Return to Transcripts main page


ISIS "Capital," Raqqa, Liberated; Drug Czar Nominee Drops Out amid Legislation Flap; Trump seems to Take Both Sides in GOP Battle. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired October 17, 2017 - 10:00   ET



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Top of the hour. We do begin with breaking news this morning out of Raqqa. ISIS' self-described capital, the city has been liberated. U.S.-Backed Forces now in full control working on clearing the city of any sleeper cells if they exist and mines. We are on top of this story. We will have a live report in just a moment.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: A significant milestone to say the least. There is also a major development within the Trump administration. Just a short time ago, the president announced that a key position, a position needed to battle the opioid crisis will not be filled, at least not right now. The president's nominee for drug czar, Congressman Tom Marino, is withdrawing his name, this after revelations that he was the main proponent of legislation that limits the DEA's ability to fight that crisis.

CNN's Sunlen Serfaty joins now from Capitol Hill with that. Sunlen?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, John, some pretty quick action after that scathing "60 Minutes" and "Washington Post" report. It was only Sunday when that hit. Now, Tuesday, President Trump going ahead and announcing that Tom Marino has withdrawn his name for drug czar. And this is something that President Trump not only tweeted about but spoke about just moments ago on Fox radio. Here's a small portion of what he said.


BRIAN KILMEADE, FOX NEWS RADIO: -- drug czar. What went into that?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, he's a fine man. He was a supporter of mine from Pennsylvania. Great state, I won Pennsylvania. And he's a Congressman from Pennsylvania, very popular. And he told me, look, if there's even a perception that he has a conflict of interest with insurance companies, essentially -- but if there's even a perception that he has a conflict of interest, he doesn't want anything to do with it. So, whether we have insurance companies or drug companies -- and there was a couple of articles having to do with him and drug companies. And I will tell you, he felt compelled. He feels very strong about the opioid problem and the drug problem, which is a worldwide problem. It's a problem that we have. And Tom Marino said "Look, I'll take a pass. I have no choice. I really will take a pass, I want to do it." And he was very gracious, I have to say that.


SERFATY: Now keep in mind that was only yesterday when President Trump was asked in that Rose Garden press conference what he thought about the report. At that time President Trump said he will look into the report. But it was very clear based on the backlash and the fallout most certainly up here on Capitol Hill. That this certainly was serving as an embarrassment to the Trump administration. The fact that drug czar that's nominated, while he was up here on Capitol Hill, he sponsored a bill that would make it easier for drug companies to distribute opioids.

Of course, importantly, Marino if he were to be the drug czar would be chief in handling this opioid crisis. So a lot of calls on Capitol Hill for his withdraw, including Democrat from West Virginia, Senator Joe Manchin. Of course, his state is battling with the opioid crisis. He called for Marino to withdraw his name. Today, this morning, reacting to this news, he tweeted out to President Trump, "President Trump thanks for recognizing we need a drug czar who has seen the devastating effects of the problem. I look forward to working with President Trump to find a drug czar that will serve West Virginia and our entire country."

Of course - the next question, of course, John and Poppy, is who will be the next drug czar nominee. This position is of course still vacant.

HARLOW: An incredibly important one right now for the country that has been vacant now for months and months. Sunlen, thank you for the reporting.

Meantime, Senator John McCain once the party standard bearer as its presidential nominee last night launching into a blistering salvo clearly aimed at his fellow Republican in the White House. Listen to the senator.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: To abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership, and our duty to remain the last best hope of earth, for the sake of some half-baked, spurs you nationalism, cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems.

We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil. We are the custodians of those ideals at home and their champion abroad.


BERMAN: You can hear Senator McCain getting choked up there during that speech.

Meanwhile, a new CNN poll just out shows that Americans believe that the president is moving the country in the wrong direction. That number is as high as it's been since his first month in office.

CNN's Joe Johns for us at the White House. Joe?

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: John, the calendar days are flying by up here. The time to get things done is growing short. The Congress and the president don't have any big agenda items to crow about. And the midterm elections are about a year away. That's a bad combination.

