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Pentagon Launches Investigation Into Niger Ambush; Trump: Congresswoman "Totally Fabricated What I Said." Aired 7:30-8a ET

Aired October 18, 2017 - 07:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[07:30:00] SEN. JEFF MERKLEY (D-OR), MEMBER, FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE, APPROPRIATIONS COMMITTEE, BUDGET COMMITTEE: Well, I don't have a lot new to share with you on that at this moment.

I think that it is a very important thing to get to the bottom of how this unfolded, the type of preparation that was involved, the circumstances of that particular day. Obviously, a very, very tragic day for our military.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Should the president have said something about it before now?

MERKLEY: Well, I would certainly have expected him to address something of this size that occurred and basically, say we're going to do everything we can to make sure it doesn't happen again. But we've heard so little from him on this topic.

CUOMO: This back and forth with the Democratic Congresswoman and the president. He says he has proof that she is fabricating what he said to the widow. What's your take on any of that?

MERKLEY: Well, I just -- I feel like this shows how we're just trapped in this "GAME OF THRONES" moment about different people saying different things.

You know, it's incredibly hard to speak to a family that has lost their son or daughter. I've had to do it many times. I have to close the door, I have to prepare myself emotionally.

It's -- and I find sometimes parents and spouses want to talk at length -- want to share some of the background of their loved one. Other times, they were beyond words but they appreciate that I called. It's just very, very tough.

I -- it's -- let's focus on the big challenges in the world rather than the president's phone call.

CUOMO: Well, we try to do that but, you know, sometimes how you do the job of president matters. So, you know, when you're asked about --

MERKLEY: No, I --

CUOMO: -- something and you say hey, you know, a lot of other presidents, they don't even call or do anything, and it's just not true, you know --

MERKLEY: It's one more sign of the incredible emotional immaturity of this president. I have come to accept that he's trapped in a childhood emotional state and I just hope we can get through these next few years.

CUOMO: Well, let's talk about how you'll do exactly that. What do you make of the vote to be able to debate the budget proposition which will probably lead to a discussion of the tax cuts that the Republicans are offering up? Are you OK with having this debate?

MERKLEY: Well, I'm fine having the debate. That's the way the Senate works. In fact, the Senate needs to have more real debates on the floor.

But there's the thing. At the heart of this, this entire budget is essentially about amassing massive tax cuts to the richest Americans.

The president needs to explain and the Republican leadership needs to explain how is it you can say you're going to have tax reductions for the middle-class and then 80 percent of the benefits are going to go to the top one percent of Americans? Shouldn't they -- if they're going to do it for the middle-class, shouldn't 80 percent go to the middle-class?

CUOMO: Now, defend that proposition in light of the context of budgeting, which is when it comes to tax revenue that top tier pays an overwhelming majority of the taxes.

So that is the defense that if want to stimulate through tax cut, and I know that that's a whole economic morass but we're not getting into it today -- but if you want to stimulate through tax cut, you should do it on that group because they're the ones paying the taxes.

Your take?

MERKLEY: Well, when .1 percent -- one-tenth of one percent of America owns basically as much as the bottom 90 percent of America, of course they're going to pay a lot more taxes. They have vast, vast resources by comparison, so it's a -- it's a -- it's a phony point.

CUOMO: The health care proposal from Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray. Democrat -- the Republican, obviously, Alexander; the Democrat, Murray. Are you OK with their bill?

Essentially, it would put back in these cautionary revenues that the president wrote out of the health care law and also give flexibility to states.

TEXT: Alexander-Murray Deal.

Restores cost-sharing payments for two years. Restores $100 million for Obamacare outreach. States can customize Obamacare rules.

Keeps core requirements for what plans must cover. Consumers 30+ can buy catastrophic 'Copper' plans. MERKLEY: Yes, you've gone right to the heart of it. The cautionary reduction payments reduce the out-of-pocket expenses for those who have 250 percent or less of poverty.

That's certainly appropriate. Locking it down is important. A little more flexibility is fine.

