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Trump to Unveil "America First" National Security Plan; Puerto Rico Governor Orders Death Toll Review; EPA Staffers Under Scrutiny After Speaking Out?; Aired 10:30-11a ET

Aired December 18, 2017 - 10:30   ET



[10:34:18] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. President Trump set to unveil his new national security strategy later today.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Yep. In just a few hours he'll make those public remarks and according to reports his message will be America First. No surprise, but what might be different this time around?

Our diplomatic and military analyst, retired Rear Admiral John Kirby joins us now.

So, you know, the White House is outlining these four things that sound like any president would talk about, a strong America, et cetera, this is the national security strategy by law. They have to put this out there, right?


HARLOW: H.R. McMaster, his National Security adviser, is saying this is going to be very much like or akin to Ronald Reagan's peace through strengths. What are you going to be looking for this afternoon from the president?

KIRBY: Well, I'll tell you, I mean, I've seen some excerpts and had a chance to talk to a White House official yesterday in advance of the speech coming up.

[10:35:06] Honestly, I think when you look at this thing, even the way it's organized, it's not going to be radically different from the last one that President Obama put out in 2015.


KIRBY: Now there'll some differences in terms of tone and emphasis and rhetoric. They are going to focus more on a nation-state competition. They've described the world as a competitive place, whereas President Obama tended to focus more on areas of cooperation and multilateral institutions that could achieve cooperative efforts. But I'm going to be looking to see when he says America First, does it mean America alone?

Because thus far, the way he's been practicing foreign policy, it very much has been America alone and obviously in this dynamic world we just can't do it all by ourselves.

BERMAN: You know, one of the things he's going to do is talk about China and there was some reporting he was going to talk about China in a different way than he has in recent months.

KIRBY: Right.

BERMAN: It doesn't quite seem it's as big as some of the initial reporting but he will refer to China as a strategic competitor and loop in China -- lump in China and Russia as revisionist powers. What does that mean? What's the significance there?

KIRBY: I think what they're trying to get at with revisionist powers is that they are trying to remake the international order according to their own interests. In terms of China, you know, the global international order. In terms of Russia, although I think they give them too much credit for that, they mean it certainly in a regional way.

They're trying to upset the balance of power to suit their own view of the world and their own past grievances. Both Russia and China, if you just listen to what their leaders say publicly, they're very much stuck on grievances that are sometimes centuries old and I think that's what he's going to talk about here.

But, look, President Trump likewise talked about China as a competitor. If you look at his 2015 strategy he was pretty honest and open about that. We're going to work where we can and where we can't, when we need to compete, we're going to compete. So calling them a strategic competitor while the act of labeling them like that is probably new, it's not a new idea. In fact, administration officials even will tell you that they know they're going to have to work and they need China's help on issues like North Korea.

HARLOW: One thing not included, though, as the national security threat in this as was in Obama's in 2015 is climate change.

KIRBY: Right.

HARLOW: So I would just note that that is the difference. But let's get you on this. So what John said about Russia and how Russia will be framed, this comes on the heels of two phone calls between President Trump and President Putin of Russia in the last four days.

KIRBY: Right. Yes. And the last one here where he and Putin apparently, you know, talked about this intelligence sharing that may have led to disrupting a terrorist attack in St. Petersburg, I'm not so concerned about the fact that there was sharing and I'm certainly not concerned about the fact that they spoke about that. I mean, you know, it would -- I think morally and ethically if you have information like that that can prevent death and destruction.

HARLOW: Of course.

KIRBY: Even with a country you don't necessarily consider a great friend, you know, it's not a wrong thing to share that. What's surprising is the way that the administration tried to take credit for that and talked about it publicly. Most intelligence agencies with these sharing arrangements don't want to talk ability that because very soon if bad guys understand about the sort of information that's being shared back and forth you can give up sources and methods. So it was kind of unusual that it was made so public by both sides.

BERMAN: Look, and I've also heard critics say that the president is praising intelligence that helps Russia.


BERMAN: And he has run down the intelligence agencies when they've put out information damaging to Russia or says that Russia meddled in the election.


BERMAN: You know, is that fair criticism --


KIRBY: Yes. It's quite ironic. And I think that's fair criticism as well. Absolutely.

BERMAN: All right.

HARLOW: Admiral John Kirby, appreciate it as always. Thank you very much.

KIRBY: Thank you. You bet.

HARLOW: So it has been almost three months since Hurricane Maria first made landfall in Puerto Rico. The death toll of 64 that has been widely reported, is it, though, wildly inaccurate? Up next our reporter Leyla Santiago leading on this investigative reporting and now what the island's governor is saying ordering a recount of the death toll there.


[10:43:24] HARLOW: This morning Puerto Rico's governor is ordering an official recount of the death toll related to Hurricane Maria.

BERMAN: Yes. That toll currently stands at 64. But this is an important development today especially given the CNN investigation revealing that the number really could be much, much higher.

CNN's Leyla Santiago did that investigation behind this reporting.

Leyla, a fascinating development today. What are you learning?

LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Really a change of tone. Not just a development, hearing the governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rossello, saying look, we acknowledge that there is a need for an investigation. We acknowledge that the number could be higher than what the official death toll is. And there is a need for a thorough investigation to find out exactly how many people die as a result of Hurricane Maria directly or indirectly.

As you mentioned, we did an investigation. We called 279 funeral homes, reached half of them, and those funnel directors reported to us 499 deaths. Since then other media outlets have questioned that death toll and also highlighted reasons to question it.

