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Trump Defends Call; Senators Call for Authorization Debate; Congressional Black Caucus Demands Apology; McCain Takes Swipe at Trump; Singapore Prime Minister At White House; Trump Ignores Questions. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired October 23, 2017 - 12:00   ET


[12:00:07] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thank you for sharing your day with us.

President Trump tweets a defiant response after the widow of a soldier killed in Africa takes issue with the commander in chief's condolence call.


MYESHIA JOHNSON, WIDOW OF SERGEANT LA DAVID JOHNSON: Yes, the president said that he knew what he signed up for. But it hurts anyway. And I was -- it made me cry because I was very angry at the -- the tone of his voice and how he said it.


KING: Plus, remember when candidate Trump said John McCain was not a war hero? A little payback maybe. The Vietnam POW turned senator seems to remember just how the president avoided the draft.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: We drafted the lowest income level of America, and the highest income level found a doctor that would say that they had a bone spur. That is wrong. That is wrong.


KING: And, as the president preps for a big visit to Capitol Hill, the senate's top Republican, mindful of the Obamacare debacle, asked for clear and consistent White House guidance on tax cuts.


SEN. MITCH MCCTONNELL (R), MAJORITY LEADER: I'm not certain yet what the president is looking for here, but I'll be happy to bring a bill to the floor if I know President Trump would sign it.


KING: President Trump refusing today to budge on his account of a call with Myeshia Johnson. She, of course, the widow of Sergeant La David Johnson. He's one of four soldiers killed in Niger nearly three weeks ago.

The president now going so far as to essentially call the grieving widow a liar after she shared her story on ABC about the call she received from the president after the death of her husband.


MYESHIA JOHNSON, WIDOW OF SERGEANT LA DAVID JOHNSON: 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's what hurt me the most because if my husband is out here fighting for our country and he risks his life for our country, why can't you remember his name? And that's what made me upset and cry even more.


KING: It was an emotional interview there.

The president responding quickly on Twitter, disputing Mrs. Johnson's account. Quote, I had a very respectful conversation with the widow of Sergeant La David Johnson and spoke his name from beginning without hesitation. That from the president.

With us to share their reporting and their insights, Margaret Talev of "Bloomberg," CNN's Manu Raju, Toluse Olorunnipa also with "Bloomberg," and "Politico's" Rachael Bade.

So I was -- watched this interview this morning. Maybe the president and Mrs. Johnson have very different recollections of the conversation. That is entirely possible. I'm sure the president was nervous making this call, and here is a grieving widow who is on her way to the return of her husband's body at the time she takes the call. Perhaps they have different recollections of the call.

Why would the president respond immediately on Twitter? Why not let it go?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: He can't help himself. I mean it is pretty remarkable, because across the political spectrum you're hearing even Republicans saying that we need to -- this is just an unseemly debate that we're having about this phone call. The White House has its own version of events that not only does the congresswoman who was in the car disputes, but now the widow also is disputing the White House's version of events.

She says that she was hurt by the call. She says she was hurt by the president's tone on the call. Maybe the president disagrees with that, but that is her interpretation and no one could suggest by watching that interview today that she was nothing other than genuine in her feelings.

So if you're president of the United States, perhaps you take the high road this time, particularly when you're dealing with the grieving widow for someone who served this country. MARGARET TALEV, "BLOOMBERG": I do think that President Trump has spent

a lot of time cultivating not only the generals, who we all know that he respects greatly, but also the rank and file of the military that has -- since the campaign days and certainly in his opening months in office he's gone out of his way to talk about how much he values the troops, people who give their service, and, of course, their families are a big part of that.

I think what's of concern here is the signal that it's sending to other family members and other members who are serving, and it's something that the president probably needs to keep his eye on. And I would also say that when General Kelly came out and gave his remarks to the press corps last week in which he obviously wanted to single out the fact that a lot of reporters maybe hadn't served in these conflicts and that he wanted to suggest that we should be more sensitized to issues that we weren't -- we don't necessarily understand as well or that we hadn't put ourselves on the line to understand as well. There's some lesson in that for everyone, that if you haven't yourself been there, it's -- it's really important to understand how to talk to the people who were directly affected by it.

[12:05:13] KING: Right. And also important, and I think General Kelly meant this -- he got himself into a mess because of what he said about the congresswoman involved in this wasn't true -- but his main point about respect service, respect these gold star families, is a -- is a damn good one. We should listen -- we should tell more of their stories. We should be telling the stories of these four dead heroes, as opposed to getting into this back and forth with the president of the United States.

