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Catastrophes test Trump’s ability to be consoler-in-chief

President Trump visited Puerto Rico on Tuesday and Las Vegas on Wednesday, two American communities struggling with catastrophe. Judy Woodruff sits down with Karine Jean-Pierre of MoveOn.org and Matt Schlapp of the American Conservative Union to discuss the president’s handling of the crisis in Puerto Rico, a report that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had to be talked out of quitting and more.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    National tragedies and natural disasters test a president.

    From Las Vegas to Puerto Rico, the Trump administration has faced some of the worst in modern American history.

    We turn once again to Karine Jean-Pierre, senior adviser to MoveOn.org, contributing editor to the online women's magazine "Bustle" and a veteran of the Obama administration, and Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union and a White House political director for President George W. Bush.

    Welcome to both of you.

    So, presidents are in the spotlight at a time like this, Matt, hurricanes, whether it's Maria or the others, and now this terrible event in Las Vegas. The president was there today.

    What do we make of how he's handling this particular event?

  • MATT SCHLAPP, American Conservative Union:

    Well, first of all, thank you for covering the stories of the victims. I think that's really important for everybody. It's important for the nation to heal.

    I woke up this morning and was sent a photo of Kurt von Tillow from a friend of mine. He happened to have very conservative politics. There are people with all kinds of politics who were…

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    One of the victims.

  • MATT SCHLAPP:

    Yes, one of the victims. And thank you for mentioning him. It's a sad story.

    The — look, I think these are moments where a president, including a president who talks in such a raw fashion like Donald Trump, has a chance to connect on the personal level with Americans and with victims.

  • WATCH:

    In Las Vegas, Trump says 'America is truly a nation in mourning'

    And that's really the test. There is a role. It's not constitutional, but there is a role for the president to be comforter-in-chief. And I thought his remarks and the way he handled things in Nevada were great.

    And I think the way he's handled the hurricanes has been great as well. And I think there are political-free zones, and I just think, when people try to make politics out of these moments, I think it's a mistake.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    What about Las Vegas first, the president's handling of that, Karine?

  • KARINE JEAN-PIERRE, MoveOn.org:

    Well, it was a short moment in time. He was — it was scripted. He was given words that were very beautiful, very well-delivered.

    But the thing is, what happens when he's off-script? And that's the problem that we see with Donald Trump. On his way to Vegas, he was attacking the media, the same media that's covering all the suffering in Puerto Rico, in Texas, in Florida, and now in Vegas.

    And so that is the problem with Donald Trump. When it's a moment to bring people together, it's almost as if he can't. He is incredibly divisive.

  • READ MORE:

    San Juan mayor: Trump can attack me as long as it gets out the message that Puerto Ricans are hungry

    Just 24 hours ago, he was in Puerto Rico, and he made some divisive comments. So, I just don't think he has the DNA or the gene to actually do what a president is needed to be done — needs to be done at this time.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    What about that, Matt?

    His comment in Puerto Rico yesterday, among others things, he said that this wasn't a real catastrophe like Hurricane Katrina.

  • MATT SCHLAPP:

    Right.

    Now, look, these are unscripted moments. And there is no question that, when a president speaks off the cuff, you know, it doesn't always go as exactly as planned.

    But I actually think, when you talk to people on the ground, the people who are affected, they appreciate the respect when a president shows up when there is this type of suffering.

    I think one of the reasons why there is a dissatisfaction with many people in the media with Americans is because they feel like they prey on these moments, instead of covering the full story. And the full story each of these stops that the president made is that he talked to victims, he talked to people who were suffering. He connected to them.

    If you look at the social media, and not so much the media coverage, there's a lot of positive tweets and photos and Facebook posts from people who got to meet their president, and he was there to talk to them.

    When it comes to Puerto Rico, let's all face it. For too many decades, Puerto Rico has spent itself into a terrible financial situation, where they owe something like $72 billion. It's a catastrophe.

    Unfortunately, much of that money wasn't spent on a better infrastructure. It was spent in ways where, when they get a disaster like this, they're in deep. They're in a deep, deep, deep, deep hole. It's hard to see how we find the money to take care of everything that needs to be done on the island.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And now…

  • KARINE JEAN-PIERRE:

    Just really quickly, there were also signs down in Puerto Rico while he was there saying that Donald Trump was a bad hombre. So, there were some negative stuff out there too.

