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New Questions About Niger Ambush; Both Sides Dig In On Trump's Call To Widow; Puerto Rico One Month After Maria. Aired 5:30-6a ET

Aired October 19, 2017 - 05:30   ET


[05:31:02] CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: The Defense secretary demanding answers as new questions emerge about the deadly ambush on American soldiers in Niger. Now, Sen. John McCain says the White House is not being upfront about the attack.


SARAH 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 to a Gold Star widow. The White House says the president was respectful. The mother's -- the soldier's mother, rather, says otherwise. And unfortunately, this story continues.

Welcome back to EARLY START. I'm Dave Briggs.

ROMANS: And I'm Christine Romans. It is 31 minutes past the hour this Thursday morning.

Defense Secretary James Mattis is dismayed at the lack of detailed information he's receiving on the 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's 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. That investigation being carried out by U.S.-Africa Command.

ROMANS: Senator John McCain, meanwhile, says he does not think the Trump administration is being upfront about the Niger ambush. Asked by reporters if Congress should investigate the attack, the Senate Armed Services chair said his committee first wants information it quote "deserves and needs." After that, McCain says the committee can decide whether an investigation is needed or not.

As new details emerge about the attack, they are raising questions about what happened in its immediate aftermath. For more, 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 Nigerian 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 Sgt. 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've 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 --


ROMANS: So many questions, Barbara Starr. Thanks.

Now to that the controversy around the president's call to the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson.

The president firmly rejecting the claim of Democratic Congresswoman Frederica Wilson. You'll recall 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." The Congresswoman said it was insulting.

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 Democratic 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.


[05:35:06] ROMANS: Now, President Trump's advisers 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.

BRIGGS: The president, himself, tweeting he has proof the claims of disrespect for Sgt. Johnson were fabricated. Unclear what that proof may be since the White House admits there is no tape of the conversation.


CECILIA VEGA, ABC SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Were there recordings of his phone call with Myeshia Johnson?

SARAH SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: No, but there were several people in the room from the administration that were on the call, including the Chief of Staff Gen. John Kelly.


ROMANS: All right.

As for Kelly, West Wing officials tell CNN that Kelly did tell the president, President Trump, that President Obama never called him after his son's death, but these sources say Kelly never imagined the president would use that information publicly.

BRIGGS: Yes. Obviously, he's very private about the death of his son, Robert, in 2010 in Afghanistan.

Joining us now, "Washington Examiner" White House correspondent Sarah Westwood. Good morning to you, Sarah.

ROMANS: Good morning.

BRIGGS: We'll get to this back and forth over the condolence call in a moment but first, up front, the most important question is what happened -- what happened in Niger?

SARAH WESTWOOD, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, WASHINGTON EXAMINER: That's a great question. It's one I don't think the administration has answered to anyone's satisfaction.

And this scrutiny of what the White House hasn't said about Niger -- why it took almost two weeks for President Trump to address this head on has only raised more questions about why the White House was so reluctant to talk about this attack for so long. Normally, we do learn a lot more, a lot more quickly about how these

types of attacks unfold and what events led up to the deaths of American soldiers. We don't know that in this case and we're still learning new information that's crucial to our understanding of what took place.

So it does raise questions in retrospect about why President Trump didn't weigh in on this immediately when he's so quick to weigh in on just about everything else that happens.

ROMANS: You know, look, we need to know what the intel was like and why these guys didn't have more -- I mean, they were in trucks -- why they didn't have heavier armor and --

BRIGGS: Right.

ROMANS: -- why they were -- why they were evacuated.

BRIGGS: Outmanned, outgunned in every way.

ROMANS: And it was a contractor plane that got them out of there.

You know, what was going on? What went wrong here? And why, in God's name, was that young man on the battlefield for two days before they could get his body?

I mean, those are really big questions.

Yet, so much of the discussion over the past couple of days has been about the substance of this phone call that the president made to La David Johnson's widow. And Sarah Huckabee Sanders finds the entire line of discussion disgusting she said -- listen.


SANDERS: I think it is appalling what the Congresswoman has done and the way that she has politicized this issue, and the way that she is trying to make this about something that it isn't.

This was a president who loves our country very much, who has the greatest level of respect for men and women in the uniform, and wanted to call and offer condolences to the family. And I think to try to create something from that, that the Congressman is doing, is frankly appalling and disgusting.


