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Trump Repeats Claim That Lawmaker Lied About Call to Widow; Pentagon Briefs Congress on Deadly Niger Attack. Aired 6-6:30a ET

Aired October 20, 2017 - 06:00   ET



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: President Trump on the attack, again accusing Congresswoman Wilson of lying.

[05:59:18] REP. FREDERICA WILSON (D), FLORIDA: He said, "I guess he knew what he was getting into."

GEN. JOHN KELLY, WHITE HOUSES CHIEF OF STAFF: His way, tried to express he's a brave man. He knew what he was getting himself into.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He was trying to do a little damage repair.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He called her an empty barrel a few times.

BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Why are we trying to be cruel to each other? That's not who we are.

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: If you've got anything to say other than "This is a tragedy," get some duct tape out and shut up.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Had we anticipated this attack, we would have devoted more resources to it.

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D), CONNECTICUT: There may be a reason for subpoenas.

GEN. JAMES MATTIS, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: The U.S. military does not leave its troops behind.


ANNOUNCER: This is NEW DAY with Chris Cuomo and Alisyn Camerota.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. This is your NEW DAY. It's Friday, October 20, 6 a.m. here in New York, and here's our starting line.

The president just can't let it go, once again accusing a Democratic congresswoman of lying about the content of his condolence call to the widow of U.S. Army Sergeant La David Johnson, even though the family confirms her account.

President Trump's chief of staff took on the congresswoman, as well. Her name is Federica Wilson. She'll be on the show coming up this morning. And from the White House podium, in a highly personal attack, he accused her of wrongly listening in on the president's call. He also attacked what he called her "empty-barrel remarks" that she gave at the opening of an FBI building. A story he may have gotten wrong. Again, she's going to be on the show. She'll give her side in an exclusive interview coming up.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: So the investigation deepens into that ambush that killed those four U.S. soldiers in Niger. The Pentagon briefing members of the Armed Services Committee behind closed doors about it all. Senator John McCain threatening to subpoena the administration to get answers.

All this as former presidents Bush and Obama speak out against the politics of division and a growing threat to democracy without ever mentioning President Trump by name.

We have it all covered, so let's begin with Joe Johns. He is live at the White House. Good morning, Joe.


President Trump continuing to attack Democratic congresswoman over his condolence call to the family and the widow of Sergeant La David Johnson. This coming after the president's chief of staff gave a highly personal defense of the conversation earlier in the day.


JOHNS (voice-over): President Trump refusing to put his war of words with Congresswoman Frederica Wilson to rest, in a late-night tweet calling her "wacky" and insisting yet again that she lied about his call to the widow of Sergeant La David Wilson. This despite the fact that hours earlier, the president's chief of staff essentially confirmed the congresswoman's account.

WILSON: He said to the wife, "Well, I guess he knew what he was getting into."

KELLY: And in his way, he tried to express that opinion that he's a brave man, a fallen hero. He knew what he was getting himself into, because he enlisted.

JOHNS: In a powerful defense of his boss, Kelly explains the message that the president meant to convey was similar to words used by Marine General Joseph Dunford in 2010 when Kelly's son died.

KELLY: He said, "Kell, 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. He knew what the possibilities were, because we're at war. When he died he was surrounded by the best men on this earth, his friends." That's what the president tried to say to four families the other day.

JOHNS: Kelly lamenting that the deaths of American soldiers are being politicized while delving into politics themselves and ignoring the president's role in the controversy.

KELLY: It stuns me that a member of Congress would have listened in on that conversation. Absolutely stuns me. And I thought at least that was sacred.

JOHNS: For Wilson, this was personal. The congresswoman was riding with Johnson's widow to pick up her husband's casket when the president reached out. The call was on speaker phone so the family could hear.

Wilson has known the Johnson family for decades, Sergeant Johnson and his brothers taking part in her Miami mentoring program.

Kelly also took a shot at the congresswoman over a 2015 speech at the naming ceremony for a new FBI building in Miami, dedicated to two fallen agents.

KELLY: 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. Even for someone that is that empty a barrel, we were stunned.

JOHNS: But the "Miami Herald" reports that Kelly got his facts wrong and that Washington approved the money before Wilson was even in Congress, Wilson telling the newspaper, "He shouldn't be able to say that. That is terrible. This has become totally personal."

This as new video gives rare insight into another condolence call President Trump made to a Gold Star widow whose husband was killed in April.