[10:05:04] Our poll does show that Americans, the respondents to our poll, have a problem with the president and the way he's handling the relationship with Congress. Let's just look at the graphic. 32 percent approve of the way the president is handling the relationship, 52 percent disapprove. Now, important also to say the tension plays well with the Trump base. 68 percent of Republicans think that the president is doing the right thing there.

What we have seen here over the last day especially with the president is he's trying to play both sides between the warring factions in the Republican Party. He's playing up his relationship with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as well as trying to keep the peace with his former chief strategist Steve Bannon. Listen.


TRUMP: I know how he feels. It depends on who you're talking about. There are some Republicans, frankly, that should be ashamed of themselves.

But we've been friends for a long time, we are probably now, despite what we read, we're probably now I think, at least as far as I'm concerned, closer than ever before, and the relationship is very good. We're fighting for the same thing.


JOHNS: The president will get an opportunity to try to massage a relationship between the warring factions in the party tonight when he speaks to the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank. Back to you.

HARLOW: Joe Johns at the White House, thank you very much.

A lot to get to this morning with our team, political analysts, Molly Ball, David Gergen, Joshua Green. A lot to get to, guys. Let's begin though with Tom Marino, out. David Gergen, what do you make of all of this? I mean, this is someone that the president had thought would be the best fit to be drug czar in this country right now, amid the opioid epidemic. Let's just handle that. He's out. But this is someone the president thought would be the best fit who we know because of reporters, real reporting, real news, was anything but?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, listen, first of all, the president and Congressman Marino did exactly the right thing and that was to cut their losses quickly, to try to move on as quickly as possible. Frankly, "The Washington Post," CBS "60 Minutes" program in their combined journalism I think has spared them an embarrassment down the road because this would have eventually come out and just think if he had already been sworn in. It would have been a bigger mess than it has been.

So, journalism, actually, fake news, came through for the Trump administration. I think the big question of the day is, not only who's going to be the next czar, but how did they get this far? How did this nomination get this far without anybody picking it up? Journalists could see it. The red flags were flying. They saw it very clearly. I don't know why the White House didn't see that. I don't know why the Congressman Marino didn't see it?

HARLOW: But I'm bursting here because neither did, you know, President Obama didn't see anything wrong with this legislation, no member of Congress objected.

BERMAN: You know, Joe Manchin was on "New Day." He said that you know he didn't see any reason to object back then. Jack Reed, senator from Rhode Island, we just had on last hour, you know, told us his staff read the bill then and it's unfortunate what turned out to be in it.

This is all on Congress and this is on the past administration. It's on the current administration. If this is as big of a problem as "The Washington Post" and "60 Minutes" are portraying, it's on everyone that it went as long as it did. That said, Molly Ball, it is interesting to me that it took three days, after the "60 Minutes" reports came out for the White House to push Marino aside. You know, we saw it with Tom Price too. He didn't last long after, you know, the plane trips came out. Michael Flynn got whacked pretty quickly way back in February. When the president wants to move on somebody he moves quickly.

MOLLY BALL, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. It's actually amazing that, you know, so many members of the administration have been brought down by this kind of thing. There are so many vacant posts. They can hardly afford to lose more. And so -- but what we have seen, however, people getting blackballed by the administration from nominations for being disloyal to the president and that's still the currency that matters most to him.

So this is someone who supported Trump, therefore he made it through the vetting process to be appointed to this type of a post. That seems to be the main consideration when they're vetting people. And it's only when something like this comes out in the media that they're sufficiently embarrassed to like you said, to move on it to withdraw the nomination.

HARLOW: Josh, let's turn to Steve Bannon - there's so much to get to. But let's turn because you wrote the book on Steve Bannon, the definitive book on Steve Bannon. How do you think he will hear the president's press conference yesterday? I mean, he said the president in so many words. I'm going to try to talk Steve Bannon out to his key mission now, which is primarying every single Republican running again in 2018 except for Ted Cruz.

JOSHUA GREEN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. I made a few calls to the people in the Bannon camp last night, the unified message was that's not what's going to happen. He's not going to back off.

[10:10:00] One of them described what McConnell and Trump were doing as negotiating with the guerrillas. Meaning, you know, military guerillas, not the animals. But they see this as a case of McConnell trying to basically manipulate Trump into doing something against his own interests.

