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Funeral Services Held for Green Beret Killed in Niger Ambush; FBI Aides in Investigation into Cause of American Soldiers Death in Niger Ambush; New Report Indicates White House did not have Updated Information on Gold Star Families' Contacts when President Trump Claimed to have Contacted Gold Star Families; Steve Bannon Criticizes Former President George W. Bush. Aired 2-3p ET

Aired October 21, 2017 - 14:00   ET


[14:00:00] FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: -- near his home town of Cooper City, Florida. You see family members all wearing white, paying homage to him. People lining the streets of this funeral procession, holding flags and saluting the fallen soldier in a sign of respect. That moment right there, a precious moment. There are no words.

The 25-year-old was killed during an ambush leaving behind his pregnant wife and two small kids ages two and six. The investigation intensifying surrounding a search for details of what happened in that ambush in Niger. In all four Green Berets are killed, including sergeant La David Johnson and his fellow comrades there, Dustin Wright, Jeremiah Johnson, Bryan Black. The formal investigation under way into the ambush that killed Johnson and his comrades there, early reports indicating Johnson's body was found nearly a mile from where the other soldiers were killed. Lawmakers are demanding answers about what happened, what went wrong, and many U.S. civilians also asking why were these troops in Niger in the first place. And Senator Lindsey Graham issuing this warning.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, (R) SOUTH CAROLINA: The war is headed to Africa. It's begin to go morph. As we suppress the enemy in the Mideast, they're going to move. They're not going to quit.


WHITFIELD: Let's bring in CNN's senior diplomatic correspondent Michelle Kosinski. So Michelle, the FBI on the ground interviewing people trying to collect evidence. Are we learning anything more about the investigation?

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: Yes. I think most of the details that have been coming out over the past two days have focus the on the investigation itself. Who's handling it, we know that Africa Command is leading it. But as you mentioned, the FBI is also involved. U.S. intelligence agencies, they say that it includes all four branches of the military, and that additional U.S. troops were immediately sent to the capital of Niger after that happened. The Pentagon has also wanted to push back on some things. They want

to emphasize amidst criticism and questions that the search for La David Johnson started immediately after it was realized that he was missing, that the U.S. troops also had help from France and Niger.

That doesn't change the fact that there are these questions coming from people like Senator John McCain, who's the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and wondering why there has been so little information even two weeks after this happened. So a few things that we know now including these elements of the investigation is that this question over why a French planes came about 30 minutes after the firefight started, why didn't they drop bombs on. Initially it was reported, at least by some, that they didn't have authorization to do that by Niger. Now we know, according to U.S. officials, that they were concerned about causing further harm, that they couldn't really tell on the ground who were U.S. soldiers and who were enemy combatants.

So details like that, we think we're going to see more probably in the near term, but the investigation could take a long time. And so what the Pentagon has been wanting to emphasize too is that the U.S. does not leave soldiers behind. They wanted to say that people shouldn't criticize the actions of other members of this team at this point, not the least because we don't know too many details at this point.

And also saying that, as the media is looking for information, people shouldn't equate that searching for more details with the army -- with the Pentagon's ability to have that information available. So there's obviously things that they know they don't want to say. But there have been questions, too, based on some sorting that's been out there over whether the U.S. ambassador to Niger may have been resistant to cooperate or approve or support requests by the military for additional equipment and medical support to troops in Niger.

[14:05:01] The State Department flat-out says no to the question of was any of that support denied these troops. They say that didn't happen. But they're not being so quick to answer the questions over, well, was there pushback? Were any of these concerns, if there were any, elevated to the level of Secretary Tillerson? Fredricka?

WHITFIELD: All right, Michelle Kosinski, thank you so much. And of course the answers cannot come soon enough for the grieving family members of Sergeant La David Johnson being laid to rest right now. His fellow comrade Sergeant Bryan Black, 35, Staff Sergeant Jeremiah Johnson 39, and Staff Sergeant Dustin Wright age 29. All four of them killed in an ambush in Niger.

So the FBI has also joined the investigation as the Pentagon tries to pin down an exact timeline of what happened. Our Elise Labott is following those details.


ELISE LABOTT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: CNN has learned Sergeant La David Johnson was found nearly a mile away from the central scene of the ambush according to four administration officials familiar with the early assessment. The Pentagon is still looking at the exact circumstances of how Johnson became separated. Officials say the entire team led by Green Berets has been interviewed about the last time they saw Johnson. Nigerian forces found his body 48 hours after he had become separated. Defense Secretary James Mattis was on Capitol Hill today to meet with Senator John McCain the day after he threatened to issue subpoenas for the information on the ambush.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, (R) ARIZONA: I felt that we were not getting sufficient amount of information, and we are clearing a lot of that up now.

