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White House Defends Kelly's Comments; San Juan's Mayor on Trump's Rating; White House Press Briefing. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired October 20, 2017 - 14:00   ET



[14:00:24] BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: I'm Brianna Keilar. Thank you so much for joining us.

At any moment, the White House is going to hold its daily briefing as officials there are facing tough questions about the deadly ambush in Niger which left four soldiers dead and two wounded. Meeting today on Capitol Hill to talk about what went wrong are Defense Secretary James Mattis and Senator John McCain, who leads the Senate Armed Services Committee. The senator threatened to get a subpoena to learn more about Niger. Now the FBI is joining the investigation and the United States pursuing answers.

The White House is going to likely face more questions over the public feud involving one of the most private and worst duties that a president has, consoling the loved ones of fallen troops. The firestorm has engulfed the president's chief of staff, Retired Marine General John Kelly, whose own son was killed in action. Kelly personally attacked the Florida woman who accused the president of offending the family of one of the soldiers killed in Niger, Sergeant La David Johnson. His family is holding a public viewing today.

Congresswoman Fredricka Wilson told CNN exclusively that she wants to set the record straight about what Kelly said about her.


REP. FREDRICKA WILSON (D), FLORIDA: And 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.

My intentions are not important in this today. This has to do with the family that's grieving. You -- it's their intentions. They were hurt. I can only imagine how she feels. And she was distraught that he kept saying my guy, your guy. Not your husband, your guy. She said, he didn't even know La David's name. So that's -- that was the most painful part. And the other most painful part is, she still doesn't know why her husband was missing for 48 hours.


KEILAR: Joining me now, CNN's Sara Murray at the White House.

Sara, the White House, just a short time ago, defended John Kelly's comments.

SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONNDENT: That's right. John Kelly, obviously, was very critical of the congresswoman. And I want to take you back to that speech that he was references there that she made in 2015 to an FBI building dedication. Remember, Kelly said the congresswoman appeared to be taking credit for securing government funding for this. Here's a clip of what she actually said during that speech.


REP. FREDRICKA WILSON (D), FLORIDA: Everyone said, that's impossible. It takes at least eight month to a year to complete the process through the House, the Senate and to the president's office. I said, I'm a school principal. And I said, excuse my French, oh, hell no. We're going to get this done.


MURRAY: And you see the congresswoman there. She's patting herself on the back a little bit for her efforts in getting this building named and dedicated, but no mention of getting the funding. Still, the White House is standing by Kelly today. Sarah Sanders, the press secretary, that we're expecting to hear from shortly, put out a statement saying General Kelly said he was stunned that Representative Wilson made comments at a building dedication honoring slain FBI agents, about her own actions in Congress, including lobbying former President Obama on legislation. As General Kelly pointed out, if you're able to make a sacred act, like honoring American heroes about yourself, you're an empty barrel.

Now, it's also worth noting that if you continue to listen to listen to the congresswoman's speech from that 2015 event, she recognizes law enforcement officers who were there and she also heaps praise on these slain FBI agents who were being honored.


KEILAR: All right, Sara Murray at the White House, thank you.

I want to bring in my panel now, starting with David Chalian.

The video shows that John Kelly was not correct in his line of attack here. What is your impression of where this debate is at this point?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: My impression is that we didn't need to be here, right? I -- I don't think anyone sort of comes out of this with clean hands and looking great here. We've gotten to a point in this conversation that was actually avoidable.

[14:05:00] And when I look back, Brianna, at the week, it seems to me that the commander in chief, President Trump, had multiple opportunities not to politicize this. In answering Sara's question back in the Rose Garden when asked why he hasn't spoken about the Niger incident, he immediately started talking about comparing himself to previous presidents and how he does condolence calls different than they. That wasn't the question. When he brought up General Kelly's name in a conservative talk radio interview and said you should check with him if Obama ever called him when his son died.

Having his chief of staff to go out there, even if that was General Kelly's choice to go out there and make a beautiful statement and trouble to not only his son, but how the military handles these terrible situations, and honors the sacrifice, but then, proceeds to go into a political attack -- obviously now we're learning an incorrect one -- on this Democratic congresswoman from Florida. And then Donald Trump tweeting again last night. To me, we don't need to be in a back and forth over the politics of this moment. What we need is answers about what happened in Niger.

