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Trump Repeats Claim That Lawmaker Lied About Call to Widow. Aired 7-7:30a ET
Aired October 20, 2017 - 07:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: President Trump again accusing Wilson of lying about his call with the widow of a fallen soldier.
[07:00:25] REP. FREDERICA WILSON (D), FLORIDA: When General Kelly made that statement he did not deny those were the words that the president used.
GEN. JOHN KELLY, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: It stuns me that a member of Congress would have listened in on a conversation.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There's a big difference between supporting these families and exploiting them.
GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We've seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you believe the administration has been forthcoming up to this point about what happened there?
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Of course not.
LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Did the African countries know something that the U.S. advisors did not know?
GEN. JAMES MATTIS, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: It is under investigation. We do not have all the accurate information yet.
ANNOUNCER: This is NEW DAY with Chris Cuomo and Alisyn Camerota.
ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everybody. Welcome to your NEW DAY.
We begin with President Trump digging in and not moving on from this ugly feud. The president once again accusing Democratic Congresswoman Frederica Wilson of lying about the content of his condolence call to the widow of Army Sergeant La David Johnson. The president's chief of staff, General John Kelly, also took on the congresswoman from the White House podium in a highly personal speech and a personal attack. Congresswoman Wilson joins us for an exclusive interview next.
CUOMO: The Pentagon is briefing members of Congress today on the ambush in Niger that started all of this. Remember, four U.S. soldiers were killed by ISIS-affiliated troops. And we heard nothing about it. Senator John McCain says he learned about it from news reports. He wants answers. He is threatening to subpoena the administration to get them.
CNN has it all covered. Let's begin with Joe Johns live at the White House -- Joe.
JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Chris, this morning the administration would very much like to move on from this controversy involving a fallen soldier, his widow and a condolence call from the president. But overnight, the president revved it up again on Twitter, even as his chief of staff now has gotten involved in trying to shape the message.
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.
REP. FREDERICA WILSON (D), FLORIDA: 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 is 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.
[07:05:16] TRUMP: I am so sorry to hear about the whole situation. What a -- 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, an amazing guy. And I just wanted to call and tell you he's a great hero.
JOHNS: A very different conference, a very different call there, obviously, from the president of the United States received very differently than it was by Sergeant Johnson's widow.
All of this overshadowing a big win for the administration on Capitol Hill. The Senate just passed the budget resolution, paving the way for a vote on tax cuts, which is a high priority for Republicans on Capitol Hill -- Chris and Alisyn.
CAMEROTA: Thanks so much, Joe.
CUOMO: All right. Lots to discuss. Let's bring in the panel: CNN political analyst John Avlon; and CNN Politics reporter and editor at large Chris Cillizza.
Chris Cillizza, what's your take on where we are right now?
CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS REPORTER AND EDITOR AT LARGE: Well, I had one take as I was driving back home last night and another as I read Donald Trump's Twitter feed. You know, I just think he can't leave anything alone. He's not capable of doing so.
The tweet last night contained a number of things that are just not true, and most notably that she -- Congresswoman Wilson secretly taped a phone call. Didn't give a total lie on the content.
This should not be a fight between the congresswoman and President Trump. Now, they both bear some level of some responsibility there. But this is a president who has shown over and over and over again an unwillingness, an incapacity -- I don't know which it is -- to not take the high road. He can never just leave well enough alone.
He could have very easily solved the situation. What he said and what they heard seemed to be very different. He could have placed another call. He could have said publicly, "You know what? These are difficult times. I did the best that I could. But if my message wasn't received in the way I meant it, I want to make clear that I -- I mourn for you. I celebrate your husband's service and the country stands behind you." The end.
Instead, tweets about Congresswoman Wilson, General Kelly comes out and attacks Congresswoman Wilson. And then another tweet about Congresswoman Wilson, ensuring that the story becomes a "This one said, that one said." Now it's a political football in a way that is not beneficial to -- I don't know, Donald Trump, Congresswoman Wilson or the memory of the soldiers who actually wind up losing at all of this.
CAMEROTA: Here's the tweet, in case anybody missed it. "The fake news is going crazy with wacky Congresswoman Wilson, Democrat, who was secretly on a very personal call, and gave a total lie on content."
John Avlon, your thoughts.
JOHN AVLON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Look, concepts like dignity, humility, being measured, discretion, valor, those concepts are things that presidents in the past aspired to. That was a tradition. That seems like a museum piece in the era of Trump.
