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CNN Reaches Site of Deadly Ambush in Niger; Mueller Indictments Overshadow Big Week for Trump; FBI Probing Contract to Rebuild Puerto Rico's Bid. Aired 6:30-7a ET

Aired October 31, 2017 - 06:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[06:30:15] ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Senator Grassley attempting to go out a side exit.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Show it to them.

CAMEROTA: You're going to see him head, you're going to see a desperate head looking for a side door, getting caught up in flag.

CUOMO: Just like the Muppet show.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), TEXAS: And that really isn't our job. That's not our wheelhouse. That's the special -- if you'll -- if you would --

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CAMEROTA: Reporters were trying to ask him questions. He didn't seem in the mood to answer them.

CUOMO: Isn't that the muppet show, when they're trying to find their way out?

DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: You got an administration that is actively going to start disparaging Mueller, his team being far afield. I suspect there will be some Republicans will do the same and who will think that they ought to be focusing their efforts on Hillary Clinton. I mean, "Wall Street Journal" editorial page today saying there ought to be as much enthusiasm in that direction as well. I think this is just the beginning of that.

JOHN AVLON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, sneaking out under the cover of the American flag is such a beautiful visual metaphor that Chuck Grassley has given us that I think he owns that now.

CAMEROTA: One more time.

CUOMO: Keep showing it. Remember this, though, in this context of what is -- this is funny. What is not funny is Speaker Ryan says, I don't know. I haven't read the indictments yet. Mitch McConnell, nothing.

These are the leaders of that party. How can they believe this is just a distraction from taxes?

AVLON: Just an ostrich-like impulse, because they don't want to deal with the fact pattern because they desperately want to pass tax reform.

GREGORY: Yes, right, and they should. Look, I mean, Bill Clinton very successfully did a lot of business while impeachment was going on. And I think it was probably a mistake for Trump to be holed up with his lawyers yesterday. He should have had a big tax event or something like that. There's nothing he can do about it just yet.

CAMEROTA: OK. We'll see that this week.

Meanwhile, David Gregory, John Avlon, thank you very much.

OK. On to other news for you, nearly four weeks after that deadly ambush in Niger, there's still so many questions. CNN takes you to the site of the attack, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[06:36:30] CUOMO: Senators speaking -- it says grilling on there, but they really weren't. They were listening to Secretary Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson about the 2001 AUMF, and it was a bizarre conversation where the lawmakers were listening to the general telling them what he thinks of their law. It's not supposed to work that way. He's supposed to make a military strategy case and then lawmakers figure out whether or not to prove it. So, it was all backwards.

Why? It's a really important informational discussion about putting American blood on the line after this deadly ambush in Niger where four U.S. soldiers were killed by ISIS-affiliated fighters now about four weeks ago.

CNN's Arwa Damon is live in Niger with more. Arwa, what are you learning on the ground?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Chris.

Well, we actually went out to the site of the ambush, making the journey to try to get an understanding of the terrain, but also, we were looking for answers to the many questions that still remain.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAMON (voice-over): In this vast terrain, it's the wooded sections that worried the Nigerien solders most. It's ideal cover for an ambush. So, they advanced on foot.

We're headed back to the site of an attack that has thrown this remote border region into a global spotlight. October 4th may have been America's first casualties in these lands but not Niger's. Their patrols regularly come under attack. The ground outside Tongo Tongo is littered with heavy caliber machine

gun casings and we asked the soldiers were with if they know if they were fired by American or Nigerien forces.

(on camera): No, they can't be entirely sure because they used similar weapons they said.

We're only given 10 minutes on the ground in the village. People here are terrified, confused and reluctant to talk.

We tracked down the detained village chief's uncle and older brother and they insist the attackers came from elsewhere.

Initial reports were that the attack occurred some 10 kilometers outside of Tongo Tongo, after the convoy stopped and villagers stalled them.

(on camera): They were both swearing on the Koran that the American and Nigerien convoy never actually stopped here. That they just drove through the village. And when they hit the very outskirts, that's when they heard the first gun shots.

(voice-over): And there are signs of the attacks every where.

