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Kelly Says He's Broken-Hearted at Congresswoman's Actions; Kelly Stunned Trump's Call to Family was Criticized. Aired 3:30-4p ET

Aired October 19, 2017 - 15:30   ET


[15:30:00] JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: -- about the attack itself. He said this is under investigation. He said that does not necessarily mean anything wrong happened, but he said that they were there, these four troops, and indeed others were there doing the work of the military, informing and training local troops on the ground there. But he pretty much left it at that. He did not say if the president specifically authorized this specific mission.

But there's no Question that the White House spent about 12 days not talking about this and now they are talking about it at the highest levels here with the White House Chief of Staff John Kelly coming to this podium and talking in specific detail about his son and the fact that president Obama did not call him at the time. So, Brianna, it's difficult to separate the ongoing action here, the questions we must ask about Niger and other attacks here. But must of course give respect to the Chief of Staff, the General John Kelly's loss and his wife's loss as well. But a very interesting moment here in the White House briefing room -- Brianna.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: Jeff, do you know how this came to be, how Kelly came to decide or be asked to come to the briefing room?

ZELENY: Brianna, an excellent question. We are looking into that now. We do know that the president and indeed many advisers around him felt they had -- were losing control of this story. I was in the cabinet room with the president yesterday when he was asked about the congresswoman's account. He at that moment could have diffused this and said something about how he valued the service of that young soldier. He decided to say I did not say what she said I said. So that simply fueled this even more. Escalated this even more. So, there has been a sense in this White House that they need do something to get beyond this. There's criticism from Capitol Hill, from Gold Star families. Perhaps one of only way, certainly the biggest way two get beyond this is having John Kelly himself who is at the center of all of this, come out and speak in this briefing room. Brianna, the look on his face, I do not believe it's something he wanted to do. It is something that is part of his new duty here that he was told to do or thought he had to do -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Jeff Zeleny in the White House briefing room. Thank you so much. I want to get back to my panel now. Gloria Borger just your reaction to this?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: First of all, obviously, as we were all sitting here it was quite emotional for everyone, particularly Kelly. But you looked at him at the podium and his description of service and his description of what happens in the field. And you couldn't help but think this is a true leader standing at that podium. Whether it was in the battlefield or now in his new job. And the leadership that we saw was somebody who was clearly taking a fall for his boss and said, I did this. This is what I told him, and he kept saying in his own way this is what Donald Trump was trying to say to this grieving wife. And then of course he went on after the congresswoman.

I don't know if Donald Trump put him up to this. I know that he was so affected by it that he went to Arlington and walked around having a conversation with himself. It was clearly implied. Trying to figure out how to handle something that strikes at his heart. But it does make you sort of see what we're lacking in this entire discussion which is leadership, answered questions about how things occur. Straight and direct answers that we never get. And he took himself into the realm of politics by talking about this congresswoman and in his -- and defending Donald Trump and saying, you know, this is basically my fault because I told him what a wife might want to hear.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: I wondered if -- as I was watching him, as John Kelly comes into the briefing room and telling America and reporters that the discourse has gotten to a place he saw as a warning sign --

BORGER: Exactly.

CHALIAN: -- I'm paraphrasing. I also wonder if he walks down the hall to the Oval Office and delivers that same speech to his boss?

[15:35:07] KEILAR: Well, is he not delivering it from --

BORGER: He might have. Absolutely.

KEILAR: Isn't that we always say the press secretary is doing?

BORGER: And does he say to the boss I wish you wouldn't have brought my son into this and we may not know the answer to that.

KEILAR: And we may not know. I'm curious to ask the men of the military here their opinion on this. That was pretty extraordinary, Admiral Kirby.

REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY (RETIRED), CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: Yes. It's hard to watch that and not be somewhat crushed by it. I know General Kelly well, worked with him on the staff of Secretary of Defense Pennetta. He was a military assistant, I was the spokesman. So, I saw him literally every day. I can assure you the very last thing he ever wanted to do was to talk about his son again publicly like that. You could see it on his face. You don't need me to say it. I can assure you that was the last thing he wanted to do. And nobody I know can speak more credibly for what Gold Star families endure than John Kelly. There's absolutely nobody can do it like him.

