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Cabinet Officials Under Scrutiny For Private Jet Use; Pentagon Taps 3-Star General To Lead Puerto Rico Recovery; McConnell Under Scrutiny After Tough Week; Scalise Celebrates Returning To Work 'I'm Back'. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired September 28, 2017 - 12:30   ET


[12:30:00] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: -- if it's also Scott Pruitt, it it's also Steve Mnuchin who took some place he wanted and he 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?

MEGAN MURPHY, BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK: Draining the swamp one fresh cesspool at a time, I think is what this is looking at. And to pick up on Alex's point. The issue is, this is readily understandable by the American people. And when you put it into the context of the over all populists message that the president wants to deliver right now that the party wants to deliver particularly amid what is going to the attacks by it about whether this new plan will cut tax breaks for the wealthy even more.

This type of incidents, people taking flying around on very easy routes, flying private jets, going to visit son. That does not jive with the message of we are increasing opportunity for the middle class. We are doing what's best for people who are working hard in America to make your life better. This looks like them skimming off the top particularly like people like Steve Mnuchin and former bankers. If it goes wider than this, they're going to have to take action. As Maggie said, people have been fired for less in prior administrations.

BERMAN: Well, let's take a look just for those interested in the Northeast quarter, the quiet car, what I was talking about here. If you want to see what the price difference is, a car to Philadelphia from Washington would cost about $46 for the 125 mile ride. The train would be $123. A plane, a united airlines flight would costs anywhere between 447 and $725. The charter jet? Boy that costs $25,000. And Maggie, look, the president we are told over the course of his career, he doesn't like waste. He would get mad.

MAGGIE HABERMAN, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Right. Well, he has an interesting definition of race, right?


HABERMAN: I mean, so there are certain things that have benefitted his business that other people might consider wasteful.

BERMAN: Right. HABERMAN: He doesn't consider that wasteful. But it is true they just this kind of thing which is just objectively wasteful, he doesn't like. It irritates him. And it goes again counter to this message whether it's real or not. It goes counter to this portrait that he has developed with himself as a businessman and somebody who is efficient.

A lot of this is with Trump is about, you know, the picture he paints to people as opposed to what's actually beneath the surface. This is, I think, the bigger point has been made here, repeatedly. But it does bear saying again. The fact that people can understand this, the fact that this is just basically you look at the chart that you put up with those numbers, this is not complicated for people to get. That is a risk to the president. And I think that he is seeing that more and more.

BERMAN: Alex, you wanted to jump in here to your last point?

ALEX BURNS, POLITICAL REPORTER, THE NEW YORK TIMES: And this is just so at odds with the typical political selling points of administration stock with business executives, the sort of dollar a year man image that the president made such a show of and not accepting or giving away his salary. I was saw in New York with Michael Bloomberg, right. That you bring wealthy people in to government and they're just doing it because they're public minded and they want to help. That's certainly not what this looks like.

BERMAN: All right guys, standby. We'll come back in a moment. But I want to go quickly to the Pentagon and Barbara Starr.

Barbara, we heard Senator Rubio talked about how the military need to shoulder more of the burden when it comes to helping Puerto Rico recover. There is word just in that that seems to be happening.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Indeed, John. We are now learning that a three-star army general, his name is Lieutenant General Jeffrey Buchanan has been appointed to lead the military relief efforts for the hurricane in Puerto Rico.

General Buchanan expected to land in Puerto Rico in the coming hours. He already has a one-star deputy on the ground. Both of these generals are veterans of multiple combat deployments. And why is that important? Because these are guys who know how to make things happen. How to get supplies, how to get material from point A to point B quickly.

We are told the focus now for much of the military effort is on getting that distribution network much improved, up and running and getting it functioning across Puerto Rico, trucks, drivers getting the airports open, getting communications networks up, all of it. So more airplanes can come in, more helicopters, more trucks, more distribution of aid more rapidly.

