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HHS Secretary Price Under Fire; Help for Puerto Rico. Aired 4:30-5a ET

Aired September 29, 2017 - 04:30   ET



[04:30:27] CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Growing scandal around Health Secretary Tom Price We learned he used government planes for two foreign trips, in addition to chartering private planes. And now he says he'll reimburse the government but not entirely.

DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: And in Puerto Rico, a change in leadership. The homeland security chief heads there today as a flash flood warning could make a situation even worse for millions of Americans.

Such a tough scene there, Puerto Rico.

Welcome back to EARLY START. I'm Dave Briggs.

ROMANS: And I'm Christine Romans. It is about 31 minutes past the hour. Nice to see you all this morning.

Up first, Tom Price facing even more scrutiny as new details emerged about his high cost travel habits on the taxpayers' dime. Now, in addition to chartering private jets for official business, the secretary of health and human services also traveled on government aircraft, military aircraft for two multi-stop international trips.

BRIGGS: "Politico" reports those two trips alone cost more than a half million dollars. Price already under fire for chartering private planes, insists all the flights were approved in advance.


TOM PRICE, HHS SECRETARY: All of these trips were official business. All of them were within budget. All of them were approved by the normal processes that every other administration has gone through, prior to the trip. Not after.


BRIGGS: President Trump is said to be fuming over the new revelations and all the negative press. For his part, Secretary Price is vowing to personally reimburse taxpayers for the private charters, sort of.

Here's CNN's Jeff Zeleny.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Christine and Dave, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price even in hotter water than he was just earlier this week. A new revelation of more travel, this time foreign travel, spending some half a million dollars or so, traveling to points across the world.

Now, this is something he was already on thin ice with the president. He agreed late Thursday to reimburse the government for portions of his travel on private jets. He said he would send a check for some $52,000 for the price of his seat on some of these planes, but not the full cost of the aircraft.

We caught up with Tom Price last night in Washington to ask him about his job security. This is what he said.

REPORTER: The check that you're writing, will that satisfy your bosses and the taxpayers' questions?

PRICE: I think that we've done right now is to demonstrate good faith effort and we've heard the concern and the criticism, and we look forward to the inspector general's report.

REPORTER: Do you plan to stay on the job?

PRICE: Absolutely.

ZELENY: Now, again, he said absolutely he would hold on to his job, but that is not a decision for him to make. President Trump will decide whether Tom Price will remain in the cabinet, whether he will stay on board as one of his more senior advisers.

We do know by talking to people close to the White House the president is increasingly losing patience with this ongoing story, this drip, drip, drip, of new flights, new destinations here. So, the president will have a decision to make whether he decides to keep Tom Price on board.

Tom Price not on good footing with the president. These stories certainly do not give the White House confidence as they're trying to deal with so many other things in Puerto Rico, tax reform and they're dealing with this -- even more controversy from Tom Price -- Christine and Dave.


ROMANS: All right. Those military flights that Jeff mentioned need a sign-off from the White House. Charter flights are only subject to approval by HHS lawyers. Now, the military jet White House signoff procedure began under President Obama. Since, the inauguration , the White House has authorized 77 government flights, military flights, for cabinet officials. When you compare that to 2009, under the Obama administration, it was 94 flights.

So, you do the math. The Obama administration approved 17 more of these than the Trump administration. Just for some context.

BRIGGS: In the same time period. Yes.

Meantime, we're learning tensions are running high at the Department of Health and Human Services. Sources tell CNN there's a witch hunt for leakers, and people hiring lawyers at their own expense. Reports this morning also say Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and his aides have taken several flights on private or military aircraft, including flights to his home state of Montana and private flights between two Caribbean islands for cabinet members who have now been found to be using non-commercial planes at taxpayer expense. Very busy draining that swamp.

ROMANS: All right. CNN is also learning exclusively that Jared Kushner did not disclose the use of his personal e-mail account during a private interview with the Senate Intelligence Committee staff. It is now being revealed that the president's son-in-law and senior adviser used the account for official government business.

[04:35:05] The heads of the Intel Committee is said to be so angry at Kushner's omission. They sent a letter telling him to double-check that he has turned over every relevant document to that committee.

BRIGGS: Meantime, "Politico" reporting the White House has launched an internal investigation of private email use, pulling batches of emails on the White House server to and from the private accounts of senior aides. CNN has not confirmed that "Politico" reporting.

ROMANS: All right. To Puerto Rico now. A flash flood warning in effect there, threatening to compound the misery on the island. Acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke travels to Puerto Rico today. She will meet with the governor and FEMA officials to discuss response efforts. There's widespread confusion surrounding the delivery of life-saving supplies.

