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Puerto Rico Aid Update; Rubio talks Puerto Rico Relief Effort; Remote Towns in Need; Price on Private Jets. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired September 28, 2017 - 12:00   ET



[12:00:18] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John Berman, in for John King.

Eight days after Hurricane Maria slammed Puerto Rico, critical supplies are sitting at a port. More than 9,000 containers across the island not reaching residents in need.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We out of food. We're running out of food and water.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Now is not the time for memos. Now is the time for action.


BERMAN: Plus, a crisis of confidence in the GOP. President Trump criticizing one of his cabinet member for his pricey private flights and weighing in on his relationship with Mitch McConnell after another Obamacare repeal set back.



QUESTION: Would you fire him?

QUESTION: What are you going to do about it, Mr. President?

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

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you still have confidence in Mitch McConnell?

TRUMP: I do.


BERMAN: And it's an emotional return for Congressman Steve Scalise to the House floor.


REP. STEVE SCALISE (R), MAJORITY WHIP: You have no idea how great this feels to be back here at work in the people's house.


BERMAN: All right, we're going to go right to the White House, I believe, where we're going to hear from the homeland security adviser in the White House, Tom Bossert, and Elaine Duke, the acting secretary of homeland security. Let's listen.

ELAINE DUKE, ACTING HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: Starting to clear so we can get the continual amount of supplies into Puerto Rico.

We do have supplies on island. We have the necessary food and water. We are working on bringing in additional for replenishment, in addition heavy equipment and other things needed for the island's recovery.

We have been working on yesterday principally getting distribution that last mile, as they call it. To do that, we had to remove debris. We had to restore roads. We had to clear land -- landslides across the island. And we have done things like air drops in the meantime. So our focus was on the immediate relief and trying to gain access to the parts of the island.

Currently, we are now looking towards continued replenishment. We did -- I did sign a Jones Act waiver this morning that came in yesterday afternoon from the governor of Puerto Rico. That is based on national security needs by -- from the Secretary Mattis. The president encouraged us, as he has done throughout this hurricane response, and the other two also, to lean forward. On day one of the first hurricane, he told us, people first, and that has been our response.

We want to get the word out to you. We want to make sure the American people know what's going on with their friends and family and fellow citizens. We appreciate your patience. You are seeing devastation in Puerto Rico. That is the fault of the hurricane. The relief effort is under control. It is proceeding very well considering the devastation that took place.

And with that, I'll turn it over to Mr. Tom Bossert, who will add some thoughts.


I'd like to amplify what the secretary said and, of course, remind the American people that President Trump stands with Puerto Rico and the Puerto Rican people who are working so hard to get through this devastating hurricane recovery and relief effort.

I'd also like to remind you kind of procedurally how we do it. And what we do here, and my job here on behalf of helping the president and on behalf of his team, is to help Elaine duke and the people, the men and women of FEMA, stand with the governor and stand with all the mayors and municipal governors and leaders in Puerto Rico. So, Elaine Duke, you're doing a wonderful job. Brock Long is working

tirelessly here to make sure that the entire U.S. government is bringing its firepower into Puerto Rico. And so I understand the coverage in some cases is giving the appearance that we're not moving fast enough. I think that there's -- there's two responses I'd have to that.

First, there's an understandable degree of devastation on the island. And for anybody that needs food and water, power, life-saving needs and commodities, health care, there's nothing that can happen fast enough. But what I will tell you is that we are mobilizing and marshalling the resources of the United States of America in a way that is absolutely professional, fast and adequate to meet the needs. Now what we have to do is marshal these resources in a way that distributes them through the island.

This is an insular island territory that stands some distance from the United States. The constraints and limitations are different from a contiguous state here in the United States. We can position hundreds of trucks in Florida or Texas for restoration of line services. We can't do that in Puerto Rico. We have to bring them in the moment the storm subsides.

[12:05:11] That is what we're doing. A lot of the reporting is understandably not wrong, but dated. For instance, I saw today that only 11 hospitals were assessed and opened. That was probably accurate, but just wrong at the time it was reported. We've assessed most of the hospitals at this point on the territory, on the island. There are 69 hospitals total, 47 have been assessed by the Department of Defense and the Department of Health and Human Services. Forty-four of those hospitals are operational.

This is important for a number of reasons. We were concerned with patients needing dialysis, 6,500 or so. Those are life-threatening conditions if they don't get that dialysis treatment.

