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Soon: Trump Meets with GOP, Dem Lawmakers; House GOP Leaders hold News Conference; Voters Hit Polls in Senate Race Pitting Trump versus Bannon. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired September 26, 2017 - 10:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[10:00:25]

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone, John Berman here. We're standing by because in just a few minutes, the president welcomes lawmakers to the White House. Will he use the opportunity to rally national support to end the suffering in Puerto Rico, to lean on members for aid, to lobby for disaster funding? Will he do that or will he talk about football?

Moments ago, the president called for a new league rule barring players from kneeling during the national anthem. He has written many messages about the NFL this morning. In the midst of it all, he did find time to promise Puerto Rico much food and water. That's after he blamed broken infrastructure and massive debt for much of the island's misery.

We're also waiting to hear from House Speaker Paul Ryan. How will he respond to the president's latest comments about the NFL? How will Paul Ryan respond to the apparent death of the Republican health care effort on the Hill?

Let's go to the White House. CNN's Joe Johns is there. Joe, a busy morning.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: A very busy morning. And you know, John, the president started this fight over the NFL in a speech in Alabama on Friday evening. He's tweeted about the NFL every day since. And so, this morning's tweets, we obviously looked at with great interest.

Here's the first one. "Ratings for NFL football are way down except from before the game starts, when people tune in to see whether or not our country will be disrespected!"

I do have to say. It's not clear whether people were tuning in to find out if the protests by people kneeling down were still actually occurring at NFL games, and whether people were tuning out because of lopsided games. That's something we'll learn from the ratings later in the week.

There were two other tweets about the NFL, both about the Dallas Monday night football game last night when the owner and the players kneeled before the national anthem was played. The president, remarking on Twitter, that they stood up when the national anthem was played. That he said was big progress, quote, "We all love our country."

One person that's not all clear is happy about the picking of this fight. That's the former Marine general and the current chief of staff here at the White House, John Kelly. Now, he had a son who died in Afghanistan, so very attune to issues certainly of patriotism and while he may not like the fight because he's trying to bring order to the west wing.

He did speak to CNN and say, he is appalled by what he sees as lack of respect for the flag and the national anthem. And he said, I believe every American when the national anthem is played should cover their hearts and think about all the men and women who have been maimed and killed.

So, we are waiting right now to see the president around 10:30 a.m. Eastern Time. We expect him to meet with the House Ways and Means Committee, that's the tax writing committee, though, there will, we hope, be an opportunity to at least throw a question to the president about Puerto Rico. John, back to you.

BERMAN: Indeed. And we hope he answers the question about Puerto Rico. Joe Johns thanks very much for being with us.

Joining us CNN political analyst, "New Yorker" writer, Ryan Lizza, "Washington Post" political reporter, our old friend Eugene Scott and "Daily Beast" politics reporter, Betsy Woodruff is here with us as well.

Ryan, first to you, you know it's not so much that the president has an opinion about kneeling on the NFL. You know, these players kneeling before the games. It's that he seems fixated on that beyond all else, right? He wrote about it almost exclusively all weekend before mentioning Puerto Rico last night. He's been up all morning writing about it.

RYAN LIZZA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes.

BERMAN: Again, instead of talking about Puerto Rico where 3.5 million Americans are suffering right now.

LIZZA: With all these things going on, obviously, Puerto Rico being the biggest one. But his legislative agenda, health care reform, tax reform, which he's supposed to talk about today. I can't help but think it's driven by two things. I mean, often with Donald Trump things are personal and political.

The personal part here is, remember he tried to buy the Buffalo Bills in 2014. OK? And I went back and looked at all his tweets when he's ever tweeted about the NFL and the period where he was -- where he became anti-NFL was in 2014 when he couldn't afford the Buffalo Bills and it was given to another bidder. He started the rants against the NFL then saying it was boring, low ratings, and they were too obsessed with these issue of concussions. So I think that's a little bit of the context and background for this.

[10:05:06] But then, of course, politically, I can't help but think as his legislative agenda has sort of collapsed here with the death of health care. Now it's the third time and not a lot of progress on some of these other issues. He does often look for these culture war fights and arguments to get in the middle of because I think he thinks it helps him strengthen his base and as his campaign promises are cratering, he looks for these other fights to show up his base and from a political perspective having a fight about the national anthem and patriotism is an obvious play for him that he does routinely.

