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Hurricane Threatens 9 Hazardous Waste Sites in Carolina; FEMA Pushes Back on Hurricane Funds Diverted to ICE; Trump Defends Hurricane Response in Puerto Rico Despite Deaths of Thousands; Poll: More Approval of Mueller Than of Trump. Aired 11:30-12p ET

Aired September 12, 2018 - 11:30   ET


[11:30:00] RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION & GOVERNMENT REGULATION CORRESPONDENT: RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION & GOVERNMENT REGULATION CORRESPONDENT: Kate, aside from hammering home that today is the last safe day to evacuate, they made it clear that they are paying attention to a wide variety of factors. This Hurricane Florence, they do know that the storm surge will be an issue. That storm surge threatens to unleash toxic chemicals in the area, the Carolinas. There are about nine industrial sites with contaminated soil and water. FEMA and EPA say they are monitoring this. As the storm surge rushes in, this will become more of a critical issue.

Also, Kate, FEMA continues to face just critical questions about whether they will be able to adequately respond just overall as an agency. Today, though, in the briefing that we had this morning, they say they are truly confident that they have the resources and the funding necessary to respond adequately -- Kate?

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Also, FEMA officials were asked about a new report that was put out by Democratic Senator, Senator Merkley, that FEMA funds were being used or being diverted, I guess, to ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement. What is this all about and what are they saying?

MARSH: This is starting a back and forth between the Senator's office as well as FEMA. This morning on CNN, Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley repeated this. He told CNN that he has documents that show that money was taken from FEMA and transferred to bolster ICE's budget. This morning, FEMA pushing back both on Twitter and in that briefing saying that none of the money that was transferred to ICE would have been used specifically for disaster relief responding to a hurricane like we are seeing here, Florence. They say that they have plenty of money in the coffers to respond to Florence. They say actually over $20 billion. They say they are, quote, "very healthy" in the area of funding as it relates to responding to all of this. However, Senator Merkley's office again questioning the timing, leading up to hurricane season, why would they transfer the funds? Again, FEMA saying a totally different pot of money and we will not be impacted here in responding to this hurricane -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: Interesting.

Thanks so much. Coming up for us still, President Trump doubling down, not just

defending the government's response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, the response last year, but he is also asking for praise despite the fact that thousands of Americans died after Hurricane Maria. Many are still struggling. Puerto Rico's lieutenant governor joins me next.


[11:37:13] BOLDUAN: So, 2,975, that's now the official death toll from last year's massive Hurricane Maria that hit Puerto Rico. Really, that's just the latest estimate, is probably the best way you can put it. The government still doesn't have a final, final number. Still on that hurricane, the president is looking for accolades.

Here was the president just yesterday.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think Puerto Rico was incredibly successful. The job that FEMA and law enforcement and everybody did, working along with the government in Puerto Rico, I think, was tremendous. I think that Puerto Rico was an incredible, unsung success.


BOLDUAN: "Unsung success" seems a bit difficult to understand and comprehend considering we are talking about roughly the same number of Americans killed there as were killed on 9/11. Today, no course correction, no acknowledgment of the human tragedy of so many American citizens killed by one storm as the country braces for another round of storms. No, this, just this from the president today, "We did an unappreciated great job in Puerto Rico."

To all of this, the mayor of San Juan is pushing back once again.


CARMIN YULIN CRUZ, (D), MAYOR OF SAN JUAN (via telephone): The man has no idea. He has no sympathy, no empathy for anything that does not make him look good. I'm sorry, sir. Shame on you. You did not do a good job in Puerto Rico. If you think that 3,000 people dying on his watch is a good-news story or an unsung success, no, nobody will be singing his praises because this was a despicable act of neglect on the part of his administration.


BOLDUAN: Let's go to the White House now. CNN's Abby Phillip is there.

Abby, what's the White House saying about this today?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kate, I think it is clear that President Trump is revisiting this at a really bad time for the White House. They are trying to shift attention to Florence, trying to make it clear that they are acting on this current threat that is facing the east coast of the United States. We have seen President Trump tweeting warnings about where the path of the storm is going, tweeting that people should be mindful of the warnings from their local officials and saying that the federal government is ready. Listen.


