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George W. Bush Speaks on Divisiveness of U.S. Politics; McMaster Answers Questions on Niger Ambush; Mattis Talks Niger Ambush at Backlash over Trump Interviewing U.S. Attorney Candidates. Aired 2:30-3p ET

Aired October 19, 2017 - 14:30   ET

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


[14:30:00] KEN CUCCINELLI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: The month before a lot of the same people got together, the KKK got together in Charlottesville the month before, and without all that press, without that pushing, there were 50 people there, five to zero, not 1,000. I feel like some of his complaints about institutions are that in the media side of things we're giving err to the ill voices in our society. I don't know if that serves well as a society by doing that.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: He also said, and this is close to verbatim, he said, "Bullying and prejudice in public life sets a national tone, provides permission for cruelty and bigotry, compromises moral education of children." And he said, "The only way to pass along civic values is to first live up to them." I mean, it seems that would be -- maybe he is speaking generally but seems he is also speaking specifically.

ANA NAVARRO, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Look, let's not play dumb here. Of course, he's speaking about Donald Trump. The same way that John McCain was speaking about Donald Trump without naming him earlier in the week. I think what you're seeing President George W. Bush do is say look I know what it's like to be president and held the office and we have a moral duty to be an example of American values and American unity. You have a platform as a president that you can use for good or division and hostility. Please use it for good. He is reminding, I think, Donald Trump and the people who support Donald Trump that there's consequences to the words that a president uses. That there's consequences to the tweets, there's consequences to the actions, consequences to the tone and we are seeing it affect the national fiber and it is setting a national tone. Ask school teachers about children repeating the bullying tones and words Donald Trump uses. You know, it is affecting our national psyche and how we behave. I think what George W. Bush today was doing was -- you know, I don't think it was an attack. I think it was a warning. I think it was a plea. I think it was advice. I think it was --

(CROSSTALK)

KEILAR: Ana I so sorry to interrupt you.

But we need to listen to H.R. McMaster, the president's national security adviser, speaking live right now.

GEN. H.R. MCMASTER, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: I got to defer to the Department of Defense and they will give you definitive answers to all these questions.

When something like this happens obviously the report does come to us and it's as we say in the military, you know, the first report is always wrong. So there's a period of time there's always ambiguity as to what's going on halfway around the world. So on the mission there, it is a mission will be -- the Defense Department will describe the circumstances of that action and the deaths of those soldiers and all that will come out. What happens in these instances, anything that happens like this is there's a full investigation. And the investigation. really has a couple of --

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Was this something that could have been prevented?

GEN. JAMES MATTIS, DEFENSE SECRETARY: Let me talk about it in a little more broadly and narrow it down. First of all, our condolences to the families of the soldiers we lost. I just say we honor our troops, every one of them, every life is critical. These young people have passed the hot political rhetoric and signed up volunteering for the armed forces as part of the 1 percent willing to do so in our country, these young men and women.

We have been engaged with the French and African forces for some time supporting the French-led and African troops in the campaign to throw ISIS and the terrorist, the radicals, those who ferment instability and murder and mayhem. The French, for example, maintain over 4,000 troops down there where we maintain a little over 1,000 in support. Mostly we're providing refueling support, intelligence support, surveillance support. But we have troops on the ground. Their job is to help the people in the region learn how to defend themselves. We call it foreign internal defense training. And we actually do these kinds of missions by with and through our allies.

And the loss of our troops is under investigation. We and the Department of Defense like to know what we're talking about before we talk and so we do not have all the information yet. We will release it as rapidly as we get it because we are very proud of our troops. As you know, we investigate any time we have our troops killed whether it be a training accident or combat. I don't care if it's in a car accident, we investigate the circumstances surrounding and see how we can address the questions you brought up about what can we do in the future.

[14:35:30] At the same time, war is war and these terrorists are conducting war on innocent people of all religions, conducting war on innocent people who have no way to defend themselves. I would just tell you that in this specific case contact is considered unlikely.

But there's a reason we have U.S. Army soldiers there and not the Peace Corp because we carry guns and so it's a reality, 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. We recognize that. We have been unapologetic about standing by our allies. And certainly, the French with 4,000 troops have been engaged down there for years and have lost many, many more troops. This is an example of how seriously we take this mission, that we put our troops in that position. Any time we commit our troops anywhere, it's based on answering a simple first question, and that is the well-being of the American people sufficiently enhanced by putting our troops there, that we put our troops in a position to die. That is the number-one question when I make the recommendation to the president.