So, again, it is not a matter of too fast or too slow. People are fixating on that. It's a matter of two different business models underway, a decentralized one and a centralized one.

And let me get into explaining that very briefly and then we'll take your questions.

First, what we do is we send --


BOSSERT: Yes, ma'am.

The request was for me to talk a little bit louder, so I'll see if I can direct over here as well.

So two things at foot here. We need to centralize certain plans and the restoration of power. On the island is a centralized effort. The -- what we call a direct federal assistance mission has been engaged and now the United States Army Corps of Engineers, under General Semonite, is in charge of restoring power on the island of Puerto Rico. He has been in charge of that mission since early yesterday morning and he has a prioritized and centralized plan for accomplishing that end. The plan starts with providing the diesel fuel necessary for emergency power generation. It proceeds in a second priority matter to the sustaining emergency power missions, so that that fuel gets to those generators and supports the hospitals, other critical needs. And then it moves into power generation restoration, then power transmission, and then power distribution.

So that's how the system works. The prioritized plan has been laid out across the island and the resources necessary are there. We've got 7,000 -- I'll make sure I read the numbers -- we've got over 10,000 federal forces on the island and, let's see,. 7,200 troops are there now and over 10,000 federal employees total. So that's a combined ground force that's helping us distribute commodities.

And then, secondly, we've got an augmentation business plan here that is a little different and a little bit more proactive than what FEMA normally engages in. Instead of providing assistance to the governor, in this case what we're doing is providing assistance not only to the governor, who's doing a tremendous job, but also to the municipal leadership.

I talked to the mayor of San Juan this morning, made sure I understood her concerns. She is absolutely hanging in there and doing a wonderful job for the people of San Juan. She understands now that the business model that we're employing. She has a FEMA person standing with her that can help augment her staff capacity shortfalls as she had many victims of this storm on her staff as well. We're also augmenting the state. And so at this point the federal government is there at every level providing assistance, identifying needs, establishing requirements, helping the state validate those requirements and meeting them from the federal perspective. And so that is a new business model. We put it in place, though, on Saturday.

On Sunday we began -- Saturday morning we upped our planning assumptions by over 50 percent. On Sunday we changed that business model. On Monday the distribution system became a question of security and forced presence. And so what we did is we put a force -- a security presence model in place to provide security for each of the truck drivers so that they could provide water and diesel fuel to the people who need it without feeling unsafe. That has constituted a great deal of success for us. We're going to keep that model in place.

Lastly, the hospitals. The plan that was put in place over the weekend was to take all the hospitals that were down and just start moving critical patients to the hospitals that were up. That required a lot of rotary wing airlift support. And that was in place with the Department of Defense partners there. They were very supportive on that mission. The Coast Guard and Navy in particular.

Those patients were identify and moved to the open hospitals, primarily in the northeast. Now, as I report earlier, those hospitals that are opening and reopening as assessed (ph), 44 of them of the 69 are ready to take back patients. Those requiring additional critical care being airlifted off of the island. And so definitive care is being provided at this point and the remaining hospitals are being assessed right now.

So as you see pictures, some of them are dated. As you see data, some of it is out of date. It's not necessarily wrong or right. The frustrations of people, though, are being amplified. So I encourage you to make sure you check the currency of the data that you report so that you don't provide any information that would unnecessarily defeat the morale of the people of Puerto Rico, because this is a mission about saving the people of Puerto Rico, relieving their pain and sustaining their lives.

And they are absolutely showing every degree of compassion and composure and leadership that we saw from the citizens of Texas and Florida before. It's inspiring. The people of Puerto Rico have every bit of support from President Trump that he gave to the citizens of every other state in this country. And I think that you're going to see that continue in a very positive way.

[12:10:11] I spoke this morning to Mayor de Blasio as well and made sure he understood what we're doing and how we changed it. He was very appreciative.

BERMAN: All right, you've been listening to the homeland security adviser at the White House, Tom Bossert, give a briefing to reporters on the Puerto Rico response.

We're going to jump out of that for a very good reason right now. Joining us is the Republican Senator from Florida, Marco Rubio. Senator Rubio has been to Puerto Rico.

Thank you for joining us. Thank you for your help in the recovery efforts in Irma and here in Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

Senator, I want to ask you, you wrote this morning, conditions in Puerto Rico are getting worse. You said that. The president has said the federal response to Maria has been great and amazing. Which is it? What's the reality on the ground?

