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New: FBI to Assist in Probe of Four Soldiers' Deaths; Gen. Kelly calls Congresswoman "Empty Barrel." Late-Night Senate Vote Clears Way for Tax Overhaul. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired October 20, 2017 - 10:00   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: -- into the ambush that killed four U.S. soldiers in Niger. This as the feud intensifies over the president's condolence calls to the family of one of these men, La David Johnson, left his family offended and angry which in turn left the White House offended and angry. A Miami member of Congress who knows the family well, listened to the call on speaker phone and said the president was insensitive, said that Sergeant Johnson, when he said that Sergeant Johnson, quote, "knew what he was getting into."

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Late last night the president responded again to all of this in writing. Here's what he writes, "The fake news is going crazy with wacky Congresswoman Wilson, who was secretly on a very personal call, and gave a total lie on content."

Well, this morning, Representative Wilson spoke exclusively to CNN. She accuses the White House of lying about her. And said the focus should be on the family.


REP. FREDERICA WILSON (D), FLORIDA: My emphasis today is on my constituents, and helping them lay our hero to rest. That's where 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?


HARLOW: Many critical questions. Our Joe Johns is at the White House this morning. Joe, any answers on those questions from the administration?

JOE JOHLNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: No answers yet from the administration, quite frankly, Poppy. And this requires a bit of unpacking. Up there at the top about the president's tweet indicating that he listened secretly to the conversation. She's been up front about the fact she's had a preexisting relationship with this family. She was invited to listen to the call, so there's that.

But there's more unpacking, I think, to do. Important to say number one, that the chief of staff who came to the briefing room just yesterday, seemed to confirm, at least a piece of her recounting of the conversation by indicating that he had advised the president on language that has now become the controversial part of this conversation regarding the president's condolence call to the wife of the Sergeant who has fallen in Niger.

A couple other points, Kelly, obviously, a Gold Star dad, said he was stunned by the fact that the Congresswoman had actually listened to the conversation, also likened Wilson to an empty barrel, one that makes a lot of noise but probably one of the most important and interesting pieces of this is there's reporting out there that suggests that the chief of staff did get some things wrong, specifically, in relation to the naming of an FBI building in Miami in 2015. He said the Congresswoman got up and took credit for getting $20 million for that building and then sat down, when there's a lot of reporting to the contrary. So let's listen to what he said and then listen to what she said.


JOHN KELLY, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: The Congresswoman stood up and in a long tradition of empty barrels making the most noise, stood up there in all of that and talked about how she was instrumental in getting the funding for that building. Now she took care of her constituents because she got the money and she just called up President Obama and on that phone call he gave the money $20 million to build a building and she sat down. We were stunned. Stunned that she had done it, even for someone that is that empty a barrel. We were stunned.

WILSON: I heard him say that I bragged that I secured the money for the building of the FBI building in Miramar and that's a lie. You know, I feel sorry for General Kelly. He has my sympathy for the loss of his son, but he can't just go on TV and lie on me. I was not even in Congress in 2009 when the money for the building was secured. So that's a lie. How dare he?


JOHNS: So question, obviously, is who is right. The "Miami Herald" dug into this just a little bit and the point out there's no known video of this naming ceremony of this building in Miami that could certainly clear it up. On the other hand, the version of events tends to support the Congresswoman because she wasn't in Congress when the money for that building was appropriated. Back to you.

BERMAN: All right, Joe Johns at the White House. It can tell you one thing definitively. The indication of an FBI building in 2015 does not do anything to help the families of four U.S. servicemen lost in Niger.

[10:05:03] Joining us now, CNN military analyst retired Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona and Joyce Raezer, executive director of the National Military Family Association. Colonel, I want to start with you and that was just an illustration, I think, of what the problem is here. There's a, you know, he said, she said, he said, he said, she said, that's been going on until just a few minutes ago. What good does that do anyone? The most important people here, which again is the families of those four soldiers killed?