That said, and with all respect to him, he didn't just get into the realm of politics today with this discussion at the podium, he got into the realm of politics when he agreed to be a cabinet official in this administration. And when he agreed to be the Chief of Staff. We need to keep that in mind, that as brave a man as he was and as great a general he was he is a political official now and this is the world he's living in. And I was a bit quite frankly, again, with all respect put off by both him and Secretary Mattis today criticizing the media coverage of this somewhat. Two, three, 12 days later. Where were they 12 days ago or yesterday and the day before? Trying to shape understanding of what happened here in Niger and what happened to Sergeant Johnson and what happened on the phone call. We're only -- they're only doing this now because it got to the boiling point it was and that's just poor communications and poor -- in my mind, poor political situational awareness.

KEILAR: Colonel what did you think?

COLONEL STEVE WARREN (RETIRED, FORMER SPOKESMAN FOR DEFENSE SECRETARY JAMES MATTIS: I've always served with General Kelly on three occasions in three different continents and I'll tell you he's an American hero first of all. And that has to come out first. I think he reminded us all that when young Americans enlist, and they join the military, they essentially sign the bottom of a blank check. That check is payable up to and including their lives. And it's important for that to sometimes get out and to be in the public discourse because we tend to forget it sometimes. So, I for one was very glad that he brought all that up and reminded us what happens when people sign up to serve. But the Admiral was absolutely right, there's no excuse for the Pentagon and for White House to have waited nearly two weeks to begin addressing this issue publicly.

KIRBY: We would not have had to see that and that was hard to watch and I'm sure it was hard for him to do. Wouldn't have had to do that if they had been a little more forthcoming about what they are doing in Africa and happened to this young man. And if the president had not inserted himself so -- I mean, he turned what should be a solemn duty from any commander in chief regardless of your political stripe, he turned it into a competition with his predecessor. He turned it into a publicity stunt.

KEILAR: What Obama done? What had Bush done? I compared to what he --

CHALIAN: In a moment he shouldn't have required that at all.

KIRBY: President Obama who I watched closely when I was the Pentagon press secretary, he never talked publicly about the phone calls he made. He never talked publicly about the letters he sent. Secretary Hagel my boss at the Pentagon wrote letters to every single family of every single fallen and never said a word about it. And so, the president is the one who elevated this to the point that it got. And the president is the one who drove the media coverage to where it was and if the they had just gotten in front of that earlier I don't think we would have interceded.

BORGER: But that's why Kelly had to come out today because the president drove it and he had to fix it as painful as it was for him. KEILAR: To that point, I mean, he is the commander in chief, so the

buck stops with him when it comes to these things. And one of the things that struck me, and I wonder what you think about it, was that you saw the chief of staff providing the moral leadership on this issue that I think a lot of people believe Donald Trump has abdicated with his initial comments and what he said in response to what the congresswoman said.

BORGER: Absolutely. I'm wondering if General Kelly went into the oval and said Mr. President, let me clear this up. It would not surprise me. Through our reporting, we discover that. Yes, maybe the president asked him to go out, but you know, it wouldn't surprise me if Kelly said, OK, I'm going to clear this up.

[15:40:00] And one thing I would add on the Niger situation is that when the questions were being asked about what happened, that's when it got cut off. Because I don't think we have the answers to these very important questions about the fallen soldiers. We don't.

KEILAR: And we heard General Mattis said don't confuse your need to have information with our ability to provide it. Which you know, he sort of said very succinctly. One of the things that we heard Kelly say. He said, there's no perfect way to make that phone call. And he said that his advice was not to do it.

Now some people might say, oh my goodness, well why wouldn't the president make that call? He said it is nice. But having spoken yesterday for instance to a Gold Star widow, it isn't necessarily -- and we have heard from many other families as well, it isn't -- well, it's nice for their loved one to be honored they'll say, it's not something they would take as a slight that they didn't receive. It doesn't have the impact of the support system which is the most important thing, all of them will tell you over and over again.

WARREN: I would say, I don't believe there's anything that a president, a commander in chief can say to a grieving family member within that first 48, 72 hours that will help. There's nothing they can say. You're talking to someone when they're at their absolute most vulnerable they have ever been probably in their life. What can you say to ease that pain? I would submit probably nothing. You can try. You may succeed. You might fail. In this case, we saw a failure I believe. But there's nothing that you can say that's going to help ease their pain.

KIRBY: You know, Steve and I were talking earlier about this whole this is what he signed up for comment. And we both had the same reaction when we first heard that the president said that, that it sounded like something that probably he had heard before he got on the phone. We both assumed, and now General Kelly confirmed it that it was he who mentioned that idea of service and what that means when you take that oath like we all have. It just -- it reinforced for me that probably what happened here was it got lost in translation. You know, when you hear John Kelly talk about it it's one thing. When you hear Donald Trump say that, a man who hasn't served and let's be honest, has a little trouble with eloquence you can see where that might have gotten lost in translation on that phone call to that young widow. KEILAR: I want to listen to some of what Kelly said when he was

talking about the congresswoman which is one of the reasons why this blew up into a huge controversy because the president did call the widow of La David Johnson. The congresswoman who's a longtime family friend, heard the speaker phone the phone call and reported back which she felt were insensitive comments from Donald Trump. Donald Trump fired back at her. Here's what John Kelly said about this.


