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Trump White House; Hurricane Maria Aftermath; Mysterious Sonic Attacks at Cuban Embassy; Kurdish Referendum. Aired 12-12:30a ET

Aired September 30, 2017 - 00:00   ET



CYRIL VANIER, CNN ANCHOR: She just met her family and friends for the first time since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico.

And the U.S. pulls nonessential staff from its embassy in Havana after a series of mysterious attacks against American diplomats.

Thanks for joining us, everyone. I'm Cyril Vanier at the CNN NEWSROOM in Atlanta.


VANIER: Another key figure in the Trump administration is bowing out. Health and Human Services secretary Tom Price has resigned. He was exposed for using private jets for his government business trips when commercial flights would have been a lot cheaper for taxpayers.

Sara Murray has the president's reaction.



I can tell you, I'm not happy.

SARA MURRAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Trump today accepting the resignation of Health and Human Services secretary Tom Price. The bombshell announcement coming after days of mounting controversy over Price's travel on private jets at a cost estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

TRUMP: It's not a question of confidence. I was disappointed because I didn't like it, cosmetically or otherwise. I was disappointed.

You know, this is an administration that saves hundreds of millions of dollars on renegotiating things. So I don't like to see somebody that perhaps there's the perception that it wasn't right.

MURRAY (voice-over): Price agreed to repay a fraction of the overall tab. But sources say the offer only appeared to exacerbate Trump's anger.

TRUMP: Well, we have great secretaries. And we have some that actually own their own planes, as you know. And that solves that. But we put in an order, that no more planes.

MURRAY (voice-over): This as the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico continues to mount, leaving Trump to the federal government's response.

TRUMP: When you have a category 5 wipe out an island like this, because you have nothing. You don't have the roads, you don't have anything and you don't have the people even to operate the equipment.

MURRAY (voice-over): Characterizing the crisis as unprecedented, he painted a bleak picture of Puerto Rico's conditions before the storm.

TRUMP: The electrical grid and other infrastructure were already in very, very poor shape. They were at their life's end prior to the hurricanes. We're literally starting from scratch. We will not rest, however, until the people of Puerto Rico are safe.


VANIER: Millions of people in Puerto Rico remain without water, without gasoline or electricity and, to make matters worse, heavy rain this weekend. It could make things worse, especially for those who are most vulnerable on the island. We'll have more that just ahead.

And professor Larry Sabado joins us now. He is the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

Larry, great to have you back on. So tell me this, there's been a lot of controversy obviously, since the beginning of the Trump presidency over a number of things but perhaps none which has smacked of entitlement and privilege the way this Tom Price scandal has.

What does that do to the Trump presidency?

LARRY SABATO, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA: Well, of course, Trump handled it quickly. You have to give him credit for that. And Tom Price was trying to satisfy Trump by paying a part of the freight, a very small part of the freight, about $52,000 out of $1 million in private aircraft flights.

I think Trump handled this reasonably well. He insisted that Price resign and that's what Price did. If he hadn't resigned, he would have been fired.

He also sent a message essentially to the other cabinet officers, at least two of whom have been doing the very same thing, although not as extremely as Tom Price did.

VANIER: So that's interesting; when you say he handled this well, are you saying that politically he does not lose points essentially because Tom Price was made to leave quickly?

SABATO: Yes, and because he is seen as the one who acted to force him to quit. If this had dragged on for much longer and if Trump had defended Price and the other cabinet officers, now I think it would have cut Trump himself. But he does have a good sense of what at least his base thinks about, how elites treat them and what government should and should not do. And clearly his base and probably everybody agrees that this kind of excess is unwise.

VANIER: Right, because this would look bad for any president but even more so for a president who's tapped into populist anger against the establishment.

SABATO: That's right, the populism and the establishment feeling and this really came to head just as he is releasing a tax reform plan that many see as benefiting the rich. So I think he had to take the action that he did and he took it quickly. I'm saying that solves his tax reform problems.

