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Trump White House; Hurricane Maria Aftermath; Mysterious Sonic Attacks at Cuban Embassy; Kurdish Referendum; Catalonia Referendum; Volcanoes in Asia Force Thousands to Evacuate. Aired 3-3:30a ET

Aired September 30, 2017 - 03:00   ET



CYRIL VANIER, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): And the speculation and the guesswork is over. President Trump's health secretary has now resigned over the private flight that he took on the taxpayers' dime.

Meanwhile the U.S. president says recovery efforts are going well in Puerto Rico but residents tell CNN a different story.

And the U.S. government takes action after a wave of mysterious sonic attacks at the U.S. embassy in Cuba.

Thank you for joining us, everyone. I'm Cyril Vanier from the CNN NEWSROOM in Atlanta.


VANIER: U.S. president Donald Trump is dealing with two major issues this weekend. One is the resignation of U.S. health chief Tom Price. Price came under fire for using private jets to fly around the country when commercial flights were available. It would have been much cheaper for taxpayers.

And then there is the ongoing disaster in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria 11 days ago. Now the president says the federal response has been going well but many Puerto Ricans are still waiting for help to arrive. We will get to Puerto Rico just a moment.

First, though, our Jeff Zeleny takes a closer look at the latest casualty within Mr. Trump's team.


JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: The first member of President Trump's cabinet is removed from that position. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price submitted his resignation late Friday here at the White House. President Trump accepted it.

This is all over about $1 million worth of airfare that raised questions. About half of that were private flights; the other half, military flights, simply going against the grain of what cabinet secretaries at that level normally do.

This follows day after day after day of controversy here, the president saying he was displeased by this. We asked him before the resignation earlier today if he had confidence in his secretary.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's not a question of confidence. I was disappointed because I didn't like it cosmetically or otherwise. So I don't like to see somebody that perhaps has the perception that it wasn't right.


ZELENY: So clearly it was the optics here that President Trump was so concerned about. Now this is something that is just the beginning. There are multiple investigations into these flights and others.

Now on Friday evening, the Director of Office of Management and Budget issued a new order, saying the White House chief of staff should look into all of these flights across the cabinet, saying common sense should prevail, thinks just because it's legal does not mean it should be actually done. This is something that flies in the face of what the president was trying to do to drain the swamp, simply a waste of taxpayer money.

But this is, again, another hole in the president's cabinet -- Jeff Zeleny, CNN, the White House.


VANIER: And professor Larry Sabato 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: The Trump administration is confident that hurricane relief efforts in Puerto Rico are going well and that people on the island are recovering. That assessment does not square with what many Puerto Ricans have been experiencing and telling CNN.

They wait in long lines for food, water, fuel, cash -- if those things are even available. Still the U.S. president sounded upbeat about the federal response.


TRUMP: As far as Puerto Rico is concerned, that's been going, as you know, really well. It's been total devastation. We have over 10,000 people in Puerto Rico right now.

We're getting truck drivers because the people from Puerto Rico, the drivers just aren't there. They're looking for their homes. They have a lot of other problems. Likewise with the police force. But I think it's going really well, considering.


VANIER: The mayor of San Juan, for her part, was visibly frustrated earlier. She spoke to my colleague, Anderson Cooper.


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.


VANIER: We have reporters across Puerto Rico. Boris Sanchez is in San Juan with the long lines of people, desperate for basics like water.

But first, Ivan Watson is in Florida, Puerto Rico, where the U.S. agency, FEMA, is bringing much-needed aid.


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.


VANIER: Throughout Puerto Rico, people have been forced to stand in long lines to get basic necessities. We're talking food, water, fuel. And making things worse parts of the island could be hit with flash floods this weekend because the weather forecast says there is some more rain coming.

CNN's Boris Sanchez has details.


BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We've been standing at this gas station since about 5:00 am. I want to show you the line here because it has not let up since we have been here.

The first person in line here, a gentleman who told that he was here at 9:00 pm last night when this gas station ran out of gas, he decided to just park his car and sleep in the line. When it finally opened this morning, he was able to get gas and just a few moments ago, a large tanker came here and provided more fuel to this gas station.

So it appears that they will be open for a bit longer. But people in line told me they are hungry and they are flustered, the desperation, the anger here is palpable.

Getting key resources has proved daunting for Puerto Ricans, many camping in their cars outside a gas station, forming a line more than a quarter-mile long, waiting hours to fill their tanks. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's really hard, like when you have to go and

check on your family; you have to (INAUDIBLE) gas (INAUDIBLE) and make all these lines so you can get gas. It's pretty hard.

SANCHEZ (voice-over): Massive lines are also forming outside grocery stores and banks and many businesses are only taking cash, which is now in short supply. Much of what these people desperately need, essentials like food, water and medical supplies, have proved elusive.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE) not here. Not here. (INAUDIBLE) nothing, water, food.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): It's been about nine days that we don't have help. Supposedly the U.S. has provided help but we don't have water, we don't have food, we don't have medicine.

They keep telling us it's coming from the U.S. but we don't see it.

SANCHEZ (voice-over): In other parts of Puerto Rico, cries for help are being answered.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (Speaking Spanish). Thank God.

SANCHEZ (voice-over): People run onto the streets to wave down the mayor and other officials in Guayama city, as he drives through town, offering emergency food and water from FEMA.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking Spanish).

SANCHEZ (voice-over): The mayor asks for calm and admits he knows they will need much more. Further complicating recovery efforts, the weather forecast; while many remain homeless, parts of Puerto Rico are at risk for flash flooding this weekend, with rain again expected to hit the already battered island.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They said it was raining coming on this weekend. I don't know how we're going to deal with it because it's still flooded everywhere.


