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Next Hour: Trump and Cabinet Meet amid Reported Tension; Bowe Bergdahl Pleads Guilty to Desertion; Trump Allies: Losing House could lead to Impeachment. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired October 16, 2017 - 10:00   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone, John Berman here. This morning, the president meets with some of his critics. Now, that headline might not seem that newsworthy but this morning it is because some of those critics work for him. We're talking about his cabinet.

In a few minutes, the president hosts a cabinet meeting which will include the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who does not deny calling the president a moron. And then the president will lunch with the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell with whom he had summer shouting matches on the phone.

How will that go, a busy morning for the president and as Kaitlan Collins at the White House with the latest. Kaitlan?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Yes. That's right, John. The president and the Senate majority leader actually spoke over the phone on this weekend and now they're going to have lunch along with Vice President Mike Pence here at the White House. And this lunch comes as tensions between these two men have really hit an all-time high in recent weeks.

The president has publicly attacked and blamed Mitch McConnell for failure to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. You'll recall that angry phone call that turned to a screaming match between the two men when they went a period of time without speaking to each other. But this lunch today, John, doesn't mean that they have entirely patched things up. It just goes to show that they're so desperate for a legislative accomplishment that both of these men really realize they need each other as tax reform kind of hangs in the balance here.

Now, Senator Lindsey Graham has also been one of the president's targets and he had -- he played golf with the president this weekend. And here's what he had to say about just how important getting tax reform win truly is to Republicans.


JOHN DICKERSON, CBS NEWS ANCHOR: Are you going to get tax reform done?

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Yes. If we don't, we're dead.

If we don't cut taxes and we don't eventually repeal and replace Obamacare, then we're going to lose across the board in the House in 2018. And all of my colleagues running in primaries in 2018 will probably get beat. It will be the end of Mitch McConnell as we know it.


COLLINS: Now all of this comes as the former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon is declaring war on this establishment Republicans and promising to primary them next year. But Senator Lindsey Graham said that really doesn't matter because they will lose across the board if they do not get something passed here, John.

Now this also comes as the president is going to have a cabinet meeting here at the White House with some of those officials. And you will remember that first cabinet meeting the president had really raised some eyebrows when they went around the table lavished praise on the president but it's not likely that the one today will look like that as the president has feuded with several members of his own cabinet. The most recent being that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who during an interview with Jake Tapper just yesterday on CNN refused to say whether or not he called the president a moron, John.

BERMAN: Yes. I don't think that will come up in the cabinet meeting, at least not publicly. But Kaitlan Collins, we will wait and see. Thank you so much.

All right, joining us now, CNN political commentator, Alice Stewart, Brian McGuire, former chief of staff for Senator Mitch McConnell and Betsy Woodruff, politics reporter for "The Daily Beast."

You know, Betsy, I want to start with you. This is a big meeting between the majority leader and the president. They have had words. They have had harsh words at times. But they need to figure this out. They need to get through this. They both could be in big trouble.

BETSY WOODRUFF, POLITICS REPORTER, "THE DAILY BEAST": Right, exactly. McConnell is perhaps the most influential person when it comes to the ability of President Trump to keep some of his central campaign promises. He can't build the wall unless Congress provides the money that theoretically Mexico will eventually cover for. He can't repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, obviously, without McConnell's help. And clearly, on this tax reform issue, all roads lead through McConnell.

When you couple that with the fact that these two men have what appears to be an increasingly fraught relationship, there's a lot of pressure going into this lunch. And I think it's complicated by the fact that Trump seems to have a much more easy, open and friendly relationship with McConnell's Kentucky colleagues, Senator Rand Paul. Trump and Rand Paul went golfing over the weekend. They appear to have a pretty friendly, amicable, open, candid relationship even though Rand Paul is incredibly uncooperative in the Senate for Trump's agenda. So that's another layer of the weirdness, I guess, to the way that the president and the Senate majority leader interact with each other.

BERMAN: Rand Paul noting that the president always wins at golf, maybe because he's a good golfer, maybe because he's president.

Brian McGuire, we've spoken in the past. You thought at times that the tension between the senator or the Senate majority leader and the president might be a bit overblown or at least the senator's fury over it. However, what do you think he makes or what should he make of Steve Bannon, the president's former chief strategist, all but declaring war on the Republican establishment which Mitch McConnell represents?

BRIAN MCGUIRE, SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL'S FORMER CHIEF OF STAFF: I think Steve Bannon has spent all his time since he left the White House focusing on Steve Bannon and promoting his own interests whereas Mitch McConnell has spent the last 10 months promoting the president's agenda.

[10:05:02] So, I think Bannon is taking the president for a ride here. And if Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi aren't paying to support the website "Breitbart." They should be.

BERMAN: You think - to be clear, you think Steve Bannon is taking the president for a ride here and he listens to Bannon. He'll be in trouble?

