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White House Chief of Staff Addresses Controversy Over Trump Statements to Military Family. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired October 19, 2017 - 15:00   ET

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


[15:00:00]

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: 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 are still so many unanswered questions. Even the defense secretary himself is growing frustrated and demanding answers.

But a timeline is emerging. We know now that a unit of 12 U.S. soldiers was leaving a meeting with local leaders in a convoy of pickup trucks when they were ambushed near the Mali-Niger border by 50 ISIS-affiliated terrorists.

The troops did fire back, but four of them lost their lives before French military assets came to their rescue.

At some point during the firefight, Sergeant La David Johnson got separated from his comrades. His body was found 48 hours later by local African soldiers. And it's not known how he got there, how long he was alive or how he got separated from the other troops.

Defense Secretary Mattis responding to the media posing these kinds of questions just a short time ago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAMES MATTIS, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: One point I would make, having seen some of the news reports, the 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.

And I also ask you don't confuse your need for accurate information with our ability to provide it immediately in a situation like this.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KEILAR: "Don't confuse your need for accurate information with our ability to provide it" there. Interesting words coming from the defense secretary.

Joining me now, Michelle Kosinski. Actually, stand by, Michelle.

Let's listen to the White House briefing starting right now.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Good afternoon.

As you all saw, earlier today, the president met with the governor of Puerto Rico this morning to discuss the ongoing hurricane recovery efforts. The administration is working tirelessly to help our fellow citizens recover and rebuild, and we will stand with them throughout this process.

It's been a while since I have had the opportunity to share a letter to the president from the podium.

And I have one today that I think you will all enjoy.

This one is from McKenzie (ph) of Dalton, Georgia. McKenzie is 7 years old and is in the second grade.

And she wrote: "Dear President Trump, I'm writing to tell you how much I appreciate all you're doing. I think you're an awesome president. In fact, I voted for you in my school election. My mom is bringing me to D.C. on spring break this year, and I'm very excited. I have never been there before and I can't wait to see everything.

"I am most excited to see the White House. My mom said we have to write someone to ask to come in, and I hope we can. I know you're a busy man, but if you could meet me or at least see your office, it would make my day and I would love to shake your hand. You're our leader, a hero and a great man, and I can't wait to see you and help make America great again. Sincerely, McKenzie, your biggest fan.

"P.S., if you would like, I can bring something to eat when I come. I have always heard food brings people together."

Well, McKenzie, I had the opportunity to share your letter with the president earlier today, and he said he would love for you to come and visit us here at the White House during spring break. I will give you a tour personally. And if the president is here, he'd love to meet you as well.

Finally, you're very right about food bringing people together. And so the press staff would like to invite you to have lunch here in the Navy mess downstairs in the West Wing.

We look very much forward to your visit and hope that you will be in touch, so that we can make sure that that happens.

On a more serious note, we have had a lot of questions come in, and I certainly addressed quite a few of them yesterday, and thought today it might be more appropriate to have the chief of staff address some of those questions specific to outreach to Gold Star families.

He will address questions on that topic. And if you have other questions throughout the day, the press staff will be here and happy to answer those after the briefing later this afternoon.

Thanks, guys.

JOHN KELLY, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: Thanks a lot.

And it is a more serious note. So, I just wanted to perhaps make more of a statement than an explanation -- give more of an explanation than what amounts to be a traditional press interaction.

Most Americans don't know what happens when we lose one of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines or Coast Guardsman in combat.

So, let me tell you what happens.

Their buddies, wrap them up in whatever passes of a shroud, puts them on a helicopter as a routine, and sends them home. Their first stop along the way is when they are packed in ice, typically at the airhead, and then they are flown to usually Europe, where they're then packed in ice again and flown to Dover Air Force Base, where Dover takes care of the remains, embalms them, meticulously dresses them in their uniform with the medals that they have earned, the emblems of their service, and then puts them on another airplane linked up with the casualty officer escort that takes them home.

[15:05:20]

A very, very good movie to watch, if you haven't ever seen it, is "Taking Chance," where this is done in a movie, HBO setting.