But at least it does not make them worse.

VANIER: So I was looking at the list of people who have been fired from Trump's cabinet or who have left the Trump team since the beginning of the presidency and that's a very long list now.

The national security adviser, Michael Flynn, obviously, at the beginning of the presidency; the press secretary, the communications director, the chief strategist; I'm not even mentioning here the FBI director.

Is there -- is there a cumulative effect that hurts Trump here or not at all?

SABATO: Most average people really do not follow the ins and outs of who's filling these jobs and their name ID is under 10 percent. People can't name these people; they do not know them.

Now this is a tumultuous presidency. People have known that from day one. So I don't think they're surprised to see a well-above-normal exit rate for key Trump people.

What will matter is that policy suffers. What's hurting Trump is that he has not been able to get much of anything done other than the confirmation of a Supreme Court justice.

VANIER: But to the wider point of policy, Tom Price actually had a policy failure on his hands because he failed to help push through a reform of the health care and that was not what doomed him.

SABATO: I believe that Trump would have given him a pass and allowed him to find a way to stay had he actually gotten ObamaCare repealed and replaced. Remember Price was chosen because he had been a member Congress for over 10 years.

He was well respected by Republicans and the caucus and they're the majority in the House and the Senate. And the assumption was that he could actually get this done well. He failed at least twice. And there does not seem to be any reasonable prospect that it will happen anytime soon.

So what did Trump really lose?

VANIER: All right, Larry, great to speak to you again. Thank you very much for your time.

SABATO: Thank you, Cyril.

VANIER: Let's talk about Puerto Rico again and the humanitarian emergency there, 11 days after Hurricane Maria hit the island. U.S. officials remain optimistic that the island is on the road to recovery.

In fact, acting Homeland Secretary security Elaine Duke arrived in San Juan on Friday to check the situation first-hand. Now she caused a lot of anger before leaving Washington when she called the federal response, "a good news story." On Friday, she was more temperate about that.


ELAINE DUKE, ACTING U.S. HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: Clearly, the situation here in Puerto Rico after the devastating hurricane is not satisfactory. But together we are getting there. And the progress today is very, very strong.


VANIER: Across the island, progress is actually very slow. Puerto Ricans are waiting for hours under a brutal sun for basic necessities like food, fuel, cash; some are tapping -- you're seeing it right there -- spring water to drink and wash themselves.

Some aid is beginning to arrive and the nightly curfew, which was meant to deter looters, has been extended until 9:00 pm to give residents a couple more hours to try and get supplies.

The National Guard has brought in heavy machinery to help clear blocked roads. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers been tasked with rebuilding the electrical grid. But deep pockets of misery remain. Stagnant floodwaters could end up causing diseases and heavy rains are forecast for this weekend, which could greatly complicate the recovery. We'll have more on the weather forecast later on in the show.

But for now CNN has teams across Puerto Rico. Ivan Watson is in Florida, Puerto Rico, where the U.S. aid agency FEMA is bringing much- needed supplies. And Leyla Santiago has an emotional reunion with her family in Corozal. We'll bring you her report in just a moment.

First, let's go to Ivan, who just visited a small town that still does not have the basics -- food, water, electricity.


IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Welcome to Florida -- Florida, Puerto Rico.

Like so many other communities on this American island, this town suffers from fuel shortages and the collapse of many other utilities.

NORMA BRUNO, RESIDENT OF FLORIDA, PUERTO RICO: There's no water in the house. No telephone, no Internet, nothing.

WATSON (on camera): Have you seen any --

BRUNO: People from government? No.

WATSON: Officials?

BRUNO: No. No one. No one. No one pass from any neighborhood. No,

WATSON (voice-over): One neighborhood in Florida is struggling with an additional problem.

(on camera): This is -- are these fish in the road?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. Fish in the road.

WATSON: You've got fish in the street.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. Really big one.

