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THE SITUATION ROOM
Interview With Arizona Congressman Ruben Gallego; Crisis in Puerto Rico; HHS Secretary Resigns; DHS Chief Tries to Clarify "Good News" Remark on Puerto Rico; U.S. Pulls Staff From Cuba Over Brain- Damaging Sonic Attacks; Trump Touts 'Incredible Job' in Puerto Rico Despite Suffering; Tom Price Resigns as Health Secretary. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired September 29, 2017 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: Happening now, breaking news: Price cut.
The president's health secretary forced out of his job for his costly misuse of private aircraft. We're going to have new details on the decision and Mr. Trump's fury over the scandal.
Very bad things. Mr. Trump tries to explain why Puerto Rico is still in desperate need of relief more than a week after Hurricane Maria. His administration escalating its damage control, as millions of Americans suffer in the disaster zone.
Sowing discontent. We're learning more about Russia's election meddling, with Moscow now linked to a social media campaign aimed at fanning racial tensions. And tonight Congress is investigating the Kremlin's efforts to create chaos in American politics.
And fleeing Cuba. The State Department is drastically cutting its embassy staff in Havana after mysterious acoustic attacks that left some diplomats brain-damaged. Why is the U.S. ramping up its response now?
We want to our welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Brianna Keilar, and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
KEILAR: We do have breaking news tonight.
Health Secretary Tom Price forced out for using private aircraft for government business trips and embarrassing a president who promised to drain the swamp. The White House announcing a short time ago that the president has accepted Price's resignation, and we're told that the president has been furious at Price for days now, viewing his travel choices as -- quote -- "stupid."
Also tonight, President Trump insists that his administration is doing an incredible job in Puerto Rico, despite growing complaints about the size and the speed of the federal recovery and the Trump team's upbeat assessments of the operation.
The acting homeland security secretary, Elaine Duke, getting a firsthand look at relief efforts on the island today, as she faces some blistering criticism for calling the disaster response a good- news story.
And Puerto Rico facing some new severe weather threats that could make life even more difficult and dangerous on the hurricane-ravaged island. Heavy rain, possible flash flooding in the forecast as millions of Americans are struggling to get basic supplies well over a week after Maria's horrific wallop.
And the United States is slashing its embassy staff in Cuba. It's pulling personnel to protect their safety after a series of mysterious acoustic attacks against American diplomats. The State Department also is warning Americans against traveling to Cuba, since some of the attacks happened at hotels where U.S. visitors often stay.
This hour, I will talk with Congressman Ruben Gallego. He's a Democrat on the Armed Services Committee. And our correspondents and specialists are also standing by for us tonight.
First, I want to get to CNN White House correspondent Sara Murray. She has more on the ouster of Health Secretary Tom Price.
Sara, what are you learning about this move and how it all went down?
SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brianna, we know the president was extremely frustrated with Price, and he was looking to move an embarrassing distraction off the table.
Price tendering his resignation and in part of the letter saying, "In order for you to move forward without further disruption, I'm tendering my resignation," perhaps, perhaps closing a chapter on this.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm not happy, OK? I can tell you I'm not happy.
MURRAY (voice-over): President Trump today accepting the resignation of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. The bombshell announcement coming after days of mounting controversy over Price's travel on private jets at a cost estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
TRUMP: It's not a question of confidence. I was disappointed because I didn't like it cosmetically or otherwise. I was disappointed. And this is an administration that saves hundreds of millions of dollars on renegotiating things. So I don't like to see somebody that perhaps -- there's the perception that it wasn't right.
MURRAY: Price agreed to repay a fraction of the overall tab, but sources say the offer only appeared to exacerbate Trump's anger.
TRUMP: We have great secretaries, and we have some that actually own their own planes, as you know, and that solves that. But we put it an order that no more planes.
MURRAY: This as the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico continues to mount, leaving Trump to defend the federal government's response.
TRUMP: When you have a Category 5 wipe out an island like this, because you have nothing. You don't have the roads. You don't have anything. And you don't have the people even to operate the equipment.
MURRAY: Characterizing the crisis as unprecedented, he painted a bleak picture of Puerto Rico's condition before the storm.
TRUMP: The electrical grid and other infrastructure were already in very, very poor shape. They were at their life's end prior to the hurricanes. We're literally starting from scratch. We will not rest, however, until the people of Puerto Rico are safe.
MURRAY: So you see the president making those assurances there to the people of Puerto Rico.