But what's really important is you have Democrats and Republicans coming together in the health committee actually bringing the experts to say what can we improve and producing a set of things they can agree on.

I'd like to see expanded set. For example, the president still has the ability to shorten the period for signing up --

CUOMO: Right.

MERKLEY: -- be cut in half. He still has the ability to do these low-cost plans for associations that may well be a complete scam for Americans and undermine the exchange.

And so, it's -- but the principle of the health committee holding hearings, developing a bipartisan sense of improvements, getting them to the floor, and that's a great model. Now, the question is will they get to the floor?

CUOMO: Right, and we'll have to see because while they're going to be able to get a vote on the tax bill it seems with that reconciliation -- that 50-plus vote -- that they'll be able to do it. We don't know if you get a vote on this Alexander-Murray bill.

[07:35:08] But you're also going to have to look into what flexibility means and we'll debate that when we get a little bit deeper into the details.

Senator, thank you for being with us, as always.

MERKLEY: Great to be with you. Thank you.

CUOMO: Alisyn --

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: OK, Chris.

President Trump is now responding to the controversy involving his call to the widow of one of the fallen U.S. soldiers killed in Niger. His tweet reads, "Democrat Congresswoman totally fabricated what I said to the wife of a soldier who died in action and I have proof. Sad!"

That Congresswoman, Frederica Wilson, joins us now. Good morning, Congresswoman.

REP. FREDERICA WILSON (D) FLORIDA: Good morning.

CAMEROTA: I know this is the first time that you are hearing the president's tweet read to you. So when he says that you've totally fabricated what he said to the wife of the soldier and he has proof, what's your response?

WILSON: Well, I don't know what kind of proof he could be talking about. I'm not the only person that was in the car and I have proof, too. This man is a sick man. He's cold-hearted and he feels no pity or sympathy for anyone.

This is a grieving widow -- a grieving widow who is six months pregnant. This is a young woman.

She's only 24 years old. She weighs maybe 110 pounds and she has two other kids, two years old and six years old.

And when she actually hung up the phone she looked at me and said he didn't even know his name. Now, that's the worst part.

CAMEROTA: So, Congresswoman, let's talk about that. What did you hear? Tell us about this phone call.

WILSON: Well, I didn't hear the whole phone call but I did hear him say I'm sure he knew what he was signing up for and -- but it still hurts. And I asked them to let me speak with him and the master sergeant said no, you can't speak with him. I said but I want to speak with him because I was livid when I heard that.

And I was livid because this is a young man who I reared in my community of Miami Gardens. He came through my mentoring program. His father was a student at my elementary school. I was his principal, so I know them.

And for him to say that this young man stayed in school, did all the right things, went into the service, became a sergeant so quickly, that he signed up for his own death? That is so insensitive, his sarcasm.

CAMEROTA: So that's how you interpreted it. You interpreted it as the president saying something callous in that way.

Obviously, it can be heard lots of different ways. It could be heard as the president trying to find some point of understanding to speak out to the widow.

How did she hear it? What was her response?

WILSON: She was crying. It -- she broke down and she said he didn't even know his name. So, this is --

CAMEROTA: Did you hear that part? Did you hear the part where it left the impression that he didn't know his name?

WILSON: She heard the part that he didn't know his name.

And I don't think we should be trying to go into all of this. What the concern is -- we have a soldier who died, from Miami Gardens, and there's so many circumstances surrounding his death that I still have questions about.

Representative Hastings and I wrote a letter to the State Department and to Mr. Mattis asking about this.

CAMEROTA: And --

WILSON: Why was he separated? We want an investigation because we have lots of boys in our community who we lose violently.

This is a young man who we reared to be a hero. He did all the right things. He went to school, he finished school, he got married, he has two children, he has a pregnant wife.

He's a good man and he lost his life for our nation and for our country. That's what we should be talking about and this is what we should be celebrating. Not that this is what he signed up to be.

CAMEROTA: Yes.

WILSON: That is sarcasm. That is insensitive.

We have to hold our hands around this family. And right now, we're trying to raise money to send his two children and his yet-unborn daughter to college. So, it's the La David Johnson Scholarship Fund.

