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Political Drama Escalates As Families Grieve; Sources: Defense Secretary Discouraged By Lack Of Answers; Mattis To Meet With McCain Amid Niger Questions. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired October 20, 2017 - 11:00   ET



BOLDUAN: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan. Today, a public viewing is set to get under way for Sergeant La David Johnson in Hollywood, Florida, one of the four U.S. service members killed after an ISIS affiliated group ambushed their 12-man team in Niger.

Their deaths, sacrifices, and the reasons for it all huge questions still. All being investigated still and also still in danger of being overshadowed by a very sad he said, she said, they said now about the president's condolence call to Johnson's family.

The president's chief of staff, John Kelly, who lost his own son in Afghanistan made an extraordinary appearance in the press briefing room yesterday to talk about what that kind of loss means, what the president's intentions were, and also how upset he was when a congresswoman said the president offended the family of La David Johnson.


JOHN KELLY, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: 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.


BOLDUAN: Well, that was not the last word, though. This morning, the president calling Florida Congresswoman Frederica Wilson whacky and a liar, even though the family has confirmed her account of what he said. Wilson now responding on CNN this morning.


REPRESENTATIVE FREDERICA WILSON (D), FLORIDA: The only reason I came on this morning was to say that I do not appreciate someone lying on me. If you lie on me I'm going to answer because I'm not going to let you get away with it. That's the way I teach my boys and that's the way I live my life. Don't lie on me.


BOLDUAN: None of this, though, gets us any closer to the crucial questions here and that can't be lost of what happened to Sergeant Johnson and the three other members of his team that were killed. What happened to that team at that village in Niger, the 12 men team? Why did it happen and what's going to be done now about it?

Let's start at the White House right now. CNN's Kaitlan Collins is there. Kaitlan, I assumed I actually thought this last night, yesterday afternoon, after listening to John Kelly, I assumed the White House thought John Kelly's word was going to be the last one on this last night but clearly it was not.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Yes. They certainly did, because they thought John Kelly was the most qualified person to come out and answer questions about the situation, Kate, but we're clearly seeing this public feud between the White House and this congresswoman continue to intensify with the president tweeting about it last night saying, "The fake news is going crazy with whacky Congresswoman Wilson who is secretly on a very personal call and gave a total lie on content."

Now this all got started because the Congresswoman Wilson who is a friend of the family of Sergeant La David Johnson, who was killed during that ambush in Niger, was in the car when the president called his widow, Mayisha Johnson, and it was on speaker phone.

She criticized the president for what he said to her, something along the lines of he knew what he signed up for and the president disputed that he had even said that. He said that she had fabricated it and he had not said what Congresswoman Wilson accused him of saying.

But as Chief of Staff John Kelly came out to this press briefing at the White House yesterday, this very gripping, emotional briefing with reporters, he essentially confirmed parts of that account.

But sought to defend what the president had meant because Kelly said that when Joseph Dunford told him about his son, Robert, dying in Afghanistan, he had said something along the same lines. But clearly it was not interpreted that way by the Johnson family.

And then during that briefing, John Kelly delivered a pretty searing criticism of this congresswoman saying that she was selfish and publicity seeking and even recalled an event from 2015 at the dedication of an FBI building in Miami when he said that she was trying to take the political credit for getting the funding for that building.

Now Congresswoman Wilson put out a statement last night saying that she wasn't going to comment any further on this issue, she was going to let the focus be on this grieving family here but then she was on CNN this morning disputing what John Kelly had said about her regarding the FBI incident.

But what's clear here, Kate, is that the tragedy here of these four soldiers who lost their lives is being completely overshadowed by this fight between the White House and this congresswoman.

BOLDUAN: And it is everyone's job to try to make that not happen, but it's hard to have those two things happening at the very same time. Kaitlan, thank you so much. We'll see what comes from the White House, if anything more on this, today.

I'm joined right now to discuss this as Kaitlan laid it out well, CNN military and diplomatic analyst, Retired Rear Admiral John Kirby, of course, served as spokesman to the Pentagon and the State Department under President Obama, CNN political director, David Chalian, is here and CNN senior political reporter, Nia Malika-Henderson.

