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Trump Talks Frequently to Steve Bannon & "Closer Than Ever with Mitch McConnell"; Trump Hasn't Considered Firing Robert Mueller "At All"; Trump Calls for Interim Deal on Health Care; Trump to Visit Demilitarized Zone in Korea; Trump Breaks Silence on 4 Green Berets Killed in Niger. Aired 2:30-3p ET

Aired October 16, 2017 - 14:30   ET


[14:30:00] NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: He mentioned McConnell, and the president mentioned that Obama took a little while to get health care actually through the Senate, even though the old argument is that it was rushed through. Yes, if you were looking from Mitch McConnell's perspective in the establishment wing of the party, this meeting and this launch, which was about an hour, paid dividends. But to see the president there, ordinarily, sort of the idea that a president is meeting with the leader of the party on the Senate side, it wouldn't make news, right? It wouldn't be a big deal and we're closer than ever before, we talk every day. And it's something he needs to do because there's so much bad blood between these two, historically. And it certainly was a thumb in the eye to Bannon, even though, as David alluded to earlier, he was giving Bannon kudos and saying he understands Bannon's point.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: They stood out there for 45 minutes answering reporters' questions in the rose garden on a whole range of issues. There was a "60 Minutes" report last night, a "Washington Post" report that questioned Representative Tom Marino, of Pennsylvania, who has been nominated by the president to head the Drug Enforcement Agency. And the president said, we may make a change, we're looking at it. And he clearly watched the "60 Minutes" report, David, last night, and as a result of that, the future of whether or not Tom Marino will be head of the DEA is now a serious question.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICS DIRECTOR: We got a hint as to what the answer is, that he's not long for the world to be DEA. Donald Trump used his catch phrase, "He's a good man" --


-- for anybody in the administrations moments before they're dismissed. He's a good man. But just --


BLITZER: And the specific issue was whether or not Marino sponsored legislation that, in effect, wound up resulting in further opioid problems here in the United States.


CHALIAN: Literally --

RACHAEL BADE, CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER, POLITICO: Yes, he talked about next week, that he would be making the opioid announcement and it certainly has optics issue and to put this in perspective, Tom Marino was one of his first endorsers in the House. He called Marino and another Pennsylvania Republican thunder and lightning. I can't remember if he was thunder or lightning, but he knew them personally, and the fact that he's saying potentially this guy might not be my nominee is a big deal for Trump.

HENDERSON: As news editors, the fact that the president of the United States has yet to call the families of these -


BLITZER: He said he would be calling them tonight or tomorrow.

HENDERSON: But I believe it happened two weeks ago. There's been a bit of a lag time in terms of him calling and writing a letter. He said I think the letter will go out either today or tomorrow.


HENDERSON: He suggested that other presidents hadn't called. And then he sort of stepped back from that and you had reaction on Twitter from Obama aides saying that President Obama did reach out routinely to families of fallen soldiers. They have to get those letters out. They have to reach out to those families. The fact that he's waited two weeks to do that.

BLITZER: It's been a week. It's been a week since the attack on the U.S. soldiers, the Green Berets in Niger. Four American soldiers were killed. And today, the president did say he'll be writing letters and maybe he will be calling the families.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. Another thing, and I thought that was, first of all, it's a little late.

HENDERSON: Yes, it is a little late.

BORGER: I think. And as you said, the Obama -- it's the kind of thing you don't have to compare yourself to past presidents.


BORGER: But you see where his mindset is, because everything is about comparing himself to Obama. But on the Russia investigation and on the hacking of the election his mindset has not changed from day one where he said the whole thing is an excuse from Democrats losing the election and no collusion, et cetera, et cetera. That explanation of this has not changed. What has change side that he immediately said, I'm not going to fire the special counsel, Mueller, period, end of sentence. This has been an evolution, I think, in his thinking because originally there were people in the White House that were saying they needed to talk him out of that notion. I think he's finally kind of accepted. CHALIAN: No talk of red lines of what Mueller is allowed to do or not

allowed to do and no hanging out there of him observing Mueller's behavior. Just not at all. I'm not going to fire him. That is something that he has evolved on.

