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Trump's First Foreign Trip; Deputy AG Briefs House Members; Trump Reverses on Comey Firing; Pentagon Outlines Progress With ISIS Fight; Full Force Against ISIS. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired May 19, 2017 - 13:00   ET


GEN. JAMES MATTIS, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE (live): So, today is a good time to update you, describing basically where we're at, what has changed and the way ahead.

President Trump directed the Department of Defense to lead all departments in a comprehensive review of the campaign. We submitted that report. And after his review, he then ordered an accelerated operation against ISIS.

So, what does that mean? Two significant changes resulted from President Trump's review of our findings. First, he delegated authority to the right level to aggressively and in a timely manner move against enemy vulnerabilities.

Secondly, he directed a tactical shift from shoving ISIS out of seas location in an attrition fight to surrounding the enemy in their strongholds so we can annihilate ISIS. The intent is to prevent the return home of escaped foreign fighters.

I want to emphasize here there has been no change to our rules of engagement. And there has been no change to our continues extraordinary efforts to avoid innocent civilian casualties. Despite needing to go into populated areas to break ISIS hold on their self- described caliphate, despite ISIS purposely endangering innocent lives by refusing to allow civilians to evacuate, and we continue all possible efforts to protect the innocent.

You're all aware of the human costs ISIS has exacted, killed, wounded, refugees, merciless control over those regions they hold, the cost to Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon and Syrians and Iraqis have been displaced.

In response to ISIS malicious and unforgivable treatment toward innocence, the world has responded. I emphasize that this is a coalition effort.

Since this began in 2014, the coalition has strengthened and expanded. The international team is fully committed, at the political and military levels, to the destruction of ISIS. A coalition of 68 members, 65 nations with more joining as we speak, plus Interpol, the European Union and Arab League united in opposition.

Sharing intelligence, providing troops and funds for combat and of no less importance for the post-combat recovery. In late March, our secretary of state gathered diplomatic colleagues in Washington where they discussed how we would deal with the post combat aftermath.

Secretary Tillerson, Mr. McGurk and the colleagues in the coalition rightly focused most of their effort on how this ravished region can recover from ISIS depredations after we free it.

Twenty-six of our coalition nations contribute militarily, including more than 4,000 non-U.S. troops on the ground and in the air. Our recent coalition meetings in Brussels, Copenhagen and elsewhere reflect an energized campaign among contributing nations.

Partnering with, of course, the Iraqi security forces in Iraq and the counter-ISIS forces in Syria.

So, what have we achieved? We have fought ISIS elements from southeast Asia to Africa. Collaboration among many nations. Intelligence services continues to complicate and blunt ISIS operations. Even as ISIS continues to pursue and conduct attacks against the United States and our allies through centralized directed plots but also through inspired attacks.

From the Philippines to Europe and beyond, while ISIS remains dangerous, they are no longer carrying an air of strength. In Afghanistan, two weeks ago, President Ghani announced we had killed the leader of ISIS plus korison (ph) plus approximately two-thirds of their strength have been killed during very tough operations mostly in Nangarhar Province.

France has brilliantly led a two-year ongoing campaign in the Lake Chad Basin and west Africa to throw ISIS off balance with 4,000 of their troops on the ground to support our African allies.

In Libya, we struck a significant ISIS presence there in January of this year. Our attack against their concentrated strength was highly effective and ISIS did not own any major territory any longer there.

Elsewhere, too, there have been successes. But in Iraq and Syria lies the core area of ISIS of a geographic caliphate. Recent attacks in Istanbul, Paris and Brussels were planned and coordinated out of ISIS so-called capital of Raqqa.

Additional imminent threats to many nations require us to move with urgency against all strongholds still in their hands. East Mosul, as you know, has fallen after tough fighting by the Iraqi security forces with U.S. and coalition support.

[13:05:05] Since January, it is returning to a bit normal with businesses reopening, cleanup underway and kids back in school. West Mosul, in accordance with tactics changed by President Trump, is surrounded and are our Iraqi partners are in a stiff fight.

There is no escape for ISIS. Even while we do all that is humanly possible to shepherd the innocent out of harm's way.

Tal Afar, which lies to the west of Mosul, is also surrounded. And other pockets of ISIS exist elsewhere in Inowa, Habesha (ph) and the western Euphrates River Valley of Anbar Province. We will continue to fully support the Iraqi security forces and prime minister's Abadi's government in isolating and destroying ISIS throughout Iraq.

In Syria, we support Syrian Democratic forces that recently seized Mandbid (ph), have taken Tadka (ph), and are currently attacking with great success to isolate Raqqa.

ISIS has additional strengths scattered down the Euphrates River Valley to the Iraq border. We will not stop until they, too, are destroyed.

