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Grieving Families Offer Mixed Accounts of Trump Calls; Growing Questions About Deadly Niger Ambush; Gold Star Mother Speaks Out; New Scrutiny Over Trump's Calls To Military Families; Key GOP Senator: Health Care Deal Has "Stalled Out"; Trump Touts Stock Market Gains As "Virtually Unprecedented" Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired October 19, 2017 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:15] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. I'm John Berman.


This morning what many see as the most sacred ground of all presidential task -- consoling the family members of American troops killed in battle. Well, that has become the center of a major controversy for this White House.

President Trump continues to fight back against claims from family members that his call to the widow of Sergeant La David Johnson lacked empathy. La Johnson is one of the four U.S. Army troops killed by ISIS fighter in Niger two weeks ago. It was not until a reporter asked the president on Monday about those military deaths that he even addressed them for the first time.

BERMAN: Now we did learn new information overnight about how the White House first planned to address the tragedy so why did officials changed their mind? We're also learning just how accurate the president's claims are that he has called the families of every fallen service member . And we're getting new details about a pledge to send $25,000 to the father of one fallen hero.

CNN's Joe Johns at the White House with all these new developments -- Joe.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, John. The White House has really offered few new details on why the president took so long to issue that public statement after the United States soldiers died in Niger. What we do know is that the National Security Council did prepare a statement for the White House to release.

It was not released, we're told, and the White House opted instead for the White House press secretary to make a statement from the podium. They thought here that would somehow be more powerful.

Meanwhile, we continue to follow the multiple threads of the multiple Gold Star families and their interactions with the president of the United States. In fact, the family of Army Corporal Dillon Baldridge this morning is praising the president for the way he handled their situation when the president found out that the $25,000 death benefit for Baldridge would go only to the mother.

The president offered to write a $25,000 check of his own to the father of Baldridge. And that did not go out until after "Washington Post" reported on the story this past Wednesday. Still the family says they think the president handled the situation very well.


TINA PALMER, MOTHER OF FALLEN U.S. SOLDIER: It was amazing, not knowing what to expect. It kind of took me by surprise. He was, again, very genuine. Genuinely thankful for my son and his service, very encouraging. He expressed, you know, a sincere gratitude and it was very, very nice.


JOHNS: Meanwhile, the family of Etienne Murphy, a soldier who died in Syria earlier this year, says they never received a call from the president at all. They talked to CNN on "NEW DAY" this morning.


SHEILA MURPHY, MOTHER OF FALLEN SOLDIER ETIENNE MURPHY: It's not about me. It's about my child. And all the other countless fallen heroes and those who are still over there now and then the families that are here grieving, like my -- I am and my husband is. That's what it's all about. I don't want it to be about me or about a letter. I want it to be about my child and what he stood for.


JOHNS: The White House says the president has interacted with all of the families whose cases went through the normal protocols of the White House military office.

So far today the president does not have anything on his public schedule, however, that could change. We do know the president is meeting with the governor of Puerto Rico. So far, though, that is a closed event. Back to you.

HARLOW: Joe Johns at the White House for us this morning. Thank you for that. We appreciate it.

Amid all of this the White House is facing a lot of questions. People want answers about what happened to those four U.S. soldiers that died in Niger.

BERMAN: Sources tell CNN that Defense Secretary James Mattis is dismayed at the lack of clarity.

CNN's Barbara Starr at the Pentagon.

Barbara, you've been pushing this forward for more than a week right now. What do we know, what don't we know?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, it is a very mixed picture at this point and it still remains that these are the initial reports that are coming in according to multiple sources we are talking to.

Secretary Mattis, I think, dismayed would be the accurate word, according to what people are telling us. He's not trying to rush things, but he would like to see some answers.

So where are we on this?

[09:05:02] Well, what we do know is that the U.S. now assesses that it was ISIS that attacked this team in Niger. That they basically walked into an ambush of about 50 ISIS fighters armed with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns. The U.S. team had only their rifles.

The intelligence that they had at the time clearly was inaccurate. The intelligence said it was unlikely that they would run into any opposition on this mission and certainly they did.

This was a location they'd gone too many times before. They were going to visit village elders. They were basically on a training and advice mission for the local forces that were accompanying them. It was all supposed to really go very much as a routine effort, if there's anything routine for Green Berets, but it did not go that way.

