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Trump and Lawmaker Trades Barbs; FBI Assists Niger Probe; Trump, Lawmaker Trade New Barbs In Condolence Call Feud; Bush 43, Obama Rebuke Trump Without Naming Him; Speaker Ryan Roasts Trump At Charity Dinner. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired October 20, 2017 - 09:00   ET



[09:00:19] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. I'm John Berman.


CNN has just learned that the FBI has joined the investigation into what happened to those four U.S. soldiers in Niger. That is critical for their families to know. What is making the most noise, though, is the continued political battle and bitter new back and forth over President Trump's condolence call to the family of fallen Sergeant La David Johnson.

Congresswoman Fredricka Wilson, who knows Sergeant La David Johnson and his family, listened to the call on speakerphone. Says the president was, quote, insensitive and even told them that Sergeant Johnson, quote, knew what he was getting into.

Well, last night, the president wrote this in response. The fake news is going crazy with whacky Congresswoman Wilson who was secretary on a very personal call and gave a total lie on content.

BERMAN: Now, a short time ago, Representative Wilson spoke exclusively to CNN and she accused the White House of lying about her and said the focus should be on the family.


REP. FREDRICKA WILSON (D), FLORIDA: My emphasis today is on my constituents, and helping them lay our hero to rest. That's where I'm -- my head is today. And I'm also concerned about him and his last moments. I want to know why he was separated from the rest of the soldiers? Why did it take 48 hours for them to find him? Was he still alive? Was he kidnapped?


BERMAN: More on the FBI's pursuit of these answers in just a moment.

First, let's go to the White House. CNN's Joe Johns is there.

And, Joe, this morning, the feud very much continues. We can't -- we can't hear Joe Johns. This happens. We'll get him back

in a moment.

But, yes, this is news that the FBI is involved in this investigation. We're going to get more on that and talk about this ongoing feud.

Joining us now is Bonnie Carroll. She is the president and founder of TAPS, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. She worked in the White House under Presidents Reagan and Bush 41. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.

Bonnie, thank you for being with us.


HARLOW: You are a veteran. Your husband was a veteran before he tragically died in a plane crash serving this country in 1992. What do you make of this back and forth? The president hits the congresswoman. Kelly -- General Kelly hits the congresswoman. She hits back. What do you make of it?

CARROLL: Well, at TAPS, we honor all those who have served and sacrificed regardless of how or where that death occurs. My heart is with the families. And as a nation, we come together to very publicly mourn all who have served and died. But then, for those left to grieve, it is a very private matter.

BERMAN: Look, thank goodness that you do what you do. And thank goodness you stand behind these families and honor them. Are they being honored now in this unseemly back and forth? And I don't think that anyone's, you know, looking particularly good here between the White House and Congress as this goes on.

CARROLL: Well, with TAPS, we're very fortunate we have the close relationship with the casualty officers. We are coming alongside the families to offer the comfort and care, resources and support that only those who have truly walked this journey before them can give them.

It is about the love and the life. It's about honoring, remembering the service. And thank you all for bringing those names forward. Thank you for showing us the lives lived and the incredible sacrifices made.

HARLOW: You know, Bonnie, one thing that we have heard in the last 24 hours is one of the calls that the president did have with the widow of another fallen service member who died in Afghanistan in April. And this is the first time that we've really heard one of these phone calls for ourselves. So let's take a moment. Let's listen to part of that.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I am so sorry to hear about the whole situation. What a -- what a horrible thing, except that he's an unbelievable hero. And, you know, all of the people that served with him are saying how incredible he was.


TRUMP: And just an amazing -- an amazing guy.


TRUMP: And I just wanted to call you to just tell you that he's a great hero.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, thank you, President Trump. Those words are very kind. He was an amazing man, an amazing husband and an amazing soldier. And I couldn't be more proud of my husband.


HARLOW: That is Natasha De Alencar talking about her husband, her fallen husband, Staff Sergeant Mark De Alencar.

