Return to Transcripts main page


Trump's Alleged Insensitive Comments Regarding Killed U.S. Soldier Ignite Firestorm; White House Press Briefing. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired October 18, 2017 - 15:00   ET



SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think it's certainly a step in the -- in the right direction.

As we've said many times before, the president supports standing for the national anthem, saluting the flag, and honoring those men and women in uniform that fight to protect it.


QUESTION: Sarah, thanks.

Does the president feel, as a matter of principle, that it is not adequate to simply send a letter of condolence to the family of a slain serviceperson, as President Bush and President Obama typically did?

And does he feel that it was not adequate for President Obama to have sent a letter to General Kelly, but not call General Kelly, on the death of his son?

SANDERS: I don't think that there's anything that any president can do -- there's never going to be enough that a president can do for the families of those that are killed in action.

The point the president was making is that there's a different process. Sometimes they call. Sometimes they write letters. Sometimes they engage directly.

The comments were certainly, I think, taken very far out of context by the media. And if there's any frustration, I think that's where it should be focused.

Blake (ph)?

QUESTION: Let me ask you about something Steve Mnuchin had said, since you guys talk about the stock market a lot, and the president does as well. He said, and I quote here, "There's no question in my mind that if we don't get it done," meaning tax reform, "that you're going to see a reversal of significant amount of these gains"; essentially saying if tax reform doesn't happen, there could be a major correction on the corner of Wall and Broad.

How concerned is president at this point of that possibility?

SANDERS: We're confident that we're going to get tax cuts done, and so that's what we're focused on, and we're going to continue pushing forward until we get there.

QUESTION: On the health care bill, if you don't mind, what change did...

SANDERS: I'm sorry, I'm just going to take one question today.

QUESTION: The president tweeted about the California wildfire situation. Does he have any plans at this point to visit California to survey the damage in person? And if he doesn't, does that speak to a lack of interest in -- in helping the state recover from the wildfires?

SANDERS: Not at all.

Again, the administration has been very engaged throughout this process. We're going to continue to be there. We're continuing to talk with state and local officials on the ground, and work with those individuals to make sure that whatever aid is needed, that we can help provide that process.

QUESTION: Is he going to go to the state, though?

SANDERS: There's not a trip planned at this time, but it certainly hasn't been ruled out, either.


QUESTION: Thank you, Sarah.

Can you please clarify the president's position on Kurdistan, especially -- Iraq and Kurdistan, especially given the takeover of Kirkuk? And does the president see Kurdistan as an ally in general? SANDERS: As we've said before, that position hasn't changed. I know I've talked about it a couple times.

We urge all sides to avoid escalating this further. We oppose the violence from any party. And we'd like for them to be focused on helping continue in the fights against ISIS, and that's where -- and Iran. And that's where we'd like to see their energy focused.


SANDERS: Sorry, I'm going to keep to one question.

QUESTION: Thanks, Sarah.

It's been more than two months since the president said that he would declare the opioid epidemic a national public emergency. On Monday, he said he'd get it done next week, but that -- to get to that step, a lot of work had to be done, and called it time-consuming work.

Can you explain why it's taking so long, detail some of what this time-consuming work is, and what players are involved in this process?

SANDERS: There's a very in-depth legal process that goes with declaring a national emergency. We'll make further announcements on that next week.

But here have been multiple people. It's an inter-agency process, a lot of different stakeholders have been involved. And we'll have further announcements on that next week, like the president said.

QUESTION: Can you tell me what that -- is there a...

SANDERS: Sorry, I'm going to stick to the one question.

QUESTION: Just following on the tax reform meeting today, can you just, sort of, talk about the strategy from the White House going forward on this? I know that Marc Short told us before that Democrats were a must-have on this bill, or on tax reform; is that still where things are?

SANDERS: I think it's pretty simple. The strategy is to get enough votes to pass tax cuts.

QUESTION: OK. So can you just elaborate a little bit on the Democratic -- getting Democrats on board?

