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White House Defends Puerto Rico Response Amid Criticism; DHS: No Official Request to Waive Puerto Rico Shipping Rules; War Veterans "Trump Is the One Who Should Take the Knee"; House to Examine Officials' Use of Private Jets. Aired 11:30-12p ET

Aired September 27, 2017 - 11:30   ET



[11:33:15] KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: It has now been one week since Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico, leaving 3.5 million Americans facing desperate circumstances, getting more desperate by the day, quite frankly. Nowhere is that more evident right now than San Juan's airport, where families are camped out, trying to find some way to get off the island in smoldering heat and very tough circumstances.

CNN's Boris Sanchez is at the airport. He's talking to folks there.

Boris, what are you hearing from people there today?

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Immense frustration, Kate. We've been here for several hours, since very early this morning. And wave seen thousands of people in line. There have been thousands of people that have come here since Hurricane Maria swept through Puerto Rico about a week ago. And many of them have nowhere else to go. I've spoken to several people that say they don't have homes to go back to, that were kicked out of their hotels, for those that were vacationing here. And many have come here without tickets, hoping they'll be able to get on a flight out of the territory. Some of them actually do have tickets, but there's been so many flights canceled, that they actually can't get onboard any planes.

Just a short while ago, someone at the American ticket counter came over, a megaphone, and started reading out names, what one passenger described to me as airport lottery. They have a roster of names of people that are confirmed for flights and sometimes there are cheers and sometimes you hear frustration from people, because many of them have been camped out here at the airport for several days with young children, sleeping on the ground. One family that I spoke to had a child with special needs and they feared for the child's life, because he needed some special machinery and special medication to stay alive. They were turned away from a hospital and came here. Because, again, they didn't have anywhere else to go. That child's father actually told me that he did not believe that the government of Puerto Rico was ready for this storm.

On the other side of that argument, I spoke to the CEO of the airport, who told me that there was no way for Puerto Rico to be ready for this kind of storm at all, because of the magnitude of it. Remember, just a few days prior, the island was hit by Hurricane Irma, then you have that category 4 storm that covered the entire island. He says that they are running on about 5,000 gallons of fuel per day for emergency generators to keep this airport open. He says they will soon start running out. He put out a plea to the federal government to give Puerto Rico all the resources it needs to help these people and to get things at least closer to normal -- Kate?

[11:35:39] BOLDUAN: Yes, they need help, in the most obvious ways, when you see the images of how devastated that airport was by that hurricane.

Boris, thank you so much. Keeping an eye on folks there.

So with all of this in mind, the pressure is clearly on, as you heard from Boris just now, from the Trump administration to respond. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are critical of what they see as a too little and too slow response to help millions of Americans in need, still in need of the most basic necessary 'tis, with power, food, water.

President Trump defends his administration's response, so far.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We did a great job in Texas, a great job in Florida, a great job in Louisiana. We hit little pieces of Georgia and Alabama. And frankly, we're doing -- and it's the most difficult job, because it's on the island, it's on an island in the middle of the ocean. It's out in the ocean. You can't just drive your trucks there from other states. And the governor said we are doing a great job. In fact, he thanked me specifically for FEMA and all of the first responders in Puerto Rico.


BOLDUAN: So the president will be heading to Puerto Rico Tuesday of next week.

But right now, his administration is facing some tough questions about whether or not they're helping to cut through red tape, essentially, to get the people of Puerto Rico what they need right now. It's something called the Jones Act that we're talking about here.

CNN's Rene Marsh is looking into all of this.

Rene, what is going on here?

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION AND GOVERNMENT REGULATION CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kate, the Jones Act, for folks who do not know, it essentially puts shipping restrictions in place, only allowing U.S. vessels to go from port to port, along the coast in the United States. That means that foreign vessels are not allowed to pick up and deliver between U.S. ports. There are calls from members of Congress, as well as from Puerto Rico, asking the Department of Homeland Security to waive that restriction as a way to make sure more cheaper supplies, as well as fuel, is able to get into Puerto Rico. Now, there were reports that the Department of Homeland Security

denied Puerto Rico's request or denied a request to waive this Jones' act. The Department of Homeland Security told CNN this morning that it did not deny the waives of this act. They also said that they didn't receive any official request. In fact, the Department of Homeland Security's head, acting head, Elaine Duke, was on Capitol Hill this morning, and just told Congress that DHS never received an official request to waive the Jones Act to get all of those goods into Puerto Rico. But CNN received a copy of a letter that was sent to DHS, asking for just that, for them to waive the Jones Act. And that letter was dated on Monday.