CAMEROTA: Yes, on GoFundMe.

WILSON: GoFundMe.

CAMEROTA: And so, Congresswoman, a couple of things. About all those questions that you have about how he got separated -- how Sgt. Johnson got separated from the other soldiers, about why his body was left behind for those days, about his closed casket, did the president address any of those things in the phone call?

[07:40:06] WILSON: No, he did not. And when I first heard that he was going to call I said to the master sergeant I would like to speak to him because I was going to ask him that -- some of those questions because I'm really concerned because when I asked the authorities in D.C. they tell me when I go back I will have a classified briefing.

But I didn't want to wait and I was going to just say to the president how vicious Boko Haram is and how they have joined forces with ISIS, and how they're killing thousands upon thousands of people and misplacing millions of people across that region, and it's Africans killing Africans.

And ever since they kidnapped the schoolgirls from Nigeria --

CAMEROTA: Yes.

WILSON: -- I have been on this case -- hashtag #bringbackourgirls. I've traveled to that region.

And to have my own --

CAMEROTA: Yes.

WILSON: -- child, so to speak -- my mentee who I reared to a grown man --

CAMEROTA: Yes.

WILSON: -- to go there and be killed by them, I'm devastated.

CAMEROTA: We understand, Congresswoman.

Do you -- is it your impression from what you've heard from the Pentagon or just in Congress that on this mission did these soldiers have the necessary cover for the mission they were on?

WILSON: It doesn't seem as if they had sufficient cover. It doesn't seem they had sufficient vehicles -- the appropriate armored cars. It feels -- it seems as if they were outnumbered.

It seems as if he was missing for 24 hours but his transmitter was still beeping. And it seems as if they could have found him.

This might wind up to be Mr. Trump's Benghazi so he needs to investigate this very, very closely because I will be making sure that Congress does that.

CAMEROTA: How is Mrs. Johnson doing?

WILSON: She is so weak and she's trying so hard. She's trying hard for her little ones. But you can imagine her heart is paining because this is her husband who she was looking forward to a long life with raising their children, and now he's gone.

But he died as a hero and the people of Miami Gardens are very, very proud of him. His family is very, very proud of him.

And the scholarship fund is trending. So we're doing as much as we can.

CAMEROTA: Yes.

WILSON: We're showing them so much love, so much compassion.

And I'm just saying that Mr. Trump is like Ned in the first-grade reader, so no one really cares.

CAMEROTA: Congresswoman, listen, there's been so much criticism over the past day of how the president has handled all of this, and people have accused him of politicizing this issue, bringing in Gen. John Kelly's son into the issue.

Do you feel as though you are politicizing this issue by publicizing a private conversation between the president and this widow?

WILSON: When I -- when I got out of the car someone asked me a question and I answered the question. I was done.

I'm concerned about why he died, why wasn't he protected, why was he left 24 hours without anyone finding him. Was he captured? Was he murdered? What happened to him? That's what I'm concerned about.

CAMEROTA: Yes. When the president tweeted that you've totally fabricated this conversation with the wife of a soldier who died and that he has proof, perhaps this phone call was taped on his end? What is your proof?

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

I see him as Ned in the first-grade reader trying to find something to do, and he has a lot to do. We are almost at war with North Korea. We're dealing with Iran.

And he needs to learn from past presidents, like President Obama, and be presidential during times like this.

Someone needs to train him and teach him what to say. Maybe they can write a script for him and he can just call and say you have my sympathy. I'm sending you a letter.

[07:45:10] CAMEROTA: And so, Congresswoman, when you asked to be put on the phone with the president after what you heard -- the portion of the phone call that you heard -- what were you going to say to him if you'd been put on the phone?

WILSON: You know what? I think I was going to curse him out.

CAMEROTA: And what were you going to say? I mean, you don't have to use the curse words but what was it about what you heard that got you so livid?

WILSON: I'll just keep that to myself because I don't want to politicize that.

CAMEROTA: And who stopped you from getting on the phone call?

WILSON: The master sergeant that was on -- in charge. He said I can't do that.