Why hasn't this happened before? I think a lot of people are asking. Remember, there are laws here. The military comes in only at the request of the state, of FEMA in these types of emergencies. They don't just go and show up completely on their own. They have the capability to do that. But they go with the agreement and scent of civilian authorities. And that's what you are seeing take shape.

Now, what we are hearing from the military is really the devastation as everybody has been reporting just really beginning to be realized in the last several days. And that is why you are seeing this military command structure rapidly now beginning to take shape. Is it fast enough? Is it enough? Certainly not. People out there are suffering very greatly and no supplies still stuck on loading docks. John?

[12:34:58] BERMAN: All right, Barbara Starr, the Pentagon as we're speaking. We just got an update from the port of San Juan. We're now told by a shipping official that 10,000 containers are sitting at that port waiting to be delivered getting that last mile, getting those supplies out at the last miles. Something now that the military will be much more involved in. Our thanks to Barbara for that.

When we come back, Republican leaders mulling over what went wrong in Alabama. But is Steve Bannon one step ahead in?


BERMAN: All right, the breaking news from Puerto Rico, we learned moments ago from a shipping official there that 10,000 containers are now at the port of San Juan, containers filled with food, fuel, medical supply, not getting to people on the island stuck there, waiting to be delivered.

The administration acutely aware that this is now a problem, a three- star general has been appointed to help with the logistical constrains right now to get beyond them to get the supplies out. And we have heard from the FEMA Director, Brock Long talking about how they are focused on that last mile, getting the supplies off the port, some 10,000 containers. It is a huge problem.

[12:40:15] In the meantime, fresh waves of fear and anxiety rippling through the Republican Party today. Republican leadership feeling acutely aware of voter anger at Washington after a bruising primary loss in Alabama in a memo obtained by the "New York Times" the Senate leadership fund, this is the Super PAC aligned with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reflects on what went wrong in Alabama.

It reads in part, "The Republican Congress has replaced President Obama as the bogeyman for conservative GOP primary voters. Opposition to Obama used to be a mainstay of Republican messaging. Now the answer to what is wrong in Washington is the Republican Congress. This narrative is driven by Trump himself and it resonates with primary voters who believe the Republican Congress isn't doing enough to advance the President's agenda."

A new Quinnipiac poll shows a meager 15 percent of voters approve of how Republicans are doing in Congress. The number has plummeted 10 points since June showing voters are increasingly unhappy with the Republican like Congress. So what's the take from the White House? Well, the president played nice on "Fox" this morning. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PETE HEGSETH, FORMER EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF VETS FOR FREEDOM: Do you still have confidence in Mitch McConnell?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF UNITED STATES: I do. I mean look I've dealt with Mitch for a long time. But no, I have confidence. And, look, I really like all of these people. I think they are terrific people.


BERMAN: So do we believe that? Back now with the panel. M.J. Lee, first to you. Right now, we heard from the president that he likes Mitch McConnell. He has confidence in him. Yesterday, all the reporting was he was telling people at a dinner Mitch McConnell is weak and mocking him. That's not what you say about someone you like is it?

MJ LEE, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS REPORTER: Yes. And he views Mitch McConnell as weak in that. He was a weak leader in the way that he handled the health care situation. The health care situation being the one thing that President Trump wanted to get done as president. We're now nine, ten months into his presidency. And that failed in spectacular fashion more than one time.

And I think when, you know, President Trump was sort of weighing the decision right of choosing to endorse either Luther Strange or Roy Moore, clearly, the, you know, better pairing would have been more because he supports people who are more insurgent. He is less about the establishing candidate. But he very much understood I think that without someone who is a supporter of McConnell and his agenda, it is going to become even more difficult for him to get anything done as president because he needs those Senate Republicans to get in line in that margin of error that is so, so narrow. And that is why we saw health care failed multiple times.

BERMAN: One of the people driving this message that we just heard about in that memo from that leadership fund is Steve Bannon who used to be the chief strategist for President Trump. Now, apparently, he is spending a lot of his time trying to knock off Republican members of the Senate.

