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DHS: No Official Request to Waive Puerto Rico Shipping Rules; Millions of American in Puerto Rico in Desperate Need; IRS Handing Over Trump Campaign Information to Mueller; Judiciary Committee Feuds with FBI; DOJ Over Comey Firing Investigation; DEA Acting Chief Rosenberg Stepping Down; North Korea Reaches Out to Analysts to Understand Trump. Aired 1:30-2p ET

Aired September 27, 2017 - 13:30   ET

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


[13:30:00] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Food, medicine and drinking water in very short supply as Puerto Rico waits for more assistance from the federal government. CNN is live on the ground.

Also, I'll speak live with a member of the House Intelligence Committee on news that the Special Counsel Robert Mueller is working with the IRS right now in the Russia investigation. Are the president's tax returns a focus?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Three and a half million Americans in Puerto Rico right now are desperately waiting for aid nearly a week after Hurricane Maria struck. And some are doing everything they can to get rescuers' attention. Take a look at this. The word "help" is painted across the roof of this home. In another area, "SOS, we need water and food," is written across the street. A desperate cry for the most basic essentials.

Puerto Rico's governor says more help is needed and warns the island right now is facing a humanitarian crisis.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

[13:35:01] RICARDO ROSSELLO, GOVERNOR OR PUERTO RICO: We need to prevent a humanitarian crisis occurring in America. Puerto Rico is part of the United States. And we need to take swift action.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: According to officials, nearly 1.5 million Americans, at least, in Puerto Rico are without drinking water, generators are running out of fuel and supplies. And hospitals are quickly dwindling, not to mention around 97 -- should say, 97 percent of the island still has no power. No power at all.

CNN was on ground when the hurricane hit. Our teams are still there bringing you every angle of the recovery effort.

We'll go to Boris Sanchez, in San Juan, in a moment. But Jeremy Konyndyk is joining us. He's the former head of the U.S.

Foreign Disaster Assistance Program, senior fellow over at the Center for Global Development.

This is a real crisis. And, Jeremy, I know you've been involved in dealing with crises like this. This is extraordinary.

JEREMY KONYNDYK, SENIOR FELLOW, CENTER FOR GLOBAL DEVELOPMENT & FORMER DIRECTOR, U.S. FOREIGN DISASTER ASSISTANCE PROGRAM: It is truly extraordinary. And it begins to parallel some of the challenges you see in developing country environments, the sort of places where you used to lead responses. The degree of development in Puerto Rico is very different than the mainland of the United States. That is complicating the response.

BLITZER: Let's get into the arcane issue of the Jones Act. You're very familiar with it. You just heard the president in that informal Q&A with reporters saying, you know what, we're not going to eliminate, we're not going to give a waiver to the Jones Act that could hurt the shipping industry. The Jones Act says only U.S.- flagged ships should be able to service Puerto Rico.

KONYNDYK: Yes, it's an archaic law. It's 100 years old. At this point, you have to wonder why they're not finding a way around it. Is it a game changer or silver bullet? No. Is it helpful if they can wave it? Yes. The articulation that the president made earlier almost sounds like profiteering from U.S. shipping companies in an emergency like this. This is a time to let that drop.

BLITZER: I suspect a lot of foreign vessels in the neighborhood, in the region, if they have some supplies, badly needed supplies, would like to come into a port in Puerto Rico and help the people there.

KONYNDYK: In a situation like this, you need an "all hands on deck" response. You need to fire on every cylinder. Something like this suggests they're not at that level yet.

BLITZER: To waive the Jones Act, what do you need to do? How difficult bureaucratically is it?

KONYNDYK: I understand it's a decision, a determination that the secretary of Homeland Security can make.

BLITZER: Just by signing a document?

KONYNDYK: There's some legal underpinnings to that. That seems to be what the disagreement about right now. DHS is saying, legally, they can't find the basis to do that. That sounds a little dubious. You look at this, and you wonder how coherent the policy making is on the administration side. On the Ebola response in the early days, I helped lead that during the Obama administration. We had a lot of players, and it was very complex, and ultimately brought in what was called the Ebola Czar Ron Klein (ph) to help cohere all of that. Looking at what's happening in the Trump administration right now, I wonder if they need something similar.