KEILAR: Yes, you're so right, we don't need to be here. I think so many people looking at this debate, Nia, they don't want to be here. You know, it's -- it is -- it is cringe-worthy to witness what we are seeing.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICS REPORTER: Yes, it is. And I agree with David, I'm not clear that anybody sort of covered their selves in glory through this whole thing. And, remember, we are here because four men lost their lives in circumstances that are still very unclear to most Americans. And that family in Florida, the Johnson family, is going to lay him to rest very soon, and they are grieving horribly I'm sure over this American hero who was brought up in that community there partly with the help of Representative Wilson through that mentoring program. So, yes, I mean the sort of twists and turns here.

But I do think that the White House probably bears a particular level of scrutiny here because of some of the actions of the president, some of the actions of General Kelly. He didn't necessarily have to go into that political attack dog mode in what was otherwise a beautifully written and beautifully delivered speech about the military, about the processes that go on there when men and women die on the battlefield.

So, we'll see what happens out of this press conference. I think we already know that the White House is doubling down on what General Kelly said yesterday, even though it was a very inaccurate kind of recollection of what actually happened, what Representative Wilson actually said. And, you know, you hope at some point maybe this White House reaches back out to that family that felt that they were disrespected and that the memory of La David Johnson was disrespected. You hope that. You hope maybe there are conversations between Representative Wilson and this White House. But, you know, at this point it seems like it's too far down the road.

KEILAR: But retired Rear Admiral John Kirby, you can maybe lend some insight to this. I can't imagine that family necessarily wanting to deal with this White House at this point in time.

REAR ADM. JOHN KIRBY (RET.), CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: My guess is no. And that might even be the case, Brianna, without the controversy over the phone call. I mean one of the things I hope that we've taken away from the discussion this week, this very sordid, ugly discussion, is that every family grieves the loss of their fallen soldier in their own unique way. The Kellys did, and the Johnsons are certainly doing that, as well as the other three families that we seem to forget about this week that are grieving the loss of their loved ones too.

And that grief is -- they all have to work through it on their own way. So I suspect that given the controversy, in addition to all that, that they're not going to want to have any more conversations with the president.

But I do agree with Nia, that I think it would be worth this White House reaching out in some way, even if it's just publicly, and saying, you know what, it seems like the messages got crossed. It seems like obviously whatever we said we meant the best but we obviously offended you and we're sorry for that. I think that the president should make an apology to the family because obviously, regardless of his intent, they did feel hurt by this conversation.

KEILAR: And maybe the president sends a letter we'll see, that could certainly --

KIRBY: That could work.

KEILAR: In a more controlled environment, convey what he wanted to convey.


KEILAR: Kim Dozier, it does strike me throughout that week, as I am struggling to find the silver lining in this debate, that one of or maybe the only thing that you can point to that is a good thing is that we've heard from gold star families. We have, I think, seen them in focus a little bit more. And I think one of the things that we heard from John Kelly was this idea that so many of them are sort of out of view. You know, they're out of the mind of so many Americans because there aren't that many Americans who are making the sacrifice of being in the military.

[14:10:11] What do you think as you look at this week?

KIMBERLY DOZIER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Well, first of all, I have to agree with Admiral Kirby, I wish that the president would in some way reach out and say, whatever you heard, that's not what I intended. I think it could be a really healing moment because I think many of us, if you've spent any time with families of the fallen, you want to fill in the space with words. And you -- often, inadvertently, I speak from experience, end up saying the wrong thing.

So the best thing you can do is say, hey, that's not what I intended. Your grief is something so large, there's nothing I can say to make it better. I tried. I failed.

But, you're right in terms of, I think it's made every American think, how would I handle that conversation? How did the president handle it? What would you say? What would you want to hear? And I've got to say, just having to think and put yourself viscerally in that moment of those families experiencing that loss, I think that's a great reminder for all of us.

KEILAR: I think you are right.

All right, you guys, stand -- stand by for me just for a moment. We're actually waiting for the White House briefing to start. Could be underway any moment now. It was scheduled to start about ten minutes ago. So this should be coming up soon.