And I can tell you that officials here at the White House have been particularly touchy, particularly sensitive about the criticism and some of the scrutiny they have got over the reaction to this storm.
They insist that the federal government is doing everything they can, and, of course, President Trump is slated to visit next week.
KEILAR: He certainly is, on Tuesday.
All right, Sara Murray at the White House, thank you, ma'am.
And I want to bring in CNN aviation and government regulations correspondent Rene Marsh as well.
You have been covering this scandal, Rene, over private jets that cost Tom Price's job. There are other Cabinet members who are being looked at.
RENE MARSH, CNN GOVERNMENT REGULATION CORRESPONDENT: There certainly are.
And, of course, we should remember that Tom Price, this whole scandal, it developed over a matter of days. And, tonight, even though Tom Price is out, the inspector general probing his excessive use of private jets says the work will continue, as other Cabinet secretaries now have to account for their flights on private planes.
MARSH (voice-over): In the end, it was the same type of lavish private jet flights that Tom Price railed about as a congressman that brought him down. TOM PRICE, U.S. HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES SECRETARY: I think we have
made it halfway where we ought to, and that is cut it from eight to four jets. Now we need to cut it from four jets to zero jets. This is just another expect of fiscal irresponsibility run amok in Congress right now.
MARSH: As secretary of health and human services, Price spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on private planes and hundreds of thousands more when he and his wife flew on military jets for two international trips from Liberia, Germany, Switzerland, to China, Vietnam, and Japan, racking up a bill in the neighborhood of $1 million since August.
His wife reimbursed the government for her flights, and Price said he would repay just over $51,000, a fraction of the total cost. Price also went on FOX News to try to make amendments.
PRICE: And I look forward to gaining -- regaining the trust that the American people, some of the American people may have lost in the activities that I took, and to not only regain the trust of the American people, but gain the trust of the administration and the president.
MARSH: Price was just one of the Cabinet secretaries whose travel is being scrutinized. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke all under scrutiny.
Today, Zinke firing back.
RYAN ZINKE, U.S. INTERIOR SECRETARY: I would just like to address, in the words of General Schwarzkopf, a little B.S. on travel.
MARSH: Zinke says his agency did extensive due diligence before taking three charter flights, as well as a military flight. The cost of the private jets, at least $15,000.
ZINKE: Using tax dollars wisely and ethically is the greatest responsibility and is at the good heart of good government. And there are times, however, we have to utilize charter services because we often travel in areas and under circumstances that we don't have other flight options.
MARSH: The question of whether there were other options is at the heart of some of the internal probes. A source tells CNN the Treasury inspector general is now focusing on the process of approving travel and whether some flimsy excuses are being used to justify costly travel.
MARSH: Well, there are a total of three inspector general probes happening right now focused on Trump Cabinet members' travel.
The president has called for a halt on all private jet travel for Cabinet members, and understandably so.
KEILAR: And the spousal travel has been a thing. It was with the treasury secretary as well. You asked -- what did you ask the Department of Health and Human Services about the spousal travel for Tom Price? What did you learn?
So on those two international trips where they traveled on the military jet, we do know that his wife accompanied him. HHS did tell me that she reimbursed her flight. However, the follow-up question was when, and we have yet to hear an answer. So we don't know if this was something that perhaps they may have paid just yesterday when this all kind of blew up and he said he was going to write that check.
It really is unclear because they haven't answered.
KEILAR: Yes, it's really important to know.
All right, Rene Marsh, thank you so much. Great reporting.
I want to get some reaction to the breaking news on this ouster of health care Secretary Tom Price.
We're joined now by Congressman Ruben Gallego. He's a Democrat on the Armed Services Committee.
Especially as this being someone who was a former colleague of yours, what's your reaction?
REP. RUBEN GALLEGO (D), ARIZONA: Well, for one, Tom Price knows better.
He was one of the biggest advocates of so-called, you know, fiscal conservatism. He railed against people using private jets, and we actually have a standard that we have to set here at Congress that we know we're not allowed funds for certain type of travel.
And the fact that he really egregiously just did this really tells you where he's getting his lessons from. At the end of the day, the reason this is occurring, the reason all these members are abusing -- all these secretary Cabinet members are abusing taxpayer funds is because they see the president doing it.
The president has already gone for 60 days to his own golf course, has flown -- you know, has wasted a lot of taxpayer money and has actually, you know, been charging the federal government for stays at his places.