Take a listen to an exchange that just happened on Capitol Hill, between the head of DHS as well as members of Congress, just a short time ago.


REP. KAMALA HARRIS, (D), CALIFORNIA: So I'm troubled, because if you are unaware of those requests, it suggests that there is not a sufficient priority for Puerto Rico and your agency. Is there someone under you, other than the FEMA director, who is responsible to reporting directly to you the status of your agency's work in Puerto Rico? And if so, can you give me the name of that person?

ELAINE DUKE, HOMELAND SECURITY DIRECTOR: We have the request from Congress, so if I misspoke, I apologize. We have the letters from Congress. Those go to Customs and Border Protection. We do not have any request from industry, which is where they typically come from.


MARSH: All right, so there, you know, DHS clarifying that, indeed, they do have a request to waive the Jones Act.

Why is this so important? Because when you're looking at those images there in Puerto Rico, the thing that we are hearing the most is that there is this great need for supplies, for goods, at a cheaper price. They're also looking for fuel, but DHS says there's no fuel shortage. The issue is more so distributing all of the fuel that's already there on the island.

The bottom line is, though, Kate, the optics are not good. When you see and consider the conditions in Puerto Rico and you also consider that DHS waived the Jones Act just two days after Hurricane Harvey, they waived that act for both Texas and Florida.

BOLDUAN: Yes, and also, just as you were speaking, we were getting an update, more response from the White House, Rene, coming from Sarah Sanders, the press secretary. She said, when it comes to the request, the waiver is not needed right now. It is not needed. American vessels have the capacity. That's the message from the White House today.

[11:40:11] MARSH: Right, and that's what I keep on hearing, is that DHS is saying, look, this is not an issue, like it was in Texas and Florida, where there was this fuel shortage. They are maintaining that the fuel is there, the problem is getting it to where it needs to be.

BOLDUAN: Seems something is not adding up, just looking at it from the outside, when you see what people need in Puerto Rico.

Great to see you, Rene. Thank you so much.

MARSH: Thanks.

BOLDUAN: Coming up for us, President Trump says that the fight that he started with the NFL, it is not a distraction. It is an important issue, he says. And he says he's sticking up for the U.S. military and American veterans. But some of those veterans are now speaking out saying, not so fast. One veteran's message to the president. That's next.


[11:45:14] BOLDUAN: President Trump is continuing today, still, his feud with the NFL, slamming players in the most personal terms who kneel during the national anthem in silent protest. But just yesterday, he did assure reporters that his acute Twitter focus on this feud is not distracting him from his other duties.


TRUMP: Well, I wasn't preoccupied with the NFL. I was ashamed of what was taking place. It's called respect for our country. Many people have died. Many, many people. Many people are so horribly injured, I was at Walter Reed Hospital recently and I saw so many great young people and their missing legs and their missing arms and they've been so badly injured. And they were fighting for our country. They were fighting for our flag. They were fighting for our national anthem. And for people to disrespect that by kneeling during the playing of our national anthem, I think, is disgraceful.


BOLDUAN: But, in a candid opinion piece, one veteran writes this: "A football player who takes a stand he believes in to make America better by kneeling during the national anthem is not threatening the ideals I stood for when I joined the military. What threatens the ideals I enlisted into the military to protect is our commander-in- chief trying to crush free speech and peaceful political activism. That is what disrespects our flag and the anthem for which I will always choose to stand."

That veteran is Paul Rieckhoff, the founder and executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, the IAVA. You probably know about it. He's joining me right now.

Great to see you.


RIECKHOFF: Interesting times.

BOLDUAN: Interesting, to say the least.

I want to read the last line of our piece for our viewers. "The one American who really needs to take a knee is another football player, it's the president."

What do you mean?

RIECKHOFF: What I mean is, in the Army, we take a knee when we stop on a patrol, and to ensure you don't take flack or get shot at. In football, when I played football, sometimes you take a knee to take a rest or a play off, or the coach pulls you out of the game and makes you take a knee because you made a mistake. I think the president has made a mistake by trying to squash free speech. I'm always going to stand for the national anthem. That's what I believe in. And if Kaepernick or anyone else wants to take a knee, that's what they believe in and that's their right. That's free speech. That's America. That's what our anthem is all about, the flag is all about. And the even the veterans that I talked to are very divided on this issue. Some of them will never kneel, some of them will kneel, they believe that people have the right for free speech. I haven't talked to many veterans who think no one should have the right to speak out. But the president seems to be in a different place on this. And I think that's why he needs to take a step back. It's ramping up the volume of this conversation. It's not bringing us to a place of respect. And the way he talked about Kaepernick, that's just out of line for the commander-in-chief. We don't need that. We need him focused on bringing things down, not cranking it up.

