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Trump Denies in the Wake of a Soldier's Death; Jeff Sessions Grilled by Former Colleagues. Aired 10:30-11p ET

Aired October 18, 2017 - 22:30   ET



[22:35:00] DON LEMON, CNN HOST: Thanks, Dana. Thanks, Jake. I appreciate that. Congress still a long way from a deal on taxes, among other things. So this debate really far from over.

This is CNN Tonight. I'm Don Lemon. Thanks so much for joining us.

New developments tonight on what may be the most unseemly and least presidential argument from a very argumentative president. It comes in the wake of a story you first heard on this show last night.

Congresswoman Frederica Wilson saying the president told a widow of Sergeant La David T. Johnson, who lost his life in a Niger raid, quote, "he knew what he signed up for, but I guess it still hurts." And his widow confirmed that account of the conversation today.

President Trump predictively fighting back insisting he never said that. But this is about more than the president's pride. This is about the men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice for this country.

The president seems to have a different idea about what sacrifice means. Listen to what he said in the wake of an earlier feud with another gold star family, the Kahns, who said that Trump had sacrificed nothing for this country.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think I made a lot of sacrifices. I work very, very hard. I have created thousands and thousands of jobs. Tens of thousands of jobs. Built great structures. I've done -- I've had tremendous success.


LEMON: Of course, jobs are important. Hard work, a virtue. But true sacrifice is giving your life for your country. Those who do that are true American heroes. And they deserve our respect and our gratitude.

Let's get right to this now. CNN political director David Chalian is here, senior political analyst Mark Preston, and political analyst April Ryan. Good evening to all of you.

We're going to get into the back and forth about all of this, April. But the central question is and that most people want answered including those family members who lost their loved ones in Afghanistan, what happened? What happened? That's the question.

APRIL RYAN, SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST, CNN: Yes. You know, we don't know all of what happened, but we're hearing drips and drabs from intelligence information that Congresswoman Frederica Wilson is getting. She's heard that Sergeant La David Johnson had equipment on him that was sending, transmitting a signal when he was located, and she is of the belief that he could have been found after he was left within those two days because that signal, she believes, was still going on.

She also says that there were no armored vehicles for the mission there in Niger. She says it was about the mission against Boko Haram, the group that kidnapped the school girls from Nigeria. And she says there's a lack of information. She says also, this is the key piece. She's also found that equipment was not sufficient, meaning weaponry.

LEMON: Not enough fire power.

RYAN: She's also concerned about that. She's also concerned -- not enough fire power. She said they were ambushed. It was a straight ambush. And she said there should have been intelligence enough for them to know that they were sitting ducks in an ambush.

So she's very concerned on various levels. But she says what she does know is that there was a transmitter that was on Sergeant Johnson that was emitting a signal when he was found.

LEMON: And she doesn't -- so here is the thing. And she said this on CNN on New Day and then repeated it with passion on the view. And I want to play that and I want to get the rest of the panel's response to that. She is saying specifically she believes that this is this president's Benghazi. Here she is earlier today.


FREDERICA WILSON, (D) UNITED STATES REPRESENTATIVE: I'd like to know from Mr. Trump what happened to La David in Niger. Why was he the last one found? Why did it take 48 hours for them to discover him? Why wasn't he in a car, an armored truck? Why did he have weapons bigger than the terrorist' weapons? Why were they able to surround them and kill them?

This is going to be Mr. Trump's Benghazi, because I cannot get the answers. No one can get the answers. And until we get those answers, it is his Benghazi, and this whole thing about what he said to the widow is a cover-up.


[22:40:04] LEMON: Mark Preston, a cover-up?

MARK PRESTON, POLITICAL ANALYST, CNN: You know what? I mean, I understand why she's angry, and I understand, you know, that this fallen soldier, you know, grew up in her district. I think that you have to take a step back and allow the military to do

the investigation themselves, to figure out what really happened and to equate this to Benghazi, to equate this to anything, quite frankly, you know, I think it's a little too soon, to be quite honest with you.