But why -- I just -- I don't get the impulse to have to return fire every time, especially when it's from a grieving widow of a -- who just buried a young man, a father, a hero, a serviceman. Why couldn't the -- if he needed to respond say, I'm so sorry we disagree on this matter. I so honor you and your husband's service.

TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA, "BLOOMBERG": You never hear the president say the words "I'm sorry." Those two words rarely come out of his mouth. And if you look at the idea that the president calls himself a counterpuncher, that works for him when he's going against the NFL, you know, very wealthy sports stars, or when he's going against other senators or other members of Congress, even within his own party. That kind of fight is something you can expect in Washington and happens regularly.

But when you're attacking a grieving widow just days after she laid her husband to rest, you don't come off looking strong, you come off looking actually weak, being the president punching down towards someone who's vulnerable and grieving. And I think people within the White House are pretty clear that this is not the fight that they want to be having this week. It happened all of last week. And for them to prolong this fight against the grieving widow, a gold star mother, for another week is not something that's going to help them in passing their agenda or even getting the moral high ground in a way.

RACHAEL BADE, "POLITICO": You mentioned The Hill. I can tell you, you know, from my perch up there, it's sending shock waves through the Capitol, not just because Republicans are sort of just perplexed by the president would be engaging in what they see as sort of a disgraceful back and forth, but there's also a lot of questions the ambush has triggered. Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain have both said they want to know more about, was there an intelligence failure? What exactly happened that resulted in the deaths of these four Americans. Also, this could reignite a debate over the authorization of the use of the military force, which is this sort of, Congress' authority that is given to the president to allow him to send the military out around the world. This one -- the last one was passed in 2001, right after 9/11, and I know there's a bunch of Republicans on The Hill who are starting to join Democrats in saying, we need to reexamine this issue right now.

KING: Well, it's a dereliction of Congress' duty that this - now you -- the pressure again, in the wake of this ambush in Niger, where we don't have, what happened? Where was the intelligence failure? Why did it take so long to find Mr. Johnson's body after all this? Those are legitimate questions.

And the broader question -- and a lot of Americans probably don't know. There are Americans. I was watching a member of Congress on TV this morning, in Chad, in Niger, in other places around the world, a lot of Americans probably don't know that, and to Congress, that's their job. They should have a --

TALEV: Well, the Congress doesn't know that apparently.

KING: Yes, a lot of Congress -- a lot -- well, a lot of members of Congress who are saying that they really need to think about what their job is if they don't know what that is. That's a big debate that's coming.

And in the middle of all this you have -- you mentioned Chief of Staff John Kelly, who came into the briefing room. He essentially said the congresswoman, who the family allowed to be on the phone call. She's a friend of the family. She apparently helped this young man stay off the streets and got him into the military, had good life, hero to the station, they allowed her to listen in on the phone call. That was their decision. General Kelly didn't like that. The president didn't like that. Listen to the president in an interview with the Fox Business Channel explaining how he and General Kelly were so upset about that.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He was so offended that a woman would be -- that somebody would be listening to that call. He -- 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 -- 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) KING: I understand completely, and General Kelly has experience of this from his days in the Marine Corps. I understand his view, that this should be a very private matter between the commander in chief or the commanding officer, if it's the commanding officer calling, and the family. I understand his view and respect his view.

However, it is the family's decision --

TALEV: Of courses.

KING: Who is allowed on the call. And then, if you listen to the president, he was so offended that a woman would be, and then caught himself, that somebody would be listening to that call.

Are we in the 1950s, the 1850s?

OLORUNNIPA: It's -- it's almost shocking how both the president and General Kelly have come off as the two individuals, and the White House, in this whole debacle who have not been honest. General Kelly making up the story about the congresswoman. The president saying that, you know, other presidents haven't called people in the past. And now we see the new reporting that the president was scrambling -- or the White House was scrambling over the last few days to try to get letters out to all of the families that the president hadn't called, even though he said that he had called every single family.

[12:10:18] And Representative Wilson and the widow of Sergeant Johnson have come out much more -- seemingly more honest in terms of just exactly explaining what happened. And I think the White House is losing credibility by the hour on this story. And it would help them if this story were to move on to another thing (ph).

RAJU: And, really, this was a predictable outcome last week. By going after the congresswoman, you could almost -- you knew the family eventually was going to confirm the congresswoman's account, because she was in the car --

TALEV: Because she was an ally of the family. She was invited by the family.

