Return to Transcripts main page

CNN This Morning

Hurricane Idalia Weakens to Tropical Storm after Devastating Parts of Florida; FEMA Administrator Interviewed on Funding Issues for Government Disaster Relief Program; Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell Freezes on Camera Again During Press Conference. Aired 8- 8:30a ET

Aired August 31, 2023 - 08:00   ET




PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN ANCHOR: Good Thursday morning, everyone. Poppy is off this week. Sara Sidner is back with us after a brief tour down to Florida to cover the hurricane yesterday. And we are going to be covering that again today. Neighborhoods have been changed forever by hurricane Idalia. It is now a tropical storm off the Carolina shores. But officials are already assessing the damage in Florida and Georgia. We're going to be talking with the FEMA administrator about the latest on the ground in just a moment.

SARA SIDNER, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell freezes up in front of reporters again. It is the second time this disturbing scene has played out this summer. We have new reporting now about what McConnell's been doing behind the scenes.

MATTINGLY: And the Department of Health and Health Services is recommending that the DEA significantly ease restrictions on marijuana. It is currently a schedule one drug, the same as LSD and heroin. Though the potential reclassification wouldn't legalize marijuana federally, could it be a step in that direction? We're going to explore. This hour of CNN THIS MORNING starts right now.

Well, good morning, everyone. And we are going to start with what Sara was covering yesterday on the ground. Hurricane Idalia, now tropical storm Idalia cutting a devastating path of destruction across parts of the southeast. It's moving slowly north now along the Carolina coast, weaker, but still bringing heavy rain, flash floods, and tornado threats to the Carolinas. Georgia -- Georgia and the Carolinas are seeing serious flooding, especially in those coastal areas. Water levels in Charleston rising to near record levels. The National Weather Service says the storm surge reached nine feet in some areas. While it is losing strength, still bringing that heavy rain, flash flooding and tornado threats through its current path.

SIDNER: Look at this video. This is from goose creek in South Carolina. The car went airborne, you see there, as a tornado plowed through and flipped it on its side before striking another vehicle. The driver of that car was taken to the hospital but, amazingly, only with minor injuries. This is all coming as communities in Florida are assessing the damage Idalia left in its wake. Crystal River where I was reporting from yesterday morning is just one of the many communities dealing with the aftermath of the devastating storm surge. One official saying the city was decimated.

MATTINGLY: And we want to get right to FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell. She's on the ground in Florida, so she is planning to tour some of the damage from the storm with Governor Ron DeSantis later today. Administrator, thank you for your time. I know you are very busy. I want to start with what you are seeing right now. I think everybody knows recovery has started, all the assets, state, local, and federal are in play and at work. What are you seeing in terms of scale right now?

DEANNE CRISWELL, FEMA ADMINISTRATOR: Good morning. I did get on the round yesterday afternoon, or yesterday evening, actually, and I was able to get a quick update from my team that's here. What we're hearing right now is that in those coastal communities, especially along the Big Bend, that there has been a significant amount of damage in there. And that's exactly why I'm here, is to be able to get on the ground with the governor, go assess for myself what the impact is, and to see what additional resources or funding might be needed to help support the recovery efforts.

I am also hearing, though, that people did heed the warning to evacuate. And the primary searches I believe are complete, and they expect the secondary searches in those areas to be done by Friday, which is a great news, that people got out of harm's way as this storm surge had the potential to be truly life-threatening.

SIDNER: Let me ask you, ma'am, yesterday you were talking about how big this storm was, the biggest that really the Big Bend area has seen in more than 100 years. What is the challenge right now? I noticed as I was leaving the state yesterday that there were a lot of electric trucks that were coming in to try -- coming towards the damaged areas to try and restore power. What are some of the things that are really wreaking havoc at this time?

CRISWELL: Yes, I think the biggest concern right now is always power, right. There is a good percentage of those communities along the coast that are still without power.


