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Private Contractor Evacuated U.S. Forces After Niger Ambush; GOP Senator Says Bipartisan Health Care Deal "Stalled Out"; Senators Grill Sessions Over Meetings with Russians. Aired 3:30-4p ET

Aired October 18, 2017 - 15:30   ET


[15:36:56] BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: It's been two weeks since that ambush in Niger that left four U.S. soldiers dead and now the Defense Department is launching an investigation to find out what happened on the ground, why these four men walked into a terrible ambush. Multiple U.S. officials describe the scene of confusion during the October 4th attack that involved some 50 ISIS affiliated fighters near the border of Mali. I want to bring in Barbara Starr. She's our CNN Pentagon correspondent. Barbara, you have new reporting about the evacuations that came after the ambush?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: We do, indeed, Brianna. Let's as you just said, recall that two weeks later we are still learning new information from the U.S. military which is trying to investigate all of this, put together a time line of what happened hour by hour. But now we are told by the U.S. Africa command that, in fact, a private contractor aircraft, private aviation under contract to the U.S. military in West Africa went in after the firefight and evacuated the dead and the wounded.

Until now we had only been told that French helicopters, French military helicopters went in and of course they would have been armed. We still believe it is the case that they went in and also evacuated some. But what we're trying to find out, and this is a very key point, did both the contractor plane, which is not armed, and the French military helicopter evacuate dead and wounded Americans? Did both of those aircraft have good communication? Quite bluntly, did they do a nose count? Did they know how many people they were supposed to evacuate and did they have them all when they lifted off from that area? Because La David Johnson got left behind for 48 hours and the major question is what happened to him? How he became separated and how nobody was able to recover his body until the Nigerians found him 48 hours later.

So, this new information that an unarmed contractor plane went in to try and help and, in fact, evacuate some of the dead and wounded adds to the puzzle, adds to the Questions being asked. What we know is that Defense Secretary James Mattis is pressing very hard for answers about all of this. What was the intelligence? How could the 12-man team led by Green Berets walk into an ISIS ambush and perhaps most importantly how did Sergeant La David Johnson get left behind -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Barbara, we have just gotten word that Senator John McCain is saying the administration isn't being forthcoming about what's going on. What is the concern here from people like John McCain and others who feel like they just aren't getting answers?

STARR: Well, let me put it this way. We are two weeks past this event. It has a good deal of human tragedy for military families, and beyond those, the four that were killed. You have two wounded in hospital. You have six others as part of the team back at Fort Brag.

[15:40:00] Obviously, having been through a terrible battle. You have military families all over the country that are watching all of this unfold and wondering what happened. Because you have to think that certainly they have questions about the service of their loved ones. I think you cannot under estimate really the concern about somebody being left behind on the battlefield. Does it happen? Occasionally. I can think of a couple of cases in the heat of battle during the worst times in Iraq and Afghanistan when perhaps it happened.

But remember, these guys weren't even supposed to be in combat. They were going to help train and advise local African forces. They were going to go visit a village where they had been before with no problems. Was ISIS watching them? Were they complacent potentially in their operations? We don't know. We're not suggesting that. But these are some of the questions that people have about what happened and how is it, you know, two weeks later I can tell you that today here in the Pentagon from two sources I have heard that Defense Secretary Mattis still wants answers and he still wants them two weeks after this battle took place -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Lots of questions unanswered. Barbara Starr, thank you so much. I should also say that Jake Tapper is going to have more on this coming up.

Plus, we have more breaking news. After the president reverses his endorsement on a bipartisan healthcare deal. One Republican has just said the deal has stalled out. Democrats are now expressing their extreme frustration in trying to work with Republicans.


SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D) MINORITY LEADER: This president keeps zigging and zagging so it's impossible to govern.



KEILAR: We have some breaking news on President Trump's stunning health care flip-flop. The White House is weighing in this hour on Trump reversing his endorsement of a bipartisan deal less than 24 hours after he praised the same deal. Here it is.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We've said all along that we want something that doesn't just bail out the insurance companies but actually provides relief for all-Americans, and this bill doesn't address that fact. So, we want to make sure that that's taken care of. We think that this is the step -- a good step in the right direction. This president certainly supports Republicans and Democrats coming to work together. But it's not a full approach and we need something to go a little bit further to get on board. He wants to lower premiums. He wants to provide greater flexibility. He wants to drive competition. He likes the idea of block grants to states. Those are a lot of the ideas he'd like to see in a health care plan.


