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Dorian Intensifies, Takes Aim for Puerto Rico, Florida; Puerto Rico Braces for Dorian as Still Recovers from Maria; Trump Blasts San Juan Mayor as She Prepares for Dorian; White House Defends Transferring FEMA Disaster Relief Funds to Southern Border; Poll: Only 10 Democrats Make Cut for Next Presidential Debate with Biden Still Frontrunner; Poll: Greater Number of Voters Believe Economy Getting Worse; Trump Offering Pardons to Those Who Break the Law to Get Wall Built Quickly. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired August 28, 2019 - 11:00   ET


[11:00:00] DR. ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: -- Chances are that won't happen, especially because school starts next week. It's a whole new opportunity. Children congregate, they can spread measles to each other -- Jim?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Elizabeth Cohen, an important story. Thanks very much.

And thanks very much for all of you for joining me today. I'm Jim Sciutto.

"AT THIS HOUR" starts right now.

FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Fredricka Whitfield, in for Kate Bolduan. Thank you so much for joining me.

Just hours from now, a powerful storm is expected to make landfall in Puerto Rico. And Florida could be next. The National Hurricane Center has just issued a brand-new forecast for Tropical Storm Dorian. We'll have those details in just a few moments.

Puerto Rico is currently under a state of emergency, and residents still struggling to recover from Hurricane Maria from two years ago are now bracing for a direct hit. The big question now is, how strong will Dorian be when it reaches the island, and will it pick up speed as it heads toward to U.S.?

Let's get straight to CNN's Chad Myers with a new forecast.

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Brand new, Fred. Up to a 70-mile-per- hour storm. Hurricane hunters are flying through it. They found a flight level wind at 10,000 feet of 82 miles per hour. That doesn't translate to the surface, but winds at the surface are gaining strength. The pressure is going down. So that's the 11:00 advisory.

But that's not the only change in the 11:00 advisory. To hit at about 8:00 tonight as a hurricane, 75 miles per hour. But look at this. Category 3, 115-mile-per-hour storm off the Florida coast, somewhere. Does it turn left? Does it turn right? Right now, too early to tell. That's four days away.

Let's focus where we are now. The eye very close to St. Croix. Going to go over the U.S. V.I. All the way back over to the western side here. That's where the heaviest rain will be. Eight to 12 inches of rainfall with this storm.

Hurricane hunter in it. I don't need that airplane ride. Nothing will get me in an airplane going up and down as violently as that is.

Here we go, back out here to the west. Does it make Florida landfall or turn to the right? We don't know yet. Here's what the European model says, it's going to go into Florida. The American model says it's going to turn to the right and hopefully out to sea. We'll see about that.

Both models making a very, very strong storm out of Dorian. That category 3 would be the first major hurricane of the year -- Fred?

WHITFIELD: All right. Pretty frightening stuff.

Chad Myers, thanks so much. We'll check back with you.

Let's go live now to Puerto Rico, where three million Americans are bracing for Dorian.

CNN's Omar Jimenez is in the eastern coastal city of Humacao.

Omar, what are you seeing as that storm approaches there?

OMAR JIMENEZ, CNN REPORTER: Yes, we've been seeing outer bands of Dorian over the course of the morning come in and out. Obviously. we're in an out period right now. The sun seems to be shining. We know there's going to be more rain coming over the course of this afternoon and certainly into this evening.

That's what really concerns officials here, the threat of flooding and the threat of power loss. We've been hearing from emergency management officials from both municipalities and state officials across Puerto Rico.

One of their main priorities, they say, are for people that still have blue tarps as roofs and people with homes that they just don't believe are going to have the infrastructure to make it through even what would potentially be a tropical storm type conditions that come through. They're trying to get them into shelters so that they stay safe.

Another aspect, another thing to keep in mind is many people here when they went to bed last night thought this was a storm that was going to enter from the southern portion of the island near Ponce (ph), which is where we were yesterday. They're waking up seeing it's affecting an entirely different portion of the island.

But at the very least, Hurricane Maria, when it came through, it slammed this portion of Puerto Rico on the eastern side. It is very much still top of mind for many people here, even almost two years later.

The mind set we have seen for people is that they are not taking any chances no matter how Dorian ends up hitting the island.

WHITFIELD: And saying a lot of prayers.

Omar Jimenez, thank you so much. We'll check back with you.

