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Hurricane Florence Targets East Coast; Trump Brags About Maria Response That Left Nearly 3,000 Dead. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired September 12, 2018 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: FEMA warning us all that the hurricane will pack what they call a Mike Tyson punch. They are clearly trying to get us to flee.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Breaking news: potentially catastrophic. Hurricane Florence barreling toward the Carolinas, 20 million people in the danger zone, and officials are warning, if you don't get out by tonight, well, it might be too late.

The hurricane could be like Harvey, it could be like Irma rolled up into one big disaster. Why scientists say they're not shocked that storms like this one increasingly seem to be on steroids.

Plus: President Trump standing his ground after defending his administration's Puerto Rico response with another disaster on the doorstep. So, is the new Trump standard for success a death toll that approaches 3,000?

To our viewers in the United States and around the world from Bordeaux, South Carolina, to Bordeaux, France, welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We start with the national lead and a stark warning right now about Hurricane Florence, the Category 3 storm just a day away from hitting the East Coast of the United States.


GOV. ROY COOPER (D), NORTH CAROLINA: The time to prepare is almost over. Disaster is at the doorstep, and it's coming in. This storm threatens life.


TAPPER: Hurricane Florence seemingly taking direct aim at the Carolina coast. And once it makes landfall, get ready for another disastrous problem. Forecasters say the storm will essentially come to something almost like a stop, moving only two to three miles per hour.

That's like a brisk walk. Some coastal areas could get hurricane- force winds for more than 24 hours, and more than three feet of rain, not inches, three feet. And, in some cases, resources are already hard to come by. We found gas stations in North Carolina not only out of fuel. They're apparently not expecting any fuel any time soon.

We have a team covering this powerful hurricane. Meteorologist Jennifer Gray will have the latest forecast in a moment. CNN's Dianne Gallagher is near Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.

But let's start with CNN's Martin Savidge. He's at Carolina Beach in North Carolina.

And, Martin, nearly two million Americans are under mandatory evacuation orders, according to FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. With the first outer bands moving in tomorrow, time is really running out for people to take cover.

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It is almost completely gone, Jake.

In fact, they are down to just a handle of hours in many of the most vulnerable communities. That would be the barrier islands and the beachfront communities of North Carolina. Like here, they're saying this bridge closes at 8:00 p.m. After that, you're on your own.


SAVIDGE (voice-over): The warnings for this monster hurricane could not be more dire.

COOPER: North Carolina, my message is clear. Disaster is at the doorstep, and it's coming in.

JEFF BYARD, FEDERAL EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT AGENCY: This is going to be, you know, a Mike Tyson punch to the Carolina coast.

SAVIDGE: Officials can't stress enough, this is the last chance to get out of its path.

BYARD: This is a dangerous storm. We ask that you heed the warnings. Today's the day.

SAVIDGE: This as storm projections suddenly turned southward, potentially delivering a days-long deluge on cities such as Charlottesville, South Carolina.

JOHN TECKLENBURG, MAYOR OF CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA: I know a lot of folks have been watching the weather reports over the last few days, and thinking, well, we might just dodge this bullet. Well, now is the time to make that decision to go ahead and get out of town.

SAVIDGE: Hurricane Florence now threatens more than 25 million people, with a forecast cone larger than every state east of the Mississippi, 1.8 million Americans now under mandatory evacuation orders. Many in the Carolinas are boarding up and clearing out, as what were once boat-filled marinas now sit empty.

HEATHER RAMSAY, EVACUEE: It's unpredictable, really, so we need to -- we need to get out of here to be safe.

SAVIDGE: Others are anticipating the worst of it.

BILLY LONG, RIDING OUT THE STORM: I would be a fool to say it doesn't scare me. But I think I would be more afraid being inland, because after the last hurricane they had down here, we evacuated. We wound up getting stuck in the middle of the state.

SAVIDGE: But still, some, like Thomas Lafleur (ph), say finances are too tight to leave. So they're staying.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Just hunkering down. And bring it on. I mean, there's nothing more I can do.

SAVIDGE: All this as the cavalry is already coming in. In North Carolina alone, more than 2,800 National Guard troops are ready to serve in what has been called the storm of a lifetime.