LT. COL. RICK FRANCONA (RET), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Absolutely none, John, and this is a time when we need to step back and ratchet down the rhetoric. I think General Kelly tried to do that, obviously, unsuccessfully and it looks like the Congresswoman now is also trying to lower the temperature of the rhetoric. But she's right, we need to focus on the families and find out what happened and answer the questions.

You know, although I really am upset with this back and forth between the White House and the Congresswoman on this issue. She does raise some interesting questions and those are the questions that we need to answer, what happened out there and that's the investigation that's ongoing right now. And I think we need to let that play out.

HARLOW: And that is the question that Senator John McCain was asked, you know, is the White House being forthcoming enough. He said, no. We've had numerous members of Congress, especially Democrats, who have said on this program we need more answers. Those answers do take time and General Mattis voiced his dismay. We don't have more yet, but he also said please don't rush to assumptions, especially about the men who were with La David Johnson in the battlefield. How do you see all of this?

JOYCE RAEZER, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, NATIONAL MILITARY FAMILY ASSOCIATION: I think I agree with Lieutenant Colonel Francona, now is the time to focus on those families, to do all we can to honor their sacrifice and honor the service of their family members. Part of the honoring of that service is to find the answers to any death that happens on military service. But we also just have to be there for those families, to say as Americans we support what your service -- the service your service member had and we want to be there to help you in your grief to talk with you, to remember your service member, to honor their service.

BERMAN: You know, Joyce, overnight we got audio of one phone call the president did make to the widow of a service member, the wife of fallen army Staff Sergeant Mark De Alencar who was killed in Afghanistan in April 8th. I want to listen a little bit to what he said in that phone call.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I am so sorry to hear about the whole situation. 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, amazing guy and I wanted to call you and just tell you that he's a great hero.

DE ALENCAR: Well, thank you, President Trump. Those words are very kind and he was an amazing man, an amazing husband, and amazing soldier. I couldn't be more proud of my husband. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: So, Joyce, that was a phone call that was well received. But it gets to the issue of what can help a grieving family. What do you want to hear in these moments of loss?

RAEZER: Well, and understand, I never -- my husband retired from the army. I never had to go through this firsthand. But I have -- I have friends who have gone through this and I think what the most important thing these families want right away is that acknowledgement from our nation's leaders on behalf of the entire nation that their service member was a hero, their choice of service was something far greater than just an individual action, but that it was -- made that service member part of this larger commitment to serve our nation that all of our service members have. So talking about honoring that service on behalf of all of us is such an important message from our leaders.

HARLOW: It is, indeed. Joyce, thank you for being here, we appreciate it very, very much. And Lieutenant Colonel Francona, thank you. Stay with us. We need you on a little bit more of this as we get into the investigation. Because new this morning, CNN has learned that the FBI is joining that investigation into the ambush that killed these four U.S. soldiers in Niger.

A short time ago, we learned those FBI investigators are now on the ground. Let's go to Barbara Starr at the Pentagon. Barbara, what is the significance of that?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Poppy, John, it's not unprecedented, not routine, but not unprecedented for the FBI to get involved in these investigations overseas. What we are told is they are not investigating the action per se of the U.S. troops or the fire fight per se. What they are looking at is the intelligence about who was operating in that area, what insurgent groups.

[10:10:01] The belief right now is that the U.S. troops were attacked by about 50 ISIS fighters from the local ISIS affiliate in this part of West Africa. So they're going to look at the intelligence that they have on this group. What do they know about them? How are they really tied to ISIS? What are their capabilities? Who's their leadership? Where are they operating? How did it possibly get missed that these guys were out there, that they were in this area. So it's going to be all about the intelligence, all about the counterterrorism effort that needs to happen now.

BERMAN: And Colonel Francona, you are still with us now and we talked earlier about some of these open questions, one of them that the family has of Sergeant La David Johnson is 48 hours. Why did it take 48 hours to recover his body? Barbara has been reporting from the Pentagon, which wasn't a crystal clear here that it wasn't for lack of trying. I mean, soldiers, marines, you know, service members do not leave colleagues on the field. Still, though, there are questions about what happened.

FRANCONA: Oh, absolutely. And I think Secretary Mattis was pretty clear about this and said let's not second guess the soldiers involved in a fire fight in the middle of an African desert. So, I think we'll get the answers, but we have to have a little bit of patience here because as you say, no one is going to willingly leave anybody behind, but the tactical situation may not have permitted them to remain in the area. And the on scene commander has to make very, very difficult decisions what do I do. Do we stay and keep the force at risk or do we withdraw and come back later. You know, very, very difficult decisions and I wouldn't want be the guy that had to make that decision.

HARLOW: Barbara, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham has a lot of questions, as do many lawmakers and many Americans, but he's saying these four soldiers being killed and most people not knowing what they were up to was a game changer. Can you dive into that a little bit for us? And how much information is usually public this long after a tragic event like this?

STARR: Well, let's start with, you know, the questions that I keep hearing people talk about, what were they doing there. If you are someone who necessarily follows counterterrorism operations in Africa, you would find plenty of open source information that U.S. troops operate all over Africa on these types of advice and assist missions. The tactical details day to day aren't classified but the fact that the U.S. troops are out there is not.

A lot of Americans don't follow that day to day, and that's perfectly acceptable but they're going to get surprised when they find out how far across the globe U.S. troops are spread. This situation, the fire fight, look, by all accounts, this was an extraordinary event. They got ambushed. They did not have the information about what they were facing.

I think that it caught everyone by surprise. I think for the first 48 hours, until they recovered Sergeant Johnson's body, the Pentagon, I can tell you, sources were locked up tight, nobody was talking about this because of the possibility he might still be out there. Once they got him back, they started to put the pieces together. What they have been doing is going around, talking to everyone involved. They had to talk to the Green Berets that came back to Fort Bragg after being out there.

They had to talk to intelligence officials. They have to talk to all the communications people, including the French and the Nigerian forces. Remember, they had three nations involved in this and three nations looking for this missing soldier. It's a very complicated investigation.

BERMAN: And Colonel, there are questions, I'm also imagining about the disposition of those troops in general. Are they getting the support that they need on the ground? Are they protected sufficiently, not just by perhaps private contractors and not depending on French helicopters, but is there a strategic flaw in their deployment?

FRANCONA: Well, that's what we're going to find out with this investigation. You know I think it's important to remember, Africa command is the newest of our nine combat and commands. It's got -- it doesn't have the resources as many of the other commands. And they're still kind of finding their way in what their mission is. And we're giving them a difficult mission over a tremendous geographic area.

So they're spread very thin. So although the numbers writ large might appear to be sufficient, when you actually take these individual operations like how many American troops are there in Niger. I mean, if you look officially, you know, it's 100, 200, but you've got others in the country, contractors. So it's very difficult, you know, to pin this down right now. So, I think the investigation is going to give us all those answers.

BERMAN: All right. And they are legitimate questions, let's just be clear about that. Barbara Starr, retired Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona, always great to have you. Thanks so much.

Two former U.S. presidents taking on the current U.S. president without naming him, but oh, boy, were they crystal clear. The stunning rebukes ahead.

And Syrians celebrating today after a major U.S.-led victory against ISIS, Raqqa is free. But the aftermath, devastating for the people who live there, we're live at a refugee camp.

[10:15:09] HARLOW: And also, major Hollywood director Quentin Tarantino apologizing for not speaking up about all of those years of allegations against Harvey Weinstein, ahead.



GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Bigotry seems emboldened. Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication. We've seen nationalism distorted into nativism.

BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Some of the politics we see. Now we thought we put that to bed. I mean that's looking 50 years back. It's the 21st century. Not the 19th century.


BERMAN: All right. They did not mention the president by name, but still, a pretty stunning rebuke by two former presidents.

[10:20:01] Joining us now to talk about this, CNN political commentators, Amanda Carpenter, Andre Bauer and Paul Singer, Washington correspondent at "USA Today."

Paul, I want to start with you, they did not mention the name President Trump but they all but held up a sign and said hey, I'm talking about President Trump here, and that's really unusual, Paul, to hear from two former presidents.

