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170 Congressional Democrats Call on EPA Chief to Resign; Trump Uses Comey Memos to try to Discredit Mueller Probe; Ted Cruz Praises Trump in "Time" Despite Past Bad Relations; DOJ Indicts Actress Allison Mack in Sex Trafficking Case; Puerto Rico Evacuees in Limbo in Florida. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired April 21, 2018 - 17:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[17:00:00]

ANA CABRERA, CNN ANCHOR: -- accusing, name calling and defensive today to anyone reading his Twitter feed. He rails against "The New York Times," insulting a reporter by name while standing up for his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen. He calls Maggie Haberman third rate and a crooked flunkey, saying she and her colleagues are going out of their way to destroy Cohen whom he calls a fine person with a wonderful family.

Then a familiar Trump refrain, witch hunt and dishonest media. The president has tweeted more since then about other things. Let me get White House correspondent, Boris Sanchez in here. He's not far from where President Trump is spending the weekend at his South Florida resort.

And Boris, this is "The New York Times" article the president is most likely reacting to. It's been a week since the feds raided Michael Cohen's home and office. Some analysts today believe these tweets today really meant to send a message to Michael Cohen to stay loyal. What are you hearing from the administration?

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, there, Ana. Nothing just yet. We've asked them for clarity on a couple of points on these tweets from the president. Clearly, unhappy about this coverage regarding his personal relationship with Attorney Michael Cohen. Shedding some negative light on their relationship.

Maggie Haberman citing six different sources that essentially told her that for a long time the president has treated his personal attorney poorly, like an animal. I should point out that in the rest of the president's tweets, he does go after a number of others as well.

He writes that the "New York Times" is using nonexistent sources and a drunk, drugged-up loser who hates Michael, a fine person with a wonderful family. Michael is a businessman for his own account, a lawyer who I've always liked and respected.

Most people will flip if the government lets them out of trouble, even if it means lying or making up stories. He says he does not see Michael Cohen doing that, despite the horrible witch hunt and the dishonest media. It is interesting that the president is tweeting this after that article was published just a few days after CNN confirmed that legal experts have told the president that he should be prepared in case Michael Cohen does flip.

In other words, if Michael Cohen has any sort of incriminating information about the president, that it is likely that he will use it for leniency to get a lighter sentence, according to sources, that was made clear to the president.

So, it is noteworthy that he's taking this approach, saying that he does not believe that Cohen would go against him that way. Of course, that is supposing that Cohen has some information on the president either doing something illegal or presiding over some sort of illegal act -- Ana.

CABRERA: All right. Boris Sanchez reporting from West Palm Beach, Florida. Thank you. Let's get some perspective on the Cohen case, Trump's tweets and more fallout from the Comey memos.

Joining us now, CNN political commentator, Ryan Lizza, legal analyst, Carrie Cordero, and law enforcement analyst, Josh Campbell, who worked for James Comey. Carrie, do you see the president's tweets from this morning as a personal plea to Cohen not to flip?

CARRIE CORDERO, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it's hard as always to get inside the president's mind and figure out what's motivating his tweets and different statements, but one could look at these, given the pattern of activity that he has had since he's been in office of tweeting about investigations in a way that could be interpreted to be trying to affect a witness or affect somebody involved in one of these investigations.

So, from the perspective of what it might be like to be a lawyer advising him, it would be very difficult to have a client who is consistently inserting themselves in the most public way into some type of ongoing litigation that could affect him.

CABRERA: Ryan, as I read this article from the "New York Times," it made me feel bad for Cohen. It sounds like he was treated horrible. But if Trump truly did treat him as bad as "The New York Times" is reporting, why has he been so loyal to Trump? Does it make sense to you?

RYAN LIZZA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, he's benefitted quite handsomely from his relationship with Donald Trump over the years. In the legal filings in the dispute over the warrants, for instance, it's noted that he won a $500,000 retainer with a law firm and his only job was to refer clients to a prominent lobbying firm.

