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Growing Questions about Deadly Niger Ambush; Grieving Families Offer Mixed Accounts of Trump Calls; Crucial Senate Vote on Budget Bill; CNN Goes Inside Raqqa. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired October 19, 2017 - 10:00   ET



POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Top of the hour. Good morning, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: I'm John Berman. New information this morning about how the White House first planned to address the deaths of four U.S. soldiers in Niger. There was a planned presidential paper statement not delivered, so why? Also new reports that Defense Secretary James Mattis is dismayed at the lack of answers to what happened on the ground.

HARLOW: So many questions. Why did these four American heroes die? Why one was left alone on the ground for 48 hours? Also, we're learning just how accurate the president's claims are that he has called the families of every fallen service member.

First, though, to the investigation to the facts, our Barbara Starr joins us from the Pentagon. There are still so many questions that these families especially deserve answers to this morning. Barbara, what do we know and what do we not know?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, let's be clear, the full Pentagon investigation that is under way, not done yet and a lot of people want these answers. There are some initial reports, some initial indications. So what we do know at this point, the assessment is that it was an ISIS attack. That is not something President Trump is likely to particularly want to talk about because he's been talking a lot about ISIS being defeated. But in this area of West Africa, an ISIS affiliate is on the rise and when those troops went on that mission, they were ambushed by 50 members of this ISIS group.

So, clearly, the intelligence was not accurate for this mission. They had been told the Green Beret led team that it was unlikely they would run into opposition. They had, in fact, been in this area many times before. So they had been seen operating there. So ISIS, bad intelligence, not exactly what the White House is going to want to talk about very readily.

So when the fire fight broke out, what happened was, they called for help. French aircraft arrived overhead, but Niger, the country, does not allow offensive air strikes. So until they could push off the ISIS fighters by just simply flying low and fast over them, those U.S. troops had nothing to fight with but their own rifles. John and Poppy?

BERMAN: All right. Barbara Starr thanks so much.

Again, Congress very much wants some answers into this and so do the families of those fallen. Overnight we learned how the White House first planned to address this ambush.

HARLOW: Right. It was going to be pretty immediately with a written statement. That didn't happen. Instead it was almost two weeks before the president talked about these deaths at all and that's after a reporter asked him about it in the Rose Garden on Monday.

Our Joe Johns is in the White House with more. Anything else from the president this morning?

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: You know, we haven't gotten a lot of detail, Poppy, on why the president did not issue a public statement on the deaths of those U.S. soldiers in Niger for so long. We do know that the National Security Council put together a statement, that's what we're told, but they decided not to put it out according to an official who spoke with CNN. Instead, they opted to allow the press secretary, Sarah Sanders, to make remarks about it from the podium here, thinking that would be more powerful.

Meanwhile, we continue to follow the multiple threats of multiple Gold Star Families and their interactions with -- President Trump. The family of Corporal Dillon Baldridge this morning is praising President Trump for the way he handled the situation. When President Trump apparently heard that only one family member, his ex-wife, the mother of Baldridge, was going to receive the $25,000 death benefit, in this case. The president offered to write a $25,000 check of his own to the father. That check never went out until Wednesday after "The Washington Post" reported on the story. Nonetheless, the mom now says she thinks the president handled it well.


TINA PALMER, MOTHER OF FALLEN U.S. SOLDIER (via telephone): 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.


[10:05:02] JOHNS: But then there is also the story of Etienne Murphy. Now, he's a soldier who died earlier this year in Syria. His family says they never heard from President Trump. 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. All the other countless fallen heroes and those who are still over there now and then the families that are here grieving, like 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 the Gold Star Families whose cases have gone through the proper protocols and through the White House military office. We don't expect, at least right now, to see the president on camera today. He does have a meeting with the governor of Puerto Rico to talk about the response and recovery there from the hurricane. So far that meeting is scheduled to be closed press. Back to you.

BERMAN: Joe Johns at the White House. Joe thanks so much.

Joining us now, Paris Dennard, CNN political commentator, Susan Del Percio, Republican strategist, and Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

Paul, I want to start with you. You say that this whole situation, what has become a controversy, is bad for everyone.


BERMAN: So how did we get here? And who got us here?

RIECKHOFF: Well, I think ultimately the commander in chief is responsible for everything we do and everything we fail to do, every president no matter who it is. And that's not a partisan statement. You know if this was George Washington, we should be holding him accountable.

Well, ultimately, what we need to focus on is what's most important. Right now, our troops are watching this. They are troops in harm's way and many of them may feel like their families are not being supported. So the troops in harm's way need to know that all of America, the White House, both parties, the media, everybody is behind them.