BERMAN: Eugene, when is there a political cost as Ryan was just talking about, though, in fixating so much on football and not discussing or not drawing the national focus because that is really what a president can do, on Puerto Rico?

EUGENE SCOTT, POLITICAL REPORTER, "THE WASHINGTON POST": There's already a political cost with many of the people who did not support Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign and who continue to have record low approval ratings of him, but there's not a political cost for him with his base, as Ryan hinted at, and many people who supported him.

What Donald Trump knows how to do well is tap into the cultural anxiety of many people who got on the Trump train. Last week was terrible for the president. We had latest findings with Paul Manafort and Russia, Kim Jong-un and Trump got into a spat, health care fell apart, Puerto Rico just was not paid quite attention - enough attention to and the president was criticized by that. So he went to Alabama, a state that doesn't even have a football team, and he started talking about cultural anxiety because the people at that rally would respond well to their discomfort and his discomfort with changes in America.

BERMAN: You know, Betsy, people are looking at the Puerto Rico response now, and at least the outward signs of it are different than we saw for Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma. You know, Maria is different right now, partially because it did not hit the U.S. mainland. It hit Puerto Rico. But does the president need to be accountable for the suffering there right now and for the U.S. response? And at what point does Congress jump in and accelerate getting aid down there?

BETSY WOODRUFF, POLITICS REPORTER, "THE DAILY BEAST": Certainly. The president's job as commander in chief is to lead the country through crises. That's not disputed, whatsoever. And that includes crises that happen to territories like Puerto Rico. Just because they don't have a vote in the Electoral College, just because they didn't count towards whether or not the president was able to pull off a victory last November doesn't mean that they aren't U.S. citizens, who are facing extraordinary suffering right now.

And history judges presidents based on how they handle disasters just like the one unfolding in Puerto Rico. You'll recall, of course, that the president got significant applause for his involvement, his hands on approach when hurricanes hit Florida and Houston, Texas in the previous few weeks. But the fact that he's treated Puerto Rico differently is, obviously, something that's going to generate and is generating extraordinary criticism. And, of course, that means that Congress has a major responsibility here as well. They hold the purse strings. They are ultimately responsible for allocating funds to help Puerto Rico rebuild, help it put itself back together. That's very much on Congress. It's something that's up to those leader and we can expect that will be an issue that comes up when members meet with the president this morning.

BERMAN: Then look, this is not to say the disaster relief is easy. It's not. I mean, dealing with a hurricane and the aftermath is very, very difficult at a federal state, local level, any level, but there is a perception issue and sometimes just rallying support does matter.

You know what else is tough, Ryan Lizza, health care. It turns out health care is not easy.

LIZZA: Yes.

BERMAN: And who would have thought that people are learning it again and again and again. What is the final lesson to be learned if Graham/Cassidy, if the latest health care measure, is, in fact, completely totally 100 percent dead?

LIZZA: I think the lesson is that when you build -- that when you build a system in the country that has some benefits for people and it starts to get cemented, it is extremely difficult, despite the political opposition to it, to take it away. It's really, really hard. Especially with health care, people have a status quo bias, right?

If you're on one of these exchanges, in the individual market and you have Obamacare and it's not a disaster for you. Then you fear switching into something else. It's just the same problem that the Clintons learned in the '90s, part of the problem that almost didn't pass Obamacare under the Obama himself, is that people fear losing what they have. And a lot of people have health care through Obamacare and it's really, really difficult to change that and especially when they can be convinced that the change will be worse.

And so, I mean I think the fascinating thing here is what Trump made you -- what he may end up doing if Obamacare fails and these bipartisan negotiations about fixing, which is the Obamacare repeal fails and these bipartisan negotiations about fixing Obamacare, Trump could be the president that absolutely cements Obamacare for history.

[10:10:02] BERMAN: Just like he ran on, ironically. I want to get one question to each of you, so 30 second answers if we can.

Eugene, first, to you, on what's happening in the White House right now, six private e-mail servers used by senior staff, a problem for this White House?

