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Sources: Trump Angry, Embarrassed Over Alabama Senate Race; Trump Proposes Tax Cut Plan; U.S. Military Aiding Recovery Efforts in Puerto Rico. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired September 27, 2017 - 17:00   ET

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


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN: -- find him in THE SITUATION ROOM.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. Lowering rates. President Trump unveils a Republican plan to cut taxes and simplify the tax code. He calls it a once in a generation opportunity. But after a series of very stinging defeats, can Republicans sell their plan to the public and push it through Congress?

[17:00:26] "We have the votes." President Trump insists Republicans have the votes for their stalled health care bill, just not yet. He also says he'll negotiate with Democrats on health care. So which is it?

Embarrassed. Sources say the president is angry and deeply embarrassed after backing the loser in the Alabama Senate primary. He's even deleted tweets supporting his defeated candidate. Rubbing salt in the president's wounds, the was backed by the ousted presidential advisor Steve Bannon.

And help on the way. Millions are low on water, food and fuel in storm-ravaged Puerto Rico. CNN gets exclusive access to a U.S. military ship loaded with relief equipment and supplies. But with commercial shipping and air traffic severely limited, can enough help get there in time?

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: The breaking news, President Trump goes on the road to unveil the Republicans' new plan to cut taxes and simplify rates -- tax rates. The president calls it a once-in-a-generation opportunity but insists the plan won't help the richest Americans, including himself. He says the plan will bring back jobs and wealth to the economy. But it's short on details, and lawmakers will have to figure out how to pay for it.

The push on taxes follows the latest failed effort by the president and the GOP leadership to pass a health care bill. The president insists Republicans have the votes but not right now. And at the same time, says he will negotiate with Democrats on health care.

The president is smarting from another big defeat after backing the loser in the Alabama Senate primary. His favorite candidate, Luther Strange, was badly beaten by far-right former judge Roy Moore, who twice was removed from the state supreme court. Moore was backed by former presidential adviser Steve Bannon.

All of this as the Trump administration begins to step up aid for storm-devastated Puerto Rico, where 3 million American citizens are right now short of water, food and fuel on an island with virtually no power.

I'll speak with Republican Senator Cory Gardner of the Foreign Relations Committee. And our correspondents, specialists and guests, they're standing by with full coverage.

After a series of stinging defeats, President Trump is now taking on a new challenge: taxes. Let's begin with our White House correspondent, Sara Murray.

Sara, the president doesn't exactly have wind in his sails right now, suffering two major defeats this week on health care and his Alabama Senate pick.

SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. The president is headed back here to the White House from Indiana, where he has been touting tax reform at a time when he really does need a political win, coming on the heels of an embarrassing move, throwing his weight behind the wrong guy in the Alabama Senate race.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY (voice-over): President Trump trying to shrug off another defeat today after putting his political capital on the line for the losing candidate in Alabama.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have a man who's going to be a great senator, and I -- I'm very happy with that.

MURRAY: Trump lavishing praise on Roy Moore, the winner of the Alabama Senate primary, even after Trump endorsed Moore's GOP opponent, Senator Luther Strange.

TRUMP: I have to say Luther came a long way from the time I endorsed him, and he ran a good race, but Roy ran a really great race.

MURRAY: Trump's happy talk on Wednesday a far cry from his livid response as election results rolled in Tuesday evening.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: CNN is actually now calling the race.

MURRAY: Sources tell CNN Trump angrily vented that he was misled by his political team and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who all urged the president to campaign for Strange.

Trump not only held a rally for the failed candidate but he also flexed his Twitter might with a series of complimentary missives, words of praise that were deleted without explanation overnight. The results in Alabama coming on the heels of another embarrassing

blow to Trump's agenda: the latest failed attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare.

TRUMP: The point is this. Health care, we have it. We have the votes. Because of reconciliation, we have to wait until January, February, or March, which we'll do. But in the meantime, I will negotiate with Democrats to see if we can make a bipartisan bill.

MURRAY: Today the president is insisting he has the GOP votes to pass health care, even though members of his own party killed the effort earlier this week.

[17:05:03] Now Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price's job could be in jeopardy. Not because of the latest health care fumble, but because he repeatedly chartered private planes on the taxpayer dime, a move that's under review by the inspector general at HHS and that's irking the president.

