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Despite Video, White House Defends False Comments by Kelly; Sources: One Soldier Found Dead a Mile from Ambush Scene; Trump: 'Your Real Russia Story is Uranium'. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired October 20, 2017 - 17:00   ET


[17:00:13] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, breaking news. False claims. White House chief of staff John Kelly got his facts wrong when he attacked a Democratic congresswoman. There is video to prove it. The White House is defending Kelly, joining him in calling the congresswoman names and telling reporters it's highly inappropriate to question Kelly, because he's a four-star general.

Separated. Also breaking, sources tell CNN one of the soldiers was found nearly a mile away from the scene of the Niger ambush. Why was he separated from his comrades? Secretary of Defense James Mattis is briefing senators up on Capitol Hill. Why are they warning the war on terror is morphing and U.S. troops need to do more in Africa?

Hoax versus reality. President Trump again dismisses the Russia meddling investigation as a hoax and says the really story is about Russia and uranium. Is it a real story? We'll ask a former top national security adviser to Vice President Biden and Hillary Clinton.

And not giving up. One of Kim Jong-un's top diplomats says North Korea will never give up its nuclear weapons and says the United States should be prepared to co-exist with a nuclear North Korea. Will that ever happen?

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: The White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders, this afternoon said the White House chief of staff, John Kelly, absolutely stands by his criticism of a Democratic congresswoman and told reporters it is highly inappropriate to question a four-star general.

Kelly bitterly attacked Florida Representative Frederica Wilson after she criticized President Trump's handling of a phone call to the widow of one of the four U.S. soldiers killed earlier this month in Niger. Video of a 2015 speech by Wilson, a speech Kelly cited when he called the congresswoman selfish and an empty barrel, shows Wilson did not -- repeat, not -- say the things Kelly claims she did.

The controversy is overshadowing very serious questions about what happened during and after the Niger ambush. CNN has learned the body of one of the U.S. soldiers was found nearly a mile away from the central scene of the ambush. The Pentagon is still looking at the exact circumstances of how he became separated.

Defense Secretary James Mattis was on Capitol Hill this afternoon to brief Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Senator John McCain. After the meeting, Mattis told reporters that the Pentagon, quote, "can do better at communication."

We're also following other ominous warnings coming from North Korea right now. One of Kim Jong-un's top diplomats says North Korea's nuclear weapons program is nonnegotiable and the U.S. needs to co- exist with a nuclear armed North Korea.

Our correspondents, analysts and specialists, they will have full coverage of all the day's top stories, but let's begin with CNN's Sara Murray. She's over at the White House.

Sara, the White House clearly standing by the chief of staff, John Kelly's, criticism of Congresswoman Wilson.

SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. And nearly everyone involved in this has lamented, expressed regret that this incident has turned into some kind of political battle, and yet again today, folks are trading barbs as this political fight spills into another day.


MURRAY (voice-over): The president's response to a U.S. soldier killed in Niger devolving into a political brawl. Trump taking to Twitter again overnight to blast the congresswoman who accused him of being insensitive in a condolence call when he told Myesha Johnson, the widow of Sergeant La David Johnson that her husband knew what he got into when he signed up to the serve.

"The fake news is going crazy with wacky Congresswoman Wilson, who was secretly on a very personal call and gave a total lie on content," Trump tweeted.

What began as a question over an ambush in Niger that left four American soldiers dead now morphing into a political battle over how the commander in chief carries out his most solemn duty, comforting the families of soldiers who have made the ultimate sacrifice. Just today earlier White House chief of staff and retired Marine General John Kelly made a rare appearance in the briefing room. A Gold Star father himself, he lamented that a call between the commander in chief and the widow of a fallen soldier was being politicized.

GENERAL JOHN KELLY, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: It stuns me that a member of would have listened in on that conversation. Absolutely stuns me. And I thought at least that was sacred.

