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Interview With California Congressman Eric Swalwell; FBI Investigating U.S. Soldiers' Deaths in Niger; Despite Video, White House Defends False Comments by Kelly; Trump: Kelly Was "So Offended" Congresswoman Heard Call. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired October 20, 2017 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:01]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: The White House stands its ground after newly surfaced video shows Chief of Staff John Kelly's claims about a Democratic congresswoman were false. And Press Secretary Sarah Sanders calls it highly inappropriate to question Kelly because he's a four-star general.

A mile away. New details tonight about the deadly ambush of U.S. troops at the heart of the Kelly controversy. CNN has learned that one of the American soldiers killed was found a mile from the scene of the attack. Lawmakers are now pressing for more information. Are they satisfied with what Defense Secretary James Mattis told them today?

Brushing off Bush. The White House faces new questions about the sharp rebuke of the Trump presidency by former President George W. Bush. He denounced many of President Trump's policies and behaviors without mentioning him by name. Why does the White House now say the former president wasn't talking about the current one?

And laughing it off. House Speaker Paul Ryan roasts President Trump, making light of controversies he usually doesn't address, including the president's insults, his Twitter habits, and more. Was Ryan revealing his true feelings under the guise of humor?

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news tonight, White House efforts to quash the controversy over President Trump's condolence call to a Gold Star widow have thrown fuel on the fire instead.

Newly surfaced video shows White House Chief of Staff John Kelly's allegations against the Democratic congresswoman who criticized the president's call are false. Kelly claimed that in a 2015 speech, Representative Frederica Wilson made self-serving and self- aggrandizing remarks that he called stunning, but video of the speech contradicts Kelly's claim.

The White House responded by saying it's -- quote -- "highly inappropriate" to question a four-star general like Kelly.

Also breaking this hour, new information about the ambush in Niger that killed four American soldiers, including one who was the subject of the president's condolence call, Sergeant La David Johnson. Four administration officials familiar with the investigation now tell CNN that Johnson's remains were found nearly a mile away from the central scene of the ambush.

The Pentagon is trying to determine how and when Johnson became separated from his fellow soldiers.

And the White House says that a remarkable speech by former President George W. Bush rebuking the Trump presidency wasn't about President Trump at all. Mr. Bush condemned bigotry, white supremacy, anti- immigrant nativism, and more in his remarks, but never named President Trump, but were clearly a takedown of his policies and actions.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters, quoting her now, "Our understanding is that those comments were not directed toward President Trump."

We're covering all of that, much more this hour with our guests, including Congressman Eric Swalwell of the House Intelligence Committee, and our correspondents and specialists are also standing by.

But, first, let's get straight to the breaking news, the White House defending false comments by the chief of staff, John Kelly.

Our White House correspondent, Sara Murray, is joining us.

Sara, new twists in this now four-day-old controversy.

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

And nearly everyone who has been involved in this four-day-old controversy has expressed disgust that the death of a U.S. soldier has turned into a political battle. But that certainly didn't stop the attacks from flying today.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

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 Myeshia Johnson, the widow of Sergeant La David Johnson, that her husband knew what he got into when he signed up to 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 a day 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.

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.

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.

[18:05:10]

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

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 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 me my French -- oh, hell no. We're going to get this done.

(LAUGHTER)

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?

(APPLAUSE)

WILSON: 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.

If you don't understand that reference, I will 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 a military background inoculates him from questioning.

QUESTION: Can he come out here and talk to us about this at some point...

(CROSSTALK)

HUCKABEE SANDERS: I think he has addressed that pretty thoroughly yesterday.

QUESTION: Well, he was wrong yesterday in talking about getting the money.

(CROSSTALK)

HUCKABEE SANDERS: If 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.

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

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY: Now, Sarah Sanders essentially refused to entertain questions about what happened on that mission in Niger. She said the administration is going to wait until an investigation into the events that unfolded is completed -- back to you, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Sara, thank you, Sara Murray over at the White House.

We're also learning tonight new information about that deadly ambush of U.S. troops in Niger.

Our global affairs correspondent, Elise Labott, is working this part of the story for us.

