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Interview With White House Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert; Interview With Texas Congressman Will Hurd; Tom Price in Danger?; Puerto Rico in Crisis; Trump Administration Defending Hurricane Response; White House Silent on Confidence in Price Amid Private Jet Uproar. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired September 28, 2017 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: 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 hospitals still inoperable, is the humanitarian crisis about to get much worse?

Blocked road to recovery. Many communities remain cut off from relief supplies that are reaching the island. Ravaged roads and food shortages are hampering distribution. I will talk to President Trump's homeland security adviser this hour about the government's response.

Delete your account. Twitter officials talked to congressional investigators about Russian election meddling, revealing they closed some 200 accounts that stoked hot-button issues like race and immigration and pushed anti-Hillary Clinton stories. Why is one top senator now calling Twitter's testimony disappointing?

And grounded. Health Secretary Tom Price is facing growing heat over his use of private planes. The White House won't say if the president has confidence in Price. Sources say some advisers are encouraging President Trump to fire him. Is Price's job on the line?

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're following breaking news. The crisis engulfing Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

Tonight, more than a week after the disaster, the federal government is stepping up its response, cutting red tape and appointing a three- star U.S. Army general to oversee the effort. But health officials on the island, they are warning the situation could get much worse in the coming days with more than two dozen hospitals inoperable tonight and others struggling with shortages of fuel for their generators.

Puerto Rico's governor now says at least 16 people have died as a result of the hurricane. Also breaking tonight, sources are telling CNN that some of President

Trump's advisers are urging him to fire Health Secretary Tom Price over his use of private jets. The White House won't say whether the president has confidence in Price and one Republican senator tells us the president is "mad as hell" at his health secretary, who's now offering to reimburse taxpayers.

We're covering all of that and much more at this hour with our guests, including Congressman Will Hurd of the Intelligence and Homeland Security Committees. And President Trump's homeland security adviser, Tom Bossert, he will join us live as well.

Our correspondents and specialists are also standing by.

Let's begin in the Puerto Rican capital.

Our chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, is there for us.

Sanjay, the medical situation on the island appears to be right now critical.


We're here in San Juan right now. This is Centro Medico behind me, one of the largest hospitals on the island. And you're seeing some signs of life here, but it's a very different story when you get just a little bit outside of San Juan, if you start to get to the other side of the island.

People have been going without for some time and they have been stuck up in these shelters and in their homes, as we found out. Take a look.


GUPTA (voice-over): This is 62-year-old Josefina Alvarez's (ph) reality. "Look at what happened to us," she pleas. "Nobody is taking care of us."

For two weeks, Ms. Alvarez has been here in a shelter, an hour outside of San Juan, but may as well be on a different island altogether, and like thousands of others, she's become really sick.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We have no hospital to get her, because all of the emergencies are closed because they have no electricity and we have no place to get her. She's getting more complicated.

GUPTA: Dr. Asard Moralez (ph), a volunteer at the shelter, has tried everything to get Alvarez to a hospital.

(on camera): The ambulance we saw just left.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, because they have no authorization from their bosses to get...

GUPTA: That seems ridiculous.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Tell me about it.

GUPTA: We're in the middle of a disaster, the middle of a crisis, and you're waiting for paperwork?


GUPTA: This is a very treatable problem under any circumstances.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, sure, probably a few hours of I.V. antibiotics and then she can go home.

GUPTA: What happens if she doesn't get this?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, she might get her infection to the blood and get complicated with sepsis and even death.

GUPTA (voice-over): There's no communication anywhere here, so we give her a satellite phone to try and call for help.

Puerto Rico's secretary of help finds a hospital for Alvarez, but then the same problem, how to get her there.

(on camera): We can take patient. I'm a doctor. We can take the patient ourselves. I know time is of the essence here.


The health secretary is there.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, he already accepted the patient, so she...

GUPTA: I can't even believe what is happening here. There's no power. There's no water. She's a diabetic. She doesn't have insulin. She has an infection that could threaten her life. No ambulance will take her to the hospital. That's what's happening here.

GUPTA: It's OK. Right here. OK. This is the ulceration.