TRUMP: I will tell you personally I'm not happy about it. I am not happy about it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What are you going to do about it?

TRUMP: I'm going to look at it. I am not happy about it. And I let him know it.

MURRAY: All of this on a day when Trump is supposed to be touting tax reform, traveling to Indianapolis.

TRUMP: You just want massive tax cuts. That's what you want.

MURRAY: And rallying support for a plan to pare back individual tax rates from 7 tax brackets down to 3. Twelve percent, 25 percent, and 35 percent.

The president also vowing to fight for a 20 percent corporate tax rate, a sharp decrease from the current 35 percent rate but higher than the 15 percent corporate rate Trump had originally been vying for.

TRUMP: I wanted to start at 15 so that we got 20. It just -- the numbers were -- 15 were so low, we didn't take in the revenue. But I wanted 15, so we got 20. Twenty is my number. So I'm not negotiating that number.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY: Now the president is clearly still stewing over this health care defeat. He has said over and over again today that the Republican votes are there to make this happen. That is just not the case. Even the bill's sponsors have acknowledged the votes just do not exist -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Sara, thank you. Sara Murray, over at the White House. During his speech in Indiana, and while talking with reporters as he

left the White House, President Trump insisted his tax plan is targeted toward middle class jobs, not toward the wealthy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: My plan is for the working people, and my plan is for jobs.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You wouldn't benefit under your tax cut?

TRUMP: No, I don't benefit. I don't benefit. In fact -- in fact, very, very strongly, as you see, there's no -- I think there's very little benefit for people of wealth.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Well, let's dig deeper on what's in the new Republican tax reform plan, how it could affect you.

Joining us from New York is Rana Foroohar. She's a global business columnist, associate editor for "The Financial Times." She's also CNN's global economic analyst.

Rana, the president says this plan will provide little benefit for people of wealth like himself. Is that true?

RANA FOROOHAR, CNN GLOBAL ECONOMIC ANALYST: In a word, no. The majority of the tax plan, the benefits are going to go to the wealthy.

Now, I will caveat that by saying it's really hard, when 70 percent of your tax base individually is coming from the 10 top percent of the population, it's hard not to have a tax plan that does that.

But I think it's interesting that he spent so much time talking about individual rates. The real action in this tax plan is about corporate tax cuts. And it's very unclear as of yet what the implications of those are going to be. The White House says, "We're going to cut the corporate tax rate to 20 percent. Corporations are going to bring back all this money. They're going to invest it here on Main Street in the U.S."

Very unclear, historically, whether that is going to be the case. And we still have to wrangle over the details of how to pay for it, which of course, is going to be a rub for many Republicans.

BLITZER: How much is it going to cost potentially?

FOROOHAR: Well, I think right now a lot of experts believe that this is not going to be a revenue-neutral plan. A lot of it depends how much growth do you get from a tax cut? You know, the White House and many Republicans have said that tax cuts just simply create growth. But there's not a lot of evidence in the last 20 years to show that that's the case.

Now, that said, it is true that American corporate tax rates are higher than the average for most rich countries. Thirty-five percent, a lot higher than the OECD average. But corporations don't usually pay that 35 percent. You know, the average American corporation pays about 19 percent. So really, this is about getting the legal rate down to what it already is. In fact, in closing those loopholes, which is going to be a big fight between industries and within the Republican Party.

BLITZER: The president says the wealthy won't necessarily benefit. He wouldn't benefit. But on one area he would benefit tremendously. The removal of the estate tax.

FOROOHAR: Yes.

BLITZER: Right now, the first 11 million or so of an estate for a couple is tax exempt. After 11 million there are significant taxes, 30, 40, 50 percent federal tax. If he's worth, as he says, $10 billion, and he doesn't have to pay any tax on his estate, that would be an enormous bonanza for him and other very wealthy people, right?

FOROOHAR: Absolutely. You know, and another issue is, are wealthy people going to be able to take advantage of the lower rate on small businesses? Twenty-five-percent rate on small businesses. A lot of wealthy people can actually declare their own income as part of a small business. It's called a pass-through exemption. And that's something that's going to have to be very carefully crafted to make sure that that doesn't become a loophole.

BLITZER: Rana, thank you very much. Good analysis.

FOROOHAR: Thanks.

