Full Episode: HHS Secretary Tom Price resigns, Puerto Rico slowly responds after hurricane and GOP releases tax plan

Sep. 29, 2017 AT 9:22 p.m. EDT

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price resigned after it was revealed he spent over $400 thousand of taxpayer money on private plane rides. The scandal was just one setback for the Trump administration this week as criticism builds after a slow response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico where the 3.4 million U.S. citizens remain in dire conditions. Trying to turn a page after scrapping health care reform, Republicans unveiled the framework of their tax reform which would lower the number of tax brackets to three. Plus, the Alabama Senate runoff shakes up Republicans in Washington after Trump's favored candidate loses.

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TRANSCRIPT

Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

ROBERT COSTA: Under pressure from the president, Tom Price resigns. I’m Robert Costa. We discuss a week of White House setbacks, controversies, and the new Republican tax plan, tonight on Washington Week .

Fear and desperation in Puerto Rico.

SAN JUAN MAYOR CARMEN YULIN CRUZ: (From video.) This is not a good news story. This is a people are dying story. This is a life or death story.

MR. COSTA: The Trump administration defends its response to Hurricane Maria.

ACTING SECRETARY OF HOMELAND SECURITY ELAINE DUKE: (From video.) I am proud of the work that’s being done. I am proud of Americans helping Americans, friends and strangers alike.

MR. COSTA: Nine days after the storm, more than 3 million Americans face dire shortages.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) We’re going to cut taxes for the middle class, make the tax code simpler and more fair for everyday Americans.

MR. COSTA: President Trump rolls out his tax overhaul that he says is pro-growth and pro-family, but Democrats are skeptical.

SENATE MINORITY LEADER CHARLES SCHUMER (D-NY): (From video.) It’s little more than an across-the-board tax cut for America’s millionaires and billionaires.

MR. COSTA: Is the GOP’s failure on health care an omen on taxes?

ANNOUNCER: (From video.) Judge Roy Moore!

MR. COSTA: And why is the Alabama election sending shockwaves through the Republican establishment?

We cover it all with Susan Davis of NPR, Jeff Zeleny of CNN, Yamiche Alcindor of The New York Times , and Michael Scherer of The Washington Post .

ANNOUNCER: Celebrating 50 years, this is Washington Week . Once again, live from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.

MR. COSTA: Good evening. Tom Price stepped down as Health and Human Services secretary late Friday. His resignation was the ultimate price for using private jets and military aircraft for government business. Price had taken more than two dozen chartered flights since May, totaling more than $400,000. Price also used military aircraft for trips to Europe, Africa, and Asia this summer. Three other Cabinet members are also under scrutiny for their travel expenses: Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Jeff, you think about Secretary Price. He’s been in Congress. He’s a Washington insider. He knows the rules. He knew, as a public servant, that this information would likely get out there. Where is the judgment?

JEFF ZELENY: I think that’s a great question. And he knows the rules; he also has been one of the leading people who criticized Democrats for doing this. I mean, there’s soundbites this week of him blasting Nancy Pelosi for flying on a private plane. So I think the judgment is, when you become a Cabinet secretary, you reach a different level. You have staff around you. Someone should have hit the stop button here and not allowed all this to go.

You know, we’ve talked to a lot of people, and a lot of theories abound. One is there are a lot of members of this Cabinet who are wealthy, a few who have their own fleet of planes or their own planes, and they fly. So it seems like, well, if they’re doing that, perhaps so can I. But that is not what, you know, the law really allows. And even if it was legal, a new instructive from the OMB going out to the White House chief of staff just on Friday evening says that just because something is legal does not mean that you should do it. So I think the – overall, this is the – you know, another Friday night firing. We’ve seen a lot of them, but this is the first Cabinet secretary to be shown the door here.

But I think also it’s slightly more than just optics. We asked the president about that today, if he had confidence in him, and he said it’s optics. But it’s also he didn’t get the job done. He was hired to get health care through. That didn’t happen. So why keep him around?