SANDERS: Look, we'd love to see them get on board. We don't know why any Democrat would want to be against providing tax relief and tax cuts specifically to middle-class America. I don't know why anybody wouldn't want to get on board with that.


QUESTION: Thank you, Sarah.

It's been almost a month since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. Almost 80 percent of the island is without power, and about a million Americans, a third of the population there, still don't have reliable drinking water.

Does the administration consider the current state of affairs in Puerto Rico acceptable? And when it comes to Puerto Rico, does the buck stop with President Trump?

SANDERS: Look, we're continuing to do everything that we can to help the people of Puerto Rico. It's one of the reasons that the governor will be here at the White House tomorrow, to continue those conversations, to talk about how best the federal government can help aid state and local governments, and help in the rebuilding and recovery efforts.

Eamon (ph)?

QUESTION: Thank you, Sarah.

On the Fed chair search, the president once said that he considers himself to be a low-interest-rate guy. Does he still consider himself to be a low-interest-rate guy, and will that have any bearing on who he selects to run the Fed?

SANDERS: As the president said yesterday, he's interviewed a number of very qualified individuals, and he'll make that announcement in the coming days. And we can deliberate all of the details of that once that happens.

I'm sorry?


SANDERS: Days do add up to weeks.



QUESTION: Let me clarify back on the phone call real quick. What exactly is the president denying? Is he denying that he ever spoke these words to the widow, that he must've 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? His words.

SANDERS: 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.

QUESTION: It wasn't that he didn't say those words, it was the context; he felt that she put it in the wrong context, 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. He took the time to make a call to express his condolences, to thank the family for this individual's service. And I think it, frankly, is a disgrace of the media to try to portray an act of kindness like that and that gesture, and try to make it into something that it isn't.


QUESTION: Sarah, did the president speak to his chief of staff, General John Kelly, before invoking his son's death in what has become a political argument? SANDERS: I know he's spoken to General Kelly multiple times yesterday and today.

QUESTION: 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...

SANDERS: I'm not sure if he...

QUESTION: ... the outreach?

SANDERS: 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.

QUESTION: So, can you describe how General Kelly feels about it? Is he comfortable with the way the son's memory has been...

SANDERS: I think General Kelly is disgusted by the way that this has been politicized, and that the focus has become on the process and not the fact that American lives were lost. I think he's disgusted and frustrated by that.


SANDERS: If he has any anger, it's towards that.

Fred (ph)?

QUESTION: Yes, thanks, Sarah.

Yes, the House, a few weeks back, passed the ban on pain-capable abortions. Where does the president -- (inaudible) has said that the president would sign this legislation.

Is the White House putting pressure on the Senate to pass the Lindsey- Graham bill that would ban the 20-week...

SANDERS: I'm sorry, what was the last part of the question?

QUESTION: Is the White House putting pressure on the Senate to pass the Lindsey-Graham 20-week ban?

SANDERS: I know that there have been conversations about that and the administration supports that policy.

But beyond that, I don't know if there have been further conversations or pressure applied. But certainly support that effort.



QUESTION: (inaudible) Sarah.

Sarah, Congresswoman Wilson -- I talked to her a couple hours ago. And she says that this is the president's Benghazi. She says that -- that Jackson was -- that his Green Berets were in Niger trying to find out information and (inaudible) mission about Boko Haram. And she said that his transmitter was still emitting for two days, emitting a signal when he was located. And she says that makes no sense why he wasn't located.

What say you about that? And also, what do you say about her comment that he did not know -- and the wife, the widow, said that the president did not know his name; he kept saying "your guy," "your guy"?

SANDERS: Just because the president said "your guy," I don't think that means he doesn't know his name. As the president stated, the hardest job he has is making calls like that.

I think it is appalling what the congresswoman has done, and the way she's politicized this issue, and the way that she is trying to make this about something that it isn't.

This was a president who loves our country very much, who has the greatest level of respect for men and women in uniform, and wanted to call and offer condolences to the family. And I think to try to create something from that, that the congresswoman is doing, is, frankly, appalling and disgusting.

QUESTION: What do you say about what she said about Boko Haram in Niger? What do you say about what she said about the mission? And then...

SANDERS: As I said to Major before, I'm not going to get into the details of that action at this point.

QUESTION: Was she right? Was she right?

SANDERS: As I said before, I'm not going to get into the details of that action at this time. And when we have further information, I'll be happy to discuss it with you.


SANDERS: Hallie?

QUESTION: Thank you.

I just want to -- setting aside the congresswoman, setting aside the discussion about the politicization of this, the woman who raised Sergeant Johnson spoke to the Washington Post and said she felt like her son had been disrespected.

And again, I'm not asking you about the -- what Congresswoman Wilson had to say, I'm not asking you about any of that.

But given that somebody who has -- as you rightly note, making these phone calls is probably one of the hardest things the commander in chief has to do. Given that, is the president at all reconsidering the way that he communicates with these families? Has General Kelly counseled him on, perhaps, how he might want to choose or change his words in the future?

SANDERS: General Kelly was present for the call and thought it was completely appropriate. He thought the call was respectful. And he thought that the president did the best job he could under those circumstances to offer condolences on behalf of the country.


QUESTION: On NAFTA, the Canadian and the Mexican negotiators have rejected the U.S. proposals, proposals that were described as unconventional and troubling.

Is NAFTA dead?

SANDERS: Not yet. But as the president said, it's -- it's a bad deal, and he wants to make sure that we have a deal that benefits American workers. That's what this administration is focused on.

We're going to continue to push forward. And if we can't get there, then we'll let you know what the changes are.


SANDERS: Thank you, Sarah.

In a tweet this morning, President Trump said that former FBI Director James Comey had "lied, leaked and totally protected Hillary Clinton." He also asked "Where is the Justice Department on this?"

QUESTION: What exactly does the president want the Justice Department to do? Is he calling for a prosecution of James Comey? What's he asking for here?

SANDERS: Look, the White House hasn't and won't offer a legal opinion on Comey's conduct; but, in fact, to the contrary, the White House has actually deferred, as it should, any and all legal questions regarding Director Comey to the Department of Justice. That's the appropriate venue for those things to be dealt with.

QUESTION: So what's he asking the Department of Justice to do, though, in his tweet this morning? That's what I'm asking.

SANDERS: We refer any legal action to the Department of Justice. Anything on that front would be handled by them.

Sarah (ph)?

QUESTION: Sarah, normally when the president is upset about something we hear from him pretty quickly about it, whether it's an issue with a senator, whether it's an issue with the NFL.

So why did it take nearly two weeks to say something about this ISIS ambush; not to reach out to the families, necessarily, but even to offer public condolences or to explain to the American public what happened and how the deadliest combat mission involving American troops went so wrong?

SANDERS: As I said before, there is a protocol for that, but there's also -- we did make public remarks from the administration -- I know I did -- in short order, after that happened from the podium at the direction...


SANDERS: ... at the direction of the president. And I speak on his behalf and I did that on behalf of the president and the administration. (CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: Sarah, you've brought up politicizing a couple of times in relation to Congresswoman Wilson. But did the president politicize General Kelly's son's death by bringing it up as a defense for his claims about what past presidents did or did not do with (inaudible)? SANDERS: He was responding to a question and stating a fact.

QUESTION: Sarah, just to clarify your earlier answer, you're not denying that in some point in the conversation the president used the words, "It's what he signed up for"?

SANDERS: I -- I spoke specifically to the sentiment that was offered by the president. I didn't get into the details of a personal call, because I don't find that to be that appropriate.


QUESTION: Thank you, Sarah.

You opened up at the top discussing the liberation of Raqqa. So my question for you is, how does the president envision future U.S. involvement in both Syria and Iraq post-ISIS?

SANDERS: We want to continue to work with our coalition forces to completely destroy and defeat ISIS. Right now that's the priority and that's the focus, and that's what we're going to continue to be focused on at this time.

Thank you guys so much for today. And see you tomorrow.


BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: Well, the White House says there is no recording of the president's call with the widow of a soldier killed in Niger, even though he teased proof that contradicts a lawmaker's account and also the account of the slain soldier's mother that he told the widow he knew what he signed up for.

The president also suggested he has called or contacted every family member -- or family of a military member killed in action. But when challenged, the White House says he has done so based on the information that the White House Military Office has given to him.

There are some families who have not heard from the president, and that includes my next guest.

Whitney Hunter is the widow of Army Sergeant Jonathon Hunter. He was one of two paratroopers who were killed just this past August because of a car bomb near Kandahar, Afghanistan. This was his first deployment.

And first off, Whitney, I mean, we can't even begin to express how sorry we are for your loss, and also I think just for how sorry we are having to talk about this issue that has come up, when certainly you should be concentrating on grieving as the family of La David Johnson is.

But I just wonder, when you heard part of that briefing there, and there's all of this controversy over the White House contacting families, Gold Star families, have -- tell us about your experience with contact with the White House, with the president, with the vice president.


WHITNEY HUNTER, WIDOW OF U.S. SOLDIER: At the dignified transfer in Dover, I was extremely honored to have had Vice President Pence there.

He spent a great deal of time talking to me, and it wasn't -- it wasn't an uncomfortable type of thing. He really was just a very genuine human being and he shared his condolences and he talked to me like he knew me forever, so it meant a lot for me to have him there.

Soon after, maybe it was -- it was around the same time -- I know that I was meeting with my casualty officer, and he received a call from the White House. I'm not exactly sure who, but he was told that I needed to be by my phone for the next few days because the president would be calling me to express his condolences on behalf of the nation.

And I just -- I never received the phone call.

KEILAR: What would it have meant to have received the phone call?

HUNTER: I think, for me, I'm kind of neutral on the topic.

Just having the extreme outpouring of support and condolences, and just my support system in general, and the reaching out of all kinds of military officials and government officials, it made it -- I knew that Jonathon's sacrifice was appreciated.

And I knew that the condolences were sent out to me, so it was very genuine. But my issue is, I -- having all of the support I had was great, but not receiving the phone call, it just -- I don't like that I was told that I would receive the phone call, but then I never did.


HUNTER: And I don't have -- I don't have anything negative to say directly about the president, but my husband died for our country. He died for our nation in defense of our nation.

And I don't want that to have been in vain or to have been -- I don't want it to be taken for granted. And I don't have anything negative to say about our president, but I do know the difference between right and wrong. And whenever you say you're going to do something, you're supposed to do it.

And I just -- I really wish -- I just -- I want people to know that. I mean, if you say you're going to do something, do it.

KEILAR: Did you get a letter? HUNTER: I did receive -- I received a presidential certificate.

To my knowledge, it's customary for this type of situation that you are able to request a presidential certificate just acknowledging the death and the sacrifice, and it's signed directly by the president, so I did receive that.

KEILAR: But you didn't receive a personalized letter? It was more of a certificate?

HUNTER: Yes, ma'am, it was just -- it was a certificate signed by the president, to my knowledge.


HUNTER: But I didn't receive like a personal letter, no, ma'am.

KEILAR: I know you have gotten a tremendous outpouring from top-level military officials. You talked to the vice president, and clearly those words have brought you some comfort.

What would you have wanted to hear from President Trump?

HUNTER: Just -- just knowing that it was appreciated, and not necessarily -- appreciated isn't the word.

There's not really an appropriate word. Just knowing that he was grateful for the sacrifice of my husband and for Christopher Harris, and just hearing that, it would have been a tremendous honor to have heard that directly from the president.

KEILAR: When you hear this controversy right now, and you hear the account of this congresswoman, which is backed up by the account of La David Johnson's mother, that the president told the widow -- quote -- "Well, I guess he knew what he signed up for, but I guess it still hurt," that is -- that's really the characterization, not exactly verbatim, coming from the congresswoman, when you think of a widow being told that from the -- from your vantage point of knowing what it is like to go through this horrible thing, what's your reaction?

HUNTER: I think me, personally, as a military spouse, this is something that you go into -- my marriage, I went into it knowing. You know the risks. You know what you're signing up for. You spend every day knowing what you signed up for.

