Return to Transcripts main page


White House Press Briefing; White House Defends Kelly's Erroneous Claim about Lawmaker's Speech. Aired 2:30-3p ET

Aired October 20, 2017 - 14:30   ET



SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I -- 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 picture of what took place.

And that was a personal decision that he made, that he wanted to come out and, frankly, not just share with you, but, like you said, share with all of an -- America, and make an appeal to America to go back to kind of honoring that sacred code of Gold Star families.

QUESTION: I'm wondering, on (ph) the question that the president was asked earlier today -- I know there's an investigation...

SANDERS: And in terms of -- hold on.

Just to finish on the rest of your question of why the president felt the need to respond, it's because it should have ended yesterday after General Kelly's comments. But it didn't. It continued, and it's still continuing today. It's still the bulk of the coverage on most every TV you turn on and most every newspaper that you open up today.

And the president responded to those continued accusations and continued mischaracterizations of his comments.

QUESTION: And one other question.

The president was asked earlier today whether he authorized this mission in Niger. Can you give us any information on whether this was something he authorized, or even something he was aware of, before finding out that American soldiers were killed in it?

SANDERS: As I said, there's -- as is the process any time an American is killed in action, there is a full review that takes place. And before we start jumping to any conclusions, we want to make sure that that is completed fully, and then we'll have those details for you at that time.


QUESTION: Sarah, thanks.

On Niger, a senior congressional aide who was briefed on the matter said that there is an indication that there was a massive intelligence failure. Is that the assessment of the White House?

SANDERS: Once again, as I just told Sarah (ph), we're going to wait until that review is complete by the Department of Defense, and we'll answer those questions at that time.


QUESTION: One more question, Sarah. One more question, Sarah, on Lara Trump.

SANDERS: Sorry, I'm going to try to work my way around.

QUESTION: Lara Trump said she saw a transcript...

SANDERS: Olivier?


QUESTION: ... of the phone call. Could you just answer that question, Sarah?

QUESTION: ... two -- two quick ones. I think (ph) -- did the president authorize explicitly the operation in Niger, or was that delegated down in the DOD?

SANDERS: Again, I'm not going to get into any of the details at this point.

You may be able to talk with those at the Department of Defense, and they can answer anything further. But where we are in the process, until the review is complete, we're not going to weigh in any further.

Kelly (ph)?


QUESTION: ... the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is going to take... SANDERS: Sorry, I'm going to try to get to everybody.

Kelly (ph), go ahead.

QUESTION: Given all of the reaction to the content of the president's phone call, does President Trump intend to make phone calls to families of the fallen in the future should other Americans die while he is commander in chief?

SANDERS: I think we're hoping and praying that those phone calls don't have to take place. And so that's where we are right now.

QUESTION: Sarah, the Los Angeles Times has reported -- we (ph) reported that the military operating in Niger had requested additional overwatch capacity and medical response assistance in the months leading up to this ambush on October 4th.

Is the president satisfied that that special forces unit that went out there that day had all the resources that it needed to operate there?

SANDERS: As I've said several times here today, and will continue until that review is complete, I'm not going to get into the details until that is finalized.

I think too often in cases like that we have jumped to conclusions and tried to make determinations before all of the details are known. We want to make sure that that process is complete before we weigh in.

John Gizzi?

QUESTION: Thank you, Sarah. I have to keep it to one question today?

SANDERS: Yes, sir.

QUESTION: All right.


SANDERS: Even you, John. I know it'll be tough.



SANDERS: Wow, if only I had that kind of power over anybody else, including my kids, that would be great.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) to contemplate (ph).

Several London-based publications have said that the president's visit to London, when and if the details work out, will be a working visit with Prime Minister May, and not an official state visit, which means he will not be received by the queen at Buckingham Palace. What will be the nature of his visit to London and to Prime Minister May, a working visit or a state visit?