And what's striking yesterday to see, you know, two hours before that, Trump had been parroting basically the Steve Bannon message in blaming Congressional leaders for the lack of movement in his legislative agenda and specifically absolving himself. Well, that's exactly the message that Steve Bannon and his candidates are bringing. That it is Mitch McConnell's fault and the people around him in Congress. They need to be replaced.

BERMAN: Interesting. So he's not going to let up. Steve Bannon is not going to let up, no matter what the president says.

GREEN: Not according to people I spoke to last night. No, he's not.

BERMAN: All right. David Gergen, if I can. If we can shift gears to another controversy that came from the president's press conference, we want to ask you about it because you have served in so many administrations. I think we have the sound of the president responding. He was asked why he had not reached out to the families of the four soldiers killed in Niger, you know, 12 days ago. Listen to what he said.


TRUMP: If you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn't make calls, a lot of them didn't make calls.

QUESTION: Earlier you said that President Obama never called the families of fallen soldiers. How can you make that claim?

TRUMP: I don't know if he did. No, no. I was told he didn't often. A lot of presidents don't. President Obama, I think probably did sometimes, maybe sometimes he didn't, I don't know. That's what I was told.


BERMAN: Sort of a weak attempt at cleaning it up there, David Gergen, after he was confronted with the truth there. But what was your response to his initial deflection and blame on President Obama for doing something for really making something up about President Obama?

GERGEN: Well, there he goes again. Listen, I don't know why he has a compulsion when he's under fire as he was for not being responsive to these soldiers killed in Niger. I don't know why he always, the first response always is, blame somebody else, and whatever I did, I'm better than my predecessor. And I'm better than other predecessors. It's a total unwillingness just sort of deal with the facts straightforwardly, instead to put out the lie and then if he's pressed on the lie, then he might come back off it. But he's planted the seeds and you know he's made the case. He's slammed somebody else. And I think the Obama people were right, listen, Obama called people, he went to Dover. How many times has Trump been to Dover?


BERMAN: Once after the Yemen raid.

HARLOW: Right. But not for these -- it's a fair -

GERGEN: He's been there once.

HARLOW: Yes. It's a fair point. He lashed out, Molly Ball, how many times over Benghazi, right? And there are four Americans as well we know that the president, President Obama, went to Andrews after that, as they were being brought home. This is about four Americans. If we have those photos, let's just show people because I think their names, these young men that served this country, are getting lost in all of this. That's what this is about. I mean, how can this then turn into a -- I did better than my predecessor?

BALL: Well and the striking thing is, it still hasn't been explained. We still don't understand why the president hasn't addressed this. And if anything, his deflection and his lying in the press conference has only called further attention to the fact that there are four fallen soldiers and the president has not addressed it and he continued to not -- he said there was a letter going out. He said he was handling it privately. He still has declined to address it publicly and to give any kind of accounting to the public of this tragedy. And so, I think that is, as you were right to keep the focus on these four lost lives, and that's something that the White House has not made central to their presentation.

BERMAN: You know, Jack Reed, the ranking member in the Senate Armed Services Committee told us that the administration has been -- not been forthcoming with answers right now on what happened there. It will be interesting to see how this develops. Molly Ball, David Gergen, Joshua Green, thanks so much for being with us. Appreciate it, guys.

Other major news this morning, breaking news out of Raqqa that is the self-proclaimed capital or was of the ISIS caliphate, U.S.-Backed Forces say they have liberated the city. We have a live report next. Plus, new questions, 13 days after the deadliest attack on U.S. soldiers since President Trump took office, what we're learning from the Pentagon today.

HARLOW: And long before President Trump ran for the highest office, he called up Sir Richard Branson for lunch. Branson accepted. The details of that lunch and Branson's brand new book, ahead.