JOHN KELLY, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: It stuns me that a member of congress would have listened in on that conversation. Absolutely stuns me. And I thought at least that was sacred. You know, when I was a kid growing up a lot of things were sacred in our country. Women were sacred. Looked upon with great honor. That's obviously not the case anymore as we see from recent cases. Life, the dignity of life was sacred. That's gone. Religion. That seems to be gone as well. Gold Star families, I think that left in the convention over the summer.

I just thought the selfless devotion that brings a man and woman to die in the battlefield, I just thought that might be sacred. And when I listened to this woman and what she was saying and what she was doing on TV, the only thing I could do to collect my thoughts was to go and walk among the finest men and women on this earth. And you can always find them because they're in Arlington National Cemetery. Went over there for an hour and a half, walked among the stones, some of whom I put them because they were doing what I told them to do when they were killed.


KEILAR: All right. I do want to bring in Errol Louis. He's our CNN political analyst. So, you hear that explanation, he's upset about the congresswoman who is listening in on the call. She was someone who had known La David Johnson for years. This wasn't just the congresswoman who represented his area. This was someone with whom he had a personal relationship, was a family friend. I think we just need to make that clear to our viewers. Also, that John Kelly and presumably other aides were on the line as well listening to this phone call. What do you make of his criticism there?

ERROL LOUIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, look, I think of that at a minimum as the price of taking the podium. We know that most people in that briefing room from the administration are playing to an audience of one. You have to assume that the president is watching.

[15:45:00] It's very interesting of course that he made reference to comments about Gold Star families being sacred at one point and he says that left at the convention over the summer. There's going to be a lot of analysis of that and why in fact that last breach of what was sacred has changed. And that of course was because candidate Donald Trump decided to pick a fight with a Gold Star family.

I saw him as, Brianna, walking a very fine line. You know, needing to do some political combat that was kind of the price of being there, of being Chief of Staff. You got to pick sides in a political fight and that's just what he did. I think it could have all played out very differently. It would have been interesting to hear him say -- place a personal phone call to the congresswoman, maybe have this as a private conversation rather than a public dispute. It just didn't work out that way. The phone call as it turns out was then there's very public dispute. But it just didn't work out that way.

The phone call as it turns out was a public act by the president to this family, people on the president's side listening to the call. People in the car with the grieving widow also listening in. And what -- you know, unfortunately could have been maybe handled as a personal misunderstanding and miscommunication as I think General Kelly explained it probably was. The president was just unartful and inept at explaining something that Kelly explained very, very well from the podium. It turned into something completely different and becomes one more symbol of our broken politics.

KEILAR: All right. Errol Louis, thank you so much. And stand by for us as well, as well as our panel here. I'm actually going to be speaking live with a Gold Star mother who lost her son in Iraq in 2004. Stay with us.



KELLY: So, he called four people the other day and expressed his condolences in the best way that he could. And he said to me, what do I say? I said to him, sir, there's nothing you can do to lighten the burden on these families. But let me tell you what I told him. Let me tell you what my best friend, Joe Dunford told me, because he was my casualty officer. He said, Kell, he was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1 percent. He knew what the possibilities were because we're at war. And when he died, and the four cases we're talking about, Niger, in my son's case in Afghanistan, when he died he was surrounded by the best men on this earth, his friends.

That's what the president tried to say to four families the other day. I was stunned when I came to work yesterday morning and broken- hearted, at what I saw a member of congress doing. The member of congress who listened in on a phone call from the president of the United States to a young wife. And in his way tried to express that opinion, that he's a brave man, a fallen hero. He knew what he was getting himself into because he enlisted, there's no reason to enlist, he enlisted. And he was where he wanted to be, exactly where he wanted to be, with exactly the people he wanted to be with when his life was taken. That was the message. That was the message that was transmitted.


KEILAR: General John Kelly there who lost his own son in combat, speaking to reporters about the four soldiers who killed in an ISIS ambush in Niger. Joining me now is Michelle Deford. Her son, Army Sergeant David Johnson was killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad in 2004. And Michelle I know that you received a letter from President Bush shortly after your son died, and that you also met with President Obama at the White House a few years later when Gold Star families were honored there. Your loss is unimaginable.

