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Joint Chiefs Chairman Gives Press Conference on Niger Ambush; Congress Takes up Tax Reform Legislation; Interview with Congresswoman Maxine Waters of California. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired October 24, 2017 - 08:00   ET


ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: -- Trump has not let go of the condolence call controversy with that gold-star widow. The president is disputing her account of the call which she says left her in tears. So we have it all covered for you. Let's begin with CNN's Michelle Kosinski. She is live in Washington. Michelle, what's the latest.

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: So here we have the chairman of the Joint Chiefs obviously feeling the need to get out and answer questions, making a point to answer all of the questions, and repeatedly saying the public is owed more information.

But at the same time there was still so many basic questions he could not answer, things like where exactly were these troops when they came under fire? Were they wearing body armor? We are three weeks after this happened.


KOSINSKI: America's top general providing some answers, but not many, detailing a revised timeline of the ambush in Niger that killed four troops.

GEN. JOSEPH DUNFORD JR., CHAIRMAN, JOINT CHIEF OF STAFF: We owe you more information. More importantly, we owe the families of the fallen more information.

KOSINSKI: October 3rd, 12 members of the U.S. special operations task force leave the capital of Niger with 30 Nigeren 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 about 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 the 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 say 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 changed during the operation? Did our forces have adequate intelligence, equipment, and training? Was their 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 have written them personal letters. They have been sent or they are going out tonight, but they're written 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 would use the word virtually everybody where during the last nine months something has happened to a soldier. I've called virtually everybody.

KOSINSKI: An e-mail exchange between the White House and 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: So there were some surprising details to come out, to hear that this was not a 30-minute firefight, but it lasted several hours from midmorning to the evening. And among those who have been vocal in trying to find more out about what happened is Senator John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Now we know that his committee will get a classified briefing from the Pentagon on Thursday. Alisyn and Chris?

CAMEROTA: OK, Michelle, thank you very much for all of that reporting.

So let's bring in our panel. We have CNN political analyst David Gregory, and CNN politics reporter and editor at large Chris Cillizza. So David, the whole Niger tragedy has I think spawned some very interesting and informative and unusual press briefings. So yesterday was General Dunford, and he did share all sorts of new details. And it was just interesting to see him there talking to the press. And then of course a few days ago it was chief of staff John Kelly, and that, as we know, has caused some of its own controversial, his briefing there. So where do you think we are with Niger? DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think among the most

important questions is to really understand what the U.S. mission is in Niger, and not just Niger but other African countries, other parts of the world where American forces are there, in probably small numbers, probably in an advisory capacity, fighting an enemy in ISIS that has now been defeated on the battlefield but is going to mutate into a more localized but still deadly force.

[08:05:04] So I think Americans are entitled to understand what America sees as the mission, deploying these kinds of troops. That's at the largest level. And then more specifically here, as General Dunford laid out, were there intelligence failures? How did they assess the risk? What kind of back up did they get? And what were the procedures that led to such a long time lag in getting to our forces who had fallen on the battlefield?

These are the critical questions and the Pentagon now belatedly is getting into a position where it's saying the American people need to know more about what our situation is over there.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Right, and obviously there's a bigger factor in terms of who knows what. Chris Cillizza, we now realize that advice and assist is a falsely benign suggestion, that men and women will be in harm's way and they may die doing this advising and assisting because that's exactly what just happened. And the link between the Pentagon and the people is Congress, and they don't want to own this. They have punted president after president, and we are now hearing what we often here when pressed, and then it disappears. Yes, I agree with you, we must debate the AUMF. We will take it up now because we haven't done so since 9/11, unless you count the Iraq war. Do you think it will happen?

CHRIS CILLIZZA, EDITOR AT LARGE, CNN POLITICS: I am very skeptical, Chris, for exactly the reason you just said, which is we often talk about it and then it disappears. There are a few consistent voices on the AUMF. Tim Kaine is probably the most high profile one, the senator from Virginia, Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2016. He has consistently said we just can't continue to do the endless conflicts without the AUMF. It hasn't got anywhere.

The American public has a very short attention span. I was doing research yesterday and came across the fact that within 13 days of the Las Vegas shootings, the largest mass murder in modern history, interests in searching for bump stocks basically went back to pre- shooting levels, and now you are seeing stories all over the place that that possibility of legislation is stalled in Congress. It's not the same thing but it moves in the same way, which is yes, we pay attention to it in the moment we pay attention to it, and then we pay attention to other things, people move on, and these operations continue. I think we have a tendency to think if we're not looking at it, it's not happening. It is happening. We only pay attention when there's these unfortunate tragedies oftentimes. So I am skeptical you see any significant action in Congress.