BLITZER: Right now, the priority is to help 3.5 million Americans in Puerto Rico and no worry so much about the U.S. shipping industry.

KONYNDYK: Absolutely.

BLITZER: It's a very serious problem, indeed.

What else, as an expert in this area, needs to be done to help the folks there?

KONYNDYK: We're beginning to see the momentum build. It was slow to build. And it's a shame that some of the things, the actions they started taking yesterday weren't being taken over the weekend. But it's starting. I think, over the coming days, we will start to see this response turn the corner. I certainly hope that's the case. You're seeing DOD ramp up. They announced a range of new measures yesterday. FEMA is getting more people in there. Ports are getting cleared. This is a very difficult operating environment. Anytime you're responding on an island, the logistics are 10 times as complicated. And that does slow things down --

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Very quickly, was there one standard for Texas and Florida, a different standard for Puerto Rico?

KONYNDYK: You have to look at this and say it's a much more complex and difficult response. But at the same time, it doesn't seem to have gotten the level of attention from the White House those earlier storms did.

BLITZER: They're doing it now, as they should.

Stand by.

Boris Sanchez is in Puerto Rico and joining us from San Juan.

Boris, give us your assessment. How dire is the situation based on everything you've seen?

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf. We're here at the airport in San Juan. They are barely operable. Typically, there are 120 commercial flights that come in and out of this airport every day. Right now, they're down to 18. The CEO of the airport considers that a success considering everything that they've gone through the past several days.

After Hurricane Maria swept Puerto Rico about a week ago, thousands of people have been showing up here to the airport. Many of them, folks that were on vacation and were booted out of their hotels because of a lack of resources. Others simply have no home to go back to. So people are turning to the airport as a de facto shelter. We've seen families sleeping on ground, many with young children. Some bringing out patio furniture to get comfortable any way they can here. It is extremely frustrating, not only because the A.C. is off, and simple things like printing a boarding pass are extremely complicated.

But there's also a lack of information. Many feel that the airlines are not doing enough to help them get out of the island. I actually spoke with one family in a special circumstance. They have a child with developmental disabilities. The mother told me she feared for her son's life because he needs special equipment and special medication just to stay alive. She says they went to a hospital and were turned away because the hospital didn't have the resources to accommodate him. So they came here to the airport.

Listen to more of what they had to say, Wolf.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

[13:40:51] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is insane. This is completely unacceptable. I mean, we're human beings. We're not animals. We're being treated here as animals.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My son, in this condition, he can die any minute in here. We need to go.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SANCHEZ: And from what I understand, Wolf, the last I heard from that family, they were able to get a plane ticket. It leaves shortly in about a half an hour. It's not confirmed they actually very seats on that plane. They're in a very difficult situation, as many others are here at the airport in San Juan -- Wolf?

BLITZER: I suspect a lot of Puerto Ricans right now would like to get out of Puerto Rico and come over to the mainland.

Boris, we'll check back with you. Thank you very much.

A very dire situation in Puerto Rico.

There is much more news here on CNN, including an exclusive on the Russia investigation. The IRS, the Internal Revenue Service, handing over information on Trump campaign officials to the Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Could it open the door for investigators to get a copy of President Trump's tax returns?

And North Korea reaching out to Republicans here in Washington for help trying to figure out the president. And one man they want to speak to, he's my guest.

Lots of news. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[13:46:18] BLITZER: A member of the Senate Judiciary Committee says he's 99 percent sure that the Russia investigation will result in criminal charges. Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal tells "Politico" that former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and former Trump campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, are among the most likely to be indicted.

Democratic Congressman Eric Swalwell, of California, serves on both the Judiciary and Intelligence Committees. He joins us live from Capitol Hill.

Congressman, do you agree with Senator Blumenthal that indictments are almost certain in this Russia probe?

REP. ERIC SWALWELL, (D), CALIFORNIA: I'm not going to lay any odds on that. I have a narrow job to do here in the House, and make sure that Bob Mueller has the resources he needs. I'll certainly say it looks more and more like these -- this constellation of contacts with Russia as Russia was interfering in our elections was a convergence rather than the world's greatest coincidence but, again, that's Mueller's job.