I understand she's angry and answers have to come forward, but I do think that members of Congress, specifically in this situation where we don't know all the answers, should be very careful about jumping to conclusions about what happened and why it happened.

LEMON: David Chalian?

DAVID CHALIAN, POLITICAL DIRECTOR, CNN: Yes. I agree with Mark that everyone should be careful about jumping to conclusions, but nobody should be quiet about jumping to demanding answers, because there is a story here that the American people do deserve to know.

You know, John McCain was asked today if the administration is being completely forthcoming about what happened here. He gave a simple one word answer, no.

There is -- there is going to be more information here. And quite frankly, every member of Congress, irrespective of party, should be demanding answers about what exactly took place.

LEMON: And he said very simply, do you think you're getting direct answers from the White House, I'm paraphrasing and he said no, I don't think I'm getting direct answers from the White House. Did you disagree with Mark, April, that about the Benghazi comparison?

RYAN: Well, you know, it's interesting. And without getting political, I've had so many people tell me if it was this person who was president, it would be plainly Benghazi. But this person is not necessarily called that.

I mean, there are definitely calls for an answer. You know, we've even heard that Senator Cory Booker is asking for intelligence on this. I mean, people are wanting to know. I mean, for you to have four American Green Berets who died in Niger who were ambushed...


LEMON: Two of them were Green Berets, by the way.

RYAN: ... did not -- yes, yes, two of them Green Berets, who were ambushed, didn't have enough fire power, the questions about when help came.

I mean, there are a lot of questions. And I mean, it reminds you there are some glimpses of things that have happened in the past, but there needs to be answers to this. And some may need to come from the Oval Office, you know. We made to hear from the president as to what he knows about this, because the longer it's playing out, the worse it seems to be.

LEMON: So, Mark, I want to ask you this. This is yet another distraction from this particular administration, but there's also a question about why it took the president so long to discuss this. Might he have gotten some adviser knew that this was an issue that he didn't want to get close to because people were going to start demanding answers about what happened?

PRESTON: That is, I mean, that very well could be. You know, a legitimate source of query to find out what did the White House know, when did they know it, why did it take them so long to acknowledge himself personally the deaths of these four heroes.

I guess the point that I was trying to make before, Don, I absolutely agree that we need to find the answers. And I absolutely agree that Congress in its role having oversight over the administration should be demanding answers.

I just think that high rhetoric in the immediate days afterwards isn't necessarily going to get you there. But I do think that the way that President Trump and his administration has handled this entire situation is really incompetent at best and, you know, at worst, perhaps they are trying to cover something up. But we're only going to find that out with a very thorough investigation into what exactly happened.

LEMON: David, I'll give you the final word on this. Might they have known something? I mean, that is a possibility and people are starting to question that.

CHALIAN: We'll find out through a whole investigation. I don't think that we could begin to speculate on that right now. I do think it is worth noting that we saw reports today that there was an initial statement from the NSC at the White House for the -- potentially for the president's to deliver it...


LEMON: A written and he never delivered it, right.

CHALIAN: Right. But then Sarah Sanders used that as the basis of what she said from the podium, which the White House says is sort of where they wanted to put that rhetoric.

But so there will be questions here about sort of the timeline and the decision-making, the thinking and the rational that went into the decision-making over the course of the last couple weeks about how to talk about this to the American people. There's no doubt about that.

LEMON: Thank you all. I appreciate it. When we come back, more questions about a promise President Trump made to the family of another fallen soldier, why he suddenly sent a personal check for $25,000 to that family to date months after he originally said he would.


LEMON: President Trump somehow managing to make a bad situation much worse, worse today insisting that Congresswoman Frederica Wilson is wrong and that he never told the widow of Sergeant La David T. Johnson, who lost his life in the Niger raid, quote, "he knew what he signed up for, but I guess it still hurts."

Here to discuss more now.


TRUMP: Say what that congresswoman said, I didn't say it at all. She knows it and she is now is not saying it. I did not say what she said.