GREGORY: But let's underline the fact that these are special operators, right, so their missions are going to be cloaked in secrecy anyway. But it was President Obama that wanted to rely more heavily on special missions throughout the globe as a counterterror operation. This is not something that is new to the Trump administration.

And Chris, you bring this up a lot, Chris Cuomo, and I think it's very important. It's Congress that has not shown the courage to take on how much authority the president, any president should have in fighting this kind of war. You go back to our position in Vietnam, we spent years using advisers, building it up largely without the American people focused on what our mission was over there, and they were in fact, dying, as advisers to the South Vietnamese. So we know this lesson of history, and at least what is positive now is that we are drilling down on this for lots of reasons, including the president taking on this family. But Congress is going to get more information.

CILLIZZA: By the way, just very quickly, Alisyn, sorry. The one thing I'd say, one bipartisan thing you see with each president is an effort to expand executive power to lessen the control that Congress has. That is consistent throughout time, and you are seeing it with Trump. The presidency will seize as much as Congress allowed them to seize in terms of power.

CAMEROTA: I don't know if you guys caught that we just had Congressman Will Hurd on, Republican, he was basically saying yes, Congress has taken responsibility for these things, we fund them. That's how we take responsibility. And whether or not you have a piece of paper that says it's the AUMF or it's a renewal of what's happening, he's like, we fund them, we know what is happening.

CUOMO: Except they don't. You have these senators in the Armed Services Committee saying they didn't know.

CAMEROTA: Right. And then he's saying that he did know that there were 800 troops. So the whole Lindsey Graham thing of saying he and Schumer saying they didn't know the scale of what was happening in Niger, this is curious.

CILLIZZA: It's concerning, I would say, frankly, that you have senators at that level. Chuck Schumer is the most powerful Democrat in that Senate, right? This is not a rank and file guy. You would think he would know.

CUOMO: Obama put the troops there in 2013. And it was Obama who went to Congress, the most recent president to do so, during the Syria thing, which is a story that became about his perceived weakness, and he said I will do something in Syria if you give me authorization, and the Democrats at that time, and the Republicans both bailed.


[08:10:10] GREGORY: By the way, this is why it's important. Any president, any secretary of state, it's very important that they step forward, especially in a new administration, and really lay out for the American people what their vision for the world is, the vision for the projection of American power, American foreign policy. We don't have that from this administration for a number of reasons, including the dysfunction, including the marginalization of Rex Tillerson. But these things matter because Congress should know.

CUOMO: Why would you do it, David, why would you set yourself up and take on the onus as the executive if Congress wasn't pushing their own powers? If they are going to give it to you without an explanation, why wouldn't you take it?

GREGORY: Because I think Trump wants to outline what he thinks are important priorities in fighting a terror threat. He has tried to do it. He has done it rather ham-handedly that with immigration controls, but it's a really important to do it especially with the disintegrating of ISIS because if you're paying not very close attention, you're like, oh, great, ISIS was defeated. What's next? That's not really how it works, right? It's going to mutate. The threat is still there. It's complicated, and it's diffuse. And what America is going to do about it from a military point of view, from a political point of view requires people to be informed, to be on board, and that starts with Congress, and that's the kind of thing that has got to happen.

CILLIZZA: Chris, to your point, the reason they don't -- of course, again, the executive will seize as much power as is available to them. That is just the nature of the beast. Donald Trump sometimes forgets this, but we have a tripartite system of government. The judiciary, the executive, and the legislative. So if that balance of power, if the legislative is not sort of stepping up and willing to make choices that do things like not fund priorities unless they learn more information about it, the executive will continue to grab and grab and grab. That's not about Donald Trump. George W. Bush, Barack Obama, you saw the absolutely consolidation or the working to consolidate more and more power, more and more decision making in the executive branch.

CAMEROTA: "Tripartite," that's a 10 dollar word.

CUOMO: I don't know that that means.

CILLIZZA: I looked it up beforehand.

CAMEROTA: Well done.

CUOMO: Yes. "Mayonnaise" is the biggest word I ever use.


CAMEROTA: You can't spell it. Thank you both very much.

CUOMO: In just hours President Trump is going to break bread with Senate Republicans. He has got a really high stakes meeting on Capitol Hill. He is there to remind the GOP that they are supposed to be on the same team and get on the same page with two big issues -- tax and health care. CNN's Joe Johns is live at the White House with more. Joe, what are you hearing?

JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Chris, well while the president is headed to Capitol Hill to participate in the Tuesday policy luncheons with Senate Republicans, his message to Senate Republicans as well as Republicans in the House is pretty clear. If you don't pass a tax bill you're going to go down to defeat next November in the midterm elections. The president has said he wants to get a tax bill on his desk by Thanksgiving, which is an extremely heavy lift in any situation, but especially this one, because many of the ways to try to pay for the bill, as required by Senate rules, keep coming off the table.

