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Trump Seems to Take Both Sides in GOP Battle; McCain Blasts Spurious Nationalism in Speech; Iraq Seizes Critical City From Kurds; North Korea Rejects Diplomacy with U.S.; Aired 4-4:30a ET

Aired October 17, 2017 - 04:00   ET



[04:00:12] DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I can understand fully how Steve Bannon feels. We'll probably now I think, as far as I'm concerned closer than ever before.


DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: President Trump walking a very fine line within his own party. A public show of unity with the Senate leader, following a show of support for his former chief strategist who's calling for a total takedown of the GOP establishment.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Some half-baked, spurious nationalism, cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems.


BRIGGS: Senator John McCain with a pointed message to some of the president's most hardened supporters. McCain warns against the kind of nationalistic attitude he says left others on the ash heap of history.

Good morning, everyone. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm Dave Briggs. Christine Romans is ill today. It's Tuesday, October 17th, 4:00 a.m. in the East. It is 11:00 a.m. in Iraq, 4:30 p.m. in North Korea. We'll have the latest from both regions shortly but first.

Amid growing rancor within the GOP, President Trump trying to advance his agenda, looking for common ground between Republicans in both the establishment and the populist movement. In a rapid fire series of events Monday the president seemed to align himself with both sides. Where have we heard that before?

First, the president stood up for his former chief strategist Steve Bannon who just a day earlier said this.


STEVE BANNON, FORMER WHITE HOUSE CHIEF STRATEGIST: Right now it's a season of war against the GOP establishment. This is not my war, this is our war.


BANNON: And you all didn't start it. The establishment started it.


BRIGGS: In a meeting with his Cabinet, President Trump scolded Republican lawmakers and seemed to side with Bannon.


TRUMP: I'm not going to blame myself. I'll be honest. They are not getting the job done. We've had health care approved and then you had a surprise vote by John McCain. But you had a few people that really disappointed us. They really, really disappointed us so I can understand fully how Steve Bannon feels.


BRIGGS: Then just a short time later the White House abruptly called a news conference with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. There the president catered to the establishment wing saying he and the face of the establishment, Mitch McConnell, are closer than ever.

Today the president will welcome the prime minister of Greece to the White House for meetings and a joint news conference at 1:30 in the Rose Garden. Perhaps then we'll get some more clarity on which end of the party the president is actually backing.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny has more.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Dave, President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell meeting in the White House on Monday to talk about tax reform. Of course, these two Republican leaders have been at odds for weeks, if not months. They are coming together to push tax cuts, tax reform. They know it's key to keeping the Republicans' agenda.

The president, for his part, said there's no civil war in the GOP. People are working together. Take a listen.


TRUMP: I have a fantastic relationship with the people in the Senate and with the people in Congress. I mean, I have a -- with our House of Representatives. I have a great relationship with political people. If you read the papers you think I'm like on one island and they're like on the other. Well, it's not the way it is.


ZELENY: Of course complicating this view for the president is Steve Bannon, the former chief strategist to the White House, who says he's waging war with the Republican establishment. Waging war specifically with Mitch McConnell which made their meeting in the Rose Garden all the more awkward.

Senator McConnell said Republican victory is the most important.


SEN. MITCHELL MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY LEADER: The goal here is to win elections in November. You have to nominate people who can actually win because winners make policy and losers go home.


ZELENY: So the president came to South Carolina late Monday evening for a Republican fundraiser for the governor here but he is focused on midterm races but, more importantly, on tax reform.

The challenge, of course, for this Republican majority in the House and Senate is getting some type of legislative achievement. Health care collapsed, other issues have not gone forward. Tax cuts, tax reform are the most important priority on their agenda. We'll see if the president and the Senate Republican majority can get this passed this year.

BRIGGS: All right. Jeff, thanks.

The Republican infighting also triggering a strong response from Arizona senator John McCain. The senator spoke as he received the prestigious Liberty Medal from the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. McCain cautioned against moving backward toward nationalistic, America First impulses like those pushed by many Trump supporters.


MCCAIN: 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.

[04:05:07] For the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism, cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems.


BRIGGS: McCain also warns that if nationalist tendencies are allowed to take root, they could relegate the U.S. to a backseat on the world stage.

