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Relief Effort Stepped Up as Puerto Rico Crisis Deepens; Twitter to Congress: It Acted on 200 Russia-Linked Accounts . Aired 5-6p ET
Aired September 28, 2017 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. In desperate need. More than three million Americans caught in the humanitarian crisis as Puerto Rico struggles in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Nearly half have no clean water. Many are short of food and fuel and can't reach medical care. Ninety percent of the island still has no power.
Gridlocked. With infrastructure destroyed and roads blocked, the relief effort is gridlocked. The military puts a three-star general in charge of its operations, focusing in on distribution of critical supplies.
Russia's Twitter trolls. Congressional investigators meet behind closed doors with officials from Twitter to learn how Russian trolls and automated bots may have tried to sway the 2016 presidential election. I'll speak with a key member of the House Intelligence Committee.
And tortured? A growing mystery over what happened to a U.S. college student while he was in North Korean custody. Kim Jong-un's regime denies allegations by Otto Warmbier's parents and President Trump that he was tortured. What really led to Warmbier's death?
I'm Wolf Blitzer, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: Breaking news, Puerto Rico, home to more than three million U.S. citizens, is in the grip of a deepening humanitarian crisis right now. Nearly half of all residents have no clean drinking water. Ninety percent of the island still has no power. There are shortages of food and fuel, and roads are blocked.
U.S. military has now put a three-star general in charge of its relief effort which will focus in on distribution of supplies. The White House says 10,000 federal relief workers and 7,500 troops have been deployed.
Congressional investigators meet behind closed doors, meanwhile, with officials from Twitter to discuss how Russian-linked accounts may have been -- may have used the social media platform to try to sway the 2016 election. Twitter now says it took action on some 200 such accounts.
U.S. intelligence agencies have reported that Russians used an army of trolls and automated bots on Twitter during the campaign.
Also breaking now. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price says he regrets the concern that's arisen from his use of private charter planes and says he'll write a personal check to the U.S. Treasury. Sources say advisors have urged President Trump to fire Price, but the president has privately indicated he's not ready to do that.
I'll speak with Democratic Congressman Jim Himes of the House Intelligence Committee. And our correspondent, specialists, and guests, they are all standing by with full coverage.
Let's begin with a humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico right now and go straight to CNN's Boris Sanchez. He's in San Juan for us.
What's the latest there, Boris?
BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey there, Wolf. Earlier today there was a dispute between local officials here. A spokesperson for the governor's office, who made a claim that there were some 10,000 shipping containers that were stuck here at the port in San Juan. We heard from FEMA that said that that wasn't the case. That there were no -- there were no containers stuck here.
I did hear from an official from a company that manages these who says that it is important to get them out to those who need them. The supplies that are inside are vital. He says that the average Puerto Ricans, it doesn't matter who this aid is coming from, from the federal government or from anyone else, as long as they get supplies. And people that I'm hearing from here on the ground say that they are simply not getting them.
SANCHEZ (voice-over): Desperate Puerto Ricans line up outside the San Juan ice plant. Some say they've been waiting since midnight, many just hoping for a small bag of ice to keep their remaining food or medication cool.
But for the fourth straight day, they are told there will be no ice. They should try again tomorrow.
Maria Rosario says she does not know what to tell her daughters when they ask for food.
MARIA ROSARIO, HURRICANE MARIA VICTIM (through translator): I'm getting desperate. This is no way to live, really. They should bring us water or other supplies, because the kids keep asking.
SANCHEZ: Many like Rosario are angry, because they say the government is not doing enough.
LYVIA RODRIGUEZ, SAN JUAN COMMUNITY LEADER: And people are already finishing up their stacks of food.
There's a lot of people in the community that are wondering if FEMA is going to come. SANCHEZ: Officials are scrambling to clear the logistical bottlenecks
that are hindering the flow of resources. Thousands of shipping containers, packed with goods, are sitting on the island's biggest port, stuck.
JOSE AYALA, VICE PRESIDENT, CROWLEY SHIPPING: We're talking about medicines. We're talking about food. We're talking about water. Ice. Construction materials.
[17:05:03] SANCHEZ: The vice president of Crowley's operations in Puerto Rico says there are not enough truck drivers available and not enough fuel to deliver these goods where they need to go.
AYALA: The frustration of knowing that maybe right now, right now there's a person in need of medicine. That right now babies, children, don't have water, a bottle of water. And it's here. It's in Puerto Rico.
SANCHEZ: An endless tangle of blocked roads adding to the difficulties. Even contacting drivers is a problem, because cell towers are still offline. The mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulin Cruz, says FEMA officials have been compassionate, but she says the federal agency told her that her initial petition for help was not good enough. She was asked to write several memos.
MAYOR CARMEN YULIN CRUZ, SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO (via phone): Now is not the time for memos. Now is the time for action. Now is the time for justice, and now is the time to get life support, supplies into people's hands.