SANDERS: That still hasn't been determined. We're still going back and forth with our allies there. And once we have those travel details outlined and determined, we'll certainly let you know.

But they've made the invitation for the president to come. We've accepted, and we're working out the logistics.


SANDERS: We -- we anticipate that it'll be sometime next year. But, at this point, there's no other details beyond that.

QUESTION: ... has made an invitation.


QUESTION: Thanks, Sarah.

State Department announced today that it's now up to 24 people who have been impacted by the sonic attacks in Havana. Wanted to ask, is the president satisfied with the investigation into what's happening? And has he reached out, or considered reaching out, to any of the victims?

SANDERS: I -- I don't believe he has reached out to any of the victims involved at this point. That's an ongoing investigation and something we can't weigh in on further at this time.

QUESTION: On the call to Sergeant Johnson, Lara Trump seemed to suggest in an interview this morning that there was a transcript of the call, and that she'd read it. Is there a transcript, and has it been (ph) shared with members of the president's family?

SANDERS: There's not a transcript of the call. I believe she was responding to reports and things that she had read. But I haven't spoken directly with her. I'd refer you to the campaign that handles her press inquiries.

There's not a transcript.


SANDERS: Fred (ph)?

QUESTION: Thanks, Sarah.

Senator John Cornyn confirmed today that he is blocking the nomination to the OMB for Russ Vought over -- to try to get more relief funds for Texas after Hurricane Harvey.

Did -- does that come as a surprise or a disappointment to the White House, that the number-two Republican would be blocking the nominee?

SANDERS: The administration welcomes a conversation with all members of Congress about the next disaster relief request, which we expect to come in the coming weeks.

While we work with Congress on that next request, we urge the Senate to keep doing their jobs by confirming qualified nominees to crucial positions inside our government.

This administration has already faced unprecedented obstruction of its nominees, and further delays only hurt the American people. And we hope that they'll get on board and make that process move further along.


QUESTION: Sarah, given President Bush's comments yesterday that you were asked about, in general, does the White House feel it's appropriate for past presidents to be critical of the sitting president?

And when was the last time President Trump spoke to President Bush?

SANDERS: I'm not sure of the last time they spoke. But our understanding is that those comments were not directed towards the president. And, in fact, when these two individuals, both past presidents, have criticized the president, they've done so by name, and very rarely do it without being pretty direct, as both of them tend to be.

So we'll take them at their word that these actions and comments weren't directed towards the president.

QUESTION: Thanks, Sarah.

The United Nations, of course, if following very carefully the refugee situation along on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, and President Trump today met with the U.N. secretary general.

Did they speak about the Rohingya refugee situation? Was the president asked for any further help? What was the timbre (ph) of their conversation?

SANDERS: They had a very productive conversation. We'll have a readout coming with more details about that later this afternoon. And we'll be around the rest of today to answer questions.

And with that, happy Friday. Hope you guys have a good weekend. Thanks.


BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: All right. David Chalian, I want to bring you in to talk about this briefing here, following an extraordinary briefing yesterday where the chief of staff, retired General John Kelly, gave quite an extraordinary explanation of a Gold Star family's go-through. He defended the president's best intentions and also went on to take political shots at Congresswoman Wilson.

David, what did you think about what Sarah Sanders said today? I should say, some of the facts, of course, and we heard this in the briefing, that Kelly had asserted yesterday, turned out not to be true.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: I'm a little confounded by Sarah Sanders' answers today because she knows better than this. The White House, when she said that Kelly's appearance should have been the end of the story, first of all, the White House doesn't get to determine when stories end or begin or how they get covered. The that's our job in the press. And she knows that. The second of all how can she possibly say with a straight face that General Kelly's appearance in the briefing room should be the final word on this when those words we now know to be inaccurate. And when then the president of the United States tweeted last night an inaccurate tweet, once again about the Congresswoman. See it up there on your screen. Calling her whacky, saying the fake news is growing crazy with whacky Congresswoman Wilson who gave a total lie on content. See the time stamp? That was 10:53 p.m. That was well after John Kelly appeared. I don't see how she could think logic defies it.