MURRAY: Wilson says she's close with the family and was with them when the president called. But Kelly went further in his criticism Thursday, taking another swipe at the congresswoman.

[17:05:08] KELLY: And the congresswoman stood up, and in the 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.

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

MURRAY: Wilson quickly took issue with how the chief of staff portrayed her appearance at the FBI building dedication.

REP. FREDERICA WILSON (D), FLORIDA: I was not even in Congress in 2009 when the money for the building was secured. So that's a lie. How dare he?

However, I named the building at the behest of Director Comey, with the help of Speaker Boehner, working across party lines. So he didn't tell the truth, and he needs to stop telling lies on me.

MURRAY: A video of the 2015 dedication from "The Sun Sentinel" doesn't back up Kelly's version of events. While the congresswoman touts her efforts in getting the building named for the fallen FBI agents, there's no discussion of securing funding for the project.

WILSON: Everyone said, "That's impossible. It takes at least eight months to a year to complete the process through the House, the Senate and to the president's office."

I said, "I'm a school principal." And I said -- excuse my French -- "Oh, hell no. We're going to get this done."

MURRAY: And she takes pains to thank the law enforcement officials in attendance and praised the slain FBI agents being honored.

WILSON: Most men and women in law enforcement leave their homes for work knowing that there is a possibility they may not return. If I may, will all men and women and first responders who work in law enforcement stand up. Stand up now so that we can applaud you and what you do. Stand up. We are proud of you. We're proud of your courage. Thank you.

MURRAY: Still, the White House is standing by Kelly's criticism of the congresswoman.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: As General Kelly pointed out, if you're able to make a sacred act like honoring American heroes all about yourself, you're an empty barrel. In you don't understand that reference, I'll put it a little more simply. As we say in the south, all hat, no cattle.

MURRAY: Even going so far as to suggest General Kelly's military background inoculates him from criticism.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can he come out here and talk about this at some point so we can get the facts right?

SANDERS: I think he's addressed that pretty thoroughly yesterday.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm not talking -- wrong yesterday, I'm talking about getting the money. The money is the...

SANDERS: In you want to go after General Kelly, that's up to you. But I think that that -- if you want to get into a debate with a four- star Marine general, I think that that's something highly inappropriate.

MURRAY: Amid all of the political sniping, still few answers from the administration on what exactly happened during the mission in Niger that went so badly awry.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. President, did you authorize the mission in Niger?



MURRAY: Now, today, Sarah Sanders refused to entertain, really, any questions about that mission in Niger, instead insisting the administration would wait until an investigation into the events is completed.

Back to you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. The president we just heard, he was asked at that photo-op with the visiting U.N. secretary-general if he authorized the mission in Niger. He ignored the question. He said thank you and that was that.

Sara Murray over at the White House.

The entire controversy over Gold Star families and the president began with the deaths of four U.S. servicemen in Niger more than two weeks ago. Tonight, we have breaking news about the ambush. Let's bring in our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

Barbara, what are your sources telling you?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we are getting some very interesting details about some of the early reports about what happened. Our sources are cautioning us things could change. They could get more information, but there are still so many questions to be answered.


STARR (voice-over): Sergeant La David Johnson was found nearly a mile away from the central scene of the ambush, according to four administration officials familiar with the early assessment. They all caution this is the early picture and the investigation continues.

The Pentagon is still looking at the exact circumstances of how he became separated from his unit. The entire team led by Green Berets has been interviewed, officials say, about when they last saw Johnson.

[17:10:03] The U.S. team had stopped in a town on the Niger/Mali border so the Nigerians they were working with could pick up supplies, including food and water, and then they met with village elders. Investigators believe the ambush may have begun when the U.S. soldiers were back in their vehicles, possibly even driving.

As those killed are laid to rest, Defense Secretary James Mattis on Capitol Hill briefed Senator John McCain one day after McCain, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, threatened subpoenas if the Pentagon doesn't start telling Congress what it knows.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), CHAIRMAN, ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: I felt that we were not getting a sufficient amount of information, and we are clearing a lot of that up now.