The last example of that, the president tweeting just about 24 hours ago that he wants to protect 401(k) plans so there will be no changing of the 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 pretax income that workers could save under 401(k)s as a way to try to pay for the bill, but apparently the president doesn't want that. The administration is also loathe to touch entitlements, which would be a way to help. And there is also real heartburn about getting rid of or changing the mortgage interest deduction. So the question of how to pay for that is anybody's guess right now. The people on Capitol Hill said they expect to get some type of a Bill for people to look at some time next week. Back to you, Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: But the devil is in the details, as you point out, Joe. So thank you very much for all of that.

So the president did not back away from the disagreement with a soldier's widow yesterday or with Congresswoman Frederica Wilson. So up next, we have Congresswoman Maxine Waters. She is going to weigh in on this gold star controversy.



[08:18:33] REPORTER: Mr. President, do you regret that Myeshia Johnson was upset by your phone call at all?


REPORTER: President Trump, do you regret that Myeshia Johnson was upset by our phone call at all?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you very much, everybody.


CUOMO: President Trump didn't want to answer reporters' questions about his condolence call to Myeshia Johnson at that press avail. But the widow of Sergeant La David Johnson, as you know, has been on TV, and it's confirmed she and family members were hurt by what some of what was said in the president's phone call, and she confirmed Congressman Wilson has been saying about the same.

President Trump has repeatedly attacked Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, who was with Mrs. Johnson when she took that call.

This has turned into a political feud. Everybody says they care about the families of the fallen and yet this continues.

Joining us now is Democratic Congresswoman Maxine Waters.

Thank you for joining us, Congresswoman. Always a pleasure.

REP. MAXINE WATERS (D), CALIFORNIA: You are welcome. Delighted to be here.

CUOMO: What do you make of the state of this feud?

WATERS: Well, it all could be settled if the president of the United States of America would act responsibly and simply apologize. Just call Mrs. Johnson and say that I certainly did not intend to make you uncomfortable in the way I spoke about your son. Of course, I respect your son. I respect all of our military personnel and for all of those young people who were killed in Niger, I am profoundly sorry.

[08:20:08] He has to do that and Kelly has to do that and they could put an end to this. But for the president of the United States to attack this woman, this mother, this wife, this pregnant woman who has lost her husband, who already has three children, and don't know what the future is going to hold for herself, and for him to attack her and call her a liar is just unseemly, and I don't understand why the president of the United States would behave this way.

Of course, it is consistent with his behavior, but at some time you think he would stop it.

CUOMO: He thinks he is being attacked, that this has been politicized. I mean, I'm not reading his mind, that's what he said.

I hear you about the president and Mrs. Johnson, but then you have Kelly who was really talking about Congresswoman Wilson. You say he owes an apology as well to whom and why?

WATERS: Well, he absolutely does owe her an apology. He came before the public and he said he was in attendance at the event where she was naming the new FBI building and he repeated what he said, which he said that she said. And that was absolutely not true.

When the videotape came out showing what she said that day, it absolutely was different than what he was saying. And so, he just made it up. He did not tell the truth. I think he was trying to defend this president, which is unfortunate because he's had a successful career, and for him to come into the White House and start to defend this president is going to, you know, create a lot of damage for him and his credibility.

So, I'm just sorry that he found himself in this position, and I would hope that he would apologize. He needs to apologize. He absolutely did not tell the truth.

CUOMO: He says he was defending what is sacred and that the congresswoman has made this a political football, and she attacked the president and called him names and didn't need to do this in this set of circumstances, that she should have exercised some restraint as well. What about that?

WATERS: That is not a credible argument. The fact of the matter is, the president of the United States started this, he politicized this when he talked about how he had called or written to all of those families where they had lost someone, you know, in war, and that the other presidents had not done this, Obama had not done it, and no one had done as great as he had done.

And then we found out he lied again, and he's trying to clean up after the fact, after the fact. He's asking his staff to identify all of these families that he did not call, and then he's following up, sending them letters later on, even as of today as I understand it. That's ridiculous. He does not have an argument.

CUOMO: This has become an ugly war of words, not just in this situation. This is just the latest iteration. You have been a member, a named combatant in this battle as well.

I want to play you sound from a recent LGBT event that you are at that has drawn a lot of criticism. Let's listen to it.


WATERS: Wow. What a moving evening this is. I am sitting here listening, watching, absorbing, thinking about Ali, even though I never met him. And with this kind of inspiration, I will go out and take Trump out tonight.



