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White House Says It's "Disgusted" By Politicizing of Soldier's Death, Proceeds to Politicize Death; Gold Star Widow: I Wish Trump Had Called Me; White House Officials: Kelly Caught Off Guard by Trump's Comment on Son; Trump Promises $25K to Fallen Soldier's Father, Check Isn't Sent Until Story Hits "The Washington Post". Aired 8-9p ET

Aired October 18, 2017 - 20:00   ET


[20:00:08] ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: Thanks for joining us.

A grieving military widow is told to expect a call from the president. The call never comes. The president calls a grieving military dad and says he's going to send him $25,000. The check isn't sent until today when the story gets out.

These are two reports we have tonight. We begin with how the president and his White House are dealing with the criticism of another family of a fallen soldier, we're talking about La David Johnson, one of four U.S. servicemen killed by enemy fire in an October 4th ambush in Niger. He was 25 years old with a wife, two young children and a third on the way.

Today, the woman who raised him said the president disrespected her son with what he said in the condolence call. We know about the call because of a local congresswoman who was in the car when it came. Sergeant Johnson grew up in her community in Miami Gardens. His father was a student at the school where she was principal.

Congresswoman Frederica Wilson knows the family and as we mentioned was in the car with Johnson's young widow when the president called. She said the president told Johnson's wife that her husband, quote, knew what he signed up for, but I guess it still hurt.

Here is Representative Wilson this morning.


REP. FREDERICA WILSON (D), FLORIDA: This is a grieving widow, a grieving widow who is six months pregnant. And when she actually hung up the phone, she looked at me and said, he didn't even know his name.

Now, that's the worst part. I didn't hear the whole phone call, but I did hear him say, I'm sure he knew what he was signing up for, and -- but it still hurts. She was crying. She broke down, and she said, he didn't even know his name.


COOPER: Now, in response, the president tweeted, quote, Democratic congresswoman totally fabricated what I said to the wife of a soldier who died in action and I have proof. Sad.

Now, saying he has proof sounds distinctly like a veiled suggestion that he's used before, in much less solemn occasions. When asked for clarification, the White House said the call wasn't recorded but there were other people in the room. The president also said this today.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I didn't say what that congresswoman said. Didn't say it at all. She knows it. And she now is not saying it. I did not say what she said, and I'd like her to make the statement again because I did not say what she said.

I had a very nice conversation with the woman, with the wife who sounded like a lovely woman. Did not say what the congresswoman said, and most people aren't too surprised to hear that.

REPORTER: What was the proof, Mr. President?

TRUMP: Let her make her statement again and then you'll find out.


TRUMP: OK. Let measure make her statement again and then you'll find out.


COOPER: Well, you'll find out is another suggestion, of course, the president has used many times before on much less solemn occasions. For the record, it isn't just the congresswoman relating what the president said. It's also the woman who raised Sergeant Johnson who says the president disrespected her son on the call. She says Representative Wilson's account of the call was, quote, very accurate.

At the White House today, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked what exactly the president was denying.


REPORTER: Is he denying that he ever spoke these words to the widow that he must have known what he signed up for or is he just saying that she took it the wrong way and it was taken out of context?

SARAH SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president's call as accounted by multiple people in the room believe that the president was completely respectful, very sympathetic and expressed the condolences of himself and the rest of the country and thanked the family for their service, commended them for having an American hero in their family. And I don't know how you could take that any other way.

REPORTER: He didn't say those words. It was the context. He felt that she put it had in the wrong text. Is that it?

SANDERS: I'm not going to get into the back and forth. I think that the sentiment of the president was very clear.


COOPER: So, it should be noted had her statement, Sanders did not deny the president used the words the congresswoman said he did. These most sensitive discussions probably would not be a topic of discussion the way it is if the president hadn't deflected a question about his public silence on the killings of four Americans in Niger. He deflected the question by falsely claiming that former presidents, President Obama and others didn't call families of fallen soldiers.

Then, the following day he brought up the death of chief of staff John Kelly's son and the fact that President Obama had not call General Kelly.

Just tonight, we're getting word from multiple White House officials that Kelly told President Trump that Obama didn't call him but never thought the president would use that information publicly. He did in a radio interview just yesterday.

In that same radio interview, the president said he thinks he's called, quote, every family of someone who has died. That turns out not to be the case. Not only did she not receive a call, she did not receive a personal letter for the president.

Just before air, I spoke with Whitney Hunter. Her husband, Sergeant Jonathan Hunter, was killed in Afghanistan just this summer.


COOPER: Whitney, first of all, I'm so sorry for your loss and I'm sorry that we're talking under these circumstances. First of all, what do you want people to know about Jonathan? What was he like?

[20:05:00] WHITNEY HUNTER, GOLD STAR WIDOW: He -- I feel like whenever something like this happens, a lot of people bring out all the good things about someone, but I -- he was genuinely best person I've ever known, and even though we were only together for such a short amount of time, he made me the best version of myself. And through this happening I know that he still lives through me and he allowed me to continue to want to be a better person.