WATSON (voice-over): A flood.

(on camera): This town is up in the hills. Nowhere near the coast and yet somehow, the storm backed up a nearby creek creating this flood that has inundated dozens of families' homes. Among those now homeless, Edith Negron.

EDITH NEGRON, RESIDENT OF FLORIDA, PUERTO RICO: We lose everything. First floor and second floor, everything is gone. Everything is gone.

WATSON (voice-over): She's now living with her son and family in a local government shelter. The municipality provided this pump to suck out thousands of gallons of flood water and it's distributing fuel to volunteers like George Pagan, who is using his own equipment to help clear debris.

Much of the cleanup here is also being done by ordinary citizens.

During our visit the mayor of Florida appeared accompanied by officials from FEMA, the Federal Disaster Relief Agency. The mayor tells a FEMA representative he's worried the flood could spread disease.

Residents made homeless by the storm have their own questions for FEMA.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What are your sources for like food wise and gas wise and water?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That need that the mayor reported to us we're reporting back to San Juan and somebody --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And how long will that take? UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well --


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We are the first to come here, apparently, so --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Because for us to move back in here, because it's black water, it's full of black water.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There is no type of moving back in there.


WATSON: FEMA's first visit to Florida comes nine days after the storm.

CAROLINE CUDDY, FEMA: We've said this is the first many visits. FEMA is not going to forget about this community. FEMA is not going to forget about the needs that they have and we are going to work with our people back at the field office in San Juan about what we're going to do.

WATSON: The people here could sure use some more help -- Ivan Watson, CNN, Florida, Puerto Rico.


And the mayor of San Juan is furious that so many Puerto Ricans are still suffering. Carmen Yulin-Cruz told CNN's Anderson Cooper that she is "mad as hell," her words, at the government's slow and inefficient response.

She warns that lives are hanging in the balance.


YULIN-CRUZ: We're dying here. We truly are dying here. And I keep saying it, SOS. If anyone can hear us, if Mr. Trump can hear us, let's just get it over with and get the ball rolling.

You know?

When you have to do an emergency tracheotomy, you're not concerned if what you're doing it with is the actual correct and precise knife.

COOPER: You just want things done.

YULIN-CRUZ: You just want things done. You know, sometimes you got to build a plan as you go along.

I was supposed to go to a FEMA distribution center that is in Caguas. That's about 30-40 miles from San Juan when there's one in Bayamon that's about 20 miles. And the answer was, well, that's how the plan was done.

Well, you know, the great plans of mice and men. Things have to change. We've got to move fast. And, frankly, we have to show the world that we can do it.


VANIER: And the mayor also blasted the Trump administration for the hurricane relief efforts "a good news story," when, in her mind, it is not.

Now I was telling you earlier that for some of our reporters the devastation in Puerto Rico is personal. Leyla Santiago is based in Mexico for CNN. But she was born and raised in the town of Corozal, about 40 kilometers southwest of San Juan. And while reporting, she made it back to the place that she calls home. Here's her report.


LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This is relief, seeing my family in Corozal for the first time, hearing them tell me they're OK.

(Speaking Spanish).

SANTIAGO: That's the relief I found in this small town, but it's far from the relief needed on this island.

At the shelter in Corozal, a school, we find more than 120 people living in classrooms. The generator went out six days ago. No power, no water and the staff tells us they have people here with cancer, HIV, diabetes, children with asthma like three-year-old Joanne.

SANTIAGO: She walks everyday about 15 minutes to get therapy for her daughter who has asthma. She's three and a half years old and needs medical attention she's not getting here.

SANTIAGO (voice-over): We then find Francisca Rivera, she has Parkinson's disease. Haven't had access to the medicine she need indeed.

SANTIAGO: She's crying because she doesn't know about her family.

SANTIAGO (voice-over): Desperation is growing. People are waiting in line to get water from mountain streams.

SANTIAGO: He says they can live without power but they can't live without water, that's why they're filling spring water from the mountain side to take a bath, to cook, to eat. People are even resorting to washing clothes like this.

This is Juana. She's been here since this morning washing clothes. Five to six hours cleaning clothes, she tells me.

I'm asking her, where is the help?

She says there's no help. No help has arrived here. SANTIAGO (voice-over): No help at all, none from the local government, residents say, nor from FEMA, which has only been here to do an assessment, not to deliver any aid. The people of Corozal are now in survival mode waiting for their relief.


VANIER: And that was CNN's Leyla Santiago.

Still ahead on CNN NEWSROOM, the United States taking action in Cuba after mysterious sonic attacks on U.S. diplomats is warning Americans against traveling there. We'll have the latest from Havana in just a moment.

Plus the latest on the Kurdish independence vote. What Baghdad is doing to stop the country from splitting apart -- next.




VANIER: The United States is reducing staff and services at its embassy in Cuba after mysterious sonic attacks against U.S. diplomats. Americans are being warned not to travel there. CNN's Patrick Oppmann has the latest from Havana.


PATRICK OPPMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Just two years after the reestablishment of full diplomatic ties, the U.S. embassy in Havana has seen better days. Hurricane Irma battered much of Cuba and Havana's seafront boulevard where the embassy is located.

U.S. diplomats are still picking up from the storm and now are facing another calamity. Diplomats' families and nonessential personnel are being ordered to return to the U.S. after at least 21 members of the embassy staff were targeted by what U.S. officials say could have been sonic attacks.

REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: We have it under evaluation. It's a very serious issue with respect to the harm that certain individuals have suffered. We've brought some of those people home.

OPPMANN (voice-over): U.S. officials believe that, starting last November, devices that emit sonic waves could have targeted U.S. diplomats while they were in their homes or staying in hotels. Who is behind the attacks and the motive is still unclear. Cuban officials deny responsibility and say they are investigating the incidents.

BRUNO RODRIGUEZ PARRILLA, CUBAN FOREIGN MINISTER (through translator): Cuba has never perpetrated not will it ever perpetrate actions of this sort, nor has Cuba allowed or will it ever allow its territory to be used by third parties for that purpose. OPPMANN (voice-over): U.S. officials say they believe the Cubans know more than they are saying and what they call rogue elements of the island's formidable intelligence services could be involved.

OPPMANN: Not long after the U.S. complained to the Cuban government about the attacks, Raul Castro himself personally promised American diplomats that Cuba would investigate the incidents. The FBI was allowed to come to Havana and security increased at U.S. diplomats' homes. But U.S. officials say still the attacks continued.

OPPMANN (voice-over): U.S. officials say, as a result of the attacks, they will stop issuing visas to Cubans effective immediately and issue a travel warning to Americans thinking of visiting Cuba.

Despite the harassment, both current and former U.S. diplomats say now is the wrong time to lessen the U.S. presence on the communist-run island.

VICKI HUDDLESTON, FORMER CHIEF U.S. DIPLOMATIC MISSION IN HAVANA: It is the worst possible thing that could happen to both countries. And what worries me more than anything is that hard-liners on the Cuban side and the U.S. side might be behind pushing this idea.

OPPMANN (voice-over): U.S. officials say their first priority has to be to keep U.S. personnel and their families safe. But they concede that American diplomats leaving Cuba could be just what the people behind these mystery attacks were hoping to accomplish -- Patrick Oppmann, CNN, Havana.


VANIER: The central government in Iraq has cut off international flights to its northern region of Kurdistan. This is retaliation against the Iraqi Kurds, who voted to become independent in a referendum earlier this week.

The U.S. secretary of state says that that referendum lacked legitimacy. In a statement, Rex Tillerson said this, "We urge Iraqi Kurdish authorities to respect the constitutionally mandated role of the central government and we call upon the central government to reject threats or even allusion to possible use of force."