KEILAR: So, Trump tweeting today about the deal that was reached between Republican Lamar Alexander and Democrat Patty Murray. And he said, quote, I am supportive of Lamar as a person and also of the process, but I cannot support bailing out insurance companies who have made a fortune with Obamacare.

Alexander says he and the president absolutely agree that these subsidies, these cost reduction subsidies should benefit consumers and not insurance companies. He said I will work with the president to see if we can make it even stronger.

OK. Let's talk it over with our panel. We have Lauren Fox, CNN congressional reporter. And we also have Chris Cillizza is a CNN politics reporter and editor at large. Lauren, my goodness, you could just suffer from whiplash here after John Thune, a key Republican Senator, said, this is now, quote, stalling out.

LAUREN FOX, CNN CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Absolutely. And what you have to remember is that so much of this deal support was based on whether or not the president was going to get behind it. Republicans on Capitol Hill are thinking that it may not be the best idea to stabilize Obamacare, a law they've been campaigning against, a law they were going to repeal and replace. But if President Donald Trump would have come out strongly and said, I need you to do this, it's very important for the next two years to stabilize the insurance market, surely Republicans on Capitol Hill would have at least listened to that advice. Now with the back and forth it makes it very hard to see how Capitol Hill could move forward with something like this.

KEILAR: Yes, Chris, where does this go?

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS REPORTER AND EDITOR AT LARGE: I mean I think that John Thune is sort of indicating where it goes, which is unless they change it it goes nowhere.

KEILAR: It seems like health care is this zombie, right?


KEILAR: That always just kind of comes back. Are we going to see a reincarnation?

CILLIZZA: Yes. I think we will see something, Brianna, but the Question is what and could it possibly pass?

I think we know by now -- despite the president seen every day to the contrary. I think we know by now there are not 50 Republican votes for any form that has been presented over repeal and replace of Obamacare. And I feel like we've learned that lesson. Now the question is, is there a way to sort of mend the insurance markets, mend Obamacare for the near term, a band aid, to -- until they try to repeal and replace again? That's what we thought the bill Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray were putting forward might do. The truth of the matter with the president is, I think -- you saw Sarah Sanders talk about this. He likes the idea of bipartisan, he just didn't know it was in the bill. And so when the fact that the bill rolled -- put the subsidies that he had taken out back in, it's going to be very hard for him to be for it.

KEILAR: But, I mean, that's like unforgivable that he doesn't even know what's in there, right?

CILLIZZA: Well, I mean --

KEILAR: You have one Republican, maybe saying what else is new? He changes positions six times before noon. But it seems, Lauren, this really speaks to the problem that his own party has trying to work with him, because they're trying to construct legislation essentially on quicksand.

[15:50:03] FOX: Well, absolutely. And Senator Chuck Schumer said to reporters today that this is why it's so hard to cut a deal with the president. This happened on immigration. And remember, they're going into a huge tax reform battle in the upcoming months. And it's going to be very hard for even Republicans in Trump's own party to support the president if they don't know exactly what he's asking them to do. And if they come out with a plan and then the president turns around and said, well, you know what, I still want a corporate tax rate at 15 percent, that 20 percent you're looking at is not good enough for me anymore.

CILLIZZA: By the way, Brianna. Just quickly to that point. I think, two things. One, the hardest thing for congressional Republicans with Trump is not the tweeting, it's the unpredictability, right. So, that's number one.


CILLIZZA: They just don't know what he's going to do. Number two, if past is prolog, they have a lot of reason to be skeptical of what he says. Remember that he pushed for the Republican version of repeal and replace in the House. It finally passed the House. He was quoted as saying it's mean, right? When they were working --

KEILAR: After he had a huge Rose Garden kind of assembly for it.

CILLIZZA: Right. If you're a member of Congress, you look at that and think, jeez, to Lauren's point about the corporate tax rate, OK, he says 20 for 15 percent now. Look, he may well change that halfway through once it's already passed one of these chambers again. It's about predictability. They have no idea on a daily basis, what he's going to tweet. Yes, that's a problem, but what he's going to say or change his view on as it relates to policy and that means making policy almost impossible.

