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Sergeant's Widow Confirms Congresswoman's Account of Condolence Call; Gen. Dunford: 'We Owe Families More Info on Niger Ambush'; Trump Warns GOP Lawmakers: Pass Tax Cuts or Lose in 2018. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired October 23, 2017 - 17:00   ET


TAPPER: That's it for "THE LEAD." I'm Jake Tapper. I turn you over now to Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. Thanks for watching.

[17:00:09] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. Fair questions.

The chairman of the joint chiefs says the American people and the families of the fallen are owed an explanation for the ambush in Niger that killed four American troops. Why is the Pentagon still unable to answer what he calls fair questions about the deadly clash?

"That hurt me." The widow of an American soldier killed in Niger is now speaking out about the controversial condolence call she got from President Trump, saying she was hurt by his tone and his words. Why is the president now dodging questions about the widow's scathing remarks?

Retirement savings. President Trump is promising the biggest tax cut in history, but he's also promising no changes in the tax -- to the tax-advantaged retirement plan used by millions of Americans. Does Congress even have a tax cut plan?

And "so prepared." As tensions grow with Kim Jong-un, President Trump now says the U.S. is prepared for anything. Could the administration's tough talk be leading toward a military conflict with North Korea?

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news. Under growing pressure from Congress, the Pentagon goes public with an attempt to explain how four U.S. troops were killed in a secretive deployment in Niger.

Joint Chiefs Chairman General Joseph Dunford says the families of the fallen and the American people are owed more information, but he's offering few details on the deadly ambush, saying the U.S. troops did not expect resistance, were attacked by a larger force and requested support an hour after coming under fire.

Still unanswered, why it took 48 hours to recover the body of Sergeant La David Johnson. The briefing comes as the president is caught up in a controversy over

his phone call to Johnson's grieving widow. Myesha Johnson says she was very upset, very hurt by the tone of the president's condolence call and his comment that her husband, quote, "knew what he signed up for."

President Trump today insisted his conversation with the widow was respectful, and he denied that he stumbled trying to recall her husband's name.

And amid growing tensions with North Korea right now, President Trump is escalating his war of words with Kim Jong-un, saying the U.S. is prepared for anything. Amid deep concern that all the tough talk could lead to a military showdown, there are new questions tonight about whether the president will visit the Korean Demilitarized Zone during his upcoming trip to the region. Would that pour fuel on the fire?

I'll speak with Senator Ben Cardin. He's the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee. And our correspondents, specialists and guests, they're standing by with full coverage.

President Trump is now keeping quiet about the Niger ambush and sharp criticism from the widow of one fallen soldier.

Let's begin with our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.

Jim, update us on the very latest.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the White House appears to be putting the brakes on any more comments from the White House on the deaths of four soldiers in Niger. Today, President Trump was asked repeatedly about his handling of the soldiers' deaths, as well as his treatment of a Gold Star mother, but unlike last week, there was near total silence from the president.


ACOSTA: Can you tell the public what happened in Niger?

(VOICE-OVER): It was an uncharacteristically silent President Trump, avoiding questions all day long on the widow of La David Johnson, the Army sergeant killed along with three other service members in Niger earlier this month.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you regret that Myesha Johnson was upset at your phone call at all?

ACOSTA: But the questions are not going away, in part because the sergeant's widow, Myesha Johnson, shared with ABC that the president said her late husband knew what he was signing up for in a phone call.

MYESHA JOHNSON, WIDOW OF SERGEANT LA DAVID JOHNSON: 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 tone in his voice. 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 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?

ACOSTA: Shortly after the interview, the president took the unusual step of correcting the widow, tweeting, "I had a very respectful conversation with the widow of Sergeant La David Johnson and spoke his name from the beginning without hesitation."

The widow also backed her congresswoman, Frederica Wilson, who was in the car with Johnson when the president's call came in.

JOHNSON: Whatever Ms. 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 Ms. Wilson in the car. The phone was on speaker phone. Why would we fabricate something like that?

[17:05:17] ACOSTA: The president and Congresswoman Wilson are still at it on Twitter, with Mr. Trump trying to capitalize politically on the exchange, tweeting, "Wacky Congresswoman Wilson is the gift that keeps on giving for the Republican Party. A disaster for Dems. You watch her in action and vote Republican."

