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Pentagon Gives New Details on Africa Ambush; Gold Star Dad: Politics Have No Place in Gold Star Community. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired October 19, 2017 - 16:30   ET



[16:32:41] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: And we're back.

We have some breaking news. Moments ago, the Pentagon held a briefing on that deadly ambush in Niger, Africa, in which four American soldiers were killed just 15 days ago. Pentagon officials pushing back on any notion that Sergeant La David Johnson was left behind. They insisted a major search and rescue mission was launched.

CNN's chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto joins me now.

Jim, they were asked about when was the White House notified about the mission, about the fact that the mission had gone bad. What did they have to say?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, they didn't give a clear answer to that question, just as they did not provide clarity to the circumstances whether you call it left behind or not, the fact that it took 48 hours to locate and find the body of that fourth service member killed in that attack. This is, as we're hearing, that the secretary of defense himself, not satisfied with the answers he's getting from inside the military regarding this ambush.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): Tonight, the head of the U.S. military is demanding answers on the deadliest U.S. combat mission of the Trump administration.

JAMES MATTIS, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: The loss of our troops is under investigation. We in the Department of Defense like to know what we're talking about before we talk. And so, we do not have the accurate information yet. We will release it as rapidly as we get it.

SCIUTTO: Two weeks after the ambush, Defense Secretary James Mattis, officials say, is discouraged by the lack of information he's received from his own people on the ISIS attack in Niger that killed four U.S. soldiers and injured two more.

The 12-member U.S. army team was meeting villagers in a town on the Niger-Mali border. They were walking back to their vehicles which were not armored when up to 50 ISIS-affiliated fighters attacked them with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. The Americans fought back, but were only armed with light weapons such as rifles. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There had been more than or nearly 30 trips along

this route already. So, they had reason to believe that they were in a permissive environment.

SCIUTTO: After 30 minutes, French aircraft flew by to try to disperse the attackers from the air and later to evacuate the wounded. The U.S. had to rely on a private contractor to air lift out the dead.

In the chaos, Sergeant La David Johnson was separated from the rest of the team and left behind.

Commanders launched a large, joint, U.S., Nigerien and French search and rescue operation. Forty-eight hours later, Nigerien troops recovered his body.

Today, Secretary Mattis attempted to answer hard questions about what went wrong, for one, why the military's own intelligence assessed it was unlikely the team would run into enemy forces.

MATTIS: This specific case, contact was considered unlikely. But there's a reason we have U.S. army soldiers there and not the Peace Corps, because we carry guns. And so, it's a reality. It's part of the danger that our troops face in these counterterrorist campaigns. But remember, we do these kinds of missions by, with, and through allies. It is often dangerous.

SCIUTTO: And as the families grieve, another question: why was a U.S. soldier left behind on the battlefield?

MATTIS: U.S. military does not leave its troops behind, and I would just ask that you not question the actions of the troops who were caught in the firefight and question whether or not they did everything they could in order to bring everyone out at once.


SCIUTTO: Chief of Staff John Kelly was asked another hard question, which is a simple one. Why are U.S. forces in Niger? What are they fighting for? And his answer was this, that this is an advise-and- assist mission, and, Jake, he said that small numbers of U.S. service members go there to Niger to fight ISIS so that, in his words, U.S. service members, soldiers and marines don't have to go there in the thousands.

We know that's a formula that both the Obama and Trump administration has used. Sometimes, it's worked, but other times it hasn't. Look at Afghanistan now. That's why you have more U.S. troops going there because a small presence has not been able to fight back the enemy.

TAPPER: First sent to Niger under the Obama administration.


TAPPER: Jim Sciutto, thank you so much.

We have much more on the breaking news, including Gold Star father who's going to share his take on General Kelly's comments and everything else. Stay with us.


TAPPER: And we're back with our coverage of White House Chief of Staff John Kelly's remarkable statements this afternoon in which he shared the prospective of someone who had firsthand suffered the unthinkable loss of his son, Marine Lieutenant Robert Kelly, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2010.

I want to bring in now Paul Monti who unfortunately also knows that pain all too well. As viewers of the show know, we've covered the story before. Paul is the father of posthumous Medal of Honor recipient, Army Sergeant Jared Monti who lost his life in Afghanistan in 2006 when he ran straight into enemy fire to try to save the life of a wounded soldier.

Paul, as always, thank you so much for joining us. And it's always an honor to talk to you.

PAUL MONTI, FATHER OF ARMY SGT. JARED MONTI: My pleasure to be here with you, Jake.