And when the firefight, the ambush broke out, Niger does not allow air strikes in its country, so the only thing that could be done to help them was 30 minutes later some French aircraft came in, flew low passes over the battle area to scare off the ISIS fighters and it was only after that that they were able to get evacuation forces in to help them.

HARLOW: Barbara Starr, thank you very much. As John said, you've been on top of this from the beginning. We know you will continue to be and we appreciate it.

With us now is Gold Star mother, Karen Meredith. She comes from a long line of family who served this country in the military. She lost her only child, her son 1st Lieutenant Kent Ballard in Iraq in 2004. He joined the Army right out of high school in 1995. He was stationed in Iraq in May of 2003 and he was given the chance to lead his own platoon. He died a year later on Memorial Day.

Karen, thank you for being here.


HARLOW: As we remember your son and so many others every day, and especially right now, what is it that family members who've lost children in battle like this need the most from leadership right now?

MEREDITH: I think what most Gold Star families would say is do not forget my child, and let us know that their lives matter, and so President Trump, by not acknowledging these four deaths in Niger, made us feel like their service didn't matter, their lives didn't matter and the families didn't matter. BERMAN: So you think the delay -- and it was a 12-day, a 12-day delay

before we heard anything directly from the president, that is what the White House did wrong? The White House says that the Press Secretary Sarah Sanders did make a statement from the podium. You don't see that as enough?

MEREDITH: No, no, not at all. Protocol -- from what I know, and I did receive a letter from President Bush, but most people do receive a letter. They don't necessarily receive a call, so that was a little bit above and beyond. But I think the timeliness of it and also the delay of the president to even acknowledge what the incident was, one of my mottos in life is that Americans find out about geography of the world by the wars that we are in. And so a lot of people probably didn't even know that we had troops in Niger.

But I think we still do need to know more about the incident. But for the families, all they're worried about at this point in those first 10 or 12 days is getting the body home because that's about how long it takes. So it's unfortunate that the phone call took place on the way to the airport to pick up the body.

HARLOW: We will never forget the image we saw yesterday of, you know, La David Johnson's pregnant widow, grieving, sobbing over his casket.

I wonder if you think Caroline -- and we're seeing that now. I mean, these young men all, you know, under 40 years old, if their story, their lives, their memory is being lost in this, in what has become very much a political debate?

MEREDITH: Well, and some people have said we shouldn't the politicize our loved ones' lives, but for me I wanted to call the president out on this because if I didn't say anything then people would think that we're OK with the president not acknowledging our loss and our sacrifice. So -- but to watch Mrs. Johnson over her husband's casket just brought it all back to me even 13 years later, and it's -- I wouldn't want to relive that first year for anything.

BERMAN: No, these wounds, so many of them are wounds that do not heal for families and you know that all too well.

[09:10:01] You were talking about Niger and how sometimes Americans learn geography based on those that are lost in these engagements overseas. The Pentagon has a team there to find out what happened .

Do you feel like there are unanswered questions that Americans deserve the answers to in terms of what happened?

MEREDITH: Well, I think that we do need to know why troops are stationed wherever they are. What is the mission? And what is the exit strategy? If we don't know that then we have no business being anywhere. We still don't have an exit strategy for Afghanistan, but -- so it's really, really important that we know.

The military, unfortunately, sometimes doesn't tell the truth. It took the Army 15 months to tell me the truth about my son's death. So I hope that the four soldiers, the two Johnson families, the Black family and Wright family find out the truth about how their loved ones were killed and find out the details.

BERMAN: Just lastly, any message you want to send to these families, the families of the four service members we are just looking on the screen right there?

MEREDITH: Well, my biggest message would be a big hug, and we don't shake hands. Gold Star families don't shake hands, but I would give them a hug and I would say, I'm sorry. That's all -- I'm sorry is a complete sentence. And we just need to know that they are not alone, and that there are plenty of resources to help them get through this, but they shouldn't do it alone. And let us help them, those who have been before them and Godspeed to them.

HARLOW: Karen, thank you very much for that message. And for all your son did for all of us.

MEREDITH: Thank you.

HARLOW: All right. A lot ahead for us this hour. An entire Florida county is on edge this morning as white nationalist Richard Spencer gears up to speak today at the University of Florida where they are live. Also a brand new report, some top Trump campaign staffers actually pushed tweet, re-tweeted tweets from Russian trolls just days before the election.

