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Hurricane Harvey: Trump's First Natural Disaster Test; W.H. Downplays Concerns About Harvey Preparedness; Trump Rips Corker As Feud With GOP Heats Up; Flake: Trump's Plan To Build Border Wall Just Out There; New Marching Order In John Kelly's White House. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired August 25, 2017 - 12:30   ET



[12:30:51] JAKE TAPPER, INSIDE POLITICS HOST: As the Texas Gulf Coast braces for impact, Hurricane Harvey could prove to be the first natural disaster test for President Trump. The magnitude of this massive storm is raising questions about how his administration might react. With a number of key administration posts still unfilled.

It's a critical task for President Trump and at least one Republican Senator Iowa's Chuck Grassley is concerned enough to tweet this morning to the President, "Keep on top of Hurricane Harvey, President Trump. Don't make the same mistake President Bush made with Katrina." But the White House projects confidence.

Kaitlan Collins is joining me now from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Kaitlan, this could be a defining moment in the rump presidency. How is the Trump administration planning to respond to the storm?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, we heard from the President shortly here ago, Jake, and he said that he received a hurricane briefing this morning from acting Department of Homeland Department Secretary, Elaine Duke from FEMA administrator Brock Long, Chief of Staff John Kelly and his Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert. We also know that he spoke with Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Louisiana Governor John Edwards yesterday.

Now, we heard from the FEMA administrator, Brock Long, earlier today on CNN where he warned the Texans not to underestimate the storm. Let listen to what he had to say.


BROCK LONG, FEMA DIRECTOR: I think the President's allowing me to do my job and we've been in constant contact with the White House and the bottom line is that we are really focused right now on the life safety message that we're putting forward. And the President is fully engaged and will be so throughout this event.


COLLINS: And now yesterday at the press briefing, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked if there's concern that a permanent replacement for John Kelly over as a Department of Homeland Security has not been named yet. That's a concern for the administration. They said no, that they have confidence in Elaine Duke, the acting secretary to oversee all of this. As you know GHS oversees FEMA.

And we're going to hear from Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders here again in about the next hour and we'll keep you updated on anything that she says. But like you said, Jake, this is the first natural disaster test for this administration. And as you know, this can be a defining moment for a lot of presidencies, as it was with George W. Bush. But we'll keep you updated on anything the White House has to say as the storm progresses.

TAPPER: All right, Kaitlan Collins at the White House for us. Thanks so much.

So what is the opposite of a gold standard when it comes to dealing with natural disasters? Perhaps the Brown standard or Brownie standard. Take a look.


GEORGE W. BUSH, 43RD PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Again, I want to thank you all for -- and Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job. The FEMA Director is working 24 --



TAPPER: Yes. He was not doing a heck of a job. That was not how you would describe the job he was doing. That was President George W. Bush a few days after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. He was referring to his FEMA Administrator Michael Brown, who was doing an incredibly bad job. Especially in the wake of the failure of the levee system in New Orleans.

We've been wondering for months now how President Trump would deal with a natural disaster, not the disasters that he has created himself and this is the first test. Obviously, the most important thing here is that the people in the path of the storm survive and are -- and deal with this as well as they can, but there is a political ramification to how well this goes.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: Yes. How well it goes. How well the President is able to show empathy and competence about folks who he's appointed, Brock Long one of them, and who I guess, used to do similar work in Alabama. Brownie wasn't that experienced. And they're all sorts of moments that happened around that, where Katrina, where Bush just got it wrong.

He flew over the site of all of the destruction in the wake of Katrina and there was that moment, right, with Kanye West saying that George Bush doesn't hear about black people. So they're all of these moments that I think George Bush obviously failed and Donald Trump if going to figure what he's got to do. Already, you can see Grassley being worried about that, he's tweeting that. And there were some delay, I think, in terms of Donald Trump tweeting about it today. I think Melania Trump tweeted about it this morning.

[12:35:01] Donald Trump sent several tweets. He finally tweeted about it this morning saying that he's gotten a briefing. So, it is a big test. Hopefully, it's one he's able to pass for the sake of the folks there in the wake of this hurricane over the next couple days and hours.

TAPPER: And we should point out, one of the issues is that the administration is missing scores of top officials who have not been confirmed or in many cases, they haven't even nominated. When it comes to disaster response, there was no permanent Homeland Security secretary since, of course, retired General Kelly left the department to become the Chief of Staff at the White House. There is no confirmed leader at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration which tracks storms.

FEMA does have a confirmed chief but the desks of two deputy administrators, a few more remain empty. President Trump did nominate candidates about a month ago. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders though says not to worry.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We are in great shape having General Kelly sitting next to the President throughout this process. And probably no better chief of staff for the President during the hurricane season, and the President has been briefed and will continue to be updated as the storm progresses and certainly something he's very aware of.


TAPPER: Let's hope so.

RYAN LIZZA, WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORKER: Yes. And I think there are two big concerns people have rightfully. One is the staffing issue that -- we just don't have a government that's filled with people. So it's not even other people being competent. In some cases, they just not there. And so people rights, we're concern about that.

