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White House Says Highly Inappropriate to Question Marine General; Montel Williams Says Trump Failed Army Widow and Nation; Senator Graham Says War Is Morphing in Africa. Aired 3:30-4p ET

Aired October 20, 2017 - 15:30   ET


[15:30:00] BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN host: Said where she basically said, you know, if you get into a debate with -- this idea that you can't get into a debate with a general. Talk

BEN FERGUSON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes. Look, I certainly think you can get into a debate with a general. I think her point is do you want to get into a debate over something this sensitive. And his comments especially when you are talking a gold star family. I think that's the context I at least heard it from her. She's saying look, do you really want to go there on this and bring him back out here after he talked about this in such a personal way, not only with his own family but also the conversation on the phone with the president.

I think this whole thing at this point has got to be the point where it's just not upsetting, it's sad that we're focusing this much time on something when there's people actually hurting that were affected and had loved one the killed. I think that's the point the White House was leaning to saying he came out and he talked about this. You've got to look at today. You have a gold star family that felt the need to release a tape of the conversation just to show the compassion of the president. They should never have been put in the position where they felt they needed to do that. But they did because they realized that it was important for people to hear the president in his own words. That was a private conversation.

KEILAR: Ben, we actually -- have that tape. I don't know if we have it where we can que it up. Do we have that. The let's listen.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm so sorry to hear about the situation. And accept he's an unbelievable hero and you have all the people that served with him have incredible -- just an amazing guy, and I --

DE ALENCAR, WIFE OF FALLEN SOLDIER: Thank you. President Trump. Those words are very kind. He was an amazing man. An amazing husband and amazing soldier, and I couldn't be more proud of my husband.


KEILAR: All right. And that is what you were talking about, Ben. FERGUSON: Yes, I I'm glad that family showed that side of Donald

Trump. When you have to call a family, as he did, there's no intention ever of any president to insult that family or to be non -- uncompassionate towards them. If the congresswoman had a problem with what the president said, you don't run to TV to do it. You talk to the president about it in private, I think. But more importantly, you don't put the family in the middle of a political debate, even if you are upset about this.

The that's not the right thing to do. So, again, it's sad that we've got to be this point. And I really hope that we keep the eye on the ball here, which there are four families that are hurting, and they shouldn't be involved in any of these political conversations, or any gold star family, for that matter that feels like they have to release a tape to show the president how kind he was to them. I believe every president when they make this phone call, doesn't want to do it. It's a terrible phone call to make because you're having to talk to someone is that lost a loved one. The leave it at that and respect the privacy.

KEILAR: Rick, I think I've, Ben-- to your point, I think so many people want to leave it at that and not be having that unseemly at times, back and forth, as we've witnessed it. But Rick, I wonder what you think, because we hear John Kelly, extraordinary remarks yesterday, so emotional. He did take some political whacks at congresswoman Wilson, but then you have the president tweeting last night and he was saying she was lying, that is was a total lie what she said, and she was secretly on this call.

When, as you can see, Ben, as we see in the video, right? It's on a speaker phone.

[16:35:00] That seemed to be the -- that was the situation with La David Johnson's family and the congresswoman who is a family friend. I think that's worth pointing out. How do you move on from this, Rick, if the president starts it and he won't stop?

RICK WILSON, FORMER STRATEGIST, RUDY GIULIANI'S 2000 SENATE CAMPAIGN: Look, I think there's a broad national agreement on all sides, pro, anti, Republican, Democrat. Everyone agrees the painful tragedies that these families are going through is something none of us can contemplate unless we've experienced it. And very few of us ever have.

My difficulty with today was not just that the president extended the pain and kept the political fight going, but he did it in a way that was typical Donald Trump. It was me, me, me. I'm the winner, I'm going to politicize this even further now. I think it frankly, that extraordinary moment with John Kelly yesterday where a man opened himself up in front of the national audience in a way that few people ever have. I think the president really besmirched that by that tweet this morning.

In the fact of the matter is a dignified smart White House who cared about the emotions of these folks and were not worried about what Donald Trump is going to do a dignified White House would have said, we have no further comment on this matter. We hope all the families will find solace and peace. And be done with it. But Sara Sanders went out there and kept whacking away at it today. They get in a hole and can't stop digging. I do think everyone in the country wants to get past this moment.

KEILAR: Ben, it does strike --

FERGUSON: I got to say this. Look. Here's the thing. If you're the president of the United States of America. And you have to make this phone call and have a congresswoman that goes public and even talks about --

WILSON: Then you keep it going for three more days, right then?

FERGUSON: Let me at least finish.

WILSON: Is that the mature thing to do? The man thing to do?

FERGUSON: Again. Let me finish. Let me finish. When people in America see what is a highlight of the day in news, and hear the president of the United States of America said something that was insensitive, you have to correct that record, and you have to stand up for yourself and let them know and everything else in the military.

WILSON: This is a juvenile tweeting the day after and day after and you do it in a way in a is --

FERGUSON: I think --

WILSON: Ben, I get it you're going to defend no matter what.

FERGUSON: That's not true.

WILSON: I think it is incredibly juvenile, I think it's demeaning to the families. Puts Donald Trump's ego ahead of the pain and suffering these four families are going through and I -- I don't think your a bad guy but you're defending -- and I do, and I have.

FERGUSON: You don't. You don't.

WILSON: I have most certainly have. Yes, I have.

FERGUSON: In this conversation you've said not one thing about her. It is a double standard.

WILSON: No. But the thing is, Ben, this is Donald Trump extending this. This is Donald Trump dragging this out. He could have easily stopped this, cut off all the oxygen to this thing. Do you think she's show boating? She may well be. My God, I know she's from Florida. The way you cut it off as stop tweeting about it. You stop having the press secretary go out and extend the fight.

FERGUSON: Let's be clear.

WILSON: Instead of having the most juvenile reaction possible. FERGUSON: I understand you --

WILSON: Continuing the fight.

FERGUSON: I understand that you're calling for the president not to be juvenile while you continue to be juvenile and attack him with all of the same talking points.

WILSON: I'm not the president.

FERGUSON: Let's be clear, Sara Huckabee Sanders, I know you're not. That's obvious. Sarah Huckabee Sanders was answering a question from the press. To say she extends this --

WILSON: Yes, and the correct answer then, Ben.

FERGUSON: It's unfair.

WILSON: The correct answer as a spokesperson for the president is to say we wish to put this matter behind us and focus on the family's pain and suffering and hope they find solace. They have to feed the -- I'm sorry you're defending the indefensible.

FERGUSON: Talking point. And you say constantly every time. The same thing every time, it's just a different day in a different news story.

KEILAR: Gentlemen, I do have to say, we have to leave it there. Unfortunately, but I will say As we talk about this fight, I think maybe we can all agree that this is a pyrrhic victory. I don't think anyone is a winner in this fight and I think the way some people looking at it, it kind of makes losers out of all of us. So, Rick Wilson, Ben Ferguson, thank you so much from both of you for your insight, we do appreciate it.

Next, we're going to talk to a man who spent 22 years in the military. Montel Williams is going to join me to explain why he thinks the president failed the nation with his actions toward the widow of sergeant La David Johnson. Stay with us.


KEILAR: Well, there has been plenty of reaction on both sides over comments made by White House Chief of Staff John Kelly about Florida Congresswoman Frederica Wilson. Others are still lashing out at the president about his condolence call. One of them, Montel Wilson who is a 22-year veteran. In a "USA Today" op ed, he wrote in part we should all be ashamed that her kids will one day read the commander in chief made her mother cry. Montel, thanks so much. I want to get your reaction. You talk about it in the op ed. What are you thinking?

MONTEL WILLIAMS, U.S. MARINE CORPS AND NAVY VETERAN: The last words you said before the break was this is going to make losers out of all of us. [16:45:00] Let's make sure America remembers that right across the world there are people sitting by computers waiting to dive into like vultures to just beat a bigger wedge between us in this country.

The I guarantee you that there are people out there right now feeding the fire and flames using fake tweets, Russian, cyber idiots that are doing this that are making sure we get more and more divided. I think America needs to remember that. As we talk about things like this because, it's all about division. I want to remind people of something. This whole thing didn't start because of what a congresswoman said. This was defined and it was also started by President Trump last week when he attempted to throw his predecessors under the bus for not having called people.

This is where this all started. Then it continues to go on until today. And the call that was made was made, I believe, inside an automobile while the family was going to go and retrieve those precious remains. Let me tell you something. I'm not saying this to pat myself on the back but almost ten years ago, I went to up to Dover, Delaware, and took a team of people up there to feed those people there who take care of our precious remains.

