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Soon: Trump Meets With McConnell Amid GOP Tensions; Senator Graham: "We're Dead" If We Don't Pass Tax Reform; EPA Warns Of Long- Term Risks Of Drinking Toxic Water; Governor Wants 95 Percent Of Power Restored By December. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired October 16, 2017 - 11:00   ET




KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan. Right now, all eyes are on the White House. President Trump gathering his cabinet and facing a sit-down with the Senate Republican leader. Is Mitch McConnell now friend or foe? It seems to depend on the day so stand by to find out.

Before that, the same question could apply to part of his own cabinet, the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, he'll be in that cabinet meeting. He's also still dodging the question of whether or not he called the president a moron over the summer. Instead, Tillerson insist that they are on the same page when it comes to crucial questions like what to do about North Korea.


REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: I think he does want to be clear with Kim Jong-un and that regime in North Korea that he has military preparations ready to go and he has those military options on the table and we have spent substantial time actually perfecting those, but be clear the president has also made it clear to me he wants it solved diplomatically. He is not seeking to go to war.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: So, he doesn't think it's a waste of time?

TILLERSON: No, sir. He has made it clear to me to continue the diplomatic efforts which we are and we'll -- as I told others, those diplomatic efforts will continue until the first bomb drops.


BOLDUAN: So, there's that. Now on to awkward meeting number two. The president lunching with Senate Majority Leader McConnell after months of tension, floundering legislation and at least one obscenity- laced phone call, and now a declaration of war from the president's former top strategist.

So, I know the question, of course, top of mind for everyone is, what's on the menu? What's for lunch today? Let's get to it. Let's get started with Kaitlan Collins at the White House for us. Kaitlan, the president and Mitch McConnell, what's at stake here and what's on the agenda today?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, tax reform is certainly going to be at the top of the list. The president and the Senate majority leader actually had a phone call over the weekend where they talked about tax reform and then they are going to have this lunch today at the White House with Vice President Mike Pence here in a matter of hours.

But all this comes as tensions between these two men have really reached a new high in recent months. The president has publicly attacked Mitch McConnell and blamed him for failing to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

As you recall they had very angry phone call that turned into a screaming match recently where the two men went for a period of time without speaking to each other. But this lunch today doesn't mean that they have entirely patched things up.

It just shows how desperate they both are for a legislative accomplishment here. They both realize how much they need each other and Senator Lindsay Graham might have explained these concerns best yesterday.

When he said that if Republicans don't get tax reform passed and don't eventually repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, they're going to lose across the board in 2018 and would essentially be the end of Mitch McConnell as we know it -- Kate.

BOLDUAN: Lindsey Graham always has a very Lindsey Graham way of putting things in perspective for folks. But there's also this, Sara Murray has some great reporting from the White House as well, Kaitlan, about growing concern amongst Republicans about the future of the House, their control over the House, and also, what that means for the president's future.

COLLINS: Yes, that's right. My colleague, Sara Murray, has reported that there are some concerns amongst some staffers here inside the White House and Republican lawmakers that the president doesn't fully understand just how dire these fights with members of his own party could be for his presidency.

They fear that it could put his presidency in jeopardy if Republicans lose the House next year and Democrats take over because they could start issuing subpoenas and potentially putting forward some Articles of Impeachment here.

But the White House is insistent that the president understands just how important it is for Republicans to maintain control of the House. That they are not taking this defeatist approach here and that they insist that they'll win.

But it really just goes to show, Kate, just how dire getting tax reform passed really is for these Republicans so they can have something to run on when they return to their bases at home -- Kate.

BOLDUAN: Absolutely. Kaitlan, great to see you. Thank you so much. All eyes over there this hour.

Joining me to discuss, founder and CEO of the conservative grassroots group, American Majority, Ned Ryun is here, CNN political commentator and Republican strategist, Kevin Madden is here as well, CNN political commentator and Democratic strategist, Hilary Rosen, and CNN political director, David Chalian.

Great to see all of you. Let's have some fun. David, it almost seems like tax reform is everything this week.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: It is. I'll tell you who it's not sneaking up on Republicans. Republicans are looking down the pike here and they are concerned that they are seeing a near death experience down the pike, potentially, if they can't get this done. There is no disconnect.

It is entirely connected in many Republicans' minds to get across the finish line on tax reform in the way they did were not able to do on Obamacare repeal and replace in order to go to their voters next year and say there's a reason to re-elect them.

[11:05:12] Without that, you see the hand wringing is getting more intense in Republican circles. This is no slam dunk, Kate. Tax reform is not as if everybody on the Republican side is in 100 percent agreement about how to go about it.

