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Tillerson: U.S. Wants to Stay in Iran Nuclear Deal; Sources: Tillerson Called Trump A "Moron"; Death Toll Rises to 40, More Than 200 Missing; Owners to Discuss Anthem Displays at Meetings This Week; Gov. Hopes to Restore 95 Percent of Power By December; Some Residents Drinking Water From Hazardous-Waste Site. Aired 3-4p ET

Aired October 15, 2017 - 15:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[15:00:18] FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Hello again everyone. Thank you so much for joining me this Sunday. I'm Fredricka Whitfield.

All right, we begin this hour in Washington, D.C., and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson discussing a broad array of topics on CNN's State of the Union with Jake Tapper refusing to confirm or deny calling the president a moron. He also reaffirmed diplomacy continues to be the president's goal with North Korea.

Tillerson also addressed the decertification of the Iran nuclear deal and said the U.S. wants to stay in the agreement.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: What the president wants is a more comprehensive strategy to deal with Iran in its totality. I think for too long and certainly the last administration really defined the Iran and relationship around this nuclear agreement.

This nuclear agreement is flawed and has a number of weaknesses in it. So the president said throughout his campaign, even he said, I'll either reform the agreement or renegotiate the agreement. Basically saying, I will either fix these flaws or we'll have to have a different agreement entirely.

And I think his decision around the new policy is consistent with that. So now we want to deal with the nuclear agreement weaknesses but we really need to deal with a much broader array of threats that Iran poses to the region, our friends and allies and therefore threats that they posed to our national security.

The policy itself really has three components. And I think it's important that people understand this. The president described these in his speech.

There is the nuclear agreement which we are going to undertake an effort to see if we cannot address the many flaws in the agreement working with partners. It may be a secondary agreement. Maybe it's not within the existing agreement but we may undertake a secondary agreement.

But then there is a much broader array of threats from Iran, its ballistic missile programs. Its support of terrorist organizations in the region. Lebanese Hezbollah, the (INAUDIBLE), these are all very threatening organizations. And destabilizing activities in Yemen to support the rebels, the Houthis, to support the rebels in Syria, the Assad regime.

Everywhere you look in the region, Iran's activity destabilized the region and threatens those. But the third element of this policy and the president touched on it in his address is, this is not about the Iranian people. This is about the regime in Iran. This revolutionary regime that ever since it came to power has been intent on killing and harming Americans and harming others in the region.

We do not hold the Iranian people accountable for that. So our offer is to support the moderate voices in Iran, support their cries for democracy and freedom, and the hope that one day the Iranian people will retake control of the government of Iran and restore it to its rich history of the past. Reintegrate and become a fruitful member and trade commerce in the region.

So that is really the end game here. But that's A very long game and we realize that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WHITFIELD: CNN's Pentagon Reporter Ryan Browne joins me now. So Ryan, Tillerson says they want to try to fix the flaws in the deal. Is that consistent with what Trump has been saying?

RYAN BROWNE, CNN PENTAGON REPORTER: Well, that is right Fred. I mean, President Trump in his big speech on the Iran deal, did not withdraw the United States from the deal. He did decertify so it moves to Congress. But again, the administration both Secretary Mattis, Secretary Tillerson and President Trump are saying the U.S. will stay in the deal for now.

Now again, they're looking to work with other members of that deal. The European allies to try and strengthen some elements of it, correct what they say are flaws, including this idea of a sunset provision. Whether or not Iran will be allowed to enrich uranium at some point down the road.

Also some other elements, inspections, things like that. But it remains to be seen whether or not they'll have much luck. Secretary Tillerson referencing perhaps an additional separate deal. But lot of the European allies coming out very strongly, very publicly in recent days supporting the Iran deal as it stands now.

Now again, Secretary Tillerson and President Trump touched on another issue which is some of this other Iranian activities that U.S. considers provocations. Support for militant groups like Hezbollah, the Houthis in Yemen, activities backing Assad in Syria, and its missiles programs. And you saw President Trump's administration taking action on Friday designating the Iran a revolutionary guard corps so the Treasury Department designating them for potential sanctions.

All of this, you know, kind of this two-pronged approach. Remains to be seen whether the allies or Iran itself will be willing to enter any kind of adjustments to the nuclear deal. And Secretary Tillerson also speaking about North Korea, talking about how diplomacy was still very much in the lead until, quote, the last bomb drops. This comes as President Trump casts some doubt on whether or not diplomacy was his preferred choice through a series of tweets right there at the secretary of state. And President Trump's National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster similarly said diplomacy would be in the lead with regards to North Korea in another interview today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEN. H.R. MCMASTER, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: The president doesn't have to clear anything with me. But what the president's tweet is very consistent with his policy.