ROMANS: And "Breitbart" blaming not the Congresswoman so much as the media for politicizing it. The "Breitbart" headline "Politicization of troop deaths is a disgrace of the media" is the -- is the headline there.

But the president brought this on himself, really, didn't he?

WESTWOOD: Right. I think it is fair to say that all sides are politicizing this issue. But it was President Trump, himself, who did invite this level of scrutiny of his outreach to Gold Star families when he claimed that his predecessors did not call Gold Star families as often as he did.

That's a pretty easily verifiable fact. It invited reporters to go looking for his outreach to Gold Star families in a way that I don't think would have occurred had he not brought the subject up himself. This is a controversy largely of his own making.

But it is fair to say that Democrats are also exploiting this situation to put more pressure on President Trump. You see these Democratic politicians like Congresswoman Wilson who are using this as a cudgel to bludgeon President Trump with. So it's --


WESTWOOD: All sides are guilty of politicization, but President Trump definitely invited this controversy.

ROMANS: They should stop handing him cudgels. It would be a lot less --

BRIGGS: Well look, you can't develop empathy. You either have it --

ROMANS: Right.

BRIGGS: -- or you don't. And let's just hope the president somehow finds the high road in the future in any subject -- most importantly, this one -- and focuses on the families and the troops, and not the back and forth.

But let's talk a little bit about health care because Lamar Alexander, Republican senator, had to be a bit shocked yesterday when he thought the White House stood by his outreach to Patty Murray to fix these exchanges and to fund them for the next two years.

Then came this tweet from the president. "I am supportive of Lamar as a person and also of the process, but I can never support bailing out insurance companies who have made a fortune with Obamacare."

[05:40:00] Now, again, Monday in the Rose Garden, the president very clear he was supportive of this bipartisan participation and again, in front of Heritage he seemed to support it. What happened?

WESTWOOD: Well, President Trump has always been clear that what he wants to see happen is for Obamacare to explode or implode, and then he wants that to pressure Democrats to come to the table and negotiate some kind of bipartisan replacement for Obamacare.

So it is interesting that President Trump seemed to support this idea in theory and then once Alexander -- Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray came up with a bipartisan compromise he then came out against it.

It gave the appearance of backtracking when President Trump has sort of always been clear that he wants Obamacare to fail. And it wouldn't really make sense for him to back something that would stabilize the markets when he's banking on the unraveling of Obamacare to get to his ultimate goal of repealing it.

BRIGGS: All right, Sarah Westwood from the "Washington Examiner." We shall see where we are headed with Obamacare, slash Trumpcare, slash --

ROMANS: Always nice -- yes -- Frankenstein health care.

BRIGGS: Yes, it is.

ROMANS: Thank you. Nice to see you.

WESTWOOD: Thank you.

ROMANS: Always nice to have you on early morning for us, Sarah. Thanks.

The Dow closing above a new milestone, 23,000. The Dow has hit four of these this year alone -- 20,000, 21,000, 22,000. Look at that, now 23,000 driven mainly by hope for tax cuts and strong corporate profits.

Even President Trump is taking a victory lap via tweet. Thank IBM for pushing the Dow.

There's his tweet there. Look at that. Checking them off of the list.

IBM stock jumped nine percent for its best days in 2009. Profit there grew due to its cloud computing business and super low tax bill. IBM only paid 11 percent in taxes globally in the third quarter.

The Dow is hitting this latest milestone on the eve of a very dark day -- a dark anniversary -- Black Monday. In 1987, 30 years ago today, the Dow fell 22.6 percent. It was a Monday -- that's why they call it Black Monday -- but it was this day 30 years ago.

It was the biggest one-day percentage decline of all time -- has never been matched. And a crash, that probably couldn't happen today thanks to modern trading technology with circuit breakers that stop panic.

What a difference three decades makes. The Dow is more than 1,200 percent higher since Black Monday -- 1,200 percent higher. Over the long term, you want to buy those terrible dips.

BRIGGS: OK, we'll stick with it -- OK.

ROMANS: I was -- I was not buying stock in 1987.


ROMANS: I was like riding my bike.

BRIGGS: All right. Millions of Americans in Puerto Rico still waiting for help after Hurricane Maria. Next, CNN goes to one of the most remote areas of Puerto Rico and asks FEMA if they need more help. The surprising answer, next. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[05:46:54] BRIGGS: Five forty-six eastern time.