I want our chairman, General Dunford, and our president of special envoy, Mr. McGurk, to provide more details so let me sum up. We are leading a comprehensive international campaign to crush ISIS claim of invisibility. To deny ISIS a geographic haven from which to hatch murder, eliminate ISIS ability to operate externally and eradicate their ability to recruit and finance terrorist operations.

Thanks to the leadership and authorities granted by President Trump, thanks to the spirit of dozens of nations committed to this fight, thanks to the nations whose troops have gone toe-to-toe with this terrorist group.

With the deepest sympathy for the families that have lost sons and daughters in this fight and with the greatest respect for the families caught up on the battle fields that we know are also humanitarian fields.

We have retaken over 55 percent of ISIS territory there in the core. Over 4 million people have been liberated and not 1one inch of territory seized from ISIS has been recaptured from them -- excuse me, recaptured by them.

Now, let me turn it over to Chairman Dunford and Mr. McGurk for more specifics on our defeat ISIS campaign -- Chairman.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: All right. So, there he is, the secretary of defense, James Mattis, announcing a new Trump administration strategy, in his words, to annihilate ISIS. He said this was an accelerated -- now accelerated operation that is designed to destroy ISIS.

Let's bring in our CNN Military Analyst and retired Air Force Colonel Cedrick Leighton and our CNN Military and Diplomatic Analyst retired Rear Admiral John Kirby.

So, very bold words from the secretary of defense. The goal right now to annihilate ISIS and this is an accelerated operation. No longer are they simply going to surround ISIS strongholds. They're going to go in there and crush them.

REAR ADM. JOHN KIRBY (retired), CNN MILITARY ABND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: Yes, I mean, this was a little -- a different approach. I mean, what he said was actually they are going to surround the strongholds and then strangle them from outside and then within. Without -- in other words, not letting them escape bombings and then to live another day. And that is a different tactic than what has been previously done against ISIS.

And he also spoke about more delegation of authority. And that the president has delegated it at the appropriate level so they can move faster or a little bit more -- with more alacrity and more agility.

So, he talked a little bit I think framed, sort of, the what's different now than how it was done under the Obama administration.

BLITZER: Cedric, is it going to make a difference? Because they've made some steady progress over these last several months in this war against ISIS. But it's by no means over.

COL. CEDRICK LEIGHTON (retired), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: That's right, Wolf. And the big issue here is, I think, you know, as John mentioned, what we're dealing with is actually destroying ISIS. What they're going to do is not only encircle them but the whole idea is to actually make it impossible for them to continue to exist as an effective fighting force.

So, that's going to require an increased concentration of troops. It's going to require an increased use of coalition forces. And it's also going to require an increased and enhanced use of intelligence. And that is going to, I think, be one of the critical aspects of this operation.

And what also struck me, Wolf, was the fact that this is not just specifically focused on Syria or on Iraq but it's also -- obviously, they're looking at this as, more or less, a global campaign or at least a super-regional campaign. With Africa being mentioned, Libya, in particular West Africa, and, of course, the places in the Middle East.

BLITZER: He said, Secretary Mattis, this is a new strategy that the Pentagon, the U.S. military, has come up with. They presented it to President Trump. He approved it and now they are going to implement this new strategy.

[13:10:06] KIRBY: Yes, the way I took that was they looked at the strategy that had been in place, made some recommendations to change it, not completely revamp it, and the president approved those changes.

What I didn't hear and maybe we'll get more from General Dunford and from Brett McGurk, is talking about the ideology and the narrative. Because the other risk about ISIS isn't just their semi-military forces on the ground in Iraq and Syria, it's the way they can inspire foreign fighters to leave the fight, go back home to places in Europe and the west and conduct attacks. And also, to inspire self- radicalized individuals to do that like we've seen in places like France.

LEIGHTON: Well, one of the things that I think that was key to this is they were really talking about that this whole business of surrounding them is really meant to keep them from going back home. KIRBY: Yes.

LEIGHTON: And so, when you're looking at the way they're doing this, they're actually going in and not only do they want to destroy ISIS as an effective fighting force, but they want to make sure that it doesn't go back to re-infect areas like, you know, western Europe or in France and Belgium, in particular, or do anything else with, you know, any of these areas.

So, they want to make sure that they can destroy this effort on the part of ISIS. And it's going to be interesting to see how ISIS responds to this.

BLITZER: It's a -- it's a major operation that's about to unfold. Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, still has not been completely liberated. They've been trying now for more than two years to do that. Raqqa and Syria, the caliphate headquarters, the capital, that's still under ISIS control. They've got a lot of work to do. A new strategy.

All right, guys, thanks very much. Cedrick Leighton, John Kirby.

