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Widow: Trump "Couldn't Remember My Husband's Name"; Lawmakers Demand Answers on US Role in Niger; McCain Appears To Slam Trump Over Deferments; Sgt. Johnson's Widow: "I Don't Know How He Got Killed"; Trump Wants Tax Reform By Year-End. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired October 23, 2017 - 09:00   ET


POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Top of the hour. Good morning, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm John Berman. The breaking news this morning, why can't you remember his name? The widow of La David Johnson, one of four US soldiers killed nearly three weeks ago breaks her silence on the controversial phone call she received from the president.

Myeshia Johnson says she has questions about her husband's death, questions that are not being answered by the military or the government. How was he killed? Where was he killed?

HARLOW: So many questions. Does she, if anyone, deserves answers to?

She, also this morning, stood by the version of the president's condolence call to her that was provided to the public by Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, an account disputed by the president and his chief of staff on multiple occasions.

She was very upset, she said, by the words that the president chose to use. The fact that the president, she says, could not remember her late husband's name, so upset, here's what she told "ABC News".


MYESHIA JOHNSON, WIDOW OF LA DAVID JOHNSON: The questions that I have that I need answered is, I want to know why it took them 48 hours to find my husband, why couldn't I see my husband?

Every time I asked to see my husband, they wouldn't let me.


JOHNSON: They're telling me that he's in a severe - like, I won't be able see him. I need to see him, so I would know that that is my husband. I don't know nothing. They won't show me a finger, a hand. I know my husband's body from head to toe. And they won't let me see anything.

I don't know what's in that box. It could be empty for all I know. But I need - I need to see my husband. I haven't seen him since he came home.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And what have they told you about what happened in Africa?

JOHNSON: I really don't know the answers to that one neither, because when they came to my house, they just told me that there was a massive gunfire and my husband, as of October 4th, was missing.

They didn't know his whereabouts. They didn't know where he was or where to find him. And a couple of days later is when they told me that he went from missing to killed in action.

I don't know how he got killed, where he got killed or anything. I don't know that part. They've never told me. And that's what I've been trying to find out since day one, since October 4th.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Are you confident you're going to get the answers you need?

JOHNSON: If I keep pushing for them, I will.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And they just say they don't know?

JOHNSON: They won't tell me. They won't tell me anything. I don't know anything.

STEPHANOPOULOS: There are also a lot of questions about the phone call you received from President Trump. I know you were in a car to the airport. Tell us what happened next.

JOHNSON: Me and my family was in the limo to receive my husband from, I think it was Denver - Dover, we went to.


JOHNSON: Dover. And we was nearly on the airport strip, getting ready to get out and he called Master Sergeant Neil phone. I asked the Master Sergeant Neil to put his phone on speaker, so my aunt and uncle could hear as well.

And he goes on to saying his statement as, what he said was -

STEPHANOPOULOS: The president?

JOHNSON: Yes, the president, said that he knew what he signed up for, but it hurts anyways. And it made me cry because I was very angry at the tone of his voice and how he said it. He couldn't remember my husband's name.

The only way he remembered my husband's name is because he told me, he had my husband's report in front of him. And that's when he actually said, La David. I heard him stumbling on, trying to remember my husband's name.

And that was hurting me the most, because if my husband is out here fighting for our country and he risks his life for our country, why can't you remember his name? And that's what made me upset and cry even more because my husband was an awesome soldier.

[09:05:06] STEPHANOPOULOS: The president said that the congresswoman was lying about the phone call.

JOHNSON: Whatever Miss Wilson said was not fabricated. What she said was 100 percent correct.

It was Master Sergeant Neil, me, my aunt, my uncle, and the driver and Miss Wilson in the car. The phone was on speakerphone. Why would we fabricate something like that?

STEPHANOPOULOS: Is there anything you'd like to say to the president now?

JOHNSON: No. I don't - no, I don't have nothing to say to him.


HARLOW: No words for the president. We are following these developments at the White House and at the Pentagon. Let's begin with our Joe Johns at the White House. The president is responding to this this morning. What is he saying?

