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Republican Senator Susan Collins Opposes Graham-Cassidy Bill; North Korea Says It Has Right to Shoot Down U.S. Planes; Slow Response to Puerto Rico? Aired 4-4:30a ET

Aired September 26, 2017 - 04:00   ET


[04:00:17] CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Heightened emotions over the national anthem controversy. In private the president suggests he's quite pleased. And on national television, an entire team takes a knee while one player expresses regret for standing during the anthem.

DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: And there's Susan Collins. The third senator coming out against the Republicans' latest repeal and replace effort. With this bill all but dead, how can Republicans follow through on their biggest campaign promise?

ROMANS: And growing desperation in Puerto Rico. Nearly the entire island without power as the president finally weighs in on the devastation.

Good morning and welcome to EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

BRIGGS: Good to see you, my friend. I'm Dave Briggs. Tuesday, September 26th, 4:00 a.m. in the East.

Boy, did I want to weigh in on this story yesterday? It was tough to be off.

ROMANS: I couldn't believe you were out yesterday.


ROMANS: My sports guide not here.

BRIGGS: Well, we will get into it an awful lot today.

ROMANS: We will.

BRIGGS: That's where we begin.

ROMANS: It is not over.

BRIGGS: The president versus the NFL. Neither the president nor the players backing down from this controversy ignited by the president's strong criticism of players kneeling during the national anthem. Mr. Trump appearing quite satisfied with the reaction to his comments telling conservative leaders at the White House dinner that it's really caught on, adding, he said what millions of Americans were thinking. ROMANS: It comes as the Dallas Cowboys and the Arizona Cardinals

staged the latest protest during Monday Night Football. Cowboys' players along with owner Jerry Jones taking a knee before the national anthem. During the anthem both teams stood linking arms or holding hands.

BRIGGS: This culture war that has erupted since President Trump called players kneeling during the anthem SOBs who should be fired. Not sitting well with White House chief of staff John Kelly. We're told Kelly was not pleased by the fight Trump started with his remarks.

Kelly also tells CNN he is appalled by the lack of respect for the flag and the national anthem, saying, quote, "I believe every American when the national anthem is played should cover their hearts and think about all the men and women who have been maimed and killed. Every American should stand up and think for three lousy minutes."

ROMANS: White House officials say they believe this will blow over but don't know how long the president will keep the controversy alive.

Sarah Sanders telling the press corps it is hypocritical of players protesting police brutality to protest the American flag. She adds this.


SARAH SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Look, we certainly respect the rights that people have, but I think we also need to focus. Again, this isn't about the president being against something, which is what everybody wants to draw.

This is about the president being for something. This is about the president being for respecting our country through symbols like the American flag, like the national anthem, and the hundreds of thousands of people that actually stand versus the few hundred that may have knelt.


BRIGGS: Meantime, Steelers offensive lineman Alejandro Villanueva is apologizing to his teammates for standing alone during the anthem while the rest of the team remained in the locker room Sunday. Now Villanueva is a former Army Ranger who served three tours in Afghanistan, earning a Bronze Star with Valor. He says he's not offended by people kneeling.


ALEJANDRO VILLANUEVA, PITTSBURGH STEELERS: Every single time, you know, I see that picture of me standing by myself, I feel embarrassed to a degree because, again, like I said, unintentionally I left my teammates behind.

It wasn't me stepping forward. I never planned to boycott the plan that the Steelers came up with. I just thought that there should be some middle ground where I could stay in the tunnel, nobody would see me, and then afterwards I just wouldn't talk to the media, like I do all the time.


ROMANS: His jersey yesterday?

BRIGGS: Jersey was number one according to the fanatics. It wasn't even in the top hundred before Sunday.

ROMANS: The plan, of course, was for the team to stay in the locker room but Villanueva said he asked Steelers captain and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger if there was a way to watch the national anthem from the tunnel and Roethlisberger agreed.

There's also new reaction overnight from the widow of Pat Tillman, the former NFL player who was killed in a friendly fire incident in 2004 in Afghanistan. The president has re-tweeted images of Tillman in the last few days.

