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Chief of Staff Defends Trump; Bush, Obama Take Swipes At Trump. Aired 4-4:30a ET

Aired October 20, 2017 - 04:00   ET



[04:00:13] JOHN KELLY, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: If you elect to call a family like this, it is about the most difficult thing you can imagine. There's no perfect way to make that phone call.


DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: A rare and highly personal moment in the White House. Chief of Staff John Kelly, retired four star general and father of a service member killed in Afghanistan, defending President Trump's handling of a condolence call made to an army widow.

RENE MARSH, CNN ANCHOR: And two former presidents both warning in strong terms against the forces of division that propelled President Trump to power.

Good morning and welcome to EARLY START. I'm Rene Marsh.

BRIGGS: That is an extraordinary moment.


BRIGGS: Good to see you, my friend.

I'm Dave Briggs. It's Friday, October 20, 4:00 a.m. in the East. It is 1:00 a.m. in Los Angeles when they are partying, celebrating the World Series. We don't start with that sadly.

The White House chief of staff, John Kelly, making an emotional appearance in the White House briefing room. Thursday, Kelly defending the way President Trump handled the condolence call for the widow of La David Johnson, who was killed in an ambush in Niger.

Kelly also condemned Florida Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, who has sharply criticized the president for using insensitive language on the call, Kelly did not hold back.


KELLY: I was stunned when I came to work yesterday morning and brokenhearted at what I saw a member of Congress doing. A member of Congress who listened in on a phone call from the president of the United States to a young wife, and in his way tried to express that opinion that he's a brave man, a fallen hero. He knew what he was getting himself into.


MARSH: And late last night, President Trump weighed in with a tweet: The fake news media is going crazy with whacky Congresswoman Wilson, a Democrat who was secretly on a very personal call and gave a total lie on content.

It is worth noting Sergeant Johnson's widow invited Wilson to listen to the call.

For more on this, we bring in CNN's Sara Murray. She is at the White House.



White House chief of staff and retired four-star general, John Kelly, making an appearance in the White House briefing room. He talked about something he rarely speaks publicly about, which was losing his own son in Afghanistan and provided a window into the advice he gave to the president about how to talk to family members of a soldier who's paid the ultimate sacrifice.

KELLY: And he said to me, what do I say? I said to him, sir, there's nothing you can do to lighten the burden on these families.

But let me tell you what I tell them. Let me tell you what my best friend Joe Dunford told me, because he was my casualty officer. He said, Kel, he was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1 percent.

MURRAY: Now, Kelly offered up the explanation when President Trump is under scrutiny for the tone and words he chose when speaking to the widow of Sergeant La David Johnson. That's one of the soldiers who was killed in that military operation that went awry in Niger.

This is not the narrative the White House wants but how difficult it is to get away from all sides, whether it's Kelly, whether it's the congresswoman, whether it's President Trump, politicizing the death of a U.S. soldier.

Back to you.


BRIGGS: Sara Murray at the White House -- thanks.

In another eyebrow raising moment from Kelly's press briefing, the chief of staff cited a building dedication ceremony he attended with Miami Congresswoman Wilson. Kelly said the congresswoman claimed credit for getting funding for the new FBI building. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) KELLY: A congresswoman stood up and in the 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. And how 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, the $20 million to build a building. She sat down.

And we were stunned, stunned that she'd done it. Even for someone that is that empty a barrel. We were stunned.


BRIGGS: This is where we are, folks.

Congresswoman Wilson last night blasted Kelly for making the issue totally personal. She said he got the story completely wrong. Wilson told a newspaper the "Miami Herald" newspaper that Congress approved money for the building before she got to Washington and that she only sponsored legislation to name the building for two fallen agents, not to fund it.

[04:05:11] "The Herald" reports even Miami Republicans praised Wilson for that bill.

MARSH: Well, now to the ambush that left four U.S. soldiers dead in Niger. Senator John McCain announcing he might seek a subpoena to get more information about the deadly attack.

He believes the White House may be withholding details as the Defense Department launches an initial review.

We get for from CNN's Jim Sciutto in Washington.


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: It is more than two weeks since this ambush and we really just know only the basics about what happened.

Here's what we know. A team of 12 soldiers went to visit village elders in a village close to the border between Niger and Mali. As they were leaving that meeting, they came under attack by some 50 ISIS affiliated fighters. They were better armed. They had machine guns but also rocket-propelled grenades. Those soldiers, they only had their rifles and they were traveling in vehicles that were not armored.

There was a 30-minute firefight. Thirty minutes in, a French aircraft comes over, flies over, not authorized to drop bombs but to just scatter the fighters attacking the Americans on the ground there. Then later, French aircraft and a contractor aircraft came into to take out the survivors, the wounded and the dead, some of the dead, we would learn because it turns out that one was left behind, separated from his unit. And for 48 hours U.S. forces, Nigerien forces, French forces, looked for that soldier. They eventually found him. Unfortunately, he was dead at that point.

