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White House Press Briefing; Hurricane Aftermath. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired September 12, 2017 - 3:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[15:00:00] APRIL RYAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I know it sounds very trite and small, but there has been a lot of controversy about how the president is being handled, I guess, by General Kelly and how he keeps certain people in, certain people out.

And then you are hearing Steve Bannon say that he had been called, and you're saying -- that he has talked to the president several times. And you are saying you're not aware of that.

So, it leads us to believe to be that conversation -- this phone thing. Could you talk about the use of the cell phone? Is this like during the day, after hours, or what? Because there's been stories about the cell phone use and people calling.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: There have been a lot of things that you guys have written that I have seen to be controversial. That one hasn't been something I have seen a whole lot about.

But the president has access. I mean, he can make calls from a landline too. I'm not really sure what the question is here, whether or not he made a call from a cell phone or the landline.

BROWN: (OFF-MIKE) from the White House. Those calls are more so logged. You have a log account vs. a cell phone. This is his personal phone, correct?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: The president -- again, I don't sit in on every call he makes. I'm telling you about what I'm aware of at this point. Certainly, we will keep you posted as we do with numerous calls that the president makes throughout the day and the evening.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: Sarah, on tax reform, the president's top adviser said (OFF-MIKE) appeared to back off that demand for 15 percent?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: The president is prepared to push for as low of a rate as we can get. We are going to continue to push for that and work with Congress to make sure we get the best deal possible.

QUESTION: Based on conversations, it seems like they're hovering around 20 percent. Would he accept 20 percent?

(CROSSTALK) HUCKABEE SANDERS: Again, the president is focused on getting the best deal possible. We are going to continue working to make sure we get that one.

QUESTION: Can I just ask you one on North Korea, Sarah?

The president tweeted January 2: "It won't happen. North Korea just stated that they are in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the United States. It won't happen."

Does he stand by that assessment, given everything that he has seen, all of the nuclear provocations from North Korea?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: Again, the president is committed to taking every step, keeping all options on the table in order to have a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.

Hunter. Hunter.

QUESTION: Thank you.

Does the president believe he needs to secure funding for a border wall before DACA? And I also have a second quick question.

HUCKABEE SANDERS: Again, I think it will be -- as Marc Short said and as your colleague pointed out, it would be premature for us to make those determinations at this point, but certainly something that we want to make sure happens is that there is a wall.

That's something the president is committed to but, we also want comprehensive immigration reform.

Blake.

QUESTION: Also, will the president be reading Hillary Clinton's book? And what does he think about the excerpts that have gotten out so far?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: Whether or not he is going to read Hillary Clinton's book, I'm not sure. But I would think that he is pretty well-versed on what happened. And I think it's pretty clear to all of America.

I think it's sad that after Hillary Clinton ran one of the most negative campaigns in history and lost and the last chapter of her public life is going to be now defined by propping up book sales with false and reckless attacks. And I think that that's a sad way for her to continue this...

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: Thank you, Sarah. I have two questions.

First, the treasury secretary said this morning that Janet Yellen is being considered for reappointment as Fed chair. Is that something the president is considering? Is she on the short list? And how close is the president to making that decision?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: When we have a personnel announcement, we will certainly make sure everybody in the room knows.

QUESTION: I wanted to ask you about what the president said about North Korea earlier.

He said that the U.N. Security Council resolution was nothing compared to what ultimately will have to happen. Is the president considering actions including cutting off Chinese banks from the U.S. financial system?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: As we said many times before, that all options are on the table. That hasn't changed. The president has also said that he wants every country involved to step up and do more.

This was a small step in that process. And we're hoping that they will all take a greater role and a more active role in putting pressure on North Korea.

QUESTION: A moment ago, you used the language responsible immigration reform. A moment ago, you said comprehensive immigration reform.

HUCKABEE SANDERS: I think the goal, again, responsible immigration reform, making sure that we have the principles that we have laid out and that I have laid out from up here accomplished in that package.

QUESTION: Not necessarily comprehensive, as has been talked about before?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: Yes, responsible immigration reform.

QUESTION: You talk a lot about cutting deals with the president.

Marc Short earlier today said that one of the lessons of the fall is you can't necessarily rely on 50 to 52 Republicans. And then he went on to assume, "We don't feel like we can assume that we can get tax reform done strictly on a partisan basis."

So, is it the belief in the White House that you are going to need Democrats in the Senate to get this across the finish line?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: I think it is the belief of the White House that we want to have bipartisan support.

[15:05:01]

As I said several times earlier today, the goal is to have everybody come together and help provide tax relief for Americans across the board. We hope Democrats want to be part of that process. They certainly should.

QUESTION: Do you think you need them, though? I mean, what Marc Short said is, what we learned from health care reform is even though people have been talking since 2010 about doing one thing, that's not necessarily what they might do in 2017. (CROSSTALK)

HUCKABEE SANDERS: I think it's less about what we need than what the country deserves.

The American people work hard every day. They should get to keep more of their money. That's what the president is focused on. And that's what we are hoping to do is hoping we will work with Democrats and Republicans to make sure we get that accomplished.

QUESTION: Do you know of any Democrats that are close to supporting what the president and the big six -- their framework?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: I think we are in the beginning of those conversations. And hopefully again a lot of those people will come on board.

QUESTION: Thanks, Sarah.

Let's drill down on that a little bit, on the idea of Democrats coming across the aisle to support the president's tax reform.

The question is whether there is enough of a shared vision between Democrats and Republicans for what tax reform ought to look like. Can you give us one or two examples of things, elements of this deal that the president could put into the deal that would attract those Democratic votes, but that would not alienate the Republicans?

(CROSSTALK)

HUCKABEE SANDERS: These are just the beginning conversations.

These conversations are just starting with the Democrats coming to the table. And as those take place, we will certainly provide more information on that front. But this is just the very beginning, the first step in this process.

Thanks so much, guys. We will be around the rest of the day to answer other questions if you have them. Thanks so much.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: So a couple of headlines as we get a microphone on Jim Acosta and talk to him about some of his key questions there with Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

First, number one, just as we have been covering the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, Sarah Sanders did confirm that the president will travel down to Florida on Thursday to assess the damage in the wake of this hurricane.

And sources are telling CNN it will be specifically the Fort Myers, Florida, area. Number two, Steve Bannon keeps coming up, the "60 Minutes" interview with Charlie Rose that he did that aired Sunday night, where one of the headlines was on the president's firing of now former FBI Jim Comey, calling it the worst mistake in modern political history.

The quote from Sarah Sanders that I jotted down was that the president was 100 percent right in firing Jim Comey.

And then, Jim Acosta, I have got you up. Let me just ask you. The headline where you were appropriately asking about initially it was "The Wall Street Journal" reporting and now CNN has it now as well, on any sort of conversation with the Trump legal team involving maybe having his son-in-law/senior adviser Jared Kushner step down. She told you no such conversation existed.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Right.

I think she said, not that I'm aware of. She certainly did seem to knock down the notion that there was this conversation about Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and senior adviser, stepping down earlier this year. Obviously, "The Wall Street Journal" reported that. CNN has some reporting lending some credence to that as well.

And Sarah Sanders is basically saying, no, that didn't happen. Now, there were some other interesting comments on the Russian probe that she made during this briefing. We don't want to overlook that.

She also said -- and I thought it was pretty stunning, because typically you don't hear this very often from a White House. Usually, a White House would stay out of an investigation, a criminal investigation like the Russian probe.

But the White House press secretary there during the briefing said, yes, perhaps the Justice Department should look at whether the former FBI director who was fired by the president, Jim Comey, should be put under investigation. That was a fairly stunning statement to hear from the White House press secretary. Typically, you just don't hear from that the podium in the Briefing Room.

But this is obviously because of that Steve Bannon interview on "60 Minutes," Brooke, where Steve Bannon described the firing of Jim Comey as perhaps the biggest mistake in modern political history.

The last two briefings, today and yesterday, Sarah Sanders at this podium has been defending the president's decision time and again, saying, no, this was the right decision to make, laid out all of the different reasons why she actually repeated that talking point during the briefing today.

So a pretty muscular statement there, and I would think even the president would -- I think some critics would say over the top and slightly out of bounds comment to make for the White House to say, oh, yes, we think the Justice Department should look at whether Jim Comey should be investigated, put under investigation -- Brooke.

BALDWIN: Yes.

Two other quick notes, Jim. Number one, she was asked about, we know the president never extended condolences to Mexico in the wake of that fatal earthquake now, what, five days ago. Apparently there will be a call between Enrique Pena Nieto, the president of Mexico, and the president of the United States. This is after Mexico offered aid in the wake of Harvey and Texas and

now has since rescinded. That jumped out to me. But let me ask the question to Sarah Sanders about the Hillary Clinton book, I imagine happened, Jeff, asking if the president would be reading it.

[15:10:04]

ACOSTA: Yes.

BALDWIN: What was her response?

ACOSTA: Yes. That was fascinating.

I also don't want to let go the part -- I also asked about Donald Trump Jr. testifying, and Sarah Sanders surprisingly sounded receptive to that idea or indicated the president would be receptive to the idea and not get in the way of that. I didn't want to let that get lost in the shuffle.

But as for Hillary Clinton's book, I thought that was fascinating, some of what Sarah Sanders had to say. She appeared to look down at some notes there on a lectern, essentially reading sort of a pre- written response to Hillary Clinton's book.

She referred to the book as being a sad chapter of her political year, that the book would be filled with false and reckless attacks. This is obviously, you know, pretty strong response coming from the White House in light of what Hillary Clinton is saying in this book and this interview she's going to have with Anderson Cooper on CNN tomorrow night, which I'm sure will certainly generate other headlines.

The fact that Hillary Clinton is saying in this book that she wanted -- that her inner monologue was telling her to tell Donald Trump in the debate to back off creep. And yet she didn't do that. Obviously, that is not something that the White House -- that is not the kind of conversation that the White House wants to have again about what happened during that campaign.

It wasn't the best moment from an optics standpoint for President Trump, far from it. But it sounds as though when there are items coming out of this book that they feel like they're going to respond to, going to respond to those questions.

And so not exactly a ringing endorsement. I guess we don't see the president's name on the back of the paperback edition of Hillary Clinton's book when that goes to paperback.

But that was a pretty sharp and pointed comment I think from the podium directed at Hillary Clinton. But they seem to like their favorite targets, and even though the election is well over, the president's been in office for seven or eight months, for whatever reason, the White House, the political allies, they still like to go after the Clintons and Hillary Clinton. And that was pretty evident here today, Brooke.

BALDWIN: As you mentioned, Anderson will be interviewing her. That will be up tomorrow night 8:00 Eastern.

Jim Acosta, thank you very much.

And, as we mentioned, the president will be heading to Florida on Thursday.

Let's talk more about the wrath of Irma, crisis in Florida. Two days after Irma made landfall, we're finally seeing exactly how badly the storm really decimated the Florida Keys. Look at this. FEMA officials telling CNN an estimated 25 percent of the homes in the Keys are just in total ruin.

Another 65 percent are severely damaged and 10,000 or so people who chose to ride it out, stay behind on the islands, may now have to evacuate because they have no power, and no fuel, and no clean water. That's just the story in the Florida Keys.

Right now, more than six million are still without power across the southeast. That's 5 million in the state of Florida alone. So far, at least eight deaths are being blamed on Irma in the U.S.

When you talk about the Caribbean, that's a whole other story. Irma hit as a Category 5 and at least 36 people were killed there. Despite the devastation In the Florida Keys, those who do live and do business in Islamorada or Key Largo or Tavernier are being allowed to return.

And CNN's Bill Weir is surveying the aftermath along the chain of islands. He's in the Keys.

Bill, what are you seeing?

BILL WEIR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Greetings from Lower Matecumbe Key.

We're about mile marker 72, 73 here on the Overseas Highway. Look at how calm the Atlantic is today. If only it stayed that way all the time, eh? But the cost of living in paradise is the destruction of storms like Irma that we're just beginning to absorb now as we work our way south as traffic sort of trickles open now.

This used to be a very popular restaurant in this area called Mr. Lobster. It's gone. It's been completely wiped away, not so much by wind, although that did -- there are signs of wind damage on the roofs here, but that storm surge, as that 10-, 15-foot wave came and took that restaurant, a lot of it made of big shipping containers, and floated them across Antigua Harbor here and crashing into the boat, as you can see there.

The devastation not as bad as we have seen in some other less sturdily constructed areas, but thankfully lots of proof of life here. As we motored in, we saw people on boats, people on their balconies drying out their things, you hear the sound of generators cranking.

A lot of activity on the highway. Big earth movers clearing the sand. But little hints here and there of just how powerful the storm was. Lobster traps from the Atlantic side thrown into neighborhoods on this side. [15:15:00]

We're working our way slowly but surely down to the Lower Keys, where the eye wall of that storm came ashore, and that's where the most concern is, is for human life there. There's no way to confirm who may have perished and who maybe just like the rest of us just doesn't have cell service.

Even our satellite phones are really spotty, so it is primitive down here. No power, no running water. Everybody on the hunt for precious drops of gasoline. Ice is a luxury down here that will bring people to the edge of tears with joy as they find some.

But I'm hearing a lot of resolve, very little self-pity from these hardy folks town here in the conch republic. As we were motoring out of Key Largo, the owner of the Caribbean Club, which was one of the sets for the movie "Key Largo" with Bogart and Bacall, said hey, CNN, you tell America, this is just stuff. We can rebuild it. We're coming back.

That's the kind of attitude it's going take to clean up what is the most devastating weather here in a generation. We're going to keep moving down the Keys and report in what we find all along the way. Until then, I'm bill Weir.

BALDWIN: Bill Weir, thank you so much to you and the crew. We will look for you as you're able to make your way farther south.

We have more from the Keys coming up next. Also a powerful story of rescue and survival. College students stepping in and saving a group of senior citizens abandoned at a nursing home. We will talk to one of those students live.

And don't forget about us. That's the message from Irma survivors in the Caribbean who were hit extremely hard by at the time a Category 5 hurricane. We have crews in the Caribbean on various islands getting a firsthand look at the damage. We're going to take you there coming up as CNN's special damage here in the wake of Hurricane Irma continues.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[15:21:07]

BALDWIN: Welcome back. You're watching special coverage here on CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

Although many islanders heeded warnings to get out town, evacuate the Keys, hundreds decided to stay. And now they're there and they're trapped without basic services like water, sewage, electricity.

I have got Mike Theiss joining me, a hurricane chaser who has covered many storms.

Mike, it's not often I talk to someone from the Keys, raised in the Keys. This must be so personal for you. How are you doing? MIKE THEISS, HURRICANE CHASER: I'm doing all right.

It's been a long week leading up to this because not only was I studying the track of the hurricane. I also had to prepare my home and business here in the Florida Keys. So it was like a double whammy.

It's been very difficult this hurricane because of the personal effect of my home being, you know, damaged severely. We're also in the tourism business, so we're worried that the tourism business will have a temporary hiccup.

But I know we will be back. But, yes, this is very hard and a very difficult hurricane to chase, and such an intense hurricane that affected the entire Florida Keys.