TRUMP: I am so sorry to hear about the whole situation. What -- what a horrible thing, except that he's an unbelievable hero. And you know all of the people that served with him are saying how incredible he was, and just an amazing, amazing guy. And I just wanted to call and tell you he's a great hero.


JOHNS: That's obviously a very moving condolence call received very differently than the one Johnson's widow received, as described by Congresswoman Frederica Wilson.

[06:05:09] The president's decision to continue this fight overshadowing a big win for the administration and the Senate. The Senate passing the budget resolution that moves the Republican Party one step closer to its top priority of passage of tax reform on Capitol Hill -- Chris and Alisyn.

CUOMO: Thanks, Joe.

CAMEROTA: OK. Let's bring in our political panel. We have CNN political analyst John Avlon and associate editor for RealClearPolitics, A.B. Stoddard.

So, John, what an extraordinary briefing yesterday, to hear John Kelly come out and talk about the genesis, really, of that phone call that President Trump made to Sergeant Johnson's family that the congresswoman overheard on speaker phone.

And I mean, he was talking about his own casualty officer and what that casualty officer said when his own son was lost. And it does sound like he shared that. That President Trump came to him and said, "What do these -- what should these phone calls say?" and that General Kelly told him what his casualty officer said to him, and President Trump interpreted it in his own way, and then the family heard it in their own way. But I just thought it was fascinating to hear General Kelly. What do you think about what happened yesterday?

JOHN AVLON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: General Kelly has complete moral authority on this issue. The story of how he lost his son while serving as a general himself is -- is heart-wrenching. And that puts Kelly in a place beyond politics, which is one of the reasons he's so respected. Not only in the administration but Washington. And he did talk about how General Dunford did use similar phrases. It was obviously not heard that way by the family.

Comey gave the appearance of being put out by the president to defend him. That is not typically a chief of staff's role but Kelly's got more moral authority than most folks in that building. And I do think he pushed or crossed a line when he went after the congresswoman. Because that diminishes that moral authority that I think he was drawing on to make a broader point.

CUOMO: Look, you've also got good insight into how this kind of message can be miscommunicated. It wasn't just a grievance officer. It was general to general. And that's going to have an understanding that is different than when a president is calling a widow's family.

The problem here, A.B., is there is no, I don't think, suggestion that the president wanted to insult these people when he called them in their moment of need. It's that the call didn't go as expected, and there doesn't seem to be any real debate on that point. It's not about what the congresswoman says. The family echoes the same account. It didn't get across the way the president, I'm sure, intended it to.

The issue here is what's happened since that. He hasn't been able to let it go, even though that means continuing to drag this family through a political battle with a congresswoman. And that's what Kelly extended yesterday after talking about his son. What is the play here for them? Why keep questioning something that the family echoes?

A.B. STODDARD, ASSOCIATE EDITOR, REALCLEARPOLITICS: Right, Chris, I agree with you. It startled President Trump on Monday basically trying to sort of insult his predecessors that they didn't go far enough to reach out to Gold Star families when he has called virtually all of them, he said. He started making this political. And I actually think that whatever he said to her on the phone call was fine.

We understand from General Kelly's description what President Trump was trying to say. We all know he would on the phone with these families do his very best to be as sensitive and as respectful as possible. If it came out a little bit differently, that's fine.

I actually think that Congresswoman Wilson made it -- she had a very compelling message in her interview with Alisyn, but she made it political. She said this like this man has a brain disorder, and this will be his Benghazi. So she also discredited her own message herself.

For John Kelly -- and I hope everyone listening, if they didn't yet hear this in full, take time this weekend to listen to everything he said, apart from his criticism of Congresswoman Wilson. Because it's really a message about a singular sacrifice that everyone should hear.

But in -- in criticizing her the way that he did, ,actually name- calling, using the words "empty barrel" and getting, according to the "Miami Herald," his facts wrong, he continued to make it political. And President Trump, even though General Kelly confirmed that, yes, that's what he was pretty much saying, continues to lie about this and say that she's making something up. She's a family intimate. She's not an interloper. She was in the car, because she's known the family for many years. And everyone seems to be making it worse. And I think it really needs to end as soon as possible.

CAMEROTA: Well, for anyone who might have missed it yesterday, here's the moment where General Kelly does give us insight into what these casualty officers do.

CUOMO: General Dunford called him up. You know, they knew each other.