But Florida Power and Light, they have brought in mutual aid resources. I think it was 30,000 to 40,000 linemen were going to come in and support the restoration of the power. And we also have the Army Corps of Engineers on stand-by to go in assist in supporting generator installs as needed to make sure we can get power to those critical facilities. And so today the focus is to make sure that we've accounted for everybody and there is nobody still stranded in any of these communities and begin to start to restore that power.

The next part of this will be to start removing the debris, right, making sure we can have access into those communities. Those are going to be some of the priorities today. I'm going to meet with the state director and the governor shortly after this, and I'll get a better idea of what their priorities are and if there is something that the federal can do to support those.

MATTINGLY: To that point, Administrator, we learned just moments ago that the president has approved an emergency declaration for South Carolina. He has been very quick to act on those in natural disasters that we have seen over the course of his presidency. But to that point, there are questions no in the near term, but in the longer term in terms of your funding, in terms of having the resources you need going forward. In fact, the president was asked about it yesterday. This is what he said.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can you ensure Americans the federal government is going to have the emergency funding that they need to get through this hurricane season?

JOE BIDEN, (D) PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The answer is, if I can't do that, I am going to point out why. How can we not respond? My God. How can we not respond to these needs? And so I'm confident, even though there is a lot of talk from some of our friends up on the Hill about the cost, we've got to do it. This is the United States of America.


MATTINGLY: Administrator, we go through this every single year at this point where there is questions about emergency supplemental funding, what will or won't get through, a lot of teeth gnashing, and then it eventually gets done. The president was not unequivocal there. He said there was a possibility, or seemed to allude to a possibility that it wouldn't get done. Where is your head at on that, and how much do you think you may need?

CRISWELL: Yes, so the disaster relief fund, we have been monitoring the health of that for several months now, and we have been projecting a deficit within our disaster relief fund, the primary fund that supports the response and recoveries to these events. And we have been projecting that deficit to come sometime in September. And so today -- Monday, I believe, or maybe it was Tuesday, we recognized the need to go into immediate needs funding. And that means that we are going to prioritize the remaining funding that's within the disaster relief fund to go to life-saving activities.

This is a practice that we have used in the past. We have used it eight times. The last time was in 2017, and it allows us to make sure that we have all funding available to support those life-saving activities. I want to emphasize, though, that the work on recovery doesn't stop. It just delays the obligations until the DRF is either replenished or into the next fiscal year.

SIDNER: What's really disturbing to think about, FEMA not having the money it needs, because also insurance companies have stopped writing insurance policies for homes in Florida. There are a dozen insurance companies. So without that, without the help of FEMA during a disaster, which we are seeing more and more and more again, it really puts people in a really bad place. MATTINGLY: Yes, and that's why we have seen the preparation leading

into and the response coming out of and the focus of the Biden administration. FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, we appreciate your time. We know you're very busy. Thank you.

SIDNER: This is just into CNN. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is working behind the scenes to reassure his allies and donors that he can still to do his job ever after he appeared to freeze once again during a press conference yesterday.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Senator, you are up for election in three short years. What are your thoughts on that?

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, (R-KY) SENATE MINORITY LEADER: I'm sorry. I had a hard time hearing you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's OK. What are your thoughts on running for re-election in 2026?

MCCONNELL: What are my thoughts about what?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Running for re-election in 2026?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Did you hear the question, Senator, running for re-election in 2026? All right, I'm sorry, you all. We are going to need a minute. Senator?



SIDNER: Well, that's hard to watch. All right, McConnell's health has drawn increased attention since his fall in Helsinki in February. Since then, he had at least two more falls and difficulty hearing reporters' questions.


McConnell has also suffered a freezing episode while speaking to reporters at the Capitol just last month. His office says he feels fine but is going to consult a physician. I seem to remember that same thing being said the last time that he froze up there. They said it's a prudential measure that he goes to see a physician.

CNN's Melanie Zanona is joining us now. There really is a big question here as to whether Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will actually run for re-election. What are you hearing?