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Poppy. Given the fact that the president has referred to Congresswoman Wilson as wacky and a liar after she characterized this condolence call, we did reach out to the White House, asking how they might characterize Myeshia Johnson, given the fact that she's now done an interview.

And the president does seem to have answered that question for himself with a tweet this morning. I'll just read it. It says, "I had a very respectful conversation with the widow of Sergeant La David Johnson and spoke his name from beginning without hesitation!"

So, the president with a very different tone in addressing the issues of the widow. Nonetheless, denying her version of events.

Meanwhile, the back and forth continues with the congresswoman. She's asking for an apology. She's also comparing the raid and ambush in Niger that killed Sergeant Johnson and three others, comparing it to the 2012 attack on diplomatic compounds in Libya that left questions about the ability of the United States to protect its personnel abroad.



REP. FREDERICA WILSON (D), FLORIDA: I want to set the record straight. And I want people to understand what is actually happening in Africa and try to connect the dots because I think this is going to be this administration's Benghazi. This is going to be Trump's Benghazi, Trump's Niger.

(END VIDEO CLIP) JOHNS: Today, the military, very much on the minds of people here at the White House, as we'll have a Medal of Honor ceremony, honoring a United States Vietnam veteran, who saved 60 people in four days of live action in Vietnam in 1970.

Back to you.

BERMAN: All right. Joe Johns for us at the white house. Joe, thanks so much. I want to go to the Pentagon. CNN's Ryan Browne is there. And, Ryan, just heart-wrenching comments from Myeshia Johnson.

Among other things, she says she hasn't been allowed to see the body of her husband. She doesn't even know if his body is in the casket? What's being done to answer her questions?

RYAN BROWNE, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: Well, John, there's an ongoing investigation being launched by the United States Africa Command, which oversees troops in the region.

They're trying to put what exactly happened together, including how Sergeant Johnson was separated from the rest of his unit, up to a mile away, when the fire - after the firefight took place and why it took 48 hours to locate his body there in Niger.

So, these are a lot of questions, the nature of the ambush, what the exact mission the Green Beret-led team was performing when they were attacked. These are questions that they're still trying to piece together through interviews through the surviving members of the team.

And so, a lot of these answers are being looked for right now, but one of the bigger questions being raised about this is what exactly the US military is doing in West Africa, in Niger. Some very high-profile members of Congress, senators, asking questions, saying that they didn't know how many US troops were in this country, including Senators Lindsey Graham and Senators Chuck Schumer. Let's have a listen.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I can say this to the families. They were there to defend America. They were there to help allies.

I didn't know there was 1,000 troops in Niger. John McCain is right to tell the military because this is an endless war without boundaries. No limitation on time or geography. You've got to tell us more.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're with Sen. Graham there. He didn't know we had 1,000 troops in Niger. Did you?



BROWNE: Now, the Pentagon says that they regularly brief Congress on its military operations. And President Trump, in June, sent a letter to congressional leaders saying that the US had about 1,000 troops in Niger and neighboring Cameroon.

Now, again, though, members of congress want to know more, want to learn more, and they're raising the prospect of hearings, both on this particular event, ambush in Niger and US military posture in West Africa overall.

John and Poppy?

[09:10:05] HARLOW: Ryan Browne at the Pentagon. Thank you for that reporting.

Let's talk about all of this. With us, CNN contributor Bianna Golodryga, Lynn Sweet of the "Chicago Sun-Times", and CNN military analyst and retired army colonel Steve Warren.

Lynn, let me begin with you. The president this morning chose to respond to this and he chose to essentially say in his tweet, if we can bring it up, that that's - that the widow is not telling the truth, because his words are, "I had a very respectful conversation with the widow of Sergeant La David Johnson and I spoke his name from the beginning without hesitation!"

That is directly counter to the widow's own account. Why is the White House responding this way?

LYNN SWEET, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "CHICAGO SUN-TIMES": It is baffling. It is just baffling. Because this is something, John and Poppy, that we could bring our own experience to the table.

If I said something and if you, God forbid, had a terrible situation, I said something to either of you and you took it the wrong way, it's upon me to just try to fix it and not make it worse. It is just so known in our own human experience that, if you say you're hurt, you're hurt.

