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HHS Secretary Price to Reimburse Cost of Travel on Private Flights; DHS Head: "I'm Very Satisfied" With Recovery Efforts. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired September 28, 2017 - 16:30   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: He also says he's going to write a personal check to the U.S. Treasury for the expenses of his seats on those charter planes.

[16:30:02] Now, earlier when asked if he would fire Secretary Price, President Trump responded, "We'll see." The president has made it clear he's not happy about the practice, in which at least three cabinet members have engaged.

A Republican senator told CNN's Lauren Fox, quote: I think the president's mad as hell. What the F was Price thinking, it's just stupid, unquote.

CNN's Rene Marsh has been following this story.

Rene, I have to ask you: is Price reimbursing the taxpayer for the cost of a charter flight, which would be, you know, $17,000, $20,000, or is he just going to do what a lot of politicians do, which is pay for the equivalent of a business class seat on a commercial flight which is really just a fraction of what the taxpayers paid for? Which is he going to do?

RENE MARSH, CNN GOVERNMENT REGULATION CORRESPONDENT: That's a full question. That full transparency we do not have the answer yet.

We just got this statement from the Health and Human Services Department in which Price said, and this is his own words, I'm reading to you here. He will today, write a personal check for, quote: my travel on private charter planes. He goes on to say: taxpayers won't pay a dime for my seat on those planes.

A very specific language. It does raise the question, does he plan on only paying a fraction of what those very expensive trips on those private jets cost? Of course, many times they travel with staff, so it's not just about his seat, but the other people who traveled with him. But that is the headline.

But now, it's not just Price, but it's also other members of the cabinet facing the heat for flights on private jets and military jets.


MARSH (voice-over): Revelations tonight of even more trips on private planes by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. Over the weekend, Price said he only took a total 11 trips.

TOM PRICE, HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES SECRETARY: These were 11 trips over about an eight-month period of time.

MARSH: But Thursday, his agency revealed even more trips, bringing the total to 13, which includes more than two dozen individual flights, including one where he flew private on the short hop from Washington Dulles to Philadelphia. The total cost to taxpayers for all of the trips: at least $300,000.

TRUMP: I'm looking at that very closely. I am not happy with it. I will tell you, I am not happy with it.

REPORTER: Would you fire him, sir?

TRUMP: We'll see.

MARSH: The inspector general is reviewing Price's travel and the agency says it has initiated an internal departmental review of the procedures to determine any changes or reforms that are necessary.

PRICE: The optics in some of this don't look good. And that's why we again have taken this criticism --

MARSH: After an event on D.C. on Thursday, Price responded to the president's criticism saying, quote, I think we've still got the confidence of the president.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We're definitely looking at issue they're conducting both an internal and an I.G. full review.

MARSH: But Price is not the only cabinet secretary facing heat. In documents obtained by CNN, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island takes EPA chief Scott Pruitt to task for both private and government aircraft. One flight from Cincinnati to New York City on June 7th, cost taxpayers more than $36,000. The EPA says Pruitt needed to fly on a military jet because he was on a tight schedule, flying to Italy for a summit the next day.

Senator Whitehouse also questioned a $14,000 flight aboard a government aircraft on July 27th. Pruitt flew from Tulsa to Guymon, Oklahoma. EPA says there were no commercial flights.


MARSH: Well, Senator Whitehouse is questioning the entire reasoning for that trip. The EPA says that the purpose was to meet with a group called the Panhandle Irrigators Association. Well, Senator Whitehouse says he couldn't find a group by that name on the Internet. He found a group with a similar name, but their Website had been dormant for some five years.

However, Jake, the EPA insists that this group does exist and the purpose of this trip was to speak to people in Oklahoma who are impacted by one of EPA's regulations. TAPPER: Oklahoma where he's from, of course.

MARSH: Right.

TAPPER: Rene Marsh, thanks so much.

Also in politics, we return to the crisis in Puerto Rico, and the Trump administration defending the federal response, despite almost half the people in the island without drinking water, and most of the island without power and despite, of course, 16 deaths in Puerto Rico.

Today, acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security called recovery efforts a good news story.


ELAINE DUKE, ACTING HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: I am very satisfied. I know it's a hard storm to recover from, but the amount of progress that's been made and I really would appreciate any support that we get. I know it is really a good news story in terms of our ability to reach people, and the limited number of deaths that have taken place in such a devastating hurricane.


[16:35:01] TAPPER: A good news story.

CNN's Sara Murray joins me live at the White House.