And Wilson firing back: "Niger is President Trump's Benghazi. He needs to own it."

Wilson is also hitting back at White House chief of staff John Kelly who erroneously stated the congresswoman took credit during a 2015 speech for funding an FBI facility in Florida, something she didn't do. Tweeting, "General Kelly owes the nation an apology, because when he lied about me, he lied to the American public."

Now the president's near total silence on the controversy stands in stark contrast with the scene in the Rose Garden one week ago, when he suggested he was more compassionate than past commanders in chief when it came to fallen soldiers.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn't make calls. A lot of them didn't make calls.

ACOSTA: Add to that, "Roll Call" is reporting the White House scrambled to obtain contact information for fallen service members after the president told FOX Radio he always makes those calls.

TRUMP: I have called, I believe, everybody, but certainly I'll use the word virtually everybody.

ACOSTA: It's another textbook example of the president throwing the White House off message. This week's agenda item overshadowed: tax reform.

TRUMP: People want to see it, and I call it tax cuts. It is tax reform also, but I call it tax cuts.


ACOSTA: Now, a White House official confirmed the West Wing did attempt to expedite condolence letters to families of fallen soldiers after the president's remarks in the Rose Garden last week. The official said during this process, a discovery was made that there were, quote, "bureaucratic reasons" for why some of the letters had not gone out to the families. In most of those cases, the officials said, letters and contacts were delayed, because the service member killed in action had been involved in what they call multiple casualties incidents. This official said the White House then directed that the condolence letters be sent out -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jim, thank you. Jim Acosta over at the White House.

Lawmakers certainly have plenty of questions on the Niger ambush and the overall U.S. deployment there.

Let's go to our senior congressional correspondent, Manu Raju.

Manu, members of Congress, I assume they're going to get their own briefings.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, they certainly are, Wolf. And also calling for more information from the Trump administration. Something that we just started to see today when the chairman of joint chiefs of staff for the first time laying out in detail the timeline of events that happened, explaining that these U.S. forces were on a reconnaissance mission and trying to combat this attack from these forces in Niger.

But what the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff also made clear, Wolf, a lot of questions remain unanswered.


RAJU (voice-over): Tonight, the Pentagon revealing new details about the ambush in Niger that killed four U.S. soldiers.

GEN. JOSEPH DUNFORD JR., JOINT CHIEFS CHAIRMAN: There's a perception that the Department of Defense has not been forthcoming.

JOHNS: The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff revealing that U.S. forces were on a reconnaissance mission and on their way back to their operating base in Niger when the fire fight began, but they waited one hour to call for support.

DUNFORD: Important to note that when they didn't ask for support for that first hour, my judgement would be that that unit thought they could handle the situation without additional support. And so we'll find out in the investigation exactly why it took an hour for them to call.

JOHNS: It took French fighter jets another hour to arrive on the scene, which was two hours after the ambush began. Dunford making clear many questions still remain.

DUNFORD: ... to the mission of U.S. forces change during the operation? Did our forces have adequate intelligence, equipment and training? Was there a pre-mission assessment of the threat in the area accurate? Did U.S. force -- how did U.S. forces become separated during the engagement? Specifically Sergeant Johnson. And why did it take time to find and recover Sergeant Johnson?

JOHNS: The comments come amid growing tension with Capitol Hill, where top lawmakers from both parties accused the administration of failing to disclose how four service members were killed in Niger.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Americans should know what's going on in Niger, and one of the fights I'm having right now with the administration is the armed services committee is not getting enough information. And they -- and they deserve it because we represent their families, too.

JOHNS: Questions have swirled since the October 4 raid that left four American soldiers dead, killed in an ambush by up to 50 ISIS-aligned militants near the Niger-Mali border. There has been conflicting information about what the American troops were doing at the time of the ambush and how they came under fire from the ISIS insurgency.

[17:10:06] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Obviously, there's something that they even don't know at this moment.

JOHNS: Another key question: why was the body of Sergeant La David Johnson found nearly a mile away from the scene of the ambush? It's one of the many questions that Sergeant Johnson's widow still has today.

JOHNSON: I don't know how he got killed, where he got killed or anything. I don't know that part. They never told me. That's what I've been trying to find out since day one. Since October 4.

JOHNS: According to the Pentagon, there are approximately 800 U.S. troops in Niger. Most are helping construct a drone base in Agadez, while others are supporting embassy operations in the capital, Niamey.