One point I would make, having seen some of the news reports, the U.S. military does not leave its trooping behind. And I would just ask you not question the action to the troops who were caught in the fire- fight and question whether or not they did everything they could in order to bring everyone out at once. And I would also ask you don't confuse your need for accurate information with our ability to provide it immediately in a situation like this.

The French response included armed fighter aircraft, armed helicopter gunship. Medevac that lifted out our wounded. We did have a contact aircraft that lifted out our killed in action. And Staff Sergeant -- excuse me -- Sergeant Johnson was found later by local nationals and they would then endeavor to get the body back to us, which shows the relationship we have in this area.

But a full investigation is under way. This sort of investigation we always conduct and certainly update you as we have accurate information not speculation. I just close by saying we need to stand together united in this country when these heart-wrenching times are here.

Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Given that it is possible that it was a pocket of ISIS there or ISIS affiliate is the department considering changing its footprint or adding additional protections? And then more broadly, you yourself have comforted families of the fallen. In the last week or so Gold Star families have been brought into this larger fray. Does that anger you to see them dragged out into this?

MATTIS: As far as the stance we take, the efforts we take, and the force protection efforts, and the capabilities, I don't telegraph that and I don't want to tell the enemy what we're doing. I prefer not to answer that.

We honor or fallen in America and that's all the more I'll say about the Gold Star families.

Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen.

KEILAR: I want to bring in Barbara Starr at the Pentagon as we look at what we heard from the defense secretary.

There was some news in there, Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Indeed, Brianna. He knew these questions were coming. And you can tell he was well prepared and had thought out what he wanted to say about all of this. I think, looking at my notes, what strikes me the most is the

circumstances regarding Sergeant La David Johnson, the young man whose body was not found for 48 hours. He made the point that the U.S. military does not leave its people behind on the battlefield. He is very strong on that point. But we do know that La David Johnson's body was not found until 48 hours later, in fact, by local African forces.

[14:40:00] The secretary went on to say something interesting. He said that he didn't want people to come to some judgment basically about what the troops on the ground tried to do to get everybody out, all at once, all at the same time. That really goes to the big unanswered question here. I don't think anybody has really questioned the devotion of the troops to getting everybody out, to trying to get everybody out. But there's not a public answer yet about why that did not happen. The questions are there to be answered. Was he simply -- was there a miscount and they thought they had everybody but did not. Nobody is questioning the troop troops' devotion to getting everyone out. It looks like he was separated from the rest of the group. How did that happen? How far away was he found? Why couldn't they find his body right away? Remember, in the that first 48 hours, in fact, there was a secret plan for a possible rescue. They had some feeling, some intelligence that did not pan out, obviously, that it was always possible he was still alive out there somewhere behind enemy lines.

The president had been briefed. Navy SEALs had moved into place. And the news media was keeping quiet about it because we were told there was a possibility that an American soldier was still out there alive. So that first 48 hours was very difficult. We know very little about it. But the Nigerian forces kept looking and did find his body and made sure it was returned to the U.S.

I would say the real point, from Secretary Mattis, is saying he's saying don't jump to any conclusions the troops didn't try. I don't think we are. I think the problem is, right now, we don't yet know the answer.

KEILAR: Barbara, stay with us.

I'll bring in Rear Admiral John Kirby along with Colonel Steve Warren.

If no one, as Barbara is saying, is questioning the dedication of the troops and trying to locate the body of Sergeant La David Johnson, why is the defense secretary likely character rising that as such and warning people not to question do you think?

REAR ADM. JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY & DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: It sounds to me -- and Steve might have a different view -- he's a little perturbed about some of the media coverage and people saying that, you know, this sergeant was left behind. And then --

KEILAR: That it might be misconstrued?

KIRBY: I think he thinks that the media coverage is leaving the American people with the notion that we turned our back on this young man and left. He's trying to reinforce that's obviously not what happened. That's not in our culture to do that, and the circumstances were so unique in this case that there were little -- there was just not no choice.