(on camera): That's the school we're being told were burnt down in the attacks. It's a single classroom. We have to wrap it up right now, though, because our escorts are understandably quite anxious about spending too much time on scene.

But you can see how close it was to the village. They hadn't even made it out.

(voice-over): Weeks after the attack, many questions remain, and so too does the threat.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

DAMON: And, Alisyn, as we were leaving, a short distance away, we drove over along one of the tracks that exists even more bullet casings, perhaps, an illustration of just how wide the actual ambush battle zone was on that particular day.

CAMEROTA: Arwa, everyone here in the studio was watching with rapt attention. It is fascinating to have you on the site. Thank you very much for your reporting.

So, back here at home, Republicans trying to shift focus away from the Russia probe to push their tax agenda.

[06:40:02] Can the president and GOP score a policy win with this?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CAMEROTA: Special counsel Robert Mueller's indictments are threatening to overshadow President Trump's very big week. Some Republicans are trying to shift the focus back to tax reform. House Republicans will unveil their tax bill tomorrow.

So, back with us to talk about all this is John Avlon and David Gregory.

So, David, very big week ahead. We have the debut of the tax plan, the president's Fed chief pick and the president is going to leave for a big Asia trip on Friday.

So, is it possible for the White House to sort of harness the plan again for this week and redirect away from these indictments?

GREGORY: Oh, I think without a doubt, because these are all very big issues that have to do with the future of the economy, the future of any potential legislative achievement for this administration and a crisis in Korea that is frightening to the entire world.

So, this is very important business at hand. The news cycle is big enough to accommodate all of these at the same time.

[06:45:00] And I think the president wants to keep the focus on some of these other matters.

He has limited options when it comes to how the investigation on Russia is playing out. He can respond to it. He can try to deflect from it. But these are other issues that he's going to drive. He needs to drive and, you know, the prospect of all of them, they're very important.

CUOMO: Right, and the spin right now from the White House is that the Russia investigation is actually jeopardizing the president's ability to go abroad and negotiate and make deals. The Fed chair is probably the biggest decision that he's going to make economically. The tax plan is political, if he gets it through, that shows that he delivered.

But that Fed chair position does a lot with this economy. And that's going to be a crucial pick for him.

AVLON: It's one of the appointments that the president is defined by. And Janet Yellen has done a good job, especially in Trump's years. Trump gets highest marks on the economy, not only because of his experience as a businessman but the economy has really done well, particularly the market. Janet Yellen and Trump seem to have been working well together.

The name being most bandied about is a moderate named Powell, who has worked with Yellen, a Republican, sort of out of central casting, which seems to be criteria for Trump but also seen as a very safe pick in terms of continuity, without having this indignity of reappointing Obama's Fed chair.

So, that seems to be where the momentum is going in terms of a pick. But that's a big deal under the basis of the economy. Tax plan, as you say, is massive if they want a legislative achievement. But in terms of the overall economy, you can make the argument that the Fed chair pick is even bigger. CAMEROTA: OK, panel, next topic. Let's talk about Chief of Staff

John Kelly who made an appearance on Fox News. He has no interest in apologizing to Congresswoman Wilson, you remember, over the comments about Sergeant La David Johnson's death.

But then he said some curious comments. He was asked about the Confederate monuments and his take on them. Listen to what he said about the Civil War.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN KELLY, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: Well, history is history. And there are certain things in history that were not so good and other things that were very, very good.

I will tell you that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man. He was a man that gave up his country to fight for his state, which in 150 years ago was more important than country. It was always loyalty to state first back in those days.

Now it's different today. But the lack of an ability to compromise led to the civil war and men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had them make their stand.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CAMEROTA: What do you think of those, David?

GREGORY: Pick me, please. Pick me.

CUOMO: Go, you. It's all you.

GREGORY: I mean, I just think that's very troubling. First of all, there were major figures at the time who actually believed in the union and the country over the state. Oh, that would include Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln. Winfield Scott, who is the most important general at the time in America, the hero of the Mexican American War, told Robert E. Lee he was making the worst decision of his life.

