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Lawmaker: Trump Told Soldier's Widow 'He Knew What He Signed Up For'; Pentagon Launches Investigation into Niger Ambush; GOP Calls Grow to End Russia Investigations in Congress This Year. Aired 6- 6:30a ET

Aired October 18, 2017 - 06:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is NEW DAY with Chris Cuomo and Alisyn Camerota.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. This is your NEW DAY. It is Wednesday, October 18, 6 a.m. here in New York. And here is our starting line.

The president's empathy, or lack thereof, is in sharp focus. President Trump is accused of telling a pregnant widow of one of the U.S. Special Forces soldiers who were killed in Niger that "he knew what he signed up for, but I guess it still hurt." The source, a congresswoman who overheard the call to the widow of Sergeant La David Johnson.

This as questions grow about that ambush in Niger that resulted in the largest loss of military life in Trump's tenure.

The president does appear to be politicizing the deaths of these four heroes instead of talking about why they died, the president even dragging his own chief of staff's slain son, a Marine, into the political spotlight as he levels these false accusations against former President Obama.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Meanwhile, President Trump continuing his feud with another war hero, Senator John McCain. Hours after the Arizona senator condemned what he called "spurious nationalism" in a speech, the president warned that he will fight back against McCain. And Senator McCain tells CNN that he's faced bigger challenges than Mr. Trump's threats.

On the legislative front, two big items are on the Republican agenda. The Senate will begin debating next year's budget, laying the groundwork for tax reform. And the president appears to back a new bipartisan deal that would preserve those health subsidies that he vowed to kill.

So we have it all covered for you. Let's begin with CNN's Joe Johns. He is live at the White House for us.

Good morning, Joe.


It is a solemn obligation: calls to the families of fallen U.S. military personnel. Only this time, the question is not about whether the president makes that call but the content of the conversation and the kind of things that should and should not be said.


WILSON: Basically he said, "Well, I guess he knew what he signed up for, but I guess it still hurts."

JOHNS (voice-over): Democratic Congresswoman Frederica Wilson recounting a conversation she says she overheard between President Trump and the widow of fallen U.S. Army Sergeant La David Johnson.

WILSON: Everybody knows when you go to war, you could possibly not come back alive. But you don't remind a grieving widow of that. It's so insensitive. So insensitive. He should not have said that.

JOHNS: Johnson was killed two weeks ago during an ambush in Niger, his body returned home to Miami Tuesday. The plane receiving a water cannon salute as it arrived near the gate.

Johnson's pregnant widow, Myesha Johnson, hugging her husband's flag- draped casket along with her 6-year-old daughter in this heartbreaking video. Congresswoman Wilson says President Trump called Myesha minutes before while the family was on their way to the airport.

WILSON: I was livid. I asked them to give me the phone, because I wanted to speak with him, and I was going to curse him out.

JOHNS: When asked for comment by CNN, the White House did not deny the comment, saying only, "The president's conversations with the families of American heroes who have made the ultimate sacrifice are private."

This conversation coming hours after the president used the death of the son of his chief of staff John Kelly, a Marine, to bolster his false claim that his predecessor did not call families of fallen members of the armed sources.

TRUMP: I think I've called every family of somebody that's died. Now as far as other representatives, I don't know. I mean, you could ask General Kelly, did he get a call from Obama?

JOHNS: General Kelly has said little in public about his son's death and asked specifically for his son not to be mentioned before a 2010 commemoration of two other Marines killed in combat according to multiple reports. Kelly's son had been killed just days prior.

The White House declined to make General Kelly available for comment, and he did not appear with the president at two key events Tuesday.

Records show that Kelly and his wife were invited by the Obamas to a White House breakfast for Gold Star families in 2011, but it's unclear if they attended.

Meanwhile, President Trump intensifying his ongoing feud with war hero Senator John McCain, blasting the Arizona senator for repudiating his nationalist world view.

TRUMP: People have to be careful, because at some point I fight back. You know, I'm being very nice. I'm being very, very nice. But at some point I fight back, and it won't be pretty.

JOHNS: McCain, who spent five and a half years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, later telling reporters that he's faced far greater challenges than Mr. Trump.


JOHNS: Despite the spat with Senator McCain clearing the way for the Senate budget resolution to advance for a vote. The president meets today with the powerful Senate Finance Committee in the Oval Office. That is his only scheduled appearance in public so far today.

Chris, back to you.

[06:05:02] CUOMO: Joe, thank you. The president's respect for fallen troops is certainly relevant. But so is the underlying mystery of why these special operators and these other troops were killed.

The Defense Department is launching an investigation into the deadly ambush on this mission in Niger as questions grow about what went wrong two weeks ago.

CNN's Barbara Starr is live at the Pentagon with more. Quick question: is this investigation just being launched now, or do your sources say that they have been looking into this?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, they certainly have been looking into it. And the military always looks at these instances when something happens and tries to figure out all the details.

But here in this case, they are literally putting together a timeline hour by hour as to what happened. And there's some key things that they are looking at.

Look, it starts with why was the Green Beret team -- led team in there? They were in there to help train and advise local forces. This is an area along this border with Mali in West Africa where insurgents are very active. It ' well-known.

But that takes you to what intelligence, then, did they have when they went into this area? They had been there before. They had not encountered any kind of combat. This time they did. Did the proper intelligence? Did they know what they were facing?

Clearly, they did not, because they walked into an ISIS ambush. So that will be a key question. What was the intelligence? What did they know going in? What didn't they know? Did they have the proper equipment? And when the firefight broke out, the ambush break out, Sergeant La David Johnson, who we are hearing so much about, of course, along with the other fallen, his body was not recovered for 48 hours. The military says they never leave somebody behind. In this case it

was 48 hours. It was local forces that found his dead body two days after the firefight.

So a key question here for his family, for the fallen, for everyone will be what happened when the helicopters lifted off with the dead and wounded? How did Sergeant La David Johnson get left behind -- Alisyn, Chris?

CAMEROTA: That does demand answers. Barbara, thank you very much for the update from the Pentagon.

Let's discuss all this with our panel. We want to bring in CNN political analyst David Gregory and CNN political commentator Errol Louis.

So gentlemen, just to remind people, this is not the first time that President Trump's tone, when it comes to the military and the sacrifices in the military, has been questioned or seemed off. So let's just remind people about what he said about starting with John McCain. Listen to this.


TRUMP: He's not a war hero.

FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST: A war hero. Five and a half years...

TRUMP: He's a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren't captured, OK? I hate to tell you.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS: He said you have sacrificed nothing and no one.

TRUMP: Well, that sounds -- who wrote that? Did Hillary's script writers write it?

STEPHANOPOULOS: How would you answer that, by the way? What sacrifice have you made for your country?

TRUMP: I think I made a lot of sacrifices. I work very, very hard. I've created thousands and thousands of jobs -- tens of thousands of jobs. I've built great structures. I've done -- I've had tremendous success.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Those are sacrifices?

TRUMP: Oh, sure, I think they're sacrifices.

We had a massive field of people. You saw that. I get up this morning and I turn on one of the networks, and they show an empty field. I said, "Wait a minute. I made a speech. I looked out. The field was -- it looked like a million, million and a half people."

(END VIDEO CLIP) CAMEROTA: That one just reminds you, Errol, was when he was at the

CIA in front of the wall of fallen agents who had given their life for the country. And he was talking about his crowd size. So what are we to make of this?

ERROL LOUIS, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I mean, look, this is in keeping with what we know this president is fixated on, which is himself. It's very hard to ask him to be part of a conversation, an extended conversation, which is really what John McCain had initiated, about some larger meaning to his presidency and to where this country is supposed to go.

So when John McCain talks about the post-world -- the post-war world that we are supposed to lead, that the obligations of leadership that the American president and the American political leadership is supposed to sort of undertake that there are sacrifices involved, this is a completely foreign language to President Trump. He has absolutely no idea how to process that. It's not something he has lived. It's not something that he's shown that he cared about. It's not something that he campaigned on.

And so he ends up right back in the jarring situations where people who have a very different sense of what patriotism means, what leadership means, what the obligations to this country mean, are trying to talk with somebody who doesn't understand any of it and doesn't really care.

CUOMO: Do you think this hurts him with the base?

JOHNS: Look, the base is going to follow him no matter what. It literally doesn't matter what he says. I mean, he's -- you know, he revels in that. He's demonstrated that. There are people who, you know, can sort of look at their demographics and you think that they'd be offended by some of what he does that kind of violates some norms or decency and of conduct that the military normally adheres to. I don't know if this particular commander in chief gets held to account for that.

[06:10:13] CUOMO: I don't know why people are shocked, David, about the -- him going after McCain. I know that ordinarily, a guy who's a decorated war hero and this kind of senator who's going through cancer, all of those things would checks boxes in your head, don't go after him right now. That's not who Trump is.

Other than you, I think everyone on this screen right now has been personally attacked by the president of the United States when he doesn't like something that you do.

