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Pentagon: U.S. Troops Waited an Hour to Call for Help; Trump Heads to Capitol Hill to Sell Tax Plan; Trump Disputes Military Widow's Account of Condolence Call. Aired 6-6:30a ET
Aired October 24, 2017 - 06:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
REP. ADAM KINZINGER (R), ILLINOIS: What was the mission? Why was there a lack of support?
[05:50:19] GEN. JOSEPH DUNFORD, CHAIRMAN OF THE JOINT CHIEFS: We do owe the American people transparency. We intend to deliver just that.
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: The ambush came despite intelligence that enemy contact was not likely.
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: The Armed Services Committee is not given enough information.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Once Sergeant Johnson was missing, it brought the full weight of the U.S. government to recover his body.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I want answers, most importantly, for the families.
SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: The president and Congress are laser- focused on making sure that middle-income wage earners actually benefit.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: President Trump sitting down with Senate Republicans today to chart the path forward on tax reform.
PAUL: They're doomed to fail if they do not make a bipartisan effort.
ANNOUNCER: This is NEW DAY with Chris Cuomo and Alisyn Camerota.
CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Was it them? Was it their step -- we'll get after it.
Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. See, we do a lot of talking. It's all real what you see here.
This is your NEW DAY. It's Tuesday, October 24, 6 a.m. here in New York. And here's our starting line.
New details are emerging about the ambush that killed four American soldiers in Niger nearly three weeks ago now. America's top general says the U.S. Special Forces did not call for help until an hour after the firefight with Islamic militants began. This is described as a reconnaissance or an intelligence mission, but the question now is, did an intelligence failure lead to the deadly attack?
Joint chiefs chairman, General Joseph Dunford, says the Pentagon owes answers to the families and vows to double efforts to ensure that lawmakers are getting information.
Despite repeated denials from senators on both sides of the aisle, CNN has learned that members of Congress were told about the Niger mission at least twice this year.
ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: President Trump, meanwhile, continued the condolence call controversy Monday with a Gold Star widow. The president disputes her count of the call, which she says left her in tears.
All of this as President Trump heads to Capitol Hill today to sell his tax plan. Mr. Trump will meet with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and have lunch with GOP senators.
Can this divided party somehow unite around tax reform? That's the question this morning, so we have it all covered. Let's begin with CNN's Michelle Kosinski. She is live in Washington for us.
MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Alisyn.
Well, this was remarkable to see the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff take dozens of questions, repeatedly saying that the public is owed more information.
But what also stands out is how many questions, and basic ones, remain unanswered. Things like how many U.S. troops searched for Sergeant La David Johnson. Where, exactly, were U.S. troops when they came under attack? Were they wearing body armor?
And we're now three weeks, almost, after this happened.
KOSINSKI (voice-over): America's top general providing some answers, but not many. Detailing a revised timeline of the ambush in Niger that killed four American troops.
DUNFORD: We owe you more information. More importantly, we owe the families that have fallen more information.
KOSINSKI: October 3, 12 members of a U.S. Special Operations task force leave the capital of Niger with 30 Nigerian troops. Their goal: a reconnaissance mission in a village about 53 miles north.
DUNFORD: The assessment by our leaders on the ground at that time was that contact with the enemy was unlikely. KOSINSKI: But the next day, on their way back to the capital, mid-
morning, they came under fire by around 50 local fighters with ties to ISIS, carrying small arms, machine guns, and rocket-propelled grenades.
NBC reports U.S. officials are looking into whether the militants were tipped off by someone in the village.
The Special Forces team engaged in a firefight for about an hour before requesting help. Within minutes, a U.S. drone was overhead. French jets were scrambled but took another hour to arrive to the remote location.
DUNFORD: I don't know that they thought they needed support prior to that time. I don't know how this attack unfolded. I don't know what their initial assessment was of what they were confronted with.
KOSINSKI: The French did not drop bombs. U.S. officials said Friday the pilots had the authority but could not readily identify enemy forces and did not want to risk hitting U.S. or Nigerian allies.
It was evening by the time the French could evacuate the injured and bodies of the dead Americans.
But it remains unclear how Sergeant La David Johnson became separated from the group and why it took two days to locate his body about a mile away.
DUNFORD: Did the mission of U.S. forces change during the operation? Did our forces have adequate intelligence, equipment, and training? Was there a pre-mission assessment of the threat in the area accurate?
KOSINSKI: This as a White House official confirms to CNN that the administration expedited condolence letters to families of fallen soldiers, after President Trump made this remark last week.