BLITZER: Let's get some more now. Joining us, Republican Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado. He's a member of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator, thanks so much for joining us.

SEN. CORY GARDNER (R), COLORADO: Thanks for having me.

[17:10:02] BLITZER: Do you support the tax plan that the president released today?

GARDNER: Well, I think it's very important that we cut taxes. I think it's important that we simplify taxes. I like the direction of the plan. There's going to be a lot of debate. There's going to be a lot of amendments through an open process. And so I look forward to supporting a tax package for the American people that benefits working families across this country.

BLITZER: But do you support this plan, this specific plan the president unveiled today?

GARDNER: Well, I think there's a lot of merit to this plan. I think the fact that it lowers the rates to 35 percent, 25 percent, the bottom bracket of zero if you take into account the doubling of the standardized deduction. People who earn -- married couple that earns 24,000 or less won't pay taxes. It's a zero bracket. And so I think this is a significant advancement over a very complex

system we have today. So I like this. I believe that I can support something like this. There's a lot of work to do in this process yet and a lot of room to continue this debate.

But, look, we live in a country right now that spends the entire GDP of New Zealand on tax preparation every year. That's how much money the American businesses and families pay to prepare our taxes. That's insane. Let's let American families and businesses keep more of their hard-earned dollars in their pockets, invest the way they want to instead of the way Washington dictates to them, and we're going to see some incredible economic growth that benefits American working families.

BLITZER: But with all the cuts in taxes, it's going to raise the deficit. And there are various estimates right now, no hard estimate, but we're talking hundreds of billions, trillions of dollars, potentially. Where is that money going to come from?

GARDNER: I think it will be a discussion about offsets. I know that discussion hasn't been fully resolved yet. So how loopholes may be closed to make sure that some of these expenditures are paid for.

But I think it's also important to recognize the economic growth. Now, I know you had an analyst on who doesn't believe that tax cuts result in economic growth. I just -- I don't believe that. I think it's simple.

If you let American businesses, American families keep more of their own dollars, they're going to invest it. They're going to invest it in jobs. They're going to invest it the way their families want. They're going to spend it. And that's going to result in a dynamic model that results in more revenue to the federal government. And that's better for our economy, better for jobs, and it's better for the people of Colorado, who have seen far too long stagnant wages. We can grow this economy, and this is a great way to start it.

BLITZER: So when Senator Schumer says it's going to wind up costing the American people $7 trillion, you say?

GARDNER: I think that Chuck Schumer, he doesn't want the economy to grow, because this is about politics to him. It's about an election coming up in 2018, where it's going to be very difficult for him to go against people who've seen economic growth at the level we believe we can get it to.

BLITZER: Was it the health care repeal and replace, the cut in spending there, the cut in costs, going to supposedly pay for a lot of these tax cuts? Since that failed, that money is not available any longer.

GARDNER: Well, again, I think it's about making sure that we look at this through a dynamic lens, the growth the economy will incur as a result of these tax cuts. There will be offsets that will be considered in this. But again, I think if you -- if you look at what 1 percent of GDP growth in this country will mean, we're talking hundreds of billions of dollars in economic activity that will be resulting from that. So this is exciting time to be, I think, investing in America.

BLITZER: Let's talk about the health care vote. The president said today a couple times, he said, "We have the votes to pass health care under the 50 vote rule." He blamed the failure to repeal Obamacare on the absence of Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi. He was recovering from a medical procedure.

But that simply isn't true based on any reasonable reading of the situation, because three Republican senators -- Rand Paul, John McCain, Susan Collins, they already stated their opposition to the latest bill. And that would put it short of the 50-vote requirement. So why do you think the president made that claim?

GARDNER: Well, perhaps the president had discussions with the members that I'm unaware of. But I know publicly-stated opposition from Rand Paul and Susan Collins and John McCain made it very difficult to pass the bill.

BLITZER: Because he said that they had the votes, but it was only because of Senator Thad Cochran, and he was ill. He couldn't and in Washington and it failed. Clearly, that wasn't necessarily true.

Republicans, as you know, they're very eager to move past their failure to repeal and replace Obamacare. If the GOP can't deliver on a key promise like that, how is the party going to pass all of this significant tax reform?

