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Emotional Kelly Defends Trump's Condolence Calls; Pentagon Investigating Deaths of 4 Soldiers in Niger. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired October 19, 2017 - 17:00   ET


TAPPER: 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.

[17:00:12] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news, emotion and frustration. President Trump's chief of staff, retired General John Kelly makes a surprising and very emotional appearance in the White House press room. He defends the president's calls to the families of fallen troops and calls out the congresswoman who criticized the president's conversation with a soldier's widow.

Kelly, who lost his own son in action, admitted he told that Mr. Trump that former President Obama did not call him after his son's death, but said that was never meant to be a criticism. Tonight, did Kelly's defense of President Trump end the controversy or make it worse?

Ambush anger. New questions tonight about what those U.S. troops who died were doing in Niger to begin with, why they were ambushed and what happened after. Senator John McCain says the administration isn't being up front, and he may issue subpoenas. More than two weeks after the ambush, why is Defense Secretary James Mattis telling reporters he still does not have all the accurate information?

Self-congratulations. President Trump calls reporters into the Oval Office for an update on the hurricane response, only to pat himself on the back and to ask the Puerto Rico governor, "Did we do a great job?" So what was the governor's answer?

And on the cusp, the current CIA director says the U.S. should behave as if North Korea's on the cusp of having the ability to attack with nuclear weapons. And the former CIA director puts the chances of a conflict at one in four. Can anything dial back the tension?

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Tonight we're following multiple fast-breaking stories. During a surprise appearance in the White House briefing room today. The chief of staff John Kelly said he was broken-hearted and stunned that a U.S. congresswoman criticized President Trump's call to the grieving widow of a U.S. soldier.

Kelly got very emotional as he defended the president's decision to make condolence calls, calling them the most difficult thing you can imagine and revealing he advised the president not to do it.

Kelly, who's a retired U.S. Marine Corps general and lost his own son in combat, confirmed that former President Obama did not call him at the time but said he did not mean that as a criticism when he shared the story with President Trump.

We're also following serious new questions about the ambush earlier this month that left those four U.S. soldiers in the center of the controversy dead in the African country of Niger. Defense Secretary James Mattis tells reporters an investigation is underway, and he does not have all the accurate information about what happened and why one soldier's body wasn't found until several days after the ambush.

Tonight, Senator John McCain is accusing the Trump administration of not being up front about the ambush and threatening to issue subpoenas to get information.

And back in the White House, President Trump says on a scale of one to ten, he would give the administration's response to the hurricane in Puerto Rico a ten. In an impromptu Oval Office news conference, the president asking Puerto Rico's visiting governor point-blank, "Did we do a great job?"

President Trump's director of legislative affairs, Marc Short, he's with us here in THE SITUATION ROOM. And our correspondents, analysts and specialists, they will have full coverage of the day's top stories.

But let's begin over at the White House and chief of staff John Kelly's surprise appearance at today's press briefing.

Our senior White House correspondent, Jeff Zeleny, was in the room. Jeff, Kelly was strongly defending the president and attempting to end the entire controversy. Did he?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the controversy changed today when John Kelly walked into that White House briefing room. You could feel the emotion in the room, see on his face and, indeed, hear it in his voice.

He was speaking, of course, not only as the White House chief of staff, but also as a four-star Marine general and a Gold Star father himself, whose son died in Afghanistan seven years ago.

Wolf, he blasted the Florida congresswoman at the center of all this. He did not, though, address the president's role in how this all got started.


ZELENY (voice-over): White House chief of staff John Kelly forcefully defending President Trump's call to the widow of an American soldier killed in Niger.

JOHN KELLY, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: 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."

ZELENY: Trying to diffuse a firestorm the president himself sparked this week, Kelly said he guided the commander in chief through condolence calls to families of four troops killed two weeks ago in an ambush.

KELLY: Let me tell you what I tell him. Let me tell you what my best friend, Joe Dunford told me, because he was my casualty officer. He said, "Kell, 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."

ZELENY: The president's call Tuesday to Myesha Johnson, the pregnant widow of Sergeant La David Johnson, stirred controversy after the soldier's mother and Congresswoman Frederica Wilson said Mr. Trump disrespected Sergeant Johnson by saying, "He knew what he signed up for."

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Didn't say what that congresswoman said. Didn't say it all. She knows it.

ZELENY: Kelly blasted the congresswoman for recounting the president's private conversation, but he sought to explain the president's words, not retract them.

KELLY: I was stunned when I came to work yesterday morning and broken-hearted at what I saw a member of Congress doing. Member of Congress who listened in on a phone call from the president of the United States to a young wife.

And in 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.

ZELENY: Kelly spoke as a retired four-star Marine general and a Gold Star father whose son Robert was killed in Afghanistan seven years ago. His son's death was injected into the controversy after he told Mr. Trump that President Obama never called him after his son died. It was Mr. Trump who made that private conversation public.

KELLY: 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.