BRIGGS: According to the governor of Puerto Rico, there are 3,000 containers stuck in ports, some may not be related to hurricane relief. Earlier, though, CNN had been told buy shipping officials as many as 10,000 containers were stuck. Either way, distribution remains a critical issue.

ROMANS: The Pentagon has just appointed Lieutenant General Jeffrey Buchanan to lead all military relief efforts in Puerto, trying to improve distribution networks of relief supplies. Listen to the president's homeland security adviser Tom Bossert when he was asked why it took so long to appoint Buchanan.


ZELENY: Do you acknowledge it was a mistake looking back to not have this on the ground earlier?

TOM BOSSERT, HOMELAND SECURITY ADVISER: No, not at all. In fact that doesn't affect the way we stage equipment and the way we handle area command and field operational commands. This is textbook and it's been done well.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BRIGGS: About 7,500 U.S. troops and 10,000 federal relief workers are on the ground in Puerto Rico. Right now, there are more than 10,000 people in 160 shelters in Puerto Rico. The island's power grid is not expected to come back fully online for months. Ninety percent of the cell sites on the island are out of service. ROMANS: According to Puerto Rico's governor, an airplane with cash

will be arriving soon to ease pressure on banks running low on money. The U.S. Department of Transportation is sending $40 million to help restore essential service on roads and bridges. Buses in San Juan resume limited service this morning with more routes expected to reopen next week.

Of course, one of the challenges is when you get the cash there, there's a shortage of truck drivers, armored truck drivers. So, you get the cash here, and now, you got to make sure that you have a system to fill up those cash machines.

BRIGGS: Distribution is critical. Desperation not limited to people on the island. There are also many folks trying to get home to Puerto Rico.

CNN's Brynn Gingras met up with one family traveling home for the first time since the storm. She has more on their emotional return.


BRYNN GINGRAS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Christine and Dave, we met up with a couple, Carmen Delgado and her husband Eduardo. For the past week, they've been trying to get to Puerto Rico. No idea what their house looks like. They haven't seen their family and their flights have been canceled three times.

Finally, they got on a flight on Thursday morning from Philadelphia to San Juan. They called it a miracle flight. I could tell you, it was emotional one.

We took it with them. At times, we watched Carmen look out the window. She cried. When we actually land, there was cheering in the entire cabin.

And then when we actually got into the airport here in San Juan, it was just chaos. The couple was frantically searching for their two children who were meant to pick them up but, of course, communications here on the island are dismal at best.

They weren't able to connect. So, what we did is we got in a car and we traveled about an hour outside of San Juan to Humacao, it's where they live. It's actually one of the first places Maria hit.

And as we were really driving around, Carmen looked out the window and she says it looks like a fire for through this area. And to be honest, it didn't get much better when we actually got to her house. She walked up the steps to her house, she was gasping for air. There was no ceiling. There were no walls.

And at one point, she turned to me and she said, I have to sit down. And this is a house that she lived in for 20 years with her entire family and Maria just completely wiped it out. And remember, they hadn't seen their children. It was three weeks and for an hour, we waited at that house, which seemed like a lifetime to them and then finally, Carmen saw the car coming down the road and watched this emotional reunion.

And one thing Carmen told me after all of this was that I might not have a house but I have a home, which means to her that she has her family back together again, and she used three words. We now pray, we wait and we hope. And that is what they're doing in the neither future until hopefully they can rebuild -- Dave and Christine.


[04:40:00] ROMANS: All right, Brynn, thank you so much for that reporting.

The president claims he will not benefit from his tax plan. Another real estate mogul Don Peebles told me it's great for the rich and that his tax cut will boost jobs.


DON PEEBLES, CHAIRMAN & CEO, THE PEEBLES CORPORATION: Most high income earners pay taxes and earn their income through past through entities. And so, this will be a tremendous tax cut, say, from 39 percent down to 25 percent. And entrepreneurs tend to take most of the free capital and put it back in their businesses.

ROMANS: So, also killing the estate tax, killing the alternative minimum tax, lowering that top bracket. You say this is great for rich people?

PEEBLES: It is. It is great for entrepreneurs. I like the elimination of the estate tax because it allows us to orderly transfer wealth that we worked for to the next generation.

COOPER: Are you concerned at all how we pay for it?

PEEBLES: That's going to be a big point by the way because the elimination of state income taxes is going to be huge. And so, you're going to have New York and California fighting tooth and nail because they're the two highest tax states in the country. So, I think that's going to be a big issue.