MELANIE ZANONA, CNN CAPITOL HILL REPORTER: It's very clear that McConnell and his team recognize that this is a ballooning political problem for the Republican leader. And in fact, they have taken steps behind the scenes to try to tamp down speculation about his political future. We are told that McConnell has been calling up some of his allies to reassure them about his fitness to lead. He's also been reaching out to donors to try to reassure them as well, according to my colleague Manu Raju. He also made it a point to attend a fundraiser last night for Congressman Jim Banks who is running for Senate. And people who were with him yesterday have come out and said he was totally fine and totally sharp yesterday, even after that scary freezing moment.

I want us to take a listen to what Scott Jennings, a long-time McConnell confidante, told you guys a little bit ago.


SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: When he came back home to Louisville, I was with him with Jim Banks, who is running for Senate in Indiana. He met with a group, answered questions, worked the crowd, and was on top of it, sharp and fully in command of all the politics and issues of the day. So I should also tell you, I was with him two days ago and watched him give a long speech to a lunch crowd, and then answer several questions from that crowd in the midst of another long day. So throughout the month of August he has kept up a pretty robust schedule.


ZANONA: Of course, that is really encouraging news to hear, but at the same time, we still don't know what caused these episodes. His office has still not said what the issue was, even though he was supposed to seek a doctor yesterday. They have been very reluctant to share details about his health. And so questions about his future and his fitness to serve likely only going to intensify, especially as the Senate returns after the August recess next week, guys.

MATTINGLY: So much of the concern, Mel, tied to the uncertainty of what is actually going on here. It's why Scott coming on and kind of walking through his personal experience was actually helpful and illuminating. But also yesterday, where Scott was with Leader McConnell was at a fundraiser for a Senate candidate, a top-tier Senate candidate in Indiana, which underscores kind of his grip and role inside the conference he leads. Is there any sense right now that closer than his re-election, he is going to have to run for leader again if he stays around, that Republicans inside the Senate Republican conference would think about moving with somebody different?

ZANONA: Yes, well, as of right now, Republicans are standing by McConnell. He previously said that he intends to serve out the rest of his term as GOP leader, which goes until the end of next year. And Republicans right now are supporting him in doing that.

But I think it's an entirely different question about whether he runs for leader again and whether he would have the support to do so. Remember, the last time he ran for leader he actually faced his biggest challenge yet as leader. He has also drawn the ire, of course, of Trump world. And so I think there are a lot of questions about whether he would run again. Phil and Sara SIDNER: It's really interesting. Thank you. We will be watching to see how this develops, Melanie Zanona there for us live.

MATTINGLY: As Rudy Giuliani stares down criminal charges in the Georgia election interference case, he just lost a defamation lawsuit from two election workers in that state mentioned in the indictment. How much it could cost him, that's next.



MATTINGLY: Welcome back. A federal judge has found Rudy Giuliani liable for defaming two Georgia election workers. Ruby Freeman and her daughter Shaye Moss, sued Giuliani for accusing them of fraud during the 2020 presidential election. They say his accusations put them through, quote, a living nightmare.


RUBY FREEMAN, FORMER FULTON COUNTY ELECTION WORKER: I've lost my name and I've lost my reputation, I've lost my sense of security, all because a group of people, starting with number 45 and his ally, Rudy Giuliani, decided to scapegoat me and my daughter Shay.


MATTINGLY: CNN's Katelyn Polantz joins us now. And Katelyn, I think what was striking in the judge's opinion, 57 pages, was just how unsparing it was and the action it actually took. What did you see?

KAITLYN POLANTZ, CNN SENIOR CRIME, AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Yeah, it is extremely unsparing. The judge is essentially saying to Rudy Giuliani that there are consequences for how he has responded to this lawsuit by not providing the evidence requested, and that he is now conceding that he made these defamatory statements about these two women in Georgia, trying to accuse them of swapping ballots or interfering with the vote counting, which just was not true.

And so, he's losing the facts of the lawsuit. Essentially, he's not going to go any further than that. The judge has ruled against him and now what happens next is a determination of how much money Rudy Giuliani will owe.

This is how the lawyer for Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss summed it up last night with Kaitlan Collins here on CNN here's what his assessment is of what Giuliani is going to trial on and potentially could have to pay.