BLITZER: The special counsel and its investigators, we're told, could start interviewing both current and former White House staffers either later this week or next week as part of the Russia probe. That, according to two sources familiar with the matter. Does that suggest that the investigation now may be entering a new phase?

SWALWELL: It's certainly getting closer and closer to the president. To me, as a former prosecutor, it suggests this may not only be looking at conspiracy and collusion but also obstruction of justice. The actions that the president may have taken after the investigation began probably around his firing of then-Director James Comey.

BLITZER: But you're not ready to conclude now that there was, in fact, obstruction of justice in the firing of Comey?

SWALWELL: It looks like obstruction of justice to me, when you fire the guy investigating you, and then you tell the world and you tell the Russians when they're in the Oval Office that you did it because of Russia, and it helps you now make decisions around Russia. But again, I'm no longer in the courtroom, Wolf. So we'll leave that to Bob Mueller.

BLITZER: That's a decision he has to make.

The Internal Revenue Service is now sharing information with the special counsel about key Trump campaign officials. Could that mean that the president's taxes might come under scrutiny, as well?

SWALWELL: They should. I don't think any investigation into the president and Russia would be complete, whether it's in Congress or a criminal probe, if it does not include a look at the president's taxes.

And, Wolf, the president could clear all of this up and just show us his taxes. And the fact that he won't show us his taxes means either he is very, very stubborn and wants us to wonder and question what's in there or he's afraid of what we'll find. Neither of those, I think, reflect very well on him.

BLITZER: He says he doesn't want to release his taxes, he said it through the campaign, he said because he's under audit. You don't buy that?

SWALWELL: I don't buy it. He's the president of the United States. I'm sure if he was under audit, IRS could expedite that for him.

BLITZER: The leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee are stepping up their fight with the FBI and the Justice Department. They accuse the bureau of trying to obstruct their investigations into the firing of James Comey, including the former FBI director's actions, his subsequent firing. What's behind the feud, as far as you know?

SWALWELL: You know, I can't figure that out, Wolf. We also see, on our side, former Russia chairman, Devin Nunes, is still signing subpoenas and sending them over to the FBI, demanding that they come in, because he's got his own questions. I think we should try to work with them, not get in each other's way. The American people want to see unity right now.

And I also, I think you're seeing some effort by the White House and some Senate Republicans and House Republicans to undermine our intelligence agencies, figuring that that would undermine the investigation and save the president. I think, you know, unity is the best thing we could show right now.

[13:50:17] BLITZER: I want to get your quick reaction to another story that's developing. The acting head of the Drug Enforcement Administration is stepping down. A source says Chuck Rosenberg no longer wants to work in the Trump administration. Rosenberg took issue with remarks by the president back in July, telling police to be more rough with suspects. Do you believe this could lead to a larger exodus?

SWALWELL: We're seeing a larger exodus, Wolf. And I think he also is concerned about just a lack of respect for the rule of law. I'm the son of a police officer, the brother of two police officers. When the president said that, I called my brothers immediately and said, that is not an example for law enforcement. They, of course, agreed.

But we're seeing whether it's, you know, insulting the courts and their role, or firing the guy what was investigating him, he is really reducing, I think -- he is diminishing the role that law enforcement and the rule of law plays in our country.

BLITZER: Congressman Eric Swalwell, thanks for joining us.

SWALWELL: My pleasure. Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Other news, including North Korea. North Korea now wants to apparently understand more about President Trump. Some government officials from Pyongyang are quietly reaching out to Republican analysts here in Washington.

One of those invited Pyongyang is my next guest, Bruce Klinger. Here's a former CIA analyst. He's now with the Heritage Foundation. He's a top expert on North Korea.

Bruce, thanks very much for joining us.

(CROSSTALK) BLITZER: Pretty extraordinary, isn't it, that North Korean officials are asking you and others to give them a better sense of who this president is?