BLITZER: He said, absolutely no collusion. They ought to get to the end of it quickly. He's over it, for all practical purposes. But Robert Mueller, the special counsel, clearly not over it. And he's got a team of high-powered attorneys who have been brought out, investigators, and they spent hours on Friday interviewing the former White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus.

Another interesting point, Rachael, and you covered the Hill, he said at least in interim, let's get a deal on health care, Democrats and Republicans, working together, an interim deal and worry about repeal and replace next March or April.

BADE: Yes, and yet, he called them obstructionists and they're terrible politicians component for stopping his agenda. He wants to work with Democrats and clearly, he opened the door to potentially doing some sort of fix for the health care markets and yet at the same time he's attacking Democrats at the same time. So how do you do both? I'm not sure.

I will say, my takeaway from the press conference is that Republicans will like this not only because he said he's going to leave Mueller alone. He talked about the wall. He said point-blank when he was asked a question about DACA and the DACA situation, I need a wall to codify this program that allows undocumented youth to stay here and that's -- he obviously struck a deal with Democrats saying the wall did not need to be a part of this just a couple of weeks ago. So I know personally, from a number of senior Republicans who tried to change his mind on that, it looks like he was successful because he is saying I need a wall. And it's the Republican line.

[14:35:49] BLITZER: He went after the insurance companies and the drug companies, the big pharma and the big drug companies and the big insurance companies, saying, you know what, their profits will go down as a result of what I'm doing.

BORGER: He's trying to change the conversation on health care, in particular. He's trying to say, look, insurance companies have made a fortune off of health care. This is not a question of people who are in the insurance markets, in the Obamacare markets. Their premiums are going up which is the Democratic talking point and he's trying to change that to I'm not on the side of the insurance companies and I'm not on the side of big pharma, and I'm going to lower your drug prices. So I think what they were trying to do today, on this issue as well as on everything else. I think there was a feeling that they needed some kind of reset here because the Democrats were out there on health care quite successfully making their talking points about how premiums are going to go up and this is going to hurt people, and I think that they were looking for a way to reset the relationship with the Congress and the Republicans and, you know, the president saying Republicans get along very, very well and on every level I think they'll try to turn the page, reset the conversation and have the president do it and either way, he seemed to be having fun.

HENDERSON: And a sense of momentum. You got that there. You said he looked like he was enjoying it same as when he was in the cabinet meeting and really wanting to take the questions. And he looked very engaged. There were so many times when the president doesn't seem so engaged on whatever the issue of the day is.

I do think, though, it was such a free-wheeling presser, and the cabinet and the statements were, too, you wonder if this helps the bottom line to get tax reforms passed and passed quickly. Are they going have enough Senators? There's word that Senator Cochran might not be back on the Hill any time soon. He's been dealing with an illness. It's one thing to have McConnell there in a show of unity, but --


CHALIAN: But that's exactly where I think it helps. I think -- we watch it live on cable.


CHALIAN: But the image that will stick with this and that will be in people's homes and on newspapers tomorrow and what have you is the image of President Trump and Mitch McConnell side by side, and I think clearly, they both went into the rose garden with the strategy of we need each other here, folks. We've got to get this done and Donald Trump spelled it out in raw political terms. He said 2018 will be a disaster for his party if they can't get tax reform done. Mitch McConnell thinks the same thing. That's their organizing principle.


BLITZER: This show of solidarity between the president and Mitch McConnell comes two days after Steve Bannon went after Mitch McConnell and said --


BLITZER: -- that every incumbent Republican Senator, with the exception of Ted Cruz, of Texas, every one of them will be challenged in a Republican primary. And today, the president made this decision not only to have lunch with Mitch McConnel, and then he could have just disappeared and gone back to the Senate, but to come out into the Rose Garden and spend 45 minutes together with him and making all of these statements.

BORGER: It's all about unity.

BLITZER: And saying, once again, that he has an outstanding relationship with Mitch McConnell and has always been outstanding.

CHALIAN: It was just -- Steve Bannon just talked about cutting off Mitch McConnell's oxygen. That's what he talked about. Cutting off Mitch McConnell's oxygen.