KEILAR: It makes me think as I say goodbye to both of you. It's like herding cats. I think being part of Congress. This is like herding cats on a treadmill. It's just nuts. Lauren Fox, Chris Cillizza, thank you so much to both of you. We appreciate it.

The other big issue at hand is that Republican tax plan that you just heard our panel there mention. It's going to be the topic for the CNN debate night tonight. Senator Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz are going to battle it out tonight at 9:00 eastern.

And next, Attorney General Jeff Sessions exchanging heated words with Senators over the Russia investigation. Hear what he had to say when asked if he's been interviewed by special counsel Robert Mueller.


KEILAR: Attorney General Jeff Sessions made his highly anticipated return trip to Capitol Hill today to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee after being grilled earlier this year by his former colleagues. Sessions back in the hot seat. Questioned about the Russia probe, what he knew and when he knew it.


[15:55:04] SEN. AL FRANKEN (D), MINNESOTA: Saying, I didn't discuss interfering with the election is your last -- is your last statement. That's a very different bar than I can tell you I did not meet with any Russians.

JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: You have now gone through this long talk that I believe is totally unfair to me. It all arose from this question. When it was charged that these documents allegedly say, quote, there was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump's surrogates, as if all of them, Trump's surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government. Isn't that what you said? You're shaking your head.

FRANKEN: No, not all Trump surrogates.

SESSIONS: It said Trump's surrogates, it didn't say some of, it said his surrogates. And I felt a need to respond.


KEILAR: With me now is Asha Rangappa. She's a CNN legal and national security analyst. She's also a former FBI special agent. And, Asha, Sessions was questioned about a lot of topics. Russia really dominated here and one of the things that was so interesting was that he repeatedly was asked to talk about his conversations with the president. I'm sure you heard his response to a number of those. Let's play one of these exchanges. It was with Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy.


SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), VERMONT: Have you discussed with him any policies or positions of the campaign or Trump presidency?

SESSIONS: I'm not sure about that. If I met with the Russian ambassador after I gave a speech at the Republican Convention. He was right in front of the speaker phone and we had a few -- we had an encounter there.

I don't think there is any discussion about the details of the campaign other than it could have been that in that meeting in my office or at the convention that some comment was made about what Trump's positions were. I think that's possible.


KEILAR: Explain the reason, Aysha, that he says he can't disclose.

ASHA RANGAPPA, CNN LEGAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: So, the lack of disclosure he's essentially preemptively trying to invoke some kind of privilege. So, I'm talking about the Comey -- not answering the questions about anything that happened with Comey. And then he has this other aspect about the Russians, which kind of gets to conflicting testimony that he gave earlier. So, in terms of asserting that he can't talk about confidential communications with the president, he's alluding to an executive privilege. And that's a privilege that has to be invoked by the president. It's not something that Sessions can do on his behalf, and we saw this back in June. He kind of did the same thing.

And he's had time now and I believe that the committee asked Sessions to let the committee know whether the president was invoking this privilege and they didn't get an answer on that. So, it's kind of a game of congressional who's on first and just going in circles because they're -- it's not moving along. The process that is in place when there is a conflict between the executive branch and Congress about what can be disclosed and what can't.

KEILAR: I have one minute here, Asha, so I want to get your input on this thing, though, which is that he said to this committee he had not been interviewed by the special counsel, by Robert Mueller. What did you make of that?

RANGAPPA: I don't know that that's entirely surprising. Mueller is going to be moving in a very methodical way and I think that he's going to be getting as much information as he can about the big picture before he goes and interviews the principals in the investigation who really have -- he's going to want -- he's going to want to know the answers to the questions before he asks them. That's really important in an investigation. So, I don't know that it's entirely surprising that he hasn't yet interviewed Sessions. I did find it a little surprising that Sessions wasn't really sure whether Mueller had made the request or not. It seems like that would be a top priority in terms of knowing -- even though he's recused from it formally, knowing what stage Mueller might be in in terms of bringing in Sessions into the investigation.

KEILAR: We're certainly curious about that. Asha Rangappa, thank you so much to you. "THE LEAD" with Jake Tapper starts right now.