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Trump and McConnell Meeting; Cabinet Meeting amid Tensions; Concerns of Impeachment; Storm Victims Drinking Water From Hazardous Waste Site; At Least 40 Dead, 200 Reported Missing In Fires; Fire Evacuees Return Home To Find Destruction. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired October 16, 2017 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:00] JACK WEAVER, REUNITED WITH DOG AFTER FIRE: She's been with our kids and just back to her old happy self. And it's been really wonderful.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Well, we know it's early out there. Thank you for getting up. Thank you for lifting our spirits with this story. And that is a beautiful doggy. I'm glad that she's there by your side.

WEAVER: Well, thanks so much. Thanks for having us.

CUOMO: Boy, oh, boy, imagine that shock, imagine that surprise. A little bit of a happy ending and just such a nightmare of a story.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Izzy made my day. So did Izzy, the executive producer of this show, by the way.

CUOMO: Senior executive. Very sensitive about the title.

HARLOW: A lot of good Izzys this morning. OK, senior. We love you, Izzy.

That was great.

Nice to be with you, my friend.

CUOMO: You are so good to be here. Thank you. Thank you. I appreciate it.

HARLOW: My pleasure.

My friend, John Berman, I will see you tomorrow. Take it from here.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: You know, every interview I'm going to do today is going to have someone scratching the other person's head for the entire interview to keep them docile. That was amazing.

All right, Chris, Poppy, thanks so much.

HARLOW: Good luck with that.

BERMAN: A lot of news. Let's get to it.

All right, good morning, everyone. John Berman here. So a moron, a gelding and a majority leader walk into a bar. OK,

clearly that's an inappropriate joke because there is no bar. There's just the White House. But those are just some of the reported names being thrown around for the folks meeting there this morning, sometimes by those very folks about each other. And whether or not they get along this morning could determine the success or failure of the president's first year in office. President Trump lunches with the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a man he criticized for months and a man against whom his former chief strategist just essentially declared political war. So they'll have a lot to talk about this morning, in addition to tax cuts.

Also this morning, the president sits down with his cabinet, including his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, fresh off his precedent-setting interview with Jake Tapper, where he refused to deny calling the president a moron. But he did confirm he still has his, well, authority.

CNN's Joe Johns is at the White House this morning.

An eventful morning, Joe.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: That's true, John, they've had their differences. Now they're having lunch. The president and the Senate majority leader have been sniping at each other. Now have to sit down and talk about the road ahead. Tax cuts very much at the top of the agenda because there are growing concerns on Capitol Hill that they are running out of time to do something in order to get the voters to vote for them next year in the midterm elections. They want to be competitive and they haven't been able to pass much significant legislation in that direction.

There's also a lot of concern, of course, about the president's top adviser, former top adviser Steve Bannon, now out on his own, threatening a season of war against the Republican establishment. Listen.


JOHN DICKERSON, CBS ANCHOR: Are you going to get tax reform done?

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Yes. If we don't, we're dead.

If we don't cut taxes and we don't eventually repeal and replace Obamacare, then we're going to lose across the board in the House in 2018. And all of my colleagues running in primaries in 2018 will probably get beat. It will be the end of Mitch McConnell as we know it.

STEVE BANNON, FORMER WHITE HOUSE CHIEF STRATEGIST: This is not my war. This is our war. And you all didn't start it. The establishment started it. But I will tell you one thing, you all are going to finish it.


JOHNS: We will see the president later today at a cabinet meeting. The first one in about a month. They met last at Camp David.

Later, the president travels to South Carolina to wade into another statewide election there. He'll be trying to help the governor, who is probably facing a couple GOP primary challenges. The last time the president weighed into a statewide race, it was the Alabama Senate race, and he picked the candidate who lost.


BERMAN: And he also picked a fight with the NFL that night.

Joe Johns at the White House for us. Thanks so much.

So does the president fully understand the risks of attacking his own party? This morning there are whispers that if he keeps this up, there could be major consequences, including one that begins with the letter "i."

CNN's Sara Murray has that story.



The conversation that is increasingly playing out among top aides in the White House, among Republican lawmakers and other influential Republicans is concern. People wondering whether this president understands that if Republicans lose control of the House in 2018, he could be putting the fate of his presidency in jeopardy.

Now, they look at a president who has picked a number of fights with major members of his own party. They also look at a president who doesn't have a single major legislative accomplishment under his belt at this point. And they look at the math for 2018, and say, this could be a very precarious situation, not just for Republicans in the House, not just for the conservative agenda, but also for the president. They're saying that this president doesn't understand how Democrats could make his life a living hell if they are the ones who are controlling the House. They are talking about issuing subpoenas, talking about dragging President Trump's friends, family members, acquaintances, up to Capitol Hill to testify and even moving forward with articles of impeachment.

