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Controversy Continues Over Phone Call President Trump Made to Grieving Widow of Fallen U.S. Soldier; Interview with Senator Bill Cassidy. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired October 19, 2017 - 08:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[08:00:00] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What's really important is what the president says now. It's up to him to figure out how to try and move us forward.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I am asking for a classified briefing about exactly what happened in Niger.

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

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: 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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

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

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. Welcome to your NEW DAY. It is Thursday, October 19th, 8:00 in the east. Up first, President Trump denies that he said anything offensive to the family of that slain U.S. soldier in that condolence call. But Sergeant La David Johnson's mother says the president disrespected her family by saying her son, quote, "knew what he signed up for." Now more gold star families are speaking out about their experiences with President Trump, and one of those families is coming up to share their story.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: For all of the ugly politics that's coming out of this, the pressure on what happened in Niger is also getting some positive results. Defense Secretary James Mattis, we are now being told he is demanding to know what happened to Johnson and three other Americans who were killed two weeks ago in an ambush in Niger. Senator John McCain has his own concern, saying that he thinks the Trump administration isn't being up front about the investigation. CNN's Joe Johns is live at the White House with more. Good morning, Joe.

JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Chris. The question this morning is where all of this is going in this war of words over the condolence call the president made with the family of that fallen U.S. soldier. It's also raised the question about whether the administration would be better off if they hadn't responded at all.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DONALD TRUMP, (R) PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I didn't say what that congresswoman said, didn't say it at all.

JOHNS: 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 am sure he knew what he was signing up for, 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 dealing with things that I see as inconsistent with what some of his predecessors have done and how they treated it.

JOHNS: Multiple White House officials tell CNN that Kelly did tell Mr. Trump, President Obama never called him about 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 WHO DID NOT RECEIVE CALL FROM TRUMP: I don't like that I was told that I would receive a 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, GOLD STAR MOTHER WHO RECEIVED CALL FROM TRUMP: He was, again, very genuine, genuinely thankful for my son and his service. I didn't feel like it was forced or scripted or something that he felt 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.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

JOHNS: We have not gotten a lot from the White House on why it took so long for the president to issue a public statement about the deaths of those U.S. soldiers in Niger in the first place. A National Security Council statement was drafted but the White House decided not to release it, opting instead for the White House press secretary to deliver remarks from the podium. Alisyn?

CAMEROTA: OK, Joe, thank you very much for all of that.

So now Defense Secretary Mattis is demanding to know what happened in that deadly ambush in Niger, and Senator McCain says that the Trump administration is not being up front about this investigation. CNN's Barbara Starr is live at the Pentagon for us with more. What have you learned, Barbara?

[08:05:14] BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Alisyn. The starting point for all of this is this of course is why the country has special operations forces, green berets. These are the troops that go places that are very dangerous that may be very risky. But in this case the question is was the risk fully understood.

What we do know is this 12-man green beret team walked into an ISIS ambush. It was a place they had been to before, a village they had been to before, no trouble. This time ISIS was waiting for them. The intelligence was not accurate. They had been under the direction that it would be unlikely they would run into opposition, and of course they did. And when that firefight broke out, this is a country, Niger, that did not permit any air strikes in its country. So French aircraft came in 30 minutes later and conducted what they call a show of force. They flew low over the battlefield that had erupted and tried to push off the ISIS fighters by those low flight, but no airstrikes allowed.

So the U.S. troops were in an area where they essentially had only their own rifles to defend themselves. The ultimate question, when the dust cleared, why was Sergeant La David Johnson left behind. A civilian aircraft came in, a contractor to help evacuate the dead and the wounded. The French helped with that. But when the helicopters and the aircraft lifted off, they were one man short. Sergeant La David Johnson's body was not found for 48 hours. And for a U.S. military that says they leave nobody behind on the battlefield, this is deeply emotional and a concerning question for the Pentagon, how did he get left behind? Chris?