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I've written them personal letters. They have been sent or they're going out tonight, but they were during the weekend.
KOSINSKI: The following day, the president going a step further, making this false claim.
TRUMP: I have called, I believe, everybody, but certainly, I'll use the word virtually everybody, where during the last nine months, something's happened to a soldier. I've called virtually everybody.
KOSINSKI: An e-mail exchange between the White House and the Pentagon, first reported by "Roll Call," shows that the president's aides knew these remarks were not true. The aides rushing to learn the identities and contact information from the Defense Department.
KOSINSKI: Senator John McCain, who's a chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has been particularly outspoken about the need for more information here. Well, now there will be a closed briefing for his committee on Thursday -- Alisyn and Chris.
CAMEROTA: OK, Michelle, thank you very much.
[06:05:02] So let's bring in our panel to discuss all of this. We have CNN counterterrorism analyst, Phil Mudd; and CNN military analyst, General Mark Hertling.
General, I want to start with you. What did you hear from General Dunford yesterday that surprised you or stood out?
GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Not much surprised me, Alisyn. I think he actually did a very good preliminary brief or an interim brief in terms of what was going on. He gave as much information as he could to the press.
Remember, his priority is getting information to the family and to his bosses, in that order. And then the press comes third. And I know the press wants a lot of information. Journalists want to find out what happened, but he wants to get it right for the family, first.
I've been in situations like this before. If you get it wrong, if you tell the family something inaccurate, in the way things developed when their loved ones are killed, it's really hard to walk it back. And we owe the truth to the family more than anyone else. So that didn't surprise me at all.
He gave the absolute details that he could, and it was very insightful. The thing that did surprise me, though, was when he made a nuanced remark saying, "Hey, we've got to -- we evidently have to work a little harder at telling members of Congress what's going on on the African continent and other places, because they didn't pick it up the first time we gave it to them."
That's what I heard in general speak. He was basically saying, "Hey, we've told you guys what we're doing in Africa, and you must not have heard us."
CAMEROTA: And General, thank you for what you've been doing on Twitter, discussing this issue of why an Authorization of the Use of Military Force matters. There's a clear disconnect, because our Congress has not been appropriately invested in monitoring these missions. They don't debate it, they don't talk about it. And that's something we have to keep bringing up.
Phil Mudd, when you look at this situation, the idea of, we owe the families more information, and there seems to be an effort to gather information. Is this unusual that three weeks after something like this, an event like this, they still don't seem to know everything about what happened?
PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: No, it's not. There's a couple of reasons for that, Chris.
Look, first, you've got to look at the volume and variety of information in 2017 that you've got to collect. It's not simply interviews with the individuals on the ground or radio transmissions. You want to overlay that with what kind of drone footage you might have gotten, what the French are saying. They're the ones for the air response to this.
Then you have to look at anomalies, for example. If drone footage is showing something at a certain time period and the soldiers are saying something else, you have to go back and say over repeated interviews, why is there an anomaly there?
I think there will be anomalies we can never answer, partly because, for example, on the issue of what happened to the body, we're not going to be able, obviously, to interview the ISIS soldiers. I remember going back to the post-9/11 environment. We had questions about the 9/11 hijackers that we could never resolve, years after. And we had thousands, tens of thousands of man-hours on it.
So I think the American expectation in this digital age of a perfect picture of the battlefield is mistaken. Some answers we'll never have, Chris.
CAMEROTA: But General, how about the answer to why they were engaged in a gun battle, as we now know, for something like an hour before they called for backup or cover? Is that typical?
HERTLING: It may be, Alisyn, truthfully. And again, I'll add to what Phil just said about all the anomalies. One more thing you have to do is interview everybody that was there. Not only the American soldiers, but the Nigerian soldiers.
And in terms of the battle, it develops. The enemy gets a vote. You don't sometimes know that you're in a massive ambush when it first starts. And you have to look around and find out what's going on. There may be engagements with two or three enemy as the battle starts, and then suddenly you realize you're overwhelmed.
I've been in situations before where it's always been too late to call for air cover, because you don't know what you've gotten yourself into. That, again, goes back to the investigation. What did they know? How did the command and control take place?
I'm not ready to blame this all on a failure of intelligence. I'm sure there were some other factors that were involved. And that's what General Dunford said yesterday. He's going to get all the facts before he says anything to anybody.
But anyone that jumps on this as an intelligence failure, immediately, that automatically gives you some cognizant dissonance, and you don't start looking at other things.