New details and a lot of additional questions emerging.

ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

There are new details about the circumstances surrounding the ISIS attack, but there are still more questions than answers, particularly how a fallen American soldier was separated from his team and left behind and why it took two more days to recover his body.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LABOTT (voice-over): Tonight, CNN has learned 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.

The Pentagon is still looking at the exact circumstances of how Johnson became separated. Officials say the entire team led by Green Berets has been interviewed about the last time they saw Johnson.

Nigerian forces found his body 48 hours after he had become separated.

Defense Secretary James Mattis was on Capitol Hill today to meet with Senator John McCain, a day after he threatened to issue subpoenas for the information on the ambush.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I felt that we were not getting a sufficient amount of information, and we are clearing a lot of that up now.

[18:10:06]

JAMES MATTIS, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: We can do better at communication. We can always improve on communication, and that's exactly what we will do.

LABOTT: Mattis is defending his troops in the face of criticism.

MATTIS: 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.

LABOTT: U.S. officials are starting to provide a clearer picture of the circumstances surrounding the attack. The U.S. team 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 meet with village elders. Investigators believe the ambush may have started when the U.S.

soldiers were back at their vehicles, perhaps even driving. With four Americans dead, the FBI is assisting Nigerian authorities with the investigation, providing technical assistance and helping to gather evidence, a routine step when U.S. citizens are killed overseas.

TOM FUENTES, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: The first thing they're going to do is speak with the military personnel who survived the attack. They will be analyzing every bit of electronic evidence, any kind of e-mail traffic that might have come and gone from that region, talk to all of the security forces throughout West Africa who may have information regarding the movement of the people who attacked them.

LABOTT: About 1,000 U.S. troops are in Niger supporting a French-led campaign against extremists. Senator Lindsey Graham now saying the war on terror is morphing, and we could see more U.S. actions in Africa.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: We don't want the next 9/11 to come from Niger.

LABOTT: At the Pentagon today, France's defense minister received full military honors and a thanks from Mattis.

MATTIS: Following the ambush of the U.S. troops in Niger last week, thank you for your support.

LABOTT: French fighter jets arrived on the scene to help the U.S. troops, but CNN has learned they didn't fire on the militants because they couldn't I.D. targets and risk hitting the U.S. and Nigerian forces on the ground.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LABOTT: And one of the main unresolved questions is why the American soldiers were caught by surprise. U.S. intelligence deemed it unlikely at first that ISIS was in the area, which meant that these U.S. troops were not traveling in armored vehicles and did not have any air cover, Wolf.

BLITZER: It's a major, major intelligence blunder that they're going to have to investigate, make sure if doesn't happen again.

Elise, thank you very, very much.

Let's get some more on all of this.

Democratic Congressman Eric Swalwell of California is joining us. He's a member of the House Intelligence Committee.

Congressman, why do you believe, first of all, that the condolence call that the president placed has so -- has become so politicized over these days?

REP. ERIC SWALWELL (D), CALIFORNIA: Good evening, Wolf. First, let's just remember who these individuals are. We're talking

about Bryan Black and David (sic) Wright and Jeremiah Johnson and La David Johnson.

And I don't think their names have been said enough. The politics seems to dominate this. But for the families, they just deserve the peace of knowing that their loved ones are remembered for how they fought and who they were.

And I think the president, if the family wasn't happy with the call that he made, call them again and express your sorrow in a better way, and this story would have been over. And it's just so sad to see, you know, Gold Star families continue to be, you know, hurt by this president when they need, you know, him to be consoling them.

BLITZER: Was it appropriate, Congressman, for the White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders, today to argue that John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, a retired four-star Marine Corps general, shouldn't be questioned about this because he is a retired four-star general?

SWALWELL: Of course he should be questioned.

I'm being questioned by you right now, Wolf. America's leaders are supposed to be questioned. That's what the soldiers who, you know, fight and sacrifice for our country, that's what they're fighting for is the ability of the press and our constituents to question us.

I respect John Kelly a lot. But he's not above questioning, any more than I am.

