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Deadly Niger Ambush Turns into Political Maelstrom; Raqqa Liberated; Iraqi-Kurdish Tensions; Puerto Rico Crisis. Aired 2-2:30a ET

Aired October 21, 2017 - 02:00   ET




NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): The controversy that will not go away, White House chief of staff John Kelly gets his facts wrong when attacking a Democratic lawmaker. But the Trump administration stands by him and argues it's inappropriate to question a general.

Celebrations in Raqqa: U.S.-backed militias declare the total liberation of the so-called capital of ISIS.

But in neighboring Iraq, new clashes between Kurdish forces and Iraqi troops. One Kurdish commander said it's the beginning of war.

I'm Natalie Allen in Atlanta. We're live. This is CNN NEWSROOM and we start right now.


ALLEN: The week in Washington started as it began, with barely any information from the White House after four U.S. soldiers were killed in Niger. But now it has erupted into a political storm, with the White House and its critics trading a series of accusations here. Sara Murray puts it all together.


SARA MURRAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The president's response to a U.S. soldier killed in Niger, devolving into a political brawl. Trump taking to Twitter again overnight to blast the congresswoman who accused him of being insensitive in a condolence call when he told Myeshia Johnson, the widow of Sergeant La David Johnson, that her husband knew what he got into when he signed up to serve.

"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," Trump tweeted.

What began as a question over an ambush in Niger that left four American soldiers dead now morphing into a political battle over how the commander in chief carries out his most solemn duty, comforting the families of soldiers who have made the ultimate sacrifice. Just a day earlier, White House Chief of Staff and retired Marine General John Kelly made a rare appearance in the Briefing Room. A Gold Star father himself, he lamented that a call between the commander in chief and the widow of a fallen soldier was being politicized.

JOHN KELLY, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: 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.

MURRAY: Wilson says she's close with the family and was with them when the president called. But Kelly went further in his criticism Thursday, taking another swipe at the congresswoman.

KELLY: And a congresswoman stood up and in a 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 the building and 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.

MURRAY: Wilson quickly took issue with how the chief of staff portrayed her appearance at the FBI building dedication.

REP. FREDERICA WILSON (D), FLORIDA: 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 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.

MURRAY: A video of the 2015 dedication from "The Sun-Sentinel" doesn't back up Kelly's version of events. While the congresswoman touts her efforts in getting the building named for the fallen FBI agents, there's no discussion of securing funding for the project.

WILSON: Everyone said, that's impossible. It takes at least eight months to a year to complete the process through the House, the Senate and to the president's office. I said, I'm a school principal and I said, -- excuse me my French -- oh, hell no. We're going to get this done.


MURRAY: And she takes pains to thank the law enforcement officials in attendance and praised the slain FBI agents being honored.

WILSON: Most men and women in law enforcement leave their homes for work knowing that there is a possibility they may not return.

If I may, will all men and women and first-responders who work in law enforcement stand up, stand up now, so that we can applaud you and what you do?


WILSON: Stand up.


WILSON: We are proud of you. We're proud of your courage. Thank you.

MURRAY: Still, the White House is standing by Kelly's criticism of the congresswoman.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: As General Kelly pointed out, if you're able to make a sacred act like honoring American heroes all about yourself, you're an empty barrel.

If you don't understand that reference, I will put it a little more simply. As we say in the South, all hat, no cattle.

MURRAY: Even going so far as to suggest General Kelly a military background inoculates him from questioning.

QUESTION: Can he come out here and talk to us about this at some point...


HUCKABEE SANDERS: I think he has addressed that pretty thoroughly yesterday.

QUESTION: Well, he was wrong yesterday in talking about getting the money.


HUCKABEE SANDERS: If you want to go after General Kelly, that's up to you, but I think that that -- if you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that that's something highly inappropriate.

MURRAY: Amid all of the political sniping, still few answers from the administration on what exactly happened during the mission in Niger that went so badly awry.

QUESTION: Mr. President, did you authorize the mission in Niger?


