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Crisis in Puerto Rico; Republicans Fail Yet Again to Repeal Obamacare; White House Staff to Be Interviewed in Trump-Russia Probe. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired September 26, 2017 - 3:00   ET



VAN JONES, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: And I think the president of the United States is deliberately failing to at least acknowledge that there's something there.

In fact, his Justice Department is taking a step back from police reform, which is making things worse, not better.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: I know that it is a whole issue you are so passionate about.

Scott, it's always great to have you, and Van Jones. Thank you both so much. We have got to wrap and it move on to the top of the hour. Thank you.

Now this.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BALDWIN: We're going to continue on. You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

And we begin with the breaking news on the Russia investigation now. Sources are telling CNN special counsel investigators could start interviewing current and former White House staff as soon as this week.

So let's go straight to our CNN justice correspondent, Pamela Brown, who has been breaking this story.

What are you learning?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brooke, sources tell myself and my colleague Gloria Borger that as soon as this week or maybe next week, our sources say, Robert Mueller, the special counsel's team could start interviewing current and former White House staff in the Russia probe.

This is a signal that the investigation is entering a more advanced stage after the White House has already been giving documents, bringing documents over to Robert Mueller. Now we're hearing as soon as this week, the interviews with some of these current and former staffers could begin. As we have previously reported, Brooke, Mueller's office has expressed interest in interviewing Reince Priebus, of course, the former chief of staff, former Press Secretary Sean Spicer, former -- or current, I should say, Communications Director Hope Hicks, as well as White House counsel Don McGahn.

And so we expect at least one or two of these interviews to happen relatively soon. As we've reported, Brooke, one of the big focuses is on the dismissals of both former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn as well as the former FBI Director James Comey.

The James Comey aspect of this is part of the obstruction of justice probe. And Mueller's investigators also want to know more about the circumstances behind the dismissal of Michael Flynn. Why did it happen earlier after DOJ warned the White House about his conversations with former Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak?

In addition, one source confirms that Mueller seems interested in the president's meeting with the Oval Office with Russians where he mentioned that the fact that Jim Comey was fired would ease pressure on the White House.

So all of this part of the investigation. And this is certainly a development that these interviews will begin soon, according to our sources -- Brooke.

BALDWIN: Pam, thank you.

Let's get some analysis with Jeffrey Toobin, our CNN chief legal analyst.

And so, Jeffrey Toobin, hearing a couple of the key moments, the Kislyak-Lavrov meeting in the Oval Office, the crafting of the statement in the wake of the news of the Trump Tower meeting happening between the Russians and his son Don Jr., all of these pieces are coming out, the fact that Bob Mueller and crew wants to talk to the former and current White House staffers.

What is your take on all that?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it's not surprising at all.

This is what a responsible investigator would do, would be to move to this stage, to discuss, to interview the participants in meetings that may relate to an obstruction of justice charge.

It's important to remember that, as I'm sure as these White House officials know, it is a crime to make a false statement in these interviews. It is not perjury, but it is still a felony to lie in these circumstances.

They obviously have to be very careful with what they say. But we shouldn't draw any conclusions that this means anybody committed a crime or anyone is going to be charged with a crime. This is just a responsible investigator moving forward to where he obviously has been going for some time.

BALDWIN: Jeff Toobin, thank you.

Again, that's the reporting that is CNN is just now getting here on the Russia investigation.

Let's pivot now to the other breaking news this afternoon on health care. We have learned now that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has just announced the latest Obamacare repeal effort is officially dead, that the Senate will no longer work on the Republicans' Graham- Cassidy bill, after Republican leaders decided to yank the legislation that they had hoped would replace Obamacare.

Republican leaders are already turning their attention to the next big item on the agenda.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: We're coming back to this after taxes. We're going to have time to explain our concept. We will have a better process and we are going to take this show on the road.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY LEADER: We haven't given up on that.

We do think it is time to turn to our twin priority, reform the tax code. We have reached significant agreements inside the Budget Committee to go forward and I'm optimist that we will achieve that.


BALDWIN: So with me now, Phil Mattingly, CNN congressional correspondent, and Dana Bash, CNN chief political correspondent.


And so first to you, Phil, just in the weeds on all of this. How did this unfold? Was there resignation in the room at this luncheon And was it ultimately the Senate majority leader who said yank it? Or was it someone else in the room?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Look, it was very clear this was something the Senate majority leader wanted to do.

