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McCain Lashes Out At "Half-Baked, Spurious Nationalism"; Trump, McConnell Play Nice Amid GOP Civil War; Trump Finally Comments On Soldier Deaths, Knocks Obama; Trump's Approval Rating For Hurricane Response Drops 20 Points After Maria Hits Puerto Rico. Aired 9-10p ET

Aired October 16, 2017 - 21:00   ET



[21:00:36] ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: We begin the hour with breaking news. Senator John McCain appeared to fire a shot across the bow of the White House, speaking tonight at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. The former Republican presidential nominee and Vietnam War POW, who is now battling brain cancer, didn't (INAUDIBLE). He launched what many (INAUDIBLE) seeing as rebuke to the current president as well as the political movement he leads.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: To fear the world we've organized and led the third quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain the last best hope of earth for the sake of some half-baked spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems.

This is unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.


COOPER: Senator John McCain. Tonight, our CNN Jeff Zeleny is traveling with the president. He joins us now from Greenville, South Carolina. McCain's comment certainly a very deliberate strike fought out (ph) if not the president himself and at least many of the policies he and his advisers have been advocating for.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, I think it was both. I was certainly at the policies and people who've surrounded this president, of course, Steve Bannon who is no longer with the president necessarily. But the president himself, if we have seen Senator McCain really feel a new lease on life, if you will. He's unplugged. He's saying exactly what he thinks, what he's long believe.

But those words, Anderson, the ash heap of history, certainly strong and striking from John McCain. It makes you wonder if he can support anything this president is doing going forward for as much time he has left in the Senate. Of course, tax reform, tax cuts, first and foremost here, but he's going after foreign policy in a way we have heard very few Republican senators do.

COOPER: Yes, I mean, it all happens in front of the backdrop of the larger struggle or conflict within the Republican Party, part of which we saw play on the Rose Garden today.

ZELENY: Anderson, it was extraordinary. I mean, there has been the Civil War unfolding inside the Republican Party. We've seen it really, you know, sort of growing in a crescendo for the last several months. But today, the president embracing Mitch McConnell, who of course he has spent so much time blaming and shaming and all of the above for not getting healthcare a repeal pass. But today, he embraced him in the Rose garden, but it was something that was clear that was, I guess, good for both men in the moment, but it makes you wonder how long this will last.

I mean, they sort of -- you know, they cleared the ice. I'm not sure if they actually buried the hatchet here, but the reality is passing tax cuts, tax reform, is key to Republicans keeping their majorities in the House and Senate. Both the president and the majority leader know that.

COOPER: And Steve Bannon said he's at war with Senator McConnell and the GOP establishment. How might that play out in the coming elections?

ZELENY: Anderson, that's what made it so interesting. Steve Bannon spent so much time since leaving the West Wing several weeks ago going after Senator McConnell. And during over the weekend at a conservative forum, he went directly after Mitch McConnell. Let's listen to what he said this weekend. And it really -- the president, of course, speaking today, this is what he said about Steve Bannon, so striking how all this relationship will work.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There's some Republicans, frankly, that should be ashamed of themselves, but most of them, I tell you what, I know the Republican senators. Most of them are really, really great people that want to work hard and they want to do a great thing for the American public, but you had a few that really disappointed us. They really, really disappointed us, so I can understand fully how Bannon feels.


ZELENY: But the reality here, Anderson, if you look at the map who's up in 2018 with senators, the Republican senators who voted against the president's health care bill, Susan Collins of Maine, John McCain, of course, they are not up for re-election next week year, so the president will have to make a choice whether he sides with Steve Bannon and primary (ph)some of these Republicans senators or if he sticks with Mitch McConnell and tries to keep the Republican majority intact. [21:05:08] Today it looked like he was leaning towards Senator McConnell, but it is an open question here how this resolves itself. But Anderson, a very striking today in the Rose Garden, to see these leaders who don't -- have an obvious respect for each other to embrace one another, because it's in their best interest, Anderson.

COOPER: Yes, Jeff thanks very much, Jeff Zeleny. Whether what Senator McCain said or everything else, there's plenty to talk about. Joining us is Ryan Lizza, Jason Miller, Paul Begala, Tara Setmayer, Matt Lewis, and Josh Green.

Paul, just in terms of the remarks from Senator McCain, I mean, is there any doubt he was aiming at -- if not the president himself, some of the people around him or the Trumpism (ph).

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: There's no doubt. And this is clearly a scripted address at the National Constitution Center, a formal location. And the word that jumped out at me, unpatriotic. You know, John McCain is a son of another man named John McCain who served in World War I and World War II and was on the Battleship Missouri when the Japanese surrendered.

McCain himself, Senator McCain was tortured for our country. He's an American hero. And for him to call a policy unpatriotic -- he was running against Barack Obama and never used language like that. Opposing him in the election, back then, there was a woman remember famous said, "Come on" for Senator McCain, said "I don't trust this Obama. I think he's an Arab." And I looked up Senator McCain said, "No, ma'am. He's a decent family man a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues." He didn't say that about President Trump and his ideas. He called them unpatriotic. It's remarkable.

MATT LEWIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: But that's what a lot of Republicans -- I like John McCain, but I can hear Rush Limbaugh saying exactly what you just said, which is that when John McCain ran for president he didn't go nearly as hard after Barack Obama as he goes after his own team.