And that's what the widow of the most - one of the most credible people around to testify about this situation at the moment about the whole complexity of the emotional moment of this call, I don't know why - I mean, I know why. No one controls the tweet of the president.

But just one other quick observation. I don't know why in terms of just allowing of Trump to make that call in the first place, why would a president call when a widow is on her way to the casket?

It seems that, even under the best of circumstances in a tragic time, that that is not the moment for a president, any president, to make that call.

BERMAN: Colonel, again, as Poppy said, clearly, the widow, Myeshia Johnson, does not feel the way the president says she should feel this morning, that it was a respectful phone call. Would it violate some sort of military protocol to write a note, to send a note from the president, from the chief of staff, from the defense secretary to say, hey, we're really sorry that this has all played out the way it has, we're sorry you're hurting, God bless you and God bless your late husband and just move on?

STEVE WARREN, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: It would violate no protocols or policies. And, in fact, that's exactly, in my view, what should happen. There's no reason to set yourself up against a grieving widow, to put yourself in opposition to the wife of a soldier who just died in combat. There's simply no reason to do that.

So, in this case, the high road - in my view, the high road is a little bit of humility and to engage this grieving widow and just let her know that we're sorry these things didn't work out, we're sorry these phone calls didn't work out, and we're sorry, of course, for your loss.

HARLOW: And maybe how can we help you now?

WARREN: And how can we help you now.

HARLOW: Bianna, it seems odd to me, and I don't know how fast answers come, but you would think that the family would at least be able to see - that she should be able to see her husband, regardless of the condition that he's in. It's surprising, is it not, that there are so few answers for her?

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: There are so few answers for her and for the country and for senators, elected officials, as well. You heard from Sen. Graham, who said he didn't know we had 1,000 troops in Niger.

Look, I don't know what the proper protocol is for body identification for families, what have you, but I do know is that it's so unfortunate we have a grieving widow who can't grieve at home, but instead has to come public not on one, but two fronts.

One, explain why my husband died and why we couldn't find his body for 48 hours. And two, why the president of the United States is in this war of words with the elected representative and now me.

That is just unfathomable. The one thing that this president could do is to tell her that your husband, and name him, La David Johnson, died for this country because he loved this country and, rest assured, that we will remember him and what he fought for.

And instead, we've turned into this bitter war of words and it's just heartbreaking.

BERMAN: She's going public because she wants answers, to a certain extent. She's not getting the answers she wants, so she's doing these interviews to ask these questions in public.

And, colonel, to that point, Sen. Lindsey Graham says, he didn't know the US had 100 - 1,000 troops, I should say, in Niger. Shouldn't he know that? I mean, Lindsey Graham is a guy who prides himself on being up to date on military matters around the world.

WARREN: Lindsey Graham is spot-on in this case, in that he should know exactly how many troops are in Africa or in any one of the countries in Africa.

Now, that said, the Pentagon has said that there have been letters sent across. I know, senator - the commander of US AFRICOM was on the Hill, testifying as part of his recurring testimony, and so these are legitimate questions that could have been asked during that testimony.

Unclear whether those questions were or were not asked. I don't believe, I see no evidence that the Pentagon or the White House is trying to obscure or hide these numbers.


I think, frankly, there hasn't been a lot of interest in Africa, outside of certain very closed circles. But I don't believe this is something that anyone is trying to hide. I think it's a legitimate mission, it's a valid mission. But it's also a mission that deserves public airing and it's a mission that deserves discussion.

Congress has an oversight role, and they absolutely have both the right and the requirement, frankly, to dig into this and find out if the U.S. military mission in Africa is in America's national security interest.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Bianna, the congresswoman, Congresswoman Wilson and now a number of other Democrats are lining up and saying, this is Trump's Benghazi. Now, we don't know, but I wonder if you think the wife's outcry this morning adds to that, adds to the necessity for an investigation, adds to the cries for an investigation?

Because it was largely the families of Ambassador Stevens and the four Americans saying we had no answers, here's what we were told. It turned out not to be true in Benghazi that added to the uproar over it.

