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Trump Versus the NFL; Latest GOP Health Care Effort on Life Support; Apocalyptic Devastation in Puerto Rico; Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired September 26, 2017 - 05:00   ET


[05:00:01] CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning and welcome to EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Dave Briggs. It's Tuesday, September 26th. It is 5:00 a.m. in the East.

Just a few Puerto Rico tweets but 20 about sports over the weekend for President Trump. And that's where we start. With Trump 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 this reaction to the comments, telling conservative leaders at a 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 the owner Jerry Jones, they took a knee before the national anthem. During the national anthem, both teams, a show of unity, they stood, linking arms or holding hands.

BRIGGS: The 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, a four-star general, was not pleased by the fight Trump started with his remarks.

But Kelly also tells CNN he is appalled by the lack of respect for the flag and the national anthem. 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 they 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 and racial inequality 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: Also new reaction overnight from the widow of Pat Tillman, the former NFL player who was killed on a friendly fire incident in 2014 in Afghanistan. The president has re-tweeted images of Tillman in the last few days but in a statement to CNN's Brian Stelter, Marie Tillman says, "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."

ROMANS: All right. For more on the Monday Night Football protest and reaction from the sports world, Andy Scholes has this morning's "Bleacher Report."

Hey, Andy.

ANDY SCHOLES, CNN SPORTS CORRESPONDENT: Hey, good morning, guys. You know, all eyes were on Monday Night Football to see what the Dallas Cowboys and the Arizona Cardinals were going to do in response to the events over the weekend. Both franchises displaying a show of unity as a team last night. The cardinals locking arms while standing together for the national anthem.

The Dallas Cowboys, meanwhile, with owner Jerry Jones walked on to the field with locked arms, then took a knee before eventually standing for the national anthem and after the Cowboys win, Jerry Jones explained the team's actions.


JERRY JONES, DALLAS COWBOYS OWNER: We want to stand and respect the flag. Make no mistake about that. Nothing we've done, nothing we did tonight says anything other than that. But we also, as a complete team and those players and organization, want to be able to, when we can, demonstrate that unity is important and equality is important.

DEZ BRYANT, DALLAS COWBOYS WIDE RECEIVER: That was a clear shot at Trump. You know, sitting on our knee like that because you just can't do that. That's super disrespectful.

EZEKIEL ELLIOTT, DALLAS COWBOYS RUNNING BACK: We just want to show unity. We don't agree at all with what the president has said. And we just wanted to show that we weren't going to be divided by that.


SCHOLES: Sunday Steelers lineman Alejandro Villanueva was the lone player on the team to come out for the national anthem. Villanueva, a former Army Ranger, served three tours in Afghanistan. His jersey on many Web sites became the best-seller overnight.

Well, Villanueva said he's actually embarrassed when he sees the image of him standing alone for the anthem because he didn't mean to leave his teammates behind in the tunnel.


ALEJANDRO VILLANUEVA, PITTSBURGH STEELERS: Whether I wanted or not, whether it was my intended plan or not, the reason that I went out there by myself is the reason that is causing all this distress and is making the organization look bad. My coach look bad and my teammates look bad and for anybody who thinks that Coach Tomlin is not as patriotic as you can get in America or any one of my teammates or the owner, I take offense to that.


SCHOLES: Now Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger meanwhile says he regrets not coming out on to the field for the national anthem and going forward the team will be out there on the field.


BEN ROETHLISBERGER, PITTSBURGH STEELERS QUARTERBACK: I wish that we would have been on the field. That's just my personal feeling on it. I'm entitled to that opinion.

[05:05:04] That's what's great about this country and what the troops are for. I wish we could have stood out there but what's important is being united as well. And that's what we showed. We showed unity.


SCHOLES: NBA training camps opening around the country yesterday and LeBron James giving his take on what's happening right now in the NFL.


LEBRON JAMES, CLEVELAND CAVALIERS: He used the sports platform to try to divide us. And sports is so -- it's so amazing. What sports can do for everyone. No matter the shape or size or race or ethnicity or religion or whatever.

