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Attorney General Sessions Hesitant to Answer Questions Before Senate; Crisis in Puerto Rico Continues; Trump Faces Off Against Military Family; CNN: Russia-Linked Site Paid Unwitting Americans in Effort to Target Black Americans and Sow Division. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired October 18, 2017 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: The commander in chief facing off against the family of a man he sent into battle.

THE LEAD starts right now.

It's the latest controversy in a story that should be about soldiers and sacrifice, but is now about President Trump. Now the family of a fallen soldier is going back and forth with the president and his aides about whether his attempt at condolences ended up offending them.

Russian trolls infiltrating America and hitting some sensitive nerves on racial issues to stoke racial division, and now American citizens realizing they went along with it, apparently unknowingly.

Plus, it has been a month, and millions of Americans still don't have clean drinking water or electricity in Puerto Rico, as CNN gets a rare and stunning perspective at the scope of the damage.

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We're going to begin with the politics lead today in another jam- packed day at the White House.

A bipartisan health care deal that the president seemed to support just yesterday, he is now slamming today, seeming to effectively kill that deal before it even really got off the ground.

But President Trump is making a push for his tax plan, meeting with members of the Senate Finance Committee this afternoon, all while dealing with the fallout from criticism from a Gold Star family that he dealt with them disrespectfully.

Today, the president denying that he told the widow of Sergeant La David Johnson that the soldier knew what he had signed up for, saying Democratic Congresswoman Frederica Wilson of Florida, who is close with the family and listened to the president's call on speakerphone, fabricated the claim.

The mother of Sergeant Johnson told CNN that the congresswoman's account was very accurate. The White House today said they dispute that version of events and that Chief of Staff Kelly and others were listening to the call.

An uncomfortable back and forth, and, sadly, at the center of it, a tragic loss and a family in pain.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny starts us off today from the White House.


JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Trump embroiled in a firestorm over his condolence call to the grieving widow of an American soldier killed in Niger.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Didn't say what that congresswoman said. Didn't say it at all.

ZELENY: Today at the White House, the president spoke about his call does to Myeshia Johnson. She's the pregnant wife of Sergeant La David Johnson, who mourned the loss when his flag-draped casket arrived home in Florida.

The soldier's mother and Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, who both listened to the call, told CNN the president disrespected Sergeant Johnson by saying, "He knew what he signed up for."

The president denied using those words, saying on Twitter that Wilson "totally fabricated what I said to the wife of a soldier who died in action, and I have proof. Sad."

He did not provide proof as the controversy escalated between the commander in chief and the family of a fallen soldier.

TRUMP: I did not say what she said. I had a very nice conversation with the woman, with the wife, who is -- sounded like a lovely woman. Did not say what the congresswoman said and most people aren't too surprised to hear that.

Let her make her statement again, and then you will find out.

ZELENY: Wilson, a Florida Democrat, stood by her account. The soldier's mother also telling CNN the congresswoman's recollection was very accurate.

When asked if she was shocked by the president's words, the congresswoman said this:

REP. FREDERICA WILSON (D), FLORIDA: Stunned. Still stunned. So insensitive. So insensitive. Mr. Trump is crazy.

ZELENY: The extraordinary feud did little to shed light on what actually led to the ambush that killed Johnson and three other American soldiers in West Africa. For the president, it's the deadliest combat incident involving U.S. troops since taking office.

Asked earlier why he didn't address the attack for nearly two weeks, the president falsely claimed his predecessors did not contact the families of fallen troops. TRUMP: If you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of

them didn't make calls.

ZELENY: It was another mark against his credibility, as he tries to breathe new life into his stalled legislative agenda. Today, the president abruptly reversed course on health care. After signaling his support Tuesday for a bipartisan deal over Obamacare subsidies...

TRUMP: For a period of one year, two years, we will have a very good solution, but we're going to have a great solution ultimately for health care.

ZELENY: ... he all but withdrew his support for the agreement.

TRUMP: We're going to see the bipartisan. And Lamar Alexander's working on it very hard from our side. And if something can happen, that's fine, but I won't do anything to enrich the insurance companies, because right now the insurance companies are being enriched.


ZELENY: Now, back to that Niger attack about two weeks ago, Senator John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said they are not getting all the information that they need about what actually led to this ambush.

Asked a short time ago on Capitol Hill if the Trump administration was being forthcoming in all it knew about this, Senator McCain's answer was no -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Jeff Zeleny at the White House, thank you so much.


The loss of a service member and the pain of his or her family is part of life in this nation that we at THE LEAD try to treat with appropriate sensitivity and respect.