The White House meanwhile put into damage control mode after President Trump spoke publicly for the first time about four American soldiers killed in an ambush in Niger. The president says he wrote personal letters to the fallen soldiers' families and plan to phone them soon. And he falsely accused other presidents of failing to extend the same courtesy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) TRUMP: The toughest calls I have to make are the calls where this happens. Soldiers are killed. For me, that's by far the toughest. So the traditional way, if you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn't make calls. A lot of them didn't make calls.

I like to call when it's appropriate, when I think I'm able to do it.


BRIGGS: Let's be clear, the tradition of presidents reaching out to family members of slain U.S. servicemen is long established. President Obama did it regularly according to former administration officials. President Trump backtracking slightly when pressed about his comments.


TRUMP: President Obama, I think probably did sometimes and maybe sometimes he didn't, I don't know. That's what I was told. All I can do -- all I can do is ask my generals.


BRIGGS: All you can do is tell the truth. The White House insists the president was not criticizing his predecessors. Officials claim he was simply stating a fact that past presidents sometimes called and sometimes wrote letters.

The president's claim angering former Obama staffers. One of them tweeting, "That's a f-ing lie to say President Obama or past presidents didn't call the family members of soldiers killed in action. He's a deranged animal."

Deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein expected to make a major announcement in the battle to halt the nation's opioid epidemic. The action comes as the president is set to declare a national emergency next week to address the crisis. Meantime, the president has abruptly stopped expressing confidence in his pick for drug czar after reports surfaced claiming Pennsylvania Congressman Tom Marino helped steer legislation, making it harder for the DEA to act against big drug companies.

West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin whose state has been savaged by this opioid crisis is calling for the White House to remove Marino from consideration for the position.

Tax reform far from over. President Trump yesterday previewed what's next on his economic agenda.


TRUMP: We are working very hard to get the tax cuts. We will continue to work hard to get the health care completed. I'm going to be surprising some people with an economic development bill later on but I haven't even told Mitch because I want to focus on tax cuts. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BRIGGS: President Trump first mentioned an economic development bill last week. It rewards companies that hire in the U.S. and penalize those sending jobs overseas. The president did not give any more information about this bill but the White House says it will come after bills for both tax reform and infrastructure, and possibly welfare reform.


TRUMP: One thing we're going to be looking at very strongly is welfare reform. That's becoming a very, very big subject and people are taking advantage of the system. And then other people aren't receiving what they really need to live.


BRIGGS: Now Trump did not give a timeline. Welfare reform was not a big focus for Candidate Trump but President Trump's first budget proposal made huge cuts to welfare programs like food stamps. And that budget has not been passed.

President Trump has hailed the federal government's hurricane response in Puerto Rico, but the American people apparently have their doubts. In a new CNN poll, the approval of the president's response to recent hurricanes has dropped 20 points since Maria's devastating hit on Puerto Rico. His approval now at 44 percent compared to 64 percent in September.

At his Rose Garden news conference Monday the president again criticized local relief efforts in Puerto Rico saying ample supplies have reached the island but have been held up by distribution issues. Many Puerto Ricans still have no access to clean water or electricity nearly a month after the hurricane and more than 85 percent of the island still without power.

The Iraqi government ripping an oil-rich city away from the Kurds who controlled it. Why the escalation between two armies both funded by the United States? We're live in Baghdad ahead.


[04:14:03] BRIGGS: Welcome back. Two U.S. funded armies who've nearly succeeded in defeating ISIS in Iraq may now end up turning their sights on each other. The oil-rich city of Kirkuk which had been under Kurdish control is now in the hands of Iraqi Security Forces and pro-Iranian Shia militia. The forces entered the disputed city, set up checkpoints and lowered a Kurdish flag, which had been flying over a government building. It's a move that could have lasting impact on the future of Iraq and the wider Middle East.

For the latest let's bring in CNN's Ben Wedeman live in Baghdad.

Good morning to you, sir. What are the implications of this? BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the

implications are huge on a variety of levels. On the one hand, the U.S. has poured in huge amounts of money and resources into training an army, both the Iraqi army and the Kurdish militias in the fight against ISIS, and just as -- it's important to keep in mind, Dave, that we are exactly one year from the beginning of the offensive to retake Mosul.

[04:15:05] One year later we find that even though ISIS is almost defeated in Iraq, suddenly these two U.S. allies are turning guns on one another. Now, of course, Iraq, the central government, now has control of almost all of the country's oil resources. The Kurdish region, which has been largely autonomous now since 2003 actually going back to 1991 suddenly is without any access to resources. So its viability is now in question.