No matter if you voted for him or not. You may have made a mistake. And that's OK. If you voted for him. It's OK. I mean, I've done things for my kids and realized I shouldn't have given my daughter that many damn Skittles. Maybe I shouldn't have done that. She won't go to sleep now.


SCHOLES: Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich meanwhile has never held back when speaking his mind on President Trump. Popovich, who graduated from the Air Force Academy, says the president is confused by the demonstrations we saw in the NFL over the weekend.


GREGG POPOVICH, SAN ANTONIO SPURS HEAD COACH: The country's an embarrassment in the world. This is an individual who actually thought that when people held arms during the games, that they were doing it to honor the flag. That's delusional. Absolutely delusional.


SCHOLES: And guys, Popovich added that his players have the right and ability to express political opinions however they see fit. And he says that they can do whatever they want when it comes to the national anthem when NBA season tips off next month.

ROMANS: What an interesting guy. I've just been reading some of -- other of his comments where he said that there needs to be a national conversation about race. And he said all these people, like, they're playing the race card again. He said it's uncomfortable. The conversation is uncomfortable because of white privilege. White people need to be having this conversation and not just, you know, saying you're unpatriotic. No.

BRIGGS: Right.

ROMANS: A question -- a discussion about race is patriotic. That's what Popovich said.

BRIGGS: And nuance is certainly needed in this discussion where President Trump has made it a low-lying fruit.

Scholes, thank you, sir.

ROMANS: Thank you, Andy.

BRIGGS: Republican Senators Lindsey 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 taking 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. 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's know 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 later today.

ROMANS: So are Republicans running out of time to convince Americans they can ever come up with a better plan for health care? That's next.


[05:12:44] BRIGGS: Republican hopes of reviving the latest Obamacare care repeal efforts appear to have flat lined. Three GOP senators now oppose the Graham-Cassidy bill Even after 11th hour changes done to get certain senators on board, with and midterms a year away, how can Republicans demonstrate they can even get health care done?

ROMANS: Let's bring in Gregory Valliere, our political economist and chief strategist with Horizon Investments.

So nice to see you, Greg.


ROMANS: And what is happening in your town with health care reform? Is it dead?

VALLIERE: Yes. I think it's been dead for several months frankly. I think the concept of touching a hot stove is appropriate here. How many times do the Republicans have to touch a hot stove to realize that they're not going to get a bill?

ROMANS: Why do they -- why do they keep touching that stove? I mean --


ROMANS: There's some reporting that their donors --


ROMANS: Not necessarily voters, but big donors want this repealed and they want it repealed. They want this win on health care.

VALLIERE: Well, they promised it during the campaign. Their donors want it. But the fact is we keep getting these scores from the Congressional Budget Office saying how many people would be hurt. And I just don't see the votes there to get anything done.

I mean, there are so many other big issues like tax reform, infrastructure, that should be addressed, and we've wasted months and months on an issue that's not going to pass.

BRIGGS: All right. So Christine asked why does the president keep touching that hot stove? What about the same question regarding the NFL?


BRIGGS: And the controversy that he jumped up on Friday night, calling players who take a knee SOBs.


BRIGGS: That should be fired. Now I'm sure the polling would suggest Americans don't support players taking a knee during the national anthem.


BRIGGS: But with North Korea nuclear showdown, with the health care disaster.

ROMANS: Tax reform.

BRIGGS: Tax reform week, why?

VALLIERE: And I would also add he's going to lose tonight in Alabama. Puerto Rico is a disaster. You've got all of these things that are heading in the wrong direction for him so this is brilliant. He's diverted attention. All the coverage has been about the NFL. He's divided the country but at the same time, all of these bigger issues in some respects are being ignored.

ROMANS: So you see a strategy in that. The NFL controversy is a strategy.

VALLIERE: Absolutely, to divert attention away from all these if failures.

[05:15:04] And also I would say, Christine, I think for his base, that 35 percent or so of the country that really loves him, this really gets the base ginned up. And that keeps his support solid in that group even though he very cynically divides the rest of the country.