I think that is something that we heard General Kelly there speak to, that there really are such a small percentage of Americans who understand what it is to even be in the military, and certainly to experience the loss that you have. As you listen to his comments, what did you think? What was your reaction?

MICHELLE DEFORD, GOLDSTAR MOTHER, SON KILLED IN IRAQ IN 2004: Well, I actually had a family member say those very same words to me. And they said them about three days after our son's funeral. And it was -- it caused unimaginable pain to have someone say to you, perhaps it was expressed to me a bit differently, they said, well, he knew, he knew what he was getting into so, you know, it's like why are you so upset? And there seems to be, in certain humans, this disconnect in their inability to put themselves in someone else's shoes for that moment. It just -- it -- so maybe perhaps I'm a little jaded because I've heard those words directed at me. And of course, it depends on what the president meant by that and Kelly seems to think that his heart was in the right place, but the sentence that he said after that, which was, I suppose it must hurt anyway, speaks more to his personality and his feelings about maybe people of color, that it just didn't -- it didn't ring true and it didn't ring sincerely to me, and I was frankly appalled at what he said.

KEILAR: I spoke yesterday with a Gold Star widow who lost her husband in August, and she said, when I asked her about what was recounted by the congresswoman and confirmed by the mother of La David Johnson, he knew he was getting into. She said, you know, on some level, you know that's true, that, you know, your husband or your spouse obviously knows that that is a possibility when they go into the military, but at the same time, you never actually expect that you're going to be on the other side of that. And it's a very different situation, and clearly, it's always your hope that you won't. And she said even though there's a part of you that knows in the back of your mind there's this possibility, it's not for someone else to say to you. And that was why she described it as hurtful coming from somebody else. Is that something that rings true to you?

[15:55:18] DEFORD: Yes. Yes, it does. I really think they should put someone else in charge of condolence calls to Gold Star families. I just think that you can do so much more damage because those thoughts will stay in your mind the rest of your life. You'll always remember that. And it is clearly the worst day of your life. And that trip to the airport to pick up the body of your loved one is a trip that every, every moment of it is cemented into your memory, so to have that trip interrupted by that call, unimaginable. My heart goes out to that family. I wished I could just give them a hug.

KEILAR: Was there -- when you were listening to John Kelly and he was describing the process of what happens when a service member dies, and he was trying to illuminate people of the process that the family has to go through and just how unimaginably horrible it is and it's something that, so many people cannot connect to, did you -- did you appreciate his words? Was there some of what he said that you appreciated or connected with?

DEFORD: Of his words that I did appreciate. But overall, I had the impression that he was just trying to get his boss out of a jam.

KEILAR: So, you feel that he's now a political figure and that that eclipses even his role as a Gold Star parent?

DEFORD: Well, I wouldn't put -- he will always be a Gold Star parent first, you are.


DEFORD: But I -- I don't know. I really just feel like he is coming down pretty hard on that congresswoman. She had to have been shocked and horrified for the widow, and I just believe that she will be able to reign it in in time, but I can understand her outrage.

KEILAR: Yes. And as you said it there, he is a Gold Star father first, that there is nothing else -- there is nothing that eclipses that, I think you made that very clear and that is very accurate. And Michelle Deford, thank you so much for talking to us. We really appreciate it.

DEFORD: Thank you for asking me.

KEILAR: Special correspondent Jamie Gangel is joining me now. Jamie, you know well how President Bush was very quiet about when he would go Walter Reed and he would meet to soldiers who are recovering or when he would have meetings with families, he was very discreet about it.

JAMIE GANGEL, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: Right. One thing is to put this in perspective of what President Trump said the other day. Which, you know, that he was in effect doing it better than the other presidents. And I think we have to give some context to that. All of the presidents, as General Kelly said, write letters. President Bush, 43, George W. Bush, kept this very, very private. He didn't want people to know. But he met with about 500 families of fallen soldiers privately. He had them come to the White House, or if he was making a trip someplace, he would meet with them.

And one of the things I know is that he would always schedule those meetings at the end of his event or the end of his speech because he would cry. He would become so emotional with them, and he didn't -- he couldn't go out and give a speech after he did that. He spent a tremendous amount of time and emotion with these families. I think Michelle said something interesting when she said maybe somebody else should be making these calls. And perhaps that's what we saw.

KEILAR: Perhaps that could be General Kelly, certainly he expressed his feelings so well with so much eloquence today. Jamie Gangel, thank you so much. And "THE LEAD" with Jake Tapper starts now.