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Protests on Capitol Hill Over Republican Efforts to Reform Health Care; Trump vs. NFL; Interview with Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky; North Korea Accuses Trump of Declaring War in Tweet; Groups Ready to Challenge Trump's New Travel Restrictions. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired September 25, 2017 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: The NFL Players Association and Roger Goodell standing united. President Trump did promise he'd bring people together.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Casualties of culture war. The president talking less about North Korea, a health care and a historic disaster in Puerto Rico, and more about protests that were pretty small, until Trump himself stirred them up again.

Meanwhile, it's getting down to the while with the latest attempt to replace Obamacare. Are Senate Republican leaders sweetening the deal enough to change any minds? One of the pivotal votes joins us ahead.

Then, millions without power, crippled communications and a quickly dwindling supply of basic necessities, such as food, this is the dire situation for millions of Americans in Puerto Rico, as the need for help after Hurricane Maria comes more desperate by the hour.

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin today with the politics lead. President Trump this weekend exacerbating an already contentious debate in the culture wars by picking a side and doing so willingly, enthusiastically, and really rather crudely.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners when somebody disrespects our flag to say get that son of a bitch off the field right now? Out. He's fired.


TRUMP: He's fired! He's fired!


TAPPER: The response from NFL players and owners was overwhelmingly a dramatic rejection of that, with the league commissioner and team owners issuing statements assailing President Trump's comments and his tone.

And these displays of unity and brotherhood among hundreds of players, locking arms, supporting their fellow players, taking knees, including support for, especially support for those who have been protesting during the anthem.

And keep in mind as you look at these pictures from Sunday, one week before, according to an ESPN tally, only nine players of the nearly 1700 in the NFL were kneeling or sitting or raising a fist during the national anthem.

That is until the president chose to enter the fray and called those men, those nine men sons of bitches and demanded they be fired.

Let us begin today our discussion with the simple proposition that, for most Americans, where you come down on the debate over protests during the national anthem at a football game is not wrong, per se, that those who want to take a knee or raise a fist are doing so not because they hate America or the flag or the anthem, but because they love them and they want the United States of America to be the best she can be, and they see too much racial injustice to do nothing, people such as the Seattle Seahawks' Michael Bennett, who us just a few days ago after Charlottesville he could no longer do nothing.


MICHAEL BENNETT, SEATTLE SEAHAWKS: There's a point where silence is becoming dishonest.

Every day, I try to remind my daughter that she matters and that she's important and that her skin doesn't matter, she's going to be judged off the content of her character, like Martin Luther King says, but every day when I watch TV, I'm reminded that that's not the America that I'm living in.


TAPPER: And also let's posit today that those who oppose these protests, during moments that are supposed to be unifying, and when many are thinking about troops and veterans, especially those who have been lost, that those who feel that way are not necessarily wrong either, and that they too have every right to their feelings and demonstrations and should not automatically be treated as hostile to the desire for racial justice, people such as Teri Johnson, a Gold Star mother who lost her son, Sergeant Joseph Johnson, in an IED attack in Afghanistan in 2010 and who spoke with us as well.


TERI MAXWELL JOHNSON, GOLD STAR MOM: The flag that I see is the flag that draped my son's casket in honor. And I see the flag that was handed to my husband and I with deep respect from a grateful nation. When I look at the flag, I see the best of us.

(END VIDEO CLIP) TAPPER: Let's start there, because that's where we as a nation were until Friday evening. Some people were protesting. Some people were disagreeing with the protests. Some were booing. Some were changing the channel. Others were rooting along.

And then President Trump stepped into the debate this way.


TRUMP: Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners when somebody disrespects our flag to say get that son of a bitch off the field right now?


TAPPER: Though the original protests are about race, and the protesters were almost entirely black, and the team owners whom the president was calling upon to fire or suspend those players are almost entirely white, and the president chose to launch this campaign in front of an almost all-white crowd in front of Alabama, despite all that, the president insisted that this has nothing to do with race.