So as the storm approaches, President Trump is tweeting about Puerto Rico. He's already picking a fight with one of his long-time critics, the mayor of San Juan, while she's trying to prepare her city for Dorian.

I want to bring in CNN White House reporter, Jeremy Diamond.

Jeremy, what is the president saying and why?

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Fred, we're seeing the president already teeing off on Puerto Rico. As this island prepares for this potential hurricane to come its way, the president is teeing off.

[11:05:06] He tweeted earlier this morning, "We're tracking closely Tropical Storm Dorian as it heads, as usual, to Puerto Rico." He says, "FEMA and all others are ready and will do a great job. When they do, let them know it and give them a big thank you, not like last time. That includes from the incompetent mayor of San Juan."

And the president appears to be tweeting at the mayor of San Juan, who has been critical of the president in the past, because just last night she was on CNN criticizing the president once again. Let's listen in.


CARMEN YULIN CRUZ, (D), SAN JUAN MAYOR (voice-over): His behavior, his lack of understanding, it is ludicrous. And 3,000 Puerto Ricans did not open their eyes this morning because this racist man did not have it within him to do his job. So get out of the way, President Trump, and let the people that can do the job get the job done.


DIAMOND: Now the president decided to go even further this morning. In a later tweet, he tweeted, "Puerto Rico is one of the most corrupt places on earth."

He once again touted this notion that Congress approved billions of dollars previously to Puerto Rico when it was hit by Hurricane Maria. The president has repeatedly insisted that Puerto Rico receive $92 billion in funds.

In fact, half of that money was actually appropriated by Congress, and another half of that amount has actually only been paid out to Puerto Rico.

But the president clearly feeling the need to defend his performance in Puerto Rico and lash out at some of the officials there.

WHITFIELD: So there's that, Jeremy. Then the administration is also being criticized for pulling millions of dollars from FEMA disaster relief to send that money to the southern border. So how is the White House defending itself on that?

DIAMOND: That's right. Once again, we're seeing this administration very focused on immigration enforcement actions. Now they're going to be shifting $271 million from other DHS accounts to immigration enforcement. That includes $155 million from DHS' disaster relief fund.

FEMA is insisting none of that money is going to impact DHS' ability to respond to any of these hurricanes, including the one expected to hit Puerto Rico shortly.

FEMA says in a statement, "This transfer of funds to support the border emergency will leave a remaining balance of $447 million in the DRF based account. Based on DHS and FEMA's review of historical emergency spending from the DRF-based account, this amount will be sufficient to support operational needs and will not impact ongoing long-term recovery efforts across the country."

But listen, this comes as the administration is making very clear that it intends to detain migrant families for much longer than has previously been authorized. It's been limited to 20 days of family migrant detention. Now they're looking to detain migrant families as long as it takes to process those cases.

So we'll be continuing to follow that very closely -- Fred?

WHITFIELD: All right. Jeremy Diamond, thank you so much from the White House. Appreciate it.

Coming up, the stage is likely set. A new poll suggests only 10 Democrats will make the cut for the next presidential debate. Who's in? Who's probably out? That's straight ahead.

Plus, President Trump reportedly wants his border wall so badly that he's offering to pardon aides who may break the law to make it happen. Details straight ahead.


[11:13:19] WHITFIELD: All right. With the deadline just hours away, it's looking very likely that just 10 of the 21 Democratic presidential candidates will be on the debate stage for the next big debate in September. A new Quinnipiac poll out this morning did not qualify anyone new for

the debate stage.

That same poll showed front runner Joe Biden with a solid lead.

Joining me right now to discuss, Jeff Zeleny, CNN senior Washington correspondent, and Sahil Kapoor, political reporter for "Bloomberg."

Good to see you both.

Jeff, you first

So the next debate lineup seems to be locked in. Ten candidates in one night. It's something the top-tier campaigns have wanted to see, something Democratic voters have wanted to see. So will this give candidates more time, greater opportunities to explain a little more about themselves?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Fredricka, there's no question that a lot of candidates have been waiting for this and some have not been waiting for this.

But the biggest change this is going to do is for the first time put Elizabeth Warren on stage with Joe Biden.

They have an interesting history. They certainly have some acrimony in their background over bankruptcy bills and laws from Senator Biden's days in Delaware. But they have really not talked much directly at each other on the campaign trail. They have very different views on health care and other matters.

