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Source: Cohn Almost Resigned Over Trump Rhetoric; Monster Hurricane Harvey Grows To Category 3; Key Post At FEMA, National Hurricane Center Vacant; Trump Tweets He's Closely Monitoring Hurricane Threat; Ten Critically Ill Babies Evacuated From Storm's Path; Trump's Tweets And Escalating War With GOP; Cohn: White House Must Do Better To Condemn Hate Groups; Report: Mnuchin Viewed Eclipse Amid Fort Knox Gold; Former GOP Senator: Hateful Trump Has Corrupted Party. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired August 25, 2017 - 16:30   ET



ALEXANDER MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We did hear from Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, who did have comments about Gary Cohn.

He said, "His number one focus is getting tax reform with me and on getting tax reform done. Gary is committed to be here and I couldn't be more excited about that." Trying to put any resignation talk to rest -- Jake.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: All right. Alex Marquardt at the White House for us. Thank you so much.

I want to bring in now Congressman Chris Collins, Republican of New York. He was the very first Congressional lawmaker to endorse then- Candidate Donald Trump. Congressman, thanks so much for joining us. Appreciate it.

REP. CHRIS COLLINS (R), NEW YORK: Yes, Jake, always good to be with you.

TAPPER: So a source telling CNN that President Trump's chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn, was close to resigning after the president's remarks when he said there are very fine people on both sides in Charlottesville.

I'm not sure I've ever heard somebody at cabinet level speak like that about the president. Were you surprised to read his remarks in the "Financial Times"?

COLLINS: Well, I would be surprised. I mean, Gary Cohn and Steve Mnuchin are knee deep in all the tax reform issues. I can't comment on what was on his mind. But clearly now he's not resigning, so I guess that's what matters.

He's certainly a very, very smart person focused on tax reform, as is the president. Let's go back to January. That's when the president wanted to start working on tax reform. We've lost eight months, but that's part of his frustration with the Senate.

So, we should all remember that President Trump wanted to jump into tax reform right out of the gate but was, to some extent, sold a bill of goods by the Senate, and they didn't get it done. Today we're looking forward, and tax reform is actually a bipartisan issue.

Both Democrats and Republicans know being the highest tax country in the world costs us jobs. We need to get that fixed, and so I'm the eternal optimistic. We will get tax reform done, and as Leader McConnell said, this Congress.

TAPPER: Do you understand why Gary Cohn felt the way he did about President Trump's remarks about the violence in Charlottesville? How he didn't think the president and the administration decried the Klan, Nazis and the bigotry as forcefully as he wanted?

COLLINS: Well, I respectfully disagree with Gary Cohn. He's entitled to his opinions, but for the two years, President Trump, then- Candidate Trump was very clear. He disavowed David Duke. He disavowed white supremacists. He disavowed fascism and neo-Nazis.

He's done it again and again and again, so I don't really know why on a single speech, people want to pick at it. Our president has been clear for the last two years where he stands on those issues, and the radical left want to put words in his mouth and say, he should have said this or he should have said that.

He's been very clear, and anyone who knows that Donald Trump knows that's where he stands. I think it's time for the radical left to let it go. Let's him focus on North Korea, the issues there, tax reform, certainly Hurricane Harvey.

Donald Trump has his hands full. He's working as hard as any president has ever worked, getting a lot done, but boy, are there distractions, and I'm sure that's extraordinarily frustrating to the president.

TAPPER: Sir, with all due respect, I mean, Gary Cohn is not a member of the radical left, Marco Rubio, Pete Sessions, I mean, there are any number of Republican lawmakers today, former Senator John Danforth, a conservative Republican from Missouri.

I mean, a lot of Republicans have come forth and said that they have issues with what the president has been saying. It can't just be blamed on the radical left.

COLLINS: Well, I hate to say it, but some of the members in Congress get pushed around by the press. I think they are too quick, you know, to see where the wind happens to be blowing that particular day.

Frankly, I'm disappointed in a lot of them, because any suggestion that President Trump has not denounced those groups for the last two years and been very, very clear about it, I'm just frankly disappointed in some of the members that just seem to jump on a bandwagon, so to speak, and I just don't understand it. I think we need to stand solidly behind President Trump, the whole nation does, for the next three and a half years. We have the threat of ISIS, what he's doing with Venezuela. What a full plate he has, and for this nonsense coming from members of the GOP is very disappointing to me.

TAPPER: So, you think when Republican officials like Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio or Pete Sessions or John Danforth or Gordon Humphrey or Bob Corker -- I could go on and on. You think that the only reason they are criticizing President Trump, Cory Gardner of Colorado, is because they're being pushed around by the media?

