Return to Transcripts main page


Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Promises Answers; Trump to Pitch Tax Plan; Senate Advances $36.5 Billion Disaster Relief Bill; World Series Game 1 May Set Record for Heat. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired October 24, 2017 - 05:00   ET



GEN. JOSEPH DUNFORD, CHAIRMAN, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: We owe the families as much information as we can find out about what happened, and we owe the American people an explanation of what the men and women were doing.


DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: The chairman of the joint chief says he'll keep pursuing answers about what led to the deaths of four American troops in Niger. Among the questions, why did troops wait an hour to call for help once the attack began?

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: And President Trump heads to Capitol Hill today to pitch his tax plan to Republicans. He is promising, he is vowing no changes to your 401(k). So, which tax breaks are in jeopardy? How do you pay for tax reform if you don't give something up?

BRIGGS: Big policy lunch --

ROMANS: I know.

BRIGGS: -- for the GOP senators and the president today and to start talking about that.

ROMANS: Really important stuff.

Good morning and welcome to EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

BRIGGS: I'm Dave Briggs, Tuesday, October 24th.

We begin this morning with Joint Chiefs chairman, General Joseph Dunford, vowing to keep searching for answers on the deadly ambush in Niger.

[05:00:00] At a Pentagon news conference, Dunford provided new details in a new timeline of the attack on American and allied troops.

Among the major revelations here, the U.S. Special Forces and support troops were on their own once this firefight began, longer than previously thought.


DUNFORD: About an hour after the initial contact was made, they requested support. It took the French aircraft, the French were ready to go in 30, and then it took them 30 minutes -- approximately 30 minutes to get on the scene. So, from that, I think it's a fair conclusion to say that about two hours after the initial contact was made, the initial French Mirages arrived overhead.


ROMANS: So, why it took so long for the call for help is part of the investigation. A White House official described Dunford's briefing as a deliberate effort to move past the rhetoric coming from all sides. But even with General Dunford's new details, there are still many questions.

CNN's Jim Sciutto was at that briefing. He has more from Washington.


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Dave and Christine, unlike some administration officials since this deadly raid, General Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, came to the briefing room and said every question about this from the public or from the families is justified, and he will do his best to answer every question he can. But the fact is they still can't answer many questions.

He said this unit was returning to base when they were ambushed. They weren't going off on another mission. They weren't he said or he had no information that they went outside of their orders. He also said that they did not call in for air support until one hour into this firefight. And he said or at least his assessment was that that likely meant the commanders on the ground thought it was a firefight that they could handle.

Of course, it didn't turn out that way. But there are still many questions unanswered. One, why was Sergeant La David Johnson's body found 48 hours later and why was it found a mile away from where the ambush took place. They don't know the answer to that question. They also don't know why the intelligence that was given to these soldiers was that it was unlikely that they would have enemy contacts.

I also asked him, do they know if the forces that evacuated both the wounded and dead ever did a headcount to make sure that everyone was accounted for? Again, a question they don't yet have an answer to. I also asked him whether he would supply this information when any get answers to these questions, and General Dunford said without hesitation that yes, that he believes the military owes not only the family but the American public complete, in his words, transparency -- Dave and Christine.


BRIGGS: Jim Sciutto, thanks.

Joining us to discuss all this, CNN military analyst and retired Air Force colonel, Cedric Leighton.

Good morning to you, sir. Good to have you.

We've got over a lot of these questions, including what Jim points out, why, 48 hours after what Sergeant La David Johnson's body found, almost a mile away from the attack. What to you remain the biggest questions at this point?

CEDRIC LEIGHTON, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, I think some of those questions that Jim Sciutto raised are exactly the right ones to ask. So, why was the body so far away from the rest of the troops, where they were, where they were meeting allegedly with village elders, you know, why was that -- how come it took them so long to actually get air support into this area.

Why did they think if General Dunford's supposition is correct, why did they think they could handle this firefight? And, really, why is the intelligence, why was that intelligence so scarce and so lacking in detail, the kind of detail they needed to understand what the threat was?

ROMANS: I want to play a little bit of sound from General Dunford yesterday where he was talking about how they thought the contacts would be unlikely. This was a reconnaissance mission. Let's listen to a little bit of what these troops were doing.


DUNFORD: U.S. forces accompanied that Nigerien unit on a reconnaissance mission to gather information. The assessment by our leaders on the ground at that time was that contact with the enemy was unlikely.


ROMANS: We now know, sir, that there are some -- more than 800, between 800 and 1,000 U.S. service members special ops and support staff there in Africa. What are they doing and what can you tell about what they are doing?

LEIGHTON: So, there are somewhere between 800 and 1,000 U.S. troops in Niger itself, Christine, in Africa. It's actually 6,000 troops --

ROMANS: Six thousand in Africa.

LEIGHTON: Yes, and all of Africa.

So that, of course, is spread over about 53 countries. So, in Niger itself, there are several things that are going on. One of the one things that is happening is that we're building a drone base in a town called Agadez, which is kind of in the center of Niger. That takes the most manpower.