I went up there and fed as many people as we possibly could. Then about 200 of them came over to eat. We fed for five hours because I wanted to show respect to those people who handle those precious remains.

KEILAR: Important work.

WILLIAMS: If we are going to look at what we're talking about right here, the fact that there are four families right now grieving, the most horrific day of violence against military members so far this year, we ought to really think about the fact that right now, there are other mothers, other wives, other children who are looking at this news right now and wondering, is this how my father and my son or my husband are going to be treated when they die? There are big questions that need to be answered here. One, why are we using civilian contractors to pick up the troops? Did one of those civilian contractors miscount?

KEILAR: I definitely want to get to the questions about what happened in Niger. We certainly are going to cover this throughout the hour, but I do want to get your perspective on this particular controversy. You express disappointment both in John Kelly and in the congresswoman.

WILLIAMS: Well, I mean, look. John Kelly and the congresswoman are some side show right now. I really respect General Kelly. I really, really do. But unfortunately, he was sent out in front of the press. You know this, with facts that were not true.

Therefore, he didn't even look at his own facts before he started casting dispersions on someone. She didn't do it on the stage. She did it in a cocktail hour. If we can't believe what you say from one or two points, why should we believe any of it. And the thought is this. We have soldiers who have died, and we have one soldier right now there's so many questions that have happened, that we now see his wife, who, listen to me -- two small children carrying a child within, going to retrieve her husband's body and a person starts the conversation with you know, he knew what he was getting into.

Remember, we're hearing what the congresswoman had to say but do not forget that La David's mother was interviewed, and she said the exact same thing. His mother said that when the conversation ended, my daughter-in-law broke into tears. So, forget what the congresswoman said, forget General Kelly. Let's talk about how your guest earlier, a soldier who lost his arm stated unequivocally, Gold star families have a right to interpret the grief the way they want. Especially, in the first three or four days of retrieving the body.

KEILAR: So, what would you say to Sergeant La David Johnson's widow right now?

WILLIAMS: The first words out of my mouth would have been we are so sorry for your loss. We we're so sorry your daughter will walk down the aisle without a father. We're so sorry that the child you have in utero will never see her dad. We thank you for your service and the service of your husband, and look, we know, he knew in his heart of hearts this is what he signed up and we're so proud of the tract he went out there and did it anyway. That's how you tell a family we're thankful for your service. You don't call them and say -- you know, he knew what he was getting into. I hope everything is really good and you feel -- no.

[15:50:00] And, again, there's an interpretation of how that conversation went. And we don't have a right to interpret the way that grieving mother, wife and mother handle their child's and husband's death.

KEILAR: It really is--

WILLIAMS: That's what we should say. It's really easy.

KEILAR: It is the prerogative of the family.

WILLIAMS: Let me say one thing. While in active duty, I never had to make that call, but knew of families who were deployed who got those calls, and almost every single one of them started with thank god for your son. We appreciate the service. Every single one of them.

KEILAR: We don't know that this one did not. We just know -- just in fairness, we do not have the call. We do not know the entirety of it. We certainly now how upset the family has been over this. Hearing that from a family friend the congresswoman and the mother.

I do unfortunately have to end it there. We so appreciate you being with us. Thank you. We're back in a moment.

WILLIAMS: Thank you. Stay back, please.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, SOUTH CAROLINA (R): My take on what we need to do. Right over in the corner, get back to work.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Guys, take a step back. Hey, guys -- gentlemen --


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Dude why are you pushing me?


GRAHAM: All right. So, what was the day about? The day was about receiving information about Niger, but it was more than that for me. So, here's what the American people need to know.

[15:55:00] The counterterrorism rules under president Obama I thought were overly restrictive. I think it denied us ability to engage the enemy effectively and aggressively. The war is morphing. We're going to see more actions in Africa, not

less. You're going to see more aggression by the United States towards our enemies, not less. You're going to have decisions being made not in the White House but out in the field. And I support that entire construct.

So, the rules of engagement are going to change when it comes to counterterrorism operations. We're going to move to status based targeting. So, if you find somebody who is a member of a terrorist organization, then we can use lethal force. They don't have to present an immediate threat. When it comes to moving geographically, they've got a system in place as to whether or not we want to have troops on the ground, what kind of level we want to provide in terms of assistance regarding the threat.