But whenever you are dealing with the tremendous amount of grief that me and any other fellow widow is experiencing right now, that's not something I think anyone, whether a family member or anybody has -- it's not their position to say that.

I feel for her. I really do. I know that this is an extremely hard time, so we already know that this is what we signed up for. We just never really thought that we would be on the other side of it.


KEILAR: The 82nd Airborne Division posted something about your husband that I want to read.

It said -- quote -- "Sergeant Jonathon Hunter was the leader that we all want to work for, strong, decisive, compassionate and courageous. He was revered by his paratroopers and respected throughout his unit."

You just lost him a few months ago.

What do you want the world to know about him?

HUNTER: Everything you just said was spot on.

He was a phenomenal man. He -- he sacrificed his life. And I know for a fact he would have done it as many times as necessary to protect his brothers and to protect our nation and to protect me and you and everybody.

And I just -- I don't want it to ever be taken for granted, because I lost my husband in defense of this nation, and that's something that I will treasure forever, knowing that I married a hero.

KEILAR: And what was he like? What was he like to his friends? What was he like to you?

HUNTER: There is not a single room that that man has ever walked into that he did not just light up and spread just a very unique type of joy and laughter and just happiness.

He was -- he was perfect. He was -- he was just a really, really genuinely great person.

KEILAR: Whitney Hunter, I cannot thank you enough for lending us your perspective here. We are thinking of you. We are thinking of your family, and we are remembering your husband along with you. Thank you so much.

HUNTER: Thank you very much.

KEILAR: I want to bring in my panel now.

Paul Rieckhoff, I want to start with you, as someone who represents so many veterans.

And, first off, if we can just acknowledge just, I mean, how emotional it is to listen to Whitney there, but when you listened to the White House briefing there and the explanation, what did you think?

PAUL RIECKHOFF, FOUNDER & EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN VETERANS OF AMERICA: I think the only thing that matters is what Whitney says and what Whitney thinks.

And the only thing that matters in the midst of all the political back and forth is not what the president feels, or what a congresswoman feels. It's what Mrs. Johnson feels.

And I think is really like a conscious-calling moment for our nation to think about what is really important. These Gold Stars families have sacrificed more than we can ever imagine. And they hold our country together. They are what represents our country.

And if we need a true north in times like this, I hope that Gold Star families can be that true north and cut through all the nonsense and let's listen to them and ask them what they need. That's the most important thing, I think, for all of us to focus on right now is what they need and what they think we should do.

KEILAR: Ed, what did you think there listening there to Whitney?

ED MARTIN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, first of all, Brianna, I want to say thank you to you, because you asked more questions of her than most of these things do, and you let her shine about her husband. I thought it was extraordinary kindness.

And as Paul said earlier, these are sacred moments. God spare us the loss of a loved one like that. What a woman that is to see.

Look, I think the press conference, I admire Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who she handles it. I think General Kelly is now in the middle of the political spat. And that maybe that will us back toward what Paul referred to.

But if I can say, since we're talking about that press conference, it's an extraordinary time in this administration. In one press conference, you heard that NAFTA, health care, tax cuts, ISIS are all happening.

And if we could get the space for the sacredness of this event and move it off and focus on the policy, I think people would feel better about what's happening. But it was an extraordinary interview you just had. I can't say that enough to you, Brianna.

KEILAR: Well, thank you.

And listening to her perspective, it really is -- it is the perspective that matters, as Paul said.

Nia, I wonder what you think, though. And Sarah was asked about this. Wasn't it the president who brought General Kelly and the death of his son into the political sphere on this? She said he was just answering a question factually, as she dodged that question, but isn't it the role of the president to not do that, to be the person who sets the tone here on the conversation like this?


And I think, you know, it's a good argument to be made that he politicized this from the Rose Garden when he brought Obama in and other presidents and essentially tried to play a sort of oneupmanship on how other presidents dealt with the families of the war dead.