And the whole U.S. effort, for instance, to finish off ISIS in Syria as well could be in question. Also now what we've seen is that the Iranians who have a millennial old influence in Iraq now see their influence even greater as they, of course, have been also funding, training, and arming the pro-Iranian militias who have also been fighting against ISIS and now have a critically important position in the city of Kirkuk as well.

So to sum it all up, all the cards that the U.S. thought it had in its hands have been thrown up in the air -- Dave.

BRIGGS: Ben Wedeman live for us in Iraq this morning. Thank you.

Meanwhile, a diplomatic solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis appears to be off the table at least for now. A North Korean official telling CNN the Kim Jong-un regime has no interest in diplomacy until it is able to hit the East Coast of the United States with a long- range intercontinental ballistic missile.

Let's bring in CNN's Will Ripley monitoring the latest for us live from Tokyo.

Will, good to see you. You've got this statement from North Korea. Was this in reaction to Rex Tillerson's comments on Sunday?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, obviously the messaging from North Korea has been very clear and consistent. They have said repeatedly that they are not interested in talking with the United States right now due in part to what they view as mixed messages coming from the Trump administration.

You have Secretary of State Tillerson talking about diplomacy but then you have President Trump, the guy at the very top saying that he can totally destroy North Korea. So what this official tells me from the North Korean perspective is that they feel they need to send a very message, a message to the Trump administration that they possess an effective nuclear deterrent, that they could attack the United States with a nuclear weapon and that they could defend themselves against an attack. And so to prove that this official says they would need to do a couple

of things before they're ready to sit down and have discussions with the United States. They would need to do a full long range test of the kind of missile that could hit all the way to the United States East Coast, and this official told me they would have to do an aboveground nuclear detonation.

North Korea's foreign minister after President Trump's speech at the U.N. talked about detonating an unprecedented scale hydrogen bomb over the Pacific. We haven't seen an above-ground nuclear detonation since 1980. Some 37 years when China conducted the world's last above surface nuclear test. Obviously that would be extraordinarily perilous for the North Koreans if they were to go through with that very risky move diplomatically but perhaps some analysts say an essential step for them to finalize their development of the ICBM. And in fact at the U.N. their U.N. envoy from North Korea said, and I'm quoting here, that nuclear war may break out at any moment, in his words, as a result of these escalating tensions with the United States -- Dave.

BRIGGS: Things not dying down there. All right. Will Ripley live for us in Tokyo. Thanks so much.

Ahead, California firefighters starting to get some deadly wildfires under control, but they still have plenty of work ahead to tame the fires and the death toll rising once again.

More from the Napa Valley ahead.


[04:23:15] BRIGGS: 11,000 firefighters slowly gaining the upper hand on the deadly wildfires in California. Officials now cautiously optimistic with two of the largest fires about 60 percent contained. In some areas, authorities have gone from response to recovery, with power being restored and debris removal underway, though the crisis is far from over.

Fifteen significant wildfires still burning across California scorching 217,000 acres while destroying more than 5700 structures. At least 41 people have been killed, including the driver of a water truck who died Monday when his vehicle rolled over. Damage estimates so far topping the $3 billion mark.

Will weather help or hinder firefighters battling those blazes? Let's ask meteorologist Pedram Javaheri.


[04:25:09] BRIGGS: Pedram, thanks.

The Coast Guard suspending its search for a missing worker following an oil rig explosion on Lake Pontchartrain near New Orleans. Authorities have identified the missing man as 44-year-old Timothy Morrison of Katie, Texas. Eight people were aboard the platform at the time of the explosion Sunday night. Seven were rescued and taken to area hospitals. Coast Guard officials report no visible signs of pollution from the blast. The Louisiana State Police Hazmat Division is investigating the cause of the explosion.

To baseball, the New York Yankees down but certainly not out. Todd Frazier sparking the offense last night with a three-run homer, lifting the bombers to an 8-1 rout of the Houston Astros in game 3 of the ALCS.

Also a big night for slumping rookie Aaron Judge. The Yankees' MVP candidate highlighting a five-run 4th inning with a three run blast. Also made some great defensive plays in support of CC Sabathia. The veteran leftie tossing six shout out innings to help New York closer than two games to one of Houston. Game 4, 5:05 Eastern Time this afternoon at Bronx.

Ahead President Trump looking to bridge the divide the GOP by playing nice with both sides. How it all affects the agenda, and the fast- approaching midterm elections?