STARR: Mattis refusing to publicly comment why the FBI is now involved in gathering intelligence on the suspected ISIS militants that ambushed the U.S. forces.

TOM FUENTES, FORMER FBI ASSISTANT DIRECTOR: The FBI would have jurisdiction to investigate and bring back the perpetrators to the U.S. if it can be done.

STARR: The pressure is mounting for a public explanation, what did happen to Sergeant Johnson?

WILSON: He was abandoned for two days, for 48 hours. Why? Why didn't they pick him up and put him on their shoulders like they did the other fallen comrades and put him on a helicopter and take him to safety? He could have still been alive.

STARR: But Mattis is fiercely adamant that troops on the ground did everything they could.

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

STARR: And taking pains to point out all troops face risk, top brass pushing back hard.

LT. GEN. KENNETH MCKENZIE JR., DIRECTOR, JOINT STAFF: I'll tell you categorically that from the moment of contact, no one's left behind, either U.S., our partner -- partner Nigerian forces or French forces were on the ground, actively searching for this soldier.


STARR: And now a top senior military officer has been appointed to lead the investigation. Besides finding out what happened to Sergeant Johnson, one of the key questions certainly will be, what was the intelligence? How is it that nobody knew that ISIS would be there -- Wolf. BLITZER: And why were they not in armored vehicles when they went

into that area? They were so vulnerable if they're not in these armored personnel carriers or at least some sort of armored vehicle.

STARR: Well, in this area of Niger, it gets back to the intelligence. The assessment had been it would be unlikely -- those were words that we're hearing -- unlikely that they would run into opposition.

And, remember, this is a mission to advise and assist, to help train the local Nigerian forces to be able to look after their own security. Nobody had the expectation of combat. But I have to tell you, Wolf, all of this being looked at and changes could be coming.

BLITZER: Yes, I assume changes will be coming. They have to learn from this to make sure it doesn't happen again. Looks like there was a major, major intelligence blunder leading up to the deaths of these four U.S. soldiers.

Barbara, I know you're working your sources. We'll get back to you. Barbara Starr at the Pentagon.

I'm joined now by Jake Sullivan, who was a top advisor, national security adviser to both Vice President Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton.

Jake, thanks very much for coming in.

What does it tell you, first of all -- there's a lot to discuss -- that the condolence call has now, all of a sudden over these past few days, become so politicized?

JAKE SULLIVAN, FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR TO VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: It's really unfortunate. When you have the deaths of U.S. service members, like we did in Niger, the first thing we should be asking is what you just asked: how do we prevent it from happening again?

But I have to say, it was President Trump who kicked off the politics by falsely claiming that his predecessors don't get involved in talking to the families of the fallen. And he did that basically to deflect responsibility from his own silence on this -- this crisis in Niger over the past 12 days.

And so everything that's followed from that has been the result of responding to Donald Trump's original sin in this, and if the president would just stand up and say, let's take the politics away, let's get to the bottom of this, we'd all be better off.

BLITZER: Yes. The White House chief of staff, retired four-star Marine Corps General John Kelly, he clearly seriously mischaracterized what Democratic Congresswoman Wilson said in that 2015 speech, dedicating this FBI building down in Florida. So what impact will that have? Because the White House today, you heard Sarah Sanders, the press secretary, doubling down and refusing to acknowledge that he misspoke.

SULLIVAN: Well, both Sean Spicer and Sarah Sanders have a history of doubling down on things that have been proven to be demonstrably false. John Kelly doesn't. So what I would like to know is whether Kelly, now that he has seen the videotape showing that what he said was wrong, is he willing to step up and take responsibility and say, "Hey, I screwed that up"? That would be the responsible thing to do. Based on what I know of John Kelly, that's what I would expect.