BEGALA: Because he thinks what the president's doing is unpatriotic. He thinks it's what he called a half-baked nationalism.

LEWIS: I just think there's a sense on amongst some conservatives that people like Mitt Romney and John McCain, they're really good at beating up Republicans, but they get into a general election and they're going up against Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, they take off, you know, they don't take off the gloves.

COOPER: I mean, does John McCain give cover to anyone else in the Republican Party to speak out if they want?

TARA SETMAYER, POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR, ABC NEWS: Perhaps, maybe because Corker has now done it. But John McCain has always been a maverick. And to your point, there has been a criticism for a lot of conservatives about John McCain over the years is that he was, you know, he was never hesitant to go after people in his own party. But with that aside, I think that John McCain has earned the right to have the opinion he has, to say whatever he wants to say because he is a hero, and he served this country honorably. I've had many policy disagreements with McCain, but I don't -- that doesn't take away from the validity of his criticism of the current president.

Everything he's saying about Donald Trump are things that a lot of folks do not have the courage to come out and say, and unfortunately, not enough Republicans who have to face reelection are willing to say those things. Making the distinction about this nationalism populism that's affected the Republican Party and that Trump has been -- that Trump has fueled, and Steve Bannon has really fueled, is dangerous. It's very dangerous. There's a difference. They're cloaking this as patriotism, and it's not. There's a very big difference between nationalism and patriotism and the tribalism that we see as the result, but this nationalist populism is very dangerous --

COOPER: Jason --

JASON MILLER, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Yes. I could disagree with my good friend Tara.

SETMAYER: Of course.

MILLER: -- anymore there. I mean, here's the fact of the matter. Senator McCain was much closer to Secretary Clinton when it comes to foreign affairs issues in this last election and that was a view point that was soundly rejected by the voters. This global intervention ideology that the senators advocated for a number of decades in Washington --

COOPER: Which is a traditionally Republican perspective.

MILLER: But not as far as -- I mean, even if you look at other candidates that were in the Republican primary --

COOPER: By this time around, yes.

MILLER: This time around, I mean, they all were distancing themselves from where Senator McCain was. But here's the thing, we've seen this, I mean, this is probably chapter 35 of this happening, but this is the swamp fighting back. I mean, we talked about Senator McCain fighting against Obamacare repeal and replace. I mean, Senator McCain just fundamentally --

COOPER: -- Senator McCain is part of the swamp?

MILLER: Absolutely. I mean, he just fundamentally does not want to go along with this reform agenda that we've seen. And it's clear on his -- he's now at the point where he wants to be an obstructionist. And, you know, at one point in his career he did wanted to be a reformer, but it's clearly not the case anymore.

SETMAYER: So what is motivation be?


LIZZA: I don't see how -- I understand what this idea of the swamp is and, you know, lobbying and that kind of thing. But what I took from McCain's speech tonight was about idealism in American foreign policy. Not even so much about interventionism necessarily, (INAUDIBLE) which is the United States being a beacon and standing for certain things in the world and that's the disagreement --

COOPER: Which is something President Trump has sort of pushed against, I mean --

[21:09:59] LIZZA: He's pushed against the leaders that he admires and publicly has admired Erdogan in Turkey, Putin in Russia, Duterte of Philippines.

SETMAYER: Authoritarian.

LIZZA: These are strong men. The people that he's fought have been our European allies. That's what I think the point.


COOPER: -- Putin was a killer, he said, you know.

LIZZA: Exactly. And I think that was more important and I don't see how that suggests that he's part of swamp or not part of the swamp. Because he's talking about ideal --


LIZZA: -- he used the phrase ash heap of history. This is a phrase that the Marxists used to use about capitalism.

MILLER: And Reagan is about --


LIZZA: When Reagan went to the U.K., he famously used it to turnaround and said that Marxists would be on their ash heap of history. So, the fact that he's calling Nazis, he is conflating Trump-style nationalism with communism is a real attack.

JOSHUA GREEN, AUTHOR, "DEVILS'S BARGAIN": And not only that, he also used another resonant phrase, blood and soil, which is important to white supremacists --

COOPER: And what's they were chanting, by the way, in Charlottesville.


GREEN: Exactly. It was no accident that Trump use -- that McCain used that phrase in the speech. I think the reason that this is such a contentious issue is there are really isn't a disagreement about what's going on here. John McCain perceives Donald Trump and Steve Bannon's foreign policy to be a greater threat to the United States than Barack Obama's or Hillary Clinton, period, end of story. I don't think it has anything to do with the swamp. I think that's -- those are the basic facts.

LEWIS: There's a big debate on the right now on the right taking place that, you know, was settled after World War II and now we're having it again. But the question is, what does it mean to be an American? It's a very fundamental question. And if you believe that it's blood and soil, or -- that's different than a credo philosophy where you believe that, you know, that we believe in ideas.

And there's a question, which is, when you have a lot of diversity, when you have people who don't agree on anything, we don't even agree whether or not we should stand up for the national anthem. That's when I think it opens the door for naturalism and xenophobia to create then, and I think that Trump and Bannon have been very --

MILLER: So, Matt, respectfully, I think you're making it sound way to highbrow. Look, Senator McCain has a very much a World Cup attitude. He does not like the America-first agenda the President Trump supports. And it's just it's a difference in ideology.