And he had that effect on everyone, especially his soldiers. He was a sergeant, so he was a team leader, he had guys. He was very -- he was looked up to.

He was just a phenomenal leader. He was absolutely hilarious and like the goofiest, just funniest way ever. He feels just a genuinely good soul and that's so rare. And I feel so blessed and thankful to have been the person he chose to marry. He was a great man.

COOPER: I want to ask you about your experience with the White House because obviously that's very much in the news. And President Trump said he thinks he called every family of someone who has died. Did you ever receive a phone call from him?

HUNTER: I didn't receive a call, no. I was told that I would, but I didn't.

COOPER: Did you have -- I know you did have a chance to meet with Vice President Pence.

HUNTER: I did. Oh, he's such an amazing man. He actually spent 10 to 20 minutes with us. It was the day of the dignified transfer. So, of course, emotions were very high.

But he was a very genuine, just nice, courteous. He shared his condolences. His wife was with him.

I feel so blessed to have had the opportunity to meet him, of course, under those circumstances wasn't the greatest, but the fact that he made it a point to be there and just spoke to me in a genuine, caring manner. And it was very, very nice. I was honored to have been able to have met him.

COOPER: It helped.

HUNTER: Oh, yes. Absolutely having him there was -- he didn't have to be there. He didn't. But he was, and it just -- it truly, truly meant a lot to me.

COOPER: I understand you were actually told that the president was going to call and that you should wait by the phone or have the phone with you at all times. Is that right?

HUNTER: Yes. So I was meeting with my casualty officer at the time, and I remember he liked bolted it out. We were at Starbucks. He bolted it out and I remember he came back in and he was like it was the White House and they were letting him know to tell me that, you know, the president was planning on reaching out to share his condolences with me and I should -- not necessarily wait by the phone, but it's not really a phone call you want to miss.

So, he said to just be prepared to speak with President Trump. And, you know, of course, I waited, but I never got the phone call.

COOPER: Did you get a letter of condo lessons from the president?

HUNTER: I didn't get a personalized letter from him, no, sir.

COOPER: Would you have liked to have heard from the president either in a letter or in a phone call?

HUNTER: I have - I've said it before and I truly, genuinely feel that hearing from the president at this point or at any point, honestly, I'm kind of neutral on it. I mean, it's not really going to, you know, go either way for me as far as making me feel better. I feel that it would be an honor to receive a phone call from the president to, you know, have him set aside a few minutes just to call me and express his gratitude toward Jonathan's sacrifice, you know, for our nation.

But at this point, I mean, I've had such a phenomenal support system that I don't really think it at the time would have made a difference either way.

COOPER: The accounts of the condolence phone call between -- to Sergeant La David Johnson's widow, the president reportedly said that he knew what he signed up for, but I guess it still hurt. The president denied saying that. The mother of the woman who received the call has said that that was stated.

I wonder if the president had called you and had said something like that, what your reaction would have been?

HUNTER: I honestly -- the past two and a half, almost three months have been a complete roller coaster of emotions. I'm sure that's very well expected given my circumstance.


HUNTER: But I can honestly say it probably would have depended on the time. I mean, some days are good. Some days are bad.

I explained this to someone earlier. I know for myself just based on very, very early conversations I had with my husband, like me as a spouse and, you know, me being a woman going into a marriage with a soldier, I mean, of course, you know -- you know the risks.

[20:10:04] You know what you're signed up for. He knew what he was signed up for. He was ready to go, you know, full speed ahead overseas and do what he had to do for our nation.

But if it's not my husband saying it to me or if it's not me saying it to my husband, I don't care if it's my mom or somebody from church -- I mean, it does not matter who it is, it's not their position to say that to anyone. It's just not. I know what I signed up for and my husband knew what he signed up for. I just -- that's just -- it's insensitive seeming. You don't say that. It's not his position.

COOPER: I know your one-year anniversary was just a couple days of ago. It was October 15th. And I understand you actually went back to the place that you were married. And I want to show some photos of that. You took a photo, obviously, at the marriage and also you took a photo when you went back.

I want to read something that you told one of our producers, I just thought it was so moving. You said, the purest love I've ever known. I'd go through this pain a thousand times over again if I could relive those beautiful nine months as his wife. That's extraordinary.

HUNTER: Yes. It was a powerful. It really was. I mean, he -- like I said earlier, he's just the greatest -- the greatest blessing God could have ever given me. I mean, as a human being, to strangers, to myself, to my family. I mean, he was just -- he was my soul mate and I will truly believe that until the day I die. He was one of a kind.

COOPER: I know Jonathan's unit described him, they said to quote he was the leader we all want to work for -- strong, decisive, compassionate and courageous. He was revered by his paratroopers and respected throughout his unit. HUNTER: That was -- that was Jonathan. I remember countless times he

would come home from work and with a lot of people, they leave it at work and they come home and they try to just unwind. But I know Jonathan, so many times he always had a book on his hand and he was always on his phone searching something to try to better himself in whatever way he could to make the most out of his career. So, he could be who he needed to be for his soldiers.