PAUL SINGER, WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, "USA TODAY": Less so from Obama, obviously. He's been mostly staying out of politics, but it's less than surprising that a former Democratic president would have critical things to say about the current Republican president who is undoing his legacy.

The Bush one was the striking one. This is a family that is a pillar of the Republican Party and you took the exactly right quote, which is the notion that bigotry is being allowed to flower and outright fabrications and conspiracy theories. That's a direct poke at Trump and his messaging and it was stunning coming from the Bush president, President Bush and the Bush dynasty, basically saying this is not how we're supposed to behave as a shocking rebuke to a sitting president of their own party.

HARLOW: You know what, Amanda, to a person of folks who really strongly supported the president in this last election in Michigan and Kentucky, who have been on the phone within the last week, none of them blame the president for the lack of things getting done. They all blame Mitch McConnell. They blame Paul Ryan. So when they hear this from more of the establishment, former presidents, Republican and Democrat, don't they just say and?

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes. I mean, there has been no shortage of people willing to complain about the president, myself included. It's gotten to be an endless drumbeat. And this week I think has been a wake-up call. I mean, even for me, someone who complains about Trump a lot.

I watched General Kelly go out there and try to guide the president to a better place. A lot of Republicans have been complaining about the president. Is there any way we can guide him to a better place at this point, because this is rock bottom.

And here's what's sad. I know a lot of -- good-hearted people who want to help the president do the right thing, would like to help him, but he keeps putting people in these terrible situations. They worry if they go work in the White House. They're going to have legal bills. They worry that the president is more concerned about winning personality driven arguments than being a good president. So Mr. President, if you are listening to the show right now, please, make the choice to be a good president, because people will help you. These problems will end. And you can be successful.

BERMAN: If you're listening, call in, we'll take your calls. The phone lines are open. Andre, how do you respond to Amanda Carpenter? How do you respond to former President Bush?

ANDRE BAUER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, number one, President Obama and President Bush should look in the mirror. They created the void to so many in America to feel like the politics wasn't working for them and the establishment was controlling it and the lobbyists were the ones that were looked after and not the American people. You see people now that are reinvigorated by what the president is doing.

The stock market at a record high, unemployment at a record low, so while I know the media and establishment are frustrated with President Trump the folks that are outside working on my dock right now that are helping me work on my little farm. They are really happy because the economy is good and they feel like somebody that maybe isn't the most poised or spoken like a regular politician is ou there fighting for them for a change. And they feel like that there are more opportunities they've had in years. They're excited about what's happening. So I know we continue to hear this drumbeat but that's not what the pulse of America -- Donald Trump has the pulse on the American voter better than anybody I've seen in decades.

HARLOW: OK. So, Paul, Andre's argument is look, this president is fighting for them in a way the last 16 years no one has. The thing is, this week, has been consumed by this rhetoric and this battle and not consumed by things like health care, like getting a bipartisan agreement to help with the subsidy payments for example on health care. Yes, they passed a budget resolution last night, but the Republican Party is not all in line on tax reform and what that's really going to look like. Is that fighting for the American people to have arguments like this over he said/she said?

SINGER: Well, I actually think Andre is right in part that there is a group of Americans who believe that the president is fighting for them in a way that nobody else has. I think the issue is, is that is not necessarily the majority of Americans and it's certainly not a unified America that the president is fighting for. It is a slice of America and largely a slice of America that feels aggrieved with the way they've been treated either in the economy or in sort of social sphere and that's who the president is really fighting for and speaking for as you said, absent any discussion about health care, tax policy, whatever else. Where President Trump is strongest is when he is expressing those grievances.

BERMAN: And look, he has his finger on the pulse of something but it doesn't seem to top 40 percent in any of the polls we've seen. Someone else speaking out, I'm not going to say against, but about the president, overnight in a way I think is of note is the current speaker of the house, Paul Ryan. It was at the Al Smith dinner, telling jokes about the president last night. Let's listen to just one.