SANCHEZ: Now Wolf, the director of FEMA, Tom Bossert, could not confirm that claim from the mayor of San Juan about being requested several memos from FEMA.
However, he did tell CNN that some FEMA crews have been embedded here in Puerto Rico for at least two days with the governor and the Department of Defense to make sure the coordination of supplies is running smoothly.
Aside from that, we did hear from a FEMA official this afternoon on a call with the media who said that not a single FEMA aid shipping container has been stuck at either the port or at the airport, Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes, Tom Bossert, just to be clear, he's the president's homeland security advisor, not the FEMA director. I'll be speaking live with him, by the way, in the next hour with Tom Bossert.
BLITZER: But I want to just clarify, the shipping containers -- and there are thousands of them that are behind you, Boris -- are not necessarily filled with relief aid, but goods that would normally be shipped into Puerto Rico, right? SANCHEZ: Precisely, Wolf. Forgive me for misspeaking earlier. But
yes, the vice president of Crowley's operations here in Puerto Rico tells me that they are filled with vital goods that would be in store shelves and on the tables of many Puerto Ricans, but they're being held up by, as I mentioned earlier, a lack of truckers, a lack of fuel to actually get them to where they need to go, Wolf.
He says that it's a matter of semantics. This may not be classified as aid, but it certainly would be helpful for families that are in desperate need of potable water and food.
BLITZER: Boris Sanchez on the scene for us in San Juan. We'll get back to you. Thank you very much.
Outside of the cities, desperation is setting in as people are cut off from food, fuel, and medical supplies. I want to go to our senior international correspondent, Ivan Watson.
Ivan, you got into the countryside today, and I want you to tell our viewers the scene you saw.
IVAN WATSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: OK. I went to a village called San Lorenzo, Wolf, it's in Morovis municipality. As the crow flies, it's only about 25 miles from where I'm standing now. In fact, we just made the drive back in about 45 minutes.
But that village is cut off from the outside world, because the flash floods that followed Hurricane Maria eight days ago washed out the bridge that linked that village of more than 1,000 people to the outside world. It has forced, now, the residents of that village to have to ford a river in knee-high water with a cable that they've laid themselves across the river to help them ford that river. They have to cling to that. And that's just to get across the river and then to hike hours to try to reach a store to buy food in, for example.
The village itself and the surrounding municipality or Morovis has no electricity. It has no telecommunications, and there is little to no running water.
And as I explained, ordinary transport, such as trying to get from that village to the rest of Puerto Rico, is all but paralyzed.
So you have this almost, you know, 19th Century scene of people fording this river. In one case, I saw somebody leading a horse across. And that's what they have to do to try to get help.
There is a longer road from the village of San Lorenzo that takes you for hours through the mountains. But because of the fuel crisis on the island, people can't afford to drive their car those hours to try to get out.
If there's a medical emergency in the village, they can't call 911 for help. There are no radios to try to get out for help either.
The villagers, they tell me that two days after the hurricane, a team from FEMA came and visited, and then left; and that the mayor of the municipality has visited several times. She authorized them to go into the storage supplies of food at the school, which was heavily damaged by the storm, and just distribute that food to the community.
[17:10:12] But a dire situation eight days after the hurricane, a U.S. town virtually cut off from the outside world -- Wolf.
BLITZER: That's a heartbreaking story, indeed. All right, Ivan, thanks very much.
Ivan is in San Juan, where things are a bit -- a bit -- better.
Joining us now, Puerto Rico's delegate to the United States Congress, the resident commissioner, Congresswoman Jennifer Gonzalez.
Congresswoman, what's your reaction when you hear those kinds of reports from Ivan Watson or Boris Sanchez? These are heart-breaking reports.
REP. JENNIFER GONZALEZ (R), PUERTO RICO: They are sad. I mean, that's the reality on our island I used to live on right now. I was there during the hurricane. I just came back this week. And just seeing what our people are suffering right now, it's heart-breaking.
This is a hard situation. We never expected to be living in a -- in a humanitarian crisis like we are living right now. So that's the reason it's so important, all the federal agencies being on the ground.
And I know this is a tireless effort from FEMA and for all branches. I know Secretary Tom Price is doing a wonderful job sending medics, 600 medics during this weekend and more than 700 new beds to the hospitals in Puerto Rico.
And those lines that you see there, that you saw there, and even the bridges, people crossing across the river during this time will let you know, not just only those images. I mean, that's the -- the reality of this situation right now, and that's the desperation of the devastation we just -- we just got from Maria.
So all the efforts from the federal government, and I know President Trump -- actually, I spoke with him yesterday. Today we got another conference call in the morning. I just came back from some meetings with Scalise during his first day and people from the federal agencies, all of them; FEMA director, he's doing a wonderful job.