So why is it a surprise that these Cabinet secretaries aren't going to try to do the same and take the same types of luxuries? I'm glad that he resigned. The president should have actually fired him as soon as he found out. But, again, I think this problem starts at the top. KEILAR: We do know at this point in time that the acting HHS
secretary is going to be Don Wright. He's currently the deputy assistant secretary and the director of the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Programs -- Health Promotion, I should say.
But when you look at who could be the possible actual next HHS secretary, is there someone the president can nominate that Democrats might get behind or could at least work with?
GALLEGO: Well, certainly there's a lot of people, both Democrats and Republicans, that are professionals when it comes to health services, whether it's someone who manages a large hospital system or has worked on the policy side of health care.
I think the most important thing is, what will be the goal of this next HHS secretary? Tom Price's only goal was really to destroy the Affordable Care Act, and not necessarily increase or improve on health care outcomes for Americans through Medicare and Medicaid and the exchange system.
But if you find somebody out there who is a professional who is willing to work with Democrats, I'm sure they will come on board.
KEILAR: The secretary, Secretary Price, isn't the only member of the administration to use private planes in a questionable manner, although certainly the amount and how often he did was pretty egregious.
Do you think other Cabinet secretaries who are being looked at here should resign as well?
GALLEGO: I certainly think the Cabinet secretaries that do not need chartered planes.
Look, there is a reason for some Cabinet secretaries to have charter planes. For example, the Department of Defense -- secretary of defense, our State Department, some of our other -- for example, our attorney general, they need to have private planes because they need to have the communication for security, including Department of Homeland Security secretary, whenever they nominate that person.
But some of these smaller Cabinet secretary offices, where they do not need to have a charter plane, they do not need to have secure communications, should not be making these types of extravagant expenses, especially when there's a good commercial option.
Let me give you an example. Secretary Price chartered a plane from D.C. to Philadelphia that cost $45,000. Looking on Uber and Lyft, that same round-trip ride would only cost $450 round-trip.
Had he actually done that, he could have had his own car and a car for each of his own staff he took along with him and probably got there about the same time. So, clearly, they are violating the spirit of the law when it comes to procurement of transportation, because they're always supposed to be looking for the lowest-cost option. And any other secretary that is violating that should also look if
it's time for them to resign and also, more importantly, it's time for you to reimburse the government.
KEILAR: All right, Congressman, we have so much more to talk about, especially what is going on in Puerto Rico.
So, stick around with us.
We will be back after a quick break with Congressman Ruben Gallego.
KEILAR: We're back now with Democratic Congressman Ruben Gallego, following breaking news that Health Secretary Tom Price has been forced out of the Trump administration for his misuse of private jets for government business travel on the taxpayers' dime.
Congressman, I want you to stick around for me for just a moment. We do need to touch on some important breaking news that we're getting in.
Some new information about the critical shortages of supplies in Puerto Rico that are threatening the lives of millions of Americans.
I want to go now to CNN's chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, in Puerto Rico. He traveled to the small coastal town of Loiza earlier. He's joining us now from San Juan.
So, Sanjay, tell us what you have seen on this trip to this town outside of San Juan.
DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, nine days in now, Brianna, and hospitals, clinics, places that are trying to take care of patients doing the best they can, but as you have heard, without power, oftentimes without water, and without medications.
We met a doctor who has been struggling with this for some time, told us specifically what she needed. Listen to what she says and also what we decided to do about it.
DR. ASTRID MORALES, VOLUNTEER: We're tied up here because we don't have I.V. antibiotics to give the patients, and we have no place to get them.
GUPTA: I kept thinking to myself, how difficult could this be? If these lifesaving supplies are on the island of Puerto Rico, why aren't they getting to the people who need it? What's standing in the way of that happening. And can I make it happen myself?
The first place I'm going to try on these DMAT tents, the disaster management assistant team, the HHS. This is the federal government. Let's see what they have to offer.
I was with the doctors yesterday who were volunteering, and this is what they were asking for.
OK. So, we have been waiting for about 45 minutes now outside the HHS tent. We know that they have medications. What we heard is that they got to run it up two lines of command, two chains of command, and then they get back to us.
But, again, it's been 45 minutes.
How are you doing?
We're going to go try somewhere else.
We're trying to get some of these medications because we went to some of the shelters.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You can get some here.
GUPTA: Is there medications here?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, we have the medications.
GUPTA: OK. Thank you.
