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Trump Comments on DOJ; Trump Comments to Military Widow; Puerto Rico One Month Later; NFL Anthem Policy Unchanged. Aired 9:30-10:00a ET

Aired October 18, 2017 - 09:30   ET


[09:33:29] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back. We are following two developing stories this morning. First, the investigation into the death of four American heroes, four soldiers in Niger, and now the controversy surrounding what President Trump did or did not say to the widow of Sergeant La David Johnson.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: In the middle of all of that, in just about 30 minutes, the attorney general of the United States, Jeff Sessions. He will be in the hot seat. A Senate hearing where he will face questions on the Russia investigation, among other things.

Joining us now, CNN political commentators Alice Stewart and Paul Begala.

Now, as we often say, despite what's going on with the controversy over what he did or did not say to this widow, or maybe because of it, the president has been active this morning, making statements on Twitter, this time about the Russia investigation and former FBI Director James Comey.

Let me give you a dramatic reading. Wow, FBI confirms report that James Comey drafted letter exonerating crooked Hillary long before investigation was complete. Many people not interviewed, including Clinton herself. Comey stated under oath that he didn't do this. Obviously a fix. And here's the kicker with Jeff Sessions headed up to Capitol Hill, where is Justice Department?

All right, Paul, what's going on her. Is he doing this to distract from what's going over in Niger? Is he doing this to get the Senate to ask questions about James Comey or what?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think he's panicked about Russia. I think he's getting heat about the way he allegedly hurt the feelings of a gold star wife. But I think this is about Russia. I think he's -- the circle is tightening.

His former chief of staff has been interviewed by Mr. Muller. His press secretary, former press secretary now, has been interviewed by Mr. Mueller. Mueller's going to have all the facts. And so I think President Trump is trying to lay out some way to counter attack. It's all he knows how to do. But it seems to me a pretty weak counter attack. Say, well, James Comey -- by the way, Democrats don't like James Comey either -- [09:35:20] HARLOW: Right.

BEGALA: You'll find a very receptive audience to criticism of James Comey. That doesn't mean that he did not obstruct justice when he fired James Comey. That's what people want to know. I'm not saying he did, but that's where the investigation seems to be leading to me.

HARLOW: All right, two facts her. One is the timeline. We know from our reporting from what -- what the FBI has posted publicly in the last week, that on May 2nd James Comey, when he was FBI chief, started to draft this reasoning, this reasoning as to why eventually Hillary Clinton may be exonerated. Then July 2nd, you know, a few months later, they interviewed Clinton. July 5th he announces that he would not recommended charges.

So the president's right in his tweets that this drafting did happen before. However, he's wrong when he says Comey testified as such and Comey was lying that he -- that he decided before. Here is that -- part of that testimony with Comey. Listen to this.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Director, did you make the decision not to recommend criminal charges relating to classified information before or after Hillary Clinton was interviewed by the FBI on July the 2nd?



HARLOW: Now, the president says Comey stated under oath that he didn't do this.

Alice, what questions should Sessions face on all of this today?

ALICE STEWART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think the difficulty that Sessions is in with regard to the Russia investigation, the probe is that he's in a tight spot given that he was on the campaign while this -- a lot of this was going on and he's recused himself from the investigation and being involved in this, so he's in a difficult spot.

I think clearly he needs to come clean with all of his information. We have to remember, there are a couple of investigations going on. There's the one going on in Congress and then there's the Mueller investigation. I think from what I hear with the investigation going on with House and Senate members, that is nearing its completion. Possibly by the end of November, they have about two dozen more witnesses. And from what I hear, they are going to lean toward no collusion. But that is separate from what we have with the Mueller investigation.

I do think that the president is concerned about what will come out of the Mueller investigation. He is convinced that this in some way, shape or form indicates that he didn't win the election fair and square. And there's -- there's absolutely no connection whatsoever. He won the election because he connected with the American people and he worked hard and he won the Electoral College. But in his view he looks at this as a slap in the face to his victory in the election. That's why -- in my view, that's why he wants to steer clear of conversations about this.

BEGALA: Well, he won the election because James Comey smeared Hillary Clinton at the end. He owes his presidency to James Comey, and Vladimir Putin. Without those two, I mean, he couldn't beat Kaine -- Clinton and Kaine. He needed Putin and Comey.