BRIGGS: Yes. But in a statement to CNN's Brian Stelter, Marie Tillman says, quote, "As a football player and soldier Pat inspired countless Americans to unify. Pat's service along with that of every man and woman in service should never be politicized in a way that divides us. We are too great of a country for that."

The president had re-tweeted an image of Pat Tillman, hoping to take advantage of it. Strong reaction also coming from the NBA where top players and coaches weighing in.


LEBRON JAMES, CLEVELAND CAVALIERS: We have to figure out a way how we come together and be as great as we can, be as a people, because the people run this country, not one individual. And damn sure not him.


ROMANS: "Wall Street Journal" editorial board not pleased with politics seeping into sports, pointing fingers at all parties, saying, quote, "American democracy was healthier when politics at the ballpark was limited to fans booing politicians who threw out the first ball.

[04:05:11] "But now the players want to be politicians and use their fame to lecture other Americans. The losers are the millions of Americans who would rather cheer for their teams on Sunday as a respite from work and the other divisions of American life."

But I will say, hasn't sports always been a vehicle for social change? Hasn't -- when you look at desegregation in baseball. You look at --

BRIGGS: Well, you go back to the Olympics.

ROMANS: Right. Exactly.

BRIGGS: The original stand there on the medal stand. ROMANS: I mean, it's never been totally pure from politics or social

change or social issues.

BRIGGS: You've had a lot of athletes stay quiet over the recent decades.


BRIGGS: In particular Michael Jordan who did weigh in to this controversy the other day. I should add, "The Wall Street Journal" call this the kind of rant you'd hear in a lousy sports bar. That's what they said about a Republican president.

Meanwhile, Republican Senators Lindsay Graham and Bill Cassidy vowing to fight on even though their plan to overhaul Obamacare appears to be dead in the water. During a live town hall debate on CNN last night, the senators offered no new initiatives to win support for their measure, simply making the argument that Obamacare is failing and change is needed.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Well, it's not working and it's never going to work. And I'm not going to spend more money, good after bad, fixing the system that can't be saved. We need to find a better way. So we're going to press on and it's OK to vote. It's OK to fall short, if you do, for an idea you believe in.


ROMANS: Last night's debate coming just hours after the Congressional Budget Office released a partial score for the GOP plan, saying it would cut the budget deficit by at least $133 billion. Millions of Americans would lose comprehensive health insurance. That was the final straw for Maine's Republican Senator Susan Collins.

BRIGGS: She is now officially a no vote, potentially killing the bill because it does not do enough to protect people with preexisting conditions and cuts Medicaid too deeply. The fate of Graham-Cassidy could be decided when Republicans meet in the Senate today.

CNN's Phil Mattingly with more from Capitol Hill.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Dave and Christine, there was one kind of key mark for Senate Republicans as they pursue once again an effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. They couldn't lose any more than two senators. Well, now they have.

Senator Susan Collins coming out Monday night saying she would be opposed to the bill and by all accounts almost putting an end to the latest effort. The fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, at this point where they're actually at. But one thing is clear. Ideologically Republicans still haven't figured out how to bridge their divide on issue that's divisive as health care.

Now guys, it came at the end, Collins' statement, of a very long, a day that included a hearing on the bill known as Graham-Cassidy, that had protesters including many in wheelchairs who were chanting, had to be removed and then arrested by Capitol Police. Kind of visceral almost reaction to what has occurred with this bill. And a really, really good way to underscore the opposition.

Now there hasn't been a public announcement yet that they are putting an end to the process. Aides telling me Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wants to make sure he has a chance to talk to his entire conference making a decision whether or not to pull the bill altogether.

But you want to know just how far Senator Susan Collins was from actually supporting this bill? Take a listen to this.


SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R), MAINE: Obviously this was an issue to which I've given a great deal of thought because there are many problems in the Affordable Care Act that do need to be fixed. However, it was clear to me that the Graham-Cassidy bill was not the answer.


