Return to Transcripts main page
ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT
McCain: W.H. Not Being Up Front About Deadly Niger Ambush; Growing Questions About Why Soldier Was Left Behind After Ambush; Trump Waits Months To Send $25K To Fallen Soldier's Family. Aired 7-8p ET
Aired October 18, 2017 - 19:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Appreciate it very much. We look forward to your report tomorrow. That's it for me. "Erin Burnett OutFront" starts right now.
ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR: "OutFront" next breaking news, major questions about the ambush in Niger that killed four American soldiers. Senator John McCain accusing the Trump administration of not being upfront. Is the White House hiding something?
Plus, the President promised $25,000 to the family of a fallen soldier in June. He finally sends the checks today just as "The Washington Post" calls him out. And breaking news, Putin spies putting Americans against each other. Let's go "OutFront".
And good evening, I'm Erin Burnett. "OutFront" tonight the breaking news, a major charge against President Trump's White House. Tonight, Senator John McCain accusing the Trump administration of not being upfront about the attack of in Niger that killed four American soldiers.
When the combat veteran, war hero, and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee was asked directly, "Is the Trump administration being upfront about what happened?" McCain answered in one word, "No."
And there's a lot that we don't know tonight. Why didn't anyone know there was a massive group of ISIS fighters in the village American soldiers were going to visit in an unarmored truck? Why did it take so long for support to arrive? And what happened to Sergeant La David Johnson? Why was his body left on the battlefield for two days?
Today, two full weeks after that deadly ambush, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders was expected to have some details. She didn't.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is the President satisfied he's learned everything he wanted to know about this situation itself in Niger?
SARAH SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I believe they're still looking into the details of that, but I don't think the President can ever be satisfied when there's loss of life from men and women in the uniform.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BURNETT: And the questions continued, including whether the Niger operation is looking anything like Benghazi.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
APRIL RYAN, W.H. CORRESPONDENT, AMERICAN URBAN RADIO NETWORKS: She says that is the President's Benghazi. What say you about that?
SANDERS: As I said before, I'm not going to get into the details of that action at this time.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BURNETT: This comes as CNN is learning that a private contractor called Berry Aviation was used to evacuate the U.S. troops after the ambush. Barbara Starr begins our coverage "OutFront" tonight at the Pentagon.
And Barbara, let's start with at this point with the deadliest combat loss in the Trump administration so far, what do we know?
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Good evening, Erin. Well, tonight we don't know a lot more than we knew two weeks ago when it all unfolded and that is making Defense Secretary James Mattis not very happy according to several senior officials I've talked to.
The secretary doesn't want it rushed, but he does want answers about what did happen two weeks ago in Niger. An investigation is under way. The military may know some things, but it does not know a lot by all accounts.
So, 12 soldiers go on a patrol mission. There were Nigerian forces. They've been down in this area before. They know the village. They know the roads. They had not encountered any trouble in the past. This time they came under fire from 50 ISIS fighters.
Now, the Pentagon will tell you that the good part of this is that help arrived French aircraft overhead in 30 minutes to push off the fighters, but that means the firefight went on for 30 minutes before they got there.
When it was all over, La David Johnson, Sergeant Johnson, missing for nearly 48 hours before he was found dead, four troops killed, two others injured. There's a question of intelligence, what that intelligence and what was the operation to get everyone out of there safely?
BURNETT: I mean, certainly things happened that shouldn't have happened, right? The question is why. I mean, Barbara, there are such huge unanswered questions at this time, right? I mean, why he was there for 48 hours, and how you could go into a village in an unarmored truck and not have any intelligence that have been given to you warning? I mean, 50 ISIS fighters is not a small few people.
STARR: Well, this is really the question at hand. I mean, I think there are two basic unanswered questions. We know the soldiers were there on a mission that was not intended to be combat. They had been in the area before as we have said. And they had no reason in particular to be in unarmored vehicles because the intelligence analysis was that it would be unlikely they would run into a problem, but they did.
And so the questions are why was the intelligence not sufficient? Who is responsible for analyzing that, you know, right before they went in, to understand the lay of the land? And, again, what happened during the evacuation? How is it that a man, a U.S. army soldier, got left behind dead on the ground for 48 hours? Erin?
BURNETT: Answers that we must get. Thank you very much, Barbara Starr.
And let's go to Jeff Zeleny "OutFront" at the White House. Jeff, look, Sarah Sanders again and again, "We don't have details. I'm not giving details. We don't have details." It's been two weeks. They still seem to have no details.
[19:05:03] How is the White House responding now to charges like this from Senator John McCain, a very serious charge saying they are not being upfront about what happened?
JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Erin, I wish I had an answer for you on that, but the White House is simply not answering these questions about any details of this raid. