina, in 2000, at 15 years old, with my dad and Hootie and the Blowfish and everybody else trying to take the Confederate flag down. You convince me with that argument.

DENNARD: I'm not talking about the Confederate flag. I'm talking about Confederate monuments.


SELLERS: That's what -- that's what it was (ph).

DENNARD: And a Republican governor took it down. Republicans stood with her in South Carolina.

SELLERS: No, no, no. Nine people died, Paris -- no. Nine people died so that flag could come down. Do not dare bastardize that.

DENNARD: I'm not bastardizing anything. I'm pointing out the facts.

And the last point, Anderson, is this. Colin Kaepernick did this over a year ago. I missed the NFL, the owners and the general -- all of the teams standing in solidarity or kneeling in solidarity then. I'm saying right now, what we see is people doing this because it's politically expedient for them to go against the president. Be fair and be honest about what they're doing.

COOPER: I want to continue this discussion, if you can, just stay tuned. We're going to take a quick break.

Also, as we get ready for tomorrow night's CNN health care debate coming up at the top of the hour. We'll bring you late reporting on what appears to be the demise of the latest Republican Senate bill, the one sponsored by very two debaters tonight.


[20:30:31] ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: There's more breaking news on the NFL national anthem protesters moments ago tonight's cowboy's cardinals game in Arizona. The cowboy lift arm and took knee and they did it before the singing of the national anthem. Then, during the anthem, they stood, that just happening moments ago.

I want to continue discussion with Bakari Sellers and Paris Dennard.

So, Bakari, I mean, the White House says, the President isn't against anyone -- I mean, we said this -- you know, that he just pro-flag -- you argue that -- and also he also said that race is not part of this. You argue that race very much is at the center at this.

BAKARI SELLERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: There's no question about it. Races --

COOPER: And when you say that, do you mean both in why the players are kneeling and also in the President's use of this?

SELLERS: Correct. I think that he's using this as a wedge issue. First of all, I mean I don't know why on God's green earth the President of the United States has time to or wants to wage cultural wars. I mean, that's the conversation for another day. But it makes no sense to me with everything going on around this.

But yes, the issue is about race, the issue is about race in this country and race relations in this country and even more specifically structure inequalities that we have. You had environmental injustices in Flint, Michigan and East Chicago, Indiana.

You have kids were punished because of zip code (ph) that they're born into. You have Tyrone Scratcher (ph), you have Amadou Diallo, you Trayvon Martin, you have Tamir Rice, you have Sandra Bland, no conviction for their murders. So you have all of these systemic issues, which lead people to kneel. But I do want to point out something that Paris was kind of right on in his own way. What you saw yesterday were owners coming down to the field. And the hypocrisy is rich with them. Because you have owners like Daniel Snyder and Jerry Jones who donated $1 million to the President in his inauguration. But the fact remains that when he came down talking about bastardizing Mexicans two years ago when we announced his campaign, they weren't locking arms with anybody.

When he was talking about and picking on a "The Washington Post" reporter for being disabled, when he was actually talking about grabbing women by their private parts, when the list goes on and on and on, he talked about everybody and he -- they thought as if that he would never come for them. And then he did and so now they stand up. And so between them and Ray Lewis and Jim Brown, it's all good and dandy but we're out here protesting systemic injustices. They were protesting their feelings being hurt.

COOPER: Paris, I want you to be able to respond.

PARIS DENNARD, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, you know what, listen, I think, Bakari makes excellent points as to why some of the people, especially Colin Kaepernick takes the knee. My only point is, the act of taking the knee or not putting your hand over your heart or not standing for the national anthem or the pledge is disrespectful and it takes away from the original message. Look, when Muhammad Ali was so upset about injustice, he face and tossed allegedly, you know, tossed his gold medal into the river down there where he lived that was a medal that he earn, that was what fought for. That was his. When you do this about the flag, when you do this against the national anthem you're doing this to something that people bled and died for --

COOPER: Wait a minute --


COOPER: Hold on. Muhammad Ali was a --

DENNARD: So there is this difference in my opinion.

