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AT THIS HOUR
Widow: Trump's Call "Made Me Cry Even Worse"; Trump Denies Widow's Claims And Says He Was "Respectful"; Pentagon, FBI Investigating Deadly Niger Ambush; Senators: We Didn't Know 1,000 U.S. Troops Are In Niger; Widow Demands Answers On Niger Ambush; Trump Vows "Biggest Tax Cuts Ever" Health Care Difficulty. Aired 11-11:30a ET
Aired October 23, 2017 - 11:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan. This morning, I don't know what's in that box. I need to see my husband. Those are the words today from the grieving young widow of fallen Sergeant La David Johnson. Speaking out for the first time publicly this morning, to ABC.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MYESHIA JOHNSON, WIDOW OF SGT. LA DAVID JOHNSON: Why couldn't I see my husband. Every time I asked to see my husband they wouldn't let me.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What did they tell you?
JOHNSON: They're telling me that he's in a severe wrap, like, I won't be able to see him. I need to see him, so I will know that that is my husband. I don't know nothing. They won't show me a finger, a hand. I know my husband's body from head to toe and they won't let me see anything. I don't know what's in that box. It could be anything for all I know. But I need to see my husband.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BOLDUAN: And Myeshia Johnson is now demanding answers about the circumstances around the ambush that killed her husband and three of his fellow soldiers. She's also this morning confirming the sadly much discussed and disputed and debated call with the president of the United States. Listen here.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOHNSON: And he goes on to say in his statement as, what he said was --
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The president?
JOHNSON: Yes, the president said that he knew what he signed up for, but it hurts anyways. And I was -- it made me cry because I was very angry at the tone of his voice and how he said it. He couldn't remember my husband's name. The only way he remembered my husband's name, because he told me, he had my husband's report in front of him.
And that's when he actually said, La David. I heard him stumbling on trying to remember my husband's name. And that what hurts me the most because if my husband is out here fighting for our country and he risked his life for our country, why can't you remember his name? And that is what made me upset and cried even more because my husband was an awesome soldier.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What did you say to the president?
JOHNSON: I didn't -- I didn't say anything. I just listened.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But you were upset when you got off the phone?
JOHNSON: Oh, very, very upset and hurt, very. It made me cry even worse.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BOLDUAN: Miss Johnson also stands by Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, who was in the car with her at the time, who then got caught up, of course, in a very public name-calling spat with the president and his chief of staff over all of this.
The president not letting Miss Johnson have the last word, though. Right after that interview aired he tweeted this, "I had a very respectful conversation with the widow of Sergeant La David Johnson and spoke his name from beginning without hesitation."
All right. Ryan Browne is following the investigative side of this. Kaitlan Collins is at the White House. Let's start with Kaitlan. Kaitlan, first to you, I honestly can't believe this enters another week. What is the White House saying today?
KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Yes. We're on day eight of this and the president is completely disputing what the widow said during that interview this morning where she described the phone call between the two of them as hurtful and said that president struggled to remember her husband's name.
So now that's the second person where the president is disputing their account of the call. The other, of course, being that Democratic Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, from Florida, who is a close family friend of the Johnson's.
The president has said that she fabricated when she described the contents of the call and that he did not say what she said he said. But this morning, Myeshia Johnson stood by Congresswoman Wilson's account of the call. Listen to what she had to say -- Kate.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOHNSON: Whatever Miss Wilson said was not fabricated. What she said was 100 percent correct. It was Master Sergeant Neil, me, my aunt, my uncle, and the driver, and Miss Wilson in a car. The phone was on speaker phone. Why would we fabricate something like that? BOLDUAN: Is there anything you would like to say to the president now?
JOHNSON: No. I don't -- no. I don't have nothing to say to him.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COLLINS: Now, Kate, the White House says there is no recording and no transcript of the call, so it's essentially the widow's word versus the president. Myeshia Johnson said she doesn't have anything left to say to the president and we're told right now, Kate, that there are no plans for the administration to reach out to the Johnson family again at this time.