COLLINS: I think there is a big piece of that. Many of them are in very competitive districts. Call them swing districts and they're looking at running for reelection next year.

And, unfortunately, for way too many members, they let the next election, you know, get in the way of perhaps where I think they should be. They should be standing with our president who has done a fabulous job the last several months with what we've accomplished.

[16:35:10] Certainly, looking at Neil Gorsuch, the Supreme Court. All the suggestions that he's rolled back, for instance, stocks at a record high, unemployment is at a low, confidence in the business world has never been higher.

They're thinking we're going to get tax reform done, and I am just not one of those members that sees anyplace where we should be criticizing a speech which the next day he said, you want me to say something stronger? He did.

TAPPER: Then the next day after that, he took it all back. But I take your point, Congressman Collins, and I appreciate it. Thanks so much for your time, sir.

COLLINS: Always good to be with you, Jake.

TAPPER: With Hurricane Harvey on track to be the strongest hurricane to hit the continental U.S. in 12 years, what does the Trump administration need to do to make sure that the United States is ready. Next, we'll talk to the woman who coordinated the response to natural disasters under President Obama. Stay with us.



TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. The breaking news this hour, Hurricane Harvey, now a major Category 3 hurricane with 120-mile per hour winds is closing in on the Texas coast. It could dump an entire year's worth of rain in just a few days.

CNN's Nick Valencia is live in Corpus Christi. He has Harvey's eye closing in on the coast -- Nick.

NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Jake. These wind gusts are really starting to get aggressive here and that rain has started to pick up in the course of the last 15 minutes or so.

We're also seeing our first signs of palm tree debris here. A lot of these little small chunks being ripped off the palm trees. You know why? Let's show our viewers what we're dealing with here. The wind really picking up.

You could see the rain band coming -- starting to come through here. Voluntary evacuations have been under way all day long. City officials have stressed that to local residents. That doesn't mean, though, that people aren't listening.

We've seen plenty of people coming across the boardwalk, looking at these ominous wave, trying to figure out, out of curiosity, what is expected to make landfall here in the coming hours.

That window to get out of town in Corpus Christi if you're watching us from here is fast closing -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Nick Valencia in Corpus Christi, thank you so much. This is now a crucial moment for President Trump and the Trump administration faced with his first major natural disaster as president.

Let's bring in CNN senior national security analyst, Lisa Monaco. She was President Obama's assistant for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, and thus was responsible for policy coordination in crisis management when it came to natural disasters.

Lisa, good to see you. Thank you for joining us. Natural disasters obviously can mark defining moments for a presidency. The commander- in-chief, the greatest most sacred responsibility is keeping the American people safe. What is the president's precise role during a crisis like this?

LISA MONACO, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Good to be with you, Jake. The focus of the White House and the president ought to be on supporting the state and local first responders, making sure that the federal government is postured to move quickly, to be prepositioned to provide assistance to the governor, to the local officials on the ground.

And we're seeing those steps being taken. President Trump was briefed this morning. It appears from the reports coming out of the White House, his Homeland Security adviser gave a briefing this afternoon.

The message should be one of support to the state and local officials, and indicating to those who are in the path of the storm to listen to and heed those warnings and those directions for evacuation to -- so those who are in the path of the storm should be listening to that information and to that direction.

TAPPER: The storm comes at a time when the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees FEMA, doesn't have a permanent secretary. There is an acting secretary but the actual secretary that was confirmed by the Senate, Marine General John Kelly is now the White House chief of staff. Two deputy directors for FEMA have been nominated. They have not been confirmed. The National Hurricane Center director, that role is vacant. The hurricane specialist unit branch chief post also vacant. How could these job vacancies impact theoretically the way the Trump administration responds to these disasters?

MONACO: Well, Jake, it's obviously not ideal not to have your full team in place. When I was the Homeland Security adviser and seeing how President Obama interacted with his team, he had a seasons team who have been through a number of severe weather events, severe hurricanes, wildfires, you name it.

We had Kathy Sullivan, who is an experienced and distinguished astronaut, at NOAA, the agency responsible for tracking and monitoring weather events. We had Rick Knabb at the Hurricane Center, who had decades of experience. Those two experienced professionals have now left the administration.

So not having a confirmed leader for those organizations, that's a concern. Now, we've got career officials who are experts and capable people in those areas, but ideally, you want to have your team in place.

TAPPER: Moments ago, the adviser for Homeland Security, Tom Bossert, who succeed you, discussed with the press how the Trump administration is preparing. Here's what he had to say.


TOM BOSSERT, WHITE HOUSE HOMELAND SECURITY ADVISER: Do we have the appropriate resources to bring to bear? That was a question he directed at Administrator Long and Elaine Duke. Brock Long reported to him that we in fact have all those resources pre-deployed --


TAPPER: Is that enough?