They are in agreement that they should get it done, but we are going to see, again, some intraparty conversations here and it's starting this week and that's why it's so important for Republicans to pass a budget on the Hill this week on the Senate side so that they can try to do this with just 50 votes.

BOLDUAN: Yes. The 50 votes or the 60 votes, which one would you prefer if you are in the majority? I guess, we could all guess what that would be. Kevin, one of those intraparty conversations is starting today between the president and Mitch McConnell.

I mean, it's continuing, I guess, we could say today. If you're Mitch McConnell, Kevin, and you are walking into lunch today, are you bringing a shield, a sword, or an olive branch?

KEVIN MADDEN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think an olive branch and a plan to pass tax reform and a plan to I think attack a lot of the other legislative agenda items that Republicans ran on and that's the reason why they have the majority.

But David's right. I think what -- the president and Mitch McConnell have to realize is that they both need each other. There are mutual benefits to the relationship if they work together on their common core of agenda items that really matter to the Republican base, really matter to folks that are going to be going to the polls in 2018.

So, I think that's one of the things that you remember is that Mitch McConnell wants to project his majority and get bills to this president that the president can sign and claim victory on so I think he's going to come together with a plan exactly for that.

BOLDUAN: Yes. But that has been elusive to say the least up to this point. Coming with a plan and execute that plan. Ned, first let's play Lindsey Graham and how he put it when asked what tax reform means for them right now. Listen to this.


SENATOR LINDSAY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: If we don't, we're dead. It's a symptom of a greater problem. If we don't cut taxes and repeal and replace Obamacare, then we're going to lose across the board in the House in 2018 and all of my colleagues running in 2018 probably will get beat and the end of Mitch McConnell as we know it.

So, this is a symptom of greater problem. If we do cut taxes and we do repeal and replace Obamacare, it doesn't matter what Bannon do because we'll win.


BOLDUAN: Does tax reform make it all better, Ned?

NED RYUN, CEO, AMERICAN MAJORITY: It makes it a little bit better. I'll give you that. I mean, Lindsay Graham couldn't have said it better than I can. Bannon is a creation of the Senate's incompetence. Listen, they promised health care reform, tax reform, infrastructure.

If they had been able to accomplish maybe two of those items at this point, I'm pretty sure Bannon wouldn't exist. And so, I really think that it is option "A," do what you said you were going to do or option "b" if you don't you'll feel pain.

It's very simple. Do what you said you were going to do or don't. I mean, tax reform is a huge thing. I have been advocating to keep it simple. Kiss principle, keep it simple, stupid.

Get a legitimate reform package through, start working and take another a run at health care reform, start thinking about infrastructure. Tax reform will go a long way to forgiving a lot of sins.

BOLDUAN: There's nothing simple about two things, one, tax reform, you know, the biggest -- you know, the most comprehensive tax reform into generation. Two, Congress. Getting anything through it. Hillary, weigh in on this.

RYUN: Really quick, before I could --


RYUN: The thing that I think Mitch McConnell will have to do to be successful in passing a legislative agenda, make a hard decision on the legislative filibuster, a big question moving forward, is he open to doing that? BOLDUAN: I hear you, but it's not a 60-vote problem. It's a 50-vote problem they've had so far. Hillary, give me your take?

HILARY ROSEN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: First, it feels important to say that actually real people are involved here. That when the Trump administration undermines health care, real people get hurt.

Democrats would like to see taxes cut for the middle class and so you will find Democrats who would be willing to vote for a thoughtful bill that doesn't give all of the benefit to the wealthy.

The biggest problem that Republicans have is that they're at war with each other and Democrats by the way love this. We love it when they're at war with each other.

BOLDUAN: Of course.

ROSEN: The problem with health care was, you know, the House passed a bill and then the president said, you know, lauded it one day in the Rose Garden and then said, it was super mean the next day.

We have the administration doing the same thing on tax reform now. You have his lieutenants going out there saying let's repeal the state and local tax deduction and all of a sudden Donald Trump realized over the weekend, that could actually hurt middle class people.

So, he announces his opposition to that. So, this constant back and forth between sort of what the amateur hour at the White House and in the cabinet is doing that undermines Republicans on the Hill is really the story.

[11:10:11] I actually don't blame Mitch McConnell. I think they can't do much if they have such loose cannons in the administration.

BOLDUAN: Well, that also leaves me to wonder, who has the president -- who has the president's ear most right now, David? I mean, as he gets ready to meet with Mitch McConnell, according to "Wall Street Journal," he's been swapping phone calls with Steve Bannon encouraging him -- encouraging Steve Bannon moves from the outside.

Steve Bannon calls this a season of war. He directly targets Mitch McConnell saying we have taken your oxygen and donors. Can the president really work with both men here?