ZELENY: What Kelly did not say during today's extraordinary White House briefing was that President Trump first injected politics in the Rose Garden on Monday.

TRUMP: If you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn't make calls.

ZELENY: Kelly's voice cracked with emotion as he spoke about the weeklong controversy, but would not answer questions about the president's role in it.

KELLY: And when I listen 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. 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.

ZELENY: His appearance in the briefing room was an attempt by the White House to turn the page from what has become an unseemly debate. It came after the president met with the governor of Puerto Rico and gave himself a perfect grade on the government's response to the hurricane-ravaged island.

TRUMP: I would say it was a ten.

ZELENY: The president went well beyond defending the administration and three times gave the government top marks.

TRUMP: There's never been anything like that. I give ourselves a ten.

ZELENY: But that conflicts with the reality on the ground where only one quarter of the island has power and one-third of people have no drinking water one month after Hurricane Maria hit.


ZELENY: Now Wolf, John Kelly's appearance in the briefly room, again, was an attempt by this White House to take control of the story and to put it aside, put it to a rest. The chief of staff was asked specific questions about the Niger ambush: what exactly were the troops doing there. He said that they were helping the local forces.

But he did confirm there was an investigation under way by the Pentagon, of course. He said that does not mean that there was anything wrong necessarily. He said, but they must find out what happened and why -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Try to make sure it doesn't happen again. Jeff Zeleny reporting for us at the White House. Thank you.

This controversy over the president's calls to families of fallen troops began with the deaths of these four U.S. servicemen in Niger two weeks ago. Today the defense secretary, James Mattis, told reporters an investigation of their deaths in the ambush is now under way. And he still doesn't have all the accurate information about what happened.

Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.

Barbara, serious questions continuing to swirl about how these men died.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Wolf, and Pentagon officials, you know, said today that for the first time, that there had been an around-the-clock search for one of those four, the missing soldier, La David Johnson, after a fire fight that no one expected.


STARR (voice-over): Green Berets were leading the 12-man team on a visit to village elders. They had done 29 routine patrols in the area over the last six months. This time, it was all-out combat.

JAMES MATTIS, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: The 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.

STARR: According to initial reports, the soldiers had just left the meeting and were back near their trucks to meet up with those who had stayed behind. They walked right into an ambush.

COL. STEVE WARREN (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: A fire fight is unlike any other human endeavor. It's confusing, it's loud, it's terrifying. There's blood, screams, danger all around.

STARR: A military investigation is under way.

COL. MARK CHEADLE, U.S. AFRICA COMMAND SPOKESMAN: Had we anticipated this sort of attack, we would have absolutely devoted more resources to it, to reduce the risk. And that's something we're looking at right now.

STARR: But what is known is disturbing. The troops had been told it was unlikely there would be opposition in the area. Now, the U.S. believes it was 50 ISIS fighters who attacked them. ISIS was armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. The Americans had their rifles.

The U.S. troops fought back running for cover, calling for help. Thirty minutes later, French jets flew over the battlefield, trying to scare off the ISIS fighters. They had no authority to fire on them. It was close to an hour before French military helicopters and a U.S. contractor aircraft came in to evacuate the dead and wounded, U.S. officials say.

GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Did they know what was going on in the area? Were they sharing it with the right people? Did the African countries know something that the U.S. advisors did not know and they didn't share? That's another area.

Third area might be how do you evacuate if you have potential casualties?

STARR: Tough questions now face the Pentagon and the president. What happened during the fire fight? How did Sergeant La David Johnson get left behind? Was he killed instantly? What does the White House know? All important questions to understand what went wrong. Especially how did Sergeant Johnson get separated from his fellow

soldiers? When the evacuation aircraft took off, they were one man short. No one can yet say why Johnson wasn't picked up.

GEN. JAMES MATTIS, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: 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 fire fight and question whether or not they did everything they could in order to bring everyone out at once.

STARR: Because nobody knew if he might be alive still, plans for a secret Navy SEAL rescue mission were made. Sergeant Johnson's body was found nearly 48 hours later. Nobody can say why and how he was left behind.


STARR: Wolf, I have to tell you, several top officials have told me today the reason we are indeed seeing all these people come out in public -- Secretary Mattis, John Kelly -- they want to change the narrative. They feel the narrative has gotten away from them, and they want to get it back. And they want to make sure that people understand that they did look for Sergeant Johnson -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Barbara, I want you to stay with us. I also want to bring in our other specialists and get everyone's analysis on what is happening right now.

John Kirby, you're our CNN military and diplomatic analyst, retired rear admiral. Were you surprised that General Kelly came out and spoke as he did today?

JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: Yes, actually, I was, Wolf. I mean, I can -- I know General Kelly pretty well. I can tell you, this was the last thing I'm sure he wanted to do, was to go out there -- first of all, he doesn't like the spotlight to begin with, and to go out there and talk about his own personal experience. I can only imagine, and you could see it on his face, how painful that was.