Sara, we mentioned the Pentagon now sending a general to head up the relief effort. What does the White House say about that happening now instead of a week ago?

SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, they're basically saying, we heard this from Tom Bossert just a few minutes ago, the president's homeland security advisor, that a general wasn't necessary eight days ago to martial the disaster relief efforts in that area. He also made a similar argument, Tom Bossert did, about this decision to waive the Jones Act, to sort of loosen the rules for shipping supplies to the island, saying they're making this move now, but it wasn't necessary before that.

There has been no acknowledgment from this White House that things are moving slowly, no acknowledgment that maybe protocols could have been going more smoothing up until this point. They have been adamant that the federal government is doing everything it can. It's the severity of the storm as well as the state of the infrastructure in Puerto Rico that has made this such a difficult effort.

But, of course, Jake, these assurances coming from the federal government, this insistent that things are going well, it really doesn't match-up with what people are experiencing on the ground in Puerto Rico, whereas you pointed out, most people do not have power, only half of people have access to fresh drinkable water right now, Jake. TAPPER: And at the briefing moments ago, the White House also

commented on the president's tax pitch, saying that they can't guarantee lower rates for everyone, does that make it tougher to sell this to Congress?

MURRAY: Well, it's been an interesting sort of sales pitch coming from the White House. Today, we saw Gary Cohn who has been key in trying to sell this tax plan publicly as well as on Capitol Hill, he fumbled a couple times in whether he was able to guarantee that this would be a middle class tax cut and he dodged questions about what this would do to the president's own tax tab.

Listen to part what have he said.


GARY COHN, CHIEF WHITE HOUSE ECONOMIC ADVISOR: Look, I told you it will benefit the middle class. I think that's what American, American tax -- American taxpayers care about what they take home. They care about what they have to spend. That's what they care about.

That's what I care about. I care about what I pay in taxes. I bet you care about what you pay in taxes.


MURRAY: So, the details of this plan are beginning to emerge, but the sales pitch it seems could still use perhaps a little bit of tweaking, Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Sara Murray, thanks so much.

Earlier, we broke the story about Senate Intelligence Committee chairman and vice chairman demanding that Jared Kushner hand over any and all private communications related to the Russian inquiry after he failed to disclose to them the use of a personal e-mail count. More on what that might mean for the ongoing Russia probe, coming up. Stay with us.


[16:42:00] TAPPER: We're back with a bit of a lighter note.

Caption this: former Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, they're posing for photos at the 12th President's Cup in the garden state of New Jersey today. A series of golf matches between the U.S. and an international team. All three served as honorary chairman during their presidencies. President Trump is following the tradition this year.

I'm joined by my political panel. We got a lot of discuss and I'm not going to talk about the golf thing, although that's a nice picture. That's nice to see that.

Before the break, we reported on this practice of Trump cabinet officials using private charter planes for flights that would be easily accessible on a commercial flight. The HHS Secretary Tom Price just issued a statement saying he's going to stop the practice and had this curious little clause I want to read.

He said that the U.S. taxpayer -- he said: Today, I will write a personal check for the expenses of my travel on private charter planes. The taxpayers won't pay a dime for my seat on those plane, a dime for my seats.

Now, I will break out my English to Washington, Washington to English dictionary, and that seems to suggest he's going to reimburse for the business class equivalent of a flight from say Washington to Nashville, but not pay for the, say $10,000 or whatever.


TAPPER: Will that make this go away, Nia-Malika?

HENDERSON: No. It's interesting, they have been horrible in responding to this story, right? I mean, this broke in "Politico". I think on the 19th of September, the initial response was, oh, the secretary has to be among Americans. So, he's got to get there in this way and no regulations --

TAPPER: Among Americans.

HENDERSON: Yes, yes.

TAPPER: Charter pilots.

HENDERSON: Exactly. Exactly. He can't take commercial flights because he doesn't want to miss these appointments that he has and that no regulations were broken. So, here they are now, using pretty, I think, Washington ease and essentially saying, maybe they'll pay a couple hundred dollars for these seats, as opposed to I think the total at least the last reports I read were in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, $300,000 or so.

I think, you know, this is a cabinet that I think is the richest cabinet ever assembled and it appears that they also have very rich tastes. They don't seem to appear to think that this is about public service and this is about using the taxpayers dollars wisely, even though that has been the message, right, of the Trump campaign and the Trump presidency. This idea they're going to come in and, you know, cut out the waste, fraud, and abuse, make all sorts of cuts to the budget, and here they are, again -- I mean, spending so much money.