[09:05:08] You know, you've said, Bonnie, there is no right or wrong way to say these things. There just isn't with families.

CARROLL: Right. And I -- you know, I say to families, I wish I could go back in time and bring their loved one back. But what we can do is walk alongside them.

TAPS is a family of over 70,000 surviving military families now coming together to find hope and healing with each other. You know, we are actually seeing, on average, 16 newly bereaved families coming to TAPS each and every day. This is America's family of those who have served and sacrificed.

BERMAN: No, it's a great point.

And, look, General Kelly, yesterday, gave a powerful statement from the podium in the White House briefing room about sacrifice and what these men and women provide this country. He also talked about the message the president was trying to convey to the widow of La David Johnson, talking about the fact that he knew the risks, he decided to go into this line of work. This is how General Kelly explained what the president was trying to convey.


JOHN KELLY, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: And in his way tried to express that opinion, that he was a brave man, a fallen hero. He knew what he was getting himself into because he insisted. There's no reason to enlist. He enlisted.


BERMAN: Now again, today, Representative Wilson said that -- that Myeshia Johnson, the widow, didn't appreciate the message at this time that the president delivered it. And she didn't think that being told this is -- you know, he knew what he signed up for was helpful at this time. But, you know, you've been in this awful situation that most Americans don't know what it's like to be in that moment. So can you understand why there might be two interpretations of the same conversation?

CARROLL: Well, absolutely. And, you know, it's been extraordinary to get to know Robert through General Kelly. We have become friends. And it's been beautiful to have new memories of my husband through the memories of those he served with. And that's what we can do for those who are grieving, bring their loved ones back to life for just a moment by sharing those stories and those memories. And I believe that's what anyone, whether the president or a well-meaning friend endeavors to do is to bring solace by sharing those precious memories.

HARLOW: And, Bonnie, before you go, I'd like to put all the politics and all the bickering aside. One wonderful thing that has come from this is that a GoFundMe page, set up by Congresswoman Wilson, has raised over $600,000 for these three children, two young children, one unborn child of Sergeant La David Johnson. Many military families who lose, you know, the breadwinner will not have that. What can average Americans watching that feel sort of -- they don't know what their place is in this conversation. They want to help. What do these men and women who serve us need?

CARROLL: Well, is a charity. And we actually provide emergency financial assistance for all those grieving the death of a loved one, meeting any needs that they have, ensuring their children have absolutely free education, that they have access to free and unlimited grief counselling, they're connected with peers, that their kids go to a good grief camp. So many services. All that's made possible by the generosity of Americans who recognize what TAPS can provide.

BERMAN: You know, Bonnie Carroll, thank you for what you do. You know, an island of decency this morning for us.

HARLOW: It's true.

BERMAN: It's wonderful to hear your words and I hope everyone's listening. Thank you so much.

New this morning, CNN has learned that the FBI is joining the investigation into the ambush that killed those four U.S. Army soldiers in Niger.

HARLOW: Just minutes ago we learned that those investigators are now on the ground. Let's go to the Pentagon. That's where we find Barbara Starr.

Barbara, the FBI does not always get involved in these investigations. It's not unprecedented. But it's also not routine. Do we know why they are now involved and what the role is?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONNDENT: Well, I think all the indications are -- is, they are looking at the threat in that area. What is the intelligence about this group of attackers believed to be ISIS-affiliated, believed to be this ISIS group that has emerged in Niger along the Niger-Mali border in West Africa? The Pentagon had indicated, you know, that they did not have the intelligence at the time the troops went out there, leaving them to believe that there would be an ambush, that they would encounter hostile forces. So there needs to be a very thorough look at what that ISIS threat might be in that region. That's the type of thing, that's the kind of counterterrorism analysis that the FBI can provide.