CHALIAN: Right. I think maybe the president is going to show up with an oxygen tank today. I do think what Trump is doing here, Kate, playing both the outside and the inside game, right?

He is giving his tacit blessing to Bannon to get out there and continue to fight the establishment and in the way that Donald Trump has been a torch bearer for that against the establishment for much of this year.

And yet, he is also trying to sit down and play the inside game with McConnell to actually get a bill to his desk that he can sign and so if you look at all of his tweets this morning, fascinating to look at the tweets.

They were all bashing Democrats or touting the economy. That's all on message. That's everything Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan love to hear. There was no distraction about the NFL or about Bob Corker style intraparty warfare. He was sort of sticking to where the Republicans on the Hill like him to be.

ROSEN: For one day.

CHALIAN: No, no, no. I know but I'm just saying for today as he sits down with McConnell's cabinet, it's instructive that he's trying to play both the outside and the inside game.

ROSEN: But it is important to note that in 2017, David, and I know you know this, there is no inside and outside game anymore. With social media, with the media, with level of information flow that exists in the world today, everybody knows everything.

There are no secrets and the old days you could negotiate in the back room of Congress, cut some deals and then go out and jointly sell it. You could campaign differently in your district than you act in Washington.

There is no inside and outside game anymore and so Donald Trump will fail at what you rightly say is his attempt at an inside and outside game.

BOLDUAN: Let's see. Are we playing the inside or outside game, though? That's one thing. All playing the inside or outside game? I'll leave you to discuss that over lunch like Mitch McConnell may discuss with the president. Great to see you, guys. Thank you so much.

Coming up, a major escalation in the battle over the national anthem protests in the NFL. The man who started the protest movement, Colin Kaepernick, taking action against the whole league. The key word here, collusion. Details ahead.

Plus, a new disaster is unfolding in Puerto Rico. Residents there now so desperate for drinking water that they're drinking from wells of toxic waste sites. EPA is going in. Now there's a call for a federal investigation. We'll take you live to San Juan for the reporting.



BOLDUAN: A special CNN report now, people in Puerto Rico so desperate for water, they're drinking it from a hazardous waste site at this point. One man saying that he is ignoring the warnings to stay away from so-called superfund sites saying that if I don't drink water I'm going to die.

Now, a top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee is calling on DHS to investigate this water crisis. CNN's Ed Lavandera is in San Juan with the details. Ed, this has been some very important reporting that you and your team have been doing. What are you learning?

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, this is an area in a town called Dorado, which is west of the capital here in San Juan where we're at. It's a relatively small area, but it is an area designated as a superfund site. Superfund sites are designated by the Environmental Protection Agency and it's basically a list of some of the most contaminated pieces of land in the country.

This happens, you know, all over the place. But in this particular case, there are a number of water wells on that land and there had been reports and we have seen it ourselves over the course of the last few weeks that people have been tapping into the water wells desperate for water.

Several of those residents we have spoken to said they have used it in recent days as a source of drinking water. Over the weekend, a team of -- from the Environmental Protection Agency was out there taking water samples. They're in the process of testing the water for industrial toxins which is believed to be in the ground.

The question is whether or not those industrial toxins have seeped into the water supply that's underground there. That testing is being done. It will be back at some point this week. So, we'll continue to monitor that.

But I had a chance to speak with one of the EPA officials that was out there at the site doing that testing and this is what we talked about.


LAVANDERA: How concerned are you about what might happen to them?

GARY LIPSON, EPA INCIDENT COMMANDER, PUERTO RICO OPERATIONS: We're concerned, because it's not absolutely clean, you know, pure water. There are some contaminants. We are not saying somebody is in immediate danger by drinking this water. We are considering it in a long-term risk.


LAVANDERA: So officials here are saying that long-term risk, prolonged exposure to drinking that water, would likely cause any kind of serious health effects. Obviously, that increases the urgency of getting access to clean water for a lot of these people.

The problem has been that a lot of people didn't know that the area they lived in and where these water wells were located sat on top of the superfund site. Many of them that we spoke with had never heard that news to begin with.

And then couple that with the problem in areas where there is access to water, a nearby well, lines take hours and hours to get through to get access to that water so it's just a difficult situation here as the water supply continues to come back online.

[11:20:06] BOLDUAN: Yes. All the while they need water every day despite the fact that testing is going on -- you know, is in the process of happening. Ed, thank you so much. Really appreciate it.

With me now, Democratic Congresswoman Nydia Velasquez of New York. She is the first Puerto Rican woman elected to the House of Representatives. Congresswoman, thank you so much for being here. Appreciate it.


BOLDUAN: So, you just heard Ed Lavandera's reporting. You're aware of it beforehand. What have you heard? What have you heard about this water and these superfund sites and what it means for folks there?