He can't seem to hold himself to a higher standard. He's got to get in the gutter and make outrageous claims that are frequently not rooted in fact, and here's the problem. He says he's a counterpuncher. He's the president of the United States. And if you're counter punching at members of Congress, and if you're counter punching at Gold Star families, that's -- that's a sign of a sickness in some place. That is not about holding yourself to a presidential standard.
I'm sure he feels genuine compassion for these families. That videotape we played of one of the widows being comforted by him was genuine. It was presidential. It was received as such. Something went terribly wrong in this conversation.
But by not being able to let this go, as Chris points out, we don't talk about the real issues going on in the country right now, what happened in Niger. We don't talk about the soldier and the family with compassion. And we don't even talk about the successes his team is trying to have on Capitol Hill, including passing a budget resolution. This personal pique overwhelms everything, and it diminishes the presidency in the process.
CILLIZZA: And remember....
CUOMO: We've got to remember how it started, Chris. And I want to play some sound from General Kelly, because it seemed to end with him. But this started because the president was called out for not mentioning the ambush for a long time, when he was talking about a lot of other things.
And the fact that he had reached out to the families of the fallen then became an issue. He then made it an issue that other presidents never reached out to other people. He exaggerated that, obviously. And then we started going down this road.
[07:10:04] But it did seem to come to an end with General Kelly yesterday. Here's some of what he said.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
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. You know, 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 but the best man on this earth, his friends." That's what the president tried to say to four families the other day.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CUOMO: Chris Cillizza, context here. General Kelly got inserted into this because the president mentioned his slain son as proof that the president hadn't done the right thing. And there's all kind of reporting about the general wanted that to happen.
But he communicated the message that was trying to give that was delivered to General Kelly by his friend and fellow general Dunford. Which gives you some sense of context. It's much easier -- you know, and using that word lightly, but this is never easy.
But general to general, not as easy to communicate for the president, obviously, because the family didn't hear it the way General John Kelly did that day. But even in his own reckoning of this and talking about his own son, he did say that what the president was trying to say is what the congresswoman says the family heard...
CAMEROTA: In fact, he gave him the suggestion.
CUOMO: That's right. They heard those words. It just wasn't delivered that way. And it seemed to be done with that until the general then turned his sights on the congresswoman. What did you make of that part, Cillizza?
CILLIZZA: To me, you split that General Kelly press conference. He took two questions. His remarks, let's say, into two parts. The first part and what you just played is, I would categorize as the first part, really a moving testimonial, explanation of how we handle our military dead. How difficult those conversations are. The nitty- gritty details that the average person, myself included, did not know.
The second part of it, and that begins with the empty barrel comments about Congresswoman Wilson and extends through the "there used to be things that were sacred in this country" bit seemed to me -- first part, extremely powerful. Second part rings false. No. 1, you're talking about politicizing these things and how terrible
it is. But then you're attacking the person. You're attacking the congresswoman for saying that she politicized it and that she shouldn't have been on the call when the context suggests that's not accurate.
No. 2, the stuff about how women used to be sacred, how Gold Star families used to be sacred. I found myself saying, this John Kelly, is he unaware of all of Donald Trump's past statements, whether on Gold Star families, John McCain, the "Access Hollywood" tapes, you know, there's a lot of water under that bridge to sell.
CAMEROTA: That was a good point. Chris, John, stand by if you would.
Joining us now, exclusively, is Democratic Congresswoman Frederica Wilson of Florida. Congresswoman, thanks so much for making time for us this morning.
WILSON: Good morning.
CAMEROTA: So I want to just -- before we get into the specifics of what General Kelly said, I just want to get your knots on everything that has transpired over the past 48 hours.
This very public fight that you seem to be engaged in with President Trump and General Kelly. President Trump just last night, in case you missed it, at about 11 p.m. tweeted about you. He says, "The fake news is going crazy with wacky Congresswoman Wilson, a Democrat, who was secretly on a very personal call and gave a total lie on content."
What's your response to all of this?
WILSON: You know, my emphasis today is on my constituents and helping them lay our hero to rest. That's where I'm -- my head is today.
And I'm also concerned about him and his last moments. I want to know why he was separated from the rest of the soldiers. Why did it take 48 hours for them to find him? Was he still alive? Was he kidnapped? What's going on? I thought you were supposed to put your comrade across your shoulder and get on the helicopter with the dead and the wounded. Why did they leave him?
I am distraught and so is the family. There are so many questions that must be answered. And I had written a letter for an investigation. They keep saying to me, "We're going to give you a classified briefing." I can hardly wait for that classified briefing...
WILSON: ... because I am concerned about my constituent today. And I am concerned that he is not able to have an open casket funeral. And that is very painful to husband family.