But look Wolf, I think a couple of things I hope comes out of this. One, that we all take a moment and breathe and recognize that a message of, hey, this is what your loved one volunteered to do, may fall differently on the ears of a serving Marine Corps general when he has to hear those terrible words, than it does in the ears of a 24- year-old woman with two small kids and one on the way, just starting her life. I mean, we have to, I think, allow for that.

No. 2, I hope that this really helps elevate a discussion about Gold Star families in this country and what the troops are doing in some pretty dangerous places, and that we remind ourselves of the sacrifices that these people are making every day.

BLITZER: Yes, enormous sacrifices.

You know, Barbara, General Kelly criticized the congresswoman, Democratic Representative Frederica Wilson, who politicized the phone call, in effect. It seems that Sergeant La David Johnson's family let her listen in on the call. It was on a speakerphone. They were driving in a car. And they've told the news media themselves that the congresswoman's account was accurate.

General Kelly emphasized that President Trump offered his condolences in the best way he knew how. So, what should have happened?

[17:15:07] STARR: Well, you know, I think that Kelly and everybody's making the point, these condolence calls are very difficult. And what can you possibly say, as John Kirby just said to a woman who is suddenly a young widow at the age of 24? Families hear different things when they get these calls. They absorb the information differently. We know that.

This young woman, however she felt, let's forget the congresswoman for a minute. However this young widow felt about it, that is valid. That is how this woman going through this terrible experience feels. And she should be embraced.

What I can tell you is -- and I know the other panel members have done it, as well. I have sat with many Gold Star families, and -- and they all pretty much say the same thing. What their biggest concern is over time, always, is their loved ones be remembered, that the sacrifice be remembered. Their biggest anxiety about the big picture is that people just won't remember their loved ones and won't remember the sacrifices that so many have made.

BLITZER: Yes, good point.

You know, Jim Sciutto, let's go back to where it started on Monday in the Rose Garden. The president was answering questions. Our own Sara Murray asked the president about the four soldiers who were killed in that October 4 ambush in Niger. The president explained that he hadn't yet called the families, and then he said this.


TRUMP: The toughest calls I have to make are the calls where this happens. Soldiers are killed. It's a very difficult thing.

Now it goats a point where, you know, you make four or five of them in one day, it's a very, very tough day. For me, that's by far the toughest.

So the traditional way, if you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn't make calls. A lot of them didn't make calls.


BLITZER: All the presidents did make calls, not necessarily to all the families, but they did make calls. And the president got a lot of criticism for that, and as a result, he defended himself a day later by bringing in General Kelly into the conversation.


TRUMP: You could ask General Kelly, did he get a call from Obama? You could ask other people. I don't know what Obama's policy was.


BLITZER: So would Kelly have been brought into this very painful conversation right now, had it not been what the president said?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Listen, the president took what appeared to be private advice from his chief of staff, who -- the ultimate private issue for him, because this is a chief of staff who's received that call himself. He's a Gold Star father, General John Kelly. Took that private advice and made it public. It seemed to score political points or to get involved or kind of to bat back what he perceived to be criticism of how he handled it. So the president contributed to this. There's no question in it. And then he tweeted about it.

And then remember, perhaps inadvertently, but some of Kelly's comments today actually knock down the president's account of this. You'll remember that just yesterday, yesterday morning, President Trump tweeted, "Democratic congresswoman totally fabricated what I said to the wife of a soldier who died in action, and I have proof. Sad."

Since then, of course, the White House has said there is no tape of that conversation. But you may criticize what the -- what Representative Wilson said about this and so on, but she didn't fabricate it, because General Kelly seemed to confirm today that the president related some form of the "This is what they signed up for." Not meant to be in the president's defense. The was not meaning to be dismissive and say, "Ma'am, he knew what he had coming to him." He was saying, reflecting what General Kelly might have communicated to him, which is that parents in that situation, they know that their sons and daughters signed up for something that they knew they might pay the ultimate price for. That's a reasonable message.

But the president yesterday claimed that everything the representative said in that conversation was false when, in fact, it appears General Kelly today confirmed that was part of the president's message.

BLITZER: Yes, but John Kirby, as you point out, it's different to hear that if you're a four-star general, as opposed to a 24-year-old widow...

KIRBY: Exactly.

BLITZER: ... with two little kids and one on the way. And did, you know, the chief of staff, the White House chief of staff, General Kelly, he criticizes all the politicization of this. But in effect, at least in part, what he did today will contribute to that political debate.

KIRBY: I think so. I mean, he is -- he's a bona fide hero, a personal hero of mine, but when he took that job as chief of staff, he became a political figure. And when he went out there today, while there was the Gold Star father, we saw there was also the politico. And he dove right into it by laying that gauntlet down at Congresswoman Wilson, calling her "that woman." And I think, you know, that didn't do anything to stoke these fires -- or to not stoke these fires.

