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FEMA: Florence Will Be A Direct Hit; Trump Compared Maria to Katrina in Immediate Aftermath; Trump Admin Sounds Different Notes on North Korea Progress; Cohn and Porter Issue Statements on Woodward Book. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired September 11, 2018 - 12:30   ET


[12:30:00] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: -- barreling towards the Carolinas threatening more than 20 million people now in it's projected path. The eye of the storm due to make landfall in North Carolina sometime between Thursday night and Friday morning. Either as a Category 4 or perhaps a Category 5 storm.

If Florence maintains that momentum which at the moment it is on track to do, it would be the strongest storm to make landfall anywhere in the East Coast since Hurricane Andrew back in 1992. More than one million people now facing mandatory evacuation orders. The stretch of coast line had seen a lot of storms which makes some people think we can ride this out. Officials are not mincing words saying take this seriously.


JEFF BYARD, FEMA OFFICE OF RESPONSE AND RECOVERY: Hurricane Florence is the strongest storm to target the Carolinas in this part of our country in decades. We will experience power outages, we will have infrastructure damaged. There will be homes damaged. There will be debris on the roads.

This will be a storm that creates and causes massive damages to our country. This storm is not a glancing blow. This storm is going to be a direct hit.


KING: You see that FEMA briefing there and the warning. The White House says FEMA and other federal agencies are prepared for Florence even if keeping the president's focus might be an issue from time to time. No tweets on the coming storm today from the president. Fox News' coverage of the Russia investigation was his top Twitter priority this morning on 9:11.

He did give Florence some Twitter time yesterday. The storms in the Atlantic are very dangerous, the president said on Twitter. We encourage anyone in the path of these storms to prepare themselves and to heed the warnings and states and local officials. The federal government is closely monitoring and ready to assist. We are with you. That's the president's message yesterday. The president's first hurricane season was a very challenging one including Hurricanes Irma, Harvey, and Maria. The president generally praised for his response to Harvey especially when he went down with the first lady to visit Texas after the storm.

Widely criticized though for his response in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. According to recent estimates, that storm left nearly 3,000 people dead across Puerto Rico. When asked back at the time to grade his response, here's what the president said.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Between one and 10, how would you grade the White House response so far?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'd say it was a 10. I'd say it was probably the most difficult when you talk about relief, when you talk about search, when you talk about all of the different levels. And even when you talk about lives saved, you look at the number. I mean, this was -- I think it was worse than Katrina.


KING: It was not a 10. It wasn't all the federal government. The problems in the response were not all federal. Everybody failed in Puerto Rico. Some would argue they are still failing in Puerto Rico.

But the president at times because of his own desire to say we're great, I'm great, we're a 10 have sounded tone-deaf on these things. Is that a challenge as Florence comes?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Definitely. I mean, even just last week President Trump was defending his administration's response to what happened in Puerto Rico saying that he thinks that they did a great job. And initially when those hurricanes hit Texas and whatnot the president was down there, a lot of -- there was a lot of praise for them and how they handled it, and it was, you know, this rare glimmer of competence that a lot people have not seen come from other aspects of this administration.

But then, Puerto Rico happened and the president's reaction to it seemed tone-deaf. You see there he's comparing it to Katrina. And initially they said only dozens of people have died and then now of course it's in the thousands.

So that certainly has been a response to them. So it'll be interesting to see how they handle it going forward. A few people that helped during the hurricane season last year in this administration have departed including Tom Bossert, the Homeland Security adviser. The FEMA administrator Brock Long is still here, he briefed the president yesterday. So it will be interesting to see how they do move going forward and how do they handle this one.

JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Well, it's so interesting for those of us who lived through and covered the aftermath of Katrina and what a debacle that was inside the White House. And how they realized obviously not initially, but very soon there after what a PR crisis this was, what a whole of government crisis they had on their hands, the shortcomings of the local response as well as the federal response. And they sort of swung into action in recognizing it for the crisis that it was.

This White House does not seem to be there. Even in the aftermath of this, you know, death toll, a study that was done that showed that the initial than the amount of people who were ultimately lose. This president did not really suffer the consequences if we were looking at for instance at the polls of the response to that being so inadequate. And so, now that we have these storms bearing down, it will be, you know -- I think there's going to be a much higher bar for them to meet in terms of what his own response is like personally and what the whole of government response looks like.

COLLINS: And one thing I want to add is, yesterday and in the past few days, aides have been trying to switch the president's focus to focus on the hurricane and get off of the New York Times anonymous op- ed and Bob Woodward book. They have been trying to convince him to -- you know, this is something that needs your attention more than the hunt for who it was that wrote that. They've been trying to guide him in that direction.

[12:35:02] KING: That sounds success yesterday, not so much at least in the early morning tweets when they're not around him today. And again, it comes down to the FEMA under this president, generally Puerto Rico being an exception seeing not prepared, not quick enough to sustain. Irma and Harvey, FEMA got pretty high marks. It's the president's words that often seem to disconnect.

This is -- let's go back to October of last year where he's talking about -- again, he's taking about the death toll in Puerto Rico and he makes a Katrina comparison that made a lot of people cringe.