COOPER: Right, but Muhammad Ali was a -- I mean, we can rewrite history. Muhammad Ali was a despised figure in the United States when he refused to serve in the war. I mean, he could not --

(CROSSTALK) DENNARD: And years later Muhammad Ali came to the George W. Bush White House, stood there and allowed the Republican President of the United States to put the highest honor around his neck on behalf of a grateful country, and grateful nation.

COOPER: Right, but it's very easy in retrospect -- I mean, to Bakari's earlier point, it's very easy in retrospect to look at protest in the past and say, I would have taken part in that, I would've done, that was the right thing to do at the time it is despised. I mean, Bakari, you made the point about --

SELLERS: I mean, yes --

COOPER: -- you know, 60 percent people didn't like -- didn't want to have -- didn't think there should be a march on Washington or march at White House.

DENNARD: They weren't disrespecting the national flag.

SELLERS: But this is the point. What we're doing right now --

COOPER: The argument was that Muhammad Ali was disrespecting the flag by not --

SELLERS: But, yes, what we're doing right now is we are not rewriting history, we're like -- we're literary whitewashing history. Muhammad Ali was a despised figure. Muhammad Ali got this belt strip, Muhammad Ali lost years of his prime because he decided that he was not going to go to Vietnam because he felt like it was an unjust war. Do you know what did? They took everything from Muhammad Ali. He had to come and earn it back. He was love figure. You know, who else fought at the Vietnam war, was unjust war and chose not to go and fight that war, my father Cleveland Sellers, they took months away from his life, he charge tried and convicted and went to federal prison for that. There are people who paid an ultimate price.

[20:35:33] So do not give me that we are disrespecting our country because we're not. What we're trying to do is make it a more perfect union. There are people in this country who were given a check for liberty, a check for justice, a check for freedom and it's been marked insufficient funds. And so what we have to do is make sure that we understand, I don't want anything from Anderson Cooper, I don't want anything from any white person in this country to be plainly, plainly blunt. But what I do want is just an opportunity -- I want an opportunity for equality. I don't want to bring Anderson down, I just want to have the same playing field. That's all we're asking for, and that's why people take a knee.

DENNARD: And all the President is saying when you're on the playing field don't disrespect the flag of the national anthem, very simple. If you want to protest -- if you want to do it, don't do so in such a disrespectful way to the flag or to the national anthem. It's very simple. And you know what, --

COOPER: But Paris --

DENNARD: If it had been a white person that kneeled --

COOPER: You would have been making that argument against Muhammad Ali back then and yet you're praising George W. Bush for giving him the highest civilian award. There is very --

DENNARD: No, no, no, Anderson, what I was actually saying was Muhammad Ali actually came to the White House because he understood that the honor was not about President George W. Bush doing it. It was about an entire nation, it was about what the presidency and the White House --

COOPER: But that nation despised him decades before that. And to Bakari's point, he had to earn that back.

You know, Paris, I just wanted to ask you, you spoke eloquently before about the need for a conversation and obviously --


COOPER: -- we always talk about the need for a conversation of race in this country, and unfortunately we often talk about it only when there has been some sort of racial conflict that brings it into the forefront. Is the conversation that should take place, I think, you know, not just when there's a headline about it but in ways large and small all the time. Do you really think though that President Trump is adding to that conversation in a positive way by calling people, you know referring to them as those people who are refusing to stand during our national anthem and calling them sons a bitches?

DENNARD: Again, for the third time Anderson, I will tell you, I do not think the President used the right term to describe the people who decided to not stand for the national anthem. But what I will say is, when you look at the action taken today and the Presidential memorandum that talked about computer science. In that $200,000 grant opportunity for superintendents across the school districts, it's specific language that says, you must look into supporting African- American children and women children and after American --

COOPER: I'm just wondering, how many tweets that the President sent about that today?