MURPHY: On Friday, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders refused to engage in any questions about that mission in Niger, instead saying the administration would wait until a full investigation into those events are completed -- Sara Murray, CNN, the White House.

(END VIDEOTAPE) ALLEN: White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders has since written the following to CNN.

Quote, "Of course, everyone can be questioned. But after witnessing General Kelly's heartfelt and somber account, we shall all be able to agree that impugning his credibility on how to best honor fallen heroes is not appropriate."

Mr. Trump had this to say in an interview with Maria Bartiromo of FOX Business News.


TRUMP: He was so offended. Because he was in the room when I made the call and so were other people. And the call was a very nice call. He was so offended that a woman would be -- that somebody would be listening to that call, he was -- he actually couldn't believe it.

Actually, he said to me, sir, this is not acceptable. This is really not -- and he knew I -- I was so nice. Look, I've called many people and I would think that every one of them appreciated it. I was very surprised to see this, to be honest with you.


ALLEN: Political analyst Michael Genovese joins me now to talk about the situation there at the White House this week.

Hello, Michael, thanks for talking with us.


ALLEN: First of all, let's talk about we just heard President Trump comments about General Kelly, expressing his-- General Kelly used the word stunned twice. And it seems that General Kelly was -- his comments were false.

How do you think that the chief of staff got this wrong and what was he so passionate about in seeming to want to put down the congresswoman?

GENOVESE: I think given that General Kelly is a Gold Star father, we have to cut him some slack. However, having said that, he also went way over the top. He personally attacked the congresswoman in ways that were inappropriate and also inaccurate.

And so I think this was more of an emotional response by General Kelly. And the fact of the matter is that, yes, Congresswoman Wilson was listening in because she was with the family but also several people were listening in on the other side of the conversation with President Trump.

So I think that General Kelly, give him some slack because of his background, because his family lost a hero but it was inappropriate and it was wrong. ALLEN: Sure. And we understand this being a very emotional topic for him certainly. As far as White House spokeswoman kept saying to the news media, how dare you question a general, comment she made to reporters and she has said that was wrong for her to say that.

But it is her ongoing, seemingly disgust at reporters doing their jobs to question important issues.

What do make of her handling of this dialogue coming out of the Oval Office this week?

GENOVESE: Keeping with the tone of the White House and from day one that they have had this adversarial relationship, but we have no monarchy here. We have no royal family. We criticize George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, we criticize Franklin Roosevelt, we criticize our leaders. We poke holes in their stories.

We find out of telling the truth. We say sometimes the emperor has no clothes. That is what America is about. It is not about saying you -- it is highly inappropriate to question leaders. It is necessary. It is absolutely necessary to do so.

ALLEN: We appreciate you joining us, Michael Genovese, thank you.

GENOVESE: Thank you.

ALLEN: In other news, the Pentagon is looking into why one of the four U.S. soldiers killed in Niger was separated from his team. Officials say Sgt. La David Johnson was found about 1.5 km from the ambush site. The soldiers were killed more than two weeks ago after an attack by militants.


ALLEN: Other details still remain murky, including why they were ambushed when military intelligence said it was unlikely they would face enemy forces.

U.S. lawmakers are focusing on a meeting in June of last year at Trump Tower in New York. It is part of their investigation of Russia's influence on last year's presidential election.

The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee said the panel had interviewed several Russians who were there, but he did not name them. Eight people attended the meeting, including Donald Trump Jr., emails show he agreed to the meeting on the promise of getting damaging information about Hillary Clinton.

Coming up here on CNN NEWSROOM, we go inside an ISIS prison in Raqqa. What U.S.-backed forces are doing to the former terrorist base. That's coming up.

Also clashes between historic foes: why one Kurdish commander said this latest fight is the start of war with Iraq.



ALLEN: In Afghanistan, suicide bombings at two mosques killed dozens of people Friday. One blast happened at a Shiite mosque in Kabul; authorities say at least 39 people were killed when the attacker detonated his vest inside the building.