CAMEROTA: He said it was his best friend.

CUOMO: So you know, it wasn't some -- you know, it wasn't someone who didn't know him. And I think that matters. Because when you play the sound, you'll see if I know you. And I'm talking to you about something that we've both done. We've both been in there. We've both made the sacrifice. You're going to understand it differently than, obviously, this family.

CAMEROTA: Well, I think that's true. But I do think that there is something really comforting about saying, regardless of what your loved one did for a living, they were doing what they loved. That's the message.

CUOMO: Absolutely. As long as you deliver it.

CAMEROTA: OK, so listen -- listen to how it was delivered to General Kelly.


KELLY: He said, "Kell, 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. He knew what the possibilities were because we're at war. And when he died -- in the four cases we're talking about in Niger and my son's case in Afghanistan -- when he died he was surrounded by the best men on this earth, his friends." That's what the president tried to say to four families the other day.


CUOMO: I'm sure that is what he tried to say.


CUOMO: But it didn't come across that way to them.


CUOMO: And that happens sometimes. The problem is now that he won't let the situation go.

CAMEROTA: To that end, I mean, he was -- it's clearly eating at the president, because he was tweeting late last night about it. This came through at 11 p.m. "The fake news is going crazy with wacky Congresswoman Wilson, who was secretly on a very personal call, and gave a total lie on content."

John, she was -- I think that it was a speaker call. That's what they've said.

AVLON: Either way, he is very upset how all of this has been depicted, obviously.

AVLON: Well, I suppose it shows a degree of self-awareness that he knows this hasn't gone terribly well. But you know, when you're in a hole, stop digging. And he seems incapable of stopping it.

CUOMO: But he's delivered other calls that has gone well. We're going to have a widow on today, who was going to say that she was comforted by the president. I don't know why he needs to keep generating this negativity.

AVLON: That's my point. He doesn't. But he keeps doing it. And he does seem to have a particular impulse sometimes to go after women and critics of color. That may be a factor here. We've got to find out.

The other issue, obviously, is after this terrible incident that happened in Niger, there is a great delay. And he takes credit for making all the calls. And then this one really seemed to have backfired from the family's perspective. So the question is, do they want -- they just passed a budget resolution. They're trying to do tax reform. Do they want day five of this story, because the president keeps making that inevitable by tweeting about it in unhinged ways.

CAMEROTA: So A.B., on the flip side, Congresswoman Wilson is also engaged, highly engaged in this. And when you heard General Kelly say he was so stunned and upset and hurt by her comments that he then felt that he had to -- in terms of gathering his own thoughts, he had to go sort of walk among the gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery for an hour and a half. And so, I mean, neither side has, you know, diffused this.

STODDARD: Right. And that was my point. I just think that -- I think that General Kelly intended to come out and teach Americans about this experience that so few of us understand, because he knows that so few of us are Gold Star families or even close with them. He talks about the 1 percent who serve.

But in winding it in to sort of this really kind of angry, edgy criticism of the congresswoman, getting his facts wrong, calling her an empty barrel, he in the end made it political. And as I said, I think she made it political. Even though she has a heartfelt concern for this family, who she's very close to, and -- and the sergeant who she knew very well and mentored. So -- so everyone, you know, is coming from the right place a little bit. But -- but making it political really erases all of the sincere emotion behind this.

CUOMO: And it's also, once again, a distraction from finding out what happened in that ambush.


CUOMO: And you know now the more we're seeing about asking for questions, it's obviously that, look, as negative this situation has been, the pressure has made a difference. Because they're obviously looking for answers now, John Avlon, in a way that maybe just the military was doing in its own pro forma way before. Now you have a lot of lawmakers who want to know what happened.

AVLON: That's right. But this should be fact-finding, not fault- finding. In these incidents, you want to keep politics out of it. It's too bad that sometimes the pressure is needed to bring the necessary scrutiny when Americans' lives are in danger. But let's keep the focus on the soldiers, on the family, beyond politics and to approach this inquest appropriately, fact-finding, not fault finding.

CAMEROTA: John Avlon, A.B. Stoddard, thank you very much.

We want to let everyone know that coming up on NEW DAY, we will have an exclusive interview with Congresswoman Frederica Wilson. We will get her reaction to President Trump and to General Kelly's comments yesterday and talk about how the Johnson family is doing, straight ahead.