[15:05:05] I think what's important to understand with both the Iran policy and with the North Korea policy, the president gave us very clear guidance at the outset. We delivered as national security team multiple options to the president. Had broad ranging discussions. The president has made decisions on very coherent, well laid out strategies and that's what we're executing now.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BROWNE: So there, you have H.R. McMaster laying out that the president has reviewed a wide range of strategies with Iran and North Korea and it remains to be seen which one he decides to go with moving forward. Fred?

WHITFIELD: All right, Ryan Browne in Washington, thanks so much.

All right. So in that remarkable interview with CNN this morning, U.S. Secretary Tillerson denied that the president's tweets telling him he was, quote, wasting his time negotiating with North Korea undercut him. Tillerson says the president is not seeking war and made the stunning statement that diplomacy with North Korea will continue until the first bomb drops.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Secretary Tillerson, you were in China -- we just talked about the North Korean problem. You were in trying to resolve the dispute with North Korea in the diplomatic way, and President Trump tweeted, "I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful secretary of state that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with little rocket man."

And then he sent a second tweet saying, "Save your energy Rex. We'll do what has to be done." Now, if I were a Chinese official or North Korean official seeing these tweets while you were there trying to negotiate or and try to solve this problem, I might think Secretary Tillerson doesn't really speak for President Trump. TILLERSON: Well, fortunately Jake, President Trump and President Xi have probably one of the closest relationships that a president has with a head of state. If you remember they had major face to face meetings, the summit in Mar-a-Lago, a very comprehensive bilateral in Hamburg. The president speaks to President Xi on the telephone frequently. I think they have eight -- seven or eight calls.

I have a very close relationship with the state councillor of China who reports directly to President Xi on their foreign policy. So rest assured that the Chinese are not confused in any what the American policy towards North Korea or what our actions and efforts are directed at. So --

TAPPER: Do tweets like that undermine you?

TILLERSON: Well, I think the pres -- what the is president is doing is he's trying to motivate action on a number of people's part, in particular the regime in North Korea. I think he does want to be clear with Kim Jong-un, the regime in North Korea that he has military preparations ready to go, and he has those military options on the table, and we have spent substantial time actually perfecting those. But be clear that the president has also made clear to me that he wants this solved diplomatically. He's not seeking to go to war.

TAPPER: So he doesn't think it's a waste of time?

TILLERSON: No, sir. He has made it clear to me to continue my diplomatic efforts which we are and we will, as I have told others, the diplomatic efforts will continue until the first bomb drops.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WHITFIELD: All right, joining me now to discuss this is CNN Global Affairs Analyst David Rohde. Good to see you, David.

So, Secretary Tillerson said the Trump administration is unconventional. But how unusual is it to hear him say diplomacy will continue until the first bomb drops, you know, from a secretary of state.

DAVID ROHDE, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: It's very unusual. But clearly the relationship appears President Trump as bad cop. That he is out there threatening North Korea, threatening Iran. And you have Secretary of State Tillerson and the National Security Adviser General McMaster, you know, trying to sort of play down those comments today.

But, what so unusual, a, the rhetoric, but again, b, it's the president who is the bad cop doing so much (INAUDIBLE).

WHITFIELD: And then how potentially threatening might this be. You know, is there a danger that a statement like that can be misinterpreted by North Korea, the North Koreans already characterized previous statements by this president as a declaration of war.

ROHDE: Yes. It's an enormous gamble that Trump is engaging here diplomatically. He's threatened North Korea as you mentioned, very strong rhetoric condemning the Iranian regime. So the question is what happens over time.

You know, let's be fair, maybe this will work. Maybe the North Koreans are blinking. There's been some anniversaries that had passed North Korea and there weren't launches of missiles as has sometimes occurred in the past. Maybe the Iranians will engage in negotiations regarding ballistic missiles. Something not covered by the current agreement.

But what happens if they don't blink? And the problem is Trump keeps threatening force, and if he doesn't actually use force, you know, the word of an American president will mean less and what happens over time. So again, it's an enormous gamble. This could work. It also could not work.

WHITFIELD: And the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley saying this morning that by not certifying the Iran deal the U.S. was also sending a message to North Korea. This is her comment.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

[15:10:01] NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO UNITED NATIONS: When you look at the fact that 25 years of botched agreements and negotiations and accountability not kept by North Korea, that's the whole situation that got us to where we're having a watch day by day to see if they do an ICBM test going forward. What we're seeing now with Iran is don't let it become the next North Korea. So what this says to North Korea is don't expect us to engage in a bad deal.