But James Comey -- and it's not just me. FiveThirtyEight, the nonpartisan, you know, nerd site that looks at this stuff, you can see when Comey came out 11 days before the election, and -- with no real basis at all, threw Hillary back in the (INAUDIBLE), oh, I'm reopening the investigation. That's what tanked her support (INAUDIBLE). That took a little bit of (INAUDIBLE) Trump.

STEWART: Look, we also have to remember, we had the "Access Hollywood" tape, which tanked the numbers there too.

BERMAN: I will say --

STEWART: But this is about -- but this is about connecting with the American people. This is about connecting with the American people.

BEGALA: But that's not the FBI misbehaving. That's Donald Trump misbehaving.

BERMAN: I will say -- I'll say, what it's October 2017 now. You know, not November or October 2016.

BEGALA: Right.


BERMAN: And I will say, there is irony in the fact that these tweets from the president today is talking about the fact that James Comey was too soft on Hillary Clinton. I mean the reason he gave for firing Comey was that he was too hard on Hillary Clinton. You have to work your mind around that one.

One other point, you said Jeff Sessions has to come clean. You know, in the previous hearing in the Senate Intelligence Committee, he sort of suggested he might invoke executive privilege for a reason for not answers questions. We will see today if he answers questions. That's one thing we're watching very closely.

Paul and Alice, I want to get your take quickly on the controversy surrounding the phone call to the willow of Sergeant Johnson.


BEGALA: Sergeant Johnson was an amazing man and the president needs to honor his service and the other three men who lose their lives.

I've spent a little bit of time yesterday just looking at stars and stripes and the coverage from this the local newspaper. This is a guy, two-year-old, six-year-old children, another baby on the way. He was a hero and he gave his life for our country. And the president did not offer the proper condolences to that widow.

It's the hardest thing a president has to do, but he failed. It's his duty. It's his obligation. He was Sergeant Johnson's commander-in- chief. Look, it's -- actually some of the finest moments in presidential rhetoric, you look at President Lincoln's letter to Mrs. Bixby of Massachusetts, who lost five sons fighting for the union. You look at President Roosevelt's letter to Mrs. Sullivan, who lose five sons in the Navy in World War II.

Presidents have to rise to that occasion. Ronald Reagan, when the Marines were killed in the barracks bombing in Beirut, a little boy came up to him when he's comforting the family. A son of one of these Marines killed and looked up and said, can you bring my dad back? This is -- I went with President Clinton to comfort these families. This is his sacred duty and he blew it. He put himself at the center and he insulted and hurt that woman's feelings.

[09:40:16] HARLOW: So, Alice, let me just ask you about you -- I mean you are a communications pro. You did this for Ted Cruz when he was running. You know how to do this stuff.

We know the president lashes back, fights back, and he did that on Twitter this morning saying I have proof. Should he have said anything? And now that he said he has proof that he did not say what the representative argues he said, what should he do from here that most honors this man?

STEWART: Then -- absolutely. And that's the key that's getting lost in all of this, we're not paying tribute and honor to these fallen heroes. And I think it's important, look, we have to be careful -- none of us heard this conversation except for those in the car and the president and whoever else was there. This one sentence taken as is, standalone, does not show the compassion that you would expect. But he (ph) also say, it has to hurt.

I would give him the benefit of the doubt that this conversation was filled with, thank you for your service, thank you for your sacrifice, he is a hero. I am confident that he expressed sympathy during this condolence call. I spoke with --

BEGALA: Based on what?

STEWART: I spoke with a -- someone who lost of loved one --

BEGALA: He's never shown any empathy for any human.

STEWART: I spoke with someone who lost a loved one a few years ago, similar situation, and the condolences that were expressed. He says he is not political. He says the biggest frustration in a time like this is soldiers become pawns in a political game. We cannot do that. We need to honor their service. We need to take them as the heroes that they are and not use this to be political.

BERMAN: Let's do it. HARLOW: Thank you both very much.

STEWART: Thank you.

HARLOW: Frustration running high in Puerto Rico as people there one month after Maria hit are still struggling for bare necessities. Just clean drinking water. These are American citizens. More on that ahead.


[09:46:09] BERMAN: Today marks one month since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico and the devastation still being felt so badly throughout the island. A third of the island does not have running water, 81 percent still without power.

HARLOW: Our Ed Lavandera has been there and he continues to be there reporting on the ground.

Look at this.


ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): As local legend has it, the town of Villalba was the first city in Puerto Rico to get electrical light more than 100 years ago. But now people wonder if this might be one of the last places to get the lights turned back on.