Pull this wheelchair up, please.

There's nothing about this that makes sense. Look what we're doing here. We're transporting a patient. This is not an ambulance, but it's the only thing that we really have right now to get her to the care that she needs.

(voice-over): Josefina's husband does his best to comfort her.

(on camera): There are probably thousands of patients who are in similar shelters, no power, no water, no medications, no way out. There are probably thousands more who are still in their homes that haven't even been able to get to a shelter. She is just one example of what is happening here. We're trying to

just get her into the triage area.


GUPTA: I can tell you, Wolf, I just checked on Josefina a little while ago. She's in this tent over here behind me.

She's going to have surgery. They are going to actually take her to the operating room to try and address what's been causing her infection.

But, again, Wolf, you and I talked about this earlier. There are lots of people out there who have not made their way to hospitals yet. Very important point. They are in shelters, they're in their homes. It's why the numbers are likely to increase.

It's why you're hearing from so many people that the humanitarian crisis, these needless deaths, preventable deaths are likely to occur. Someone like Josefina, we were able to help today, but, again, she's emblematic, Wolf, of thousands of other people.

And that's where the real focus needs to be.

BLITZER: Yes, just the tip of the iceberg.

If somebody needs oxygen, dialysis, or they're on -- diabetes, can't get the medication they need, and they don't get it within a few days, unfortunately, these people, Sanjay -- and you're a physician -- these people are going to die.

GUPTA: This is the definition of humanitarian crisis.

It's a loose definition, Wolf, but I think an important one. And that is that these are not people who were necessarily injured by the hurricane. They did the right thing. They actually evacuated, they went to a shelter ahead of time, and they have been without power, without water.

Again, with the insulin not being available to her, these are all obviously significant problems. You take what is a very treatable situation and you turn it into something that is potentially deadly.

Again, I was surprised. I went to the hospitals and were surprised not to see as many patients as I thought we were going to see. It's because they haven't arrived there yet. So, this is not done, by any means.

You're going to hear these situations where hospitals are starting to get up and running and all of that. That is great. That is obviously good news. But the more important thing is to get the patients to those hospitals, to those clinics, because, right now, they haven't been able to go. Josefina would not have been able to get there.

We saw what happened to her. She is one person, but again representing so many others. BLITZER: Yes, thankfully, you were there to help save this woman.

Very quickly, Sanjay, every time we see one of these hurricane-ravaged areas, whether Texas, Florida, now Puerto Rico, other Caribbean islands, our correspondents show up equipped with these satellite phones. We just saw your satellite phone.

Are federal officials showing up, whether U.S. military personnel, FEMA officials, are they showing up with satellite phones to help these Puerto Ricans right now, all U.S. citizens communicate and tell their loved ones they're OK?

GUPTA: Well, I could tell you, from my vantage point, Wolf, we were at this hospital.

We were with a doctor who's responsible for taking care of lots of people and she had no way of communicating. So if there are satellite phones here, she's someone who should have one, clearly. Her job demands one, especially under the current situation. She doesn't have one.

So I can't speak for the whole island, but I think there's a theme here. And that is that there's a lot of things that are necessary already on the island, antibiotics, pain medications, satellite phones.

The problem is getting those things from point A to point B. They don't know where they're needed. They haven't been getting there. And, as a result, this doctor, very frustrated, as you might imagine, has gone without.


BLITZER: Our chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, thank you so much for that report, a powerful report, indeed.

I want to quickly go to CNN's Boris Sanchez right now. He is also in Puerto Rico for us tonight.

Boris, as we know, the water, the food, the fuel all remain in very short supply right now. The White House says the government is stepping up the relief efforts. You're there at the port. What are you seeing?


Yes, we're hearing today that announcement that a three-star general, Lieutenant General Jeffrey Buchanan, would be taking over the military response to the recovery effort here in Puerto Rico.

We're also hearing from FEMA officials saying that they have provided more than a million meals to families here in Puerto Rico. The director of FEMA, Brock Long, telling CNN that they have been embedded with the Department of Defense and governor's offense to coordinate the relief effort. Despite that, in a community I was today on the outskirts of San Juan, people were asking us, where is FEMA, where is the relief aid? I spoke to several parents who had spent hours in line, some of them since midnight, hoping to get some ice and they had to wait until 9:00 a.m. this morning to find out that there wasn't enough fuel at the ice plant to create the ice.