The military says a fraction of these troops are Special Operations forces, advising and assisting the Nigerian military. The Pentagon says it's kept Congress regularly informed, pointing to a letter Trump sent Hill leaders in June, saying there were then 945 troops in Niger and Cameroon performing counterterrorism duties.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I didn't know there were 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've got to tell us more."

RAJU: Some say it's a responsibility of members of Congress to know what is happening in the region.

GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: I recoiled a little bit at that, truthfully. They're conducting five named operations, which I'm sure the Senate Armed Services Committee should know about.


RAJU: Now, on Thursday, the Senate Armed Service Committee will get its own briefing, a closed briefing when members of the Pentagon will come and explain what they know had happened.

One question that Dunford said that he could not answer today is exactly how Sergeant La David Johnson's body apparently was a mile away from the central scene of that ambush, saying that he did not want to get into that, because it's still under investigation.

But Wolf, Dunford also saying that if Congress doesn't know what's happening here, then, quote, "I need to double my efforts to get the information out" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Good point. All right, Manu, thank you very much.

Joining us now, Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland. He's the senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator, thanks very much for joining us. Lots of very disturbing questions on this Niger ambush, but let me start with the president of the United States. Why do you believe he simply couldn't let the widow of Sergeant La David Johnson have the last word on this today? She's grieving. She's only 24 years old. She has two little kids, a third one on the way. Why did he need to get the last word and tweet about it this morning?

SEN. BEN CARDIN (D), MARYLAND: Wolf, first, it's good to be with you.

Secondly, it's hard to understand how the president handles these things. We saw the way he handled the Khan family during the Democratic convention. He seems to always want to get the last word, even when he's wrong. And it's very frustrating. And obviously it's a very difficult time for the family, and it's time that the president understands that.

BLITZER: When do you believe that Myesha Johnson, the Gold Star widow, and the American people will learn why it took nearly 48 hours to find sergeant La David Johnson's body?

CARDIN: Well, there's a lot of unanswered questions, and I think it's appropriate that we'll have briefings in Congress as to what -- what went wrong.

First of all, understanding why our troops are there. This is under a 2001 authorization, which many of us think does not apply to having soldiers in Northern Africa.

So I think there's a question as to whether Congress has authorized the use of force in Northern Africa. And, secondly, why we're not being kept readily informed.

Now, what happened in regard to this episode, why it took so long to get help, why the body was left, these are all questions that need to be answered.

BLITZER: Did you know, Senator, that there are almost 1,000 U.S. troops deployed in Niger?

CARDIN: No, I did not. I'm not part of the group that would have been formally notified about U.S. troop presence. But I must tell you I do believe, as the ranking Democrat on Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the president of the United States should have come to Congress to seek authorization for American troops that are put in a combat-type situation.

BLITZER: Let me switch gears while I have you for a moment. You're the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.

The former president, Jimmy Carter, has now publicly offered to travel to North Korea to negotiate directly with Kim Jong-un. Should the White House take him up on that offer?

CARDIN: Well, we need a surge in diplomacy, and we've talked about this before. I think we need to open up lines of communication. There is a path forward where we can achieve our objective of a non- nuclear Korean Peninsula and that the Kim Jong-un regime can get the type of assurances they want that the United States will respect the current 38th Parallel in Korea.

There are ways that we can talk back and forth about the use of a military threat, and I would hope the president would take advantage of every opportunity to do that.

BLITZER: Well, should he take advantage of Jimmy Carter's offer?

[17:15:08] CARDIN: Well, I think that's one opportunity. I know that Secretary Tillerson has looked for other avenues of communication with North Korea. I think using a former president who has, I think, a global reputation for pursuing peace would be a helpful step.

BLITZER: And he's been an earlier visitor to North Korea, brought home Americans who were there, as well.

Another sensitive issue, U.S./Russian relations, Senator. President Trump, we're told, may sit down with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, on what's called the sidelines of the Asian Pacific economic conference, the economic summit that takes place next month in Vietnam.

Do you believe that would be appropriate, the right thing to do?