TRUMP: The safety of American people is my absolute highest priority. We are sparing no expense. We are totally prepared. We are ready. We are as ready as anybody has ever been. They haven't seen anything like what is coming at us in 25, 30 years, maybe ever. It's tremendously big and tremendously wet.


[11:40:01] PHILLIP: But the reason that we ended up in the Oval Office talking about Hurricane Maria from last year is because the president was asked, what were some of the lessons learned from that tragedy and what happened in Puerto Rico where initially the death toll was low, which a lot of people thought was artificially low, and the president praised it as a great success at the time. Now we know the number is likely to be much higher. President Trump wasn't willing to acknowledge anything that would have been done differently.

But at the same time, I think over at FEMA and across the rest of the federal government, there's clearly today an effort to show that they are on top of this and they're working closely with local officials to make sure that they are prepared so they don't have a repeat of what happened in Puerto Rico last year -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: Officials in FEMA ever acknowledging there are lessons learned and there were mistakes made and there are changes being done.

Thank you, Abby. Appreciate it.

Joining me right now is lieutenant governor and secretary of state of Puerto Rico, Luis Rivera-Marin.

Thank you for joining me.

LUIS RIVERA-MARIN, LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR & SECRETARY OF STATE, PUERTO RICO: Thank you for the invitation, Kate. And our prayers are with our brothers and sisters that are right now getting ready for being hit by such a monumental storm. I just spoke with somebody -- with Lieutenant Governor Forest, from North Carolina. Our prayers for the first responders that were in Puerto Rico almost a year ago helping us to recover.

BOLDUAN: That's some important perspective about the states coming together and officials helping each other out in these times.

To what the president said yesterday and today, do you call Hurricane Maria, the response to it, an unsung success?

RIVERA-MARIN: Let me tell you that, to put this in the proper perspective, we were hit by the largest natural disaster ever recorded in American history. Certainly, there were challenges to the local government, to the federal government approaching the recovery of the island. There was great suffering. Just one casualty is too much. There were many levels of bureaucracy that play a role here. I had a conversation with administrator. We were before Congress recognizing that for proper response, for a timely response, the layers of bureaucracy need to be taken care of, which allow local government to respond properly. Our condition as an island, whereby we lost our airports and our ports, propose many challenges that we never faced before. We have learned. There have been lessons learned. Even in the protocol, when we speak about the casualties, we just recently, the governor issued a mandate to have a George Washington University set out an investigation.


BOLDUAN: You mentioned one death is unacceptable, one death is too many. You also mentioned lessons learned. That was the question the president asked yesterday of lessons learned from Hurricane Maria. That is when he said this was an unsung success. If one death is too much, it is roughly the same number of people who died after Hurricane Maria as died on 9/11. How is that an unsung success?

RIVERA-MARIN: The magnitude of this event, probably, the numbers, if we have not gotten this report from the federal government, this report of thousands of volunteers from the main island that came down to the island right after the hurricane, this would have been a different story regarding the death toll.

BOLDUAN: You're saying -- you're saying it would have been even worse. which is understandable. Still, 2,975 people died in Puerto Rico. Are you calling it an unsung success?

RIVERA-MARIN: What I'm saying is that there was a response and that we did learn that, because of our condition as a territory, we do have -- this is something that was in place not one year ago, but has been happening for decades, whereby Puerto Rico, because of our condition, we don't get the same health care funds, we don't get the same treatment as other U.S. citizens in other territories. So our electric grid was fragile compared to what probably is in place right now in North and South Carolina. And that requires proper attention. But moving forward, we have more than 20,000 federal employees in the island, boots on the ground, adding to volunteers. Without the federal government's support, this would have been a different story. This should not be treated as a political ball. It is an issue whereby --



[11:45:00] BOLDUAN: I think it was a pretty -- it was a very simple question that was asked of the president when he said it was an unsung success. It was, have lessons been learned? I'm asking you a really simple question. Tell me why you are hesitant, if you are, to answer it. Just give it to me straight. If the president says it is an unsung success, do you agree with him?

RIVERA-MARIN: Putting it plainly, we have their support in place. We cannot -- the amount and the size will take probably decades in Puerto Rico. And put it in a blunt way, you cannot look at the immediate response. We are working with the federal government in the reconstruction in Puerto Rico to make us more resilient. We have had support from the federal government since they --


BOLDUAN: I totally understand.