Now I want to read you part of the statement that Governor Rossello issued today, saying that a thorough review is needed, even ordering that. He said, "This is about more than numbers. These are lives, real people, leaving behind loved ones and families. The government needs to work with sensibility and certainty in the process of certifying a death related to the hurricane." So a big step and also a change in tone for the government but no real details on how they will do this.

[10:45:06] They have tasked the Registry for Demographics as well as the Department of Public Safety with reviewing this, but no details on exactly how they will do this. Will they go certificate by certificate? Will they do more interviews? All of those details are yet to be known.

HARLOW: And, Leyla, you know, obviously we know you spent a great deal of time in Puerto Rico, a place very important to you personally, of course, but you dug up so much while you were there. One of the cases you've been highlighting actually helped push this new investigation forward. Is this right? In terms of pushing action from the government.

SANTIAGO: Right. That was Jose Pepe Sanchez. We brought several cases to the Department of Public Safety. The secretary there gave us his word that he would look into them. To his credit he did look into several of them and in the case of Pepe Sanchez, a gentlemen who died during Hurricane Maria, had a previous heart condition, but according to the family had quite a bit of an attack and died when they called 911.

Help did not come because it wasn't available given the elements that came with the hurricane, that death has now been added to that number 64. I spoke with the family, the wife, in tears, said that she now feels a sense of justice given that his case has been added and they are now qualified to get some kind of money to cover funeral expenses from FEMA.

BERMAN: Leyla Santiago, thanks to you, making a difference in Puerto Rico. Really appreciate your reporting.

All right. Under scrutiny because they spoke out. Now employees of the EPA say their e-mails are being monitored because they criticized the agency and White House policy. We're going to speak to the reporter who broke this story.


[10:51:16] BERMAN: All right. New concerns this morning among some employees at the EPA. "The New York Times" is reporting that EPA staffers say they are under scrutiny and so are their e-mails after these people expressed concern about the direction that the agency is going in.

HARLOW: That's right. To one of the reporters who broke this story, Eric Lipton of the "Times," joins us now.

Eric, reading it this morning, I mean, it's troubling. You speak to current EPA employees, former administrators, et cetera, and you described it in your words as a wave of fear among employees feeling as though they are tracked and monitored just for expressing beliefs about concern -- about the direction the agency is going in.

ERIC LIPTON, INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER, NEW YORK TIMES: Right. What's happened is that there's been a lot of changes going on at the Environmental Protection Agency and there are a fair number of folks that worked there who aren't too happy about what's happening and so they as individual citizens outside of work or at a union event or to their -- at lunch time with their colleagues are able to make comments about their frustration with what's happening.

And what's been happening is that there is a Republican opposition research group which is the kind of organization that will try to take down Democratic candidates that it doesn't like, but it is targeting its focus now on EPA employees who have been speaking up to raise questions about the agency.

BERMAN: So just get this straight, the EPA, the government is hiring an oppo agency to investigate EPA employees? Is that what's going on here?

LIPTON: No, it's not that exactly. What happened is that there's this oppo research agency which has been doing -- collecting information on EPA employees who are critical of Administrator Pruitt, and while that was under way the EPA decided to hire the same firm to do what it's calling media monitoring to track what news stories and social media commentary about the agency. So the same group that has been doing this oppo research sort of intelligence gathering on critical EPA employees has now been hired by the agency to do media monitoring. And that's where the two came together and it caused some controversy.

HARLOW: Right. So what is leadership? Scott Pruitt or his -- you know, those closely around him at the EPA, how are they responding to all of this reporting?

LIPTON: They're saying that this has been exaggerated, the significance of it, and in fact all they've done is essentially hired a clipping service that's going to collect newspaper stories and video clips from, you know, CNN and other places that mention the EPA. And they think that, you know, the fact that this -- that this company has an affiliate that has been tracking EPA employees is not relevant or related to the fact, you know, that they've happened to hire the same company to help do media monitoring and they think there's really nothing here of note.

BERMAN: And these are career EPA employees, correct? This is not -- these are not political appointees, holdovers for the Obama administration? LIPTON: That's right. And the thing that was interesting for me as I

was working on with my colleague Lisa, what we found was that there are people literally all over the United States, in Seattle, in Philadelphia, in Chicago, in Washington, whose e-mails are being tracked and who -- because they have said something, they went to a lunch and they spoke up, even in Facebook, they posted something or they, you know, are quoted in a newspaper and then suddenly they're the subject of a Freedom of Information request to ask for copies of their e-mails and someone is looking to see whether or not they're doing more than speaking to -- you know, there's anything more that they're doing that might be inappropriate and actually could be used against them.

HARLOW: And very quickly, a former head of the EPA under President Bush, a Republican, says this is very concerning.

LIPTON: Yes. I mean, it's creating a fair amount of distrust between the administrator and the people that work for him and it's -- it is definitely intimidating the staff and not a particularly good work environment, that's for sure.

HARLOW: Yes. All right. Eric Lipton, appreciate it. Thank you.

LIPTON: Thank you.

[10:55:04] BERMAN: Thanks, Eric.

A lot of news today. There's some brand new CNN reporting that the president is telling associates he thinks he's going to get a letter from the special counsel clearing him of any abuse inside the Russia probe and why allies of the president worry that this could lead the president to some kind of meltdown. A lot of news. Stay with us.


KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan.