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Trump's Invitation to Dinner; Republicans Nervous About Trump's Meetings; Dreamers and Wall Funding; Five Dead in Florida Nursing Home; Caribbean Desperate for Help; DOJ Denies Senate Request. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired September 13, 2017 - 12:00   ET


[12:00:00] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: The Florida Keys are devastated. And as residents there complain help it hard to come by, the FEMA director says they have only themselves to blame.


BROCK LONG, FEMA ADMINISTRATOR: If citizens are frustrated, you know, about not being able to get the support they need right now, that's exactly why we asked them to leave.


KING: The House speaker says he's confident President Trump stands with conservatives, as Washington turns its focus to tax reform. But some Republicans are worried the president is suddenly so eager to deal and dine with Democrats.


SEN. JOE MANCHIN (D), WEST VIRGINIA: The president came out immediately and says, listen, this is not a tax cut for the rich. I'm not going to get a tax cut, nor any of the wealthy super 1 percenters will get any tax cuts.


KING: And remember the outrage at how the president handled the violent neo-Nazi marches in Charlottesville? At the White House right now, the African-American Republican senator who said this.


SEN. TIM SCOTT (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: As we look into -- look to the future, it's going to be very difficult for this president to lead if in fact moral authority remains compromised. What the president should do before he says something is to sit down and become better acquainted, have a personal connection to the painful history of racism and bigotry of this country.


KING: More proof this hour President Trump going all in to test the possibilities of a new work with Democrats approach. And the timing, well, it's rather delicious. Just this morning, the Republican House leadership said it is working with the Republican White House on a framework for major tax cuts and reforms. All is fine in the GOP family, the House speaker says.


QUESTION: Do you trust that this president is going to push for conservative tax reform?



KING: But we know many rank and file Republicans are on edge and feel burned by a spending and debt ceiling deal the president cut last week with top Democrats. And now CNN's Jeff Zeleny joins us live from the White House with word there's a deal-making dinner reunion of sorts tonight, Jeff. One that might make Republicans even a bit more wary.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: A bit more wary, John. But we are detecting a pattern over here at the White House. There are more Democrats coming in the gates of the White House here in the last week or so than I can recall during the first eight months of this administration.

And the latest invitation certainly is raising some eyebrows. The Senate Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer, as you said, the House Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi, coming over to the White House at the president's invitation this evening for another bipartisan dinner here.

Now, they are scheduled to talk about dreamers. That DACA legislation that the president hopes Congress can act on. That is a new piece of the dynamic here in this long running immigration debate in this capital. The president is a new player in this. He is trying to get some type of a bipartisan consensus.

Now, on tax reform, that, of course, is the issue and item of the day here in Washington. I think we're appropriate to be a bit skeptical of any type of bipartisan tax reform. The reality is, the sides are just too far apart here. They each have their own interests here.

But it is interesting. This is more than a one-off, as we talked about last week. The president working with Democrats on that deal. He wants to, I am told by top advisers, actually to get something done in this town.

So it's important to point out and remember, John, as you know very well, Donald Trump is a new Republican. In fact, he was a Democrat and an independent much longer here. So we are in a new chapter of at least discussion here with both sides. Something we've not seen in Washington for a while.

We'll see if anything comes of these dinners. There's a meeting this afternoon with some moderate House Democrats, as well. But, John, that dinner tonight, certainly very interesting. And I can tell you, Republicans, perhaps Mitch McConnell, will also be watching because he, of course, was not invited.


KING: You can bet he'll be watching.

Jeff Zeleny live at the White House. Jeff, thanks. As I said, a delicious day.


KING: With us to share their reporting and their insights, Julie Hirschfeld Davis of "The New York Times," CNN's Phil Mattingly, "Bloomberg's" Toluse Olorunnipa, and Eliana Johnson of "Politico."

Is it just noise or should Republicans be nervous that their Republican president, maybe with the Obamacare experience in the background, saying, that didn't work. I'm going to try this.

JULIE DAVIS, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Well, I think Jeff's right that the notion that they're going to all team up together and do a big deal on tax reform seems very remote right now. But it is interesting that Trump is really going at this sort of threat to sort of cut Republicans out of the process and work with Democrats instead because the dynamic that they're facing on The Hill right now with tax reform and so many other things is, they want to try to do a Republican deal that is all White House driven and driven by the Republican leadership. But if they can't get to 51 or 52 votes, they are going to have to do something else.

And so I think part of the play here is they want Republicans to feel a little bit more pressure to get together as a coalition because they know if that doesn't happen, the president is all too willing to deal with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And I think in talking to Republicans both this morning at the House Republican Conference meeting, afterwards you saw what Speaker Ryan had to say, they don't know. And I think that's the concern right now. What happened last week on the debt ceiling deal, on the spending deal was jaw-dropping to all of them. Their -- you've heard a lot more of this over the last kind of 48, 72 hours of the Treasury secretary, who used to be a Democrat. Well, the NSC director used to be a Democrat. That was stuff that's always been apparent, but nobody's ever really brought up before. You're starting to hear a lot more murmurs about that.

[12:05:14] And the -- kind of the big issue here is, yes, the threat's always been there. The speaker used it in health care. McConnell used it in health care as well. Well, if you don't work with Trump now, he's going to go to Democrats. Wait, time out, is he actually going to go to Democrats?

One thing to keep in mind, I think Jeff kind of noted this as well, Republicans control the paper. That's what Senator John Cornyn, the second ranking Republican said. Republicans have made very clear, they're doing this through a simple majority process. Republicans have made very clear, as you heard from Speaker Ryan, this will be a conservative tax plan. There's not a lot of room, as Julie notes, to bridge the gaps with Democrats here. But there is, I think, at least some hesitation right now, or at least a pause, of like, well, we don't actually know what this guy's going to do in the weeks ahead.

KING: Right. And to the broader point, this is -- the president's about to hit the eighth-month mark, eight month mark, and the big question in Washington is, who he is? Who he is ideologically? Who is he philosophically? A lot of people out in the country are probably going, great, the president's actually talking to everybody. The president's talking to Democrats. That's great.

But here in Washington, when you're about to start tax reform with the lessons of not being able to do Obamacare in the rearview mirror, if you're a Republican and he's suddenly getting cozy with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, you're getting nervous, right?

ELIANA JOHNSON, "POLITICO": Well, the thing I think that's important to note is that as far back as August, the White House was making motions, and I think making it clear to Capitol Hill that they wanted Democrats to be part of tax reform. Mark Short, the White House liaison to Capitol Hill, was meeting with Democrats in the House on tax reform. And the president has made clear that in particular on tax reform he wants Democrats to be a part of this.

The thing that the president's deal with Chuck Schumer, I think, may -- may -- the risk that it carried was that he really undermined his negotiating position with Republicans because they simply don't know what to expect from him. And if he wants to really pass a tax bill, he's certainly going to have to have Republicans. He may not need Democrats. But he undermined their trust in him in going into those negotiations. You know, they're really not sure what to expect from their own president at this point.

TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA, "BLOOMBERG": If you look at just the personalities, if you look at the imagery from last week with the president and Chuck Schumer seen in this photograph with Chuck Schumer sharing a laugh inside the Oval Office. You see the imagery about Nancy Pelosi telling the president to tweet some words that would be comforting to dreamers and that tweet went out right away. So, if you're a Republican, you're wondering, does the president like hanging out with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer more than he does Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, who, if you look at the photographs from last week, did not look to be in a good mood at all. So that's the question about who is he and what is he going to do going forward.

KING: You should be secretary of state. Not look to be in a good mood at all. Quite diplomatic.

Because we know -- we know how they felt. Because it's not just what the president did. He did it sitting in the Oval Office. He surprised them. They were sitting there. They thought this deal was done to go their way. And then the president, with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi sitting there, pulled the rug out from under the Republican leadership. Here's what a lot of conservatives think. We show you a picture of the

people who are in President Trump's orbit. Now that Steve Bannon is gone, now that the establishment chief of staff Reince Priebus is gone, you look at the pictures here. And, you know, some -- even Trump allies they call them globalists, they call them Democrats, they call it the Manhattan Republican Party. You have only Steven Miller up there, you know, the former Jeff Sessions aide who's still in the White House. But most of those other -- the president's son-in-law, the president's daughter, they're either moderate Republicans or Democrats if you look at their history.

And so conservatives say, well, wait a minute. And now they see this. That, listen to Mark Short. This is Mark Short at a reporters' breakfast the other day talking about DACA, the dreamers. One thought was the president would sign legislation giving legal protection to the dreamers, those young, undocumented, brought into the country by their parents when they were young. The president, he would be breaking a promise. That the president would sign that piece of legislation saying they can stay in exchange for big border wall money. That would be a tradeoff the president was willing to make. Mark Short telling reporters the other day, no, the president doesn't link those two.


MARK SHORT, WHITE HOUSE LEGISLATIVE AFFAIRS DIRECTOR: Whether or not that is part of a DACA equation, or whether or not that's other legislative vehicle, I don't want us to bind ourselves into a construct that makes reaching a conclusion on DACA impossible.


KING: What does the Trump base say if the president -- I think the Trump base gives the president a lot of latitude. If the president says, you know what, I've thought about this, these dreamers, their parents, their grandparents, their aunts, their uncles carried them across the border. They had nothing to do with it. We're going to be compassionate. We're going to let them stay.

But for changing my mind, I got all this money for my border wall. I got all this money for border security. I think the president could sell that to the Trump base out there.

But what does the Trump base say if they see him dining with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi at then cutting a deal that gives what they consider amnesty, what they call amnesty to these dreamers in the middle of what should be a Republican debate about tax reform?

JOHNSON: I don't think the Trump base is going anywhere. But Trump won with a lot more than the Trump base.

And I have to say, I don't think it should come as any surprise to rank and file Republicans or people who voted for this president because he was going to put conservatives on the Supreme Court that he is not on their team. It has to be a year, a year and a half ago that he said, this is not the conservative party, it's the Republican Party.

The Republican Party is nothing more than a vessel for an ideology. And this president's ideology, to the extent that he has one, has nothing to do with the sort of ideology that animates Republican leaders on Capitol Hill.

[12:10:09] The -- his deal with Democrats was nothing more than an exclamation point on something that he's made very, very clear for the past two years in his campaign and since he's been elected. And so I don't think this DACA deal should come as any surprise to anybody who's been paying close attention to this president for the past couple of years.

DAVIS: And I think that's one of the bigger worries for Republican leaders in Congress because I think Eliana's right, and they know that his base may not be going anywhere. His core supporters may tolerate a deal where he goes for a DACA legalization bill, even if it's not paired with some tougher enforcement. Even if it's not paired with border wall money. There's no evidence that we've seen to date that they would punish him for that, but they may very well punish Republicans if they're not able to deliver on some of the promises that they've made.

I mean we've already seen repeal and replace is all but dead. If they can't deliver tax cuts and a lot of Republican leaders really want a very deep tax cut. And that tax cut, not what Joe Manchin was talking about there in terms of no relative tax cut for any wealthy people or any businesses that are making huge profits right now, but an actual tax cut to promote growth in the economy. That's what they've been pressing for, for a long time. If that gets abandoned, they know their voters are going to punish them and it's not clear what's going to happen with the president.

KING: And that's one of the interesting wrinkles of this. You could look at this eight months in and you could blame everybody, all Republican government, they promised to repeal and replace, they promised to get going on tax reform. They haven't done it yet. They still have a couple months left in the year. We'll see what happens as we get into 2018. But there are some who look at this record so far or lack of a record so far and they don't lay any blame on the Trump White House.

Listen to Sean Hannity. He says the blame lands with Mitch McConnell.


SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: Now, McConnell is not leading. He's not getting the job done. So, senator, if you don't want to roll up your sleeves, if you don't want to get to work on passing is the agenda you promised, the president promised, then maybe it's time to call it a career. Get out of the way.


KING: Now, Mitch McConnell's not going anywhere. But we heard this last week about Paul Ryan. And so how does -- how does that factor in? When the Republicans are trying to get a significant achievement, tax cuts, tax reform should be their DNA, should be their wheelhouse. If there's anything Republicans should be able to do, that's it.

They couldn't repeal and replace Obamacare. I don't think anybody at the table thinks that's going to happen in any big way this year or next year. Maybe some fixes. But when you have all this dissidence, discord within the Republican Party over who's to blame, the finger- pointing each way, does it hurt or is it just noise?

MATTINGLY: I think we talked about this a lot during health care. When you want to pass historic, monumental legislation of say overhauling one-sixth of the U.S. economy on health care or doing the first major tax reform in 31 years, you need a unified approach inside the party. You need the commentators, you need the White House, you need the House, you need the Senate, you need all of the outside groups focused on one thing only, laser focused on that. And that's the thing we haven't seen. And that's where you see that this becomes problematic because when the outside commentators start attacking leaders, that gives fuel for some of the -- maybe caucuses that may reside in the House or some of the outside groups to join them and start firing, as well.

And as long as they have reason or backing to stay out of a tax deal or say we're not going to agree to a budget to even get to tax reform because our folks are saying this is a bad idea, that helps sink everything. Now, it doesn't mean that everything's going to fail or that tax reform's not going to get there. Tax reform is going to be extraordinarily hard if you have everybody on board, period.

But I think the issue is, if you're going to move forward on these major, major items, having everybody shooting at one another or kind of wondering off in different directions just simply isn't going to help your case and it's what we've seen for eight months and it doesn't look like it's stopping any time soon.

KING: And I --

OLORUNNIPA: And to Phil's point, traditionally we have seen the president lead that unified approach. And this is a new president who's new to politics and he's not seeing himself as a Republican leader.

JOHNSON: A rhino (ph).

OLORUNNIPA: He sees himself as a Trump, you know, a Trump party. And he's not waiting for the rest of the Republicans to show him where to go.

KING: Who knew it's complicated. We'll see as we go forward here.

Up next, we get back to the devastation, the scope of the devastation from Hurricane Irma becoming more and more clear today. More stories of hope, as well as heart break, including tragedy at a Florida nursing home.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [12:18:11] KING: Welcome back.

We're getting a much better idea today of just how much work has to be done to recover from Hurricane Irma. At least 55 people killed by the storm.

As of this morning, about 4.4 million homes and businesses still haven't regained power across the southeast. Most of those are in Florida. And it could be late September before the lights are back on in some places.

You see there, Governor Rick Scott needed a boat to tour much of the damage in northern Florida today.

President Trump and the first lady will visit Florida tomorrow.

Moody's Analytics estimates the total cost of Hurricane Irma could be more than $80 billion. Most of that damage to real estate. But there's also billions of dollars in losses to cars and infrastructure.

Irma also severed communications in entire neighborhoods, like Cudjoe Key down in the Florida Keys. FEMA says virtually every house in The Keys was impacted in some ways. You see from these pictures, there's debris everywhere. A lot of people barely have walls, let alone clean water or power. Many frustrated now that they're having to wait for help from the government. The FEMA administrator, Brock Long, couldn't help but express his exasperation at that frustration.


BROCK LONG, FEMA ADMINISTRATOR: If citizens are frustrated, you know, about not being able to get the support they need right now, that's exactly why we asked them to leave. And I think that, you know, we were trying to set that expectation up. But we're doing everything we can, working very closely with Governor Scott, to try to get there and alleviate the situations.


KING: You always see heroes in the wake of disasters. There's one right there. People who just don't wait for help to arrive. That is Sister Ann Margaret captured on video, yes, wielding a chainsaw to help clear debris. She tells CNN she was just doing what she tells her students to do.


SISTER ANN MARGARET, HELPED CLEAN UP IRMA DEBRIS: The road was blocked. We couldn't get through. And I saw somebody spinning in the mud and almost go into a wall going off the road. And so there was a need. I had the means. So I wanted to help out.

[12:20:00] At the school, ACC, our Archbishop Coleman Carroll High School, we have the chainsaws sitting in the closet and they didn't belong there. They needed to be used. So, you know, we teach our students, do what you can to help. And so this was an opportunity where I could do something to help. And thanks be to God, I was able to do it.


KING: Amen. Something to smile out there.

Sadly, though, across the state, on the east coast, an investigation now underway into the deaths of six people at a nursing home facility in Hollywood, Florida.

CNN's Miguel Marquez joins us live from Hollywood.

Miguel, what's the latest?

MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, this raises some real concerns, John, about the most elderly, the most vulnerable in these situations. The facility here behind me, the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills and the Larkin Community Hospital, same company runs both centers. They lost power it seems overnight around 4:00 a.m. Police here started getting calls that there was people in distress this these buildings.

Right across the street of it, about 50 yards across the way there, is the hospital, Memorial Hospital, which has no relationship with these centers, but it is right across the street.

When emergency crews arrived, they found three people were deceased. It was very hot in there. And three people died later on. They've moved now 115 total out of the facility. They've sealed off the facility. There's a criminal investigation going on. We expect a press briefing very shortly to update us on what they are finding.

But it does raise concerns. And in these situations, when the power goes out, you know, people complain about air conditioning or stores or things gone bad. But those are inconveniences when the power goes out and it's prolonged periods of time, the most vulnerable, one little thing pushes them over the edge, and it can be deadly.

An employee told us that they lost power on Sunday night. The company, Larkin, says that they lost power during Irma. That same employee said that they had hired or rented generators to augment the generator that they already had. It's not clear if the generators failed and cut off the air conditioning or all the electricity in the building still. The company only saying they suffered a prolonged power failure due to Hurricane Irma.

The huge question out there is, how is it they could have that sort of power failure and that sort of issue and not simply call the hospital across the way and get help.


KING: A lot of questions. Tragic news there. Miguel Marquez in Hollywood, Florida. Miguel, thanks very much.

Now, before it hit Florida, Hurricane Irma ripped through the Caribbean, decimated the island of Barbuda and then turned its eye elsewhere, including the U.S. and British Virgin Islands. Thousands there still desperate for food and water, most without electricity or phone service. One resident says, quote, it's really like the end of the world there right now.

Let's go to CNN's Cyril Vanier. He's in St. Maarten. He joins me on the phone.

I understand communication is tough. Cyril, just tell us, since you've arrived there, what are you seeing and what is the most urgent need?

CYRIL VANIER, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR (via telephone): John, yes, that's absolutely the question that most people would want you to ask because people here in St. Maarten want that message to get out. They are not getting the supplies that they need, the food and the water that they need. People are getting -- they're eating and drinking, but it's on a day by day basis.

And it's not happening, as far as I can make out, not happening thanks to the authorities on the ground. People are still eating the food that they stocked up on before the hurricanes, so that's a week ago. You know, some of them certainly in need of supplies. They are running very, very low now and they're rationing it. And as for the water, it's a daily struggle to find water.

Now, thankfully, there's a lot of solidarity, a lot of help. Neighbors will help each other --

KING: I think we lost our communication with Cyril. Cyril Vanier's in St. Maarten. We'll try to re-establish that.

As you can see from these pictures, some from St. Thomas, some from other of the Caribbean islands, the hardest hit by Irma, as this plays out.

We'll try to re-establish that communication. Otherwise, we'll take a quick break.

When we come back, there's a new turf war right here in Washington between the Senate investigators and the special counsel, Robert Mueller. Some exclusive CNN reporting just ahead.


[12:28:19] KING: Welcome back.

This new into CNN this past hour. The Justice Department versus Senate investigators. Sources telling CNN, the Department of Justice preventing the Senate Judiciary Committee from interviewing two top FBI officials about the firing of the former FBI director, Jim Comey.

CNN's Manu Raju live at the Capitol with this CNN exclusive.

Manu, why? It sounds like the DOJ here playing hard ball. What's the reason?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right. They're actually pointing to the special counsel's investigation, which raises a lot of very significant and interesting questions because the Senate Judiciary Committee said that they just want to interview these two senior officials, Cart Gotta (ph) and James Rabiki (ph). They are FBI officials who could have firsthand knowledge of the circumstances around James Comey's firing.

But the Justice Department says that this issue is being looked at by -- or suggesting that this issue is being looked at by the special counsel's office. In a letter that they sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee, they are saying very clearly that there's actually an ongoing investigation and they don't want to interfere in any way by giving out any confidential or sensitive information. So the two leaders of that committee, Chuck Grassley and Dianne Feinstein, came back and said, we don't want to talk about what's happening in the investigation. We just want to know exactly why James Comey was fired and what they know about the firing.

And so far, I'm told by a spokesman for Chuck Grassley, that there has been no cooperation from the Justice Department. And when I asked the Justice Department about this issue, they said, ask the special counsel because it's their decision. And the special counsel declined to comment.

[12:29:50] So, John, this raises the question about whether or not the special counsel is in fact investigating the circumstances around the firing, possible questions of obstruction of justice, which a lot of people have raised given the fact that Comey was fired while he was investigating the issue of Russia collusion and any attempts to try to interfere with that investigation. And right now we'll see how the Judiciary Committee responds and whether or not they issue --