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Trump Administration Dropping Ball on Puerto Rico Relief?; North Korea Crisis; Battered Puerto Rico Hospitals in Critical Condition; Senate Won't Vote on Latest GOP Health Care Bill. Aired 4- 4:30p ET

Aired September 26, 2017 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Amid mounting pressure, President Trump put the disaster in Puerto Rico center stage today, finally.

THE LEAD starts now.

People literally dying in hospitals that don't have enough fuel for their generators, a crippled airport making it very difficult for anyone to get in and out. Food, medical supplies running low. A look at what the federal government is doing right now to deal with the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico, as President Trump announces he will visit there in one week.

Then, a specific look at just how Russian operatives used those Facebook ads to try and manipulate the presidential election, sources telling CNN the Russians used concerns and fears about Black Lives Matter and Muslims to further divide Americans.

Plus, he didn't call him Little Rocket Man today, but President Trump is letting Kim Jong-un he means business, after North Korea threatened to shoot down American planes. What is President Trump now saying about a military option?

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

We're going to start today with the national lead and President Trump announcing today he will travel to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands one week from today.

That's of course the scene of humanitarian crisis unfolding after Hurricane Maria. Six days later, most of Puerto Rico remains without power. With the ATMs not working, lines and lines of customers wait for money at the bank to pay for essentials.

Today, we learned that two patients in a San Juan, Puerto Rico, hospital died after the hospital ran out of fuel for its generator. Local leaders are begging President Trump to hear their cries for help.


CARMEN YULIN CRUZ, MAYOR OF SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO: That SOS needs to be heard loud and clear. And please let's just talk about that. Let's not talk about the debt. Let's talk about the deaths.


TAPPER: The tearful San Juan mayor there after waking up to a tweet from President Trump discussing Puerto Rico's debt and its fiscal crisis.

Commercial airlines say they're doing what they can, shipping supplies into Puerto Rico and packing the few returning flights with as many evacuees as TSA will let them take. But the main airport in San Juan is barely operational and FEMA is restricting flights in and out.

Desperate passengers have been waiting days to get off the island. At the end of the day, one message says it all, an SOS written on a street corner in Punta Santiago meant to be scene from the air, SOS.

Moments ago, FEMA Administrator Brock Long said that the military is activating the hospital ship USNS Comfort and sending it to Puerto Rico. He also offered this blunt assessment.


BROCK LONG, ADMINISTRATOR, FEDERAL EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT AGENCY: I think the last 35 days or so has been a gut check for Americans that we do not have a true culture of preparedness in this country and we have got a lot of work to do.


TAPPER: I want to bring in CNN's Sara Murray.

And, Sara, President Trump saying today that Puerto Rico's location slows down relief efforts, as opposed to relief efforts in Florida and Texas.


Look, there is increasing concern about how the federal government has responded to this crisis in Puerto Rico and concern about whether this is something that President Trump had his eye on. Today, he wanted to make clear he is paying attention to this, saying he will travel to Puerto Rico next week, and insisting the trip he scrambled to get on the books, it's the earliest he could go.


MURRAY (voice-over): President Trump laying the groundwork to visit storm-ravaged Puerto Rico early next week.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Everyone has said it's amazing the job that we have done in Puerto Rico. We're very proud of it. And I'm going there on Tuesday.

MURRAY: His hastily scheduled trip coming amid criticism that the federal government's efforts are falling short in providing aid to this U.S. territory that is home to 3.4 million people and entirely without power.

TRUMP: As we speak, FEMA, our great first-responders, and all available federal resources, including the military, are being marshaled to save lives, protect families, and begin a long and very, very difficult restoration process.

MURRAY: Today, Trump pointed to the heavily indebted island's existing infrastructure challenges, saying that has inhibited relief efforts.

TRUMP: The infrastructure was in bad shape, as you know, in Puerto Rico before the storm, and now, in many cases, it has no infrastructure, so you're really starting from almost scratch.

MURRAY: But airlines and other groups who have been struggling to provide aid to the island say it's the federal government's own red tape that's the hindrance.


One airline official said flight left Sunday night half empty because passengers couldn't be screened effectively. Broken equipment and power failures meant names couldn't be checked against TSA's no-fly list.

A spokesman for American Airlines also says they had a flight loaded with 50,000 pounds of supplies ready to take off for San Juan, only to be turned back by airport authorities. The airline says the number of flights to the island is being restricted and its plan to have 20 planes landing and taking off per day now down to just two flights per day.

The FAA tells CNN the tower at San Juan's airport is open, but that another federal agency, FEMA, is determining which flights are prioritized for takeoff and landing.

Meanwhile, Trump is insisting the government is working nonstop to restore airport operations.

TRUMP: These are airports. These runways are devastated and broken. The airports are broken.

MURRAY: Access to that airport a key challenge that's straining the U.S. government's ability to provide Puerto Ricans with generators, food, fresh water and medical supplies, top priorities, according to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

GEN. JOSEPH DUNFORD, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF CHAIRMAN: We are doing all we can do right now to increase the through-put of humanitarian supplies. That's something that the U.S. military can uniquely provide. We also are providing some generators and so forth for power. We don't expect them to have power for sometime.