So, I think he's benefitted quite a bit from his relationship with Trump, being loyal, going on tv with this sort of over-the-top praise for Trump has made him, frankly, a very wealthy person. I think that's the easiest explanation there.

As to the tweets, Ana, there is so much to unpack in those three tweets, because he -- there's a sort of long-term, fraught relationship with three individuals mentioned in that tweet. The first is Maggie Haberman, generally considered one of the best reporters on the White House beat who has known Trump for years and years and who despite what Trump says has an ongoing relationship.

In fact, there's a documentary about "The New York Times" coming out soon and the trailer for the documentary, one of the first clips in the trailer has a shot of Maggie Haberman talking about how Trump's about to call her.

[17:05:10] So, it's just not true that he doesn't know her or talk to her.

CABRERA: We do know that he reaches out to her frequently, especially when he wants to talk about the news, as we've been reporting in the first year of this presidency. Josh, I'm wondering, though, is it smart for the president to be tweeting at all about the Cohen investigation?

JOSH CAMPBELL, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: It's not. There is a legal answer. There is a political answer. The legal answer is obviously the more information out there, the more you are on record commenting on an ongoing investigation.

That's something that, you know, may potentially come back to haunt you down the road. We know the president is very adept at using social media to attempt to influence narrative, but you have to scare that with what it means legally.

I took great exception to one of the lines in the tweet this morning where he said that most people will flip if the government lets them out of trouble, even if it's based on a lie. I can tell you that law enforcement officers, that's not going to sit well with them because they take cooperating witnesses very seriously and if someone is lying, that's not someone who's of value to you. Their goal is to find the truth.

CABRERA: The president is also tweeting about the Comey memos. We've learned the Justice Department's internal watchdog is now looking into how Comey handled those memos, who he may have given access to, classified information.

On this, Trump tweeted, "James Comey illegally leaked classified documents to the press in order to generate a special counsel, therefore the special counsel was established based on an illegal act. Really, does everybody know what that means? Carrie, what does it mean?

CORDERO: Well, first of all, looking at the memos that have been released that former director Comey wrote, they really are consistent with everything that he has previously said in his public testimony and also what he wrote in his book.

So, I think from the president's perspective, the difficulty -- if anyone thought that these memos were going to be released and those were going to discredit the factual narrative that the former director had laid out, that's just not correct.

On the issue of potentially leaking classified information, I haven't seen any allegation that the actual memos that he has -- that Director Comey provided to his associate which then got released actually was the memos that were classified.

So, I think there still is some question about which memos actually he provided to his associate and then what of that information got released to the media. It is -- it does appear that some of the information that he originally wrote as an unclassified memo has been retroactively classified by the Department of Justice.

Of course, he was originally, I believe, as FBI director would have been an original classification authority so if he wrote a memo that he thought was unclassified and it was not derived from some other document, these are memos that he was creating himself, it seems to be a stretch to allege that there was classified. But again, I think there's more reporting that we will see in that area.

CABRERA: Well, there is reporting from the "Wall Street Journal" that Comey gave classified memos and those of memos two of those memos to this professor at Columbia law school and we always have reporting here from CNN that part of what this IG investigation is going to look into is the additional people he may have also shown those memos beyond those he has already spoken of, which is his professor as well as the FBI investigators who are involved in Robert Mueller's probe.

And then of course the lawmakers who have seen them. But Josh, I have to ask you this question because it's not just Comey now and his memos that are under investigation. That's on top of this investigation into former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe. We also know they're looking at texts between FBI officials, Lisa Page and Peter Struck that were political in nature. What do you make of all these investigations into the FBI?

CAMPBELL: Well, obviously, you know, on the surface it's not a good look, but one thing we have to do is step back and realize this all stemmed as part of one investigation, and looking into the actions of the FBI and obviously with respect to Mr. McCabe, there was a spinoff investigation that we saw the results of that ultimately leading to his dismissal.