But questions remain. What happened? The military pushing back at the idea he was left behind, just saying he was separated from his unit. But the fact is he was missing for 48 hours.

The question is, when will those military families and when will the public learn what happened actually there? Rene and David?


BRIGGS: Yes, a lot of questions remain. Jim Sciutto, thank you.

A major step forward overnight in the Republican effort to overhaul the U.S. tax code. The Senate voting 51-49 to pass a budget resolution for next year. The measure will allow the GOP to push through tax legislation the Senate with 50 or more votes. Senator Rand Paul, the only Republican to vote no, insisting the budget plan does not reduce the deficit and could expand it by $1.5 trillion over the next 10 years.

MARSH: Well, a bipartisan plan to stabilize the Obamacare market place is still alive. The bill's sponsors, Senators Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray rolling out a list of Republican co-sponsors backing the bill. Notables include Senators Lindsey Graham, John McCain and Bill Cassidy. The Alexander-Murray bill would restore Obamacare cost- sharing payments for two years.

President Trump flip-flopping again, now signaling he may support the bipartisan deal one day after saying he could never support bailing out insurance companies.

BRIGGS: House Speaker Paul Ryan not exactly known for his side- splitting sense of humor let loose last night. Ryan was keynote speaker at the annual Al Smith charity dinner. By tradition, the Al Smith keynote is supposed to be a roast. And Speaker Ryan sure turned up the heat starting with the joke about Donald Trump's speech at the fundraiser one year ago.


REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: I know last year that Donald Trump offended some people. I know his comments according to critics went too far. Some said it was unbecoming of a public figure and they said that his comments were offensive.

Well, thank God he's learned his lesson. Every morning, I wake up in my office and scroll Twitter to see which tweets that I will have to pretend that I did not see later on.

Every afternoon, former Speaker John Boehner calls me up, not to give advice, just to laugh.

A Hollywood Republican, that is an oxymoron, which clearly the word Rex Tillerson was searching for. I learned that God is always listening, as is Vladimir Putin.

When people ask me if I believe everything I see on Facebook, I answer nyet.


BRIGGS: Well done, Paul Ryan.

All right. Open enrollment in less than two weeks but six in ten Americans say the White House is not doing enough to help Obamacare run the way it should. That according to a new CNN poll conducted by SSRS. In fact, 60 percent say that right now, the administration should be shoring up Obamacare, not trying to replies it.

President Trump upset the health care market by stopping subsidy payments. A recent bipartisan deal would restore that money, but Trump has publicly waffled on backing this plan.

[04:10:03] So, 63 percent of Americans doubt health care reform will pass this year. And even with the GOP-controlled Congress, only half of Republicans are optimistic. Overall, a majority of Americans disapprove of how the president is handling healthcare. But they still blame former President Obama for Obamacare's performance, 56 percent to be exact. Only 37 percent put responsibility on the Trump administration, which is now managing the law.

MARSH: Well, in a clear rebuke of President Trump, former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama are speaking out publicly, urging Americans to reject the politics of division.


BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT: If you have to win a campaign by dividing people, you're not going to be able to govern them. You won't be able to unite them later if that's how you start.



BRIGGS: Welcome back.

George W. Bush breaking the usual code of silence of former president, delivered clear jabs at President Trump Thursday, without mentioning him by name.

[04:15:06] Underlining the battle lines the Republican Party, Bush, like Senator John McCain last week warned against Trump's brand of nationalism.


GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT: We've seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty. At times, it could seem like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together. Argument turns too easily into animosity. Disagreement escalates into dehumanization. Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions. Forgetting the image of God we should see in each other. We've seen nationalism distorted into nativism.


BRIGGS: Extraordinary. Bush cautioned that bullying and bridge set a national tone, provide permission for cruelty and bigotry and compromise the moral education of children. He said the only way to pass along civic values is to first live up to them.

MARSH: And former President Obama returning to the campaign trail with a warning about the current state of politics in America. Stumping for Democratic candidates for governor in New Jersey and Virginia, Mr. Obama urged Americans to reject the politics of fear. And he warned Democrats not to take this year's election for granted, all this without ever mentioning President Trump's name.

We get more from CNN's Alex Marquardt. He is in Richmond, Virginia, with more.



Well, this was former President Obama back in his comfort zone, back in front of the adoring crowds, back in campaign mode for the first time since the presidential election last year, even trotting out old slogans like, yes, we can. He made two stops on his first day back, first in New Jersey to support the gubernatorial candidate there, Phil Murphy. And then down here doing the same in Richmond, Virginia, for Ralph Northam.