BRUCE KLINGER, HERITAAGE FOUNDATION & FORMER CIA ANALYST: Right. Well, of course, there have been a series of conferences over the years, between North Korean officials and usually former U.S. officials or academics, where we all exchange views, trying to get a better sense of the other's policy. So when we've engaged in these, they're interesting, they're useful, try to undo misperceptions or to better explain our own government's positions, although, of course, we're speaking on our own behalf. So I think, certainly, given the tensions currently, as well as the misunderstanding or the lack of understanding of what the other government's policies are, it makes it useful.

BLITZER: Have you already had a dialogue with these North Korean officials?

KLINGER: The last time I was engaged in a conference was in June, in Europe. I wrote an op-ed about it with the other Americans --

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: You met with North Korean diplomats or officials?

KLINGER: Right. Officials, right.

BLITZER: But since then, they've asked you for another round of meetings? They want you to go to Pyongyang? Is that right?

KLINGER: That's right. There's a discussion about a number of outreaches to different U.S. officials or it's just another conference in Switzerland, I think, this week, with other former officials. So --

BLITZER: Have you been to North Korea?

KLINGER: No, I haven't.

BLITZER: So are you ready to accept that invitation?

KLINGER: So, of course, since September 1st, Americans aren't allowed to go without a special visa, which is usually reserved for media or humanitarian or government officials. So, always eager and willing to exchange views, to better understand their view as well as try to better explain what the U.S. policy is.

BLITZER: Do you think they do have a pretty good understanding of who this president is, when he uses words like Rocket Man or Little Rocket Man, talking about Kim Jong-Un? When he talks about, you know, the extent of a possible war between the United States and North Korea? Do they appreciate who this president is?

KLINGER: Well, I think, even within Washington, a lot of us are trying to discern the parameters of the policy towards North Korea. I feel when I talk to people within the government, I get a better sense of kind of the components of a coherent strategy. I think a lot of the messaging has been contradictory, particularly about whether the U.S. is considering a preventative attack. So that's certainly an issue that they would be concerned with.

BLITZER: Are you surprised by the rhetoric, the rhetoric from Kim Jong-Un, for example, towards the United States right now and towards, specifically, the president?

KLINGER: Well, we have to keep in mind that North Korea has always used very over-the-top language. They used very racist comments about President Obama, very sexist comments about Ambassador Nikki Haley, as well as the previous South Korean president, Park Geun-hye.

BLITZER: So you're not that surprised?

KLINGER: It's, I think, in tune with what they've done. The recent statement by Kim Jong-Un, personally, was pretty unprecedented. So whether they are actually going to implement sort of the vowed thermonuclear test over the Pacific, I think, is a low probability, but I think it's almost certain that eventually they will do a long- range ICBM test that will fly over Japan.

BLITZER: You spent a career, first, at the CIA, and now at a think tank studying North Korea. How worried should we all be?

KLINGER: North Korea -- or the Korean peninsula is always on the knife edge of a crisis. The tensions are always high. My concern is not that Kim Jong-Un is erratic or irrational, and that he'll just launch a war. My concern is that either an escalation from a tactical situation going to a strategic confrontation or miscalculation.

[13:55:02] BLITZER: And that miscalculation is a big, big fear right now, on either side, because the tension level is pretty enormous.

KLINGER: Exactly. And when you have really all three components, South Korea, North Korea, the U.S., all saying that they're leaning further forward on preemption, then you could have a stumbling across the red line.

BLITZER: And if you get the waiver from the State Department saying you can go to North Korea, are you there?

KLINGER: Well, I think we also have to be concerned with the treatment of Otto Warmbier and other Americans who are still being detained there.

BLITZER: It's not an easy decision.

Thank you so much --

KLINGER: Thanks.

BLITZER: -- Bruce Klinger, of the Heritage Foundation.

Moments ago, the president making some major news on a number of fronts, saying he's upset with his own cabinet members who have run up tabs on private planes, declaring the NFL will go to hell if they don't address national anthem protests.

Plus, we're standing by for the president. Once again, he's getting ready to speak at Indianapolis. He's pushing a new tax plan with sweeping cuts.

Lots of news happening. Stay with CNN for all the late-breaking developments.

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