[11:05:00] John, you've spoken to this a bit, I think, but as I've been thinking about kind of the last 24 hours and the last seven days -- five days if you will, can't all of these things be true about where things ended up?

That the president intended to console and had the best of intentions, that the family did feel disrespected, though by his words, that General Kelly is uniquely positioned to speaks to the grief of this horrible loss, but he also entered a political discussion because he is the chief of staff to a politician now?

REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY (RETIRED), CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: Yes, yes, yes, and yes, Kate. It got all those things are true as we sit here today. What's also true is we have, as Kaitlan rightly pointed out, three other families going through unspeakable grief, two families that are dealing with wounded troops from that same raid and a Pentagon trying to figure out how it happened and how to prevent it from happening again.

That's where our focus needs to be, on two things, one taking care of those families of those fallen and those wounded as well as the thousands more that we have -- we now have in our society as a result of the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere.

And number two, getting to the bottom of this ambush and trying to figure out what's going on. You know, we have as Secretary Mattis said yesterday a thousand troops in West Africa alone doing counterterrorism missions and this is a combat and command that has been historically under resourced.

And so, I think we need to have a larger conversation now. We need to put all this behind us and have a larger conversation about what we're doing to fight ISIS and al Qaeda affiliates in that part of the world.

BOLDUAN: And again, Nia, the White House thought this was going to be put behind everyone, with what John Kelly said yesterday, but then the president continuing it with this tweet last night saying that -- Kaitlan read it, but I can read it for you, "That the fake news is going crazy with whacky Congresswoman Wilson who is secretly on a very personal call and gave a total lie of the content."

Everyone seems to agree that none of this -- that none of this is good where it has gone, if I can say it that way. Not good for Goldstar families and not good for the country. Does the president somehow think this is good for him, though, in some way?

NIA MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: Well, I mean, it's certainly a comfortable place for him to be. It's a real familiar place for him to be going after this congresswoman, Representative Wilson, in the way that he is going after her, calling her whacky, a liar.

I mean, we've seen this from the president before. I think it was in some ways surprising for a lot of people to see the Chief of Staff Kelly yesterday go in such a personal way as well. He sounded in a lot of ways giving her sort of a nickname too, calling her an empty barrel twice.

So, I think in some ways that speech didn't provide the kind of closure that the White House probably hoped for from Kelly because essentially a fourth of that speech was aimed at Representative Wilson.

I think the first part of it, obviously, was very eloquent and personal, but then he launched into a personal attack against this congresswoman and I think that's why you got this cycle and you had the president wanting to go after her again.

It's also -- it might be at some point that Kelly wasn't accurate in some ways in terms of his framing of the congresswoman trying to say she was disrespecting people at that FBI dedication when, in fact, it seems like she was part of the legislation that went to work naming that building after those fallen agents.

So, you know, a lot of, you know, kind of ongoing discussion of this from the White House and you imagine, you know, does the president who watches cable news, he watched the coverage, I'm sure, of not only Kelly giving that very moving speech yesterday, but watching the coverage afterwards and some people were critical of what Kelly said and the way that he went after the congresswoman.

BOLDUAN: David, as we end the week, I think it's important to remember how we started, this started with a simple and good question coming from our own Sara Murray, just because I want to remind folks of where this began, this is exactly what Sara Murray asked the president at that press conference.

Why haven't we heard anything from you so far about the soldiers that were killed in Niger and what do you have to say about that. What does -- what does it say in how this week has played out?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: I'm so glad you read that question. Because you will note in that question, there is nothing in that question about calling families or making condolence calls. It was about why haven't you spoken to the American people about the attack, right.

That was Sara Murray's question. Here's the reality of this week, Kate. I don't think anyone involved this week, Congresswoman Wilson, President Trump, Chief of Staff Kelly, entirely followed the better angels of their nature, right. I think everyone was a little suspect of everything.

President Trump suspect of the press asking a question, Congresswoman Wilson suspect of President Trump's intentions, John Kelly, suspect of the congresswoman and the president. [11:10:09] The whole thing, nobody was sort of just riding the better angels among them about how to sort of deal with this and so what happened was, is that politics overtook something that it never belonged in.