BLITZER: Let's discuss the ambush that led to the deaths of those four U.S. soldiers. Was there an intelligence blunder that led to those soldiers being blindsided by 50 ISIS-affiliated terrorists who all of a sudden came up well-armed and killed these four soldiers, injured two others?

SWALWELL: There was a blunder somewhere, Wolf, and the families are owed an accurate explanation as to what happened to their loved ones.

And I think the best way you honor the dead who have fought and served for our country is to take care of those who are still serving. And that means looking at the conditions that, you know, our troops continue to serve under.

[18:15:00]

We have 1,000 now, as you reported, in Niger, and that number has grown over the past few years. And so I think, you know, Congress needs to look at the conditions that they're serving under, the terrain that they're covering, and the length of time that they're there and make sure that, you know, proper restraints are put in place.

And this is a larger issue we're dealing with, Wolf. And we see it in Syria and Iraq, is that we're operating under authorities that were granted in 2001 and 2003, and we haven't revisited them. And I think we owe it to those who serve to put some restraints in place.

BLITZER: Yes, I suspect, Congressman, that most Americans, they know there are thousands of U.S. troops still in Iraq and Afghanistan, now in Syria, but they don't know there are thousands of U.S. troops potentially in danger not just in Niger, but a lot of other countries in Africa right now.

Are you fully briefed on what their mission is?

SWALWELL: We are briefed, but I don't believe that we have received, you know, consistent updates about, you know, the growing presence in places like Niger or, you know, what the cooperation is with other services and what are our -- you know, what resources do they have if they come under attack.

Clearly, here, the response time was not, you know, enough. It wasn't fast enough to save their lives. Now, the culprits here, Wolf, are not, you know, the U.S. or the French. It's ISIS. They're the ones that killed these soldiers. We shouldn't forget that.

But we should also do everything we can to make sure that if soldiers are serving in harm's way, that they have all of the resources and force protection around them so that something like this doesn't happen.

BLITZER: Your committee, the House Intelligence Committee, is investigating the Russia -- the allegations of collusion.

I want to talk a little bit about that. Listen to a comment made by the CIA director, Mike Pompeo, yesterday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: Can you say with absolute certainty that the election results were not skewed as a result of Russian interference, especially given what we have learned just in the last few weeks? And more, importantly, are we vulnerable in 2018

MIKE POMPEO, CIA DIRECTOR: I'm not sure there could be anything -- I'm not sure there could be anything more important than that.

QUESTION: OK.

POMPEO: That we conducted an election that had integrity. And, yes, the intelligence community's assessment is that the Russian meddling that took place did not affect the outcome of the election.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Not necessarily precise.

The public report -- the report made public by the director of national intelligence, and that was released in January of this year, stated the intelligence community did not make an assessment of the impact that the Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election. That's a direct quote. So what's your reaction to the CIA director drawing a different

conclusion than that report? By the way, the CIA later clarified what the conclusion of the national intelligence community was.

SWALWELL: His statement doesn't reflect the facts or the findings, and it also -- it actually only reflects the belief that the president has, which is, you know, not fully accepting the Russians' role in interfering in our election.

And, Wolf, speaking of troops, I led a group in Congress called Future Forum. I have gone across the country with my 27 youngest House Democratic colleagues. Almost everywhere we go, we talk to young service members. A million millennials served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And what they're so concerned about what Russia did is that we are losing our freedom to choose. And that's what they're fighting for is the freedom of democracy and free and fair elections. And if we don't have unity at the top from our CIA director and our president that Russia did this, Russia will use that disunity that we're seeing right now in the United States to sharpen their swords and come at us again.

And so we need unity and agreement, a basic consensus on what Russia did if we're going to protect future elections.

BLITZER: Yes, the intelligence community did conclude that the Russians interfered in the U.S. presidential election. They tried to sow dissent here in the United States.

They tried to undermine, hurt Hillary Clinton's campaign and indirectly help Donald Trump's campaign. But there was no bottom-line assessment on whether or not it had a direct impact on actual votes that were cast.