REP. DAVID PRICE (D), NORTH CAROLINA: Nobody should have any false assurance about this. I think we all better just get ready to the maximum.


SAVIDGE: A lot of holdouts had been hoping that this storm, Jake, would either turn north or weaken. It is clear now that's not happening. Time is running out.


They have either got to stay or go, and officials are adamant, you have got to go -- Jake.

TAPPER: Yes. Get out.


TAPPER: Let's go now to Jacksonville, North Carolina.

CNN's Dianne Gallagher is there, right near the Marine Corps base Camp Lejeune.

And, Dianne, despite the location there right on the coast, the base is not under mandatory evacuation orders. And that, frankly, has some people very worried.

DIANNE GALLAGHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. That's right, Jake. It's the family members of those active-duty Marines. There are tens of thousands of them who live here on Camp Lejeune and in the area of Jacksonville, which really these communities completely surround water.

And there are inlets and waterways that make it beautiful to live here, but also very dangerous when the hurricanes come. Now, family members have taken to Facebook. They have talked to journalists like myself, saying that they're frustrated because they're afraid. They're from all over the country.

Many have never been to a hurricane or lived through one, and they wish that the Marines would take this more seriously, they said. The Marines have pushed back pretty hard, Jake.

The base commander, General Julian Alford, putting on social media that this is simply not the case. Some family members accusing them of making this a financial decision. He says that's not it at all. I assessed the situation.

I want to read you a portion of what he posted online, really strong here, saying -- quote -- "The majority of Camp Lejeune is not in a flood-prone area. We have very reliable historical data on what areas would be affected by storm surges and flooding and have already directed the relocation of those personnel and residents away from those vulnerable locations."

He added: "I give you my personal assurance we are going to take care of everyone on the base."

Now, a lot of the Marine families were upset because several other military installations across the Carolinas and Virginia had declared mandatory evacuations, which means that those families will likely be reimbursed for their expenses to get out of town.

If they choose to leave here, they're not going to be. And we look at Fort Bragg. They're further inland here in North Carolina. They're not being evacuated, but they are standing ready. And part of that is because FEMA has chosen that as an area to stage all the supplies that are going to be needed in the days after Hurricane Florence hits, and the flooding that's likely going to occur afterward.

Back here at Camp Lejeune, though, Jake, the shelters, they have six of them on the base. They opened about two or three minutes ago. They said they have more space if they need to if more people need to take shelter here, and that they are ready.

TAPPER: All right, Dianne Gallagher right near Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, thank you so much.

President Trump is trying to assure the nation that the federal government is ready to respond to the hurricane, but do his words ring hollow because of what he has had to say about the response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico?


Plus, one Republican senator trying to get President Trump to do something people have been asking him to do for years. What is it?

Stay with us.


TAPPER: Welcome back. In politics now: President Trump earlier today assured Americans his

administration is ready for Hurricane Florence as it barrels toward the East Coast of the United States. And the president is urging residents to evacuate.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're fully prepared, food, medical, everything you can imagine. We are ready. But, despite that, bad things can happen when you're talking about a storm this size. It's called Mother Nature.


TAPPER: It is, of course, the president's continued insistence that the Trump administration did a -- quote -- "unappreciated great job" with Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico that is raising eyebrows.

[16:15:10] Democratic Senator Chris Murphy tweeting, I mean this seriously. Not as a political dig. If you're in Hurricane Florence's path and considering riding it out, your president just said that a hurricane response where 3,000 die is his measure of success. Get out of there, unquote.

As CNN's Kaitlan Collins reports, the president's perceived tone deafness on the devastation that hit Puerto Rico is for the residents of that U.S. territory adding insult to injury.


KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: The White House tonight bracing for Hurricane Florence, as it barrels toward the East Coast. With President Trump warning that the storm will be even bigger than anticipated, and extremely dangerous.


COLLINS: Trump, asserting his administration is fully prepared.

TRUMP: We're ready. We're as ready as anybody has ever been.

COLLINS: As he faces criticism for bragging once again about the government's response to Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico last year and killed nearly 3,000 people. Trump, writing on Twitter today, it was an unappreciated great job, as he leveled new attacks at the mayor of San Juan, accusing her of being totally incompetent.

Those comments coming after Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, who has batted heads with the president in the past, said this on CNN.

