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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; Cubs Avoid Elimination Against Dodgers 3-2. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired October 19, 2017 - 05:00   ET


DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: Secretary of defense demanding answers. New questions emerge about the 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.


CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: New fallout this morning over the president's call to a Gold Star widow. The White House says the president was respectful.

[05:00:00] The soldier's mother says otherwise.

Good morning and welcome to EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

BRIGGS: I'm Dave Briggs. It is Thursday, October 19th. It's 5:00 a.m. in the East.

Yes, this conversation continues. Defense Secretary James Mattis is dismayed at the lack of detailed information he's getting on the ambush in Niger by ISIS-affiliated fighters. An attack two weeks ago that left four U.S. soldiers dead and two wounded. It's the deadliest assault on American soldiers during the Trump administration.

Three senior officials tell CNN Mattis is unhappy but is not trying to rush the investigation being carried out by U.S. Africa Command.

ROMANS: Senator McCain 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 deserves and needs. After that, McCain says the committee can decide whether an investigation is needed or not.

As new details emerged about the attack, they're raising new questions about what happened in its immediate aftermath. For more on that, let's turn to Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.


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 they given on the day they went on this mission -- Dave, Christine.


BRIGGS: Yes, lot of questions. Barbara Starr reporting from the Pentagon.

As for the controversy around President Trump's call to the widow of Sergeant La David Johnson, neither side is backing down here. The president firmly rejecting the claim of Democratic Congresswoman Frederica Wilson. She said 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.


ROMANS: Johnson's mother, the sergeant'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.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) 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.


BRIGGS: President Trump's advisers meanwhile are furious with 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 worst about their boss and jumping to conclusions.

ROMANS: The president himself tweeting he has proof the claims of disrespect for Sergeant Johnson were fabricated, unclear what that proof maybe. The White House says there is no tape of that conversation.


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

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.


BRIGGS: As for Kelly, West Wing officials tell CNN 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 use that information publicly. General Kelly is fiercely private about the death of his son in 2010 in Afghanistan, Robert Kelly.

ROMANS: Joining us now, "Washington Examiner" White House correspondent Sarah Westwood.

Good morning.

I'm sad to say there's a day two of this story about just what happened on that telephone call. And I think that is just -- I'm sure painful for the families, but the bigger issue here, Sarah, is that there's an investigation that needs to tell us what happened to these young men because leaving someone on a battlefield for two days is just not acceptable. This is the largest loss of life on the battlefield in this administration.


[05:05:00] And I think the uncertainty surrounding what happened during that attack might explain why the White House was not more forthcoming with a sympathy statement which we now know was drafted and not yet released by the president. Why there hasn't been much out of this president who has been quick to comment on just about everything else when it comes to the attack in Niger because there is still so much uncertainty about what happened, but there is still an investigation, and it looks like the White House didn't want to call attention to an attack about which they still don't know enough.

So, it's clear now that this is the exact kind of scrutiny that the president was trying to avoid. And the politicization of these calls and focus on President Trump's outreach to soldiers is sort of of his own making because recall that on Monday, it was President Trump who brought up the claim that President Obama didn't call soldiers, that his predecessors did less outreach to military families. That's what started this whole inquisition about what President Trump had said to military families.

BRIGGS: Yes, both sides are guilty of politicizing the deaths of these American troops which makes us all collectively ill. But you're right, it starts at the top and it starts oddly with this question from Sara Murray. Why haven't we heard anything from you so far about the soldier that were killed in Niger? There was nothing leading him to politicize that in any way shape or form.

This president cannot buy empathy. John Kelly cannot instill empathy in this president. So, how does he handle it better next time? What positive can couple of this? Because sadly, there will be a next time.

WESTWOOD: Well, one thing the White House could learn from this incident is to be more proactive about speaking about the event about maybe publicizing the fact that he is conducting this outreach, so it doesn't send reporters on a wild goose chase like what seems to have happened in regard to this tragedy. There are a lot of things the White House can do to have a -- play a more symbolic role in responding to these types of tragedies that did not occur with Niger, that President Trump and the Pentagon and entire administration can be more proactive about next time this occurs.