Chance Phelps was killed under my command right next to me. And it's worth seeing that if you have never seen it. So that's the process.

While that's happening, a casualty officer typically goes to the home very early in the morning and waits for the first lights to come on. And then he knocks on the door. Typically, the mom and dad will answer, a wife.

And if there is a wife, this is happening in two different places, if the parents divorced, three different places.

And the casualty officer proceeds to break the heart of a family member and stays with that family until -- well, for a long, long time, even after the internment. So that's what happens.

Who are these young men and women? They are the best 1 percent this country produces. Most of you as Americans don't know them. Many of you don't know anyone who knows any one of them, but they are the very best this country produces.

And they volunteer to protect our country when there's nothing in our country anymore that seems to suggest that selfless service to the nation is not only appropriate, but required. But that's all right.

Who writes letters to the families? Typically, the company commander, in my case as a Marine, the company commander, battalion commander, regimental commander, division commander, secretary of defense, typically the service chief, commandant of the Marine Corps. And the president typically writes a letter.

Typically, the only phone calls a family receives are the most important phone calls they can imagine, and that is from their buddies. In my case, hours after my son was killed, his friends were calling us from Afghanistan, telling us what a great guy he was.

Those are the only phone calls that really matter. And, yes, the letters count a degree, but there's not much that really can take the edge off what a family member is going through.

So, some presidents have elected to call. All presidents, I believe, have elected to send letters.

If you elect to call a family like this, it is about the most difficult thing you can imagine. There's no perfect way to make that phone call.

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.

He asked me about previous presidents, and I said I can tell you that President Obama, who was my commander in chief when I was on active duty, did not call my family. That was not a criticism. That was just to simply say, I don't believe President Obama called. That's not a negative thing.

I don't believe President Bush called in all cases. I don't believe any president, particularly when the casualty rates are very, very high, that presidents call.

But I believe they all write. So, when I gave that explanation to our president three days ago, he elected to make phone calls in the case of the four young men who we lost in Niger at the earlier part of this month.

And then he said, you know, what -- how do you make these calls? If you're not in the family, if you have never worn the uniform, if you have never been in combat, you can't even imagine how to make that call.

I think he very bravely does make those calls.

The call in question that he made yesterday, day before yesterday now, were to four family members, the four fallen. And, remember, there's a next of kin designated by the individual. If he's married, that's typically the spouse. If he's not married, that's typically the parents, unless the parents are divorced, and then he selects one of them.

If he didn't get along with parents, he will select a sibling.

But the point is, the phone call is made to the next of kin, only if the next of kin agrees to take the phone call. Sometimes, they don't.

[15:10:01]

So, a pre-call is made.

The president of the United States or the commandant of the Marine Corps or someone would like to call. Will you accept the call?

And, typically, they all accept the call.

So, he called four people the other day, and expressed his condolences in the best way that he could.

And he said to me, what do I say?

I said to him, sir, there's nothing you can do to lighten the burden on these families. But let me tell you what I tell them. Let me tell you what my best friend, Joe Dunford, told me, because he was my casualty officer. He said, Kel, he was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1 percent. He knew what the possibilities were, because we're at war.

And when he died -- and the four cases we're talking about Niger, in my son's case, in Afghanistan -- when he died, he was surrounded by the best men on this earth, his friends.

That's what the president tried to say to four families the other day.

I was stunned when I came to work yesterday morning and brokenhearted at what I saw a member of Congress doing, a member of Congress who listened in on a phone call from the president of the United States to a young wife, and in his way tried to express that opinion that he's a brave man, a fallen hero.

He knew what he was getting himself into, because he enlisted. There's no reason to enlist. He enlisted. And he was where he wanted to be, exactly where he wanted to be, with exactly the people he wanted to be with when his life was taken.

That was the message. That was the message that was transmitted.

It stuns me that a member of Congress would have listened in on that conversation, absolutely stuns me. And I thought at least that was sacred. You know, when I was a kid growing up, a lot of things were sacred in our country. Women were sacred, looked upon with great honor. That's obviously not the case anymore, as we see from recent cases.