[17:15:12] BLITZER: Yes. He's a very decent guy. I know him myself. And I assume once he looks at that nine-minute video and sees there was no mention of the money or anything like that, he'll pick up the phone, call the congresswoman and say, "I'm sorry."

SULLIVAN: Exactly. And the real question is, if he doesn't do that, what does that say about the distortion of reality inside the Trump White House?

BLITZER: I assume he'll want to do that, but the White House, as you know, they double down, the press secretary, the president. They never acknowledge that there's been a mistake. And that's a serious problem right now.

You worked in national security in the White House for a long time. Did you ever think it was inappropriate to question a four-star general?

SULLIVAN: Of course not. In fact, it is the job of civilian oversight of the military that people like the president and senior civilian advisers ask hard questions of the military. Respect their judgement, respect especially the commanders in the field and what they're seeing on the ground, but fundamentally, this is the United States of America. It doesn't matter how many stars are on your shoulders or what political position you hold or how big your bank account is. Everybody should be questioned based on facts and evidence, and that should happen here, too.

BLITZER: Because Sarah Sanders speaks for the president of the United States, speaks for the White House, and when she tells reporters they can't question a four-star general as respected as General Kelly is, she clearly doesn't appreciate what freedom of the press really means.

SULLIVAN: Well, there's actually two two layers to this that are problematic. The first layer is, of course we should be questioning four-star generals just like everyone else.

The second layer is, John Kelly is now a civilian. He is a civilian occupying a political position in the White House. So his former military service shouldn't keep him from answering hard questions, and certainly his current position shouldn't.

So what Sarah Sanders said in the briefing room on this issue is something that is deeply troubling, and the press should keep asking the hard questions.

BLITZER: Yes. He is a retired four-star general. Look, I was a Pentagon correspondent. I used to ask tough questions of active-duty four-star generals during the Persian Gulf War on an almost a daily basis. There should have been a lot more tough questions asked to four-star questions [SIC] during the Vietnam War. Because a lot of those four-star generals, as we now know all these years later, and if you've seen the documentary, they lied. And the U.S. got involved in a Vietnam War that turned out to be a disaster, because those tough questions were not really asked.

SULLIVAN: Look, politicians make mistakes, and they should be asked hard questions of. Civilian professionals in the national security apparatus make mistakes, and they should be asked hard questions of. The same goes for uniformed flag officers and uniformed officials, as well.

That is how the United States of America maintains its edge. We push ourselves. We make sure that we hold ourselves to the highest standard, no matter what uniform you're wearing or if you're wearing no uniform at all.

BLITZER: Having worked closely with four-star generals for many years, I can tell you they want to be asked tough questions. They know they're not perfect. They know they make mistakes, and they know the responsibility of a free press. They know the responsibility of the House and the Senate, the Congress. They want to be asked tough questions.

So what Sarah Sanders said today clearly doesn't make any sense. She needs to come out herself and apologize for what she said.

SULLIVAN: And I'd just say just one more thing on this. The thing that gives the U.S. military an edge, that makes it the best fighting force the world has ever known, is that unlike a lot of other militaries in other parts of the world where you're not allowed to question the generals, there is a culture in our military of holding responsible people for their actions and their words. Of taking accountability. Of learning from mistakes. Or evolving and adapting. That's what makes our military special.

And so when Sarah Sanders suggests that you have to just take as given anything that someone like John Kelly says, she's talking about not the first-rate military of the United States, but third-rate militaries of other countries.

BLITZER: Stand by, Jake. We have more to discuss. There are other developments unfolding right now. We'll take a quick break. We'll be right back.


[17:23:32] BLITZER: We're back with Jake Sullivan, a former senior national security adviser to both Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton.

You know, Jake, I just want to button up those whole notion Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, telling reporters they shouldn't question a four-star general.