Now, we don't know exactly what President Trump said to Myeshia Johnson, the grieving widow of Sergeant La David Johnson. Congresswoman Frederica Wilson claims the president said -- quote -- "He knew what he signed up for, but I guess it still hurt" -- unquote -- that the president did not seem to know Johnson's name.

And the congresswoman further suggested the president's words caused the widow to break down after the call ended.

Johnson's mother tells CNN that that description is accurate.

The president, however, on Twitter and reporters denies this. He tweeted he had proof and the White House today said that Congresswoman Wilson was trying to politicize a call to a widow and that those who heard the call on the White House staff found the president's words perfectly respectful. All of that really makes very little difference when you think about

it. The family heard what it heard. Even if the president was completely misunderstood, his attempt at comfort failed.

Under the best of circumstances, these moments between a commander in chief and the family of a fallen service member are awful, just awful. And the problem that President Trump might have here, however, is that when it comes to sensitivity, when it comes to sensitivity about service and sacrifice specifically, he's already made what critics have assessed to be some grievously bad decisions.

You go back to 2015, his attack on Senator John McCain, who spent five-and-a-half years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. McCain was tortured. He was despondent. At times, he was suicidal. As the son and grandson of admirals, he would have been allowed -- he was asked to leave early as a propaganda effort by the North Vietnamese, but McCain refused to do it, in deference to the POWs who had been there longer.

But this is how Trump saw it.


TRUMP: He's a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren't captured, OK? I hate to tell you.


TAPPER: Then, of course, there is Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the Gold Star parents of Army Captain Humayun Khan, who was killed in Iraq.

He belittled them after their appearance at the Democratic Convention after they took issue with Mr. Trump's anti-Muslim rhetoric. Then candidate Trump suggested that a fallen soldier's mother didn't speak at the convention because she was forbidden as a Muslim woman to speak.

In actuality, as she later said, she was just too broken up to discuss the loss of her fallen son.

Shortly after his inauguration, during a visit to the CIA, the president stood in front of the memorial wall there, where there are now etched 125 stars for fallen CIA officers, including one for former Navy SEAL Christopher Mueller, who saved the life of an Afghan commander before sacrificing his own.

Another one for former Marine Major Douglas Zembiec, the so-called Line of Fallujah, who was killed in Iraq.

The president spent his time at the CIA in front of that wall railing about media coverage of the size of the crowds at his inaugural.


TRUMP: It looked -- honestly, it looked like 1.5 million people. Whatever it was, it was. But it went all the way back to the Washington Monument. And I turn on -- by mistake.


TAPPER: Amidst all this ham-handedness, the president this week falsely accused President Obama and previous presidents of never having phoned Gold Star families, in an apparent attempt to make himself look more attentive and compassionate, I suppose.

And in the midst of that effort to depict himself in a glowing light, this current controversy, ironically enough, sadly burst on to the scene as just another political weapon used by the president and used against the president, this most personal and horrific experience just one more piece of ammunition in the snark wars, where nothing matters anymore, except for scoring point.

Instead of focusing on these fallen men and women and their families who will never be the same, we're focused on process and phone calls and letters and the spat.

President Trump when challenged on the fact that President Obama did actually call Gold Star families, not all of them, but some of them. He told one radio interviewer the following:


TRUMP: You could ask General Kelly, did he get a call from Obama?


TAPPER: That's a reference to his chief of staff, retired Marine General John Kelly. Kelly and his wife, Karen, lost their son, a Marine, 1st Lieutenant Robert Michael Kelly, to a land mine in Afghanistan in 2010.

And, truly, what will honor the Kellys and the memory of Robert more than anyone debating whether Obama should have phoned them, instead of writing them a letter, is to take a moment to consider Robert Kelly and all of the men and women who serve our nation while considering these words.

Quote: "Sons like yours who serve are men and women of character who continue to believe in this country enough to put life and limb on the line without qualification and without thought of personal gain, and they serve so that the sons and daughters of the other 99 percent don't have to. No big deal, though. As Marines have always been the first to fight, paying in full the bill that comes with being free for everyone else" -- unquote.


Those were the words of General John Kelly at a Veterans Day event for Marines in 2010. And what makes those words most remarkable, perhaps, is that he delivered that speech just four days after his beloved son Robert was killed.

Now, I have learned on this job that telling the stories of troops and their families, that it's very important that we all choose our words very carefully when discussing these losses. And it's not just journalists and politicians. All of us need to consider the unimaginable that these families go through when we speak to them and when we speak of them.

And if you don't take great care, and, in fact, if you're reckless about these kinds of sacrifices, the kind of sacrifice you see on your screen right now, well, then people not be willing to give you the benefit of the doubt if on one occasion your words come out wrong.