Life, the dignity of life was sacred. That's gone. Religion, that seems to be gone as well. Gold Star families, I think that left in the convention over the summer.

I just thought the selfless devotion that brings a man or woman to die on the battlefield, I just thought that that might be sacred.

And when I listened to this woman and what she was saying and what she was doing on TV, the only thing I could do to collect my thoughts was to go and walk among the finest men and women on this earth. And you can always find them, because they're in Arlington National Cemetery.

I went over there for an hour-and-a-half, walked among the stones, some of whom I put there, because they were doing what I told them to do when they were killed.

I'll end with this.

And in October -- or April, rather, of 2015, I was still on active duty. And I went to the dedication of the new FBI field office in Miami. And it was dedicated to two men who were killed in a firefight in Miami against drug traffickers in 1986 by the name of Grogan (ph) and Duke (ph).

Grogan almost retired, 53 years old. Duke, I think less than a year on the job. Anyways, they got in a gunfight and they were killed. Three other FBI agents were there, were wounded, now retired.

So, we go down. Jim Comey gave an absolutely brilliant memorial speech to those fallen men and the -- and to all of the men and women of the FBI who serve our country so well and law enforcement so well.

There were family members there. Some of the children that were there were only 3 or 4 years old when their dads were killed on that street in Miami-Dade. Three of the men that survived the fight were there and gave a rendition of how brave those men were and how they gave their lives.

And a congresswoman stood up, and in a long tradition of empty barrels making the most noise, stood up there in all of that and talked about how she was instrumental in getting the funding for that building, and how she took care of her constituents because she got the money, and she just called up President Obama, and on that phone call, he gave the money, the $20 million, to build the building, and she sat down.

[15:15:05]

And we were stunned, stunned that she'd done it. Even for someone that is that empty a barrel, we were stunned.

But, you know, none of us went to the press and criticized. None of us stood up and were appalled. We just said, OK, fine.

So, I still hope, as you write your stories, and I appeal to America, that let's not let this maybe last thing that is held sacred in our society, a young man, a young woman going out and giving his or her life for our country, let's try to somehow keep that sacred.

But it eroded a great deal yesterday by the selfish behavior of a member of Congress.

So, I'm willing to take a question or two on this -- on this topic. Let me ask you this. Let me ask you this.

Is anyone here a Gold Star parent or sibling? Does anyone here know a Gold Star parent or sibling?

OK. You get the question.

QUESTION: Thank you, General Kelly.

First of all, you have a great deal respect, semper fi, for everything that you have ever done, but if we could take this a bit further, why were they in Niger? What was -- we were told they weren't in armored vehicles and there was no air cover.

So, what are the specifics about this particular incident, and why were we there, and why are we there?

KELLY: Well, I would start by saying there is an investigation.

Let me back up and say, the fact of the matter is, young men and women that wear our uniform are deployed around the world, and there are tens of thousands, and near the DMZ, in North Korea, and in Okinawa ready to go -- in South Korea -- in Okinawa, ready to go, all over the United States, training, ready to go.

They're all over Latin America. Down there, they do mostly drug interdiction working with our partners, our great partners, the Colombians, the Central Americans, the Mexicans.

You know, there's thousands. My own son right now in -- back in the fight for his fifth tour in -- against ISIS.

There's thousands of them in Europe, acting as a deterrent, and throughout Africa, and they're doing the nation's work there, and not making a lot of money, by the way, doing it. They love what they do.

So, why were they there? They're there working with partners, local Africa -- all across Africa in this case, Niger, working with partners, teaching them how to be better soldiers, teaching them how to respect human rights, teaching them how to fight ISIS, so that we don't have to send our soldiers and Marines there in their thousands. That's what they were doing there.

Now, there is an investigation. There's always an -- unless it's a very, very conventional death in a conventional war, there's always an investigation. Of course, that operation is conducted by AFRICOM that is -- of course, works directly for the secretary of defense.

There is a -- I talked to Jim Mattis this morning. I think he made statements this afternoon. There's an investigation ongoing. An investigation doesn't mean anything was wrong. An investigation doesn't mean people's heads are going to roll.

The fact is, they need to find out what happened and why it happened.