KEILAR: Colonel, it strikes me one of the ways the defense secretary had to begin talking about these four dead soldiers in Niger, he had to explain why they were there. Because a lot of Americans don't know why they are there. As he said it, foreign internal defense training, but still boots on the ground. And a lot of people don't understand there is this presence. There are 1,000 U.S. forces, he said.

COL. STEVE WARREN, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: That's right. This foreign internal defense training, what this is, is American forces partnering with those host nation forces, whatever nation it may be. It could be Africa, Latin America. Around the world, our forces are conducting these internal defense operations around the world.

On these forces left behind, I think some of the reason the secretary may be unhappy with some of the reporting, it's our choice of words. We have been saying left behind. He wasn't left, he was separated. He was from his unit and that unit never stopped looking for him.

KEILAR: And that is certainly your impression as well?

KIRBY: Yes. I think he was perturbed by some of the terminology and it does strike to the heart of who we are as a military. That's part of our code, we don't leave anybody behind.

(CROSSTALK)

KEILAR: What do you want to know? You want to know if La David Johnson was still alive when they were left, were separated? Obviously, the condition of his remains when they were found. What are the outstanding questions for you that could give you an idea of what happened?

KIRBY: How did he come to be separated? Then what was the chain of events that led them to finally finding him and how long did it take for that information in context to become known? I think that's really important. I do think the family has a right to want to know the answers of those questions, too. I think those certainly will be curious.

KEILAR: Barbara, what is next in this investigation?

STARR: The full investigation will take time. But Secretary Mattis wants answers and knows the American people want to know what happened to these men out in the field. The next step is what needs to be changed. OK. They were out there. They were helping, advise, assist local forces but didn't have any overhead protection. The planes that came in are not allowed to drop weapons. They were lightly armed, not in armored vehicles. That was the standard procedure. Do things need to be changed? If U.S. Special Operations are going to go out in these areas and face a growing ISIS threat, especially in Africa, what needs to be changed to make sure they are appropriately protected? Always danger, but troops should be out there with appropriate levels of protection. And how can the U.S. improve the intelligence? If ISIS is beginning to develop these cells and pockets across Africa, the U.S. needs to know a lot more about where they are and how they are operating -- Brianna?

[14:45:55] KEILAR: Admiral, what do you think?

KIRBY: She's spot on. Interestingly enough, in the 2017 posture statement before Congress, General Waldhouser (ph), the AfriCom commander, said he's only get 20 percent to 30 percent of ISR. And this is a real resource problem in Africa. It has been for a long, long time. I know for a fact that the bill that's in conference between the Senate and the House has a provision in there to enforce the DOD to provide more feasibility studies to them about the resource allocation in the command specifically.

WARREN: And the resource allocation questions are difficult, right? There is only so many resources available to the department. What we call what's happening in Africa, we call that an economy of force operation. In other words, we deliberately put more resources in areas where we think are higher priority, in this case, the Middle East.

KEILAR: As someone who knows General Mattis well, when you heard him respond to this -- the Gold Star families who have been thrust into the spotlight initially by President Trump's comments and repeated comments and the back and forth with the congresswoman and the family of La David Johnson, all he said in response was, we honor fallen in America, and he left it at that. What did you think him answering that question?

WARREN: He can say a lot with very few words. And he just made it clear to me and anyone paying attention is that this is not the right way to honor our fallen. This public back and forth, this little feud that's happening in the public eye, it doesn't serve the family. It doesn't serve the fallen. It's time for everyone to focus on this mission and let the fallen rest.

KEILAR: I want to get your opinion on something because we just have learned that H.R. McMaster, the president's national security adviser, says that Senator John McCain's comments, it was easier to get information from former defense chief, Ash Carter, in the Obama administration that in this administration it, quote, "hurt his feelings." I think is what we are understanding. This is just in, so I'm just reading off the teleprompter.

What's your reaction, Colonel?

WARREN: Well, H.R. McMaster's feelings, it's hard to hurt his feelings. But his point being that I believe the professional soldiers, the professional master security operators in this administration are doing everything they can to try and get information to move, and it's tough.

KIRBY: I will tell you that some people, not everybody on the Hill feels the same way about this. I talked to some today on the House side and they'll tell you, look, we are willing to wait, would rather have complete context from the Defense Department than get something quick. What I got was the other way, that they're willing to wait for a bit for Secretary Mattis to get them a more fuller picture.