MAYOR CARMEN YULIN CRUZ, SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO: The president keeps adding insult to injury. And I think his words are despicable. He thinks that 3,000 people dying on his watch is a good news story or is an unsung success? No. Nobody is going to be singing his praises. COLLINS: Hurricane Florence giving Trump a second chance at being the

consoler-in-chief, after he was widely criticized for actions critics said were tone deaf when he visited Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. All this as Senator Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon, released a document showing nearly $10 million in FEMA funding, less than 1 percent of its overall budget, were transferred to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement earlier this year for detention and deportation efforts.

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY (D), OREGON: I'm simply saying, we'll have $10 million less than it would have, and $10 million is significant.

COLLINS: FEMA administrator, Brock Long, insisting that money didn't come from the disaster relief fund and won't affect relief efforts.

BROCK LONG, FEMA ADMINISTRATOR: It does not come out of the disaster relief fund, that funds everything behind me, that funds everything in the field. So, it's a nonissue for us at this moment.


COLLINS: Now, Jake, this is a White House that has been under siege in recent weeks with that anonymous op-ed and tell-all book from Bob Woodward. This week, they would be hoping to change the tune here and to keep the president's focus on this approaching storm -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Kaitlan Collins at the White House for us. Let's talk about this with my experts. Take a listen to President Trump just last night.


TRUMP: Puerto Rico was an incredible unsung success. I think in a certain way, the best job we did was Puerto Rico, but nobody would understand that.


TAPPER: You're from North Carolina. You're sitting in North Carolina, getting ready for Hurricane Florence, and you hear the president say that Puerto Rico was a success? With a death toll of almost 3,000. What's going through your mind?

MARY KATHARINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, look, it's just the wrong way to talk about this. And there are ways you can talk about it. You can say, we faced a lot of challenges in Puerto Rico. It's an island. There were two hurricanes. We really did a lot of work.

We put an unprecedented amount of money into this effort. Perhaps the death toll study was more expansive than other versions have been, including a lot of time after the storm. But we tried real hard, but it's a disaster. And you address it that way because people are facing an incoming disaster, and they want to be assured that you're thinking about the things that went wrong before. Not just the things that went well before, because you will not correct them if you're not thinking about the things that went wrong.

TAPPER: You know who said the government was badly unprepared for Hurricane Maria?




TAPPER: The Federal Emergency Management Agency. They went back and did a study in this and they said, yes, we could have done this better. I don't understand -- I mean, this is, again, the president just creating his own problem, where none existed previously.

POWERS: Yes, but I think that he believes this. I think he's bought into this narrative that I've heard in the conservative media that, you know, Puerto Rico -- this is not how they describe it. But it's one of the S-hole countries, basically, right? It's this country that's --

TAPPER: Even though it's part of the U.S.

POWERS: Right, exactly. But that's how they talk about it, right? And that it's so -- the infrastructure is so terrible, and everything is so terrible there. It's nothing anyone would recognize.

But this description of Puerto Rico as being such a mess that actually the U.S. government did a good job handling this, because it was such a screwed up country that in spite of that, they did a good job.

[16:20:00] That's the narrative that he seems to have bought into and believes to be true, even though it's not.

TAPPER: You worked for George W. Bush. You know this reminds a lot of people of "heck of a job, Brownie." I mean, you don't praise when people are dying, especially if it's in the hundreds. You don't praise the response by the government. I mean, it's never going to be enough on a theoretical basis.

SCOTT JENNINGS, FORMER SPECIAL ASSISTANT TO PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Well, and I didn't hear the president saying that 3,000 people dying is a good thing. I think people are reading too much into that.

TAPPER: He didn't mention them.

JENNINGS: But people are saying today -- some of the Democrats are saying, oh, that's his measure of success, 3,000 people. That's ridiculous, you know, overstatement. I think what the president should talk about is what Mary Katharine.

And look, Puerto Rico was not in great shape before the storms hit. The electrical grid totally failed. It was rickety to begin with. The water system totally failed. They had --

(CROSSTALK) POWERS: To be more prepared and more involved?

JENNINGS: I'm sorry?

POWERS: Isn't that an argument to be more prepared and more involved?