And also, if at any point we do come up with something, expect us to follow through with it. Expect us to hold you accountable. You're not just going to have a free-for-all.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WHITFIELD: David, is that the case?

ROHDE: Look, I give the administration for talking tough, maybe tougher than President Obama, but the signal to North Korea is do not enter an agreement with the United States because we will pull out of it. We're pulling out of the Iran agreement and so I disagree with the ambassador, respectfully.

If I was in North Korea, I would be building as many missiles and bombs a as I could, and I would not trust the United States to stick with the nuclear agreement based on what Trump has just done regarding Iran.

WHITFIELD: And if the U.S. tries to impose the any changes on the current Iran deal, why should the U.S. think that, you know, unilaterally other nations will agree to it?

ROHDE: It can't. And, you know, there were six parties in this, five other nations, they've agreed to it, all five have said they stand by the agreement. Iran has stand by the agreement so this is the great risk of the Trump rhetoric. That the U.S. can talk tough, do things on its own and the rest of the world will change. You know, it might not and again, we'll see in the months ahead what happens.

WHITFIELD: All right, David Rohde, thanks so much. Good to see you.

ROHDE: Thank you.

WHITFIELD: All right, U.S. Secretary Rex Tillerson was also asked about the reports that he called the president a moron. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: The relationship that a secretary of state has with the president is one of the most important relationships in the world. World leaders know you speak for him and that he has faith in you and that you have faith in him.

NBC News reported that you were frustrated with the president over the summer and you called him a moron during the meeting at the Pentagon. Now you dismissed the question as petty. But, this is literally one of the most important relationships in the world, the one between you and President Trump. Is it true that you call him a moron?

TILLERSON: Jake, as I indicated earlier when I asked about that, I'm not going to deal with that kind of petty stuff. I mean, this is a town that seems to relish, gossip, rumor, innuendo and they feed on it, they feed on one another. A very destructive like I don't work (INAUDIBLE) or deal that way and (INAUDIBLE) dignify the question.

I call the president Mr. President. He and I have a very, very open, frank and candid relationship. I see him often, speak to him nearly everyday. I'm in the Oval Office a number of hours every week. We have a very open exchange of views on policy.

At the end of the day, he makes decisions, I go out and do the best I can to execute those decisions successfully. And he understands at all times what we are trying to achieve is to fully implement his foreign policy. He has assembled a very, I think unconventional team. He himself is an unconventional president. He's assembled an unconventional cabinet.

I'm an unconventional pick for secretary of state. But that's because he does not accept the status quo with the many threats that we're confronting in the world today. And he is going to take forcing action and often times the tweets or decisions he takes are intended to cause this forcing action to get off of the status quo, to force people to take action and move to a different place.

So whether it's the decision on the Iranian agreement that was announced to force action to address this defective agreement, whether his decisions on forcing North Korea to move to a different place of engagement. All of those are steps the president is taking to force action. He is not going to accept status quo. The American people elected him to change the status quo and that's what he's doing.

TAPPER: Ever since you called it petty, I've been thinking a lot about it because I'm a reflective guy and I understand the media makes mistakes and the media could always improve. But here's the thing. Either you didn't say it and in which case there are whole bunch of administration officials telling the press and telling the president that you did, and that's a serious problem. Or you did say it and look, you're a serious guy.

For to you say something like that suggests a real frustration with the commander-in-chief. So, when you don't answer the question it makes people think that you probably did say it. But either way, whatever happened, it is serious. So, can you please clear it up?

TILLERSON: As I said, Jake, I'm not playing. These are the games of Washington. These are the destructive games of this town. They're not helpful to anyone.

And so my position on it is, I'm not playing. I'm not playing. If you want to make a game out of it, I'm not playing.

TAPPER: I'm not making a game out of it. I mean, I'm just trying to see clarity because saying that -- if I said that my boss was a moron, that would be a serious issue. It wouldn't be -- and my boss doesn't control nukes.

I'm willing to move on, but I just want to be clear. You still haven't denied that you called him a moron. And you know, a lot of people are going to watch this and think, he probably said it.

[15:15:10] TILLERSON: I'm not dignifying that question with an answer, Jake. And I'm a little surprised you want to spend to much time on it when there so many important issues around the world to deal with.

TAPPER: I want to ask about Senator Bob Corker who said something about you, and he was referring -- he is a friend of yours, he has tremendous respect for you, he speaks highly of you all the time. He says that you're one of the best things about the cabinet and he's dismayed he thinks President Trump is constantly undermining you.