And I'm sure that other things are going to come out, possibly with Tom Price, possibly with Pruitt as well. Of course, the EPA secretary.

TAPPER: Kevin, it's pretty swampy.

HENDERSON: Yes. Right.

KEVIN MADDEN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes. I would argue though that Secretary Price does have a very strong record as a public servant, but this calls it into question. And it was a very -- you're right, it was a very thin response from the Department of Home -- the HHS Department to address the initial inquiries. And it hasn't gone really well.

And I think that's the problem. And that's where the secretary now has to really point the nose of the boat into the wind here because this has now become an issue that the president himself is being asked about. And that just can't happen if he doesn't want to remain on thin ice.

So I think that it's going to continue unless Secretary Price comes out directly apologizes and puts in place much stricter standards on what his travel is going to be here going forward because otherwise if it this continues to be a problem for the President, he could be -- he could be in trouble. Now he does have very strong support amongst folks in Congress and this is at a time where they are continuing to still look to repeal and replace ObamaCare. So, he's a valued member of the cabinet. So I think that plays in his favor, but he has to rectify this quickly.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: I also want to get your guy's views on the story we broke at the top of the hour. The Senate Intelligence Committee, the Chairman and the Vice Chairman writing a letter to Abbe Lowell and Jared Kushner, Abbe Lowell is his attorney, saying, we learned about your private e-mail account in the news media. They're obviously not happy about it. They use the term concerned, but when Senators say that, that means -- it means angry. Please go back and check and make sure that everything that could be possible to the Russian inquiry has been turned over to us on that account or any other account or any messaging apps, et cetera, also not a good look.

MADDEN: Well, if you go back and you look at every single crisis that has metastasized in the history of Washington, one of the main variables involved was that people thinking that they could just manage information in a drip, drip fashion and you just cannot. The White House has -- and Mr. Kushner has to work very vigorously to make sure that he is getting all of this information out as much as possible, to those folks up on Capitol Hill and does his best to explain it. Because if it continues to be a drip, drip, it's going to hurt him, but it's also again going to be one of the issues that the President himself has to address and it's going to distract from his agenda.

And the President, I think, while he gives a lot of leeway to family on that, ultimately, that is probably where he probably gets the most incensed when he has to explain other people's mistakes. And the other thing, it's always going to get out. Somebody always finds out whether it's the media or there are leaks inside the investigation. Somebody finds this out and it gets out eventually.

TAPPER: Right. And what did you make, I mean, like the Acting Head of the Department of Homeland Security saying that she's pleased with the response to the relief needs in Puerto Rico, and in fact, this is a good news story because there have been so few deaths in Puerto Rico. NIA MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: Well, you know, I mean, it's not good news to any of those folks in Puerto Rico. We've been obviously covering this story wall to wall and hearing from folks on the ground. There are reporters of the Mayor of San Juan, the Governor of Puerto Rico, they are in dire straits. And it looks like it's only going to get worse because of the fuel shortages, the food shortages, there was no drinking water in large swaths of the island. So I mean, you always have shadows of Katrina when natural disasters happen, shadows of the Brownie you're doing a heck of a job comment that George Bush made.

Also, that's -- I mean, I think that statement and some of the sort of posturing I think from some of the officials are hinting at that. And it looks like, over the last couple of days, they have made some course corrections here with waiving the rule about foreign ships going there, sending the general there to get things under control. So it looks like I think, you know, Tom Bossert, I think today, I mean, he talks about the sole -- we have a certain business plan going there. Doesn't necessarily sound as empathic I think as some people you know, expect, but it looks like things are going to change over the next couple of days.

MADDEN: Well, I think that you're right, I agree with that. The most important thing is to make sure that there's a methodical flow of information about the response and what they're doing. And that's not only for the media that's involved in covering it, but it's for the people that are on the ground looking for more information about when they can expect relief and how to respond to that.

TAPPER: Although it's tough for them to get information because half the island doesn't have electricity. All right, Kevin Madden, Nia Malika Henderson, thank you so much.

President Trump criticizing or being criticized rather for his strong words aimed at Kim Jong-un. But a former Head of the CIA says some of the President's rhetoric actually might be aimed at a different country. Stay with us.


[16:50:00] TAPPER: Welcome back, turning to our "WORLD LEAD." China has instructed North Korea to close all North Korean businesses in their country. This might seem like China's taking a stand against Hermit Kingdom's nuclear program, but in reality, last month, August marked the largest month of trade between China and North Korea In all of 2017. Earlier today I sat down with former CIA Director and retired Four Star General David Petraeus at the Atlantic's Washington Ideas Forum for his take on the ongoing tensions weighing on American's minds. But we started with the domestic controversy that President Trump seems rather fixated upon.