Coming up, take a look at this. We're looking at some live pictures from the White House right now. Later this hour, President Trump will depart for his first trip overseas after taking office. Can he leave the controversies of this week behind him? That's coming up next.

Plus, after being briefed Comey's firing by the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, one congressional member tweeted this. It renewed my confidence that we should have no confidence in this administration. We're going to discuss the meeting with someone who was there.

A lot more coming up. We'll be right back.



[13:16:08] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: President Trump leaves the White House this hour on his first foreign trip since taking office. He's hoping to turn the page from the turmoil here in Washington. Earlier, the president tweeted this, quote, "getting ready for my big foreign trip. We'll be strongly protecting American interests. That's what I like to do."

The nine day trip begins in Saudi Arabia. From there it's on to Israel and the West Bank, followed by Vatican City, and that continues on to global summits in both Belgium and Sicily.

As the president heads overseas, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein made a return visit to Capitol Hill. He briefed House members behind closed doors on the Russia investigation and the Comey firing. One lawmaker described it as "frustratingly cautious." In a briefing yesterday, senators say Rosenstein reveal that the decision to fire Comey was made before he wrote a letter critical of the FBI director.

President Trump's first foreign trip comes at the end, once again, of this rather tumultuous couple of weeks for his administration.

Let's bring in our CNN White House correspondent, Sara Murray, and our congressional correspondent, Sunlen Serfaty.

Sara, the administration is hoping, I assume, that this trip will provide a break from the entire Russia investigation and the enormous fallout over the Comey firing, but how likely is that?

SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, certainly these problems are not going away, right? There is now a special counsel overseeing the Russia investigation. The president still has to choose a new FBI director, someone that is sure to be viewed skeptically by Democrats basically no matter who he names. But a number of Donald Trump's allies are encouraging him to sort of see this special counsel as an opportunity to stop complaining about the Russia investigation, stop declaring it a witch hunt, to move beyond that and to refocus on his priorities as president. They do feel encouraged as they head on this overseas trip that a number of the places they'll be stopping, Saudi Arabia and Israel. They're going to be meeting with world leaders who are excited to have the president there and who really want this trip to go well. They feel like that bodes well for the visit going smoothly. But, of course, Wolf, as we know, this is President Trump, so certainly anything could happen.

BLITZER: Sunlen, the defense - the deputy attorney general, I should say, Rod Rosenstein, he was back up on Capitol Hill today, this time briefing House members on the Russia investigation and the Comey firing, all behind closed doors. What are you learning about that briefing?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, there certainly, Wolf, was a sense of frustration coming from many lawmakers leaving that briefing today. They felt that Rod Rosenstein was not as forthcoming as they would like him to be and they called him cautious, guarded, and really wanted to defer, it seemed, many of the tough questions to the new special counsel Bob Mueller. Many of the questions, as it was in the Senate side yesterday, really did seem to center around that now famous memo that Rod Rosenstein wrote that was held up as original justification by the White House the day that James Comey was fired for the reason that he was let go. We understand that Rosenstein defended the writing of that memo but many lawmakers coming out of that meeting saying he was pushed and pushed and asked many questions over who exactly told him to write that memo and he would not answer that.

Rosenstein did specifically get into this request as was recorded for resources coming from James Comey, the fact that he was requesting and then denied more resources for the Russia probe. Rosenstein says that's not how he understands it. Here's Kevin McCarthy speaking about that portion.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R), MAJORITY LEADER: One of the questions were for public (INAUDIBLE) but he said he's already said it, that he has no evidence that Comey asked for any further resources. That all the resources were there.


SERFATY: And according to Rosenstein's opening statement, which he gave on the Senate side and the House side today, which was obtained by CNN, that does back up that claim that in that statement Rosenstein said that he consulted with his staff, that he even consulted with the acting FBI director at the time, Andy McCabe, and that none of them knew of this additional request of resources.

[13:20:10] Wolf.

BLITZER: Let me go back to Sara at the White House.

The president, Sara, seemed to muddy the waters a bit again yesterday over his decision to fire James Comey. Listen to what he said during that news conference. Compare it to what he said during an interview last week.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Director Comey was very unpopular with most people. I actually thought when I made that decision, and I also got a very, very strong recommendation, as you know, from the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

I was going to fire Comey. I - there's no good time to do it, by the way. They - they were -

LESTER HOLT: Because in your letter you said I accepted - I accepted their recommendation.

TRUMP: Yes, well they also -

HOLT: So you had already made the decision?

TRUMP: Oh, I was going to fire regardless of recommendation.