LEMON: Here to discuss now CNN political commentators Angela Rye, Ana Navarro, and Scott Jennings. Did she retract her comments to any of your knowledge?




LEMON: No. OK. So the president is denying Congresswoman Frederica Wilson's account, both on camera and then he had a tweet storm earlier today, but he's not offering any proof to the contrary. How do we get to this point? Where and why is the president battling this and doing this with these gold star families, Angela?

RYE: Why is anyone acting like this is new? Like this is the same, you know, Twitter bully that was on Twitter yesterday and the day before and all the days prior to the election and during the election. This is who he is.

LEMON: With the Kahns.

RYE: But I mean, it really -- yes. I mean, with that you can talk about the wall. You can talk about...


LEMON: John McCain.

RYE: Whomever. I mean, there is a laundry list of people who he assaults electronically on Twitter. And unfortunately, this time it was with a gold star family.

LEMON: I want to get your response to this, Ana, because I spoke to the congresswoman last night on this program, and I think this is how a lot of this got kicked off. And she gave me her sentiments about what happened in the car, saying she wanted to curse him out, but here she is now and how she characterized the call.


WILSON: We were in the car together, in the Limousine seen headed to meet the body at the airport. So I heard what he said, because the phone was on speaker. Basically he said well, I guess he knew what he signed up for, but I guess it still hurts.

There's no reason for the president to be so insensitive. Not only to the family of this soldier, but then pervious rhetoric. You know, it's disrespectful to the family of every soldier that has paid the ultimate price for our freedom. And our community is livid, because this was our hero.


LEMON: The family of Sergeant La David Johnson has confirmed Congresswoman Wilson's account of the president's phone call. How is this appropriate?

NAVARRO: Well, first of all, Frederica who I know is right. Our community is livid and when she says our community, I'm from Miami. Sergeant Johnson was from Miami. I know Frederica Wilson. She's not a rabble rouser. She's not an irresponsible person. She would not play with the death of a soldier.

And I don't understand. I just cannot bring myself to understand how a commander in chief can see the sight of a pregnant wife draped over her husband, he dead soldier husband's coffin and still have the gall to get into a fight with Frederica and with the soldier's mother who is now confirming Frederica's account of what happened.

You know, there's some fights you just have to step away from. Even if you think you're right, even if you think you're wrong, you do not fight with a family of a dead soldier. You do not throw out the name of your chief of staff's dead son's name in order to make a political point.

[22:50:01] You do not attack John McCain, a national hero just to make a political point. He did all those three things on the same damn day.

LEMON: Yes. Scott, I've got to ask you about this. Because, you know, people are saying that this is being politicized that the congresswoman is politicizing. But the president was the first one to do it. Did you think he brought it on himself?

SCOTT JENNINGS, POLITICAL COMMENTATOR, CNN: Well, I don't think it was wise for him to litigate this issue in the press conference he had with Senator McConnell, particularly since he was trying to litigate vis-a-vis his predecessors and he apparently didn't have the information about how his predecessors handle these kinds of situations.

I think Ana is right. There's nothing to be gained here by fighting with the family of a dead soldier. And I don't believe the president intended to call this woman and cause her any further grief, but if that's what happened and if that's what she believes happened that he should apologize and say that was not my intent.

And Ana is right. You have to step away from this fight. There's nothing to be gained here, there's nothing to be gained personally, politically, professionally, the nation gains nothing from these kinds of fights. We should let this family grieve. And I'm sure that they did not -- they don't have any interest in having this drag through the media, spin cycle the way it has been over the last several hours.

LEMON: One way this could have ended really easily is that - that was not my intent and I apologize if it was taken that way, but I'm really sorry...


NAVARRO: And the focus should be...


JENNINGS: Absolutely.

NAVARRO: ... on the gold star families.

LEMON: On the gold star families.

NAVARRO: The focus should be on this hero. You know...

LEMON: I agree.

NAVARRO: We're spending time on this controversy.


LEMON: But we also need to know what happened over there as well.

NAVARRO: Yes, of course, we do.

LEMON: Thank you all. I appreciate it.