GARDNER: Well, I think that's a great -- it's a great question. And I think the American people, who around the country put a new majority in charge in 2014 in the Senate. They elected a majority in the House of Representatives in 2010 for new Congress in 2011. They want results. And campaign over the past several years focused on replacing and repealing Obamacare. That can still happen. We have more work to do, obviously. But we can't fail on health care and tax reform. We have to provide results to the American people.

Look, there are far too many many people who, as I said earlier, haven't received the kind of wage increase, wage growth that we know we can deliver in this country. They haven't seen the kind of opportunities we know we can deliver. And passing tax reform is absolutely critical to that.

BLITZER: As you know, Senator, the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, he's deeply irritated, apparently, according to all these reports, the president. Is Mitch McConnell's job, do you believe, in jeopardy?

[17:15:09] GARDNER: Look, I'm not going to get into sort of the palace intrigue of politics. I think we'll continue to support the work that's being done by the majority. Mitch McConnell is the leader. He will be the leader. And the fact is, we know we can do better for this country than anybody else by making sure we pass pro-growth economic policies, a tax package that will grow wages and put hard-working families in a better place.

BLITZER: Are you happy with the job Mitch McConnell is doing?

GARDNER: Look, this isn't about happiness with any individual. The American people are the ultimate judge of that. And right now the American people want us to do our job. They expect Washington to get results to get out of the way. And that's what we have to do.

BLITZER: This was a bad week for him, the defeat of the health care repeal and replace, and the defeat of his chosen candidate in the Republican primary in Alabama. And now all these reports that the president is deeply irritated with him.

Let me repeat the question. Do you believe he will stay the Republican leader in the Senate?

GARDNER: Absolutely yes. Absolutely yes. And look, what we have to do, we're going to stay in the majority as long as we can prove to the American people, voters across this country, that we'll do our job.

And we have to do that. We have to make sure that Americans know in November of 2018, 2020, 2022, that they're better off than they were the day before. That's exactly what this fight is about. It's not about politics. It's not about anything other than doing what's right for the American people, so they know they have a better future.

BLITZER: Senator, there's more we need to discuss, including the escalating tension between United States and North Korea. I want you to stand by. We'll resume our conversation right after this.

GARDNER: Thank you.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Breaking news right now the White House is stepping up its disaster response for Puerto Rico. And President Trump now says the administration is thinking about lifting restrictions on shipments to the devastated U.S. Territory. Talking with senator.

Stand by. I went to go live first to Puerto Rico where millions of citizens are short on fuel and food on island with no power. Our senior international correspondent Ivan Watson is on the scene for us. Ivan, tell us what you're learning.

IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: OK, we've got to look at how the military is trying to contribute with the relief and recovery effort, which is still -- has so far to go.

We were flown out on a Navy chopper to the USS Kearsarge, which is off the coast of Puerto Rico. It shipped out from Norfolk in -- at the end of August, Wolf, to help with damage from Hurricane Harvey, but instead it's been hit in the region by Hurricane Irma and now Hurricane Maria.

Now this ship and other ships in the region, they're able to fly from their fleet of helicopters, vertical take-off Ospreys, from their kind of landing ships that are carrying fleets of heavy trucks and bulldozers here to the island. They can help. But there's just only so much they can do. And they're having to prioritize.

The admiral told me that the main challenge has been to get to every hospital on the island to try to help provide fuel so that they can run their generators so that people in critical condition don't expire due to a loss of electricity.

They've shipped a salinization [SIC] unit to the island to distribute potable water, drinking water, because more than 40 percent of the island has lost drinking water.

But then you have added challenge that even some 2,500 U.S. troops, not including National Guard, can't really help with. There aren't enough truck drivers, and there aren't enough trucks with fuel in them. There are long gas lines to then distribute the food, distribute the water, distribute the fuel to various locations around the island. This is an island of 3.4 million people.

So even the impressive military assistance we've seen thus far-- and it's scheduled to expand -- isn't enough, when people are running out of cash, because even the ATM machines don't work anymore. And it's become a cash-only -- a virtually cash-only economy here in just the last week.

BLITZER: So understandably, the people there must be so frustrated. Give us a little sense of that frustration.

WATSON: Well, I'll give you one example. On board this amphibious assault ship, I met several U.S. Navy sailors who are themselves Puerto Ricans, and here they are sailing within sight of Puerto Rico, and they have not been able to hear whether -- speak to their parents, their siblings here on this hurricane-stricken island.

