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Trump Denies Offending Fallen Soldier's Family; Defense Secretary Demands Answers on What Happened to Four Soldiers in Niger; Sessions is Grilled by Senate Over His Contacts with the Russians. Aired 6-6:30a ET

Aired October 19, 2017 - 06:00   ET



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.

[05:59:26] DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I didn't say what that congresswoman said. Didn't say it at all.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'd believe the family members before I'd believe Donald Trump.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: 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 move us forward.

REP. 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.

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: 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 19, 6 a.m. here in New York, and here's our starting line.

President Trump denies offending the grieving family of a fallen soldier, but the mother of Sergeant La David Johnson says the president disrespected her family with his condolence call. So we'll give you both sides.

And more Gold Star families are speaking out about their interactions with President Trump.

Defense Secretary James Mattis is demanding answers about that ambush in Niger that killed four U.S. soldiers two weeks ago. Senator John McCain says the Trump administration is not being up front about the investigation. CNN has new reporting on what happened, and we will share that with you.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: The attorney general, Jeff Sessions, was in the hot seat on Capitol Hill, once again refusing to discuss his private conversations with President Trump. There were heated exchanges that we'll play for you. And a stunning admission from Sessions about Russia's election interference.

Also, this bipartisan plan that seemed to be some traction, some progress on health care stopped dead in its tracks by President Trump. He initially supported the bill. They're not sure why the bill has now stalled. We'll take you through it.

We have it all covered. Let's begin with Joe Johns live at the White House -- Joe.


President Trump and the family of a fallen soldier intensifying their war of words over the language the president used in that now controversial condolence call, raising the question of whether the administration would have been better off if the president hadn't reacted at all.


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

JOHNS (voice-over): President Trump defending his conversation with the widow of U.S. Army Sergeant La David Johnson.

TRUMP: I had a very nice conversation with the woman, with the wife who sounded like a lovely woman.

JOHNS: Insisting Democratic Congresswoman Frederica Wilson fabricated her account of what he said and vowed he has proof.

WILSON: I did hear him say, "I'm sure I knew what he was signing up for, and -- but it still hurts." She was crying. She broke down. And she said, "He didn't even know his name."

JOHNS: Wilson standing firm with Sergeant Johnson's grieving mother backing the story, telling the "Washington Post" that the president disrespected her son.

The White House press secretary admitting the president did not record the call and stopping short of denying the president's words but said the chief of staff, John Kelly, was with the president when he called the widow.

SANDERS: He thought that the president did the best job he could under those circumstances to offer condolences on behalf of the country.

JOHNS: Sanders then said Kelly is disgusted by the way the media politicized the deaths, but it was President Trump who falsely claimed President Obama did not call the families of fallen soldiers and then used the death of his chief of staff son to try to bolster the argument.

JOHN BRENNAN, FORMER CIA DIRECTOR: Mr. Trump has his own way of on dealing with things that I see as inconsistent with what some of his predecessors have done, and how they've treated it.

JOHNS: Multiple White House officials tell CNN that Kelly did tell Mr. Trump President Obama never called him after his son died. Kelly was caught off guard by the president using that information publicly. The controversy growing after Mr. Trump insisted he called all of the families of soldiers killed during his presidency.

TRUMP: My policy is I've called every one of them.

JOHNS: But the widow of Army Sergeant Jonathan Hunter, killed in August in Afghanistan, says she never heard from the president.

WHITNEY HUNTER, GOLD STAR WIDOW: I don't like that I was told that I would receive the phone call, but then I never did. My husband died for our country, and I don't want that to have been in vain.

JOHNS: Other Gold Star families, like the mother of Army Corporal Dillon Baldridge, offering a positive account of her call with the president.

TINA PALMER, MOTHER OF CORPORAL DILLON BALDRIDGE (via phone): He was again very genuine, generally thankful for my son and his service. I didn't feel like it was forced or scripted or something that he thought like he had to do. It was just like talking to a friend.

