Return to Transcripts main page


Nigerian Soldier Gives Firsthand Account of Deadly Ambush; Trump Lifts Gag Order on FBI Information in Uranium Deal; White House Daily Briefing. Aired 2:30-3p ET

Aired October 27, 2017 - 14:30   ET



[14:30:23] BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Senior military officials are still sorting out what led to the ambush that killed four U.S. soldiers in Niger. But intelligence sources tell CNN they do believe the attack was likely the target of opportunity and not preplanned.

Meantime, CNN has uncovered new information about the deadly attack. Senior international correspondent, Arwa Damon, actually spoke exclusively with a Nigerien soldier who was the first on the scene immediately after that ambush. And he said wounded Nigerien soldiers told them they were outnumbered and outgunned. He said the ambush forced the convey to split up and dozens of armed attackers arrived on motorcycles, surrounded the men and opened fire. But what also surprised the soldier, he had seen the Green Berets the day before dressed in T-shirts, combat fatigues and baseball caps. He described the group as being a light convoy, no heavy artillery, no body armor.

With me now, Samantha Vinograd, our CNN national security analyst. She also served on President Obama National Security Council. She spent a year in Iraq during the war, and serving in the White House, she told us yesterday, when Benghazi happened.

So, Sam, nice to see you again.


BALDWIN: Does it surprise you what this Nigerien soldier said to Arwa, that he thought it seemed a lighter force, not wearing the body armor, but baseball caps and T-shirts in such a high-risk area?

VINOGRAD: This is disturbing report. I think we'll get more information in the next few days. As Senator Nelson told us yesterday after a closed-door hearing on Niger, however, is the investigation is probably going to take weeks. The danger in the interim is that as more information comes out publicly, extremists are getting valuable insights into potential vulnerabilities in our security before we are able to address them. That's really concerning to me. Anything that publicly exposes how our troops are conducting operations puts them at much greater risk.

BALDWIN: That's a problem.

REPORTER: That's a big problem.

BALDWIN: That's a problem.

Intel sources in the region also tell CNN this attack was likely attack of opportunity. Not preplanned. Do you get that same sense?

VINOGRAD: I think it's really too soon to tell. And it's dangerous to try to assess what it was and what it wasn't at this point. I think instead what we need to focus on is making sure we don't miss any other threats that may be coming out in intelligence. We may have missed something on the run up to the attack on October 4th. And General McMaster should ask the community for as updated assessment of threats to U.S. personnel overseas so we mitigate the risks of this happening again.

BALDWIN: I mentioned you spent that year in Iraq working closely with the U.S. military. Could this kind of ambush have happened to U.S. forces anywhere around the world? Or do you think it was unique to this particular area in Africa?

VINOGRAD: You know, as you mentioned, I spent a year in Iraq during the war of '07 to '08. And I can tell you, from firsthand experience, anybody deployed to a high-threat environment is a risk, even if they were not authorized to do combat operation. We saw this play out in Iraq. We saw it play out in Niger. We have seen it occur in places like Afghanistan where U.S. soldiers also on a train, advise and assist mission have died as a result of insider attacks. The threat doesn't go away even if you are not authorized to conduct combat.

BALDWIN: Samantha Vinograd, thank you so much for coming back. Thank you.

VINOGRAD: Thanks for having me.

[14:34:04] BALDWIN: We are watching and waiting for the White House press briefing to get under way. Certainly, questions will come up when it comes to that deadly ambush in Nigerian and other issues on this Friday afternoon.

Stay with me. We'll take it live in just a moment.


BALDWIN: All right. Live pictures inside the White House press briefing room. We should see Sarah Huckabee Sanders any moment now.

But let's talk about what we know will be brought up, including the reporting that the president wanted a gag order lifted that prohibited this informant at the time of talking about a FBI investigation into Russian efforts to gain influence in the U.S. uranium industry in 2010, during the Obama administration.

With me is Norman Eisen, CNN contributor, former ambassador to the Czech Republic and former President Obama ethics czar.

So, Ambassador Eisen, always a pleasure. Welcome back to the show. First, your thoughts on this reporting. We know that the gag order

was lifted. This was the DOJ's call. But what do you make of just the fact that the president wanted to influence the DOJ to do this?

NORMAN EISEN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Brooke, thanks for having me back.