[10:18:40] BERMAN: All right. We have breaking news out of Raqqa which was the self-declared capital of ISIS, was because we've just learned that the city has been liberated. HARLOW: This is a huge development. Let's go straight to our senior international correspondent Arwa Damon. She is on the Iraq/Syria border. Arwa, what are you hearing?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, at this stage, the U.S.-led coalition is not quite saying that it has been fully liberated. The Syrian Democratic Forces that is the Kurdish-led force that is being backed by the U.S. And its allies, is saying that they now have full control over the city. They're focusing on trying to root out any potential remaining pockets of ISIS sleeper cells, fighters that might be hiding out in the rubble and, of course, trying to clear the city of various different explosive devices that ISIS has buried in the roads, alleyways and within the buildings itself.

The vast majority of civilians have fled the city and when you look at the images, the destruction is absolutely breathtaking. It is as if every single building has been completely decimated by this war. The refugee camps that civilians have been fleeing to over the course of the last few months are bursting at this stage.

Remember, Raqqa was the first major city that ISIS ever even took over, later on declaring it the capital of its so-called caliphate as you mentioned.

[10:20:03] There's also the city where we saw those first horrifying images of public beheadings, executions, crucifixions, where women, Yazidi women, were being sold on the streets in open air slave markets and to sexual slavery quite often. It's where a lot of western hostages were held, other hostages as well. And it's also -- was the main epicenter from which key ISIS leaders, various different operatives, would issue their orders for various different operations, either to be taken out within Syria, within the region, or even overseas.

The loss of Raqqa at this stage is definitely a very significant blow to the physical territory that ISIS controlled, but let's not think that this is the end of ISIS as an entity in and of itself. The ISIS ideology is very much alive. ISIS still has a significant presence online. It still has as we have been seeing in recent weeks the capability to either issue direct orders or at least inspire attacks overseas.

HARLOW: Arwa Damon for us on the border, thank you for the reporting. We appreciate it.

Also this morning, many questions, patience is waning, now nearly two weeks after four American soldiers were left dead in Niger. Here is what we do know. These are the four soldiers killed, two of them Special Forces or green berets, two of them support personnel. They died on October 4th, when they were ambushed by 50 ISIS affiliated fighters.

BERMAN: Joining us now, CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr and CNN military analyst Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona. Barbara, you know, there haven't been a lot of answers forth coming in everything we know about. This really comes from your reporting. So, thank you for that. So remind us what we know about this ambush and as importantly right now what questions remain.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, let's leave as much as we can the pictures of those four army soldiers up because these are men with names and families and hometowns across this country. So important to know who they are.

What we have now is the U.S. Africa command has begun an in depth review of exactly what happened. One of the key questions, look at the picture of that young soldier on your far right. Sergeant La David Johnson. He is the one. The other three were killed, their bodies recovered fairly quickly if you will. But La David Johnson's body was out there for 48 hours. They did not find him right away. He was not recovered. They even thought there was a possibility he might be alive out there.

One of the key questions of this military review now will be. How did La David Johnson get left behind? That is an answer his family certainly is owed. They will look at that question. They will look now at the intelligence. How did they not know going into this commission that this 12-man team led by Army Green Berets, with African troops with them, how did they not know there were ISIS fighters there. They walked into an ambush of 50 ISIS fighters. Where was the intelligence lacking?

Two weeks later there is still a good deal of confusion about exactly what happened, what help was available, to come to these men. The Pentagon is happy to tell you that French Forces arrived overhead, French aircraft were overhead in 30 minutes, but that would mean that this team was on the ground in a fire fight for 30 minutes with almost no help until that overhead -- those overhead planes did arrive. ISIS, they had machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. This American team had their rifles.

HARLOW: Barbara, a follow-up on that for you, this was an ISIS attack, right? The president has been very quick through the campaign and as president, to denounce, condemn, call out, extremism, ISIS, et cetera. He didn't in this case. He actually didn't say anything publicly, didn't tweet about this, for almost two weeks until he was asked about it yesterday at the news conference. Now I understand needing to get to the bottom of the facts, but the president has not proved that that is important to him in the past when calling out ISIS, for example. Do you know why the disparity - the difference this time?

STARR: Well, to be honest, no, I don't. I have a couple of, perhaps, fact-based theories but I want to emphasize they're theories based on reporting. I'll let the Lieutenant Colonel Francona also weigh in. And obviously, he has a lot of experience in this.