JOHNS: "The Washington Post" reports President Trump offered $25,000 to Baldridge's father after his son was killed in June, but the money never came. The White House says it mailed the check on Wednesday, only after the story was published.


JOHNS: The White House has offered few real answers about why it took so long for the president to issue a public statement after the deaths of those soldiers in Niger. A National Security Council statement was drafted, but an administration official told CNN the White House decided not to release it, opting instead for the press secretary to make a statement here at the White House.

Back to you, Chris.

CAMEROTA: I'll take it, Joe. JOHNS: Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: And we do have that initial statement that was drafted that we'll read to everyone. But obviously, there was still confusing details in there.

[06:05:04] Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Mattis is demanding to know what happened in that deadly ambush in Niger that killed the four U.S. soldiers. Senator John McCain says the Trump administration is not being up front about this investigation.

CNN's Barbara Starr is live at the Pentagon with more. What have you learned, Barbara?


Well, what we know right now is that this is going to be a tough issue for the Pentagon and the president to explain.

Three things. This was an ISIS attack. ISIS. This was an intelligence failure. The intelligence said it was unlikely they would run into trouble. Those troops walked into an ambush of 50 ISIS fighters.

And when the firefight broke out, French airplanes flew overhead to try and help. But U.S. officials are telling us that, in Niger, that government does not give permission for offensive air operations. In other words, there was no authority for the aircraft to even drop bombs. So those U.S. troops were on the ground with essentially no kinetic help. No bombs were able to drop to help them.

Where does it all go from here? We're still learning new details. We learned yesterday that a private contractor aircraft flew into the battlefield after the fighting stopped and helped evacuate the dead and the wounded.

This now beginning to raise the essential question, what happened when they lifted off? Why did they not know or did they know that they had left a man behind, Sergeant La David Johnson? He was left behind. He was not evacuated. We do not know if he was even alive for a brief period of time on the ground. His body was found 48 hours later.

There are so many questions. But for American military families, perhaps the essential question, why was a man left behind -- Chris, Alisyn.

CUOMO: Barbara Starr, thank you very much for continuing to dig on this.

Let's discuss with our panel: CNN counterterrorism analyst Philip Mudd and CNN military and diplomatic analyst John Kirby.

John, let me start with you. Look, we've been on this ever since we found out about it. And it was never -- the point of interest was never how is he dealing with the families? Obviously, that's part of the moral agency with the president. It has to be done the right way. It has to be done respectfully and truthfully.

But this started where we should be focused right now, which is what happened there? Why didn't he talk about it for so long? And how do you get to the bottom of something like this? What insight do you have here?

JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: Well, so back to the statements that he didn't talk for 12 days. I think that is abominable. You know, I understand that in the day or two after, while they still were trying to find Sergeant Johnson, they wanted to be careful about what they put out publicly. It makes perfect sense to me, when you still have an operation that's technically ongoing.

But then to not put out a condolence statement from the president when you have four deaths that you know about, that's a little curious, and it's unfortunate. And I think it helped lead to where we got to yesterday, and this very ugly bickering back and forth between the congresswoman and the president.

Now, as to the mission itself, you know, Barbara's report was excellent there. And it obviously reinforces the notion that the Pentagon is going to fully investigate this, as they always do when you have deaths like this as a result of an operation. They're going to get down to every little detail.

Clearly, it looks like these guys were surprised in some way and that the Pentagon maybe had -- did not properly prepare for the eventualities that happened during this mission. But I can assure you, they'll look at every little detail. And the other thing that I know they'll do is when they're doing the investigation, they'll be transparent about it. They'll be accountable for what happened, and they'll try to carry those lessons learned forward.

CAMEROTA: We hope so.

Phil, let us read to everyone that initial statement that it turns out was not complete or a little bit erroneous. So it makes sense why they didn't put this one out, but here it is. This is the one that was prepared just a day after.

