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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 Questioned by Senate Over His Contacts with the Russians. Aired 7-7:30a ET

Aired October 19, 2017 - 07:00   ET



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: People are through with giving him the benefit of the doubt.

[07:00:36] DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'd like her to make the statement again, because I did not say what she said.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think it's bad for everybody. It's bad for our politics. It's bad for our military.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A lot of people haven't been called, and a lot of them haven't even received letters.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Trying to create something that the congresswoman is doing is frankly appalling.

JOHN KIRBY, CNN DIPLOMATIC AND MILITARY ANALYST: It was received a certain way by the family. He ought to apologize for it and move on.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The White House is being evasive about what happened in Niger.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We don't have the facts on this yet.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Still no answers why Sergeant Johnson was left behind when the helicopters came in.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: There is a story here that the American people do deserve to know.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How we lost four service members and how they were ambushed, the president still has to explain that to the Congress.


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

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. Good morning again and welcome to your NEW DAY.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Twice. CUOMO: President Trump denying he offended the grieving family of a fallen soldier. But the mother of Army Sergeant La David Johnson says the president did disrespect her family in his condolence call. Now we're hearing from more Gold Star families. They're speaking out about experiences that they had or did not have with President Trump.

CAMEROTA: Defense Secretary Mattis is demanding answers about that ambush in Niger that killed Sergeant Johnson and three other soldiers two weeks ago. Senator John McCain says the Trump administration is not being up front about the investigation.

And CNN has new reporting so we will share what we've learned about this tragedy.

Let's begin with Joe Johns. He is live at the White House for us.

Hi, Joe.


President Trump and the family of the fallen soldier intensifying their war of words over the language the president used during that condolence call, raising the question of whether the White House would have been better off if the president had said nothing 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.

REP. FREDERICA WILSON (D), FLORIDA: 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.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: 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's 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.


[07:05:18] JOHNS: The White House hasn't offered a lot of answers about why it took the president so long to issue a public statement after the deaths of those soldiers in Niger. We are told a National Security Council statement was put together, but the White House opted not to issue that statement, opting instead for White House press secretary Sarah Sanders to deliver it from the podium here in the briefing room. The idea was that the statement would be more powerful coming her -- Chris.

CUOMO: Joe, there's no question there's a lot of tortured spin and ugly politics coming out of this pressure. But there's good news, as well.

We now know that Defense Secretary Mattis is demanding answers now on that deadly ambush in Niger. Four U.S. troops lost their lives. Why? Senator John McCain says the Trump administration is not being up front about the investigation.

CNN's Barbara Starr has that part of the story at the Pentagon. What do we know now?

STARR: Well, good morning, Chris.

Let's start with, you know we all understand that this is why America has Green Berets, why they have -- there are Special Operations forces. These are the troops that go into areas that are high-risk. It is what they do, what the nation asks them to do.

But in this case, there are key questions.

And let's look at a couple of facts about what we do know about the military situation. What we know is this 12-man team, led by Green Berets, walked into an ambush by ISIS, about 50 ISIS fighters. How did they not know ISIS was there? The intelligence not accurate. They had been told, according to all the sources we've talked to, that it was unlikely they would run into any kind of on opposition force and, of course, they did.

Once they did, a firefight breaks out. But they are in a country, Niger, in West Africa. That country, U.S. officials say, does not allow air strikes. So when French aircraft rolled in to try and help, all they could do is fly low to try and scare the ISIS fighters off. No authority to drop bombs. No authority to do anything kinetic that would help out the troops on the ground.

All of that is some of the key questions now being looked at.

New fact today. We have learned that there was a civilian contractor aircraft that came in to conduct evacuation of the dead and the wounded along with French military aircraft.

So a big question is, was there sufficient communication? Did they know how many people were on the ground that they needed to get out? The remaining question: what happened to Sergeant La David Johnson? How did he get left behind -- Alisyn, Chris.

CAMEROTA: Obviously, that is the most heartbreaking, lingering question. Barbara, thank you very much.

So let's bring in our panel. We have CNN military analyst Colonel Steve Warren and retired U.S. Army Brigadier General Anthony Tata. He's the author of the book "Besieged." Great to have both of you and your experience with us.

Obviously, there's two issues, right? So there's the etiquette and the protocol of what you do once soldiers are lost, and then there's what happened and if we're getting enough information.