BOLDUAN: All right. Kaitlan, thank you so much. Let's turn to the investigation, though, and what exactly happened in the ambush and what exactly the Pentagon still does not know.
[11:05:06] CNN's Ryan Browne is at the Pentagon with much more. Ryan, you heard Myeshia Johnson. She wants answers she said this morning. What are you hearing right now?
RYAN BROWNE, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: Well, Kate, the Pentagon is really trying to find out exactly what happened in Niger during this ambush and the U.S. Africa Command is overseeing an investigation to try to determine how these U.S. soldiers came under attack, how Sergeant Johnson was separated from the rest of his unit and how his body was unable to be recovered for nearly 48 hours.
Now these are all things that they're looking at. Of course, they already said that there was a bit of an intelligence failure which they didn't expect this attack to happen, and, of course, there's even broader questions coming from Congress with senior senators.
Including Senator Lindsey Graham and Minority Leader Senator Chuck Schumer saying they were not aware of the size and scale of the U.S. military presence in that West African country. Let's listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I can say this to the families, they were there to defend America. They were there to help allies. I didn't know there was 1,000 troops in Niger. John McCain is right to tell the military because this is an endless war without boundaries, no limitation on time and geography, you have to tell us more.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You heard Senator Graham there. He didn't know we had 1,000 troops in Niger. Did you?
SENATOR CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), SENATE MINORITY LEADER: No, I did not.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BROWNE: Now, the Pentagon maintains that they conduct regular briefings on U.S. operations in the region to Congress and that President Trump in June sent letter to leaders in Congress saying that there were about 1,000 U.S. troops in Niger and neighboring Cameroon performing training and advising missions and constructing a drone base there.
But members of Congress want to know more, they've asked for additional briefings and hearings both on the U.S. military presence there and specifically on what went wrong during this mission which left four U.S. soldiers dead -- Kate.
BOLDUAN: Yes. All right. Let's see what the next hours and days bring. Ryan, thank you so much.
Let me bring in two members of Congress, both members of key House committees on this issue and both Iraq war veterans, Republican Congressman Lee Zeldin sits on the Foreign Affairs Committee, Democratic Congressman Ruben Gallego sits on the House Armed Services Committee. Gentlemen, thank you so much for being here. I really appreciate it.
Clearly a lot to discuss this morning. Congressman Gallego, first to you, Miss Johnson, the sergeant's widow, she said she still doesn't know anything about how her husband died. Are you satisfied with what you have heard from the Pentagon so far in terms of actually what happened?
REPRESENTATIVE RUBEN GALLEGO (D-AZ), ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: Absolutely not. We don't know exactly what happened, both to Sergeant Johnson. We have no clue what the conditions were. I would also like to know the usual things that usually go into these types of missions.
You know, where was the close air combat support, who were the allied forces, what was the mission, were they truly on an assist and train mission or are they actually part of the 100 killer teams?
There's a lot of things that we have a right to know about and the fact that it is what happened to the sergeant. How did they lose his body and lost it for 48 hours? That violates all protocol.
When we went into combat no matter where I was in Iraq, we always had a head count when we got off the helicopter and when we got on the helicopter, whatever vehicle we got on or off and the fact that a U.S. American soldier went missing tells us that a lot of things went wrong, and we need to fix it.
Because other American military personnel will never feel safe if they don't think that we're ready to back them up. That's a very dangerous thing to our national security apparatus if soldiers feel like they're not going to be found or going to be left behind.
BOLDUAN: Congressman Zeldin, you heard Lindsey Graham and Chuck Schumer saying the same. But John McCain, very frustrated with what he's saying last week he wasn't getting enough information. Lindsey Graham, very frustrated. Did you know there were 1,000 U.S. military person until Niger?