LEWIS: No. I do think there's a fundamental question about what is an American. Is it about the blood and soil? Is it -- is America a place basically for people who are white people, who are European? Or is America -- and this is what the alt-right. I'm not saying that all the Trump people believe this, but this is a debate happening. Or is it about an idea? Is it people who embrace, you know, that the declaration of independents that all men are created equal. And there are people who think that believing in a creed is so esoteric, and like how could that bind --

COOPER: We've got to take a break. The idea, first of all, that blood and soil, that it's white people whose blood has been spilled in country and is soaked into the soil of America seems --

LEWIS: I'm not saying --

COOPER: I know.


LEWIS: -- what some people believe.

COOPER: I know. But I'm just saying it's just complete both (ph). Anyway --

SETMAYER: And it's evident.

COOPER: Later, with new CNN polling just having the president's handling hurricane relief, a report from the town of Puerto Rico, that the president tossed those beautiful soft towels in his words and asked the people there how they think he's doing.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [21:16:46] COOPER: The president took a pair of quick photo opportunities today and turned them into a night's worth of news. This afternoon's impromptu to Rose Garden news conference in which he embraced Mitch McConnell. And the late morning cabinet meeting in which he praised but also tried to gently dissuade his former Chief Strategist, Steve Bannon, from waging all-out war against the McConnell, wing of the Republican Party.


TRUMP: We have a good relationship as you know, with Steve Bannon. Steve has been a friend of mine for a long time. I like Steve a lot. Steve is doing what Steve thinks is the right thing. Some of the people that he maybe looking at, I'm going to see if we talk him out of that because, frankly, they're great people.


COOPER: A lot of great people. Steve Bannon, great guy, so as Mitch McConnell. John McCain tonight, not so much in terms of the -- how the president sees him. He treat the spotlight on a philosophical and operational divide in the GOP, John McCain did, and gentler, less direct way so to the president. Back now with the panel.

I want to, you know, I was just thinking, Jason, and you were saying john McCain is part of the swamp. Is anybody who has served their country for the length of time he has just part of the swamp?

MILLER: No. I think when I say there are someone's part of the swamp that means they're opposing a reform agenda. I mean, look at the images we saw today with President Trump and also with Senator McConnell up there during the press conference meeting. What this was really about is trying to push people to get on board with the president's agenda and try to get these senators moving. I mean, it's absolutely terrible that we as Republicans have the House, we have the Senate, we have a Republican president who will sign anything put in front of him and these guys can't get their act together.

Now, I think there is one thing with today's press conference that everybody seems to be missing. For all this talk about an audience much one, this term we hear in Washington all the time, there was an audience of one for today's press conference, and it was Senator McConnell, and I think what the president was doing today I think was keeping Senator McConnell up there for the stretch to go through all of the things that he wants to accomplish in his agenda and essentially get Senator McConnell to nod his head and agree for all these things that they needed to go through.

But the fact to the matter is, too many of these senators who run as conservatives, who say that they're Republicans, who say that they are dedicated to reforming and changing Washington aren't on board of the program and start contrast what their voters want them to do.

COOPER: I mean, hasn't John McCain actually done stuff while he's been in the Senate as oppose to this administration which so far hasn't really gotten any legislature. MILLER: Like the thumbs down?

COOPER: Well, actually he's pretty contributing for DACA --

MILLER: Well, he used the word reform.

GREEN: -- Mitch McConnell on the process when it was a campaign finance reform 20 years ago.

COOPER: Right.

GREEN: I mean, he's shown as independents as a legislator also something -- get something done even when Mitch McConnell stood in his way.

BEGALA: And his commitment to reform. This is what I don't like when you see those swamp, every disgracing swamp. The swamp means something. It means that the (INAUDIBLE) house lobbying that goes on the Washington D.C. were special interest take command of our government.

And boy, if Donald Trump was serious about getting rid of that, he would have every Democrat on the board and most the Republicans

The last major piece of reform of legislation, we've got sponsored by John McCain. You could say it, I -- look, I wrote a book opposing his election.


BEGALA: But you can't say he's part of the swamp. It's just not true. He's a reformer and he's an American hero. He has different ideas from the president, but that's part of his --

MILLER: He's talking about --


MILLER: -- politicians who refused to get onboard with the president's agenda which is what --


BEGALA: -- that he happens to know more about government.


MILLER: -- they want things to stay the exact same. Don't make the tough --

[21:20:03] COOPER: He actually spent a fair amount of his career locked up in a problem. So, I mean, I'm not sure of it's fair to say he is just been a politician his whole life.


MILLER: And all the other career politicians.

SETMAYER: What's unseemly about the attacks against McCain is the fact that Donald Trump's own record of service in this country is one of being a draft dodger and bragging about his sexual exploits during Vietnam and not serving, while John McCain was being tortured in a Vietnamese prison.

And so, I think it's a little incredulous to think that Donald Trump has some kind of moral authority pointing any fingers at someone like John McCain, even if we do agree that McCain is part of the establishment, we can agree on. Where he's been or disagree on his role in the establishment. But it's just because of the way that Trump has been so disrespectful to John McCain, it's been personal. When he made a comment about him not being a hero because he was captured, I mean, it's been, if there are some kind of personal animus there that I don't think it's a fair attack on McCain.

But here is the thing that was interesting about that press conference today. I think Donald Trump actually gave ground. He gave ground that he acknowledged that he's -- the agenda, that he actually needs Mitch McConnell, he needs the senators in Washington, to actually get things done. We can criticize them for not moving things around and moving things along fast enough, but he -- by him not actually -- by pinpointing on the kabuki political theater today of being best buds with McConnell, which we all know is not true at all. There is a lot of tension going on there, but they had to go out and put a good face on it. But that's Donald Trump giving ground because he needs Senator McConnell to move whatever his agenda is which he can't seem to decide on --

LEWIS: I don't what's the definition of reform agenda is, because Mitch McConnell was pushing Donald Trump's agenda.


LEWIS: Maybe not getting it accomplished, but he's voting for it. And in fact --

COOPER: And so as Jeff Sessions, who was also another target of the president.


LEWIS: And so, our people, you know, Jeff Flake probably has voted with Donald Trump 95 percent of the time.

SETMAYER: That's right.

LEWIS: And, you know, Dean Heller, who could go down if Steve Bannon helps support arcadia, his primary opponent. Orrin Hatch has been a huge supporter of Donald Trump. And Bannon is now apparently going to be supporting a challenge.

So this isn't about supporting a reform agenda. Orrin Hatch is supporting Donald Trump's reform agenda. It's about ousting these establishment guys that have been around a long time. MILLER: But that's not what President Trump was saying.


BEGALA: -- alt-right. But Mr. Bannon seems to me and perhaps President Trump, to want a very different kind of politics in our country.

SETMAYER: That's right.

BEGALA: Driven by racial division and animist.

SETMAYER: And he is bragging about glowing up the party.

MILLER: -- president's agenda, cut taxes, repeal and replace Obamacare.


COOPER: -- who wrote the book about --

GREEN: I think that is what Bannon wants, but I don't agree necessarily that Trump moved towards McConnell today. We saw Tuesday, at noon, Trump came out and sounded as if he was saying the exact same things Mitch McConnell was saying. We have failed to legislate so far, but Trump said I don't blame myself, I blame the Congress. Well, that's exactly the arguments Steve Bannon is making.

Then, four hours later, he comes out Senator McConnell and says something different. So it's almost -- instead of having an angel and a devil on his shoulder like sometimes he's got Steve Bannon and sometimes he's got a little Mitch McConnell, and depending on the time of day who happens to be standing next to him and he'll say different things.

COOPER: Let's take a quick break. When we come back, four American soldiers were killed in an ambush in African Niger 12 days ago. And the president did not speak about it until today. We'll tell you what he said and what he said about former presidents whether it's true or not. We'll be right back.


[21:26:25] COOPER: In the White House Rose Garden today President Trump was asked why after 12 days he still hasn't made any public statement or comments about the four American soldiers killed during an ambush in Niger. It was the deadliest combat incidence since he took office and yet there were silence, not even a tweet.

Today, the president said he wrote personal letters to their families and planned to call them later this week. Then he claimed his predecessors, including President Obama, didn't call the families of fallen soldiers even though that it's a well-established tradition that previous presidents did carry out.

Last hour, I spoke to former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta who said this.


LEON PANETTA, FORMER CLINTON WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: I think it would be well for President Trump. We're now 10 months into his administration that rather than seeking some kind of scapegoats in the past with President Obama or other presidents, that he now accept responsibility for what he does. And he can figure out his own approach to how he deals with loved ones who've been lost in the field of battle.


COOPER: Back now with the panel. I mean, Jason, was this just a way of deflecting attention on the fact that he had not said anything public about this, even though he had time to go play golf and tweet out and watch television, to just kind of turn this to an attack on the former president?

MILLER: Well, I think the president probably could have chosen his words a little more carefully on this one, and he walk it back a little bit when he said that President Obama, I think, probably did sometimes and maybe sometimes he didn't.

COOPER: He walked them back and what I -- because I've read the full (INAUDIBLE), actually he ended up basically saying, well, I'm not sure. Somebody told me.


MILLER: But the broader point being that I don't think that any president has had 100 percent record of calling the family of every single fallen soldier during the time that they're in office.

COOPER: But why bring this up? Why, I mean, why is the president of the United States -- I mean --

MILLER: Because I think the questions the way that was being presented to him I think was -- he's trying to draw division on the question and try to make it seem like the president wasn't doing his job or wasn't --

COOPER: But the question is really about why is he silent for 12 days when you have, you know, two Green Berets and two soldiers that was killed in an ambush in Niger.

MILLER: Yes. So I think that's -- I think that's an important point. I think there are something that we're kind of missing here that I saw today from the president. And that is some genuine emotion about how hard it is to be president.

SETMAYER: Oh. Give me a break.

MILLER: And when you're -- hold on.

(CROSSTALK) COOPER: No. This is the president who said he doesn't like the soldiers who've been captured.

SETMAYER: That's right.

MILLER: Hold on.

COOPER: So does -- he does -- if this was a successful operation would he said anything about it?

MILLER: I think this is the important point. I think we saw some genuine emotion from the president when he said it is hard to call these folks, to call these families if you're writing these letters. And I think that is -- I think he kind of -- was realizing that as he was saying those words. And I think that was a very honest comment that's coming --

SETMAYER: I can't --

MILLER: No, --

SETMAYER: Jason, you know what? No.