And it was -- it was hard a lot of times just knowing like, you know, you're home, like let's hang out, let's spend time together, but it was so rewarding to have married someone who had such a drive to be the best version of themselves that they could be. And I saw my husband transition so much in such a short time, and I am so incredibly proud of him, so incredibly proud of him.

COOPER: I know his dad, his dad was obviously very proud at how quickly he made sergeant and progressed through the ranks.

Whitney, again, I'm just so sorry for your loss and I appreciate you speaking to us.

HUNTER: Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me.


COOPER: Coming up, more about what we're learning from White House officials about the president talking about General Kelly's son. We learned more about that today.

Also, the president offers a grieving military father $25,000 but apparently doesn't follow through until the story hit the "Washington Post." Now, the check is in the mail.


[20:16:50] COOPER: At the White House today, Sarah Sanders blamed the Democratic congresswoman and the media for politicizing the president's call to a grieving military widow. She was also asked about how the president brought his chief of staff, General Kelly, into his whole debate. You remember, General Kelly's son was killed in action in Afghanistan.

And in an interview yesterday, President Trump said, quote, you could ask General Kelly, did he get a call from Obama. By the way, he did not.

As we talked about last night on this program, General Kelly has always been very private about any public discussion of his son's death.

Here is what Sarah Sanders said about it today.


REPORTER: Sarah, did the president speak to his chief of staff, General John Kelly, before invoking his son's death and what has become a political argument?

SANDERS: I know he's spoken to General Kelly multiple times yesterday and today.

REPORTER: On this very topic? In other words, did General Kelly know he would be raising the issue of his son's memory when talking about the outrage.

SANDERS: I'm not sure -- I'm not sure if he knew of that specific comment, but they had certainly spoken about it, and he's aware and they've spoken several times since then.


COOPER: CNN's Sara Murray joins us now from the White House with some new reporting on this.

So, did General Kelly know the president was going to mention his son?

SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Anderson, Sarah Sanders sort of hinted at the fact that he didn't. And my colleagues Jeff Zeleny and Dan Merica and Kevin Liptak ran this down further and found that General Kelly and other staffers in the White House were really caught off guard when President Trump originally brought General Kelly and the story of his son who was killed in Afghanistan into this mix.

Remember, Trump said you can ask my chief of staff. You can ask Kelly about how he never got a phone call from Obama.

And as you pointed out, Kelly has taken great pains to kind of keep the story of his son and his son's death a private issue. So, a number of people over here at the White House were surprised to see the president come out and talk about it publicly like that, particularly in this context.

COOPER: And, Sara, earlier today, "Politico" reported that the White House drafted a statement for the president to give expressing condolences almost immediately after the four service members were killed in Niger, but the president never issued the statement and chose to make no comment at all for 12 days. What's the White House saying about that?

MURRAY: Well, one of the perplexing things about this, Anderson, has been the president's silence. Why he waited nearly two weeks? Why he had to be asked about it before he made any comments on this.

When we were talking to White House officials about this, they basically said, look, they got the information from the NSC. They were trying to decide the best way to deliver it and Sarah Sanders decided instead of putting out a written statement, she felt like it would have more magnitude, it would mean more if she delivered that statement from the podium and she did do so on October 5th. They left the names of the servicemen out, saying they were still tying to notify the next of kin. But it still doesn't answer the question, Anderson, of why we didn't

hear anything directly from the president? Why it took so long for the commander-in-chief to address this himself?

COOPER: Is Sarah Sanders saying she thought it would have more impact if she spoke about it from the podium rather than a written statement from her or that her speaking from the podium would have more impact than a written statement from the president of the United States?

MURRAY: The White House officials that I spoke to said that the determination among communications staffers was that Sarah Sanders going out and delivering a statement from the podium in front of cameras would have more might, more magnitude than a written statement.

[20:20:02] But they didn't clarify whether this was a written statement that was originally supposed to come from the press secretary, whether it was a written statement that was originally supposed to come from the president. And it's possible, Anderson, that that was not a determination that had been made at that point, that they just got the information and decided, look, this is something we're better off delivering from the podium in the briefing room rather than sending out essentially an e-mail.

COOPER: Sara Murray, appreciate the update, thanks very much.

There's been a lot of attention today on the president's call to the widow of one of the soldiers killed in Niger, but there are other stories. We'll talk to a mother of a service member who was very happy with a call she received from the president when her son was killed. That is coming up.

"The Washington Post" reported today about the president calling that mother's ex-husband, a grieving military father, offering him $25,000 and then never sending it. At least not until the story hit the newspaper. Now, the White House says the check is in the mail, send today.

Dan Lamothe of "The Washington Post" joins me now.

So, Dan, can you just walk us through your reporting on this. When did the president call the father and what exactly did he tell him? How did this come about?


In light of the president's comments on Monday saying that he had called either all or very close to all Gold Star families from his era, we decided to reach out to these people. You know, it seems ling they were the missing element from this story. They had been through a lot. Some of them would probably want to speak up.