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: It definitely adds to the complexity of the situation. Look, for the president now not only having to answer questions from a Pentagon standpoint, but also a personal standpoint, vis-a-vis his interactions via Twitter with regards -- this congresswoman and now the widow.

But, you know, I think it ultimately aligns with Congress, right? It was the Republicans who really went forward with the Benghazi hearing. So now the question is, will the Democrats turn this into an investigation that will have as much luster and longevity as the Benghazi trials.

And I think depending on who you ask, some Republicans will say Benghazi wasn't necessarily worth all of that public display. Others say that it definitely was.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Look, Congress has the right to investigate these things, but they also have the responsibility to be curious about matters around the world. Lindsey Graham, you know, should make it his business how many troops I think are in Niger, as well. Lynn, I want to shift gears to Lindsey Graham's friend, John McCain, who had some choice words that seemed to be directed at President Trump. He was doing an interview with C-Span and he was talking about the Vietnam era. Let's listen to what Senator McCain said.


SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN (R- AZ), ARMED SERVICES CHAIRMAN: We drafted the lowest income level of America and the highest income level found a doctor that would say that they had a bone spur.


BERMAN: So, he didn't mention him by name, Lynn. But you know who was wealthy back during the Vietnam era and you know who got at least one deferment because of a bone spur? President Donald Trump. So how do you read what John McCain is saying there and why is he saying it?

LYNN SWEET, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "CHICAGO SUN TIMES": I think this is part of John McCain leading the opposition to President Trump, emboldened, perhaps, by his illness, that he has no reason -- never really had, given he's John McCain -- to mince words.

And bone spur is a pretty specific situation, so I don't think it's a leap to understand that it was aimed at President Trump. The point with Trump, by the way, he had deferments before that for them, because he was at Fordham and the University of Pennsylvania.

And so, the point I think McCain was trying to make, actually, was one more of economics and culture of the time, of how people ended up serving more than questioning basic patriotism.

And I think given that we have a volunteer army today that is telling in the context of this whole story we're talking about, from who was on the ground in Niger to the darts that Senator McCain was sending to President Trump.

BERMAN: All right, Bianna Golodryga, Lynn Sweet, Colonel, thanks so much for being with us. Really appreciate it.

So, should there be a Benghazi-style hearing about the attacks in Niger? We'll speak to a Republican congressman who was also a combat veteran next.

And the new front line in the war against ISIS, could the head of that terror group be hiding out in this Syrian city? CNN takes you there.

HARLOW: Also, Bill O'Reilly paying $32 million in a settlement over sexual harassment and this just before he signed a huge new contract with Fox News. What did the network know before they inked that deal and what does O'Reilly say now? You'll hear from him in his own words, ahead.


[09:23:44] HARLOW: Our breaking news this morning, the widow of Sergeant La David Johnson, Myeshia Johnson is speaking out and importantly still looking for answers about what happened to her husband.

BERMAN: Joining us now, Republican Congressman Steve Russell of Oklahoma. Also, we should note, an Iraq war combat veteran. Congressman, thanks so much for being with us. I know you didn't get a chance to hear Myeshia Johnson this morning.

Among other things, she did say that the president's tone made her very upset in that phone call. She claims the president didn't remember her husband's name. But maybe even more importantly she said she's not getting answers to some of the most basic questions.

How did her husband die? Where did her husband die? Why did it take 48 hours to recover his body? What's your reaction after hearing from a military widow like that?

REP. STEVE RUSSELL (R), OKLAHOMA: Of course, it's new. Since the 1960s, they've done foreign training missions like that from their inception. In Africa, you have an awful lot of al Qaeda and ISIS affiliates, Boko Haram, Al Shabaab, others. They work in tribal areas and they try to fractionalize, to create unrest in what are normally peaceful countries.

And so, you had the United States, Great Britain, France, that are doing an awful lot to aid countries in the training of these missions. It's not new and lawmakers that seem to be aghast at these missions going on are simply just not well read.