VANIER: So if you want to learn how to help hurricane victims in Puerto Rico and around the Caribbean and you want be a part of that, go to You can donate to one of the charities that we have vetted or you can volunteer your time.

And you just heard it in Boris Sanchez's report that more rain is headed to Puerto Rico.


VANIER: Still ahead, when we come back, the United States taking action in Cuba after mysterious sonic attacks on U.S. diplomats and it's warning Americans, do not go there.

Plus Iraqi Kurds face pressure after their independence vote. What the U.S. is saying about the controversial referendum -- next.




VANIER: The U.S. State Department is drastically cutting its embassy staff in Cuba after mysterious sonic attacks made some diplomats ill. Americans are being warned also not to travel to the island because they could also be at risk. 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: Over to the Middle East now. Iraq has cut off international flights to its northern Kurdistan region just days after people there voted overwhelmingly for independence from central government in Baghdad.

Meanwhile, the U.S. secretary of state said that referendum lacked legitimacy.

Rex Tillerson issued this statement, "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."


VANIER: 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: Another region that wants to break away from its central government. This one in Europe, people in Spain's region of Catalonia gearing up for a contested referendum on independence. Something that separatists there have wanted for years.

But the Spanish government calls Sunday's planned vote illegal and has deployed police to stop it. Still, campaigners for Catalan independence have promised to go ahead anyway.

The ballot will ask if voters want Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic. If a majority votes yes, Catalonia's parliament will declare independence from Spain within 48 hours.

If a majority vote no, an early election will be called to form a new regional government. We sent our Isa Soares to Spain to get a closer look at how both sides view the referendum.


ISA SOARES, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A sea of red, yellow and blue screams to be heard.

These are the yells of defiance.

"We will vote. We will vote," a message the central government of Mariano Rajoy, who, in the last week, has been accused here of (INAUDIBLE).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking Spanish).

SOARES (voice-over): "He has lost his democratic compass," tells me this man, "and he thinks he can stop this with the use of force and the courts in a perverse manner."

Earlier in the day if the streets of Barcelona, that anger and frustration was matched by the deepest desire to vote, come what may.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (Speaking Spanish).

"We're going to vote with carnation," tells me this lady, "with flowers. And there will be no type of violence. No one will stop me because we're so many. I don't think they can do anything."

SOARES: According to the Catalonian government, some 150 referendum websites have been suspended. What this has led to is the creation of more traditional campaigning, right here on the streets of Barcelona.

People can approach, asking for information regarding polling stations, which ones are open from what time and, critically, they can collect their official ballot paper. SOARES (voice-over): This is a grassroots referendum, too, with people occupying polling stations like this school to make sure that police cannot close it and (INAUDIBLE) stop them from voting.

"The option to vote yes or to vote no is up to each person," he says, "and what we want above all else is to vote. We want to manifest our opinion and our desire as a people."

But a look towards the Barcelona port suggests the central government of Madrid has other plans. Here are reinforcements, as many as 7,000 police officers awaiting to be deployed to stop a referendum the central government calls unconstitutional and illegal.

But while the (INAUDIBLE) may be ready to trash the party, Catalonians now are celebrating in the hope that, on October the 1st, they'll be finally heard -- Isa Soares, CNN, Barcelona.


VANIER: Two rumbling volcanoes are threatening to blow their tops in Southeast Asia. One is on an island in Vanuatu. The other is in Bali. As Kristie Lu Stout reports, people are taking precautions.


KRISTIE LU STOUT, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Tends of thousands, forced from their homes, ordered to flee as Mount Agung threatens to blow. The volcano on Indonesia's resort island of Bali has been rumbling for weeks.

Hundreds of volcanic earthquakes have been detected over the past few days.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Over the last two days, the smoke from the crater has grown thicker and more consistent.

STOUT (voice-over): Experts say that means an eruption could be imminent. Locals are literally praying it won't happen. Earlier this week, about 100 Hindu worshipers burned incense and made offerings in hopes the volcano will calm down.

Those who have fled are staying in evacuation centers, more than 400 set up across the island. Officials say Bali's resorts and major tourist attractions are far enough away so are safe.

The last time Mount Agung erupted was in 1963; more than 1,500 people were killed and 100,000 were displaced. This man remembers it well.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): The explosions went boom, boom, boom. There were about 20 explosions.

STOUT (voice-over): Officials have raised the alert for an eruption at level 4, the highest warning level. They say Mount Agung could blow within hours or days. But because of the unpredictability of seismic activity, they say the volcano may not erupt at all. It's something these evacuees are hoping for, that, soon, the mountain's rumblings will slowly stop and they can return to their homes -- Kristie Lu Stout, CNN.


VANIER: The man who brought us SpaceX and the Tesla electric car does not lack ambition. That much we already know. Here's the latest plan, crafted by Elon Musk, a rocket designed to take people anywhere in the world in about 30 minutes.

The plan was revealed Friday and it includes some of Musk's loftiest claims yet and that is saying something. He says the price of the rocket trip would be about the same as a plane ticket in economy class, no less.

Also on his to-do list, just because he can, Musk plans to send cargo ships to Mars in 2022, with crews arriving on the Red Planet two years after that. And he says it is good to dream big.

But Musk's history of sky-high promises, remember, includes the Hyperloop, which would take passengers from New York to Washington in 29 minutes. And we're still waiting for that one.

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