MATTINGLY: You pair that with Senator Rand Paul who said once again on Monday that he was nowhere near ready to support the bill and obviously Senator John McCain kind of sent this whole thing into a tailspin on Friday when he opposed the bill. Doesn't look like there's any movement coming any time soon.

So, again, guys, the big question now, what do Senate leaders do? I talked to a lot of senators on the background quietly. They say expected to be polled. We'll probably find out Tuesday afternoon -- Dave and Christine.

ROMANS: All right. Phil, thanks.

BRIGGS: Look, there might be some moderate senators that we don't know that they're no's. So if you put this bill on the floor you might have some of those senators who have to come out for their constituents and vote no on a bill and put them in a tough position for 2018.

ROMANS: All right. Nine minutes past the hour, President Trump will be briefed today on the situation in Puerto Rico. It gets worse by the minute. The White House, though, fending off questions about why the president is tweeting about the national anthem. So many tweets this weekend about everything but an island where Americans are suffering.


[04:13:41] BRIGGS: Welcome back. President Trump expected to get a briefing today on the apocalyptic hurricane devastation in Puerto Rico. White House officials say he'll meet with Homeland Security adviser Tom Bossert who just returned from the island, along with FEMA chief Brock Long. The president finally tweeting about Puerto Rico late Monday after 20

sports tweets over the weekend. His first direct comment on the dire situation in days, saying the island is in deep trouble following Hurricane Maria but choosing to focus on Puerto Rico's financial troubles and infrastructure issues while millions of people are essentially cut off from the world.

ROMANS: About 3.2 million Americans on the island. It comes as the administration faces growing criticism for appearing to ignore Maria's aftermath in Puerto Rico. Senator Mark Anthony, his tweet reflecting that anger. He said, quote, "Mr. President, shut the blank up about the NFL. Do something about our need and people in need in Puerto Rico. We are American citizens, too."

BRIGGS: Wow. Press Secretary Sarah Sanders defending the federal response to Hurricane Maria and Puerto Rico, calling it anything but slow. Either way without power and communication the situation in the U.S. territory is dire.

CNN's Bill Weir has more.


BILL WEIR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'd like to show you around what is left of what once was one of the most scenic neighborhoods in Aguas Buenas , the Good Water, a town of about 28,000 south of San Juan.

[04:15:02] First of all, the first thing you see as you drive up in the highlands it looks like a bomb went off. This is lush tropical greenery. Imagine the flowers and the foliage. It's like a lawnmower in the sky came down. And it's like that across the island. But this house is in a neighborhood put right on a ridge. It's so beautiful up here. And this is Diana and her husband, Miguel.

Say hi.



WEIR: She's OK. She's OK. Her son, Miguel, and the little dog, hello, hello, he's doing OK. So they survived, thankfully, but they're very worried because her husband, Miguel, who is a Vietnam war veteran, is bedridden inside. And he needs insulin and so refrigeration is a matter of life or death. And the power is out for most of Puerto Rico.

And here's why. Look at this. One of the main transmission towers that goes to San Juan crushed this home. Thankfully the man who lives here evacuated before the storm. He's in a shelter. But only about 50 people in this town of 28,000 evacuated. Most rode it out. And so search and rescue teams aren't available to check on everyone because the roads are impassible, as you see right now.

This is not something you fix with a bucket truck. This will take helicopters. This will take months. But as we follow the line across, imagine this scene is being replayed across Puerto Rico. And the need is so desperate. If this is any indication, Puerto Rico may rise again but they are going to need a ton of help and a lot of time.


ROMANS: And a lot of money. Hurricane Maria will cost billions of dollars, a huge burden on Puerto Rico's economy. Damage in the Caribbean forecast at $85 billion and 85 percent of that is Puerto Rico alone.

That number is just insured losses. It doesn't include flood or infrastructure damage. Puerto Rico's economy is ill-equipped to deal with the costs. It is years into a financial crisis. $74 billion in debt, the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

Two things will make the economic hit worse. No electricity. Most of Puerto Rico still in the dark. And residents flee the island. Skilled workers are necessary to rebuild but few can leave right now. Major airlines still can't fly into Puerto Rico. San Juan's international airport has no power and damaged radar. There's only 10 commercial flights each day. United, American and JetBlue have all managed to fly in emergency supplies.

