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White House Chief of Staff Defends Trump's Condolence Call; Bush, Obama Take Swipes At Trump; Kurdish-Led Forces Declare Authority Over Raqqa. Aired 4:30-5a ET

Aired October 20, 2017 - 04:30   ET




[04:31:19] 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.


RENE MARSH, CNN ANCHOR: A rare and highly personal moment in the White House Chief of Staff John Kelly defending how President Trump handled a condolence call to an army widow.

DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: Two former presidents opposite sides of the political spectrum both warning in strong terms against the forces of division that propelled President Trump to power. What an extraordinary day in politics it was on Thursday.

Welcome back to EARLY START. I'm Dave Briggs.

MARSH: And I'm Rene Marsh. It's 31 minutes past the hour.

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly making an emotional appearance in the White House briefing room on Thursday. Kelly defending the way President Trump handled a condolence call to the widow of Sergeant La David Johnson, who was killed in an ambush in Niger. Now, Kelly also condemned Florida Congresswoman Frederica Wilson who has sharply criticized the president for using insensitive language on the call.

And 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.


BRIGGS: Late last night, President Trump weighed in with a tweet. Fake news is going crazy with whacky Congressman Wilson, a Democrat who was secretly on a very personal call and gave a total lie on content.

Worth noting, Sergeant Johnson's widow invited Wilson to listen to the call, a close personal family friend and Chief of Staff Kelly did not dispute the facts of that call in a extraordinary press conference.

For more, let's bring in CNN's Sara Murray 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.


MARSH: Sarah Murray at the White House.

Well, in another eyebrow raising moment from Kelly's press briefing, the chief of staff cited a 2015 building dedication ceremony he attended with the Miami congresswoman, Congresswoman Wilson.

[04:35:11] Now, Kelly said that the congresswoman claimed credit for getting funding for the new FBI building. Take a listen here.


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.


MARSH: Well, Congresswoman Wilson last night blasted Kelly for making the issue totally personal. And she said Kelly got the story completely wrong. Wilson told "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 the two fallen agents, not to fund it.

Now, "The Herald" reports even Miami Republicans praised Wilson for that bill.

BRIGGS: Wilson will be on NEW DAY later this morning.

Now to the ambush that left the 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?


MARSH: Jim Sciutto, thank you.

And a major step forward overnight in the Republican effort to overhaul the U.S. tax code. The Senate voting 51-49 to pass the budget. The budget resolution for next year. The measure would allow the GOP to push through tax legislation to the Senate with 50 or more votes.

Now, 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.

BRIGGS: A bipartisan plan to stabilize the Obamacare marketplace is still alive. The bill sponsors, Senators Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray rolling out a list of Republican cosponsors backing the bill, notables include Lindsey Graham, John McCain and Bill Cassidy. The bill would restore Obamacare cost sharing payments for two years.

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

MARSH: Well, House Speaker Paul Ryan not exactly known for a side- splitting public sense of humor but he really let loose last night. Ryan was the keynote speaker at the annual Al Smith charity dinner. By tradition, the Al Smith keynote is supposed to be a roast, and Speaker Ryan turned up the flame, starting with a joke about Donald Trump's speech at the fundraiser just 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.

[04:40:05] 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.



MARSH: That was a good one.

BRIGGS: The president is not often enjoy jokes at his expense.

MARSH: That's right.

BRIGGS: It's not clear if he's seen those jokes or how he might react later today when he's seen them replayed time and time again on the morning shows. It could be an interesting morning on Twitter.

MARSH: He was good though.

BRIGGS: He was hilarious. He was outstanding. He should have done that earlier.

All right. America's labor market red hot. Jobless claim just hit the lowest level in 44 years, only 222,000 Americans filed for unemployment benefits last week. That is fewest since March 1973. It could also be a rebound from hurricane-related job losses.

The U.S. lost 33,000 jobs in September, mainly because of Harvey, Irma and Maria. Those storms could also be the reason for this low count. Labor Department said it's difficult to collect precise numbers in Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands. Power outages and infrastructure damage is disrupting that process.

Still, claims are historically low. Numbers staying below 300,000 for more than two and a half years. That's a sign of a strong labor market, as is the unemployment. It's currently at a 16-year low.

MARSH: Well, this was something to see. 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.



[04:46:35] MARSH: Well, George W. Bush breaking the unusual code of silence for former presidents and delivered clear jabs at President Trump Thursday without mentioning him by name. Underlining the battle lines in the Republican Party. Bush, like Senator John McCain last week, warned against Trump's brand of nationalism.

Take a listen.


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.


MARSH: Well, Bush cautioned that bullying and prejudice in public life 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.