ROMANS: You're already seeing the pushback from House Republicans in those states who are like, no, no, that's not good for us. He also says the plan is particularly good for real estate developers, but he thinks it would be good for the economy over all.

You know, the White House is trying to sell as middle class miracle, middle class tax relief. People look at this and they say, yes, this is about cutting taxes for corporations and about juicing the economy.

BRIGGS: The death or estate tax is interesting because they're saying this is really for the farmers in Middle America. Is it?

ROMANS: I mean, some farmers, yes. But you've got a lot of those family farms that are corporate now at this point anyway. You know, you have fewer families than ever before in the Midwest. You know, it's for people who have $5.5 million or more to pass on. So, you know, if I were trying to support it, I would sell it as family farmers --

BRIGGS: All right. There's a lot of fights ahead.

All right. Players and fans making a statement at last night's Packers-Bears game at Lambeau. Chants of "USA", but did anyone take a knee to protest the president?


[04:46:18] BRIGGS: CNN has learned exclusively that a Russian-linked social media campaign called blacktivist used Facebook and Twitter in an apparent attempt to stoke racial tensions in the U.S. during the 2016 election. According to two sources with knowledge of the matter, both accounts regularly shared content intended to deepen the racial divide and stir up outrage.

ROMANS: The account had 360,000 likes. That's more than the verified Black Lives Matter account on Facebook which has just over 301,000 likes. The Blackivist Twitter account has been handed over to Congress. The Facebook account is expected to be turned over in the coming days.

BRIGGS: Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman confirmed by the Senate as the next U.S. ambassador to Russia. He previously served at the U.S. ambassador to China under President Obama, before running for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. Huntsman has taken a much harder stance against Russia than the president has. During his confirmation hearing, Huntsman said there is, quote, no question Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.

ROMANS: It appears the leader of ISIS is still alive. Breaking 11 months of silence in a long audio recording, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi mocks the United States. He also calls on jihadists to rally against the Syrian, insists the terror group remains viable despite the loss of -- rapid loss of territory.

Now, the speech seems to have been recorded recently since it references North Korea's nuclear threats against Japan. A national intelligence spokesman says the reporting is being examined. Reports of his death were premature.

BRIGGS: Yes, I think that was the Russians claimed. Yes.

ROMANS: All right. Elon Musk wants to colonize Mars. And he just unveils the next phase of plan. Details on CNN's "Money Stream" next.


[04:52:28] ROMANS: A triumphant return to Capitol Hill for Congressman Steve Scalise.

The House Republican whip was shot in June at a congressional baseball practice.

BRIGGS: On Thursday, he returned to the Hill for the first time since he was wounded. Scalise calls himself a living example that miracles really do happen.


REP. STEVE SCALISE (R), LOUISIANA: That's why I'm so excited to be back because as we're fighting through the issues of the day, let's just keep in mind that we rise above the challenges of the day and understand it's not just us and our constituents and the country, the United States that's counting on us being successful. People all around the world that believe in freedom are counting on as well.


BRIGGGS: Scalise planning to resume his job at the capital while continuing outpatient rehab.

ROMANS: First Lady Melania Trump leading her first round table policy discussion. The issue: the opioid crisis in America. Mrs. Trump says she plans to use her platform to help children with the pressure they face growing up.


MELANIA TRUMP, FIRST LADY: Drug addiction, especially opioid abuse, is one of those issues, and I look forward to working alongside the presidential opioid commission. And people such as yourself to do all we can to teach children the dangerous consequences of drug abuse.


ROMANS: Many of those invited to the event were directly affected by opioid abuse. Others who attended work in the drug recovery field.

BRIGGS: Another game, another statement by NFL players, the fans as well. No kneeling during the national anthem Thursday. Instead, players and coaches for the Bears and Packers stood and locked arms during the playing of the anthem. Some fans at Lambeau locked arms in unison, not that many, following through on a request by Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

ROMANS: All of this in the wake of protests by players responding to President Trump's comments, calling players who kneel during the anthem SOBs and saying they should be fired.

As for the game, it kicked off week four of the NFL, it was no contest. Packers 35, Bears, 14.

BRIGGS: Lightening delayed, a lot of chants of "USA, USA" during that anthem, patriotic crowd.

ROMANS: But it's only recently that the teams have been out for the national anthem, right?

BRIGGS: 2009, they officially made this policy. Prior to that, teams wanted to focus on football.

ROMANS: But it was part of ad campaign.