BERMAN: And the governor of Puerto Rico heading to the White House today as the administration faces new backlash over the handling of Hurricane Maria.

CNN following the stories of those still in desperate need.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All this stuff about bringing contractors and security contractors to ride shotgun on the trucks, I'll get you 5,000 military vets, and we're all down here for free.




JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. We're now joined by an all-star political panel. CNN analysts, Alex Burns, Rebecca Berg, Molly Ball.

Molly, I want to start with you here. Gold Star families are now all being called to find out if they received some kind of outreach from President Trump directly. The White House says the sacrifice is being politicized here, but who is the pot and who is the kettle? Is the White House blameless on how we got here?

MOLLY BALL, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, no. I mean, the president absolutely started this. Nobody asked him to pick a fight with other presidents and to turn this into a contest and to make it into a political battle. And then to invite the question, since he's the one that brought it up about how he was interacting with these families and how he was calling them, about what he was saying to them.

So, you know, if he's -- usually a counter puncher, but this is the case where he threw the first punch and made it fight when it didn't need to be. It didn't need to be a political battle at all.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Alex, two things can be true, and that seems to be the case in this situation. One thing, yes, the president has called some of these gold star families and has offered his condolences, et cetera.

At the same time, he exaggerated, if not, didn't tell the truth, when he said he called every single family and he sort of walked that back on the radio a little bit said virtually every family. What matters here most?

ALEX BURNS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, look, it's clearly not true that he called every family and it's also clearly not true that his predecessors never called up families who were grieving because their children or spouses died in war.

These statements of the president didn't need to make and there were statements that he actually wasn't even pushed to make. That the question that he was asked really had nothing to do with whether he had, you know, extensively dealt with the grief of the families of America's war dead.

And so, this is very, very much a conversation that he initiated. I think to Molly's point, and she alluded to the president sort of (inaudible) himself as a counter puncher. Now that something that we heard a lot during the campaign.

We've heard a lot since he's been president and where it tends to serve him the worst is where he perceives any kind of question or criticism as a hard slam on him and his character.

And I don't think anybody -- certainly not the reporters that began asking these questions, and I don't think certainly the Gold Star families who have now gotten involved set out to start a fight with the president.

BERMAN: No. Look, members of Congress are asking questions. There are still people looking for answers, here. John McCain saying the White House has not been forthcoming. How did these four service men die? What were the circumstances? Was everything done that needed to be done to rescue them in time? That will be looked at going forward.

Rebecca, also happening on Capitol Hill or not happening, progress in terms of any kind of health care agreement on the patch, the Alexander-Murray patch, to get funding for these insurance companies to provide insurance to low-income Americans right now. Do you know where the president stands? Do you think the president wants any version of this to pass? REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, he suggested that he does and so he has been a little unclear, to say the least, about what version he would want passed if he supports specifically the Murray/Lamar Alexander agreement, or if he is, you know, simply opposing it because of something some cable news commentator said that made him think it was a bailout for insurance companies.

But the fact of the matter is, if Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill can reach this agreement and send it to the president, he is going to be in a tough position not to sign some sort of agreement.

[09:20:10] Because really this is designed to keep the markets afloat, to eliminate uncertainty in the health care markets, and really ultimately help consumers help the people who will be voting for Republicans or Democrats come next year, and remove some of that uncertainty, not only for insurance companies but for ultimately for consumers.

The president has never, I think we can all agree, been someone who is clear on policy prescriptions. That's really not his forte and so, I think this will be something as with all the big policy questions of the day that Capitol Hill is going to need to sort out.

The Republicans and Democrats in Congress are going to need to sort out and whatever they send the president, that will be where his decision making comes in.

HARLOW: Molly, amid all of this, this morning, and there is a lot going around and swirling around this White House, the president chose to tweet about Russia. Let me read it to you. "Workers of firm involved in discredited and fake dossier take the fifth. Who paid for it? Russia? The FBI? The Dems or all?"

Is this the president positing that the FBI, the U.S. government, you know, manipulated some document to plot against him?

BALL: Maybe. I mean, I can't read his mind any better than you can --

HARLOW: He's pretty clear.

BALL: -- you know, fine textural analysis of the president's tweets tends not to be very fruitful endeavor in my experience, but look, he's obsessed with this thing. He continues to -- as with the thing with the Gold Star families, everything is personal to him. He takes everything personally.