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: Well, in some ways, both -- they're both true. The federal government has respond to this storm and it's done so with a level of aid and support that would be sufficient for virtually any storm that could impact any part of the United States.

Unfortunately, in Puerto Rico, the storm is so unusual in that it covers the entire territory after another storm just passed through, after the fiscal constraints they're operating under, these create some new challenges.

I was listening to the press conference about the change in the business model, and this is true. This has been happening for a number of days. And a lot of progress is due to that. But at its core, today, the short-term challenge in Puerto Rico is a logistical one. The supply chain, the logistical chain on the island is broken. It isn't working because of the storm and other challenges. And it needs to be restored. And, in my view, the only people who can restore -- who have the capacity to do so quickly in the short-term and then turn it over to the authorities there in Puerto Rico is the Department of Defense. They are logistical experts.

So it is good news that they Army Corps is going to come in and begin the process of restoring the power lines, but it's also the safety and security of the roads, temporary bridges potentially, standing up communications. The sorts of things the Department of Defense does better than any organization on the planet. That's what I'm saying.

The business model that they're talking about is the traditional business model responding to the storm is, the federal government comes in to help the local authorities. I'm arguing at least when it comes to logistics, the federal government's going to have to lead and they're going to have to put someone there with the authority to make these decisions and execute on them fairly quickly.

BERMAN: We're hearing from official sin San Juan that 9,000 containers are sitting at the port right now not being able to be delivered.

RUBIO: Right.

BERMAN: If I'm hearing you right, what you are saying is that the federal government, specifically the military, needs to do more right now getting the supplies from those containers out, correct?

RUBIO: Yes. And I want to be clear, it's not because they don't want to do more and it's not because the White House doesn't want to do more. Under the model they're approving or they're following, in some cases, they don't have the authority because who's in charge? There are multiple -- just as an example, to get aid into the airport often times requires the signoff of FEMA, the FAA and the local authorities. That could take some time and in the process is creating some issues.

But I would say a lot of aid is coming in. They're going to need more. They're going to need to replenish it. But you've touched on a cornerstone issue is, what about the aid that's already there. There's reasons why they can't transport it. They don't have fuel for the trucks. They don't have drivers for the trucks. They don't know if the roads can hold those trucks in some places. And if it's insulin, as an example, once it gets there, it has to be refrigerated. Do they have the temporary power to refrigerate that medication?

These are real challenges that the government of Puerto Rico, on its own, will not be able to confront. We need someone in charge of that with a knowhow of logistics with the capability to restore logistics and with the authority to make decisions quickly without having to check with 18 agencies and get a bunch of signoffs that could add days to the process.

BERMAN: So the business model, as it is, and was just discussed at the White House, you believe that needs to change?

RUBIO: I think -- I think they need to continue in the trend line that they're following, and that is, to be frank, I think at least when it comes to restoring logistics and the distribution of aid, the federal government is going to have to be in charge of that, primarily through the Department of Defense, with the authority to make decisions quickly about what comes in, how it's going to get there and if there is not on island capacity to distribute it, to bring in what the capabilities they need to be able to distribute it and to get it to the right places. That means the restoration of communication and power as part of that.

BERMAN: Senator, you were right in the middle of the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in Florida, right in the middle again in Puerto Rico and the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Do you see any differences in the type of response or the urgency in the response from the federal government to Irma and Harvey even than what you're seeing from Maria, because that's what critics are saying?

RUBIO: No, I really -- I can't say that that's true. I don't see it. What I do see different is the challenges are less. Florida, even though it impacted the entire state, it pushed us to the brink for a couple of days. We were able to bring in power crews. All right, as an example, we had this historic number of trucks in the state restoring power. That wasn't possible in Puerto Rico. It takes five days from Miami and seven days from Jacksonville to barge that stuff in.

In addition, they had already been strain. They had just restored power. So whatever supplies they had to restore power were not in place.

[12:15:02] The other is, we still had functional local governments that could communicate with fire and police and to the outside world. There are still -- many of the municipalities in Puerto Rico do not have consistent and reliable communications with San Juan or with any of the other government officials. So the challenges are different. In essence, the aid -- the response was pretty much the same, but the need is greater and the type of need is different. It's much more logistical at this point and only the DOD, I think has, in my view, has the capacity to take charge of that and restore it in the short- term. And then the Puerto Rican authorities can resume and take over from there.