HENDERSON: Compared to Julius Caesar.

CHALIAN: Yes. What the president wanted to do today was acknowledge visually that he understands, after all of the hammering that's been out there in Republican circles, he gets it, that they need to get something accomplished on tax reform and they have to do it together.

BORGER: Well, Mitch McConnell came right out and said my job is to keep us in the majority. This conversation must have been an awful lot about Steve Bannon, about what Bannon was doing, because Bannon was trying to get the Republican donors to say, those establishment Republicans have done nothing for you and you need to come to us.

[14:40:00] BLITZER: He had a whole list, Mitch McConnell, of Republican candidates --


BLITZER: --- who one contested primaries who wound up losing to the Democrat.

BORGER: He came out and said, to keep us in the majority, you have to nominate people who can actually win in November.

CHALIAN: Because winners make policy and losers go home.

BORGER: Losers go home. And so the president will have to have a phone call with Steve Bannon. I doubt Steve Bannon will back off. I can't imagine that he would back off, and so the donor base is going to be split and that's a problem.

BADE: Two thoughts here. I am willing to bet that the conversation in private was not this, you know, rosy. The president brought McConnell to the White House to talk about nominations and how the Senate Republicans and his own party and they're not able to move a bunch of nominations that he wanted months ago. I'm willing to bet it was a more frank discussion in private.

The second is how long does this last in the president we all know has a very short fuse. He's still simmering over Obamacare, and the wall that will be going up soon. I'm hearing from Republican sources that they don't think they'll get the wall, same thing with this spring. How long does he stay with McConnell and keep this? I don't think it will be long either, so you know.


BLITZER: We'll see what happens.

But there was some other major news, I thought that the president made on foreign policy issues. He said, yes, I do believe Cuba is responsible for those American diplomats losing their hearing in those attacks that were going on. He flatly said Cuba, referring to the government of Cuba, is responsible for that.

And as far as the clashes going on with the Iraqi Kurds and the Iraqi military, he said the United States is not taking sides. We don't like what's going on, but he U.S. is not taking sides. The U.S. still has thousands of military personnel in Iraq working with the Iraqi military and they're close with the Peshmerga, the Kurdish forces. There have been clashes in recent days. The U.S. not taking sides on that.

I also thought it was very interesting that he said he'll look at South Korea when he visits the Demilitarized Zone. All of the presidents have made an appearance at the DMZ. I was the White House correspondent during the Clinton administration, and I traveled with him to the Demilitarized Zone. And he says if this something that is potentially complicated I'll take another look at it. I was surprised he said that.

BORGER: He was asked whether it was going to be provocative, and he didn't seem to -- so he said, oh, I'll take a look at whether it's provocative. Of course, it's provocative for the president to go there. Mike Pence --


BLITZER: It's provocative from the North Korean perspective with the military exercises going on in South Korea, between the U.S. and South Korea.

I want to quickly go to Will Ripley. He's joining us. He's been to North Korea more than a dozen times.

Will, what was -- when you heard the president say if it's provocative whether he'll look at whether he will personally show up at the DMZ. As someone who had been to North Korea several times, what was your reaction?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, if President Trump were to visit the Demilitarized Zone, it would be remarkable for him to be within earshot of North Korean soldiers who were standing on guard there. But we know that North Korea's supreme leader, Kim Jong-Un, has visited the DMZ before. President Trump is going to be making a multi-nation visit to Asia early next month. He'll come here to japan, he'll go to South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines. But that visit to South Korea, particularly significant from the North Korean perspective, as they watch all of this. And we need to watch North Korea's activities during that time, as well.

I was speaking just a few hours ago with a North Korean official, who told me President Trump's visit to this region could be a time that North Korea could demonstrate to the United States that they have this capability to fire a missile with a nuclear warhead to the mainland U.S. We heard about the foreign minister with the above-ground nuclear detonation and it would be the first one in 37 years, since China did it back in 1980. And we know that North Korea, according to Russian lawmakers, may be preparing to test a new kind of longer-range missile than what we've seen in the past. And they could do that during President Trump's visit to Asia or will they do it over the next 10 days during these U.S. and South Korean joint naval drills. Either way, if President Trump were to visit the Demilitarized Zone, it would certainly be one -- imagine the remarks he would make at the DMZ, standing very close to the territory. He would use that term and call him Little Rocket Man when he's standing within eyesight of North Korean territory. If he were to do that, that would be one more highly provocative gesture on the part of the United States, essentially, goading the North Koreans and almost forcing them, in a sense, to respond in a very strong manner.