But you know, when the IG investigation first started, it was Comey asking to be investigated by the IG because he knew that with political nerves frayed, I mean, they needed that independent review to look into the actions.

Obviously, that unearthed a lot of what we've seen between Lisa Page and Peter Struck, which is indefensible. I think it's created an incredibly terrible light for the FBI, but with respect to these memos, my understanding is that this is not a new investigation looking into Comey's handling of the memos.

But this is something that stemmed from June of 2017 whenever he was testifying before Congress and first made that admission that he had provided this information. So, had the IG not been looking into this, I think they should have been fired because that's their role to determine this type of handling.

[17:10:04] and the last thing I'll say is that, you know, I think we need to pump the brakes a little bit until the IG report comes out because right now, we don't know if they are looking into the mishandling of classified information or are they looking into whether there was some kind of policy that was violated in sharing it. A lot of questions that we want answers to yet.

CABRERA: What about the impact on the Robert Mueller investigation, if as the president implies, the beginning of this special counsel had something to do with these memos and if these memos were leaked in an illegal way or, you know, classified information was provided illegally. Is there an impact? Does it taint the investigation?

CAMPBELL: Well, that's an issue, and that gives me great pause because I think what we're seeing is, you know, right before our very eyes is an effort to possibly lead to the dismissal of Mueller and kind of softening the ground for, well, if this thing started as the president's saying, started based on false pretenses or based on a leak, I think that would maybe give him more fodder to say, let's dispel the whole thing.

Obviously, that's ridiculous because of the progress of Robert Mueller's investigation, what we've seen. The legal scholars will determine whether or not it was actually -- it began in a righteous manner, but I don't think we're questioning right now based on the legal documents that we've seen based on the progress that there isn't a there, there as far as Robert Mueller's case.

CABRERA: Ryan, I know you've been thinking about who's right, who's wrong, especially listening to all these interviews Comey has been giving as part of his book tour and you say he deserves a lot of the criticism he's getting.

LIZZA: Well, on one big thing. I think as Josh and Carrie are pointing out, I think the Comey show a great deal of consistency. The story that he's told in his book, before Congress, and in a number of interviews is remarkably consistent with those contemporaneous memos. That makes him a much more credible person.

And I think he's handled himself in a lot of difficult situations both in the 2016 election and when he was serving under president Trump with a great deal of integrity. Thought, what I wrote about was the one thing that I do think he deserves a great deal of criticism for is he made quite a bit of a show about how important it was for him to disclose the reopening of the Clinton e-mail investigation in 2016.

While simultaneously arguing that it would have been wholly inappropriate to accede to Congress's requests specifically at the time, Senator Harry Reid, to disclose some minimal information about the investigation into Russia that related to Donald Trump.

And that, I think, is one of the criticisms of Comey that I think is very fair, that he sort of opened up this Pandora's box about Hillary Clinton, which I think was fair, as a voter, as a journalist, I think it's important for us to know about the reopening of the investigation right before we go to the polls.

But I think we should have known about the Russia investigation as well. And if he was going to do it for one candidate, as difficult as that situation was, he should have done it for the other.

CAMPBELL: Can I say just --

CABRERA: Go ahead, Josh.

CAMPBELL: I was just going to say I think what we just heard from Ryan there is the most intelligent, cogent way of handling that argument that I've seen since it came out and it's so easy to say what about this case and that case, if the two aren't similar, but the one thing that is interesting here from Ryan is he said, there should have been some minimal type of release of information which I can see and that's going to be debated for a long time.

CORDERO: Let me give you one different perspective on that, Ana, which is that the investigation of the Trump Organization as we understand it at that time it would have been a counterintelligence investigation and so as a lawyer who used to handle counterintelligence investigations for the Justice Department, I can see an argument that there is -- was a difference, at least perhaps in the director's assessment at the time, from disclosing information about an early stage or an ongoing counterintelligence investigation in which there would have been a lot of national security equities versus the other investigation that was an issue.

