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House Passes Bipartisan Tax Legislation; Interview With Rep. Daniel Goldman (D-NY); Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin Holds Press Conference. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired February 01, 2024 - 11:00   ET



LLOYD AUSTIN, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: So, I think -- I mean, there are ways to manage this, so it doesn't spiral out of control, and that's been our focus throughout.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let's go to Al-Jazeera.


QUESTION: Thank you, John.

Speedy recovery, Mr. Secretary.

I have two things. In -- back in December in your speech at the Reagan Library, you told Israeli leaders they have to protect civilian lives in Gaza. Since that speech, 12,000 more Palestinians have been killed. We're now at 27,000 killed.

Why are you still supporting this war when this government that is the most extreme in the history of Israel, led by someone who refuses to recognize any political right for the Palestinians and with elements that are calling for ethnic cleansing and displacement of Palestinians?

Do Palestinians have the right to dignity, as you said in Angola when I was with you on the trip? You said the future belongs to those who protect dignity, not trample it.

AUSTIN: Yes. I said that in the speech at the Reagan forum. I have said that to my counterpart, Minister Gallant, every time that I talk to him, and I talk to him every week.

And I emphasize the importance of protecting civilian lives. I also emphasize the importance of providing humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians. It's critical. It's really important. This is -- there's no question that this is a tough -- has been a tough conflict.

But we're -- as I said earlier, we are starting to see the Israelis kind of shift their stance and change their approach to a more focused and controlled -- control is probably not the right way, but a more focused effort focused on a discrete set of objectives. And so I think -- we talked to them about that weeks ago, and they

said they were going to do that, and they are doing that. But I will continue to emphasize and I know Secretary Blinken and President Biden will continue to emphasize the importance of addressing the issue of the Palestinian people. It's critical.

And we're doing more, but we're not doing enough. So...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Time for a few more. Let's go to CNN.

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Secretary, I'd like to join my colleagues in wishing you a speedy recovery.

The 30-day review is due in a matter of days now, I think less than a week, if I'm not mistaken. Do you commit to making that review public? And second question, has your chief of staff, Kelly Magsamen, offered her resignation, or have there been discussions about her resignation in the wake of the failure to notify?

AUSTIN: I commit to being as transparent as possible and sharing as much as possible.

Oren, you will understand that, because this is a command-and-control of policies of our government here, there will be elements of this that are classified. But we're committed to sharing as much as possible as soon as possible.

LIEBERMANN: And your chief of staff, has she offered her resignation?

AUSTIN: She has not.



QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, I have seen what you're going through up close among loved ones. So, again, we wish you full recovery, and I know it's possible. So thank you.

You described this as a gut punch, your instinct to privacy. But if I could just ask you bluntly, you had nearly a month between the time you learned of your cancer and the time that this came out to inform the president. How could you possibly think that it was OK not to tell him, if I could be blunt?

And just a small question on Iran and the Middle East. What do you believe Iran knew operationally about the attack in Jordan and how important is that when it comes to the U.S. response?

AUSTIN: So, the diagnosis was made. The doctor highlighted that you have a finite window of time to actually get this done. If you go beyond that window, then you will have a problem.

Christmas holiday was coming up. For me to be as little impact on what we're doing in the department, Christmas was a time for me to take a look at getting that done. It was a tough decision for me, and I did not decide until very close to when the procedure was done to actually do the procedure.

In terms of informing the president, again, I admit that that was a mistake to not talk to him about that early on. When you're the president of the United States, you have got a lot of things on your plate. And so putting my personal issue on -- adding to all the things that he's got on his plate, I just didn't feel that that was a thing that I should do at the time.


But, again, I recognize that that was a mistake, and I should have done that differently. OK.

QUESTION: And what Iran knew about the attack in Jordan or how operationally it was involved?

AUSTIN: We believe that this was done by an element of what is known as the Axis of Resistance. And these are Iranian proxy groups. And how much Iran knew or didn't know, we don't know.

But it really doesn't matter, because Iran sponsors these groups, it funds these groups, and in some cases it trains these groups on advanced conventional weapons. And so, again, I think, without that facilitation, these kinds of things don't happen.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK, let's go to "F.T." and then Politico to close it out.

QUESTION: Thanks, Mr. Secretary.

Have you seen any signs that China has been successful in pressuring Iran to rein in the Houthis in the Red Sea?

AUSTIN: We have not.

Again, what's happening in terms of close communications between leaders, we don't know. But we have not seen any visible evidence that they are encouraging or pressuring Iran to cause the Houthis to back off of what they have been doing.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Final question?

QUESTION: Good to see you, Mr. Secretary. I also hope that you make a speedy recovery.

I have two questions.

First of all, do you regret not personally telling the deputy the details the two times you were in the hospital and the authorities were transferred to her? Do you think that she had a right to know? And then I have a question on the Middle East as well.

AUSTIN: As you heard me say in my opening statement, I apologize to all my colleagues and also the American people that I wasn't as transparent as I probably should have been up front. So... QUESTION: And then my second question, is there any discussion right now of withdrawing troops from either Syria or Iraq, especially given what has happened in the last couple of weeks?

AUSTIN: What's happened in the last couple of weeks is not driving us to consider withdrawing troops from Syria. There are ongoing discussions with the Iraq -- Iraqi leadership about our future footprint in Iraq, and I think that's been fairly well-publicized, the High Military Commission.

We have taken the first steps in conducting those meetings, and so that will play out over time.

QUESTION: And does that include discussions about withdrawing troops from Iraq?

AUSTIN: It'll include discussions about our footprint going forward, for sure.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary. Ladies and gentlemen, that's all the time we have for today. Thank you very much.

AUSTIN: We're still doing the forensics, Jen. Most of the drones in the region have a connection with Iran. So...

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, why a multitiered response? Why not one and done, get it over with, before we dragged into a broader conflict?

AUSTIN: I don't think the adversaries are of a one-and-done mind-set, and so they have a lot of capability. I have a lot more. And so we -- as I said earlier, we're going to do what's necessary to protect our troops and our interests.


QUESTION: Thank you very much.


JOHN BERMAN, CNN HOST: You are watching Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin limping gingerly off the podium at the Pentagon.

He was addressing for the first time his prostate cancer diagnosis and surgery and hospitalization, and, most importantly, the fact that the president and the American people were not informed about it. He said, and you can see right there, he is recovering well, but still recovering. He is suffering from leg pain.

He admitted flatly -- quote -- "We did not handle this right. I did not handle it right." He says he should have told the president about his cancer diagnosis, and he takes responsibility and he apologizes.

Now, he added that he never directed anyone to keep information from the White House. He said his prostate cancer diagnosis shook him. He called it a gut punch. His first instinct was to keep it private, but now he understands that taking that job, defense secretary, means losing a certain amount of privacy.

He told us he apologized directly to President Biden, and President Biden responded with grace and warmth. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said just now he never considered resigning.


Let's bring in CNN national security reporter Natasha Bertrand, senior White House reporter Kevin Liptak, CNN military analyst retired Colonel Cedric Leighton, and retired Brigadier General Steve Anderson.

Natasha, I want to start with you.

What did you hear and not hear from Secretary Austin in this first major discussion of what happened last month?

NATASHA BERTRAND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: Well, John, forgive me if I need to look down at my notes here, because this was a very extensive press briefing, arguably the longest that we have ever gotten from Secretary Austin since he became the secretary.

And he went through a lot here. He spoke about how he desired privacy after his cancer diagnosis. He was visibly limping to the podium. He's now using a golf cart to get around. He is apparently recovering from a leg injury that resulted from his complications from this prostate surgery.

And he essentially issued a mea culpa. And he said, I am sorry. The American people have a right to know when their leaders are facing health challenges. And he did say that he did not offer to resign, nor did his chief of staff, who was kind of embroiled in this as well, because she did not inform the president until days later that he was in the hospital.

And he also said that he is going to commit to being as transparent as possible moving forward, even though elements of this 30-day review that the Pentagon is carrying out will probably be classified. And so the public may not to get to see all of the details about what went wrong here.

But he says that he is going to commit to doing better in the future. Now, I do want to get a little bit to his response to the Jordan attack that killed three U.S. service members. He did start out at the top there conveying his condolences to the families of those service members who were killed.

And he also explicitly said that these attacks were carried out by -- quote -- "radical militias backed by Iran." He said, we believe that it was done by the -- quote -- "Axis of Resistance," which is this umbrella group of Iran-backed proxy groups inside Iraq.

But he said the U.S. doesn't know at this point how much Iran knew or didn't actually know about this attack. But he went into a little bit also about the response that the U.S. is planning to that attack. He said that response is likely to be multitiered, something that we have heard from other officials in recent days, and that the U.S. can continue to respond a number of times to these provocations.

And in a notable quote, he said: "They have a lot of capabilities, but I have a lot more," so obviously signaling that the U.S. response to these attacks is going to be very forceful and very strong and warning these groups that they have a significant response here coming.

BERMAN: As he was describing the condition he was under, Natasha, he said he was suffering at one point during his second hospitalization chills and shallow breathing.

Did we know the full extent of his condition before this morning?

BERTRAND: Well, we knew that it was serious enough for him to be put into the ICU when he went to Walter Reed in an ambulance on January 1. And although he was never under anesthesia during his second hospital stay at Walter Reed, we were told that his condition was serious enough that they were concerned that he would need to stay there a bit longer for his recovery.