TRUMP: This has nothing to do with race. I have never said anything about race. This has nothing to do with race or anything else.



TAPPER: It is 100 percent true that the president never said anything about race. He did not have to. This entire discussion is about black men protesting racial injustice.

One, of course, wonders why, in the president's view, a black man protesting racial in justice by kneeling during the anthem is a son of a bitch, while whites marching along Nazis and the Klan to protest the removal of the statue of a Confederate general is a -- quote -- "very fine person."

But I digress.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders earlier this afternoon insisted that the president's tirade and subsequent tweets were not about the president being against anyone.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Look, this isn't about the president being against anyone. But this is about the president and millions of Americans being for something, being for honoring our flag, honoring our national anthem and honoring the men and women who fought to defend it.

(END VIDEO CLIP) TAPPER: It is not, of course, just the NFL responding today.

Today, basketball's LeBron James spoke out forcefully against President Trump's remarks.


LEBRON JAMES, CLEVELAND CAVALIERS: We have to figure out a way how we come together and be as great as we can as people, because the people run this country, not one individual, and damn sure not him.


TAPPER: Interestingly, President Trump before Friday had previously said, just two days into his presidency -- quote -- "Peaceful protests are a hallmark of our democracy. Even if I don't always agree, I recognize the rights of people to express their views" -- unquote.

And last fall, when asked about Colin Kaepernick, who began these protests, the president said this.


TRUMP: I think what he's doing is very bad for the spirit of the country. At the same time, he has the right to protest. And that's one of the beautiful things about the country.


TAPPER: That's one of the beautiful things about this country.

But something has changed. And now President Trump wants us to be having this debate. And apparently he wants us to be doing it in an ugly and angry manner.

A year ago, we hosted a town hall with troops and veterans and President Trump was asked about Colin Kaepernick.


BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I want Mr. Kaepernick and others who are on a knee, I want them to listen to the pain that that may cause, but I also want people to think about the pain that he may be expressing about somebody who has lost a loved one that they think was unfairly shot.


TAPPER: Hmm. listening to each other and thinking about what the other person said, instead of just calling those with whom we disagree a son of a bitch.

Hmm. That feels today almost as radical a concept as trying to unite the country, instead of looking for divisions to exploit in the nastiest manner possible. There are any number of other issues could be focusing, among them,

off the top of my head, threats from North Korea, a traffic and horrific church shooting in Tennessee, more than three million Americans suffering Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and, of course, his party's final effort to repeal and replace Obamacare by the end of this week.

Senate Republicans are scrambling to make changes to the Graham- Cassidy legislation to win over any reluctant or ambivalent colleagues as protesters interrupted a Senate health care hearing today on Capitol Hill.

CNN's Phil Mattingly joins me now live.

Phil, where do things stand right now on the vote tally?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, just a short while ago, Jake, I had a text from a GOP aide who said "Not in a good place" when I asked where things currently are.

And you just kind of look at where senators are and where really they have been over the course of the last couple days. You have firm no's in Rand Paul and Senator John McCain. You have people like Susan Collins, who had told you yesterday on "STATE OF THE UNION" that she couldn't see herself or it was very unlikely she could see herself voting for this bill.

You have Lisa Murkowski from Alaska who has noted very serious concerns. She is still undecided. And now you need to add people like Ted Cruz, very conservative senator, who says what the changes that were made last night to try and get people on board, they don't get his support.

Mike Lee as well on the regulatory side of things hasn't committed to a yes-vote yet. Now, it's important to look at the issues here. Obviously, they are not homogeneous. You have people like Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins kind of on one end, but conservatives like Rand Paul, Mike Lee and Ted Cruz on another.

For the latter group, it's all about regulations. Senator Ted Cruz has made very clear cutting back on the Obamacare care regulations, things like essential health benefits, price protections for preexisting conditions, that is crucial on the state level, in his view, to driving down premiums.