BLITZER: He's truly an amazing man, and our heart goes out to him and his family, all of the Gold Star families right now...

KIRBY: Absolutely.

BLITZER: ... who are watching and going through the pain, and I'm sure the pain is enormous.

[17:20:07] We're going to have a lot more on this coming up. There are other important developments unfolding right now, including up on Capitol Hill. Democratic and Republican senators say they have a deal to stabilize Obamacare and lower out-of-pocket expenses for millions of Americans, but can it pass? And will President Trump support it?

We'll speak with the president's point man with Congress, the legislative director over at the White House, Marc Short. He's here with me in THE SITUATION ROOM.


[17:25:00] BLITZER: Following a very important story up on Capitol Hill right now. Democratic and Republican senators this afternoon revealed their long-awaited plan to reduce out-of-pocket costs for people on Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act. They say they can do it without bailing out the big insurance companies, which President Trump also opposes.

Let's go to our congressional correspondent, Sunlen Serfaty.

Sunlen, give us an update. Tell us about the deal.

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, senators today trying to breathe new life back into this deal after it abruptly reached a point where it seems like it had completely stalled out just yesterday. That was after President Trump backtracked and came out against the deal.

Now today, the sponsors of this deal, Senator Alexander and Senator Patty Murray, saying that they now have 24 co-sponsors -- 12 Republican senators, 12 Democratic senators -- signing their name to this deal. And a real full-throated defense of this bill on the Senate floor today by both of those deal makers, speaking specifically to the main reason that President Trump now says that he's against it. This notion, as President Trump puts it, that extending these cost- sharing reduction payments for two years, as this bill does, would amount to an enrichment of the insurers.

Here's Senator Alexander, pushing back on that point by President Trump today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER (R-TN), HEALTH, EDUCATION, LABOR & PENSIONS CHAIRMAN: In my conversations with President Trump, he's made it clear, and several of my colleagues have made it clear on the Republican side that they don't to want bail out insurance companies.

And what I responded is that I one hundred percent agree. These payments are designed to help low-income Americans pay their co-pays and deductibles, and we have in our agreement about a page and a half of language that requires every state to come up with a way to make sure that the benefits of those payments go to the consumers in 2018, and not to the insurance companies.


SERFATY: So where does all of this go from here? Well, Republican leaders over here in the Senate have not indicated any path forward for it over here, and certainly, there is considerable concern among House Republicans. There is some talk, though, that they could eventually, later on down the line, potentially later this year, attach it to something else like the government funding bill, so that they specifically would not have to vote on this as a stand-alone bill.

That said, senators Alexander and Patty Murray say that they're working behind the scenes. They're trying to make potentially some tweaks, trying to educate their members on what would happen if these payments are not extended.

And they say, Wolf, that the message that they're getting loud and clear from President Trump is to keep moving forward on this. That's behind the scenes, of course. It's not going anywhere until he makes that point publicly, Wolf.

BLITZER: Sunlen Serfaty, up on Capitol Hill, thanks very much.

We're joined now by the White House director of legislative affairs, Marc Short.

Marc, thanks very much for coming back.

So the president is confusing me. I'm sure he's confusing a lot of people out there. Two days ago, he seemed to indicate he supports this bipartisan compromise. Yesterday, he moved away from it. Today he confused the matter even further by saying this, listen. He was asked, "Do you support it?"


TRUMP: No, I like -- I like people working on plans at all times. I think, ultimately, block grants is the way to go, where we block out the money to the states. You get better health care. You'll get it for less money. There'll be a transition period.

So anything they're working on will be short term. It'll be absolutely short term, because ultimately, we will be -- it's going to be repeal and replace. So, I have great respect, as you know, for both of the senators that

you mentioned, and a short-term solution. What I did say, though, is I don't want the insurance companies making any more money.

Again, I respect very much the two senators you're talking about, I love that they're working on it. I want them to be careful with respect to the insurance companies. Insurance companies are extremely good at making money. Extremely talented at making money. And I want them to be careful with that.

We will probably like a very short-term solution until we hit the block grants, until that all kicks in. In other words, it doesn't just kick in the following day. There's a transition period. And if they can do something like that, I'm open to it.


BLITZER: All right. So I've totally confused, because he's given these conflicting signals, muddying the water. Where does he stand right now on this legislation that you heard Lamar Alexander say, "It's not going to go, the money is not going to go to the insurance companies"?

MARC SHORT, WHITE HOUSE LEGISLATIVE LIAISON: Sure, I can help clarify for that, Wolf. The president has consistently appreciated the efforts of Lamar and Patty Murray. He sincerely appreciates the two sides coming together, unlike the first nine months of this year, in trying to find a solution.

But he's also been clear that he does not support a bailout to the insurance companies with taxpayer dollars.

BLITZER: Well, Lamar Alexander says this is not a bailout to the insurance companies. This helps lower-income Americans get the insurance. The insurance companies will be able to provide them the insurance because of these subsidies.