CARDIN: Well, I hope he has a controlled agenda if he's -- if he talks to Mr. Putin. There are many issues that still need to be answered, including Russia's meddling in the U.S. elections and European elections, what their future intents might be, what they're doing in Syria, what they're doing in -- doing in Ukraine. There are a lot of questions we have about Russia activity, and I hope that the president uses that opportunity to make it clear to Mr. Putin, if in fact they meet, that we need to have progress made on these fronts.

BLITZER: We've got to take a quick break, Senator, but I have more questions for you. Let's resume this conversation right after this.


[17:21:02] BLITZER: President Trump is vowing the biggest tax cuts in U.S. history while warning GOP lawmakers they'll pay a huge price in 2018 if they don't make it happen.

We're talking with Democratic Senator Ben Cardin. Senator, stand by. I want to go to our congressional correspondent, Sunlen Serfaty, first.

Sunlen, there's a lot of urgency from Hill Republicans to pass these tax cuts, but it's still not entirely clear what the plan even is.

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's absolutely right, Wolf, and there still is so much influx up here on Capitol Hill as they move to actually putting pen to paper and writing this tax bill.

There's still within the Republican Party not a consensus on what cuts to make, where to make them. Republican leaders are throwing out a lot of different ideas about how to raise revenue, trying to see, essentially, what sticks and what ideas are latched onto within their caucus.

Now one idea that has been floated in recent days from Republicans is putting a cap on contributions to 401(k)s. That's something that President Trump essentially shot down over Twitter this morning. Trump tweeting, quote, "There will be no change to your 401(k). This has always been a great and popular middle-class tax break that works, and it stays."

So certainly, there's a lot of urgency right now on crafting the policy, but certainly urgency coming from the White House on the politics of all this.

President Trump heads up here to the Hill tomorrow to meet with Senate Republicans. Expect a very similar message than the one that he delivered over the weekend, when he hopped on a conference call with House Republicans, and that's "We've got to get this tax bill passed by the end of the year or else we will face a bloodbath in the midterms" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What's the timeline for all of this?

SERFATY: Well, first and foremost, the House, they've got to pass the Senate budget. That has to happen potentially by Thursday of this week is when they'll move to do that.

Then they've got to actually write the bill, then produce the bill, potentially as early as next week.

And the White House is being very bullish on the timeline. President Trump wants this passed by the end of this year, and he even said he wants a bill on his desk by Thanksgiving. Now, that is very, very optimistic no matter how you slice it, but leaders up here are certainly raising some expectations to try to keep that momentum going -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Sunlen, thank you. Sunlen Serfaty up on Capitol Hill.

We're back with Democratic Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland. He's also a member of the Senate Finance Committee.

Now, Senator, lots of pressure on the Republicans to deliver and to get this tax cut passed. What do you think their chances are?

CARDIN: Well, I don't think it's very good when you look at the blueprint first, it blows a hole in the deficit and I know a lot of us are very concerned about adding at least $1.5 trillion to the deficit.

We also are concerned that the overwhelming amount of tax relief goes to high-income families, as compared to middle-income families.

They also raised the issue of cutting Medicare and Medicaid by $1.5 trillion.

These to me are issues that will be very difficult for them to get the necessary votes to move a tax bill that is in that direction, and, quite frankly, they're using a process that is doomed to, I think, fail if they do not really make a bipartisan effort to have a broader coalition so that a tax bill can enjoy broader support and is one even if it were to become law, would be able to remain a law more than just one term of Congress.

BLITZER: All right. Let me just point out that the president has told his budget director, Mick Mulvaney, exactly what he's told the American public: there will be absolutely no cuts to what are called entitlement programs, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Mulvaney is fighting him on that, but the president so far is holding firm. But the president so far is holding firm.

Why do you say the president will support cuts in Medicare and Medicaid?

CARDIN: Well, if you looked at the budget resolution that passed the United States Senate, also the resolution that passed the House of Representatives, it very much provides for cuts in Medicare and Medicaid.

So the implementing legislation that provides for the consideration of the tax bill envisions that there would be cuts in these programs.

I hear what the president said, but I must tell you, "We find over and over again what he said in order to protect some of the critical programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, we then look at his actions. Look what he did on the affordable care act. He supported programs that cut Medicaid dramatically. So the president's actions are inconsistent with his words.

[17:25:25] BLITZER: Your colleague, Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, told the "Washington Post" -- I'll read it to you -- quote, "I think the Democrats are crazy to not try and deal with him directly. Seven years ago, he was a Democrat. Doesn't take any brains to realize that he'd be open."

Is tax reform something Democrats should be working directly with the president on?

CARDIN: We absolutely want to work with Republicans. We want to work with this administration. We recognize that our tax code needs changes. Our requirements are pretty simple. Let's make sure that we don't finance it by borrowing more money and going greater into debt. Let's make sure that the focus is on middle-income families. They're the one who's need the tax relief. And let's use a truly bipartisan process.

If you do that, yes, absolutely, Democrats want to be part of the process because we believe there is a need for change in our tax code.

BLITZER: Senator Ben Cardin, thanks very much.

CARDIN: Thank you.

BLITZER: Coming up, as tensions grow with Kim Jong-un, is the Trump administration's tough talk on North Korea making a military conflict all the more likely?

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Our breaking news. The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff this afternoon clarified the timeline of this month's ambush of U.S. troops in Niger, admitting many fair questions remain unanswered and are now under serious investigation.

[17:31:19] President Trump today ignored multiple questions about the ambush in his phone call to the widow of one of the four fallen soldiers.

Let's bring in our specialists. And David Axelrod, earlier this morning Myesha Johnson, the Gold Star widow, was on TV, on ABC, speaking very emotionally, very powerfully about her husband, contradicting the president.

He immediately went to Twitter and tweeted his: "I had a very respectful conversation with the widow of Sergeant La David Johnson and spoke his name from beginning without hesitation."

What advice would you give the president right now in dealing with this? This is such a sensitive issue, especially for those Gold Star families.


Look, Wolf, I can see how -- now, we know sort of the contours of the conversation between the president and Mrs. Johnson in the first instance. And you can understand how he might have said the words that have been reported, and she might have interpreted them completely differently than he meant them. Let's just stipulate that. But now we know how she interpreted them, this 24-year-old widow,

whose husband, a Green Beret, had just died in the service of his country under circumstances she still doesn't know and we still don't know. And you would think that the president would cut her some slack. You would think that the president would say, you know, "If my words in some way were received in ways I didn't mean them, I'm so sorry. I, you know -- I and the whole country grieve for you and with you." Wouldn't that be the right thing to do?

But that's not Donald Trump. For Donald Trump, it's always about him, and he's never wrong. And he can't admit mistakes, even if this case when it is so clearly the right thing to do. And I think it hurts -- it hurts him. It obviously hurt her, but it hurts him, as well. It diminishes him. It diminishes the office of the presidency. I think most people in the country would have wished that he handled it much differently.

BLITZER: You know, Chris, he had several opportunities today. There were cameras and two earlier photo-ops, and then in the Rose Garden, he easily could have opened up, that those statements he had, the visiting prime minister of Singapore with them. Before they got to that, he could have opened up with a statement.

AXELROD: Of course.

BLITZER: He didn't have to wait for reporters to shout questions at the end which he ignored, as he did in the earlier photo ops, but he could have easily opened up: "I'd like to begin, we'll get to this" -- with a statement expressing his deep regret, his sorrow on the fact that this widow, this Gold Star widow apparently misunderstood what he was trying to convey.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS CORRESPONDENT AND EDITOR AT LARGE: Yes, it's not that he couldn't do it. It's that he doesn't want to do it.

We heard out of the White House today, you know, don't expect -- there's not going to be another call to Myesha Johnson.

David Axelrod's point, I think is the most important one, which calling a widow of an American soldier killed in action is extremely difficult. It's emotionally difficult. You know that there's not a good way to do it. No one can really practice for it. But Donald Trump is someone who was never in politics before. He'd never done anything like this.

The politics of getting along, finding a good place to be with the widow of an American killed in action is way easier. If there was a misunderstanding, just call her. Now there is too much water under the bridge now, candidly. But just call her and say, "You know what, this is hard for me. I know it's not nearly as hard for me as it is for you. If I expressed myself inarticulately, I apologize. If what I said isn't what you heard."

Because guess what? The president of the United States is supposed to take the high road. It's not about whose right. This woman lost her husband. Just say, "You know what? I get it. If there was a misunderstanding, I'm sorry for it, and we honor his sacrifice." The end.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Look, it's one thing for the president to get in a tit-for-tat with a Democratic congresswoman who is a politician and signed up to be in this arena, a down and dirty political arena.