BLITZER: All right, this is what the deputy attorney general said in remarks to the House and the Senate, and I'm quoting him now, Rod Rosenstein. "On May 8th I learned that President Trump intended to remove Director Comey and sought my advice and input. Notwithstanding my personal affection for Director Comey, I thought it was appropriate to seek a new leader. I wrote a brief memorandum to the attorney general summarizing my longstanding concerns about Director Comey's public statements concerning the Secretary Clinton e-mail investigation. My memorandum is not a statement of reasons to justify a for cause termination."

Sara, help us sort out these behind the scenes developments in leading up to the Comey decision.

MURRAY: Well, look, Wolf, I think it was pretty clear the president had already decided he was going to fire James Comey. We know that he had been talking about it to a small circle of aides for a little while. The president admitted in that interview that it was his decision to fire James Comey and that he made that decision even before he got this memo from Rod Rosenstein.

But I think you're seeing a little bit of the anger from the president come to the surface there. He certainly is not happy with Rosenstein's decision to name a special counsel. He did not hide his feelings on that yesterday when the president called the Russia investigation a witch hunt. And when I was talking to an ally of the president's yesterday, this person was telling me, like, look, this is why the president did not want Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from the Russia investigation in the first place. He didn't want it to get to this point where a special counsel was being named to oversee the investigation. So I think what you are seeing is a little bit of the president's frustration boiling to the surface there.

BLITZER: Yes, we are. All right, Sara Murray and Sunlen Serfaty, guys, thanks very much.

Let's discuss a bit more on the timeline of Comey's firing. Here with me is Chris Cillizza, CNN politics reporter and editor at large.

You wrote - you've written several important articles on, CNN Politics in thee last few days. But you say the firing of Comey, in your words, was "political acrobatics."


BLITZER: Explain what you mean by that.

CILLIZZA: So you played the clip - in some ways television is a better way to carry that message than what I wrote, which is, you had the argument being made by the likes of White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway, Vice President Mike Pence on Capitol Hill, Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, in the immediate aftermath, that Wednesday, the immediate aftermath of Comey being fired, essentially saying, this is Rod Rosenstein's memo. Donald Trump took it into consideration and then he decided to act on it.

Well, then you had Donald Trump, several days later, saying to Lester Holt, no, that's not true. I - as you - as they put it, not so (ph) true, I was going to fire him. Then you have Donald Trump yesterday in the meeting with the Colombian president, the press briefing, saying, well, that memo really had a lot of effect. And then you have Rod Rosenstein in the meetings with the Senate - in a private meeting with senators saying, I knew that Trump was going to fire Comey even before I started writing my memo.

It feels a little bit like the gang who can't shoot straight. I think it's because they don't necessarily want to say the real reason that Donald Trump didn't - didn't want Jim Comey around, which is frankly in - by everything I can tell, Wolf, that he didn't like him, which, honestly, the president gets to make those picks at some level. It would have been somewhat controversial, but he would have, I think, done better to be more candid about it. Look, this was an Obama pick. I didn't like how he handled the whole Clinton investigation. I want to move on. I think the country needs to move on. He didn't say that. Instead, we went through this rigmarole of - where we continue to not know exactly what the real - or even the stated White House reason was for it.

BLITZER: You wrote another piece,, in which you said "the president uttered yesterday four key words."


BLITZER: Explain.

CILLIZZA: Well, I could have been even more brief and said the president uttered two key words, because the four words I talked about were in that same press briefing with the Colombian president. Donald Trump is asked, did you ever tell James Comey in a private meeting to either end or curb or forestall this investigation of Mike Flynn. Donald Trump's response is -

BLITZER: The president's former national security adviser.

[13:25:01] CILLIZZA: The president's response was, "no. No. Next question."

Now, I think he did that because he was annoyed. He didn't think it was the right setting, which is not really up to him candidly. But, when you do that, what you essentially say is, you say, this is a full scale 100 percent blanket denial. What Jim Comey is reported to have said in this memo is not accurate. This is not how it went down.

Now, if it winds up with just being a he said/he said, what Trump says this version of it happened, Comey says this version of it happened and we can't reconcile the two. Trump will be OK politically in that regard. If something else comes out, though, it's potentially very treacherous for him politically.

BLITZER: If he was lying.

CILLIZZA: If there's any evidence that his full blanket denial is not, in fact, covering the entirety of what we learned, whether it's through the Mueller investigation or one of the congressional investigations.

BLITZER: Good work, Chris.

CILLIZZA: Thank you, sir.

BLITZER: Thanks very much.

CILLIZZA: Thank you.

BLITZER: A very prolific report that we have here, Chris Cillizza. Thank you. Coming up, President Trump set to depart the White House now any minute for a nine day overseas trip. He's hoping to leave behind the extra baggage of Washington after a week of controversies. We'll take a closer look at the challenges and the objectives of his trip and a whole lot more. That's coming up.