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John Kelly Defends Trump's, Slams Rep. Frederica Wilson; Bush, Obama Blast Trump over Divisive Politics; Ryan Jokes about Trump at Roast; Puerto Rico Recovery Effort Slow; Los Angeles Dodgers Head to World Series. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired October 20, 2017 - 05:00   ET


[05:00:00] RENE MARSH, CNN ANCHOR: 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.

DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: And two former presidents from opposite sides of the political spectrum both warning in in strong against the forces of division that propelled President Trump to power.

It was an extraordinary day in politics across D.C. and across the country yesterday.

Good morning. Welcome to "Early Start." I'm Dave Briggs.

MARSH: I'm Rene Marsh. It's Friday, October 20. It's 5:00 a.m. in the east.

The 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. Kelly also condemned Florida Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, who has sharply criticized the president for using insensitive language on the call.

Kelly, he didn't hold back.


GEN JOHN KELLY, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: 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: The story could have ended there. But late last night, came another tweet from the president. Quote, "Fake news is going crazy with whacky Congresswoman 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 on speaker phone.

General Kelly did also not dispute the facts of that phone call.

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 extraordinary appearance in the White House briefing room. He talked about something he rarely speaks about which was losing his 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: 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, who 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: Kelly offered up the explanation at a time when President Trump is under scrutiny for the tone and for the words he chose when he spoke to the widow of Sergeant La David Johnson. That's one of the soldiers who were 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 its President Trump, politicizing the death of a U.S. soldier.

Back to you.

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

Let's bring in CNN political analyst, Julian Zelizer. He's a historian and Princeton University professor.

Good Friday morning, sir.


BRIGGS: It's unfortunate we are still talking about politicizing condolence calls. But General Kelly, chief of staff, there, does he hold a Democratic congresswoman, does he hold the media to a higher standard than the president of the United States when it comes to this issue?

ZELIZER: It appears right now he is. Let's add, it's not just the Democratic congresswoman, it's a friend of the family who has known them tore a long time. So it's not surprising she was --


BRIGGS: And a mentor to this young man, La David Johnson.

ZELIZER: Yes. Not only is he holding them to a different standard, he is now appearing, front and center, to be part of this political process, which, for many people, is unpleasant to watch.

MARSH: It almost is like we're witnessing the evolution of John Kelly and his role within the White House. This is the second time he's appeared in the briefing room. Yes, it was an emotional talk he gave to reporters, but let's not forget, it's also very political. Do we think we're going to start seeing the White House more to do that heavy-duty cleanup from here on out?

ZELIZER: Yes. Looks like he was brought in originally to contain and control the president, but that might have flipped around. He is now being used as part of the political attack team of the administration. And now we've seen him do this twice. And it wouldn't be surprising to see more of it. He has this gravitas and reputation which makes him a very effective spokesperson, but he has to realize the cost of doing that.

[05:05:09] BRIGGS: He clearly has the respect of media in that room. It's extraordinary though. This is the chief of staff, a four-star general, on the New York tabloids. Think about that. This is something we don't see.

Something else we don't see, Julian, is a Democrat and Republican former president speaking out about a current president. Obama and Bush, I think, speaking with one voice yesterday.


BRIGGS: Let's listen to both.


GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: 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. We've seen nationalism distorted into nativism.

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


BRIGGS: There was no mention of President Trump, but are Barack Obama and George W. Bush speaking with one voice about one person?

ZELIZER: Yes. Two former presidents, who don't agree on much, in fact they don't agree on many anything, they seem to agree we have a problem and they seem to agree there's a risk the nation faces. Obama telling Democrats these midterm elections are important because we need a check in Congress as to what the president is doing. And former President Bush, who has barely said anything since leaving the White House, is clearly saying to his party, not just to the country, that this is not tolerable. A lot of what is coming in out of the White House really needs to stop. It was a remarkable day to see these two former presidents front and center speaking about one person, even if they didn't mention him.

