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New Questions About Niger; Both Sides Dig In on Trump's Call to Widow; Life in Puerto Rico: One Month After Hurricane Maria; Mnuchin: Cut Taxes or Markets Will Dive. Aired 4-4:30a ET

Aired October 19, 2017 - 04:00   ET


[04:00:22] CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: The defense secretary demanding answers as new questions emerge about that deadly ambush on American soldiers in Niger. Now, Senator John McCain says the White House is not being up front about the attack.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president was completely respectful, very sympathetic. To try to create something from that, that the congresswoman is doing, is frankly appalling and disgusting.


DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: And ugly fallout over the president's call to a Gold Star widow. The White House says the president was respectful, but the soldier's mother, she says otherwise.

Good morning, everyone, and welcome to EARLY START. I'm Dave Briggs.

ROMANS: Good morning. I'm Christine Romans. It is Thursday, October 19th. It is 4:00 a.m. in the East.

Defense Secretary James Mattis is dismayed at the lack of detailed information he's receiving on that ambush in Niger by ISIS affiliated fighters. An attack two weeks ago that left these four U.S. soldiers dead and two others wounded. It is the deadliest assault on American soldiers during the Trump administration. Three senior U.S. defense officials tell CNN Mattis is unhappy but is not trying to rush the investigation being carried out by U.S. Africa Command.

BRIGGS: Senator John McCain meanwhile says the Trump administration is not being up front about the Niger ambush. Asked by reporters if Congress should investigate the attack, the Senate Armed Services chairman said his committee first wants information it, quote, deserves and needs after that. In McCain's words, you decide whether an investigation is needed or not. As new details emerged about this attack, there are new questions about what happened in its immediate after math.

For more, let's turn to Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Dave, Christine, we are now learning for the first time that a contractor flew an aircraft into the battle zone after the fighting died down to help evacuate American and Nigerien dead and wounded. These planes generally are not armed and only go in when the fighting is over.

It is not known what kind of communication that contractor plane had with the French and also the Americans, did they actually know how many people they were looking for to evacuate? Because, of course, the big question that remains is what happened with Sergeant La David Johnson, that he was left behind and his body was not discovered for 48 hours.

That is a key question for the Pentagon investigation and another key question, of course, is the intelligence. How did this 12-man team led by Green Berets walk into an ambush. Clearly, they did not know that ISIS fighters were there. Broadly speaking, this is an area where insurgents are very active, but they'd been to this village before and not run into trouble. So, the question is what kind of intelligence were any given on the day they went on this mission -- Dave, Christine.


ROMANS: Barbara Starr asking these questions for us this morning.

As for the controversy around President Trump's call to the widow of Sergeant La David Johnson, neither side is backing down. The president officially rejecting the claim of Democratic Congresswoman Frederica Wilson. She says she heard the president tell Johnson's widow that her husband, quote, knew what he signed up for but I guess it still hurt. Not so, says the president.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I didn't say what that congresswoman said, didn't say it at all. She knows it and she now is not saying it. I did not say what she said. I had a very nice conversation with the woman, with the wife, who is -- sounded like a lovely woman. Did not say what the congresswoman said.


BRIGGS: Johnson's mother also telling "The Washington Post" that President Trump, quote, did disrespect my son on that phone call.

And harsh new criticism of the president coming in last night on CNN from Illinois senator and military veteran, Tammy Duckworth.


SEN. TAMMY DUCKWORTH (D), ILLINOIS: Utter disgust with this president who is the current commander-in-chief of our armed forces. For him to have done this and played games with Gold Star families is absolutely unacceptable.


ROMANS: President Trump's advisers are furious for what they view as unfair criticism of the president from former Obama staffers and others. "The Washington Post" also reporting West Wing officials are accusing the media of assuming the worse about their boss and jumping to conclusions.

BRIGGS: The president himself tweeting he has proof the claims of disrespect for Sergeant Johnson were fabricated. Unclear what the proof may be -- we've heard this before.

