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Trump Defends Condolence Call to Soldier's Widow; Lawmakers Demand Answers on U.S. Role in Niger; Senate to Vote on Disaster Relief Package. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired October 23, 2017 - 10:00   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. I'm John Berman.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Poppy Harlow in New York. We do begin this morning with the anguish of a military widow, Myeshia Johnson, tells the country, she still doesn't know how the love of her life, 25-year-old Army Sgt. La David Johnson was killed this month in Niger along with his three comrades. And she says, far from being comforted by the president his condolence call upset her and even made her cry. Listen.


MYESHIA JOHNSON, WIDOW OF SGT. 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, a severe wrap like I won't be able to see him. I need to see him so I will 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, it was a massive gunfire and my husband as of October 4th was missing, they didn't his whereabouts. They didn't know where he was or where to find him and a couple days later is when they told me that he went from missing to killed in action.

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: We was literally on the airport strip getting ready to get out and he called Master Sergeant Neil's phone. I asked 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 anyway. And it made me cry because I was very angry at the tone of his voice and how he said 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's what hurt me the most, because if my husband is out here fighting for our country and he risked 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.

STEPHANOPOULOS: The President said that the congresswoman was lying about the phone call.

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

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

JOHNSON: No. I don't have anything to say to him.


BERMAN: She doesn't have anything to say to the president. But this morning, already, the president has responded.

So let's go to the White House, CNN's Kaitlan Collins is there. Kaitlan, what's the president saying?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Yes. That's right, John. Just immediately after this interview aired the president got on Twitter to dispute what the widow had said. She said that it was a very hurtful phone call, where the president struggled to remember her husband's name. And the president got on Twitter and said that he "had a very respectful conversation with the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson and spoke his name from the beginning, without hesitation."

So the president is directly disputing what this widow said during that interview this morning where she also said that Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, that Democratic Congresswoman who is friends with the family and was in the car during this phone call. She said that her account of what happened was entirely accurate.

[10:05:09] Now, we know that that's something the president has also disputed, saying that she fabricated what he had said. And over the weekend, we've really seen this feud between the president and this Congresswoman escalates. He's called her wacky multiple times and she said that she believes this attack in Niger is his administration's version of Benghazi, a reference to that 2012 attack in Libya.

But what we do know, John and Poppy, is that right now the White House has no plans to reach back out to the Johnson family, but we heard Myeshia Johnson say this morning that she doesn't have any words left for the president anyways.

HARLOW: Kaitlan, thank you very much. Let us know if you hear anything else from the White House. We appreciate it.

Let's go to the Pentagon now. That's where Ryan Browne is. And Ryan, this is where hopefully some answers are going to start coming from, not only for Myeshia Johnson and all the families that lost those four soldiers in Niger, but, you know, members on both sides of the aisle in Congress. Clearly have questions.

RYAN BROWNE, CNN PENTAGON REPORTER: That's right, Poppy. There are a lot of questions remaining unanswered and the United States Africa Command which oversees U.S. troops in the region is currently conducting an investigation to try and determine exactly what happened to Sgt. Johnson and those three other soldiers who were killed in that ISIS ambush in Niger.

Now, there are multiple reports indicating different events. One thing that we're being told by officials that Sgt. Johnson's body was found about a mile from the rest of his unit, so separated during this gun battle. So these are the kind of things, how that happened, that the military will be looking at specifically, but more broadly, what the U.S. military is doing in Niger and West Africa, what these missions are, that's something members of Congress are beginning to ask questions about with several high-profile senators including Senator Lindsey Graham and Minority Leader Senator Chuck Schumer asking -- expressing surprise as to the size of the U.S. military presence there. Listen.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC), ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: I can say this to the families. They were there to defend America. They were there to help allies.

I didn't know there were a thousand troops in Niger. John McCain is right to tell the military because this is an endless war without boundaries, no limitation on time of geography. You got to tell us more.

CHUCK TODD, NBC NEWS: You heard Senator Graham there. He didn't know we had 1,000 troops in Niger. Did you?