    Look, we have 3.4 million Americans who are suffering; 3 percent of the people on the island have electricity. Where is the Army Corps of Engineers? Why can't they get the electricity up? Why aren't we using the billion-dollar military more? We're just not.

    Why is the Norwegian cruise line the ones evacuating people? Why aren't we doing that? So, there's a lot that's…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • MATT SCHLAPP:

    There are answers to all of this.

    But the big question, when you have a catastrophe — and we saw this with Katrina, as opposed to the hurricanes that hit Florida, with the steady hand of Jeb Bush and the steady hand of Governor Abbott recently in Texas, is that it depends a lot on the local leadership.

    And I think the problem that we're seeing in Puerto Rico is that too many elected leaders tried to make this about politics. And I think there were a lot of mayors who are more responsible and realize, we have got to look inward as well, with the fact that they weren't necessarily prepared with their own infrastructure to weather something like this.

    Look, we need to help them. And we need to be there for them. And we're going to have to all dig in as taxpayers and help them, but Puerto Rico has got to start making more responsible financial decisions.

  • KARINE JEAN-PIERRE:

    But it starts with the president. He spent the first two weekends attacking, what, the NFL. He spent one weekend attacking them.

  • MATT SCHLAPP:

    I'm OK with that. I'm for it.

  • KARINE JEAN-PIERRE:

    He was vacationing on his golf resort. He didn't even talk about Puerto Rico those first two weekends, when they needed it the most.

  • MATT SCHLAPP:

    I disagree.

  • KARINE JEAN-PIERRE:

    But he didn't. He didn't.

    We know that Twitter is a major way for him to communicate.

  • MATT SCHLAPP:

    Yes.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    I want to ask you about something else, and that is, Matt, the dispute that flared out into the open today between the secretary of state and the president.

  • MATT SCHLAPP:

    Right.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The president was chastising, or I guess putting down Rex Tillerson this weekend, saying, don't waste your energy on trying to talk to North Korea.

    Then we get these reports from NBC News earlier today that Tillerson had to be talked out of quitting this summer.

  • MATT SCHLAPP:

    Yes. Yes.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Where are we on this? What do we make of this relationship?

  • WATCH:

    Tillerson says he never considered leaving his post

  • MATT SCHLAPP:

    Well, this is the problem when you have reports, these gossipy reports about the rapport of the president and his team.

    So you had the president come out and knock this story down. You had the vice president come out today and knock this story down.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But there have been other reports out there…

  • MATT SCHLAPP:

    Lots.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    … about difficult relationships between the White House and…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • MATT SCHLAPP:

    Lots.

    Look, I know a lot of these people. I prefer to focus on what we do know. I think that there are some policy concerns that Tillerson might have with the president that are legitimate, and they're going to — which always happens with Cabinet secretaries, especially secretaries of state.

    I think they're working that out. The idea that somehow he was ready to quit, and Vice President Pence intervened, Vice President Pence said that that report is simply untrue. I know NBC stands by it. But I think when I saw the president's tweets on Secretary Tillerson, what I saw is Tillerson's trying to be the diplomat with North Korea, whereas the president is clearly the hammer, and that could all be intentional.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    We have only got 40 seconds.

  • MATT SCHLAPP:

    I'm sorry.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But in a word.

  • KARINE JEAN-PIERRE:

    No, it's OK.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • KARINE JEAN-PIERRE:

    Look, I don't think we have seen a presidency this dysfunctional in a long time.

    You have a sitting Cabinet secretary basically questioning the competency of his boss, of a president. And I think that…

  • MATT SCHLAPP:

    But he denies that.

  • KARINE JEAN-PIERRE:

    Yes, but, still, we have heard Tillerson talk about the president before. After Charlottesville, he said the president speaks for himself.

    So, it's not the first time. We have heard reports about how he felt about the president's comments about the Boy Scouts.

    So, it's is not the same — this is not the only time. And now Tillerson is having a Dear Leader press conference.

    This is all insane.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Comes right after the resignation — or stepping down of another…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • KARINE JEAN-PIERRE:

    Yes, exactly.

  • MATT SCHLAPP:

    Judy, can I just say one thing? Let's not forget the Virgin Islands.

  • KARINE JEAN-PIERRE:

    That's right. I agree with you there. Let's not forget the Virgin Islands.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    We do continue to report on that.

    Karine Jean-Pierre, Matt Schlapp, thank you both.

  • MATT SCHLAPP:

    Thank you, Judy.

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