But, at the end of the day, ladies and gentlemen, you have to understand that these young people, and sometimes old guys, put on the uniform, go to where we send them to protect our country. Sometimes, they go in large numbers to invade Iraq and invade Afghanistan.

Sometimes, they're working in small units, working with our partners in Africa, Asia, Latin America, helping them be better. But, at the end of the day, they're helping those partners be better

at fighting ISIS in North Africa to protect our country, so that we don't have to send large numbers of troops.

Any other -- someone who knows who knows a Gold Star fallen person.

John.

QUESTION: General, thank you for being here today, and thank you for your service.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: There has been some talk about the timetable of the release of the statement about the -- I think, at that point, it was three soldiers killed in Niger.

Can you talk us through the timetable of your release that information? And what part did the fact that a beacon was pinging during that time have to do with the release of the statement? And were you concerned that divulging information early might jeopardize a soldier's (OFF-MIKE)

KELLY: Yes, first of all, that's -- we are at the -- at the highest level of the U.S. government.

The people that will answer those questions will be the people at the other end of the military pyramid.

[15:20:02]

I'm sure they're -- the special forces group is conducting -- I know they're conducting an investigation. That investigation, of course, under the auspices of AFRICOM ultimately will go to the Pentagon.

I have read the same stories you have. I actually know a lot more than I'm letting on, so I'm -- but I'm not going to tell you. There is an investigation being done, but, as I say, the men and women of our country that are serving all around the world -- I mean, what the hell is my son doing back in the fight?

He's back in the fight because, working with Iraqi soldiers who are infinitely better than they were a years ago, to take ISIS on directly, so that we don't have to do it. Small numbers of Marines where he is, working alongside those guys.

That's why they're out there, whether it's Niger, Iraq, or whatever. We don't want to send tens of thousands of American soldiers and Marines in particular to go fight.

I will take one more, but it's going to be from someone who knows...

QUESTION: General, when you talk about Niger, sir, what is your intelligence telling you about the Russian connection with them and what's -- the stories that are coming out now are...

(CROSSTALK)

KELLY: (OFF-MIKE) the Russian connections (OFF-MIKE) know that.

That's a question for NORTHCOM or for -- not NORTHCOM -- or -- AFRICOM or DOD.

(CROSSTALK)

KELLY: Thank you very much.

(CROSSTALK)

KELLY: As I walk off the stage, understand there's tens of thousands of American kids, mostly, doing the nation's bidding all around the world.

They don't have to be in uniform. You know, when I was a kid, every man in my life was a veteran, World War II and Korea, and there was the draft.

These young people today, they don't do it for any other reason than their selfless -- sense of selfless devotion to this great nation.

We don't look down upon those of you that haven't served. In fact, in a way (OFF-MIKE) a little bit sorry, because you will never have experienced the wonderful joy you get in your heart when you do the kind of things our service men and women do, not for any other reason than they love this country.

So, just think about it. And I do appreciate your time.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: Did the president authorize permission, General Kelly?

KEILAR: And that was an extraordinary briefing coming from the White House there, the president's chief of staff, who lost his son in Afghanistan, and then after that, no other normal press appearance from the White House press secretary.

I want to bring in my panel now.

David Chalian, what was your reaction to that?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Well, it's hard to listen to a father tell that story and not have sympathy for what he's recounting and experiencing, the darkest, hardest moments of his life.

It is also difficult, I would imagine, for most of us here to separate out that personal experience that he went to go tell and explain the heart-wrenching detail of what happens when a service member loses their life, to separate that from the White House chief of staff going into the press Briefing Room to clearly try an attempt to clean up a political mess that, quite frankly, his boss largely created, because John Kelly wouldn't be part of this story and wouldn't feel the need to go to the press and address this, and we wouldn't have a ton of questions if it were not for his boss who injected him into this entire episode this week.

KEILAR: I want to bring Barbara Starr in from the Pentagon for her reaction on this -- Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, I should say, like most reporters who have covered the Pentagon, I know General Kelly, I know General Dunford, covered them for years, and we all know and understand the sacrifices that the Kelly family has made, as have so many other Gold Star families.