CUOMO: Real questions. And if nothing else the pressure on asking for answers is now getting some action at the Pentagon level where you are. Let us know what you find out.

Joining us now is Republican Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana. Senator, this situation about how these Americans were ambushed in Niger, what happened, why were they there, why was one left behind, it has been clouded over -- not here, but it has been clouded over by the politics of how the president treated the family of the fallen and his fight with the Democratic Congresswoman. Do you think that that's the kind of battle the president should be engaging in right now?

SEN. BILL CASSIDY, (R) LOUISIANA: What a tragic situation, let's first say that, both for the death of the soldier and the misunderstanding between the president and the mother. I had a similar call recently with a family in Louisiana, and it's incredibly emotional for everybody involved. So I was not part of the conversation so I can't really comment on the president's. But we can say if there was something that happened in Niger, if there was somebody who was left behind, then I agree that we should find out what that is. I'm sure the Pentagon will do so. And if not certainly Congress will prod them to do so. And that is appropriate. We should have those answers.

CUOMO: You know, interesting question. Why can't the president say what you just said?

CASSIDY: Again, I can't get into the president's mind. We communicate differently. I'm a doctor, so maybe I am more used to talking about emotions and bad things than other people are. But that said, in a tough, emotional situation, sometimes you just have to cut folks slack. It's very difficult. When I was speaking to the family back home in Louisiana, I am tearing, they are tearing, and as a father you understand their loss, but not as they because it is actually their loss. So I am not sure anybody looking from the outside in can fully understand.

CUOMO: I hear you about that. It's a hard situation. There are no two ways on that. But if, God forbid, you ever had a conversation like that, and the family came away feeling you didn't do the right thing, when that came out, would your instinct to be to say they are wrong, this is being done wrong, I can prove it. They're wrong, I'm right, I did the right thing on this call. Is that how you would respond?

CASSIDY: Well --

CUOMO: No is probably the answer, right, senator? It's probably not how you would respond.

CASSIDY: Well, it's better to meet somebody where they are than demand -- on the other hand, communication is the root of most conflict in humans. Whoever is right or whoever wrong, I think we leave it as poor communication and hope that all can do better.

CUOMO: They can't be wrong about how they feel, right. If they feel that the conversation went a way where they felt disrespected, that's kind of all the proof you need, isn't it?

CASSIDY: You are speaking of perceptions. Again, if you go to marriage counseling and they say speak of at our perceptions. And I say that because it's easy to cast a stone when we are not there. All we can say is that the hope that that communication be better, that that grieving mother and family be comforted and that we find out what happened with this hero, and avoid it from happening again.

[08:10:01] CUOMO: So let's go to that part because that is what matters most. That's how you respect the families of the fallen and the fallen themselves is by getting accountability on what happened, knowing especially if something went wrong so it can be avoided next time. What do you make of not having heard about tise ambush for this many days?

CASSIDY: Yes, I don't know normal operating procedure. I don't know the degree to which this is clandestine or not. And so again I hesitate to make a judgment until I know those facts. It the facts play that it was inappropriate for it to be not revealed, that's wrong. On the other hand it was part of an operation that might endanger American troops in the area, then I would have an understanding that is different, and that, I think, will come out.

CUOMO: Let's talk taxes. This was sold by the president initially as a plan that would be for the middle class. There are things in the punch points, and the meat is not on the bones yet, but there are points that go to the middle class, but it does seem to be over- weighted to the top tier, not the middle class. How do you see it?

CASSIDY: We don't have the distributional tables yet, but when we met yesterday the Senate Finance Committee, Democrats, Republicans with the president, I was taking notes. And over and over the president would say he wants this to work for the middle class. He doesn't think we need to increase the wealth of the wealthiest. We need to increase the wealth of the middle class. And at some point I would say "DT," middle class, understand that that that meant he was kind of saying it over and over.

