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Soon: Sessions Faces Lawmakers Hours After Trump Hits DOJ; Pentagon Launches Investigation Into Deadly Niger Ambush; Poll: 31 Percent Think They Will Be Worse Off Under Trump Tax Plan. Aired 9- 9:30a ET

Aired October 18, 2017 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:24] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow.


We want get to the breaking news this morning, we want you to remember two things, four Americans were killed serving their country and four families are grieving this morning. Remember that, remember them, amid the new developments in a controversy that's beyond uncomfortable. It's flat out unseemly. This morning, President Trump is attacking reports that he made insensitive it not offensive remarks to the widow of one of these soldiers killed in the ambush in Niger.

HARLOW: Myeshia Johnson was driving to the airport yesterday to greet the return of her husband's flag-draped coffin. This is the heart- wrenching video of that moment at the Miami Airport as she lay her head on her husband's casket.

Florida Congresswoman Fredricka Wilson was with her in the car as she went to and departed from that moment and says she heard the president's remarks to Ms. Johnson on speakerphone. She says she was stunned by what she heard. She quotes the president as telling the widow that her late husband, quote, knew what he was signing up for. President Trump says Congresswoman Wilson is lying, tweeting, the Democratic congresswoman totally fabricated what I said to the wife of the solider who died in action and I have proof. Sad.

Well, on CNN a short time ago, the congresswoman first learned of the president's tweet and here is how she reacted.


REP. FREDRICKA WILSON (D), FLORIDA: I don't know what kind of proof he could be talking about. I'm not the only person that was in the car. And I have proof, too. This man is a sick man. He's cold-hearted and he feels no pity or sympathy for anyone. This is a grieving widow -- a grieving widow who is six months pregnant. This is a young woman. She's only 24 years old. She weighs maybe 110 pounds. And she has two other kids. Two years old and six years old. 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.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, ANCHOR, CNN'S "NEW DAY": So, congresswoman, let's talk about that. What did you hear? Tell us about this phone call?

WILSON: Well, I -- 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. And I asked them to let me speak with him and the master sergeant said, no, you can't speak with him. But I said, but I want to speak with him, because I was livid when I heard that. And I was livid because this is a young man who I reared in my community of Miami Gardens. He came through my mentoring program. His father was a student at my elementary school. I was his principal. So I know them. And for him to say that this young man stayed in school, did all the right things, went into the service, became a sergeant so quickly, that he signed up for his own death? That is so insensitive.


HARLOW: Let's go to the White House. Our Joe Johns is there with more. Anything else from the president or the administration responding to this? Any evidence of that proof he says he has?

JOHN JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: That's the big question. And we have reached out to the White House press office. We haven't heard back from them. They have scheduled a 2:00 p.m. news conference where hopefully we'll get more and we'll see the president today with the Senate Finance Committee. So that will be an opportunity to get a question to him.

But, look, this is a painful conversation about what's appropriate for this president to say, what's not. What is empathetic and what's not when speaking to family members of fallen service members. And it's sort of edged on by the sound you heard there from Congresswoman Fredricka Wilson, who says she was actually present. That's important, she was actually present, she says, and witnessed the widow of Green Beret Sergeant La David Johnson, being reduced to tears by the president's words.

The president, of course, pushing back this morning hard on Twitter, and essentially calling the congresswoman a liar, saying she fabricated that story, saying that he has proof. The congresswoman, in turn, standing by her story on "NEW DAY" this morning. Listen.


REP. FREDRICKA WILSON (D), FLORIDA: I'm not trying to prove anything with the president. So the president evidently is lying. Because what I said is true. I have no reason to lie on the president of the United States with a dead soldier in my community. I have no time. I have no motive.


[09:05:16] JOHNS: So there are a lot of threads to this story. And as you said at the top, Poppy, one of the big threads is what's the proof the president was talking about.

But there's a larger question about what happened to these four green berets in Niger. What was the intel, recon, air support, backup? Where was it? Why wasn't it there? Of course, that's the kind of thing that has a potential to stick around for a long time.


BERMAN: Joe Johns, those are the important questions this morning and where the focus really should be. And the Pentagon is launching an initial review into the Niger ambush and the death of Sergeant La David Johnson and his fellow U.S. servicemen who were killed there.

Two weeks after the deadly attack, of course, there are still so many questions. CNN's Barbara Starr is at the Pentagon.


BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, good morning to both of you.

You would expect the Pentagon, you would expect the military to launch a review of a situation like this, and that is what they are doing. They are starting with actually trying to formulate a precise timeline that we are told by defense officials hour-by-hour what happened, how did it proceed, how did it all unfold.