And this particular father in North Carolina shared a story in which several weeks after his son's death, the president called in July. The father was glad to hear from him. They had a discussion in which the father shared that he was frustrated that the death gratuity, financial benefit that goes with having fallen soldier in the family was going to his own ex-wife. The president said -- apparently shared some level of sympathy and said that he was going to cut the father a $25,000 check.

COOPER: And you write in your article said the president said no other president has done something like this. So, it seems like he was serious about giving the money.

LAMOTHE: He appeared to be at the time and the father, I think, was trying to sort out whether or not it was a sincere offer at the time. He at one point in the purview that my colleague Lindsey Bever had with him said that he knew it seemed far-fetched.

COOPER: So, how long ago was that call? The promise of the 25,000?

LAMOTHE: He was not exactly sure, but he was sometime probably early in July.

COOPER: So, what's the White House saying tonight about the president's conversation and the check?

LAMOTHE: At this point, the check has been sent. I know your CNN colleagues have reported that the check was sent today. We're trying to get that detail ourselves. But really it appears until we move forward with this story today that was not the case.

COOPER: So, let me just check in with Sara. I know you're still there. That is correct now, the check, was it sent today?

MURRAY: That is correct. The White House has confirmed to CNN that the check was sent today. And when we asked, of course, about the delay and why it would have taken from July until now to make something like that happen, the White House said that there was a substantive process they had to go through. They had to deal with a number of different agencies, but they didn't explain what that process would be, what other agencies they need to work with, especially why it would take so long.

They did insist that the president has followed up on this a number of times and wanted to make sure that the money got to this individual. But again, not a lot of detail from the White House and why there would be a lag time.

COOPER: So, Sara, they're saying it's purely coincidental that the check is now in the mail the day that Dan and others in "The Washington Post" broke this story.

MURRAY: It is quite a coincidence, Anderson, but yes, they said that the process took a while and the check was in the mail today.

COOPER: Dan, I think it's really important to say that out of all the 13 Gold Star families the "Washington Post" was in touch with, whether or not they had been called by the president, they all had different responses about whether or not the president's outreach mattered to them. They're not obviously monolithic group and this is such a personal and difficult subject.

LAMOTHE: Yes. We had several parents that were very happy to hear from the president. We had several that took exception to the fact that they didn't hear from the president. We had one who said that they didn't hear from the president, but they didn't want to politicized.

So, yes, it's a real grab bag. And as you'd expect, you know, cross- section of America.

COOPER: Yes. Dan Lamothe, appreciate you joining us. Sara Murray as well.

Coming up, we'll speak with the mother of that soldier, Dillon Baldridge. And later, four weeks to the day since Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico, the island still struggling, of course.

We'll have the latest from the ground tonight.


[20:28:21] COOPER: All our headlines so far tonight have been about the president's handling of calls ands contacts with Gold Star families, an issue that he himself raised in order to deflect attention from what he clearly saw as a critical question about his public silence on the death of four American service members in Niger.

Joining me now is Matt Lewis, Ed Martin, Paul Rieckhoff, Kirsten Powers and John Kirby, who's just written a piece for titled "Stop the politics and honor the fallen".

Paul, let me start with you. I mean, this is -- first of all, such a hard discussion to have because no one wants to politicize this. The president did bring this notion up of who has called, who has not called. So I guess that brought it up into the public's conscious.

Where do you see the developments over the last 24 hours?

PAUL RIECKHOFF, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, IAVA: I think t bad for everybody. I think the country's disgusted by it. It's bad for politics. It's bad for our military. It's bad for morale, for people overseas.

And most of all, it's bad for the Johnson family. I mean, they've been thrust into this. You know, and, frankly, I think they probably want to be left alone. And if they want to be spoken -- you know, if they want to speak, they'll come out and let everybody know.

But I think the president should leave them alone, the media should leave them along, and we should let them go through what is really an unimaginable, you know, series of circumstances and try to drive as much support as we can to them and other Gold Star families that have gone through this. And if there's a silver lining, may those Gold Star families are getting more attention now. We can hear the stories of these heroes and the heroism of the survivors who've endured and carried on in their name.

COOPER: Kirsten?

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. I mean, I honestly think this is a question of whether this Democratic congresswoman should have told this story. Now, if she was asked to tell the story by the family, then that's one thin, and the mother of the fallen soldier has confirmed it. So, at the momentum, they haven't expressed that they're upset.

But, you know, once that happened, then it would have been an opportunity for President Trump I think to maybe show a little empathy, the empathy that apparently was missing in this call, and to say, well, you know, gosh, that's not what I meant.


KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: -- happened, then it would have been an opportunity for President Trump I think to maybe show a little empathy, the empathy that apparently was missing in this call. And to say, well, you know gosh, you know, that's not what I meant. And instead he, you know, he started to make accusations against President Obama and then sort of making and more claims that weren't true, such as he's called every single family of a falling soldier, it turns out that's not true. And it sort of started this snow bawl effect that's now turned into this very politicized environment.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: It is one of these things that -- I mean as we talk about there is many kinds of Gold Star families from this many different backgrounds and perspectives whether some may like President Trump, some may not like President Trump. And you -- two people can have a conversation and words can be spoken and the president could have been meant one thing and spoken those words that to a grieving widow felt deeply offensive, may not have been met that way. And I mean I think -- what do you make?

ED MARTIN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well -- and the whole thing I defer to the veterans, right. I mean I think there's a part that says such a sacred earlier some it's a sacred moment. And I don't think any president probably asked any of them would say, it's particularly easy. As you point out, if you talk to the wrong wife doesn't matter what you say right, because they may not be willing to talk to anybody, they may not be feeling like wonderful about it.

So, but -- it just become such a mess now for everybody. I watched -- we watched today, the press coverage, and I kind of hoped well they said NAFTA might go down. And healthcare would (ph), I just kind of hoped that it would spin us off into that, you know, and the president didn't tweet out like this afternoon. So I thought maybe we go off a bit, but it's -- I agree it is just kind of a mess. And I think that sometimes, some -- I was hoping Kelly also being -- Kelly said he was on the call and he thought the president did the right kind of call. The family has the right to say they didn't heard it but -- and I thought maybe that would cleave us out of it but here we are, you know. COOPER: Matt?

MATT LEWIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, and there's good thing happening, ISIS is on the run right now, we're not talking about that, we're talking about this. This is an important story. I do think President Trump made a big mistake by waiting weeks before talking about what happened in Niger. I think he made a mistake by not sending the letters at least out.

Having said that, I do think that there's been a media feeding frenzy and we have not shown grace to Donald Trump here. And part of the reason is that people are through with giving him the benefit of the doubt. They have made up their mind -- at least in the media. I think a lot of media folks have made up their mind about Donald Trump. They've seen that quite often, it doesn't pay to extent a lot of grace to Donald Trump. But look, I think it's entirely possible, that what he said it wasn't nefarious it was awkward. And he was -- I think he was probably trying to say, you know, look, these people are heroes. When they join the military, especially if they're in Special Forces like the green berets, when they are called up they know that they may not come back and that's an heroic thing. And I think we need to honor that, but it --

COOPER: I guess my question is, would it -- I don't know that this would even be in the public discussion like it is and certainly in a tenure (ph) that it is had the president himself not used it as a way to deflect from a question that he could have answered very easily. And instead deflect by going after former presidents for what -- how he characterized --


PAUL RIECKHOFF, CEO, IRAQ & AFGHANISTANT VETERANS OF AMERICA: Well he said, she said is important but what's really important is what the president says now. What does he do going forward? He sets the phone, he's the commander-in-chief, he can drive the dialogue and where the country goes with his Twitter account alone. So I think it's up to him now to figure out how to try to move us forward. You know, the Department of Defense is going to be differential journal (ph), Kelly is going to be differential, the military is going to be differential, the media's going to do what they do but he can set the tone here. And he can reach out to for example Mrs. Johnson say how do we make this right? You know, how do we try to move this forward. And that's what we need, we need leadership right now, and we need that kind of vision towards the future and not --

LEWIS: You know, Russia, there's another big story that no ones talking about, that just that -- it's part of a larger story about how Russia has been trying to drive us apart, you know. And I think the most recent story today is how their trying to stir up racial animosity in America and bring blacks and whites against each other, to hate each other, bitterness. This story part of what I really hate about this story is also pulling us apart, I mean the one thing we should be united about is honoring, you know, men and women who serve who fallen soldiers and this is not good for the country. COOPER: And Admiral Kirby, you know, there was a statement drafted for the president to release in his own name about I guess of for American heroes in Niger. And I'm just wondering it wasn't release, because the White House thought condolences would carry more weigh coming from or from Sarah Sanders or the statement, would carry more weight coming from Sarah Sanders at the press room podium.

[20:35:06] And again, I think it's not clear whether that statement was supposed to be just a written statement from the press or was a written statement from the president himself. Having been in the corners of power like this how are statements like that normally handled?

REAR ADM. JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY & DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: Well, it certainly, it depends on the case, if you wanted to really have gravities (ph) though, you want the principle to be the one to release. And then were many times where decisions were made in agencies that not only was a cabinet official going to make a statement by the president himself would and everybody would follow in his lead. So to say that they wanted it to be more effective by coming from Sarah Sanders at the podium doesn't wash (ph) with me. If you really wanted to have it gravities (ph), if you really want to have to wait the condolence the statement it should come from the president, and it could have just come in a printed statement, you didn't have to having go to the podium, but to have Sarah Sanders doing it and say that was more effective, I just don't buy that.

COOPER: And Admiral Kirby, we haven't heard -- just in general on the story, I mean I knew you for, what's your -- how do you -- where do you fall on this?