MONACO: Well, it's the right steps at this point in time. Look, when I was in the White House, the most important period was the 24-48 hours before the storm made landfall. We were constantly tracking the size and the shape of the hurricane cone, seeing when it would make landfall, making sure that the federal officials, the head of FEMA, the regional representatives of FEMA were in touch and in very close coordination with the state and local officials on the ground and, indeed, pre-deploying that equipment and assets to the region so it can get in very, very quickly. That's of critical, critical importance in these hours just before landfall and making sure that the first responders, those who have to go into those areas, can be safe when they do so. So pre-deploying those assets is critical.

And also, Jake, making sure that there is no bureaucratic hurdle in the way of getting federal assistance on the ground to those who need it. When I was in the White House, President Obama was always focused on leaning forward. That was what he drilled into us and making sure that there was no red tape that was going to hang up the assistance on its way into the local places where people needed it.

TAPPER: All Right, Lisa Monaco, thank you so much for your time. I appreciate it. Should President Trump be tweeting during this event, this category 3 hurricane? That's next. Stick around.


[16:50:00] TAPPER: Welcome back. We're, of course, keeping an eye on hurricane Harvey, very close to landfall as a massive storm with an unbelievable amount of rain. This heart-wrenching pictures just came into us, babies being evacuated from the path of this dangerous storm. A spokeswoman with Cook Children's Hospital in Fort Worth says all critically ill babies that were evacuated from a hospital in Corpus Christie have now arrived safely. They were in the NICU there. Along with this monster storm, of course, there's a lot to talk about with the political panel today. Let's bring them in. With the devastating storm bearing down under Texas coast, President Trump took to twitter today. He had a lot to say. Eight tweets but only three of them were about the storm, five of them were about other things, including attacking fellow Republicans. Bill Weir, you have a special report going into the President's relationship with Twitter and how he's weaponized it over the years.

BILL WEIR, CNN CHIEF INNOVATION CORRESPONDENT: Yes, in fact, you know, we cover these tweets every day and they seem so ethereal, so disposable, they're just digital musings. But since these are the historical records, these words are literally the sign of our times, will be studied for centuries, I decided to have them printed and bound. So these are literally all the President's tweets up until about a week ago, Volume I. And when you read them in sort of linear fashion in this way, you see patterns, you see sentiment analysis that tells you who from the administration, whether the President is tweeting himself, and the ones this morning sort of fit that pattern. The most recent, "I encourage everyone in the path of Hurricane Harvey to heed the advice and orders of their local and state officials."

If I was betting man, I'm not sure the President actually wrote those words. His are as we saw earlier in the morning, really towards the base. He's playing directly toward those you know, 36, 37 percent who love the idea that they're getting this sort of unfiltered id from the Commander in Chief. National Security experts and legal scholars and presidential historians aren't so sure about that. They wonder if this medium that made this man and put him in the Oval Office could ultimately be his undoing.

TAPPER: Top White House Economic Adviser Gary Cohn told the Financial Times today that he was under enormous pressure to resign following the President's reaction to violence in Charlottesville. Cohn is publicly saying how distressed he was by the President's Charlottesville response. "As a patriotic American, I'm reluctant to leave my post because I feel a duty to fulfill my commitment to work on behalf of the American people. But I also feel compelled to voice my distress over the events of the last two weeks. Citizens standing up for equality and freedom can never be equated with white supremacist, neo-Nazis, and the KKK." Amanda, I have to feel that President Trump will not be happy when he reads that in the Financial Times. I'm not sure he's read it yet because there's been no tweet about it by inevitably it will get in front of him.

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes. Well, these are words that he needs to hear. And I think Cohn is sort of laying out a path forward for other Republicans who do want to be supportive of the President on issues where they agree with him, but you've also had to find a way to doing it without being turned into a stooge. A lot of Republicans turn into stooges when they support the President. He -- Cohn came into a fine line there when he's made into a prop as other members of the cabinet have been made into props for his messaging on the national stage. And clearly, they don't appreciate that. And so, everyone has to learn where to draw the line. You know, Senator Danforth came forward today in his Op-Ed saying that Republicans need to disassociate themselves from Trump. I don't know what that means. Does that mean not appear in public for him? Does that mean not fund- raising for him because there's still as this relationship where you do have to find a way to get things done?

TAPPER: I've heard people say Gary Cohn really passed up his opportunity to really make this position when in that initial -- in his remarks when he gave the press conference about infrastructure on that Tuesday, so his third attempt, his third bite at the apple, and he said there were very fine people on both sides, including people marching alongside Nazis and the Klan. Gary Cohn was asked specifically, do you think there were fine people marching there and he just started talking about infrastructure and wouldn't condemn the remarks.