Can you imagine how that feels, to be sailing offshore, to be loading helicopters with food and water and all these essentials to the island but not be able to check and make sure if your parents, almost within view, are OK?

And you know, these brave sailors, they say they're trying to help, but it's a heavy burden that they're carrying while also trying to help their stricken home. I mean, just imagine that feeling of impotence there.

BLITZER: Yes. It's an awful, awful situation. Ivan, we're going to get back to you and our other colleagues in Puerto Rico. Stand by.

Let's continue our conversation, in the meantime, with the Republican senator Cory Gardner of the Foreign Relations Committee. Senator, when is Congress going to pass a significant aid package to help the Americans of Puerto Rico? GARDNER: Well, I know those conversations have been ongoing. I have

had many conversations with Senator McConnell, Senator Cornyn. Marco Rubio gave us an update on his visit to Puerto Rico earlier this week. And that's exactly what we have to do.

[17:25:03] Congress has to pass a massive surge of assistance to Puerto Rico. The Americans in Puerto Rico who are in need, dire need, as you've just seen and heard.

Look, this isn't just a one-time thing, though. This isn't just a one-time infusion of emergency aid. This is going to go on for months and years, where you're talking about destruction of infrastructure, destruction of electricity grids. People had to chainsaw their way to the radar system for the airport to help get more flights into the airport.

I mean, this is an incredible challenge that we face with an economy that was already battered prior to this horrendous event. So these are Americans we're going to help, and we're going to do everything we can, and it's going to be both a surge not only in the immediate time, but also a surge of congressional action going forward.

BLITZER: Yes. That's critically important, indeed. You're a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator, so let's turn to another critically important subject right now, North Korea.

You praised the president's recent executive order targeting countries that do business with North Korea. What's behind your optimism, though, especially given that years of similar sanctions and actions, at least so far over all of these years, haven't really produced meaningful results?

GARDNER: Well, if you look at the last eight years, the previous administration plan or policy toward North Korea was called strategic patience. That basically meant that you let the Kim Jong-un regime, the North Korean regime do whatever they wanted without really actually saying, "Huh-uh, that's enough. Here's a red line you cannot cross."

But what we've got to do now is ratchet up the maximum pressure, economically and diplomatically, on a nation that hasn't even become the most sanctioned nation by the United States yet.

In fact, if you look at work that's done by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, North Korea is only the fourth more sanctioned nation on earth, according to their work. So we have a lot more, so to speak, diplomatic runway that we can exercise when it comes to North Korea.

We have to focus on China. I do commend the president's executive order and the work that they've been doing. But China is still enabling North Korea through banks and other activities that allow them to get money to the regime that they otherwise wouldn't have. We've got to put pressure on China, pressure on North Korean businesses, people around the globe, to stop enabling this regime.

BLITZER: Senator Cory Gardner, thanks so much for joining us.

GARDNER: Thanks for having me.

BLITZER: Still ahead, sending a message by murder. We have new and alarming insights into why the half-brother of the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un, was assassinated in public and in full view of surveillance cameras.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're following the breaking news. President Trump unveiling the broad outlines what he calls an historic tax relief program. It includes steep cuts in corporate taxes, which the president says will result in more jobs and higher pay for middle- class workers.

[17:32:21] Let's get some more insight from our specialists. And Rana, let's talk about this tax plan. Is it going to dramatically -- let's say it goes into effect, raise and improve the economy, grow the economy as the president projects?

RANA FOROOHAR, CNN GLOBAL BUSINESS ANALYST: You know, that's very much up for grabs, Wolf. If you look at the last 20 years, tax cuts really haven't spurred any kind of long-term growth. They didn't under the Obama administration. They didn't in 2001, 2002 under Bush. There's not a lot of evidence of that.

Now, that said, American taxes are high compared to the rest of the developed world. You know, you look at our 35 percent tax rate, much higher than most European countries even, certain Asian countries. The president is trying to get it down to, really, the real rate that most American corporations pay right now, is about 19 percent with all the loopholes that we have.

And that's the big question here. OK, let's get it down lower. But can we close those loopholes and make sure that this plan doesn't raise the federal debt too much?