It was the fifth day in a row that they have been waiting in line. Their frustration has a lot to do with what's going on here at the port. There are some 10,000 containers, officials tell us, with supplies, things that would be going to grocery stores and eventually the tables of Puerto Ricans that are being held up because of logistical bottlenecks.

The vice president of Crowley's Operations here in Puerto Rico -- Crowley is the business that manages these shipping containers that are stuck here at the port -- tells us that these tanks are filled with water, with food, medication, things that people need. And he says they can't get there because they don't have enough truckers available to take these goods into where they are needed, in part because they also don't have enough gas.

There's a shortage of cash. There are layers and layers of issues that are preventing local people here from getting these resources to where they need to go.

I do want to point out, though, Wolf, as a FEMA official pointed out earlier today, none of the trailers here are actually FEMA aid. These are commercial products that would otherwise be on store shelves. They made it very clear to us that there are no FEMA tanks like these that are held up anywhere in Puerto Rico, whether the port or the airport, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, thanks very much, Boris Sanchez in Puerto Rico for us as well. We are going to get back to you.

I want to bring in Republican Congressman Will Hurd of Texas. He's a member of both the Intelligence and Homeland Security Committees.

Congressman, let me get your reaction first to the statement from the acting homeland security secretary, Elaine Duke. Listen to what she said earlier today.


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.


BLITZER: Do you agree with her assessment, Congressman, that this is a -- quote -- "good news story"?

REP. WILL HURD (R), TEXAS: Well, it's unfortunate that there are so many Puerto Ricans that don't have access to electricity or food.

You know, the hardships that they are having to go through, the fact that many of them lost their worldly possessions and the island is pretty devastated, this really is unfortunate.

But having seen the men and women in FEMA work in Harvey and hearing about what they were doing in Irma, I know they're doing everything they can to provide the aid that -- to our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico. This is a situation where, in Harvey and Irma, you had a lot of private and philanthropic support to those regions.

And that's a little harder to get to, to Puerto Rico right now, especially because of the situation at the airports. And getting there is a lot harder than normal. We have private citizens normally to help with -- restore the power grid. You have privately owned and public utilities sending people there to try to restore that power, which is so important to all of them.

And I think with the establishment of the three-star going down there to take over, to make sure supplies and support can get to the right places, they are probably going to need airlift in order to move around the island in a quick and judicious way.


BLITZER: But, Congressman, shouldn't the U.S. military have been deployed a whole lot sooner with thousands and thousands of troops, and a U.S. general put in charge not a week later, but right away?

HURD: Well, the way situations like this are supposed to unfold and the way we have seen this happen since Katrina, is the coordination between the federal, state and local officials.

It is the emergency coordinators, usually the equivalent of a county or a mayor, that is helping and responsible for pre-deploying assets. When you look at what happened in Harvey, my home town of San Antonio was a pre-deployment stage of fellow police officers, ambulances from other cities.

And so this is the way that process should go. And I think after this is all over and we get people their lights turned back on and food on their tables and making sure that people that are hurt in hospitals, there's going to be a review or should be a review of how to make sure something like this doesn't happen again.

BLITZER: But a lot of people are pointing out there was one standard for Texas, your state, for Florida, a different standard for Puerto Rico, even though the 3.5 million people who live on that U.S. territory are U.S. citizens. Do you agree with that?

HURD: A different standard, according to what?

BLITZER: A different standard of getting supplies there, food, water, power, U.S. military personnel, having everything ready to go to save people's lives.

HURD: I think FEMA's performance and their pre-positioning and all their work has the same there. I can't disagree that the outcomes have been different, but I don't know if that can be squarely on the shoulders of FEMA.

BLITZER: But some of that report from Dr. Sanjay Gupta, that hospital -- the hospital director didn't even have a satellite phone to talk about patients who were critically ill and trying to get some assistance.

At CNN, we had to help that woman get to the hospital. You just saw that.