VELAZQUEZ: This is one superfund site that we are aware of, but there are 14 superfund sites in Puerto Rico. So, the extent of the damage, this could be another Flint where so many children, old people, regular people in Puerto Rico could get affected.

We're talking about contaminants, toxins, material, oil that are in this water. This is not a year ago. It was a superfund site. A year later, you telling me that this water can be used for -- as drinking water? I don't think so and I'm really very concerned. For this to happen in America, it just heart breaking.

BOLDUAN: I do want to ask you. You became very emotional this week following the president's -- one of the president's tweets -- a message that he sent to Puerto Rico and part of the message was that we can't keep FEMA, the military and first responders in Puerto Rico forever, is what he sent out. That upset you.

For our viewers, I want to play what you said. You sent a message to the president through one of his cabinet secretaries that same warning, Ben Carson, when he was in your committee. Listen to this.


VELAZQUEZ: We shed blood to defend the freedoms that every American in this country enjoys. So, to kick fellow citizens when they are down is shameful!


BOLDUAN: Why did that message from the president upset you so much?

VELAZQUEZ: It was outrageous. It was an insult. It shows the inability of this president to understand that the solemn duty of a president is to protect the citizens of our country and that Puerto Ricans are fellow citizens. They are not colonial subjects. They need the assistance and the reliefs that we provide to any American citizen whenever there is a natural disaster.

BOLDUAN: The next day the president sent out another message with a very different tone saying that the wonderful people of Puerto Rico with their unmatched spirit know how bad things were before the hurricanes. I will always be with them. Does that make it better? VELAZQUEZ: No. We need actions. As you saw, people in Puerto Rico are drinking water from a superfund site. What we need is to correct the fact that we were not prepared. The federal government did not have a meaningful advanced response knowing that a Category 5 was on its track to hit Puerto Rico, knowing that the infrastructure of Puerto Rico before the hurricane was vulnerable. So, we needed to be there. The full force of the federal government, to mobilize the federal assets that were needed.

BOLDUAN: Going forward, the governor of Puerto Rico now says that he thinks that they -- he believes they are going have 95 percent of the power grid back online by December 15th, I believe is what he said. Do you believe that?

VELAZQUEZ: I don't know how he came to the conclusion, but I pray that we get this 95 percent back because the economy is -- if we don't have the power grid --

BOLDUAN: Do you think it's too ambitious to think it will happen by mid-December?

VELAZQUEZ: Without the federal resources, definitely. Puerto Rico does not have the resources to enable them to put the power grid back on track.

BOLDUAN: A lot on the plate of Congress right now. Sara Murray, our White House correspondent had really important reporting this morning about how Republicans are sounding the alarm that if they lose the majority, if Democrats win back the majority in the House in '18 then that that would mean the president would be impeached. Would you be for that?

VELAZQUEZ: If we have the evidence that show that there was collusion between the Russian and the Donald Trump campaign, that if there were -- if they committed fraud, if the FBI was lied to, if the evidence is there, we should act on it.

BOLDUAN: So, we haven't seen that evidence yet.


BOLDUAN: So, right now you are a no, but leaving open the possibility?

VELAZQUEZ: Well, if the evidence shows that the facts should call for an impeachment, I'll be the first one to support it.

BOLDUAN: It seems personal to you, as well, now. This has gone from political to personal for you. Do you want to see the president impeached?

VELAZQUEZ: I want the president to do right by the American people.

BOLDUAN: Does he still have a chance to do that?

VELAZQUEZ: He is the president of the United States. Apparently, he doesn't understand the responsibility of being president of the United States.

BOLDUAN: Does he still have a chance to fix it? Do you think he's done wrong? Do you think he still has a chance to get it right?

VELAZQUEZ: Well, he needs to do it. He needs at least in the case of Puerto Rico, people are dying. Children are dying. So, this is the matter of life and death for American citizens. And by just tweeting out and telling the people of Puerto Rico when you're down that we're going to pull out of Puerto Rico, the resources that they deserve, it just immorally -- that is not the value that made this country great.

BOLDUAN: Congresswoman, thank you for coming in.

VELAZQUEZ: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: Appreciate it.

Coming up for us, all eyes back on the White House today where the president will be soon holding a meeting on camera. He will be holding a meeting with his cabinet and the cameras will see what happens. You never know. It comes amid tension with -- rising tensions with North Korea, comes amid new battles of health care and tax reform. We'll bring you that as soon as it happens.

Plus, former 49ers quarterback and the player who began the NFL protest movement Colin Kaepernick now taking action against the league accusing team owners of colluding to keep him out of a job. That's coming up.