So, I've been a military lawyer for 30-something years, and here's the friction, there will be a lot of members of Congress who will say, well, wait a minute, if you can go anywhere you want to go and start killing people, you know, anybody you want to kill, then we need to rein you in. That's not the way it works. Designating enemy forces is a commander in chief's job, not a congressional job.

It's up to the president and his team to determine who enemy threats -- what -- who falls in the category of being a threat to the United States and what military response to come up with to meet that threat. It's up to Congress to have oversight over these operations. And if we don't like what they're doing, then we can cut off funding. So, as you expand the places we go, as you give more authority to designate terrorist groups and more authority outside of the White House into the field, it's important to keep the Congress more informed.

Because if we don't like what you're doing then we can cut off the funding, but for us to make that decision, we've got to know what you're doing. So, here's the balance. I'm never going to participate in an exercise where an authorization to use military force is a micromanagement of the commander in chief's responsibilities by the Congress. I will insist as the war expands and as the rules change to be more aggressive, that congress is informed more often in more detail, so we can exercise our constitutional authority whether or not we want to authorize this operation through the appropriations process.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Senator graham, is that -- does that mean you are --

GRAHAM: OK. So, there's going to be an AMF debate to come out of this. Some people are going to say, wait a minute, you can designate anybody you want to designate? Here's the answer, the Congress is not set up to be military commanders. 535 members of Congress don't sit down and designate what threats the nation faces. These groups morph weekly. They pledge allegiance to ISIL and other groups by the day. So, it's just impractical, and I think unconstitutional for the Congress to make that decision.

Having said that, when you designate somebody an individual or a group, you need to inform us because then we have the ability to say we don't agree and we're not going to fund that operation. So, the intel community has a collaborative process with the leaders of the intel committee. I think what Senator McCain's trying to do here is as the war expands, as the military has more authority that Congress is going to require more information.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A lot of Americans who probably have never heard of Niger until they heard about four Americans had died there. Is that appropriate? Are we overextended to the point where Americans are literally dying in countries most people have never heard of?

GRAHAM: It's not whether you can pass a geography test, it's whether or not the threat exists. I think most Americans want to do the following. With the threats to us and our allies, they want us to deal with it. They don't want another 9/11. We don't want the next 9/11 to come from Niger. When you look at the number of forces on the ground in comparison to indigenous forces, pretty good return on investment. These are not massive deployments.

I would like to know, are there 1,000 soldiers in Niger? What are they doing? If we don't like what they would doing, we would cease funding the 1,000 in Niger. That's the way the system works to the American people. The war is headed to Africa. It's beginning to morph as we suppress the enemy in the middle east. They're going to move. They're not going to quit. So, President Obama set up a presence there. Yemen, there is no government to work with. The general idea is that we're not going into a country unless we're invited.

[16:00:00] We're not going to do anything unless they buy into what we're doing, and we're there to help them as well as protect us, but Yemen's a classic example of where you've got AQAP, al Qaeda in the midst of the Houthi -- it's basically a war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, proxy war, but in the middle of that there are radical extremists that want to hit the United States. So, I like where they're going, and I think we will be better served if we get this system that Senator McCain's been demanding in place.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What would you recommend that they do in this situation? GRAHAM: Number one, you'll never convince me that President Trump

doesn't grieve when somebody falls in the line of duty on his watch. Same for President Obama. I know resident Obama and Michelle Obama have really spent a lot of times with the families of the fallen and I've seen president Trump in action. He goes out of his way to greet a military member. There was an artful communication of what General Kelly was trying to explain to president Trump. Then correct that problem. Quite frankly, I am ready to move on. I am so sorry these four men died in operations, but I will say this about the operations, and I can't give you the details. They died in the defense of America. This war is getting hot in places where it has been cool. We've got to go where the enemy takes us.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The White House press secretary today said it was highly inappropriate to get in a debate with a four-star general. Do you agree with that?

GRAHAM: No. Not in America. I just think a member of congress should have some discipline and so should the president. I don't know Congresswoman Wilson. I've never met her. I know she's not a big fan of the president. And to her credit, she was in the car with the family, but I think she started something that was really -- I would never do that. If I were in the car with a family and President Obama was calling, I would never suggest that from a political point of view he did something inappropriate. Think General Kelly expressed it better than I can ever hope to express, what it's like to go through this, but here's what I want you to know, out of these fallen four, the American public needs to get ready for more --