It says, "Melania and I are heartbroken at the news that three U.S. service members were killed in Niger." Obviously, there was a fourth. So clearly, they didn't have all the information yet. "The heroic Americans who lost their lives yesterday did so defending our freedom and fighting violent extremism in Niger. Our administration and our entire nation are deeply grateful for their sacrifice, for their service, and for their patriotism."

So I think, again, it makes sense why that one didn't go out. It wasn't complete. But then, they did get the information about Sergeant Johnson. And then what should they have done? I mean, you know, what the White House says is Sarah Sanders, the press secretary, gave condolences. So is this breaking with protocol?

MUDD: I think it is. And I think the explanation is pretty straightforward when you get to the bottom of it. There's a difference between protecting yourself politically. My

judgment is the reason they delayed the announcement is they are afraid of painful and potentially embarrassing questions about what happened. They must have known somebody was going to leak the earlier statement that indicated the president didn't know four people had died, three -- that he thought three had. I think they were trying to figure out what happened before they put out a statement so that they could have some sort of explanation.

The problem here is you've got two different issues. No. 1, regardless of the embarrassment, regardless of the fact that we might not have had everything about the operation in Niger, the president has a responsibility, when people representing America overseas have died, to offer condolences. That is separate from the question of whether Sarah Sanders has a perfect explanation from the podium and the White House about what happened in the operation. So I think the White House was conflating the two.

[06:10:29] "We're not going to talk until we know what happened because we're afraid we don't have answers for the questions." You've got to talk about the families. They lost a person in this -- in this fight, and it's not a political issue.

CUOMO: Look, and there's no question, John. Politically, it's better -- I know this sounds perverse. But it's better for the president being engaging in this war of words with the Democratic congresswoman right now about what he said, and what he didn't say, and who's better to the troops, me or Obama. This is better for him with his base. It is a distraction. These families need to be respected. Everybody knows it. And how he does the job, that's going to come down to style points more than anything else.

But I keep getting contacted by men and women in the military. They are concerned that people don't understand what -- why we're in Niger. And you guys put them there in the Obama administration, and that number was increased. And these types of missions often don't get any attention, or they get written off as being support and advisers, as if our men and women aren't in harm's way. And this is their concern: We're going to lose blood and treasure, and people even don't know what we're there or what we're doing.

What do you know about why this was so necessary that we had to have our people on the ground in harm's way, and they wound up being taken out by ISIS?

KIRBY: Yes, this was what we would call a FID mission, Foreign Internal Defense, where you have troops on the ground. They're actually partnering with local forces to improve their capabilities to defend their own citizens. In this case most likely in a counterterrorism way.

Now again, whether they knew ISIS was on the ground in that capacity or not, that will all come out in the investigation. But clearly, we know and we knew under the Obama administration that ISIS and al Qaeda-affiliated groups were looking for places to go to metastasize their ideology and their so-called caliphate as they shrink in Iraq and Syria. And so that's what the mission was about.

And you recall, Chris, and I think you and I talked about this when I was at the Pentagon, about AfriCon expanding their footprint inside Africa for this very purpose. And so that's what this was all about.

And I agree with those troops and the veterans that are concerned about the degree to which the American people understand these missions and know where their troops are. I think that's exactly right. And I think that's why -- go back to what Phil said -- I think that's why the White House should have, at the presidential level, issued a condolence statement right out -- right out of the gate.

Because in addition to offering condolences, that could have offered a little bit of context.

And I think Senator McCain is right when he says we need to get more answers on the Senate Armed Services Committee side. I think that -- what I would expect and what I would hope you'd see from the Pentagon soon is some sort of briefing to members on the Hill, even if it's just closed door, about the core purpose of this mission.

CAMEROTA: Well, Phil, I mean, so there -- as you point out, there are two separate issues here, right? The etiquette and the protocol of calling families and whether or not the president has done it as often as he says and why he brought up his predecessor. Then the what happened in this mission.