REPRESENTATIVE LEE ZELDIN (R-NY), FOREIGN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE: I knew we had about several hundred. We're operating in countries all over Africa, but I don't know the exact troop level --
BOLDUAN: The fact that they're frustrated, though, says what? I mean, are you frustrated as well?
ZELDIN: When I was -- I want answers most importantly for the families. It's very difficult, if not impossible, to have closure without knowing exactly how your loved one was killed. In the -- I was on active duty still in the Army reserves.
While I was on active duty, I was involved in these what they called the AR-15-6 investigations. Every time we have a service member who is seriously injured or killed in combat, there's an investigation that takes place.
At the end of the investigation, you're able to present that information to the families, very helpful to the families. Sometimes that information has redacted information so it's important that we're providing as much accurate information as quickly as possible. I don't want to -- I wouldn't want to see them cut corners to provide inaccurate info, without cutting corners and redact as little as possible for primarily the family's purposes.
BOLDUAN: Do you think things have been slow so far, Congressman?
ZELDIN: Well, I would like to know exactly where the Pentagon is in that investigation.
ZELDIN: The best source for Congress to get information as to what happened is going to be directly from the Pentagon.
BOLDUAN: That's right.
[11:10:03] ZELDIN: So, getting that update -- it's going to be a status update because I wouldn't expect that investigation to be complete, but they have to provide some information. It's also important for lessons learned too --
BOLDUAN: Absolutely. And I will say, and lessons learned, I don't know if lessons have been learned on this aspect of this conversation I want to ask you both about it, but Congressman Zeldin, first to you, the sergeant's widow, Myeshia Johnson, you heard what she said to ABC news.
She was very hurt by what the president said to her on that phone call and then this morning the president responded on Twitter disputing what she said, disputing her account essentially. I mean, do you see him continuing this as helping in any way?
ZELDIN: Well, I wish I was able to listen to and I'm sure you would as well, listen to the conversation itself. We are debating what happened on this call. Myeshia also mentioned that --
BOLDUAN: Here's the thing. I am not debating. Go ahead, Congressman. Go ahead. GALLEGO: There should be no debate. This widow got a phone call, whether the phone call went well or not, is irrelevant. These phone calls are tough. I've made these phone calls. They're not the first casualty calls like General Kelly tried to make, but I've had to make these phone calls, you know, talking to a loved one.
And if something went wrong all the president had to say, you know, I'm sorry, the Chief of Staff Kelly say, I'm sorry. These things happen. There was no ill intent. Instead the president made it about himself.
Instead the president turned around and started attacking a congresswoman who was doing her job, being with her constituent and turned this into a whole side show because the president cannot help himself. He did not have any empathy for this widow.
All he had to do was shut up and actually be a leader and just apologize. There is no good way to make these phone calls. We've had to make these phone calls and understand that. The president is not acting presidential. All he cares about is himself and his small ego.
So, instead of actually accepting the fact that this happened and that he spoke -- spoke in a manner that maybe was not befitting of the situation, he decided just to double down and make this situation even worse. That's not how a president acts.
There is no right way to talk to a widow once they die, it's how you act afterwards, and the president and Chief of Staff Kelly have acted wholly inappropriate in this situation.
BOLDUAN: Do you agree? Were they inappropriate in the situation?
ZELDIN: So, with all due respect to my colleague who I do have a lot of respect for, you know, he wasn't on the call as well. You know, and Miss Wilson --
GALLEGON: That's irrelevant whether --
ZELDIN: She's getting criticized.
GALLEGO: (Inaudible) have empathy for a widow. It's the action afterwards.
BOLDUAN: Congressman, go ahead, Congressman.
ZELDIN: So you know, Miss Wilson is, you know -- she's not necessarily someone who has high-roaded anything about her relationship with the president. You have two personalities her who have attacked each other and that is a side show. What --
BOLDUAN: Look, I agree that a lot of this has become a side show, but let's talk about just today, should the widow have the last word?