The other attack targeted a Sunni mosque west of the capital. A local official says the bomber detonated his explosives during worship services. At least 20 people were killed in that blast.

U.S.-backed fighters in Syria are celebrating a major victory over ISIS.



ALLEN (voice-over): That was the scene in Raqqa Friday s the city was declared totally liberated. Syrian Democratic Forces danced at the stadium where ISIS fighters made their last stand just a few days earlier.

Raqqa was the de facto ISIS capital for more than three years. The terror group isn't completely finished in Iraq and Syria, but its grip is waning. This map shows the territory it held back in 2014, compared to what it holds now.

That stadium we showed you was also an ISIS headquarters. The terror group used it to plan attacks and hold prisoners. CNN's Nick Paton Walsh had an inside look at that prison and the ruin ISIS brought to Raqqa.


NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): ISIS usually leaves places looking like this in their self-declared capital. It was no different, with one exception. Where are the people? Hardly a soul here by the victors swarming around ISIS' old HQ, the stadium.

(on camera): It's extraordinary to stand exactly where ISIS, just a matter of weeks and months ago may in fact have been plotting attacks against the west. This, the stadium, one of the --


WALSH (voice-over): -- symbols of their presence here.

(voice-over): It was underground where this place mattered most, torture, imprisonment of foreigners, even their own.

(on camera): Eerily, graffiti here, some of it explains to prisoners. One saying, if you're reading this, there's four main reasons why you're here. You did the crime and caught red handed. Using Twitter, GPS locations, or having GPS location switched on mobile phone, uploading videos and photos from a sensitive Wi-Fi account, i.e., you need your emir's permission, which you didn't do.

Be patient, be patient, be patient. The enemy of the Muslim, Satan, will do every whispering while you stare at the wall or the floor.

(voice-over): Further down still, the hazard that still remains. A city beset by tunnels that run deep. The main fight may be over but the flame that ISIS's sick idea lit flickers worldwide online.

The global fight here for its volunteers though, is over.

(on camera): How was it?

JOHN, VOLUNTEER: Sad now that we're not fighting anymore.

WALSH: You enjoyed it?

JOHN: Yes, like -- yes.

WALSH (voice-over): John is on his way back to sleepy Colorado.

(on camera): How close to ISIS did you get?.

JOHN: Like seven meters, you can see them running in the street.

WALSH: Is this a thrill for you?

JOHN: It's better than sitting in the desert doing nothing, drinking chai.

WALSH (voice-over): Will life for him be the same again?

JOHN: I'm 34. I was doing customer support fixing computers and stuff. So, I don't know what --

WALSH (on camera): So, probably not that.

JOHN: Probably not that.

(voice-over): What life can return here, where the only building not eviscerated is a hospital where ISIS held human shields. This is the only ISIS fighter we saw, the bodies cleaned up fast.

In the dust of this refugee camp where many have fled misery are these new sparkling tents, home to 200 ISIS fighters and their families who surrendered after a negotiated deal.

We weren't allowed to talk to them. They once lived on and in fear. Fear drove them to surrender and a future uncertain almost certainly now haunts their nights under the cold canopies here -- Nick Paton Walsh, CNN, Raqqa, Syria.

(END VIDEOTAPE) ALLEN: The Iraqi government is now in full control of the oil-rich province of Kirkuk in the country's north. Early Friday, Iraqi government forces clashed with Kurdish Peshmerga in a small town just north of Kirkuk, stealing their command of what had been for three years Kurdish controlled territory.

CNN's Ben Wedeman was there during the fighting.


BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Weapons once fired at ISIS, now fired at an ally turned enemy. Early Friday, Iraqi troops, including Iranian armed-Shia paramilitaries entered the town of (inaudible), north of Kirkuk pushing Kurdish forces ever further back.

This is the most serious outbreak of fighting yet between the two sides and does not bode well for a country that after three and a half years of bitter combat has come close to defeating ISIS.