Having said that, Donald Trump is the commander in chief. There is an extra burden that comes with that and I just think that in his way that he chose to answer Sara Murray's question in the Rose Garden, by all of a sudden comparing himself to past presidents and trying to portray the way in which he goes about calling families is more extensive than what others have done, by letters, and phone calls, he wanted to immediately get into a political realm.

Then the next day, suggesting that people and reporters ask John Kelly if Barack Obama ever called him when he experienced this horrific loss in his life of his son. And then again, we have John Kelly going after the congresswoman.

We have President Trump tweeting here last night in a factually inaccurate way about -- to keep this going. This in each one of those instances, there was a choice made on behalf of the administration and the president, to delve into the political. And to me, so much of this could have been avoided if the president made a different choice.

BOLDUAN: I have the moment and I want to play it for you because John, you know, General John Kelly well. The moment when John Kelly, when he was speaking at the podium, I think we can divide it into almost like two statements, right, the statement about the loss of a loved one -- the loss of a soldier, which he uniquely knows and when it entered the political realm went from the podium. This is when John Kelly was talking about his son.


KELLY: 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, 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 to a degree, but there's not much that really can take the edge off what a family member is going through.


BOLDUAN: And I just want to end our discussion there, because it's kind of exactly what you said, David, these are choices that were made in every step of the way in what they have done. But, John, you know John Kelly. What did it take for him to come out and talk about that?

KIRBY: I can't even imagine the courage he had to summon to go to that podium and talk about his family, grief and son that way. Because in all the time I worked with him, he never wanted to talk about it, not because he didn't love and honor his son and cherish the time he had with his son. But because he didn't want to hold his grief and his family's loss up any higher than anybody else's family's loss. He was completely cognizant of the fact that other families were going through very similar pain and grief and he always wanted to respect that.

I asked him once to write a note to my son shipping off to Navy boot camp and it's a personal note, I won't say everything that's in there, but he spoke eloquently to my own son about service and sacrifice and doing something larger than yourself and giving back to the country.

And that's what John Kelly I think really believes that he's doing and I think that, you know, for him to go to the podium yesterday, for him that was a real act of courage.

BOLDUAN: There are things that are still sacred. I will not allow it to be taken away and where this discussion has gone and the loss of John Kelly and so many families have suffered with their sons and daughters and husbands and wives in service that can't be lost in this discussion. John, Nia, David, thank you so much for that.

Coming up for us, we could be hearing very soon from Defense Secretary James Mattis on the Niger ambush moments from now when he welcomes his French counterpart to the Pentagon. Some very important headlines and made very important comments yesterday. Let's see what he has to say about this today.

Plus, they didn't say his name, but there is no -- there is little doubt who they were talking about. Two former presidents taking aim at President Trump and his world view.


FORMER PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If you have to win a campaign by dividing people, you're not going to be able to govern them. You won't be able to unite them later if that's how you start.




BOLDUAN: Breaking news just in, Defense Secretary James Mattis will be heading to Capitol Hill to meet with Senator John McCain, the chairman of the senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill, he will be meeting with him today.

Of course, this comes in light of John McCain raising many questions and also voicing his frustration that he has not been able to get the answers that he believes is deserved for -- on Capitol Hill about what happened in Niger that left four service members dead. James Mattis heading to Capitol Hill to sit down with John McCain today.

Also new this morning, FBI investigators are also now on the ground in Niger, joining the military, to find out exactly what happened in that deadly ambush of U.S. soldiers. Here is the defense secretary just yesterday speaking for the first time about the attack.


GENERAL JAMES MATTIS, DEFENSE SECRETARY: We in the Department of Defense like to know what we're talking about before we talk and so we do not have all the accurate information yet. We will release it as rapidly as we get it because we are very proud and as you know we investigate any time we have our troops killed, whether it be in training accidents or combat.

I don't care if it's in a car accident. In DoD, we investigate the circumstances surrounding and see how we can address the very questions you brought up, about what can we do in the future.


[11:20:10] BOLDUAN: And now John McCain, as I mentioned, could be getting some of those answers to those questions as James Mattis is heading to the Hill.

Let me bring in right now, though, joining to discuss, Democratic Congressman Mike Quigley of Illinois, a member of the House Intelligence Committee. Congressman, thanks for coming in.