SHORT: So these subsidies, Wolf, are called cost-sharing reductions. That is an absolute oxymoron. Has anybody's costs decreased ever since Obamacare passed? Most plans have increased by 100 percent, up to 200 percent per plan and premium.

What the President is saying is what we've been doing is giving $10 billion a year in taxpayer dollars to insurance companies who are now required by law every American, individual and employers, to provide and buy insurance. So, government forces you to buy it, and then we provide the subsidies to the insurance companies.

Look at the profits ever since Obamacare passed: Cigna, 480 percent stock increase; Aetna, 470 percent; Humana 420 percent.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: I understand what you're saying, Marc. But will the President sign this compromise that --

SHORT: This bill -- BLITZER: -- 12 Republicans Senator, 12 Democratic Senators, including

all sorts of people say is a good compromise in the short term over the next two years?

SHORT: The President appreciates their efforts to get start on this, but we need a lot more than what's in the bill right now. Despite the assurances from Senator Alexander, the language still has taxpayer dollars going through the companies --

BLITZER: So, he opposes it right now?

SHORT: This is not sufficient enough. We need --

BLITZER: So, for Lindsey Graham, Senator Cassidy, they -- when the President supported their legislation, they're co-sponsors now.

SHORT: So, the Graham-Cassidy Bill is entirely different, Wolf, that's what the President is talking about.


BLITZER: But they realized, you know, sometimes you can't get everything you want, you've got to accept what's realistic.

SHORT: Wolf, there's a lot more than we want. I think what the American people deserve to really lower cost is to eliminate and get rid of the mandates that Obamacare has, to actually begin to eliminate the taxes, that will lower the prices. We're not even talking about that yet.

BLITZER: But if these subsidies don't continue over the next year or two in this short term as the President likes to call it, short-term effort, premiums are going to go up for a lot of poor people.

SHORT: The President has been advertising for nine months, he was going to get rid of these subsidies. If the prices have already been priced in, insurance companies have already priced that into the plans for next year, I'm sure there's a lot of people who will be shouting that this is what we need to do because they are -- they get contributions from their insurance companies on Capitol Hill, and so, they want to continue to provide this. But it's not --

BLITZER: But the President keeps saying, and I'm looking at the transcript, we just heard him say, if they can come up with a short- term solution, they've come up with a short-term solution. Maybe it's not perfect from your standpoint, but there is a short-term solution that potentially could be passed in the Senate and moved to the House.

SHORT: It's far from perfect. In essence, what we're doing under this bill is continuing two years of these taxpayer bailouts to insurance companies for waivers that we believe we already have. In fact, Seema Verma's already extending them to many states. So, if we really want to reduce prices, then we need to begin repealing the mandates and repealing the taxes, and then we could have a deal.

BLITZER: So, in other words, what you're saying is the President told Lamar Alexander, I don't support this, go back to work.

SHORT: The President appreciates and is continuing to encourage him and says, keep working at it, we're not there yet.

BLITZER: What did Lamar Alexander say?

SHORT: I think that the Senator is sincere in his efforts to continue to work at this.

BLITZER: Is the White House going to come up with proposed legislation, language that you could endorse?

SHORT: I think the White House you'll see put forward principles to things that we'd want to see in legislation, yes.

BLITZER: When are you going to do that?

SHORT: I believe it's been communicated today.

BLITZER: Communicated to Lamar Alexander?


BLITZER: And to -- and to Patty Murray, the co-sponsors of this current legislation? All right, you know what, we're not going to accept yours, but we've got some other ideas, and we're going to present -- have you already presented them with your ideas or you're about to?

SHORT: If they haven't received it yet, they will by tomorrow, for sure.

BLITZER: Will you make those public?

SHORT: Probably.

BLITZER: And give us the gist then.

SHORT: The gist is we believe that the individual mandate should repeal, employer mandate repealed, and allow Americans to contribute to health savings account. That is important, it provides freedom and it actually provides, you know, do with your taxpayer dollars --

BLITZER: So, you want to go back to repeal and replace, is that what you're saying?

SHORT: We're saying we want to reduce costs, and right now, the plan as is constructed does not do that.

BLITZER: But if you eliminate these subsidies and you roll back that mandate, you're going to lose a lot of support, and you could wind up with less than 50 which is what happened the last time.

SHORT: What evidence is there that after several years of paying these subsidies that it's actually reduce costs? Premiums have gone up between 100 and 200 percent. Continuing to pay cost-sharing reductions, it's an oxymoron. It's like saying jumbo shrimp, it's an absurd oxymoron. And we keep saying that we're going to lower prices, we don't. All we do is take taxpayer dollars and give it out to the insurance companies.

BLITZER: So, basically, what the President is saying to these senators, Republican Senators, Democratic Senators, go back to work, I understand what you're saying, but, you know, you're running a risk that it's going to fail again. You're going to wind up with nothing and Obamacare will simply continue as is.