DENNARD: You know what, I'm not controlling the President's Twitter. But I know that Sarah Huckabee Sanders talked about it and Ivanka Trump talked about it in the end. A group of children from district public schools in the boys and girls clap. We're very diverse, a lot of --

COOPER: It doesn't seem like the President's -- right, the President is not talking about it.

DENNARD: And it's time that President signed that Presidential memorandum today.

COOPER: All right.

DENNARD: So my point is this that is a way for us to talk about what the administration is actually going to do. We can talk about the flag, which we should. President Obama as we know -- old time, about the redskins because he felt that was something that was disrespectful.

COOPER: And then candidate Trump actually criticized the President for pining about that saying he should have more important thing to talk about. We have to leave it, there. Paris Dennard, thank you. Bakari Sellers, I appreciate both of your perspective.

SELLERS: Thanks.

COOPER: Just ahead, we'll take you to Puerto Rico, an islands of Americans is in deep trouble after Hurricane Maria cause what resident are calling a apocalyptic devastation. They need help. Officials say they need it right now. CNN's Bill Weir is a town south of San Juan. We'll show you what he found, next.


[20:41:17] COOPER: (INAUDIBLE) justice to what Hurricane Maria did to Puerto Rico, and what is happening right now and more than three million people who live there. But a few anchors, once apocalyptic devastating, no electricity, desperate need for food, water, fuel, medicine. Officials are begging for help to avoid full humanitarian crisis, with more than 95 percent of wireless cell sites are out of service, people are having trouble just getting in touch with their family members. It's an unbearable silence. Bill Weir is there, here's what he's fining.


BILL WEIR, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It is so hard to move around this island because Puerto Rico is a tangled mess of shattered trees and down power lines and endless gas lines where the desperate can wait half a day under the blazing sun for a few precious gallons.

In the rural highland south of capital, it looks like a bomb went off. Once lush green hill site are now brown and broken by the power of Maria's wind and it's up here where most of the 28,000 residence of Aguas Buenas, had no choice but to shelter in place and pray.

This camper is tossed like a toy, Diana and her family were huddled in their home across the street.

WEIR (on camera): How are you, how is life? How are you are you surviving?


WEIR (voice-over): I thank God I'm still alive, she tells me. I can't describe the storm. I've never seen anything like it in my life.

WEIR: It's hard to tell from the road but the back end of this house is built on concrete stilts driven into the hill side. So imagine the anxiety as Maria really picked up strength. Diana inside, she's caring for in bleed husband, she's worried at the back end of the house, his bed room is going to just slide in the raven (ph) so she moves the whole family into the living room. They hear the crash of this power tower go down on the neighbor's roof. Water is coming in through the shutters. She's trying to keep it up. And at one point she tells me they prepared to die together.

WEIR (on camera): Which is scarier, combat in Vietnam or Hurricane Maria?


WEIR: The hurricane is worse.

WEIR (voice-over): Miguel survived a combat tour in Cambodia and now Diana worries about the last vile of his insulin at risk of spoiling in powerless refrigerator.

Yet with text book hospitality, she takes the time to make us coffee, a few miles up the road, more kindness and much more misery. Here's a drone shot of this area before Maria and here it is today. This is what a category four hurricane will do to wood construction. The roof, who knows what happened to the roof. It's amazing the walls held the way they did.

Trophies earned by the Wilfredo's (ph) grand kids still stand in a room with no roof. He was released from prostate surgery, the day the storm hit, hold up with his whole family in a local church and they all survived. But now he has little left but his faith.

WEIR (on camera): How would you describe people's desperation? Are you seeing looting, are you seeing anger?

WEIR (voice-over): There has been looting, the mayor of Aguas Buenas, tells me. There have been lotteries (ph). And when it comes to the feelings of the people in this town we are saddened because we're still looking for people.