MICHAEL J. GOTTLIEB, ATTORNEY OF SHAYE MOSS AND RUBY FREEMAN: But our expectation is that we'll be able to prove tens of millions of dollars in compensatory damages before you get to punitive damages. So, we expect it to be a significant damages case that we'll present to the jury and we're confident in our ability to document and demonstrate it.


GOTTLIEB: Yep, you heard me correctly.


OLANTZ: So, what that lawyer Michael Gottlieb is talking about is compensatory damages. That's to make Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss whole. That's what he's going to be asking for as a lawyer. The judge also in this case is saying, yes, Rudy Giuliani will be looked.

They'll have to determine how much he has to pay for the defamation, for the emotional distress he inflicted upon these two women with his words after the 2020 election. And then on top of that, there will be punitive damages, punishment for Giuliani to deter other people for doing something like this, something Phil, that could amount to a staggering finding.

We don't know what that finding will be yet, though, because there will be a trial over how much Rudy Giuliani will have to pay now that he has lost the facts of this case.

That trial will take place later next year or at the beginning of later this year excuse me, or at the beginning of next year.

MATTINGLY: And it's a trial that everyone should be watching. Kaitlan thank you for the report and it's great reporting as always. Thank you.

SARAH SIDNER, CNN NEWS ANCHOR: All right, let's bring in our panel. Politics Reporter for Semaphore, Shelby Talcott, CNN Senior Legal Analyst Elie Honig. I took your other title away. Sorry.


Elie. And National Political Reporter for the Associated Press, Michelle Price. Thank you all for being here. I want to start with this to remind people what was said and why this suit came forward. First of all, after Rudy Giuliani said this, people came after these two women and threatening their lives, listen.


RUDY GIULIANI, FORMER TRUMP ATTORNEY: Of Ruby Freeman and Shaye Freeman Moss and one other gentleman quite obviously surreptitiously passing around USB ports as if they're vials of heroin or cocaine. I mean, it's obvious to anyone who's a criminal investigator or prosecutor they are engaged in surreptitious illegal activity again that day.

And after a week ago, they're still walking around Georgia lying. They should have been questioned already. Their places of work and their homes should have been searched.

(END VIDEOCLIP) SIDNER: It turns out they were not lying. He was lying and admitted

that he did not tell the truth. What the hell has happened to Rudy Giuliani?

ELIE HONIG, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Oh, that I cannot answer. I mean, the man has had such a remarkable downward spiral. It's really horrifying to see. He was once a respected prosecutor and nowhere he is lying about these women destroying their lives, and now he's being held accountable. I think it's really interesting what the judge did here.

What the judge's ruling yesterday essentially was, "I'm done with you." This is what we call a default judgment. Meaning the judge said, "You have violated the rules, the evidence, and the procedures here so badly that I'm calling it over." It's like if in a football game, a referee said, "One side, you've

committed so many penalties, you've cheated so bad, I'm calling it. It's over. You forfeit, you lose."

That is really rare. And it goes to Rudy Giuliani's just loss of all ethics, of all moral compass, of anything he may have learned as a lawyer. He was once a very good lawyer, and now he's long gone.

MATTINGLY: Kaitlyn Polantz put it great when she was talking about this last hour. Words have consequences. And I think why that matters and why it is so important one for this to be moving the way it is, but also for people to remember these two women, to remember their public testimony and to remember what people like Giuliani, but also the former president in the kind of famous, infamous Georgia call with Brad Raffensperger, talks about them specifically to election officials in similarly, both demeaning and false ways, is that you can dismiss any number of things.

Things seem too amorphous given how many cases, how many indictments, and all that type of stuff. This is real. This is humanity. These are people. Do you think that resonates with people or does it just get lost?

MICHELLE PRICE, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORT, ASSOCIATED PRESS: Yeah, I mean, the January 6 committee, their testimony, outside of everything that happened on January 6, this was one of those really moving parts of that testimony. Shaye Moss talked about Trump supporters showed up at her grandmother's house and actually forced their way into her home.

I mean, they talked about the real impacts on their lives from these claims when their names were out there used by Rudy Giuliani and by President Trump out there on the know.