GALLEGO: Yes. ZELDIN: But the last word, though, also included Myeshia saying that the president said his name, but it was her perception that the president needed to look at a report that was in front of him in order to know his name. I wasn't on the call.
BOLDUAN: But it hurt her feelings so what?
ZELDIN: OK. So, that's most important. If --
BOLDUAN: It hurt her feelings so what if it's right or wrong or slightly off or not. Shouldn't she have the last word?
ZELDIN: Sure. I'm fine with that.
ZELDIN: And what's most important is that you have a Gold Star family, who you want to console, you know, the president gets criticized if he doesn't make the call, the president gets criticized if he does make the call.
If he does make the call you happen to have someone in that car who is the one who goes to press. This person is someone -- this member of Congress is someone who has said that the president has a brain disorder. He's crazy, that he's cold hearted, they -- you know he's a racist, calling for the president's impeachment, I mean, the list goes on before this started.
BOLDUAN: I would say I don't think there are a lot of clean hands in where this has gone, except the one person with clean hands. Congressman Gallego, go ahead. But it is the widow and that's where I want to stay right here today.
GALLEGO: Yes. The widow -- Sergeant Johnson's widow decided who to be on the phone call and who's not. That's her prerogative. So, to make this, you know, weird assumption that Kelly made that somehow she violated some sacred trust by being on the phone call that was just, number one, a distraction.
Number two, the way to end this is to just end it. The president can just stop arguing back with the widow. It occurred, it's over. These phone calls are very difficult. If they had said the phone calls are difficult. We're sorry --
ZELDIN: I don't know how to argue to say it was a respectful phone call. He tweets out it's a respectful phone call.
GALLEGO: No, Lee. The fact that Kelly goes on in the press conference.
BOLDUAN: Here's the tweet, "I had a very respectful phone call."
ZELDIN: He tweeted out.
BOLDUAN: Do you think that is helpful, though, Congressman?
ZELDIN: I have spoken to the president about Twitter. He is not --
BOLDUAN: You can say -- I hear you, you can say yes or no. I want your assessment, he tweets right after her interview and say now he's disputing the account of the widow?
ZELDIN: It's in the news today no matter whether or not he posts that tweet. You're still going to -- the media is still going to be attacking the president for saying whatever it is --
GALLEGO: He's acting not presidential.
ZELDIN: -- that were said that he said -- the president wants to have his end of the story. No listen, I don't want anything to get distracted from what's most important --
GALLEGO: (Inaudible) be a president.
ZELDIN: The family has --
GALLEGO: Let the widow have her day.
ZELDIN: I don't want to keep talking over each other.
BOLDUAN: It's a delay. Go ahead, Congressman Zeldin.
ZELDIN: I don't want this back and forth with regards to the president tweeting that it was a respectful conversation that he mentioned La David Johnson's name from the beginning, that -- is that a distraction? Yes. Would we still be talking about this anyway? Yes.
BOLDUAN: The widow spoke today. There is not -- this is what's -- OK. This what I feel like is lost. The widow is speaking out today. She wants answers in an investigation.
BOLDUAN: She says she was hurt by the president.
BOLDUAN: On some level, as a representative.
ZELDIN: Most important.
BOLDUAN: Full stop. Couldn't -- can't it stop there?
GALLEGO: If I --
ZELDIN: Absolutely can.
BOLDUAN: Would you prefer Congressman Zeldin if it did stop there?
ZELDIN: I wish we weren't going back and forth at all did he say his name, not say his name, when did he say his name. Now we've reached the point everyone agrees the president knew and said his name, but meanwhile, we're not talking about, which we started off in this conversation, talking about an investigation --
BOLDUAN: We're talking about all of it. I'm talking to you about all of it and believe me, we're staying with the investigation. But the president seems to want to continue the conversation about what happened on the call himself.
ZELDIN: That conversation has happened regardless of whether or not the tweet goes out.