[09:05:17] Now, it's very difficult to boot a president out of office, but it's not all that difficult to turn the second half of Trump's first term into a major spectacle. The White House insists the president is keenly aware of the risks here. They say they're not taking a defeatist attitude. That they are going to fight to keep control of the House in 2018.

But this just gives you an indication of how high the stakes are for the next big fight. That is tax reform. If Republicans can get something done, if they can pass something through the House and the Senate and take it to the president's desk, then Trump has a major legislative accomplishment to run on, and so do other House Republicans when they go back to their districts and have to answer to their base.

Back to you guys.

BERMAN: All right, Sara Murray for us. Thanks so much.

Joining us now, CNN contributor Salena Zito, Eugene Scott, a political reporter for "The Washington Post," and Lynn Sweet, Washington bureau chief for the "Chicago Sun Times."

Lynn, I want to start with you. This impeachment talk, not the fact of impeachment, but the worries among some Republican strategists. Because I've heard from a lot of Republicans concerned that the president doesn't get this. That if he keeps running down his own candidates, they could be at risk of losing the House and then he's in real trouble. And I've heard this from people running Republican campaigns, Lynn.

LYNN SWEET, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "CHICAGO SUN TIMES": Well, the big danger in having the House turn Democrat, which is a bigger challenge than having the Senate turn Democrat, is a quick refresher. Impeachment proceedings start with the House Judiciary Committee. If you have a Democratic chairman, it makes even the talk or consideration of impeachment, even the exploration of impeachment, a potential reality where now it is not.

With Republican leadership of the House, I know there might be Democrats that talk about impeachment. Now it's wishful thinking. So you could start the mechanism going, even if a Democratic House Judiciary Committee never votes out articles impeachment, they could certainly raise the specter of it, which would be a -- at the least, a cloud hanging over the last two years in the Trump presidency. And if he doesn't like his legal bills piling up now, just wait. Just wait.


And, again, the message from those Republicans is, listen, our problems are your problems here. So don't go running us down.

Salena, it's interesting, one top Republican official said, wouldn't it be ironic that Steve Bannon helped the president elected and impeached at the same time, suggesting that going after these Republican House members is counterproductive in that way.

But it does get back to this basic question, Salena, we've been asking since even before the election was, whose party is it now? The Republican Party. Whose party is it? Is it Donald Trump's party? Or is it the establishment Republican Party led by Mitch McConnell, who he'll meet with today?

SALENA ZITO, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, the Republican Party, as it stands right now in Washington, is the traditional Republican Party. I mean you have divisions between the Freedom Caucus, which tends to be more conservative, and then the moderates and sort of everyone else.

But Donald Trump is really not a Republican. He's not a Democrat. He's this -- his own sort of disruptive figure. And I never sort of look at him as the leader of the Republican Party. That's more Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell.

So the challenge right now -- the Republicans' challenge has always been in the House and the Senate is that -- that these seats always -- in a president's first term, traditionally lose seats. That's -- you know, it's like a brake pedal election.

What I'm going to watch, as you guys have been talking about, is what happens in the primaries in the spring. Is Bannon able to primary some of these races? If -- I would keep an eye on Pennsylvania, because while it has 13 Republican seats out of the 18 that are in the delegation, four of them are open seats. And while they're held by Republicans right now, if the Democrats are able to put moderate candidates up in these races, that's where you will see the shift and if a wave is building.

BERMAN: And, Eugene, all of this is what makes what's going on at the White House today so crucial. The president's meeting with Mitch McConnell. They've had their problems. In fact, they've really only had problems, it seems, over the last few months.


BERMAN: But now they have tax cuts to deal with, or tax reform, as some people like to call it.

SCOTT: Right.

BERMAN: They both need to get something out of this today and over the next month.

SCOTT: They certainly do. And they need to prove that the tax plan they're going to put forward is going to benefit the middle class and all of these people that President Trump, on the campaign, told he would help. There are studies out already -- I tweeted one that said about 80 percent of the benefits of the tax plan are expected to go to the top 1 percent of Americans. And that's not consistent with what the president said he would do when he got to Washington.

[09:10:02] The challenge is, when you win the group of Americans making over $250,000 a year, you want to be loyal to them, especially if you're a President Trump. He's got to figure out a way to be loyal to them and be loyal to the base that sent him to the White House.

BERMAN: And is Lindsey Graham right, that if this tax cut doesn't get passed in some form or fashion, there is no Mitch McConnell anymore?

SCOTT: I certainly think so because what many of the people who are on the Trump train are doing, as I think Salena mentioned, is they're putting blame on the establishment, not as much on Trump, because they believe that Trump is trying to fight these people who have made life what it is right now for these voters.

BERMAN: All right, big cabinet meeting today. The full cabinet is there. The first time we'll get to see the picture of the president sitting side by side, presumably, with Rex Tillerson.

Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, had this big interview with Jake Tapper yesterday. Let's recap some of the highlights of that.


REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: I'm not going to deal with that kind of petty stuff. I mean this is a town that seems to relish gossip, rumor, innuendo. And they feed on it.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: You're a cattle -- you have a cattle ranch. You don't want to say anything about the senator calling -- suggesting you've been gelded before the world? That's not anything that bothers you?

TILLERSON: I checked. I'm fully intact.


BERMAN: All of America laughed with Jake along there.

Salena, he was responding at the beginning to the reports that he called the president a moron, or refused to deny them, but he did confirm that he's still fully intact. How do you think the president viewed that interview and viewed how Rex Tillerson is now handling -- trying to soft-pedal through this briar patch?

ZITO: I suspect that the president probably viewed that interview favorably. He didn't respond to the accusations and the rumors that Tillerson had called the president a moron. And I suspect throughout history there have been plenty of cabinet members that have called their presidents that they've served under names. It's just that this White House has sort of -- it's like a firehose in a colander when it comes to leaks, right?

BERMAN: Right.

ZITO: And so, looking at that, I think he danced around it effectively. He came out strong on the points that he wanted to make and he was able to dance around the ones that he didn't want to answer.

BERMAN: Dance around to say the least.

Lynn, you know, it's going to be an interesting look at this table because not just sitting -- you know, it won't just be the secretary of state, it will be the attorney general, who the president had a back and forth with over the summer, calling him beleaguered. There will be an empty seat for Tom Price, Health and Human Services secretary, who had to quit because of the travel issues right now. What do you think the cabinet wants out of this going forward? What's their disposition?

SWEET: Well, I would think what the cabinet would want today is to get the meeting over as fast as possible and get out of there without having any -- without having anything backfire on them, without anyone saying anything, causing a Twitter storm.

But what they need to get out of it, if possible, is maybe more of a coherent set of strategies as how they could map out legislative victories for the Trump agenda in Congress, of which he has no significant, major agenda items right now.

Now, even kicking the Iran nuclear deal to Congress, which President Trump did last week, puts a big, divisive issue on the plate of Congress, which already is struggling with matters that touch on all -- on several cabinet agencies, including what to do with dreamers.

So I think, John, they have a lot on their plate. And maybe in the meeting they could figure out a way where they could work together in -- where they overlap, where they have stuff in common, what agencies do, and figure out a way to win more Republican friends in Congress so they could get their -- so they could have -- they have a majority, but they don't yet have a governing majority.

BERMAN: All right, Salena, Eugene, Lynn, thanks so much.

How's the president preparing for this meeting, by the way? He just tweeted about Hillary Clinton. So that tells you where his mind is this morning.

Thanks so much, guys. Great to have you with us.

SWEET: Thank you.

BERMAN: This morning we have new developments in Puerto Rico. Some people so thirsty, they're willing to drink potentially toxic water.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You going to drink this water?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're going to drink it?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're willing to take the chance?


BERMAN: How did it get to this point and what's now being done to help? We'll have that story.

Calmer winds and cooler temperatures helping California firefighters. But so many finding they have nothing to go home to. And the U.S. military set to begin drills to evacuate Americans from South Korea in case of war.



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: New this morning, the death toll in Puerto Rico is now at 48. Three times what it was when the president visited two weeks ago. Dozens are still missing after Hurricane Maria devastated the island last month.

Just 15 percent of power is restored, and that figure seems to get worse as frequently as it gets better and less than half of the cell phone towers are now working, leaving thousands with no way to communicate.

And as far as the drinking water, CNN has found that many are resigned to turning potentially toxic water from hazardous waste sites.

CNN's Ed Lavandera is on the ground in Puerto Rico and has that story. Ed, these folks have been warned not to drink this water, but they have no other choice.

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right. You know, things are getting a little bit better on the waterfront, but this is really a story that captures the desperation, especially in the days right after the storm hit and decimated many parts of this island. And this story really captures just how desperate some people were.


LAVANDERA (voice-over): Nearly a month after Hurricane Maria hit, residents around the town of Dorado tapping into this water faucet behind a chain link fence with a sign that reads "danger, do not enter." And despite the warnings from a police officer -- they come here to fill containers of water.

But few of them know, this well sits in an area designated by the Environmental Protection Agency as a superfund site where the ground is known to contain dangerously high levels of toxic levels. It's located on the northern edge of the island west of San Juan.

[09:20:02] In the Dorado superfund site, there are at least six wells that residents have reportedly tapped into for water. One of the wells is accessed in a shopping center parking lot, and there have been long lines of residents waiting to fill up what they can.

The governor of Puerto Rico insists that the water is safe. He says the territory's Department of Health has tested it.

GOVERNOR RICARDO ROSSELO, PUERTO RICO: Obviously, if it's nondrinking water, we're not going to be serving it. But if it complies with the Clean Water Act then it is going to happen.