LIZZA: It was disclosed five months later, though, and at the, you know, and at the request of Congress. So --

CABRERA: During that one hearing with James Comey that everyone --

LIZZA: In March of 2017.

CABRERA: And I think the big debate is going to be, you know, at the end of the day, and this is something that we'll have to look at, obviously, we hope nothing like this happens again, but it is worth noting, at the end of the day, when you have officials from DOJ and the FBI, the question will be what do we value more?

Was it more important for the FBI and the DOJ to continue this investigation and potentially stop a threat or was it more important for the government to say, look, the electoral process is so sacred, when you go to the ballot box, you should know there's something amiss here. There's a huge debate.

LIZZA: The best thing would let's not have presidential candidates who are anywhere near an FBI investigation next time.

CABRERA: All right. Guys, thank you so much for all the thoughts. I appreciate it. Good to have you with us.

[17:15:04] We have this just in to CNN, Verne Troyer, the actor best known as "Mini-me" in the Austin Powers movies has died.

(VIDEO CLIP)

CABRERA: The announcement of his passing did not mention a cause of death, but a post does say that Troyer fought many battles but, quote, "This time was too much." Verne Troyer was 49.

Ahead this hour, a stunning revelation just ahead of a planned meeting with Trump. Rogue nation leader, Kim Jong-un, says his country's quest for nuclear weapons is complete and it no longer needs to test its weapons capability.

Plus, Republican redo? Their campaign spats, some of the most heated moments of the 2016 race, why Ted Cruz is now pulling a 180 and swooning over his former foe.

And later, touching goodbye, family and friends honor former First Lady Barbara Bush in Houston today. Hear her son, Jeb, recalling his fondest memories of his mom. You're live in the CNN NEWSROOM. Don't go anywhere.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:20:33]

CABRERA: North Korea says its quest for nuclear weapons is complete. Leader Kim Jong-un saying today he no longer needs to test nuclear weapons or long-range missiles and this comes just days ahead of Kim's meeting with South Korean president and Kim's meeting with President Trump expected to come late May or early June. Now President Trump is praising this move on Twitter, calling it big progress.

CNN's Ivan Watson is in Seoul, South Korea, with details for us -- Ivan.

IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Ana, North Korea's unexpected statement, its announcement that it's going to suspend long range ballistic missile launches and nuclear tests and even discard its northern main nuclear testing facility has been widely interpreted as an olive branch just days ahead of an expected summit, the first ever between North Korea's Kim Jong-un and the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in.

South Korea's government welcomed this, saying that it's going to set a good atmosphere for the upcoming talks, not just between North and South Korea but then the subsequent summit that is expected to be held between Kim Jong-un and President Trump, though we still don't know the location or exact time of that upcoming meeting.

Now, to justify the suspension of these tests, North Korea has argued that it has already mastered its nuclear weapons arsenal, that it has already figured out how to miniaturize nuclear bombs, presumably to put them on the tip of an intercontinental ballistic missile and it no longer needs to test this kind of technology.

And just think back. It's just last September that North Korea carried out its sixth and most powerful nuclear weapons test and November of 2017 that it fired its last intercontinental ballistic missile.

But now, North Korea says it wants to focus on economic development and on improving relations with other countries here in the region and says it would only use its nuclear arsenal in self-defense against some kind a nuclear threat.

And that will be the key issue that President Moon of South Korea and then we expect President Trump, they'll all be asking about, finding a way to convince North Korea to dismantle what's left of its nuclear arsenal -- Ana.

CABRERA: Big distinction there, Ivan Watson in Seoul for us. Thank you.