SCOTT: It certainly is a huge problem when you campaign on Hillary Clinton's e-mails and when you look at the polling that shows that the news story that many people who voted against Hillary Clinton heard most and found most problematic was Hillary Clinton's e-mails. It does become a problem when you have at least six people in the White House appearing to do something very different from what you say it was one of the worst things possible that a leader could do.

BERMAN: And finally, to you, Betsy, we're going to hear from House Speaker Paul Ryan any minute. His favorite thing is to have to answer questions about President Trump. Now he has questions about the NFL, not to mention health care and other things. What's it like to be Paul Ryan this morning?

WOODRUFF: It's unpleasant. It's been unpleasant to be Paul Ryan for the last few weeks and months. Of course, his discomfort with the way that President Trump talks about Congress and American politics is pretty palpable. So I wouldn't say this is necessarily anything new.

But that said, yes, Paul Ryan is watching the Republican agenda kind of crumble in front of him. The big question now is, can he get the Republican conference to get tax reform done? It's a very open question and that means that the next few days are going to be quite potentially stressful and complicated for him.

BERMAN: The glass half full, maybe tax reform is that unifying force that can bring all the Republicans together. We will see. Betsy, Eugene, Ryan, great to have you here with us. Thank you so much one and all.

What will the president say? Minutes from now, he meets with lawmakers at the White House. He is expected to make comments. He could take questions. You know, you make the call. NFL, Puerto Rico, North Korea, which is it going to be? We're on it.

And it is the race that is pitting President Trump against his former strategist and much of his base. We'll go to Alabama next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: Paul Ryan talking about Puerto Rico right now. Let's listen in.

REP. PAUL RYAN (R), HOUSE SPEAKER: Right now, this is a rescue mission. And I also want the people of Puerto Rico to know that they are going to get the kind of support and the aid that Texas and Florida have been enjoyed.

The bill we passed on - a couple of weeks ago for FEMA equally apply to Puerto Rico. Right now, it's search, it's rescue, it's humanitarian. And when we get the information we need from the administration, we will be doing more in Congress to act on all of these hurricane victims wherever they are, because these hurricanes have really wreaked havoc on many -- in many of our fellow citizens. Now, the Trump administration is going to do all that it needs to do to get the information to us so that Congress, again, will act in response to these hurricanes.

I want to address another important development with our agenda. We're very excited about this because we really believe that we have a historic chance of prosperity in this country. Our Republican leaders in the House, the Senate and the White House, we have come together on this concrete framework for historic tax reform. We're going to be discussing this with our members tomorrow.

I can't tell you how excited this is because this is not just a big moment for Congress. It's a big moment for Americans. Too many people are struggling in America today. They pay too much in taxes. They feel stuck. They feel anxious. They live in paycheck to paycheck. And we need faster economic growth. And we need a tax code that's built for growth that helps struggling families.

People need relief and we know this. That's why this framework is going to be focused on helping American families. It's going to be focused on helping the people in the middle. It's going to be focused on helping people get to the middle who are struggling to do that.

At the same time, our businesses in America cannot compete with low tax rates of foreign nations. So what are they doing? They're moving overseas. And the people who are staying here, the companies that stay, they are getting hit hard and when a company moves overseas it takes its jobs and it takes its capital overseas.

I was over at Harley-Davidson the other day. It's an American made company in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin. Everybody knows what a Harley- Davidson motorcycle is. I heard the enormous challenges that they face. Their competitors all face much lower effective tax rates than Harley does. That's the story of American businesses who are put at an enormous competitive disadvantage.

[10:15:00] But historic tax reform will put all of our businesses in a better competitive position, so they can stay here at home, so that they can raise wages, increase economic growth, more investment in American jobs, more investment in American economic growth and more take home pay so that the people in America living paycheck to paycheck, can get the relief that they need and they deserve.

If we succeed in tax reform and if we lower the tax rates, these kinds of companies will prosper. They'll grow. They'll hire. They'll increase wages. There's no doubt about it this country needs this. And that is why we're very, very excited about historic tax reform, reform that we have not seen in this country since 1986. It is high time we do this and that is why we're very, very excited about doing this, bringing prosperity, wages, higher tax home pay to American citizens. And that's why tomorrow, is the beginning of a very important process that we're really excited about here in Congress. Questions?

QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE)

RYAN: Any other Packer owners here?

OK, just the two of us.

QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE)

RYAN: Look, people are clearly within their rights to express themselves how they see fit. My own view, though, is we shouldn't do it on the anthem. The national anthem, our flag, and the people who defend it, and represent it, that should be celebrated everywhere and always and that's my opinion. Casey? QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE)

(LAUGHTER)

REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY, MAJORITY LEADER: I was sending a message to the Senate.

QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE)

RYAN: Well, obviously in the House we're a little frustrated because the House has done its job. We passed our health care bill last May. We've passed more bills in the House of Representatives at this stage in the Trump presidency than in the same stage of the Obama presidency, the Clinton presidency, both Bush presidencies. We've been extremely productive. For the first time since 2004, we passed all of our appropriation bills as a Republican majority.

So yes, we're a little frustrated that the Senate has not acted on a promised health care which by the way Obamacare is collapsing. But tax reform affects every single American. Tax reform affects our confidence as a country. It affects whether or not middle-class taxpayers who are struggling can actually meet their mortgage payment, get their kids in school, save for retirement and it really determines whether we have the kind of economy that gets people into the middle class in the first place. So tax reform is the most important thing we can do to restore confidence to this country, to get jobs and prosperity. And that is why we are so singularly focused on getting this done this year.

QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE)

RYAN: We'll answer those questions when we release our outline, Rachel. I think that particular question you're asking will be addressed tomorrow. Susan?

QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE)

RYAN: Yes.

QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE)

RYAN: Yes.

QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE)

RYAN: -- Your question about simplification of the tax code, that is one of our most important priorities. I think a lot of American families are struggling under the complexity and the weight of the tax code and the invasiveness of the internal revenue service. So this is a top priority of ours and this is something we will also address tomorrow. Thank you very much.

BERMAN: House Speaker Paul Ryan proving once again when they say last question in his office they mean it. That guy takes a few questions and he goes off in a hurry. Joined by again by Ryan Lizza, our CNN political commentator, a number of things the speaker discussed right there. I want to break them down one by one. First, want to talk about the NFL. He was clearly asked about the president's response to these players protesting by kneeling during the national anthem. And what he said, what Speaker Ryan says people are within their rights to express themselves but he doesn't think they should do it during the national anthem, which is a very different argument than what the president said which is he called them a son of a bitch and said the NFL should pass a rule.

LIZZA: More expressing his opinion on the matter rather than browbeating a private organization into changing its rules and having and telling its players how they can and can't protest. And I mean, you know, for Republicans, Speaker of the House, probably unlikely that he's going to endorse the specific nature of the protest of some of the players, the kneeling during the national anthem. I think for him he just wanted to move on to talk about tax reform there.

[10:20:04] But yes, you're right. A few notches didn't -- he, obviously, doesn't want to turn this into a big explosive culture war issue while mildly condemning the nature of the protest, so obviously, very different than Trump.

BERMAN: It is. It is a flat out difference and obviously intentional difference because the Speaker doesn't say something that's not careful.

MJ Lee joins us on Capitol Hill. MJ has been reporting health care. What the speaker said about the apparent health care failure in the Senate is, he's frustrated, the House did its job. It's the Senate's fault which ironically or not ironically is pretty much what the White House will end up saying after today I suspect also, MJ.

MJ LEE, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS REPORTER: Yes, sure. And I think that everyone is sort of looking for someone to blame here, right? And Paul Ryan has been saying this for a while ever since the House was able to pass something. That now it's the Senate's turn. The Senate needs to do what the House did and pass something.

But I think it's only fair to note that even if the Senate were able to pass Graham/Cassidy, it's an open question whether the House would actually be able to pass that version. And remember, the clock is ticking because we only have a couple days. The expectation was that the House would have to take up exactly what the Senate passed and try to pass that version and a bunch of House Republicans who had voted for their House Obamacare repeal bill. They had already come out and said, I don't think I can support this Senate bill. So, at this point in time, yes, I think it is politically advantageous for House Speaker Paul Ryan to say this ball is in the court of the Senate Republicans across the Capitol but this was not going to be easy if that bill had gone over back to the House side either.