MICHAEL SCHERER: You know, it’s also a reaction to the first few months in this administration, where nobody really had control of everything that was going on, nobody was really minding the store. You know, one of the things we found out is that a senior White House aide was on some of these flights, so it wasn’t as if, you know, the Health and Human Services secretary was off doing this freelancing with no one knowing. The White House was flying with him, you know, a $20,000 flight to Philadelphia from D.C. I mean, that’s just not a flight you take if you live here.

MR. COSTA: Sue, when you’re on Capitol Hill, and Yamiche you’ve been there this week as well, are Republican lawmakers standing back and saying what’s going on with this administration? Because it’s not just Price.

SUSAN DAVIS: It’s not just Price. I think Price was the most surprising to them because a lot of the other members of the Cabinet that have done this as well didn’t come from Congress. Price was there for the ethics wars of the last 10 years. He was there when Congress cracked down on private plane usage. So the thing that I heard the most from lawmakers, including Republicans, this week is they were just amazed at how bad of a decision it was to do that, and I think that’s why there wasn’t really a lot of people defending Tom Price this week. It's just not very defensible, particularly when you think of the broader point that the president also campaigned on: “Drain the swamp.”

YAMICHE ALCINDOR: I think in this case I think – I think about what Jeff just said and this idea that you have a Cabinet that’s filled with people who are wealthy. You think of Betsy DeVos. She has her own private plane. She’s footing the bill for all her flights. But Tom Price is probably looking at her, saying, well, if she can do something, I can also kind of keep up with the Joneses in this Cabinet. And there’s this feeling among – I would say among Capitol Hill, but also among Trump’s base that they voted in a billionaire, so that when they – when people are asking voters about Mar-a-Lago and asking about his flights and asking about the fact that he’s – that he supposedly called the White House a dump, people kind of laugh that off and say, well, we know we voted for a billionaire. In this case, though, you see a president saying, OK, I’m the billionaire, OK, I might have the brand of kind of over the top, but I don’t want any of that, I don’t want any of those headlines actually going to my administration. And that’s why I think Tom Price lost his job.

MR. ZELENY: And I was told one thing that even infuriated the president more was when Tom Price on Thursday evening said I will do an unprecedented act. He went on Fox News with Bret Baier and said I’ll do an unprecedented act of paying $52,000 for my seat on these flights. But that doesn’t even begin to cover the jet fuel. So I’m told the president found that even more hypocritical and more sort of Washington, if you will, and that actually hurt his case, not made it.

MR. SCHERER: One other storyline to keep eyes on here is that this is yet another employee of the president he has thrown under the bus. Now, I’m not defending what Price did, but it wasn’t illegal what Price did. And –

MR. COSTA: These were approved trips.

MR. SCHERER: Yeah, these were approved trips. And so once again – and we seem to have this every three weeks – when Sessions was, you know, taken to the woodshed before, Priebus is out, Bannon is out – the president is able to just push aside people who work for him. And I think there’s going to be, over time, an effect of that because everyone who works for the president knows they are just an employee, and depending on the day of the week they could be gone the next day.

MR. COSTA: And the House Oversight Committee is looking into all of this.

MS. DAVIS: Yeah, they are, and they want answers. I mean, Ron Wyden, who’s the Democrat – the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, said Tom Price being done isn’t good enough, we want a full accounting of what taxpayer dollars were used. And I think, as you referenced, other members of the Cabinet have done so as well. They’re going to want to know more.

MS. ALCINDOR: And I should say I think that this – we talk about – a lot of times about the Cabinet and the administration being in chaos. I think this kind of plays well for this president. This looks to a lot of people like, oh, the president’s looking at this and looking at this person who started acting, quote/unquote, “swampy.” And so, you know what, I’m not dealing with this. So I think when we go – when he goes out to his base in the next rally we see him at, he’s going to reference this possibly and say, you know what, you voted me in to do a job and I’m trying to make sure that there are people here that understand that the taxpayers’ dollars are important.