BOLDUAN: Go ahead, Congressman Gallego.
GALLEGO: I would like to point out, did you ever -- can we all recall the days when President Bush or President Obama were arguing back and forth over Twitter with a widow during the Afghanistan war or during the Iraq war, during the heydays of those days when we had bodies coming back every day? No, because those presidents actually had dignity and acting like leaders.
This president does not. The people around him like former General Kelly, now Chief of Staff Kelly, need to actually teach the president how to be a leader. A leader would not involve himself in this type of disgraceful type of action. A leader thinks about first his country and the men and women that sacrifice for this country.
And part would just be to be quiet, take the lump, apologize and move on instead of engaging this back and forth because all you have to do -- the reason he's doing it because he needs to have this ego filled of somehow that he is correcting something that's been wronged.
There is no winning or losing when it comes to this. Just drop it, let the widow mourn, figure out what happens so it doesn't happen again and act like a president, especially in these hard times. These are the hardest moments you can have as leader.
Again, I've made these phone calls. They are awful phone calls. There is no right way to do it, but they are definitely the wrong way to do it is to go on the attack afterwards.
BOLDUAN: Sometimes leading is silence but I'm glad there has not been silence in this conversation. Gentlemen, thank you so much for always coming on.
GALLEGO: Thank you.
BOLDUAN: You bring a very unique perspective. Congressman Zeldin, Congressman Gallego, thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
Coming up, we could hear more from the president this morning when he sits down with the prime minister of Singapore, who is going to be visiting him at the White House. What more will the president have to say? We will bring that to you live.
Plus, an interview with C-span about Vietnam War, but did Senator John McCain just take another swipe at President Trump? That is next.
BOLDUAN: The biggest tax cut ever in the history of this country, that is what President Trump says is coming down the pike. He also has a warning of sorts for Republican lawmakers right now, if they fail to do that, if they fail to pass those tax cuts and bring about tax reform that will cost them big in 2018.
That came in a phone call yesterday with House Republican members. Tomorrow, President Trump is heading to the Hill to take -- you would assume a very similar message to Senate Republicans during their weekly lunch. He is determined, he says, to get this whole deal done by the end of the year. Fact or fiction, truth, reality?
Let's go to it, CNN congressional correspondent, Sunlen Serfaty, joining me now from Capitol Hill. Sunlen, tell me where do things stand right now?
SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think the biggest truth right now, Kate, is you could that there are certainly a lot of moving pieces on this up here on Capitol Hill and no one knows quite how this is going to end.
That said, the president's involvement on all of these ramping up certainly underscores the real political imperative that the White House and Republicans have to get this done this year. But that said, beyond the politics of all of this, the truth is, that the policy is still very much influx.
There is no firm tax bill that is being written. A lot of ideas being thrown out, essentially to see what sticks, and there's not consensus on the broad outlines of this tax bill just yet. Now one of those ideas floated in the last couple days the idea that Republicans were thinking about having a cap on 401(k) contributions.
Well, the president shot that down this morning over Twitter. He said, quote, "There will be no change to your 401(k). This has always been a great and popular middle-class tax breaks that works and it stays."
So, Trump there popping that trial balloon rather bluntly over Twitter this morning. Again, this underscoring that the broad contours of this plan are still very much coming together, puts a lot of political and policy pressure on the president when he heads up here on the Hill tomorrow -- Kate.
[11:25:13] BOLDUAN: Can the message be the same from Sunday to Tuesday. Let us see. Thank you so much, Sunlen. Great to see you.
Joining me now Amanda Carpenter, CNN political commentator and former communications director for Senator Ted Cruz, Chris Cilizza is reporter and editor-at-large for CNN Politics, and Jack Kingston, CNN political commentator, former Republican congressman from Georgia and former senior adviser to the Trump campaign. Great to see all of you.