Since the White House admits there is no tape of the conversation.


REPORTER: Are there recordings of this phone call with Myeshia Johnson?

[04:05:01] SANDERS: No, but there were several people in the room from the administration that were on the call, including the chief of staff, General John Kelly.


ROMANS: As for Kelly, West Wing officials say it is true. He told President Trump that President Obama never called him after his son's death. But they say Kelly never imagined the president would then use that information publicly.

BRIGGS: As for why President Trump waited nearly two weeks to address the death of these four U.S. soldiers, CNN has learned staffers at the National Security Council drafted and distributed a statement of condolence on October 5, shortly after the ambush in Niger, but the White House never released it. Instead, Press Secretary Sara Sanders publicly offered condolences at a briefing one day after the soldiers died.

ROMANS: On Wednesday, the administration said it felt remarks from Sanders would be more powerful than issuing a presidential statement. CNN has learned the statement was prepared before the military recovered the body of Army Sergeant La David Johnson, which occurred nearly 48 hours after the ambush. A lot of questions about what happened there and uncertainty over whether Johnson survived, that may have contributed to the decision of not releasing those presidential remarks.

BRIGGS: President Trump has made good on his promise to send a $25,000 personal check to a family of a fallen soldier, a promise he made back in June. He did not send the check until yesterday, the same day "The Washington Post" broke a story about it.

The money is going to the family of Dillon Baldridge. The 22-year-old Army corporal was killed in June by an Afghan police officer. According to "The Washington Post", the president called Chris Baldridge weeks after his son's death and during their conversation offered him the money. ROMANS: The White House is calling it disgusting for the media to

take a, quote, generous and sincere gesture made privately by the president and use it to advance, quote, a bias agenda.

BRIGGS: A bipartisan health care bill that appeared to be gaining momentum has suddenly stalled after the president called the Alexander/Murray agreement a great solution. The White House got immediately blowback from conservatives and Republican leaders and that's when the president went on Twitter to backtrack, declaring that insurance companies should not benefit. Note the new measure does address that issue.

CNN's Phil Mattingly with more.


PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Christine and Dave, it seems like only 24 or 36 hours ago before bipartisanship was in the air, Republicans, Democrats, health care, everybody was agreeing on something. There was actually a deal, at least on the short term measure, to try and fund the subsidies that the president had basically ended just a few days prior. Well, that bipartisanship has essentially imploded. And why? Well, the president is a pretty good reason, deciding that he is opposed to the bill, to the compromise, to the agreement that Senators Patty Murray and Lamar Alexander reached on this health care issue.

Where do the Republican senators stand on it? Well, take a listen to a few that we spoke to.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I wouldn't call it dead, but it's sucking wind.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLIAN: We don't want to pass something that has no chance in the House. Here's the question for Paul Ryan, are you interested in continuing the payments if we can get more flexibility? If you're not, tell us. Then the payments stop, and then we'll all accept the consequences of that.

MATTINGLY: Now, guys, listen close to what Senator Graham was saying there. He makes very clear something that has become very apparent -- the House and particularly, Speaker Paul Ryan is opposed to this idea, doesn't want to take it up at all. That is a huge problem, so is the obviously the opposition of the president.

Right now, Senators Alexander and Murray are trying to gather co- sponsors, essentially prove that there's momentum here. They're also willing to make tweaks to try and address what the president has labeled as his top concerns, that this bill would essentially be a bailout for insurers.

Now, when it comes to the policy, that's not actually the case. The bill has very specific provisions that basically don't allow insurers to pocket any of the money that's given to them. It all has to be used to pay down premiums for individuals that are in the marketplace. But they recognize it's a problem, rhetorically or otherwise and are trying to address it. The big question now is, with the opposition that's building, with the

skepticism that exists, will they be able to overcome these hurdles? It's still an open question. But keep a close eye on the end of year spending bill, that is a vehicle, not as a standalone bill, but trying to attach it to something that's almost certain to move. That's probably the best hope they have. That is what they're targeting at this point as they try to gather that support -- Christine and Dave.


ROMANS: All right, Phil.

He makes a very, very good point. You keep hearing this argument that these are payouts, bailouts to the insurance companies. No. They subsidize the health care of millions of low income Americans, families of four who make under $61,000 a year. So --

BRIGGS: But it's that language that makes it hard to get this bill approved. Ironically, to Phil's point, it's rhetorical.

ROMANS: And, look, and the insurers have great profits. They've had great profits but not from Obamacare.

BRIGGS: But since Obamacare was put in place.

ROMANS: They have great profits outside of Obamacare.

BRIGGS: All right.

ROMANS: Millions of Americans in Puerto Rico still trying to pick up the pieces a month after Hurricane Maria. We are on the ground looking at how people are surviving day-to-day.

[04:10:00] That's next.


BRIGGS: In just a few hours, Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello and President Trump will meet at the White House to discuss the post hurricane recovery and rebuilding effort.

Meantime, life on the island remains a desperate daily struggle a full month after Hurricane Maria hit. Thirty percent of the households have no access to safe drinking water. A staggering 80 percent of the island still without power.

CNN's Leyla Santiago is in Puerto Rico offering us a firsthand look at the challenges.


LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: One month later, we are seeing more FEMA aid moving or helicopters in the sky, trucks that are distributing supplies to all parts of the island. But still, the majority without power, many without clean water. You take your cell phone outside of San Juan and you'll quickly read no service. [04:15:00] It's like a new normal for Puerto Ricans on the island.


SANTIAGO (voice-over): He's been cleaning for a month. Not much seems to have changed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So, it's like it was yesterday.

SANTIAGO: Angel St. Kitts (ph) lives in Humacao, the eastern coast of the island where the sea rushed in and Maria left little behind.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're suffering because we don't have electricity.

SANTIAGO (on camera): One month later, there were still people gathered at the church, hoping to get supplies that come in here in this area. And their lives are on display, on the sidewalks, you can see furniture, you can see paintings, even a Christmas stand down here. This home doesn't have part of its roof.

There is no cell service here. Nobody has power, and food and water are limited.

(voice-over): A month we've been here and seen and felt Maria's terrifying force, and in the aftermath, dramatic rescues, desperation, on the ground and through the mud. We've been the first to reach communities cut off by the storm.

Despite President Donald Trump's visit and his own rave reviews of the recovery, more than 80 percent still don't have power. About 40 percent of the cell towers remain down and roughly a third, no running water.

Banks that are open have lines that can be hours long. More than 100 bridges damaged, 18 closed until further notice, cutting off entire communities.

Rebecca Rodriguez tells us her family's bakery has been here for decades.

(on camera): Yes, this is how high the water came, which is at least four feet.

(voice-over): The only light here comes from our camera.

(on camera): What once smelled of fresh bread is really now smells like something's rotting in here. And she's upset because none of this will be covered, according to her insurance.

(voice-over): Every day brings uncertainty.

(on camera): Of all the things you had in here, this is --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is what I've been able to save, because the mattress I threw it out. The bed, I threw it out. The chairs --

SANTIAGO: This isn't much.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No. But what can we do?

SANTIAGO (voice-over): As time passes --

(on camera): These are all your watches.

(voice-over): Disaster has become a way of life, as if Maria never left.

(on camera): And when you ask people on the island how long it will take to recover, how long will it take to get to a sense of normalcy like pre-Maria, they will tell you this is not a matter of months. This is likely now a matter of years.

Leyla Santiago, CNN, San Juan, Puerto Rico.


ROMANS: You know, Dave, I don't know how you get Puerto Rico back on its feet without significant intervention from Washington. It's got a debt crisis.

BRIGGS: Do you mean a bailout?

ROMANS: I don't know what you call it, but they've had a brain drain for years. For ten years people have been leaving, going to Texas and going to Florida because they have to make money for their families.