[10:25:05] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PAUL RYAN (R), HOUSE SPEAKER: When you read the papers tomorrow, everyone's going to report this thing differently. Breitbart's going to lead with 'Ryan slams the President amongst liberal elites.' New York Times is going to report 'Ryan defends the President in a state Hillary won.' And the President will tweet '300,000 at Al Smith dinner cheer mention of my name.


BERMAN: I'm not sure it's a joke. I'm not sure that Speaker Ryan was joking there, Amanda. He said other stuff too that all got laughs but it made clear, that there is just a chasm between where he is and where the president is.

CARPENTER: Yes. It's one of those jokes that aren't really jokes. But I mean I think it's productive that the discomfort is apparent, because Trump needs to see it like you're putting us in a bad spot. I mean, we really have to go through this week and Donald Trump, you know, keeps saying I'm a counter puncher. Well, I don't care what happens -- you don't punch a Gold Star Family. And it doesn't get better when Democrats who hate Trump decide to punch him over a casket. That has to come to an end and it's going to get much worse. It's going to keep more uncomfortable if Donald Trump doesn't take the higher ground at some point.

HARLOW: What do you think, Andre, we've seen from General Kelly. I mean, we've seen a whole lot more of him in the last week plus, than we have through his, you know, beginning time in the administration. What are we seeing more of here from General Kelly the war hero or General Kelly the chief of staff and how is he different?

BAUER: You saw class, polish and dignity. He struck a nerve with me. I have two immediate family members buried in Arlington, a grandfather and uncle, and I appreciated every single word he said. It was like he was a surgeon. He was methodical in what he talked about and his delivery. And I thought it was real passion there from a guy that cares about this country more than partisan politics or anything else and I thought he was precise in everything he said.

And I really think it makes people look back at that Congresswoman. I'm not going to mention her by name. I hope she has an opponent. Somebody wants to reach me on Twitter. I will make the first donation to run against her because it is appalling to me as an American that she would take such a sacred thing and try to make it partisan when a president was trying to do his best to reach out. There's no gain for him there. He wins nothing by doing this. He's doing this because I believe he truly believes America -

HARLOW: Although, Andre, Kelly did get into a political back and forth with her and he called her an empty barrel.

BAUER: I think it shows at what level he was pressed to the point he feels offended personally being a Gold Star father and where this is totally over the line.

BERMAN: Two things can be true, the president reached out with the best intentions for a widow and it's also possible that widow was offended. Those two things, you know -

HARLOW: Seems like that's the case.


HARLOW: Thank you all very much, important discussion. We'll have you back. Have a nice weekend.

This morning the GOP is one step closer to their top priority for now, health care reform didn't work, so on to tax reform. They've passed their budget resolution with a simple majority, 51 votes.

BERMAN: Joining us now live on Capitol Hill, CNN's Sunlen Serfaty. Sunlen, you know a significant step but not all the way for Republicans in Congress.

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's absolutely right, John. Passing this budget means essentially all systems go for tax reform and it certainly makes it an easier task for Republicans up here, the fact that now they're able because they passed this budget to move to tax reform and importantly only pass that with Republican support. So it makes it easier for Republicans, but passing tax reform no matter how you slice it, is no easy task. So leaders up here are reacting to the news that this budget has gone through.

We heard Speaker of the House Paul Ryan this morning describe it as the trains are now in place, we're on the tracks, we're rolling down the track. So, clearly they are trying to frame this as grabbing on to some momentum for what it means for the larger goal that they up here to pass tax reform.

Now we know House and Senate negotiators they have struck a compromise behind the scenes, essentially avoiding conference committee. That's a procedural tool up here that they needed to do. The whole point of that is being they are now gaining a new week, another week for tax reform. So basically they're moving towards this as quickly as possible, of course, a lot to say about the timeline. The speaker has been very clear he wants to have this by the end of the year but that seems ambitious to a lot of people up here. John and Poppy?

BERMAN: America gripped by the question of whether or not the House will demand a conference on this. Sunlen Serfaty, great to have you with us. Thanks so much. Appreciate it.

All right, CIA chief Mike Pompeo says Russian meddling, he said it did not affect the outcome of the election. And he said the CIA found that but his agency says not so fast.