So, Amanda, jumping on a conference call with House Republicans on Sunday, heading to the Hill to meet with the Senate Republicans tomorrow, that sounds something like something we haven't seen in quite some time from this president, putting some skin in the game. Is that what we're seeing now?
AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I would hope so. Listen, it would help not only Trump but the entire Republican Party whether you are pro-Trump or a little ambivalent about him to get the ball rolling and get some real legislative wins.
Even Republicans who are reluctant to support Trump if you care about getting him back on the rails give him something positive to talk about. Pass these bills, pass tax reform, quit complaining about Trump and do something positive to get him on the right track.
BOLDUAN: But Congressman, it still comes back down to the same question for a lot of folks on the Hill, you hear it publicly and privately, can they trust that the president will get on board with whatever deal they end up striking? I mean, just last week the president flip flopped on his support for that bipartisan health care fix. I mean, how are they sure that won't happen with taxes too?
JACK KINGSTON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: You know, I think the voters aren't leery of President Trump. I think they're more leery of Congress. This was a Congress that did not deliver on --
BOLDUAN: That's fine if voters are leery of it, but Congress is the one who has to actually get legislation together to give to the president. I'm talking about members of Congress, can they trust him that he's going to be with them?
KINGSTON: I think they can because if you remember a couple weeks ago and really all this year they've been talking about kind of a top down introduction by the gang of six, and now they're talking about going through regular order with committees, having hearings and amendments from the floor and rank and file.
I think that's a very productive way to approach it, do it organically. There are a lot of ideas out there. Those ideas are 10, 12, 15 years old. So, it's not like they're going to be introduced and rolled out something really new.
It's just that they have to hammer together what would be the passable way to get 218 votes in the House and 60 or 51 in the Senate. I guess, 51 since it's reconciliation.
BOLDUAN: Yes, regular order. That would have been an amazing thing to see with health care too. Fabulous idea. Chris --
KINGSTON: I think they learned their lesson, Kate. That's why they're doing it this way and that's going to be good.
BOLDUAN: Maybe that's what it is. Speaking of learning lessons, Chris, in an interview with Fox over the weekend, Trump said that fact that health care was so difficult actually makes this easier. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: I do believe we have the votes for health care at the appropriate time and I think that we're going to have the votes for taxes. I will say the fact that health care is so difficult, I think makes the taxes easier.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BOLDUAN: Do you think that's the reality, though, Chris?
CHRIS CILIZZA, CNN POLITICS REPORTER AND EDITOR-AT-LARGE: Well, I will say, and Amanda started with this, there is no question there is more appetite among Republicans broadly for some sort of tax reform and tax cut. I don't think there's any question about that.
That's one of the pillars on which the modern party has been built, if there is a place that Donald Trump can unify the Republican Party, too much water may be under that bridge but if there is a place it is on taxes.
The problem with it is similar to the problems on health care, which is, it's complicated. Yes, on health care, everyone -- people say yes, we should make sure everyone is covered. Well, how do you that? How do you pay for it?
On taxes, you can't just get more money, right. There has to be -- you can't simply cut taxes and --
CILIZZA: Yes. Breaking news, you can't cut taxes and keep your services exactly as they are. So, you have to square that circle at some point and that always as it relates Congress is where the rubber meets the road. What do you get rid of?
Remember, if you think there are a lot of lobbyists on health care policy, tax policy there's ten thousand times as many. So, every little thing in the tax code there's 20 lobbyists that will work day and night to make sure that piece does not come out. So that's what's difficult.
I will say, though, Donald Trump is right, I think, as it relates to legislative accomplishments and the need to do something on taxes. You have to go to the voters with something. You can't simply go to them with well, we didn't get health care, we didn't get tax reform, the wall isn't built, you have to show something. And this would be something.
BOLDUAN: The 2018 blood bath didn't work in the same conversation they had over health care, not so very long ago. Let's see if it's any different this time. Congressman, I want to get your reaction to this, though, John McCain, this weekend, listen to this.