BERMAN: MJ, just very quickly, the Senate, the Republicans about to have their lunch about an hour and a half from now, big decisions to make about what they want to do with health care, correct? LEE: That's right. And look, Mitch McConnell really does not have any good options right now as of last night. As you know, he knew for certain that he did not have the votes needed to get this bill through the Senate with Susan Collins coming out. And now he is facing a lot of pressure from some of his Republican colleagues who are simply just not ready to give up. And this is both in the short term and the long term.

As we look ahead to this week and that vehicle, remember, to do this in a partisan way expires on Saturday. Plenty of folks are saying let's use the next couple days to try to get those votes -- those 50 votes to move forward on Graham/Cassidy. And then in the long term, there are some talks in the Senate about tying health care to tax reform so that they can continue pursuing health care on a partisan basis. This is going to be extremely complicated. One person telling my colleague Phil Mattingly this is simply a nightmare scenario because both of those things are very, very difficult for Republicans to act on. So the idea of tying those two things together has a lot of folks nervous.

BERMAN: And again, all you had to do was hear Speaker Ryan right there for him, tomorrow is the first day of the rest of his life. He wants the world to be about tax cuts and tax reform starting tomorrow because he thinks that might be a way out for Republicans in Congress. We will have to wait and see. MJ Lee thanks so much for being with us.

It is Election Day in Alabama, a crucial test for President Trump. The candidate he is supporting in danger of losing to a candidate backed by many of his own supporters including the man who helped engineer his White House victory, Steve Bannon. Senator Luther Strange facing off against the controversial former Judge Roy Moore in today's Republican runoff.

The president has already made two statements on this, this morning to try to boost support for Strange. His latest statement came just minutes ago, "Alabama, get out and vote for Luther Strange -- he has proven to me that he will never let you down!" Hashtag Make America Great Again.

CNN's Kaitlan Collins in Alabama in Birmingham for us. A big election day not just for Luther Strange but for the president, Kaitlan.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: That's exactly right. It's this very heated battle, John. And not only between Luther Strange and Roy Moore but it's really coming down to establishment conservatives and these more grassroots conservative populists, types that we have going on here.

Now, Luther Strange in this race is definitely seen as the establishment candidate. He enjoys the backing of the president and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a super PAC aligned with McConnell has funneled millions of dollars into television ads for Luther Strange.

And then on the other hand, we have Roy Moore, who's a very controversial figure here in Alabama. He was kicked off the state bench two times, once for refusing to remove a statue from the Ten Commandments from the State House and then another time for refusing to uphold a ruling by the Supreme Court that legalized gay marriage.

He is backed by Steve Bannon, that former White House chief strategist who was fired last month. And Bannon has been in here in Alabama campaigning on behalf of Moore, framing this as a battle against the elites. Listen to what he said last night.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

STEVE BANNON, FORMER WHITE HOUSE CHIEF STRATEGIST: They think you're a pack of morons. They think you're nothing but rudes.

You're going to get an opportunity to tell them what you think of the elites that run this country.

A vote for Judge Roy Moore is a vote for Donald J. Trump.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

[10:25:09] COLLINS: So while Moore has promised to be this disrupter if he makes it to the Senate, Strange is being framed as someone who is tied very closely to McConnell. That's something the president and Strange himself had tried to push back against. Listen to what Strange said just this morning.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. LUTHER STRANGE (R), ALABAMA: I can assure you, Steve, if I were part of the problem the president wouldn't be down here campaigning so hard for me.

I think it's a narrative that's being created because there are other agendas out there.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COLLINS: So what we're really seeing here, John, is the fight for the soul of the Republican Party. So make no mistake regardless of who wins tonight. It has big implications for the future of the Republicans Party.

BERMAN: All right. Caitlin Collins in Birmingham, polls are open, people are voting, watching that race very, very closely.

One note about Speaker Paul Ryan I did not mention the top of his news conference. He did send a message to the people of Puerto Rico. He said I want the people of Puerto Rico to know that they will get the aid that Texas and Florida got. That will be reassuring to the people there to be sure.

Any minute we could be hearing from President Trump. Will he address the situation in Puerto Rico or will it be all about the NFL? Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)