HURD: Thank God Dr. Gupta was there to help out. I think you're seeing that.

That's been something you saw in Houston and Florida as well, where you have private citizens, businesses helping people out and providing that helping hand. So I think that is one of the things that you see people responding to in these kinds of crises, is everybody is willing to help out. And I'm glad Dr. Gupta was there to help this one family out.

BLITZER: Yes, we're glad he was as well.

Congressman Will Hurd of Texas, thanks for joining us.

HURD: Wolf, always a pleasure.

BLITZER: We're going to have much more on the breaking news, the White House defending the government's hurricane response, but critics say so far it's been too little, too slow. I will talk to President Trump's White House homeland security adviser, Tom Bossert. He's standing by live.

And Health Secretary Tom Price now says he will reimburse taxpayers for the private jets he chartered. Is it enough, though, to save his job?



BLITZER: The breaking news at this hour, the federal government is stepping up its response to Puerto Rico's hurricane disaster, but tonight almost half of the island still has no clean drinking water and virtually all of it is without power.

Let's get some more on the breaking news.

President Trump's Homeland Security Adviser at the White House Tom Bossert is joining us right now.

Tom, thanks very much for joining us. And I quickly want to get your reaction, because it's caused such a

stir. The acting homeland security secretary, Elaine Duke, she said the response to the Puerto Rico catastrophe, in her words, was a good news story.

I want you to listen to this, and I want you to explain. Listen to this.


DUKE: 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.


BLITZER: Do you share her optimistic take on this process?

TOM BOSSERT, WHITE HOUSE HOMELAND SECURITY ADVISER: I think Secretary Duke there is so proud of all of the men and women that she's deploying to the island, and how hard they are working, and she's seeing that every day.

And so perhaps that's coming across to those on the island as somehow out of touch, but I can assure you, working with her day and night, that she knows what is going on and was really making a reference to the hard Herculean effort that you are see being mobilized by the federal work force.

And I think, though, Wolf, there's another component to this too, and that's this notion of volunteerism that she was referring to. So I think the good news story here is the goodness of human beings.

BLITZER: No, that's obviously is good news.

Part of it, I spoke to the congresswoman from Puerto Rico, Congresswoman Gonzalez, in the last hour. She totally disagrees with the acting secretary of homeland security. She doesn't see anything good about what is going on right now, because people are dying and more potentially could die if they don't get dialysis, if they don't get oxygen, if they don't get medication.

And people outside of San Juan are, as you well know, you know better than anyone, are having enormous problems right now.

BOSSERT: Yes. I completely agree.

So, Wolf, the difference here is to make sure we focus on the people. President Trump's been focusing on people and not paperwork and process.

[18:25:01] I think what Elaine said earlier today was a reflection of her pride

in her work force. I think what Jenniffer Gonzalez is saying, though, is the ultimate and good point.

And the congresswoman is providing great leadership. She was here in the White House yesterday getting to the bottom of the relief effort, meeting with me and the vice president. She's leading. She's providing the kind of leadership support that she needs to provide and identifying the travesty of an island-based insular response effort, where we have to put a lot of resources over a long distance.

There's a sea that divides us, into helping Americans that are in an insular, inward part of an island. And that's what we're trying to accomplish tonight.

BLITZER: She was choking back tears, Congresswoman Gonzalez, when I spoke to her an hour ago. She hasn't even been able to speak with her grandparents, her cousins on the island.

Clearly, there's a problem.

You know what? If it's OK with you, I want to bring in our own Dr. Sanjay Gupta. He's our chief medical correspondent. He's on the ground in Puerto Rico in a hospital there. He's got a question for you, Tom.

Sanjay, go ahead.

GUPTA: Mr. Bossert, I'm just curious.

What we're seeing here is a lot of the supplies that Wolf's talking about that have arrived on the island, medications, antibiotics, pain medications, oxygen, sat phones to help people communicate, but just going a little bit outside of San Juan, and there's been no response there.

Just an hour outside of San Juan, there's been no response. I didn't see it. But then I asked the people on the ground, over the last eight days, what have you seen? Doctors have been unable to communicate even. They have no sat phones. They have no access to medications in these places.