MILLER: No. And I think -- because it is. And, look, you can go through and you can Google and see that not every single president has called a 00 percent of the families of fallen soldiers. But again, as I said in the beginning, it's probably the probably the president --

SETMAYER: He made it. This is why, because he's incapable of empathy. We have seen this over and over and over again. What was supposed what Jason misinterprets as genuine emotion is Donald Trump making it about himself again. This was not about him. It's what -- in everything he does, it's about him.

This should have been about him expressing condolences for those fallen heroes, period. He had no problem doing this a couple months ago when we lost special ops guys in a raid in Yemen that went bad. That he ordered it. He was right there to, you know, go -- he was actually there for the arrival ceremony of one of the navy seals in Dover.

[21:30:06] So, this whole thing about oh, it's just too hard, that's what being president of United States is and it's not about him and his emotion and that's what he always turns things into. But President Bush, he met with hundreds of Gold Star Families. He wrote letters to every single one of them, because that's something that's a -- as commander in chief and as one of the more sobering jobs you have to do.

COOPER: Right.

SETMAYER: But Donald Trump finds time to do everything else, he can tweet about, you know, the NFL and tweet about all kinds of other things, but the fact that he didn't make it a priority --

(CROSSTALK) COOPER: The former White House Deputy if Staff fro operations under the Obama administration, Alyssa Mastromonaco tweeted, "That's a fucking lie to say President Obama didn't call the family members of soldiers KIA, he's a deranged animal."


LIZZA: I think Jason is right about the moment were Trump was talking about the difficulty of the job and the difficulty of talking to the families of the fallen. But it was completely undercut by the fact that he made up a lie about the former Presidents and what they do. So that moment was just destroyed by what he said previous to that. And another good example of why it's important to fact check in real time, I think it was a reporter that sort of pointed it out, pushed back. And immediately Trump sort of backed down.


LIZZA: And he said, oh, OK, I'm wrong, someone has told me that.

COOPER: It was interesting Paul, because after Charlottesville, of course he has reason for not condemning neo-Nazis right away was that he needed to, you know, he doesn't like to speak without all the facts being in place. And then, you know, he says these thing just off the cuff and then walks it back -- tries to walk it back by saying, well, I don't know, somebody told me, I don't know if it's true or not, but maybe, maybe not.

BEGALA: It's where he reveals his character as lacking. It is hard. I accompany when President Clinton, August 13, 1998, we welcomed back the bodies of diplomats who've been killed in terrorists attack in Dar es Salaam and in Nairobi. And it was awful. It was hard. You know what's harder, burying your son. That's what those families have to do for those four men. And yes, it's hard for the politician, it is really. It broke Brooklyn's (ph) heart -- I'm sure like President Trump when he contacted these families.

But he attacked the Khan family last summer who laid their son on the altar of freedom. Humayun Khan, the captain of the United States army. He gave his life for our country and he attacked that family who has known pain and he will never know, we hope. And it's just -- it shows just what a completely morally bankrupt man is our commander in chief. He is unworthy of those men who serve under him.

COOPER: We're going to take a quick break, but let's get -- we'll continue this discussion when we come back.


[21:36:13] COOPER: We're talking about president's remarks about four fallen shoulders in Niger and his criticism on past president, which happens to be falls, here's the moment when he was asked about that when he was fact check in real time, this is how he dealt with it.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Earlier you said that President Obama never called the families of fallen soldiers. How can you make that --

TRUMP: I don't know if he did. No. No. No. I was told that he didn't often and a lot of presidents don't, they write letters.

I do -- excuse me, Peter. I do a combination of both. Sometimes it's a very difficult thing to do, but I do a combination of both. President Obama, I think, probably did sometimes and maybe sometimes he didn't. I don't know. That's what I was told. All I can do is asked my generals. Other presidents did not call. They'd write letters and some Presidents didn't do anything.

But I like the combination of -- I like when I can the combination of a call and also a letter.


COOPER: I think I don't know, that's what I was told. She also point out back in 2012, then citizen Trump tweeted out, or I guess retweeted an article that from some blog that said President Obama was using auto signature on letters to the families of the fallen in the Obama administration disputed that, so.

LEWIS: But it's not just that he didn't call or send letters, this is I think the first time he's spoken about.


COOPER: That's he whole point of why this came up, it's why 12 days go by without him even tweeting about it.


GREEN: -- I mean, we know Trump by now, when, you know, embedded in the question is a perceived attack on him and there was in the case of this question, why haven't you send any for 12 days. He responds by lashing out and criticizing people, and his first instinct was to do that and criticize Obama for, you know, not having done X, Y, or Z.

You kind of see the Trump expository thinking in the moment as he is crapping this attack that turns out to have no basis in fact and then spent the rest of the day gradually kind of walking it back as the facts were presented and he try to re-elaborate (ph).

SETMAYER: And then he has the audacity to say fake news about things that are verifiable facts. But he is the first one to yell fake news about things that he doesn't like. And he's the biggest purveyor of fake news every single day.

COOPER: It's interesting that he doesn't think a different attack which I think most adults would take, which is, you know, I'm sensing in your question a criticism, let me tell you, you know, it's been an extraordinarily busy week or I've actually written to the family, you know, I mean, it's rather than lashing out. It sort of --

BEGALA: I thought he was going to say, it was a secret mission.