KIRBY: I associate myself with everything that the panel said, particularly Paul, I agree with him, this is one issue that we should never politicize. It's the one thing all of us should be able to get behind is making sure these people get the support that they need, and the attention that they're going to require going forward. These are very, very difficult times for them.

I also agree with Paul, that, you know, the president should reach out to the family at least try and as I wrote my piece, he should apologize. Even if he believed he didn't say anything untoward. And maybe he really does. Maybe it was about the context of how he said it. It doesn't matter, it was received to certain way by the family, he ought to recognize that pain and apologize forth and move on. I think that will be very, very good.

COOPER: And Kirsten also obviously when the president speaks about this and the reporter start looking into it is as you said then it turns out well, OK you didn't do that, but when he said and then the story bubbles up about this $25,000 check.

POWERS: Right, exactly. I mean and so I think that there are actually and there are other troubling things that could come out which is the fact that he says, he's called all these families and they've all received what they need well, it turns that a lot of people haven't been called and a lot of them haven't received letters. So there is something at least in the system, is it necessary the president's fault, no but there's certainly a staff problem there, that when somebody has given their life for this country their families deserve a letter, you know, from the president. And if they can get a phone call, even better.

And so I think that that should something that again they should just be recognizing as a problem and they should fix it. These are -- the president doesn't have to be perfect, it's just, you know, but instead he goes on the attack, he goes on the attack against, you know, first against President Obama and then he goes on the attack against the congresswoman saying what she said isn't true, and I dare her to say it again, if she says it again, the mother comes out. And they just starts this whole very unseemly process.

RIECKHOFF: The president doesn't have to be perfect but the margin of error and military and veterans issues and Gold Star family issues is very small. Like these are not things you can screw up, they're sacred to the American people, like how to cross partisan minds, and anything that gives the appearance that were divided is bad for America, because it feeds our enemies. I mean this is what they want. You know, there are overseas right now, watching us, we're serving for us in Iraq, in Afghanistan. And they see us reaping each other apart, that's terrible.

So we've got to be unified especially around our Gold Star families. And their voice used to be heard here, they can speak for themselves, I think you all done a great job today, been empowering those voices and letting them have a voice in this debate. And may that can help us carry forward. They're kind of a true north rest (ph) for our country, for our patriotism, they've sacrificed what we can't even begin to comprehend, so especially in times like the Gold Star families can be a true north for America.

COOPER: Yes, in fact we're going to speak to the ex-wife of the man with the $25,000 check about her son. She has a very different perspective, she did get a phone call from President Trump and was very pleased with it. She also met with Vice President Pence. It does seem like Vice President Pence in all of this, his often the one who has gone to do over, met with families and -- I mean are the two families I'll talk today that is had a tremendous impact on them, the personal meeting.

MARTIN: Well and by the way that maybe, I mean one thing we're sort of critiquing closely is how the White House is handled something that President Trump wouldn't have to handle? Right, when you're Governor Pence he would have to handle a guardsman getting killed or something. So there is a part of this where, you know, he either if you like what he did you say he knew the guy that would be really good at this Pence, or if you think that he farmed it out to him if you don't like. I mean -- but I think he's learning right, he's a new president. I mean maybe one things we can have this is, on this kind of question we give the president the benefit of the doubt to improve, right, that there's a question hey, no matter what you say to some families it's going to be perceived in a way and you've got to be able to say OK, so that. RIECKHOFF: The Vice President Pence son is a marine too --

COOPER: Right.

RIECKHOFF: That he's got cultural competency, as a governor, he deal with this issues on a regular basis. So there is an experience factors.

LEWIS: It is yes.


COOPER: I mean do you think he should apologize whether it's publicly or privately to a family or call and say look, there was a misunderstanding?

LEWIS: I think he should.

COOPER: Ed what do you think that?

[20:40:00] MARTIN: I think he should reach out to them. I'm not sure should announce, this apologize, he call them and say, you might have heard this wrong and here's what I was trying to do. By the way I like to point out again, because -- it meant a lot to me I read, he was -- when he talk about you sign up for this, that's language that the military people relate --

RIECKHOFF: We don't know.


RIECKHOFF: I mean that we don't know, we don't know what he says, we don't know what they heard. Am I getting in that just keeps this going.


MARTIN: I meant that that language is something that the military -- because he heard it from a policeman in Las Vegas. And my point is only that, it's -- he was trying, he was trying to get into that, at least that's what matters he says.


LEWIS: But when people of critical of Donald Trump, especially I would say like in the Republican primary and you have criticisms about his temperament, about his lack of experience, this is one of the manifestations of that. Now, you could argue we need it an outsider to command and shake up the system and mistakes will be made, well these are some of the mistakes that don't get made with the Mike Pence let's say as president.

COOPER: Admiral Kirby, I mean what do you think it was wise for the president to reflect that question by going back and going after former presidents? KIRBY: Yes I do. I mean to turn this of all things into some sort of competition with President Obama or even Predent Bush, because he talk about other presidents too, I think totally inappropriate. I mean again, this is a solemn duty of any commander-in-chief. President Bush called it being comforter and chief. It's the one thing that no matter what political stripe (ph) the issue, you should be able to wrap your arms around and take it very, very seriously.