So the Pentagon and the White House have not been terribly forthcoming about what went wrong with this mission. But CNN does have sources. And a defense official has shared some information that I'll read. The -- it was a Green Beret-led mission. We knew that. And they had just finished a meeting with local leaders. And the -- our soldiers were walking back to their vehicles when they started taking gunfire.

And there was some feeling that, in fact, some of the locals may have detained them. Maybe some of the locals were in on it. Maybe it was a setup. But either way they got separated, and they were extremely vulnerable.

So why don't we even have that information? The question is like why the secrecy? Why doesn't -- isn't the Pentagon and the White House forthcoming? Why is CNN having to go to, you know, sort of these unnamed sources? We've invited the White House and the Pentagon on to speak about it. But they're not doing so.

MUDD: Good. I would do the same thing the Pentagon and the White House are doing. I'd force CNN to figure out what happened out there for one simple reason. We saw it in Benghazi; we saw it in Las Vegas. As soon as government officials speak, whether it's the sheriff in Las Vegas, whether it's someone in the Obama administration about Benghazi, and release information that's incorrect, the press will say, "We want it immediately." The government will say, "We'll give it to you immediately. Let's correct it if we make an error." Because we're half a world away in Niger and they're still trying to figure out what's going on. If you're in the Pentagon and you're White House, you're saying,

"We're not talking until we know what the story is, because we'll get eaten alive if we make a mistake." I'd do the same thing they're doing, Alisyn: I wouldn't speak until I know what's going on.

CUOMO: Well, there's a -- right, but there's a difference between not speaking until you know what's going on and knowing what's going on and not speaking. And that the latter is --

[06:15:06] MUDD: I don't think they know what's going on. No, I don't think they know what's going on.

CUOMO: But these basic details. But if we're able to find out what's going in in this basic way, we still -- there's still a lot that's unknown that matters. They knew too, Phil.

If we're able to find out, they knew, too. Contextually, how it leads into a larger understanding of what happened and why it went wrong, sure, they're going to have to finesse it over time. But there were things they knew. They didn't talk about it. That's part of our job.

But anyway, fellows, thank you very much for perspective. As we learn more, we'll come back to you about it.


CAMEROTA: OK. So there were fireworks at the Senate hearing for Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Watch this.


JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Mr. Chairman, I don't have to sit in here and listen to his --

SEN. AL FRANKEN (D-MN), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: You're the one who testified -- .

SESSIONS: Without having a chance to respond. Give me a break.


CAMEROTA: All right. Let's bring in our CNN political analysts. We have John Avlon and Karoun Demirjian. What triggered that heated exchange? Next?


[06:24:41] CAMEROTA: Attorney General Jeff Sessions was grilled by senators on Capitol Hill yesterday. He sparred Democratic Senator Al Franken over testimony at his confirmation hearing when Sessions said he had not met with Russian officials during the presidential campaign when in fact, he had. Listen to this.


FRANKEN: That's very different not being able to recall what you've discussed with him is very different than saying "I have not had communications with the Russians." The ambassador from Russia is Russian.

JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: I conducted no improper discussions with Russians as any time regarding a campaign or any other item facing this country. Mr. Chairman, I don't have to sit in here and listen to his --

FRANKEN: You're the one who testified --

SESSIONS: -- without having a chance to respond. Give me a break.


CAMEROTA: All right. Let's bring in our CNN political analysts. We have John Avlon and Karoun Demirjian. Great to see both of you.

So it seems like Jeff Sessions didn't want to fully reveal some things. And is he obligated to, John? I mean, how did this -- what did we get yesterday out of this?

JOHN AVLON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYSTS: So there's invoking executive privilege. But the president has to invoke it. And what Sessions kept doing is saying, "Because of the possibility that the president might invoke it, I can't speak." It's the equivalent of taking the fifth if you work for the president. But it's a misuse of that standard, and that's what was frustrating.