Up next on CNN, EPA Chief Scott Pruitt may be in even more trouble after new revelations about a D.C. condo he rented. We'll have the details live for you in the CNN NEWSROOM next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:27:37]

CABRERA: New details just in to CNN about the embattled head of the EPA, Scott Pruitt. "The New York Times" is now reporting that Pruitt met face-to-face with a Washington lobbyist whose wife rented him a Capitol Hill condo for just $50 a night. Now this goes against earlier statements by the EPA that the two men had never met.

So far, the reporting is exclusive to "The New York Times" and we should note that the "Times" is also reporting that the meeting was personal, had nothing to do with lobbying. Pruitt is now facing ten separate investigations into his use of taxpayer dollars and ethical violations.

Members of Congress are calling on Pruitt to resign. His round the clock security detail apparently joined him on family trips to Disneyland and college football games. White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney seas says the White House is now looking into Pruitt's spending.

Let's talk it over with Florida Congresswoman Val Demings who was one of the co-sponsors to a resolution calling for Pruitt's resignation. Congresswoman, thank you so much for being with us. First, I want to get your reaction to this new report from the "New York Times" accusing Pruitt of meeting with a lobbyist whose wife rented Pruitt that $50 a night condo.

REPRESENTATIVE VAL DEMINGS (D), FLORIDA: Well, Ana, thank you so much for inviting me. I tell you what, unethical behavior just continues to swirl around Mr. Pruitt's head, and that's why I joined 169 other members of Congress calling for his resignation.

I tell you what, we can start with just his responsibilities as the chief of the EPA, but it seems like he's worked overtime to really dismantle regulations that will protect the environment, give us clean air and water, and now the condo that he was renting for $50 continues to haunt him.

We know that he made statements multiple times that he had not met with the lobbyist of the wife who rented him the condo, but now we know that that is not true. Also, he indicated that the purchase of the condo for the amount had been approved by the Ethics Department, but the approval was based on limited information, so yet again, Mr. Pruitt did not give the entire story or quite frankly did not tell the truth.

CABRERA: So, 170 members of Congress are calling on him to resign, all Democrats from what I gather. I looked at the list. Why couldn't you get any Republicans to sign?

DEMINGS: Well, you know, Ana, it's just sad in this particular case but we've seen Republicans really not do their job in other areas. We can start with passing legislation to protect the special counsel. But you know, we're not going to -- I mean, we certainly remember why we're there and we're going to take the necessary steps to make sure that we hold people accountable just like members of Congress should be held accountable. But I can tell you that, you know, what people say in public and private can be quite different sometimes, and there have been a couple of Republicans that I personally know who have called for Mr. Pruitt's resignation but did not sign the resolution.

CABRERA: Including Ros-Lehtinen, as well as Carbello.

The White House is looking into Pruitt's spending. There are other investigations we've mentioned. You're not satisfied with that?

DEMINGS: No, I'm not. I'm certainly not satisfied with the White House looking into the investigation, because quite frankly, I'm not sure what that means. At a time when we should be more fiscally responsible, at a time when more and more Americans are working harder and it seems like getting further and further behind, Mr. Pruitt purchased a soundproof phone booth for $43,000, takes a $120,000 trip to Italy, has just been recklessly irresponsible in terms of his spending, and so we're going to hold him accountable and we need an investigation that we can believe in.

CABRERA: Now you are on the Judiciary Committee. The chairman of your committee pushed for James Comey's memos to be released. Republicans are saying these memos vindicate President Trump. How do you see it?

DEMINGS: Well, I think the memos certainly did not help President Trump, and obviously, my colleagues on the other side of the aisle had no clue what was or wasn't in the memos. They took a gamble and I would say they lost because what it proved to me was that FBI director -- former Director James Comey is very credible and President Trump seems to have problems remembering what the truth looks like.