And then Trump's own sort of laissez-faire view of how the President's acts. I mean, he constantly has this view of the government that he leads as something that is a part from him. He talks about it sometimes as if he's not present. So there's this lack of a hands-on leadership role that is constantly cropped up, and threatening to shut down the government earlier this week.

So, I think -- that's series of things is worrying people and maybe making people not as confident in the leadership that they might otherwise be, and he's only been President a few months. So he's new on the job. Any new president does going to have trouble with something like this.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: And what is the tone that he sets? I mean, we've seen the President in other crises, they've happened overseas, prematurely tweet about something that happened. And suggest things are going great or attack his opponents. He did that during the campaign season as well.

He's able to layoff Twitter before saying, you know, prematurely, things are going great or criticize someone or do something than they viewed as insensitive at a time of a national emergency in affecting thousands and thousands of people. How does he respond to it by setting the tone? I think that will be a big test as well.

TAPPER: And Vice President Pence just tweeted about the storm, "Reports show the Hurricane Harvey continues to strengthen. Our prayers for safety with those in the path of the storm."

Up next, the latest round in President Trump's fight with senators in his own party. Stay with us.


[12:41:57] TAPPER: President Trump facing his own storm inside the Republican Party. Today he's hitting back against Republican Senator Bob Corker who said last week that the President has not demonstrated the quote stability or quote competency of a successful president.

Trump wrote, "Strange statement by Bob Corker considering that he is constantly asking me whether or not he should run again in '18. Tennessee not happy." President Trump and White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders clearly not on the same page. He is how she responded Thursday when asked about Corker's comments.


SANDERS: I think that's a ridiculous and outrageous claim and doesn't dignify a response from this podium.


TAPPER: But apparently it does -- gets a response from President Trump on Twitter.


TAPPER: Right. There's very different higher standards for the Press Secretary at the podium than the President on Twitter --


TAPPER: -- machine. He was -- I mean, Corker has been generally speaking not particularly critical of President Trump. With the differences, he's expressed with him, have to do usually with policy such as the positioning towards Russia. This was a very strong statement whether you agree with it or not. I mean, the fact is that Trump is very popular in Tennessee and this could hurt him.

HAM: Yes. And, again, this is the line they're all walking. Which is, in Tennessee, even folk who have an issue with Trump or held their nose and voted for him or think twitter is too much, don't want to see a Tennessee senator of the GOP sort of -- what they see as ganging up on him. He's got plenty of people taking shots for them. Why is Corker among them? That's the thinking back home.

But there are moments when Trump makes it impossible for Corker not to say something, or for senators and general not to say something. And I think the President where he says they are fine people, and a Nazi rally is a perfect illustration of that. You can not say something about that and then it does tick off people at home.

TAPPER: And this isn't the first time he's taking on the member of his own party. Somebody up for re-election in 2018. The President has been such a frequent critic of Arizona Republican Senator Jeff Flake. And now, one of the challengers to Flake, Kelli Ward just released a digital ad attacking Flake using Trump's own words from that rally this week in Phoenix. Is there going to become a time when party leaders try to intervene or is that just a fool's error?

RAJU: Well, you're seeing some effort by Mitch McConnell's super PAC to put money behind Jeff Flake to actually go after Kelli Ward. So you --

TAPPER: Chemtrail Kelli.

RAJU: Chemtrail Kelli, attacking her that way. And remember when President Trump was going after Dean Heller, they have the closed door meeting at the White House with President Trump. Republican senators made it very clear their distaste for this type of action. Going after one of their own members the most vulnerable Republican in the Senate. But, obviously, the President didn't get the message.

So, look, the bottom line is that the President is probably going to continue to do this. He's not listening to Republicans who were saying don't attack your own party, attack Democrats. Attacking your own party only feeds the narrative, the civil war, the party's dysfunctional and it's going to be harder to get things passed. One thing the President has not learned yet.

[12:45:02] When you talk to Republicans and say, if you want get legislation through the way you do that, as you talk to members, learn them, learn their state, learn with their needs. That's what you do. You don't single them out on Twitter and publicly shame them. In fact, these are the opposite effect rather then dig in like Lisa Murkowski did on the health care debate and then they're voting no and killing that bill. In some margin because of the way Trump dealt with them.

TAPPER: And attacking Jeff Flake has certainly not helped. Take a listen. Here is Jeff Flake talking about his relationship with President Trump and also about his position on the border wall, which is, of course, relevant given that he's a senator from Arizona.


SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: My position is, I work with the President, vote with the President when I think he's right and I oppose him when I think he's wrong. This notion of 2,000-mile wall is has always been just -- for anybody who spends time on the border, just -- you know, out there.


LIZZA: And that is the view of most Republicans who represent anyplace on the border. They're more likely to say, no, we don't need actual physical wall across that whole thing.

I mean, one thing that we've learned in the last week is, if you ever plan on criticizing the President, don't reveal any private information to him. James Clapper, Mitch McConnell and Bob Corker, all criticized President Trump recently and he responded to each of them with revealing some personal nugget of information he gave them in a private conversation, right? With McConnell it was about the private conversation they had on the debt ceiling. With Clapper --

TAPPER: It's about the letter he wrote to him.