WEIR (on camera): As an American I wonder, how do Puerto Rican feel about being in Americans territory in times like this? Do you think America will come save you, do you hope they will?

WEIR (voice-over): Yes, he tells me. President Donald Trump has approved a disaster declaration. We will move forward with the help of the United States.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What they can give us we'll receive with a lot of love. Thank you.

[20:45:02] WEIR (on camera): You're welcome. You're welcome.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you very much.

WEIR: We're thinking of you.

(END VIDEOTAPE) COOPER: And Bill Weir joins us now from San Juan. I mean, it seems like all the people you met, you know, obviously are incredibly strong in the face of it, how bad could they get given the outlook and given just the difficulties of getting around?

WEIR: It could get so bad, Anderson. Don't let the resolved toughness of the Puerto Rican people deceive you. They're grateful to be alive. They're deeply faithful people as you saw there. They don't want to create a bother especially in the rural areas. But we are on the brink of a major humanitarian crisis. This is so much worse than Irma, so much worst than the storm in Texas because we're a thousand miles from Miami. The only way to get aid in here is by boat or plane.

And there is so much damage. We just -- we're only -- that was 20 miles as the cruise flies from the capital one. There are search and rescue efforts that haven't even scratched the surface of what's out there in the central part of this island. So, you know, three million fellow Americans, they fought in wars, they manufactured most of your pharmaceuticals down here for many years and now they need help unlike anything they've needed in a century.

COOPER: Yes. It's extraordinary. Bill Weir I'm glad you're there. Thank you very much.

Such devastation in that island, as Bill said, large parts of the island very difficult for reporters to get to and certain relief efforts. We'll continue to span out to as many parts of Puerto Rico as we can in the days ahead.

At the White House today, our reporter pointed out that in the past few days the President's tweeted more than a dozen times about sports and zero times about Puerto Rico. When asked what message that sends, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders had this to say.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: When it comes to Puerto Rico, the President has sent both Administrator Long and Senior Advisor to the Department of Homeland Security, Tom Bossert, to Puerto Rico today. They're on the ground to assess the damage. We've done unprecedented movement in terms of federal funding to provide for the people of Puerto Rico and others that have been impacted [by] these storms. We'll continue to do so and continue to do everything that we possibly can under the federal government to provide assistance.


COOPER: Joining me now from San Juan, the Governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rossello.

Governor, thanks for being with us. Did you hear Sarah Sanders saying that the administration has done unprecedented movement in terms of federal funding to provide that for people of Puerto Rico? Are you seeing that on the ground, are you seeing an impact of that on the ground yet? RICARDO ROSSELLO, GOVERNOR, PUERTO RICO: Well, yes, Anderson, we have had great collaboration with the federal government, particularly with FEMA. The Administrator Brock Long was over here just today seeing the damages. Of course, this is an unprecedented situation and we're going to need an unprecedented response. So our petition is to continue on the aid to recognize, that now the next step is for Congress to act and to know that we are proud U.S. citizens. I'm proud U.S. citizen that, you know, when other U.S. citizens were in need Puerto Rico was a base of support. They gave others shelter, food and had them go back to their home whenever they were ready.

COOPER: So, in mean, in terms of where things stand right now, what is the greatest need?

ROSSELLO: What is the greatest need? Well, of course there are several things. Number one, food, water, and fuel are some of the needs. But, we have plenty of them. We just need to distribute them appropriately. Right now, because of the storm, you know, this is a supply chain effort. We don't have as many bus drivers. We don't have as many operators in the gas station because some of them are still stuck. So what we've been doing is assessing where they are, making sure they get to the operation stations, making sure that they have police escort getting them to different places so that we can get food, water and supplies to those that mostly need them.

COOPER: The lack of electricity obviously causes huge issues for you. Do you have any better sense of how long it's going to take to restore it and is there any help for people until it can be restored?