MCGUIRE: Yes. Look, if you look at his website, the entire site is devoted to attacking the president's advisers, his family and to taking out senators who vote with Trump -- nearly 100 percent of the time. So, the net effect of what he is trying to accomplish, according to that website, is to undermine the president's agenda.

BERMAN: So, Alice Stewart, again, we have been asking this question for some time. Is it Steve Bannon's party or is it Mitch McConnell's party?

ALICE STEWART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Look, it is the Republican Party. And right now, Donald Trump is the president. Mitch McConnell has a significant role in that. I think Betsy is right. The success of the Trump presidency lies in large part in the hands of Mitch McConnell. And if they cannot get a legislative accomplishment that a large part of it rests on McConnell but Trump is the president.

And look, Steve Bannon, since he's been outside of the White House, he has worked hard to continue and further the president's agenda. He has been doing that ever since he worked on the campaign and in the White House. And I do agree that McConnell -- that is a priority for him to promote the president's agenda. But he hasn't had any successes. The president is frustrated with that. Republicans are frustrated with that. Steve Bannon is frustrated with that.

And to be quite frank, if McConnell cannot achieve a success, whether we're talking about tax reform, whether we're talking about repealing and replacing Obamacare, whether we're talking about many of these promises that these Republicans made while they ran for office, then he's in real trouble. The president's frustrated. He wants to get something done.

So, I would imagine that's going to be the topic du jour at lunch today is really encouraging McConnell to have some successes. And I think it is an important optic to note when the president signed his executive order with regard to Obamacare the other day, Mitch McConnell was not there. Speaker Ryan was not there. And these are people that should have been front and center on such a major part of the president's agenda. However, they were not there and I think there needs to be some progress.

BERMAN: I want the move on to a different subject. Brian, I want to give you a chance to respond to that because there was a suggestion there that this is on Mitch McConnell to prove that he can produce for the president.

MCGUIRE: Well, Rand Paul was the leader on that particular issue. So, I think it was appropriate for the person who was leading on it to be present at the signing. So, I think that's a nonissue.

BERMAN: I'm sorry. Someone just spoke in my ear. I want to interrupt this for one second. I believe why, because we have Bowe Bergdahl news.

All right, the breaking news. Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl has pleaded guilty to two charges, desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. The plea was entered to the court by his attorney. Sergeant Bergdahl was charged after he disappeared from his base in Afghanistan in June 2009.

He was held in captivity by the Taliban for five years. He was released by the Taliban in a prisoner swap for five detainees at Guantanamo Bay. During questioning from the judge and a sworn testimony, Sergeant Bergdahl said that quote, "I left my observation post on my own and I understand leaving was against the law."

So, we do want to mark that development there, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl pleading guilty to two charges. We will stay tuned to find out ultimately the sentencing if he receives any punishment beyond the years he already served or sat in captivity by the Taliban.

Want to go back to our panel right now. Discuss the day that the president is having. In addition to the Mitch McConnell news, he is also meeting with his cabinet, which includes the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who had a conversation yesterday with Jake Tapper. Jake pressed the Secretary of State on whether or not he in fact called the president a moron. Listen.


REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: I'm not going to deal with that kind of petty stuff. I mean, this is a town that seems to relish gossip, rumor, innuendo, and they feed on it.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: You have a cattle ranch. You don't want to say anything about the senator calling -- suggesting you've been gelded before the world? That's not anything that bothers you?

TILLERSON: I've checked. I'm fully intact.


BERMAN: So, Betsy, first of all, kudos to the secretary for comic timing because that was fantastic, his response to Jake right there. But on the question of did he or did he not call the president a moron, a question that he continues to dodge. Is there any right answer there? Is there an answer that will satisfy the president?

WOODRUFF: The answer the president clearly wants to hear is he wants to hear Tillerson say that he never called him a moron. And it's just telling that the Secretary of State resolutely now on more than one occasion has refused himself in his own voice to disavow that report. We know President Trump hates getting criticisms based on his intellect or his moral character or anything personal. This report that Tillerson actually used that word to refer to the president is also something that clearly troubles him.

[10:10:03] Tillerson could make his own life a lot easier if he said, I never said that and it's fake news but Tillerson isn't saying that. And the result to that, of course, is that it's only going to encourage more friction between the Secretary of State and the president.

BERMAN: I will say, Alice -- go ahead, Alice.

STEWART: No. I just think, first of all, you know, there's probably no question whether or not he said that. But to be quite honest, anyone would have to be a moron to acknowledge that they called the president a moron and I think Tillerson is doing the right thing by saying, let's talk about more important issues that really affect people across this country. People do not care what he said behind closed doors about the president.