He also emphasized, as we all have, that the bill is not yet written, and he invited Democrats and Republicans to come together and make sure that the bill does benefit principally the middle class.

CUOMO: So how do you explain how initially it was, and again, this is a statement against interest. The estate tax helps bigger earners, thank God I am in that category. But the estate tax, helping big businesses more than little businesses, cutting the tax rate for someone like me more than for someone who makes $70,000. How is that weighted towards the middle class?

CASSIDY: So if you look at that top marginal tax rate you're speaking of going from 39 to 35 but eliminating loopholes, eliminating deductions, elimination of the deductions actually increases the tax rate. I suspect you pay an effective tax rate of about 25. Even though your marginal tax rate is 39, deductions bring you down to 25.

CUOMO: And I feel like it's 50. Between federal and state, I think it's 50. But continue.

CASSIDY: Exactly. When you add federal, state, and local, it does go up there. But speaking only of federal, if you eliminate those loopholes, if you will, your effective tax rate rises. That's what this bill aims to do, actually increase the effective tax rate.

CUOMO: And in terms of helping businesses and small businesses, those are the engine of this economy, as you well know, why don't they get equal benefits to the C-corps, you know, the big corporations?

CASSIDY: So if you look at the C-corps, the folks that are moving overseas because our rates are so much higher than, say, Ireland --

CUOMO: Which is kind of true and not true, right. The effective rate that they pay versus the nominal rate, there's a big gap there because of these loopholes you are talking about on the individual level. They really are made manifest on the corporate level.

CASSIDY: Well said. Their effective rate, I'm told, is about 27 percent. For some it's zero. For some it's 35. That said, they are spending so much money in order to avoid taxes, money that the Simpson-Bowles commission under President Obama said would be better spent increasing their economic growth. So the idea if you lower the true tax rate and make the true tax rate effectively the effective tax rate, then it's more economically efficient. And your pass through, the small businesses, will follow. It won't quite get there because there is a taxation on C-corps dividends that kind of makes about the same. But if we get the C-corps and the S-corps, if you will, within five percent, I think folks will be happy in the pass through area.

CUOMO: The more you help the small businesses the faster they'll follow along, as you're suggesting.

Let me ask you about health care. It looked like you had a good thing going there. You were going to return these cost-sharing revenues, which as you know are fundamental to the pricing for the insurance companies, especially for the low income people, and now it seems like the president was for it and now he's not. What happened, and where are you?

CASSIDY: I am told that there was need by the administration for stronger language that this would not be a windfall for the insurance companies. The insurance companies had to pledge in strong language that the rate would go down. It wasn't just going to be that they raise the rates and get the cost-sharing reduction payments and the consumer pays that higher rate. There had to be language that if they get these cost share reduction payments premiums come down, working families then benefit. We are looking for that stronger language.

CUOMO: What are the companies telling you, though, about whether or not they want to commit to cutting their profits?

CASSIDY: They said that they would -- put it this way, I am told they said they would commit. There's a difference between a verbal commitment and legislative language which demands it, and I think the administration wants legislative language which demands it.

CUOMO: They find a way to make their money, we know that much for sure. Senator, thank you for the candor. Thank you for taking on these issues on NEW DAY. You are always welcome, sir.

CASSIDY: Thank you.

CUOMO: Alisyn?

CAMEROTA: OK, Christ.

Not all families of the fallen have received a phone call from President Trump. Up next, we'll speak with the parents of one soldier who say they have not been contacted after their son made the ultimate sacrifice.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CAMEROTA: President Trump says he believes he has called every family of the service members who have been killed during his presidency. Here's what he said this week.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I write letters and I also call. Now sometimes, you know, if you had a tragic event, it's very difficult to be able to do that. But I have called, I believe everybody, but certainly I will use the word virtually everybody.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

CAMEROTA: Our next guests say that's not true. Calvin and Sheila Murphy's son, Army Specialist Etienne Murphy, was killed during a vehicle rollover incident this past May in Syria and they have yet to hear from the White House.