BROWNE: Now the Pentagon says it regularly briefs members of Congress on U.S. military operations in Africa and President Trump in June sent a letter to Congress saying that there were about 1,000 U.S. troops in Niger and neighboring Cameroon. But members of Congress saying they want more briefings and potentially even hearings on what the U.S. military is doing in West Africa and specifically what happened in that ambush that left four U.S. soldiers dead. John and Poppy?

BERMAN: All right, Ryan Browne at the Pentagon for us. Thanks so much Ryan.

Joining us now, CNN senior political analyst and the senior editor of "The Atlantic," Ron Brownstein, and CNN military analyst, retired Army Lieutenant General Mark Hertling.

You know, Ron, I want to put up the statement from the president this morning that he posted on Twitter immediately after that heart- wrenching interview from Myeshia Johnson. He says, "I had a very respectful conversation with the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, and spoke his name from beginning, without hesitation!"

Here's the thing. That's not what she said. That's not how she feels this morning. That might be the most important thing. So what does the White House and what does the president get out of disputing this account now?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Look, once again, I will defer to General Hertling on this. Once again, it seems to me, we are so deep into uncharted waters. We can no longer see the shore to have a president actively in a conflict with a Gold Star Family. Again, I mean I do not believe this is publicly - you know, something we have seen before. It goes to kind of the DNA, first of all, of this president, is that whoever criticizes him in any way no matter what their circumstance. He will fight back and attack the messenger rather than, you know, rather than the message.

But this does go to -- and we've talked about this before, John and Poppy -- the underlying ambivalence that has been there from the beginning for part of what we describe as President Trump's base. About - between a fifth and a quarter of the people who voted for him last November said they doubted he had the qualifications or the temperament to succeed as president. They voted for him for other reasons. They want the change. They didn't like Hillary Clinton. And every time he engages in one of these unseemly and unprecedented conflicts, which also go to questions about his voracity. I think he deepens those doubts and it is those doubts that I think is the biggest headwind that he faces in public opinion even more than the agenda.

HARLOW: General, our reporting from the White House this morning is expect nothing further from the president on this one in terms of communication with the family. So if that is the case. And if this is all that is left, him disputing the widow's own feelings, and essentially calling her a liar. That's what he's doing with this statement. How can that be?

[10:10:12] LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: It's not a good look, Poppy. Here's what I will tell you. I learned a lot from my wife one time when we were extended in combat and my commanding general sent me back to Germany to assuage all the concerns of the spouses. My wife grabbed me at the airport and she said, hey, the most important thing, don't talk about the mission and don't talk about what soldiers do. Validate the spouses' feelings.

And that's what the president hasn't done. He has not validated a Gold Star widow's feelings. That's unfortunate. It's not a good look for a commander in chief, for any commander, to kind of get in these kinds of fights with a grieving widow.

BERMAN: OK. May not be a political thing, it might just be a human thing. I'm sorry you left this conversation feeling that way. I'm sorry that you're hurt right now. General, there are also very important questions about the status of the investigation right now, questions coming from Myeshia Johnson. What does it say to you, General, that she doesn't have more answers, that she hasn't been allowed to see her husband's body?

HERTLING: Yes. I think what they're doing, and I've experienced this as well, John. You have to conduct the investigation before you give any facts because you don't want to go back to the family afterwards and saying, hey, we made a mistake. Here's what really happened.

So it's good to have this investigation completed and that's what Afri Comm (ph) is doing. It will take a while to make sure they get all the details. They have the FBI there looking at forensics and looking at different aspects of this fight. So you don't want to give complete information.

But here's what I will tell you, the casualty assistance officer and the investigating officers will go to Mrs. Johnson after the investigation is complete and they will lay it all out for her in a very private engagement. So that's important. That will come. I now that because I've had to do that a couple times with soldiers' families that were sacrificing their lives in combat.