MR. COSTA: And this is a story of journalism as well. POLITICO did great reporting on this, and you just – the stories just keep breaking at so many news organizations. The Veterans Affairs secretary went to Wimbledon tournament as part of an official trip, sightseeing in July. We saw with Pruitt his trip on a plane, Ryan Zinke, it goes on and on.

We’re going to leave it there, though, with Secretary Price and we’re going to turn to Puerto Rico, because it has been nine days since Hurricane Maria slammed into the island and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Since then, residents have struggled to survive without electricity, clean water, and a serious shortage of food and medicine. On Thursday, President Trump waived a restriction on foreign ships delivering cargo to Puerto Rico, but washed-out bridges and roads are making it difficult to deliver supplies from the ports in San Juan. The sluggish response is in contrast to the president’s praise of FEMA relief efforts on the island, raising questions about the administration’s crisis management.

Yamiche, reading every story about Puerto Rico, you’re just struck that, one, we don’t know the extent of this tragedy; and, two, that these are Americans. And not everyone’s talking about Puerto Rico in those terms, but it’s so important to remember these are Americans and they’re in a lot of trouble.

MS. ALCINDOR: It’s super important to remember that these are Americans because the last time we had a very big tragedy which – connected to a hurricane, you think about Hurricane Katrina and the fact that so many people got upset because we started calling Americans refugees when they started going to other states. Who are these people, how are they going to deal with it? And a lot of that had to deal with people feeling as though they were not being treated the same way because of the color of their skin.

Here you have Puerto Rico, which is also an island filled with people of color, and people are saying, look, this cannot be another Katrina for the president. Democrats, I think, are already starting to seize on that messaging, saying this is President Trump’s Katrina. I think as a reporter it’s a little too early to say that. But there are the images of – coming out of Puerto Rico very much mirror the images of Katrina. I think what made Katrina, I guess, defining for President Bush was two things. One, you had reporters really doing these kind of fiery interviews with FEMA, where people just – officials just seemed to not know anything. And then, two, you had stories of people who started dying as they were waiting for aid. And I think that that’s something that’s going to really turn this story into a Katrina if that happens.

MR. COSTA: And when we try to answer the question is this the Katrina for President Trump, Jeff, it really comes down to the perspective of the person answering the question. And you had the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Cruz, say this is not a good news story. But then Elaine Duke, the acting head of the Department of Homeland Security said it is a good news story because there have been limited deaths. There have been 16 deaths – at least 16 deaths. How’s this playing out inside the White House? They keep saying everything’s going well.

MR. ZELENY: They do, but what the White House is saying, the words do not match the images on the screen. And we know that the president watches these images a lot. So I think a couple things. One, as we, you know, enter the 9 th , 10 th day of this, he – the president is planning on visiting Puerto Rico next week if he’s able to get down there. I think a couple things. A president’s attention and a president’s megaphone is unique. They can focus attention through donations, through other things. For several days – he was in the U.N. last week and then he was talking about football. So he says he was not distracted. Of course, you can do many things at once.

But the attention of the president was, indeed, distracted because he was not using his voice to talk about Puerto Rico. So I do think now their full attention is on this. Yes, there are many problems with Puerto Rico, even on a sunny day – no doubt about this. But there a huge issue here going on. And it’s important to point out, it’s an acting secretary of Homeland Security. This government is still not filled. There are undersecretaries still not in position. I think that’s a very important problem.

MR. SCHERER: I think the important contrast, when you’re talking about leadership, is how much focus President Trump put on preparing for getting in front of cameras, telling people about, and then showing – the White House released photos of these meetings at Camp David or in the Situation Room, that he was on top of the issues in Texas and in Florida, two states that just happened to be filled with Republicans, his voters, very politically important to him. I think UNGA got in the way, but it is striking that it was only Monday – like we went through that whole weekend of him going to Alabama, talking there, him starting this dust-up about the NFL. Whether the government was working or not, it is undeniable that the president approached this third hurricane differently than the first two.

MR. COSTA: And, Sue, when you think about Capitol Hill, Speaker Ryan’s been engaged on this, Senator Rubio of Florida. Can we expect the resources to be provided to Puerto Rico later this year in the budget?