RAJU: She was an ally of the family. She clearly -- she was doing this because that's the way the family felt. So --

KING: That's the way they (INAUDIBLE).

RAJU: Right. Right.

KING: But then he went on to say -- he went on to say that at this dedication of the building to the FBI agents, that she was showboating, that she was talking about herself and how great she was.

And if you look at the tape -- you see the prime minister of Singapore arriving there at the White House. The president has meetings with him. We'll watch the greeting as we continue the conversation. If the leaders speak, obviously we'll interrupt. But General Kelly went out of his way to essentially say Congresswoman

Wilson was a show boater. That at this solemn ceremony dedicating the building, she was talking about how great she was in getting the funding. She did no such thing. She did talk about her role in getting the building named quickly, but she also thanked the Republican speaker at the time, John Boehner, Republican Senator Marco Rubio. She spent a couple of minutes telling the life story of the slain agents and she asked all the first responders to stand up. His account of what happened at that dedication was just wrong. And now the Congressional Black Caucus, especially the women in the Black Caucus, listen here, saying, you know, General Kelly, one way to turn the volume down here is to apologize.


REP. ALMA ADAMS (D), NORTH CAROLINA: Well, he needs to apologize. First of all, he was in error. He did not tell the truth. He knows now that he did not tell the truth, even if he thought he had told it. So he owes her an apology. For him to try to demean her character and her integrity in this way is absolutely unacceptable.


KING: Again, people have different recollections, but he does know now that the account he gave standing at the podium, in the White House, as the president's character witness, was not accurate. Why won't they clean it up?

BADE: Well, and if they're not going to apologize, the best thing for them right now would be to just stop talking about this completely. I mean the president coming out and tweeting after this interview this morning just revs up the whole thing. And, meanwhile, Republicans on Capitol Hill, they want to be talking about tax reform. This is going to be a big week for tax reform and the budget. Their -- we could see tax bill next week and yet everybody's talking about this incredibly disgusting back and forth going on right now.

KING: I would be -- I would be happy not to talk about it, expect when we do see key moments, like we saw the service over the weekend, to pay tribute to the heroes and then ask the questions, as you mentioned, when we get up to Capitol Hill. What happened? Where are American troops? Why are they there? But let's air it out. That's kind of what those guys get paid for.

Up next, Senator John McCain goes after the president again. President Trump warned he would fight back if the senator keeps it up. Is Senator McCain worried?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He said he would fight back.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And it wouldn't be pretty. Are you scared?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Doesn't he look scared?



[12:17:40] KING: Welcome back.

The president, this afternoon, set honor the extraordinary service of Vietnam veteran Gary Michael Rose, a former combat medic saved a remarkable 60 lives on a top secret mission inside Laos. Contrast the prelude to this afternoon's solemn ceremony with last night. The Vietnam veteran, once dishonored by the president, returning the favor.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: In one aspect of the conflict, by the way, that I will never ever countenance is that we drafted the lowest income level of America, and the highest income level found a doctor that would say that they had a bone spur. That is wrong. That is wrong. If we're going to ask every American to serve, every American should serve.


KING: If you had any doubt that Senator McCain there was talking about the president of the United States, well, a bit earlier this morning he erased it.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: People thought you were talking about --


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. Trump, because he had a doctor's note that said he had bone spurs and he --

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I think more than once, yes.


KING: "I think more than once, yes." OK, why? We know they don't like each other. We know they've sparred. We know that on policy matters, the president's been mad at Senator McCain for casting the thumbs down on the Obamacare vote. Senator McCain was speaking in the CSPAN interview, it's about the history of Vietnam and brings that part up. That has long been his view about the draft and the unfairness of the draft. But he worked in the bone spurs on purpose.

RAJU: He did. I mean a lot of it is because of their -- the two men have fundamentally different world views and -- in addition to all the other personal disagreements. And McCain has really continued to try to push the Republican Party toward his view of the world, more aggressive role foreign policy wise. And as McCain laid out rather starkly in his speech last week, saying that he's concerned about this growth of spurious nationalism, a real sign -- a shot at the president. He didn't mention the president there, but it was very clear he was talking about people in president and people close to the president.

McCain aligns himself more with James Mattis, H.R. McMaster, other people within the administration who may be more in line with that. But he's making these points because he says, look, I know more, the generals that serve with the president know more. He should listen to the people who have served because they know more than perhaps the president, who spouts off from time to time.

