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Puerto Rico Braces for Dorian; Dorian to Hit Coast Destroyed by Maria; Trump Calls Puerto Rico Corrupt; Candidates for the Next Democratic Debate; Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) to Resign; Trump Vowed to Pardon Aides. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired August 28, 2019 - 13:00   ET


[13:00:00] ERRIN HAINES, NATIONAL WRITER ON RACE AND ETHNICITY, ASSOCIATED PRESS: Yes, and what he said was, you know, whether, you know, regardless of the outcome, because, you know, that climate exists, he's ready to confront it head on.

DANA BASH, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you, Errin. Unfortunately, we're out of time. Thank you very much.

Thank you for watching. Alex Marquardt is in for Brianna Keilar. He starts "RIGHT NOW."

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Alex Marquardt, in for Brianna Keilar.

Underway right now, Puerto Rico getting ready to take a hit as Tropical Storm Dorian strengthens with Florida also in its path.

As the next debate stage is being set, new polls showing the Democratic frontrunner solidifying his position and the president under water on the economy.

Plus, he's reportedly so frantic about building his border wall that President Trump is telling his aides he'll pardon them if they break the law to get it done.

And the president's former defense secretary breaking his silence and issuing a warning about the U.S. being at risk.

But first we begin with that breaking news out of Puerto Rico. The islands getting ready to take a direct hit from Tropical Storm Dorian and Florida could be next. The storm is forecast to strengthen into a category three hurricane in the coming days and could make landfall in Florida by this Labor Day weekend.

Our meteorologist, Chad Myers, is here with the latest.

Chad, Dorian's track has significantly changed, from what I understand, in just a short period of time. What can you tell us about the latest?

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Boy, it sure has, Alex.

This time yesterday, the forecast was just to the west of Ponce (ph). Now this thing's going to miss -- the center is going to miss, really, Puerto Rico all together and make that hit right over the U.S. Virgin Islands, right over Charlotte Amalie. I mean this is a wide miss. This is out of the cone kind of miss. And certainly not the Hurricane Center's problem. Not their fault.

This storm was very undecided on where it went. Its eye to be -- or her eye to be -- it's eye to be. That's what the problem was overnight. It wiggled and wobbled and it moved to the north. It did not move to the west like it was forecast to do. And now it is just north of, that's right, St. Croix, let me zoom in, and then the heaviest stuff moving up toward Charlotte Amalie, the U.S. Virgin Islands, all the way back over here. The British Virgin Islands, very, very heavy rainfall there and likely gusts over hurricane strength.

And that's part of the problem. It eventually moves back into the ocean and then toward mainland USA. Back toward Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas at 115-mile-per-hour storm. Earlier today it was 100 miles per hour, but the 11:00 advisory bumped that to 115 to a major storm, a category three hurricane, making landfall somewhere in the southeastern USA over the weekend.

Now, it always could stop, turn to the right and eventually back -- go out to the ocean because this thing has been unpredictable to start with. But now all of the models really saying it's going to go this direction.

Does it stop when it gets there and turn to the right like the GFS, the American model, or does it just keep right on going, right through the space coast or anywhere up and down the east coast of Florida? That is the real rub from right here. We're watching this storm get deeper in intensity, the pressure's going lower and the winds are picking up. I just saw a wind gust of 72.5 from the hurricane hunter aircraft flying through it right now.

So we're going to see this thing take off in very warm waters of the Bahamas.

MARQUARDT: And we know, Chad, that you will be keeping a close eye on all of that.

MYERS: Of course.

MARQUARDT: Thanks very much.

MYERS: You're welcome.

Now, right now Puerto Ricans understandably are on edge. Dorian is the first major storm to hit the island, which is -- has been recovering since Hurricane Maria hit two years ago. Our Omar Jimenez is live in Humacao, Puerto Rico, with more.

Omar, what are you seeing now in these last few hours before the storm is expected to hit?

OMAR JIMENEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Alex, we are on the eastern coast of Puerto Rico right now and we are actually just starting to feel the initial bands of rain directly stemming from Dorian. That continues, of course, to gain strength out in the Atlantic to our east.

Now, there are a few things we are keeping an eye on right now. Mainly one thing that officials are concerned about is the rainfall and the potential flooding that this event could bring. In the words of the National Weather Service director for San Juan, he said this is not going to be a Maria event in regards to winds, even though Maria is, of course, top of mind for many people, striking close to two years ago.

Now, what they are most concerned about is the rainfall. Up to 10 inches potentially in some portions that could lead to flooding, especially coming down from some of the more mountainous regions of the island as well.

And another thing that people are concerned about, from both the official level and, of course, on the citizen level as well, is even close to two years removed from Maria's landfall, there are still many infrastructure gaps that could be exacerbated depending on the strength that Dorian brings through this region. And specially, I should say, the executive director for Puerto Rican relief in regards to speaking to the federal government and said one of his biggest fear was that this is now the second hurricane season they're entering since Maria, and there are some places that while they know what to do if they are destroyed, it will still cause the same if not more to rebuild them because there just haven't been permanent fixes to a lot of the issues that Maria brought through.

[13:05:23] Now, in regards to recovery for this, political back and forth aside, President Trump has granted a disaster declaration for the island of Puerto Rico already. And we know there are at least 500 FEMA employees on the ground here ready to be deployed as necessary. And they've stayed in close contact with the governor's office here in Puerto Rico. And despite the strength that Dorian may or may not bring to all ports of this island, I think the main mind-set that we are seeing as people are trying to be safe rather than sorry when it comes to dealing with the after effects of Dorian.


MARQUARDT: All right, Omar Jimenez, on the eastern side of Puerto Rico. We hope you and your team will stay safe as well. Thanks very much.

Now it should go without saying that Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory. Its citizens are American citizens. And yet this is what they're hearing from their president as they brace for this storm to hit.

We are tracking closely Tropical Storm Dorian, the president wrote on Twitter, as it heads, as usual, to Puerto Rico. 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.

President Trump then went on to write, Puerto Rico is one of the most corrupt places on earth. Their political system is broken and their politicians are either incompetent or corrupt. And, by the way, I'm the best thing that's ever happened to Puerto Rico.

Now, just two years ago, 3,000 Puerto Ricans died in Hurricane Maria, and most of those deaths didn't happen as the storm hit. They happened in the weeks that followed, when much of the island was left without power, any clean drinking water. A response that is currently being investigated by Congress.

With me to discuss all this is "Politico's" national political reporter Laura Barron-Lopez.

Laura, as we've been saying, there is a huge storm heading for Puerto Rico, the biggest since Hurricane Maria, which left 3,000 people dead.

How does the president think that it is even mildly appropriate to be tweeting his attacks against Puerto Rico at a time like this?

LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, the president has repeatedly, time and time again, referred to Puerto Rico, and his administration has done so as well, as though it's a separate country, as though it is -- the people that live there are not U.S. citizens, and yet all of them are, and many of them have migrated to the mainland since Maria, given that fact that the government response was so slow. And parts of Puerto Rico are still not fully recovered from that hurricane. So the president has used this event -- or appears to have used this event to attack a political opponent of his rather than focus on the hurricane itself.

MARQUARDT: Right. And the words that he has for Puerto Rico, of course, nothing compared to the praise he had for -- any concern he seems to have had about other hurricane hit places like Texas and Hurricane Harvey.

Laura, I want to switch gears. Another thing that the president was tweeting about rather angrily was about his coverage on Fox News and how that might be changing. He wrote, the new Fox News is letting millions of great people down. We have to start looking for a new news outlet. Fox isn't working for us anymore.

Do you really think that the president feels that it's Fox's job to work for him, to work for his agenda?

BARRON-LOPEZ: I think based on what the president has tweeted in the past, based on the administration's relationship with Fox News and with a number of its employees there, that the president does expect fond coverage from that news outlet.


BARRON-LOPEZ: And when he doesn't get it, he tends to lash out on Twitter.

Now, it's been documented well in "The New Yorker," in "The New York Times" about the depths to which the relationship with the administration and Fox News and its executives go, which raises questions about their ability to report objectively about the administration. MARQUARDT: And, in fact, senior political analyst for Fox, Brit Hume,

tweeted back at the president, that is not their job to work for him.

Laura, stick around. We're going to be back with you momentarily.

But, first, I want to turn to the 2020 presidential race.

It is deadline day for Democrats to qualify for the next debate. Ten candidates have secured their spots on the stage next month in Houston. And front and center will be former Vice President Joe Biden, who's still ahead in most polls with really a commanding lead.

Ryan Nobles is here to break all this down.

Ryan, first, tell us, who's in, who's out of the next debate, as far as we know.

RYAN NOBLES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Alex, essentially, we're going to cut the field in half for this debate that's coming up on September 12th in Texas. And this is a look at who's going to participate in this debate. You've got the frontrunners, Biden, Sanders, Warren, Harris, and Buttigieg. Then the second tier candidates, Booker, Klobuchar, Yang, Beto O'Rourke and Julian Castro, they've all qualified, meeting the higher standard, the higher price of entry for this particular debate.

[13:10:16] Who is not on this list? The name that we were looking for today, Tom Steyer, the billionaire, late entry into the race. He's put millions of dollars into digital and television ads, trying to get his poll numbers up. There was a poll this morning from Quinnipiac where he did not meet the threshold. So as it stands right now, Steyer on the outside looking in.

Also not on this list, very important to point out, Alex, sitting United States Senator Kirsten Gillibrand didn't make the field. Montana Governor Steve Bullock. So there are some big names who just are not breaking through that polling threshold and therefore will not be a part of this debate, which, as it stands right now, will only be one night.

MARQUARDT: And, Ryan, there are a couple of new polls out today showing, confirming really, Biden ahead in the pack. Not just in that Democratic primary against his Democratic opponents, but in a potential match-up against President Trump.

What other numbers are you seeing?

NOBLES: Yes, take a look at this, Alex. And it does show kind of a solid lead for Joe Biden in this Democratic presidential primary. These are the numbers from August. The Quinnipiac poll, which came out this morning, shows him at 32 percent. A CNN/SRS poll from not too long ago at 29 percent. There were a lot of tongues wagging when this Monmouth poll came out that showed him dropping precipitously to 19 percent. But, today, Monmouth, their polling director actually came out today and conceded that this poll looks like it's an outlier. It doesn't matter as much. But these are also some really interesting numbers because part of Joe Biden's strength has been this case that he's making to Democratic primary voters that he's the most electable. But take a look at these head-to-head match-ups in this Quinnipiac poll. Almost every single one of the Democratic frontrunners are beating Donald Trump in a head- to-head match-up. Biden with a big lead. Bernie Sanders, 53 to 39 percent over President Trump, as is Elizabeth Warren, as is Kamala Harris, as is Pete Buttigieg. So Democrats right now believe that they've got a strong case that if any of these in the top five were taking on President Trump, that they could win.

MARQUARDT: Yes, and Biden --

NOBLES: And also I should point out one difficult number for President Trump right now, he's under water right now in trems of his handling of the economy. This has been the strongest number, the part of his support that's been the strongest right now, Alex, it shows, according to this poll, that most Americans are not necessarily supportive of the way he's handling the economy.

MARQUARDT: And that's absolutely crucial because he's going to need a good economy if he is going to be competitive next year.

Ryan, there is another big political headline today. Georgia Republican Senator Johnny Isakson is saying that he is resigning at the end of the year for health reasons.

So, what happens in that state now?

NOBLES: Yes, this is a big move because Democrats are kind of hopeful about their prospects in Georgia. They have increasingly done much better in the polls as of late.

What this means is that Isakson, who's going to step down at the end of the year, there will be a temporary appointment that the Republican governor, Brian Kemp, will put in place. But then the next time that there's a general election, a special election will take place to replace Isakson. And that means that there will be two Senate elections because Perdue, who is the other -- David Perdue, who's the other senator there, is up for re-election in 2020.

And this is a name that we are hearing be floated. Our Kaitlan Collins reporting that Nick Ayers, the former chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence, is being considered. He was actually considered as the White House chief of staff but he turned that job down because he wanted to just hold it for a short period of time. And according to what Kaitlan is hearing, that is in part because he knew that one or more Senate seats were going to come open in Georgia and he wanted to be considered for that. He is very close to Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner and the Trump White House. Could be an interesting name that could emerge.

The one big thing we found out today, though, Alex, is that Stacey Abrams, who had a razor -- a small margin of a loss to Brian Kemp in that election back in 2018 for the governorship there, she has said that she will not run for either of these two U.S. Senate seats, which will now be open in 2022.

MARQUARDT: All right, Ryan Nobles, on all of today's political news. Thanks very much.

Now another extraordinary development, the president reportedly offering pardons if his aides break the law to fast track that border wall of his.

Plus, in yet another incident raising red flags, the attorney general plans a $30,000 holiday party at the Trump Hotel.

And we'll take you back to Puerto Rico as the island is right now bracing for a hit from Tropical Storm Dorian. That's coming up.


[13:19:35] MARQUARDT: Take the land, the president reportedly said. President Trump wants his border wall built by next year's election, so he's ordering officials to break the law in order to get it done. This according to new reporting in "The Washington Post." The paper says that the president has directed subordinates to speed up the process by fast tracking billions of dollars' worth of construction contracts, ignoring environmental regulations and using eminent domain to take away land privately owned by Americans. We're told that all that would be highly illegal. The president has reportedly told aides that, quote, don't worry, I'll pardon you.

[13:20:10] With us to discuss all this are former federal prosecutor Joe Moreno and "Politico's" national political reporter Laura Barron- Lopez is back with us.

Laura, first to you.

An unnamed White House official told "The Washington Post" that the president is merely joking about these pardons, but they don't say that he's joking about that part about breaking the law.

BARRON-LOPEZ: The administration has said time and time again that the president is joking or take him seriously, not literally, and then the president has actually followed through on something that then they try to downplayed earlier. So if the administration is broadcasting that this is a step that the president is looking to take, then I think they very well could. And that he may very well still pardon. The question, though, is whether or not he's able to do this, whether or not they're able to carry this out.


Well, Joe, pick that up. And you're -- you're a former federal lawyer so I don't need to quote chapter and verse for you, but if we're going to get specific about it. Article Two, Section Three of the Constitution says the president, quote, must take care that the laws be executed faithfully.

So in telling subordinates to go ahead and break the law, is that in any way legal? JOSEPH MORENO, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: So, Alex, that's a great

quote. And I'll give you another quote. Dangling a pardon in exchange for someone's silence or doing something else improper is, itself, a crime. Those aren't my words. Those are the words of Attorney General Bill Barr at his confirmation hearing. And it's an acknowledgement that the president, while he says he has absolute pardon power, the fact is, if he's dangling it or offering it or in any other way making it part of a bargain for someone to do something improper or illegal, that, itself, is criminal.

MARQUARDT: Could Congress then pick up the mantle and investigate these conversations?

MORENO: Absolutely. I mean, look, this is Congress' job, right? It's oversight. I'm not a big fan of press conferences, of lawsuits that may or may not go anywhere. But this is exactly the type of project and the type of speech that Congress should be closely overseeing. That's their job and that's the value they should be adding right now.

MARQUARDT: Laura, also in this "Washington Post" reporting, they're saying that the Pentagon is expected to divert some $3.6 billion from their budget to this wall after Congress did not give them the 5 million. So that's one large chunk. And then we are learning that FEMA is pulling $155 million -- rather the president is pulling $155 million from FEMA and reprogramming it toward immigration.

So how, especially now that we're in the middle of hurricane season, does that impact FEMA's ability to respond to disasters like that?

BARRON-LOPEZ: Well, so FEMA said that it shouldn't impact their long- term recovery efforts across the various parts of the U.S. and Puerto Rico that have been -- which is the U.S., that have been impacted by hurricanes in the last year or so, but it does raise questions about how thin they may be stretched because of the money that they're diverting. It's certainly something that House Democrats are going to look into, as well as the movement of the Pentagon funds, because typically they're used to being able to oversee where money is being diverted. Congress controls the purse. And so this is a debate that they've had with the administration for quite some time, when border -- when the border aid relief bill passed, before they left for their August recess, they wanted some restrictions in there so that way they could control where money was actually being sent. And they've been having this battle with the White House about it. So we can expect more from them.

MARQUARDT: SO it's essentially FEMA saying, we're good. We still have some cash in the piggy bank. But, at the same time, we have some two months left in hurricane season, not to mention other possible disasters. So it's just a, you know, we should be OK kind of thing?

BARRON-LOPEZ: Yes, they said, we should be OK. Operations should be able to run smoothly, as is. Now, whether or not the devastation from hurricanes, if there is significant devastation changes that, we have to wait and see.

MARQUARDT: But, Joe, back to congressional oversight, I mean these are congressionally approved budgets, particularly when it comes to the Pentagon, for example. I mean what's the point of that if the president can then just shift funds around as he chooses?

MORENO: Alex, there's probably a great debate here about how much authority Congress has given to the executive branch over the years. This is probably one of those areas. But, for me, this is largely a good governance issue.

A lot of this was predictable when the Justice Department and DHS changed the policy about zero tolerance way back under Jeff Sessions. We knew that would mean more detention at the border. We knew we weren't staffed with immigration judges and facilities. So now the fact that we have to pick the pocket of FEMA, it's unfortunate. I hope Laura's reporting is correct. But, at the end of the day, we should have known better and we should have planned for this.

MARQUARDT: All right, Joe Moreno and Laura Barron-Lopez, thanks so much.

BARRON LOPEZ: Thank you.

MARQUARDT: Attorney General Bill Barr is under fire for planning a $30,000 holiday party at the Trump Hotel here in D.C.

[13:25:02] And Trump's former defense secretary is taking swipes at the president, warning of, quote, storm clouds gathering. Those details coming up.


MARQUARDT: Ethics watchdogs are waving a big, red flag over a holiday party that the attorney general, William Barr, is planning to host. The reason is that the party is being held at his boss, President Trump's, hotel. And it's reportedly going to cost more than $30,000.

[13:30:08] Now, it's important to note