CABRERA: Now, the president says if these memos contain classified info and were leaked that that is a crime. And if those memos sparked the Mueller investigation, he questions whether the special counsel was based on a, quote, "illegal act." Fair point? DEMINGS: Well, the special counsel was based on Russia interfering

with a United States election. And I believe that every reasonable person clearly knows, by now, that Russia interfered with our election. Every American should be upset by that and should want to get to the bottom of it. The unanswered question is how -- if the Trump campaign was involved, and particularly if the president of the United States was involved in colluding with Russia. That is why the special counsel was created. And we need to take every step necessary. And we know that the American people also want the special counsel to finish his work.

CABRERA: But the FBI and the DOJ were already doing an investigation into Russia's election meddling prior to the special counsel being announced or appointed, and that did come following the firing of FBI Director James Comey. And he himself has admitted that he leaked his memos out to this Columbia law professor to share with "The New York Times" in the hopes that it would spark a special counsel investigation.

DEMINGS: Well, the designation of classified versus unclassified was done after the fact. And you know, I think, you know, the special counsel, the Department of Justice, the FBI, they will look at any potential violations of maybe DOJ or FBI policy, but I think we should be laser focused on getting to the bottom of the work that the special counsel is doing and to see just how deeply ingrained Russia's interference was and who participated in that.

CABRERA: Congressman Val Demings, I appreciate your time. Thank you so much for joining us.

DEMINGS: Thank you.

CABRERA: Have you seen what Senator Ted Cruz just wrote about President Trump? Despite their history of bad blood, Cruz has glowing things to say in "Time" magazine. This was part of their top-100 most-influential people of 2018, where Cruz writes about Trump, "While pundits obsessed over tweets, he worked with Congress to cut taxes for struggling families. While wealthy celebrities announced that they would flee the country, he fought to bring back jobs and industries to our shores. While talking heads predicted Armageddon, President Trump's strong stand against North Korea put Kim Jong-Un back on his heels."

That is a far cry from this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

[17:35:20] SEN. TED CRUZ, (R), FLORIDA: Donald is a bully.

This man is a pathological liar. The man cannot tell the truth, but he combines it with being a narcissist. A narcissist at a level I don't think this country's ever seen.

The man is utterly amoral. And Donald Trump is a serial philanderer.

Donald had no substance behind him. Real men don't try to bully women. It's an action of a small and

petty man.

I don't make a habit out of supporting people who attack my wife and attack my family.

It is not acceptable for a big, loud New York bully to attack my wife.

Donald, you're a sniveling coward. And leave Heidi the hell alone.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CABRERA: Cruz is running for reelection this year against Democrat Beto O'Rourke. And he has been a vocal critic of President Trump. The polls suggest this race is tightening.

Coming up, a bizarre story involving an actress, an alleged cult, and her role in sex trafficking and forced labor. The accusations, next here in the CNN NEWSROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:41:02] CABRERA: An actress best known for her role in the TV series "Smallville" is part of a federal sex trafficking indictment. Allison Mack played Clark Kent's best friend for 10 years in the show about the early years of Superman. Now the Justice Department accuses Mack of forcing at least two women to have sex with the leader of a controversial self-help group, which former members describe as a cult.

CNN's Polo Sandoval is now following this story.

Polo, tell us more about this so-called cult and Mack's alleged involvement in it.

POLO SANDOVAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Obviously, the most recent development here, her addition to this indictment that was just released yesterday here. At this point, what we know is that this group claimed to be a, quote, "female mentorship group." But, Ana, when you look through this indictment, you see that it also likely had a dark side, according to federal investigators.

And before we break this down, a warning. Some of the details that we found here certainly may not be suitable for young viewers.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SANDOVAL (voice-over): Federal prosecutors indicting actress, Allison Mack, on sex trafficking charges Friday. The actress best known for her role on "Smallville" is accused of recruiting women to join a sex cult. According to federal prosecutors, Mack recruited women under false pretenses to perform sexual acts for Keith Raniere, the group's leader and sole male member of a secret group within NXIVM.