BOLDUAN: Paul, as I have covered you and known you over the years, you try to stick to policy. The issues that impact veterans' lives.


BOLDUAN: Why was it important to speak out on this?

RIECKHOFF: That was my voice. Our membership is pretty divided on this, right? I think you're hearing from all different veterans. It's important for me to emphasize that the veterans' community is not a monolith.


RIECKHOFF: We have a lot of different voices in our community. And they're all important. And they all need to be evaluated, but they can't be evaluated if we squash free speech. What if a veteran decides to take a knee. Will we come down on that person, too? We have to have a robust, respectful debate. And the commander-in-chief needs to respect that tone. And the politicization of it is out of control on both sides.

(CROSSTALK) RIECKHOFF: Everyone is using this as their bludgeon or their stick and --

BOLDUAN: Do members feel used or caught up in the middle?

RIECKHOFF: Constantly! Now more than ever. Everybody runs behind veterans or uses veterans. We are a very diverse part of America. We don't own the flag exclusively. Everybody owns the flags. That's what we understand. I think it's good that veterans are being injected in this conversation, but we're only part of it. It has to be a more robust conversation and I hope veterans can lead that and we can lead unity. Right? Right now, there are over 100,000 veterans in Puerto Rico. People forget there are over a million veterans in Florida and in Texas. They are being affected and they're also affecting change. Maybe the silver lining here is that veterans can bring the country together and show unity in a way we haven't, able to find anywhere else.

BOLDUAN: I actually wanted to ask you about that. You've been tweeting about how many veterans there are that come from the U.S. territories, from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.


BOLDUAN: And there are a lot.

RIECKHOFF: I served with people in Iraq from Puerto Rico. I think Americans forget that. They are a part of our military, a part of our country. The Puerto Rican National Guard is going to be involved. And that's a part of this conversation I think, is being neglected. There are Americans over there that are older veterans, many World War II veterans, that have been adversely affected by this storm. And encouragingly, there are a lot of young guys, others, who are running into the fray to step up and be helpful. I think we can be a source of inspiration and unity, especially in times like this.

[11:50:00] BOLDUAN: Hearing your voice is an important part of it. Your opinion piece struck a chord with a lot of people. So thanks for coming on.

RIECKHOFF: Thanks for having me, Kate. Thank you.

BOLDUAN: Thank you.

RIECKHOFF: Appreciate it very much.

BOLDUAN: Thank you.

Programming note for us. Tonight, at 9:00 p.m. eastern, Anderson Cooper will host a town hall, "Patriotism, the Players and the President." Tonight, 9:00 eastern, only on CNN.

Still ahead for us, the price of a private jet and lots of trips. Health Secretary Tom Price is going to have to talk about the price right now, the high cost of his use of private jets. Congress is now launching an investigation into him. We'll explain. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BOLDUAN: New this morning, the House Oversight Committee is planning to examine senior government officials' use of private aircrafts for official travel. This comes after Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, he's under fire now for using taxpayer money for private jet travel. This comes from "Politico," and is a fascinating read. According to "Politico," Price used private planes on the taxpayer dime for trips that combined official business and personal travel.

Let me bring in Tom Foreman.

Tom, what are you learning here? What do we know?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: This is exactly the thing you don't want to have a happen when your administration is saying we're all about draining the swamp. Because essentially what this looks like here is that numerous times, the secretary took private jets to go back and forth to places where he easily could have taken commercial jets. And that on some of these trips, he was engaging in some degree of private business, like meeting with family members or doing things like that. And you know, the real question is how much was official and how much was something else. And was there really no other option except taking these private jets out there? He says he's going to look into it, that he's very concerned about the issue, which, of course raises the question, why weren't you concerned the first time you were escorted on to one of these jets. His staff said this is one of those things where he wanted to get out and meet the people. And I'm sure many are saying, you want to meet people, fly coach. You'll meet plenty of them.

[11:55:31] BOLDUAN: Economy. Not even the extra leg-room party.


BOLDUAN: Great to see you, Tom. Thank you so much.

FOREMAN: Thanks, Kate.

BOLDUAN: This isn't going anywhere. House Oversight said they are looking into it.

Coming up for us, CNN's exclusive new detail how the president reacted to his chosen candidate's loss in that Alabama election last night. Sources say the president was fuming and embarrassed by the loss. But what does this all mean for him? That's coming up.