So the investigation will point out everything that occurred from start to finish and everything in between.
CUOMO: Phil, what are your concerns here early on? And you know, you said something that we haven't heard from the administration yet. You said, you know, "these ISIS guys." For all of the gusto that the president discusses ISIS with and wanting to discuss radical Islamic terror, they haven't said "ISIS." He hasn't said "ISIS." So why do you say "ISIS," and what are your open questions here?
MUDD: I have one simple open questions. First, I say "ISIS" because, if you look at the types of people who would engage forces there, my judgement is -- and let's be clear here, these are people who might have ISIS ideology in their background. I'm not saying they're directly connected to somebody in Syria or Iraq.
But let me pick up on something General Hertling said. These past few days are why people like me are so ticked off at the Congress of the United States. They can't figure out how to do health care in a bipartisan fashion. They've completely hosed up the Russia investigation. Now here, the conversations are what happened in the tragedy of a tactical firefight.
[06:10:18] The real question is, 17 years after 9/11, we are engaged in places like the Philippines, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, the Sahel -- that is the area between north Africa and Africa. We're engaged against ISIS or ISIS affiliates, al Qaeda affiliate who are maybe threats to the United States in years to come. Right now, they're more insurgencies threatening local governments. Is that where America wants to be? Is that where you want to lose the life of an American child?
The Congress won't debate that, but they'll debate a finger point about whether somebody made an intelligence mistake three weeks ago. It's really irritating, Chris. They ought to debate where we are in the war.
CAMEROTA: General, what are your biggest concerns?
HERTLING: I'm with Phil on that. We see a lot of congressmen and senators coming on CNN and other stations saying what should be done. Let them go back to Congress and debate this and get an authorization for the use of military force.
I see it differently than Chris does. Chris sees it as a constitutional requirement, which I agree with. But it's also an indicator of support for what we're doing around the world.
Phil hits it right on the head. We have had a global war on terror -- I hate to use that expression -- for the last 17 years. There are soldiers, sailors, airman and Marines throughout the world doing this. It's not just in Iraq and Afghanistan. And I think the Congress of the United States should vote on this and show support for what our foreign affairs and what our national security policy is around the world.
CUOMO: I'll tell you why that this needs to get some energy. One, because it doesn't have any, you know? We were loud and proud on it yesterday. We've talked about it many times on the show. Nobody picks it up. They want to talk about the back and forth between Trump and Wilson. That's what they want to talk about.
But this matters, because if Congress seems hungry for accountability, right? That's why they're digging. They should point the finger at themselves. They were told about this mission. They don't weigh in on it. They don't debate. They don't want to own it. And then you lose American lives, it's on them. That's where it should start.
CAMEROTA: Well, luckily, we have lots of members coming up that we can ask directly.
CUOMO: And they'll all say, "Yes, Alisyn, we should debate. I'm for it." And then it never happens. That's all.
CAMEROTA: All right. We'll see. Gentlemen, thank you very much...
MUDD: Thank you.
CAMEROTA: ... for all of your insights.
CUOMO: Even Phil Mudd agrees with me.
CAMEROTA: That's weird.
CUOMO: He doesn't even agree with me on when I was born.
CUOMO: President Trump heads to Capitol Hill to sell his tax plan. The president is going to have lunch with GOP senators in the hopes of getting on the same page and remembering that they're supposed to be part of the same team. The two big issues: the tax plan and what they can still do about health care.
CNN's Joe Johns is live at the White House with more.
Joe, good morning.
JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Chris.
The president headed to Capitol Hill to participate in the traditional Tuesday policy luncheons with a clear message for Senate Republicans and the Congress at large: Pass a tax plan or go down to defeat in the mid-term elections.
He also has another message he would very much like to see: a bill on his desk by Thanksgiving, which, to put it charitably, is a heavy lift for the Congress, in part, because things that could be used to pay for the tax cut plan keep coming off the table. The president has indicated he wants to protect 401(k) plans.
Here is the tweet. He says, "There will be no change in your 401(k). This has always been a great and popular middle-class tax break that works, and it stays."
There had been talk about reducing the amount of pre-tax money workers could save in 401(k) plans in order to keep deficit spending down, which is a requirement in the Senate if you want to pass a bill with 51 votes.
There's also concern on Capitol Hill about taking away other deductions in tax reform, like the mortgage deduction, which is popular with so many Americans. A working draft of this bill is expected to be released around Capitol
Hill sometime next week.
Back to you.
CAMEROTA: OK, Joe. Thank you very much for all of that.