But the problem here is -- the challenge the administration and local and the federal one got is how to -- how to send more personnel to the island. How to get out of those ports with those commodities to be sent directly to the people. The people are not receiving them right now, and that's the main problem we're having right now.
BLITZER: You know, I was speaking with our chief medical correspondent, Congresswoman, Dr. Sanjay Gupta. He's in Puerto Rico right now. And just imagine if you need oxygen, you're an elderly person or even young, or if you need some significant medical procedures and there's no power; there's no electricity; the hospitals are shut down. What are people supposed to do?
GONZALEZ: Actually, I mean, they don't have any other place to hide. I mean, there's no other way to get out of the island. And by now, we are coordinating with the Coast Guard and federal agencies like the Army and FEMA, the transportation of those patients for receiving chemo, for receiving dialysis. Even people with diabetes, they don't have, you know, ice enough to, you know, to handle their insulin. We're talking about those things that are essential to, I mean, to save lives.
So that's the reason we are -- we are having all of this federal effort coming to the island. I know that during this weekend the logistics to get the things and the commodities from the port to the gas stations, to the hospitals, is going to be arriving.
Now, finally, we got a general that is helping the governor of Puerto Rico, and he's leading this effort with all federal agencies. I think this is the first time ever the government of Puerto Rico got so excellent relations to coordinate all those efforts with the federal government.
BLITZER: But you know, Congresswoman -- you know -- and this is a heart-breaking situation, if that aid for somebody who needs dialysis, as you say, or diabetes, if that aid doesn't get there within the next few days, you know, God forbid, these people are going to die, and they need this -- they need this assistance right now.
GONZALEZ: Awful. Wolf, people are dying already. I mean, we got information about people from the 16 deaths that have been there. Some of them as regarding this, in the dialysis. Because we coordinate 25 of those peoples to be moved from one town to another one. And that's the reality we are living in now. No water, no power, no communications. People don't even know if your family is OK.
I haven't got any communication with my grandmothers, with my aunt, my cousins. I mean, that's the reality the island is living right now. That's the reason more than five million Puerto Ricans across the United States are desperate to know what's going on in the island.
And that's the reason it's so important to have this federal commitment. And I thank President Trump for doing that call, for taking this seriously and having a daily briefing on this issue, because all his cabinet members are calling me and calling the governor, are putting resources there. But we still need more. And the people need to see all those efforts. I know they are under way and already on the island before, during, and after Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria, but the challenge of the situation for Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands is just dire.
[17:15:26] BLITZER: Because you're a United States congresswoman. You represent Puerto Rico in the U.S. House of Representatives. And you're telling us, a week later, all of these days later, you still don't know if your grandparents and your cousins are OK, because you haven't been able to make a phone call to them? Is that right? GONZALEZ: Yes. I mean, there's no communications to some parts of
the island, to the southern part of the island. There's no cell phone. There's no land lines. To the eastern part of the island, there's no communication at all.
Actually, the federal government and the local government just loaned satellite phones to the mayors, because there was no communication at all, just to send the help. I mean, that's the kind of situation we are living. We never expected, in the United States, to have this kind of situation on U.S. soil.
BLITZER: FEMA says that 47 of the 69 hospitals in Puerto Rico and the whole island, they are up and running. But our own Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who's there on the ground, he's been to some of these hospitals. He says that number is inflated. Some hospitals can only operate intermittently for a few hours a day. They can't operate at night. There's limited power. They certainly aren't operating at full capacity.
Should restoring medical services be a top priority right now for the U.S. government, the U.S. military, FEMA, the Puerto Rican government?
GONZALEZ: I mean, right now, HHS and FEMA and all the logistics are helping now to send diesel to those generators in the clinics and the hospitals. And of those 47 hospitals, one thing is that they are having generators. They're having power.
But the other thing is how many E.R. rooms they've got that are functioning in full mode? I mean, we are working right now in a minimum capacity of hospitals, and that's the reason for President Trump to send U.S. Comfort. And that's the reason Secretary of Health Tom Price send during this weekend more than 600 medics, personnel, vaccines and new beds for the hospitals. That's the reason I'm having calls twice a day with DHS with all the efforts that are needed.
People -- I mean, this is a desperate situation. This is about saving lives, and that's the top priority for the Trump administration. And I know that because they're working with the government of Puerto Rico, this issue. And I hope that all this effort, all these logistics to get things to move from one point to another can be done before -- before this weekend.
BLITZER: Here's a blunt question, Congresswoman: Is the crisis in Puerto Rico being treated with the same sense of urgency that we saw following the hurricanes in Texas and Florida?
GONZALEZ: That's a tough question. Because there's a big difference between Puerto Rico and Texas and Florida and Louisiana. And that is not just that we are not a state yet, but it's that we are an island. So get things, you know, ship it to the island by air or by sea when your ports are closed, when your airports are closed, it was like that from Saturday.
And then they reopened the airports. Then they reopened the ports, and that's the reason everything is taking so long.