[09:25:09] HARLOW: So, Congressman, we'll get to that in a moment, but we do want your reaction to what Myeshia Johnson has said --

RUSSELL: I think it takes time --

HARLOW: Hold on just one second -- specifically that she says she has really no answers from the administration, including why she can't even see her husband's body.

RUSSELL: Well, an accurate answer is better than a quick inaccurate answer, which only creates more doubt and uncertainty. Look, what Mrs. Johnson is going through deserves all of our prayers and empathy and concern. She went from shock to now anger and now she will enter a stage of despondency, as she realizes as this new reality.

And if we try to deepen the divide between the United States and the military for those who have suffered loss, I don't think that's going to help her healing process. When it comes to the actual operation in Niger, what you have to consider is that this was scores of miles from a base of operations, which they had.

You have small special forces team, which are highly trained. They work in conjunction with other nations in the area, but it's not simple. They were ambushed, it was a difficult fight to their lives.

You had the French that came to their aid, thankfully. So, all of that takes time to unravel and you have a small team that was really the only people, the survivors that can unravel it.

BERMAN: You said that members of Congress right now who are claiming they were unaware of the U.S. military mission in Niger as not well read. Those are the words you just used with us. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said he was not aware that the U.S. had a thousand troops in Niger --

RUSSELL: He may not have been aware of the number, but I think it's disingenuous for any lawmaker that was engaged on foreign policy and engaged on defense issues and national security in particular to say that they were not aware of what the United States was doing in places like Cameroon, Chad, Niger, Nigeria, I can go on. It's just, we can act shocked, but, no, we are aware of operations and we get briefed routinely.

HARLOW: It wasn't just him, you know, Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer said the exact same thing when Chuck Todd asked him. Let me ask you about Jason Chaffetz, the former chair of the Government Oversight Committee. He was one of the key leaders in the Benghazi investigation.

Here's what he wrote this morning, "Congress investigated Benghazi and Extortion 17 about the Chinook helicopter. Congress should also investigate the deadly attack in Niger #truth." Do you agree at this point? I mean, even the widow has all of these questions. Does this call for a full congressional investigation?

RUSSELL: What I would offer is that Congress is already engaged. I've been engaged on this since shortly after it happened. I've already talked to members in the military that are very aware of this situation and Congress is already engaged.

Now, we can politically grandstand or we can try to deal with a delicate situation. We can cast aspersions on somebody or we can insert ourselves into somebody's grief. I don't think any of those things are appropriate.

HARLOW: So, are you saying handling it like Benghazi would be political grandstanding?

RUSSELL: It's nothing like Benghazi, because there you have the State Department, you had contractors, you had indecision within the State Department. What we're talking about here are legitimate missions with the United States military in Niger. There are some things to investigate and there are some things that we're already looking at.

Whether or not it's going to be some full political grandstand, how about we give just maybe a few days, 72 hours, 96, maybe, and let the military get the answers that they need. I think that that's very important.

BERMAN: If I could shift gears, quickly, to tax cuts. Congress, of course, the House and Senate have both passed their own versions of the budget right now. One of the things we understand that Speaker Ryan is considering is adding back a top tax bracket for the wealthiest Americans. "Axios (ph)" is reporting this morning that it might be keeping the top 39 percent tax bracket for people making over $1 million a year. Could you support that?

RUSSELL: Well, what I support is fair to everybody. You know, God in His (inaudible) law required 10 percent of all people. That seemed pretty fair. Why do we need 30, 40, 50 percent in taxation? At some point, we've got to say enough is enough.

BERMAN: Colonel, I think we all support being fair to everybody. I'm asking, specifically, about that top tax bracket, 39 percent for people making more than a million dollars. Is that something you could vote for?

RUSSELL: I don't think we ought to continue to divide our country into class warfare. You know, one of the sad things, since leaving the military and coming to Congress is to see how we have divided our nation on almost every level, socio, economic, gender, race, and now we're going to divide on class and divide on wealth. When is it that we unite on things that we actually could agree on?

HARLOW: How is it class warfare to ask whether or not Americans making over a million dollars a year, who now pay nearly 40 percent in income tax should continue to pay that? How is that class warfare in any way --