This was not a close call. America mattered then and it matters now. History is not history when it comes to the civil war. These monuments were put up during reconstruction.

AVLON: Jim Crow.

GREGORY: To stick it to freed black people and let them know that there would be a new Jim Crow and that the civil war was fought for naught.

Ulysses S. Grant in this wonderful new biography by Chernow is pained by the fact that it was his believe that the civil war didn't matter because things were not actually going to change.

History is not history, General Kelly. And I think that has been born out.

CUOMO: Right. He also misses the big word, slavery.

AVLON: Right.

CUOMO: It was about slavery not a crisis of conscience. What does this show us? Kelly is a respected guy. How he leads men and women, how he has organized his attention to duty. That's all true. I've checked it ten ways from Sunday. It's true.

But giving him credit for a political modulating ethos is false. It's always been false. The idea that he would control the president's political instincts to play toward division was always an empty promise. This is the proof. Listen to what he's saying and listen to where we heard it before, out of the president's mouth. Kelly --

(CROSSTALK)

CUOMO: Good people on both sides, crisis of conscience. Think about the monuments in a different way maybe, than these people want to take them down. It's bigotry being ignored and rationalized and Kelly is not going to make it better. He's making it the same or worse.

AVLON: And the language Kelly used is straight out of sort of mid 20th century textbooks, the myth of the lost cause, whether Confederacy's noble leaders like Robert E. Lee being motivated not over slavery but over love of state first.

[06:50:03] Well, state first is sort of fundamentally part of the problem.

As you point out, Civil War didn't just come because good people couldn't compromise on both sides. It came about because of slavery. If that gets ignored, the real history --

CUOMO: That not apologizing thing, one thing that we were hoping he would do with the president is, hey, you got to be the biggest man in the room. You have to surrender the me to the we -- I understand that because I lead menace as a general and I get it.

He just said the opposite. I'll never apologize. I'll never apologize. That's what he has around him, the president. How can you expect anything different out of him?

CAMEROTA: Well, he said two things. Oh, no. No, never. Well, I'll apologize if I need to but not for something like that. Absolutely not. I stand by my comment.

CUOMO: Well, he's saying that he would apologize in general. But an apology is possible for something, perhaps if he runs over a puppy or something like that, but in this case he won't apologize and it was obviously warranted.

CAMEROTA: Gentlemen, thank you very much.

CUOMO: All right. So, the FBI is now investigating the $300 million contract to repair Puerto Rico's hurricane-ravaged power grid. Why this deal that came from this little shop in the middle of our country, how did they get this deal? Next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CAMEROTA: OK. A big update now on Puerto Rico. Sources tell CNN that the FBI is now investigating that controversial $300 million contract with Whitefish Energy, that was secured by Puerto Rico's power authority.

[06:55:00] This is a tiny Montana firm with possible ties to the Trump administration, and it was hired to try to restore the island's battered power grid.

CNN's Leyla Santiago is live in San Juan with all the latest.

How did this happen, Leyla?

LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's exactly what people want to know in this investigation. The FBI has now said that it is opening a preliminary inquiry, and members of Congress say specifically there are concerns over how this contract was awarded, Alisyn.

And I got to tell you, when I spoke to the governor about this, he actually is standing by his calls for an investigation of the exact same thing. He says there is no evidence of any wrongdoing, but he welcomes any sort of investigation on behalf of the FBI and says he's willing to collaborate.

Now, as I have been out on the streets, in the homes of Puerto Ricans still without power, I'm certainly sensing the frustration. We're nearly six weeks after Hurricane Maria struck and still so many are without power, so many are without water, 20 percent, nearly 20 percent still without access to clean water.

When you ask Puerto Rico's power authority if they can give you a better idea of where they are, they will tell you 30 percent of generation capacity has been restored. More specifically when I asked how many people on this island still don't have power, they said there's no way of knowing -- Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: Leyla, it's just incredible how this lingers and how many troubles there still are there. Thank you for all the reporting from the ground.

So, three of President Trump's campaign associates have been criminally charged. What's next in Robert Mueller's Russia probe? We have it all covered for you.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)