HARLOW: Ron, let's switch to answers that everyone needs and that, you know, Congress doesn't have. You heard just in the reporting that Senator Lindsey Graham, Senator Chuck Schumer had no idea that there were 1,000 U.S. service members in Niger. Now, we had a Republican senator on last hour who said, well, they should have known. They should have known that. They don't know that. So what are the bigger questions that you have here?

BROWNSTEIN: Right. No, I think look, I think the investigation is inevitably going to go well beyond the military itself and no more than the Republican Congress certainly did not allow the Obama State Department and Pentagon to be the last word on what happened in Benghazi, you know, enormous amounts of energy and time and money spent on excavating every aspect of that. And I think there are many questions -- I mean, you know, she said not only did she not see her husband's body but she really still does not know how he died or exactly what he was doing.

And I think John McCain is kind of the leading - you know the leading edge of this. I think there will be many in Congress who will want to know a lot more about what happened here. And I think as we've said before, whatever else a Gold Star Family is owed by their commander in chief, they are owed an explanation of what happened to their loved one and as is the country. So I do think that with the president of the Benghazi investigation behind them, the question really becomes to some extent the ball is in the court of the Republican Congress. Are they going to do their oversight job and demand a better understanding of exactly what happened here in the immediate fire fight, but in the larger sense what those troops are doing there in the first place.

BERMAN: You know, General, Ron Brownstein just used the "b" word there -

HERTLING: If I can chime in.

BERMAN: Go ahead.

HERTLING: This is critically important though. I mean, this is surprising to me that we would have senators say they don't know what's going on in Africa for a couple reasons. The army briefs this every single day in the Pentagon, exactly what's going on in Africa. There are 90 -- about 92,000 -- I'm sorry 9200 soldiers conducting different operations in Africa. There are four named missions. I could name them for you just like we have Enduring Freedom or Atlantic Resolve, there are four named missions going on in Africa and Western Africa and Central Africa and Eastern Africa. And we have been conducting these operations for quite a few years.

So I really kind of recoiled when I heard Senator Graham say they didn't know anything about it, because that's the job of the Senate Armed Services Committee to know what's going on in Africa and this is not even classified information. This is open source stuff.

So if you want to get into the weeds, certainly you have to go behind the green door and really get the classified information. But this is open source, unclassified, information where not only in Africa but in other parts of the world. There are 179,000 soldiers just U.S. Army soldiers, deployed in 140 countries today, John. So I think this is an issue that we're just not aware of how many places our U.S. Military is.

BERMAN: It's interesting, we had Congressman Steve Russel from Oklahoma, former Colonel Russell, you know, from the U.S. Army who basically said that those members who are claiming they did not know are not well read and are being disingenuous.

[10:15:08] HERTLING: I would agree.

BERMAN: And that's -- there you go. It's interesting to get the perspective from the military side there. Ron Brownstein in closing quickly, you know, the "b" word, Benghazi, is there a comparison here?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, I think there's a --I don't know in terms of the operation. But I do think there's a comparison in the terms of the Republican Congress put enormous effort into understanding exactly what happened there. And I think that that effort certainly would apply as a standard here.

This exists on two different levels. There's the entire debate we're having about the military mission in what we know and don't know. But there is that other level about the way the president comports himself and unending succession of personal conflicts and feuds and cultural conflicts often with protagonist or people of color.

I mean, you cannot overlook that. He has engaged in since taking office to the point where you cannot say that it is coincidence that these things keep unfolding one after the other. It is clearly something that he sees value in having, I think.

Now, fighting with a Gold Star Family does not seem like a normal political move, but I think that the evidence is that the president believes it is in his interest to constantly be engaged in these kinds of conflicts. And I think, you know, Americans have to decide whether they feel that is what they want to see out of the White House because the odds are they're going to continue seeing it.

HARLOW: Ron Brownstein, General Hertling, thank you both very much.

So ahead for us, the women of the Congressional Black Caucus are demanding an apology from the president's chief of staff, General Kelly, for what they call, quote, "blatant lies about Congresswoman Frederica Wilson. We will speak with a member of the CBC ahead.