But I want to go beyond that a little bit for a moment. The Pentagon very much making the case it wants everyone to understand that it -- there was a search, an urgent search, for Sergeant La David Johnson when they could not find him at the end of this firefight. And Defense Secretary James Mattis talked about this a little bit yesterday, telling people, don't rush to conclusions. That the troops on the ground did everything that they could.

[09:10:11] Have a listen to what the secretary said.


JAMES MATTIS, DEFENSE SECRETARY: The U.S. military does not leave its troops behind. And I would just ask that you not question the actions of the troops that were caught in the firefight and question whether or not they did everything they could in order to bring everyone out at once. And I would also ask you, don't confuse your need for accurate information with our ability to provide it immediately in a situation like this.


STARR: So the secretary, you know, first saying there was an urgent hunt, but the facts still remain to be fully determined. It is just not clear. It may be clear to those with access to classified information. Not clear yet to the American public exactly how this sergeant was not found for 48 hours. That is still a major question. But the Pentagon making clear they did everything they could to look for him.

John. Poppy.

BERMAN: All right, Barbara Starr, important information coming from the Pentagon. Barbara, thanks so much.

Joining us now, Colonel Steve Warren, CNN military analyst there.

And, colonel, thanks so much for being with us.

You heard Barbara say the Pentagon wants to know that U.S. soldiers are not left behind. That everything was done that was possible to find Sergeant La David Johnson. However, we heard from Representative Wilson this morning saying she wants to know why it did take two days to find him to retrieve the body? That seems to be one of the key questions here.

COL. STEVE WARREN, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Right. The congresswoman's question is a perfectly legitimate question, and I have no quarrel with her question and her desire and the family's desire to know about -- to know some details of Sergeant La David Johnson's final hours. I think that's reasonable.

What I will tell you is that I believe Secretary Mattis is spot-on when he says that the personnel on the ground, those soldiers on the ground on that fateful day, I have no question in my mind, having served in uniform for almost 30 years, that those soldiers conducted themselves with honor, and those soldiers did everything they could to bring Sergeant La David Johnson back with the rest of the unit.

But you have to understand, John, a firefight is unlike anything else in the human experience. It's loud. It's scary. It's terrifying. It's absolutely confusing. The confusion is something that's very hard for anyone to understand who hasn't been through it. And if you think about this force being under pressure, being fired on, probably having to separate in order to get under some cover and some concealment, then helicopters coming in from different locations, helicopters flown by different outfits, the French, contractors, do these -- you know, do these pilots even speak English, dead guys, wounded guys all having to be loaded on helicopters. The confusion is different. And it's easy for someone like us, someone who's served, to realize that, yes, one member of this outfit could become separated.

HARLOW: Colonel, here's one thing that Republican Senator Lindsey Graham has said in the wake of this. He said, these four soldiers being killed, and most people not knowing what they were up to is a game changer. He went on to say, I'm concerned that we are not regularly being briefed about these operations.

What outside of why Sergeant La David Johnson was alone for two days after he died or was struggling to hang on to life, we just don't know, what are your other most critical questions right now about all of this?

WARREN: Well, most critically I would like to know how 50 ISIS combatants managed to mass in an area that we had been operating in for some time.

HARLOW: Right.

WARREN: How 50 ISIS fighters managed to mass and execute this ambush. I mean that is a little bit of a surprise, frankly. Normally we try to keep good situational awareness in areas that we're operations in. Normally we try to have good intelligence streams that will give us trip wires and warnings when something is cooking. And the fact that -- I mean 50 fighters, that's a -- that's a significant number. And the fact that they were able to mass and spring this ambush on our personnel as they were going about their business, that's probably my biggest concern. I'd like to know how that happened.

BERMAN: All right, Colonel Warren, always great to have you with us and helping understanding the situation, what it is like to be on the ground. Really appreciate it.

HARLOW: Thank you.

WARREN: Thanks.

BERMAN: All right, hours after the president's chief of staff tries to get a feud under control, his boss reignites it.