TAPPER: I want to start with an issue that is a domestic issue that I just wonder what you think of it which is this debate going on largely led by President Trump about players who protest during the National Anthem.

DAVID PETRAEUS, FORMER DIRECTOR, CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY: I have to say, I'm just sort of disappointed that, you know, now we have politicized football, you know, as Mike Hayden wrote in a wonderful Op-Ed the other day, you know, it was the only two hours even when he was a CIA Director they'd go to the games and you just lose himself in the game. So in that sense, I'm just sort of disappointed. I just hope we can turn the volume down, turn the heat down and let's just get back to enjoying football and people not having to make political statements at the beginning of the games.

TAPPER: The North Korean crisis is obviously foremost on the minds of U.S. military right now. To a lot of our friends in Europe and in other parts of the world, they see this crisis as two erratic, unstable world leaders, Kim Jong-un and President Trump, squaring off each other against each other and they're afraid of how it's going to end. Is that a fair way to look at this crisis?

PETRAEUS: Well couple items here, I think. First of all, to put this in context and to be fair to this administration, I think you have to acknowledge that they are facing a reality that no other President has faced previously. And that is that this individual, Kim Jong-un, impulsive at the very least, I don't think suicidal, and that's a pretty important assessment at the end of the day. But clearly, given to extraordinary measures, I think it's really more about getting China's attention and making China realize, this is a strategically important development to us and you've got to help us stop this where it is at the very least get to some negotiations and see where we can take it in the future --

TAPPER: Do you think President Trump's Rhetoric is aimed at getting President Xi's attention more than the President Kim Jong-un?

PETRAEUS: Very much so. And this is where the mention of military options. Everybody knows, obviously, there are military options. Everybody also knows they're all very ugly. So this is about China which controls the umbilical cord that literally keeps the lights on in Pyongyang.

TAPPER: I know you have great faith in the generals around President Trump, McMaster, Kelly, and Mattis, but are you ever concerned that President Trump may say or tweet something that could seriously escalate this crisis?

PETRAEUS: These generals are really extraordinary. I've served with all of them on the battlefield multiple times. Very strong national security team, arguably as good as any in recent memory, if not better. And frankly, I think the policy process and the policy outcomes generally are quite rational. Now, there is something to the so-called -- it's actually called the madman logic if you will. Before you get into a crisis, it's not all that bad if the other side thinks you're a little bit edgy.

And, you know, Nixon had Kissinger go tell the Soviets, "Hey, you know, Nixon is under a lot of pressure, he has a drink after dinner, you know, be careful, walk on eggshells around this guy." And they sort of did. You know you avoid getting into a crisis. The problem is, if you do get into a crisis, you don't want the other side thinking that you've taken the slack out of the trigger already and you're going to do something that otherwise might be irrational because they may do it to you first. And so that's where my concern is. so the rhetoric has to be modulated and certainly, some of the statements are not ones that I necessarily would have advised.

TAPPER: I want to ask you about -- great potential as a diplomat.


TAPPER: Our thanks to General Petraeus for the interview. Finally from us today, a rare moment of bipartisanship, joy, and relief on Capitol Hill today, House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana have returned to work today for the first time since the horrific shooting in June where a deranged left wing gunman opened fire at the Republican Congressional baseball practice. This morning, walking into the people's House as he called it, Congressman Scalise was met with a standing ovation and thunderous applause from colleagues from both sides of the aisle.


REP. STEVE SCALISE (R-LA), MAJORITY WHIP: When I was laying out on that ball field, the first thing I did once I was down and I couldn't move anymore, is I just started to pray. And I will tell you it gave me an unbelievable sense of calm knowing that at that point it was in God's hands. But I prayed for very specific things. And I'll tell you, pretty much every one of those prayers was answered.


TAPPER: House Speaker Paul Ryan was visibly emotional at his friend's return. He said, "our prayers have been answered, Congressman Scalise said he had to learn how to walk all over again." He's planning to continue his outpatient rehabilitation while returning to his job. To Congressman Scalise and his family, we wish you nothing but the best and continued best of wish -- best wishes on a speedy recovery.

Be sure to follow me on Facebook and Twitter @JAKETAPPER or you can tweet the show @THELEADCNN. Tomorrow on the show, I'm going to talk to the former Director of National Intelligence. That's it for THE LEAD today. I'm Jake Tapper, turning you over now to Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM." Thanks for watching.