Megan, Steve Bannon is on the cover of your magazine, Bloomberg Bussinessweek this week. What's his plan? What's he going to do? Who is he going to target? How hard does he going to work at this?

MURPHY: I think there were always questions after Steve Bannon left the White House about how much power he would still hold, how much of the political force he would remain in his own, right, how much he could still galvanize this movement that he felt. Now, what we saw in Alabama it's so funny to talk about this and how quickly things have turned.

The problem in Alabama that Mitch McConnell and unscathing (ph) that with leadership pack that was Mitch McConnell, what people were voting there for was very much an anti-establishment vote. And we should be really clear that Roy Moore is not anti-establishment. His views are not much the vast majority of Americans. This was much more of a vote based on his record, a very unique circumstances in that state.

But when we talk about Steve Bannon, where he's going to take this forward? Yes. He is going to trick -- to try and -- to trick pick out senators that he feels do not go with his agenda. But we should be careful his agenda isn't so much driven by a populist traditional social populism agenda. It isn't economic populist agenda. He talks about economic crimes against working Americans. He talks about how the establishment is really preventing growth, preventing the economy from going further.

And in particular, what focus on the magazine this week, is his war with China and how he views China as the biggest threat to the American worker, to American manufacturing into our future. Why that is so potentially dangerous? It is this China also that holds this key to our negotiators with North Korea and their nuclear advancement.

And if his influence over the new administration, over Donald Trump in terms of relationships with China can be a deterioration there, that is -- this could quite worrying indeed in terms of the entire region there going -- given what's going on.

BERMAN: Let's put a list of the Republican senators up for reelection in 2018. Some of the names on this list include, Jeff Flake in Arizona, Dean Heller in Nevada, other people that are being talked about, John Barrasso in Wyoming, Deb Fischer in Nebraska. Alex Burns, you've been writing extensively about what went on in Alabama and perhaps the impact going forward. You know, which of these folks should be most nervous? And again, how far do you think Bannon will go here?

[12:45:04] BURNS: Well, Jeff Flake is probably the first one on the list. And --

BERMAN: Bannon has been suggesting by the way that Flake could dropout?

BURNS: Well, this is, look, this Steve Bannon is taunting Jeff Flake. He is so weak. He shouldn't even run for reelection. And to be clear, there are plenty of Republicans at this point in Washington who look at Flake. And they are not sure they see a road back. He is so damaged. That doesn't mean that not running for reelection is in the cards for him.

But, you know, Bannon has put Roger Wicker, senator for Mississippi on that list. Dean Heller the Nevada senator. A bunch of open seat races or states that are held by Democrats for the establishment has really settled on their favorite candidate. One to watch is Missouri, where really the whole institution Republican Party has rallied behind the state's attorney general. Bannon was in Missouri a few days ago speaking to activists. And I'm told that he was asking them, so what's the deal with Haley. What kind of opening have we got here?

All of this doesn't necessarily add up to, you know, really imperiling Republican control of the Senate because the map in 2018 is just so favorable to them. But essentially I was saying, the margin of control right now is so small that to the extent that Roy Moore like figures start emerging from these primaries even if Republicans kept nominal control of the Senate, it could become really and entirely ungovernable body.

BERMAN: Now, we have 15 seconds left in the segment. How much does Steve Bannon still talk to the president? Do you have any idea?

HABERMAN: No. Because two sides say very different things about that, the president insists that he's, you know, barely talked to him. Bannon I think in China said he has spoken for him for, you know, an hour the night before his speech. I think the truth is somewhere in between. I do not think Bannon have a huge exercise of influence over Trump. But I also think that Bannon has chosen his moments very well in the last couple of weeks.

BERMAN: All right guys, stick around. Next, the much needed moment of humanity on the House floor this morning. Congressman Steve Scalise returned to the Capitol three months after the shooting that nearly killed him.