BERMAN: Senator Marco Rubio, thank you for being with us. Thank you for your efforts here and in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. You've been working hard the last few weeks. We appreciate it.

RUBIO: Well, thank you.

BERMAN: All right, we are covering the devastation in Puerto Rico with our team of reporters spread out across the island.

I want to bring in CNN's Ivan Watson. He's in the remote town of Morovis (ph). This is near a concrete bridge that was washed away.

And, Ivan, we've been looking at remarkable pictures behind you.

IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. You know, John, I was hearing people talking about the business model of relief and recovery. This is the business model of relief and recovery in the community of San Lorenzo (ph) in the municipality of Morovis (ph).

The bridge was washed out by flash floods after the storm. And the community here, no government, no kind of emergency worker, this is people, residents of this community, have set up a metal wire, a cable across where the bridge kind of used to be and locals are being forced to ford (ph) the river in knee high water to try to reach the outside world. That is the business model of recovery and relief for this community of San Lorenzo that has no electricity, no running water, and no fuel for the vehicles. There's an alternate road that would take about three hours over the mountains to try to reach the outside world.

So we've been watching for the past couple hours. Residents, women, children, the elderly, have to kind of cross this on foot to try to reach the outside world. If somebody needs insulin, for example, if they're diabetic and there are no refrigerators working, they have to take this way out. It was described to me how a patient on dialysis several days ago had to be brought out on a makeshift raft, dragged across this thing.

And, you know, the hero of this moment is this man over here, Monolo Gonzalez (ph), in the blue shirt over here, who helped string up this electric cable -- this, sorry, this metal cable across the river to help people maintain their footing and not get swept away by the water when they try to get out to the outside world. And we've seen people carrying jerry cans who then will have to walk an hour on foot to try to reach a gas station where the fuel is rationed.

To get a better idea of how -- oh, my God, we're going to see and we (INAUDIBLE) a little while ago. Let me get out of the --

BERMAN: Can we get Ivan back up? It looked like the spot was coming back up again.

WATSON: After Hurricane Maria, this is a man who's going to be fording this river with his horse. This is the business model of relief and recovery for the community of San Lorenzo. I'm told there are more than 1,000 residents who live up in these hills. And now we're going to watch somebody try to lead his horse across this river.

The residents tell me that several days after the storm some people from FEMA did come, did conduct an assessment. They say they haven't seen anybody from that agency since. And that several days ago the mayor of the municipality did come and visit.

A school on the other side of the river is distributing food for free to the residents here. One man says for the elderly, they need things like adult diapers to help with people who are in this village that's cutoff from the outside world.

But as people talk about all the aid and the assistance that's coming and some distribution problems, these locals are doing it entirely themselves. That's the business model of relief and recovery in San Lorenzo, on horseback.


BERMAN: Our Ivan Watson near San Lorenzo, watching people ford that stream after putting up a metal cable to get across. Ivan making the point that whatever business model the federal government and the local government is using, not reaching those folks. They have had to do it all themselves.

[12:19:47] We've been looking at some pretty remarkable pictures from Capitol Hill as well. The House Majority Whip Steve Scalise back on Capitol Hill for the first time since he was shot in June. The emotional return and much more. We'll be right back.


[12:24:09] BERMAN: Welcome back.

News this morning bound to make the administration breath a shy of relief. The transportation secretary, Elaine Chao, quietly boarded American Airlines Flight 1597 from Phoenix to Baltimore yesterday. She flew coach on the way back from a conference for highway officials. So why, you're asking, is that significant? Because it's the kind of behavior that will not land you on the front page of "The New York Times," which is where you will find the Health and Human Services secretary this morning. Tom Price's picture splashed across the president's hometown paper. The headline, inside the fold, travel expenses get the boss' attention.


DONALD TRUMP, 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.

QUESTION: Would you fire him?

QUESTION: What are you going to do about it, Mr. President?

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


BERMAN: What the president says he is looking into at least $400,000 worth of taxpayer funds spent on private jets for trips that mix government business with his personal to-do-list, including having lunch with his son.

[12:25:08] Price is not the only one who uses your money to bankroll flying around in style. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Environmental Protection Agency Chief Scott Pruitt also have spent public money on private jets. Why does this matter? One, it is your money. And you can probably think of better things to spend it on. And, two, the president promised that this kind of thing wouldn't happen under his watch.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: When it comes to Washington, D.C., it is time to drain the damn swamp. Drain the swamp. We're going to drain the swamp of Washington. We're going to have fun doing it.