BRIGGS: 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. Obamacare 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 by name.

Let's get to CNN's Alex Marquardt with more from Richmond, Virginia.



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.


MARSH: Alex Marquardt for us in Richmond.

Well, Oscar winner Lupita Nyong'o is now the latest star coming forward to describe her encounters with disgraced film mogul Harvey Weinstein.

[04:50:07] In a "New York Times" op-ed, Nyong'o describes two meetings that resemble accounts from more than 40 women who have accused Weinstein of inappropriate behavior ranging from sexual harassment to rape. In one, Nyong'o says she was led to a bedroom and Weinstein offered to give her a massage. Nyong'o says she left after Weinstein told her he wanted to take off his pants.

Well, in their next one-on-one encounter, Nyong'o says that he invited her into a private room but she says she declined. Through a spokeswoman, Weinstein has unequivocally denied all allegations of nonconsensual sex. So, that story just keeps on growing.

BRIGGS: Yes. Just day by day. And you just wonder at some point, how many assistants, how many people enabled this could go on for years upon years?

A sick story indeed.

All right. Ahead, Raqqa, Syria, has been reduced to rubble. So, what's next for the city now that the ISIS has been defeated there? We'll go live to our reporter in Raqqa, next.


[04:55:36] BRIGGS: Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces declaring they are the new authority in Raqqa, after driving ISIS out of the Syrian city. Residents of Raqqa being warned not to return to their homes until the area is cleared of mines and any lingering fighters from the terrorist group. Still not clear who will govern in the region or how these developments will affect ISIS moving forward.

CNN is live in Raqqa this morning, very fortunate to have our Arwa Damon there.

Arwa, what are you seeing with the remnants of the city?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Dave, we're actually in the stadium where ISIS made its final stance. And this is where we are waiting for that announcement, the official announcement of the liberation of Raqqa from ISIS.

You can see in the background a number of fighters within the Syrian Democratic Forces. That is the predominantly Kurdish force that is being back the U.S.-led coalition. They also have a number of local chefs, tribal leaders, as well as other dignitaries here.

And perhaps, most important of all, people who are part of the Raqqa civilian council, and the Syrian Democratic forces, civilian leadership. They are going to be the ones who will have the monumental task of once the city has been cleared of explosives trying to somehow rebuild it.

If you look at the stadium right back over here, you can see some of the entrances to the lower levels, the basement level have been sandbagged. And that is because is not only was using this as its main last fighting position, as I was saying, but also as a prison. We went down there and you see on the walls of every single room, ISIS had punched holes through them to create sort of a run so they can easily move through and avoid detection.

We also saw some of the names of some individuals that were scrawled on the walls. There are a number of tunnels, entrances that we saw while we were down there as well. They have yet to be cleared of any sort of explosive devices, any sort of antipersonnel mines that ISIS has been notorious for lining all of the areas is used to control with. One of the great challenges, though, Dave, it must be said, it's not just going to be physically rebuilding the city. It is going to be somehow rebuilding the social fabric of Raqqa, to try to ensure that an entity like ISIS is never able to regain a foothold in a place like this again.

BRIGGS: A crucial victory but long road ahead. So fortunate to have you live there in Raqqa. Thanks so much, Arwa Damon.

All right. Let's get a check on CNN "Money Stream".

This morning, global stocks higher after the Dow and S&P 500 just managed record highs. Stocks rose after news broke that Fed Governor Jerome Powell could replace current Fed Chief Janet Yellen. Powell is seen as market friendly. Yellen's term up in February.

Market fell earlier mainly due to tech stocks especially Apple, which dropped 2.4 percent on reports of low iPhone sales. United also plummeting 12 percent, the airline's profits fell due to flight cancellations during the hurricane season.

Workers can stash away $500 more for requirement in 2018. The government will raise the 401k contribution limit to $18,500 next year. It's currently there is $18,000. This is the first jump since 2015. Money in your 401k grows tax free. It's a good way to save for retirement but there's a limit on how much you can save each other. The government re-assesses the amount annually.

The ride-hailing wars just got messier. Google parent Alphabet leading a $1 billion investment in Lyft. Google previously invested in Lyft's chief rival, Uber. This pushes Lyft's value to $11 billion. But that still a distant second to Uber, which is worth about $70 billion. This money could help Lyft while Uber tries to recover from a year of PR disasters, including changes, legal scrutiny and claims of sexual harassments.

All right. EARLY START continues right now with the latest this continued controversy over condolence calls and how the president has handled them.



KELLY: 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.


MARSH: Well, a rare and highly personal moment in the White House. Chief of Staff John Kelly defending president Trump's handling of a condolence call made to an army widow.