Calvin and Sheila Murphy join us now.

Mr. and Mrs. Murphy, we are so -- oh, Mrs. Murphy, we are so sorry that you are reliving all of this. Has this week been particularly hard for you?

SHEILA MUPRHY, MOTHER OF FALLEN SOLDIER ETIENNE MURPHY: Every day is hard. Every day it gets worse. It doesn't get better. It gets worse because I am looking for my child to come through the door.

[08:20:00] CAMEROTA: Of course.

CALVIN MUPRHY, FATHER OF FALLEN SOLDIER ETIENNE MURPHY: Every day.

CAMEROTA: Of course. We understand the grief that all of the Gold Star families are racked with.

And so, Mr. Murphy, can you just tell us what happened on May 26th with your son Etienne?

C. MURPHY: Well, the night before we were having a conversation with him. We were having conversation with him and he said he was all right, and don't worry, mom. Then the next day our daughter-in-law, his wife, tells us -- asked us if we were at home, and I'm like, no, I am at work and my wife is on the beauty salon. She tells us to go home.

And so, I was like, go home. Why do we have to go home? She said to go home, and she hung up.

And I guess my wife made her tell us why she wanted us to go home and we found out that our son had passed, so we went home and sure enough, five minutes after we walked through that door, they knocked on the door and notified us that our son was gone.

CAMEROTA: We're looking at pictures of how handsome your son was and how vital he looks there with you guys. He was 22 years old.

And so, do you understand what happened? You have gotten enough information about what happened to your son?

C. MURPHY: No, we know what America knows. He was in an armored vehicle, and they had a rollover. We don't know why it rolled over. We don't know if there was another vehicle involved. We don't -- or anything like that.

And so, they are still putting the investigation together. That's what they tell us. And so, we are just waiting to see what information they come up with. But, you know, he's Special Forces, so we don't know what we will really get.

CAMEROTA: Mrs. Murphy, did you hear from the White House? You have heard from the White House at all?

S. MURPHY: No, I haven't. I haven't, but it's OK. It doesn't matter if I hear from the White House or not because --

C. MURPHY: No, we haven't --

S. MURPHY: -- it's not really about -- like I said, it's not about a call or letter. I just want people to remember my son, Specialist Etienne Murphy, and all the other Gold Star moms, Mrs. Johnson, all those who are grieving. Trust me, none of us want to be in the position and the worst thing I ever have been called is a Gold Star mom.

C. MURPHY: Yes.

CAMEROTA: And, I know that you, Mrs. Murphy, you wrote a letter to the White House, I think --

S. MURPHY: I did. CAMEROTA: What did you want the president to know about your son?

S. MURPHY: I just wanted him to not forget my son. I actually thanked President Trump for ordering the air strike in Syria, but it was not enough to save my child.

I have no hard feelings toward anyone, because it's not about me, it's about my child and all the other countless fallen heroes and those still over there now and the families that are here grieving, like I am and my husband is. That's what it's all about.

I don't want it to be about me or about a letter, I want it to be about my child and what he stood for and what they are fighting over there right now as I speak.

CAMEROTA: Mrs. Murphy, I read that you said that you hate the sunrise --

S. MURPHY: I do.

CAMEROTA: You pray for the sunset.

C. MURPHY: That's correct.

CAMEROTA: And you hate every day when the sun rises because you are in so much pain. How can we help you?

S. MURPHY: Just give me my son back. Right now, there's nothing that could help me. I take it one second at a time sometimes, just to get to breathe. I have to tell my self to breathe because the pain is undescribable. It's un-get-throughable. That's my new word. It's un-get-throughable.

C. MURPHY: That is an accurate word.

S. MURPHY: This pain unimaginable.

I just tell someone that we are residents -- we are permanent residents in the twilight zone because I still believe it's a dream, I can't -- I'm still in shock and I'm still looking for him to ring the doorbell.