If God forbid they're killed in action, they need to know their families are going to get taken care of. That includes not being dragged into the media and not being dragged through the political fight. So, that's got to be most important. After that, we've got to support these Gold Star Families. It doesn't matter how Donald Trump feels. It doesn't matter how the Democratic congresswoman feels.

It matters how those families feel. What Mrs. Johnson feels and what they think is right and what they need. We should listen to them. It's going to be different. Some of them are going to need other things but what they need is important. And we should hear them and support them.

HARLOW: It's a very interesting point, Susan, right? In something like this especially for Mrs. Johnson, pregnant widow of La David Johnson, does it really matter, you know, how she, you know, what the president -- I guess what I'm trying to ask is, the point that he made, makes a lot of sense. How she felt is critical, so the response from the president, should it have been different? I didn't mean it that way, but you feel that way, and therefore x, y, z. Instead, this morning, he's tweeting about all different things, Russia, et cetera. I'm just wondering if it's how she felt that matters more than the exact words that were used or not used.

SUSAN DEL PERCIO, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: It is how she felt and what's more important is that the president did start this and how did this all began? He made it about himself, instead of making it about that family. And I think that's an overall problem that this president has with empathy and making it about others, not just about himself. What's even worse is he twice brought in chief of staff Kelly's son.

And to me, that's really just politicizing beyond and it's interesting that we haven't heard from the chief of staff. My guess is because about the reports that we hear is, he is very disgusted with how this was brought up. At the end of the day, it's about the military families and how to best help them, get through this moment.

BERMAN: Paris, you're going to respond to that? Is it a fair criticism that the president made this all about him when it should be about the soldiers who died?

PARIS DENNARD, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: No, I don't think the president has made this about him. I think his number one goal and mission is always to be focused laser-like on our troops, on our veterans and on our Gold Star Families and those soldiers who pay the ultimate sacrifice, not just our soldiers but our first responders who do the same thing every single day. They willingly go into battle for our freedoms. They go and do this willingly, knowing that they can pay the ultimate sacrifice. That's what makes them heroes.

But I think what we need to do is look forward. The White House has seen what's happened. They've seen the response from the Gold Star Families. They think they understand it. I hope the military office and the White House chief of staff will put something better in place so that everyone knows that the president's policy is to call and to write a letter. If that's what President Trump wants to do, if that's what he feels is his policy, his staff needs to make sure that that is carried out and the White House military office and everybody listening to the president, and the Gold Star Families most importantly, need to have a robust plan on verification of events, certification of the death, and getting a call and a letter and whatever else is respectful and responsive at the right time to those families. Because that's what the president has asked for and has said is his policy.

[10:10:00] HARLOW: And Paris, you work in the White House. You know how these things work.

But I would just say, though, and Paul your response, the president could have tweeted about it this morning. He could use his words to talk about these families instead of some of these other stuff or in addition to it, but what about legitimate questions, as to the timing? I mean, it took 12 days.


RIECKHOFF: Yes. I mean, the bigger question is, -- you know how did they die in Niger? What did they die fighting? What are we going to do about it as a military response? I think those are important, legitimate questions that the families also are probably asking. But I think what happens next is really important.

The president we know -- we don't know what the president actually said. We don't know what was heard but we know what he can do now and he can be very clear in sending a message about how we're going to support these families. Things like examining the death benefit, the SGLI. Looking at charitable groups like TAPS. How can we drive support - you know, ongoing supports, sustainable supports to these families when the cameras move on to something else, these families are still going to need support and what can we do now to support them for the decades to come and their children that are left behind.

DEL PERCIO: And not make it about him. I mean, make it about those families. All those suggestions that Paul just made are really strong, valuable suggestions that don't involve the president and it's not about him. It's about taking care of those families. So when I hear the president say things like, my generals or my troops. No. They're the country's - they belong - it is our responsibility. And it is up to the president to move us forward.

BERMAN: Paris?

DENNARD: In fairness, he is the commander in chief. And so, they do respond and answer to him and he does set forth the policy. But in addition to that, I don't want us to sell short the significant statement that came immediately after by Sarah Sanders from the podium. That was significant and that was important. She spoke on behalf of the president and the administration from the podium to the world. And that shouldn't be short changed.

BERMAN: She did make that statement. But you said one other thing I want to follow up on. You said a laser-like focus on the situation before. Laser-like focus, Senator John McCain is saying that the administration is not being forthcoming about what happened on the ground in Niger. These families want more information. We've talked to a number of senators right now who have questions -

HARLOW: Mattis.

BERMAN: -- that are not being able answered. And the defense secretary - great point. He says he is dismayed that the answers are not coming more quickly. So do they need to, you know, tighten up that laser-like focus.