When we win on November 8th, we are going to drain the swamp.

We are going to drain the swamp of government corruption in Washington, D.C.

It is time to drain the swamp.


BERMAN: Apparently a drained swamp makes for a good airstrip.

Here to share their reporting and insights, Megan Murphy of "Bloomberg Businessweek," CNN's MJ Lee, Alex Burns and Maggie Haberman of "The New York Times."

You know, Maggie, it's interesting, Tom Price getting the "we'll see" treatment from President Trump right now.


BERMAN: We'll see if he keeps his job, which is something he said for Attorney General Jeff Sessions. He said it for what he'll do with Robert Mueller. What does it mean, do you think? What are you hearing from inside the White House?

HABERMAN: He's really unhappy, the president. I think this initially began with -- their initial instinct, and this president in particular, is when there is a negative story, regardless of what the substance is, the immediate punch back is, this isn't true, they're out to get us. There's now been days and days and days of these stories and the one in particular about his lunch with his son and some of the description of these trips apparently irked him enormously.

What it means, we don't know. People in other administrations have been let go for less. Whether he gets the full Jeff Sessions treatment remains to be seen. We'll see is not the same as calling him beleaguered on Twitter or railing about him with every stranger he meets, which is what the president has done about Jeff Sessions. I also am not sure that Tom Price would stay under those kinds of conditions.

But, look, this is, to your point earlier in your intro, this is exactly what the president promised his administration would not be about and would not do. And this is -- it's hard to describe this as anything other than egregious.

BERMAN: It's interesting, Alex Burns, just as we were speaking here, "The Washington Examiner" reporting that Tom Price came out of an event in Washington, D.C. He was hounded by reporters and he said, we've still got the confidence of the president. So Tom Price feels safe this morning, but I imagine he'll be flying commercial for some time.

ALEX BURNS, POLITICAL REPORTER, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Well, we've seen over and over, right, that people feel safe in the president's confidence until suddenly they don't, right? And it often comes with absolutely no warning. And the president can say one day that you have his total confidence and then the next day, you know, Paul Manafort gets fired or something like that, right? This is a pattern.

I will say, you know, talking to political strategists on both sides in D.C. about this, there is a concern among Republicans, a sense of opportunity among Democrats, this is the kind of scandal that tends to be sticky. It's very easy for people to understand. Private jet travel is something that people see the Kardashians doing. They get what it is, It's not something elaborate like Russian interference in an American election. It's not the Mueller investigation. And, fundamentally, it's not a partisan kind of issue. This is the kind of behavior that typically offends conservatives as much as it offends liberals.

BERMAN: And if there's another flight that we haven't heard about, a dinner we haven't heard about, it just compounds the problem.

MJ, you've been making calls. CNN has been looking into this about what past cabinet secretaries have done in this situation. What have you found?

MJ LEE, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS REPORTER: Well, we reached former HHS Secretaries Mike Leavitt and Donna Shalala and both of them basically told us they either only flew commercial and only coach -- that's what Shalala told us -- and Leavitt told me that he mostly flew commercial and only in medical emergency situations did he have to fly in a different way.

I think this is important because what is normal and what is sort of acceptable behavior for cabinet secretaries gives us some important context for how Tom Price has been traveling since he became HHS secretary. This is not a situation where it is normal for these, you know, folks in these positions to fly private just because it's more convenient. And I think particularly if you look at the details, that there was travel going from Philadelphia and back to D.C., we know, we've done this before. We know that this is a very, very close distance. We know that the train is readily available. There are shuttles back and forth. So not a kind of situation that would, you would assume, require private travel.

BERMAN: This is why people argue about the quiet car. It's because that train exists. You don't need to take a private jet for that trip.

Let me read you CNN reporting on Scott Pruitt from the EPA. The EPA confirmed to CNN Wednesday that Pruitt used a private plan and military jet to travel for government duties instead of flying commercial for trips over the summer. Flew from Cincinnati to New York's JFK Airport on an Air Force jet on June 7. He then continued to Italy for an international summit on a commercial flight. That's what an EPA spokesman told CNN.

You know, Megan, the question is, if it's not just Tom Price, it it's also Scott Pruitt, if it's also Steve Mnuchin who took some flights he wasn't and wasn't even allowed to take other flights that he wanted, is there a systemic problem here? Is there a message from the top that isn't being sent?