As far as accountability, talking about how far Rudy Giuliani has come, there's a question about whether he has the money to pay anything. I mean Donald Trump is actually scheduled to headline fundraiser for him at his golf club, I think a week from now.

He's not paying his legal bills, but he's offering to show up and make some remarks on his behalf. HONIG: Ms. Freeman and Ms. Moss are not just victims in this case, but

they're really heroes. I mean, they didn't ask for this, right. It's one thing to me if Rudy Giuliani or Donald Trump goes after someone who puts themselves in the public eye, someone who runs for office, someone who goes on TV like us, that's line.

But these are private citizens who did their civic duty. They were voting counting and doing it fairly and honestly. To be accused of being outright criminals is outrageous. And now Rudy's facing consequences

MATTINGLY: Also, being accused. Let's not kind of try and tiptoe around this. The racially loaded terminology that was used repeatedly, drug dealers subtle. And it's not like they can act like that wasn't what stopped, like everyone knows what you're trying to say. Shelby you're talking to every campaign all the time right now.

I think that's interesting in terms of where the Trump campaign is, where the whole kind of legal apparatus is right now. Michelle mentioned the fundraiser the former president's going to hold, but Giuliani is involved in so many different pieces of this, and they can cross cut to some degree with testimony, with stipulations.

SHELBY SCOTT, POLITICS REPORT, SEMAFOR: Yeah, and I think that's the big takeaway that I have with this Giuliani situation is that what he says in one case, when you're involved in multiple cases, which it's not just Giuliani involved in multiple cases right. Obviously, Trump has four or five, depending on which ones we're counting.

But when you say one thing in one case, it could end up affecting your other cases. And so these defendants who are involved in multiple cases have to be very careful about what they say, how they defend themselves, the evidence they produce, because as we're seeing, it could come back to affect them down the line in unrelated cases that are only conceptually related.


MATTINGLY: Which is part of the reason Meadows taking the stand was so interesting the other day.

HONIG: By the way, the attacks on Moss and Ms. Freeman are part of the Fulton County DA indictment as well.

SIDNER: Also, there are actually several other people that are indicted for targeting them as well. So, I want to move onto Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. What we saw yesterday, which is really, really disturbing, but there is, of course, a political component. It's not just a human component. There's a big political component.

I want to let you see what the Lexington Herald Leader put in its editorial. Very blunt here. It says, "One of the most important politicians in the country", they argue, "And certainly one of the most important politicians to the state of Kentucky needs to tell his constituents what is going on with his health and whether it truly impairs his ability to serve them." That is a newspaper from his home state.

What do you make of this? I'm going to start here with you. What do you make of this, Michelle when you hear something like that from his home state home paper?

PRICE: I mean, it shows his staff and Senator McConnell, they need to answer some questions about this. They've really just not explained what's been going on here with the first incident, I think they said he was dehydrated. Now they're saying at least he's going to go to a doctor. Maybe there'll be some answers there.

But there are huge political implications, not just in know if he doesn't run again. I think it's striking that this freeze happened during a question about will he run for reelection? But there are people like Representative James Comer who serves in Kentucky, might be somebody who would want to run if that seat becomes available.

That could very much change the power dynamic there. But it comes at a time when we see Republicans raising the issue of Joe Biden's age. They try to make allusions to his mental competency.

SIDNER: You don't hear that on the other side. You do not hear them going after McConnell the same way they go after Biden, who hasn't had these spells in the public eye.

PRICE: So that's going to be much harder for them to make that argument when you have these very public freeze ups from McConnell.

MATTINGLY: Yeah, it's an interesting thing. They'll still make the argument and there's a lot of Republicans who don't like Mitch McConnell. He's just an absolute kind of central power figure within the party and certainly within the chamber. Elie, Shelby, Michelle, thanks, guys. Appreciate it.

Well, tropical Storm Idalia is moving off the coast of the US. But it left majors flooding and devastation in several states. We'll talk to the Pasco County Fire Chief about the rescues he and his team have been making over the last 24 hours. That's next.