Their hospitals are listed as up and running, but are unable to take patients. Even after you get stuff onto the island, what is the plan, sir, to get that stuff, that important lifesaving stuff to people who need it?

BOSSERT: So, thank you, Doctor. And I'm glad you're down there with your expertise.

So, really three answers to that question. The first, in reverse order, is the plan. The logistics plan starts with a prioritization of goods and commodities. There was a little misunderstanding today about which commodities were moving, who owned them, whether they were FEMA commodities or others. And so a lot of goodness coming forward in terms of the earlier question, with people pushing commodities there, both government and NGOs.

But what FEMA and the local officials have to do is use the military presence that's there's now to augment the diminished capacity, because they're victims, of the local authorities and the state authorities, to push that food, water first and medicines. That's the priority system.

And what we're doing is focusing on the hospitals, but also then trying to take care of the shelters and the common aggregation points for human beings. It's my understanding, though, to the second half of your question, that hospitals, before they reopen, have to meet a three-step test.

That's see, treat and admit. You have to be able to see patients, treat the patients, and admit them. And part of that has to do with the ability to maintain your emergency power. And that requires diesel fuel.

So, is that what you're seeing there?

GUPTA: Well, we're seeing diesel fuel being promised for a few hours at a time, as opposed to anything that's going to be more sustainable for them.

And, as you might imagine, it's very hard to run a hospital that way. It's very hard to take care of patients if you say, look, we have six hours of fuel left. And we're not sure if we're going to get more fuel after that.

The thing I would urge you, it's not a question so much as just something I have seen here, sir, on the ground, and that is there's a woman today who clearly needed to be hospitalized from a shelter. We spent a good chunk of the day basically trying to find a hospital. We hear from federal government there's 44 hospitals now up and operating.

Not a single one would take her. Ultimately, she arrived here at the disaster management assistant team, which is taking good care of her. But she's emblematic, sir, of so many thousands of others.

And I just implore you, because there's -- we're just seeing these people now coming out of shelters, now coming out of their homes. It's going to be something that happens over the next several weeks. And that care has to be there and those hospitals have to be able to do those three things you mentioned.

BOSSERT: No, that's right.

So the latest numbers, Sanjay, are 51 of the island's 69 nine hospitals have met that standard I have just described. We're operating on a 12-hour operation cycle in terms of the ability to run a hospital. That's no way to run a railroad, a hospital or an island or a

territory. But the idea is that we have to triage patients, we have to triage logistical needs, and we have to prioritize their delivery, so that we can make sure that we sustain lives in an achievable bite- size way.

That's the best way to execute it. That's what the logisticians tell us. And that's how the Army Corps and the United States Army National Guard are helping us deliver food and goods and medicines into the island.

Now, with respect to that power question, it's critical to maintaining refrigeration and other things necessary to maintain fragile and perishable medicines. So, I'm glad you're there.

I hope the lady you're referencing is OK, and certainly hope that the triage that was performed on her wasn't performed poorly.

BLITZER: Yes, she's in surgery, we're told by Dr. Gupta right now.

I don't know if you know this, Tom, but Sanjay had to give his sat phone to a doctor running a hospital today.

Why can't FEMA deliver sat phones so people at least can talk to each other, find out if their loved ones are OK? Shouldn't that be a high priority?

[18:30:29] BOSSERT: Yes. Communications are a very high priority, Wolf. Obviously not as high as diesel fuel and emergency power.

A couple of things have happened with sat phone deliveries today. There have been satellite phones being delivered by commercial providers and by FEMA and government providers. They go out to those that are in an emergency management role first. That's a good idea. It's kind of putting your oxygen mask on before you put it on those around you.

And then separately, the issue of early this morning around 1 a.m., one of the tower providers of the satellite service went down for a number of hours, and we had to push that satellite signal out into Venezuela. That created a capacity problem.

And so these are all the challenges and problems that you run into as you try to address an insular island response effort of this magnitude.

BLITZER: Sanjay has one more question for you. Go ahead.

Actually, we lost that satellite feed with Dr. Gupta. We'll try to reconnect with him.