ROMANS: There's two world views. You read "The Washington Post" op-ed and it says, thanks to the president with the compulsive need to be the center of attention. Their deaths have been trivialized. President Trump reduced condolences to a political competition and treated the grieving families who received them as pawns in a game.

This is "Wall Street Journal", "Washington Post" or "Wall Street Journal"?

BRIGGS: It was "The Washington Post." You're correct.

ROMANS: OK. So that "Wall Street Journal" is wrong heading.

But look at "Breitbart" here. White House, politicization of troop deaths is a disgrace of the media. So, you know, the supporters of the president, even people inside the West Wing are appalled that the media always thinks the worst of the president. I don't see anything changing in these two polar different ideas.

WESTWOOD: Right. I think supporters of the president frequently blame the media not just for this but for basically every ill that befalls the president, anything that is starting to undermine the credibility of the president or the White House. Any criticisms that we see gaining traction. That's usually the fault of the media in the eyes of the president's supporters and President Trump feeds that by personally blaming the media for being unfair, for claiming that reporters are making up their sources, when stories are based on leaks from within the administration.

So, this is not a new phenomenon. It's something we've seen every time the president has gotten himself into hot water.

BRIGGS: Right. And this is the Gold Star mother confirming the words of Frederica Wilson.

But we've got to move on to health care quickly because we thought we had a deal done. Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray coming up with an agreement to continue to fund these exchanges for two years. The president appeared to support it in the Rose Garden and then came a tweet. How many times have we said that before?

The president tweeting, I'm supportive of Lamar as a person, and also the process, but I can never support bailing out insurance companies who have made a fortune with Obamacare.

Yes. Insurance companies have made a fortune since Obamacare was enacted in 2010. Not because of it, but they have indeed. Where does health care go?

ROMANS: Insurance companies in Obamacare have lost money on their Obamacare.

BRIGGS: But since 2010, their stocks are through the roof. It's that language, bailouts that is affecting now the future of this bill. Where are we headed?

WESTWOOD: Well, President Trump says it became clear that Republicans were not going able to repeal and replace Obamacare legislatively has sort of relied on the idea that the natural implosion of Obamacare was going to force Democrats to come to the table and then be bipartisan. So, it sort of looks like President Trump wants to with hold bipartisanship until Obamacare unravels even more than it already is.

So, it makes sense that he would come out against a bipartisan bill that would stabilize the exchanges. The question is why he indicated earlier this week that he would support a plan of this kind, and then, when he withheld his support of it, it made it look like he was backtracking even though this is the position you might expect President Trump to take?

[05:10:02] BRIGGS: All right. Sarah Westwood from "The Washington Examiner", thank you so much. We'll see you in about 30 minutes.

WESTWOOD: Thank you.

BRIGGS: All right. The stock market is soaring, as you know, Christine Romans. But the treasury secretary says that won't last unless tax cuts go through. An early start on your money is next.


ROMANS: All right. Have you checked your 401k? Because it's doing pretty well, I bet.

The Dow just closed above 23,000 for the first time. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has a warning for Congress. Cut taxes or stocks will plunge.

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


STEVE MNUCHIN, SECRETARY OF TREASURY: To the extent we get the tax deal done, the stock market will go up higher.

[05:15:01] 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've covered a lot of treasury secretaries. Usually they don't like to talk about what's going to happen in the stock market. Kind of one of those golden rules. But this is a very different administration.

There are other factors, of course, that benefit stocks, not just the expectations for a tax cut. Strong corporate profits have been fuelling this and also solid economic growth.

But if 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: Cruz defended tax cuts.


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: Republicans aim to pass tax bill by the end of the year. BRIGGS: Did you catch the laugh line of the night when Ted Cruz

dropped curb your enthusiasm and the crowd got it because Larry David plays Bernie on "SNL".

ROMANS: Very funny.

BRIGGS: All right. Just a few hours Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello and President Trump will meet at the White House to discuss post hurricane recovery and rebidding effort. Meantime, life on the island remains as desperate and daily struggle a month after of the hurricane.

CNN's Leyla Santiago is in Puerto Rico with the 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.

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: They need electricity. They need clean water. They need cell service. Kids got to go back to school. I mean, there is so much work to be done.

I really every day that goes by, I feel as though you're going to need more of intervention from Washington to get Puerto Rico back on its feet.