CAMEROTA: The portion that you did hear, was that on speakerphone?

WILSON: Yes, it was.

CAMEROTA: So part of it was on speakerphone?

WILSON: The -- she was speaking on a speakerphone and I was not the only one in the car.

CAMEROTA: I see. So who else heard the conversation?

WILSON: Well, there were -- there was -- I mean, her aunt, her uncle, my press person, the driver, the master sergeant. It was people -- We're not -- we're not trying to, leading up to the funeral of this

young man, get into some sort of match with the President of the United States, who should be asking for an apology and asking -- giving her some empathy and love, and wrapping his arms around this family, and try to find out a way -- what he could do to make up for what he did say instead of calling me a liar and calling everyone else in the car a liar.

He doesn't even know how to sympathize with people. I think he -- we're grieving. This is a grieving community who is trying to do the very, very best we can in holding up our family who has paid the ultimate sacrifice.

CAMEROTA: Yes.

WILSON: It is disgraceful for him to even tweet about this. And, as I say, this gentleman has a brain disorder and he needs to be checked out.

CAMEROTA: Look, I know that you say that the larger issue here -- I think everyone would agree -- is what went wrong. So, how to fix this.

What went wrong? How did Sgt. Johnson get separated from his fellow troops? Why was he left behind?

And so, when you've tried to approach these with the White House, if you have tried to approach it with the White House and the Pentagon, what are the answers? Are you making any progress in finding out the mystery of what happened here?

WILSON: They told me that it's all classified and when I go back on Monday I will have a classified briefing. I will be able to find out.

And I think the one little nuance that has the wife so grief-stricken is that she wanted to have an open casket funeral. She is unable to do so because of the condition of the body, especially the face.

So she is grieving. We're all grieving. This is hard -- very hard.

CAMEROTA: Yes. And, his kids? Have you been with them?

WILSON: They're little.

CAMEROTA: How old are they?

WILSON: The little boy is two and then there's a 6-year-old. She -- but then, he has a brother who is six years old and he was crying the whole time. He said I want my brother, I want my brother.

But these are kids. These are kids and that's why we are starting this scholarship -- La David Johnson Scholarship Fund, GoFundMe -- because they will have to be educated. And so I'm asking everyone who is listening, give generously to these young kids.

He has a brother who came through the 5000 Role Models Project. He is at Florida International University in engineering.

He has another brother who is in the Florida -- in the 5000 Role Models of Excellence higher college. He's 17 years. He's going to be a firefighter.

So, these kids are good kids. This is such a sacrifice for our community --

[07:50:02] CAMEROTA: Yes.

WILSON: -- because sometimes we see so many young African-American men lose their lives in the streets of our inner city.

This is a young man who escaped all that. He had everything going for him --

CAMEROTA: Yes.

WILSON: -- but he paid the ultimate sacrifice for his country -- the country he loved. For his nation, for his family, and we should be praising him and praising his family, not insulting them.

CAMEROTA: And so, Congresswoman, I mean, when you say that you think that the president needs to be taught, he needs a script, what is that?

What did you want to hear? What did Mrs. Johnson want to hear from the president? What is that script, ideally?

WILSON: I think maybe we -- he could have said you have my deepest sympathy. That David -- she said he couldn't even remember his name so, you know, that was painful to her. That David was a hero and you will be receiving a letter from me in the mail.

CAMEROTA: That would have done it for you?

WILSON: I think so because when you ask him to say something he goes off script and then it doesn't come out right, and then it hurts everyone's feelings. And then we're accused of politicizing something when it's not politicized, it's just him.

So the best thing for him in these circumstances is to write a note. Have some -- dictate a note and write a personal note to each of the families and mail it.

And when he makes his call he can cut his call short by just saying I'm sorry. Your son was a hero -- even though he already said he doesn't think that people who are caught or killed are heroes. That's what he said about John McCain.

CAMEROTA: Yes.

WILSON: So, say something nice and then send the letter.

CAMEROTA: And so, Congressman -- Congresswoman, what's going to happen today? If the president says that he has proof and this continues, what are you looking for from the president today?