SHORT: The President is sincere in wanting to find a solution. He is grateful to Lamar Alexander for his efforts and beginning to reach out to Patty Murray and for both of them for talking. It's just not there yet.

BLITZER: Well, it's a serious issue. Let's get to some other issues. The President often, often says he wants to work with Democrats, come up with compromises, whether on health care, tax reform, he says he wants to work with Democrats, DACA, the Dreamers, he wants to work with Democrats. But what happens every time he says that, every time he moves in that direction, some conservatives, some opponents come up with resistance, and he starts walking away from that. You've seen that pattern.

[17:35:17] SHORT: No, Wolf. What I would tell you is just a couple months ago, there was plenty of people who were in hysterics when the President struck a deal with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi on a short-term continuation of government funding as well as extending the debt ceiling. The President is very sincere of wanting to work across the aisle, he's very sincere about wanting to get solutions. And I think he's very sincere about wanting a bipartisan health care solution. And just yesterday, we had at the White House, many Democrat Senators to talk about tax reform and to get their ideas of how we can continue to work on the bill together.

BLITZER: But, you know, a lot of people are going to conclude based on this experience with -- on health care that, you know, they really can't trust the President to come up with a reasonable solution, he's not going to get everything he wants, but you've got to compromise in Washington.

SHORT: Wolf, I think the President is willing to compromise. Tell me where the compromise is where you're continuing to extend the bailouts for something that we already have in 1332 waivers. That's not a compromise. We're willing to work on this, but we need to make sure that we're going to actually reduce health care costs.

BLITZER: Are you willing to work with the Democrats on the Dreamers, on DACA?

SHORT: The President has expressed (INAUDIBLE) work with the Democrats on DACA. We provided them what we think are important on immigration principles, and we're continuing to have those conversations.

BLITZER: Will those 700,000 or 800,000 Dreamers be allowed to have legal status and stay in the United States and eventually, way down the road, apply for citizenship?

SHORT: The President is anxious to provide them with legal status and he has made that offer and we're anxious to see what Congress comes back with.

BLITZER: And eventually, eventually be able to even apply for citizenship and not remain, quote, second class citizens in this country?

SHORT: We don't -- we don't -- we don't view as second class citizens. We're not -- we're not at this point looking to negotiate on citizenship, but the President does want to have a deal, and that's why we've engaged in the conversation and provide the principles of how to get there.

BLITZER: Citizenship is on the table or off the table?

SHORT: At this point, Wolf, we're not interested in entertaining that right now.

BLITZER: Well, that's sort of caveat. Let's talk about another sensitive issue, the House Oversight Committee asked you to explain why some White House officials, they use their government e-mail, but they also have private e-mail accounts. And the White House and covered employees, you wrote back to them, "endeavor to comply with all relevant laws." Is that the best you could do in the explanation?

SHORT: I think that that's a fair explanation.

BLITZER: Because your -- you didn't satisfy a lot of these members, Democratic members and Republican members, and remember all the controversy about Hillary Clinton's use of a private e-mail server. So, what is -- what is the rule right now for White House officials like you and others about using private e-mail?

SHORT: We're not supposed to be doing government business on private e-mail. I think that there's a Public Records Act that makes that clear and I think the White House is cooperating with each and every investigation.

BLITZER: Was it appropriate as a result of what I'm hearing from you, for some White House officials, Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus, Gary Cohn, Stephen Miller to use private e- mails for government information for government purposes?

SHORT: Government purposes are supposed to be on government e-mails, but I have -- I don't have access --

BLITZER: So, it was inappropriate.

SHORT: I don't have access to each of their e-mails, I have not looked at the e-mails, Wolf, so I can't -- I can't --

BLITZER: Because this is what the House Oversight Committee is investigating.

SHORT: I understand. And that's why our White House Counsel's office is continuing to talk with hem and share information.

BLITZER: And so, basically, the rule, though, is if you work for the White House --

SHORT: Public Records Act, that's correct.

BLITZER: -- you should not be using for government purposes --

SHORT: Government purposes --

BLITZER: -- in private e-mail -- and if they are using it for private e-mail, they should stop.

SHORT: That is correct, but I don't think -- I think you're jumping to conclusions based upon private e-mails that we haven't seen.

BLITZER: Because a lot of people think it's hypocritical based on what Hillary Clinton was accused of doing, and now this --on a much lower level, not with servers, but with private e-mail accounts, there are officials in the White House who seem to be doing the same thing.

SHORT: And the White House Counsel's office made it clear what the law is and what we need to be complying with and that's why they're also cooperating with --

BLITZER: And they should (INAUDIBLE) to Congress.

SHORT: Yes. And that's why they're cooperating with each investigation.

BLITZER: One final question, there has been some reporting, you're thinking of leaving the White House and joining the Heritage Foundation as President, explain.

SHORT: Wolf, I'm very fortunate and blessed to have the opportunity to work in the Trump White House, I'm very happy where I am, and I'm not going to negotiate on the networks about what I might or might not do next.