TRUMP: Every death is a horror, but if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina and look at the tremendous hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people that died, what is your death count as of this moment? 17?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sixteen or seventeen.

TRUMP: Sixteen people certified. Sixteen people versus in the thousands. You can be very proud of all of your people -- all of our people working together.


KING: You know, in somewhat defense of the president, you're trying to keep morale up, you're trying to keep your team in at that moment. This did not look like Katrina in terms of its scope but to the people of Puerto Rico, it was a kick in the teeth and worse. So when you use words like real catastrophe like Katrina, you're just not -- that's not emotional -- as much as that you have the confidence part, the delivery part, the tangible part but also just the --


KING: Thanks.

CARL HULSE, CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENTS, THE NEW YORK TIMES: This is what presidents are supposed to do and Bill Clinton of course was a master of it. You have to show empathy in these situations. Maybe not throw paper towels to the crowd or whatever that picture was.

There's a couple other things that could come from this. One, it's going to remind the Puerto Ricans who have moved to Florida and are going to be voting there. Maybe what -- how their hurricane response was handled. And it also throws another financial issue into this year and budget debate as they try to sort out who's going to pay all of this. There's a lot going on around this hurricane.

SAHIL KAPUR, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, BLOOMBERG: And let's remember, President Obama in 2012 with super storm Sandy as it was hitting the East Coast, he got high marks for his handling of that. There are Republicans who thought that his handling of it in the aftermath and the kind of the warm relationship we had, he had with a certain former Republican governor of New Jersey helped him a lot in that election.

So it's not as if the voters won't reward you. You just can't fudge your way through hurricanes. If you're saying you did a great job at 10 out of 10 and there are people, you know, out on the ground who knows somebody who died or their houses smashed to pieces, it doesn't compute.

KING: Chris Christie is grateful for your deep memory there.

Before we go to break, again, we're pausing throughout the hour to remember the nearly 3,000 lives lost 17 years ago today on September 11th. Earlier today, families gathering at ground zero to pay tribute to those they lost.


[12:42:22] KING: Topping our political radar today, fear and contempt. Fear, being the title of Bob Woodward's highly publicized book, said to be flying off store shelves today already riding to the top of the Amazon bestseller list. And contempt is the title of another big political book out just today. That, from former Whitewater independent counsel Ken Starr. The big headline out of the Starr memoir, that he considered ultimately decided against charging Hillary Clinton with perjury.

Russia kicks off a week of military exercises. It was billed as the biggest since the fall of the Soviet Union. Hundreds of thousands of Russian troops being joined by thousands more from China and Mongolia. Those war games (INAUDIBLE) with a bilateral meeting between President Putin and the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping.

And the Trump rolling back another Obama-era regulation meant to curb greenhouse gasses. The New York Times reporting the EPA now relaxing a 2016 rule requiring energy companies to inspect drilling equipment for methane leaks every six months and to repair those leaks within 30 days. The Times says the EPA will start allowing 60 days to repair a leak and a year between inspections.

Again, as we head to break, it is 9/11. The Defense Secretary James Mattis among those paying tribute to the victims of September 11th. This, from a ceremony at the Pentagon.


JAMES MATTIS, DEFENSE SECRETARY: We keep faith with the innocent who perished. We take solace in their deaths were not in vain for in their passing, they empowered us forever with our enduring sense of purpose. And we remember that hatred disguised in false religious garb to murder innocents will not prevail.



[12:48:11] KING: Today, a new non-welcome reminder for the president. The North Korean nuclear crisis is not solved and even as close to say it struggle to sell what is one of the president's big talking points. The press secretary on Monday touting a new letter from Chairman Kim Jong-un suggesting another summit is in the open. And pointing to evidence in her view that denuclearization is on track.


SARAH SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The recent parade in North Korea for once was not about their nuclear arsenal. The remains have come back, the hostages have returned. There'd be no testing of missiles or nuclear material, and of course the historic summit between the two leaders. And this letter is just further indication of the progress that we hope to continue to make.


KING: The optimism there but other administration officials say North Korea still moving ahead with its nuclear program. Listen here, the president's national security adviser John Bolton speaking to reporters after a speech in Washington sounding skeptical that North Korea will deliver on its big promises.


JOHN BOLTON, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: We're still waiting for them. Now the possibility of another meeting between the two presidents obviously exist but President Trump can't make the North Koreans walk through the door he's holding open. They are the ones that have to take the steps to denuclearize and that's what we're waiting for.


KING: And forgive me, but we all know if John Bolton were not working in the White House, a next sentence might be, don't believe what you see in a parade, that's a propaganda ploy. But the president seems to believe what he saw in the parade even though his own people are telling him at the sites, they still have nukes, they're not going back at all and by some accounts they're making more.

DAVIS: Well -- and I think one of the most telling parts of that sound you played from Sarah Sanders was when she was listing off the signs of progress and -- toward denuclearization, she listed the summit in Singapore as if the meeting itself which has always been the president's view was in it of itself a big step toward actually denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.