TAPPER: So, you received a call from President Obama after Jared was killed, did you find comfort in it? Or is the whole thing just so painful it doesn't even really matter?

[16:40:01] MONTI: Well, first of all, set the record straight, I received a call from President Obama three years later when --


MONTI: -- when my son was approved for the Medal of Honor.

TAPPER: For the Medal of Honor, great. OK, good point.

MONTI: Yes. That's when he called.

TAPPER: OK. Well let me ask you about the fact that he didn't call you after Jared was killed, four men were killed on that horrible day in the summer 2006 on Hill 2610.


TAPPER: Did it bother you that you didn't get a phone call from President Obama or actually it was 2006, it would have been President Bush. Did it bother you --

MONTI: President Bush.

TAPPER: Did it bother you that you weren't called by President Bush or does -- does it not really matter? All you're focused on is the loss?

MONTI: Well, you're not expecting a call from the president. Nobody is expecting that kind of response from the White House. At the time when your child is killed and the guys in uniform come to your house, you really go into a different world.

You aren't expecting anything, you don't know what to expect, you don't know what to do. You know, OK, what's going to happen now? You signed a bunch of papers that you don't even know what you're signing because your mind isn't there at all.

So, you're really not expecting much at all, and, of course, there's a 10-day delay between the time the body of your child gets to Dover and then from Dover to get home, it's like a 10-day delay. So that whole period of time is like a crazy waiting period with, you know, lots of people coming to the door, lots of phone calls, interviews, whatever's going on.

So, it's really a very, very difficult time in there and as I said, you're really not expecting anything from anybody.

TAPPER: President Trump was criticized this week for telling a Gold Star widow, Gold Star wife that her husband knew what he was getting into. We heard an explanation earlier today from John Kelly who said that was what was General Dunford told him when General Dunford called him to tell him that his son, Robert, had been killed in Afghanistan.

What do you make -- as a Gold Star father, what do you make of this whole controversy?

MONTI: First of all, let's deal with the issue here, Gold Star families do not want to be involved in politics. That's the last thing they want to get involved in. It's not a political matter. It's a completely different thing and politics has no place in the Gold Star community.

I understand what General Kelly went through, went through the same thing I did. I actually met with him only days after his son was killed. We were having a mass fallen heroes dinner in Boston and he was the honored speaker at the time, and we were all in awe that his son had just been killed, and yet, here he was at the dinner giving his speech. That was quite amazing. He's an amazing man.

TAPPER: There is another -- I mean, General Kelly said so many fascinating and tragic and heart-breaking things today, here he was, I want to play this for you, this was him talking to the press about what he told President Trump in terms of whether or not President Trump should make a tradition of calling Gold Star families to offer his condolences. Take a listen.


JOHN KELLY, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: When I took this job and talked to President Trump about how to do it, my first recommendation was he not do it. Because it's not the phone call that parents, family members are looking forward to. It's nice to do in my opinion, in any event.


TAPPER: What'd you make of that? MONTI: I kind of agree with him. As I said, during that period of

time and for months afterwards really, you just don't want to be reminded over and over and over again that your child is gone. It's just -- it's a heart wrenching situation to begin with and it's extremely difficult to deal with. And what you get is, you know, media coming to your door constantly and you have to go through the events again and again and again, in other words, you relived the death time and time again.

So, I can agree with General Kelly, it's just not -- it's not a pleasant thing, and it wouldn't matter who called you because it's just reinforcing the tragedy that's at hand.

TAPPER: Paul Monti, it's always an honor to talk to you, it's an honor to have you as a friend. Jared is an inspiration to all of us. Thank you so much for being with us today. And people --

MONTI: Thank you, Jake.

TAPPER: -- and people at home, the song I Drive Your Truck famous country western song is based on Paul driving the truck of his beloved fallen son Jared. Thanks so much, Paul, good to see you.

MONTI: Thank you, Jake.

TAPPER: OK. My political panel is here with me to discuss. We have with me Senior Writer for the Federalist Mary Katherine Ham, former Trump Campaign Strategist David Urban, and Van Jones who's the Author of a brand new book out, it's called Beyond The Messy Truth which is a New York Times bestseller. That was quick. Congratulations. So, David, I know you know John Kelly. You're a veteran yourself. I'll ask you right here what I asked you in the hall, which is, I understand why John Kelly is mad at the Congresswoman, I understand why he's mad at the Media, is there really nobody in the White House who thinks that President Trump played at least a small role in this becoming as ugly and uncomfortable as it did?