You know who often used to question four-star generals? The now president of the United States. And I'm going to put up on the screen some tweets from Donald Trump. Not that long ago: "How can General Martin Dempsey tell Obama that

delaying the Syria bombardment will have no consequences? He is no Patton or McCarthy."

We can go on, because very often during the campaign and elsewhere, he would question America's generals. And for the press secretary to come out and tell reporters today you can't question a four-star general is clearly ridiculous.

SULLIVAN: Well, Donald Trump was exercising his rights as an American to go say what he wanted about those generals. And by the way, I completely disagree with everything he said about them, but he certainly had a right to say it if he wanted to.

BLITZER: He could question -- the chairman of the joint chiefs, whoever he wanted, and journalists should be able to do so as well. Sarah Sanders needs to learn something about what we call democracy, freedom of the press, the First Amendment and responsibility.

Let's talk a little bit about another very sensitive subject. I want you to listen to what the president said yesterday when it comes to the Obama administration, Russia and uranium.


TRUMP: Uranium is a big subject. If the mainstream media would cover the uranium scandal and that Russia has 20 percent of our uranium for whatever reason, and a lot of people understand what those reasons may be, I think that's your Russia story. That's your real Russia story, not a story where they talk about collusion, and there was none. It was a hoax. Your real Russia story is uranium.


[17:25:25] BLITZER: All right. You worked in the Obama administration. You were a national security adviser. You worked in the State Department. What's your reaction to the charge, a very serious charge leveled by the president?

SULLIVAN: It has no basis in fact. It's been looked at not just in the past weeks, but over the past month and more than a year now. People have looked at this, and there's really nothing to it.

This went through a nine-agency committee, a review of whether or not the sale of this uranium mine passed national security standards. The nine-agency committee determined that it did. The sale went through. There's not a lot else to talk about.

If, in fact, some of the most recent reporting that we've seen about individuals, you know, bears out to be true, I don't know whether or not that will be something. But in terms of the Obama administration generally or Secretary Clinton or any other cabinet level official, there was nothing here other than...

BLITZER: But why would -- why would the Obama administration, through this review -- and Hillary Clinton was part of the review process -- allow a Russian company to have access and purchase 20 percent of the U.S. uranium stockpile?

SULLIVAN: To be honest with you, I'm not familiar with how they went through this determination. All I can tell you is there is a rigorous review that is participated in by the Energy Department, the Defense Department, the Treasury Department, the State Department, on down the line to ask the core question, does a particular transaction like this harm the national security of the United States? Career professionals took a look at that from all those different agencies and concluded that it didn't. I can't tell you what their reasoning was, but I also can't substitute my judgement for theirs.

BLITZER: And the accusation that some of these Russians who were involved were giving the Clinton Foundation thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of dollars, and Bill Clinton was going to Russia to deliver speeches for huge speaking fees?

SULLIVAN: So, first of all, Hillary Clinton wasn't actually involved in the decision about the uranium mine, which is kind of a fundamental point.

BLITZER: But wasn't she on that nine-member panel?

SULLIVAN: The State Department was on that panel, but...

BLITZER: She was secretary of state.

SULLIVAN: And she was the secretary of state. But this decision was taken by a lower-level official within the State Department, which is fairly common when these kinds of decisions come forward.

Then beyond that, a lot of what has been suggested about various payments or financial transactions or other things has just been absolutely debunked. So when you start picking through the actual facts underlying this story, you see that there's really nothing to it.

BLITZER: But with hindsight, the Russians having access to 20 percent of U.S. uranium, that shouldn't have been approved by low-level officials. That should have gone to the highest levels.

SULLIVAN: Well, it's hard to say. I mean, at the end of the day, we have a process in place that works for Russian acquisitions or Chinese or other countries that are constantly coming forward. I'm sure the Trump administration is dealing with them right now.

And what goes before a cabinet secretary and what is dealt with by the experts, the professionals who actually know what the political and practical impacts of these things are, it's hard -- I'm not going to substitute my judgement for the judgement of the people who made this decision.