[12:20:10] KING: Is it just Senator McCain can be a prickly guy? Sometimes that's a compliment. Sometimes that's a criticism. Is it just his personal peak that he doesn't like Trump? I mean he knows what he's doing. Donald Trump's brand is strength. Donald Trump's brand is, you know, "I'm strong." And McCain is essentially saying, you're a spoiled rich kid who ducked the draft.

OLORUNNIPA: I think those are the two -- two of the insecurities of the president, that you always hear him talk about how he built an amazing company, in part because I -- I believe, you know, the fact that he was born wealthy. His father was wealthy and helps him get his start in business. And also this idea that he's a tough guy. You know, he tries to project this type of strength. And the idea that he dodged the draft sort of undercuts that.

I think one of the reasons that Senator McCain is making those points is because it's basically the similar reason that we're hearing Bob Corker speak out and former President George W. Bush and Susan Collins and several Republicans speak out against the president because, you know, what we've seen over the past few months has caused a number of Republicans to sort of take a gut check and ask, do they want to be seen in the history book as someone who was silent and complicit while their party sort of drifted toward the -- as McCain said, a spurious nationalism and nativism.

TALEV: But I don't think --

KING: Right. And as he makes this fight, back to the point you made about General Kelly in the briefing room in the last bloc, General Kelly's right, we should listen to those who have worn the uniform when they talk about these. John McCain not only wore the uniform, he spent five years in a Vietnamese prison as a prisoner of war where he was beaten and toured and he refused an early release offer because his dad was an admiral. So he gets a little extra statue when we're having these conversations, to the point of what you were saying earlier, should we be talking about, should the president be responding on Twitter to the widow of a grieving soldier who thinks the president was, you know, not quite sensitive enough in their phone call? Senator McCain says, no.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: So we are in very challenging times. And I hate to go over what you just covered, but, my friends, we should not be fighting about a brave American who lost his life serving his country. That should not be the topic of discussion in America today.


KING: I think if you had them in a private room and they knew there were no recordings, every Republican member of Congress would agree with that statement. But not that many says it publicly.

BADE: Yes.

KING: That's what makes this McCain thing interesting now. He has brain cancer. He's not sure how much longer he is here. So you had McCain out. You have Corker out. You had George W. Bush out the other day. But it's a short list. They get attention when they speak, but it's a pretty small list.

BADE: But a growing list, right? I mean I would say Bob Corker was once considered President Trump's top -- one of his top allies in the Senate Republican conference. Yes, privately, you talk to Republicans on The Hill and a lot of them are, you know, frustrated with the president about going back and forth, the fighting between lawmakers. And they're a lot -- they're really concerned. They want him to be focusing on the agenda. And I think that's why you're seeing more people come out.

My question on McCain's comment is, you know, is this sort of just going to be three or four senators that start speaking out, or are we going to see a whole influx of House Republicans start to push back against Trump? Because a lot of them are worried.

RAJU: I think they're conflicted, too, a lot of these members, because the fact that our -- a lot of supporters, their own supporters, are furious, big Trump supporters, what their bases. And they also have to get an agenda through Congress. So you don't hear Mitch McConnell speaking out against the president. You really don't hear Paul Ryan speaking out against the president, because at the end of the day, they -- well,, they have calculated, in order to get their agenda through, you don't want to be at war with the president. That's not helpful for what they want to accomplish on The Hill. And at the end of the day, if they don't accomplish say tax reform, their majority could be done.

KING: I also think in some cases they've said in the past several times, we wish you wouldn't tweet, we wish you wouldn't tweet, and they realize they're losing that argument, so why keep making it I think is their view. Not that that's the right view. Everyone can decide that at home. But they've just given up, I think.

TALEV: Right. Right. If you keep doing the same thing a thousand times, it's the definition of insanity.

But I think you can't uncouple what Senator McCain's doing from some of the context of it, which is, in this case, the president's sort of public treatment in the case of these four soldiers of this issue. So I think part of Senator McCain's response has to do with that, and part of it has to do with the fact that there's so much more exposure on Senator McCain lately because of his illness and because he's being honored in these many venues. A lot of these responses are things he'd say to you in a hallway for sure if you were walking past the Ohio clock. It's just that they're on a stage now, they're on TV, they're in front of a microphone. He knows that he has the ability at this minute, more than he always has, to reach potentially millions of people and get this message across. And it seems to me that he's trying one of President Trump's favorite plays, which is to try to discredit the messenger and hope that that weakens their leverage and their strength.