But I hope, again, people of Puerto Rico are people with a lot of energy, a lot of hope, and we're praying to this help to get out soon.
BLITZER: I want to get your reaction to this statement we heard earlier today from the acting homeland security secretary, Elaine Duke. Congresswoman, listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ELAINE DUKE, ACTING HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: I am very satisfied. I know it's a hard storm to recover from, but the amount of progress that's been made, and I really would appreciate any support that we get. I know it is really a good news story in terms of our ability to reach people and the limited number of deaths that have taken place in such a devastating hurricane.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Do you agree with her assessment that this is a good news story?
GONZALEZ: Of course not. This is not a good news story. This is a great opportunity to unite the federal government and the local government. And this is a great opportunity, and it's happening right now. We've got more than 10,000 personnel from the federal government down on the island helping the local officials to manage this situation.
I do understand the secretary want to project and to explain to people that all the efforts, all the federal efforts and agents are there, are inside, are doing the job.
[17:20:03] But we still need to see, I mean, the things -- the water, electricity, the medicines, the food -- to arrive to the hands -- to the direct hands of the people. That's what we're looking for. That's the desperation of the people. You saw it, looking for a bag of ice. I mean, that kind of desperation, that kind of devastation is the one we are feeling.
I mean, it's so sad to see what's going on in my island at this time. And I know the American people are working -- the athletes, the artists, and even I mean, Vice President Pence, Marco Rubio, and I can have a list of the people who are working tireless to make this happen. But still now, we still live in a humanitarian crisis.
BLITZER: Congresswoman Gonzalez, I know you're going back to Puerto Rico tomorrow. I wish you only the best. I want to stay in close touch with you while you're there. And I hope, and please let us know as soon as you know your grandparents are OK, your cousins are OK. We wish only the best for the people of Puerto Rico right now. We're going to stay in very close touch with you. Good luck and thank you for joining us.
GONZALEZ: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: Much more on the breaking news right after this.
(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [17:25:30] BLITZER: The social media company Twitter now says it took action on some 200 Russia-linked accounts which were used to interfere in American politics. That comes as company officials today met behind closed doors with congressional investigators looking into Russian efforts to sway the 2016 presidential election.
Let's go live to our senior congressional correspondent, Manu Raju.
Manu, what are you learning?
MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Twitter today did disclose that there were some Russian-linked accounts that tried to influence the elections.
Actually, the way that they found out about these accounts was that they looked at the roughly 450 accounts that Facebook identified that were tied to Russian actors, and they went and they found that those were tied to actually 22 accounts from Russian troll farms. And from those 22 accounts that they suspended, they found out that almost roughly 200 or so accounts had ties to those accounts.
This as the company also turned over a number of advertisements linked to the RT television network, aimed at also swaying the elections.
Now Wolf, some members of the Senate Intelligence Committee are just not satisfied, including the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, who says Twitter just did not do enough to get to the bottom of this issue.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RAJU: Specifically, did Twitter fail to do, in your mind, and how -- what was their rationale for not providing that information? And lastly, are you considering subpoenas to compel them?
SEN. MARK WARNER (D-VA), VICE-CHAIR, SENATE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Effort that appears to be put forward that it was notionally derivative, based upon the roughly 450 accounts that Facebook identified, and then simply searching more about those specific accounts, either shows an unwillingness to take this threat seriously or a complete lack of a fulsome effort.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
RAJU: Now I followed up with him and said, "Well, does that mean that you're going to issue subpoenas to the company?" He does -- did not rule out the possibility of doing that, saying he was deeply disappointed in Twitter's response so far to the committee, but they are expected to come before them in a public setting in November and also possibly the House Intelligence Committee in October in public sessions, Wolf, where they will certain, undoubtedly, get sharp-edged questions from lawmakers who are just not satisfied that Twitter did enough to understand the root of this issue and do enough to stop it in the future, Wolf.
BLITZER: The Senate Judiciary Committee, as you know, Manu, wants to interview FBI officials about the president's firing of the now former FBI director, James Comey. You're getting more information. What are you -- what are you hearing?
RAJU: Yes, that's right. There's been a big dispute between the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Justice Department over interviewing those two officials who had actually -- have firsthand knowledge of the circumstances around the Comey firing. But the Justice Department has declined to let them be interviewed because of the special counsel, Bob Mueller's, own investigation, a sign that Bob Mueller could also be looking into the very issue, the president's handling and firing of Comey.
Now after weeks of tension, the Senate judiciary chairman, Chuck Grassley, met in private for nearly an hour with the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, to discuss this and a number of other issues. They're trying to figure out a resolution going forward. And we're learning that they're still trying to come to a consensus as the committee considers whether or not to issues subpoenas to force these two officials to come forward and let them know about exactly what happened with the Comey firing, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Manu, thank you. Manu Raju up on Capitol Hill.