According to FEMA, at least earlier in the day -- and you've got some new numbers, I take it-- 47 of the 69 hospitals in Puerto Rico are now up and running. Many of those aren't necessarily, though, running at full capacity, right? BOSSERT: Yes, that's correct. So now it's 51. What happens is the

Department of Defense, either through ground transportation or rotary lift capacity, take through helicopters the HHS staff that are deployed there, the Health and Human Services staff, deployed to the island, to each hospital. They assess it. They look and determine whether they can see, treat and admit patients.

And that generally focuses first on their ability to provide and sustain emergency power, whether they have diesel fuel. And that's not necessarily an ideal condition, but they have to have the doctors, the staff and the medicines to meet that standard. Fifty-one of the 69 are in that condition. And what we do then for critical patients, to the best of our ability, is help air-lift them to better definitive care options as necessary.

BLITZER: Well, good luck to you. Good luck to all the men and women of FEMA, of the U.S. military. There is an enormous challenge ahead for everyone, and we wish the people of Puerto Rico only the best. Thanks so much for all your help.

BOSSERT: Thank you, Wolf, very much.

BLITZER: Tom Bossert is the president's homeland security adviser.

Just ahead, more on the breaking news. The Health and Human Services secretary, Tom Price, under fire right now for his use of private charter planes. He says he'll write a personal check to the U.S. Treasury. But is he short-changing the U.S. Treasury?


[18:37:21] BLITZER: Breaking news at this hour, top Trump administration officials are strongly defending the government response to Puerto Rico's hurricane disaster, despite the increasingly desperate situation on the ground.

Our senior White House correspondent, Jeff Zeleny, is joining us.

Jeff, there seems to be a disconnect between what we're hearing from the White House and what our correspondents on the ground in Puerto Rico are showing us.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, no question, the difference between what we are hearing here in Washington is entirely different than what our colleagues are seeing on the ground in Puerto Rico.

Now, we often hear from the president when he has good news to talk about. We did not see the president one time in public today as his administration pushes back forcefully that this response has been far too slow.


ZELENY (voice-over): The White House is scrambling tonight amid rising criticism of a sluggish response to storm-ravaged Puerto Rico. LT. GEN. RUSSEL HONORE (RET.), COMMANDER OF MILITARY RESPONSE TO

HURRICANE KATRINA: I don't know what the hell's going on back there.

ZELENY: Russel Honore, 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, it took us seven days to appoint a brigadier general and another 24 hours for them to make a decision in the Pentagon and we needed 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.

ZELENY: At the White House, the president did not talk about Puerto Rico today, and he had no events on his public schedule.

But he reversed course today, easing shipping regulations in hope of getting more aid to Puerto Rico, a day after saying there was no need to lift the rule known as the Jones Act, which prohibits foreign ships from delivering fuel or shipments to American ports, he authorized a waiver today.

The president's advisers appeared to struggle with the magnitude of the crisis. When asked by CNN's Kate Bolduan if he was satisfied by the response, he said this.

BROCK LONG, FEMA ADMINISTRATOR: 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 OF HOMELAND SECURITY: I am very satisfied. I know it -- 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.

ZELENY: All this as the administration starts selling the president's tax cut proposal. The president's top economic advisor, Gary Cohn, defended the plan, pushing back against suggestions it would benefit wealthy Americans more than the middle class.

[18:40:06] GARY COHN, TRUMP ECONOMIC ADVISOR: If we allow a family to keep another another $1,000 of their income, what does that mean? They can renovate their kitchen. They can buy a new -- they can buy a new car. They can take a family vacation. They can increase their lifestyle.


ZELENY: Now Wolf, discussion on Capitol Hill of this tax cut proposal will take weeks, even months.

Coming in a shorter term is that emergency spending request for Puerto Rico. Tom Bossert told us earlier today he thought that would come in two to four weeks. Of course, this complicates everything Congress is doing here. And to add on top of this, Wolf, the president is still planning on traveling next week to San Juan to inspect the damage himself.

BLITZER: Yes, he's supposed to go on Tuesday. Jeff Zeleny at the White House, thanks very much.