UNIDENTIFIED FFAMILY MEMBER OF VICTIM: She's dangerous. She's done harm to many people. Imagine having your initials burned into a woman's body. That's happened.

SANDOVAL: Raniere has also been indicted on sex trafficking charges. Both he and Mack face claims that many co-called slaves were branded on their pelvic areas with Raniere's initials. Mack and Raniere have pleaded not guilty.

On its Web site, NXIVM purports to be a self-help program, providing, quote, "an ethical humanitarian civilization."

In a statement, NXIVM defended their founder: "We're currently working with the authorities to demonstrate his innocence and true character. We strongly believe the justice system will prevail in bringing the truth to light."

If convicted, both Mack and Raniere face at least 15 years in prison.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SANDOVAL: And already two unnamed women have come forward accusing Mack of either directly or implicitly forcing them to engage in sexual relations with Raniere. Ana, this is a man who, again, is a codefendant in this case. And in the group, he was often described or at least his name would be vanguard. So a lot of mystery here and quite a lot of twists and turns in this investigation -- Ana?

CABRERA: A lot more to uncover.

Polo, thank you for that story.

Now some adventurous racers are eager to enter the Scandinavian winter swimming championship. Hundreds take part in this. Participating in these pools cut out of a frozen river.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta takes a look at the annual winter swimming in this week's "FIT NATION."

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): There's swimming and then there's ice swimming.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Get down in the water.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: People who do this are crazy.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That's right. I'm a little crazy. I think you have to be a little bit crazy when you go into the cold water and swim in the cold water.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You try not to freeze. You swim as fast as you can in the cold water.

GUPTA: This is the Scandinavian winter swimming championship. One of the coldest swimming competitions in the world.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A lot of spectators coming to watch it every year. They come from everywhere. They want to see this way people suffering in the water.

GUPTA: Studies have shown that swimming in cold water can improve mental health, promote healing, and improve circulation.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a good way to strengthen your body, to strengthen your mind and be ready for extreme condition.

GUPTA: But swimming in water this cold, especially without a wetsuit, isn't without risk.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You swim the same way you do as in regular swimming. But it's breathing. When you're in cold water, you're lungs cramp. You have to train to be able to breathe quickly.

[17:45:01] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When you first get into the water, you remember it's mind over matter. You're not going to die. If you stay in too long, you can get hypothermic. The trick is not to do that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It wasn't as bad as I thought.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Very cold.

GUPTA: Over 400 swimmers compete in various short-distance races.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's breast stroke, free style and, for the first time, we also butterfly. Butterfly is special. Then you're under the water.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The hesitation before you go into the water, where you say, you don't really want to do this. If you manage to do it, it's a really good thing.

(CROSSTALK)

GUPTA: With the growing popularity of the sport, there's hope for a grander stage in the years to come.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We hope we're in Beijing, we'll be in the Winter Olympics. Chinese already told us they would like to show the winter swimming as a potential new sport.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:50:29] CABRERA: Power is back on in Puerto Rico after a blackout earlier this week plunged the entire island into darkness. It was the first island-wide blackout since Hurricane Maria decimated the U.S. territory in September.

Now just weeks away from the next hurricane season, hundreds of Hurricane Maria evacuees are living in limbo. They're in Florida moving from motel to motel.

CNN's Ed Lavandera has more.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDET (voice-over): This is a pep talk for the soul, following a week of highs and lows that symbolizes the shaky road to recovery facing thousands of Puerto Rican storm survivors.

(CHANTING)

LAVANDERA: After Hurricane Maria, thousands of families left the island and signed up for the FEMA transitional sheltering assistance program. It pays for hotel rooms until families can move back into permanent housing.

Seven months after the storm, there are nearly 2,700 families still use the motel voucher program.

Like Millie Santiago and her family.

(on camera): (SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

Why did you come to Florida?