BLITZER: So, you don't want to say you're not going to take it or you are --

SHORT: I am -- I am loving my job right now.

BLITZER: OK. I'll leave it on that. Marc Short, you've got a tough job. Thanks very much for joining us.

SHORT: Thanks for having me.

BLITZER: Appreciate it. Still to come, we'll have much more on the White House Chief of Staff, General John Kelly's very personal, very emotional defense of President Trump's calls to families of Americans lost in battle.

GEN. JOHN KELLY, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: 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 is 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.

[17:40:05] But 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.


[17:44:54] BLITZER: Breaking news, amid all the fallout over President Trump's recent handling of calls to Gold Star families, the White House Chief of Staff, retired Marine Corps General John Kelly makes a surprise appearance in the briefing room to defend the President to share a very personal and emotional account of losing his own son in battle. Let's discuss with our experts. And Phil Mudd, a lot of us were moved by what we heard from General Kelly, but were you surprised to see that appearance in the briefing room?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: No, I would say more saddened, Wolf. I mean, this is a difficult moment for America. I think it's a sad moment for American politics, and for some simple reasons. General Kelly, I thought, was moving and I thought he was right. Life is sacred. A wife thought she was going to grow up in an entire life with a man she loved and she lost him. A child doesn't get to learn to fish with his dad. And we have the President of the United States decide to use this moment to compare himself favorably to his predecessor, we have a Congresswoman from Florida who decides to use this moment to take a shot at the President I'm sure she despises, we have two politicians who used the death of a young man to see who can piss higher on a fire hydrant, and that's American politics?

This is a sad moment. I think it's the President and the Congresswoman who put General Kelly in a horrible position. I thought he made a great statement today, but he should never, ever have had to make that statement, and we should never have politicians say more than we grieve your loss and we love what your child did for America. This is just a rough day, Wolf.

BLITZER: Well, who do you blame for forcing General Kelly to go out there and make that statement? Who's responsible for that?

MUDD: Well, the President started this. He -- why is he getting out in the wake of the death of people who represent America and saying this is a chance to say I call more people than President Obama? How about saying I'm sorry that a kid doesn't learn how to fish with his dad. How's that? How about a Congresswoman who says this is a moment to go after a man I despise in the Oval Office and I don't care what happened in terms of the actual phone call and whether General Kelly actually did advise the President to say that. I think politicians have a simple responsibility, if you can't shut up, get out of the room.

BLITZER: Chris Cillizza, how did you see it? CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN EDITOR AT LARGE: I don't disagree with Phil. I think that General Kelly was put in an extremely difficult position, in no small part by his boss. Remember, Donald Trump is the one who said go ask General Kelly regarding phone calls and whether Barack Obama called after his son was killed in Afghanistan. So, some of this is the President's own creation, which is not General Kelly's fault, but he knew the man that he was working for. I thought the first part of -- it's not really a press conference, but his remarks talking about how bodies are transported, what that is like, powerful enough even if you didn't know the back story that this is someone who has lived this. This is not just a General, this is not someone who's just the White House Chief of Staff, this is just a father who has lost a son.

The end of it in which he sort of moves into more a lecture of what is sacred and what should be sacred, I'm with him on all of that. The problem again is, this is not President John Kelly, this is White House Chief of Staff John Kelly to President Donald Trump. And President Donald Trump as it relates to Gold Star families, his willingness to go back and forth with the Khan family after the convention in 2016, comments he made about John McCain, I like my heroes not captured in 2015, comments he's made about women, General Kelly said women used to be considered sacred, that's not the case anymore, and I think he was referring to Harvey Weinstein, but President Trump's words in that regard have to be considered as well.

So, if General Kelly was the President, that was, I think, a stirring, important moment. I think it was anyway, but I also don't -- I don't think you can separate it out from the fact that he's not President, Donald Trump is President. Donald Trump set some of these things in motion, both in the near term with his back and forth with Frederica Wilson, but also in things he has said and done throughout his relatively brief life in politics.

BLITZER: Yes, Frederica Wilson is the U.S. Congresswoman from Florida who got into this exchange indirectly with the President of the United States. How do you see it, Rebecca?

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think Chris is exactly right that this was an unfortunate situation for John Kelly to have to be in to be the clean-up man for President Trump, but that's really the role that we've seen a number of people in this administration play. Cabinet Secretaries like Rex Tillerson or Jim Mattis, John Kelly, before him, Reince Priebus, you know, this is the role of someone who works in the Trump administration. Is the President goes out, says what he's going to say, makes a mistake or a misstep, and it's left to those who work for him and with him in the government to clean it up.