It's a whole other thing what we saw today. A commander in chief criticizing the widow of somebody who died in service to the country that the commander in chief is the head of, is the leader of, is just mind-boggling; and it doesn't surprise me that the president didn't say anything. Actually -- I actually think that was not a -- not a bad thing, you know, for him to just kind of try to stop talking about it.

And they sent the chairman of the joint chiefs out, who had a very measured, very calm, very lengthy back and forth with reporters and answered as much as he said that he could, knowing that there are a lot of unknowns about the mission. And that is what matters. The mission. What happened? Why did this man die in the first place and three others, as well?

CILLIZZA: The problem, though, is Dana's exactly right. I thought General Dunford is what you want to be the face of this if you're the Trump administration. The problem, as always, is Donald Trump. And more specifically, Donald Trump's Twitter feed.

So, yes, he didn't take questions that were shouted at him today. Not a bad idea. If he hadn't sent a tweet out this morning, effectively saying, "This person is not telling the truth."

If he doesn't take to Twitter tomorrow or the next day and say more about this -- this is now day eight of this back and forth. I would argue, to Dana's point, he made it worse today with the -- engaging with the widow and essentially saying, "Well, her version of events isn't how it happened." There's nothing -- if past is prolog, there is no reason to think Donald Trump will suddenly become sort of quiet on this or anything else, and that's always his biggest problem. If you left it with General Dunford, that would be one thing, but he doesn't ever leave well enough alone.

BLITZER: And it's one thing to get into this -- to react via Twitter to this widow, this wonderful woman who just lost a husband and has two kids, another one on the way. And another thing, as he did yesterday, to go after the Democratic congresswoman in a tweet: "Wacky Congresswoman Wilson is the gift that keeps on giving for the Republican Party. Disaster for Dems. You watch her in action and vote."

He goes after her. That's one thing, as Dana correctly points out, but it's another thing to dispute what this widow said.

All right. Stand by. Much more coming up right after this.


[17:42:29] BLITZER: We're back with our political specialists. And David Axelrod, I want you to listen to a comment that Senator John McCain made -- It's getting a lot of attention -- about the Vietnam War and he, of course, served during the Vietnam War. Listen to this.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: 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.


BLITZER: A doctor who would say that they had a bone spur. Now, that was significant. As you know, Donald Trump during the Vietnam War had five deferments, including one after a doctor diagnosed that he had bone spurs in his foot. What was your reaction to that?

AXELROD: My reaction was I don't think the reference was coincidental.

You know, look, I think there's no -- there's no -- there's no mystery that these guys don't get along, dating back to when Donald Trump denigrated Senator McCain's military service, saying he prefers people who didn't get captured. We all know Senator McCain spent five terrible years in the -- in the captivity of the North Vietnamese.

And now Senator McCain has been critical of the president as commander in chief. He made a speech in Philly earlier this week when he was accepting the Liberty Medal, really challenging the president's world view.

But the president responded by saying, "Well, if he doesn't -- essentially if he doesn't stop criticizing me, I'm going to fight back." And what he learned, I think, in this interview or through this interview is, don't -- don't get into a taunting war with a guy who spent five years in the Hanoi Hilton and who is facing a mortal illness, because he's not scared of you.


AXELROD: He's not worried about you, OK? And I think this was Senator McCain's way of saying, "You know what? I'm -- I'm done with you."


BASH: And, look, David mentioned that John McCain was a prisoner of war for 5 1/2 years in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. When he came back, part of what he did before he actually ended up leaving the Navy was he went to the Naval War College to study exactly why and how America got into the Vietnam War and how they went so wrong.

So what he was talking about there, I think, was for a larger project on Vietnam, but it was after a lot of scholarly intake that he has done, which I think -- the reason I'm bringing this up is because it's just another kind of data point on how different an experience John McCain has had and why his world view is the way it is.

And there is no question that he chose that example as a dig to Donald Trump.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Yes. Don't forget, the President, during the campaign, said John McCain was not a hero because he was a POW and he was a prisoner. That's not the real --

BASH: Right. It took him almost two years to get back at him, but he found a way.


CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS EDITOR-AT-LARGE: I remember July 2015 when it happened. I basically thought, well, that's it.