[12:50:07] Of course, he has the supreme confidence in his ability to sort of manage this relationship in a way that's going to force Kim Jong-un to do these things, but there has no actually been any evidence that he has done any of them and not making progress or not making progress that's visible to the United States is not the same as actually taking affirmative steps to denuclearize.

COLLINS: And it's interesting what she said yesterday compared to what they said not that long ago when they canceled Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's planned trip to North Korea, citing a lack of progress on denuclearization. It was the first time we had heard the administration acknowledge that there have been a lack of progress since the Singapore summit, but in the tune completely changed though nothing has changed in the weeks since they canceled his scheduled trip.

KING: Except her statements yesterday closely tracking and welcome to the audience of one, the president's tweets saying, nice parade, we're making progress. That's the president's view.

Quick break, when we come back, two of the key players the president is furious at. Two key players involved Woodward's new book issue new statements. Don't want to miss those.


[12:55:39] KING: Big developing political news this hour. Two statements from former White House aides at the center of Bob Woodward's new book. Gary Cohn and Rob Porter issuing statements. Cohn telling Axios, quote, this book does not accurately portray my experience at the White House. I'm proud of my service in the Trump administration. And I continue to support the president and his economic agenda. Porter, remember the staff secretary who had to leave is also speaking to Axios, said he was, quote, struck by the selective and often misleading portrait it paints of the president and his administration.

The president is mad at everybody, but especially mad at these two because it is clear from the book that they cooperated. Porter actually essentially saying that he felt he had to cooperate to try to get an accurate portrayal. These aren't complete denials, but these clearly two guys trying to answer the president's fury.

COLLINS: Right. The president has been privately complaining about Rob Porter and Gary Cohn specifically while saying in public these quotes are made up, they're fiction but he's been fuming about it. But we should note that today Bob Woodward did say that a lot of times he asked people who were sources for him to come out and issue these public denials but call him and say sorry, you know, I've got to put this out, I've got to save face. And that's precisely what he's been saying for the few days and he thinks people who were issuing denials are trying to save their jobs and have some political cover.

But the Porter statement is particularly interesting because as we were discussing, in the book it really glosses over the Porter scandal that he abused -- he was accused of abusing two of his ex-wives. That came out, people have known about it for months. That was one of the biggest scandals to hit this administration which is saying a lot from scandals that they have had.

KING: And they slow walked the response. They slow walked the response dramatically and it's not -- yet it's not covered in the book that is supposed to be about all the fundamental management issues of the presidency which does get to a narrative that if you cooperate with Woodward, the history is, he's more kind to you.

COLLINS: Right. And -- that scandal totally changed the dynamic of the West Wing. John Kelly was not nearly as powerful as he had been before. There was a lot of distrust, a lot of anger from people who weren't involved with it that the way it made the administration in such a negative light. So it's really interesting to see him selectively deny some things in the book certainly.

KING: And is this -- I mean, you cover the president every day, he says, oh good, he's happy now. He has praised, you know, John Kelly and Jim Mattis, everyone else who issued statement about the book and others who've issued statements saying I'm not the author of the New York Times op-ed piece. Here Gary Cohn saying it does not actually portray my experience at the White House.

It doesn't say it's dead wrong. It doesn't say, you know, Bob Woodward, you know, did something wrong here. It's a kind of a milk toast, is that the right word?

DAVIS: It is. It's not a denial but -- and privately I don't think it will satisfy the president. He knows just as well as the rest of us know that the cat is out of the bag here. This book is a very damaging account and a statement that you put out one day after or on the day of publication after everyone has been talking about it for more than a week is unlikely to kind of undercut the basic premise of the book.

But I'm positive -- I mean, all of us who've been around him and have religiously watched his tweets and have studied his patterns know that he will point to this as an absolute denial, he will add it to the list that he has. You know, either on his desk or very close by, certainly in his head of people who have denied the book in his mind, and he will to make the case publicly that, you know, this is all made up, this is all, you know, disgruntled people who are now saying that they never said what they're quoted to say. Although that's not what Gary Cohn or Rob Porter is actually saying. KING: What's important to know, these statements both going first to Axios and Axios making a point that many of us have made in this hour in the last week or so, and all the other news accounts too. There are some startling anecdotes from inside information but as Axios notes, the vast majority of the scenes, the information and the dynamics are things that have been reported since the early hours of the Trump administration. So when people try to say this isn't right, it runs against history.

KAPUR: You know, these are not really denials. There's no factual assertion in Bob Woodward's book being challenged. This is what you do when you want to put -- have carefully words in statement not contesting the fact that, you know, could come back to bite you later and hurt your credibility later if they are proven.

But this is also something that these two men who have worked with the president, who've been close to him know that he's fuming about this book, he's furious about it. And they want to put out something that conveys another side of the story.

KING: But when they put out the statements, what does it do? It leads to more conversations about the premises of the book which is a White House in crisis and in chaos. But the president wants people to say not true. Here we go.

Thanks for joining us today in the INSIDE POLITICS. Hope to see you back here this time tomorrow. Again, keep your eye on the weather center as Hurricane Florence approaches.

Jim Sciutto in for Wolf and he starts right now. Have a great day.