Our specialists and our analysts are here. Everyone, stand by. We have plenty to discuss right after a quick break.


[18:45:30] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: We're back with our political specialist.

Nia, let me start with you. We're getting mixed messages from the Trump administration. The FEMA director says he won't be satisfied until the situation, his word, is stabilized. The acting homeland security secretary, we just heard her, she's saying she's very satisfied and she called this a good news story. What she sees, what's going on.

What do you make of that?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTRE: Well, in some ways, what the acting director of DHS is saying is what the president has said as well. He said that he feels like he's getting good reviews on this.

Very different from what we're hearing on the ground from our reporters who are there, very different from what we're hearing from the governor of Mexico and the mayor of San Juan about this absolutely catastrophic situation that was going on on the ground there, lack of medicine, lack of food, lack of fuel, no sense that there is any resolution coming any time soon.

You had Tom Bossert on earlier who is an adviser to the president on DHS matters and there is not a sense of urgency from him either. I mean, to borrow a phrase from Donald Trump, he seems to be sort of low energy. And I think that's part of the reason why there seems to be sort of a mismatch between the way the administration is responding to this and some of the real horror stories that we're hearing on the ground from Puerto Rico.

BLITZER: David, these are American citizens.


BLITZER: A U.S. territory in Puerto Rico. Is the president treating them the same way he treated the American

citizens of Texas and Florida when they had to deal with the horrible hurricane?

SWERDLICK: I don't think so. I think outwardly at least in the last 24 hours, the administration started to sort of make the noises like they're taking this with maximum seriousness, but for the first few days after Maria, no, they weren't. The president was distracted, Wolf.

And I think part of the problem -- and I want to be clear to the people watching -- that this is not an excuse. There is no excuse. But part of the problem is, that you have someone who's never been an elected official before getting their hands around the idea that this is the job. You don't get to just respond to the first hurricane. You are responsible for helping Americans for all hurricanes.

BLITZER: Rebecca, was the president distracted?

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, clearly, this is not the only thing that the president has been focused on and it took the president and administration a few days to get up to speed on this. If you compare -- and I think this is part of the problem, because people are making this comparison, the response that the White House has had to Puerto Rico to what happened in Florida and Texas, it's a huge difference. And that's the problem.

The president is not only responsible for getting these supplies on the ground, getting help to the people who need it, which is an important component, but he also has to be an emotional leader in a situation like this to comfort those who are suffering, to reassure that help is on the way. We haven't seen that in this case.

BLITZER: But here's -- what I don't understand, Jeffrey Toobin, the president's White House chief of staff, John Kelly, former secretary of homeland security, retired U.S. general, he understands these kinds of situations. But it's taken until today for a three-star general to be named to take charge over there and save people's lives.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Maybe it's because they didn't care. Maybe it's because this wasn't a priority. I mean, what other conclusion can you draw from watching this response?

I mean, we know, I think very clearly, the president's position on whether football players should stand during national anthem. I think that's been established very clearly. But as for his view of whether these Americans in Puerto Rico should expect any help from the federal government anytime soon, you know, Donald Trump has been among the missing and he continues to be among the missing because he doesn't like bad news and as far as I can tell, it's mostly bad news.

BLITZER: He tweeted today, the electric power grid in Puerto Rico is totally shut, large numbers of generators are now on island, food and water on site. That's what he said today.

TOOBIN: Well, I mean, perhaps that's true. But I have to say, I trust Sanjay Gupta and our colleagues who are there with cameras more than I trust the spin coming out of the White House.

BLITZER: You know, Nia, let -- David, I know you want to comment, but thank God that Dr. Gupta is there.


BLITZER: He saved the life clearly today of at least one woman.

HENDERSON: And he's telling us what is going on on the ground there, right? People don't have sat phones so they can't communicate. Doctors who should be able to communicate and have the necessary supplies and generators, they don't have that. So, I certainly trust what he's --

BLITZER: Very quickly, David.

SWERDLICK: I was just going to say that it's not just the president's job to narrate the news. He has to do something about it.

BERG: Right.

BLITZER: All right, guys. Thanks very much for that.

There's more breaking news.