Now, anybody who came out tonight hoping that President Obama was going to come out swinging against President Trump, naming him by name, would have walked away disappointed. President Obama making no reference to President Trump's efforts to roll back much of his legacy -- whether it comes to health care, the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris climate change accord. But there was no mistaking that President Obama was taking direct aim at President Trump's politics, as he called it, of divisiveness that have come about in this country since he was elected.

Take a listen.

OBAMA: Instead of looking for ways to work together and get things done in a practical way, we got folks who are deliberately trying to make folks angry. To demonize people who have different ideas. To get the base all riled up.

MARQUARDT: Now, this is a very tight race here in Virginia. The other question, how much will Obama star power help bring Ralph Northam across the line on this election due to be held on November 7th -- Rene, Dave.


BRIGGS: Thank you, Alex. There's still great question about that. How much can President Obama have an impact on these elections? Did not help Hillary clearly over the finish line. He needs to get the turnout. The African-American turnout in Virginia will be pivotal. But we'll see.

All right. Ahead, it's been one month since Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, and President Trump now says the storm was, quote, worse than Katrina.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think it was worse than Katrina. It was in many ways worse than anything people have ever seen.




[04:23:09] REPORTER: Mr. President, between one and 10, how would you grade the White House response so far?

TRUMP: I'd say it was a 10.


MARSH: All right. Well, President Trump meeting with the governor of Puerto Rico, giving his administration's response to Hurricane Maria a 10 out of 10. The president arguing that the damage inflicted on Puerto Rico was worse than Katrina. This just weeks after saying during his visit there that Maria wasn't, quote, a real catastrophe like Katrina. Meantime, recovery efforts on the island are proceeding slowly.

CNN's Bill Weir joins us with all the latest on the ground.


BILL WEIR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Rene, Dave, about 3 million Americans spent another night in the dark and the heat without power. That is the question on so many minds here, when is it coming back on?

So, I went looking in search for answers. And I started in a place that you might actually recognize.

(voice-over): It is the most popular music video, ever. Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee's "Despacito" has been viewed on YouTube over 4 billion times.

(on camera): But most of that massive audience probably didn't realize the video was shot in one of the most notorious neighborhoods in all of Puerto Rico. Welcome to La Perla. For years, this place was written off as being drug and gang-infested.

Community organizers fought against that stigma. Hasn't been a murder here in six years.

And then came "Despacito". And suddenly, this rough side of town was a tourist destination. And the economy started to blow up. People felt good about themselves. But, then came Maria.

Now, you've got an outbreak of conjunctivitis among the children. The clinic is without power. There's no roof on the school. And there is no hope that help is coming anytime soon.

(voice-over): Tourists wanted to come here, she tells me. They came from Africa, China, South America. After Maria, nobody comes. It's like a ghost town.

The excited scramble for a single bag of ice is proof that potable water and power are still elusive luxuries over a month after Maria, which puts enormous pressure on the men paid to electrify Puerto Rico.

[04:25:05] They are journey linemen contracted by Whitefish Energy, a small, 2-year-old company out of Montana. They raised a lot of eyebrows when they were given a $300 million contract without any input from the Army Corps of Engineers.

(on camera): You know the headline down here for a couple of days was, how the hell did you get the contract? You are a brand-new company, right?

ANDREW TECHMANSKI, CEO, WHITEFISH ENERGY HOLDINGS: We've been around for a few years. You know, we specialize in difficult and mountainous terrain projects. So, all I can say is we took the call. And we're here.

WEIR: Whitefish Energy is not the only power company working on this problem. There was another multimillion dollar contract handed out to a much more established company yesterday, but Senator Marco Rubio says the Army Corps of Engineers is still trying to come up with the plan to fix the power grid in Puerto Rico more than a month out.

Back to you.


BRIGGS: Bill Weir, thanks.

The Los Angeles Dodgers back in the World Series for the first time in 29 years, after crushing the defending champs the Cubs 11-1 last night in game 5 of the NLCS. And, boy, was it an epic night for Enrique Hernandez, the lightly regarded utility player, blasting three home runs and driving in a post-season record seven runs for the Dodgers.

The fall classic begins Tuesday night with L.A. awaiting the winner of the Yankees/Astros series, which would be decided tonight in Houston. By the way, Rene, game 1 of the World Series in Los Angeles, 102 degree forecast, a record high. MARSH: Yes.

BRIGGS: Not going to be comfortable for anybody there.

MARSH: No. But you know what? They're going to be hungry.

BRIGGS: Yes, yes, 29-year wait. I don't think they'll mind the heat.

MARSH: All right. Well, coming up, the White House Chief of Staff John Kelly making an emotional appearance in the White House briefing room as the Defense Department looks for answers behind the ambush in Niger.


JAMES MATTIS, DEFENSE SECRETARY: The U.S. military does not leave its troops behind and I would ask that you not question the actions of the troops who were caught in the firefight.