BRIGGS: One thing I can't figure out about, though, maybe this poll as well. But here's a tweet from the president about this NFL controversy. "If NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our flag and country, you'll see change take place fast. Fire or suspend."

Greg, you are our business guy here. Here is a Republican president, the businessman president, telling business owners, let alone those who contributed $7 million to his inauguration.


BRIGGS: Business owners, how to run their business. How does that jive with Republican conservative -- fiscal conservative Republican voters?

VALLIERE: It doesn't jive on two fronts, Dave. Number one, Washington cannot dictate to what business will do. Number two, it doesn't jive in terms of the new attitudes. He's 71 years old. The new attitude is very inclusionary, it's very diverse. You can have business endorsing something like this that has so riled African- Americans. So I think Trump just doesn't get it.

ROMANS: Let me ask you about tax reform since you've seen that the health care reform is dead. Is there -- are there better hopes for tax reform? I mean, I'm still hearing high hopes for at least a corporate tax cut here.

VALLIERE: Yes. We got a rollout tomorrow, although not legislative language, but a blueprint from the Republicans and the president goes to Indiana and will talk about his plan then.

Yes, I do think there's a chance we're going to get something. Not this year. There's not enough time this year. But I do think we'll get corporate tax cuts, some individual tax cuts, some reform. But here's an irony. Steve Bannon and the populist Republicans don't like what's in this bill. They don't want any more tax cuts for the rich or tax cuts for corporations. So the Steve Bannon wing, which is going to have a big victory tonight in Alabama, might be an impediment to getting a bill done.

BRIGGS: Steve Bannon, really wading in there in Alabama. We'll talk about that Senate race with you in about 20 minutes.

ROMANS: Greg, thanks.

BRIGGS: Greg Valliere, thank you.

ROMANS: Nice to see you.

VALLIERE: You bet. Yes.

ROMANS: All right. About 17 minutes past the hour. President Trump will be briefed today on the dire situation in Puerto Rico. White House fending off questions about why the president seems to obsess with the national anthem when 3.2 million Americans are in the dark in Puerto Rico.


[05:21:54] BRIGGS: 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 tweeting finally about Puerto Rico late Monday, his first direct comment on this dire situation in several 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 are essentially cut off from the world.

ROMANS: The administration faces growing criticism for appearing to ignore Maria's aftermath in Puerto Rico. Singer Mark Anthony's tweet reflecting that anger. He says, quote, "Mr. President, shut the blank up about the NFL. Do something about our people in need in Puerto Rico. We are American citizens, too."

BRIGGS: 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 this U.S. territory is dire, as CNN's Bill Weir shows us.


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 Waters, a town of about 28,000 south of San Juan.

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, here's the little dog, Mika . 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, Bill Weir. Thank you for that.

Hurricane Maria will cost billions of dollars, a huge burden on Puerto Rico's economy. Damage in the Caribbean forecast at $85 billion, 85 percent of that is for Puerto Rico alone, and an economy that has been in recession for 11 years. That number is just insured losses. It doesn't include flood or infrastructure damage.

Puerto Rico's economy ill-equipped to deal with this. 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.

[05:25:04] And also it could get worse if people leave the island. You know, they're going to need skilled workers to rebuild. Now right now few can leave. Major airlines still can't fly into Puerto Rico. San Juan's international airport has no power and damaged radar. There are only about 10 commercial flights each day. But American, United, and JetBlue have all managed to fly in emergency supplies at least.

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

You know, there has been a talent drain some in Puerto Rico for several years, you know, thousands of people every year leave. Mostly to Florida and Texas interestingly, looking for work. You know. And better work. So they will need skilled labor and maybe, just maybe, if you can get the right mix of, you know, federal and congressional action, you could see an infrastructure build in there that would really bring jobs.

BRIGGS: Could you?

ROMANS: You must. You must.

BRIGGS: To the tune of $70 billion to bail out their municipal --

ROMANS: I mean, it's just --

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