BEGALA: And he can't talk much about it. This is where I as a formal government official don't have the instincts of a journalist. You always want all the facts, and that's you're training, that's your gift to America. There's a lot of times, I'm OK with my country keeping secrets about national security. There's a tension there.

I thought that's why he hadn't talked about it. Silly me, it's not (INAUDIBLE), because he is morally bankrupt. But I thought may -- what the hell are these guys doing in Niger? What is their mission? Why are they their? Why did they lose their lives? Why did they give their lives to our country?

And I thought maybe the answer was we can't really tell you, because it's a secret mission and it might jeopardize other troops in the field. But he didn't say any of that. Apparently it's not the case,

SETMAYER: That doesn't mean that wasn't true, because I have people telling me -- and I have people that are involved in this area that I reached out to you about that. Because the first question I had was what were they doing there. And those explanation I got was, you know, there's a new sect of ISIS that's an outgrowth in this part of Niger, that's different than Al-Shabaab, different than Boko Haram, and different in, you know, APAQ.

And so I think it's the call though --


COOPER: Right, that kidnapper people actually in Niger.

SETMAYER: Right, so it's -- so there was some covered stuff going on there. And I think that you're right, it is OK for us not to always jump out there. People, you know, Joe Biden -- Vice President Biden was criticized for outing seal team 6 after we took out Osama bin Laden.

You know, sometimes it get a little too happy about kind of stuff. And you want to talk about it and we're not supposed to. So, that could have been it.

[21:40:12] And you're right, if President Trump was actually a measured, thoughtful president, he would have been briefed and prepared for it.

COOPER: Has there been a president who is been so focused on his predecessor than this president.


MILLER: I mean all presidents. All of them. I mean, to take issue with previous presidents. But I think, one thing also is, look, I think the political left here has to be careful that they don't overreach. I mean, some of the headlines that we've already started seeing popped up today, the deranged animal or how can we (INAUDIBLE) and saw you re-tweet, but someone calling the president a sack of garbage. You know, I mean, some of this-- and, you know, and, you know --


MILLER: -- here's the thing.


MILLER: -- when these headlines are saying this. I mean, that's going to --

COOPER: Well, that's not a news item. That comes from the former Obama official.

LIZZA: I think people who have watched the presidencies in the past and have dealt with presidents who have said things that weren't always true. We have a way of processing that. We understand one thing have shaded. But with this president on a daily basis he just -- he makes shit up. He lies. Why is that? Why is he so different from previous presidents that just -- when he gets a question like that from a journalist, he's immediate thing is just to make something up. And then when he's presented with the facts, he just says, "Oh, someone told me that." He just back up and backs down immediately. Why does he make stuff up all the time?

MILLER: When the questions are coming in to the president, when you see out there, it's almost always, it goes right to --

LIZZA: Why does he just not say? Why does he -- avoid saying something that --

MILLER: The answer is basically given in the question, where they want to go and they put in such a negative context so much.

LIZZA: Why does he lie so much? Why does he make stuff up so much?

MILLER: I mean, look, here is the thing.

LIZZA: I know you're not him and you don't necessarily speak for him all the time. But that's what so much of us are trying to wrap our head around. And, you know, we sit on this panel and talked about this --


MILLER: I agree he's not answering -- he is not answering it in the way that you want him to answer it.

LIZZA: No, but I just want him to be truthful.


LIZZA: I want him not making things up.

MILLER: You want him to go chasing down the rob hole and to answer the way that you want him to answer which then leaves to the heavy --

LIZZA: I don't want to write his answers. I just want him to tell the truth.

MILLER: No. But that's -- No, But you want --

LIZZA: The only standard as a journalist you can hold a politician to at least they should do if he doesn't tell the truth.

MILLER: If he doesn't answers it the exact way that you want him --

LIZZA: No, absolutely not. It's not the exact way. It's not the exact way --


LIZZA: It's just don't make stuff up.

COOPER: -- he had no knowledge of.

MILLER: And he went back and clarified it and I said at the --

LIZZA: Not really.

MILLER: -- very beginning should have --

LIZZA: No, in this world runoff. At this world runoff, --


LIZZA: -- we can move to the next issue. But why does it happen on a daily basis?

SETMAYER: Because he's done this his entire career. He's done this in his entire career and never been held accountable to it -- accountable for it. Now he's in front of the entire world where he has people that will actually hold him accountable for the things that he says. And he doesn't know how to process that because it's not in his character to do so.

He's a liar his entire life. He's a B.S artist. And this, when he gets back into a corner then his default is to lie, make something up to deflect, divert, and then when people call him on it, then he calls it fake news. That's the bottom line. And I know it's hard for you to admit it.

LEWIS: -- I will say, I agree with that. But I would also say Donald Trump talked for 45 minutes today, something like that. And he took I don't even know how many questions he took from anybody. And, yes, he did revert to Trump behavior. But I at least applaud him for having, you know, taking all of these questions.

He answer the questions about, like, whether or not we should have senatorial, you know, red tags or whatever it looks like --

SETMAYER: Blue slips.

LEWIS: --blue slips. I mean, it was like unbelievable the number of questions he answered. COOPER: We got to take a quick break.