And this is happening as members of Congress are demanding answers into what happened in Niger. We're going to bring that to you live, of course.

Also, Puerto Rico could be a big topic at this briefing after President Trump rated himself a 10 out of 10 on his hurricane response. The mayor of San Juan now firing back with her own rating for the president. We're back in a moment.


[14:16:23] KEILAR: All right, any moment now, as you see the White House press corps assembled there in the briefing room, we are set to hear Sarah Sanders responding to a number of questions. Questions about criticism of the president giving his administration a ten out of ten on its response in Puerto Rico no doubt is going to be among those, and the San Juan mayor now responding to President Trump on CNN.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It hit right through the middle of the island. Right through the middle of Puerto Rico. There's never been anything like that. I give ourselves a 10. I think that locally there -- I really think locally they have -- in this gentlemen, great leadership. I have to tell you, he is a -- it's a tough job. But we have provided so much so fast.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR, "NEW DAY": Do you agree that the president's response and his administration's has been a ten?

MAYOR CARMEN YULIN CRUZ, SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO: Well, if it is a 10 out of a scale of 100, of course. It is still a failing grade.



All right, David and Nia back with me now to talk about this.

I mean, Nia, you look at that. And we've been seeing the war of the words between these two. But let's just talk about President Trump and saying that it's a ten out of 10. That's just -- it's sort of baffling that he would have said that. HENDERSONN: Well, I mean, not really. I mean he is in some ways known

for someone who likes to kind of take credit for things he doesn't necessarily deserve credit for. And I think we saw that there with him sitting with the governor really trying to force the governor to praise him, right? He said, oh, we did a great job, didn't we, and the governor came back and said, well, you were there.

Immediately he was very loath to kind of put that kind of praise on the administration, partly because it's an ongoing process. This is something that's going to go on for months and months, probably years. And so for the president, I think, to give himself and A plus out of the bat -- off the bat is characteristic of him.

But I think it's an incomplete assessment of what's going on, on the ground there in terms of people not having access to drinking water. Still the infrastructure is still very much down. The electricity still very much down for a lot of those Americans in Puerto Rico.

But, you know, this is the president. I mean it sort of reminds you of Kelly's assessment of Representative Wilson, right? This idea of kind of show boating and making something all about himself. That is what Donald Trump, I think, did in that instance and does in a number of instances.

KEILAR: David -- oh, actually, stand by, both of you. The briefing is beginning now.

SARAH SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Good afternoon. It's Friday. Come on, guys. Don't let Brian Karam (ph) show you up. I know that there is more spirit out there.

As many of you saw last night, the Senate adopted a budget resolution. This is another important milestone for tax reform and sets the stage for us to pass major tax cuts that will deliver more jobs and higher wages for hard working Americans all over the country.

Many of you have seen today that the first lady donated the gown she wore to the inaugural balls to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. In her speech she mentioned that leading up to Inauguration Day everyone was so busy getting ready that the dress's designer ended up only having two weeks to work on the first lady's design and create the dress. It obviously came together and the first lady is very excited to take part in the rich tradition of first ladies contributing to and maintaining our great history.

By the way, if you've not visited the Smithsonian's exhibit of first lady dresses, you certainly should take time to do that.

[14:20:02] Lastly, today is a particularly special day for all of us here at the White House. There are a lot of people here who serve the president and our country behind the scenes.

One of those people is Hope Hicks, our incredible communications director. Tomorrow is her birthday, and as you know, I love a good birthday. So I wanted to make sure to mention it here, in the last briefing of the week. So happy birthday, Hope.

If you get a minute, be sure to send her a note, and wish her a happy birthday.

Thanks for your selfless leadership and, perhaps most importantly, your great sense of humor.

And with that, happy Friday and I'll take your questions.

Jeff (ph)?

QUESTION: Sarah, I'd like to open with a question about the Fed. The president finished his interviews this week, and said in an interview with Fox Business that he would consider having Powell and Taylor come to the Fed together.

Should we take that as a signal that the other candidates are -- are not going to get the job?

SANDERS: We still don't have an announcement on that. As the president said, that's something that's certainly under consideration. But he hasn't ruled out a number of options. And he'll have an announcement on that soon, in the coming days.

