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Dignified Transfer Of U.S. Troops Killed In Drone Attack; Fulton Co. D.A. Fani Willis Responds To Affair Allegations In Written Filing. Aired 2:30-3p ET

Aired February 02, 2024 - 14:30   ET





BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: All right, you have been watching one of our nation's most solemn moments, the dignified transfer of three American servicemembers back to United States.

You saw there President Biden, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, C.Q. Brown, as well as top leaders from the Reserves.

You notice, of course, there was no sound on the video that we have been playing for several minutes. That is the protocol of this, out of respect for the families of these fallen heroes.

Which you also did not see those family members, but they are there. They are there actually in front of President Biden and the first lady, and all of the senior officials.

They have been standing across from them as we witness this dignified transfer, although out of view of the press. It is just a reminder, this ceremony, of the sacrifice of these heroes and their families.

Actually, we shouldn't be calling this a ceremony. This is very clearly a dignified transfer. That is something very specific. Those who gave, in the name of Abraham Lincoln, the last full measure of devotion to their country.

We are watching this with M.J. Lee, who is at the White House, Oren Liebermann at the Pentagon with us.

We are joined here in studio by Krista Simpson Anderson, a policy adviser for TAPS, which is Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. It is the leading nonprofit for Gold Star families.

She's also a Gold Star wife herself. Her late husband, Army Staff Sergeant Michael Simpson, was killed in May 2013 in Afghanistan.

Krista, you have attended a dignified transfer, his dignified transfer. You were explaining it to us as we were watching some of this. Can you tell us a little bit about what the families are going through here?

KRISTA SIMPSON ANDERSON, POLICY ADVISER, TAPS (TRAGEDY ASSISTANCE PROGRAM FOR SURVIVORS): I think every family goes through something different. But they kiss their person goodbye and pray that they will come home. This is the next time they see them.

It is very difficult because you can't approach the casket. You can't go and lay your hands and pray over them. You stand back, as you said, as the dignified transfer.

So we were with seven other families on the day of Mike's dignified transfer. Everyone reacted differently. And that grief that you know on that day is extreme. You also know that it lasts forever.

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN HOST: Obviously, it carries significance. The president of the United States is there. They are only there, most often, at the request of the families, with permission of the families.

I'm wondering what goes through your mind as you watched that, knowing that you have been there before, knowing what these families are going through, and knowing that not every servicemember that comes back has the president attending their dignified transfer.

SIMPSON ANDERSON: Every death is important. For me, whether the president is there or not, it is still significant. It still means something for our nation. But definitely for our families.

I don't think - you know, my opinion, I don't think we should base whether he is there or not, on the importance of the loss. I do think it is beautiful for him and his wife to attend, for all of our senior leaders.

But as you saw the senior leaders, they have been there before. They dread those days. So you know, it is incredible for him to be there. But again, it doesn't validate the significance of the loss.


KEILAR: The families you mentioned, they are standing across from these senior officials. So in a way, that view that the camera, that the camera has is a view that they have as they are watching this process unfold.

Talking about this, I think it is so important because it's so few. This is one of the things the president was saying. He spoke to Kennedy Sanders' family. And he said that the servicemen and women, they're the 1 percent defending the 99 percent.

It is obviously a very small group that makes up the all-volunteer force. That really speaks to the fact that a lot of people don't have this connection. But as they are watching this, maybe they do have a connection to what service and sacrifice means.

SIMPSON ANDERSON: Absolutely. I think, generations ago, everyone knew someone that either served or died in service to our country. Today, it is a little bit different.

But I think, as we look around, it is our neighbors, it is the people in our communities, right? We're not all military families. We don't all live on installations anymore, secluded by the civilian world.

So it is -- we are 1 percent. I think when we experience -- TAPS, as you mentioned I am with TAPS. Last year, we had over 9,600 survivors join TAPS, to be served, to be part of the programs and services that TAPS provides.

Which also has a 24/7 hotline, right? So 24 hours a day, seven days a week, you can call and have these conversations -- this is what it was like, or I just came from a dignified transfer, or my friend just experienced it, or what do I do for someone who is experiencing this?

That is a common question, I think. I think when you don't have anything to say, you don't have anything to say. That's exactly what you do say, right? I'm so sorry, I have no words.

SANCHEZ: Krista, obviously, everyone grieves differently. You even mentioned interactions that you saw during the dignified transfer of Michael.

I'm wondering, for these families, what are the next few days like?

SIMPSON ANDERSON: For us, it was a waiting process. We were in Dover for a day or two afterwards at the Fisher House, which is amazing.

We were all able to gather as families together. I remember going into the gym and seeing the brother of another servicemember who came home on the flight, meeting him.

Then we go home. And it depends on -- for us, Mike came back to Joint Base Lewis McChord. He flew into Tigray Army Airfields about four days later. So, and then we had a service for him there. Within a few weeks, we were back here for Arlington National Cemetery.

It depends on each family and what the arrangements are. But there is definitely a process that the military has to adhere to within a few days afterwards to be able to transfer the soldiers back home.

KEILAR: You mentioned the Fisher House there at Dover. There are Fisher Houses at many military medical facilities so that a lot of veterans have places to stay when they are getting treatment.

The one at Dover is particularly special. It is run by the Fisher House Foundation, I believe it is called. This is where families, families like yours, or certainly the families that we know are there today.

What other resources, TAPS, for instance, are there for the families, reaching out to the families here in the coming days, weeks, and even years?

SIMPSON ANDERSON: There are registered organizations. TAPS will reach out. Bonnie Carroll called me back then, once a month, for four months to check on me, to see if I needed anything, to make sure I knew TAPS was there.