[14:45:02] BLITZER: If he doesn't go to the DMZ, it would be seen, I'm sure, by some, as a sign of U.S. weakness, since other presidents, when they visit, especially the first time, they make a point of going up and supporting right now about 28,000 U.S. military personnel who are serving in South Korea. Many of them have their families there. And maybe another 200,000 U.S. citizens are working and living in the Seoul area, only 50 or 20 or 30 miles from the DMZ. It would be surprising if the president didn't show up at the DMZ, but we'll see if he goes over there.

Will Ripley, joining us right now.

Lots of news from the president at this 45-minute impromptu news conference. When we come back, we'll speak to the brother of a U.S. Green Beret who was killed in Niger. President Trump breaking his silence on their deaths.

This is CNN special live coverage.



[14:50:13] DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I've written them personal letters. They've been sent or they're going out tonight, but they were during the weekend. I will, at some point, during the -- the period of time to call the parents and the families, because I have done that, traditionally. I felt very, very badly about that. They're the toughest calls I have to make, are the calls where this happens, soldiers are killed, and it's a very difficult thing. It gets to a point where, you know, you make four or five of them in one day and it's a very, very tough day. For me, that's, by far, the toughest.


BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: More on our breaking news in just a moment. But we want to talk about this story, because it's been nearly two weeks since the deaths of four Green Berets and President Trump is breaking his silence today on this topic. Before today, he had not commented publicly, he'd not commented on Twitter regarding the American soldiers who were killed during an ambush in the African nation of Niger. This is the deadliest combat incident involving U.S. troops since the president took office and that's why so many eyes have been trained toward him and how he'll respond to this. The Pentagon is investigating this attacks that killed Staff Sergeants Dustin Wright, Jeremiah Johnson, Bryan Black and sergeant La David Johnson. Staff Sergeant Wright was laid to rest in Georgia with full honors. And with me now is his brother, Will Wright.

Will, we are certainly thinking of your family as you're going through this. It's unimaginable for so many people out there. And we thank you for joining us.

I'm not sure if you got a chance to hear the president's comments moments ago. What he said is he's written personal letters and they're going go out and he's going to call the families. I wonder what you're hoping to hear from the president?

WILL WRIGHT, BROTHER OF STAFF SGT. DUSTIN WRIGHT: Honestly, you know, I know the president is aware of this. We've all lost someone at some point in our lives and it is a great sentiment and a great honor to receive such a phone call or a letter from the president, words, we know, are not going to heal our wound, but I think we all have a different message we deliver and a different way to share our condolences and anything that he sends will be greatly appreciated.

KEILAR: You spoke to your brother right on his birthday recently. Can you tell us about that conversation, and what you discussed?

WRIGHT: I can. We spoke about his career with the Army, and kind of the direction it was taking and where he thought he might be going next and when he wanted to do and where he wanted to serve. We spoke about his personal life. He recently started dating a young woman, and that was a big deal for Dustin. He was very private. He was very cautious when it came to his relationships because of his lifestyle and because of his job and it takes a special person to date someone in the military, but even more so a Green Beret. So we spoke about his relationships and his plans for his future and what it involved with his girlfriend and it was a great conversation. And we finished the conversation with "I love you," those were the last words I got from my brother and the last words I told him. It was perfect.

KEILAR: Yes, that is a very good memory to have as your final conversation with him. And I wonder when you were talking to him did you even know where he was?

WRIGHT: I did. I knew the region. I knew he was in Niger, and you know, nothing specific. I didn't need specifics. I'm familiar with the work he does, and I was aware, and as a brother, that's all I needed. I knew that he was with a good group of people. He had his own brothers there that were going to protect him, so --

KEILAR: You said I noticed we -- we did a story on your brother here at CNN that obviously you participated in so you're aware of that, and one of the things you said that struck me was you said it's a war zone even if you don't hear about it on tv because I think a lot of Americans might have been surprised to even learn that there are Green Berets in Niger. You knew that, but like you said, it is a war zone even if you don't hear about it.