Coming up new CNN polling shows how people think the president is handling the hurricanes response. The approving number took a big hit after Hurricane Maria had been up for the other two hurricanes. We'll talk about that next. We get update from the town where the president threw those gorgeous paper towels at people.


[21:46:11] COOPER: The president said over and over again what a tremendous job he and his administration are doing in Puerto Rico. There's new polling shows that most Americans don't see it that way. A new CNN poll shows 44 percent approve how the president is handling hurricane response, that's a 20-point drop from just a few weeks ago after Harvey and Irma and hit the U.S mainland.

As you probably remember the president went to Puerto Rico for few hours where -- and threw some paper towels at people which he said they were clambering for those paper towels. We wanted to find out the town where he did that towel that's holding up several weeks later? CNN's Bill Weir went to find out.


BILL WEIR, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Aside from one cluster of power line contractors working gamely in the rain, it's hard to see any signs of improvement in the highlands just outside of San Juan. The roads still littered with Maria's debris are all the more treacherous of steady tropical downpour. As weeks worth of clean up works can be undone in minutes.

(on camera): This literally just happened within the last hour. A wall of fallen trees and pipes and cars came rushing down the hillside, and that mudslide made life all the more difficult for the people here because it took out this bridge. This bridge had been certified as safe recently, they had cleared this road. But now the families that live on that side are completely cut off. They either have to hike over mountain in this kind weather for food and supplies or forge this raging river.

What is it like watching it happen? Were you afraid?

(voice-over): "Everything I've been struggling for all my life all of a sudden is gone," that's what he tells me. He restores corvettes for a living. But now his parts trailer is tossed. A few of his cars totalled by that wall of muddy water.

He and his wife Luz have been surviving in a house without power, burning their savings on generator fuel to keep her insulin from spoiling. Life was stressful enough, but then their trickle of a creek brought the highest water they had ever seen.

"My son was picking up the most important things as the water was coming up just in case we need to leave," he says.

(on camera): Really, really? That must have been terrifying.

(voice-over): This is the blue collar section of upscale Guaynabo, the same municipality where President Trump tossed the paper towels as the Mayor Angel Perez stood by.

(on camera): How would you describe the response of FEMA?

MAYOR ANGEL PEREZ, GUAYNABO: It's been slowly, but it's there. You know, they have given us water, food, tarps. So now they have changed a little. They're going to assign a couple persons directly to each municipality. I think that's the right direction

WEIR (on camera): Yes.

PEREZ: So the help is coming.

WEIR (voice-over): With over a thousand homes in his town damaged, he says the biggest needs are tarps for shelter and drinking water. Those plumes of fuel pouring into the creek are reminder of the health hazards of drinking off the land. And he expresses hopes the army core of engineers can somehow replace his bridges.

(on camera): Now, you are brand-new in this job.

PEREZ: 40 days.

WEIR (on camera): 40 days, what a baptism by fire. I know, you were appointed by the governor after a scandal with the previous mayor. Tell me about the politics. Do you -- would you wish you could scream and beg for more help from the federal government, or do you have to be careful about how and how you ask?

PEREZ: No, we want more help, and I know for my experience is FEMA has given us a lot of help. We want more. We need more help. And as I have meetings with other mayors, I see the desperation.

[21:50:05] WEIR (voice-over): Off camera, Luz tells the Mayor, "I voted for your party and you forgot about us. We need water."

(on camera): Have you seen FEMA? Have you seen any aide from the Federal government? They haven't brought food or water here?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, no, not one. No come either.


COOPER: Bill Weir joins us now. I mean, do we know why the distribution seems so spotty in some places?

WEIR: Well, you saw it right there. I mean, there are over a hundred bridges out on this island, Anderson, and most people are trying to keep their family alive. They don't have the luxury of signing up to volunteer and help distribute all the aid that's piling up on the ports. The generosity from the mainland is amazing. And the president is right, there are tons of supplies and fresh water, but the infrastructure is so broken and when it's been raining for two days straight and there are flash floods, there are just places you can't get to.

This is a problem that defies, you know, community organization even though many in San Juan they've clean the streets. Puerto Ricans have done what they can in many places but the need is just great and it's -- like, I said, like that flash flood, it happened 45 minutes before we pulled up and we're a month after the storm. So the aftermath is this slow motion, deadly disaster that's just as bad as the initial hurricane.

COOPER: Bill Weir, I'm glad you're there. Thanks very much. We're going to bring the panel back in when we come back, talk more about the president's approval rating for his response to crisis in Puerto Rico and the idea that some are saying it's turning to a Katrina moment.


COOPER: We showed you this a moment ago, just a quick reminder now. New CNN polling and the president's approval rating on the storm down 20 points since Hurricane Maria, he gotten high marks before that for Harvey and in Florida for Irma as well. Back now with the panel.

I mean, obviously for president who puts so much into his numbers, not good news.

LIZZA: No, very bad news. Although his overall approval rating has been astonishingly consistent since he fired Comey, he's had about a 36 to 38 percent approval rating overall. And that the core group just does not abandon him for anything he can sort of do no wrong among that segment of the public.

But overall, I think his initial response to the hurricanes on the mainland got higher marks and then Puerto Rico has just erased any of that credit he got because as we just saw with that report that the island is just still devastated.