ROSSELLO: Well, the devastation has been enormous, Anderson, and this is something that the fellow viewers have to understand. This is an unprecedented event. Literally, two category five storms came to Puerto Rico in the span of two weeks and the devastation for the infrastructure has been severe. We already have weak energy infrastructure in Puerto Rico, now after the storm I can tell you that the transmission lines have been devastated, severe infrastructure damage, and in some areas of Puerto Rico, its' going to take months to repair.

COOPER: Governor Rossello, I appreciate your time. Thank you very much.

[20:49:47] Coming up next, breaking news on the apparent demise of the latest GOP health care bill as we get ready for tonight big debate.


COOPER: More breaking news tonight at the top of the hour we're going to bring you the CNN bipartisan debate on health care. Republican Senators Lindsey Graham and Bill Cassidy, who are sponsoring the latest GOP legislation, will face off against independence Senator Bernie Sanders and Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar.

Now, just tonight Republican senator Susan Collins announced she will vote no, on it.

Phil Mattingly, joins us now from Capitol Hill. So what do we know first of all about Collins -- what got her to "no"?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, the interesting thing about Susan Collins throughout the health care debate, Anderson, is it's never been a secret what her concerns were, what her priorities were. After she voted tonight, after she put out the statement opposing the bill, she spoke to a couple reporters, I was there. She made very clear, it was a lot of those same issues, is the fact that they were overhauling the entire Medicaid program without a significant number of hearings or a deep look into why they were actually doing it.

When it came to the actual Graham-Cassidy proposal itself, even though, there was a very clear effort in a revision of the bill to kind of set Maine in a better place, she made the point, look, just because you can do this in a partisan fashion now, what's going to change somebody from completely taking the funding or changing the formula all the way in couple years from now. So she didn't like the process. She didn't like a lot of provision and obviously preexisting conditions had been something that it been a major point for her. This bill goes pre-far and giving states leeway to cut back in a lot of these Obamacare regulations. That was something that has always been a nonstarter for her, continue to be and I think more than anything else, Anderson, can underscores that inside the Republican conference, as is been the case for the last nine months, ideologically they are just not unified right now.

COOPER: And Senator Graham spoke tonight, what did he have to say? I mean, does he believe that it's over?

MATTINGLY: You know, it's interesting, he's still trying -- he's still working. It's very clear. I've talked to a couple of people involve in the process. Phone calls are still being made. They're trying to figure out if there is some kind of pass for, but the difference on Lindsey Graham today versus Lindsey Graham from the last couple of days is, instead of guaranteeing, there would be a vote, saying they would definitely get to 50 votes. When he was asked at one point today whether or not there would be a vote, he said, I don't know.

It's very clear things were moving in the wrong direction. He's still working on it, he wants to figure out the pathway forward but it's clear if you talk to anybody, who support the bill, to those who are suppose, there is no clear pathway forward. The numbers right now just don't add up, Anderson.

COOPER: All right Phil Mattingly, thanks.

Joining me now, CNN Political Commentator, Rick Santorum, the former senator and Republican Presidential candidate, who helped Senators Graham and Cassidy throughout this bill. Also with us, CNN Political Analyst Kirsten Powers.

[20:55:02] Senator Santorum, with Senator Collins now, no vote, is this fight essentially over?

RICK SANTORUM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Oh, no. It's not by a long shot. I mean, the whether this week this bill is going to pass, it's looking less likely, but I'm not even 100 percent sure of that. But what I can tell you is, that I think what's been determined particularly about the hearing today, which I testified at the finance committee. I think there is broad support among Republicans for this approach that does two things.

Number one, block grants put up a per capita cap on Medicare -- excuse me, Medicaid, which by the way, Bill Clinton proposed years ago and 46 Democratic senators, every single one of them signed onto.