Because the hospitals have been slow to start back up, these are all volunteer doctors over here who have basically come, trying to gather supplies, and take it out to the people who need it. They're trying their best. It's a slow process.
Yes, if we can get a few doses, we will take it over there.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have only some of the antibiotics. You need it also?
GUPTA: Yes, that would be great. All right, perfect. OK, Doctor. Thank you.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The other one, I will get you.
GUPTA: Appreciate it. Thank you.
It's all about getting the supplies and then getting them to the people who need it. These come from an organization called Direct Relief. You can see they're set up right underneath this parking structure with all these medications.
We got them. Now we're going to take them.
What Dr. Morales asked was that we get these medications and see if we could bring it to this clinic, this hospital. This is one of those places that's up and running. But without these medications, they haven't been really able to take care of patients. Dr. Rodriguez, I was told to bring you this.
DR. MARIA RODRIGUEZ CONCETTA, PUERTO RICO: Thank you. Thank you.
GUPTA: Let me tell you what we have. There's all sorts of antibiotics primarily.
Dr. Morales said that you were needing a lot of this.
RODRIGUEZ CONCETTA: Yes.
GUPTA: Is it true?
RODRIGUEZ CONCETTA: Yes.
GUPTA: You can go through it. Then there's also pediatrics. Well, I hope this helps.
RODRIGUEZ CONCETTA: Yes, a lot. Thank you.
GUPTA: You're doing great work here. Keep doing what you're doing.
Look, a little baby.
GUPTA: You can hear, Brianna. You have heard about fuel and water being critically necessary. They still are. Sat phones for communication. But then just this issue of distribution.
It's such a patchwork still. We literally found those medications underneath this parking garage and were able to help. It can be done, but so far there just hasn't been this coordinated effort yet. In this small town, they haven't seen any kind of coordinated effort of relief yet, so these medications helped for a little while.
But they're obviously going to need more.
KEILAR: But that, Sanjay, is the definition of red tape when you go to the HHS tent. What ended up happening there? You were there for about how long before you said, we need to try a different avenue? And did you ever hear back?
GUPTA: No, we never heard back.
About 45 minutes, we were there. And, yes, look, you heard it. What they basically were telling me was, they got to run this up two chains of command. We got to wait for answers. We have got to wait for approvals, paperwork involved.
People don't have time for that. We had to transport a patient ourselves yesterday who had a life-threatening infection, had no I.V. antibiotics and no way of accessing them. The ambulances would not drive her. They said they didn't have gas. They didn't have authority. There were various reasons. Yes, it is a lot of red tape. I mean, it's -- and that's -- it's an
enormous problem because, again, the supplies are here. That almost makes it more frustrating. The supplies are here, but you need paperwork. You need these authorities, and then you need people to actually distribute it, and that's not what's happening.
In medicine, it would be like coming up with a great treatment, a wonderful treatment, one that should be applauded, but then the people who need it aren't actually getting it. That's sort of the status of things right here now.
KEILAR: It was really something, as you have been going through this process, and what is -- you're supposed to be reporting on the problem, and yet you're there solving problems, which is actually showing us just how dire things are.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta, thank you so much for that.
Tonight, Puerto Rico is facing an extra measure of misery. Why? Because there's heavy rain in the forecast. There is a threat of flash flooding there, more severe weather that would only worsen the humanitarian crisis on the island, with millions of Americans still without electricity and water and with limited access to gasoline and to cash, to money.
I want to check now in with CNN's senior international correspondent, Ivan Watson.
You're there in San Juan, Ivan. You traveled to Florida, Puerto Rico, today. What are conditions like there? Tell us about that spot.
IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, this is a town, small town off the highway, only about an hour's drive west of San Juan.
The residents are dealing with the problems that plague so many other people on this island. No electricity since the storm. No running water. Barely any telecommunications, and, of course, the long gas lines, because of this fuel crisis, people spending the night in line hoping they can maybe buy fuel.
And on top of that, what neighborhood is stuck with a flood. During the storm, somehow, a nearby creek got backed up, and dozens of families' homes are now underwater.
Now, as I was talking to people there, they say they have gotten some assistance. Some of the residents that are now homeless are staying in a local shelter run by the town government in Florida. We met a man who was using a bulldozer to clear debris.