And, again, you have to think about the dynamics here. They knew they were short of the votes. And I'm told from several people that they were much shorter than just the three public no's that we've reported on right now. There were more members who were no or certainly didn't want this vote.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Brooke, is very protective of his members. There's a reason he's the Senate majority leader. He didn't want to put his conference through another very public failure and another very public kind of vote on such a complicated issue. What I'm told inside the room is Senator Graham, Senator Cassidy made

clear, it was time to pull the vote. It was time to move forward. They would continue to work on their proposal.

The conference resignation is probably the best way to describe it. Unlike past efforts -- and, again, keep in mind there's a deadline of Saturday to try and get this done for a lot of these members.

Unlike past efforts, Brooke, they recognize the numbers weren't there. The idea of forcing a vote wasn't going to get anybody to flip. There weren't major arguments. There weren't people stomping their feet saying we need to go forward, we need to go forward. They're at a point right now where after the course of the last nine months, there's a recognition that ideologically, the ability to get 50 Republican senators together on a single proposal is not possible at this moment.

They want to keep moving forward, but that was kind of the flavor in the room that I was given, Brooke.

BALDWIN: Dana, I just would love to hear your analysis, and also the other piece of this is that apparently the president told some House members, hey, if you don't get it together, I may go try to cut a deal with Democrats.

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, first of all, just the big picture, this was something, this was kind of the ultimate last-ditch effort.

This was really happening under the radar for many, many months. Rick Santorum, former senator and now a CNN contributor, kind of gave birth to this idea which he pitched to Senators Graham and Cassidy, and they were off to the races. And it was after the first failure, the one that actually got the vote over the summer, that President Trump actually called Senator Graham because they had been trying to get the White House to pay attention to their proposal, but to no avail, and said, OK, just keep it going.

And they did. And part of reason why -- well, there's lot of reasons why they at least got one last gasp of air in this idea of repealing Obamacare is because everybody realizes that they are going to have to pay a price to conservatives who say, wait a minute. We sent you there over and over again on the promise to repeal Obamacare.

But at the same time, because it was so harried and frankly chaotic in the way they were trying to fundamentally change the health care system in this country without a real hearing, and without what they call regular order -- you hear people talking about regular order. And what that means is, you go through the committee process, the committee with the senators and the staff have expertise on this issue.

You take the legislation. You put it together. You have votes on this. You have the committee vote and then you bring it to the floor. There is a reason why it is done that way. And that's why people like John McCain, for example, said no way, because he's not comfortable that this kind of fundamental change, doing it that fast, is really the right thing to do. And as Phil was saying, he was definitely not alone on the Republican side.

BALDWIN: So then, Phil, over to you on the question about reporting from a couple of our CNN folks on the message to members on the House side, and because of all the great press the president got with doing the deal Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, might there be something there, or are they just going straight to tax reform?

MATTINGLY: Yes, they're going straight to tax reform.

I think Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made that very clear. Speaker Paul Ryan has made that very clear. Tomorrow, they will roll out kind of the general framework of that plan.

But it is really interesting to hear, because given the very high approval ratings the president got for that deal he made with Democrats, considering how thrilled he clearly was by that deal, and yet they still decided to give one more shot at repeal and replace.

Now, this threat to work with Democrats, interestingly enough, Brooke, there was a bipartisan effort to kind of stabilize the insurance markets, add money for the insurers to try and stabilize their area. For the Republicans, they would get some flexibility in terms of how states could deal with Obamacare regulations.

That was essentially killed because repeal and replace came back. Here's the issue with that. While that will almost certainly, at least Democrats would like the restart that, try and stabilize the markets, the idea that Senate Republican leaders would ever put that on the floor, given that their most conservative members want no part of fixing Obamacare, I think, is a long shot at best right now.

I think it's fair to say and safe to say, when you talk to aides, tax reform is the goal, tax reform is the ultimate prize, tax reform is where they're going to be looking. The big question now is, it is very clear something needs to be done for a lot of these marketplaces right now to stabilize them.

And there doesn't seem to be a willingness, at least at the very top of the Republican Party, to do anything about that, Brooke.



BASH: And, Brooke, can I just quickly add...


BASH: Listen, we had this debate on CNN last night.

And one of the takeaways was that nobody on the stage, Democrat, independent, to Republicans, said that Obamacare is working well. Everybody agrees that there need to be changes. Where the intransigence is right now is that Democrats won't even talk

to Republicans about anything that includes repealing Obamacare. They say changes, fine, but no.