BLITZER: You know, Dana, a few times today the president said we have the votes to pass repeal and replace of Obamacare. They didn't have the votes. They haven't had the votes over these past many months.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: No, they didn't have the votes. In fact, Senator Lindsey Graham, whose name was on the bill, just spoke to reporters including our Ashley Killough, outside his office, and said "We didn't have the votes." And he would know.

I think what the president was trying to signal is "We're not letting go of this. We're going to continue to fight." And even people like Lindsey Graham and Bill Cassidy and the sponsors of the bill believe, and at least they argue, that once it goes through, you know, what they call the regular process -- actually hold committee hearings, write up the legislation properly in committee, have a committee vote, bring it to the floor and so forth the way it's supposed to be done, legislation -- that maybe they can bring on Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who never came out and said no, and others who were reluctant because of the way that the process was truncated and, frankly, chaotic.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: I would argue the other thing that the president was doing today was trying to completely deny a loss.

BASH: Well, there is that.

CHALIAN: Because he is somebody who cannot process that and wants to recreate reality. And so that was the other thing he was clearly trying to do today.

BLITZER: How do you see it?

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS CORRESPONDENT AND EDITOR AT LARGE: I see it that it's not right. I mean, this is crazy. The -- "we have the vote" is provably false. I mean, that's like saying, "I'm 9 feet tall." You can figure out I'm not 9 feet tall.

BASH: Better than saying I'm nine feet tall.

CILLIZZA: That's true, but we can figure that out, too.

I don't -- I think David is right. I think the reason he does this, I actually think you can draw a line between the deletion of the, you know, the way he's reacted in the wake of Roy Moore winning and his candidate losing in Alabama last night, and the way he's reacted to health care. Which is he tells himself and his supporters a story of what happened.

[18:35:11] Now, it often, not always, but it often does not comport to the facts of what happened. But in his mind, if you tell it enough, it's true.

The simple fact is they don't have the votes. As long as Susan Collins, John McCain and Rand Paul are against it, they're at 49. It doesn't matter who comes and who doesn't, unless they find some Democrats be for it, which I think they're not going to do.

BLITZER: Is Mitch McConnell safe as the Senate majority leader?

CHALIAN: I don't see any groundswell happening from members of his conference. Remember, it is the Republican senators who give him that job, not voters. And I don't see any danger of him necessarily losing the job.

But I was stunned when I heard you ask Cory Gardner, the senator from Colorado, who is on Mitch McConnell's leadership team...

BASH: Yes.

CHALIAN: He is the head of the campaign arm for Senate Republicans. And you asked him, "Are you happy with the job Mitch McConnell is doing?" And he refused to answer that question.

BASH: That is something. CHALIAN: He said, "This is not about being happy with an individual person's job." You're -- you are one of Mitch McConnell's deputies, charged with keeping the majority for the Republicans. And the fact that he didn't answer that was truly stunning to me.

CILLIZZA: Don't underestimate -- David's right. Don't underestimate the fear and the running-scaredness when you see one of your own, even if it's an appointed senator, lose. And you see it with the president and Mitch McConnell and $10 plus million from Mitch McConnell's super PAC lose and lose by nine points. Nothing scares them more than when you see one of your own sort of plucked away. And so I think everyone is sort of playing scared on the base.

BASH: And I would -- and I would just add that Steve Bannon flew from Alabama to Cory Gardner's home state of Colorado to begin recruiting -- or aggressively recruiting candidates out west to challenge incumbents before he goes to the south to do that again.

BLITZER: It's a powerful message indeed.

All right. There's a lot more going on. We're going to take a quick break, resume all of our coverage right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:41:42] BLITZER: We're back with our political specialists.

Dana, the -- it was an awkward exchange that the president had with reporters earlier when he was asked about the secretary of health and human services, Tom Price, taking a private jet, flying around in a private jet. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I was looking into it. And I will look into it. And I will tell you personally I'm not happy about it. I am not happy about it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Will you fire him?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What will you do about it?

TRUMP: I'm going to look at it. I am not happy about it, and I will let him know it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: You didn't hear the reporter follow up with "Would you fire him?"

"I'm not happy -- I'm going to look at it. I'm not happy about it. I'll let him know it." That's not necessarily a ringing endorsement of his secretary.