When we come back, Jeff Sessions getting grilled on Capitol Hill today but there was one big topic he refused to discuss. We're going to tell you what.

Plus, he's not the only member of Trump's team getting questioned about Russian interference.


LEMON: The Attorney General Jeff Sessions getting a grilling today on Capitol Hill from his former colleagues in a nearly five-hour hearing that included lots of questions on Russian election meddling.

I want to bring in now CNN's legal analyst Michael Zeldin, and legal commentator, Ken Cuccinelli. Gentlemen, thank you so much for joining us.

Michael, I'm going to start with you first, the attorney general facing some really tough questions by democratic members of the Senate judiciary committee today. The committee he was a member of before becoming Trump's A.G. Take a listen to this.


DIANNE FEINSTEIN, (D) UNITED STATES SENATOR: Did the president ever mention to you his concern about lifting the cloud on the Russia investigation?

JEFF SESSIONS, UNITED STATES ATTORNEY GENERAL: Senator Feinstein, that calls for communication that I've had with the president and I believe it remains confidential.

FEINSTEIN: But you don't deny that there was a communication.

SESSIONS: I did not confirm or deny the existence of any communication between the president that I consider to be confidential.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Were you requested, been interviewed or you've been requested to be interviewed by the special counsel?

SESSIONS: You'll have to ask the special counsel.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, I'm asking you. Have you been interviewed by the special counsel in any shape or matter?

SESSIONS: The answer is no. No. Mr. Chairman I don't have to sit here and listen to his...


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're the one who testified...

SESSIONS: ... without having a chance to respond. Give me a break.


LEMON: That was interesting. So were you, Michael, surprised at the intensity of the questions, especially coming from the members of the A.G.'s former committee?

MICHAEL ZELDIN, LEGAL ANALYST, CNN: No, because back in June, 2016 he said he doesn't remember 26 times and he also said he was not going to answer questions because of the possibility that the president might assert executive privilege. So now we fast forward to October 2017 he's still not answering questions and he's still not remembering.

So it's frustrating to these members who have said this is what we're going to ask you about, so please be prepared to answer them. If the president wants to assert executive privilege, that's his prerogative. If he doesn't you can't say indefinitely you're not going to answer questions because some time in the future he may want to assert executive privilege.

Sort of, you have to do it or not do it but you can't hold these guys who had oversight responsibility to ask this and get answers to these questions.

LEMON: Ken, did you -- did you really think that Sessions was K.J. throughout the hearing today?

KEN CUCCINELLI, LEGAL COMMENTATOR, CNN: No, I didn't. I mean, as you noted, it was a five-hour hearing. I didn't watch the whole five hours. I watched pieces of it. And some of it was, you know, he was getting beat up Al Franken on the same Russia stuff and in the same way that he has in the past, I think that's expected.

I think some of what's been new this week that he talked about was Comey starting to work on his exoneration of Hillary Clinton two months before her interview and that was touched on here. And the same time, the president kind of bypassing the whole inside the beltway crowd with his tweet this morning, like where is the DOJ? It is his DOJ but that puts pressure on them because ordinary American ask the same question.

You know, when the cops are making prosecutorial decisions and that's what FBI is, that's the federal police. And apparently two months before that's all over, it raises very serious questions.

Very unlike Comey in his past history. But his last year with the FBI was terrible. And Attorney General Jeff Sessions was touching on that and in some ways just being asked, you know, with Robert Mueller questioned you is harkening to that because presumably that's what they might ask Attorney General Jeff Sessions about, so.

LEMON: All right.

ZELDIN: May I add to two points, Don?

LEMON: Go ahead, Michael.

ZELDIN: First is, having been in independent council and having investigated the holding of American hostages in Iran, two rather important investigations, we created drafts of our findings that would be part of our final report months before.

And before we interviewed President Bush or sent interrogatories to Ronal Reagan or interviewed Jimmy Carter that is standard practice. These reports are hard to draft and they take time.

[23:00:01] So the fact that there's a circulating draft in May before a final draft in July is not at all surprising.