He said that the local town government had provided free fuel to him to do this volunteer work with his own heavy equipment that he happens to own because he works in a construction company or owns a construction company. And many people said they had seen no presence whatsoever in the nine
days since the storm from the federal government, from the military. Then, during the hours we were there, the mayor of Florida showed up, accompanied by officials from FEMA, the federal disaster relief agency, and residents who had been made homeless had some questions for those FEMA officials.
So, listen to this exchange.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What are your sources for like food-wise and gas- wise and water?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're reporting that need that the mayor reported directly to us. We're reporting that back to San Juan and somebody in San Juan will be--
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And how long will that take?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, we are the first to come here, apparently, so--
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Because for us to move back in here--
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- because it's black water. It's called black water.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There is no type of moving back in there.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WATSON: So, those FEMA officials say that they had brought a satellite phone for the mayor, who could not communicate here with the capital of Puerto Rico, with San Juan.
They pledged that there would be many more visits in the future from FEMA to this town. But it does raise a question. It took nine days for FEMA to reach this town called Florida. It makes you wonder, after a hurricane in the state of Florida, would it take nine days for the agency to reach a town in any part of the state of Florida? I wonder -- Brianna.
KEILAR: Did any of those FEMA representatives come -- but what did they come with, Ivan? Any supplies?
It was essentially an assessment trip to meet with the town mayor and to see what the most urgent needs were. But aside from that satellite phone that they brought from the mayor, they said they were not bringing any concrete assistance to the community. And here's an example of what people need. Many people have said they
needed water. Some people need tarps, because the roofs of their houses have been ripped off, plastic tarps, something as simple as that and, of course, fuel to run their generators, to run their vehicles as well -- Brianna.
KEILAR: Yes, some pretty obvious needs there, you could argue.
Ivan Watson, thank you so much for that great report.
I want to get back now to Congressman Ruben Gallego.
And, Congressman, looking at that, I mean, it reminds me of that commercial where it's the dentist, right, who says, you have a cavity, but he doesn't drill the cavity because he says, no, I'm just a cavity monitor or whatever it is.
KEILAR: You're looking at that. You're seeing folks from FEMA who are there nine days later assessing the situation, when there are already some pretty obvious needs as they go into these areas.
What can Congress do to help or to put pressure?
GALLEGO: Well, it's mostly to put pressure. FEMA and the Department of Defense actually has a lot of authority right now.
The problem is that the Trump administration just dropped the ball, 100 percent. They did not properly plan for what was going to happen after the hurricane. And every excuse I have heard so far has been nothing short of really almost criminal.
I was on the phone with Northcom not too long ago, and they described to me the assets they had en route to Puerto Rico. And it was, you know, such a small amount for the type of work that they needed.
I asked them about water filtration systems. They did not know where they were going or if they had been requested by FEMA. I then was on the phone with the FEMA director two days ago, or a day ago -- I can't remember exactly -- and they described the situation where the reason they can't get supplies out to some of these places because they don't have enough drivers.
We have a whole continent here on the mainland full of drivers. The Teamsters of the United States have volunteered to go down and drive the goods out there. And what you're seeing right now is just utter incompetence by the Trump administration, and it's going to affect 3.5 million Americans' lives, and potentially cause a humanitarian crisis that was created by, essentially, American inaction and lack of leadership from this administration.
[18:30:10] KEILAR: So what do you say to that when you're talking to officials, and they describe to you what they're sending, and it's obvious -- or they say nothing -- this or that has not been requested, but so obviously that is a need? I mean, what do you -- what do you say to them?
GALLEGO: So I mean, exactly what I said a couple days ago to the FEMA director, that this -- FEMA director, that this is absolutely disgraceful. And also what I told myself and Stephanie, Congresswoman Murphy from Florida. We told NorthCom that they needed to lean in. Don't wait for a request to come in. You know what needs to happen. You know what is being -- what are the necessities of the island. If you're going to wait -- you're going to wait for the red tape to be cleared, people are going to die. This is not the time for that.
And if the president actually cared about it, he would step off the golf course that he is going to be on this weekend and actually fully put pressure down on FEMA, the Department of Homeland Security, as well as DOD to make sure that all the assets are necessary and on the island to stabilize the island.
This is getting bad. People are running out of insulin. There's no running water on many parts of the island. There are still isolated villages. And this is an island that is only two hours away from most of the mainland of the United States. These are 3.5 American -- 3.5 million American citizens that we have abandoned. We should be ashamed of ourselves. This is -- this is absolutely not acceptable.