Congressman, stand by. We're going to resume this conversation right after a quick break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:23:46]

BLITZER: A senior diplomat with the Kim Jong-un regime in North Korea says the U.S. has no choice but to coexist with a nuclear North Korea, adding that the country's ultimate goal is to achieve a power balance with the United States.

We're back with Democratic Congressman Eric Swalwell of the Intelligence Committee.

Congressman, North Korea says its nuclear weapons are non-negotiable. The president's national security adviser, General H.R. McMaster, says acceptance and deterrence is unacceptable for President Trump.

So what are the options, realistic options, on the table right now if North Korea holds firmly to its position it will never give up its nuclear bombs? SWALWELL: I agree with National Security Adviser McMaster. It's not

acceptable for North Korea to have a nuclear weapon.

And, you know, prior presidents, I think, in earnest tried to denuclearize North Korea, and we should continue to seek to do that.

However, this president has applied an inconsistent approach. You have seen success at the U.N. where we have applied sanctions, and then within 24 hours of a sanctions vote, where you have gotten China and Russia on board, which is not always easy, you see the president undermining that work by, you know, threatening nuclear action against North Korea.

[18:25:00]

I think you just have to do the hard work, continue to pursue sanctions, continue to engage China on this issue, and get other countries to have, you know, multilateral sanctions as well. And just as we did with Iran, we will hopefully bring them to the table.

But exhaust all of those options first before just immediately going back to the nuclear option and putting Kim Jong-un in a corner, where he could act out and conduct a strike.

BLITZER: But the Kim Jong-un regime clearly believes if it were to give up its nuclear capability, the regime would be in danger.

The only thing that keeps it going, if you will, is this notion that they have nuclear bombs. Is it realistic to believe they will ever give up that nuclear capability?

SWALWELL: I have hope, Wolf. I'm optimistic. We saw Iran give up their nuclear capability, when folks said that that never would happen.

We are allies with Japan and Germany today, when they were our enemies decades ago in World War II. But it takes time. And, of course, there would have to be an economic package or a way for North Korea to come back to the table of nations and be an economy that can sustain itself without just threatening the world or conducting, you know, these bank raids, as was previously reported.

But that takes time, and it takes American leadership. And I still believe that this president, if he wants to and he can be focused, can stitch together our allies and engage China. But if he's going to just be the same old Trump, he's going to get us dangerously close to a nuclear war.

BLITZER: But here's what the North Koreans say. They say look at Moammar Gadhafi in Libya. He gave up his nuclear weapons program and what eventually happened to him? He's long gone now.

They believe that if they were to do the same thing, they would be long gone. And diplomacy over the past 25 years has not worked. North Korea right now probably has at least 60, maybe 80 nuclear bombs. The U.S. intelligence community, as you well know, believes they can miniaturize those bombs, put them on warheads, and they're close to having an intercontinental ballistic missile capability.

Diplomacy has failed for 25 years.

SWALWELL: Agreed, Wolf.

And I'm not defending the prior administrations. It has failed, and President Trump, you know, should seek, you know, to have success in this area. And, again, I don't accept that, you know, just because what happened with Gadhafi or in Iraq that, you know, that that has to be North Korea's fate.

But that takes, you know, dialogue and engaging first our allies, then China, and then bringing North Korea into the conversation. It's going to take time. It's not easy, but I believe that our fate does not have to be, you know, dying in Donald Trump's nuclear-provoked war.

I think we have better options than that, and American leadership has always avoided great crises like that when we want to lead. So, this president, time to lead.

BLITZER: Congressman Eric Swalwell, thanks so much for joining us.

SWALWELL: My pleasure.

BLITZER: There's breaking news coming into THE SITUATION ROOM.

The White House blasts the politicization of President Trump's condolence calls and false allegations against a Florida congresswoman. Are those false allegations making matters worse?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Breaking news, the White House defending comments by the chief of staff, John Kelly, about a Florida congresswoman who criticized the president's condolence call to a Gold Star widow.