And Republicans won't talk to Democrats about anything that is anything less than repealing Obamacare. If the president is serious and can kind of strip off the idea of repeal, and actually work to fix the current system, then I bet Democrats would work with him. But that, as Phil said, is probably a long way off.

BALDWIN: Kudos last night on that debate, Dana Bash, and getting all those senators on the same stage, by the way.

Dana, thank you. Phil Mattingly, thank you so much.

That's health care.

Let's talk about Puerto Rico now, because we're watching very, very closely this U.S. territory where the governor says it's on the verge of a humanitarian crisis. Almost a week now after Hurricane Maria hit, people basically at the point of desperation. Most are still without water, without power, without communication. Millions just totally cut off from the rest of the world.

And we show you the pictures. This is the before, right, on the left hand of the screen. And there is the after just in terms of darkness, power grid. It is stunning.

Let's also not forget all the passengers trying desperately to get on airplanes. Only 10 commercial flights a day are coming into the airport there.

Today, President Trump announced he will be visiting Puerto Rico next Tuesday. Here he was earlier talking via videoconference with Puerto Rico's governor. And he says, he being President Trump, said that federal help is on the way.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: To the people of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, both have been devastated, and I mean absolutely devastated, by Hurricane Maria. And we're doing everything in our power to help the hard-hit people of both places, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

A massive effort is under way. The recovery process will be a very, very difficult one. We will get through this and we will get through it together. We will be stronger. We will be bigger. We will be better.


BALDWIN: The president also said he will be visiting the U.S. Virgin Islands as well.

So with me, Patricia Mazzei, a reporter with "The Miami Herald" who actually rode out the hurricane and just got back to Miami from Puerto Rico.

So, Patricia, thank you so much for coming on with me today.

And let's just talk about the devastation. All the adjectives people are using. You tell me. You saw it with your own eyes. How horrible is it?


The situation is dire. It is not leveled or flattened like you saw some of the images from Barbuda during Irma, for example, or the U.S. Virgin Islands. There is a different kind of destruction. In many cases, these were cement structures.

But if they had zinc, aluminum, metal roofs, wooden roofs, those were blown away. And then there was the issue of the water. We saw a ton of flooding. We saw mud just inside people's houses. In some cases, their roofs had blown off and they got flooded. So they had gotten hit in two ways by the storm.

There are a lot of rivers in Puerto Rico that overflooded. And it was just kind of one calamity after another, town after town that you went to without power, without water, running low on food. And this was a couple days ago, so I can imagine now the situation is only worse.

BALDWIN: But what about the airport? CNN has been inside the San Juan International Airport, seeing all the people in line here, no A.C. All these people are stranded, desperate for a flight out of the country, limited because the computer systems are down.

You were able to hop on a flight over Sunday. What was that experience like?

MAZZEI: Well, we spent about three-and-a-half-hours at the airport and three-and-a-half-hours on the tarmac getting clearance to leave.

And at the airport, we spoke to people who had been there since Saturday night. I know there are people who have been that long staying overnight, 300 people per night sleeping at the airport just trying to wait for the next flight.

And the issues were compounded by the fact that you don't have power so you can't vet these passengers -- this is what the FAA tells us -- with a computer. You have to call every time you want to check someone into the flight. You have to call Miami.

And then, once you're actually on the plane, if you're lucky enough to get one of these handwritten boarding passes, you have to wait to leave. And they have to space out these flights, at least 15 minutes between flight for security purposes, because they're running low on air traffic control personnel that they evacuated ahead of the storm.

And they don't have one of their long-range radar systems working. It's just a lot of problems together. The system is kind of overwhelmed. This is an island. It is hard to get he in and out of. There's a lot of military and civilian relief flights that have been scheduled in.

So it's going to take a long time, I fear, for things on get back to any sort of normalcy.


BALDWIN: I know there was a moment, I heard, when you got pretty emotional. It is always stunning to me, in covering natural disasters, the generosity, no matter where you are on the planet, the generosity from people to offer what little bit of food or water, drink they may have. And you experienced something similar, did you not?

MAZZEI: Yes, several times, actually.

We were out in these flooded areas east of San Juan. And the first family we went to, they grabbed me by the hand and said let me show you what we lost. They showed us where they were all staying. And they offered us water bottles from their supply. And we said, absolutely not.

And then they introduced us to their neighbor, who was even worse off than they were. And she waded through this knee-high flood across the street just to see us, to give us the water. We couldn't say no. It was just, what do you say to people who have that sort of generosity in a crisis, you know?