KEILAR: It is pretty staggering that you're looking at nine days after a storm, which you had days of lead time to realize could be catastrophic. You're finally getting a sat phone to a mayor. I mean, it sort of defies belief here. When you hear--
GALLEGO: I had better -- I had better--
KEILAR: Go on.
GALLEGO: I had better support when I was in the middle of the war in Iraq. I could get, like, food. I could get water delivered to me. I could get fuel delivered to me, and that was in a war zone.
Why is it that, with the richest nations in the world, with the biggest military budget in the world, that we can't feed and fuel 3.5 million Americans? Because it's not a priority of this president, and that's the problem.
KEILAR: Are you confident that Congress will be able to pass an aid package quickly? Do you think that is going to be a priority of the Trump administration, now that they seem sort of awake to some of, certainly, the challenges here?
GALLEGO: Well, I certainly do believe that we're going to pass an aid package to Puerto Rico -- for Puerto Rico as fast as possible.
GALLEGO: But that's not going to solve, really, the immediate problem of this, you know, Trump administration's failure in Puerto Rico.
KEILAR: All right. We will see. Congressman Ruben Gallego, we will be watching to see what Congress does in this effort to pass an aid package. Thank you, sir.
We have some breaking news next.
GALLEGO: Thank you.
KEILAR: We have more on the latest high-level departure from the Trump administration. We are learning new details about the forced resignation of Health Secretary Tom Price.
Plus, the president says he's getting high marks for his response to the disaster in Puerto Rico. Why doesn't that match what our reporters are seeing there and what they are telling you about on the ground?
[18:37:35] KEILAR: We're following some breaking news tonight on the ouster of Health Secretary Tom Price, consumed by the scandal surrounding his use of private jets on the taxpayers' dime. The former congressman and doctor forced to hand in his resignation to a furious President Trump.
I want to bring in our correspondents, our analysts and our specialists to talk about this. I have to ask you, Mike Rogers, because you're someone who served in the House of Representatives with Tom Price. When you saw all of this transpiring and now you see him resigning, what are your thoughts?
MIKE ROGERS, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I'm a little shocked. I know Tom Price. I served with him in the House. Shocking how somehow something didn't kick in to say, no. They always say that some people read by reading -- or learn by reading. Some people learn by observation. And some people have to grab the electric fence for themselves. I think he grabbed the electric fence.
I think he got caught into the entitlement of the secretarial position. I'm sure he had staff throwing things at him, and he made a -- I mean, really, a bad decision. But he didn't do it just once. He did it however many times, and then he flew over to Japan and other places while we had a major health care bill going through the process.
You know, listen, I hope he gets his life back together, but he needed to go. This was very bad judgment at the very best.
KEILAR: And looking back on it, I'm sure, Phil, he understands that. You know, I'm sure it's -- I would hope it's so obvious at this point. How did it -- how did it get there?
PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: It's not obvious. Let me talk to somebody who was on the Oversight Committee when I was at the FBI, for example. I'm sorry to inform you, a few tough moments there.
There are two elements here. The first is what the people around you will tell you, what the ethics officer will tell you, what your lawyer will tell you when you're the secretary. There's a regulation that says this. You have to be in these three cities. Therefore, we should be spending 50,000 bucks or whatever it is on an aircraft.
The difficulty is stepping back when you get in that bubble with that amount of power, knowing you're going to go in front of CNN or in front of your Oversight Committee and saying, "I don't care what the ethics guy says, and I don't care what the regulations say. Do I have a one-sentence answer to what I say when somebody says, 'Why is it appropriate for the Health and Human Services secretary to spend that amount of money on an aircraft?'"
And the answer is, it can't be "The regs say it's OK." It's got to be a better answer than that, and he didn't have the answer.
KEILAR: Was there any way, you think, for him to survive this, Sunlen?
[18:40:05] SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I do think there was a small chance that he could have survived had he handled it better. He went on FOX News last night to do this mea culpa. The problem is he really didn't do a full mea culpa. There was no "I'm sorry for this." And it almost seemed as if he was just doing the bare minimum that he needed to apologize to save his job.
He only paid back a partial portion -- portion of the flights, only $50,000. That's such a small fraction of the money that actually contributed to these private chartered flights, and I think that was ultimately the straw that broke the camel's back. We know that President Trump, that hit him hard, the fact that he was only paying back a small portion. Very clear he couldn't right the ship as of today.
KEILAR: It really sounded like that irritated the president, him saying that. I mean, what do you think, Rebecca?
REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it's interesting to think about how this situation might be different if we were talking about Steve Mnuchin, for example, because he is wealthy enough that he could have paid back the full cost of those flights and maybe then, that would have been fine with the president.
Tom Price has been a member of Congress for the past few years. He wasn't making a ton of money. He probably couldn't have afforded, frankly, to pay back the full cost of those flights. So I think, ultimately, there was very little he could do to save his job after he made that decision, which as Mike, you said, he should have known better. He railed against this kind of excessive government spending when he was a member of Congress. He knew how this looked politically. It was just a boneheaded move.
KEILAR: Yes, it's very -- he railed against flights used by members of Congress. That is what is so stunning here.
All right, you guys. Stay with me. We have so much more to talk about.
Just ahead, we're going to talk about President Trump's still upbeat portrayal of relief operations in Puerto Rico. What should he be saying and doing differently? Stay with us.
[18:46:29] KEILAR: We're back now with our analysts and the Trump administration's pushback against complaints about disaster relief in Puerto Rico. The president insisting tonight that it's going, quote, really well.
OK. So let's talk about that because he says that he's getting high marks, and we actually had the acting secretary of DHS yesterday very unfortunate the way she phrased this to say the least, talking about how this was a good news story. She tried to clean that up today.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ELAINE DUKE, ACTING HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: Yesterday, I was asked if I was happy and satisfied with the recovery. I am proud of the work that's being done. I am proud of Americans helping Americans, friends and strangers alike. I am proud of the work that DOD, FEMA, and the territory, along with first responders are doing.
Clearly, the situation here in Puerto Rico after the devastating hurricane is not satisfactory, but together we are getting there, and the progress today is very, very strong.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KEILAR: I wonder what you think, Rebecca, because as I looked at this, I actually thought she said today was worse than what she said yesterday. I thought there was maybe some room to give her the benefit of the doubt yesterday, but she did say it was a good news story, quote, in terms of our ability to reach people.
And then we learned today it's nine days in. There are some towns outside of San Juan and they're just reaching people. FEMA is not even really bringing things to help people.
So, how do you square her comments?
REBECCA BERG, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, REAL CLEAR POLITICS: Well, clearly, she's trying to spin this in a more positive light, and perhaps there are administration pressures that are causing her to do that. This is also her job on the line. She represents the recovery efforts and wants to put a good face on this.
But you're absolutely right. Those comments don't represent what we are seeing on the ground, the dramatic pictures that we are getting here on CNN showing just the complete devastation, people scrambling to find resources. And so, it does risk sounding a little bit tone deaf from the government.
You want a clear picture of what's happening, and if it's devastating, which clearly it is, they should be saying that. PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Time out, she's a fraud.
She's a fraud. Let's be clear here. If you go into a senior government position, she doesn't get a pass.
We did 9/11. Anybody looking at that says we could have done better afterwards. We did Katrina. You say in major situations including emergencies, we could have done better. In Iraq, clearly, you might say we should not have declared victory that quickly. We could have done better.
So, here's someone, not an entry level position, a senior level position who goes out the day after and says, oh, sorry, maybe I got a few words wrong. She should have known better from day one. And she doesn't get a pass.
In this situation, you step back and say, we need to serve the American people, and we need to do better every day. That's it.
KEILAR: If you are a government official, Sunlen, and you even just think about how do you communicate in moments like this, there are very few textbook cases that stand out as much as heck of a job, Brownie, that George Bush did. It's like 101.
SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That comparison was immediately made. It might not rise to that level. We'll see in the coming days.
KEILAR: We'll see. It does take time.
SERFATY: Certainly, the comparison was right there that this was immediately a misstep in how she's explaining. How can you say that it's a good news story when you're seeing these awful images on the television, when millions of Puerto Ricans are without water, food, basic necessities like power? That's just -- it comes off more than tone deaf.
[18:50:01] It just comes off as a little insensitive. But, of course, this administration, to your point, is extremely sensitive right now of how they are handling this, how every move they're making is being perceived? Are they going fast enough? And they're getting aid fast enough, and they're kind of playing catch up.
So, I can understand how she wouldn't issue an apology. That said, Puerto Ricans need it.
KEILAR: Mike Rogers, would it have been acceptable do you think in this administration for her to come out and say, scratch what I said, I messed up. What I'm trying the communicate is we're doing everything we can and then to explain what's being done to try to reassure Puerto Ricans and those who are concerned?