It does start with the intelligence that the team had when they went to this village. This is an area where there had been insurgent activity, but not in the area they were going to, we are told. They had been there many times before. The military had. They had not encountered problems. And certainly had no expectation of this ambush.

So, did they go in with faulty intelligence? Did they go in with proper intelligence? Who gave them the intelligence that they -- that led to this mission? They were supposed to go to the village. They were training and advising local Nigerian forces. They were going to meet with local people and just have a basic meeting which special forces have around the world in countries where they operate when they got ambushed. How did they not know 50 ISIS fighters were there?

So they will look at that. They will look at the air support from the French military that came in 30 minutes after the firefight. Niger does not allow offensive operations in its country. So those aircraft were only able to fly low, try and push off the ISIS fighters. But it is our understanding from multiple sources no bombs were dropped, not missiles were fired. They did not have the authority to do that.

So they came in 30 minutes later. That means the team was in a firefight for 30 minutes. And the ultimate question, how did La David Johnson get left behind. They did not find his body for 48 hours. There is a lot of intelligence to be looked at here. And, of course, the key question, was there any point at which he might have even been alive for a brief period of time when he was left behind? How did he get left behind is going to be the ultimate question.

And, of course, they are talking now to everybody involved, including the other team members who are back at Ft. Bragg, talking to intelligence officials, looking at every piece of information.

HARLOW: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thank you for the update. We appreciate it.

Let's talk more about this. CNN military analyst, retired U.S. Army Colonel Steve Warren is here, along with CNN political analyst April Ryan.

Colonel, let me begin with you.

There are a few things harder for any president than speaking to the families of the fallen. What should happen in those conversations?

COLONEL STEVE WARREN, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, first of all, let's be clear that Sergeant La David Johnson and his comrades are all American heroes. And that's -- I'm glad you said that at the very top of this story because that's important to remember.

What should happen? It's very difficult. Those are so sensitive. These are matters of the heart. These are matters of tremendous loss. These are family members who have lost a loved one violently in combat. These are family members whose loved ones have been away normally for weeks, if not months, before this tragedy even happens. So we have very frayed nerves. We have very much on-edge family members who are in the process of grieving. So it's a very difficult phone call. It's a very difficult engagement to make.

BERMAN: And now we've heard, April an account of that phone call, albeit secondhand by someone who was present but not on the phone, Congresswoman Fredricka Wilson of Florida. She says the president, in her mind, seemed insensitive. What do you take away from her comments?

APRIL RYAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: What I take away from her comments, John, she was in the car. There was a speaker phone where she heard -- and others, according to what she said -- and then the president now is saying that he has proof. If he has proof, it's time for him to show it, because this president, unfortunately, has a credibility issue. And many in this country have said he's like the boy who cries wolf. And now the question is, is he telling the truth?

[09:10:09] I have no reason to doubt the congresswoman. She is stalwart in her push in Florida in helping people. I mean she's been on the front lines of trying to bring back our girls from Nigeria. She's been on the front lines when it comes to helping those who are in need. You know, from Trayvon Martin's brother, she brought him in as an intern to work in her office, and now she is consoling someone that she considers family in the car with her former employee who worked in the school where she was a principal, and his son, they went to go to meet his son, to see the casket. I have no reason to doubt that what she said is true. I mean I don't understand why she would politicize this.

HARLOW: Colonel, there is a lot of discussion about this and outrage certainly from some. A combat veteran who served under the Obama administration wrote this morning, his name Brandon Friedman. Let's put this on the screen. There's often a misconception among non- veterans that service members sign up with the expectation that they may die. He goes on to say, I did two tours in combat as an infantry officer and I never met a soldier who thought dying was a reasonable result of their service.

Your thoughts of that in this broader context?

WARREN: Yes, this is a -- this is a tricky one. As a combat veteran myself, I know you have to prepare your mind for this possibility. And when you deploy, this is a conversation that you have with your family. And so it is very difficult.

Nevertheless, we know that we are in harm's way. There's never a question when you're in a combat zone or when you are conducting a foreign internal defense mission, as these green berets were doing, or when you are even conducting a train operation. This is a dangerous profession. We do lose our brothers in arms, our sisters in arms all too often. And so it's important to keep that in mind.

Sometimes I feel like -- and I think a lot of veterans feel this way -- that maybe folks sometimes don't know exactly how much danger is associated with service, because there is danger associated with it, even in peace time.

BERMAN: April, again, one of the things that's been discussed here is what's being called the politicization --


BERMAN: Of these soldiers and sacrifices that's being made. You know, General Kelly, of course, lost his son in Afghanistan.

RYAN: Right.