BLITZER: Jake Sullivan, thanks very much for coming in.

SULLIVAN: Thanks for having me.

BLITZER: Appreciate it very much. Coming up, we'll have much more on the name-calling between President Trump's White House chief of staff, retired General John Kelly, and the Florida, congresswoman Frederica Wilson. The White House claims it's highly inappropriate to question a four-star general.


KELLY: The congresswoman stood up and, in the 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.

WILSON: I was not even in Congress in 2009 when the money for the building was secured. So that's a lie. How dare he?



[17:30:00] BLITZER: We're following the breaking news. The White House, refusing to back off from White House Chief of Staff John Kelly's criticism of a Florida congresswoman, even though the video shows Kelly got his facts wrong when he talked about a speech of the Representative Frederica Wilson gave back in 2015. Now, let's get some insight from our political experts. Mark Preston, I know that the White House chief of staff seriously mischaracterized what Congresswoman Wilson said back then. I want you to listen to what Kelly said yesterday.


GEN. JOHN KELLY, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: And the congresswoman stood up, and in the 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.


BLITZER: All right. That's not what she said. We now have the videotape of that event, courtesy of The Sun-Sentinel newspapers down in Florida. Listen to a little bit of what she said, talking about how she played a role in getting that building, that FBI building, named after two slain FBI agents.


REP. FREDERICA JOHNSON (D), FLORIDA: Everyone said, that's impossible. It takes at least eight months to a year to complete the process through the House, the Senate and to the president's office. I said I'm a school principal. And I said, excuse my French, oh, hell no. We're going to get this done.

(APPLAUSE) JOHNSON: Immediately, I went to attack mode. I went to the speaker, Speaker Boehner. And I said, Mr. Speaker, I need your help. The FBI needs your help and our country needs your help. And guess what, the president signed the bill into law this past Tuesday, April 7th, 2015 with a bang, bang, bang!


[17:35:55] BLITZER: She never spoke about the funding for that bill. Actually, the funding for the bill came back in 2009. She wasn't even a member of Congress in 2009. She never spoke about the money at all. He clearly got his facts wrong.

MARK PRESTON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: He clearly got his facts wrong. Not only on that, he got his act facts wrong on the names of the agent who's died in the line of duty. He said that the names were Grogan and Duke. When in fact, the slain FBI agents name, Wolf, were, in fact, Benjamin Grogan and Jerry Dove. In addition to that, the chief of staff said that they were shot, they were killed in a shootout with drug dealers. Not true as well. They were killed in the line of duty, you know, in a bank robbery. And having said that, it sounds like we're nitpicking these minor details, but it does call into question the preciseness of what the chief of staff remembers from that day.

BLITZER: Yes, it's a serious problem. Phil Mudd, I want you to weigh in on it as well because he also yesterday, the Chief of Staff, John Kelly, a very honorable man, he did condemn the fact that the condolence call that the president had made to the family, to the widow of that slain U.S. soldier, that had become politicized.

PHIL MUDD, FORMER DEPUTY DIRECTOR OF THE CIA'S COUNTERTERRORISM CENTER: He's right. Look, everybody's wrong in this case, the president's wrong, the chief of staff is wrong, and the congresswoman is wrong here. We have one person who we're talking about who initiated this and that's a dead man who's 26 years old. How many times did his name come up today? How many times? We have people now saying, including the press secretary, we can't question a four-star general.

The question about what happened with the family of that dead soldier didn't come up today, but the question about whether we could talk to a four-star general did. All of these people need to focus on one thing: are we serving the family of a dead officer by accusing each other of things like, in the case of the president of the United States, not grieving as well as I did -- what he said about his predecessor.

I think that they all need to step back and say we have one, one responsibility: to respect someone who's dead and to say we're sorry for the death, let's move on. All of them, and again, I include the congresswoman, need to take a vacation, go to a two for one happy hour tonight and shut up. We should be done with this.