He says now that he is expected to make a full recovery soon. He is in physical therapy receiving treatment, and he says that his leg really is the biggest issue that he is facing. Mentally and professionally, he says that he is fully capable at this point of carrying out his duties.

BERMAN: And we did see him limp off the stage, and he told us that he took a golf cart to this press conference.

Kevin Liptak at the White House, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said he has now spoken to President Biden and apologized directly. Any more information about that phone call and how the White House feels now about how Secretary Austin is handling this?

KEVIN LIPTAK, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, I think the White House would agree with Secretary Austin that things were not handled well in terms of who was notified when.

And it was interesting. In that press conference, for as much contrition as Austin was offering, there were still a number of unanswered questions about how exactly this breakdown in communication occurred. And even Austin himself said he's not exactly sure what happened in the days between when he was hospitalized at Walter Reed and when the White House eventually found out about his condition.

He also said he wasn't exactly sure why one of his aides, in calling 911, asked for the ambulance not to use lights and sirens when it was going to his house to pick him up. And those answers will presumably be included in this review that the Pentagon is conducting about what exactly transpired.

But throughout all of this, President Biden, even though he has been somewhat frustrated at how this all played out, he -- there has been no signs that he is losing confidence in Secretary Austin. The White House has said repeatedly that there are no plans whatsoever to fire him or ask for his resignation. And so, certainly, this apology from Austin directly to the president isn't necessarily a surprise. [11:15:02]

And I think President Biden is certainly handling it with a certain degree of grace. But, certainly, as this was all unfolding a couple of weeks ago, there was a level of frustration among White House officials about how this all transpired. And it did lead to this effort led by the White House chief of staff, Jeff Zients, to organize all of the agencies and come up with plans for when their agency heads are incapacitated.

And they were required to submit these protocols to the White House. And the White House eventually said, you need to notify us when an agency head, for example, goes under general anesthesia.

So, certainly, a lot of contrition that you hear from Austin, but a lot of questions, I think, also remaining.

BERMAN: Absolutely, one of the big questions, a carefully worded part of his statement where he said that no one was ever directed not to tell the White House about his condition.

This will clearly be part of the internal review that he kept on leaning on over the course of this news conference.

Colonel Leighton, I just want to go to you. Explain why it is so important in the chain of command to get this right.

COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Yes, John, this is a critical issue, because as one of the reporters asked, somebody who is in the military unit has to tell their bosses they're going in for hospitalization or for any medical procedure that will make them absent from duty, a duty station.

So that's something you learn when you're a very junior person in the military all the way up to presumably a four-star general. However, in this particular case, it's pretty clear that some of the procedures that would normally be followed at a lower level were not followed.

And one of the things that I wondered about is if they wanted to kind of project a feeling of strength that nothing was going on, when, in fact, they should have made it very clear that there was, in fact, an issue with the secretary and that -- but that things were under control because the deputy had control of things.

So these are definitely questions that will come up in this review or the multiple reviews. And I'm sure Congress will also ask a bunch of questions about this.

BERMAN: General Anderson, he said that he understands that taking the job of defense secretary means losing some of the privacy he might expect.

But he was a general for a long time before that. I mean, how much privacy do you reasonably expect as a general when it concerns things like this, your ability to physically carry out your job? BRIG. GEN. STEVE ANDERSON (RET.), U.S. ARMY: Well, John, it's

actually perhaps ironic that, 25 years ago, I worked with Lloyd Austin on the National Military Command Center.

And one of the responsibilities we had was to keep track of all the senior leaders in the military. So, no one knows more than Lloyd Austin how important it is to keep track. And this was a major breakdown in judgment on his part and probably that of his staff.

However, having said that, he is a great American. He is a great soldier, great leader. I have seen him in action. And we as Americans are lucky to have a secretary of defense like Lloyd Austin, who cares about troops, cares about this country and makes good decisions.

We need to keep him as the secretary of defense. I think that a lot of this has been somewhat overblown by the media. I believe that what -- he screwed up. He admits he screwed up. It's going to be studied. It's going to be investigated. We will figure out what all went wrong.

But he needs to continue to do the great job that he's doing of leading our great secretary of -- the entire Defense Department and performing as a secretary of defense in the manner that he has. We need him now more than ever.

BERMAN: And, General, just before I let you go, anything you learned from his comments about the situation and impending U.S. response to the attack that left three Americans dead? He continued to call it a multilevel response that will be coming.

ANDERSON: I think this is a signal, John, that we're going to execute a campaign, OK, not just a single isolated event, a campaign, a multiday, multiweek campaign.