CAMEROTA: You're next.

GREGORY: No, I qualify.

CUOMO: He spares -- he spares no one.

GREGORY: I have been. I have been.

CUOMO: Really? Because usually, someone as handsome as you, usually, he'll give you a break just on looks alone.

GREGORY: Yes. Yes, right.

CUOMO: This is who he is. This is what he does. That is not a subjective statement.


CUOMO: It is demonstrable. What is different this time for you?

GREGORY: You know, to me, it again comes back to the dignity of the office. You know, if you are a family member of someone who has served our armed forces and died in combat, died in any capacity serving the country, it means something if the president of the United States reaches out to your family because of what that means, because of what the presidency means.

And so it seems that Donald Trump has done that in as many cases as he can. He says he's done it in the case of everyone who's fallen for their family members. That's very important.

Where he has strayed is-- is by lying about whether previous presidents have done that, by politicizing all of this, by wrapping himself in the armor, so to speak, of the military to make a political point. And you're right, not understanding that someone like John McCain, who has sacrificed in the way that he has for the country. The man can't even lift his -- his arms above his shoulders, because they were broken so many times in captivity.

You show deference to that person as a human being. And as president of the United States, someone who shares the same office that Abraham Lincoln once held, you try to uphold the dignity of the office.

And I think all of this: the way the president has talked about it, the way he's politicized it, is beneath the dignity of the office of the presidency. That's the bottom line.

CAMEROTA: But this comment that the congresswoman, Frederica Wilson, who was in the car as the widow, pregnant widow of Sergeant Johnson received the call from the president. And I guess it was on speaker phone so she could hear what the president said.

So this comment of, "Well, I guess he knew what he signed up for, but I guess it still hurt." I mean, to me the "I guess it still hurt" part is the most stunning, even more so than the first part of the sentence. And you know, according to the congresswoman, who we will be having on, it -- the widow was saddened.

LOUIS: I would think so. I mean, at the very moment where she's going to sort of see the coffin with her children at her side. I mean, it's hard to imagine a more devastating scene. It's unfortunate in this case that the president's words were heard in that way, interpreted that way. There apparently is a witness to this who is angered and willing to speak out about this.

So now the White House, we know that the White House spokesperson sort of hid behind the notion of, well, the president's words to the families of the fallen are private. Well, that certainly wasn't true with Captain Khan's family, right? It was -- it was international news. He went back to it again and again and again.

CAMEROTA: Khizr Khan, Gold Star family, obviously. And then he engaged in a battle with them as a candidate.

JOHNS: Attack the mother, attack the father. You know, went back to it again and again. So no, I don't think he gets a pass on this. And we'll hear what this one family, and you know, one wishes you could isolate them and sort of push that aside.

But you know, when he -- and gain, this is the president's doing. No one pushed him on this. He is the one who had to sort of boast about how much better than Obama he was when it comes to consoling grieving families. He brought this on himself. He won't be able to walk away from it. His spokesperson will be asked about it again and again and again. And here we are again. It's the Khan family flap all over again.

CUOMO: Right. And also, David, just for context, it's not just another demonstration of how he takes no prisoners. Roy Cohn's counseling, go after whoever goes after you.

This starts with the largest loss of military life in his tenure. He ignores it. He knew about it. He ignored it. He was talking about tons of different stuff over these 12 things. And a lot of it was petty, meaningless, manufactured stuff. So he had plenty of opportunity. He didn't do it.

When confronted with that, he lied and said other presidents are worse. And then, when he needed to reinforce, his double down moment, he brings in the slain son of his chief of staff and puts the general in the most impossible position he's put him in to date.

The combination effect of that, do you think that might make the scrutiny of how President Trump deals with the office more this time?

GREGORY: Well, it might. I mean, again, an ardent supporter of President Trump might look at all of the scrutiny to say that this is just, you know, more evidence of hatred in the press and all of that, and they may look at this irrationally, as they have others.

But I think there's no question. I mean, what the president is doing here is just wrong. There's no way to look at it differently.

And even, you know, the comments that the congresswoman reports between the president and this widow, it's uncomfortable for me. because I wonder if that's exactly how he said it or what was said, if that was her interpretation, and it upset the wife. Obviously, she's going to be upset under any circumstances. I don't know. It feels uncomfortable. I want to ask some more questions about is that exactly how it was heard.

Regardless, how he's handled this whole thing is just undignified, especially when it revolves around your predecessors. You want to treat your predecessors with some deference. This is a very delicate matter how you contact the family members.