That, I think, is the biggest takeaway from the fact that there will be one debate stage in September.

It's not going to give people more time necessarily because there's still ten candidates. That's still a lot of people to fit in.

But it's the fact of the matter that Joe Biden will be standing right next to Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders as well, that's going to allow Democratic voters for the first time so size up what are large differences in their field.

WHITFIELD: All right.

So, Sahil, what some people believe is kind of a three-way challenge then.

[11:15:03] This poll confirmed that Tom Steyer will not meet the threshold for the September debate despite his millions of dollars he's sunk into ads, his campaign. He joins a long list of candidates who won't be on the stage, but it doesn't necessarily mean they're out of the race, right? What do they do in the meantime?

SAHIL KAPOOR, POLITICAL REPORTER, BLOOMBERG: Yes, it looks like Tom Steyer is out of the debate for now. Tulsi Gabbard is out of the debate. I've heard from a number of campaigns that they say that they may not make the third debate, but theoretically, they could make the fourth debate.

I happen to think that's unlikely, but under the rules, it's possible that some of the candidates who won't be on the third debate stage will be on the fourth.

But it looks like Democratic voters have made up their minds about the field. The DNC is so eager to not make the same mistakes as 2016. They created a very permissive structure, but the voters have decided it's a four-person race, maybe with two or three wild cards beyond that.

I think having 10 candidates on that stage will provide a focus.

Jeff is absolutely right. I think the Biden versus Warren contrast is probably going to be the highlight of the debate, whatever happens. These two bring very different visions, very different visions of where to take the country and they kind of represent where the two wings of the Democratic Party are right now.

WHITFIELD: So, Jeff, let's look at this new Quinnipiac poll with Biden. It shows a double-digit lead over his closest rival with 32 percent there. Really no change virtually in the past month, but largely the field remains static throughout this summer. So what does this mean, really?

ZELENY: Fredricka, that's the most interesting thing. I think as we are almost at the end of the summer campaign season here, the race is essentially the same. Elizabeth Warren has arisen in the summer, no question about it. But Joe Biden is still seen by most Democrats as the strongest candidate.

We should also point out, there are still about -- still Democrats who don't have him as their first choice. He has yet to essentially move anyone else out of the way. It's essentially just staying the same.

But every campaign adviser I talk to from the majority of campaigns say they still believe the race is more fluid than these polls suggest. Going into the fall, it is more likely to change as voters are paying more attention here.

But for now, if you are Joe Biden, you have to be comfortable with your position that he is still at the front, but again, he's not in command of this race. He's just leading this race right now.

WHITFIELD: And, Sahil, it's not just about the Democrats. There are some important numbers for President Trump as well. For the first time since Trump was elected, majority of voters say the state of the economy is getting worse. And on his handling of the economy, which has been a bright spot for the White House, Americans are split.

How do you explain these numbers?

KAPOOR: Well, the economy is certainly the biggest land mine for President Trump. Going back over the last century, presidents -- first-term presidents tend to win re-election when the economy is good. They tend to lose when the economy is bad. The few one-term presidents we've had over the last century or so have been because of that.

And if you look at the Democratic field, voters I talk to pretty much everywhere are very, very attuned to this idea of electability. They're looking at the field and deciding on the basis of who they believe can beat President Trump. And Joe Biden is clearly winning that battle in terms of the perception race. Now, Elizabeth Warren has jumped quite a bit, 14 points according to

one poll, back to back looking from June to August. She's making that case. She's improving in that department.

But as long as Biden is seen by Democratic voters as the safest bet to defeat this president, then I think he's in a pretty good position heading into the primaries next year.

WHITFIELD: Jeff, this poll also includes, you know, five general- election matchups. Across the board, the Democrat beats a Democrat, beats Trump, who's stuck at 40 percent or lower. If the majority of Democratic primary voters say they want a candidate who can beat Trump, then what should they do with this?

ZELENY: Look, as Sahil was just saying, electability is the strongest component here. It's what every Democrat is looking for. The question is, what is that exactly.

If you look at these polls, it's basically a wash. It's basically a wash in terms of Joe Biden or Elizabeth Warren. So the question here I think about electability is going to change a little bit going into the fall.

Fredricka, one other thing that's changed over this summer. As we take stock of this as we almost hit Labor Day, there's not likely to be a third-party candidate. Earlier in the year, we thought there would be. That's why these head-to-head numbers are so interesting.

But 40 percent for President Trump, that's trouble for him potentially, but still it's early in these head-to-head matches -- Fredricka?

WHITFIELD: Jeff, Sahil, thanks to both of you. Appreciate it.


[11:19:54] WHITFIELD: Thank you.

Coming up, former U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis speaking out about his time in the Trump administration. And he doesn't appear to be impressed with the commander-in-chief's leadership style. That is next.


WHITFIELD: All right. President Trump promised his supporters a border wall, and he plans to give it to them by 2020, even if it means pardoning aides who may be breaking the law.

According to the "Washington Post," the president has directed aides to fast track billions of dollars-worth of construction contracts, aggressively seize private land, and disregard environmental rules.

[11:25:10] And according to the reporting, coming right out of the "Washington Post," he also told worried subordinates he will pardon them of any potential wrongdoing should they have to break laws to get the barriers s built quickly.

All right. Joining me right now, "Washington Post" national security reporter, Nick Miroff, who bloke this story.

Nick, good to see you.

So you're reporting the president has offered pardons to aides concerned about breaking the laws to build this wall, and you quote him, don't worry, I'll pardon you. So what exactly is he asking people to do that could require a pardon?


When aides have raised concerns about the use of eminent domain aggressively to advance this project or environmental concerns or the possibility of lawsuits, the president has really pushed things faster, urged them to move forward, and told officials in these meetings, don't worry, I'll pardon you.

The White House says that he makes such statements in jest, that he's joking when he says that, but it certainly led to, you know, a lot of confusion and those who have attended these meetings certainly interpreted that as a serious statement.

WHITFIELD: We've heard that explanation before, that he was joking and no one is taking him seriously. But it has rattled enough people, particularly the sources that spoke with you, to say something's wrong with this.

MIROFF: That's right. You know, I think what it really reflects is just his, you know, intense focus on this project and his almost fixation with getting as much of the border fence completed before next year's presidential election.

He views it as one of his core promises to his supporters and feels, you know, extraordinary pressure to deliver. He's conveying that to his aides and everyone involved with the project and pushing them as hard as he can.

WHITFIELD: This was the president's signature, you know, campaign promise. Just as recently as last week, saying, quoting now, "Tremendous numbers of miles of wall," end quote, are being built. No new miles have been built, however, during the Trump presidency.

So is this an eagerness on behalf of the president to simply send out a message?

MIROFF: Yes, so the president has said at rallies that he's going to build 500 miles by the election. CBP, Customs and Border Protection, and DHS officials and the Army Corps of Engineers have settled on a target of about 450 miles.

Of that, about 60 have been completed, and that is in sections where the new barriers are replacing what is called legacy fencing, older, dilapidated barriers. So of the 450 miles about 110 miles of that are supposed to be

installed in areas where there's no barrier or fencing whatsoever. But obviously that's an ambitious target given that the election is 14 months away.

WHITFIELD: Yes, still a little misleading.

All right, Nick Miroff, thank you so much. Appreciate it. From the "Washington Post."

Joining me now, David Lapan, former spokesperson for the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security and also retired Marine colonel.

Good to see you.


WHITFIELD: So the president is urging people to break the rules to build this wall. How does that sit with you?

LAPAN: Well, it doesn't sit well at all. The irony is that the administration from the very beginning has championed the rule of law, and this runs completely counter to that.

I understand that the president made a campaign promise, but there are two parts to that campaign promise. One was Mexico was going to pay. Clearly, the American taxpayers are paying.


WHITFIELD: It's almost as if people have forgotten about that.

LAPAN: Yes, exactly. And so if this rush to finish some number of miles of wall by the election is to satisfy those at his rallies that have chanted about it, then what about the rest of the promise? It's only half done.

WHITFIELD: And then it's not only asking officials, you know, workers to do something wrong, but it's dangling this pardon as an in incentive to do so. It seems as though it's shamelessly.

LAPAN: Well, it should give pause to people in the administration who worry about, one, undertaking actions that might be illegal on this promise that the president may do something after the fact to protect them.


WHITFIELD: Do you buy that his aides, people around him in his orbit are saying he's only joking?

[11:30:01] LAPAN: No, I don't. And I question why if somebody, a White House official, who said he was only joking, did so anonymously. If they're going to have that position, why wouldn't they do so on the record?