The other thing that was concerning to me, Sarah Sanders seemed to suggest that because General Kelly served, whose service deserves our utmost respect and has it, he is now the White House chief of staff in a fully political position. And he chose to go make political arguments in the briefing room yesterday. She seemed almost suggesting, it was to Chip Reid, that he is beyond reproach and should not be questioned for his own words simply because he was a four-star general.

[14:40:02] KEILAR: That definitely, the case. And Chip really got to the heart of the matter with his questioning of Sarah Sanders there.

Nia, when you look at what you heard her saying that the conversation should have stopped when John Kelly said what he said, however he did go on to make this political argument that had factual errors in it. White House is standing -- the Congresswoman expressing sentiments that might not have been on camera, which clearly you can't argue with if there's no evidence of it.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICS REPORTER: Right. I mean, this is -- we've seen this from the White House before that there's proof somewhere that proves their side right. That's what the president initially said about Representative Wilson, that he had proof she was wrong. There is no proof that she was wrong. And we now know that the White House is essentially saying that what she said, her description of this was accurate. I mean the inaccurate descriptions have mostly come from the White House. John Kelly's memory was inaccurate. It was incomplete. He basically twisted what happened there to make it seem like Representative Kelly was not dignified, that she wasn't sufficiently respectful of those fallen agents, when, in fact, it was because of her actions that the building was named after those fallen agents. So, somehow, he misremembered that to really malign her and go after her in a way that I think was stunning. They keep saying, somehow, he was stunned that she got up there and talked partly about herself as partly about the process going through Congress. Well, she also said to those FBI agents to stand and gave them a round of applause. She also spent time talking about the memory of those fallen agents. Whereas, that stunning to Representative -- to General Kelly?

I also agree with David. This notion that somehow no one can question General Kelly because he is a military man. It's dangerous. It's frightening, absurd. Of course, no one is going to pay attention to that.


HENDERSON: Certainly, no one in the press.

KEILAR: I think, Kim, the thing that also stands out to me, is not only Sarah Sanders saying this isn't a story that -- let me get your impressions when you watch that briefing.

KIMBERLY DOZIER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Well, I have to say the comment about the four-star general not to be questioned really did set me back. I know from within the military one of the things that they pride themselves on is rigorously holding themselves up to a high standard and red teaming each other. That doesn't even fit with the military tradition.

The other thing I was thinking as she was saying I won't comment on any reports about what actually happened in Niger until the investigation is over, that that is the other part that's going to keep this story going. If what we're hearing is correct, from the "L.A. Times" report that the ambassador in the country said no to the U.S. military's request for increased Medivac capability, increased air power, because he didn't want to present a militarized base to the country, then what you have is a -- an administration that's saying yes to the Pentagon's request to be more proactive on the ground in Africa, against militant groups, but then not giving them all the tools to do the job. And that is when you get into the shades of Benghazi because there was a situation there when -- where the ambassador was offered more military protection, and said no, because he didn't want to be presenting that sort of face to Libyans. And that is going to be keep the story running.

KEILAR: David, when you -- and the points that Kim is making right there -- John Kirby, you're back with us. So I want to ask you this now.

This is really the story that I think so many journalists think we should be covering, which is what happened in Niger. But in a way, it seems the White House is asking reporters to ignore what the president said. I mean, he tweeted after John Kelly yesterday, also saying that the Congresswoman was -- it was a total lie, her account, which is contradicted by what John Kelly said yesterday. John Kelly actually backed up Congresswoman Wilson's claims. He was just giving an explanation about the intentions of the president.

It seems to me you have a White House press secretary saying this conversation should have ended, and ignoring the fact that the president said something's and kind of putting it on the media for reporting what the president said. I mean, it just is absurd.

[14:45:01] JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILIARY & DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: I agree. She said the only reason we're still talking about this is because you guys are still asking about it. I would submit to you if the White House and the Pentagon had been more forthcoming in the days after the ambush in Niger, they don't have to give away operational security information or anything like that, but just be more forthcoming about the context in which this occurred, and about the deaths that resulted, I don't know that we ever would have gotten to where we are now. I was a little bit taken aback by that. I was off-put yesterday by Secretary Mattis' comments to the press and Pentagon where he chastised the media.

I also want to echo what I heard David and Kim talking about in terms of General Kelly being a four-star general and you can't question him. That's absolutely not true. First of all, he's no longer a four-star general any more than I'm any long a two-star general in the Navy. I'm proud of my service, but that part of my life is over. He's now a political figure. He's the chief of the staff of the White House and this administration. And everything he says, everything he says should be questioned and should be scrutinized by a free press. That's what the job is all about.

KEILAR: Very good point. We call you rear admiral because we respect your service but also to inform our viewers about the perspective that you do bring, which is so important, that you do have the background.

David, when you were listening to Sarah Sanders being asked about George W. Bush's comments yesterday -- yesterday was a day of extraordinary comments, too. When you heard what George W. Bush said in its entirety, unbelievable, one of the things he said was that policies -- and he was saying policies, not news, not media coverage, he said policies becoming informed and I'm paraphrasing but the idea policies are informed by conspiracy theories. Sarah Sanders was asked about that. She turned it around and said, as far as she sees it, it's just the news media putting out things that are fabricated. Do you think that what George Bush said fell on deaf ears at the White House? Or it's just something they want to touch because it was so scathing for President Trump?

CHALIAN: I think the latter, Brianna. I think what you could see there, and we'll see if the president backs Sarah Sanders up in the hours and days to come as we watch his Twitter feed and interviews and public appearances. But what she did is not swing at the pitch, right?


CHALIAN: So both Barack Obama and George Bush were out there yesterday, his two most recent predecessors in this job. with the full credibility of having served eight years in that position, and they made scathing critiques of Trumpism, if you will. And she didn't want to go there. She just said we're going to take them at their word that they weren't speaking about President Trump because they didn't name him. And in the past, they've been blunt and would mention his name. That's great if they want to think that way. But it is impossible for anybody who heard either former president's remarks to not think they were covering and talking about the state of political affairs in Donald Trump's America right now. They clearly were. And the White House clearly didn't want to engage in that. They really wanted to let that pitch go buy by. Like I said, I'm waiting to see if the president maintains that posture.

KEILAR: It was interesting, in the briefing, Kim Dozier, you heard a reporter ask Sarah Sanders about when the last time President Trump spoke to President George W. Bush was, and there wasn't a clear answer on that. Our understanding it would be some time ago. There was not this open channel between President Trump and other presidents, especially in unusually with presidents of his own party. He is not really part of this president's club.

DOZIER: Well, the way he was elected with all the acrimony with the Republican Party, you can understand part of that. And the Obama administration, of course, was engaging in an investigation into possible connections between the Trump campaign and Russian election interference, whoever was behind that. So there's a reason for that. But what it does is it means that Trump is cut off from some of the wisdom that we understand other top administration officials get by being in h touch with their predecessors. The history of what went on with certain agreements, or certain leaders, world leaders, Trump is on his own, and of course that suits his personality. But it means that the American public is cut off from some of the wisdom in that he would be getting that wisdom from the prior leaders.

KEILAR: You know, Nia, one of the things that President Bush said yesterday that I think was prescient in a way in this debate continues on today, he said, "Disagreement escalates into dehumanization. We judge other groups by their worst examples and judge ourselves by best intentions."