DAVID URBAN, FORMER STRATEGIST, TRUMP CAMPAIGN: Jake, listen, I think the White House felt like they addressed the issue right after that it happened. On October 5th, Sarah Huckabee on the podium spoke on behalf of the White House, expressed the gratitude for these folks laying there, they -- making the ultimate sacrifice in the altar of freedom. I think, I just want to again through my own personal say -- for my own personal say thank you to the families of Staff Sergeant Jeremiah Johnson, Staff Sergeant Dustin Wright, Staff Sergeant Bryan Black, as well as Sergeant La David Johnson who were all perish there in Niger. And a lot this gets lost.

There's a huge disconnect in America, Jake, between the folks who serve in the military and the rest of us. And I think General Kelly's outrage today is that people go about their business here in Washington and Pittsburgh and Kansas City, people watch football games on Sunday and they tend to forget that there are many, many men and women serving in harm's way across the globe that we all need to pray for, their families sacrifice more than anyone could know. And in this instance, I think he is, General Kelly is expressing his own outrage as well as that of others in the administration that this, these deaths have gotten blown so out of proportion. You heard Mr. Monti saying that you live the death a thousand times over every time it's mentioned.

General Marks was on earlier in the day saying let's take the high road, let's put this behind us. Let's focus on these gentlemen's sacrifice and let's get above the politics of it all. And I think that that's where we need to be. I served the peace times as a Survival Assistance Officer, knocked on the door of somebody and told them their loved one had passed away it's -- in a helicopter crash. It's a tough job to do. It happens thousands of times across this country, unfortunately, you know, men and women lay -- pay the ultimate sacrifice on the altar of freedom so that we can all be here and debate this. I think this White House is doing a great job. I think General Kelly, huge hero.

TAPPER: Van, there are people out there, Democrats, who think yes, we agree with everything you're saying, but President Trump is the one who made this political issue by saying that he made the phone calls and President Obama didn't, which isn't true.

VAN JONES, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, you know, it's funny that without trust, nothing works. That's true in family, that's true friendship, that's true in a country. This seems like Trump was trying to do something hard, and trying to do something good and screwed it up. Which happens, but there's so little trust now between so many of us and this President that the benefit of the doubt was not given, and here we are. And I think the President needs is to take a look here. Here, now you've gotten to a point after eight months, after nine months, where even when you try to do something good, people have a hard time receiving it because he's done so many things that were mean, so many things that were frankly cruel that it's not out of the imagination people he might have called and stuck it to somebody. This is a very, very bad place, but without trust, nothing works. And that's why he's got to do a much better job of trying to include more people.

TAPPER: It's also possible if one interprets President Trump's remarks on the phone that way that they were misunderstood.


TAPPER: That it was coming from -- this is what General Kelly told me to say, this is what he was told when his son was killed and I tried to say it. That also, it's also possible to interpret President Trump's remarks on Monday when he said President Obama didn't call people, but I do. Maybe he didn't mean it as a criticism in the same way that John Kelly said he didn't mean it as a criticism when he said that Obama didn't call him but there is this context.

[16:50:05] HAM: Yes, I think this is such a sacred and solemn thing, and I think when he made that first remark about what Obama didn't and he did, he wasn't sure exactly what Obama did. It took it out of that sacred and solemn realm. I do think that the Congresswoman also took is out of that sacred and solemn realm and so we're here, unfortunately, having this conversation about it. I'm honored to know a lot of families who have gotten that knock on

the door, I'm going to have dinner with a bunch of them tonight and we'll do probably a shot of Patron's as we always do for our fallen friend Travis Mannon, U.S. Marine Corps, and yes, they don't want to be in this back and forth. They want to be talking about the La David Johnson's of the world and how we're going to continue honoring them. I do think -- General Kelly has a point when he talks about maybe not making these phone calls. I think that Trump was trying to communicate these matters at the highest level. But that call is really hard to make and to do well under the best of worst circumstances --

TRUMP: It takes the most sympathetic person in the world to make --

HAM: And receiving that call is very tough, and it's just -- it's very tricky to do. And so I'm not sure how well that's going to go in general.

TAPPER: I want to just turn to one other thing because President George W. Bush rarely speaks publicly, but he did today. He said (AUDIO GAP) politics and I just want to run the sound.


GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Our young people need positive role models. Bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone, provides permission for cruelty and bigotry, and compromises the moral education of children. The only way to pass along civic values is to first live up to them.


TAPPER: A lot of people are interpreting those remarks as being about President Trump, David. Maybe --

URBAN: Look, I don't -- I don't necessarily know that that's who he's speaking to or not. I can tell you, I'd like to share my Twitter feed after the show and see how civil debate is --

TAPPER: It's hideous.