And then he, of course, brought in Robert Kelly, John Kelly's son. And if you go back to when Robert Kelly died, John Kelly was very plain about he didn't want the news media to focus on this. He didn't think that it had to be noteworthy that his son died, anymore than the son of a plumber, the son, you know, of a mechanic. [15:25:05]

So he very much didn't want his son's death to be, you know, specifically highlighted because of who his father was. So then you had Donald Trump bringing his son into this debate.

I think politicizing it is an accurate way to describe the way the president rump was trying to use John Kelly's son's name in that argument that he was having about how presidents have conducted themselves around or in relation to the family of the war dead.

And you saw there Sanders not really answering that question, right, just saying he was asking -- answering a question. I think what's interesting, too, about this is, it seems like what happened here was that the president's heart was in the right place, but his words didn't necessarily match that.

And it seems like there's been a big miscommunication. And the family there, Myeshia Johnson and the family of La David Johnson seemed to feel like that their family and that the memory of the son and the husband were disrespected.

So, that is something that still to be addressed at some point.

KEILAR: Ed, you were shaking your head at a point there.

MARTIN: Well, yes. I just think -- I think that was -- the best thing at the end was his heart was in the right place and maybe some of it came out wrong.


KEILAR: But, Ed, who cares where his heart is? That's not the point.


KEILAR: Isn't the more important thing about how a widow and a family perceives what he says?

MARTIN: Well, no.


KEILAR: Why are you making excuses for the president, when it's his job...

MARTIN: I'm not making excuses. No.


KEILAR: It's his job to not just have his heart in the right place, but his words in the right place?

MARTIN: No, the job of the president in these incredibly difficult times is to have as best he can to handle the moment correctly. When he says Obama didn't call Kelly, I don't think we should judge that. When we knew Bill Clinton -- Bill Clinton was described as being

really good at visiting with families. When the president has Pence meet these bodies and try to handle the sacred moment, they're doing the best they can in these special moments.

And there's two things that are true. One is the widow, as we said earlier about Mrs. Hunter, their perspective, no matter what, has to be understood and respected. So I'm with you on all of that.

But we have to pull back. And what I meant is when I said Kelly is in the middle of it, he was on the phone call. In other words, they thought that the protocol for being respectful was best to have General Kelly as chief of staff on the call. And he said that it was honorable and it was done in the right way.

That's got to mean something. And I'm saying, now let's move this off center stage and talk about NAFTA going down and talk about health care going down. I just think we're beating the argument into the ground.

KEILAR: Well, Evan, I'm not ready to talk about NAFTA yet.

Evan, weigh in on this.

EVAN MCMULLIN, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Yes, basically, look, I think this is something that the president could be given the benefit of the doubt on.

In fact, I think if this situation had happened with the president -- with any other president saying the words that Donald Trump is reported to have said, it probably wouldn't be as much of an issue.

I think most other presidents, at least that we have had in modern times, would sort of be given the benefit of the doubt or the pass at maybe saying the wrong thing.

But this is the situation. The situation is that the president is somebody who is known to have not always shown respect for Gold Star families. He's known to have attacked one of our greatest national heroes, John McCain, because he was taken prisoner.

He's known to be a person who doesn't exhibit much sympathy in general. And because of that, he doesn't have that store of credit that you would draw upon in this situation, like we all do in our daily lives when we say the wrong thing. If we're generally known to be sympathetic or a well-intentioned person, then we're given the benefit of the doubt.

The problem is, is that the president is very low on that credit, especially when it comes to Gold Star families. And so if he says the wrong thing, even mistakenly, it can be problematic for him, and I think that's what we're seeing here.

KEILAR: I want to thank you all. This is -- it's very difficult to talk about. And I really appreciate all of your diverse perspectives. Thank you so much. We do want to take a moment, an important moment here to honor the

soldier and the family that he leaves behind. His wife, just 24 years old, she is six months pregnant. They also have two other children together, including a 6-year-old daughter, who was at her mother's side when her father's casket arrived in the U.S.

I want you just to take a look at this solemn ceremony. It's a ceremony that no military family wants to witness.