It seems like that is exactly what you see going on when you see John Kelly come out defending President Trump, but then taking a whack at Congresswoman Wilson. If he wanted to look back on those comments that we have seen, he has this case that he's making that she is show boating, but another case to be made, if you were looking at her best intentions, was to say this was valued by Congress, and this moved through the -- naming this building after slain officers. It just seems it's the very thing we see people doing in this debate.

[14:50:48] HENDERSON: Yes. I think that's right. I don't think anyone act the with grace in this situation. You can say that about the Congresswoman too. I don't think she gave Donald Trump the benefit of the doubt during that call, during that moment. She was very emotional in that moment and spoke very emotionally I think to the press. They asked her what her assessment of that call was, and she gave her assessment. Then you had the White House assume the worst in her, assume she was an interloper, had no business on that call, that she was eavesdropping, and somehow wanting to make a political point automatically. And you had Kelly do the same thing, calling her an empty barrel. Reflecting back, right? To what happened in 2015. He was assuming the worst of her as far back as 2015. That she wasn't having the best intentions in terms of trying to name the building after those fallen agents, that she was just all about herself in that moment. He seemed to just forget she also spoke out about those fallen agents. And the FBI in general. So I think a lack of grace here. It looks like there's no sort of unwinding that. There isn't a kind of do-over here where people can press pause and reflect and make this right. You saw Sanders go out today and call her an empty barrel again, Representative Wilson, and essentially say what Kelly said was accurate, and he wanted to go out and get the story straight. We didn't get it straight. It was utterly wrong. He misremembered and got out there and maligned Representative Wilson in a way I don't think we've seen before. You had Donald Trump double down on that. Maybe it will get better. It seems unlikely. It seems this is a kind of low road that this White House often takes.

CHALIAN: Brianna, could I just pick up on the point about intentions for a second?


CHALIAN: The briefing today with Sarah Sanders, I have no doubt. I've never had a doubt from the beginning the story that Donald Trump's intentions on that call were to express sympathy on behalf of a grateful nation. I think we got that in the address by General Kelly. I don't think that has been in doubt. What hearing Sarah Sanders say today sort of confirmed that notion that perhaps his intention was not perceived that way and she called that unfortunate if that was the case. That the widow of the slain soldier perceived and received that call not at all how President Trump intended, and Sarah Sanders said, if that's the case, that's unfortunate. Imagine --


KEILAR: I do want to let our viewers know James Mattis is arriving on Capitol Hill to meet with Senator John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

David, continue your thought.

CHALIAN: I was going to say, imagine if that was the response days ago, as soon as this call became public, that there seemed to be sort of an unfortunate loss-in-translation kind of a moment, what we heard from the podium today, instead of, ask John Kelly if he got a call, and John Kelly coming up to the podium. It seems to me that this -- we just heard it come out of her mouth -- could have been a choice mead by the White House, from a communications point of view, earlier in the week.

[14:54:17] KEILAR: Yes, it could have been.

All right, thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis, as I just mentioned, was arriving on Capitol Hill just moments ago. He is meeting with Senator John McCain as McCain is threatening to get a subpoena to learn more about what happened to those four U.S. troops killed in Niger. We're going to look into the investigation, which now includes the FBI. Why is that? We'll find out next.


KEILAR: I'm Brianna Keilar. Moments ago, the White House on defense, not just about the president, but his chief of staff. The White House stands by John Kelly, despite the fact some of the details he used to condemn the Florida Congresswoman are wrong. Congresswoman Frederica Wilson accused the president of offending the widow of slain Sergeant La David Johnson, in response, Kelly, a Marine general, and Gold Star father himself, called Wilson a, quote, "empty barrel" because he claimed she praised herself for raising the funds for an FBI building in 2015, what he considered a solemn event to commemorate two slain agents. But Wilson never congratulated herself for raising funds. Video obtained by the "Sun Sentinel" was she was cheering herself as well as other lawmakers, including Republicans, for getting the building named on time in honor of those agents.

Here was Sarah Sanders moments ago.


SANDERS: 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 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 hats, no cattle.