This is a Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He said, the president has, quote, castrated you before the world stage. That's his word not mine. What's your response to that?

TILLERSON: Well, as I indicated earlier, Jake, I think this is an unconventional president. He uses unconventional communication tools, he uses unconventional techniques to motivate change.

And for people that have been around Washington a long time, this is a place that you know better than I, you've been here longer than I have, this is not a place that likes to change. It actually enjoys the status quo. The last thing anyone like to do in this town is make a decision. If you make a decision, you're suddenly accountable for that decision.

TAPPER: True.

TILLERSON: And so the president is out trying to motivate people to change. Whether it's on healthcare, whether his executive action he recently took to motivate that change, whether it's on executive orders around immigration to motivate that change. Or whether it's on the action he took under the Iran deal on Friday, is to motivate a change.

People in this town get very nervous and get very uptight about having to address serious issues by making decisions. So the president is simply trying to do that in his very unique style, and he is very unique. I don't think there is any doubt that anyone sees him as anything other than the most unique president we've certainly ever seen in modern history that we have recorded history a lot.

TAPPER: Hard to dispute that.

TILLERSON: But, again I would say, I am fully committed to his objectives. I agree with his objectives, I agree with what he's trying to do. How he wants to use his own skills tactically to push things towards change, I'm there to help him achieve those.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WHITFIELD: Also straight ahead, we're following breaking news out of California. Forty dead and dozens still missing after two of the biggest wildfires ever have raged through the northern part of the state. Well take you there live, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[15:21:45] WHITFIELD: Welcome back. The death toll from the raging wildfires in California has now risen to 40. This is as a new fire in the Santa Rosa has area forced thousands more to evacuate. CNN's Dan Simon is live from Kenwood, California there at a vineyard. It looks beautiful behind you, of course, that's untouched, but it's very ominous and still threatening.

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Certainly is, Fred. You can see a spot fire behind me, you can see the smoke off in the distance. This is sort of a quintessential Napa Valley Sonoma Valley look. You see the vineyards here, you see this castle like structure in the background.

There are a number of firefighters in the area trying to prevent a structure like this and other homes and businesses from going up in flames. Another thing we've seen around the area are people going through the charred debris of their homes, trying to find anything they can salvage.

We ran into a guy named Bob Stewart who is the former chief of a local police department in the area. He was actually looking for guns because if they made it, he didn't want them to get into the wrong hands. Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SIMON: Tell me why you wanted to look for the guns?

BOB STEWART, FORMER POLICE CHIEF: Well, I was afraid that if the guns were halfway descent shape, that they're fireable that somebody would come through here and dig around and the guns would be back into somebody's hands that shouldn't be.

So there, I had five guns, and this was an automatic revolver. You can see there isn't much there, it's just melted metal.

SIMON: You're going to rebuild in the same spot, you think?

STEWART: I think so. I mean, it's going to be hard. That was one of the things running through my mind was, do I really want to come back to this neighborhood and experience the devastation day after day. It's going to take years to build this back up again.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SIMON: And as you saw, those guns of course are no use to anyone. But Fred as we've seen you never know what may survive in the debris. We have seen a number of people just trying to see whatever they can.

As for the fire itself, Fred, the winds are calm today. We are no longer under a red flag warning so that is good news. Hopefully firefighters will begin making more progress. The top fire which is been the most destructive fire and the deadliest fire in the area, containment now up to 60 percent so that's good news. Fred?

WHITFIELD: We're all hoping for improvements. All right, thank you so much, Dan Simon, appreciate it.

All right, still ahead, this week could shape up to be historic for the NFL. Team owners and the players union, a meeting to consider a rule where players must stand for the national anthem. They are looking at options. That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[15:28:51] WHITFIELD: All right, this week, NFL owners and players, the players union will meet in part to discuss whether the league should create a rule about players standing for the national anthem. Well today, you will see in this video, a line of New Orleans Saints taking a knee before the anthem. They were facing off against Detroit Lions there in New Orleans.

In a letter to NFL teams this week from the Commissioner Roger Goodell. Goodell wrote, "Everyone involved in the game needs to come together on a path forward to continue to be a force for good within our communities, protect the game and preserve our relationship with the fans throughout the country. The NFL is at its best when we ourselves are unified."

All right, let's get the latest now with CNN's Coy Wire. So, Coy several games are already under way. What can you tell us about, you know, the change of behavior or if something is afoot?