HARLOW: Also, the president says he would give himself and his steam a ten -- a ten out of ten on hurricane response in Puerto Rico. The San Juan mayor, ah, she doesn't agree. She says a one. But what about this number, 113. That is the number of people still unaccounted for in Puerto Rico. We'll go there live with an update on the conditions, ahead.




REP. FREDERICA WILSON (D), FLORIDA: That is not a good message to say to anyone who has lost a child at war. You don't sign up because you think you are going to die. You sign up to serve your country.


BERMAN: The congresswoman from Florida, Frederica Wilson, continuing the back and forth with the White House, President Trump and his chief of staff, General John Kelly, after the death of a U.S. soldier in Niger.

Let's discuss now with our panel, Errol Louis, Matt Viser, and Caitlin Huey-Burns, all here with us. Errol, I want to start with you. You know, where are we this morning and where do we go from here? Is there a graceful way out of this now?

ERROL LOUIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, there is, but it mostly involves not continuing this ridiculous fight, this unseemly fight. I think everybody, every mature person who has been watching this I think understands what happens here.

[09:20:00] There was a horrible miscommunication between the president and between this family, and a lot of offense was taken on both sides. A lot of political sort of baggage was tossed on top of a family's personal grief.

And I think everybody should understand, if you did not get it before, you should either watch or read what General Kelly said yesterday. It makes clear that this is good people wanting to make the best of a terrible situation.

If everybody would just kind move on. You know, the words I'm sorry at this point are not likely from the president. He never apologizes for anything. I don't know if General Kelly is in a position where he could do that.

But if everybody could just move on, I think we understand now that what really matters is that there are a lot of people in the field. There is a lot of danger out there. There's something happening in Central Africa that we did not know about. That we really need some answers to, and that's what everybody should be focused on.

HARLOW: Yesterday, the former presidents, President Bush and President Obama were talking in all seriousness about this president without using his name. They didn't have to. Just listen.


FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Bigotry seams emboldened. Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication. We have seen nationalism distorted into nativism.

FORMER PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Some of the politics we have seen, we thought we put that to bed. That's folks looking 50 years back. It's the 21st Century, not the 19th Century.


HARLOW: Caitlin, it was not long ago this would never happen even without mentioning the president's name that the former presidents would not talk about those that followed them even if they vehemently disagree with what they are doing or saying. Is that just thrown out the window now and how significant is what we heard from both the Republican and a Democrat?

CAITLIN HUEY-BURNS, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, "REALCLEARPOLITICS": I think it's really significant and I think this issue of Donald

Trump's presidency is personal to both Obama and Trump in very different ways for -- sorry for Bush and Obama.

For Bush, he is seeing a party that he probably doesn't recognize anymore. You hear that kind of sentiment coming from a lot of Republicans. You saw a lot of Republicans sharing that speech over and over again on social media and talking about it in conversations.

And then for former President Obama, he has a couple different things to consider. One, this is a president who is trying to unravel a lot of the legislation of his administration and two, he is trying to encourage some kind of call to action for his own party, which is undergoing a lot of challenges right now.

You saw him campaigning in Virginia where they are trying to hold on to a governor's race there. This is a party that has been -- its ranks have been decimated over the past eight years.

He is trying to get his party to realize that you need to participate and vote, and I think that was interesting on two different ways but coming from two different presidents.

BERMAN: You know, absolutely, and then, you know, Paul Ryan weighing in also. Paul Ryan was at the Al Smith Dinner, the famous political dinner in New York City every year, and he told a lot of jokes. I want you to listen to this and tell me if you think he's really joking.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: I know last year that Donald Trump offended some people. I know his comments, according to critics, went too far. Some said it was unbecoming of a public figure and his comments were offensive. Well, thank God, he's learned his lesson.

Every morning I wake up in my office and scroll Twitter to see which tweets that I will have to pretend that I did not see later on.