Joining us now, Democratic Congressman Jim Himes of Connecticut. He's a key member of the House Intelligence Committee.
Congressman, as you know, Senator Mark Warner says Twitter's presentation today, from his perspective, was deeply disappointing. Was deleting 200 or so Russia-linked accounts an adequate response, from your perspective?
REP. JIM HIMES (D), CONNECTICUT: Yes, hi, Wolf. I don't think so. I wasn't in the room with Senator Warner. I'm on the House side, obviously, but I take him at his word. Mark is a thoughtful and fair guy.
And I've seen on my side of the Capitol, the House investigation, we've encountered a lot of resistance from Twitter in terms of producing information and documents that we want.
And Wolf, I think this stems from a long-held sort of libertarian streak on the part of, you know, high-tech companies, typically out of California, companies like Facebook, like Twitter. They sort of believe that they shouldn't intersect in any way, shape, or form with the government. They think that, you know, they owe their customers absolute statements around privacy and where they will cooperate with the government.
But, you know, I would point out that that's -- they need to get over that in the sense that think back to World War II, In World War II, when the country was attacked, and make no mistakes that the Russians attacked not just our country, but the very center of our democracy. In World War II, you know, companies like Goodyear, like Ford said we will set aside our commercial concerns and everything else to join in the defense and the war effort to defeat a threat to this country. And I don't think that groups like Twitter, Facebook, have kind of gotten into that frame of mind yet, but when it comes to an attack on our country, they need to understand that they need to get with us and that their customers will understand that if they're helping us, if they're passing on, you know, information that that doesn't necessarily vitiate their commitment to privacy for the general public.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Can anything, Congressman, be really done to hold social media companies like Twitter, for example, accountable for participating in Russian propaganda campaigns?
HIMES: Well, you know, I don't want to quite use that language yet because, you know, they've got businesses that perhaps they didn't know what was happening. I'm not sure that there was somebody at Twitter or at Facebook saying, let's work with the Russians on this one because they're bringing a big check. Now, they've got a huge operation and it may simply be that they need to do a better job of seeing who's making what arguments and what people are paying for what ads on their businesses. So, again, I think this is an attitude shift that needs to occur where they come to realize that when it comes to attack, an attack on the country that allowed their very businesses to grow into multibillion dollar operations when we've been attacked, they need to join the team and isolate and help us understand how those attacks worked.
BLITZER: According to the Washington Post, President Obama actually made a personal appeal to Facebook Founder, Mark Zuckerberg, to take this threat from Russia seriously. But he only made that plea after the November 8th election, was the Obama administration too cautious about tackling this problem as it was unfolding in the months leading up to the election?
HIMES: You know, Wolf, it's my opinion, broadly speaking, that the accountability that we sent Vladimir Putin's way, the kicking out of a number of diplomats, the shutdown of a couple of facilities, the conversation that the president, I guess, had with Mark Zuckerberg that that was not enough. You know, I'm not sure that Twitter and Facebook yet are where we need them to be which is that they will cooperate in a lawful and intelligent way. And I'm 100 percent sure that Vladimir Putin regarded the actions that the Obama administration took against him as something along the lines of a slap on the wrist. I think that we didn't make it plain enough that this sort of meddling, this sort of attack will be met with the kind of consequences consistent with an attack on the very core of our democracy.
BLITZER: You think that was because President Obama and so many other people simply thought Hillary Clinton was going to win and why raise this issue at a sensitive moment like that in the presidential election?
HIMES: I think there were a lot of cross currents at the time, Wolf, look, you had, you know, you had Donald Trump saying that this election was going to be rigged, and that he might not acknowledge the outcome of the election if he lost. That's a very big deal. That's a real threat to the stability of our system. And so, I imagine, and by the way, to be fair, there were people on my side of the aisle who used the word rigged and thought the election wasn't on the level.
So, I do think that the then-sitting president was probably very, very cautious about doing anything which would indicate that he was acting politically. Nonetheless, at the end of the day, and maybe this is where I would agree -- disagree with the former president, look, I think Americans are mature, thoughtful citizens. I think if the information had been out there they would have, for the most part, made the right choices. So, I wish more information had gotten out and I wish that the consequences for Russia had been more, had been more serious.
BLITZER: I want to get your reaction to some exclusive reporting from CNN's Jake Tapper. He's reporting that Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and senior advisor failed to disclose to the staff of the Senate Intelligence Committee that he sometimes used a personal e-mail account for official White House government business. Could Kushner be in legal jeopardy right now?
HIMES: Well, it's sort of hard to overcome the kind of just unbelievable irony associated with the fact that not just Jared Kushner, but apparently other White House officials. You know, after the Trump campaign, and the right, generally, spent, you know, a year absolutely pounding Hillary Clinton for using a private server. And remember, there was absolutely no evidence offered at any point in time that there had been a breach of that e-mail server, that it had been at risk, bad idea, I got that, then they would turn around and do exactly the same thing.