[18:33:01] Kelly claimed that in a 2015 speech, Representative Frederica Wilson made self-serving and self-aggrandizing remarks that he called stunning.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Now video has surfaced of Congresswoman Wilson's actual remarks in which she describes her efforts to get the FBI building named after two fallen agents, even though she only had a month to do it; and she never mentioned any funding.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. FREDERICA WILSON (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 me my French -- "Oh, hell no. We're going to get this done."

Immediately I went into 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 7, 2015, with a bang, bang, bang!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Let's get some more with our correspondents and analysts.

And Gloria, if General Kelly was trying to speak out against the politicization of the condolence call, his mischaracterizations clearly did not help.

[18:35:03] GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. I think it politicized it even more, and that probably wasn't his intention, although when you start attacking a sitting member of Congress, you're going to have to know that's where it's going to lead.

He is in a political position right now. He clearly went out there to try and clear things up. I think he wanted to help the president in any way that he could. And in a way, sort of take the fall for this, saying, "This is what I told the president to do. And in his own way," as he kept saying, "that's what he did."

But now the story keeps going and going and going, and you have a situation in which you have now the White House chief of staff and a Democratic congresswoman going at each other, and I don't -- you know, I don't think that helps at all.

BLITZER: Maybe they should get together and have a conversation.

BORGER: I think so. I think that would be a good idea.

BLITZER: David Axelrod, you know, you served in the Obama White House. I'm anxious to get your perspective.

DAVID AXELROD, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, you know, first of all, I agree with Eric Swalwell that it is -- it's tragic that all of this has -- has eclipsed what should be a reflection on these four service people who gave their lives, these four Green Berets, for the country; and the investigation of exactly what happened there.

But, look, I heard John Kelly's words yesterday about his son. I heard him talk about the call. I thought those were entirely appropriate and moving.

But, you know, we all keep hoping that some of John Kelly will rub off on Donald Trump, and then it looks like Donald Trump has rubbed off on John Kelly, because instead of ending it there, he engages in this gratuitous attack on the congresswoman that really undoes all the good he was trying to do.

BORGER: Right.

AXELROD: And then the last point I'd make about this is it's really deeply offensive for the White House press secretary to suggest...

BORGER: Yes.

AXELROD: ... that you should not question what the White House chief of staff said, because he was a four-star general. He's not a four- star general anymore. I honor his service. But he is the White House chief of staff. He was sent out there to speak for the president, to the country, and he -- when he oversteps, he is fair game.

BLITZER: Yes, and I'm going to play that outrageous exchange that Sarah Sanders had at the White House briefing earlier today with Chip Reid. Let's watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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

CHIP REID, REPORTER: He was wrong yesterday in talking about getting the money. The money was...

SANDERS: If 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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Let's bring in retired Rear Admiral John Kirby. Highly inappropriate to question a retired four-star general?

REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY (RET.), CNN DIPLOMATIC AND MILITARY ANALYST: It's absolutely an ignorant thing to say, and I'm not trying to be critical of her, but that shows ignorance. He -- no active-duty general or admiral would ever believe that they are above scrutiny or above being questioned or actually above being debated with. And that includes John Kelly, who I served with under Secretary Panetta. Very open to that. A guy who appreciates honesty and argument. He wouldn't agree with that statement.

But Mr. Axelrod is right. He's no longer a four-star general any more than I'm a two-star admiral any more. He's a political figure. He's the White House chief of staff. And everything he says...

BORGER: Yes. KIRBY: ... whether it's from the podium or not, should be open to scrutiny and questioning by a free press.

BLITZER: It's caused a lot of buzz out there, Rebecca. And the White House has got to clean this up.

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Absolutely. And rightfully so, because I mean, let's think for a second about the values that someone in the military like John Kelly and those he commanded would be fighting for.

Among those is the freedom of the press in this country that allows us to question our government officials, among them now John Kelly, who's working as the president's chief of staff, his top staff member in the White House. So it's completely appropriate for the White House, in this case, to come out and say, "You know, what we said just wasn't right," because it wasn't.

BORGER: Well, you can't get into a tussle with a four-star general who is serving as White House chief of staff when you are doing your job, asking questions about statements that he made that turned out not to be accurate? I mean that's -- that's the reporter's job.