Airlines aren't the only companies pitching in. Starbucks, Verizon, Google, Lowe's all donating to relief efforts there. AT&T and T- Mobile are waving cell phone fees.

BRIGGS: Meanwhile, voters in Alabama heading to the polls in a matter of hours to fill the Senate seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The race pits President Trump's pick Alabama Senator Luther Strange against Judge Roy Moore, the choice of former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon. Bannon says Moore would help save the president from himself. A Moore victory, which is looking likely, could give momentum to other anti-establishment candidates looking to unseat Senate Republicans across the country.

ROMANS: A big wild five forcing more than 1,000 evacuations in southern California. Fire officials say winds are fuelling the fire which has already burned more than 2,000 acres in the Santa Ana Mountains near Anaheim. Crews are dropping water on the tall flames from the air using bulldozers to assemble containment lines on the ground.

There are no reported injuries. An area high school has been set up as a shelter. No word on what sparked the fire which is so far only 5 percent contained.

All right. North Korea starting to boost defenses along its east coast after warning it has the right to shoot down American planes. We're live in Seoul next.



[04:23:01] SANDERS: We've not declared war on North Korea and frankly the suggestion of that is absurd.


ROMANS: The White House rejecting those claims by North Korea that President Trump's weekend tweet amounts to a declaration of war. The president tweeting North Korea's leadership, quote, "won't be around much longer." Pyongyang's Foreign minister says that gives North Korea the right to retaliate by shooting down U.S. fighter jets.

Let's go to CNN's Paula Hancocks live in Seoul, South Korea with the latest and the word from the White House, it's absurd to think a presidential tweet, that tweet in particular, was a declaration of war. But it certainly is the latest in what has been a war of words between these two countries.

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Christine. And this is really starting to shake even the steadiest of nerves in the religion, the fact that the two leaders of the U.S. and North Korea are really trading these very personal insults.

And what we've heard from a national intelligence briefing to lawmakers today, this from Yonghap News Agency, is that there appears to be a buildup of airplanes and military assets on the east coast of North Korea following those U.S. B1B bombers that did a flyover just over the weekend.

This was a show of force, we understand, from the Pentagon. It was the furthest north of the DMZ. They've flown all century. This was in international waters off the east coast of the DMZ.

We also understand from the NIS briefing that they confirmed to CNN that they believe North Korean soldiers along the DMZ have been told to report something first and take measures second. That would suggest that they appreciate there could be some kind of accidental clash and they are trying to prevent that.

But certainly it is a concern in the region that so much is going on with all these tweets from the U.S. president. These accusations of declarations of war from the North Korean side. The South Korea Foreign minister speaking in Washington earlier also called for calm and called for both the U.S. and South Korea to work together to try and de-escalate the situation -- Christine.

[04:25:02] ROMANS: Yes. Looking for an off-ramp. No question. Thank you so much for that, Paula in Seoul for us this morning.

BRIGGS: Have some breaking news from the Middle East. Israeli police say three people were killed at a shooting attack at a crossing this morning between Israel and the West Bank. Authorities say a Palestinian gunman opened fire at the Har Adar Israeli settlement, claiming the lives of two security guards and a border policeman. One person was injured. Police say the attacker and two others traveling with him were killed. Security is being increased in nearby Jerusalem in the wake of this attack.

ROMANS: Iran's claim that it tested a new ballistic missile last weekend appears to be false. U.S. intelligence's radar systems and sensors picked up no indication of such a launch. And if there had been a missile launch it would have been detected by members of the U.S. assets in the region. This according to a White House official.

President Trump tweeted about the suspected launch right after the Iranians released footage on Saturday. Now it is not known if the president receives an intelligence briefing about the launch before tweeting, spokesperson for the National Security Council declined to comment to CNN.

BRIGGS: All right. A wide mix of reaction still pouring in after the president suggested punishing football players who don't stand for the national anthem. So what happened on Monday Night Football? What is the president saying behind closed doors?