There are other forces, of course, including the Special Forces such as the ones that were involved in that firefight, and they are there to assist the Nigerien forces in conducting their own missions. It's something called foreign internal defense, and that kind of mission is basically a training mission. It -- they advise, they assist, they train the local forces to do the work that we would like them to do so that terrorism doesn't spread beyond that particular area of the world.

BRIGGS: Colonel, the substance obviously of utmost important yesterday, but stylistically, we've become used to this bombastic accusatory nature of the White House podium. What did you make of the far different tone that General Dunford set with the media yesterday, the informative open honest nature of what we saw?

LEIGHTON: Well, I welcomed it. I know General Dunford. He has always been, since I've known him an excellent leader and he's also been somebody who's been very open and honest with his troops as well as with everybody else who worked with him. And that was what we saw yesterday.

That is the kind of demeanor and kind of information that you would expect from our military leaders, and I think it's the right way to go. The bombastic aspects, political aspects that is correct is something that hopefully the military can overcome and actually do what it needs to do. And that is to get information to the American people.

ROMANS: In terms of the quality of this investigation, there are those who said this is taking too long to see urgency about what's happening here. What do you make of the fact that this is sort of the first really analysis we've seen about the questions being asked and the investigation under way?

LEIGHTON: Well, I think it is a bit long, certainly. I think one of the problems we had was the White House and the Pentagon weren't quite sure exactly what happened. Not that that's an excuse or anything, but you're dealing with large distances. You're dealing with a hostile area that we didn't think was as hostile has it turned out to be.

So that, I think, complicates things, plus there are some efforts, you know, obviously with the coalition in West Africa. So, that includes the French, as well as the Nigerien and other West African forces. So with that mix, has probably complicated things. The fact it was an unexpected encounter may also have complicated things, and quite frankly, the fact that Sergeant La David Johnson was missing for so long, you know, for those couple of days that made a big difference as well and changed the focus of the effort to basically recover his remains. And that had an effect on how far the investigation could proceed.

BRIGGS: All right. Colonel Cedric Leighton, come back in about 20 minutes. We want to ask you about the continued condolence call controversy, one the president cannot let go off. We'll see you in about 20. Thank you.

Ahead, the president's tax will get a full court press on Capitol Hill today. Can he the president get Republican senators on board, and can they trust him as a negotiator? (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[05:12:39] ROMANS: President Trump heads to Capitol Hill to pitch tax reform. But he promises his proposal will not touch your 401k. The president vowed no change to the retirement savings plan via tweet, adding that this is a tax break that works and stays.

That contradicts several reports over the weekend. Republicans arguing and negotiating tax reform. They've been talking about reducing how much tax-free money workers can invest. Imagine capping contributions at say $2,400 a year. The current level is $18,000, next year $18,500.

Many popular reductions are on the chopping block. They have to be, if you're going to have tax reform. It's how you pay for tax cuts.

Despite Trump's pledge for the tax break for your 401k is safe, his promises haven't always become policy. For example, he promised his plan would bring huge tax cut force the middle class, yet the wealthy corporations got the biggest slice.

He's also trying to frame corporate tax cuts as a middle class raise. However, when you dig into the numbers, foreign investors actually benefit more from that relief for the middle class. That's right, foreign investors benefit more plans you see here than the middle class. A new analysis found that $70 billion in corporate tax savings will end up overseas. That's three times the amount middle class households receive under Trump's entire tax plan.

BRIGGS: All right. Let's bring in CNN political analyst Julian Zelizer, historian and professor at Princeton University.

Good morning to you, sir.

Only in 2017 are we tweeting out tax policy, 140 characters of the most complicated legislative achievement you could imagine. Here's the difficulty for the GOP senators and congressman.

You go back to health care, right? And the House passes a bill. They celebrate in the Rose Garden and the president calls it. How do they trust him as a negotiator knowing that all right, let's look at Lamar Alexander, Patty Murray, he encouraged them to get a bipartisan deal done, then back away from it.

How do you negotiate with this president?

JULIAN ZELIZER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: It's very hard. I think most senators and members of House are not confident that what the president says today will be what he says tomorrow and tax reform is even more controversial and difficult than health care reform. This is why we rarely have it.

So, the way the president will have to do it is to give the enticing tax cuts that are so hard for Republicans to say no to, that they will do lm anything to get those through.

[05:15:04] I don't think he will get them to trust him anymore.

ROMANS: Well, is he hurting his own cause or hurting the process when he throws something out there about the 401k? It's almost like he's watching TV, he saw our reporting about, hey, maybe your 401k, is in the chopping block. Everything has to be up for negotiation here, that's how you have tax reform

ZELIZER: Absolutely. Tax reform is about taking things away from people.

ROMANS: Right.

ZELIZER: So, it's very difficult for legislators to do. And legislators have to stick out their neck and say, well, we need to do this. We're going to do this.

The last thing they want is for the president of their own party to then go on Twitter or go on television and say, eh, I don't think we should do that. So, they will need to have some sense that the playing field won't change day-to-day if they are going to publicly stand in favor of some of these tax reforms. And without tax reforms, politically, it will be very difficult to get this through.