AVLON: Because the president has got to actually invoke it.

CAMEROTA: Has to --

AVLON: Right. And Sessions was saying --

CUOMO: His is not the first time we've seen somebody preserve the ability of the executive. Sometimes with notice that the executive said to them, this is going to be sensitive stuff. Be careful going forward. So it's not the first time we've seen someone do it.

AVLON: It's not the first time, but this being the second meeting the A.G. has had on the Hill. The senator saying don't do this again. Because you're stonewalling by sealing off all communication. And he, of course, is a former member of the committee. This is stretching that standard, I think.

CUOMO: Do we know if members of this committee went to the executive, went to the White House and said, "Are you going to exert privilege on this? We want to know for our later conversations"?

AVLON: We know that they wrote a letter to Sessions, warning him not to run the same play --

CUOMO: To Sessions?

AVLON: -- over and over again. But no, we don't know whether they alerted the White House.

CAMEROTA: Meanwhile, Karoun, Jeff Sessions did say something pretty chilling, and that was his concern about Russian meddling. Not that it's a hoax, not that it didn't happen, not that there's nothing to see here. That he is concerned. So listen to this moment.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you think we're doing enough to prepare for future interference by Russia and other foreign adversaries in the information space?

SESSIONS: Probably not. We're not. And the matter is so complex that, for most of us, we're not able to fully grasp the technical dangers that are out there.


CAMEROTA: What was it about that moment, Karoun?

KAROUN DEMIRJIAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I mean, there isn't really very much political debate on that point. Democrats will tell you the same thing. So will Republicans, administration officials, the -- people that are heading up the investigations of various probes of allegations of Russian meddling, everybody kind of agrees that the country really has to step up its awareness, its potential defenses, at least its ability to be on guard against this happening again, especially as with head into the 2018 campaign season.

The thing that has proven to be a problem, though, is that sometimes it's tossed about as an either/or. That, you know, focus on what we should be doing for the future for Russian meddling, don't focus on these questions about Trump. When it for -- it's basically both. Both things have to proceed along at the same time, given the allegations that are out there and the inquiries and the probes that are ongoing and the role that Sessions potentially played in this whole puzzle.

AVLON: Right. But what you heard in that exchange was the absence of urgency on the part of Sessions. There's this sort of, one, you know, we're probably not doing enough, and it's terribly complicated. If it's too complicated for folks in government to get their heads around, maybe they should step aside and leave room for people who understand the Internet is not a series of tubes, as former Senate Ted Stevens once said.

CUOMO: Karoun, isn't a factor here that the White House, the president, they don't want to put their heads around the meddling. Because, at least in the mind of the president, he does not separate questions about what happened with his campaign and questions about what the Russians did during the election. He sees them as the same thing. That's why he keeps calling the whole things a hoax and putting himself --

DEMIRJIAN: Right, exactly. CUOMO: -- deeper into the same hole of ignoring the obvious. Isn't that part of the explanation as to why we're not ready to combat it as much as we could be?

DEMIRJIAN: Yes. Yes. I mean, they would help if the president would put the full weight of the Oval Office behind that sort of effort, especially if you're trying to, you know, inspire states to actually take initiative on their own to be able to look out for this thing as we head into the primary season.

And as you just said, it's not even just that the president's conflating them. It's that he's trying to discount all of the intelligence community's findings that actually there was meddling in the first place, because he's afraid of the political backlash and how it reflects on him.

And you've seen -- you've seen administration official after administration official in their confirmation hearings endorse the intelligence community's findings, separate themselves from Trump. It's unique in this case you see Sessions do that, because he's been such a close ally of Trump, although they did have a rocky period.

AVLON: When he's not being publicly abused by him.

DEMIRJIAN: Right, exactly. You know, that rocky period indeed was interesting.