CUOMO: Those words have been interpreted as an attempt on the president's life. How did you intent them?

WATERS: That's absolutely ridiculous. Nobody believes that a 79- year-old grandmother who is a congresswoman and who has been in Congress and politics for all of these years talking about doing any harm.

The only harm that I may be doing to the president is I want him impeached, and those people who are so opposed to my leadership on impeachment are organizing the right wing, the white nationalists, the KKK, they've organized an effort to try and, of course, defeat me in my election coming up and to discredit me. Everybody knows that I'm on the front lines, not talking about any physical harm to anybody. But I am talking about impeachment, and I'm not going to stop.

I believe this president is not worthy. I think that this president should not be representing our country. He has alienated our allies. He continues to lie day in and day out. He creates controversy. He can't get along with the members of Congress. He needs to be impeached. I want him impeached.

[08:25:00] And I'm going to continue my efforts to call for his impeachment. CUOMO: So, when you were saying take him out, you were talking about

your efforts to impeach him. Let me ask you --

WATERS: Absolutely, absolutely.

CUOMO: Understood.


CUOMO: Maybe the opportunity to respond to it. Thank you for responding to it.

WATERS: Welcome.

CUOMO: So, let's say it wasn't a threat against the president's person.


CUOMO: But this talk is ugly talk on both sides.

WATERS: Yes, it is. Yes.

CUOMO: Do you believe that you and others should start and be the change that you want to see and have a more high level of decency in how you discuss those that you want to criticize especially when it's the president of the United States?

WATERS: I think I have been extremely responsible in laying out the case in which this president should be impeached. I know that the right wing, the white nationalists, all of those who are organized around this president do not like this, and people are not accustomed to a woman, in particular, an African-American woman taking this kind of leadership. How dare me challenge the president of the United States?

But we have never witnessed a president who has been as irresponsible and as dangerous as this president. I think that we need to step up to the plate and tell the truth and speak truth to power, and that's what I am doing and that's what I am going to continue to do.

I know it's unusual. People have not seen anything like this before. But I believe that for as long as I have been a member of Congress, a legislator, having worked in the California state legislature, prior to coming to Congress, that I have learned to accept responsibility, and I know it seems controversial and it's unusual, and people are so accustomed to politicians patting each other on the back and saying nice things about each other and hiding the truth and not letting people know how they really feel.

I'm not that kind of person and I am going to continue to call it like it is, and speak truth to power, and say that this president is not capable of managing this country in a responsible way.

I think Congress needs to step up to the plate. We have the power. We have the power to determine whether or not constitutionally he has committed high crimes and misdemeanors. That's our decision to make.

I am saying to our members, let's do it, let's move. We cannot allow this president to destroy this country.

CUOMO: You would have to have a vote, that's what impeachment is all about, first in the House, and then as confirmed in the Senate. You don't have the votes.

WATERS: Yes, but I am depending on the representation by those who may be opposing me now to prove that they are patriotic. This is about patriotism. This is about do you love this country. This is about whether you are willing to step up to the plate no matter the criticism of the president of the United States.

If those who claim to be patriotic will stand by and watch this president do what I believe he has done in his administration, and his campaign, collude with Russian, and be such a friend to Putin that he won't even criticize him --

CUOMO: But you need proof of those things. You need proof.

WATERS: Well, I know, and that's why we have a special counsel who is connecting the dots. I am sorry the Intelligence Committee of the House and the Senate have not done their job. But I have faith in Mueller.

CUOMO: Well, they can only find what's there, right? I mean, you know, it comes down to proof. I get your feelings, but it comes down to facts ultimately in terms of if you're going to move on the president of the United States.

WATERS: Absolutely. I will tell you this, every day that we are learning about the relationships with him and his allies and the Kremlin and Putin, whether it's Manafort or whether it's Roger Stone or any of them, and we are learning that these allies all have connections, they have lied about having met --

CUOMO: Right.

WATERS: -- with representatives from the Russian government, we know that something is there, and let Mueller do his job. I think he will connect the jobs.

CUOMO: Right. I'm saying right, I'm not agreeing with you, because I don't know that we have a conclusion. I'm saying that that needs to be the process.


CUOMO: Which you only know what you show, at the end of the day, it comes down to proof.

Congresswoman Waters, thank you --

WATERS: Yes, welcome.

CUOMO: -- for taking the opportunity to come on and explain what you meant and to talk about what matters.

WATERS: Oh, absolutely. Thank you so very much.

CUOMO: All right. Be well.


CAMEROTA: OK, Chris. The deadly ambush in Niger sparking lots of questions. The FBI is now involved in trying to get answers. Former intel committee chief, Mike Rogers, is going to tell us what they might find.