QUESTION: What else is he looking for as he makes his decision? SANDERS: As you know, I'm not going to get ahead of a -- a big announcement like that that the president himself will make. But we'll keep you posted when we're ready to roll that out.


QUESTION: On that note, Janet Yellen -- he was extreme -- the president was extremely critical of her during the campaign, saying at one point, she was too political, that she should be ashamed of herself -- essentially said she was a political arm of the president and Hillary Clinton. Now he's said some rather nice things about her, most recently a couple times that he respects her.

What has changed in his thinking, as it relates to Janet Yellen over the last year? And can you shed some light on -- on their relationship?

SANDERS: I think them having the opportunity to spend some time directly communicating with one another, certainly through this process. But beyond that, again, I'm not going to weigh any further into this process and where we are, other than the fact that the president'll make an announcement on it soon.

QUESTION: Sarah, when is the president himself going to weigh in on what happened to those four special ops soldiers in Niger?

SANDERS: I don't know. I'm sorry. I'm not sure I follow your question there.

QUESTION: Will the president address publicly -- and if so, when -- what exactly happened to these four special ops soldiers?

SANDERS: Yeah, as we said, as General Kelly specifically addressed several times yesterday, that the Department of Defense has initiated a review, which occurs any time there is an American that's killed in action. We're going through that process. The president, the Department of Defense, and frankly, the entire country and government want to know exactly what happened.

And the president and the nation are grateful for those four American heroes, and we won't rest until we get some answers.

And that's part of this process, and that's what they'll do. And when the time is appropriate, we'll talk about the details of the investigation.

QUESTION: Sarah, the South Florida Sun Sentinel released a video of -- of -- of Congresswoman Wilson's speech in 2015. In the speech, it doesn't appear that she referenced funding for the FBI building in -- in South Florida.

Does General Kelly still stand by the statement that he made yesterday, that he -- he felt that she was grandstanding, and that taking -- she was taking credit?

SANDERS: Absolutely. General Kelly said he was stunned that Representative Wilson made comments at a building dedication honoring slain FBI agents about her own actions in Congress, including lobbying former President Obama on legislation.

SANDERS: As General Kelly pointed out, "If you're able to make a sacred act like honoring American heroes all about yourself, you're an empty barrel." If you don't understand that reference, I'll put it a little more simply: As we say in the South, "all hat, no cattle."

QUESTION: In fact (ph), have you seen the speech?

SANDERS: I have.

QUESTION: And then you know that most of it was her effusively praising these FBI agents. And when she was talking about what she did in Congress, she was not talking about get -- securing the $20 million. She was talking about naming the building for these FBI agents....

SANDERS: She was also talking about that.

QUESTION: ... who she then went on to effusively praise.

SANDERS: She was also...

QUESTION: And that was the bulk of the speech.

SANDERS: She also mentioned that, and she also had quite a few comments that day that weren't part of that speech, and weren't part of that video, that were also witnessed by many people that were there. QUESTION: (inaudible)

SANDERS: What General Kelly referenced yesterday.

QUESTION: Well, tell us, then, specifically, because if he's going to...

SANDERS: Exactly what he said -- there was a lot of grandstanding. He was stunned that she had taken that opportunity to make it about herself.

QUESTION: Can he come out here and talk to us about this at some point so that...


SANDERS: I think he's addressed that pretty thoroughly yesterday. QUESTION: No, he was wrong yesterday in talking about getting the money. The money was secured...

SANDERS: If you want to go after General Kelly...

QUESTION: ... before she came into Congress.

SANDERS: ... that's up to you. But I think that if you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general...


SANDERS: ... I think that that's something highly inappropriate.

QUESTION: That would be wonderful.

SANDERS: Go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you, Sarah.

When President Trump spoke at the CIA building in January, in front of the stars of 117 CIA agents who had fallen -- who'd been killed in the line of duty, he talked about a number of different things, including a lot about himself. He talked about the fake news attacking him, he talked about the MLK bus and the controversy over that, he talked about the crowd sizes...

SANDERS: That wasn't a -- sir, that wasn't an event set to memorialize those individuals. That was a celebration talking about the transfer of power. It's very -- two very different events.