I think you saw General Kelly get very emotional there about his son and about his family. This is not a man over the years since his son was killed who has talked very often in such extraordinary personal terms. OK.

But let's set that aside for one minute.

His discussion still must address the fundamental questions. The congressman -- congresswoman said what she said. But the president is addressing a very young widow in the very initial stages of grief, a very young woman with two children, a third on the way. Let's just talk about her.

She is going to feel how she feels. And General Kelly is correct. I know a lot of Gold Star families. I have sat with them. I have been at Section 60 almost every Memorial Day over the last decade.

[15:25:11]

These families feel how they feel. And I will tell you -- and I know this to be true -- every Gold Star family I have ever spoken to wants one thing. They want to be assured that their loved one will not be forgotten, that their service won't be forgotten, that their sacrifice won't be forgotten. I think we hear that time and again.

And that is central to how these families feel. All of that being said, I think that General Kelly walked a very fine line here, being a Gold Star father, total respect for that, but he is also a political official in the Trump administration.

And you are seeing him out there -- you saw Secretary Mattis earlier -- for one reason -- and I think you're referencing it. They feel -- we know that top brass feels very strongly over the last 48 hours that the narrative of this situation has gotten away from them, that nobody has really been out there speaking about it.

This has got world headlines, people are talking about it, and they have not been participating in the narrative. I can tell you, I have very high-level sources that have told me directly how dismayed some of the top officials in the Pentagon, some of the very top military officials involved in special operations and operations in Africa feel about this right now.

So they want to recapture the narrative. That's fine.

But the media, the press corps in this country has the responsibility to always ask, always ask why troops are at risk, why they are where they are, are they appropriately protected, do they have the right intelligence, do they have what they need?

It would be worse than awful -- I don't know what to say that point. It would be worse than awful if we were not out there asking every day.

And on the question of the media reports that Sergeant La David Johnson was left behind, I think some of the narrative we are hearing from the administration, they want to use the words that he was separated from his unit. Yes, he was. He got separated. We don't know how. We don't know what happened to this young man.

We don't know how it is, when the medevacs took off with the dead and the wounded, where was Sergeant La David Johnson? Why couldn't they find him? And how is it that he was not found for 48 hours? What a day it would be in America if the news media did not ask about every single soldier serving on the battlefield.

KEILAR: It's such an important point. Barbara Starr, stand by for us.

I do want to bring in Jeff Zeleny.

You were there in the room. Jeff, this was extraordinary.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: It was extraordinary, Brianna.

And you could see the emotion, you could hear the emotion on the face and indeed in the voice of John Kelly, of course, a retired four-star Marine general who knows, sadly, all sides of what he was talking about today.

He is a Marine who has not and does not often, if ever, talk about his son Robert, who was killed seven years ago next month in Afghanistan. He was a Marine.

And, of course, the reason that Robert Kelly's name is even discussed now, it is, as Barbara and David were saying, because President Trump himself raised that in a radio interview earlier this week. So it was an extraordinary White House press briefing, in the sense that it was deeply personal, deeply specific.

From the very beginning of the briefing, Brianna, you could tell that, as General Kelly was standing in the corner, he looked like he did not want to be here. He does not often talk before the press. He did last week, but talked in painstaking detail about how the fallen soldiers of this country return to the U.S.

And it was in extraordinarily painstaking detail about how bodies are packed in ice, how they arrive in Dover, have the flag draped over the casket. All that is true.

And we, of course, have seen so much of that in the last decade and more of war. But what General Kelly did not -- was not as eager to answer and in

fact did not answer, what role President Trump played in politicizing this as well. He went directly after the congresswoman, even invoking a previous story of her support for a new FBI building in Miami.

Of course, she does represent Miami. He went directly after her. So, of course, I'm sure we will hear a response from her. But he did not answer a couple pertinent questions about the president's role in politicizing this.

But I think, going forward, obviously, so many questions about the attack itself. He said this is under investigation. He said that does not necessarily mean anything wrong happened, but he said that they were there, these four troops and indeed others were there, doing the work of the military, informing and training local troops on the ground there.