BERMAN: Plus a big meeting set to take place on Capitol Hill. The president will lunch with Senate Republicans. Could tensions among the president and his party dominate that conversation and debris piling up in Puerto Rico sparking new health concerns on the island. Look at that. We're live there.


[10:21:30] BERMAN: So the Senate could vote as early as today on hurricane relief package, one that would give cash-strapped Puerto Rico much needed help. This is one month after Maria hit, just 18 percent of the island has power right now, only 18 percent, but three quarters now have drinking water, which is good news. 53 percent of the cell towers are now working.

HARLOW: And now, Puerto Rico faces a potentially big health crisis caused by the huge amount of debris and refuse that has piled up since the hurricane hit. Our Polo Sandoval is live for us in San Juan, Puerto Rico. This was and remains one of the big concerns, Polo, right? Could there be a big outbreak of something because of this? What are you seeing?

POLO SANDOVAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Well that certainly is a concern here too. Think about it. This garbage has been sitting really along people's streets here for over a month now and when you look at the numbers that are given to us by one local environmentalist, it certainly raises concerns. That's because he believes that the garbage that Puerto Rico typically produces in about two to three years was produced in less than a month because of Hurricane Maria.


SANDOVAL: This ruckus is music in Charlie Dominguez's ears. CHARLIE DOMINGUEZ, TOA BAJA RESIDENT: Yes! They arrived.

SANDOVAL: He's literally been counting the days waiting for cleanup crews to reach his town of Toa Baja, Puerto Rico.

DOMINGUEZ: Counting the calendar. I've been checking every day, 34 days.

SANDOVAL: All over this U.S. territory, piles of debris sits soaked on sidewalks weeks after Maria.

For 76-year-old Louie Acosta, this rodent invested mosquito breeding ground, a reminder of both the pieces of home that were lost and all that need to be addressed before his community can rebuild.


SANDOVAL: Seeing his and the rest of the neighbors' belongings rotting in the sun is taking a toll.

ACOSTA: In a month you're surrounded by trash, so it's not easy to see that.

SANDOVAL: Though the trash is being trucked away, another health crisis can be looming.

JUAN ROSARIO, LOCAL ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVIST: We worry a huge mess before Maria and now the mess is becoming really a crisis.

SANDOVAL: Juan Rosario known all over the island as a prominent environmental activist worries there is little to no room left in Puerto Rico's landfills for Maria's debris.

A year before Maria, the Puerto Rican government agreed to close 12 of the island's 29 landfills because they were beyond capacity, based on EPA findings. The problem goes beyond where to put Maria's mess. It's also what's in it. For years, the EPA has been concerned about dangerous substances from the island's landfills seeping into the soil, potentially contaminating ground water.

ROSARIO: This is a disaster and this is in the making in the sense that we are going to pay for this not necessarily now, but after.

SANDOVAL: Rosario worries more pollutants could be coming in a rush to clean up his island.


SANDOVAL: I have to tell you there does seem to be this effort to try to limit any potential toxic materials from making it to some of these landfills, John and Poppy, while we were watching this massive cleanup effort underway yesterday. One local contractor told me that they are essentially surveying all of the debris and trying to remove some of this potentially toxic stuff like paint and certain electronics.

[10:25:01] This contractor telling me, Poppy and John, that the EPA then comes in to try to dispose of that properly, but with tons of garbage, you really do have to wonder, if some of this is still going to eventually make it to the landfill.

HARLOW: Polo Sandoval in San Juan, thank you for the reporting.

BERMAN: President Trump pushing for what he calls the biggest tax cut ever in history. But what's actually in it and can Republicans in Congress get behind it?


BERMAN: It is all Trumps on deck this week to push for tax cuts, at least more than one. The president goes to Capitol Hill tomorrow and Ivanka Trump will hold a town hall in Pennsylvania.

HARLOW: That is correct. So, will this added White House presence deliver the president a win for his agenda? Sunlen Serfaty is live on the Hill this morning. Good morning, Sunlen. Ivanka Trump is going to be pushing for this tax credit for parents -