So the Pentagon will brief lawmakers this week on that deadly ambush in Niger, but some senators are already working to limit the war powers that Congress gave the president after 9/11, everything we've been talking about. So we will discuss the political fallout from this tragedy, next.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
[06:18:16] DUNFORD: If the Congress doesn't believe that they're not -- that they're getting sufficient information, then I need to double my efforts to provide them with information.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CUOMO: Joint chiefs chairman, General Doe [SIC] -- Joe Dunford, promising to give lawmakers more details about the ambush in Niger. The Pentagon is going to hold a classified briefing for members of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday.
This, as Senator John McCain calls on Congress for an updated war powers measure.
Let's bring in our panel: CNN political analyst, John Avlon; and CNN political commentator, Errol Louis.
So what needs to be said first, John, is this idea of the senators having high ground and saying, "The military has got to get on their game." They were told about these missions. They didn't pay attention, because they don't own what happens with our military. They punt to the executive. They don't want to debate. They don't want to do an AUMF. They don't want to own it. They got burned in 2002. It's safer this way. It's the only thing the left and right seem to agree on is, let's not do our job here.
So McCain is saying, "Hey, let's look at the War Powers Act. Let's get more information."
What is the political reality of what needs to change to create a better connection between the American people and what our men and women are doing and giving their blood for?
JOHN AVLON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, look, as you point out, the Congress has punted war powers for decades now. And it's going to be a matter of them straightening their backbone again and demanding that they be looped in as part of the process. That means political ownership. And that's going to be unpopular.
But when you've got senators surprised that we've got so many troops in the area...
CUOMO: And they were briefed.
AVLON: And they were briefed, but they were not sufficiently paying attention. You know, when not only the American people, but members of the congressional leadership don't realize that we've got twice as many servicemen and women in Niger as we do in Somalia, that's a problem of oversight. That's a problem of separation of powers.
So they're going to need to start, as they have, I think especially throughout the Trump presidency, to start reasserting their real power constitutionally as a co-equal branch of government.
[06:20:06] CAMEROTA: So Errol, do you see any political fallout from Niger? You know, as you know, Congresswoman Wilson has called this Trump's Benghazi. Is that an apt comparison?
ERROL LOUIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I sure hope not. It was such a travesty what happened with Benghazi, starting with the very night that it happened. We all remember Mitt Romney rushing before the cameras, and it was politicized almost immediately.
I think in this case, though, the game that John just described is going to be played out, you know, sort of on steroids, meaning, this is not a war, even at the level of what was happening in Benghazi. This is -- this is training missions. This is counterinsurgency. This is asymmetric warfare. This is stuff in the shadows. These are young men and women who are really risking their lives in a very sketchy kind of sort of long war against these shadowy forces.
And so nobody wants to be part of trying to sort of get a hold of that and owning that. It is much safer to let the Pentagon do what it does best.
CAMEROTA: But so, then, is that -- does that make it more controversial? I mean, is there controversy around Niger that we should all be focused on?
LOUIS: There's controversy, unfortunately, and this is the hard politics of the situation. There's controversy when something like this, a disaster like this, happens and then we, as a public, are forced to sort of confront something we'd rather not know about.
All of a sudden now, it looks like a shooting war. All of a sudden, it looks like somebody wasn't doing their job.
AVLON: And the hyperpartisan impulses that dumb everything down and make us stupid and distract us, like we saw with Benghazi, where it was not fact-finding, it was fault-finding driven by bipartisanship, that can't continue here. You know, the situational ethics, that when it's the other party in power, all of a sudden people flip their attitude, needs to stop.
The real questions: what happened to Sergeant Johnson, how was he separated? Was this actually a patrol, or were they pursuing a known terrorist? Were there eyes in the sky? They're basic questions that we need to know the answer to. And that can inform the larger debate. But it's a mistake to politicize this, just like it was a mistake to politicize Benghazi.
CUOMO: You know, you hear Phil Mudd and General Mark Hertling, OK? These were guys who were engaged in the mission. All right? This is what they did, as what we're seeing happen in Niger and other places. And they say that Congress doesn't own what happened. They haven't debated it. The American people don't know what's going on and how the war has changed. This isn't 2001.
Because you'll hear these lawmakers say, "You know, legally, we're basically in the same ground of 2001, so it's still OK." That is a punt. It's B.S.
AVLON: Of course it is.
CUOMO: And that is the true answer here. This was an advise-and- assist mission. We say advise and assist, like that manes it's OK. They're going to die, our men and women, in these situations. That's the reality of war. But our politicians don't want to own it. What do they want to own? Wilson versus Trump. That's what they're talking about.