You know, Donald Trump -- you know, it was right after he had announced his campaign. He was at a forum in Ames, Iowa, and said that. And I thought, well, I mean, you know, POWs tend not to be people that you should attack --


CILLIZZA: -- whether it's John McCain or anyone else. It was a first indicator that Donald Trump's appeal did not play by traditional rules. But, yes, McCain -- the long arc of history got to that healthcare vote and now this.

BLITZER: All right, guys. There is a lot more coming up, including the growing tensions between the United States and North Korea.

President Trump says he is prepared, right now, for anything. Is a military conflict looming?


[17:50:56] BLITZER: We're following new developments as tensions grow between the United States and North Korea. President Trump says the U.S. is, quote, prepared for anything. Is a military conflict becoming more likely?

CNN's Brian Todd is joining us with the latest.

Brian, what are you learning?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, tonight, there is real concern among well-connected people here in Washington that an armed conflict with North Korea is becoming more likely.

The talk from the Trump administration in recent weeks has only grown tougher and neither they nor Kim Jong-un's regime seem able to back down from it.


TODD (voice-over): As tensions build with North Korea's volatile leader, new concerns tonight about whether the Trump administration is talking itself into a possible conflict with Kim Jong-un.

President Trump kept up the tough talk in an interview with the Fox Business Network.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're prepared for anything. We are so prepared like you wouldn't believe. You would be shocked to see how totally prepared we are if we need to be.

Would it be nice not to do that? The answer is yes. Will that happen? Who knows?

TODD (voice-over): The President's comments follow other remarks from his national security team in recent weeks, indicating a tougher tone on North Korea.

CIA Director Mike Pompeo warning about Pyongyang's rapidly advancing threat of a nuclear-tipped missile that could hit the U.S.

MIKE POMPEO, DIRECTOR, CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY: It is now a matter of thinking about -- thinking about how do you stop the final step.

TODD (voice-over): And the latest warning from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that diplomatic efforts to solve this crisis might fail.

REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: Those diplomatic efforts will continue until the first bomb drops.

TODD (voice-over): The tough talk extends back at least to August when Trump spoke like no president ever has when addressing North Korea's threats.

TRUMP: They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.

DR. SUE TERRY, FORMER SENIOR ANALYST, CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY: I do think it's pretty stunning that the U.S. president speaks about openly going to war with North Korea because, as you know, conflict is unimaginable in the Korean Peninsula.

TODD (voice-over): But some say Trump's been placed in a position no other American president ever has by the aggression of his young adversary.

Some of this is also on Kim Jong-un, right?

DEAN CHENG, SENIOR RESEARCH FELLOW, THE HERITAGE FOUNDATION: Absolutely. We have seen multiple nuclear tests, tests of a hydrogen bomb. Not just a fission bomb, but a fission bomb of multiple hundreds of times the size of Hiroshima. ICBM tests over Japan. Nobody has done this before, certainly in -- from North Korea.

TODD (voice-over): Tonight, another key strategic question -- will President Trump visit the heavily fortified DMZ as other American presidents have when he travels to Asia next month? CHENG: It could also really stoke the fires and Kim Jong-un is very

unpredictable. If he doesn't go, on the other hand, it looks either like we're making a concession to North Korea, or it is making it look like President Trump is somehow not your typical president.


TODD: A senior White House official tells CNN that a Trump visit to the DMZ has not been ruled out, but that the timing for it may not be quite right because the President is scheduled to visit a U.S. military installation at about the same time.

White House officials say they're not concerned about any message the President might be sending if he doesn't visit the DMZ -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Brian, thanks very much. We'll see what he does.

Coming up, there's breaking news. The Chairman of the Joints Chiefs says the American people and the families of the fallen are owed an explanation for the ambush in Niger that killed four U.S. soldiers. So why is the Pentagon still offering few details about the deadly clash?


BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. Few answers.

The Joint Chiefs' Chairman comes forward to talk about the Niger ambush that left four American troops dead, saying reporters' questions are fair and the families of the fallen soldiers and the American people deserve answers.

Why are so many details, though, about what happened still a mystery?

The widow's response. New fallout from President Trump's condolence call to a Gold Star widow.

Now, she is speaking out, contradicting the President's portrayal of their conversation and keeping the White House on defense.

After a week of controversy, will the President remain silent?

[18:00:02] Spurring debate. Senator and war hero John McCain takes a thinly veiled swipe at President Trump and the deferment he got from the Vietnam draft because of bone spurs.