JAMES MATTIS, DEFENSE SECRETARY: We can do better at communication. We can always improve on communication, and that's exactly what we'll do.

LABOTT: Mattis is defending his troops in the face of criticism.

MATTIS: Having seen some of the news reports, 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 and question whether or not they did everything they could in order to bring everyone out at once.

LABOTT: U.S. officials are starting to provide a clearer picture of the circumstances surrounding the attack. The U.S. team stopped in a town on the Niger-Mali border so the Nigeriens they were working with could pick up supplies, including food and water, and then meet with village elders. Investigators believe the ambush may have started when the U.S. soldiers were back at their vehicles, perhaps even driving. With four Americans dead, the FBI is assisting Nigerien authorities with the investigation, providing technical assistance and helping to gather evidence, a routine step when U.S. citizens are killed overseas.

TOM FUENTES, FORMER FBI ASSISTANT DIRECTOR: The first thing they're going to speak with the military personnel who survived the attack. They'll be analyzing every bit of electronic evidence, any kind of e- mail traffic that might have come and gone from that region, talk to all the security forces throughout there who may have information regarding the movement of the people who attacked them.

LABOTT: About 1,000 U.S. troops are in Niger supporting a French-led campaign against extremists. Senator Lindsey Graham now saying the war on terror is morphing and we could see more U.S. action in Africa.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, (R) SOUTH CAROLINA: We don't want the next 9/11 to come from Niger.

LABOTT: At the Pentagon today France's defense minister received full military honors and a thanks from Mattis.

MATTIS: Following the ambush of U.S. troops in Niger last week, thank you for your support.

LABOTT: French fighter jets arrived on the scene to help the U.S. troops, but CNN has learned they didn't fire on the militants because they couldn't I.D. targets and risk hitting the U.S. and Nigerien forces on the ground.


WHITFIELD: Thanks so much to Elise Labott for that report.

Still ahead, President Trump ignited a firestorm when he said he had contacted every gold star family killed in action under his watch. Well now a new report calls into question whether the White House knew that statement was inaccurate when the president made it. We'll be right back.


[14:12:27] WHITFIELD: Welcome back. A Pentagon document is contradicting President Trump's claim that he made on Tuesday when he said that he had contacted, quoting, virtually everybody in the military families who had been killed since his inauguration. Our reporter for the "Congressional Quarterly Roll Call" uncovered a stunning exclusive e-mail exchange between the White House and the Pentagon. The email showed that not only had the president not contacted virtually all of the families of military personnel killed this year, the White House did not even have an up-to-date list of those who had been killed, and started scrambling for a list of names and family contacts.

Let me bring in John Donnelly, senior writer and reporter for "Roll Call." He broke this story. So John, tell me how you learned about these Pentagon documents, these e-mail exchanges between the Pentagon and White House.

JOHN DONNELLY, SENIOR WRITER AND REPORTER, "ROLL CALL": First of all you did a nice job of summarizing it. And I can't really tell you how I learned it since that would be revealing a source, but I will tell that you I did see the e-mail chain which involved senior people in the White House and the executive secretary for Defense Secretary James Mattis. And it was clear from the e-mail exchange that even after the president had said in a radio interview on Tuesday morning that he has contacted virtually everybody, meaning virtually all the gold star families, that they in fact, as you summarized it nicely, they didn't even have all the contact information, and they were scrambling to make sure they had an up-to-date list of all those who were either killed by enemy fire, or who had died in some other way, say in a military action.

WHITFIELD: Of course without revealing your sources, is there a way to characterize perhaps the word choice, the tenor in this exchange that ensued after the president would publicly say this, I think it was October 17th, and then a scramble then took place, White House staffers, people trying to recover, knowing that what the president said, right, according to your reporting was not true.

[14:15:17] DONNELLY: Yes. There was one e-mail that indicated that the reason that they wanted to get this information was because they want the president to be able to contact all the families. That implies that he had not contacted all the families. And so that's the gist of it. The e-mails were mainly the president wants this ASAP, and they used that term, ASAP. And so the replies were here it comes. So it was pretty matter of fact, but it was clear they were trying to fill in the gaps and make sure that they got it right going forward, and maybe make sure that they contacted more families as soon as possible so it could be accurate as soon as possible to say we have contacted all of the families.