MURRAY: While the federal government insists it's working as fast as possible, for those stranded on the island without power or means to contact loved ones, the frustration drags on. SHERRY GONZALEZ, HURRICANE SURVIVOR (through translator): I had

bought a plane ticket before the hurricane and I'm since Friday. And I haven't been able to leave. Sleeping on the floor without air conditioner, it's horrible, and I have to sleep here again.


MURRAY: Now, the U.S. military is also making clear that they are in the midst of a robust response to this. They have about 16 ships in the region, about 2,600 Department of Defense personnel.

Of course, one of the key issues is going to be increasing this flow of aircraft out of Puerto Rico, getting people off that island and getting people help, Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Sara Murray, thanks so much.

Joining me now to discuss this is it Daniel Kaniewski. He's deputy administrator for national preparedness at FEMA.

Mr. Kaniewski, thanks so much for joining us today.

People in Puerto Rico are telling us that they have no power, they have no power cell service, they're running out of food, they're running out of water and medical supplies, and yet the president this afternoon said of the relief effort -- quote -- "I think we are doing a really good job."

Explain to me the disconnect here.


Well, certainly, we are in the middle of a disaster response. And our focus here at FEMA in the initial response to this disaster continues to be on lifesaving and life-sustaining missions.

Obviously, that means getting federal responders there to help those in need, to provide equipment such as generators to provide temporary power. Commodities like food and water, as well as fuel that we are seeing is a limiting factor.

This -- no disaster response goes perfect. I think all of us can acknowledge that. And this is very challenging situation. But I can assure you that the entire federal response, whether it be those people sitting behind me managing this up here in D.C., or on the ground, nearly 10,000 federal responders on the ground right now conducting those lifesaving, life-sustaining missions.

TAPPER: The director of a children's hospital in San Juan, Puerto Rico, told our correspondent Rafael Romo that there are 12 children on ventilators right now at risk because of the lack of power.

The hurricane hit six days ago. How can it be that a children's hospital doesn't have the generator it needs to keep these kids alive?

KANIEWSKI: Sure. Well, I can tell you that a top priority for our generator support are

hospitals. There's no question that hospitals are at the top of our list. The challenges that we are facing aren't just simply generators, though, right? It's getting fuel for those generators.

And even if we have this equipment, generators, fuel, et cetera, on that island, we have to deliver it to those places. And some of these places are frankly very difficult to access due to debris, and due to the disaster conditions there.

We do have disaster medical assistance teams on the ground making contact with every single hospital and assessing what needs they have. Those rescue operations are under way. And if there are patients that need to be evacuated, they are absolutely in the process of being evacuated.

TAPPER: We have been hearing from doctors who say their hospitals and clinics are running out of supplies fast. I want you to listen to San Juan's Mayor talking to CNN this morning.


CRUZ: We are finding dialysis patients that haven't been able to contact their providers. So, we are having to transport them in near- death conditions. We are finding people whose oxygen tanks are running out because their small generators now don't have any diesel.

And there are disabled people, they can't -- they live alone. They can't walk somewhere.


TAPPER: What's being done right now to avoid further loss of innocent lives because they don't have power, fuel, or water, especially among these very vulnerable populations?


KANIEWSKI: Absolutely.

So temporary power is a top priority of ours. It's the generators and the fuel. And all of those being targeted, those critical facilities like hospitals.

In addition, I can say that in addition to the larger hospitals and main medical centers that we have absolutely made contact with and are supporting, we are getting out to the more remote areas today.

Helicopters, thanks to support from the Department of Defense and other federal partners, are reaching those remote areas today, and to the extent that they need immediate assistance, we are providing that.

I will give you one example, helicopters dropping food shipments in those areas where we simply can't land the helicopter. We have to get assistance out and we're doing it by any means possible. TAPPER: Can you assert that this crisis is being treated with the

same urgency by the federal government as were the crises in Texas and Florida?

KANIEWSKI: Well, to us, certainly at FEMA, and our federal partners, there is no difference between the territories and U.S. states here on the continental U.S.

However, there is a huge challenge involved, right? The only way we can get these supplies and personnel there is by air or by ship. So it's certainly more challenging, but it is absolutely our responsibility to do this.

And I feel, as we sit here right now, we are doing it well, and we are doing it as best as anybody could possibly be expected to do it.

TAPPER: Deputy Director Kaniewski, thanks for taking our questions today. We appreciate it.

KANIEWSKI: Thank you, Jake.

TAPPER: As those hospitals in Puerto Rico are without power, our reporter traveled with crews working around the clock to get that much-needed fuel to run the generators that are keeping patients alive.

Stick around. We will go to Puerto Rico next.


[16:15:54] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: We're back with our national lead.

Nearly after a week before Hurricane Maria ripped Puerto Rico apart, the U.S. commonwealth still has no power, no running water. We just learned at least two people died in an extensive care at a hospital because they ran out of diesel needed to operate basic medical equipment.

I want to bring in CNN's Leyla Santiago from San Juan.

And, Leyla, you just visited a hospital there. The FEMA deputy administration just told us before the break that getting fuel to the hospitals is a top priority for the federal government. What are you seeing on the ground?

LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right, as we visited a few hospitals today, they seem to be OK in having generators. But they don't have a way of getting diesel to actually run those generators. So, keeping those running is the challenge, and the frustration is having to operate on a day-to-day basis.


SANTIAGO (voice-over): Hurricane Maria battered more than the buildings of Puerto Rico. It crippled many of the island's hospitals in desperate need of fuel to keep generators running for power. At Hospital de Maestro, two patients in critical condition died.

DR. JOSE DOSAL GARCIA, ER DIRECTOR, HOSPITAL DE MAESTRO: If the condition of the hospital would be normal, the patient would have more chance. We have more probability to manage the condition, but it was, even though they were so critical, we don't have the facilities to manage that type of patient.

MAYOR CARMEN YULIN CRUZ, SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO: My biggest fear is we won't get to anyone, everybody in time. And we are not getting to everybody in time.

SANTIAGO: The mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulin Cruz, says she's getting SOS text messages in the middle of the night from hospitals and homes for the elderly begging for diesel.

CRUZ: When I say humanitarian crisis, it's not a phrase. It's -- you can touch, you can feel the life just coming out of people.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Our back is against the wall. I mean, we don't have the resources.

SANTIAGO: Staff at this emergency room tell us they have enough diesel to carry them through the next two days. Rafael Mellado keeps the clinic in Canovanas running and he says they have 15 days worth of medical supplies.

RAFAEL MELLADO, CANOVANAS MEDICAL CENTER: But come 15 days, I mean, we are going to have -- we are going to have lack of money, lack of resources.

SANTIAGO: That's the fear for the people trying to get through Maria's aftermath alive.

CRUZ: We'll make it. But there will be a long list of people to remember on the way.


SANTIAGO: And, you know, the concern is that more deaths could come if they don't get enough resources. As I was speaking to the director there at the Hospital de Maestro, he said, look, those critical patients who came in, their prognosis wasn't very promising from the beginning. But not having the power, well, we shouldn't be playing with people's lives like that -- Jake.

TAPPER: Leyla Santiago in Puerto Rico for us, thank you so much.

The third time is not the charm for Republicans trying to repeal and replace Obamacare. So will the Republicans try again or will they go to tax reform? Next, that story.


[16:23:17] TAPPER: We're back with our politics lead now.

The latest Republican effort to repeal and replace Obamacare will even not come for a vote on the floor of the Senate. Three Republican senators as of yesterday afternoon had publicly opposed the bill. The party can only afford to lose two members in order to have it passed.

CNN's Phil Mattingly is on Capitol Hill.

Phil, Senator Lindsey Graham still saying this is not over?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, forever the optimistic, Senator Graham. Look, he's a co-author of the bill. He was the reason why it was resurrected, he and his colleague Senator Bill Cassidy. But I think when you look at what they planned going forward, perhaps Senator Cassidy said it a little better. Take a listen.


SEN. BILL CASSIDY (R), LOUISIANA: We don't have the votes. I've bee speaking to the leadership and speaking to the president, I think Lindsey and he are on speed dial. We've made the decision since we don't have the votes, we'll postpone that vote.


MATTINGLY: And the stories are actually quite familiar to the other iterations of this process we have seen fall apart before.

At the moment, Republicans in the Senate do not have 50 votes for any health care proposal. They have not been able to bridge the very real ideological divides between the conservatives who want to cutback further on Obamacare than perhaps the moderates. So, the Medicaid expansion state senators. And as long as that exists while Senator Graham and Senator Cassidy say they're going to continue to work, look for other vehicles that they can move forward on healthcare with, they don't have a path forward.

And with that reality kind of facing everybody, Senate Majority Mitch McConnell made very clear today, Jake, tax reform is next. That's what they are moving on to. They're releasing their framework for tax reform tomorrow, unified effort, House, Senate and White House.

That is going to be a heavy lift. Everybody knows that's the case, but that is the ultimate prize. That's why a lot of Republicans are here on Capitol Hill and that will be the push going forward, that issue they campaigned for seven years, campaign cycle after campaign cycle, will be moved to the back, Jake.

[16:25:01] TAPPER: And as of next week, they'll need 60 votes, no longer just 50.

Phil Mattingly, thank you so much.

We are learning how Russian trolls used Facebook ads to try to exploit America social divisions and impact the presidential election. What groups they referenced, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) TAPPER: We're back with more in our politics lead and the pressure intensifying seemingly in the Russia investigation. Today, we learned that special counsel Robert Mueller could start interviewing current and former White House staffers later this week.

That comes from two sources familiar with the matter at CNN and comes as the first tangible evidence of Russia meddling may soon be revealed. The Senate Intelligence Committee is poised to start poring over some 3,000 ads that Facebook sold to Russian linked accounts. Those ads may give insight into just how Russian operatives tried to target social groups to create divisions or at least exacerbate them.

But how did these Russians know whom to target? Today, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee said that is the million dollar question.

CNN's Manu Raju joins me now.

Manu, what can the special panel specifically learn from these Russian ads Facebook is handing over to them?