CAMEROTA: Yes.

S. MURPHY: It's hard to move forward. I am still on May 26th.

C. MURPHY: Yes.

CAMEROTA: We understand. I mean, the mind plays tricks.

S. MURPHY: Yes.

C. MURPHY: Yes.

CAMEROTA: I think we all can understand that, that it's so impossible to get your mind around this loss that your mind just refuses to accept it.

S. MURPHY: I am so sorry. I'm sorry.

C. MURPHY: Yes, it does. I guess it's trying to protect us, but the body just -- the body knows -- you are just in constant pain. You know, we have our own plumbing company and it's just hard to run it on a day-to-day basis with this on your mind.

But I mean, I have no choice but to push through.

[08:25:05] CAMEROTA: Yes.

C. MURPHY: I feel bad sometimes doing that, like I am putting my son on the back burner. But --

CAMEROTA: Yes. Yes, that's the thing about grief, you almost feel guilty if you're any day you are not devastated and grieving.

C. MURPHY: Right.

CAMEROTA: But, of course, your son doesn't want you to be devastated and grieving.

And so, does it help to talk about him? Can you share with us some things that you want the American public to know about him?

S. MURPHY: I wrote a statement, if I could please read it, about my child.

CAMEROTA: Please do.

S. MURPHY: OK.

It said, as far as whether or not my family receives a call or letter from the president is not the issue, my concern is that my son Specialist Etienne Murphy's contribution to this country not be overlooked or forgotten.

His beautiful life came to an abrupt end when he chose to heed the calling of joining the army. Etienne completed training. He was an infantryman in Fort Benning, Georgia. He decided to volunteer to become an army ranger, and he was an army ranger, with the 75th Ranger Regiment and was assigned to Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, Hunter Army Field.

He loved his country to the point of death. However, his family is now left behind to grapple with the fact that he's gone. He's left behind his devastated mom, dad, wife, children, brothers, sister-in- laws, cousins.

I just want everybody to know that Etienne's role in this fight against terrorism is the epitome of what this country should stand for.

C. MURPHY: That's right.

S. MURPHY: For liberty and justice for all.

I would do everything in my power to see my son will be always remembered by one of the few great, to lay down his life for our country that is so divided and in turmoil right now, it just breaks my heart.

It's time for this nation to see the aftermath of those who don't make it home, we're the aftermath. Mrs. Johnson is an aftermath. So many Gold Star families, all Gold Star families, we are the aftermaths of our loved ones not making it home.

CAMEROTA: Yes.

S. MURPHY: It's an honor so great to know my child and so many other countless others were willing to sacrifice. Yes, they knew what they were getting into, but their love for the country and their love of the protection for family and friends outweighed the risks. So, I just want everybody to know all of these soldiers out here are doing it for us, and we should thank them for the utmost gratitude and respect them as best we can.

As Etienne's mom, I am no longer in pain, I am pain, today, the definition of pain is Sheila Murphy. I have to remind myself to breathe. I sit looking at the door waiting for him to walk in. I beg God all day to give me my son back.

So, in closing, I just want everybody to know that daily, I see the pain my husband, sons and daughter-in-laws go to, it's an internal pain so great that it has reached the core of their souls and has taken up residences.

So, please, America, just think about our soldiers and their families. Just say a prayer for us and continue to support them, because we need support right now. Thank you.

CAMEROTA: Well, we hear you. We hear you, Mrs. Murphy. We hear you, Mr. Murphy. You could not have communicated better the heartbreak that families like you experience after the loss of your son, and obviously, we do want to help you remember his legacy. We will put up more pictures of Etienne and just please let us know how we can help you.

We understand how great your pain is and how great the pain is of the Johnson family today. We celebrate you guys and we thank you. Thank you so much.

S. MURPHY: Thank you.