And I think he was also right when he spoke to Jake yesterday. When he said, look, we have an unconventional president. We all knew that when he was elected. He uses unconventional tactics to get what he wants to get done here in Washington and Tillerson understands that. And the two of them both agree that the number one priority with regard to our national security deals with North Korea, certainly with the Iran deal and they're working on these key issues that are really important and not a he said/she said behind closed doors.

BERMAN: Brian, let me get your take lastly on tax reform or tax cuts. Scale of 1 to 10, 10 being, you know, definitely happening, 0 being not happening at all. How likely do you think some kind of tax reform or tax cut is before Christmas?

MCGUIRE: Very likely.

BERMAN: Is that like a six, seven?

MCGUIRE: Very likely. Very likely.

BERMAN: All right. Brian McGuire, Alice Stewart, Betsy Woodruff, thank you so much for being with us. Appreciate it, guys.

MCGUIRE: Thanks, John. WOODRUFF: Thanks, John.

STEWART: Sure thing.

BERMAN: All right, coming up, we're going to have more exclusive reporting on this cabinet meeting, the dynamic between the Secretary of State and the president. What is really going on behind the scenes?

Plus, some Americans in Puerto Rico, so desperate they're drinking contaminated water and new assault allegations being made against Harvey Weinstein. London police say they, they are now looking into the producer.


[10:16:15] BERMAN: In just a bit, President Trump sits down for lunch with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. A would be essential ally who is frequently attacked and vilified and even as the president's allies are rattled by that tendency. This morning, there are whispers that if the president continues to undermine members of his own party there could be major consequences, including one that begins with the letter "I."

CNN's Sunlen Serfaty joins us from Capitol Hill where we can buy a vowel this morning. Sunlen?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right, John. You know, we have all well documented the fights that President Trump has had with members of his own party. They've of course been numerous. And up here on Capitol Hill, there's certainly is some growing concern that President Trump just isn't getting it. That he's not grasping what these fights could potentially do not only to his party's chances at the midterms but if the House flips control from Republican control to Democratic controlled. What would that mean for him, not only his agenda but his fate as president going forward? And this is based on some great reporting from my colleague Sarah Murray who has one Republican congressional aide saying -- predicting that Democrats, if they take the House would make Trump's life, quote "a living hell."

Now, what form would that take? Of course, many whisper here. Some expectation -- if Democrats controlled the House that they might push towards impeachment hearings. Now, the White House pushing back on all of this saying that they say President Trump is well aware of what Democrats could do if they win back control of the House and that they're certainly not going to have a defeatist approach to all of this.

But, John, all of this certainly underscores how important this moment on Capitol Hill is right now with Republicans still having control of the House and Senate. They're pushing full steam ahead on tax reform. They want and they need a legislative win. This is something the White House is well aware of, really underscores how important every minute up here is as they push to have something to run on in next year's midterm election. John?

BERMAN: All right, Sunlen Serfaty for us up on Capitol Hill. Sunlen thanks so much.

Joining me now is Republican member of Congress Claudia Tenney of New York, joins me from Syracuse University right now. First of all, phenomenal game Friday night but we're not going to talk about that.


BERMAN: But that's not the subject this morning. I want to talk about Steve Bannon who declared a season of war against the Republican establishment. Does this feel like a season of war to you?

TENNEY: Not really. Actually, I have to be honest with you. Yesterday was an absolutely spectacular day in upstate New York. I took a motorcycle ride. Rode to the country side and it's interesting. I saw a number of still standing homemade President Trump signs, support our president. Trump for president and things haven't really changed in the rural countryside of upstate New York where people still may not love the president's personality but they support the agenda. We have lost a lot of jobs. This is the rust belt of New York and we are looking for many of the things on the agenda that he wants passed. So, I understand the angst coming from the side of Steve Bannon, but I'm an unconventional Republican. I'm still yet to be endorsed by my local party. I've served office three years in the state assembly and now, I'm in Congress.

And so, I'm not really the establishment Republican either but I'm also a common sense and I think I have a lot of support on both sides. But it's going to be interesting. I wish Steve Bannon would focus on some of the seats that we could - you know, could switch back over to Republican. But I do think that everyone's going to be running pretty much on their own next year.

I don't know if the president is going to be a pro or con in many ways. Obviously, my district he won by 16 points, so he's still fairly popular here. But I don't think it's popular and that they like his personality as much as they want the agenda to change. They want to focus on -- as we're talking about middle income tax cuts, re- establishing businesses in our community, the trade issue is really big in this community. We have a lot of old companies that have been - have left or gone out of business and we would like to see the restoration of our economy.

[10:20:12] BERMAN: What do you think -

TENNEY: -- So, those are the big issues here.

BERMAN: Along with what you said is fascinating, including you think you will all be on your own next year but why do you think establishment has become a four-letter word? I mention that because there's someone who is challenging the primary. I don't know if he's a serious candidate or not, frankly. But he goes out of his way to call you an establishment status quo politician.