[17:49:59] CILLIZZA: And the truth is, what General Kelly essentially said today was, here's what Donald Trump meant to say and we know what Frederica Wilson heard and, yes, it is possible that in a moment like that, what you need in a difficult moment that -- let's remember, the President has not done this a whole heck of a lot, right? He was not in politics ever before. This is hard even if you've done it a million times before. What he meant to say and what they heard, it's possible that both ends were not acting in a way that was sort of malevolent, it was just a miscommunication. What's difficult is, to Phil Mudd's point, both ceasing on these things, Frederica Wilson, the congresswoman from Florida, the Democrat and Donald Trump, seizing on these things as a way to sort of prove on her side, Donald Trump is this terrible, evil person who doesn't think of the widow. And on his end, well, I did everything better than everyone who has ever --

BLITZER: All right. We're going to have a lot more on this development, a very painful, emotional development. I want all of you to stand by. There's another development we're following right now, new tonight, President Trump's national security team is raising the alarm about North Korea's rapidly advancing nuclear capability. CNN's Brian Todd is joining us now with more on this latest very disturbing assessment. Brian, what can you tell us?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, just a short time ago, President Trump's National Security Adviser, General H.R. McMaster, said we are in a race to resolve this crisis with North Korea, short of military action. McMaster and the CIA Director Mike Pompeo are out tonight with stark warnings of where this crisis is headed and how close Kim Jong-un is to being able to deliver the ultimate threat to the United States.


TODD: Stern warnings tonight to North Korea's Kim Jong-un and about his regime from two of President Trump's closest aides, from his national security adviser, a veiled threat.

GEN. H.R. MCMASTER, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: He is not going to except this kind -- this regime threatening the United States with a -- with a nuclear weapon. He won't accept it.

TODD: And from his CIA Director, a sober assessment that Kim is undeterred in developing his deadliest weapon, a nuclear-tipped long- range missile that could strike America.

MIKE POMPEO, DIRECTOR, CIA: We ought to behave as if we are on the cusp of them achieving that objective. They are closer now than they were five years ago and I expect they will be closer in five months than they are today.

TODD: What would North Korea have to do in the next five months to move closer to that capability?

MICHAEL GREEN, SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT FOR ASIA, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: If they are aiming to get that last piece of the puzzle, which is a nuclear weapon that can enter the atmosphere from a missile and not burn up, they have to test, presumably, including the test of putting one, something on a missile and having it re-enter the atmosphere, not necessarily a nuclear weapon but something with a similar shell and casing.

TODD: Tonight's warnings from the current administration come after the last CIA Chief delivered a disturbing set of odds, saying there's a 20 to 25 percent chance of a confrontation between the U.S. and its allies and Kim's forces.

JOHN BRENNAN, FORMER DIRECTOR, CIA: The prospects for military conflicts in the Korean Peninsula are greater than they have been in several decades. I don't think it's likely or probable, but, you know, if it's a one on four, one on five chance, that's too high.

TODD: John Brennan says President Trump's recent personal attacks on Kim only add to the tension.

BRENNAN: Reference to the Rocket Man and other things, I mean, that's -- I think it's irresponsible.

TODD: While the rhetoric heats up in Washington, it's just as ominous on the Korean Peninsula. Kim Jong-un's propaganda arm says the joint U.S.-South Korean Naval drills going on now are designed to ignite a war with a pre-emptive strike and that North Korean forces are, "prepared to make the strike end in smoke at a single stroke." And the top South Korean opposition leader who has a huge following is calling for a deployment of American weapons in South Korea that haven't been there since the early 90s.

HONG JUN-PYO, SOUTH KOREAN OPPOSITION LAWMAKER (through translator): Only by deploying tactical nuclear weapons in South Korean territory, can we negotiate with North Korea on an equal footing.

TODD: Those weapons would be aimed at this, the sprawling capital of North Korea. Aerial footage from a private photographer named (INAUDIBLE) shows a city bigger and more developed than most are used to seeing from the ground. The video shows surprisingly few people on the streets of Pyongyang, not many vehicles on the roads, as well as buildings that may be occupied or may just be facades. Illustrating what experts say is a difficult, potential target for the U.S. and its allies if a conflict breaks out.

GREEN: There are huge empty trophy buildings and huge statues and broad boulevards, you know, lots of tunnels, deep subways underground, there are lots of places for the leadership to hide.


TODD: Experts say that's also the trouble American and allied forces will have if they try to take out North Korea's nuclear weapons with preemptive strikes. Most of those weapons, they say, are stored in bunkers deep inside North Korea's imposing mountain ranges, Wolf.

[17:54:57] BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting for us. Good report, Brian. Very serious developments. Coming up, much more on this afternoon's breaking news over at the White House, President Trump's Chief of Staff, retired Marine Corps General John Kelly strongly defends the President's condolence calls and slams the Florida Congresswoman who criticized the President's call to a grieving widow.

KELLY: It stuns me that a member of Congress would have listen in on that conversation. Absolutely stuns me. And I thought, at least that was sacred.


BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. Stunned, a truly remarkable statement by the President's Chief of Staff, as the controversy over the Commander-in-Chief's condolence call rages.