Puerto Rico Ricardo Rossello and President Trump will meet at the White House today to discuss the post-hurricane recovery and rebuilding effort.

Life in Puerto Rico, though, remains a daily struggle a full month after the hurricane hit. Thirty percent of households have no safe drinking water. Eighty percent of the island still without power.

CNN's Bill Weir headed to the remote mountains of western Puerto Rico for a firsthand look.


BILL WEIR, CNN HOST, "THE WONDER LIST" (voice-over): As dawn brings Maria's one-month anniversary, we head out of San Juan by air and low to the ground.

AIRPLANE RECORDING: Terrain, terrain, pull up, pull up.

WEIR: All the better to see the mudslides, broken bridges, shattered homes. We pass Arecibo, one of the biggest radio telescopes in the world. But we are looking intelligent signs of life in the western mountains where people have been waiting for help for weeks.

We land, and inside the Mayaguez airport a group of big-hearted military veterans has turned baggage claim into a bunkhouse and operations center.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think we're at like 30,000 meals -- 35,000 meals --

WEIR (on camera): Wow.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- and I don't know how many cases of water, and that's just with the small trucks we've had and by hook or by crook getting supplies in.

WEIR (voice-over): They came down on their own dime and shake their heads in frustration with FEMA. If it were up to them they'd bring in the National Guard, 15,000 at a time on two-week rotations.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I thought you have to pay these guys anyway to sit at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin for two weeks --

WEIR (on camera): Right, right.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're wasting your money.

WEIR: Yes.

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 that would do it. We're all down here for free.

WEIR: We head into the hills in search of answers but soon get a taste of the logistical headaches here. Maria obliterated this stretch of highway. And with little hope for road crews, the neighbors are building their own bridge.

WEIR (on camera): Do you feel like Americans in moments like this? Do you feel taken care as citizens?

SANTIAGO (through translator Weir): We're not people that say the government must help us, Santiago says. We're all part of humanity. Every person does the best they can.

WEIR: What kind of help are you getting from the outside? Have you seen FEMA or --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We've seen FEMA. We see a group that came from Connecticut and they purified the water.

WEIR: And these are -- are these the veterans? The guys -- some are soldiers.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, that's right.

WEIR: Yes, we met them at the airport.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, yes, yes. They do -- they were beautiful people.

WEIR (voice-over): Thanks to Juni (ph) and his mini monster truck we get past yet another mudslide and soon track down one of FEMA's top men on this island.

WEIR (on camera): Couldn't you use National Guardsmen in two-week rotations to come in? Are you begging your bosses for more men?


WEIR: Why?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Because we have 4,500 National Guardsmen coming in.

WEIR: But just as a point of comparison, two weeks after the Haiti quake the U.S. had 22,000 troops on the ground in a foreign country.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't know how much more we can bring. We are actually impacting the economy of Puerto Rico. If I keep on flooding the place with food and water, when is it that the local neighbors going to open their supermarkets?

[05:50:04] WEIR: Isn't it true that FEMA had a presence in New Orleans for like seven years, right? People were living in FEMA trailers for years.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We were in New Orleans just two years ago and we left 5,000 mobile homes there.

WEIR: Right.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And we were there for seven, eight months responding there. We're Irma, and we're Harvey, and we're going to be in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, also for as long as it takes.

WEIR: For as long as it takes --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: For as long as it takes.

WEIR: -- despite what the president says?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You know what, we don't follow -- I don't see T.V. so I don't -- I don't even pay attention to them. I pay attention to the mission that I have in my heart, which is fixing Puerto Rico.

WEIR: In just the few hours we've been out shooting an amazing development here at this abandoned airport. The Air National Guard out of Tennessee and Kentucky has arrived and are militarizing this airport.

They tell me off camera they've got 500 guys. More are coming. That they've been sitting back home for two weeks chomping at the bit to come but there's so many layers of bureaucratic red tape they just couldn't pull the trigger.

But, the good news is they are here now. They've got supplies and they're going to start pushing them into the mountains as soon as they possibly can.


ROMANS: God, that is such a great sight. I'm so glad.

BRIGGS: Yes. You know, he's told some devastating stories. It's nice to hear --


BRIGGS: -- a glimmer of hope.

ROMANS: All right.

Just months after going public Blue Apron is cutting jobs. What's going on here? "CNN Money Stream," next.


[05:55:50] ROMANS: All right.