WRIGHT: It is. That's the reality we live in and that group of soldiers, of warriors, they do a job that is not about glory. It's not about praise or accolades or awards. They go where many people don't know they are, far from home and far from large military installations and they do a job that's hard to do and they don't do it to be put on tv. So --

[14:55:14] KEILAR: Will, I wonder, I think you're in a specifically unique place to give your perspective on this, which is, as you know, the president has been criticized for taking this long to come out publicly and talk about the deaths of your brother and his fellow Green Berets. What is your impression of that? Do you have any of that sentiment or do you think that it's unfounded?

WRIGHT: Honestly, I spoke to one of your colleagues, Miss Kailey Harding, I believe is her last name, I shared the same sentiment. The president could have called me three times and I would not have remembered it. It's been a chaotic week. It's been a long week, and you know, again, my brother didn't do what he did so I could get a call from the president. It would be greatly appreciated, but it's been the furthest thing from my mind, and from the mind of my family, you know. Honestly, this week would have been a hard time to sit down and have a meaningful conversation with the president because there was so much going on and there was such a whirlwind and so many emotions that, you know, I don't have any negative feedback or negative connotations about the situation at all. I know the president is a busy man and my brother would tell him we have to continue the mission and we'll get time to share feelings and thoughts, but I have to make sure we finish the job. And this week we had a job to do, and we really didn't have time for phone calls.

KEILAR: There's no doubt that's what he would say to continue the mission. We know that as a military mission you grapple with the reality of this that is a reality so many Americans.

Will Wright, we appreciate you being with us, and remembering your brother, Dustin Wright, as well. Thank you so much.

WRIGHT: Thank you for the opportunity. And I appreciate you allowing me the chance to share his name and share his story, and I want to say remember the other fallen warriors. We were very blessed for the support we have, but reach out and reach out to these families if you are near them, pour love into them, support them and just pull them into your family and protect them and support them. Thank you.

KEILAR: So important.

Thank you so much, Will. We really appreciate it.

I want to bring in CNN special correspondent, Jamie Gangel. We also have Shelby Holliday, a politics and business reporter for the "Wall Street Journal." And CNN political commentator, Matt Lewis, who is also a senior columnist at "The Daily Beast."

It's interesting, Jamie, to see Will talk there, because, as someone who had lost one of these Green Berets, he's not thinking about the phone call from President Trump. But when you shift and you sort of look at this from a Washington perspective, the president has suffered some criticism because of this. Why hasn't he come out and talked about what appears to have been a chaotic situation that there are still unanswered questions about.

JAMIE GANGEL, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: What you see right there is the reality. Right? This is --


KEILAR: The human reality.

GANGEL: The personal tragedy. And the one thing I want to say is that -- I don't know if we showed all of the sound -- went on to say that he was doing something other presidents haven't done before. I --


KEILAR: Specifically, if I may, he said he was calling the families. He will call the families and that was something that President Obama had not done.

GANGEL: Right. I am -- someone who worked for former President Obama said that that was a lie, on Twitter, and that wasn't true. I certainly, from my experience know that all past presidents write letters to families. They've written about it. They've talked about it. I'm sure there are also instances where they have called parents or wives or husbands or family members. I don't understand why President Trump goes there and does that.


Why does he even bring that in, Matt, when especially as you hear the story of someone who just gave so much to serve their country, it's not really the time to throw in a comparison to past presidents. This isn't about President Trump. This is about families who are dealing with this loss.

MATT LEWIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Absolutely. And I think it's a compulsive desire to bash Barack Obama and to compare himself to Barack Obama. And he wasn't even consistent. There was another point where he did concede sometimes President Obama called or sometimes he didn't.

KEILAR: Or I'm sure he did.


LEWIS: So he wasn't even consistent there.

I do think, Will, the young man that you just interviewed, that's just an example of class and graciousness --