[05:20:03] BRIGGS: Perhaps Wall Street too. I mean, you're talking about 80 percent of the island without power still.

ROMANS: All right. The defending Chicago Cubs, depending champion.

BRIGGS: The defending champs.

ROMANS: They avoid being swept in NLCS. Coy Wire has more in the "Bleacher Report" next.


BRIGGS: The Chicago Cubs avoid elimination but not without a little bit of controversy.

ROMANS: Coy Wire has more in this morning's "Bleacher Report".

Hey, Coy.

COY WIRE, CNN SPORTS CORRESPONDEN: Christine, wearing her Cubby blue.


BRIGGS: Is it or is it Dodger blue?


WIRE: I like that.

BRIGGS: Dodger blue is very similar, just saying.

WIRE: Come on, let the Cubs fans have their moment of fun.

Good morning to you.

The defending World Series champ not going quietly into that good night. They are fighting scratching clawing and swinging for the fences.

Cubs Javier Baez was in a post-season slump for the ages, 0-20, but the 24-year-old from Puerto Rico broke out of the slump just in time to save the Cub season. Baez blasts not one but two home runs at Wrigley. But then, in the eighth inning, closer struck out Curtis Granderson, so everyone thought.

[05:25:04] Shockingly, the umpire ruled that Granderson actually fouled off the pitch, and that gave him and the Dodgers another shot.

Well, Cubs manager Joe Maddon not happy about that. He would get tossed with some not words safe for TV, but thankfully for the Cubs, Granderson would strike out on the next pitch. Cubs would go on to win 3-2. After of the game the umpire admitted he blew the call.

And, Joe Maddon, what would you have done if Granderson would have got a hit?


JOE MADDON, CUBS MANAGER: That can't happen. The process was horrible. To have that change in next picture out, you know, I might come running out of the clubhouse in my jockstrap. I mean, that was like really that bad. (END VIDEO CLIP)

WIRE: Kind of wishing Granderson would have had a hit.

All right. Game 5, tonight at 8:00 Eastern on sister channel TBS, Christine's Cubbies are alive.

After being down two games to none against the Astros, the Yankees are just one win away from the World Series. Up 3-2 now. Masahiro Tanaka took his game to a whole new level, eight strike outs and seven scoreless, as he owns Yankee, seven wins in the last eight starts.

How about Gary Sanchez for the Yankees? Coming up big at the plate, hits a home run to help New York stay unbeaten at home this season, winning 5-zip. They can wrap it up in Houston tomorrow night.

Yesterday, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said the league would like to get the number of players protesting during the anthem to zero but is going to stand behind the players and help them make change in their communities.


ROGER GOODELL, NFL COMMISSIONER: I understand where our fans feel about this issue, and we feel the same way about the importance of the flag, about the importance of patriotism I believe our players feel if a way. They will state to you and they have stated to everyone publicly. They are not doing this in any way to be disrespectful to the flag. But they also understand how it's being interpreted. That's why we're trying to deal with those underlying issues.


WIRE: New York Giants owner John Mara agreed with Goodell, saying that he asked his players to stand by said quote at the end of the day this is America. We do have something called the First Amendment, unquote.

Let's get you to the NBA.


GORDON HAYWARD, CELTICS STAR: What's up everybody? Just want to say thank you to everyone who has the thoughts and prayers. I'm going to be all right.


WIRE: That's Celtics star Gordon Hayward addressing the Boston faithful from his hospital bed, right before going to surgery to repair that gruesome injury he suffered on Tuesday. Fans lined to sign a huge card urging the all star to come back stronger than ever.

Good stuff there, guys.

ROMANS: That is great. BRIGGS: That is good.

You know what else is great. You mentioned Javier Baez from Puerto Rico. Good catch there. He's raising money to help everyone in Puerto Rico, selling some T-shirts, El Mago, the magician.


BRIGGS: So, thanks for their help in Puerto Rico. Hundred percent of the proceeds go to them.

Thank you.

WIRE: You're welcome.

ROMANS: Nice to see you.

All right. Just about half past the hour, the defense secretary said to be dismayed about lack of information about that deadly ambush on Americans in Niger. Now anger growing about what the president did or did not say to a Gold Star widow.