DENNARD: Look, there is an investigation -- internal investigation as to what is going on with what happened in Niger. That's important. It takes time. They want to be accurate. We saw what happened when it came to regards to Pat Tillman and how we got it wrong in the intelligence.

So I think this administration, especially President Trump and I know General Mattis wants to have the information accurate and wants it to be correct before jumping to conclusions. We owe it to our soldiers. We owe it to those families. And we owe it to the country to do justice in the eyes of what happened to those people who gave the ultimate sacrifice in dying for our country.

HARLOW: That they did. Paris, thank you, Susan, Paul, thank you all very much.

And again, a reminder that we can all give back and help these families. A lot of charities people can donate to do that.

Four American heroes as you know lost their lives in Niger and we don't want their names or their memories to be lost in this debate. Here they are.

Staff Sergeant Bryan Black, 35 years old, a Green Beret medic. He has survived by his wife and two sons. He was strong-willed we hear and learned the local dialect just so he could speak directly with the people of Niger.

There is Sergeant La David Johnson, expecting his third child to be named Lashay (ph). He was the youngest killed, 25 years old. He loved playing football as a kid growing up in south Florida.

BERMAN: Staff Sergeant Jeremiah Johnson won more than a dozen awards and decorations during the decade he served the country. He has survived by his wife and two daughters.

And Staff Sergeant Dustin Wright, he turned 29 last month. He came from a family deeply rooted in military service all the way back to the war of 1812. His brother says, the man was a servant and loved people.

Again, we are thinking about them and their families today.

Whole lot of news coming in, it turns out the top Trump campaign aides retweeted messages directly from Russian trolls days before the election.

HARLOW: Plus, a crucial Senate vote on a budget bill. This the first step towards some pretty big potential tax cuts. Do Republicans have the votes on this one though?

BERMAN: And CNN goes inside Raqqa, the Syrian city now freed from ISIS control but desperate residents told don't come home.


[10:18:32] BERMAN: All right. Republican push for a tax overhaul faces a crucial test today. Senators will vote on a budget that would allow tax reform to pass the Senate with just Republican support. Now, the overall details of the tax plan still the subject of intense negotiation.

HARLOW: Indeed. Despite the Dow hitting another record high 23,000 yesterday, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin says the markets will plunge if we don't cut taxes.

Joining us now from Capitol Hill, Sunlen Serfaty, no one knows if the markets are going to plunge or not. But yes, he has an agenda to push here. He wants this to happen. What else do we know?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. That was something of a warning shot from the treasury secretary, essentially saying, Congress, you've got to get this done and certainly Republicans up here know that they are feeling that pressure, breathing down their neck from the White House. They have set an end- of-the-year deadline to get tax reform done.

Today is an essential first step towards that. They will be passing a budget later this evening and as you noted that's important because if they don't have a budget, they won't be able to pass it with only -- tax reform with only Republican support. So an essential procedural step, if you will, for them to be able to inch closer towards tax reform.

Now we know President Trump is up tweeting about it this morning. He said today is the "first step toward massive tax cuts" in his words, and he added, "I think we have the votes, but who knows?"

Now there really is no cliffhanger here at all. Republicans do have the votes. They have a lot more breathing room than just earlier in the week. 48 hours ago some questioned whether Senator McCain would vote for the budget. He will, indeed, vote for the budget.

[10:20:05] We know that Senator Thad Cochran has returned. He was out with a medical issue. He's back and he will vote for this budget.

So, not a lot of drama tonight, there will be a series of non-binding amendments and something called a Vote-A-Rama up here but at the end of the night or in the early hours of tomorrow, they will have a Republican passed budget, which as we've been talking about is the vehicle where they can pass tax reform with only Republican support but that starts the very complicated next step of actually writing legislation on tax reform. John and Poppy?

BERMAN: Yes. This might be the easy step, the tough steps come later. -

HARLOW: That's true.

BERMAN: Sunlen Serfaty thanks so much for being with us.

Big development on the Russian campaign meddling front, according to "The Daily Beast" some of the most critical members of the Trump campaign team. We're talking Kellyanne Conway, Donald Trump, Jr. retweeted messages from a Russian troll farm account just days before the election.

Joining us now, one of the reporters who broke this story, one of our favorites, Betsy Woodruff is here. This is pretty interesting. I mean, these are the most senior members of the Trump campaign, retweeting this message that turned out to be a Russian front.

BETSY WOODRUFF, POLITICS REPORTER, "THE DAILY BEAST": Right, exactly. And just from going through the tweets that this account pushed out, the account was called 10 GOP because it was Russian bot. It's a Russian trolls masquerading as Tennessee Republicans. Just from looking through the tweets we can get a pretty good sense of the agenda that the Kremlin was trying to push in the United States. And part of that, as has been widely reported was efforts to undermine the way that American democracy works.