And they also provide peer-to-peer support. I can talk to another widow, another spouse. I wish I could say that, oh, everything is going to be fine, everything is going to get better, but we have the opportunity to walk that journey with them. TAPS gives them that opportunity.

There's retreats and just the support when it comes to benefit, right? Because that is going to come up in the future in the next month or so as the military benefits unfold and they are signing a lot of paperwork, unfortunately.

And their belongings are going to come home and those are going to be shipped to the homes of their families.

They are going to be doing things they don't want to do. They are going to have to close out, I guess I would say, a lot of affairs. That is a very emotional time.

TAPS is there for today, tomorrow, and always for them to do that. And there are so many, as you mentioned, the Fisher House and there are just so many organizations out there. You kind of find your fit.

SANCHEZ: That support obviously so critical at such a delicate time.

KEILAR: Right.

SANCHEZ: We also have M.J. Lee and Oren Liebermann with us.

M.J., for perspective, this is now the second dignified transfer that President Biden had attended. His first, I believe, back in 2021, attending the dignified transfer of 13 servicemembers killed in Afghanistan.

He uses that experience, and his personal experience, the service of his son, Beau, in Iraq, to communicate with the loved ones of these fallen servicemembers, right?

M.J. LEE, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes. That was the first time he attended a dignified transfer as president back in 2021. He had attended previous one as vice president and Senator.

Watching the dignified transfer, you saw how really every movement, every step, every second was precise. There was this very careful and meticulous choreography reserved for precisely this moment and this occasion.

And, Brianna, you mentioned earlier the silence as the dignified transfer was happening. There were no words spoken, there's no music for so many minutes.

The president, the first lady, the leaders of the U.S. military, they were all standing by watching incomplete silence. I thought that silence felt quite loud. It spoke volumes about the

occasion that this is, the depth of the sacrifice that we are talking about, the significance of the grief that these family members feel today and will feel forever, as Krista said.

We've been talking today about how we are able to watch this dignified transfer take place today. But that was not always the case. Really, we've been able to do it since 2009.

And former President Barack Obama once said, and wrote, that he thought allowing the public to witness some of these dignified transfers would give our country a clear means to reckon with the cost of war and the pain of each loss.

I am certain that is precisely what we just witnessed.

KEILAR: Yes, it certainly is.

Krista, I do want to give the final word to you.

We do not want to lose sight of the families that this is affecting. They say military service is a family business. Certainly, bearing the ultimate sacrifice in that service is one that is borne by the family that remains.

What are you thinking of when you think of what is ahead for them and what this means for them?

SIMPSON ANDERSON: Well, I pray that, along with the grief, that they are extremely proud, proud of the service.

Just signing. It doesn't matter who you are. When you dedicate your life to this nation, to serve this nation, no matter what happens, you know? It is, again, you said it is 1 percent, right?

So I pray that these families feel a deep sense of pride in their loved one as they move forward through the weeks, months, and years.

People are not replaceable, unfortunately. You kind of wish they were, but they are not. We will never be able to replace these three soldiers.


KEILAR: Krista, thank you so much.

SANCHEZ: Thanks to Krista, M.J. and Oren as well.

Stay tuned to CNN NEWS CENTRAL. We will be right back.


KEILAR: New today, Fulton County, Georgia, District Attorney Fani Willis is responding to allegations of a conflict of interest and an improper romantic relationship with her top deputy on the Donald Trump 2020 election subversion case, Nathan Wade. [14:54:57]

That's as she is also facing a subpoena from House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan. He is demanding Willis produce documents related to how her office spends federal funds, according to a copy of the subpoena that CNN obtained.

Here to help us sort through this, we have CNN's Zachary Cohen with us.

All right, Zach, what is Willis saying here in this new court filing?

ZACHARY COHEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: A busy day for Fani Willis in Atlanta. But look, she is pushing back vehemently on the idea that there was any sort of financial gain she got from her relationship with the top prosecutor, Nathan Wade.

But she does acknowledge that they had a, quote, "personal relationship" with each other. But at the end of the day, she says it all falls short of being within the legal threshold to disqualify her from this case.

At the very beginning of this filing, she says:

"While the allegations raised in various motions were salacious and garnered the media attention they were designed to obtain, none provide this court with any basis upon which to order relief in this case."

She is talking about the relief being disqualifying her from the case.

She then goes on to admit, look, the personal relationship, to be clear, there is no -- there has nothing -- sorry.

To be absolutely clear, there was a personal relationship between the special prosecutor, Wade, and the District Attorney Willis, has never involved direct or indirect financial benefit to District Attorney Willis.

Now this was the bridge that defense attorneys are trying to build here. They are trying to say that, yes, there was a relationship, and that Fani Willis benefited financially. Without the second half, Fani Willis says their motion has no merit.

KEILAR: He benefited financially by being assigned to this case. That is undeniable. This is a clear ethical lapse on her part, whether she wants to argue that or not.

So how might this impact this case against Trump and others?

COHEN: It remains to be seen. The question is, did Fani Willis acknowledge and admit to enough in this filing today where Judge McAfee doesn't need her and Wade and others to come in and testify during public hearing on February 15th, that's already on the schedule? And Willis, in her promotion today, says the judge should cancel that

hearing, that it's not needed because of what was in today's filing. We will have to see. It is up to the judge now.

But Fani Willis forcefully responding and denying that there was anything improper, but acknowledging there was a relationship.

KEILAR: All right, Zach, thank you so much for that.

Still to come on CNN NEWS CENTRAL, we are watching a Michigan courtroom as the defense gives their closing arguments in the trial of Jennifer Crumbley. She is the mother of the Oxford High School shooter. We are going to bring the latest from court, ahead.