COY WIRE, CNN SPORTS ANCHOR: Yes. I think I'm going to be watching what's going to happen this week right, Fred. And I think we have to first point out that within the past few weeks there's been an increase in this divisive rhetoric regarding the players are using the time during the national anthem protesting racial and social injustice in our country. I talked to players and league executives who feel that that message and their purpose of their protests are being inaccurately pegged as protests of our flag, our military, of America. So now there's concerted effort by the players in the league to get the focus of the protest back on track.

[15:30:13] Part of the problem though has been this perception of an inconsistent approach to the protest today. We say, as you mentioned the Saints kneeling before the anthem and standing as we saw the Dallas Cowboys do. Other teams like the Packers, the Vikings, the Falcons, the Lions stood for the national anthem but locked arms in a show of solidarity as many of them have been doing.

Now, the Jets and the Patriots did something that we haven't really seen that often, standing on the same sideline to show solidarity. Now the 49ers, the organization for which Colin Kaepernick played when this first started protesting racial and social injustice had a several players kneeling during the anthem as has been the case for that team.

Now team owners and the commissioner are going to discuss this anthem issue during the fall meeting in New York next week or this coming week I should say. In an extraordinary move though, they're also inviting plays and the union leaders to take part. This is profound, part of those meetings will be to figure out how they can approach the anthem issue as a more unified front.

I talked to a high level NFL executive who said the league feels it is vital that the owners give the players the best possible opportunity to create positive change in their communities effectively and not have their message or intentions diluted or misconstrued. Now, during a conference call last week, the league said that there is currently no agenda or protocol to try implement some sort of anthem plan or rule where players must stand.

So I'm anxious to see what happened. But you first brought up, what are players or teams doing differently. We did noticed the Ravens who had been kneeling during the anthem, they actually stood today. So that is a change. We'll see if there's -- I think the point as this meeting coming up, is to get on the same track. There's a unified approach.

WHITFIELD: That's pretty significant that this fall meeting that doesn't ordinarily incorporate players and players union is this time.

WIRE: I was a player rep, and it was always us versus them. And there's always a contentious relationship between the union and the league. But now for them to come together to see how important this is, for us to be able to make a change together in communities as players have been trying to do, you know, they have been out in the communities and donating money. A million dollars by Colin Kaepernick, $90,000 has been met. We cannot forget how they can do more to effectuate positive change.

WHITFIELD: Some might see that as promising.

WIRE: Exactly. WHITFIELD: All right, Coy Wire, thanks so much. We'll talk more about this now with my panel.

Joining me right now, CNN Contributor Cornell William Brooks who is also the former president and CEO of NWCP, CNN Contributor and former NFL wide receiver Dante Stallworth, and CNN Political Commentators Ben Ferguson and Shermichael Singleton. Good to see you all gentlemen. Thanks so much.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Good to see you.

WHITFIELD: All right, so Dante you first. Do you see this as potentially promising that would you have players, player's union reps and NFL coming together this week to talk about what to do next, how to answer critics at the same time how to answer players and their concerns?

DANTE STALLWORTH, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Yes, I think it's important. You can call it the Donald Trump effect where the NFL and the NFL players are actually in agreement on something and they're actually working together doesn't happen unless Donald Trump makes these comments. You look at -- not to jump subjects but you look at what's going on with the Iran deals. The same thing our allies are aligned with Iran on keeping the deal in place. That's also the Donald Trump effect.

So, it's an unfortunate situation but it helps the players be able to move forward with promoting their personal causes that they feel are important to them. And I think they want to let the NFL know that they need to be able to express those views however they can and the NFL is actually thinking of finding ways to work with them, to allow them do this during the season and also on the all season. Kind of what they did last season with my call is my cleats -- or I'm sorry, my cleats my cause.

The NFL allowed players to kind of print out things on their cleats to promote their causes. And the NFL as most people know, has a very strict dress code. They fine guys all time if your socks aren't up. So, for them to allow them to do that last year and then progressing to this year, the players have been speaking with the league officials and with the owners.

There's been progress that's been made behind the scenes a lot of people don't know that. There's been these chatters of (INAUDIBLE) the players or disrespecting the flag and the military and all of that false chatter that's been happening. But the main part of it that everybody (INAUDIBLE) is on the inside is understand that there's been a lot of work behind the scenes. And the culmination of that is again, where you have the NFL and NFLPA working together bringing players into the owner meetings which never happens.

So Shermichael, you know, when President Trump challenged owners, you know, to fire players who kneel, we actually saw more networks airing the national anthem, watching the behavior of the players, the coaches, et cetera. Lately however, today, we're seeing that some of the networks have made a decision about not showing that moment of the anthem. So does this speak to the power of the presidency or is it more about sending a message, the network sending a message to advertisers? What's happening here?