MIKE ROGERS, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY COMMENTATOR: I think so. Listen --
KEILAR: You think that would have flown OK with President Trump to sort of show any weakness? ROGERS: Well, I would hope so. I mean, I think -- you know, listen,
I -- let's put that aside.
ROGERS: The FEMA director came out and said, in the first few days, which I thought was really good, he came out and said, here's my challenges in getting things on the island. We had to get the airports running and we had to get the ports up and running, which were really difficult in order to get goods and services on to the island. Great. And then he explained why that was taking time, why the electric grid was a problem. Why X was a problem. Great.
They should have stood with that theme and then said, we're going to need help. We're going to need everybody's help, and you should never say this is going well until the last person gets a water, and has electricity and health care system is up and operating and you had a police force that's out and doing its job. Without any of that, it's never done and it's never going to be enough.
And some notion they're going to hide from somebody who's not getting what they need that's going to be in the media is absolutely worse than tone deaf. It's the ostrich in the head in the sand, and it's just not healthy to getting people fired up about what the emergency is on the island.
KEILAR: You host one of my favorite shows on CNN, "DECLASSIFIED".
ROGERS: I'm tearing up right now.
KEILAR: It's really good. I watch it on demand, too. Like I binge it. OK. So, 9:00 p.m. tomorrow, season finale.
Tell us about this episode.
ROGERS: This is fantastic. It's the highest ranking CIA officer ever to be recruited by the Russian, the Soviets to actually spy on America. Not only was he arrested once, he was charged twice on another charge for spying including recruiting his son to spy while he was in prison. This one is one for the history books. And you are not going to want to miss it.
KEILAR: All right. Appointment viewing, 9:00 p.m. tomorrow night.
Mike Rogers, thank you so much.
Thank you so much to my wonderful panel. I really appreciate it.
And just ahead, the U.S. drastically cuts its embassy staff in Havana after its series of acoustic attacks on American diplomats. Does the State Department have any new evidence about who is behind these attacks?
[18:57:19] KEILAR: Tonight, the United States is ordering a major withdrawal of embassy staff from Cuba, ramping up its response to a series of mysterious acoustic attacks that left some American diplomats with brain damage.
I want to bring in CNN global affairs correspondent Elise Labott.
Tell us about these new steps that are being taken, Elise.
ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's a significant drawdown, Brianna. They're reducing not only all of the families of U.S. diplomats in Havana, but also more than 60 percent of U.S. diplomats there are being brought back. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says we don't know who's involved. We don't know what this is, but we do know that the Cubans are not protecting our people and they said that they just need to bring them home to make sure they're under risk.
KEILAR: So, they don't know definitively who may be doing this? Do they have any inkling at all?
LABOTT: Well, they do think that the Cubans have to be involved in some way. Now, to be clear, the government --
KEILAR: It's not the government.
LABOTT: Not the government itself, but some Cubans, perhaps some rogue element of the Cuban security or intelligence apparatus because you know they have such tight control over U.S. diplomats and where they move and these diplomatic enclaves. So, U.S. officials tell me, look, unless these are beams from outer space, the Cubans have such tight control over the ground there, that some of them have to know what's going on.
But we have to be clear that the Cuban government is cooperating. They let the FBI on the ground there, the foreign minister came to Washington this week to meet with Secretary of State Tillerson to say, listen, it's not us. We want to help you. But, again, you know, they're not protecting the U.S. diplomat. So, they felt they need to bring them home and they're also warning Americans not to go there.
KEILAR: Because what is exactly happening? And that's part of the reason why it makes it so difficult because it's an acoustic attack.
LABOTT: That's right. Well, you know, these diplomats and their families, all of a sudden, they'd be in bed, they'd be sleeping and they would have some kind of, you know, piercing in their head, they would have some kind of episode and they would have -- some of them had hearing loss, some of them had concussion like symptoms. They'd get nauseous and they sent medical teams down and they all thought, look, it seems to be that there's some acoustic device that is operating outside the kind of normal sound waves that you and I would hear.
Like something like a dog whistle in a different frequency and they're all having similar episodes, you know, maybe they're having different symptom, but it's so strange. They have not found any devices in any of their homes and it's really a mystery. And they say, got to bring them home to make sure they're not at risk anymore while they try to find out who's responsible.
KEILAR: It is so dangerous.
Elise Labott, thank you so much. Really appreciate it.
I'm Brianna Keilar. Thank you so much for watching.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.