BRIGGS: It's crucial. Today is the lunch. President Trump has this GOP policy lunch with the Republican senators. Something else he tweeted about yesterday that is raising a few eyebrows is Myeshia Johnson, the widow of Sergeant La David Johnson, who is killed in Niger, one of the four troops. She gave a very passionate interview with George Stephanopoulos, saying, you know, she was hurt. She cried that he couldn't remember her name.

And here is what Donald Trump fired back. I had a very respectful conversation with the widow of Sergeant La David Johnson and spoke his name from the beginning without hesitation. Regardless of who's right or who's wrong, this is a woman who is pregnant with a child who will never meet his or her father. What does that tweet reveal from this president?

ZELIZER: Yes, it reveals that those kinds of feelings and that kind of sentiment is not what drives the president. This is a case where the president should just stop. He is politicizing the issue by continuing to talk about it. And there needs to be some level of sympathy that much of the public has for the widow at this moment.

ROMANS: All he has to say is I'm so sorry for your loss. I'm so sorry for your loss. That's all he has to say. But he has to be right. And so, there's another day of the news cycle.

ZELIZER: Well, it's a combination of being intensely combative, which he is, any time he attacks back. And at the other -- on the other hand, he's so focused on winning and so focused on defending his reputation in these moments that this is a case where he's clearly blinded to the actual situation. That's what we get with the tweets.

BRIGGS: He once told a biographer that he's the same person, same fighter that he was in first grade, which teaches you a lot about the way he fights back and can't rise above and be the bigger man. But we shall see. Maybe he will at some point.

Julian Zelizer, thank you so much. See you in about 30.


BRIGGS: All right. Ahead, a classic NFC east matchup in football. Eagles, Redskins, Monday night football. Andy Scholes can hardly hide his excitement over the World Series.

The Houston boy joins us with the "Bleacher Report", next.


[05:22:32] BRIGGS: It's here. Dodgers/Astros tonight, game 1, beginning what could be the warmest World Series ever.

ROMANS: And Andy Scholes does not have a dog in this fight, at all. He did. Hi, Andy.

ANDY SCHOLES, CNN SPORTS CORRESPONDENT: No matter how hard I try, I can't stop smiling about the Astros being in the World Series. I'm really excited.

And, you know, no need for a sweatshirt or jacket for this World Series. CNN weather forecast temperature at first pitch about 99 degrees shattering the previous record for highest temperature for a World Series game. Starting pitchers for tonight say it's not a big deal.


DALLAS KEUCHEL, ASTROS PITCHER: It's a dry heat. So, it's going to be hot. It's going to be hotter than normal, but at the same time, I like to sweat, I like to get that perspiration and make sure I have a firm grip on the ball.

CLAYTON KERSHAW, DODGERS PITCHER: From Houston, I'm from Texas, it's going to be hot for everybody. So, we're all used to it. Really fun.

KEUCHEL: I mean, it's the World Series, so if it's a little bit hotter than usual, that's fine with me. There's no place I'd rather be.


SCHOLES: All right. This is going to be the first World Series matchup between two 100-win teams since 1970. Going to be a good one, first pitch for game, 8:00 Eastern tonight.

All right. Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz looks like he's going to be a star in this league for a very long time. He was just a magician last night against the Redskins. He threw for four touchdowns with avoiding sacks left and right. He had an incredible night as the Eagles beat the Redskins 34-24. Philly, right now, the best record in the NFL. Finally, Warriors star Steph Curry took the time before last night's

to comfort a young boy grieving from tragedy. Curry met with Brayden Harris. His 9-year-old of Devon Harris. Now, Brayden's dad died last week after a car accident. Spending time with him giving him a hug and signing all of a sudden autographs for him and his family. Definitely a nice gesture there from Steph Curry, guys.


SCHOLES: Back to the World Series. You know the prediction that's been circulating? I've had this at my desk, guys, since June of 2014. It's never left, and I am so happy that I actually am going to use this on television, that it actually might happen. I'm so excited. It's going to be some late nights for me.

[05:25:00] If I'm a little tired the next few mornings, bear with me, because I'm staying up to watch these games.

ROMANS: I think the biggest question of this first game is how warm is your beer going to get by the time you get back to your seat? I mean, 99 degrees, I mean, you will not have a cold beer.

SCHOLES: And Houston, we don't have to worry about these things because we put retractable roofs on our stadiums, so we're nice and comfortable in 72-degree --

BRIGGS: Yes, but back in 2001 when they had a roof, they made them open it even though it was in the 90's in Arizona.

ROMANS: All right. Thanks, Andy.

SCHOLES: Have a good one. All right.

ROMANS: The chairman of Joint Chief of Staff on the record about the Niger attack.


DUNFORD: It is the perception that the Department of Defense has not been forthcoming and I thought it would be helpful for me to personally clarify to you what we know to date.


ROMANS: What Joseph Dunford says about the time line, who called for help and when and what questions remain about the ambush that killed four Americans.



DUNFORD: We owe the families as much information as we can find out about what happened, and we owe the American people an explanation of what the men and women were doing.