[07:15:21] CAMEROTA: We can only imagine how devastating all of this has been. And you're not alone. Look, Senator John McCain, so many people are calling for an investigation into exactly what happened here, so those questions can be answered.
But I'm curious, Congresswoman, did you hear General Kelly's remarks in the press briefing room yesterday?
WILSON: I heard his remarks, and I heard him say that I bragged that I secured the money for the building of the FBI building in Miramar. And that's a lie. I feel sorry for general Kelly. He has my sympathy for the loss of his son. But he can't just go on TV and lie on me. I was not even in Congress in 2009 when the money for the building was secured. So that's a lie. How dare he?
However, I named the building at the behest of Director Comey, with the help of Speaker Boehner, working across party lines. So he didn't tell the truth, and he needs to stop telling lies on me.
CAMEROTA: Well, his point was, I think, that -- though, you're right, he didn't get the facts right on that, was that empty barrels make the most noise. And he was using that -- he was likening that to you. Basically, that you're...
WILSON: I think that's a racist term, too. I'm thinking about that one. We looked it up in the dictionary, because I had never heard of an empty barrel. And I don't like to be dragged into something like that.
The only thing I want to be dragged into right now is getting back our girls who are the victims of Boko Haram in Nigeria. I have been fighting this fight for almost four years. Two hundred and seventy- six girls were kidnapped from their dormitory in Nigeria by Boko Haram. Boko Haram split, and now one sect is with ISIS. And that multinational task force that was set up by Congress with Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria, my constituent was there.
Sergeant Johnson was there on detail. He was not fighting. He was giving advice, and he was killed and abandoned. And I feel guilty, because this is what I do every Wednesday in Congress...
WILSON: "Bring back our girls." We wear red. We're concerned about Boko Haram being the most vicious terrorist organization in the world. And we never really hear about Boko Haram.
WILSON: And Boko Haram and ISIS combined, and they killed my son.
CAMEROTA: You mean La David Johnson, Sergeant Johnson.
WILSON: La David.
CAMEROTA: Congresswoman, there are...
WILSON: My role model son. My role model son.
CAMEROTA: I understand. You were his mentor. I understand how long you go back with his family. And you knew him from childhood. But there are some things that I just want to get straight about...
WILSON: And all of his brothers and all of his cousins.
CAMEROTA: Yes, you are -- you're more than, obviously, their congresswoman, their representative. And they're more than your constituents.
But Congresswoman, I do want to get a couple of details straight here, because it sounds like there was a real disconnect in terms of what President Trump was trying to say to Sergeant Johnson's wife and what you heard. And so I just want to go to that point.
Because we now know from General Kelly and his remarks yesterday that the president came to him and said, "These calls are hard. What do you think I should say?"
And General Kelly was able to share what the casualty officer told him. And he shared with the president what he thought was an effective message. So let me just play that moment for you of what General Kelly said.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KELLY: He said, "Kell, he was doing exactly what he wanted 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.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CAMEROTA: So Congresswoman, when you hear General Kelly say that the words "he knew what he was getting into," that sounds an awful lot like what you say the president said to Sergeant Johnson's wife. Does this -- does hearing General Kelly change how you heard that conversation?
WILSON: That is not a good message to say to anyone who has lost a child at war. You don't sign up because you think you're going to die. You sign up to serve your country.
And when he says he died surrounded by his friends, he was abandoned. That did not apply to him. He was abandoned for two days, for 48 hours.
WILSON: Why? Why didn't they pick him up and put him on their shoulders like they did the other fallen comrades?
CAMEROTA: Yes. I understand. I mean, General Kelly...
WILSON: And take him to safety. He could have still been alive. So when you say died surrounded by his... CAMEROTA: Well, General Kelly -- just to be clear, General Kelly
there is talking about his own son. He's talking about the casualty officer that told him that.
WILSON: No, but we're talking about -- we're talking about a specific soldier. And when you -- every soldier is different. And every family is different.
And when you have a young mother who is six months pregnant with two small kids, you say, "I am so sorry that you have lost your husband, Myesha Johnson." You call her by her name and you say "your husband." You don't say "your guy." They were married.
And you say, "I am so sorry. You have our deepest sympathy. If there is anything this nation can do to ease your pain as your president, please let me know. I am so sorry."
That's what I would have said. And that's what he needs to practice to say. He doesn't need to talk about what people sign up for. That is unconscionable.
CAMEROTA: He -- General Kelly also said yesterday that he was absolutely stunned by your reaction, knowing from where he sits, what the president intended, that he was stunned that you had misinterpreted it, according to him, and that he was stunned.