[16:55:10] BRIAN FALLON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think it's pretty clear to most observers that Gary Cohn today is basically just ripping a page out of Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump's PR playbook in terms of trying to publically engage in some hand ringing to seek to justify his remaining at the White House. I think it comes off as crocodile tears. It's -- you got to pick a side in this case. I think it's intended to really just win over some of these socially progressive Manhattan cocktails set types that Gary Cohn runs with and that Jared and Ivanka run with. And at the end of the day, he's not running the situation -- he's not running the National Security Council, the idea that he needs to remain there or it's some kind of threat to the republic is ridiculous. He's there quite frankly because he's rumored to be in line to succeed for Janet Yellen.

CARPENTER: Yes, I just have to --

FALLON: It's his ambition that's keeping him there.

CARPENTER: (INAUDIBLE) a little bit because I really did appreciate the line in his statement where he said, he's not going to let Jews chanting we will replace you to push me out of this job. So I think he's coming forward pretty -- in pretty public way. If trump does tweet to him and they get into a public confrontation, I think he has every license to walk. But I think, it's important that he stand firm and not back down to these people and say, this is the job I want to do, I'm going to it to the best of my capacity and I'm not going anywhere.

TAPPER: So, I just want to pivot to a different member of the Cabinet because the Washington Post is reporting that the Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and his sometime actress, wife, who being under fired for her posts and accused to (INAUDIBLE). They viewed the eclipse the roof of Fort Knox. This, of course, her -- the big couple had to do with the fact that her picture of her getting off that government plain in Kentucky on was on this trip where apparently they went to Fort Knox to watch the eclipse. So they were standing on top of a you know, $200 billion worth of gold watching the eclipse. Bill Weir, I've said this before, you know, I liked when Donald Trump during the campaign, we talk about the forgotten men and the forgotten woman, I understand why a people voted for him, they though that he was going to stand up for them and they've been screwed by elites et cetera, in trade deals and such. But this is just something else. This is not really keeping with that message at all.

WEIR: In the one little clip I saw from the Treasury Secretary, he was talking about the fact he's only the third Treasury Secretary to go into the vault at Fort Knox which kind of proves the point that you don't really need to go there. There is no good reason to go there. You saw in the picture Mitch McConnell holding his eclipse glasses there, and so much has been made about the idea, was this an excuse in order to get under the -- you know, the path of totality there as well. But that plus the Instagram tagging of Hermes and Valentino, yes, it's -- I don't know how that helps economic anxiety.

TAPPER: You mentioned, John Danforth, and I just want to bring some of the Op-Ed. He spent two decades in the Senate, very respected conservative Republican from Missouri, he wrote an Op-Ed. The President Trump has "corrupted their party. They must break with him in order to save it." "To my fellow Republicans, we cannot allow Donald Trump to redefine the Republican Party. Our party has been corrupted by this hateful man. It is now in peril." For the kids out there who don't remember John Danforth, this is the guy who like introduced Clarence Thomas before the Clarence Thomas hearings. This is a conservative Republican. He was a moral voice, a religious voice. This is astounding what they're saying about President Trump.

CARPENTER: My question is where was he last year around those times because all the information that we have now about Donald Trump, we had before he became the Republican nominee? So yes, is it nice that Republicans are staking out now? But he had a chance at the Republican convention where I might remind folks that (INAUDIBLE) about Ted Cruz essentially tried to blow it up by asking Republicans to reconsider making Donald Trump the nominee. So we are now in this position wherein everyone is searching for a way to disassociate themselves from Donald Trump and find a way to work with him.

I wish Senator Danforth would have offered some kind of ways of doing this because everyone is struggling with this problem but no one knows how to do it. The Wall Street Journal today said an editorial that perhaps Republicans should treat him as a Political Independent. Maybe that's getting closer to a working solution, but right now we're still powerless because not enough people spoke out when it -- when it could count.

TAPPER: All right, Brian Fallon, Amanda Carpenter, Bill Weir, thanks one and all for being here. I appreciate it. could President Trump's tweets backfire on his Presidency? Or are they it's greatest asset? Bill Weir's CNN Special Report, "TWITTER AND TRUMP" airs at 9:00 Eastern. Do not miss it. And of course, tweet about it while you're watching it. Don't forget to tune in this Sunday for CNN's "STATE OF THE UNION." My guest, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, plus we'll have live coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. That all starts at 9:00 a.m. and noon Eastern. That is is for THE LEAD, I'm Jake Tapper, I now turn you over to Wolf Blitzer. He's right next door in "THE SITUATION ROOM. Have a great weekend and if you're in the path of the hurricane, have a safe weekend.