BALDWIN: How long do you think, based upon all these different hurricanes and storms you have chased, just your assessment of the damage?

We love the Keys. You mentioned tourism. How long do you think it will take to be truly back to normal?

THEISS: We're going to bounce back really quick.

A lot of the stuff that we have to offer people is offshore, which is the fishing and snorkeling and diving. So we have just got to get the hotels back to working and then we will be opening -- people with open arms.

We would like people to come back. And it's actually the slow season anyway. We're very slow this time of year. We don't start getting busy again until about Christmas week, so we will definitely be back by Christmas week, I'm sure.

BALDWIN: Before Christmas, in terms of the now, a lot of the people in Keys don't have, as I mentioned, basic services.

Let me just read you this quick tweet from the Florida Senator Marco Rubio, because there had been talk of potential evacuations out of the Keys. And this is what Senator Rubio just said: "Asking officials to consider evacuating of Lower Florida Keys. No water, no electricity and poor access if recipe for big problems."

Do you think that would be a smart call?

THEISS: Yes.

The Lower Florida Keys got hit really hard, much harder than the Upper Keys. Yes, there's no running water, there's no electric. The infrastructure is destroyed, so it's going to take much longer for the Lower Keys to bounce back, so I do agree with that assessment more or less because we don't want people going down there and getting sick or anything until they get everything fixed.

BALDWIN: Mike Theiss, appreciate the optimism. We will see you down there Christmastime. Thank you.

THEISS: Thank you.

BALDWIN: New this hour here on CNN, Port Tampa Bay has reopened, allowing ships to bring in much needed fuel to Florida. The state is racing to refill drained gas stations after millions of people left town ahead of Irma.

Dianne Gallagher is outside a gas station in Brandon, Florida. This is south of Tampa.

And, so, Dianne, I know your own crew vehicle needed gas and you got a tip at the hotel there was gas in Brandon. I see people are filling up behind you. At least that's, what did you call it, liquid gold.

DIANNE GALLAGHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This is the best sight you could see in the Tampa Bay area right now.

You mentioned the port opened at 2:00. They're awaiting -- you can come on through. It's all right.

They're awaiting those three petroleum vessels to bring the gas, the liquid gold, if you will, to this area. Seeing something like this is so positive, because a lot of these people are actually evacuees who are now driving back down south to their homes, Brooke.

The interstates I'm told are gridlocked at this point. If you're trying to get back home, expect that kind of gridlock. But a lot of the people are also local residents.

And the officials here are asking them, if you don't have to go anywhere, schools are closed for almost another week in some areas, all the way up to September 18, maybe beyond. If you don't have to go somewhere, let's not go somewhere, because they'd like to keep the short supply they have now where they can do it.

[15:25:10]

Yes, you can see filling up tanks like this. People who have to go places, they're trying to get in and out. But we're seeing a lot of those small red gas tanks that were being sold out at those stores before time coming in, filling them, getting them as much gas as fast, putting it on top of their SUV or their car, and getting out of there.

Again, it's spreading by word of mouth right now. We're here at Thorntons in Brandon, Florida. If you're in the area, they have gas. It may not last for long, though. They're getting fill-ups in the morning, overnight, and expecting that extra petroleum.

One other thing, Brooke, we have a lot of power outages here. Some gas stations, even if they're receiving gas, can't actually pump the gas until they get the power turned back on. We're talking almost 40 percent of the homes and businesses just here in Hillsborough County are still without power and it could be up to 10 days before they get it back. BALDWIN: Dianne, can't imagine the complexities and the pressure

facing these companies to get the gas and of course the electricity as well.

Thorntons in Brandon, you heard it here on CNN. Dianne Gallagher, thank you very much.

Coming up next, it's just an incredible story of compassion in the midst of Hurricane Irma's devastation. People in the nursing home, you know, elderly residents, had been abandoned in the storm, were sheltered to safety by college students who welcomed them into their own homes.

We will take to one of those students coming up.