He wants the bill to go further than it already does. And it's worth noting, if you talk to outside analysts, they say it already goes a pretty long way to allowing states to get rid of a lot of those protections.

Now, if you shift over to the other side, Senator Susan Collins, as you noted, made very clear that she had a lot of problems with the way Medicaid is treated in this.

And I think the key here is Senator Lisa Murkowski. She's kind of the key as to whether or not this will actually move forward. She's made clear her concerns, whether it's Planned Parenthood defund, whether it's preexisting conditions, or whether it's the Medicaid piece.


A lot of changes were put into this bill trying to reach out to her over the course of the last 24 hours, Jake. So far, she's still undecided.

But she could essentially kill this bill on her own. I want to note today there was a hearing that was brought onto Capitol Hill in effort to try and get John McCain. Obviously, that didn't work.

But the hearing kind of projected a very visceral sense of how meaningful this is to people and why the opposition is so strong at this point, individuals in wheelchairs, hundreds of people outside the hearing, some inside the hearing, protesting, then taken out of the hearing by their wheelchairs by Capitol Hill.

This is obviously a very personal issue for people. And that's why you have seen the opposition grow, Jake.

TAPPER: It's been incredible actually watching the disability, people with disabilities community really protesting this bill throughout the year in a way I have never seen before.

Phil, they can only afford to lose two Republican votes. Is there any polling out there, any information about how the public feels about this that might influence a senator one way or the other?

MATTINGLY: Yes, the opposition is a little bit like the pessimism here on Capitol Hill. It's growing.

If you take a look at a CBS poll that was released last night, only 20 percent of Americans polled support the Graham-Cassidy legislation. I think, if you dig even deeper, this is the key point. Only 46 percent of Republicans. This is something they campaigned on year after year after year.

It doesn't meet the test for 54 percent of Republicans polled here. The numbers aren't good. The numbers haven't been good throughout this entire process. They still are not good. That's as much reason as anything, Jake, as to why this has a very tough path forward.

TAPPER: All right, Phil Mattingly live for us on Capitol Hill, thanks so much.

So, are the current efforts enough to change minds of any of these Republicans? Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky will join me live. He's one of the crucial votes.

Stay with us.


[16:15:55] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Welcome back.

Sticking with the politics lead now, and Republicans struggle to pass the latest effort to repeal and replace Obamacare. Three no votes on the Graham-Cassidy legislation will sink the legislation, three no votes from Republicans.

Joining me now is one of those votes, apparently a no vote, Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky.

Senator Paul, thanks for joining us. Always good to see you.

SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: Thank you, Jake.

TAPPER: So, yesterday, you tweeted I didn't run to put a cap on Obamacare. I ran to put one in Obamacare. #killObamacare #nofakerepeal.

I know the White House has been in touch with you. Right now, they are trying to make adjustments to satisfy you. Have they gotten there yet?

PAUL: Well, I think they are going in the opposite way. They are trying to make adjustments to buy the votes of certain senators by giving them more money for their states. My point all along has bee, we have a $700 billion deficit this year. We borrow about a million a minute. We have $20 trillion debt that we can't afford more entitlement program. We have more controls on entitlement program.

So I think having a trillion dollar program, they basically keep the Obamacare care spending and then they reshuffle it, take it from Democrat states and give it to Republican states. That's not repeal. That basically to me is just sort of keeping it and sending the money to different places.

TAPPER: Have you spoken with President Trump or Vice President Pence directly today?

PAUL: Not today. I spoke to them over the weekend. And I did say the one thing I am open to is they will pare the bill down and get rid of the block grants, and if you want to do health savings accounts, I'm for that. If you want to put some caps and control entitlement spending, I'm for that. If you want to give governors, more control over the spending by having waivers, I'm for that.