So the "W" flying high over Wrigley Field this morning. The Chicago Cubs still alive in the National League championship series after their game four win over Dodgers. Second baseman Jose Baez hitting, what, two homeruns in the 3-2 victory?

L.A leads the NLCS three games to one, sad to report. Game five tonight at Wrigley.

BRIGGS: I hear Baez was zero for 20 before that game.

The Yankees are now just one win away from the World Series. They shut out the Astros 5-0 to take a 3-2 lead in the ALCS. Masahiro Tanaka was dominant over seven innings, allowing three hits, striking out eight. Yanks are a perfect 6-0 at home this post-season.

The Astros on the brink, but going back home. Game six of the series tomorrow night in Houston. Justin Verlander on the hill.

Meanwhile, there was talk of a leak during Wednesday's Senate hearing for Attorney General Jeff Sessions. It had no effect on national security though, but it will increase Ted Cruz's dry cleaning bill.

Here is Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse.


SEN. BEN SASSE (R), NEBRASKA: There was some drama there. It sort of added to the drama and distracted you for a minute. I was paying enough attention there that I dumped a Dr. Pepper on Sen. Cruz. So that's what was distracting us on this side of dais.


BRIGGS: Afterward -- so afterward, the senators indulged in some Twitter hijinks. Cruz tweeting a memo to office. "Please place a picture of Ben Sasse above the Dr. Pepper fridge in our lobby. He is now cut off."

Sasse responding with a reference to President Trump's claim that Cruz's father was involved in JFK's assassination, next level. He tweeted, "Full disclosure: I was wearing my Lee Harvey Oswald Was Framed t-shirt."

Ahh, Dr. Pepper.


BRIGGS: You know, that's what we all needed yesterday. That was the moment we all needed in politics yesterday.

ROMANS: Early start on you Dr. Pepper.


ROMANS: All right.

BRIGGS: Dr. Pepper fridge.

ROMANS: Let's get a check on "CNN Money Stream" this morning.

Global stock markets lower after the Dow closed above a new milestone, 23,000. The Dow has hit 20, 21, 22, now 23 -- look at that chart. That chart is just mind-blowing. All of this driven by a hope for tax cuts and strong corporate profits.

This latest milestone comes on the eve, though, of a dark anniversary for the Dow, Black Monday, 30 years ago today -- a very bad day. The Dow fell 22.6 percent, the biggest one-day percentage decline in history. It still stands as the worst day.

And it's a crash that couldn't happen today, thanks to modern trading technology circuit breakers that stop the panic.

Blue Apron laying off hundreds just months after its IPO. According to an SEC filing, the company trimming six percent of its staff to boost profitability and growth.

Blue Apron's stock has collapsed -- cut in half since going public in June. Its profits hurt by new competition from Amazon and an already tight market.

Still, with 5,000 employees, six percent works out to about 300 people that may have to be cut.

The longtime CEO of American Express is stepping down. Kenneth Chenault retiring after 16 years as CEO, 37 years at the company. He planned to leave two years ago but he stayed on to help American Express after losing a lucrative partnership with Costco.

One of America's most prominent CEOs and one of the most prominent African-American business executives. His departure leaves just one black executive leading a Dow 30 company, the Merck head, Kenneth Frazier.

All right, thanks for joining us. I'm Christine Romans.

BRIGGS: I'm Dave Briggs. I need a Dr. Pepper fridge.

That will do it for us. "NEW DAY" starts right now.

ROMANS: Dr. Pepper fridge.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Some of the things that have taken place in the last 48 hours have not given the type of respect to families and the sacrifices.

TRUMP: I didn't say what that Congresswoman said. Didn't say it at all.

DUCKWORTH: I'm going to believe the family members before I believe Donald Trump.

SANDERS: It is appalling the way that the Congresswoman has politicized this issue.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What's really important is what the president says now. It's up to him to figure out how to try to move us forward.

SEN. CHRIS COONS (D), DELAWARE: I'm asking for a classified briefing about exactly what happened in Niger.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There are so many questions that really haven't been answered.

REP. FREDERICA WILSON (D), FLORIDA: This might wind up to be Mr. Trump's Benghazi.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: To equate this to Benghazi, it's a little too soon.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Nobody should be quiet about demanding answers.


ANNOUNCER: This is NEW DAY with Chris Cuomo and Alisyn Camerota.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. This is NEW DAY. It's Thursday, October 19th, 6:00 here in New York.

And here's our "Starting Line."