URBAN: Van and I can sit here and you and I can sit here, we get along well, we can agree to disagree. I think that's what's missing in America, is the lack of civil discourse. You know, the marketplace of ideas in America has seemed to shrivel and disappear and it takes place at all forms. So I would join with President Bush and echo that. And I think it takes place largely on the media now and not necessarily -- this is you know, I think we need to have much more civil discourse like this and much less shouting.


JONES: Well, I mean, you know, David's right. You know, we're friends, we get along, probably more of that goes on than we -- than we get down to. But I am very proud to see George W. Bush coming out and addressing this head on. You've had a lot of people who are on the left, who are people of color or whatever, crying about this, and you haven't, you know, yet had enough conservative leadership coming up and saying, this is not a left/right thing. This is a right-wrong thing. This -- you know, white nationalism and this kind of stuff just has no place. Whether he was -- whether he was talking to Trump directly doesn't matter. He was talking to Americans directly and that's important. You know, it's not just about calling people out when they're wrong, it's about calling people up and calling people in, and he was doing that. And I wish the President would do that more.

TAPPER: Mary Katherine, I mean, saying our young people need positive role model, bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone, provides permission for cruelty and bigotry.

HAM: Yeah, I think it's likely --

TAPPER: It's tough to read that and not think--

HAM: He means something there.

TAPPER: Yes, and I mean, he didn't vote for Trump.

HAM: And I also think that many other people -- and this is the disconnect we're having. Many people who voted for Trump voted for a bully on purpose. They thought, look, we are being bullied and we need to hire somebody to fight this battle for us. So there's a real disconnect about whether, like whether that behavior is a feature or a bug. To me, I was not a fan, and I just -- I just to want to say that like I enjoy having this conversation with you guys, and I am so thankful for the four men who died in Niger who fight for us to continue to that have conversation. We should honor them and they did in fact, it's so remarkable, they were so brave to go there indeed knowing that this could be the outcome and they still do it.

TAPPER: And President Bush wasn't the only former President that spoke about politics today. President Obama also gave a political speech and spoke a little bit about his legacy.


TAPPER: But what we can't have is the same old politics of division, that we have seen so many times before, that dates back centuries. Some of the politics we see now, we thought we'd put that to bed. I mean, that's folks looking 50 years back. It's the 21st century, not the 19th century.


TAPP: Van?

JONES: I love that guy. I love him. I love him.

TAPPER: Shocking.

JONES: I do. I can't lie. I love that guy.

HAM: I wrote that down as my prediction of what he was going to say.

JONES: And you know, I think people feel that way. That we -- I think people really did think that we would not have to deal with Nazi's marching down the street in America, that we wouldn't have, you know, white nationalists and white supremacists on the rise in this our country. And I think that everybody's got look in the mirror. I mean, that's part of, I think, what's wrong now is that we've now gotten to a politics of accusation where nobody wants to take responsibility. It's just all the other side. And it's all projection, no reflection. And so my hope is that, you know, you got the George W. Bush's coming out, the Obama's coming out, you have these Gold Star Families coming out, maybe we can all start getting to a higher level.

[16:55:31] TAPPER: 30 seconds.

URBAN: Yes, look, to think somehow there wasn't politics, identity politics, politics of division before Donald Trump got to Washington is naive. I love Van, I love him you know, to death. He's a good- looking guy, but you know, it doesn't matter. It doesn't say the media is right. You know, you think about the Democratic House, Democratic Senate, jamming the President Bush and many things and many times, you know, division, division is not something new.

TAPPER: All right. Everyone, thanks so much. Really appreciate it. We're going to take a quick break but we'll be right back.


TAPPER: Welcome back. On a lighter note and our "MONEY LEAD" today, who will get the proverbial glass slipper with free two-day shipping from Amazon Prime? The deadline for cities to submit proposals for Amazon's second headquarters is at midnight in cities that spared no expense and even a little dignity to entice the tech giants to add jobs to their towns. New York lit up the Empire State Building orange last night. The Kansas City Mayor bought 1,000 products from Amazon for charity and gave each product five stars online.

The City of Stonecrest, Georgia even offered to change its name to Amazon if chosen. Other cities and states have offered billions of dollars in tax breaks. One city not making a grand gesture, San Antonio. Its mayor, writing an open letter saying he suspects Jeff Bezos has already decided the future location of the second headquarters. Be sure to follow me on Facebook and Twitter @JAKETAPPER or you can tweet the show @THELEADCNN. That's it for THE LEAD today, I'm Jake Tapper, turning you over now to Wolf Blitzer who's right next door in "THE SITUATION ROOM." Thanks for watching.