MS. DAVIS: Absolutely. And I think that it’s important to remember that even pre-Puerto Rico, Hurricane Maria, there were already estimates that the recovery efforts for the hurricanes in Florida and Texas could run as high as $150 billion. That was before Puerto Rico. And now all Congress has appropriated so far is about $15 billion. So it’s going to cost a lot more money to repair not just Puerto Rico, but all these areas that have been devastated by these hurricanes.

MR. COSTA: We wish everyone in Puerto Rico the best as you all struggle through this horrible situation. Our thoughts are with you.

We’re going to move now to Washington because, as all of this unfolded in Puerto Rico, the president was rolling out the new Republican tax plan. He calls it revolutionary, promising it will benefit the middle class. The new proposal calls for lowering the corporate tax rate from 35 to 20 percent, doubling the standard deduction, boosting the child tax credit, and eliminating the estate tax. There were few details in this tax plan blueprint, so we don’t know how much it will cost and exactly who will benefit, or how the government will make up for the trillions of dollars lost in tax revenue that will, of course, add to the national deficit.

There was a lot of confidence on the Republican side, Yamiche, this week about this plan, but are Democrats like Senator Donnelly of Indiana, who are facing tough reelections in states won by President Trump, are they going to come along on this tax plan?

MS. ALCINDOR: My conversation with a lot of congressional aides, Democratic, moderate, I would say, congressional aides tell me that Democrats are not prepared to back this tax reform or this tax legislation because they don’t feel as though they’ve been really engaged from the very beginning. And of course, Democrats really want this to go through regular order, which is not what’s going to happen – at least that’s not what Republicans want to happen. So from my – from all the conversations I’ve been having this week Democrats are not feeling like they want to do this.

I looked at some surveys about – from bipartisan groups who said that something between 30 percent of people who are making somewhere between 50,000 (dollars) and 150,000 (dollars) would see a tax increase. That means that that’s essentially the heart of the middle class, about 30 percent of people, that might see their taxes go up. That’s a real problem for Democrats. And I would say, that’s a real problem for Republicans.

MR. COSTA: Sue, when you think about this plan, it’s just that. It’s a plan. We haven’t seen a bill yet. So does that throw a little cold water on the idea that taxes – it’s going to be easy for the Republicans to pass?

MS. DAVIS: You know, they had a really good week in terms – there’s been a lot of bad weeks for the Republican majority. This was a good week. The initial reaction to this blueprint from the people that they want to like it, they like it. The House Freedom Caucus, conservatives in the House liked it, their allies in the business community say they like it. But this was the candy, right? This was all the good news. The actual legislation is going to have all the broccoli. And let’s see what that is and how – and how it progresses. It’s certainly, probably, going to fall apart many times before it come together.

The thing I would say, though, is that this is a Republican Party in control of Washington. And this is a tax cut. This should be the easiest thing they are able to do. And that is why I think there is so much political momentum behind this, because – particularly following that failure on health care – the sort of psychology of Capitol Hill right now is, man, if we can’t pass a tax cut we are in trouble.

MR. COSTA: Although run on, Jeff, maybe as the confirmation of Judge Gorsuch on the Supreme Court, they need this.

MR. ZELENY: They need this, no question. Everyone who’s on the ballot in 2018, every Republican, needs to go back to their districts and say: Look, we at least did this. But I think that they’re – my big question is, as I sit at the White House and watch all this sort of both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue, what will the president’s involvement in this be? And there’s not an easy answer to that. Some people on the Hill would like him to sort of stay out of it, because when he gets involved in the – sort of the details of this, it could muck things up. But there are still, you know, a big unanswered question.

The biggest thing is, how will this benefit the wealthiest Americans? The president has not released his tax returns yet, as we know. You’ll hear many cries for that. He won’t do it, obviously. But how will it benefit the wealthiest of Americans? And this is still a fight, I think. We’ll see if Congress is functional, even being able to do this. But Sue’s right, if a Republican majority cannot get tax cuts through, what can it do?