[17:35:00] BLITZER: Well, let me interrupt you. Congressman, they didn't do exactly the same thing. They didn't have private e-mail servers, they had a private account. And according to his attorney, Kushner used it maybe 100 times or so and he did engage in some government business, but didn't think it was very significant. On a much smaller scale than Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state over four years, used thousands and thousands of government- related e-mails on that personal e-mail server.
HIMES: Yes, well, you're right that it is different to use a commercial e-mail service than it is to use your own server, but both of those examples violate the regulations of the federal government which is that you will use and save and protect official e-mail on official government e-mail. So, I think it's a little bit of a distinction without a difference.
And you know, again, there's no evidence that Jared Kushner was passing on classified information, so I don't want to leave that impression, but the reality is that both behaviors are inconsistent with federal guidelines and I just find it pretty ironic. Look, sitting here where we know that Don Jr. was meeting with the Russians that, you know, all of the allegation of Michael Flynn are out there, it just stuns me to remember that the chief attack on Hillary Clinton was that she had somewhat suboptimal e-mail practices.
BLITZER: Congressman Jim Himes of Connecticut, thanks very much for joining us.
HIMES: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: Also breaking right now, White House officials are strongly defending the Trump administration's response in hurricane-devastated Puerto Rico despite the many dire reports of growing desperation as people all across the island face shortages of food, water, and medicine. Our Senior White House Correspondent, Jeff Zeleny, asked the White House Press Secretary, Sarah Sanders, today about this ongoing crisis. Jeff, tell us what she told you.
JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: We did, Wolf. We asked the White House Press Secretary, Sarah Sanders, during that briefing if the president was satisfied by the response he had seen because we had not heard from him on Puerto Rico at all today. She said that he is focused on these efforts but he wants to put people first over paperwork. But Wolf, tonight, so much bureaucracy here at the White House raising questions about this administration's response.
ZELENY: The White House is scrambling tonight amid rising criticism of a sluggish response to storm-ravaged Puerto Rico.
TOM BOSSERT, HOMELAND SECURITY ADVISER TO PRESIDENT TRUMP: Again, it is not a matter of too fast or too slow, people are fixating on that.
ZELENY: Tom Bossert, President Trump's Top Homeland Security Adviser, defending the administration's actions eight days after Hurricane Maria struck the U.S. territory. Only today did the Pentagon appoint at Three-Star General, Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanon, to coordinator efforts on the ground. Why has it taken eight days to get a three- star general on the ground to start organizing this? We know the island situation, et cetera, but why weight days?
BOSSERT: Yes, well because it didn't, it didn't require a three-star general eight days ago. We have a three-star general in charge of this and we had one in charge of this out of San Antonio from day minus eight.
ZELENY: San Antonio is thousands of miles from Puerto Rico. Why -- was it a mistake; would you acknowledge it was a mistake looking back to not have this three-star general on the ground earlier?
BOSSERT: No, not at all. In fact, that doesn't affect that the way we stage equipment and the way we handle area command and field operational commands, this is textbook and it's been done well.
ZELENY: But how the aid has been distributed, or in many cases, hasn't been is the subject of considerable debate.
RUSSEL HONORE, RETIRE LIEUTENANT GENERAL, U.S. ARMY: I don't know what the hell is going on back there.
ZELENY: Russel Honore, the retired Lieutenant General, who commanded the response to Hurricane Katrina told Wolf, the government's actions in Puerto Rico have been too slow.
HONORE: They've been slow to deploy the military. You know, took us seven days to point a Brigadier General, and another 24 hours for them to make a decision at the Pentagon that we need a three-star general.
ZELENY: Florida Senator, Marco Rubio, who visited Puerto Rico this week, said the military response was overdue.
SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: The supply chain, the logistical chain on the island is broken. It isn't working because of the storm and other challenges, and it needs to be restored and in my view, the only people who can restore who have the capacity to do so quickly in the short term, and then turn it over to the authorities there in Puerto Rico is the Department of Defense. They're logistical experts.
ZELENY: At the White House, the president did not talk about Puerto Rico today, and he had no events on his public schedule. His advisors appeared to struggle with the magnitude of the crisis. When asked by CNN's Kate Baldwin if he was satisfied by the response, he said this:
BROCK LONG, ADMINISTRATOR, FEMA: No, I'm not satisfied because the fact is, is that we will not be satisfied until we stabilize the situation which is why we work day in and day out, hour after hour to try to alleviate the situation the best that we can.
ZELENY: An entirely different answer from the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.
ELAINE DUKE, ACTING SECRETARY, DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY: I am very satisfied. I know it is really a good news story in term was our ability to reach people, and the limited number of deaths that have taken place in such a devastating hurricane.