Nobody has experience in doing this. All of a sudden, you're president of the United States. You are responsible for making decisions that could lead to the death of those in the armed forces. Nobody has any experience for that. You handle it as best you can. You get staff support on this in terms of what the protocol is. And it's never going to be easy. But don't judge how it's done.

And again, if we had -- we get a window into who the president is and how self-centered he is and how insecure he is. But then we have to say on top of that, how do we rate him as a commander in chief, as a chief executive? What does this impulsivity, this insecurity say about how he's going to handle situations that require snap judgment that really matter in terms of what's going to happen to the country.

CAMEROTA: Look, in terms of the protocol, I do -- I was asking a lot about this yesterday, and I do think we got a little bit of an answer today. So I just want to insert that into the conversation quickly.

The White House says they did not have the full information on the deaths of these soldiers until Monday, this week. And that was after the White House military office verified it.

So that's what they're saying today, that they were waiting for the White House military office to verify before the president spoke. He knew, obviously, about the deaths, but he was waiting for that bit of protocol. Now, I mean, obviously, the point is that he often tweets without things being verified and without all the full information. But in this case, it was different.

Gentlemen, thank you very much.

So we should also let everybody know that ahead on NEW DAY we are going to be speaking to Congresswoman Frederica Wilson about that phone call between President Trump and Sergeant Johnson's widow.

CUOMO: All right. So there are a growing number of key Republicans who want the congressional investigations and the potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia to wrap up and soon.

This as former White House press secretary Sean Spicer becomes the third Trump official to be interviewed by the special counsel who's looking into the Russia probe. CNN's Manu Raju live on Capitol Hill with this new CNN reporting.

Manu, what are we hearing?


There is growing tension on the Capitol Hill committees investigating Russian meddling and possible collusion with the Trump campaign. The message that the Republicans are saying is this: wrap it up within the next two months. One top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Jim Risch, told me yesterday the committee shouldn't be chasing, quote, "weak leads." Saying they are the point of, quote, "diminishing returns." Other Republicans and Democrats are trying to keep this hanging into

the election season. But Democrats like Adam Schiff say there's plenty left to investigate and many more witnesses to talk to. He said Republicans have rushed witnesses into the committee before they've received relevant documents.

We're now told that one example is Jared Kushner, who met with the committee this summer before the Trump campaign turned over key records. Now, one big witness that lawmakers want to interview is president Trump's eldest son, Donald Trump Jr.

Senator Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has faced growing pressure from Democrats to hold a public hearing. And yesterday he signaled to me that his previous comments that he couldn't avoid a public hearing still stood.


RAJU: Do you think it is is unavoidable to bring Donald Trump Jr. to a public hearing?

SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY (R-IA), CHAIRMAN, SENATE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: I answered that question for you last week.

RAJU: I wonder if anything has changed?

GRASSLEY: No, nothing has changed.


RAJU: But Democrats are still frustrated that there's no agreement yet for that hearing or other steps in his investigation about what to do about Russia collusion. And the sign of -- this is really, Alisyn, a sign of the challenge ahead for lawmakers as they try towards a bipartisan consensus on their findings. That Senate Judiciary Committee holding a hearing later this morning with Senator Jeff -- Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Expect that to be rather contentious, Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: OK. We'll be watching for that. Thanks so much for all of that reporting. So despite their spat, Senator John McCain just backed a major GOP bill that could help President Trump. We take a closer look next.


[06:23:34] CUOMO: Congress making a little bit of progress, seemingly inching closer to giving President Trump a much-needed legislative win. Senator John McCain actually backing a Senate budget resolution so they will just begin debating a budget. It's not that big a deal. But right now in this current environment, anything is a big deal. So if the budget passes, it would be part of this new framework for tax cuts.

Let's discuss all this with Errol Louis and David Gregory. So the idea, David, of any progress at all, them giving an opening to set the floor for debate for this, what does that mean in terms of the prospects for progress?

GREGORY: Well, it means they're able to on move forward on a framework, as you said, for them to start talking about this bigger -- the bigger effort of tax reform and tax cuts. The president's team has been busy selling the framework for what tax cuts would look like. And whether he'll get any Democratic support for those tax cuts.

I mean, this is the major reason for any kind of at least public reconciliation with Mitch McConnell. Because this becomes a huge deal. Even if they don't get comprehensive tax reform, some kind of tax cut is something that he knows the president knows is an essential deliverable for both him and for his party going into a midterm year next year.