To understand what they're struggling with, Mayor Luis Javier Hernandez (ph) tells us to jump into his police Humvee for a ride. We drive deep through the mountain valley.

LAVANDERA (on camera): He says things are improving so slowly that it's like the hurricane just struck here yesterday.

Villalba is a city that sits high in the mountains in central Puerto Rico. It's home to about 27,000 people. The nightmare and the logistical nightmare that Hurricane Maria left behind is everywhere. It took three weeks just to clear some of the major roads.

LAVANDERA (voice-over): There is no electricity anywhere in the city. The mayor says it's taken weeks for state and federal officials to understand how desperate the situation is here. He's asked federal authorities for industrial generators. They haven't come. He struggled to get helicopters to evacuate three people who needed kidney dialysis and oxygen. They, along with one other person, died.

LAVANDERA (on camera): He says that evacuation helicopters didn't arrive in time to get the people out of here, to save their lives, and they ended up dying.

LAVANDERA (voice-over): Local crews deliver meals and water to 1,500 families, but that's still not enough. And he's not convinced all the relief supplies are reaching the residents here.

LAVANDERA (on camera): The mayor says that he's worried that he's heard that there is food and water that has been sent for this town, Villalba, and he believes it's just sitting in San Juan and not making its way here.

LAVANDERA (voice-over): The mayor said major help has only started to arrive in the last two days. FEMA officials are processing disaster claims and he's getting some logistical help from the military.

LAVANDERA (on camera): Is it too slow?

Yes, he says it's too slow because the line between life and death is very small here, very thin here.

LAVANDERA (voice-over): Ed Lavandera, CNN, San Juan, Puerto Rico.


HARLOW: I just can't believe that, 81 percent without power a month --

BERMAN: It's a month, 30 days --

HARLOW: A month after Maria.

BERMAN: And 3.4 million people live on that island.

HARLOW: Americans.

Ahead, after weeks of protest in the NFL, the NBA players in the league make a statement, next.


[09:53:23] BERMAN: All right, new this morning, the president with a fresh attack on the NFL. He writes, the NFL has decided that it will not force players to stand for the playing of our national anthem. Total disrespect for our great country.

HARLOW: So it's not just the NFL. The NBC tipped off its season opener with players making their own statement. The Cleveland Cavaliers locking arms during the anthem.

Let's go to Coy Wire for more on what could be ahead.



The NBA has a rule that players must stand for the national anthem, but they're able to make their statements in other ways. For LeBron James last night, in this NBA season opener, he's wearing shoes with "equality" across the back.

Now, the NFL, it does not have such a rule requiring players to stand for the anthem, but some wondered if a rule forcing players to stand would be discussed at yesterday's meeting between owners and players. The topic wasn't even discussed. The aim of the meeting was to get the focus back on the original intention of the protests, which was shedding light on racial and socioeconomic inequities in America and figuring out how the league and the owners can best help players help people in their communities.

The Eagles' safety, Malcolm Jenkins, was at the meeting. Here's some of what he said was discussed.


ROGER GOODELL, NFL COMMISSIONER: The players and the owners came to an agreement that these aren't really issues that are player issues or owner issues or community issues. They're issues that affect all of us in our communities.

MALCOLM JENKINS, EAGLES SAFETY: We'll continue to talk over the next few weeks about how we can collaborate in making sure that we tell the stories the right way, that we take ownership and a narrative. And that we clearly express to our country what the work is that we're trying to do.


[09:55:04] WIRE: Of the 12 or 13 players who were at the meetings, one notable not there, Colin Kaepernick's, whose attorney said that the former 49er who first started the movement of protesting during the anthem was not invited by the league, but Jenkins, from who you just heard, said that Kaepernick was invited by the players and did not know why Kaepernick didn't show up. Kaepernick, of course, remains unsigned and has filed a collusion grievance against the owners.

HARLOW: Coy Wire, thank you. Keep us posted. We appreciate it.

WIRE: You're welcome.

HARLOW: All right, we are moments away from the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, set to be likely grilled by senators. You see people as they're making their way into the room. This begins in just moments. You'll see it live here. Stay with us.


BERMAN: All right. Good morning, everyone. I'm John Berman.

HARLOW: And I'm Poppy Harlow. Top of the hour. 10:00 a.m. Eastern.

[10:00:02] And we do have breaking news.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions in the hot seat, literally, about to sit down for this Senate Judiciary Committee.