And in fact gravely, and for him to turn this into another competition and I'm better than the last guy, completely wrong.

COOPER: I want to thank everybody in the panel. Again, you can read Admiral Kirby's op-ed at

Coming up next, as I mentioned I'll speak to the mother of a fallen soldier, Sergeant Dillon Baldrige, the president offered her ex- husband $25,000. We'll talk to her about the phone conversation she had with the president and how it impacted her. We'll be right back.


[20:45:29] COOPER: Earlier tonight we heard about the $25,000 check that the President Trump sent today to the family of a fallen soldier. This afternoon, the "Washington Post" reported on the promise donation by the commander-in-chief but the check wasn't mailed until today. The check was sent to the farther of Army Sergeant Dillon Baldridge, the 22-year-old was shot to death by an Afghan police officer in June. Just before air time, I talk about Dillon with his mom, Tina Palmer.


COOPER: Tina, I'm so sorry for your loss. First of all, just -- what can you tell us about your son Dillon, what kind of a man is he, what kind of a son was he?

TINA PALMER, MORTHER OF SGT. DILLON BALDRIDGE: He was amazing honestly. He's such a great person. Always had a smile on his face, always wanted to make everyone else happy. He wanted to be a soldier from the time he was 7 or 8 years old. And he stuck to it and he did it and did it well. I'm very, very proud of him.

COOPER: That was something he'd always dream of being?

PALMER: Yes, absolutely.

COOPER: I know you -- I believe you met with Vice President Pence, is that correct?

PALMER: That's correct.

COOPER: How was that for you?

PALMER: You know, what it was an amazing experience. I didn't know what to expect and I was just overwhelmed with how genuine and how caring and -- they were just amazing. They were very thankful for my son's service. I just -- I couldn't have asked for anything more. COOPER: And President Trump called you as well. How was that?

PALMER: Again, it was amazing. Not knowing what to expect, it kind of took me by surprise. He was again very genuine, genuinely thankful for my son and his service, very encouraging. He -- he expressed, you know a sincere gratitude and it was very, very nice.

COOPER: It was everything you would want it to be?

PALMER: Absolutely. You know, I didn't feel like it was forced or scripted or something that he felt like he had to do. He just -- you know, it was just like talking to a friend.

COOPER: I'm sure you're aware of the reports that about the president offering to send your ex-husband $25,000 when he spoke to him on the phone. Do you know anything about that conversation?

PALMER: I did not. I was not there during the conversation. Again it's my ex-husband, I have no idea what transpired, what was said, so I really don't have any comments on that.

COOPER: I wonder what you make of these reports about the president not calling some Gold Star families. I spoke to a widow earlier who had not heard from him. And also the fact that the president reportedly told a widow last night about her husband that he knew what he signed up for but I guess it still hurt obviously, the White House said that conversant -- that did not happened -- that was not said or its not said in the way there's being interpreted.

PALMER: Right. You know, as far as him calling or not calling, all I can speak to is my personal experience.


PALMER: And it was fantastic. As far as knowing what they signed up for, you know, people take things differently and I'm sorry, you know she was offended. I know personally, I can't speak for other people, but personally I know that my son knew what he signed up for. And that doesn't offend me that just gives me more respect for what he did. Because he knew, he knew the danger, he knew the risks. But he just believed firmly in what he was doing in protecting this country and they do, they know what they're signing up for.

COOPER: Is there anything else you want people to know about Dillon?

PALMER: You know, everybody -- everybody loves their children, but I truly liked Dillon as a person. And if you talk to anybody who's ever met Dillon, to meet him was to love him. He was just a truly, a very good person and I know, I just -- I couldn't be more proud of them.

[20:50:04] COOPER: Tina, I appreciate you talking to us and again I'm so sorry for your lost and all you sacrifice.

PALMER: Thank you Anderson, I appreciate it.

(END VIDEOTAPE) COOPER: When we come back, four weeks to the today after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico. The island still disaster zone, access to food and water could mean the difference between life and death for some. There in the island is running low on both, Bill Weir takes us to one of the communities struggling right now.


[20:54:38] COOPER: Tonight roughly 3 million Americans don't have power. Roughly one million don't have running water. For many in Puerto Rico it seems that Hurricane Maria hit just yesterday for a level of destruction still plague in the island. Now if this was Texas or this was Louisiana, there would be undoubtedly more attention, perhaps, more outrage from the media as well and certainly more government relief in place. Four weeks the day after Maria made landfall on the island, almost 3.5 Americans are still facing a humanitarian nightmare with stakes or could have be like and death.

CNN's Bill Weir tonight has more.


[20:55:09] BILL WEIR, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): As dawn brings Maria's one-month anniversary, we head out of San Juan by air and low to the ground.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Terrain, terrain, pull up, pull up.