BLITZER: All right. Everybody, stand by. Kaitlan, I'm going to come to you in a minute. We've got to take a quick break. We'll resume all of this much more right after this.


[17:42:51] BLITZER: We're back with our political specialists. Kaitlan, you know, Sarah Huckabee Sanders at the briefing today, she said this entire conversation should have stopped after General Kelly's statement yesterday, his briefing yesterday. But, you know what, it didn't stop in part because later in the evening, the president tweeted this, "The fake news is going crazy with whacky Congresswoman Wilson (D), who is secretly on a very personal call and gave a total lie on content." What are you hearing about all of this at the White House? Why is the president keeping this conversation going?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, we know this is a president who does not like to be slighted, regardless if it's about the phone calls to dead soldiers' families. And we know clearly how he feels about the congresswoman, and we know also from sources inside the White House that he was thrilled with the way John Kelly handled that very emotional briefing with reporters yesterday, and that he was even talking about it all morning at the White House.

But let's not forget that the president is the one who opened the floodgates into all of this when my colleague Sara Murray asked him why he had not commented on the deaths of these four soldiers. And then he was the one who remarked about what past presidents had done, and said he called all the families of soldiers who had died, which led to reporters calling those families and got us to where we are now. And, yes, Congressman Wilson has added to this ongoing feud, but the president is certainly the one who started it. But overall, the most important thing here is that the focus is shifting away from these four dead soldiers and onto a war of words between the White House and a congresswoman.

BLITZER: Listen to this tense exchange. I'm going to play it. Sarah Sanders, the White House Press Secretary, Chip Reid asked some tough questions, good questions. Watch this.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think he's addressed that pretty thoroughly yesterday.

CHIP REID, CBS NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: He was wrong yesterday in talking about getting the money. The money was secured before she came to Congress.

SANDERS: If you want to go after General Kelly, that's up to you, but I think that if you want to get into a debate with a four-star marine general, I think that's something highly inappropriate.


BLITZER: Highly inappropriate. What was your reaction when you heard that, Mark? PRESTON: Doesn't sound very American to me, right? The idea that you

can't question authority. That's the whole premise of what our country was built upon, was the idea that you had freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and, of course, our government is set up in a way as well where, you know, we have the military separated from the civilian government.

[17:45:11] But a couple of other things to note, and we've seen this before in the White House. They seem to try to tie everything to patriotism. That it's not patriotic if you kneel down if you're an NFL player during the anthem. It's not patriotic if you question a four-star retired general. So, that in itself is wrong. I think that we're making a mistake, and I like to hear what you had said at the top when you described him as chief of staff Kelly. He's no longer an active duty general. His job is a political appointee, and he is the chief of staff. He should be questioned. And I leave it at this, back in 1783, these are very wise words from a man we all know well: "The freedom of speech may be taken away and dumb and silent we may be led like sheep to the slaughter." George Washington said those words.

COLLINS: I don't even think John Kelly would agree with the sentiment from Sarah Sanders that you can't argue with a four-star marine general. I don't think that he would agree with that.

BLITZER: You know who else doesn't agree, Phil Mudd, the president's National Security Adviser, a Three-Star Active Duty General, H.R. McMaster, who wrote an important book about the need to go back, review, question, and make sure you get it right, so we learn from those mistakes and don't repeat it.

MUDD: Well, why are we talking about this? What was she talking about? What a hot mess this is. We go back to a presidential debate, I guess we can't ask questions of Wesley Clark, can we? From CNN, he sat on a podium as a presidential candidate -- former decorated general. I guess we can't go to the president of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower, and talk to him -- he was a general, but he's a president now, we can't ask him any questions.

How about Colin Powell? When you are a secretary of state, you have your own plane. You know, who's in the back? The press. I guess if he walked back there, he can't ask any questions. When General Mattis goes to the press briefing with the chairman of the joint chiefs, I guess he ought to stay mute because you're not allowed to ask anything.