SHERMICHAEL SINGLETON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well look, I think it's a combination of the two. And my position has always been, I don't think the president had to necessarily get involved in this. If you recall the president made this comment in Alabama, during that week healthcare was failing. The president endorsed a candidate that everyone knew wouldn't win. It was a distraction brilliantly done by in large is not going to win.

So as far as I'm concerned, it was a destruction brilliantly done by the president to change the dynamics to that we weren't focussing on the more crucial issues such as healthcare, or such as a candidate that the president endorsed who everyone knew is not going to win that election. Now, as it relates to networks, et cetera, I've always stated that the consumer will dictate where this ultimately goes. If individuals starts to stop the watching the NFL, you will see viewership go down. If they starts stop going to games, you will see a decrease in the amount of people filling stadiums, et cetera.

But, I will say I'm not -- I'm hesitant to be optimistic about this fall meeting because if you think about it, the NFL -- 70 percent of their players are African-American. Seventy percent of these guys, a significant portion come from areas and communities where these issues are real. A lot of their relatives face these issues everyday. Some of these guys have their own personal stories themselves.

So the NFL --

WHITFIELD: So then why you consider promising that for the first time potentially, they are at the table and are able to convey their concerns, messages, and hoping that owners might better appreciate what it is they he have to say by now being at the table?

SINGLETON: Well, I don't understand why they would have to be at the table for the owners to understand or appreciate the legitimacy of the concerns that these players are raising up. I don't personally agree with this form of protest. I think you should stand for the flag. But that does not takeaway from the legitimacy of their critique or their concern as it relates to races in our country.

If you really want to know how important a company sees a situation, follow the dollars. If the NFL owners are really serious about these issues, they will invest more money in those cities where a majority of their players come from. And the jury is still out on if they will.

WHITFIELD: OK. So everyone, you know, will remember, you know, that moment, Sunday, September 24th, you know, we showed you extraordinary pictures of solidarity. Players, coaches, owners, kneeling, locked in arms, et cetera. And then the following day, Monday night football, Cowboys' owner Jerry Jones on the field, you know, locking arms.

This isn't quite the image that I was talking about. We saw on the field solidarity. And then we saw right there the next night, Monday night football Jerry Jones locked in arms. And then now we have a Jerry Jones statement saying this, "We have a chance of damaging not just the game but in this particular case the Cowboys franchise. Let's come up with ways that we really can give a message about police brutality or we can give a message about disparity. We can give those messages but we won't be able to give it if we are not as substantive as we are, and this flag issue is taking away from how substantive we are."

So is Shermichael, what's your interpretation of that statement coming from Jerry Jones?

SINGLETON: I mean, look, I think Jerry Jones wants his cake and he wants to eat it too. Just imagine if every single NFL player, at least all the African-American ones decided not to play, they all said, you know, what if you guys don't take into consideration the issues that we're raising, we're just going to stay home. You would not have a game. There will be no games.

So again, if the NFL is serious they really need to listen to the concerns of their players because these are legitimate concerns. And so I understand the position that you want to respect the flag because there are significant number of viewers and supporters of NFL who do not like this form of protest. So I get the (INAUDIBLE) of things but you also have to consider your employees. And if those guys stay home, there would be no game, and if there's no game no one's making any money.

WHITFIELD: So then Cornell, is that statement kind of a happy medium? And then I wonder by design, you know, protest is to affect change. I mean, it may disrupt to get change but if there is no change and it just means changing the rules about how you protest. I mean, is this defeat or is there a happy medium in what Jerry Jones had to say? And then yes, Ben, I heard you.

CORNELL WILLIAM BROOKS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I'm not sure if there's a happy medium in what Mr. Jones had to say. I think in the NFL commissioner statement, there are possibilities of some kind of a compromise. I think it's important for the NFL not try to micro manage free expression and protest even as it tries to retain the fan base. Keep the viewers, fill the seats in the stadiums and coliseums.

[15:40:10] But be very clear about this, the fans come from communities where there's police misconduct. They come from cities where you have the community on one side and the police on the other. With systemic racism is the order of the day.

And so the NFL has the opportunity to promote discussion, debate, conversation even as it recognizes protests. But the thing to be avoided here is, for the sake of unity suppressing protests and having a zero tolerance policy, if you will, with respect to free expression. This is very, very important, and I believe the NFL has the opportunity here to really advance the conversation. Because these athletes are really modeling what should be done by the president and the attorney general. They are engaging the country in a conversation, they're doing so in a respectful way. They have not in any way disrespected the flag. In fact --

WHITFIELD: So do you believe that the NFL bears a responsibility to help convey that message of, this is the intent behind kneeling, this is what the players meant. Not as a sign of disrespect to the flag but instead to call attention to social and racial injustices. Should the NFL help make that declarative message?