So Colonel, I just want to start with you for a second. Because I know that you say that you've been heartbroken watching this play out between the president and Sergeant Johnson's family about this condolence call where -- which the family felt, for whatever reason, was insensitive. How do you see this? COL. STEVE WARREN, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, it is heartbreaking to

watch it play out. The family of a fallen should never feel slighted, never under any circumstances. Our job as the government, as supporters, as Americans is to wrap our arms around that family in their time of grief. That's our on only job with them. And for us to fail to do that in one way or another, for that family to not feel as if they've been embraced, it saddens me. And to watch this feud play out on -- you know, on TV has broken my heart.

You know, our American heroes, those are men and women who have written a check to the United States of America, payable up to and including with their lives. And what we owe them and their families is the support they need when the worst happens.

Very quickly, what should the president have done differently?

WARREN: Well, you know, these are the hardest things in the world to do. To phone a grieving widow, there is no script for that. You have to use your intuition. You have to speak with these grieving family members in a way that they will understand and in a way that will help, or at least try to soothe that grief. But there is no script for it. You have to use your intuition, and you have to try and make them feel better.

CUOMO: General, the White House respects you. What is your advice to them on continuing this feud right now? You've got FOX News going after the congresswoman, saying she voted against vets. We see what this is becoming. What's your advice to what the president should do about this, what he said, what he didn't say?

[07:117] BRIGADIER GENERAL ANTHONY TATA, U.S. ARMY: Any time you politicize this kind of thing, it is not good. Bad news gets worse with age. So get the -- get the information out there right away and make sure that the American people understand what happened and say, "Look, this is an incomplete report, and we're going to update it as we go."

CAMEROTA: So they've not been forthcoming enough on your timeline you would say?

TATA: Well, I would say that, Alisyn, that's right. They should -- should have gotten the information out there quicker. And the phone call should have been made quicker, in my opinion. Because there's nothing more sacrosanct to a military commander, as someone who's lost troops in combat, than -- than the -- how on solemn it is to make that phone call, as the colonel just said. And they've paid their life, and this family should be embraced. All families should be embraced. And you've heard both accounts. You know, some families feel embraced. Some families did not.

And so I think we should just quit politicizing this, because this is really sacrosanct, within -- particularly within the military. Our fallen are -- it's sacred to us. And their families are sacred to us. And I'm still in touch with families of soldiers that were lost under my command when I was in combat, because that's how sacred it is to me and to, I'm sure, the thousands of other commanders that have lost men and women in combat.

CUOMO: You know, the problem that we're getting in messaging here right now, Colonel, is that the passion for the president to go after those who criticize him is -- you know, we know it. It's obvious.

We're not seeing equal passion about talking about the ISIS-affiliated fighters that just took out four U.S. troops. This is the largest loss of life at the hands of an enemy that we've had during the Trump administration. And it comes again, derivative of ISIS who is so much of a focus of this administration in terms of beating them back.

Why aren't they taking this on and telling us what happened and how it happened?

WARREN: There's -- there's no excuse for it, frankly. This is what the conversation should be about.

We need to understand what's happening in Africa. Strategically, you know, why do we have -- and there's a good case for and against putting troops there in Africa to help keep ISIS at bay. But that's something that should be discussed.

Operationally, did these troops, were there enough of them there? Did they have enough equipment? Were the intelligence streams correct? What about casualty evacuation?

And then tactically. Finally, you know, at the lowest level, what actually happened on the ground that day? Who was firing bullets against who?

CUOMO: Especially when you hear this report, Colonel, that La David Johnson may have been left behind. Give us some sense of context of how that happens. I mean, we all know the motto "No man left behind." But what can happen in situations like this? What questions do you have?

WARREN: Chris, you know, a firefight is something unlike anything else in human experience. It's scary. It's hot. It's dangerous. There's screaming. There's blood. It's a terrible event. And I can see how, in this confusion, someone can be separated.

Now, this happens. There's intense pressure. There's 50 enemy forces bearing down on the smaller force of U.S. and some -- and some troops from Niger. And they were overwhelmed. They drove directly into an ambush, into a kill sack. And that is arguably the worst possible situation you can find yourself in.

And so with the pressure being so hard, with the confusion being so intense, someone can get separated. Important to note: we do have a motto, "No one left behind." And they went back and they found the remains of -- of one of their members.

CUOMO: La David Johnson.

CAMEROTA: So General, I mean, it does sounds like, from what information CNN has been able to glean from sources, though the White House hasn't, you know, disclosed this, is that operationally and intelligence-wise, things went wrong here. And so that does need to be looked at. This might be a bigger issue. How do you see it?

TATA: Well, six months on the ground, Alisyn. And we've got 29 patrols that were conducted previously. It's not a clear combat zone. Green Berets conducting their bread-and-butter mission of foreign internal defense, train and assist, win the hearts and minds. And -- and maybe it was one patrol too many. And the enemy had been gathering. And our intelligence assets probably are not as strong as they need to be in that area. I'm sure that's being fixed right away. And we're trying to get a fix on where this enemy is and who they are.

And Secretary Mattis has ordered an invest -- or an inquiry is what they're calling it. And we do this constantly: after-action reviews is what they're called. Inquiries after action reviews. What went right, what went wrong, and how do we fix it? It's a quick decision loop. Because that patrol is going to be back out there. It's not like they're going to stop. Because we've got to continue to engage.

If it was important enough for U.S. forces to be there to be trying to win those hearts and minds, trying to bridge that gap there, then it's important enough, certainly, for us to learn the lessons and continue to keep the pressure on.

CUOMO: And you gave a good message early on in this conversation. Bad news gets worse with time, and it does breed a concern that there was intent to conceal. That's why we want to know everything as soon as we can.

General, thank you very much.

TATA: Thank you, Chris.

CUOMO: Colonel, you as well. Appreciate it.

Now, bad news gets worse with time. That theme plays out into the next thing that we're covering, as well. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in the hot seat. Sessions says the U.S. isn't doing enough to stop Russia's election meddling. And he also says he never had an inappropriate conversation with anyone involving Russia. Next.


CUOMO: Attorney General Jeff Sessions in the hot seat, defending his integrity before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Sessions got into some heated exchanges, specifically with Senator Al Franken. The subject was his testimony during his confirmation hearing. You remember that, that he said, "I haven't been in contact with any Russians," and he was, in fact, in contact with Russians. Here's a little taste.


[07:20:03] SEN. AL FRANKEN (D-MN), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: 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: ... charges without having a chance to respond. Give me a break.


CUOMO: Let's bring in our CNN political analysts, John Avlon and Karoun Demirjian. What was the net plus/minus on Sessions's day in the chair?

JOHN AVLON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, you know, it was not particularly revealing. Because he insisted on stonewalling on most details and conversations with Trump, invoking, I think, stretching the definition of executive privilege.

But you know, there was a lot of pushback. Here's a former colleague, member of this committee. And he really was on the hot seat. And he felt personally injured at times by people questioning whether he was part of a Russia facade. And there's a lot of bad blood there right now. There's not a lot of trust. He is not being forthcoming to questions being asked by the committee.

CAMEROTA: Karoun, it is true that the Russian ambassador is Russian. That was very, very...


CAMEROTA: ... insightful of Al Franken. And the point is, is that so many people on the Trump campaign, and Jeff Sessions being one of them, felt, I suppose, from their public statements, that they were only going to disclose something that was relevant, they thought.


CAMEROTA: Or that was suspicious, they thought.

AVLON: The usual litmus test.

CAMEROTA: So they didn't disclose when they met with Russians.

DEMIRJIAN: Right. Which is why there -- which is what led to all the suspicion. And remember, you know, Sessions's early exchange with Franken back in January when he was being vetted to become attorney general was what really started this whole snowball rolling down a hill, because he didn't disclose those meetings with Kislyak that then came to light. So I mean, this is basically -- the administration is playing things

as close to the chest as possible. Clearly, especially Democrats in Congress want to push everything out that they can. Ad so you saw these exchanges about, you know, what do you think is the difference between "I don't remember" and "no"? What is the legal standard? What is actually, you know, the full truth of what happened and what you could be disclosing?

And there were multiple times when Sessions was, you know, kind of stopping short of saying an absolute flat "no" this time and saying that "I don't recall." Because he's trying not to get into the same sort of position that he got in before where he had to back talk himself. And he still is having to back talk what he meant at that January hearing to senators who are not satisfied with that and are still pushing for this probe.

I mean, we're in a far more highly-politicized environment now...


DEMIRJIAN: ... than we were then on the entire questions of what the Trump -- Trump campaign and transition teams' connections to Russian officials were. But that is the backdrop for this. And that is, you know, the central tension between the Democrats on that bench and the A.G. yesterday.

CUOMO: And there's this really ugly irony at play. Which is that there's so much grist for the mill on both sides. You have these meetings with Session and all these other meetings that weren't disclosed that the left is particularly concerned about.

And then you have, you know, Russian contributions to Clinton and its CGI that the right is countering with right now. And the reason for both of these is Russia does so much nefarious stuff here.

And that takes us to the big admission from Sessions yesterday, which was we're not doing enough to deal with what Russia's going to do. We have sound on that too, right? Let's play it.