TENNEY: Yes. He just needs to do his homework. He is not really -- sounds like a young guy. I love to have competition. I look forward to having him and hope he gets into the primary. I'm not sure he's going to be able to do it. But look, the people need a choice and that's what I've always stood for, is giving them a choice whether it's a primary or general. I've never actually run in a race without having a primary and I've never been endorsed by the Republicans in a primary.

So, here I am as a member of Congress, believe it or not, in that situation. I do think establishment looks bad because you see nothing's changing. And I think especially in my region of New York we just keep doing the same thing over and over and expecting things to change and it doesn't. And so, people are tired of the same old story. I think that's what they are looking for, something new.

BERMAN: Let me ask you about New York specifically because in the president's tax cut proposal right now, endorsed by Congressional leadership right now. It would do away with tax deductions for state taxes, local taxes and property taxes and you know these are huge deductions for the residents of your district in New York State here. So, could you vote for any kind of a plan that includes the elimination of these deductions?

TENNEY: No, the problem with the so-called SALT deduction as you're calling it, the state and local tax deduction is that it typically was seen as something that would help large earners or high income earners but in New York because our taxes are property taxes are so high and really the most onerous tax we have. It becomes really important. We're doubling the standard deduction which will bring the adjusted gross incomes higher and help more of the middle income taxpayers.

But because the taxes are so obsequiously high in upstate, especially my region, which has some of the highest taxes in the nation, it's a problem for me. We need to see some kind of adjustment coming out of the Ways and Means Committee. We've had numerous meetings with Congressman Kevin Brady, our chair, about fixing that and there are a number of us on the New York side as a delegation who are not going to support that tax plan unless we see some kind of adjustment in the SALT.

And we would like to retain it, obviously. That's the perfect world. But something to protect those middle income payers who are paying so much in property tax. And New York, by the way, another thing that's really interesting is New York actually pays out more in federal taxes than it receives in federal benefits. So the argument that, well, you're subsidizing higher tax states doesn't really fall in the case of New York.


BERMAN: You need a change.

TENNEY: Yes. We need a change.

BERMAN: All right. Let me ask you about health care quickly because on the Senate side, Lamar Alexander, Patty Murray, back to the table here to figure out a way to restore the subsidies to insurance companies to help lower income Americans pay for insurance that the president just stopped paying. Could you support some kind of a plan or what could you support to get the subsidies back for the lower income Americans? What would you need to vote yes on that?

TENNEY: Right. You're sort of saying the lower income Americans. Its subsidies actually go to the insurance companies --

BERMAN: I know. - But they help pay for the insurance for low income Americans. They're not separated. Very -- for that purpose.

TENNEY: Truth -- right. Earlier this year I wrote a letter indicating my support for the subsidies. I'm not a subsidy person but until we have reform, until we've repealed and replaced Obamacare, we have a number of people who are going to be left through the cracks who need the subsidy in order to maintain insurance. So for me, I'd like to see what they work out and see if we can come up with a solution that's temporary because in the end, we're going to need to repeal and replace Obamacare in order to fix our market here.

So, if we haven't done that yet, though, I hate to see people losing their insurance. As it is, it's disastrous enough that we already have more people in my community paying a penalty and getting health care insurance so they can see their doctor. That's the worst-case scenario and we're trying to fix that.


BERMAN: Claudia Tenney, member of Congress from New York, great to have you with us. It is very nice to see you again.

TENNEY: Thanks so much, great to see you, John.

BERMAN: Congratulations on Friday night.

TENNEY: Thank you. I appreciate it. Thank you.

BERMAN: All right. Some people in Puerto Rico so desperate, they're willing to risk drinking water that may be toxic or contaminated. We'll have a live report coming up next.


[10:28:56] BERMAN: The death toll in Puerto Rico stands at 48 after Hurricane Maria. Officials warn that 100 more are still missing so the death toll could still rise. The recovery on the island has been heartbreakingly slow. Just 15 percent of power has been restored. The governor says he is hopeful that it would reach 95 percent by mid- December but they have a long way to go. A third of the island still has no access to clean water. The desperation has now led some storm victims to drink potentially toxic water from hazardous waste sites.

CNN's Ed Lavandera has been covering the story and joins us from San Juan. Ed, what is going on here?

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This is a story that has emerged here in the last few days as a report started to emerge in the town of Dorado which is just west of the capital here in San Juan. There's what's known as a super fund site and for people not familiar with what that means, super fund sites is this designation by the environmental protection agency and it's basically a designation for some of the most toxic land in the country. There's a list of these sites from around the country. One of these in particular here in the town of Dorado has about a number of water wells that we have learned that a number of people have been tapping into as a source of water. Some of the people have told us, they have been using this as drinking water over the last few weeks.