Also in politics today, Attorney General Jeff Sessions pushing back in sometimes tense exchanges on Capitol Hill with his decision-making under review. Sessions not only defended his conversations with Russian officials during the 2016 campaign, but he also found a way to explain why he told the same exact Senate Judiciary Committee back in January that he had no contacts with any Russians.

CNN's Manu Raju is on Capitol Hill for us.

Manu, Sessions also said he would not discuss any of his private conversations with the president, which proved to be somewhat frustrating when the panel was trying to find out more about Sessions' role in firing James Comey as FBI director.


He actually didn't assert executive privilege, but he said these conversations with the president were confidential and he should not be forced to disclose these private discussions, something that really frustrated Democrats on the panel. Afterwards I talked to one Democrat, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, and he said the only way to get to bottom of this is to have Jeff Sessions be interviewed by special counsel Robert Mueller, something Sessions says that he has not done just yet.


RAJU (voice-over): For the first time as attorney general, Jeff Sessions returned to the committee where he served as a senator. And Democrats did not give him a warm reception.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN (D-IL), MINORITY WHIP: You're saying you are privileged?

RAJU: At the heart of the dispute was Sessions' testimony during his confirmation hearing in January, when he said he had no contacts with Russians during the campaign season.

After press reports later revealed he did, Sessions acknowledged interacting multiple times with then Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, but said there was nothing to it.

SEN. AL FRANKEN (D), MINNESOTA: You subtly changed your story. Since you have qualified your denial to say that you did not -- quote -- "discuss issues of the campaign with Russians," what, in your view, constitutes issues of the campaign?

JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: I conducted no improper discussions with Russians at any time regarding a campaign or any other item facing this country.


SESSIONS: No, no, no, you had a long time, Senator Franken. I would like to respond. I don't have to sit in here and listen to his...


FRANKEN: You're the one who testified...

SESSIONS: ... charges without having a chance to respond. Give me a break.

RAJU: Today, Senator Patrick Leahy said his former colleague may have misled the committee.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), VERMONT: My concern is you were part of the Russian facade and went along with it. And I'm sorry. I have known you for years.

SESSIONS: It did hurt me to say you think I'm part of a facade. I'm not part of a facade.

RAJU: Sessions was also asked if special counsel Robert Mueller interviewed him as part of his Russia inquiry. He paused for several seconds before answering.

SESSIONS: Well, I would be pleased to answer that. I'm not sure I should without clearing that with the special counsel. What do you think?

LEAHY: I'm just have you been interviewed by them?


RAJU: But Sessions did not answer many questions, particularly about his conversations with Trump over the firing of FBI Director James Comey and whether the president fired him to end the Russia probe.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA: Did the president ever mention to you his concern about lifting the cloud on the Russia investigation?

SESSIONS: Senator Feinstein, that call for a communication that I have had with the president and I believe it remains confidential.

RAJU: Still, Sessions did not hesitate to criticize Comey for his handling of the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation.

SESSIONS: I don't think it's been fully understood the significance of the error that Mr. Comey made on the Clinton matter. RAJU: The chairman of the committee, Chuck Grassley, said many

questions about Sessions' contacts with Russians could be cleared up if the FBI simply briefed the committee.

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY (R), IOWA: The FBI did not do that, and now we have conflicts that I think could have been avoided.


RAJU: And, Jake, in some breaking news in the Russia investigation, we are now learning that Corey Lewandowski, the former Trump campaign manager, privately met with the Senate Intelligence Committee investigators behind closed doors today in discussing the Russia investigation.

[16:15:11] Lewandowski, of course, was on the campaign payroll at the time of some of the meetings that occurred with Russian officials, including the June 2016 meeting in which Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner and attended a meeting with Russian operatives in Trump tower.

It's really unclear whether or not he knew anything about it. Lewandowski said he has no knowledge of that. We have not heard back from Lewandowski, but we have learned he's the latest Trump figure to be interviewed by the Senate Intelligence Committee, Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Manu Raju, thank you so much.

Breaking news about how Russians tricked unwitting Americans and hired them in an attempt to stir up racial tensions in the United States. That story's next.


TAPPER: We're back with some breaking news in our world lead today.

CNN has learned of yet another Russian connected every effort to exploit divisions in the U.S., creating unrest.

[16:20:04] This one with a highly unusual twist. It turns out that the operatives posed as an African-American advocacy group and they hired unwitting black Americans to further their cause.

CNN's senior investigative correspondent Drew Griffin has been digging into this and joins me now.

Drew, how were these individuals targeted?