BOLDUAN: Good morning. The FBI involved in the Niger investigation. What is the biggest question in your mind with regard to this ambush?

QUIGLEY: What was the intel information offered to the troops before they hit the ground? Were there communication issues? Is it true that one of the sergeants was separated from the rest?

Clearly, we have more questions than answers. We've only got a cursory briefing giving the time of the Intel Committee staffers. We anticipate a fuller briefing shortly from my committee, the Intel Committee, and I'm sure Armed Services.

BOLDUAN: Do you know when that will be happening? I mean, James Mattis, the defense secretary is going to sit down with John McCain today. When do you think you will all be fully briefed even in the classified setting?

QUIGLEY: You know, I suspect it will probably be in the coming week when we're back in Washington, D.C. I suspect still it will be cursory because this investigation will take some time and there will be multiple investigations within the Department of Defense, as there are in all such instances, such as the Yemen raid, which unfortunately was a tragedy of equal proportions.

So, I suspect we'll get a cursory briefing to some extent next week, and then continued briefings as DoD learns more and hopefully sharing this information with the other committees that have responsibility.

BOLDUAN: Do you think in any way DoD has been -- I don't know of a better way of saying it, holding out. I mean, John McCain was frustrated that he hasn't gotten the information he thinks he's deserved already.

QUIGLEY: I think this administration as a whole has been opaque at best on anything. Clearly the president of the United States doesn't like to take responsibility for anything that goes wrong. I can't think of a single time in which he said this was my fault, my responsibility.

We think of President Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs, highly different story than this president after the Yemen raid, in which he publicly blamed the generals. Look, this is going to get more complicated. We have known for some time of the likely demise on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria, of ISIS.

But we also recognize that it's going to have its ramifications elsewhere. We're going to see returning fighters going across the world in terrorist acts. Probably going to see insurgency acts like we just saw.

This is an insurgency group likely formed because of the battlefield losses in Iraq and Syria. We will have to be prepared for that. Do we have the information we need? Do we have a strategy in place to fully meet this challenge?

BOLDUAN: Well, there are clearly so many answers still being sought there. What do you make of how this has devolved this week from a question about the president's thoughts on the Niger attack at a press conference Monday to now name calling between the president and his chief of staff and a Democratic member of Congress?

QUIGLEY: Yes. It is a second tragedy for those families who have lost their members. It should never have happened this way. The fact of the matter is, when something like this happens, immediately, the House and Senate need to be informed.

The American public needs to know exactly what took place to the extent we can tell them, and those that were lost need to be comforted and offered assistance. The second tragedy for these families is, they are dragged through this horrible, embarrassing mess that I suspect just poured salt on terrible wounds they're already suffering.

BOLDUAN: Well, Congressman --

QUIGLEY: I have to tell you --

BOLDUAN: -- if the president --

QUIGLEY: I don't see this president, other than being --

BOLDUAN: If the president made this political, Congressman, does Congresswoman Wilson deserve criticism as well for making it political and continuing it as well?

QUIGLEY: Look, I don't want to reference John Kelly because of his loss and I wasn't part of the conversation with the congresswoman, so if you're asking me who do I believe in this matter, it's probably the family that was part of that conversation and agrees with the congresswoman.

So, if you're asking me how to do this on a nonpartisan basis, I would suggest that we should probably all trust the grieving families and their account of what took place which would agree with the congresswoman.

Let me just say this, this is a president that cannot sympathize or empathize with those who have suffered.

[11:25:04] And as a result, perhaps what they should do is in what they try to tell his staff, tries to tell him when he talks to grieving families, is let's reference the president who seemed to know how to do this.

Quoting perhaps President Lincoln's letter, the Vixby letter, in which he says I pray that our heavenly father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement and leave you only the cherished memory of the love and lost in the solemn pride that must years to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom. If he can't do it at least reference a president who could.

BOLDUAN: Congressman, thank you so much for coming on. I have many questions, especially on where the Russia investigation goes when you return to Capitol Hill, but we'll leaves those for another day. Thank you so much.

QUIGLEY: Thank you so much. Glad to join you.

BOLDUAN: Thank you. We'll be right back.


BOLDUAN: On Capitol Hill, at least Democratic senator is now threatening to hold up the confirmations of U.S. --