WHITFIELD: So John, how does this add to sequence of events that the public saw unfold before our eyes this week involving the Florida congresswoman. And as we're speaking Sergeant La David Johnson is being laid to rest, one of the four Green Berets killed in the ambush in Niger, and it was the congresswoman whose comments raised eyebrows in the White House that she said Myeshia Johnson, the wife of the sergeant, said the president didn't even seem to know his name. So now what you're reporting, how does that add to the accusations coming from the congresswoman, her account of that phone call?

DONNELLY: Well, my reporting does not really speak to that issue, does not really speak to her account or the president's response. What I -- what my report shows is that the president had not spoken completely accurately when he said that he had contacted virtually all of the gold star families, and it shows -- and what we actually found out it wasn't accurate because news organizations contacted families who had not been contacted. So in the subsequent days that became apparent.

But what my report showed is that the White House itself knew, his top aides knew that it wasn't accurate and they were scrambling to try to get it right.

But let me back up real quick and say it isn't that important that the president didn't call every military family. But what's important is that he said that he did. And this is a pattern of saying something that is not completely accurate, and then anybody who questions it is criticized in personal terms. And he has to say not only that he has contacted the family, as his predecessors have done, he has to say he has done it better. He has to suggest that he's better at this than anybody else ever. And that kind of pattern has gotten him in trouble.

WHITFIELD: And customarily, John, when the White House does reach out to family members of fallen soldiers, it's not always in the form of a phone call. Oftentimes they may get a letter. But that this president talked about virtually every family, did it leave the impression it was a phone call, that there was direct contact?

DONNELLY: I think it might have left that impression. He certainly wasn't clear about it. And so then that's really the essence of the problem is that he's not speaking very precisely about this sort of thing. And then when he is caught saying something that is not -- doesn't sound too true, he gets defensive and starts lashing out at his critics. And I mean that may please some people in his base, but it also I think hurts him politically.

WHITFIELD: Did you reach out to anybody in the White House? Or I should say what was the response when you reached out to the White House for a response from your reporting of these documents in the form of e-mails?

DONNELLY: They gave me a statement, but it didn't reflect the reality of the e-mails. The reality is as I reported, that they -- that the White House aides realized that they needed to get the story straight ASAP and that the story that the president had told on Tuesday was not entirely straight.

WHITFIELD: John Donnelly of "Roll Call," thanks so much for your time and reporting.

DONNELLY: Thanks so much.

WHITFIELD: And we'll be right back.


[14:23:47] WHITFIELD: All right, despite his very public firing this summer, Steve Bannon is fiercely defending President Trump's ideals to the Republican establishment. Bannon delivered a blistering attack on former President George W. Bush after Bush made headlines this week for a speech in which he rejected Trump era nationalism.


STEVE BANNON, FORMER WHITE HOUSE CHIEF STRATEGIST: President Bush to me embarrassed himself. Speech writer wrote a hifalutin speech. It's clear he didn't understand anything he was talking about. He was no idea whether he's coming or going, just like it was when he was president of the United States.

There has not been a more destructive presidency than George Bush's.


WHITFIELD: CNN's Boris Sanchez joining me now from the White House. So tell us more about this roll that Bannon is playing out of the White House.

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, there, Fred. Yes, this is something that Steve Bannon vowed to do when he left the position as chief strategist here at the White House, to attack anyone that would challenge the president and his agenda. We certainly see him do things like this before, aggressively going after establishment Republicans, whether Senator Bob Corker or Mitch McConnell.

But this is on a different level. This is a vicious attack on a former president, questioning his intelligence. At one point in his speech before California Republicans on yesterday, Bannon said that George W. Bush didn't know what he was talking about when he was giving the speech on Thursday talking about the dangers of nativism, saying that trade protectionism was bad for the country, at one point saying that bigotry was emboldened by the current state of politics in this country.

[14:25:23] Now, George W. Bush didn't mention President Trump or Steve Bannon by name during that speech, but several times he alluded to conspiracy theories and things that make it clear that his intention was to single out the politics of this administration. Bannon of course has been recruiting candidates and fundraising to go after Republicans in the 2018 midterm elections. Keep in mind, Fred, these are people that the president will need to move his agenda forward whether or on things like tax reform or health care reform. So it is certainly a curious dynamic, Fred.

WHITFIELD: All right, Boris Sanchez at the White House, thanks so much.

And thank you for being with me this afternoon. So much more straight ahead in the Newsroom. I'm Fredricka Whitfield. I'll see you at the top of the hour with Ana Cabrera, and I'll see you tomorrow in the Newsroom.