LAVANDERA: But it's not clear if the other wells are safe. An Environmental Protection Agency team spent the weekend gathering samples for further testing.

GARY LIPSON, EPA INCIDENT COMMANDER, PUERTO RICO OPERATIONS: We're not saying that somebody is in immediate danger by drinking this water. We are considering it a long-term risk.

LAVANDERA: Gary Lipson is the EPA incident commander in Puerto Rico. He says they're looking for signs of industrial toxins often linked to serious health problems, including cancer. And EPA documents show that as late as last year, dangerous levels of those industrial toxins were found in the ground.

(on camera): How concerned are you about what might happen to them?

LIPSON: We're concerned, because it's not absolutely clean, you know, pure water. There are some contaminants.

LAVANDERA (on camera): Right after the EPA team left and locked the site, Juan Carlos Okendo (ph) and his brother showed up, peeled back the fence and filled up dozens of containers with water.

(on camera): Are you going to drink this water?


LAVANDERA: You're going to drink it? You're willing to take the chance? (Inaudible). He said this is it. There is no other water. They'll take the chance. He says if I don't drink water I'm going die might as well drink this one.

(voice-over): Juan Carlos brought us to his home where he lives with his family. The top floor was destroyed by the hurricane. His mother says they have only received two packages of water since the storm. She's been drinking the water from that potentially contaminated well for two weeks, and says she now has stomach pains.

(on camera): She says the stomach pains started about two weeks ago and she's trying to ignore them. Do you think it has something to do with the water?

She doesn't know for sure, but she thinks it might have something to do with the water she's been drinking.

(voice-over): It's impossible to know for sure if the stomach pains are related, but in these desperate times with every drop of water, many Puerto Ricans could be flirting with another disaster.


LAVANDERA: And john, EPA officials are really urging residents in that area around that town to avoid those water wells. They say that there is access to cleaner water in that area. However, many people say that officials have only delivered a small amount of water into neighborhoods just a couple of times since the storm hit.

And the lines for access to that water can be -- can take hours and hours. So, there is that -- still that sense of desperation in many parts of the island here as they continue that search for water that they can use on a daily basis -- John.

BERMAN: Ed Lavandera, thanks so much for being in Puerto Rico. Thanks so much for going out and telling those stories. Appreciate it.

We have signs of hope this morning in California where crews say they are finally starting to get the upper hand on some of the huge wildfires burning for more than a week. Evacuated communities slowly being allowed to return home, but the reality for many of those people will be they find no home. Metal frames instead of cars. Ashes instead of family heirlooms.

CNN's Ryan Young live in Santa Rosa for us. Ryan, the weather getting better, but I think the scene on the ground there for so many people simply couldn't be worse.

RYAN YOUNG, CNN WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Yes. We certainly have been talking about this amongst ourselves, saying, I don't think people realize how big this disaster is. And when you look behind you like this, and you see this house behind us, so many people haven't had a chance to even come home yet and realize the loss they have.

But like you said, improving conditions. This is the fact that we haven't had the heavy winds today, has been amazing and we're talking about the two largest fires, close to 60 percent containment on those two largest fires.

We want to show you this video, because two roommates had to escape that fire. This is dramatic video of them trying to get away and you talk about the fire moving so fast. In fact, almost a football field every few seconds.

You understand what people were dealing with. The fact they were running from a firestorm. A lot of people were able to escape this. But when you hear from the victims, you understand their heartache, their pain and their fear.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They're 85 years old and I just don't know if they can rebuild. I mean, so many family heirlooms. I've thought my whole life I'm going to inherit someday. This is what I'm going to pass down to my kids. Oh, God, I can't --


[09:25:00] YOUNG: John, we've been taking a walk as a crew sometimes just to look around and see some of the houses. In fact, near where we're standing right now, we can see the flames in the distance.

We can hear a helicopter. The firefighters have been working this nonstop. More than 8,000 of them working to a point where just pure exhaustion. There are signs everywhere that says "thank you."

But I really think the impact is going to hit a lot of people in the next few days as they get a chance to start looking at what's been lost. And then remember this, more than 200 people are still missing.

And that's going to be tough for a lot of folks in terms of they're going to take cadaver dogs and go through some of these neighborhoods and try to find remains -- John.

BERMAN: All right. Ryan Young for us in Santa Rosa. Ryan, let's hope that the weather holds out and continues to get firefighters the help that they need. All right. Search and rescue efforts under way in Louisiana after an explosion at an oil rig. Police say one person is still missing, seven others injured after the blast last night on Lake Pontchartrain. Nearby homeowners say the explosion sounded like a sonic boom. The cause under investigation.

Diplomacy until the first bomb drops. But when is that, exactly? The secretary of state outlines the U.S. strategy on North Korea.