KEILAR: We heard McMaster say, a short time ago, the first story you get is incorrect. That's a saying he knows and knows to be true.

Thank you so much, gentlemen. Really appreciate your expertise.

Still head, the White House press briefing moments away. They're going to face tough questions over what happened in Niger. Defense Secretary James Mattis saying, moments ago, they do not have all the accurate information that they need. We're going to bring you the briefing live.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[14:53:23] KEILAR: In an unusual move, President Trump has personally interviewed candidates for several U.S. attorney positions. This came to light during Attorney General Jeff Session's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. Trump interviewed U.S. attorney candidates for two positions in New York and one in Washington.

CNN senior legal analyst, Preet Bharara, who was fired by Trump as a top federal prosecutor in New York, spoke with Wolf Blitzer about this unusual action.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PREET BHARARA, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: I understand he personally interviewed the potential applicants for U.S. attorney in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Washington, D.C., which happened to be places where Donald Trump has property and assets and companies, and not interviewed personally U.S. attorneys for other positions, and I think that reasonably raises a number of questions.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KEILAR: Former federal prosecutor, Michael Moore, joining me now to talk about this.

You served in the Middle District of Georgia.

MICHAEL MOORE, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: That's right.

KEILAR: Fired Acting Attorney General Sally Yates was a colleague of yours.

MOORE: That's correct. Right.

KEILAR: Why do you think Trump is interviewing U.S. attorneys and how weird is this?

MOORE: It really is a strike thing. I think your prosecutors are the gatekeepers or goaltenders of the Justice Department and the only assumption you can make is that he's hoping to capitalize on some relationship that maybe he's trying to develop with these particular individuals. I just left a conference with former U.S. attorneys from all over the

country. These are fine people and good public servants and beyond this type of silliness. And it's been selective silliness by the president. It's so close where he's only talking to attorneys from districts where they may have investigations, either dealing with himself, his family or businesses.

[14:55:08] KEILAR: You don't think they would be swayed by this and, yet, he is doing this thing that shows such a conflict of interest?

MOORE: Right. Right. I don't think they would. I can tell you from the folks I just left, these are great folks. But I think he's done this in his professional life, too, where he's trying to capitalize over relationships.

KEILAR: Sure.

MOORE: Trying to build this sense of loyalty by making people think he's their friend or has something he can give them or some reason they need to feel a certain way toward him. He's at the point where probably he's grasping at any hook he can get in these particular districts. I don't think they would be swayed.

KEILAR: He does have a number of lawsuits against him, dozens of them.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions was asked about this during this hearing yesterday, and he made the point that the president, quote, "has the right to interview U.S. attorneys," and Sessions also said, quote, "I assume everybody would understand that."

MOORE: Right.

KEILAR: Well, everybody clearly doesn't understand that, right?

MOORE: Well, the president makes the appointment. The typical process is not to go to the president. Again, the Department of Justice is an independent investigative agency, just like the FBI. I think that really the attorney general sort of feigned ignorance about what is going on, which is about as convincing as he feigned indignation yesterday at the oversight hearing. While the president may have a right to make an appointment, when you have a president who -- we're already talking about Russia investigations, corruption and collusion, it starts to look and smell fishy when he's interviewing people that might be in charge of those investigations in those districts or at least aspects or prongs of an investigation, maybe spin-off cases.

KEILAR: Even if the he was not particularly pleased with this development, maybe would not be unusual for Jeff Sessions to conceal that in a hearing too, right?

MOORE: It's unusual. I mean, I will tell you that. We just don't do that. I was pleased to be appointed by President Obama. But I can tell you he didn't interview me prior to the process.

KEILAR: Michael Moore, thank you so much.

MOORE: Thank you.

KEILAR: Appreciate it.

Next, the White House press briefing. How are they going to respond to former President George W. Bush, with some criticism for President Trump? What about Congress demanding answers on the Niger ambush? We'll bring that to you live.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[14:59:56] KEILAR: Hello. I'm Brianna Keilar.

We are waiting for the White House press briefing to begin any moment now, as more questions are being asked about that deadly ambush in the African nation of Niger that led to the deaths of four American soldiers. Fifteen days later, there's still so many unanswered questions. Even the defense secretary himself is growing frustrated and --