This is the beginning of a war between Kurdistan and Baghdad, says Peshmerga Commander Goran Izz El-Dean (ph). We won't allow them to take our land.

Sporadic mortar and artillery fire echoes in the distance. As the days were on, more Kurdish forces (inaudible). According to an old adage, the Kurds have no friends but the mountains, their traditional refuge.

Today with United States officially neutral in this conflict, there is a sense among these fighters that indeed only the mountains are their friends. We were one hand with the Americans says (inaudible), but unfortunately, unfortunately, unfortunately, today the Americans have sold us to the Shia and the Iranians.

The new American president once adored by the Kurds now the object of their anger. We celebrated for Trump says Aram (ph), but Trump betrayed us.

After ISIS stormed across Iraq in the summer of 2014, the U.S. made defeat of the terror group its top priority and it worked. But in victory, there is little to savor.

(on camera): A year ago, Iraqi and Kurdish forces were fighting side- by- side with the support of the U.S.-led international coalition to drive ISIS out of Mosul. Today that grand alliance is collapsing.

(voice-over): And collapsing with it --


WEDEMAN (voice-over): perhaps Iraq itself -- Ben Wedeman, CNN, Altuqubi (ph), Iraq.

(END VIDEOTAPE) ALLEN: Coming up here, people of Puerto Rico are desperate to get back to normal more than one month after Hurricane Maria ripped through their island and ripped up their lives. We'll have a report for you coming up.




ALLEN: The government of Spain will hold an emergency cabinet meeting in a few hours to address the Catalan push for independence. The Spanish prime minister called the meeting and he's gained opposition support for dissolving Catalonia's parliament and holding regional elections in January.

The king of Spain calls the session unacceptable. Catalans voted overwhelmingly in favor of independence in a disputed referendum earlier this month. Separatists have held regular street protests.

It has been one month since Hurricane Maria left much of Puerto Rico in ruins. Since then, people on the island have been struggling to survive, many without power, clean water or basic supplies. As our Polo Sandoval reports, when schools are out of session, no one feels normal.


POLO SANDOVAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This schoolyard should be bustling with activity at the height of the fall semester. Not today. Not since Hurricane Maria threatened and later devastated Puerto Rico. Like the island's other 1,100 public schools, the doors to this high school have been closed since September 18th. Today, the only signs of life are on the other end of the campus.

Room 204 serves as Margarita Fuentes' temporary home.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (Speaking Spanish).

SANDOVAL: This 52-year-old grandmother of 11 tells me, from one moment to another, she lost her house and everything in it.

Her grandson, Ezekiel (ph), led us up the mountainside to show us what's left of the family's homes. There isn't much else you can do these days. Like most of the students on this island, a return to class may provide a welcome escape from reality.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking Spanish).

SANDOVAL: He says the first thing he'll do when he gets back to class is hug his friends. He doesn't know when that will be. As long as displaced families like his are using schools as shelters, classes can't resume.

The Department of Education announced Friday that some schools on the island would reopen on Tuesday. But the teachers at this school say that won't happen here.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (Speaking Spanish).

SANDOVAL (voice-over): "We have a lot of work to do," says Roxanna Miranda (ph), a drama teacher, anxious to welcome her high schoolers back to class.

While there's optimism, there's no real timeline for when the students will walk down the halls again. Even if displaced families are resettled, there are still plenty of obstacles.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (Speaking Spanish).

SANDOVAL (voice-over): Classrooms are in disrepair, roads are nearly impassable because of the mudslides and there's still no running water in town, leaving families to struggle to survive.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (Speaking Spanish).

SANDOVAL (voice-over): Margarita (ph) says she is staying strong and wants to see her grandchildren back in a classroom, just not this one -- Polo Sandoval, CNN, Corozal, Puerto Rico.


ALLEN: We're all feeling it for Puerto Rico, support them so much.

A second major windstorm in a week --


ALLEN: -- is impacting Ireland and the U.K.


ALLEN: And thank you for watching CNN NEWSROOM. Our top stories are right after this.