BROOKS: Absolutely. Why? Because when players stand for the national anthem and they recognize the flag, they're recognizing the flag as we say in the pledge and the republic for which it stands. So you stand for the values of the flag or you kneel for the values of the flag, you must convey the values of the flag and values of our constitution, and the values in the (INAUDIBLE) of the country. So the NFL can play an important role here. It's important that it do that, not merely because the athletes are protesting but because sports bring the country together.

I mean, the NFL commissioner recognizes that. Certainly the players do. And this is a particularly good moment to do that.

WHITFIELD: OK, Ben?

BEN FERGUSON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: You got a huge -- the NFL has a huge problem. They have a huge messaging problem. They have an identity crisis now as a league.

This is a league that used to be filled with rules where if you had cleats that we're honoring those that died on 9/11, two players that have those cleats got fined $6,000 a piece for wearing those cleats during the warm up of a game. This is a league as you heard a moment ago that it fines guys for not wearing their socks pull the way up. They've always been a league that has had a league of order.

The second issue here is the messaging. There are a lot of different messages. Let's be honest. The biggest day of protest in the NFL was the day after Donald Trump talked about this. And majority of those players did not come out in the last year and stand by Colin Kaepernick or stand with Black Lives Matter or stand against police brutality. They came out against Donald Trump so it became a political statement --

WHITFIELD: But I got a question now, was it done because Donald Trump was misconstruing the message, the intent behind the protest for kneeling that we saw in Colin Kaepernick, and as a collective body, NFL players decided, wait a minute, in solidarity for the intent behind that, that's why we're doing this.

FERGUSON: If you are a player and you aren't willing to stand up for police brutality of the last year when you have an opportunity on every weekend there was a football game, on every Sunday or Monday night when there's a game and you never were a part of that, and then all of a sudden you go out there, the optics is overwhelmingly say, that you're now mad at the president and Donald Trump when you're protesting --

WHITFIELD: Well, here's another follow-up question. Another follow- up question. Is it that others did not do that because they saw the consequence as, he's not playing. He's not on a team.

FERGUSON: Well, I don't think so because there are plenty of players that were still involved in this. Colin Kaepernick not playing I think is a completely separate issue. But here's a point back to the NFL. The NFL totally overplayed their hand here and did not realize how many Americans, one, want to watch sports on Sundays and don't want to be lectured on politics.

STALLWORTH: Brand and circumstance.

WHITFIELD: Go ahead Dante.

(OFF-MIC)

FERGUSON: The second point is, the NFL is -- they alienated a large amount of their fan base and the polls overwhelmingly show that the people in America are in favor of protests. They're not in favor of protesting against the American flag, the national anthem Star- Spangled Banner or anything that deals with the --

WHITFIELD: OK, because that goes back to the whole messaging issue. That's what we're talking about.

FERGUSON: Yes, they got a problem.

WHITFIELD: The intent behind the protest is about social injustices. At that moment to get attention to the cause is the kneeling during the anthem but not be misconstrued with, the kneeling is a protest against the flag.

FERGUSON: True, but people take it as a protest and it's disrespectful.

WHITFIELD: OK, so that brings us to this week and whether it is the responsibility of the NFL to help convey the message of what is the intent here? So Dante, what were you have to say?

[15:45:00] STALLWORTH: Well, Ben said that the players made it political after the president decided to weigh in on what he called players SOBs down in Huntsville, Alabama. The president made it political dude by making that statement at a rally.

FERGUSON: No doubt, I agree with you.

STALLWORTH: So the president made it political not the players. The players are fighting for their first amendment rights, Ben. You can't squash or quail the quest descent.

FERGUSON: Dante, no one said that the players -- let's be clear, the players have the right, the same way as you as an employee of CNN or any other place you work have a right to make a decision on a protest or a political thing. It doesn't mean that there's not consequences for your actions --

STALLWORTH: Of course but you say -- you claim that the players made it political when the president --

FERGUSON: They did.

STALLWORTH: -- just because they came out more. More players came out in unity. Ben, you said that the players made it political. The president made that statement against the players at a rally. That is a political statement.

WHITFIELD: OK, and hold it right there. Cornell?

BROOKS: Yes. So Mr. Ferguson, we need to be clear about this. Blaming the players in terms of their response to the president's tweet and they sort of saying that they somehow lack the courage to respond to the challenge of policing ignores what many players have done and it ignores the price that Colin Kaepernick paid.