MARSH: It was really remarkable, but I think people will really stunned when they heard George W. Bush, because it's his fellow Republican who is speaking out about him.

At the risk of jumping the gun a little bit here, you have Trump's approval ratings pretty low. Bush speaking out, it shows a fractured Republican Party. How does that translate when we talk about the midterm elections? Are the Republicans in big trouble or is it too early to say?

ZELIZER: It is too early to say. But you can say, at this point, the Republicans are worried. You see many people now announcing retirements. That's always a bad thing to see for a party going into the midterms. You have members of the party from Senator Corker to former President Bush openly raising these concerns. So this is the kind of thing that can dampen enthusiasms for Republicans going into the midterms.

BRIGGS: We're in desperate need of levity.

MARSH: We are.

BRIGGS: And we found it in the oddest of sources. Paul Ryan, listen to what he said at the Al Smith Dinner last night, a bit of a roast. Paul Ryan cracking jokes.


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 I scroll Twitter to see which tweet that is I'll have to pretend I did not see later on.


You know, at one point, the president actually insulted me. I know that sounds kind of surprising.


He described me as a Boy Scout who was boring to talk to. It didn't hurt my feelings. What hurt my feelings was when my wife agreed with him. (LAUGHTER)


BRIGGS: The initial part, cracking jokes at the president. He doesn't usually have much of a sense of humor about these things. Do you think he'll have a tweet response later today?

ZLIER: If the president will be offended, he could. I think he is joking, obviously. This is a dinner where you joke. But sometimes jokes can be biting. This is like the speeches by the former presidents. Even though it's funny, it's a little window into some of what's going on in the minds of Republicans on the Hill. We'll see if President Trump can contain himself. Who knows? Maybe Speaker Ryan will be the recipient of this morning's tweet.

BRIGGS: Those can really be humanizing, those humorous moments. Paul Ryan did a terrific job, whether you liked the jokes or --


MARSH: He did.

BRIGGS: Julian Zelizer, great to have you. Thanks.

ZELIZER: Thank you.

BRIGGS: Ahead, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces declaring they are the new authority in Syria. We'll get to Arwa Damon here shortly, I do believe.

But first, let's talk some money. Open enrollment in less than two weeks. But six in 10 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 it should be shoring up Obamacare, not trying to replace it. President Trump upset the health care market by stopping subsidy payments. The recent bipartisan deal would restore that money. President Trump has publicly waffled on backing the plan. So 63 percent of Americans doubt health care reform will pass this year. Even with the GOP- controlled Congress, only half of Republicans are optimistic. Overall, the majority of Americans disapprove of how the president is handling health care, 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.

[05:10:48] MARSH: Well, it's been one month since Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, and President Trump now says the storm was much worse than he previously thought.


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. (END VIDEO CLIP)



[05:15:13] UNIDENTIFIED 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.


BRIGGS: President Trump meeting with the governor of Puerto Rico there, giving his administration's response to Hurricane Maria a 10 out of 10. The president arguing that the damage inflicted on Puerto Rico was, quote, "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 with the latest on the ground in Puerto Rico.


BILL WEIR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Rene, Dave, about three million Americans have 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 of answers, and I started in a place that you might actually recognize.



WEIR (voice-over): It is this most popular music video ever.


WEIR: Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee's "Despacito" has been viewed on YouTube over four billion times.


WEIR (voice-over): 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 Paula (ph). For years, this place was written off as being drug and gang invested. Community organizers fought against that stigma. There hadn't been a murder here in six years. And then came Despacito, and, suddenly, this rough side of town was a tourist destination. The economy started to blow up. People felt good about themselves. But then came Maria.

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

They are linemen, contracted by White Fish Energy, a small two-year- old company out of Montana.

It 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 was how did you get this contract? You're a brand-new company, right?

ANDREW TECHMANSKI, CEO, WHITE FISH ENERGY: We've been around for a few years. And we specialize in h difficult and mountainous terrain projects. All I can say is we took the call and we're here.