[17:40:00] ZELENY: Now amid all of these questions about the government's response to Puerto Rico, Wolf, the White House also contending with the ongoing story about members of the cabinet using charter flights to fly across the country, particularly Health and Human Services Secretary, Tom Price. Now, the president is still deciding his fate. The White House says today the president is reviewing this, other reviews are under way, but they are halting all private flights for now.
And we're getting late word just a short time ago that the secretary said that he would reimburse the government for his cost of the flights for his seat. But Wolf, that does not account for all of the hundreds of thousands of dollars for the entire flights here. So, watch for this to continue, the president still not saying if he has confidence or will hold on to his HHS secretary.
BLITZER: All right. Jeff Zeleny over at the White House reporting on all of this. Thank you very much. Let's bring in our specialist and let's talk a little but about that Tom Price issue, Gloria. 54,000, apparently, he's going to reimburse the government for the cost of his seats on all of those couple dozen flights. Maybe 300,000, if not more, wound up costing U.S. taxpayers. So, there's still going to be a huge gap between what he's reimbursing the government for and what the government had to shell out.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Right, and you can make the case that the planes would never have been chartered had it not been for the fact that the HHS secretary asked for them. And that the other people who were on the plane were only there because they got a ride with the secretary, and so you can ask the question about, why shouldn't he pay for all the charters? Look, this is someone who should know better. He's a member of congress. He is somebody who has spoken for years about waste in government, particularly in areas like Medicaid, he was going to -- he was going to fair it out the waste, fraud, and abuse in the Medicaid system.
And he has been a conservative, you know, not a big spender, wants to cut the deficit, et cetera, et cetera. He's also in the middle of a health care fight that has been unsuccessful, and I think that this is somebody who just should've known better and it's not surprising to me that the president and other members of the administration are quite upset about this because the president clearly understands the optics of all of this, particularly in the middle of the fights they're in the middle of, heading into tax reform.
BLITZER: Some of the president's aides as you know, Rebecca, they want him to fire Secretary Price. So, the president's not yet ready to do that. But certainly, isn't expressing any bode of confidence for him in all of these public statements.
REBECCA BERG, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, REAL CLEAR POLITICS: No, if I'm Tom Price, I don't want to hear the president saying about my future: well, we'll see what happens. That's not exactly a vote of confidence, but it's interesting, Wolf, that the president is hesitating at this moment. Instead of throwing Tom Price under the bus like he did with Jeff Sessions, for example, when he was unhappy with his performance as attorney general, I think there are a few factors at play here. The president doesn't like being backed into a corner. He probably feels like he's getting public pressure, pressure from lawmakers, pressure from the media on this issue, and he likely wants to make the decision on his own time.
And you mentioned the health care fight, Gloria. The process that he would need to go through to appoint a new health secretary and then start from scratch in the middle of this health care reform process when the president is hoping at the beginning of the next year to start this process over again, that would be unnecessarily complicated and probably something that he doesn't want to have to deal with.
BLITZER: And as you know, it's not just Secretary Price, Secretary Mnuchin was using some private planes, Scott Pruitt was using some private planes, others were using private planes. You served in the federal government far long time, you know the bureaucracy how this unfolds. Is there -- was there a culture that created the moment for this to go forward?
PHILIP MUDD, FORMER COUNTERTERRORISM OFFICIAL, CIA: It's not just a culture. I'd make it simpler: when you get into a senior position like that, you build a bubble. In that bubble, you start to rationalize things. Let me tell you how this game works. You start to say my time's valuable. I can save six hours by avoiding commercial and going on an aircraft that's going to cost 20,000 bucks -- by the way, it's not just my seat, it's 20,000 bucks we're talking here. I'd like to see his dinner bill. If he charged a $500 bottle of wine and he wants to pay his own check for a glass of wine, I want him to pay for the bottle.
My point is you get in bubble and you forget one simple question that anybody in government and a senior position has to think about. If this shows up with Wolf Blitzer on THE SITUATION ROOM, I don't care what the ethics attorney says, I don't care how I rationalize this, do after I one sentence answer that people believe? And the answer is he doesn't; he forgot the simple principle.
BORGER: Well, you know, and my colleague, M.J. Lee and I have spoken to former HHS secretaries who said they always flew commercial. I spoke with Donna Shalala who was HHS Secretary in the Clinton years and she said not only did she fly commercial, but she flew coach when she flew commercial. And the rules, by the way, say that you can only charter when no commercial airline service is available or in the case of an emergency or and I would argue there is commercial airline service available to places like Nashville, Tennessee, to places like Philadelphia. In fact, from D.C., you can even take a train to Philadelphia and be there in an hour and a half.
[17:45:31] BLITZER: Which all of us have done.
MUDD: I hear you.
BORGER: Exactly. Exactly.
BLITZER: Very nice. Very nice train ride. Tom Price was a member of congress as we pointed out, he used to rail against all the officials that were using private planes, so he clearly should have known better --
BORGER: Nancy Pelosi, he's railed against.