This Russia investigation that continues to hang over him, he sees as a plot against him. So, he will seize on any bit of evidence to further the case that see, this is all a plot against me and it's everybody else's fault.

I think what drives him crazy is that he doesn't have any control over the course of this thing, and all of the tweets in the world and conspiracy theories are not going to sway the investigators who were looking into it. HARLOW: It might make sense if he were not president and was bitter about not winning, but he won.

BERMAN: It's an extraordinary charge to suggest that the FBI was paying to put together a big giant dossier of negative information about him. He says it in passing right there, but that jumps out at you and it's not the kind of thing you normally see the president accusing the FBI of coming after him.


BERMAN: Alex, on the Russia investigation, look, maybe he was reacting to this report overnight in the "Daily Beast," and we will have our friend, Betsy Woodruff on in a little bit. And the "Daily Beast" notes that several Trump campaign staffers and by staffers, I mean, you know, the senior most leadership.

HARLOW: Kellyanne Conway, the president's son, his digital director.

BERMAN: Quite a roster, were all retweeting these tweets that are now known to be from a Russian boss in the days prior to the campaign. The handle on that was Tennesseegop, but this was now known to be, you know, basically this Russian plant sending this information about Hillary Clinton out.

These senior staffers retweeted it, and we don't know if they knew what they were doing, Alex, but again, this just goes to show how Russia played in the election.

BURNS: Absolutely. Look, you know, I'm the last person the world is going to judge other people who they accidentally retweet, obviously people engaged with all kinds of accounts and they don't the celebrities they are retweeting or the journalist they are retweeting or the politicians they are retweeting.

It obviously is, you know, yet another choice by the president to detonate an issue that he doesn't need to be fighting on. I think that, you know, if we reflect on everything we've talked about on this panel and most of what has been talked about on television over the course of this week, what has been largely absent is the president's tax agenda, which most people believe is the political crux of the entire season for him and the Republican Party.

If you talk to folks on the Hill, there's a sense of frustration verging on despair that they are now at a place once again like they were with Obamacare repeal over the summer, where they are trying to push this giant boulder up a hill and they've spent the week with the biggest voice in their party talking about, you know, feuding with Gold Star families and now starting, escalating a fight about Russia.

HARLOW: All right. Guys, thank you very much. We will talk much more about this report in the next hour. I mean, one of the tweets came a week before the election in the critical swing state of Florida talking about thousands and thousands of voter fraud issues being counted. I mean, that stuff matters, and you are going to retweet it and you are that close to the president, maybe you should know the source.

BERMAN: All right. President Trump is talking about the stock market, obviously going way, way up, 23,000 for the first time.

HARLOW: I love that hat.

BERMAN: Look at that, Dow 23,000. I got rid of mine years ago when it didn't happen. Christine Romans here with the president's claims that, you know, this is unprecedented.


[09:25:03] Before these milestones, this year alone, January, March, August, and then again October 18th, went from 21,000, 22,000, and then 23,000. Doesn't that look incredible. The president called it virtually unprecedented stock market growth.

Well, I found another time when the first year of an administration did this well, it was Barack Obama, the first year of his administration was up 18 percent by this day, October 19th.

So, you know, Donald Trump and Barack Obama share that stock market gain, if you will. It's so interesting here because to hear a president talk about the stock market and cheerlead it like this, it's something we rarely see.

And the treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, actually telling "Politico," saying, "if we don't get tax cuts, the market will tank." Really unusual to have the treasury secretary talking about the stock market in that way.

He said the stock market will keep going go up if you don't cut taxes so putting -- the stock market is kind of political football language I think which was pretty interesting. This market is going up because of the expectation of tax cuts.

BERMAN: But maybe not today?

ROMANS: Maybe not today. I'm looking at maybe 100 points down on the Dow tech stocks, eBay, Apple, are down this morning. They carry a lot of weight and they kind of spook things. Today, 30 years ago today was Black Monday.

HARLOW: It was, indeed.

ROMANS: Remember, John?

BERMAN: It was five years before you were born.

ROMANS: Yes, I was riding my bike that day. No, it was 30 years ago. I will remind everybody that terrible day in market history turned out to be the green chutes of the bull market ever in American stock market.

BERMAN: All right. Christine Romans, thanks so much. All right. Happening now, the governor of Puerto Rico on Capitol Hill. We are hearing new stories about how folks are taking matters into their own hands on that island.