[06:15:02] CUOMO: All right. So what happened on that tragic day in Niger? Remember, that's the way you have to show respect for the loss of life here. Sure, you make your condolence calls. Sure you say you'll be there. But what happened to them? Where is the accountability? Why is John McCain saying it may take a subpoena to get the information that he says is required? We have the latest on the look into what...


CUOMO: All right. Let's remember how we all got to this point, what happened in Niger. Our fighting men were out in front and ambushed there. A place that many of you may not be aware that the U.S. has men in harm's way. And then we didn't hear anything about these four service members being killed for days.

The Pentagon only now briefing members of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees behind closed doors into what they know this far about how those four soldiers lost their lives.

CNN's Barbara Starr, live at the Pentagon with more. To hear John McCain say, "I only know what I read in the paper" feels different than the way it usually works with coordination, with lawmakers about these type of military exercises.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: This is a case that is a situation that is getting attention really around the world at this point.

The Pentagon is making it clear, Chris, that they do have a much better understanding of what happened. But they are keeping those details classified right now until the investigation is over.

[06:20:05] Still, the most important thing is for these military families to know how their loved ones died.


STARR (voice-over): Green Berets were leading the 12-man team on a visit to village elders. They had done 29 patrols over the last six months with no problems. Team members had gone back to their vehicles, and they walked into an ambush.

COL. STEVE WARREN (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: A firefight is unlike any other human endeavor. It's confusing. It's loud. It's terrifying. There's blood, screams, danger all around.

STARR: A military investigation is under way. But what is known is disturbing. The troops had been told it was unlikely there would be opposition in the area. Now the U.S. believes it was 50 ISIS fighters with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades that attacked. The Americans had their rifles.

Thirty minutes later, French jets flew over the battlefield trying to scare off the ISIS fighters. They had no authority to fire.

It was close to an hour before French military helicopters and the U.S. contractor aircraft came in to evacuate the dead and the wounded amid the battle confusion.

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Did they know what was going on in the area? Were they sharing it with the right people? Did the African countries know something that the U.S. advisers did not know and they didn't share?

STARR: Tough questions now face the Pentagon and the president. What happened during the firefight? What does the White House know? And especially how did Sergeant La David Johnson get separated from his fellow soldiers? When the evacuation aircraft took off they were one man short. MATTIS: The U.S. military does not leave its troops behind. And I

would just ask that you not question the actions of the troops who were caught in the firefight and question whether or not they did everything they could in order to bring everyone out at once.

STARR: That last piece of sound from Secretary Mattis is really very vital right now. What he is saying is the troops tried to find Sergeant Johnson, that they did everything they could and they were not able for some reason to find him and retrieve him. And in fact, in that first 48 hours until his body was found, there were secret plans for a Navy SEAL rescue mission to go in to try to find him, because they could not be certain whether he was dead or alive at that point -- Chris, Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: OK, Barbara, thank you very much for updating us with all of that new reporting.

Let's discuss what we know, what we don't know about this attack and this investigation. We will bring in Major General James "Spider" Marks. Great to have you here. So give us some context here. From where you sit, is there something unusual about how this investigation is unfolding?

MAJ. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, I think there's a lot that's unknown, Alisyn. And thanks for including me in this discussion. Look, the actions on the ground -- well, we have to view this thing through multiple lenses and different levels, as you can well imagine. You have the secretary of defense and his investigation that's taking place.

And let's be frank, I think at this point the secretary is -- is at a loss for some of the information that took place. You have the unified command, Africa Command that approved the mission in Niger. And then you've got the intelligence community write large, which is across all of those unified commands and supports everybody, which has stretched resources.

And so what were the intelligence assets that were available for the Africa Command to approve this engagement? And I would never second- guess those decisions. But when you do your forensics on all of this, you're probably going to find out that there are higher priority targets someplace else that were taking intelligence collection assets away, that the folks on the ground had been given a good snapshot that this was a permissive environment, Alisyn, and in the blink of an eye it became contested, heavily contested. It became an ambush and a firefight.

And so the team worked desperately. You can only imagine at that moment that they were fighting for each other. There's incredible confusion. They haven't seen anything like this in the previous 29 patrols that they have connected in the area. They're now fighting for their lives. And they're outgunned, they're outmanned by ISIS fighters. They don't know what's going on at the moment.

At the moment of the engagement, they have no clue what is taking place other than they know they're being shot at and they've got to -- they've got to consolidate. They've got to fight for each other, and they've got to bring everybody back.