BALDWIN: You say thank you.

MAZZEI: Thank you.

BALDWIN: Patricia Mazzei, Patricia Mazzei with "The Miami Herald," thank you so much.

MAZZEI: Thank you.

BALDWIN: Moments ago, President Trump said the U.S. is totally prepared for a military option against North Korea which would be devastating, his word. Is the window for diplomacy closing?

Also ahead, I will be joined live by the parents of Otto Warmbier. Their son was held captive in North Korea for more than a year and died days after his return to the United States. They are now speaking out about what the North Korean regime did to their son and what they want coming up.



ELAINE DUKE, ACTING HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: The vice president and I met with members of the Cabinet to discuss the ongoing Hurricane Maria response and recovery for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Island.

The president, vice president and I also went to the Situation Room to speak with Puerto Rican Governor Rossello. During that conversation, we affirmed -- reaffirmed our top priority, continuing to provide life safety and life-sustaining resources to the millions Americans in Puerto Rico.


The response to date has been phenomenal. It has been strong to date, and we are committed to continue making it -- keeping it strong, until recovery is complete.

The feedback from the governor, the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulin Cruz, has all been positive and we intend to keep it that way. We will continue leaning forward with our efforts, as we are all concerned about our fellow Americans impacted by Hurricane Maria, along with those previously impacted by Hurricanes Irma and Harvey in Florida and also in Texas and other Southern states.

FEMA has had personnel stationed in Puerto Rico since before Hurricane Irma through Hurricane Maria. We have been on site for weeks and continue to work with the governor.

With our partners, we continue to conduct 24-hour operations, aggressively conducting search-and-rescue operations, bringing additional search and rescue, essential commodities, food and water to the islands, restoring power at hospitals, ports, airports and other critical facilities.

There are thousands of federal staff, from FEMA, Department of Defense and other federal agencies Puerto Rico and in the U.S. Virgin Islands supporting those governors in response and recovery.

While significant progress has been made, the full recovery on the islands will be long. But we will be with them through the recovery. As access to ports, airfields and roads continues to open, which it is not very open yet, more resources will continue to flow into the hard- hit areas.

We continue to stand with the people of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands and remain 100 percent committed to our full response and recovery efforts.

The president is fully committed and has brought the Cabinet together for a full federal response in supporting Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

I will turn it over the Administrator Long.

BROCK LONG, ADMINISTRATOR, FEDERAL EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT AGENCY: The objectives continue to be clear, take care of people and stabilize the situation and do everything we can to sustain life.

So, as the secretary said, we have had a large force on the island since before Irma and we are continuing to bolster and grow that force. This is a logistically challenging, very unique event that the United States hasn't seen in a very, very long time, if ever, because you have to remember that not only did Irma come through and create quite a bit of damage and destruction that we were working to repair, but Maria was one mile per hour away from being a Category 5 storm, give it or take one mile per hour from being a Cat 5, one of the strongest storms that Puerto Rico has seen since the '20s.

And let's face it. The infrastructure is weak. And there were no building codes, and so there is a lot of devastation. And we understand that. Here's the other major challenge that we face.

It's an island. We don't just drive trucks and resources onto an island. So, with the damage, you had extensive damage to the air traffic control systems, which meant sequencing life safety flights into the area, into the one airport that we could get open, San Juan, initially is incredibly difficult.

So you have to prioritize who accesses the island and what you are sending. So, what we did on top of the forces that we already had in Puerto Rico was to continue to sequence those flights, first take command and control of the airport to make sure that we can get the flights in, but then sequence those in of lifesaving commodities, meals, water.

Right now, we have over four million meals on the island, for example. We also have six million liters of water on the island custom and which we are working to distribute. But the bottom line is, is that not only do you have to take control of the airport and stabilize the situation.

Today, we also opened up Roosevelt Road to increase the flights that we can get in. We are working to open up another airport in Aguadilla to also continue that. That does a couple things. It alleviates the commercial -- being able to get commercial flights out of San Juan.

But it also increases the capacity of us to be able to get lifesaving, life-sustaining teams and commodities in. If you are going to Puerto Rico right now, it should only be for a life-sustaining, life-support mission, because everybody that's trying to get in that's not supporting that is getting in the way. OK?

Now, the next thing that has to happen is that we are dramatically increasing the federal footprint that's there. We are mobilizing our partners in the DOD. We are putting forward a very robust sustainment force of thousands of people that are mobilizing as we speak to come in to increase emergency communications, fuel distribution.