BERMAN: He didn't talk about it for years and years and years. Now he's the chief the staff. The president's talking about General Kelly and his son, but General Kelly is not. How do you think that plays into all of this and the president's understanding, or his critics would say lack thereof, of the sensitivity surrounding this loss?

RYAN: Well, first of all, you have to remember, this president did not serve in the military. He was deferred five times.

But it makes you wonder, understanding that he once called General Kelly his friend. And I remember, I was on pool duty on Memorial Day when we traveled to Arlington National Cemetery. And we actually, when this president was president, we actually went to the grave site of Robert Kelly.

And I happened to be straddling along the pool and I ran into General Kelly. And I said, how do you feel today, sir? He said, sad. One word. And I'm sure -- and that was that day. And I'm sure someone who understands the magnitude of service to this nation, and an understanding what it is to possibly give your life for the freedoms of this nation, and then to have what is sacred to you, your son's death, be politicized, I'm sure that does not play well. And I'm just thinking about what he said to me during pool duty, when we were in Arlington National Cemetery, going to his son's grave site with the president and the vice president of the United States. It can't be easy for him. BERMAN: No, it can't be easy for him and it can't be easy for the

families of these four fallen soldiers.

And again, as we said at the top, those are the folks we should be remembering this morning and today amid this controversy.

April Ryan, Colonel Steve Warren, great to have you with us. Thanks so much.

RYAN: Thank you.

BERMAN: In just a few minutes, the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, he will be up on Capitol Hill in front of a Senate hearing. But he is getting some words today from the president of the United States, asking the Justice Department over reports that fired FBI Chief James Comey drafted a statement on Clinton's e-mail investigations months before he delivered it.

HARLOW: So it seems like the president -- there were more tweets there.


HARLOW: A series of three. You can look at them for yourselves. But it seems like the president is either hitting at Sessions before he testifies or trying to line up some questions --

BERMAN: Right.

HARLOW: From lawmakers to Sessions. Either way, let's go to Manu Raju on Capitol Hill with more.



Yes, this is the first time that senator -- Attorney General Sessions, former Senator Sessions, will have come before the Senate Judiciary Committee since his


HARLOW: -- from lawmakers to Sessions. Either way, let's go to Manu Raju in Capitol Hill with more -- Manu.

RAJU: Good morning, yes. This is the first time that Attorney General Sessions, former Senator Sessions, will come before the Senate Judiciary Committee since his January confirmation hearing.

And of course, that hearing was rather contentious with Democrats who in particular were going after him, and after that hearing where he said he had no contacts with Russians during the campaign season, it turned out that he did.

He had multiple contacts with the former Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak. Now those questions again will come to light here at the Judiciary Committee. Even though they were asked several months ago in a separate committee hearing, the Senate Intelligence Committee, in which Sessions said he really did nothing wrong.

He tried to make the case it was not inconsistent or misleading in his testimony, though, but still Democrats are not satisfied with how he has answered those questions. At the same time, there will be a lot of questions about how Attorney General Sessions discussed the James Comey firing with the president of the United States.

And whether or not Sessions is going to invoke any executive privilege to say that he cannot reveal certain context of his conversations with the president particularly over the Comey firing, and yes, expect some questions from Republicans as well about whether or not there will be any separate investigation into Comey's handling of the Clinton e-mail investigation.

Now the president seems to suggest there should be a separate investigation aside from the ongoing inspector general inquiry let alone all the other big issues left to answer like the immigration policy and all those changes that he made in the Justice Department, expect some fireworks today -- guys.

BERMAN: All right. Manu Raju, we will be watching that very, very closely. This is an important hearing on Capitol Hill. Jeff Sessions spoke to the Senate Intelligence Committee last spring avoid the Judiciary. They have a lot of questions for him.

HARLOW: They kept saying he was invoking executive privilege. He kept saying it's not that, but it was potentially that will he did that again?

BERMAN: Will he be asked no doubt about these latest statements from the president?

HARLOW: No question.

Also, more on the president's conversation with the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson. Reaction from the Florida senator. Of course, he was a constituent of the senator who spoke with the widow just yesterday, and what she said to him, next.



HARLOW: What do you say to the wife of a fallen soldier, a wife whose husband and her had two children, and another on the way? You see her right there, the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson grieving at his casket.

Democratic Senator Bill Nelson knows all too well. He spoke with her yesterday and he joins us now. Thank you for being with us.


HARLOW: What did she say to you?

NELSON: Well, I am sure my words were totally inadequate. I was just trying to tumble out words to express appreciation on behalf of a grateful nation for his service and sacrifice, and she was consumed in grief, as you would expect, and very subdued and somber.