And it's pretty extraordinary to have a president make his wishes known when you have a criminal matter of this kind going on in DOJ. There are rules in the White House and in the DOJ that are designed to protect political influence. I never heard of a case like this when I was policing this type of thing in the White House for Obama. It's extraordinary. And of course it raises the specter that the president was giving those orders in order to release information that he thinks might be damaging to his adversaries. That's just not the way the rule of law is supposed to work.

[14:40:07] BALDWIN: Do we know if any previous president would have asked the DOJ to do anything similar?

EISEN: Well, of course --


BALDWIN: Actually, forgive me, Ambassador.

I think -- do we see a child in the briefing room? No, no.

Here we go, Sarah Huckabee Sanders.




SANDERS: Happy Friday. Good afternoon.

It's great to see so many friendly faces in here. Not that that's different than normal. I'm obviously referring to the children around the room.

We're really exciting and glad to welcome the kids of the press corps to the White House today.

They're going to love trick-or-treating in the Executive Office Building. And I look forward to taking some questions, maybe even from some of the kids today.

Couple of quick things to note before we get into that.

As you all saw, yesterday was an important moment for our nation's fight against the drug addiction and opioid epidemic that has hurt so many wonderful families. By directing the declaration of a nationwide public health emergency to address the opioids crisis, the president is mobilizing his entire administration to confront this issue. The president's stirring remarks yesterday, which included a powerful story of how addiction impacted his family, set the stage for the country to unite behind this fight to save lives.

In the wake of the announcement, several Cabinet members and agency heads are traveling around the country to events related to the opioid crisis. Among those participating in events are Attorney General Sessions, Secretaries Shulkin and Carson, Acting Secretary Hargan, Surgeon General Adams and Acting ICE Director Homan. These events illustrate that the president truly has made this an issue -- this issue an administration-wide priority.

On the economic front, the U.S. economy grew at 3 percent for the second quarter in a row, despite the damage from this year's hurricane season. Unemployment is at a 16-year low. The stock market continues to climb to record levels. And economic confidence is soaring. The engine of the American economy is revving up, and the president is ready to pour in the rocket fuel through massive tax cuts and reforms.

It's fitting that we have some kids with us here today, because ultimately this tax plan is about empowering hard-working American families to build a better life for themselves and a brighter future for their children.

And with that, I will take your questions.

QUESTION: Sarah, can I ask you about the $300 million contract that Whitefish Energy got to do the electrical -- rebuild the electrical grid in Puerto Rico? Does the White House have any concerns about the way this contract came down, and the fact that this company has apparently no experience of -- of doing anything on -- on this magnitude?

SANDERS: This is a contract that was determined by the local authorities in Puerto Rico, not something that the federal government played a role in.

But as we understand, there's an ongoing audit, and we'll look forward to seeing the results of that.

QUESTION: (inaudible) red flags raised by this?

And -- and can you say definitely it is the fact that the primary -- one of the primary investors in this company was a major donor to the Trump campaign had nothing to do with the fact that this contract was awarded?

SANDERS: Right. The federal government, as I said, has nothing to do with this contract or the process. This was something solely determined by the Puerto Rican government.

And as I said, we'll look forward to the audit to see if there were any other issues beyond that.


QUESTION: Thanks, Sarah.

Question on those Russia sanctions that the president signed in August. So, the recipients of those sanctions were supposed to be named on October 1st and that just came out today. I'm wondering if you could explain the delay and how soon the administration will actually act to implement those sanctions.


There was an interagency review that's now been completed. That was the cause for the delay.

The guidance was issued by the State Department and that's now being carried out. And for any further details I'd refer you to the State Department.


QUESTION: (Inaudible). President tweeted out this morning regarding the Russian investigation, quote, "After months of costly looking." Is the president suggesting that the Mueller special investigation -- investigation is a waste of money?

SANDERS: I think that the president's been pretty clear what his position throughout this process.

That's not the only investigation that's taking place. Congress has spent a great deal of time on this, a better part of a year. All of your news organizations have actually spent probably a lot of money on this, as well, which we would consider probably a pretty big waste.

I think that our position hasn't changed since day one. And I think we are seeing now that if there was any collusion with Russia it was between the DNC and the Clintons and certainly not our campaign.

QUESTION: Question number two... SANDERS: Sorry, I'm going to move around. We're going to be on a tight time (ph) today.

QUESTION: This is an important one on 401(k)s. (inaudible)

SANDERS: Well, then maybe one of your colleagues will ask it.

(inaudible), go ahead.

QUESTION: Thanks (inaudible) also.

First, do you have any comment on the situation in Catalonia and in Spain more broadly? The State Department put out (inaudible) statement, saying the United States wants (inaudible). Would you answer that from the podium? Has the president made any phone calls on that?