LIZZA: With the letter he wrote.


LIZZA: You know, and Clapper is explaining that the letter was --

RAJU: He gave Lindsey Graham's cell phone number.

HENDERSON: That's right. Yes.

LIZZA: So, if you want to criticize Trump as a Republican, don't tell him anything personal.

HENDERSON: Yes. No -- I mean, I think one of the things that Trump is setting, you know, setting himself up as, as sort of as independent actor, right, who's not really part of the Republican Party. He seeming just set up all of these people in the Republican Party. The establishment is the ones to blame if all of this stuff fails.

If the attacks -- the tax reform agenda fails, obviously, the health care thing is already gone kaput and you can see who he's blaming. I mean, that doesn't help them in 2018, if the GOP establishment and folks were running or labeled as failures from this President and their fielding primary challenges. That doesn't help, but it sort of helps underscores Trump's brand as sort of a party of one. If the only person who can fix it and as this independent outsider who's got all the right answers and certainly a lot of his voters believe that. They don't really like McConnell.

HAM: Yes.

HENDERSON: They don't like the establishment.

HAM: Yes. I don't know if Mitch McConnell is not going to hurt you with the right Republican base.

RAJU: And that's when McConnell is so quiet after this whole feud. You have not really heard from McConnell because he knows the Trump base supports Trump more than just part of him. TAPPER: It is just a fact that this President attacks Republican leaders of his own party more than in the modern era. Any President has attacked leaders of the opposite party.

RAJU: Yes.

TAPPER: He is more critical of McConnell than Obama was.

HENDERSON: Yes. I think --

TAPPER: He is more critical, you know, of McConnell than George W. Bush was of Senate Democrats. I mean, it's incredible.

Coming up next, are there new marching orders inside the White House now that a retired marine general is running the show? Stay with us.


[12:52:38] TAPPER: President Trump this morning tweeting praise of his Chief of Staff tweeting, General John Kelly is doing a fantastic job as Chief of Staff. There is tremendous spirit and talent in the White House. The New York Times is reporting Kelly is enforcing new marching orders in the west wing.

Here's what Maggie Haberman wrote, "Mr. Kelly, a retired marine general has been treated with a different level of deference inside the building those aides said. Staff members discovered early on that they could defy Reince Priebus,' the former chief of staff, "but crossing a marine is a different matter."

Back with the panel. One of the things that Kelly has been doing is controlling the flow of crap information that somehow would get into the President's stack of information to read. The stuff from fringe crazy websites. Stuff from -- et cetera. And he's been good at that apparently.

HAM: Well, yes, and that actually isn't a huge departure from how White House in this past have done things.


HAM: They actually -- keep a small pile that the President -- this is -- so this is a reversion to a normal standard. The question is, I think, he's not going to change who Trump is, but does seem mildly promising that he has had his respect for a couple weeks now. It doesn't always last that long.

And what I said, I have a lot of respect for General Kelly and don't want to find out a man of his skill, and honor, and sense of duty can't whip this into a little better shape. And it looks like there are some signs that maybe something is happening in that line.

RAJU: With this only so much you can do. Because look at the Tuesday speech in Arizona. There was a real effort to try to make sure that that speech did not go off the rails. They put out --

TAPPE: Did a teleprompter.

RAJU: Teleprompter everything and they briefed him beforehand and what does he do? He goes out and he goes on a 225-minute rant about re-inventing what he said in Charlottesville, so it's --

HAM: He didn't say any senators name.

RAJU: He had may say a little bit to them. So, yes -- I mean, Kelly, he hasn't have -- got a lot of respect, does have a lot of respect on the Hill, and in the White House but the President listens to him only to an extent.

LIZZA: You know, the single biggest dynamic in creating a really chaotic White House and news cycle is that to what the Republicans want the agenda to be is Trump's tweets and public statements, right? Those are the two things.

And it seems like Kelly, who, you know, pacified Anbar province in Iraq, and it seems like a slightly tougher mission for him. Like getting in there and pacifying the Trump White House.

[12:55:05] He's got a little bit of a break now, because some of the more independent actors, like Steve Bannon is now gone. And Reince is now gone. So, the factions within the White House have been lessened. But I was talking to a Republican close to Senate leadership today who said, you know, who's very enthusiastic about all the reporting you're reading about Kelly, but until they control the public comments, nothing's going to change.

TAPPER: All right. Thanks for joining us on INSIDE POLITICS. I'll see you back here at 4:00 p.m. Eastern for "THE LEAD." The mayors of Corpus Christi and Galveston and the Texas governor will be holding news conferences on Hurricane Harvey in the hour ahead.

Plus, the White House briefing, my colleague Jim Acosta picks it up after a quick break. Thanks for watching.


JIM ACOSTA, CNN ANCHOR: Well, I'm Jim Acosta in for Wolf Blitzer. Wherever you're watching from around the world --