BASH: You think? Not even close. Not even close. Look, for any president to say what he said, making it abundantly clear that Tom Price is in a lot of trouble, goes pretty far. For this president, who is reluctant to bow to pressure, particularly on cabinet members and members of his administration that he really likes, and by all accounts, he really does like Tom Price a lot, it says a lot. I mean, Tom Price is in trouble, period.

BLITZER: But there's other members of the cabinet...

BASH: And by the way, given what he did, probably should be.

CHALIAN: Totally.

BLITZER: ... who are in trouble, too, for flying around in these private jets at American expense.

CILLIZZA: Yes, the head of the EPA. I mean, what's stunning, I think, about some of this stuff, particularly Price, who spent years in Congress -- this is not a wealthy person who just suddenly came in. Tom Price sort of knows the deal here. Twenty-plus private flights often to places like Philadelphia from Washington, where, look I would like to fly in private planes as much as the next guy. But you don't really need to do it.

CHALIAN: I actually think it takes longer.

CILLIZZA: Right. At hundreds of thousands of dollars, at taxpayer cost. I'm with Dana here. Like, he frankly -- I would guess if you gave this scenario to most presidents, they would probably end up on the "time for you to go" line. I actually think Trump is well within sort of his right to say, "This is bad. We're going to think about it." I mean, I would not sleep comfortably if I was Tom Price tonight.

BLITZER: "I'm not happy about it," he said it a few times.

CHALIAN: Would you imagine working for a boss who just clearly takes pleasure in letting his staff sort of twist in the wind? I mean, this has happened time and time again where, "Yes, well, I'm not happy. I'm just going to look at it."

It's such a weird dynamic that we don't normally see play out in public like this, is one thing.

The thing that I think is so different, Wolf, about this and why Tom Price may seriously be in trouble here, it cuts against the very grain of the Trump brand, of what brought him to the dance.

There are some Washington scandals -- and you're right, Dana -- like, don't bow to the pressure of it; it will pass. But this notion of just living high on the hog and flying private jets instead of serving the people that sent you there. I mean, that is the -- the very element of the argument Donald Trump was making to people across this country who voted for him.

BLITZER: To drain the swamp. CILLIZZA: Well, I mean, this is, first of all, a member, a former

member of Congress, who is now using his perks as a cabinet secretary to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on the taxpayers' dime to do something that 99 percent of the public has never done, which is fly in a private plane.

I think if Tom Price did anything close to this when he was a member of Congress he would be in trouble, and it's a lot harder to get rid of a member of Congress quickly than it is a cabinet member.

BASH: And remember, when Tom Price was in Congress...

CILLIZZA: He railed against this private plane usage.

BASH: ... he criticized his colleagues for doing this very thing.

CILLIZZA: So you add hypocrisy into the mix, too.

BASH: Even by Washington standards where there's hypocrisy on -- hypocrisy on hypocrisy, this just doesn't make sense. I mean, it really doesn't.

I mean, it sort of -- is it possible that somebody is this inside the beltway, I mean, in the most metaphoric sense of the word, that they don't even understand that it's not OK to spend taxpayer dollars to go -- $25,000 taxpayer dollars to go to Philadelphia from Washington when you railed against that when you were a member of Congress?

It's just -- I really don't get it. I almost feel like there might be something that we're missing here unless it really is just that unbelievable.

CILLIZZA: It's also come out in drips and drabs, too. It's like, well, he took three fights. Then he took eight. Well, it was actually 12. Now it's 25.

I mean, it's way that it's played out. I just -- given what we know about Donald Trump's -- that he likes to leave people twisting in the wind and then he does kind of like to bring the hammer down.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And David makes a very good point. The public rebuke --

CILLIZZA: Absolutely.

BLITZER: -- of members of the cabinet, whether Secretary Price --

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Jeff Sessions.

BLITZER: -- or the Attorney General Jeff Sessions, I mean, it's pretty extraordinary. You could see the presidents are very often irritated with members of the -- but they don't publicly, you know, admonish them the way this president does.

All right, guys, stand by. A quick reminder to all of our viewers. You'll be watching tonight when Anderson Cooper moderates a CNN town hall, "PATRIOTISM: THE PLAYERS AND THE PRESIDENT." That's tonight, 9:00 p.m. Eastern, only here on CNN.