This is like blaming the protesters in Salma prior to the last march for not stepping forward as opposed to the many who crossed the bridge. We got to be very clear about this. This is a moral moment, these players are paying a price, they know what they're doing and they are stepping out on a limb.

And so let's be clear about this. The only -- he person who's engaged in politics here as opposed to focus on social injustice is President Donald J. Trump. These players are demonstrating courage and the president is demonstrating tactlessness, cowardness and divisiveness pretty consistently.

WHITFIELD: OK Ben?

FERGUSON: Let's be clear, the players did not show courage by coming out and standing up against police brutality and the majority, the biggest it is a fact, OK. That the biggest protest day you had in the NFL was after Donald Trump spoke. And many of those players did not have the courage or it just didn't matter as much to them, it wasn't an issue to them with police brutality so they did not come out. So you can't rewrite history.

(OFF-MIC)

WHITFIELD: So quickly last word. You once worked under the Trump administration, Shermichael. How do you see this.

SINGLETON: I mean, look, I think the president has very right as previous president have to get involved in these types of issue or at least make a comment. I don't particularly agree with it and I don't think it's very helpful. It as Cornell mentioned, you look at the Justice Department that has ruled back many things that I think were a steps in the right direction, steps forward, progress as it relates to better community and police relations.

There are some Republican senators and congressmen that have stepped in the right direction. The Koch Foundation has invested money to improve these issues. As far as I'm concerned I do not expect Donald Trump to try to heal the correct race relations in this country nor do I expect Jeff Sessions to because by and large they have shown an inability to do so. I think it's been coming upon the rest of us, and Republicans and both the houses of Congress to do the job that the job the president is incapable of doing.

WHITFIELD: OK, we're going to leave it right there. Gentlemen, thank so much. Cornell Brooks, Dante Stallworth, Ben Ferguson, Shermichael Singleton, thank you gentlemen. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[15:52:38] WHITFIELD: Puerto Rico's governor says he wants 95 percent of the power grid to be restored by mid-December. As of today, 85 percent of the island still has no electricity.

Meanwhile, a leading House Democrat is asking the Department of Homeland Security to investigate Puerto Rico's water situation. This follows CNN's reporting that workers were distributing water taken from a federally designated hazardous waste site.

CNN's Ed Lavandera is in San Juan with the very latest. Ed?

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi Fredricka. Well, according to the latest numbers from officials here in Puerto Rico, almost 70 percent of the island has had its water restored but there are still some serious questions concerning how the rest of the people here on the island are obtaining their water.

One area in particular just west of San Juan around a community called Dorado, and in this town there is a site that was described as a superfund site. And for people not familiar exactly what that is, a superfund site is designated by the Environmental Protection Agency, these are -- this is ground area that sees dangerously high toxic levels for a variety of reasons.

We bring this up because over the course of the last few weeks we have seen there been reports and the EPA has been alerted that there are number of wells that have been used for drinking water as well as cleaning and for sewage as well. In fact, one of those areas had long lines of cars through over the course of the last few weeks people filling up.

Over the weekend, EPA teams have been going out to assess and take samples of these water locations and of these wells to try to determine just how high if at all the toxicity levels in that well water is. So essentially many people here around that community have been depending on water for the last couple of weeks from these potentially toxic sites. Exactly how much of these levels, dangerous levels of these toxic chemicals might or may or may not be in the water isn't clear.

That water has been sent off, the testing will take perhaps most of this week and they get back. But in the meantime, many people are still flocking to those. We met up with the EPA as they were testing one of those sites and this is what the incident commander here in Puerto Rico told us yesterday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GARY LIPTON, EPA INCIDENT COMMANDER, PUERTO RICO OPERATIONS: We are concerned because it's not absolutely clean, you know, pure water. There are some contaminants. This is a science. There are lots of unknowns in that.

[15:55:08] Again, it's not considered by the EPA an acute risk, meaning we're not saying that somebody is in immediate danger by drinking this water. And so we are considering a long term risk.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LAVANDERA: And Fredricka, EPA officials are saying that, really what they're concerned about is long term exposure, long term drinking this water that could cause significant health problems down the road. So all of this being assessed as we speak here this afternoon. Fredricka?

WHITFIELD: Pretty alarming. Ed Lavandera, thank you so much in San Juan.

We got so much more straight ahead in the NEWSROOM. And it all starts right now.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WHITFIELD: All right, hello again, I'm Fredricka Whitfield. Thanks for being with me this Sunday.