CAMEROTA: It's easier.
CUOMO: Sure. Nobody wants to step back and away from that situation.
So where are we right now, Errol, in terms of the state of play about how to treat the fallen family and who's winning in that battle?
LOUIS: You know, the fact that there's even a question of who's won and who's lost and who's going to apologize and who's not going to apologize tells you that something very valuable has been lost and that we sort of have sunk to a low point when it comes to this stuff.
I think if we can get, you know, in sort of putting aside that, because the White House is not going to back down. The president doesn't apologize for any reason, even when that would clearly just sort of disperse all of the bad energy.
CUOMO: Even after the widow confirms everything that Wilson said, except for her insults of the president and her characterizations of him and how he's doing his job, but the facts of the call itself.
LOUIS: Well, the facts, I think, are known. Anybody looking at this with any kind of objective eye knows exactly what happened. And anybody who's been watching this White House knows exactly why the president, even in the face of all of these facts, will not apologize. And so there we are.
And it sort of kicks it back to this larger and, in some ways, more important question, how many folks are at risk in Central Africa. Why is it Niger and not somewhere else? Where is this going to go?
Is this going to just be sort of a long war of attrition? Is there going to be some larger sort of battle? You know, what's really at risk here? Is this sort of analogous to Afghanistan in 2002, 2001? Is this a real sort of haven that we have to be worried about? Those are the kind of questions we're going to have to talk about and leave all of the ugly domestic politics alone for now. Because we're at a stalemate.
CAMEROTA: So, John, it seems the chief of staff, John Kelly, General John Kelly's reputation has also taken some hits during this, ever since he took the podium and talked about his own son's death, of course, and then Congressman Wilson.
So "The New York times" today has an editorial about this. They say, on Thursday, "Mr. Kelly said that he was speaking up to defend this maybe last thing that's held sacred in our society, the sacrifice of an American soldier's life on the battlefield. This nation is in crying need of a demonstration of virtue and public life. And Mr. Kelly seemed, until now, like a man for the job. But he is not honoring Sergeant Johnson's sacrifice by insisting on falsehoods and stretching out this sordid spectacle."
What -- what are we expecting from John Kelly?
[06:25:10] AVLON: Look, first of all, it's extraordinary and extraordinarily bad for this administration and the country that we are on week two of this, because the president keeps digging.
John Kelly is an honorable man, and that press conference, nobody of goodwill has anybody but deep respect for his service and his sacrifice and the loss of his son. The problem is, is that he was self-evidently pushed out to defend the president's indefensible actions.
CAMEROTA: You don't know that. He said -- well, hold on. The president, I think, said John Kelly was so livid himself after hearing all of this...
AVLON: Unfortunately, I don't believe the president. And there's plenty of reasons not to believe the president. Too often, we have seen people pushed out to do his dirty work and defend his tangents.
CAMEROTA: I don't know. It seemed to me like John Kelly was somebody who wasn't there of his own free will. He seemed to take that podium and have something to say.
AVLON: I think it was a bifurcated message. First was, representing Gold Star families. Second was attacking the congresswoman. That politicization of it was so stark, the two-tiered message. One was political; one was personal.
Eminent respect for the personal, but the political ends up diminishing his moral authority, both as a Gold Star parent and as someone who is bringing an adult sense of discipline to this White House. Because it's beneath him; it's beneath the office; it's beneath the sacrifice to start attacking the congresswoman, inaccurately, as it turned out. And also to, all of a sudden, start raising these virtues of "We used to respect Gold Star families." Well, that was before the president, as a nominee, attacked the Khan family. We used to respect women. We could go on and on and on about that.
So, too often, if you're going to raise these sort of standards that we have apparently fallen from, and serve this president, that's a fundamental contradiction that's evident to everybody not in the room.
CUOMO: Also, just to thread together what you're both talking about, he is a general. He has his own strong convictions. He's also a politician. You know, people at the head of the military, they have political skills, even though they have a military title. And I think Kelly was putting those on display when he did his presser.
Gentlemen, appreciate it, very much.
CAMEROTA: Thank you.
CUOMO: So, we have to pay attention to what's happening down in Florida. There is a neighborhood there that is just paralyzed by fear. They've had three deadly shootings in 11 days, and the police are wondering if they have a serial killer on the loose. They're trying to identify the person you see on your screen right now. This is surveillance video. Why do they believe that this person is someone they have to find? We have a live report, next.