BERMAN: Folks there laughed (inaudible) --

HARLOW: They were kind of uncomfortable.

BERMAN: They were jokes in the sense that people laugh, but he's being absolutely honest about his feelings here. So, add Paul Ryan to a person who he says so much that he's embarrassed in some ways of the president right there on top of what we heard from the former presidents. It's fascinating.

MATT VISER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: It's striking, you know, really. I mean, Paul Ryan using the president as the butt of a lot of his jokes and drawing a lot of laughter. The president is not known to take a joke about himself all that well.

You remember he served the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2013 where he was the butt of a lot of jokes. So, you know, what this does with their relationship, I don't know. I mean, it was all done in somewhat good fun.

But as you say, Paul Ryan is yet another Republican kind of speaking out a little bit more. Bob Corker, recently, you know, and Ben Sasse has been vocal, President Bush yesterday, you know, increasingly it seems more and more Republicans are willing to speak out.

And speak in contrast to President Trump, which is somewhat of a new development and that it is seeming to be more broad than just a couple of sort of fringe Republicans.

HARLOW: If you missed it this morning, a pretty eye-popping piece from Peggy Noonan in "The Journal," a conservative, former Reagan speechwriter.

[09:25:07] She says the president risks going on a Sarah Palin trajectory which is downward in her opinion. Here's what she writes, "There's no hard constituency in America for political incompetence, and that is what he continues to demonstrate."

Errol Louis to you, a few questions here, is she right or is what Peggy Noonan considers competency different than what many white working-class voters in Wisconsin, Michigan, Kentucky see as competency?

LOUIS: I would say first and foremost that whatever Peggy Noonan says is probably right. I am a big fan of hers. I have been for a long, long time. What she is referring to as political competence is getting stuff done and also increasing the base, increasing the likelihood that you are going to get reelected.

Turning what might have been a moment into a movement and so, when she says when you have somebody like Donald Trump who is polling as low as he is as far as his approval ratings, and seems to be completely unconcerned with actually turning that around, that starts to look like political incompetence.

And people who want to be with him whether it's actual voters like you are talking about or political professionals, she says they -- he gives them no cover. They've got nowhere to go.

BERMAN: Caitlin?

HUEY-BURNS: And I also think, though, that having said all that, this ire among Republican Party base voters is directed at members of Congress because those are the ones that are going to be making the decisions here on the legislation that they want to pass and on legislation that will be key to the president's success. And you can also imagine the president going back and campaigning against his own people.

BERMAN: I have to say what I hear from former President Bush and former President Obama and Paul Ryan, Peggy Noonan -- well, in this case, though, what I'm thinking is that I can hear President Trump and his supporters listening to all these criticisms, and going, yes, so?

You know, we beat you in the primaries, President Bush. We beat you in the general election symbolically, President Obama. We are beating you now in Congress, Paul Ryan. You know, Matt Viser, Trump and Trumpism specifically is a reputation refutes all of these arguments that are made over the last 24 hours.

VISER: I think that's true. I mean, what is striking, though, is we are almost a year after President Trump was elected and we are still seeing those battles fought in clear and public view. That is what is a struggle for the Republican Party now, controlling all levers of power in Washington.

To get anything done is that there's still this internal strife within the party, and they have not gotten past that. President Trump has not done much to win over the Peggy Noonans and the Paul Ryans and the John McCains of the world, who've always been skeptical of him.

But have been kind of willing to give a chance in the early going and so we find ourselves again at this moment that is not different from the primary battles that we saw with, you know, George W. Bush and Donald Trump, you know, having a war of words as his brother, Jeb Bush, was running.

You know, but we are back at that point where there are kind of more open warfare, which is distracting for a party that wants to turn toward tax reform or get health care done.

HARLOW: Thank you all. Matt, nice to have you. Errol, Caitlan, have a good weekend. Thanks, guys.

Up next, a Democratic senator on where do we go from here. Stay with us.