And this just raises all -- a number of questions as to why was -- what was the purpose, what was the objective of this engagement? And we're going to have to get to the end of -- at the end of all of these, every time there's a death, you know, Alisyn, there's an investigation.

CUOMO: Right. Look, I mean, general, that's -- your last part of the point there is what deserves the most attention in the news coverage, which is why are they there? What are they into? You know, I mean, we keep hearing all the time, well, advise and assist. You know, they're just there to help the locals fight their own wars. And then they get ambushed and they die. And we see U.S. service members getting picked off all over the world in a way that many of us aren't aware that they're even there.

[06:25:27] And that's what raised the suspicion about not knowing about this for as long, a president not discussing it at all for so many days. What do you make of that?

MARKS: Well, you're really asking, Chris -- these are two questions, the fact that it wasn't discussed in a very open way immediately. I mean, immediately after this incident, the kimono should have been opened. And everyone within DOD, to include the White House, should have indicated, look, yes, we are presence in Niger. Yes, we are doing advise and assist missions.

But also, the second part of that is, that is we've got advise and assist missions, Chris, that are taking place all over the globe.

CUOMO: Right.

MARKS: We've got -- we've got soldiers. We have Marines. We have service members in, what, 136 countries, you know, at any one time. We've got that type of coverage. We have that type of engagement.

So there is an expectation that there should be an explanation as to our mission at large without getting into the details of what might be taking place in country A or Country B. And what we have certainly in Niger and Mali is really completely contested terrain, wide open, ISIS fighter probably coming across the border and in Niger, itself. And we're the ones that draw those lines.

We talk about Niger when we're really talking a regional challenge. And these ISIS fighters probably just walked across this, an uncontested border, ungoverned space. And then we're in the middle of it, and it immediately becomes contested, because it becomes a firefight.

CAMEROTA: Right. Spider, I mean, obviously, the American people want to know. The senators want to know. And the families, you know, want to know what happened and why their loved ones were lost.

And we should just mention, this is, of course, deeply personal to you. Not only did you serve, but your wife is a Gold Star daughter. And so what has it been like for you to watch all of this play out? MARKS: It's -- I mean, it's incredibly emotional. I have immense

respect for John Kelly on multiple levels. Here he is yesterday, talking about this immensely personal tragedy. I can't even describe it.

I look at my mother-in-law. I know she's got a jewel in her crown in heaven. She's just this absolute saint who gets the word that her husband was killed on his fourth tour in Vietnam, and she's got seven kids from the ages of 7 to 22. And you go, "You're kidding me." "No, I'm not kidding you, and you're going to have to drive on and make all this happen."

So on multiple levels we have to embrace this. Yet, there are, and to your point and we're absolutely spot on to be doing this, is we need to scratch at this, and we need to uncover it and say, "Let's talk about purpose of what we're trying to achieve here."

And we can disagree on purpose. We can disagree on purpose. Like I don't know that we should have guys in Niger. Great, have a nice day. You have your opinion.

But when we -- when we put those young men and women there from top to bottom, who's doing his and her job to ensure that the right resources are there and that we've walked down the path of every contingency, every opportunity to uncover what those pitfalls might be.

And I'll tell you, our military does it well. In this particular case, we were caught unaware that there was this huge intelligence gap between what with knew and why we put the soldiers without this additional help of gunfire, lift, evacuation capability.

What was our -- our feeling about the sources we had?


MARKS: Was the Niger government completely squaring with us? These are -- these are challenges that we've got to uncover. And I think Senator McCain is absolutely -- I don't think, he's absolutely spot on to say, "Come on, guys, talk to the Armed Services Committee. Tell us what's happening. We want to know."

CUOMO: For all the fog -- for all the fog of politics that's surrounded it, you have four U.S. service members get taken out by ISIS-affiliated fighters. We haven't seen anything like this in a long time. We've got to know the answers.

General, thank you very much. Appreciate the perspective.

CAMEROTA: Coming up on NEW DAY, we want to let you know, we have an exclusive interview with Congresswoman Frederica Wilson. We'll get her reaction to President Trump and General Kelly's comments about her. We'll also find out how the Johnson family is doing.

CUOMO: The last two presidents of the United States blasting the divisive state of American politics. They didn't mention President Trump by name, but they were talking about him. What they said, next. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)