If you look at the president's comments at events like the 9/11 ceremony earlier this year, those were very somber. Those were focused specifically on those events.

Those are not even apples-to-apples, so that's not a fair comparison.


QUESTION: Thank you, Sarah.

Putting the congresswoman aside for a second, I wanted to focus on what the mother of Sergeant Johnson said. She felt that she felt the president disrespected her in his comments.

Now, regardless of the president's intentions, is the president concerned that what he said might have come across as disrespectful? And does he plan to follow up with her and then, you know, repair that relationship?

SANDERS: Certainly, if the spirit of -- which those comments were intended were misunderstood, that's very unfortunate.

But as the president has said, as General Kelly said -- who I think has a very deep understanding of what that individual would be going through -- his comments were very sympathetic, very respectful. And that was the spirit in which the president intended them.

If they were taken any other way, that's certainly an unfortunate thing.

John (ph)?

QUESTION: Thanks a lot, Sarah.

The 43rd president of the United States, President George W. Bush, made some comments in New York City yesterday. And I'd like you, if you could, just to address some comments that he made, just concerning the issue of Russia, specifically Russian influence in the United States.

He said, "The Russian government has made a project of turning Americans against each other." And he also said that, "Russian interference will not be successful; foreign aggression, including cyber attacks, disinformation and financial influence, should never be downplayed or tolerated."

Do you agree with those sentiments expressed by the former president?

SANDERS: Do we agree that Russian interference shouldn't be tolerated? Absolutely. And we've said that many times before, and certainly would argue that has been repeated -- I know I've said it at least a dozen times from this podium.

QUESTION: And I just want to follow up real quick on a question I've asked you a few times, most recently in July. It relates to our relationship with Russia, and I've never gotten an answer for you (ph) on that.

Does the president, President Trump, view Russia as an ally, a partner or an adversary?

SANDERS: And as I've said before, I think a lot of that depends on Russia, and what type of relationship they want to have, and whether or not they want to be a good actor or a bad actor. And we're going to continue trying to work with them on certain things that are very important, particularly for national security. On things like Syria, on things like North Korea, we'd like to be able to work with them to confront some of those threats. And so some of that will be determined by the actions that Russia takes and how they want to be perceived.

Matthew (ph)?


I also have a question about that George W. Bush speech.

But first, just to clarify, are you saying the White House is no longer saying that the congresswoman talked about the funding; she just talked about legislation in general?

SANDERS: We're talking -- I specifically said, and I'll repeat it again, that General Kelly said he was stunned that she made the comments about herself. And that was the point of what he said. That was what took place here yesterday. And we still stand by those comments.



QUESTION: And then, on the -- on the George W. Bush speech, he said at one point, "Bigotry seems emboldened; our politics seem more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication."

Does President Trump agree with this assessment? And if so, what does he see as his role in addressing that?

SANDERS: Does he agree with the assessment of what? I'm sorry.

QUESTION: That "bigotry seems emboldened, and our politics seem more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication." Those were former President Bush's words.

SANDERS: I -- I think, if anybody is pushing a lot of fabricated things right now, I think most of that would be coming from the news media. And we would certainly agree with that sentiment.


QUESTION: The president signed an executive order...

QUESTION: What about the bigotry?

SANDERS: I'm sorry. I've called on David.

QUESTION: The president just signed an executive order today. It basically (ph) -- and what it appears to do is it allows the Pentagon to recall retired officers into duty under the 9/11 authority that he has. What's the reason for this executive order?

SANDERS: I don't have anything further on that, and I'll have to get back to you, David (ph).

Sarah (ph)?

QUESTION: General Kelly was obviously very upset that this has now become a political conversation, the president's call with the widow, and I think, more broadly, the fallout of the soldiers that were killed in Niger.

So why did he feel like it was appropriate to come out here, to call a congresswoman an empty barrel, rather than calling her privately, like he's done with other members of Congress who've been critical of the president?

And why did President Trump feel the need to take that even further today and tweet about her?

[14:29:57] SANDERS: I think that it's real simple. You guys are the ones talking a lot about that story. And he felt it was important to address you and all of America directly. This story has been given an enormous amount of coverage over the last 48 hours and he thought it was important that people got a full and accurate --