And as you were saying, I think that Kelly is used to getting asked questions and used to being challenged.

KIRBY: He's not afraid of that, not at all.

BLITZER: Sarah Sanders has to come out. She has to clarify what she said: "I didn't mean it. I didn't mean it like this. Of course I believe in freedom of the press. Of course I believe in democracy. Of course I believe that four-star generals, retired or active duty, should be asked tough questions."

We know what happened during the Vietnam War when they weren't asked tough questions. They've got to be asked.

And as a former Pentagon correspondent, I said this earlier. They -- these general, they're used to getting tough questions, and they want to get tough questions to make sure they don't screw it up.

[18:40:12] Let's take a quick break. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:44:57] BLITZER: President Trump has just given another interview to FOX, this time FOX Business, and he said this about this entire controversy that has resulted from that condolence call to a Gold Star widow.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

[18:45:08] DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He was so offended because he was in the room when I made the call, and so were other people. And the call was a very nice call. He was so offended that a woman would be -- that somebody would be listening to that call.

He was -- he actually couldn't believe it. Actually, he said to me, sir, this is not acceptable. This is really not. And he knew I was so nice. I was -- look, I've called many people, and I would think that every one of them appreciated it.

I was very surprised to see this to be honest with you.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: So, there you see the president speaking about his chief of staff, General Kelly. Gloria, what's your reaction when he offers this explanation?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, look, I think the president thinks that what he said should have been taken differently, that he meant it in a different way from the way it was accepted. And as General Kelly kept saying, you know, during his press conference, the president put it in his own words, did it in his own way.

And I think that the president, reading between the lines of what Kelly said, may have been quite inartful about the way he said it. And the widow took it -- took it very differently and thought it was very inappropriate and, of course, you know, said afterwards to the congresswoman, look, he didn't even know my -- you know, my husband's name.

So, I think the president is saying, I did the right thing, and I tried to do the right thing. And I don't understand what happened and something got lost in translation that he doesn't quite understand.

BLITZER: You know, David Axelrod, he tweeted overnight the fake news is going crazy with the wacky Congresswoman Wilson, D, who is secretly on a very personal call and gave a total lie on content.

But, you know, the president was on that call. General Kelly was listening in as well. So, it wasn't just a good friend of the family, Congresswoman Wilson listening in on speaker phone.

DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Right.

BLITZER: I assume besides General Kelly, there were others listening in at the White House as well.

AXELROD: The point is who cares? OK? This woman lost her husband who died in service of this country. She interpreted what he said one way. He may have meant it another as Gloria said.

But she's the one who suffered the loss. You know, it would be such a novel thing, so refreshing, to great for the country if this president could just once rise above. Rise above. Be a big person and show some empathy and back off and say, I'm sorry she misunderstood me.

But that's not his way, and it's unfortunate that General Kelly followed him down that rabbit hole. BLITZER: David, let me just follow up and play a clip. This is

former President George W. Bush yesterday because what he said in that speech, without mentioning President Trump by name, might apply in this case as well. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT: We've seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty. At times, it can seem like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together. Argument turns too easily into animosity. Disagreement escalates into dehumanization.

Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions, forgetting the image of God we should see in each other.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Powerful words from the former president. Will they have an impact, though?

AXELROD: I -- well, they are powerful words. I'm doubtful as to whether they'll have an impact because I think these are deeply ingrained qualities in the president.

But let's note how meaningful it is that George W. Bush spoke them because he is very reticent about commenting on public affairs generally. When he goes out on the road, he generally does it off the record. He was very unwilling to criticize President Obama during his eight years.

The fact that he felt moved to speak as he did yesterday is a very meaningful thing, and they should take it seriously, and the president should take it to heart. But I don't think he will.

BLITZER: All right. Stand by. There's more coming in to THE SITUATION ROOM.

Just ahead, the House Speaker Paul Ryan roasting politicians from both sides of the aisle, including the president.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: Every morning I wake up in my office, and I scroll twitter to see which tweets that I will have to pretend that I did not see later on.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:54:33] BLITZER: The House Speaker Paul Ryan rarely criticizes President Trump in public, but he roasted him along with others in a speech at the annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner in New York. The Al Smith as it's called. Where making fun of politicians is the norm.

Watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: Enough with the applause, all right. You sound like the cabinet when Donald Trump walks in the room.

I don't think I've seen this many New York liberals, this many Wall Street CEOs in one room since my last visit to the White House.

[18:55:08] I want to put your minds at ease. He can relax at my remarks.

I know last year, Donald Trump offended some people. I know his comments according to critics, went too far. Some said it was unbecoming of a public figure and said his comments were offensive. Well, thank God he's learned his lesson.

A Hollywood Republican. That is an oxymoron, which clearly was the word that Rex Tillerson was searching for.

A lot of people, they ask me, you know, guy from Wisconsin, what's it like to work on a daily basis with an abrasive New Yorker with a loud mouth? But, you know, once you get to know him, Chuck Schumer's not that bad.

I'm from Wisconsin. Wisconsin is a fantastic place to visit in the fall. Looking back, someone probably should have told Hillary Clinton that fact.

The fact that you learn when you're speaker, I am now second in line of succession since Steve Bannon has resigned.

Every morning, I wake up in my office and I scroll Twitter to see which tweets that I'll have to pretend that I did not see later on.

Every afternoon, former Speaker John Boehner calls me up. Not to give advice. Just to laugh.

You know, at one point, the president actually insulted me. I know that sounds kind of surprising. He described me as a boy scout who was boring to talk to. It didn't hurt my feelings. What hurt my feelings was when my wife agreed with him.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: He was very, very funny, Rebecca. But a lot of the points he have making in jest supposedly sort of ring true.

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I'm no comedy expert, Wolf, but I think a touch of reality is usually what makes for good comedy, certainly equal opportunity as well. Some ribs about the president. Ribbing Democrats.

Paul Ryan also ribbing himself, so it was a fun night. A little levity in very serious times.

BORGER: You know, I remember when you had Donald Trump do this when Hillary Clinton did it as well. And he kind of fell flat in that room --

BLITZER: That same Al Smith dinner.

BORGER: -- because it takes a lot of sort of self-deprecating humor, which we heard, which we heard from Paul Ryan and he was able to do that. Yes, he ribbed the president, but he also ribbed himself, as you heard when he talked about being a boring Midwesterner. But I thought he was terrific.

BLITZER: Yes, those clips, David, they were really good.

AXELROD: Yes. Look, and I know that the president deeply enjoyed it. He, I remember the 2011 White House correspondents dinner and how much he appreciated being the butt of jokes there.

But Gloria is right. That self-deprecating humor is the most effective humor in these settings and the fact that Ryan sprinkled in self-deprecating humor into his -- into his material made it work, made all the rest of it work. And that's what was missing from the president's speech when he was just a candidate a year ago. Self- deprecating humor is a key, but it's not always easy for everybody.

BLITZER: But you think when president of the United States either sees the clips or watched it last night, he's going to react and say, oh, that was so funny, that was adorable, that was so cute?

AXELROD: Yes, I think he's going to say, just going to pick up the phone and say, Paul, I loved it. I laughed out loud. And I hope you enjoy your retirement.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: Yes, I don't think the president's going to laugh that much. You know, the president, I don't know, does he have a great sense of humor?

BORGER: People who have known him for years say that he is funny. But we don't -- we don't really see that. We don't you know, you know, we don't really see that publicly and we certainly didn't see it in his Al Smith effort because he found a hard time making fun of himself. You know, we know he likes to make fun of other people, but sometimes, that's not funny, as we know.

BLITZER: Yes, he didn't laugh as David points out, at that White House correspondents Association dinner when president Obama made serious fun of him. He was not taking it that well.

BORGER: I'll have to see what he says to the speaker or maybe we'll wake up to a tweet about it tomorrow. Who knows?

BLITZER: I suspect that we'll get all of the above.

BORGER: Yes.

BLITZER: All right, guys. Thanks very, very much. Good conversation. Lots going on.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

I hope all of you have an excellent wonderful weekend.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.