You know, it recalled for me back many, many years when I served as a military officer, and one of the toughest duties when you have to be the notification officer to the next of kin of those killed, and that's a sobering experience. And it was yesterday, as well, for me to call Mrs. Johnson.

BERMAN: I am sure that call was appreciated. You are, as you said, a veteran. You are also the senior senator from the state of Florida and now a member of your delegation, Representative Wilson, is talking about the phone call the president had with the widow. There's this controversy. I mean, she says the president was insensitive, and he says she's lying. What do you make of the back and forth this morning?

NELSON: Well, I will not get into the controversy. I can tell you this about the congresswoman. She was particularly close to this individual because she does this mentoring program in Miami called 5,000 young men.

It's to bring up the young African-American young men to be the best they can be and to have other role models of which they can achieve. You can imagine the pride with which Fredricka Wilson has of seeing so many of these young men make something of themselves.

And in particular, in this case, of Sergeant Johnson having served his country as he was in a very elite unit. So that's the comment I would make about the Congresswoman Fredricka Wilson.

HARLOW: You know, Senator, you said just yesterday along with a growing number of your fellow members of Congress that this needs to be investigated. I wonder if the sergeant's widow, Mrs. Johnson, has questions about what happened to her husband, how it could have happened?

I know an open casket was very important to her to have. She cannot have that, we are told by Representative Wilson, because of the disfiguration to his face. He was left two days before they recovered his body. What questions does she have that she said to you?

NELSON: Well, we didn't talk about that. It would have been inappropriate for me to talk about that. I was trying to console her and love her and give her comfort.

[09:25:12] The question of the investigation, sure, there needs to be an investigation. Whenever we have deaths in the military like this, we need to know what happened exactly? How were they mousetrapped? Did they have the appropriate rescue capabilities? Were they sufficiently armed?

Did they walk into a trap so that we won't do that again? What is it that caused them to have to abandon his body or to leave him dying in order that they didn't even get back for two days? All of that, we need to know.

BERMAN: Senator, next hour Jeff Sessions appears before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the president is talking about this, this morning, talking about a letter that then FBI Director James Comey had drafted as far back as May where he outlines rational for ultimately exonerating former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the whole e- mail scandal. He drafted a letter before he announced the decision to exonerate her. The president is saying the timeline is fishy. What do you make of it?

NELSON: Well, I have no idea. Let's see what the information is. Again, I think it's a good thing that Jeff is coming before the Judiciary Committee of which he used to be a member, and he ought to lay it out. What he ought to speak with is clarity.

Guess who is speaking with the greatest clarity on Capitol Hill now? It's John McCain. Why? Because John McCain doesn't have anything to lose. That's what we ought to have. That kind of dialogue up here.

And plus, we ought to have the mind that John McCain has when yesterday he was trying to be trapped into saying, oh, he was going to fight with the president, and how did he respond to the reporter?

He says, I don't want to fight with the president, I want to work with the president. I want to get things done. That's the attitude we ought to have up here.

BERMAN: Good luck with that. We really mean it. Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, thanks so much for being with us.

NELSON: Appreciate it.

BERMAN: All right. The president this morning pushing his tax plan, a new CNN poll shows what Americans think of it.

HARLOW: More from our chief business correspondent, CNN's Christine Romans.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN CHIEF BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Good morning. Looking at these numbers here and this polling shows that Americans are not so sure about the president's tax plan. We look at those who are in favor of it, 34 percent in favor, 52 percent oppose it. That's the highest number of opposition we have seen in the polling so far.

About 14 percent are unsure. That splits largely along party lines. Look at these numbers here, do you think you and your family will be worse off, better off, or the same, worse off, 31 percent, better off 24 percent, and about the same 37 percent.

It's so interesting because the president has been trying to frame the tax reform debate as something not necessarily for corporations, but for middle-class Americans, everyday Americans, and he said it would be a middle-class miracle. And quite frankly, many of the economists who study this say, well, it's really about corporate tax reform here, big tax cuts for companies and the ability to bring, repatriate their assets from overseas, their cash from overseas, and get that to work in their company's by buy backs and paying down debt and the like.

The White House has been trying to frame this and if you let companies have more of the money, lower tax rates, that will be good for paychecks for middle class Americans, but at least so far in this polling that's not quite resonating yet.

BERMAN: No, not hitting home just yet. Christine Romans, great to have you with us. Thanks so much.

ROMANS: You are welcome.

BERMAN: We have our eye right now on Capitol Hill. A big Senate hearing about to take place. The attorney general of the United States, Jeff Sessions, will no doubt face questions on the Mueller investigation, and face questions on new criticism he seems to be getting from President Trump. Stay with us.