Let me give you one question I'd ask of any sitting four-star general now who are involved in operation overseas, especially in Afghanistan. We're 16 years into a war, and the United States military under the direction of the president is expanding the troop presence in Afghanistan when we've failed to subdue the Taliban and they're on the rise. Why do we think another troop surge is going to win? That's not a fair question to ask. I don't get this, Wolf. I think she made a mistake. I think she ought to say it because there's no way you can square this circle.

BLITZER: She should come out and say she made a mistake, and she should correct it as quick as possible. Coming up, a defiant new claim from North Korea. We're getting new information. Stand by.


[17:52:18] BLITZER: Right now, we're following another inflammatory claim by North Korea. It's yet another signal Kim Jong-un has no intention of giving up his long-range missiles or nuclear bombs. Brian Todd has details for us. So, what are the North Koreans, Brian, saying now?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the brashness from the North Koreans is really remarkable here. Just hours after President Trump's national security adviser said the president won't accept nuclear weapons in North Korea, Kim Jong-un's regime is defiant, coming out and practically daring the Americans to make them give up those weapons.


TODD: Tonight, Kim Jong-un appears to be so confident in North Korea's nuclear weapons programs that one of his diplomats is brashly declaring he's never giving those weapons up.

CHOE SON HUI, NORTH KOREAN DIPLOMAT: He prepares nuclear weapons non- negotiable unless the U.S. is prepared to coexist with the nuclear DPRK.

TODD: The North Korea representative, publicly declaring nuclear weapons are off the table, at the same time lobbing a familiar insult at President Trump, calling him --

CHOE: The mentally deranged U.S. dotard.

TODD: The ramped rhetoric comes just a few hours after the president's national security adviser said this about his boss's position.

GEN. H.R. MCMASTER, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: He's not going to accept this regime, threatening the United States with a nuclear weapon. He won't accept.

TODD: Former Ambassador, Joe DeTrani is one of few American diplomats to ever negotiate with North Korea. He says, despite the war of words, conflict is not inevitable.

JOE DETRANI, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO NORTH KOREA: If North Korea's major issue is security concerns and their major issue is the so- called hostile policy we have towards North Korea, we're prepared to talk about their security concerns. But we are not walking away from insisting that they eventually will have to give up their nuclear weapons.

TODD: Tonight the U.S. is concerned about another weapon in Kim's arsenal -- cyber warfare.

MIKE POMPEO, DIRECTOR FOR THE CIA: They have a very robust capability. It is cheap. If you compare the amount invested in their cyber program, compared to the amount invested in their conventional weapons systems programs or their nuclear program, it is pennies on the dollar.

TODD: Kim Jong-un is believed to have an army of more than 6,000 hackers, most of them from North Korea's top intelligence agency. Experts say they've improved their capabilities dramatically over the past five years with one skill that stands out.

JAMES LEWIS, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: North Korea is the only government that robs banks.

TODD: North Korean hackers are believed to have cyber heisted $81 million from the Central Bank of Bangladesh last year. Analysts say, most of the money they steal pay for Kim's weapons programs. The concern now is that North Korea could expand its lists of targets from money to American missiles.

LEWIS: If there's missile defenses or command and control or military operations that are vulnerable, they will be able to get in, and they will look to disrupt them, cause confusion, turn things off.


[17:55:11] TODD: But America is counterattacking in cyberspace. Current and former U.S. military officials have said the U.S. has a program to disrupt North Korean missiles with cyber-attacks, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Brian, thanks very much. Brian Todd reporting. Coming up, more on this hour's breaking news. The White House defending chief of staff John Kelly's erroneous claims about a Florida congresswoman despite video to the contrary.


[17:59:58] BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. Truth on tape. The White House stands its ground after newly surfaced video shows Chief of Staff John Kelly's claims about a democratic congresswoman were false.