They mounted a secret -- we've reported this, they mounted a secret operation to see if they could rescue La David Johnson. They thought for a period of time he might be out there alive. That's the kind of operation that gets briefed directly to a president of the United States. So you might ask yourself, if there had been a favorable outcome for the Johnson family, would the president be out there publicly talking about it. [10:25:02] Quite tragically there was not a favorable outcome so he's not talking about it. You can come to your own conclusions. I have no idea why he isn't. But the ISIS question is what is so important as well. ISIS is an organization that is metastasizing around the world. Raqqa may be liberated as Arwa has just reported. But ISIS is out there, inspiring attacks and proving that it can get to Americans.

BERMAN: Colonel Francona, we got some new audio just in, and so I do want to play it for you. This is the first time we're hearing it. The president pressed again this morning on the fact that he had not yet called the family members of these four U.S. servicemen killed in Africa. Let's listen to what he said on the radio.


TRUMP: Now, as far as other representatives, I don't know. I mean, you could ask General Kelly, did he get a call from Obama. You could ask other people. I don't know what Obama's policy was. I write letters and I also call. Now sometimes, you know, if you had a tragic event, it's very difficult to be able to do that, but I have called -- I believe everybody, but certainly I'll use the word virtually everybody, where during the last nine months, something has happened to a soldier, I've called virtually everybody. I've gone to Dover. I've seen what takes place at Dover. It's an incredible scene and very, very sad, one of the saddest things you'll ever see.

But I really speak for myself. I'm not speaking for other people. I don't know what Bush did. I don't know what Obama did. You could find out easily what President Obama did. All you have to do is ask the military people. But I believe his policy was somewhat different than my policy. I can tell you my policy is I've called every one of them.


BERMAN: Two things, one he hasn't called every one of them yet. He hasn't called the families of those killed in Niger, not yet at least. He might. And the second thing on President Obama was fascinating there, Colonel. He talked about General Kelly, obviously, his chief of staff right now, General Kelly tragically lost his son, serving in Afghanistan. The president, I would imagine, knows whether or not President Obama called General Kelly here. I guess colonel, I don't want to put you on the spot. I want to get your take overall on this whole discussion and debate right now about what these commanders in chief do in circumstances like this?

LT. COL. RICK FRANCONA (RET), CNN MILITARY ANAYST: Yes. And I think the president's right that every commander in chief handles it differently, but I think we're getting distracted on what his predecessors did. I think it's more important is what is he doing and what is he doing to help these families get through this very, very difficult time. And he owes it to these families to not only contact them but to tell them what happened.

And to Barbara's point, we don't know all of the facts yet, but they deserve at least something, a call that, you know, we're going to get to the bottom of this. I suspect that we're not hearing much of what's going on from the Pentagon because they're still trying to figure it out. But I think there's a lot more going on that Barbara alluded to and I don't want to get into. But I think probably more things going on at the Pentagon and this is not over. So I think the president's being very cautious with what he says. I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt on that.

BERMAN: Do you feel like there are legitimate questions about the quality of the intelligence that the soldiers had, that the military had on the ground there? Are there questions about their preparations? They were in unarmored vehicles, Barbara was reporting there. Those legitimate questions right now that need answers?

FRANCONA: Absolutely. And, of course, there will be a postmortem that goes on to find out what we knew, when we knew it, how we knew it and why didn't they have better support. So in the future you may see a change in tactics like that. You know, these missions are supposed to be, you know, training, advice and assist, sorts of missions, and they very quickly turn into combat situations.


FRANCONA: But how do 50 ISIS fighters get to surround basically what's a Special Forces A-team out working with the Nigerians. That's a big question. We'll have to find out you know, what the intelligence is. But I think you're going to see an immediate change in how Africa command conducts these operations now.

HARLOW: Important questions that these family, all Americans deserve answers to. Thank you very much, Colonel. Barbara Starr, thank you for your reporting on this from the start. We appreciate it.

President Trump's pick for drug czar is out after a bombshell investigation. A reporter who worked on this team breaking the story, on Tom Marino who will not be the next drug czar that reporter will join us next.