Can you hear me, Congresswoman?

WILSON: I didn't hear you.

CAMEROTA: What are you looking for from the president? What do you want him to say today?

WILSON: I want him to say absolutely nothing. We're trying to bury our son.

CAMEROTA: OK. Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, thank you.

We're sorry for your loss. We know how long you knew Sgt. Johnson from the time he was a child. Thank you very much for joining us in this tough moment.

WILSON: Thank you. Thank you so much.

CUOMO: All right. Let's bring in CNN political analyst Maggie Haberman to this conversation.

Well, the sad reality is there is not a good chance that we won't hear from the president about this again. He spares no one when it comes to someone calling him out.

We're seeing it with John McCain. They guy's fighting cancer. It doesn't matter.

This Congresswoman -- look, anybody who was around any President of the United States, any leader, is telling him not to engage in this kind of back and forth with the Congresswoman but he's going to do it anyway. We have to be careful not to traffic too much in that part of it --

MAGGIE HABERMAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Yes.

CUOMO: -- either.

If he has proof, let him put it out. Otherwise, this is a big distraction from a situation that he's ignored for a long time now with Niger, Maggie.

What are they saying in that White House about how to explain the ignoring of this?

HABERMAN: What I heard yesterday from people I spoke to -- and I do -- I agree with you that we can't traffic too much in this, but I do want to note the extraordinary moment that we are in where we are debating -- we are watching a fight between people supporting the family of a slain soldier and the President of the United States over what was said on what was supposed to be the condolence call. It's a remarkable moment.

What I heard yesterday from people was that -- and again, this is their side of it --

CUOMO: Yes.

HABERMAN: -- was that the president was watching television this weekend. He was watching criticism of him over not having reached out. And the response that he had was to be frustrated because there was a protocol and he hadn't been properly informed yet or he hadn't been told, and he was waiting to be -- essentially, let know by staff.

This matches what Leon Panetta said to "The Washington Post." His argument was this was clearly a staff failure. We do know that that does happen. This happened with previous presidents.

However, accepting all of that if that is true, the issue is always once you get to OK, but here we are now and the president did not call until yesterday. The call was not made until, I think, the widow was on her way to go collect her husband's remains, which is a difficult time --

CUOMO: Sure.

HABERMAN: -- and clearly, a charged moment once you're going to do that.

As always, it comes back to the president's, to your point, inability to just step away from it. Even if it is bad staff work, presidents have moments like this where things have not gone totally right and what matters is how you handle it going forward.

[07:55:10] The last hour, in terms of this tweet, I think most of his advisers would have wanted him not to do it that way.

CAMEROTA: Look, the president has acknowledged that these calls are hard for him. I mean, he's acknowledged it in the past 48 hours that he doesn't -- this is not his strong suit.

HABERMAN: Did he say that?

CAMEROTA: No --

HABERMAN: OK.

CAMEROTA: -- but he said that these are really hard for me. These are the hardest things to do.

HABERMAN: But I don't think --

CAMEROTA: These are really hard for him.

HABERMAN: But I don't think he means that the way his critics mean it. His critics mean it as he's not good at empathy. I think he's saying this is just a very hard thing --

CUOMO: Right.

HABERMAN: -- for anyone to do, so, yes.

CAMEROTA: Yes, and it is. It is an awkward thing and it is a hard thing for anybody.

HABERMAN: Right.

CAMEROTA: What I think one of his strong suits is is the handwritten note. He does -- as you know --

HABERMAN: Right.

CAMEROTA: -- he likes to send personal, handwritten notes --

HABERMAN: Right.

CAMEROTA: -- to everyone -- to reporters and things like this, so he was drafting a letter like that.

I mean, part of the question is that when all this came up he brought in Gen. John Kelly's --

HABERMAN: Right.

CAMEROTA: -- situation and said why don't you ask if President Obama ever called Gen. Kelly. Sort of teasing as though I have some sort of information that you don't.

What is -- I mean, is it -- do you have any sense of how Gen. Kelly is fairing during all of this because he has studiously --

HABERMAN: Right.