[21:55:08] SETMAYER: That's because he didn't personally attack anyone in Florida or Texas during his hurricane response, and he didn't get into a Twitter war with a mayor or governor who was waist deep in flood water trying to help save fellow citizens, which Donald Trump did.

So, and he also didn't throw paper towels at people condescendingly and talked about the beautiful people to paper towels and just the entire response to Puerto Rico was if the -- as if the Puerto Rican people were second class citizens. And I think the American people recognize there was clearly a different tone in the way that Donald Trump handled Puerto Rico versus Texas or Florida. So, I mean that's obvious.

GREEN: But isn't that -- do we see, we see pictures like the one we just saw that showed that leaving aside the name-calling, Trump is impotent when it comes to responding to this crisis. Bridges are out, you know, the National Guard isn't in there building things up. You don't have the kind of effort that we saw pretty consistently on T.V. in Houston and elsewhere after those hurricanes. For whatever reason, Trump just doesn't feel obligated to produce that kind of support.

SETMAYER: Well could --


LIZZA: Well, it requires a bigger -- it requires a lot more resources. It's in I -- as he has pointed himself out, --


LIZZA: It is an island.

SETMAYER: In a big ocean.


MILLER: It was important to point out, I mean, look, Puerto Rico has a long way to go. This is a terrible disaster. But Puerto Rico's infrastructure was absolutely terrible. I mean, the entire, I mean, everything from the electrical grid to the distribution network. I mean, most of us here probably vacationed and visited Puerto Rico. I mean, for far too long the island has been ignored by the rest of the country and now we're seeing what decades of neglect will do.

But I think the president has quite frankly been right when he's pointed out some of the challenges that have gone into this and when we talk about the numbers, the dropping approval ratings on this, this is essentially an informed ballot. If you go and run front page news story after front page news story for a week after week and T.V. story after T.V. story saying that the president is doing a terrible job, I mean, heck, look, we've made the mayor of San Juan famous. I mean, I'm sure she's going to run for governor at this point.


MILLER: No, I mean where she shows up, she shows up with the printed -- she shows up with the printed T-shirts, somehow she finds that in the middle of a hurricane and starts attacking the president. I mean injecting politics and it is --


SETMAYER: He should never have attacked her. She was actually bare hands on. I might not agree --

MILLER: Where's she paying the T-shirt? Where do you fund --

SETMAYER: Who cares?


COOPER: By the way, there was an online --


COOPER: -- that I made her that. (CROSSTALK)

COOPER: I saw it on Twitter, people thought I need that T-shirt and brought it in like have screen her but I knew her size and would want to waste my --

MILLER: But here's a thing --


MILLER: Final comment. I did have to make on this. Yes, you know, the president, I mean, obviously he's getting attacked on these numbers but we do have to come together as a country and do something for Puerto Rico. We have a long ways to go here and this isn't something that, I mean, it's, you know, this is the time that we have to do it and I don't think we kick the can any further down the road.

COOPER: But, you know, I mean I was there a week, it blends here two weeks ago. I mean, they were talking about, you know, pre-positioning supplies and they same with moving supplies to different municipalities and they'd be distributed. Clearly, it seems like from what Bill Weir is seeing, it's just not enough. I mean, there's just not enough like water to get over there.


BEGALA: We need to do more and we need to do it longer. You're right when you say the infrastructure before the storm was (INAUDIBLE). That means -- it took decades for it to degrade. It took decades to rebuild. Our president doesn't have a consistency and commitment to the Puerto Rican people. He said, he twitted, we're not going to stay there forever. He said these people want everything done for them. So a lot of people took it pretty --


MILLER: -- he and the vice president, they're going to be there to see this through.

BEGALA: After he got spanked --

SETMAYER: That's right.

BEGALA: -- for telling what he really thought which was working.


MILLER: He's committed to Puerto Rico --

BEGALA: American citizens.


SETMAYER: Well, the president's disposition toward Puerto Rico from the initial reaction is what sticks with people. After he gets criticized in the media and criticized by people, probably in the White House saying, Mr. President, that probably wasn't the right way to do this. Then we're supposed to give him credit for coming back and saying, we're going to help Puerto Rico. No, he does -- you can tell that he is not as committed because Puerto Ricans can't vote for him directly. He's got -- probably see that they're not doing anything for us to just sucking from the white blood of the American people and you could tell that that's how easy he's approaching it.


SETMAYER: -- the humanitarian --


SETMAYER: -- going on there.

COOPER: The White House was saying that this was a textbook response on their part and then they finally sent a three-star general down and one of the first things he says is, there's not enough troops, there's not enough helicopters and more are coming down.

SETMAYER: Right. There's fair criticism to be made here about some of the response and things that are going on there logistically. I mean, there's a security crisis in Puerto Rico, there's a lot of things going on there but it's not the time to start blaming the people in the middle of a humanitarian crisis. Say that after people have food and water and shelter.

COOPER: Right. I want to thank everybody. Time for Don Lemon in "CNN Tonight". Thanks very much for watching AC360. Join us tomorrow night, 8:00 p.m. I'll see you.

DON LEMON, CNN HOST: The president answering questions for 40 minutes in the Rose Garden today and everything he said was good news, if you're Donald Trump.

This is "CNN Tonight". I'm Don Lemon.