CAMEROTA: Senator John McCain seems like the person who could push this into the "win" category. Interesting, obviously, because he's engaged in this somewhat public spat with President Trump.

But you know, Senator John McCain has the maverick reputation. And he never sort of -- you know, he sometimes zigs when you think he'll zag.

CUOMO: Yes, it's kind of interesting. And actually, sort of, if you think about it, it increases the leverage that John McCain will have down the road. By approving the budget resolution, by going along with this, it means that somewhere down the road, there will be a 50- vote minority that required in order to win the thing. And that means John McCain will stand in the well of the Senate, and he'll be able to give a thumbs up or a thumbs down on this entire tax plan. It is a very interesting kind of legislative maneuver.

CUOMO: So let's talk about what this actually might mean. OK. Because this is actually the easy part. So they can get to a 50 thing. That's the thing that McCain helped him get. They'll only need 50 votes for this under their rules.

All right. That's good. But now it gets to the substance of it, and we see an interesting parallel, David. The White House puts out a statement about Niger, saying, "Well, as soon as we knew, that's when he went public." That's not true. They can put out any statement they want.

CAMEROTA: As soon as it was verified. Not knew. He knew before that, but when...

CUOMO: Of course they knew. So that's what they do, right? That's a spin statement. We're seeing the same thing on health care and taxes. You've got to call it out. That's the job.

They say it's a middle-class tax cut. He then puts out punch points on his deal. His punch points. None of them are meaningfully giving advantage to the middle class over anybody else.

We're seeing the same thing on health care. Where he says not only are they going to repeal and replace, but it will be better. But once again, we see, even with this new Lamar Alexander-Murray bill to bring back the cost-sharing revenues, it doesn't make things better. It just returns to where it was and give a little bit more control to the state.

So how much chance of actual progress is there, with these proposals on the table?

GREGORY: You know, the tax debate is always full of argument, and argument that can only be proved over time about whether you're going to see broader economic growth because of a change in the tax structure. They obviously want to simplify it. And they're trying to make as many arguments as possible that are not borne out by all the facts and just how far down the tax brackets this will actually have an effect.

On health care, it's so interesting, because the president invited Democrats into a deal, although they were already in this conversation, by cutting these subsidies to the insurance companies to try to shore up the markets then you have this deal on Capitol Hill.

The president is talking about how there's votes for, you know, a new health care plan. There are not those votes. And, you know, the difficulty is that the president is talking about sticking it to the insurance companies. But to get any kind of comprehensive plan, the insurance companies have to be taken care of. That's how you get more people covered. That's how you get them to cover pre-existing conditions. They're not doing that out of the kindness of their heart.

They're doing it because you somehow sweetened the deal for them by getting younger, healthier people to buy insurance who wouldn't otherwise do it. That's been the problem with Obamacare. They're going to have to figure out into a more comprehensive plan.

The good news about this deal, A, it's a sign of real bipartisanship. Both sides got something that they wanted. And it does seek and seems to achieve the idea of stabilizing the insurance markets for some period of time. Because everything they've been doing and executive orders taking out the subsidies just forces the insurance companies to spike up rates.

The hope now is that they stabilize somewhat while they continue to negotiate something bigger if they ever get to a place where they can agree on that.

CAMEROTA: Back to the tax line for a second. It, according to the tax laws, et cetera, increases the deficit to $2.5 trillion over ten years. And so the budget hawks in the Congress...

CUOMO: His own party.

CAMEROTA: You know, what are they supposed to do with that? Rand Paul says he can't get on board. His tweet: "Senators McCain and Graham are torpedoing the budget by insisting on busting the budget caps for more spending. I've told the White House and GOP leaders that if they simply stick to their own caps, the rest of the budget is fine and I'll vote 'yes'." But he's not going to vote "yes" on what he sees. LOUIS: That is correct. I mean, look, they're going through the same

process that they attempted on health care reform. And I think it's the same fatal flaw. Which is they're trying to do it in a very compressed way to move very, very quickly on issues where there are fundamental divisions, cleavages within their own Congress. Never mind the Democrats.

The notion that they were going to sort of get this done in only 90 days. Let's have this done before the first of the year. Simply not going to happen. You know, again, we got back to the last comprehensive tax reform that's under the Reagan administration in his second term. I mean, it took years to get the consensus together. And that's when they were acting in a bipartisan manner.

To have these fundamental divisions between the budget hawks and defense hawks, those who want to spend more, those who want to spend less, those concerned about the deficit somewhere down the road. And they want to stabilize the political market, as well as the insurance markets, that they want to get health care done.