WEIR: White Fish Energy is not the only power company working on this problem. There was another multi-million-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: Can you imagine?


BRIGGS: Great job covering all that down there, Bill Weir.

Still a long way to go.

MARSH: Absolutely.

Well, speaking of long ways to wait --

BRIGGS: Yes, long way.

MARSH: -- for the first time in nearly three decades, the Los Angeles Dodgers are World Series bound. It was an unlikely hero who sealed the deal. Coy Wire will have a lot more on it in our "Bleacher Report," coming up next.


[05:22:53] BRIGGS: Do you remember the last time the Dodgers were in the World Series? Do you?

MARSH: Do you?

BRIGGS: You don't.

MARSH: I know you do.

BRIGGS: I do. It's been 29 years. The Dodgers headed back to the World Series.

MARSH: Coy Wire has a lot more in this morning's "Bleacher Report."

Good morning, Coy.


Good morning to you, David.

Back in 1988, we're getting ready for the George H.W. Bush versus Michael Dukakis, and then also "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" was at the top of the box office. Young Dave Briggs was just 12 years old.

Kike Hernandez wasn't even born yet, but the Dodgers' utility man was a one-man wrecking crew last night. Three home runs against the Cubs, including a grand slam, seven RBIs. That's a league championship series record. Dodgers dominate, 11-1.

Get this. Kike's mom still in Puerto Rico feeling the effects of the hurricane. And before the game, Kike talked to her and told her he was going to hit a home run. He lied. He hit three of them. His mom watched the game at his grandparent's house on TV, powered by a generator. She saw her son make history. Fernandez says he's going back to the island just as soon as he finishes business in L.A.


ENRIQUE HERNANDEZ, LOS ANGELES DODGERS BASEBALL PLAYER: My body's here but mind's back home. Hard being away from home and to be able to do this, against the Cubs that beat us last year and get us to the World Series, it's amazing. I honestly can't put it into words. All I want to do right now is go to my dad and give him a big hug.


WIRE: Get them popping. Champagne showers in the locker room afterwards. National champions. Going to have to wait for the winner of the Yankees/Astros series to see who they play against in New York. So wrap that up series with a win tonight.

Just about a half hour later, what a finish to Thursday Night Football. Better division rivals, Chiefs, Raiders, in Oakland. Raiders overcame a nine-point deficit in the fourth quarter. This was the play right here, a two-yard touchdown pass from Michael Crabtree. Final play of the game, they got the win. The Raiders, they snap a four-game losing streak, big win, 31-30. Chiefs fall.

Raiders running back, Marshawn Lynch, reportedly had to watch the game comeback from the stands. Beast Mode got ejected from the game for going beast mode on an official. He grabbed the jersey there. That's a no-no. You don't do that.

He saw an opposing player get rough with his quarterback. He didn't like that. Well, Marshawn, a former teammate of mine, he can expect the FedEx package in the locker room in a couple days here, to the tune of a fine of about $30,000, is what the league to get him for in this case.

[05:25:34] The quintessential case of paying it forward, many families in Houston still reeling in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Texan star rookie quarterback, Deshaun Watson, is building hope, partnering with Habitat for Humanity, Deshaun is helping to furnish 176 homes. Back in 2006, when he was just 11, Deshaun and his mother and siblings received the keys to their very own home thanks to an NFL legend, Ward Gun (ph) and his foundation. Deshaun has been helping Habitat for Humanity put roofs over other family's heads ever since. And pretty good on the football field, too.


WIRE: Leading the league in passing touchdowns as a young rookie.

BRIGGS: Fifteen. He has been outstanding for the Texans, on and off the field.

Coy, thank you, my friend. Have a great weekend.

WIRE: You're welcome. You, too.

BRIGGS: White House chief of staff, John Kelly, making an emotional appearance in the White House briefing room as the Defense Department looks for some answers behind that ambush in Niger.


KELLY: The U.S. military does not leave its troops behind. And I would just ask you not to question the actions of the troops who were caught in the firefight.