He said he was also stunned that you would have listened in on that call, because to him those calls are sacred. Can you respond to that?
WILSON: I wasn't listening in. I was in a car where a call was being taken on a speaker phone. I wasn't listening in. Don't -- please don't characterize it as that.
And I still go back to what I said from the beginning. Call her by her name, Myesha Johnson. Call him by his name, Sergeant La David Johnson. He is not her guy. He is her husband. And that is the part that hurt her the most.
CAMEROTA: General Kelly...
WILSON: That is the part.
CAMEROTA: Something I think that is important to bring up. General Kelly said that he was so stunned and, frankly, hurt by your words and your reaction that, in order to gather his thoughts, he had to go to Arlington National Cemetery. And he spent an hour and a half walking among the gravestones there, of the people that he thinks, you know, have made, obviously, the biggest sacrifice and are the finest people in our country. And because he was hurt that way, I'm wondering if you have anything you'd like to say to General Kelly today?
WILSON: To General Kelly, I have lost members of the role models project in war before during the Iraq War. We know what it is. We feel for you, just like we feel for La David's parents and La David's wife. You have my deepest sympathy.
But I would never say to you, "Your son knew what he was signing up for." That would not be a part of my sympathy message to you.
CAMEROTA: How does this public fight that you're having with the president and now General Kelly, who called you out, obviously, yesterday, how does this end? Is it time for you all to get on a phone conversation? Is it time for you to speak to the president directly?
[07:25:07] WILSON: It probably could end with the president reaching out to the members of the 5,000 Role Models of Excellence boys and helping me to make them good men in society, instead of trying to degrade their sponsor, who's working so hard every day to keep them on the right path, sending them to college and trying to keep them away from the criminal justice system.
If he wants to help us, I sent something to him with the Congressional Black Caucus. It's called the Commission on the Social Status of Black Men and Boys. It would help us if he helped make that a law and establish that commission in the White House. That would help our entire community.
CAMEROTA: And then how about, Congresswoman, from your end? Are you willing to allow today that it's possible that you misinterpreted what the president's intentions were in that phone call to Sergeant Johnson's wife?
WILSON: There's nothing to misinterpret it, to misinterpret. He said what he said. I just don't agree with it. I don't agree that that is what you should say to grieving families.
CAMEROTA: But in terms of his intention not being callous -- in terms of his intention not being callous, and maybe he got the tone wrong but that he -- that you misinterpreted his intention or his callousness?
WILSON: Did I miss? I think my -- what I -- my intentions are not important in this today. This has to do with the family that's grieving. It's their intentions. They were hurt.
I -- this is not a question to ask me, because I can only imagine how she feels. And she was distraught that he kept saying "my guy." "Your guy." Not "your husband," "your guy." She said, "He didn't even know La David's name." So that -- that was the most painful part.
CAMEROTA: Can you tell us...
WILSON: The other most painful part is some still doesn't know why her husband was missing for 48 hours.
WILSON: So let's get to the real basis of why everyone is so upset and everyone is so grief-stricken. It has absolutely nothing to do with the phone call. It has a lot to do with what we're talking about now.
CAMEROTA: Can you tell us how they are today? I think that this is going to be a very tough day for them, for Myesha and her children.
WILSON: This is a very tough day for them. Everyone is trying to get through this. Everyone is tired of the back and forth of the TV cameras.
And the only reason I came on this morning was to say that I do not appreciate someone lying on me. If you lie on me, I'm going to answer, because I'm not going to let you get away with it. That he wants the way I you teach my boys, and that's the way I live my life. Don't look on me.
And also we're hoping that very soon everything will calm down, and we will watch a new birth, a new baby born to the Johnson family. A new baby girl. We're looking forward to that. And we will be there to support our hero's family.
The 5,000 role models is comprised of thousands of people all races, creeds and colors, strong men of honor who will love those children and love his wife, love his aunt and uncle, love his brothers, love all the little nieces and nephews. And we will be there for him.
He is our son. He's our hometown boy. And we're going to do everything we can to lift that familiar up. And we call out to America to join us as we lift up. Sergeant La David Johnson.
CAMEROTA: I know that you're trying to raise scholarship money for his children. And we want to give you an opportunity to at least acknowledge that you've already raised $600,000 for his children.
CAMEROTA: Here's the Go Fund Me page for his two children and the one on the way.
WILSON: Yes. And we -- because we want them to be comfortable and to be able to go to college and live a good life. And they won't have their father to provide for them.