With us now is Douglas Ollivant. He's a senior national security fellow with the New America Foundation. He is also a retired U.S. Army officer and his last assignment was as director for Iraq at the National Security Council. This was during the Bush and Obama administrations.

Mr. Ollivant, thanks for joining us.

How much, first of all, does the flight ban hurt Kurdistan really?

DOUGLAS OLLIVANT, NEW AMERICA FOUNDATION: Well, it's a significant move. It means that, obviously, no international flights can go in, that any flights that go into Irbil or Suleimani, the Kurdish cities, o many of the party cities have to go through Baghdad, which means you have to get an Iraqi visa; you have clear Iraqi customs, something that the Kurds have worked around for years.

So it is a significant inconvenience, at the very least.

VANIER: But does it prevent them from doing anything they want to do, in terms of their independence, in terms of the political direction they are moving in?

OLLIVANT: Well, absolutely. They cannot control who is allowed to come into their country. If someone does not get a visa from federal Iraq, from Baghdad, then they cannot enter into Kurdistan. If goods aren't cleared by customs in Baghdad, they can't get into Kurdistan. It is a significant obstacle.

VANIER: So the broader question, is Iraqi Kurdistan -- and you started to answer this -- a viable state?

I mean, can they actually impose the independence that they voted for in the referendum?

OLLIVANT: Almost certainly not. Look, there are two reasons the United States opposed this referendum right now. The first was just the time. We talked a lot about the effect on the ISIS fight but we are also very concerned about the IDP.

There are millions, 3 million or 4 million of internally displaced Iraqis, running around these areas as they were conducting this referendum. It was extremely confusing.

Second, we think they are just not ready. They do not have their internal processes in place; they do not have their financial systems right. There are huge accusations of corruption. They needed to get their own house in order to be a state.

And then you can add to that a third reason for all the neighboring countries, this is not a United States concern or a U.N. concern. But for the Turks, for the Iranians, for the Syrians, they have their own Kurdish populations and they are remarkably unenthused about the precedent this would set.

VANIER: Yes, none of the countries in the region want to let that precedent be set, of a Kurdish minority voting for independence.

So having everything you said, where do you see this going, moving forward?

If you say that they are not going to be able, more than likely, to impose their independence, how does this move forward?

OLLIVANT: It is hard to see a good outcome right now. And obviously the Kurds are very unhappy with what has happened in the aftermath of the referendum. I think the United States policymakers are kind of shrugging and saying, look, we told you so.

This is a big part of why the United States told the Kurds not to go do this. These bad consequences were foreseeable, not the exact consequences but that all the neighbors and Baghdad itself would have to react to this.

VANIER: Do they have a lot of countries, outside countries, who were willing to recognize them as an independent state?

Because that is always a key factor.

OLLIVANT: Well, no one is -- there is no independent state yet. So we do not really know the answer to that question. But in terms of the referendum, the only outside state that was supportive were the Israelis.

VANIER: All right, Douglas Ollivant, thank you very much. Thanks for coming on CNN.

OLLIVANT: Thank you, Cyril.

VANIER: And here is another region trying to break away from its central government, Catalonia in Spain. They're holding independence referendum on Sunday, thousands of people marched through the streets of Barcelona on Friday in support of this referendum, even though the Spanish government says it is illegal and has sent police officers to prevent it.

Independence campaigners promised to hold a vote anyway. They believe Catalonia has been neglected over the years by Spain's central government.

And still ahead on CNN NEWSROOM, heavy rain about to make the lives of hurricane survivors in Puerto Rico even more miserable. Derek Van Dam will be here with that story right after the break on CNN NEWSROOM.




It's been 10 days since Hurricane Maria slammed Puerto Rico and entire towns are still underwater with the threat of more flooding to come.


VANIER: Thank you for watching CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Cyril Vanier. I'll be back with the headlines in just a moment. Stay with us.