RIVERA-MARIN: And that continues to --


BOLDUAN: I totally understand. But could you answer my question? Is it an unsung success? Would you have had the federal government do nothing differently?

RIVERA-MARIN: We would have required a faster response if we have the airports open, the capacity to receive, because of our condition. There were lessons learned and things could have been managed in a more efficient way. Those lessons that we learned, that FEMA learned, you can see them being implemented right now as we face today this new emergency.

BOLDUAN: I will try one more time. When the president says it was an unsung success, the federal response to Hurricane Maria, do you agree with him today?

RIVERA-MARIN: I can tell you that today we have recovered. That today Puerto Rico is rebounding in tourism. That today we are rebuilding Puerto Rico. And that is thanks to the help that we are getting from the federal government in our recovery, moving forward, to become a more resilient jurisdiction, whereby our people can prosper.

BOLDUAN: Lieutenant Governor Luis Rivera-Marin, thank you for your time.

RIVERA-MARIN: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: Coming up for us, the president versus the prosecutor. New numbers out suggesting Trump's attacks on the Russia probe may be back firing as Americans view of Special Counsel Robert Mueller may be changing. We'll be right back.


[11:52:05] BOLDUAN: President Trump's relentless attacks on the Russia investigation, well, new signs that those attacks may be backfiring. A brand-new CNN poll shows more news about how Special Counsel Robert Mueller is leading the probe than how President Trump is handling it. Mueller's approval rating now at 50 percent. The president's approval rating on that issue, 30 percent, a full 20 points down from Mueller. And Americans are split on the question of whether President Trump should be impeached and removed from office now. And 47 percent say yes, 48 percent say no.

CNN's political director, David Chalian, is joining me now.

David, what story does this now 20-point gap between the president and Bob Mueller tell?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICS DIRECTOR: It's pretty significant, right, Kate? Because you have heard Rudy Giuliani say this is going to be not a case in a courtroom but a case made to the court of public opinion and to the people. So this 20-point gap, if we're going to get to Mueller releasing a report, and Giuliani and team releasing a report, and Trump versus Mueller, mano-a-mano, will we see that there's different perceptions of these two men on this issue from the American people.

BOLDUAN: What's then behind this upward trend for Mueller?

CHALIAN: First, let's show that upward trend, because it is worth noting.


CHALIAN: Over time, he's now at 50 percent. That's three points higher than he was in August, which was six points higher than he was in June, so he's up nine points since June. Clearly, this isn't working that Giuliani-Trump strategy to damage his credibility anymore. Take a look at -- here's my theory on why.


CHALIAN: Break this down by party over time. All the movement, Kate, is among Independents. A six-point positive movement among Independents for Mueller's approval rating. Democrats and Republicans have stayed about the same. This is what happens when you pursue a base strategy. So if Giuliani goes on FOX News and Donald Trump tweets out FOX News segments bashing Mueller, they're talking to the base. But what is happening is that Independents are trending away from Trump on everything in this poll, including on this issue.

BOLDUAN: Mueller's not talking or he's only speaking through indictments and court actions. There's only one person or one team that's kind of pushing a strong narrative out there. You're seeing it happen. There must be some response to it in that way. And that's why on this issue specifically, public opinion does matter here, right? Because it impacts any action that Congress may or may not take after Mueller's report comes out?

CHALIAN: So 100 percent. We know as soon as that report drops, it going to be a political animal and both sides are going to gather around it and make their case to the American people on it.

BOLDUAN: So then what do we do with it until now? Do you think this is a midterm issue? Does this tell you it's becoming a midterm issue? CHALIAN: No, I don't think it's a huge a midterm issue. It's not

something that's talked about on the campaign trail. But it feeds into the Trump attributes that we see in this poll, which are taking a hit, which is lowering of his overall approval rating, which is a weight on Republicans this fall.

[11:55:09] BOLDUAN: Yes, yes, absolutely.

Great to see you, David. Thank you so much.

CHALIAN: You, too, Kate.

BOLDUAN: Thank you.

Coming up, the track of Hurricane Florence. We continue to follow this breaking news. The track shifting south today, as we learn, the monster storm could stall off the coast of the Carolinas before making landfall. What does that all mean for everyone there? The latest on its path, next.