MILLIE SANTIAGO, HURRICANE EVACUEE: (SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

LAVANDERA: She says it was never her intention to stay here this long.

(voice-over): Instead, Santiago is known as the mayor of the Super 8 Motel. She helps evacuees who ended up in in a string of hotels along highway 192 navigate the red tape of disaster relief.

These families say they were told the motel voucher program would last until May, but about 60 percent of the families were stunned to learn this week they were no longer eligible and about to get kicked out of their rooms a month early.

(SHOUTING)

LAVANDERA: That set off an intense week of rallies. Tears, and calls to political leaders and activists demanding help. Then relief as word spread that the FEMA program would likely survive until mid-May.

(SHOUTING)

LAVANDERA: Father Jose Rodriguez says there are no transition plans to help these families get back on their feet.

FATHER JOSE RODRIQUEZ, PRIEST, CHRIST THE KING EPISCOPAL CHURCH: These are people who have been impacted by a natural disaster. They didn't come here for spring break. They didn't come here for a vacation. They're not out here at the beachside tanning, they're not out at the hotel pool.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Have a nice day.

(SHOUTING) LAVANDERA: The Florida project film captured the gritty reality of motel life along Highway 192 in Kissimmee. Since the Great Recession 10 years ago, the marginalized and homeless have found refuge in the cheap rooms on this stretch of highway surrounding the utopia of Disney World.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTFIED ACTRESS: Don't you think we're going too far?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: No. Just come on. Don't be a loser.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LAVANDERA (on camera): After Hurricane Maria, community activists say about 180 Puerto Rican families moved into these same motels along Highway 192. They say they feel trapped in this motel life because they're working minimum wage jobs, affordable housing is scarce, and the federal disaster benefits just aren't enough. FEMA says, though, at some point, this is no longer a disaster problem, but a social problem, and that the agency is doing everything it can to help these families.

(voice-over): FEMA says there is a rental assistance program only available to storm victims on the island, not for those who left.

Millie Santiago's family left Puerto Rico because the storm wiped out their daycare business and they came to Florida so her two children could enroll in school.

(on camera): Now they've been trying to figure out what to do here.

(SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

You want to stay here now in Orlando?

SANTIAGO: (SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

LAVANDERA (voice-over): "I don't have a choice now," she says.

DEANNA RAMOS, HURRICANE EVACUEE: (SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

LAVANDERA: Deanna Ramos is working part-time and taking culinary classes in hopes she can land a better job in one of the Orlando-area theme parks. Without the motel room, she worries she'd be sleeping in her car.

(SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGAAGE)

RAMOS: (SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

LAVANDERA (on camera): She said, "I'm incredibly scared. I have no idea where I'm going to go."

(voice-over): Ramos and the other evacuees living on this motel road know time is running out. (END VIDEOTAPE)

[17:54:36] CABRERA: Our thanks to Ed Lavandera reporting there.

We're back in just a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CABRERA: Welcome back. The country of Bolivia has the highest rates of sexual violence against women in Latin America. This weeks "CNN Hero" grew up there and was repeatedly sexually abused as a teen. She finally broke her silence and found the strength to take on a larger mission. Meet Brisa de Angulo.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BRISA DE ANGULO, CNN HERO: I found out that I wasn't alone, that there were tons of girls that were also Belgian sexually abused. And I had to do something. I had to use the rest of my life to prevent other girls from going through what I went through.

I think the biggest thing is giving the voice back to girls and allowing them to speak up.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CABRERA: At age 17, Brisa founded the Brisa Hope Foundation, a support center for child survivors of sexual abuse. And to learn more about Brisa and the incredible work she's doing, go to CNNhero.com. And while you're there, nominate someone you think should be a 2018 "CNN Hero."

[18:00:07] Top of the hour. You're in the CNN NEWSROOM. Great to have you with me. I'm Ana Cabrera, in New York.

And President Trump mounting his strongest, most-aggressive stance --