BLITZER: -- as he has self-acknowledges right now.
BLITZER: All right. Guys, stand by, coming up, a new escalation in the war of words between North Korea and the United States. Kim Jong- un's regime denies a captured American was tortured while President Trump and the young man's parents insist he was.
[17:50:42] BLITZER: A growing mystery tonight over what happened to a U.S. college student while he was held by North Korea, Otto Warmbier died shortly after being returned to the United States. Kim Jong-un's regime denies claims that he was tortured. Brian Todd has been looking into all of this for us, what are you learning, Brian? BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, tonight, the controversy over
Otto Warmbier's death is intensifying. The North Koreans, pushing back hard to the Warmbier family's allegations that he was tortured in their custody. And veteran coroners are complaining tonight that we may never know for sure what happened to him because of a decision his family made.
TODD: Tonight, the mystery over what happened to Otto Warmbier while he was in North Korean custody is deepening. Kim Jong-un's regime, today, denied allegations that the 22-year-old college student was tortured during the 17 months they held him. President Trump tweeted this week: "Otto was tortured beyond belief by North Korea." Warmbier's parents told their story to CNN.
FRED WARMBIER, FATHER OF OTTO WARMBIER: Otto was systematically tortured and intentionally injured by Kim John -- Kim and his regime.
TODD: Warmbier's father says after he was returned from North Korea in June in a vegetative state, and before Otto died a few days later, he examined his son's bottom teeth and found what he says is evidence of torture.
WARMBIER: His teeth looked like they had been rearranged with a pair of pliers.
TODD: But the Hamilton County Coroner in Ohio, who did an external examination of Warmbier and brought in a forensic dentist contradicts the father's claim.
LAKSHMI KODE SAMMARCO, CORONER, HAMILTON COUNTRY, OHIO: There is no evidence of trauma to the lower teeth or the mandible. We were surprised that they -- yes, at that statement. The coroner says their post mortem examination found no obvious signs of torture, but we may never know for sure. Warmbier's family declined a full autopsy, and the coroner went along with that request. Dr. Victor Weedon, a Forensic Pathologist, who's investigated hundreds of murders says that was a mistake.
VICTOR WEEDON, FORENSIC PATHOLOGIST: This is a case that has tremendous potential international repercussions. This a case where there's a possibility that it was a homicide. In those cases, there should be no questions. You should do an autopsy. It's possible that a torture can be committed and you don't see signs on the outside of the body but might see signs internally.
TODD: Warmbier's doctors have said he lost much of his brain tissue due to oxygen deprivation to the brain. Veteran coroners tell CNN, that could have been caused by strangulation but also possibly by medication, a heart attack, a blood clot, or a botched suicide attempt. Warmbier was sentenced to hard labor for allegedly stealing a political poster during a visit to Pyongyang. Some analysts believe it may not have been in the North Korean's interest to torture Warmbier severely, because they frequently use American prisoners as bargaining chips. BALBINA HWANG, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY: It's as with any kidnap victim.
It does you no good to try a ransom if the goods, frankly, are not, you know, still breathing and healthy and safe.
TODD: But most everyone agrees, whether the North Koreans tortured Otto Warmbier or not, his fate falls squarely on the shoulders of Kim Jong-un.
GREG SCARLATOIU, COMMITTEE FOR HUMAN RIGHTS IN NORTH KOREA: There is no doubt that this is the Kim regime's fault. If he hadn't been imprisoned by the North Koreans, Otto Warmbier would be with us today.
TODD: A key question tonight: what can the Trump administration do to punish North Korea for the death of Otto Warmbier? Human rights advocates say the administration could push more sanctions on the Kim regime. They could place the regime back on the list of state- sponsored terrorism. But so far, the State Department has been noncommittal about doing that. Wolf.
BLITZER: Brian, could the coroner in Ohio have overruled the Warmbier family's wishes and actually gone ahead and done an autopsy on Otto Warmbier?
TODD: Wolf, Dr. Victor Weedon, the Forensic Pathologist, who we interviewed for our story says, yes, that coroner in Ohio did have the legal authority to overrule an objection from the family and could have done the autopsy because the coroner can declare they're doing it in the public's interest or for the public's health. But Dr. Weedon also points out that coroner in many of these communities is a political official and maybe the one in Ohio may have felt pressured by the local community to give into the family's wishes. That coroner is in a tough position in Ohio.
[17:55:00] BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting. Thank you. Coming up, our breaking news, more than three million Americans now caught in a humanitarian crisis as Puerto Rico struggles in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. They're short on water, food, and fuel, and most are still blacked out. Is the U.S. government doing enough? I'll ask the President's Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert.
[17:59:57] BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news, no water, no power. Millions of Americans on Puerto Rico, they are struggling more than a week after Hurricane Maria laid waste to much of the U.S. territory with more than two dozen of hospitals still inoperable.