One of the tweets that was retweeted, in this case by Donald Trump, Jr. himself, alleged without any evidence, that tens of thousands of mail-in votes have been counted fraudulently in Broward County, Florida. And the tweet asked, please RT and then the president's son obliged.

We know this is bogus. This is not true. Tens of thousands of fraudulent votes were not cast in Broward County, but that message which was pushed by trolls operating at the behest of the Kremlin, was then amplified by the son of the man now our president. And that shows how sophisticated and how savvy a lot of these Russian actors were injecting their messages of division and distrust into the broad American political discourse.

HARLOW: And as your reporting notes, just to emphasize, we have no idea whether these folk, the digital director, Kellyanne Conway, Donald Trump, Jr., had any idea what they were tweeting was not legitimate but when you're going to tweet about voter fraud an allegation like that, you should know who the source is and if it's legitimate.

Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations just speaking this morning, talking about exactly how dangerous this stuff is to American democracy. Listen.


NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO UN: When a country can come interfere in another country's elections that is warfare. It really is. Because you're making sure that the democracy shifts from what the people want, to giving out that misinformation. We didn't just see it here. You can look at France and you can look at other countries. They are doing this everywhere. This is their new weapon of choice.


HARLOW: Betsy, she's talking about exactly what was, you know, pushed here by senior folks around the president.

WOODRUFF: Right, exactly. And it's important to remember that these tweets highlight the fact that Russia's efforts to influence our Democratic process were not limited to election years. In fact, the 10 GOP account was very busy tweeting plenty through the early months of 2017 after Trump was elected. One of the things that that account tweeted specifically was a call for Michael Flynn to be reinstated as national security adviser after he was ousted from that post for lying to the vice president.

So it's pretty clear that Russian agenda is not just limited to installing certain people into elected office. It goes beyond that. They're looking at questions of personnel, questions of staffing, deeper policy questions. A lot of the conversation about Russian meddling is focused on what they already did last year and there isn't as much of a focus on what's going on right now. But this 10 GOP account, and we can surmise other accounts, have been functioning very vigorously with a lot of effort in the month after Trump was elected.

BERMAN: Look, what's interesting to me, as you said, there's no evidence that these Trump campaign officials knew that they were retweeting from Russian bots but there's all the evidence in the world just based on your reporting that these Russian operatives knew exactly what to say that the Trump people wanted to hear. That is fascinating to me.

WOODRUFF: Right, exactly. And one thing that stood out to me was that over the course of reporting out this story, we spoke with a long-time Republican digital operative. That operative told me that he had been following the 10 GOP account, going back I believe as far back as 2015, certainly over the course of the Republican primaries. He said when he started following he thought it was just another Tea Party account. But over the months, by following that account he saw a lot of red flags. He noticed 10 GOP tweets being embedded in "Russia Today" stories.

[10:25:01] He noticed that 10 GOP, which was supposedly Republicans from Tennessee, seemed very invested in Marine Le Pen winning in France, something that you wouldn't necessarily expect from Tea Party folks. And that the account curiously aligned with the Kremlin line on Syria policy. This is a person who didn't have inside information, who wasn't in a position to contact the sources that we have contacted. But just from looking at the publicly available information, he could tell that there was something extremely fishy with this account.

HARLOW: So, that begs the question of what should these tech companies be able to tell and spot. They've got loads of money to hire folks like him to see red flags like this. But the issue is, it's not -- these are not necessarily accounts they can just really easily shutdown. And this is the sort of push and pulls that they're facing now, right?

WOODRUFF: Right, exactly. And one thing that I was told when I had a conversation recently with an employee of a tech company, is that part of the reason that this is so complicated for them is that a website like Twitter is not going to ban anti-American speech. It's not going to force people to use their real names on their Twitter accounts.

And in some cases that's one thing that has made Twitter really important, particularly in emerging democracies and for activists that are living under oppressive regimes, for instance. If you look at the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, we're seeing more Rohingya activists to migrate to Twitter, because they can share information anonymously, because there aren't as many regulations over the way they can talk.

So, this is a really complicated issue. How much can Twitter or Facebook or any of these social media platforms simultaneously try to keep insidious propaganda from influencing the American political discourse without jeopardizing this role that they play in emerging democracies and their effectiveness as a resource for activists to live in countries where their governments genuinely put them in danger. It's a complicated situation.

HARLOW: It's such fascinating reporting. Again, new this morning on "The Daily Beast," Betsy, great work. Thank you.

WOODRUFF: Thank you.

HARLOW: Next, CNN is on the ground inside of Raqqa, Syria, newly liberated from ISIS control, a closer look at the dangers preventing people from returning home at this point and the devastation that will await them when they do.