[18:50:00] We're following new developments in the controversy over Health Secretary Tom Price's use of private jets. Will his new offer to reimburse taxpayers save his job?


BLITZER: Breaking news tonight: The White House won't say whether President Trump has confidence in Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, who is under fire right now over his use of private jets on more than a dozen occasions.

[18:55:02] CNN's Rene Marsh is working the story for us.

Tom Price just announced he'll write a personal check to reimburse taxpayers for those private charters.

RENE MARSH, CNN GOVERNMENT REGULATION CORRESPONDENT: That's right. He is going to be writing that check today to the tune of nearly $52,000. But it will only cover the costs for his seat. And it's just a fraction of the total cost of all the flights he took on private planes, leaving taxpayers with a bill in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

And today, the White House says it's halted all private flights at the agency from this point on. While other cabinet members are also feeling the heat for their air travel.


MARSH (voice-over): Revelations tonight of even more trips on private planes by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. Over the weekend, Price said he only took a total 11 trips.

TOM PRICE, HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES SECRETARY: These were 11 trips over about an eight-month period of time.

MARSH: But Thursday, his agency revealed even more trips, bringing the total to 13, which includes more than two dozen individual flights, including one where he flew private on the short hop from Washington Dulles to Philadelphia. The total cost to taxpayers for all of the trips: at least $300,000.

The president expressed displeasure with Price.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm looking at that very closely. I am not happy with it. I will tell you, I am not happy with it.

REPORTER: Would you fire him, sir?

TRUMP: We'll see.

MARSH: The inspector general is reviewing Price's travel and the agency says it has initiated an internal departmental review of the procedures to determine any changes or reforms that are necessary.

And Price is publicly addressing the issue.

PRICE: The optics in some of this don't look good. And that's why we again have taken this criticism to heart.

MARSH: After an event on D.C. on Thursday, Price responded to the president's criticism saying, quote, I think we've still got the confidence of the president.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders is also fielding questions on Price.

REPORTER: Is Secretary Price expect to keep his job in this administration?

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think the president has addressed this yesterday. We're going through this process. We're going to conduct a full review and we'll see what happens.

MARSH: But Price is not the only cabinet secretary facing heat. In documents obtained by CNN, Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island takes EPA chief Scott Pruitt to task for both private and government aircraft. One flight from Cincinnati to New York City on June 7th costs taxpayers more than $36,000. The EPA says Pruitt needed to fly on a military jet because he was on a tight schedule, flying to Italy for a summit the next day.

Senator Whitehouse also questioned a $14,000 flight aboard a government aircraft on July 27th. Pruitt flew from Tulsa to Guymon, Oklahoma. EPA says there were no commercial flights. (END VIDEOTAPE)

MARSH: Wolf, Senator Whitehouse is questioning the reason for that entire trip. The EPA says that Pruitt met with a group called the Panhandle Irrigators Association. But the senator says he couldn't find that group with that sort of name on the Internet. He found a group with a similar name but their Website had been dormant for some five years.

Well, the EPA is pushing back. They say the group exists and that Pruitt met with landowners impacted by some of the EPA's environmental regulations. They also say that the trips were cleared through the EPA's counsel office.

But tonight, Wolf, even Republicans on Capitol Hill, they're really slamming the cabinet members who are in part of an administration that promised to cut the pork and drain the swamp.

BLITZER: Good report. Rene Marsh, thank you very much for that.

Finally tonight, some good news. Congressman Steve Scalise of Louisiana is back on the job, more than three months after being shot at a congressional baseball team practice. The House Republican whip got a very, very warm welcome from his colleagues.



REP. STEVE SCALISE (R-LA), MAJORITY WHIP: You have no idea how great this feels to be back here at work in the people's house.


As you can imagine, these last three and a half months have been challenging times for me and me family. But, if you look at the outpouring of love, of warmth, of prayer, my gosh, Jennifer and I have been overwhelmed with all of that outpouring. And it's given us the strength to get through all this and get to this point today.

So, I am definitely a living example that miracles really do happen.


BLITZER: We are happy that Congressman Scalise is back on the job in the House of Representatives.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.