I just -- it hurts me deep inside to think of voting for a trillion dollars for Obamacare care taxes and spending when that's what's I've talked about for seven years that I'm opposed to. I went to tea parties across the country, across Kentucky, talking about how I wanted to repeal Obamacare. Voting to keep it and block granting is not repeal. It's sort of fake appeal.

TAPPER: What about the fact that they allow states to petition to get out of these requirements, the regulations that I know you oppose, mandating that insurance cover things like contraception, maternity care, substance abuse, mental health, things like that, is that at least in your view a step in the right direction?

PAUL: I think legalizing choice is a great thing. So, you need to let the consumer buy what they want to buy. The government shouldn't tell you what you should buy and they never did until Obamacare. For the most part, you can buy what you wanted.

And so, I remember when I was a kid, I bought very in expensive insurance. The problem with insurance mandates is they are well- intended.

So, President Trump said to the American people, you're not smart enough to make your own decisions, I will make these choices for you. But the problem is, the end result was insurance got to be very expensive. So, somebody making $30,000 a year has $10,000 insurance with a $6,000. Just didn't work.

And so, the prices in the individual market had doubled. You got insurance companies saying they are no longer going to sell it. Obamacare is a disaster but we need to legalize choice. And so, to some people that say, you're not going to guarantee this, to other people, it means freedom to buy something that you can afford and is right for the needs of your family.

TAPPER: So, Senator Lindsey Graham had a direct message to you yesterday. He's one of the sponsors of the bill obviously. Take a listen.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: When you look at the bill, Rand, we save a lot of money over time for Medicaid. We put a cap on Obamacare growth. We make it more sustainable, more affordable, more flexible.


TAPPER: A direct appeal to you. Is Senator Graham wrong?

PAUL: Well, you know, his initial sales pitch, he and his Cassidy were selling this thing all over Washington as, if you like Obamacare, you can keep it. That didn't very well with most conservatives around the country. If you like it, you can keep it.

The other thing that doesn't ring very well is he keeps telling people, oh, we're not getting rid of Obama, we're just going to give it to the Republican states. We're going to take it from the Democrat states and give to the Republican states. That sort of to me smacks of petty partisanship and doesn't sound like somebody who really wants to fix the problem.

[16: 20:03] It sounds like somebody wants to stick it to the Democrats.

And that's why we got in this fix. The Democrats stuck it to the Republicans and they only had Democrats on their health care bill. Now, this is going to be only Republicans. I think there is a way, for example, I've been talking about letting individuals join a group and buy across state lines, I have many Democrats interested in this. I have not one Democrat tell me absolutely no on this. This could be a bipartisan idea, and it costs zero. So, Lindsey Graham will cost a trillion dollars that he keeps of

Obamacare spending. Mine is the free market, choice, buying across state lines and cost zero dollars. I think, conservatives, if they're given those choices would very quickly abandon any kind of association with Lindsey Graham or his bill.

TAPPER: Do you think this bill is dead?

PAUL: That's very close. I mean, you've got five or six people saying no, and I've been told in the past, they probably won't bring it up for a vote if they don't have 50. So, we'll see what happens.

But I think the thing is I have to be true to the people I told I would repeal it. And this is not repeal. This is reshuffling of the money. It's a redistribution of money from Democrat states to Republican states.

But if we do this when the Democrats win their next election, they're going to reshuffle the money back from Republican to Democrat states. If we have this tug of war over money, that doesn't really sort of say to me that we're serious about repealing or reforming or doing anything. We're just reshuffling the money. We're going to have a perpetual food fight over the money and nobody will have any certainty as to what's going on.

TAPPER: So still affirm no?

PAUL: Yes.

TAPPER: All right. Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, thanks so much for your time. Always good to see you, sir.

PAUL: Thank you.