CAMEROTA: -- avoided the spotlight of ever bringing up --

HABERMAN: Right.

CAMEROTA: -- his own loss and his son's death in Afghanistan in 2010?

HABERMAN: We know from the White House, or they say that Kelly did not get a phone call from President Obama when his son died. I don't know the backstory of that. I don't know if that was a staff issue. We don't know why that happened.

And I don't know how Gen. Kelly feels about that but my assumption -- knowing Trump as we do and as we have for a long time, my assumption is that Kelly made a nuanced point to him at some point in private about his own experience.

And the president, because his reaction to many things is to turn it when he is questioned personally to point that way and say well, what about President Obama or this one or that one, he turned it into a side-by-side comparison and invoked the General's son.

And I -- look, I think the president -- I think that Gen. Kelly probably has a series of complicated emotions about how it was handled in terms of his son, but it's very hard to imagine that this is what he wants being done with his son's death.

I asked a White House official yesterday, is he fine with this, and I was told yes. But we're not going to know that for some time.

CUOMO: How could you be fine with somebody politicizing the death of your son, which had to be one of the hardest moments for him and his wife --

HABERMAN: Right.

CUOMO: -- that they'll ever deal with? So, that's a given.

And the style situation is largely going to be forgiven with this base because it always is. It doesn't matter that it's about slain soldiers and how he deals with empathy or not, or what the Congresswoman says.

My concern is he has architected all of this, somewhat instinctively, somewhat intentionally, to get away from what that White House statement does not clarify. They knew this ambush happened.

He puts out statements about things all the time when he doesn't know what he's talking about, at least not fully.

HABERMAN: Sure.

CUOMO: He didn't do it here --

HABERMAN: Right.

CUOMO: -- and that's the issue.

HABERMAN: Right.

CUOMO: This is the largest -- oh, and I know you get it --

HABERMAN: Yes.

CUOMO: -- but I'm saying they don't get it, and people need to get it. This is the largest loss of life at the hands of an opponent --

CAMEROTA: Yes.

CUOMO: -- on his watch.

HABERMAN: Well, I think that if you look -- it's funny, I was thinking about this over the weekend. I was talking to a colleague about it.

If you look at how he has handled various deaths of military personnel -- of soldiers -- he's actually been pretty quiet about it. For somebody, to your point, who uses his Twitter feed to talk about whatever, you know -- it feels like the weather almost sometimes -- he has not drawn attention to the loss of life on his watch as commander in chief. Now, I suspect that there's a complicated reason why but certainly, one reason is that it would be acknowledging that it happened on his watch. And so I have to think that that is at least part of what happened here.

I don't know how much of these tweets are intentionally engineering the distraction away from other messes. I think some of this is he is watching television.

I mean, literally, the timing of that tweet about the Congresswoman -- or the phone call to the widow and he has proof and this was made up about him came during the morning shows when those interviews were getting replayed, I don't think this was -- this was -- I think this was just it happened and he reacted.

CAMEROTA: Look, I think that, as we've all acknowledged, these condolence calls are very tough and this one wouldn't be, I think, as big a headline if it weren't part of a pattern.

I mean, we've seen this. He struggles --

HABERMAN: Right.

CAMEROTA: -- with military service --

HABERMAN: Yes.

CAMEROTA: -- and people who have given the ultimate sacrifice.

John McCain -- we saw him say something insulting to John McCain, which by then default, insults POWs. How dare they get captured?

We saw him engage in a fight with Khizr Khan, Gold Star family.

CUOMO: But is that a struggle or is that a choice to be insensitive and --

CAMEROTA: My point is is that this is a pattern. Well, I don't know -- I mean, I don't know how --

CUOMO: It's been a struggle.

HABERMAN: I think this is incredibly unusual to see have seen from a candidate for president and now, the president.

I mean, look, I will say -- and the Congresswoman clearly has a longstanding relationship with this family, but we don't actually know how this family feels about the fact that this is all public, either. I do want to make that point.

When I saw her comments last night I was a little taken aback.