SANDERS: I'm not aware of any phone calls today. But we certainly echo the State Department and again reiterate our support for a unified Spain.


SANDERS: Sorry, guys, I'm going to jump around to... (CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: Thanks, Sarah.

(inaudible) president met this morning with Interior Secretary Zinke. He's from the town where that company is based. Did the president ask him directly whether he had any knowledge of this deal?

SANDERS: The primary purpose for this meeting, that had been on the schedule for several weeks, was to discuss the secretary's monuments reports that'll be coming out shortly. And that was the reason for the meeting.

But he did ask Secretary Zinke just for clarification purposes, and he reiterated once again that we have no role -- the federal government and specifically he had no had role in that contract.

John (ph)?

QUESTION: Thanks a lot, Sarah.

On the Whitefish Energy, another question on this company. Prior to Hurricane Maria, it just had two employees, and then after Hurricane Maria it's awarded a $300 million-plus contract.

I realize that you said this was a contract that was awarded by officials in Puerto Rico, but will you acknowledge that doesn't look right just on the surface of things?

SANDERS: Look, I'm not going to comment before the audit is conducted. But we certainly look forward to seeing the results of that.

And once again, this was a state and local decision made by the Puerto Rican authorities and not the federal government, but we will look into the audit once it's (inaudible).

QUESTION: The (inaudible) said there's a lot of corruption in Puerto Rico. Would -- do you think that this falls under that umbrella of corruption?

SANDERS: Once again, I'm not going to get ahead of the audit. But once we have that, we'll make (inaudible).

QUESTION: You mentioned the opioids crisis at the beginning of your remarks and how the president yesterday declared it a national public health emergency. That declaration did not come with a request for money from Congress.

How much does the president want Congress to put towards this crisis? And when will he put in a formal request for that money?

SANDERS: Well, there was $45 billion that was originally in the health plan that the president supported that no Democrat in the country supported. So ideally that would have been done through that, but since it wasn't, we're hoping that Congress will come together and there will be a lot of bipartisan support to put behind the opioid crisis and joining the president in dealing with this effort.


QUESTION: Sarah, can we say then, therefore, based on your answer just now, $45 billion is what you would like to see as an initial approach to the opioid crisis and done during the budget deal that you hope to negotiate in December?

SANDERS: We're -- we're -- I'm not going to -- I'm not going to negotiate with you from the podium, but that was the number that we outlined in that initial health care bill.

There's a $1 billion that's been spent to date, since the president came into office. We do feel like that $45 billion would have been a good number that was in the health care bill. That was what we supported.

We're going to continue looking at that and determine future numbers as we work on negotiating (inaudible).


QUESTION: Is that a good place to start with Congress, though? Is that a good place to start with Congress, though?

QUESTION: Did -- in the meeting that the president had with Secretary Zinke, did he agree with the recommendation to shrink the size of Bears Ears National Monument in Utah?

SANDERS: I'm not going to get ahead of the president's announcement on the specifics of that.

But I can tell you that he will be going to Utah in the first part of early December and we'll release more details at that point, if not some before. He also spoke with both Senators Hatch and Lee during that -- the course of that meeting.

QUESTION: Sarah...

QUESTION: Thanks, Sarah. Obviously sexual harassment has been in the news. At least 16 women accused the president of sexually harassing them throughout the course of the campaign. Last week during a press conference in the Rose Garden, the president called these accusations fake news.

Is the official White House position that -- that all of these women are lying?

SANDERS: Yeah. We've been clear on that from the beginning and the president's spoken on it.


QUESTION: Thank you, Sarah.

Last weekend, former President Jimmy Carter offered his availability as a go-between to the North Korean regime, in the hopes of resolving the differences between this country and Pyongyang. He has a history with the family of the current leader in North Korea, meeting with his grandfather in 1994.

Is the administration in contact with President Carter, and does it have any plans to use him as a go-between or an envoy to Pyongyang?

SANDERS: I don't think that's part of our process at this time. If that changes, I'll certainly let you know. But that's -- that's not part of our current plan or thinking for how to deal with North Korea.


QUESTION: Sarah, thanks.

I'll ask the 401(k) question. There...

SANDERS: You see? You got friends backing you up.


QUESTION: Helping my colleague out.

SANDERS: And you didn't -- and you didn't think anybody here liked you, John (ph).

QUESTION: Well, I got -- I've got John's (ph) back.