KING: That's an interesting point. I just want to let you know, the president of the United States is meeting with the prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, at the White House. They're meeting in the Oval Office. Let's listen in here.

[12:25:01] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)


We have Prime Minister Lee, a highly respected man. Singapore, doing well. It continues to do well. You never even see a downturn in Singapore. So I guess you don't agree with that. But I would say looking from the outside, you never see a downturn.

I just want to congratulate you on having done a fantastic job. The relationship that we've had over the years has been very good, but it's never been closer than now. And we'll be spending a lot of time. One of the -- one of the things we'll be doing in a short period of time is signing together a very large contract where Singapore is buying billions of dollars' worth of airplanes from Boeing that will be made in our country. So that's jobs. And you're also buying the best plane, by the way, so that's very good.

So I just to want thank Prime Minister Lee.

Thank you very much.

LEE HSIEN LOONG, PRIME MINISTER OF SINGAPORE: Well, thank you very much. I'm very happy to be here with you. And to be here at a time when our relations are prospering and we look forward to taking them forward, deepening them and strengthening them for many years to come and starting with this administration.

TRUMP: That's very well. I think it will never be stronger.

LOONG: Thank you.

TRUMP: And I'll be going over to that part of the world in two weeks and stopping in numerous countries, including, as you know, Japan --


TRUMP: South Korea, China. We're going to be stopping in Vietnam and probably the Philippines also. So it will be a very busy ten or 11 days. LOONG: A very important trip. We look forward to meeting you and to hearing your message.

TRUMP: Very good. Thank you.

LOONG: Thank you.

TRUMP: Thank you very much.

Thank you, everybody.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you, press.


TRUMP: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you very much.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you, press.


KING: That's the White House press pool in the Oval Office. The president ignoring those questions. A couple of those questions were about his confrontation on Twitter this morning, his reaction after the widow of La David Johnson went on ABC News and said she didn't appreciate the president's tone when he called and that he said some things she didn't like, the president say, and that she said he couldn't remember her husband hero's name the president tweeted.

He was asked a couple of questions about that. He refused to answer them there in the Oval Office, but he is supposed to deliver press statements in the Rose Garden later this afternoon. A reminder of what everyone's been talking about as we have this conversation that, A, it's unseemly, B, it's unnecessary, and, C, the a president could have been asked a tax reform question there. He could have been asked a question his big upcoming Asia trip. It's a big deal. Economic issues, national security issues. And, instead, he's being asked about a Twitter war with the widow of an American hero.

RAJU: We've see this story time and again in this administration when there's something - a debate that's uncomfortable, he digs in. That's what he did. He did -- that's what he did in Charlottesville, he kept this story alive for days and days and days when it could have been over right away. And him, you know, attacking her on Twitter this morning did not help his comments last week, did not help -- he could have laid this to rest pretty quickly. But the president does not feel like he can let these fights -- any slight go and he -- this is what he does.

KING: The any slight part is what makes it interesting to me. I get the politics of the NFL, for example. You know, from the president's perspective, I completely get the politics for his base.

Help me on this one. Is this just that, this is who he is. He cannot accept a slight. He can't say I'm sorry. He can't even just back down. Just turn it off. Let's walk away. This is not a fight worth fighting. He can't do that. Or is there something -- does he see something to be gained here?

TALEV: I think he also may understand instinctively that in its really boiled-down form, it's difficult to have nuanced press coverage if a subject. And if you say, Niger, go, and everyone -- the topic everyone wants to talk about is his treatment of -- or his interactions with the families of the fallen, it's less time to talk about the nuances and the details of apparently a very complicated issue that involves a lot of covert details and a lot of details that still haven't been answered.

BADE: Although he has not tweeted back to Senator McCain yet, since McCain --

OLORUNNIPA: There's still time.

BADE: I was going to say. So that's clearly -- we were talking in the green room earlier -- that's probably one he can't win on because of, you know, the draft and McCain being a war hero, et cetera. So maybe he has made a political calculus on that. Again, like you said, it's a little early to tell for sure.

KING: Also, he didn't go after President George W. Bush, who came up against (ph) the president.

BADE: There you go.

KING: He's been silent on that one, too, leaving it up to Steve Bannon.

Up next, it's kind of a continuation, can the Republican Party somehow find a way to work with the Republican Party to get things done?