BRIGGS: The military began to pay the NFL for patriotic salutes.

ROMANS: All goes back to a business deal.

[04:55:01] BRIGGS: It will continue this weekend. We'll see how it evolves Sunday.

A second massive rock fall in two days at Yosemite National Park. Officials say one person was injured on the fall Thursday on Yosemite's popular climbing destination, El Capitan. It happened along the same exact climbing route as Wednesday's rock fall in which one person was killed and another injured. All the victims are said to be British tourists. This picture was taken by a climber who had just reached the top of El Capitan when the rocks broke loose below. Oh, jeez.

ROMANS: Julia Louis Dreyfus revealing she has breast cancer. The star of "Veep" and "Seinfeld" posting this message on Twitter: One in eight women get breast cancer today. I'm the one.

Dreyfus also saying she has a supportive family and friends and fantastic insurance through her union. She made a plea for universal health care to help others facing a similar fight.

The 56-year-old Emmy winner getting plenty of support from Hollywood, her "Veep" co-stars, and real life veep, Joe Biden, who tweeted: We Veeps stick together, Jill and I and all the Bidens are with you, Julia.

BRIGGS: All right. Golf's President's Cup living up to its name. Former President's Obama, Clinton and Bush appearing together for the opening ceremonies at liberty national in New Jersey. The first time three ex-presidents ever attended the event. They appearance follows a joint effort by the five living former presidents to support hurricane relief efforts. U.S. team opening at 3-1/2 to 1-1/2 point lead over the internationals after the first session.

But you really could see -- they really get along well and enjoy being together.

ROMANS: They do. They all look rested too. There they are.

BRIGGS: There, they look tired.

ROMANS: Yes, they kind of do. All right.

Let's get a check on CNN "Money Stream" this morning.

Global stock markets mostly higher, following Wall Street. The S&P 500 hit a record close, thanks to tax reform, the White House tax will cut the corporate tax rate, one of the many business-friendly proposals inside these numbers. Also, the economy grew at it fastest pace in two years in the second quarter, GDP provides up to 3.1 percent.

But the Commerce Department warns the third quarter could slow down because of the impact of the hurricane Irma and Harvey.

Twitter suspended 200 Russia-linked accounts. But one U.S. senator says it's not enough. Twitter met with the Senate Intelligence Committee yesterday and is investigating Russia's meddling during the 2016 election. Twitter told them it mainly removed account connected to Russia-linked Facebook profiles. But ranking member Mark Warner says that response is inadequate on almost every level, calling the company's entire statement deeply disappointing.

Elon Musk wants to colonize Mars and he just unveiled the next phase of his plan. Musk says X-Space aims to land two cargo ships on the red planet in 2022. The goal, place power, mining and life support systems on the planet. That allow crews to start arriving in 2024.

That's just seven years from now. Musk admits the plan is aspirational. Would you sign up?

BRIGGS: That's the under statement of the decade. No chance. You?


BRIGGS: No? Not the adventurous type? We're too old.

ROMANS: This is adventurous enough right here for me. I'm not too old. You might be too old.


ROMANS: To the moon, Dave Briggs, to the moon.

BRIGGS: -- continues right now with the latest scandal surrounding HHS Secretary Tom Price.


ROMANS: Growing scandal around the Health Secretary Tom Price. We learned he used government planes for two foreign trips, in addition to chartering private planes. Now he says he'll reimburse the government but not entirely.

BRIGGS: And in Puerto Rico, a change in leadership from military recovery effort. Homeland security chief heads there today, as a flash flood warning could make a bad situation worse for millions of Americans there. Continuing tough circumstances for everyone in Puerto Rico.

Good morning. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm Dave Briggs.

ROMANS: And I'm Christine Romans. It is Friday, September 29. It is 5:00 a.m. exactly in the east. Let's begin with Tom Price, facing more scrutiny as new details

emerged about his high cost travel habits on the taxpayer's dime. Now, in addition to chartering private jets for official business, the secretary of health and human services also travelled on government aircraft for two multi-stop international trips. "Politico" reports those two trips alone cost more than half a million dollars.

BRIGGS: Price already under scrutiny for chartering dozens of private planes, insists all the flights were approved in advance.


PRICE: All of these trips were official business. All of them were within budget. All of them were approved by the normal processes that every other administration has gone through, prior to the trip. Not after.


BRIGGS: President Trump said to be fuming over the new revelations and all the negative press. And for his part, Secretary Price vowing to personally reimburse taxpayers for the private charters. Sort of. Price will pay nearly $52,000 covering only his seat.