REP. STEVE SCALISE (R), MAJORITY WHIP: While some people might focus on a tragic event and an evil act, to me, all I remember are the thousands of acts of kindness.




[12:51:35] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The chair wishes to mark the return to the chamber of our dear threatening colleague from Louisiana, Mr. Steve Scalise.


BERMAN: It was wonderful moment on Capitol Hill. And, yes, a rare moment that by far that here today. Majority Whip, Steve Scalise came back to the House floor for the first time since he was wounded so badly, shot at a congressional baseball practice in June.


SCALISE: You have no idea how great this feels to be back here at work in the people's house. When I was lying 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 will tell you pretty much every one of those prayers was answered. But I'm definitely a living example that miracles really do happen.


BERMAN: The Republican lawmaker also tweeted out this photo with a caption, "I'm back." A pure joy in that chamber, a pure joy in Steve Scalise, a absolutely wonderful moment, Megan. And it's nice to see people in the House Chamber clapping like that. And sharing a moment like that.

MURPHY: It's nice to see any example of bipartisanship particularly for something like that. And I don't think anyone is going to be a rash in to politicize that and asking if that moment is going to last. It was a really nice moment. It's unbelievable to see him back particularly to walk in, to see their rousing applause. We've seen it before with Senator McCain, when he came back as well. But it's just a great moment. It's a great moment for the body. And it's an unbelievable story of recovery him and going forward.

BERMAN: In his journey back M.J. it's so difficult. I mean, he -- in the 60 minutes interview this weekend which will air Sunday night. You know, he says, he didn't realize how messed up he was inside after the shooting. And to see him, you know, it's such a strong guy normally how hard he has to work even to walk here.

LEE: Yes. And for so long we didn't have a lot of information initially after the incident of what kind of health or, you know, status he was really in. For so long he was in the ICU, clearly, this is a problem and issue and health issues that he will have to deal with for many, many more years to come. I do think Megan point about this sort of moment having really happen one other time this year. This was when McCain came back after his diagnosis. It's note worthy. And that these moments of the two parties coming together is so rare that it happened twice this year surrounding two members who had health issues.

BERMAN: And Alex and expand on that for a moment because people have moments like this, people always say, "Oh, this is a chance for Democrats and Republicans to work together." I don't think we should hold out much hope for that on most issues.

BURNS: No. We didn't see it after the shooting in June. We didn't see it really when John McCain came back except, you know, as much as John McCain sort of forced the issue personally. And we've not really seen anything else this week.

I do think one other way in which the shooting and Representative Scalise's return really cast a shadow over the environment in Washington. I have spoken to multiple members pretty recently and talked about how their families are still are rattled by what happened, still concerned about their security, folks who are deciding whether or not they're going to run for reelection thinking about what it even means to be out in public as a public servant in this kind of environment or this kind of violence happens.

[12:55:10] BERMAN: How can they not be? How can they not be worried about something like that? Steve Scalise in general, the House and we have about 30 seconds left Maggie, you know, tax reform is one of the things that we really focused on very much. Leadership? How do you think they'll approach this going forward?

HABERMAN: It's very hard for me to say in the context of how and what's going to happen with Steve Scalise on approaching this going forward. And as we're seeing, he has a long road ahead. And obviously, I wishes him a -- his quick recovery as possible to maybe a while.

I think in terms of tax reform, look, the president has been showing signs in his own personal conversations of breaking with aspects of the plan that's being worked on right now. Let's wait and see what happens. I don't want to get too far out ahead of anything.

BERMAN: I hear from so many Republicans while they're watching more than anything, is will the president tow the line on tax reform because they do not feel he did on health care.

All right guys, thanks so much for being with us. I really appreciate it. And thank you all for joining us at INSIDE POLITICS. John King is back here tomorrow. Wolf Blitzer here right after a very quick break.


[13:00:13] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington, wherever you're watching from around the world --