I would think that perhaps -- I know Cedric could probably remember this as well -- Operation Desert Fox against Iraq back in 1998. It was about a six-day schedule of attacks. Hundreds of rockets were fired. Hundreds of military aircraft were involved. This is the kind of thing we need to do to take out these proxies to Iran, and particularly in Yemen.

The Houthis are out of control. They have shut down shipping, commercial shipping through the Persian Gulf. We need to take action and execute a campaign against all of these Iranian-backed proxies.

BERMAN: All right, General Steve Anderson, Colonel Cedric Leighton, Natasha Bertrand, Kevin Liptak, thanks to all of you.

Again, Secretary Lloyd Austin apologizing from the Pentagon, saying that we messed up, he messed up -- Kate.


KATE BOLDUAN, CNN HOST: A bipartisan breakthrough. Yes, it is the first major bipartisan legislation to pass either chamber of Congress so far this year. What's in this massive tax bill and why is the Senate bulking? We will be back.


BOLDUAN: This morning, a $78 billion tax package is now in the Senate's hands after a rare showing of bipartisanship in the House on Capitol Hill.


This is the first major bipartisan bill to pass this year. The tax cut package, it enhances the child tax credit for millions of lower-income families, and it also boosts three tax breaks for businesses, the combination there giving lawmakers on both sides of the aisle some much-needed wins and policy wins, but now some key Republicans in the Senate are bulking.

Republican Chuck Grassley expressing concern, saying this: "I think passing a tax bill that makes the president look good, mailing out checks before the election means he could be reelected, and then we won't extend the 2017 tax cuts."

Joining us right now, Democratic Congressman from New York Dan Goldman.

Congressman, thanks for coming on.

You voted for this bill. I mean, the level of bipartisanship, I think we should just note it. It's almost shocking; 357 to 70 is how it passed in the House. But you just heard Chuck Grassley's take when reporter -- when he was speaking to reporters, suggesting his hesitation less on policy, more on not wanting to give Joe Biden a win.

Do you think that's going to hold this up?

REP. DANIEL GOLDMAN (D-NY): Well, I agree with you that it was a somewhat shocking example of bipartisanship in what has been a horrifically partisan Congress, especially here in the House of Representatives, where the Republicans have expressly made it clear they are not interested in any bipartisanship.

And the child tax credit is essential for many families. It certainly doesn't go far enough, but it is better than what we have. And, for me, in my district in New York City, the addition of low-income housing tax credit is essential to building more affordable homes.

But, again, here we are, both on immigration and now on this tax bill, where President Biden and a bipartisan group of Congress are trying to actually solve problems for the American people, and Chuck Grassley, Donald Trump, Mike Johnson, they are trying to kill solutions just for political gain and political weapons.

And it is an incredibly cynical way to look at things, especially after so little has gotten done this Congress. This would help businesses, this would help children, this would help families. And yet Chuck Grassley doesn't want to pass it because he's concerned about the election, and he's concerned that the wealthiest and the biggest corporations won't continue with their plush tax breaks that they got from Donald Trump?

It is -- it should be put to the American people that that is what the Republican Party stands for, and the Democratic Party is standing for getting work done for the American people.

BOLDUAN: Is cynicism also just part of reality right now on Capitol Hill? Because this is similar reasoning that we're hearing about the border deal that's been in the works and why some Republicans are bulking on that even before seeing the text.

Politics drives policy decisions often on Capitol Hill. I don't think we need to be Pollyanna about it, but maybe not as openly as this. Do you accept that this is the reality of trying to pass anything big in an election year?

GOLDMAN: No, I don't accept that. I don't think the American people accept that. And, certainly, the Democratic Party doesn't accept that.

When you look at this immigration bill in the Senate -- and we haven't seen it, but, by all accounts, it is -- dramatically favors the Republican wish list. And yet President Biden, recognizing that there is a need for addressing solutions at the border, recognizing that we are in divided government, and recognizing that we have to do something, rather than just keep talking about it, is willing to go further than any Democrat has gone before.

And there are parts of this that I do not like. But in order to unlock aid to Ukraine, to Israel, to Taiwan, and in order to actually address the problems that we have at the border, Democrats are willing to move far to the middle to compromise.

And it is Donald Trump and the Republicans who are playing political games, who have said all along all the big problems at the border -- and now when there's a chance to solve them on their terms, he says, no, I don't want to do it because he wants it to be an election year issue.

It doesn't have to be that way. Donald Trump turns everything partisan and everything political, but we do not want that to be the case. And that's why we are trying to solve the problems.

BOLDUAN: I want to ask you. You mentioned aid to Israel, which is part of this package.

We were just reporting the news that was coming in about President Biden planning to issue an executive order this afternoon targeting violent Israeli settlers in the West Bank, who he -- who he has said have undermined stability in the area.