TAPPER: Be sure to tune in tonight for a very special live town hall debate on the bill to replace Obamacare. Senator Amy Klobuchar will join Senator Bernie Sanders to debate Senators Lindsey Graham and Bill Cassidy, authors of Graham-Cassidy. I'll be joined by my colleague Dana Bash. We'll have a live studio audience. It all starts at 9:00 p.m. Eastern tonight, only on CNN.

Coming up, while President Trump is tweeting about the NFL, North Korea is one of its most dangerous threats yet. And they are threatening to shoot down American military planes. That story next.


[16:26:13] TAPPER: We're back with some breaking news in the world lead.

Another strong provocation from North Korea, this time accusing President Trump of having declared war when he tweeted on Saturday, quote: Just heard foreign minister of North Korea speak at U.N. If he echoes thoughts of little rocket man, they won't be around much longer, unquote.

Today, the rogue regime also threatened to shoot down U.S. planes even if they are not over North Korean air space.

CNN's Barbara Starr joins me now at the Pentagon.

Barbara, the White House a few minutes ago called the notion that the U.S. had declared war absurd, but the Pentagon is sending a warning of its own.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, they are, Jake, because the problem, of course, is always the same -- escalating rhetoric on both sides and real possibility of miscalculation either by the United States or North Korea about each other's intentions. This is the absolute worry at this time.

The North Koreans making all of these statements, in fact after the U.S. flew jets off the Korean peninsula but in international air space, and the Pentagon responding on that point. The Pentagon spokesman saying, and I quote: That operation, the fly by of aircraft, that operation was conducted in international air space over international waters, so we have the right to fly, sail, and operate where legally permissible around the globe.

Make no mistake, the U.S. military pushing back very hard against the notion that it was doing anything against international law, really putting on the table that North Korea needs to back off on this point, that they can't obviously claim they have any right to shoot down U.S. planes. They can't claim that the U.S. has declared war on them. And in fact the state department also weighing in saying that, no, the U.S. has not declared war. But as the rhetoric escalates the worry about that miscalculation also is skyrocketing -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thank you so much.

North Korea can also use President Trump's new travel ban to fan the flames if they so desired. The administration announced new restrictions, just as the old ban expired yesterday. The previous version restricted U.S. entry from six Muslim majority countries, Iran, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Yemen and Sudan. This new one drops Sudan and adds North Korea, along with Chad and Venezuela, where the ban would only affect certain officials of the government.

Unlike earlier versions, these new restrictions would be indefinite.

Let's bring in CNN's Jessica Schneider.

Jessica, groups are already lining up to challenge this latest ban. What would be the main argument be against it given that this version obviously is not specific to just Muslim majority countries?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, yes, Jake, civil rights groups, they are saying that the addition of these nations are just a cover for what was always intended to be a Muslim ban and they're not holding back with their rhetoric. Some groups calling this government-sanctioned discrimination. The Council on American Islamic Relations went so far as to say that it's part of the Trump administration's, quote, ugly white supremacist agenda. The president, though, defending the process, saying that this ban is

a result of a months-long review where the security screening procedures of the countries around the world were probed and the countries, Jake, not meeting those standards, those are the eight now being restricted -- Jake.

TAPPER: And, obviously, Jessica, this new travel ban is having an effect, a big effect on a pending Supreme Court case.

SCHNEIDER: Yes. You know, the Supreme Court was slated to hear arguments on the previous travel ban on October 10th, well, that has now been delayed so the government and the parties in opposition can file briefs addressing this latest travel ban. But all indications are that the Supreme Court could decide that the whole case now is moot because of this new ban. And that would send people fighting this latest ban back to the lower courts where this whole legal process is likely to play out yet again -- Jake.

TAPPER: And the Trump administration did not include Sudan in this new travel ban. Why not?

SCHNEIDER: Right. The administration is saying that Sudan met all of the security standards during that two month review. So, they decided it no longer needed to be on the list. And instead, they added Chad, because it didn't properly screen for terrorists or share its information with other countries.