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN SENIOR INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT: Jake, it is a strange tale, but CNN has learned a group associated with Russia tricked personal trainers and paid them to hold free self-defense classes that were aimed at African-American activists.


GRIFFIN (voice-over): In January of this year, well after the presidential election, New York martial arts instructor Omowale Adewale says he was contacted by a group called Black Fist, saying it would pay him to host self-defense class for members of the African- American community.

OMOWALE ADEWALE, MARTIAL ARTS, BOXING INSTRUCTOR: Particularly, I would say, but not exclusively for black people.

GRIFFIN (on camera): Did you ever think this was weird?

ADEWALE: Yes, a lot of times, I thought it was -- I thought it was weird.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): Weird, but the money was good -- $320 a month paid directly through PayPal and Google Wallet to teach just four classes. And Black Fist would promote it.

What was also weird, no one from Black Fist ever showed up to meet him. His only communication was in text and far away sounding phone calls from this man named Taylor.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, hello, Walli, this is Taylor. I wanted to confirm the self-defense classes that we talked about last time.

GRIFFIN: The digital trail suggests that contact on the phone was most likely connected to Vladimir Putin's state sponsored propaganda arm seeking to stoke racial tensions and disrupt the U.S. political system.

CNN has confirmed the social media accounts connected to Black Fist are among the pages Facebook identified as coming from Russians, according to a source familiar with the matter. Links to those accounts appear on the Black Fist Website and Black Fist, which portrayed itself as an activist group seeking to empower black Americans, was likely developed inside the Russian troll factory in St. Petersburg, Russia.

ADEWALE: Well, it's nuts. The reality is, he didn't talk about any of those issues. And so, that was really kind of what really happened. Like, he really didn't talk about any --

GRIFFIN (on camera): There was no politics involved in this?

ADEWALE: There was no politics.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): Look at what Black Fist said about its self- defense classes. They are by black for black and let them know that black power matters. Adewale's contact also wanted these videos and photos of blacks learning self-defense and the names and contacts for anyone who showed up.

ADEWALE: They did want that information.

GRIFFIN (on camera): They did?

ADEWALE: Actually, yes. They wanted -- they wanted names. They wanted numbers. And I did tell them that, you know, I don't know if I can, you know, get that --

GRIFFIN (voice-over): Adewale wasn't the only one. Personal trainers and classes promoted in other cities, Los Angeles, Lansing, Michigan, according to event right and other pages where classes were being publicized, there were dozens.

In Tampa, Florida, amateur boxer Chuck "Jetton" Jefferson says Black Fist found him through Instagram, offered to pay him $100 a class like Adewale through PayPal. He confirms it was the same voice on the other end of the phone call. The same demand for videos to prove classes took place.

And though the entire setup sounded odd, he's having a hard time understanding why Russians were behind it.

CHUCK "JETTON" JEFFERSON, AMATEUR BOXER/TRAIN: So, I mean, when you have somebody that's going to pay you do something you love -- I mean, it's hard to see it like a -- like a negative thing. It's hard to see it in that light, but, I mean -- like I said, it was weird, it was different.

GRIFFIN: The Russians magazine "RBC" says dozens of other Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts were all part of the Russian Internet Research Agency. At its height, the troll factory had a reach of more than 70 million per week.


GRIFFIN: And, remember, Jake, this all started in January of this year, meaning the Russian propaganda campaign continued to operate even after the presidential election. Also alarming, just how easy this was to do, even after U.S. intelligence agencies knew Russia was meddling in U.S. social media networks. What we can't answer right now is why and what did the Russians have in the works? Jake?

TAPPER: So strange. Drew Griffin, thank you so much.

He's watched as several as his policies and initiatives have been weakened or undone by the Trump administration. I'm going to talk to former Attorney General Eric Holder next about what he would say to president Trump if he got an opportunity to do so one-on-one.

[16:25:01] That's next.


TAPPER: And we're back with our politics lead.

On Monday, President Trump falsely said that his predecessor, President Obama, did not phone families of service members killed in action. In response, President Obama's former attorney general, Eric Holder, tweeted, quote: Stop the damn lying, you're the president. I went to Dover Air Force base with 44, that's Obama, the 44th president, and saw him comfort the families of both the fallen military and DEA. This afternoon, I spoke with Eric Holder about that tweet and about much more, including the controversy over President Trump's call with the widow of Sergeant La David Johnson who was killed in action in Niger.


TAPPER: Thank you so much for doing this. I want to ask you, there is this very uncomfortable situation going on right now when it comes to the president calling the grieving family of this soldier who was killed in Niger, one of the four, La David Johnson with a congresswoman and now supported by a member of the family saying that the president was not respectful. Maybe didn't even know La David Johnson's name.