MR. SCHERER: I think the biggest challenge they’re going to have gets to your point, which is that there’s a tension between what the president has said this plan does and what this plan actually does. He has said this is a populist plan that’s going to lift up the middle class. This is a classic Republican plan that gives huge cuts to the wealthiest Americans. And over time, as the country debates this, that difference between those two different visions is going to become very clear to the American people and it’s going to make this politically very difficult.

MR. COSTA: The president, Yamiche, seems to not even like the 20 percent rate for the corporations. He’d rather see 15 percent. So it comes to Jeff’s point, is he really going to sell a plan that was cobbled together on Capitol Hill?

MS. ALCINDOR: I think in some ways, yes, he might say that he wants that. But I think when you think about what his brand is going to be, and 2018 is going to be all about Donald Trump. I’ve been talking to congressional aides, as I’m sure everyone else is. Donald Trump’s going to be on the ballot, even if his name isn’t on the ballot. If he can’t put together a win, he can only get away with that for so long. What is he going to say in 2020 if he says: We couldn’t do health care, we couldn’t do tax cuts, my infrastructure plan has not been written yet. What does the president have to say if he’s going to go and stump in 2018? So I think – I think in some ways it’s going to be like health care. He might want a bunch of different things. If Republicans say we have the votes to pass this, I think he’s going to be ready to sign it.

MR. COSTA: Sue, what’s the mood among conservatives on Capitol Hill? They have a child tax credit as part of this plan, which has not always been celebrated by some of the more conservative media organs, because it complicates the code in their view. Is this – is that going to stay?

MS. DAVIS: That’s a great question. I think it goes to Michael’s point about the promises that the president’s making about the tax bill and the reality of it. And one of the things that I think that Republicans in Congress are nervous about is they do want to be able to go home and say: This helps the middle class. And the child tax credit is one of those things that is the most obvious ways to help families. And so I think that that is where we’re seeing maybe the clash come in, is that so far what we understand it does tend to benefit wealthier Americans. And there’s going to be a push to sort of push some of that benefit down the tax code.

MR. COSTA: Speaking about what makes Republicans nervous on Capitol Hill, Alabama voters handed another setback to President Trump this week. His pick in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate in Alabama was defeated by Judge Roy Moore. The controversial, ultra-conservative judge beat incumbent Senator Luther Strange who had been appointed earlier in the year to fill the attorney general’s seat, Jeff Sessions. Many Republican lawmakers in Washington are concerned about Moore’s fire and brimstone beliefs, including his belief that God is the only source of law. Michael, no one spent more time with Roy Moore, at least in the last few weeks, than you. How much of a burden will he be for Republicans this fall and in 2018?

MR. SCHERER: This fall I don’t think he’s going to disrupt much. I think he’s got a pretty clear path to winning election.

The burden will come in one of two ways. One, he’ll be used during campaigns as a way of branding the Republican Party, sort of like Todd Akin was used years back for his comments – unfortunate comments about rape. And second, when he gets to Washington, assuming he wins, he is going to cause problems for everybody. That is his modus operandi. That’s why he wants to be here. He wants to stand up for what he sees as the divine truth of this country.

MR. COSTA: You don’t – you don’t see, Michael, though, a chance for the Democrat, Doug Jones? He’s a former U.S. attorney. He’s closing in in the polls.

MR. SCHERER: He’d have a great chance if it wasn’t Alabama. This is a state that went for Donald Trump more than just about any other state, and the path Jones now has to walk is he has to run to the center. He can’t run against Roy Moore. Roy Moore has been elected statewide twice as judge. He’s got to run to the center as a moderate, and it’s going to be tough for Doug Jones running as a moderate to really get the base out in Alabama in a – in a place where the math just isn’t there. I’m not saying I’m ruling it out, it’s just going to be difficult.