Coming up, deeply disturbing insights into why Kim Jong-un's half- brother was assassinated in public. Is North Korea's ruthless leader sending a message to the whole world?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:51:25] BLITZER: As North Korea tests its growing arsenal and threatens the United States with mass destruction, we're getting new insight on a gruesome personal message by Kim Jong-un. The murder of his own half-brother. Brian Todd has been looking into this for us.

Brian, you're getting new information. What are you learning?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We are, Wolf. Tonight, just a few days before the trial of the two women who allegedly killed Kim Jong- nam begins, we're getting a new angle on the case from a former South Korean intelligence analyst.

He told us he believes Kim Jong-un wanted this murder to be a very public spectacle to send a message to North Korea's rivals all over the world: don't cross us.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): For a crime that has several spy novel plot twists, this was the most public and brazen of murders. And tonight, one analyst tells CNN that's exactly how Kim Jong-un wanted it.

February 13th of this year, in the middle of Kuala Lumpur's International Airport, Kim Jong-nam, older half-brother of North Korea's dictator, has his face rubbed by two women.

Police say the substance on the women's hands was a chemical weapon, V.X. nerve agent. Kim Jong-nam suffocates and dies in less than 20 minutes.

Tonight, a professor named Nam Sung-wook, a former analyst with South Korea's intelligence agency, tells CNN in a phone interview, Kim Jong- un wanted the world to see his brother die.

NAM SUNG-WOOK, DIRECTOR, INSTITUTE FOR NATIONAL SECURITY STRATEGY (via telephone): By using chemical weapons and then smothering him in this grotesque public way, Pyongyang wanted to send a worldwide message.

TODD (via telephone): And what is that message?

NAM (via telephone): Don't think about the post-Kim. Nobody controls Pyongyang without him.

TODD (voice-over): Nam believes from the moment he left his home in Macau to travel to Malaysia, Kim Jong-nam was tailed by North Korean agents. And he says the regime's use of a powerful and internationally banned chemical weapon to kill the half-brother was part of the calculation. NAM (via telephone): Kim Jong-un wants to reign a long time and

negotiate as a superpower. The only way to do that is to keep the world in fear of his weapons.

TODD (voice-over): Some analysts agree with Nam, pointing out men who Malaysian police say were North Korean agents at the Kuala Lumpur airport didn't exactly try to hide their faces from surveillance cameras.

MICHAEL GREEN, SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT FOR ASIA AND JAPAN CHAIR, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: The North Korean state has elements of a Yakuza or a mafia family. When they do a hit, they want it to have effect. They want to scare and intimidate.

TODD (voice-over): Lawyers for the two women charged with Kim Jong- nam's murder say the women are innocent and were tricked into doing it by their North Korean handlers. Malaysian police dispute that. Kim Jong-un's regime denies ordering the hit.

One former CIA analyst says it's possible the North Korean leader didn't intend to send a broader warning to the world with his brother's death.

BRUCE KLINGNER, SENIOR RESEARCH FELLOW FOR NORTHEAST ASIA, THE HERITAGE FOUNDATION: Keeping the involvement secret would seem to be make the -- make more sense. They remove a potential threat to Kim Jong-un, but then they don't risk the response by the governments around the world or the U.N.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: What most observers seem to agree on is that, in the end, Kim Jong-nam's murder was a victory for Kim Jong-un. The North Korean dictator got his half-brother, who is a critic of his, out of the way.

The North Koreans got the brother's body back. No North Korean has ever been held accountable for the murder, and they likely won't be. The only people charged in this case are two young women, one from Vietnam, one from Indonesia, who will probably be hanged if they're convicted.

Wolf, we're going to learn a lot more when their trial begins on Monday.

BLITZER: Interesting. And the North Korean regime, Brian, had made, what, two other runs at killing Jong-nam before?

[17:55:02] TODD: That's right, Wolf. Analysts say the regime tried to stage a car accident in China to kill him in 2010, and they made another attempt to kill him in 2012.

At that point, Kim Jong-nam wrote a letter to his half-brother, pleading with Kim Jong-un to stop trying to assassinate him. It appears the younger brother was just waiting for his moment.

BLITZER: Brian Todd, thanks very much. Coming up, breaking news. After a series of stinging defeats,

President Trump unveils a plan to cut taxes and simplify the tax code. He denies that it will benefit the wealthy. Can Republicans sell their plan to the public and push it through Congress?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:00:01] BLITZER: Happening now. Breaking news. Tax and defend.