JENNINGS: Well, yes, but you can't fix Puerto Rico's entire electrical grid in five days.

HILARY ROSEN, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: The electrical grid wasn't rickety.

JENNINGS: Yes, it was. It totally failed!

ROSEN: No, this is part of the Republican talking point, which is that they were a mess to begin with.

JENNINGS: Which happens to be true.

ROSEN: And therefore, the storm really didn't do that much. The other piece, though --

JENNINGS: Are you saying these storms were not catastrophic?

ROSEN: They were catastrophic. That's exactly my point.

And it goes to this issue that Republicans consistently apologize for, which is to make things about him and how great he is. Instead of just saying to the American people, people died. This was a terrible thing. I don't want anyone to die in North Carolina. So get moving.

There's no sort of general recognition that these issues are about somebody else, about other people's opportunities and pain. And that is kind of when you start from that premise, you will never be successful as a leader.

TAPPER: So point taken, there is, however, a political dimension to this. And I think we can all acknowledge. I want to read something that CNN's Steve Collison pointed out in his analysis of the political implications of any hurricane response.

Quote: A strong performance by the president might even temporarily boost his approval ratings, but the risks are also high. No one in the White House will need reminding that a presidency already in crisis simply cannot afford the new hit of a botched response. Obviously, the focus should be on saving people, to save people. But there is a political dimension to this.

ROSEN: Yes, but it's not about pretending anything. It's about being honest. Because the thing that real people need in a crisis is authenticity, honesty, is real facts. They don't need blowhards figuring out, like, how to look good in this process.

And that, I think, is so much of the problem. So when the -- you know, the president sets up a fight with FEMA and local officials like he did in Puerto Rico, which FEMA and local officials did not want to have and did not experience as much as the president kept saying, that doesn't help the people on the ground.

TAPPER: So the question was yesterday when President Trump was asked if this prompted it all, what lessons has the Trump administration learned from Puerto Rico that it can -- learn from and save more lives here. That's what prompted this all. What response would you have given?

HAM: Well, I would say the way you accentuate the positive here is to say I want to thank the army of first responders and FEMA folks and local officials who were on want ground doing the absolutely best they could in absolutely really, really rough situation. We have figured out how to partner better with our local groups in North Carolina. We hope to improve on some of the things we did wrong in the first place and moving resources where they need to go.

I mean, you can go through a litany of things that's in the FEMA -- the study of how FEMA responded without trashing anyone or trashing your own response and just acknowledging that even though this is a giant response and everybody tried really hard, it's not perfect because it is literally a disaster.

TAPPER: It's a disaster.

HAM: So there are going to be issues. But I just think there is a better way to talk about it without sort of dismissing.

JENNINGS: There is no question, when he is trying to show the emotional response to some of these things, he doesn't do as well as other presidents have. Some are better at it than others. But at the same time, I think the piling on of him that goes on when he's trying -- you all know what point he's trying to make.

The point he's trying to make is, this was a catastrophic. They weren't prepared. We did the best we could. There are better ways to say it. But then --

TAPPER: That's completely different from what he said. That's not what he said.


JENNINGS: When I see Democrats today -- when I see Democrats today saying, oh, Donald Trump thinks if 3,000 people died, that's successful? Who -- you said we don't want blowhards in this. What do you think that does to this debate?

ROSEN: You know, I don't think he was actually trying to make this point. I think the point he was trying to make was, we got this covered, don't you worry about it. We've got it covered, just like we had Puerto Rico covered.

Instead of saying, we studied Puerto Rico. We have learned some things. Here's what we're doing. And here's what we're doing differently.

Instead of just being honest, or saying, you know, I'm not sure. Let's talk to FEMA, because they're the experts. That's not what he did.

TAPPER: Stick around.

We've got more to talk about on the day President Trump signed an executive order allowing him to punish Russia or any country if it's caught at election meddling, a CNN poll is out on how he is perceived as handling the investigation.

[16:25:06] And it doesn't look so good.

Stay with us.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Politics now, deal or no deal. President Trump's former campaign chief, Paul Manafort, is in talks with special counsel, Robert Mueller, about possibly pleading guilty, just days before his second trial is supposed to begin. That's according to a new report in the "Washington Post."

Let's get right to CNN justice correspondent, Jessica Schneider.