MS. ALCINDOR: I talked to some congressional aides on the Democratic side and they said that Doug Jones has about a 10 percent chance of winning. So even Democrats, as they’re hoping and praying that maybe the party can put some money into this race, they don’t at all think that he can win in –

MR. COSTA: Ten percent? I’m going to – that’s pretty low. (Laughter.) Sue, this was not just a loss for Luther Strange, this was a loss for Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

MS. DAVIS: Yes, it was. And I think if you are the conservative grassroots, if you’re Steve Bannon, who helped play a role in this race, this was a roadmap for how to run Republican primaries in 2018. And I think that they see that roadmap as make it a referendum on Mitch McConnell – in a Republican primary, not in the general – but that Mitch McConnell has never really been super popular, but is now deeply unpopular with Republicans. And that is in some part due to President Trump, who has attacked the majority leader. And they clearly – and I think we’re going to see this roadmap play out in races like Arizona, in Nevada. And Mitch McConnell very successfully in the last two election cycles beat back every insurgent challenge in every Republican primary. We’re going to see if he can still do it again.

MR. COSTA: I remember writing that story in 2014, the return of the establishment. But, Jeff, are we going to see Bannon go into Nevada and against Senator Roger Wicker in Mississippi and so many other states?

MR. ZELENY: I think some of them. He’s definitely going to go out and scout and see what’s available. There are only so many Roy Moores. I mean, I think he is a unique figure in the sense that he has run so many times before. So I do not think Steve Bannon, you know, despite all of his efforts will be able to find someone to replicate that. But it’s trouble, no doubt about it. I mean, Senator McConnell’s winning streak is now broken. And the big question is, what does the president do here? And, you know, the president, for all his dislike and distaste for President Obama, he saw exactly the limits of the office, the limits of endorsements. So I’m not sure any endorsements that President Trump has on these candidates will make a difference or not.

MR. COSTA: That’s why, Michael, I found this race so fascinating. The Trump voter in Alabama, still in spirt with the president, still like the president, but they don’t take direction from the president.

MR. SCHERER: That’s right. And not only that, the Trump voter in Alabama deeply loves the president. It’s not just that they kind of say they support him or approve of the job he’s doing; they voted for the guy he said not to vote for in his spirit. They were doing what they thought Trump really wanted, even if Trump was saying something different. And towards the end, you know, Trump was giving winks and nods enough to basically give them permission.

MR. COSTA: He said I made a mistake, I might have made a mistake.

MR. SCHERER: I might have made a mistake.

MS. ALCINDOR: He did delete his tweets.

MS. DAVIS: And then he deleted his tweets! (Laughter.)

MR. ZELENY: And he said I’ll campaign for Roy Moore – before the election he said that.

MR. SCHERER: And he allowed Steve Bannon, who he has a tense relationship with, to go out and say a vote for Roy Moore is a vote for Donald Trump, and Trump said nothing. Trump knew that happened the day before the election. Trump just let it happen and never said, wait a minute, I’m actually endorsing Luther Strange.

MS. ALCINDOR: The only thing I would say is that Alabama is Alabama. So goes Alabama does not mean so goes the nation. So I think that we’re not talking about Nevada or – I don’t even know another state that isn’t the same. So I think that Alabama’s a special case.

MR. COSTA: It’s a special case. Always love going down there as a reporter, and I think this race will maybe say a lot about 2018. But, Yamiche, you may be right; maybe it’s just Alabama.

We’re going to have to leave it there because, finally, before we go tonight, we want to take note of a bipartisan moment, quite a moment in Congress this week: Majority Whip Steve Scalise walked back onto the House floor for the first time since being shot 15 weeks ago. His colleagues, Democrats and Republicans alike, greeted Scalise with a standing ovation, hugs, and of course many well wishes. As Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi put it, everyone in Congress and across the country is on Team Scalise. Welcome back, Congressman. See you for a story in Louisiana soon I’m sure.

Our conversation for now will continue online on the Washington Week Extra , where we’ll talk about the debate over NFL players taking a knee in protest. Many of our viewers shared their thoughts, and we’ll bring you into the discussion about the protests and talk about patriotism. You can find that after 10 p.m. Friday night and all weekend long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.

I’m Robert Costa. Have a great weekend.

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