And the second thing it does, is it takes the money from the Affordable Care Act, puts it in a block grant and says, state, you deal with this problem instead of federal government and gives them the resources to do it, eventually dividing the money up fairly on a per capita basis across the country, which is what we did with 24 Democratic votes in the United States Senate and Bill Clinton, 20 years ago. So, you know, these are things that used to be bipartisan. So when you hear Susan Collins says what she says, I get it, you know, she like it to be bipartisan but these ideas used to be bipartisan and now maybe we just need a little bit more time to drill that message through.

COOPER: Kirsten, do you see any chance of this going forward?

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Not in the immediate, probably. I don't really see. And would be interested to know, you know, Senator Santorum, if you can maybe explain what they could do to move along a Susan Collins or John McCain.

John McCain obviously has complained that, you know, he is very upset with the process. He does think it should be more bipartisan, there should be more of, you know, bringing up amendments, and having hearings in these kinds of things and it seems movable on that. And Susan Collins has it to shows about preexisting conditions and about Medicaid cuts. I know you say they're not cuts but really, you know, it's slowing the growth of it which is a cut I think in her eyes. I mean, how do you move these people? Rand Paul also doesn't seem very movable. And even Ted Cruz is indicated that he might not vote for this. So how would you move all those people?

SANTORUM: Well, I think again, you know, look at Rand Paul. I mean, Rand suggested that that he could vote for the Medicaid per capital caps but that he had some concerns about, he couldn't votes for the other one. But if you think about from the logical standpoint that Medicaid per capital cap takes an open ended and thought them that's unsustainable and puts it on a budget, puts on a cap. And what we do with Obamacare, which is the same thing. It's takes an open ended and thought in the Affordable Care Act and puts it in a block grant with a cap. So he can say that, you know, I like one but I don't like the other, but from a logical point of view, they in a sense do pretty much the same thing.

So I think there's some room, particularly with Ted Cruz, I think with Rand Paul and others to continue to work on this, whether again, we can get that done this week, there's still a couple other votes that are unsure, that -- again, I'm not sure that are necessarily decided against us. So bottom line is, again, it's getting tight this week, but I think overall I think this is the bill that's most likely to be the bill that replaces Obamacare whether it's now, in a couple months or maybe in six months. I think this will be the bill.

COOPER: Senator Santorum, you know, in to Susan Collins point about bipartisan effort, you know, Chuck Schumer a while back at the last effort had said if Republicans came to them, they had -- it seems like they had a couple preconditions for any kind of bipartisan effort on the Democrats side or in essentially not doing away with Obamacare, but just trying to fix it. Is that for any Republican, just a nonstarter?

SANTORUM: Yes, I don't think you can run for election after election saying we're going to repeal Obamacare and then basically make a tweak to other two and keep it in place. I mean, the bottom line is if you talk to Senator Alexander and others on the health committee, but they'll tell you, the Democrats will say there's really nothing fundamentally wrong. We just need to get more money into the individual market and that's just simply, not going to happen.

The President said he's not going to sign continuing payments. The House Republican leaders and speaker have said they're not going to pass a bill. So there's going to be no more money to prop this up this insurance market, number one. And number two, starting next week, $5 billion of taxes on 90,000 employers are going to go out to the -- based on the Obamacare mandate if you didn't provide insurance.

So now you'll going to start to see a whole new wave of taxes that have previously never been assessed before. They're going to hit, you're going to see insurance markets that are going to start to be really unstable because you're not providing any federal support for them anymore, and I think maybe in a couple months there might be a prime time to come back and look at this bill.

COOPER: It's just couple -- Kirsten. I mean, it's incredible, the Republicans haven't been able to do this given the seven years of, you know, campaigning on this.

POWERS: Yes. I mean, I think before you a make a campaign promise you should probably have a policy that you can offer up. And I think that's been the problem, and they don't have enough ideological cohesion to all agree on anything.

COOPER: Senator Santorum, thank you, Kirsten Powers as well.

The CNN debate, "The Fight over Obamacare" starts right now.