They will be also helping us to make sure that we can transport safely and securely the food, the fuel, the water to the areas that we need to get to. We do understand that there are some areas that are still isolated.


We have been conducting airdrops. There have been numerous search- and-rescues that are taking place. We have over 10 task forces already operating not only in Puerto Rico, but we can't forget out partner over in the Virgin Islands. We are also working that event as well. We continue to stabilize the

situation. The other challenge that we face is, is that, unfortunately, because of the severity of the hit, there is diminished capacity of local governments and the state governments to be able to respond, similar to what we saw with Texas and Florida.

Therefore, it is requiring to us push forward a lot of resources, including the USS Comfort, which is on the way. You can't mobilize ships and just send them in, because there has to be port space. The port has to be safe.

There is all types of things that we have to bring in. So the federal government is working tirelessly around the clock to unify the efforts to support Governor Rossello, as well as Governor Mapp, with the initiatives that are taking forward.

QUESTION: Two questions.

LONG: Yes.

QUESTION: All these natural disasters that you all have had to deal with in the last month have to have taxed your budget going forward.

So what assurances do you have from the president and Congress that they are going to continue to help you out in that regard? The second question is, how long do you think it's going the take on the ground in Puerto Rico? I have heard from people who are trying to be involved in rescue efforts that aren't right now able to get to the island.

LONG: Right.

QUESTION: How far -- how long will it be down the road before some of these people will be able to get on the island?

LONG: All right, two-part question.


LONG: First of all, Congress has been working with us around the clock to give us the enduring authority to be able to do our job. We are not running out of money. Is money getting low? Sure, but we -- on October 1, we have a supplemental that comes into play and we will continue.

My guys are constantly in contact not only with Secretary Duke, but also with Congress, to say we may be in for a problem, let's anticipate that, get the money flowing. The second thing that happened today was the president very proactively approved 100 percent reimbursement for the first 180 days of this response to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

That right there gives the reassurance to the private sector partners we need to come in to do the job, that they will be paid, so that we can make sure that we are bringing the full force of not only the federal government, but the whole community and the private sector and to do the job that needs to be done.

There was a second part.

QUESTION: The second -- there are people trying to trying get life- sustaining effort to the island.

LONG: Right.

Capacity is increasing daily. It's increasing daily, from the standpoint of, we are establishing the incident support bases of the other two airports in addition to San Juan as well as the port space. What we are asking them to do is to be basically going through (INAUDIBLE).org.

They are connected through our national response coordination center to be able to sequence everything in. We cannot just deploy and try to shove everything in at the same time.


LONG: I'm sorry.

QUESTION: For those who might be able to hear your voice either now or later in the day, can you establish (OFF-MIKE) that you have put forward for your team to get things advanced in Puerto Rico?

How can people there know things are progressing? And how can they measure performance? (OFF-MIKE) Secondly, when I asked the president about Naval assets -- you mentioned the Comfort. Are any other Naval assets (OFF-MIKE) or deployed to help you get all the things you need down there?

LONG: We have 16 ships currently operating that we haven't talked about in the media.

We have 16 ships currently operating. That's a combination of U.S. Coast Guard and our DOD partners. We have 10 ships en route, 10 ships and barges en route over the next 48 continuing to bring generators, emergency power, as well as more additional food and water that's coming in.

Take the governor at his word. The governor has been -- I have been in direct communication. It was with him, not only him, but also Governor Mapp, yesterday in reconfirming and making sure that we are not missing anything.

We understand that there are gaps in areas and there are people that we can't communicate. But part of the problem is, because the telecommunications has been knocked out, it makes people nervous. They expect the worst.

There are some bad situations that we are working to alleviate. But you have got to take the governor at his word, based on what he's saying, and not only the governor, but the good mayor of San Juan as well.


LONG: The benchmarks over the next 48 hours is the DOD force that I just talked about, the sustainment force, is going to be rolling into town.

So, you know, they are going to be trickling in. They are going to be trickling in, in force. We are talking thousands of soldiers. OK?

QUESTION: In San Juan?

LONG: In Puerto Rico.


QUESTION: We've reports of potential martial law starting this evening. Is the military helping the local police? What is the security situation on the ground?

DUKE: The security system is sound. The governor still has control of the state.

We are supporting the governor. He has his National Guard troops. We have DOD that are working with us in terms of supporting the governor