But, yes, it's significant to hear somebody else say it. But again, he had to be pulled into the answer by a direct question after -- you know, in a hearing in which there were several hours of contentious exchanges as Democrats were trying to pin him down, and Sessions was kind of dodging at the line of what is between what he meant and what he said and where the legal standard breaks from the truth.

[06:25:12] CAMEROTA: OK. Let's talk about what happened last night on CNN. The -- we had a town-hall debate with Ted Cruz, Bernie Sanders about who would benefit the most from the president's tax cut plan. So listen to this.


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.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I), VERMONT: What you are doing is saying we're going to help a lower-income person here, a small businessman over here, but we're going to tie it to the fact that 80 percent of the benefits are going to the top 1 percent.

Work with me on a tax proposal where 80 percent of the benefits go to the working class and middle class of this country.


CAMEROTA: Who wins this one, John Avlon? AVLON: First of all, look, it's genuinely good to see people on opposite sides of the aisle have a substantive debate about policy, because that's what politics is supposed to be. And too often it's all heat and no light.

But these two guys have such diametrically, you know, opposite views of taxes. I mean, there really is such a conservative catechism and a liberal belief system that, you know, even when Bernie Sanders reached out and said, "Let's focus on middle-class tax cuts," conservative catechism says, "No, it's got to be for everybody." Because the political interests tend to be at the wealthier end of the spectrum.

So it was a substantive debate, but you know, not a lot of common ground at the end of the day.

CUOMO: Also, Karoun, this is also about how it's been framed. The president called it, this is going to be a middle-class tax reform debate.

AVLON: Right.

CUOMO: Forget about the fact that it's not really tax reform. Nobody wants to hear the difference between reform versus tax cuts. So forget about that. We'll call it reform even though it isn't.

He said he's going to go after middle class. That's not how this deal will work. It will be over-weighted to the top earners, because the Republicans will say they pay most of the taxes; and that's how you get the best indirect benefit to the middle class. And that's the big philosophical change.

But again, the president teed it up as a middle-class tax cut. And it isn't that by definition.

DEMIRJIAN: He did. He teed it up with -- you know, the pitch line that isn't necessarily supported by the facts. And now all of his surrogates are having to try to spin it and make it seem -- you've heard many of his subordinates basically say that the middle class doesn't care how big their tax cut is, just as long as they get one. They won't look at how much of a tax cut thee is to the rich. And now we know that's not true.

But as John was just saying, you basically -- to have Sanders and Cruz debating this is like -- it's a good venting of, you know, the spleen. It's a good putting of all your frustrations out there. It's not consensus coalition building. Maybe at some point they actually will be in, you know, a room together if they have an extended group of people that are hashing out some other different plan. But right now, they are voicing the two sides of the debate. If they're going to strike some sort of balance in the middle, it won't likely be them that is striking it.

But you're right. The Republicans generally do have a messaging problem here. And that's why the next 24, 48 hours are trying to be really critical for them, because they're trying to get this budget resolution passed so that they can just kind of work out their differences among themselves and not have to get any Democratic support to get on board with all these tax reform proposals, which is going to -- I mean, last night is an example how that's just not going to work very well, if that's what they have to do.

CUOMO: Final word.

AVLON: Jut look, if the Republicans actually tried to craft a plan that was consistent with the president's messaging, you might have bipartisan support for middle-class tax cut.

CUOMO: But that's not what they think works best for the economy.

AVLON: But the problem is, they always focused on the Reagan example, which was powerful. And they ignored George W. Bush, and the impact of his tax cuts was simply to balloon the deficit at the end of the day. They can't get over that old history and deal with more recent facts.

CUOMO: All right. It was good not to hear them yelling at each other personally, though. The other person is a fake and a fraud. You know, it was a -- it was a step in the right direction.

CAMEROTA: It's progress.

CUOMO: All right. So ISIS forces have been driven out, we are told, from their self-proclaimed capital in Syria. But the citizens of that place, not that they have that much to return to, but they're being warned not to go back to their homes. Why? CNN is live inside Raqqah for the first time next.