BRIGGS: It's about to get a lot worse.

ROMANS: It really is. I mean, I don't know how without real intervention from Washington, that problem is going to be solved.

BRIGGS: And Wall Street.

ROMANS: And Wall Street, absolutely. The bondholders who own that debt.

Eighteen minutes past the hour.

The stock market is soaring. The treasury secretary says that won't last unless those tax cuts go through. An EARLY START on your money, next.


[04:22:59] ROMANS: All right. History-making on Wall Street. The Dow closed above 23,000 for the very first time and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is warning Congress -- hey, cut taxes or stocks will plunge.

U.S. stocks have rallied since the election. Mnuchin told "Politico" that's because that's the market expects, needs, wants tax reform.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP) STEVE MNUCHIN, SECRETARY OF TREASURY: To the extent we get the tax deal done, the stock market will go up higher. But there's no question in my mind if we don't get it done, you're going to see a reversal of a significant amount of these gains.


ROMANS: I got to tell you, it is so rare to hear a treasury secretary and a president for that matter talk so much about the stock market. Usually, they take a very hands-off approach. Not this administration.

You know, there are other factors that benefit stocks -- strong corporate profits, which we've had, economic growth, which we've had. But if the Trump's tax plan is good for Wall Street, Senator Bernie Sanders says it's bad for working Americans.


SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I), VERMONT: It is a Robin Hood proposal in reverse. They're talking from the working families and the poor, and they're giving to the rich. It's a proposal that must be defeated.


ROMANS: In a CNN debate with Senator Ted Cruz, Sanders called Trump's plan a disaster.

Cruz defended tax cuts along party lines.


SEN. TED CRUZ (R), TEXAS: This debate is very, very simple. Bernie and the Democrats want to raise your taxes. And the Republicans want to cut them so that you have more in your pocket.


ROMANS: To pass a tax bill by the end of the year, Dave.

BRIGGS: You got the Dr. Pepper off his lap. That's the key there, Ted Cruz. We'll talk about that a little later on the program.

First, the suspect in a deadly two-state shooting rampage behind bars this morning after a police manhunt. Thirty-seven-year-old Radee Prince was arrested in Delaware, hours after police say he killed three people and wounded two others at his job in Maryland.

Authorities say he shot a sixth person at a Delaware car dealership. They say Prince was spotted by ATF agents in Newark, Delaware, walking around, smoking a cigar.

[04:25:03] When they confronted him, he took off. Police say he tossed a gun as he ran. He was caught a few blocks later.

Prince does have a lengthy criminal record, including more than 40 arrests, mostly for probation violations and 15 felony convictions. Wow.

ROMANS: All right. Twenty-five minutes past the hour. The W flying over Wrigley Field this morning. The Chicago Cubs still alive in the National League Championship Series after their game 4 win over the Dodgers. Second baseman Jose Baez hitting two home runs in a 3-2 victory. Cubs still facing elimination of course. L.A. leads the NLCS three games to one. Game 5 tonight at Wrigley.

BRIGGS: Stunningly, the Yankees are one win away from a World Series berth. They shut out the Astros 5-0 last night, taking a 3-2 lead in the ALCS. Pitcher Tanaka dominant over seven innings, allowing three hits, striking out eight. The Yanks are a perfect 6-0 at home this post-season. The Astros now on the brink but going back home, Game 6 of that series tomorrow night in Houston.

Justin Verlander on the Hill, in a tremendously entertaining post season. I see you're all enthused for the Cubs. Are you feeling good? We are wearing cubby blue this morning.

ROMANS: I'm a little not happy they've so far behind.

BRIGGS: They have the right personality. I'll tell you that.

ROMANS: All right. Twenty-six minutes past the hour. The defense secretary said to be dismayed over a lack of information from that deadly ambush on Americans in Niger. Now, anger going around about what the president did or did not say to a Gold Star widow.