Is the president considering dropping the amount of pretax contributions that Americans can put into their 401(k)? Currently that's at about $18,000. It seems as if this whole issue is up for negotiation. Does the president support taking that $18,000 or so level and potentially lowering that?

SANDERS: As I've said earlier this week, the president wants to continue to fight and push for protection of Americans' retirement. And that hasn't changed. But I'm not going to get into -- negotiate any deals beyond that. But that's the president's position, and that's the same today as it was earlier this week.

QUESTION: Thanks, Sarah.

There's been a number of politicians over the past week, including Chris Christie here at the White House yesterday, who have said that Rob Mueller should step aside from certain investigations within the special counsel. Does the president share those views?

SANDERS: The president wants to see this completed.

We think that we are continuing to see day in, day out as this investigation moves to completion, though (ph), as -- the same as it started. There's still no evidence of collusion between the president and anyone.

If any collusion took place, it would be between the DNC and the Clintons. And I think we're starting to now see that all of the things that the -- the Democrats had accused this president doing, they were actually guilty of themselves.

And I think that's a really big problem that should be certainly looked at.


QUESTION: The -- lawmakers in Egypt are preparing a measure that would criminalize homosexuality, with up -- up to five years in prison. Will you condemn the measure?

SANDERS: I'm not aware of the specifics of that so I'd have to look into that before we -- I could make a response. But we'll certainly be happy to check into it.


QUESTION: Thank you, Sarah.

At the risk of wasting my question, I'm going to ask you about the Fed.

Since the last time you were up here, there've been a couple of reports; one that the president's going to make an announcement next week. Can you confirm that he's going to make an announcement? And can you give us a little timing?

And then secondly, there've been reports that Chairman Yellen is out of the running and that Jerome Powell is at the top of the list. Can you confirm any of that?

SANDERS: I can confirm that the president plans to make an announcement on that next week. But beyond that, there's -- I don't have any details to add. No.


QUESTION: I want to ask you about a comment that Sebastian Gorka made on Fox News. I know that he doesn't work for the White House anymore, but he claims to be very -- still involved in knowing what's going on here. He was talking about the Uranium One deal and Hillary Clinton and said, "If this had happened in the 1950s, there would be people up on treason charges right now. This is the equivalent to what the Rosenbergs did and those people got the chair. Think about it."

Does the president agree with that statement?

SANDERS: I haven't even seen those comments. I'm not going to comment on Sebastian Gorka or validate that. I can tell you that we do think that there's a lot of cause for concern regarding that deal and we certainly think it should be looked into. But I can't comment on that on somebody outside the administration's comments.

QUESTION: Question on the president's upcoming Asia trip.

Can you talk a little bit more about the criteria that you used to decide which of the many multilateral meetings that he attended? And can you confirm that he's not going to be at the East Asia Summit and why?

SANDERS: He is participating in, I know, at least the opening ceremony and some of the other parts of that event.

In terms of the specifics, we're going to do a full and more detailed briefing on that next week. And so, I'll wait till we get to next week, because the final details of some of those things are still being worked out.


QUESTION: Thanks, Sarah.

The president said on Twitter that he congratulated Chinese President Xi on his extraordinary elevation. Does the president have any misgivings either the way that that elevation occurred or its potential impact on American interests in Asia?

SANDERS: Not that I'm aware of.

QUESTION: I was wondering, why does the president involve himself in the Uranium One investigation? Are you trying to gin up your own Russia investigation to rival the one up on Capitol Hill?

And where is the president's evidence that Hillary Clinton colluded with the Russians as he tweeted this morning?

SANDERS: In terms of the president being involved, I'm not aware of any specific involvement.

The president has pushed for transparency, if that's what you're referring to, when dealing with Congress. I know that's probably something new for a president to actually push for transparency, but that's what he's done.

And that was the...

QUESTION: (Inaudible).

SANDERS: ... purpose of what he was trying to do in that process.

QUESTION: How about evidence of collusion that Hillary...

(CROSSTALK) QUESTION: Sarah, no, the president made a charge that Hillary Clinton colluded with the Russians...

SANDERS: I think -- I think I've addressed that pretty thoroughly.

Mike, go ahead.

QUESTION: So you're saying that Hillary Clinton did collude with the Russians?

SANDERS: I'm saying I'm calling on your colleague.

QUESTION: OK, well, you didn't really address that question. QUESTION: The PAC affiliated with majority leader -- Senate majority leader attacking Steve Bannon. Wondered if the White House has an opinion on that. Is Mr. Bannon fair game? Is he -- is he still viewed as helpful to the president's cause?