WEIR (voice-over): All the better to see the mud slides, broken bridges, shattered homes. We passed Arecibo one of the biggest radio telescopes in the world, but we're looking for intelligent signs of life in the western mountains where people have been waiting for help for weeks. We land and inside the Mayaguez Airport, a group of big hearted military veterans has turned baggage claim into a bunk house and operations center.

ERIC CARLSON, WARFIGHTER DRT: I think we're at, like, 30,000 meals. 35,000 meals.

WEIR (on-camera): Wow.

CARLSON: And, you know, how many (INAUDIBLE) and that's just with the small trucks we've had and by hook and by crook getting supplies.

WEIR (voice-over): They came down on their own dime and shake their heads in frustration with FEMA. If it were up to them, they'd bring in the National Guard, 15,000 at a time on two-week rotations.

CARLSON: You have to pay these guys anyway to sit at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin and wait for two weeks and --

WEIR (on-camera): Right, right.

CARLSON: And you're wasting your money.

WEIR (on-camera): Yes. CARLSON: All of this stuff about bringing the contractors and security contractors to ride shotgun on the trucks, I'll get you 5,000 military vets and we'll do it -- we're all down here for free.

WEIRD (voice-over): We head into the hills and search of answers but soon get a taste of the logistical headaches here, Maria obliterated this stretch of highway. And with little hope for road crews, the neighbors are building their own bridge.

(on-camera): Do you feel like Americans in moments like this? Do you feel taken care of as citizens?


WEIR (in translation): We're not people that say the government must help us. Santiago says, we're all part of humanity. Every person does the best they can.

(on-camera): What kind of help are you getting from the outside? Have you seen FEMA or?

JOSE RODRIGUEZ, LAS MARIA, PUERTO RICO RESIDENT: We've seen FEMA. They can (INAUDIBLE) in South America, and they purify the water.

WEIR (on-camera): And are these the veterans? The guys --

RODRIGUEZ: Yes, that's right.


WEIR (on-camera): Yes, we met them at the airport?

RODRIGUEZ: Yes, they were beautiful people.

WEIR (voice-over): Thanks to Juny and his mini monster truck, we get past yet another mud slide and soon track down one of FEMA's top men on this island.

(on-camera): Couldn't you use national guardsmen in two-week rotations to come in? Are you begging your bosses for more men?


WEIR (on-camera): Why?

HERNANDEZ: Because we have more than 4,500 national guards went coming in.

WEIR (on-camera): But this is a point in comparison, two weeks after the Haiti quake, the U.S. had 22,000 troops on the ground in a foreign country.

HERNANDEZ: I don't know how much we can bring without actually impacting the economy of Puerto Rico. If I keep on flooding the place with food and water, when are they going to open their supermarkets? WEIR (on-camera): Isn't it true that FEMA had a presence in New Orleans for like seven years, right? People were living in FEMA trailers for years.

HERNANDEZ: We were in New Orleans just two years ago and we left 5,000 mobile homes there. And we were there for seven or eight months, and we respond in there, and we're flooded with Harvey and we're going to be in Puerto Rico and now we are in Virgin Islands also, well as long as it takes.

WEIR (on-camera): For as long as it takes.

HERNANDEZ: For as a long as it takes.

WEIR (on-camera): Despite what the president says?

HERNANDEZ: You know what, we don't follow -- I don't see TV. So I don't even pay attention to them. I pay attention to the mission that I have in my heart, which is fixing Puerto Rico.

WEIR (on-camera): In just a few hours we've been out shooting an amazing development here at this abandoned airport, the air National Guard out of Tennessee and Kentucky has arrived and are militarizing this airport. They tell me off camera they got 500 guys, more are coming. That they've been sitting back home for two weeks chomping at the bit to come, but there are so many layers of bureaucratic red tape and they couldn't pull the trigger.

But the good news is they're here now. They've got supplies, and they're going to start pushing them into the mountains as soon as they possibly can.


COOPER: And Bill joins me now from San Juan. I mean at today's White House briefings, Sarah Sanders said we're continuing to do everything that we can to help the people of Puerto Rico. You've been there in the last few weeks, I mean does the outlook on the ground match up with what we're hearing from the White House?

WEIR: Well maybe now, now that these guys are actually arriving and they've been wanting to arrive for two weeks. That's what the guardsmen told you. Just with point and comparison, snappers, the bar on Key Largo is got obliterated by 38 days ago by Irma is open for business tonight. You go around Puerto Rico a month after Maria, and it's hard to see that anything has changed. There's so much to do here. But a good sign that the guard is here now.

COOPER: Yes, and so frustrating that, you know, a lot of those guys you talked to off camera say they have been sitting around for two weeks chomping at the bit, I mean I talked to first responders who always there, I heard the same thing, they've been there for days wanting to get out and we're just waiting around, we're frustrated. Bill, I'm glad you're there. Thanks for reporting as always.

It's time to hand things over to Dana Bash and Jake Tapper. The CNN debate with Senator Bernie Sanders, as well Senator Ted Cruz on the GOP tax plan.

That starts right now.