SEN. BEN SASSE (R-NE), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Do you think we're 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.


CUOMO: But part of the complexity, John, is a little simple. Which is this president, this administration doesn't have its hands around the meddling because of this conflation of what Russia did during the election and any questions about collusion. So they're not in any hurry to take this on as a master effort.

AVLON: That's exactly right, and this is something that should be -- feel objective urgency behind it. But because they feel that implicated in the investigation, they're feeling unwilling or unable from a technical standpoint to get aggressive about actually protecting our critical infrastructure of which our elections, our integrity of our democratic debates is key.

This is nothing that we should accept as being probably not: "Oh, it's really tough and difficult to get our heads and hands around." This is the third administration that has known that cyber security is a real issue. We have direct evidence of Russian influence and interference in our election. And whatever the politics, there's a responsibility to secure our critical infrastructure. And this administration seems unwilling or unable to do so for political purposes.

DEMIRJIAN: It's also...

[07:25:06] CAMEROTA: To change track -- go ahead. Go ahead, Karoun.

DEMIRJIAN: I was just going to say, I think in a way, also Sessions and a lot of people are kind of focusing on a lot of the wrong adjectives here. Yes, it's complicated. Yes, it's you know, a new thing. But also part of the confusion is that Russia has been able to do so much with so little.


DEMIRJIAN: These attacks are, you know, small-base. It's Twitter; it's Facebook. It's -- you know, hacks that don't -- go unnoticed, because they're not, you know, completely all-encompassing of servers.

And so the ability to recognize something that is small is something that has eluded a lot of generations of government agencies that are supposed to be focused on this problem, and that takes a much more aggressive and focused approach to actually recognizing what the weak points are in very, very massive systems.

CUOMO: Strong point.

CAMEROTA: OK. Next topic, also complicated, health care. So there was this bipartisan effort, as you know. Senators Alexander and Patty Murray, they thought that they had come up with something that the president liked. And on Tuesday he sounded as though he liked this compromise. Listen to this.


TRUMP: I'm pleased the Democrats have finally responded to my call for them to take responsibility for the Obamacare disaster and work with Republicans to provide much-needed relief to the American people. While I commend the bipartisan work done by senators Alexander and Murray -- and I do commend it -- I continue to believe Congress must find a solution to the Obamacare mess instead of providing bailouts to insurance companies. (END VIDEO CLIP)

CAMEROTA: OK. So less than, I think, an hour later. I mean, I think it was that fast. It might have been -- it might have been a little bit longer, the president backtracked and blamed the Democrats and said that, you know, they're to blame for this whole mess, and there shouldn't be a compromise.

John, what are we to take from this?

AVLON: I mean, aside from the inability of this president to remain constant to any policy vision...

CUOMO: But there was a big clue as to that. One of them was a tweet. Right? That -- that's his head.

AVLON: Right.

CUOMO: And the other one, you see his eyes? He was reading a prepared statement.

AVLON: Well, you know, it's the difference between Teleprompter Trump and Twitter Trump.

CUOMO: I'm not talking about style. It's that those might have been someone else's thoughts that he was reading.

AVLON: Well, then he should perhaps vet the thoughts before reading them, you know, via the Teleprompter.

But look, the idea that this is DOA on Capitol Hill because conservatives in the House want it to be, let's not just simply accept that. The bipartisan plan that Murray and Alexander put together is about stabilizing the markets and stabilizing the system.

The folks who have the most credibility on this issue are bipartisan group of governors -- John Kasich; you know, Hickenlooper; Charlie Baker; Sandoval -- who are all saying focus on the bipartisan solution. Because they're focused on actually helping people, not the hyper-partisan kabuki that dominates on Capitol Hill. They've got the credibility. They're the voices of reason in this. And this bill is a step in the right direction for the country if you care about helping people, not simply scoring partisan points.

CUOMO: And you also have a tick-tock issue here. Because the insurance companies may not have time to readjust rates based on their paranoia now about not getting the subsidies; that may spike premiums.


CUOMO: And he just limited the window for people to sign up. They limited the money to get people that want to sign up. So time matters also.

CAMEROTA: OK. And time is up for us. Sorry, Karoun.

DEMIRJIAN: That's all right.

CAMEROTA: We will give you one next time.

John Avlon, thank you.

CUOMO: Karoun actually told me what I just said.

CAMEROTA: Very good. It did sound smarter. Very good. All right. Thank you guys very much.

Meanwhile, President Trump is defending that condolence call to the family of the fallen soldier. But a Gold Star brother has a different message for the president. What he wants the president to know as he makes those calls. That's next.