And has the president had any success talking Steve out of some of the -- backing him off some of the incumbents, as he suggested in the Rose Garden?

SANDERS: In terms of how a PAC spends their money, I would direct you to them. I'm not going to answer for them any more than I can even answer for the president's PAC, as we don't comment on political situations or contributions from the podium.

QUESTION: Sarah...

SANDERS: (inaudible).


On Sunday, this is going to be the one-month anniversary of the Las Vegas shooting, four weeks. The shooter enhanced speed of his fire by using bump stocks. At first you didn't want to comment on that, but I'm curious to know, does the president think the ATF should prohibit their sale? Is he going to ask them to? Does he think only Congress can do it? Or does he think that bump stocks are not the problem and that there's no need...

SANDERS: He has asked that that process be reviewed and we're waiting on some of the details of that to take place. But a decision hasn't been finalized on that. But we are looking at that and it's certainly under review.

I'm going to cut us a little bit short today. And I have one last announcement that I wanted to make.

The president asked me to let all of you know, those of you that have your kids here for trick-or-treating, before they go over to the Executive Office Building for trick-or-treating, he's invited them to come into the Oval. So if you would like to have your kids participate, please meet us here and we'll walk them over shortly, and then give them back to you, so that -- so that you can sugar them up and take them home to your house to run wild.


Thanks so much and have a good Friday.


BALDWIN: All right. There she goes.

I thought I saw kids in that briefing room. That was crazy.

So all right, the headlines. A lot of questions about White Fish, this company out of Montana, which happens to be the very same town in which the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is from. A lot of questions over, doesn't this look funny that this is the company that has been chosen to work with Puerto Rico to get power back on. And you heard Sarah Huckabee Sanders saying over and over this decision to use White Fish was determined by Puerto Rico itself. Federal government had nothing to do with it. And the president had nothing to do with it. And Ryan Zinke told the president he had nothing to do with it. A lot of questions on that.

A lot of questions on any kind of collusion. And Sarah Sanders over and over saying, well, if there is any collusion, it's been the DNC and Hillary Clinton. And we'll get into the back drop of that.

And finally, on sexual harassment in this movement happening with women speaking up. And she was asked about this today, and what a moment she could have had, right, to give the White House stance on just women feeling emboldened and saying this isn't OK, and didn't.

So with that, I have Caitlyn Burns with me. Mr. Ambassador Eisen is with me. I think Michael Zeldin is with me. Sarah Murray will be with me momentarily. She's there in the briefing room.

But how about, Michael Zeldin, to you on the questions on White Fish and this Montana company that apparently was all down in Puerto Rico, not at all with the federal government, even though -- and there's an audit underway that Sarah Huckabee Sanders acknowledged. One of the reporters said, can you not acknowledge this looks a little fishy.

MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it's pretty hard to understand how Puerto Rico selected a company in Montana that had two employees without that name being provided to them. So to say that the federal government wasn't the procuring officer is sort of disingenuous in some respect. It seems to me -- and we have to wait for the results of the audit -- but it seems to me their name had to be given to the Puerto Ricans and there had to be some encouragement. Because it doesn't make sense that a company that small and that distant from that island would be the selected company.

BALDWIN: Let me hone in on this. Jim Acosta is ready to roll. He was in the briefing room. We heard him ask.

One question. I think you're up with me.


BALDWIN: There you go. So on White Fish, a lot of questions about this, and rightfully so. Give us a little bit of the back story, the ties, or as they say, no ties, between Ryan Zinke, Interior secretary, the initial two employees, and how Puerto Rico landed on this company in Montana?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I think you heard during the briefing, Brooke, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the press secretary, telling reporters they will wait for what happens with this I.G. investigation, inspector general investigation. They'll leave it at that. But obviously, when you heard the number of questions being raised during this briefing, there are still lingering questions for this White House to answer. That is, how could a company that only had two employees be awarded such a lucrative contract. And also a contract that is so important as to be involved in restoring life and normalcy to the people of Puerto Rico.

I'll tell you, Brooke, that I think there is a very strong undercurrent of the Russia investigation also flowing through this briefing today. I'm sure, on the occasion when the question of the Russian investigation came up during this briefing with respect to the Trump campaign and allegations of collision with the Russians, Sarah Huckabee Sanders tried to flip the script on a number of occasions and say, well, it was the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee. Now, I don't think this is any small thing, Brooke. When you have --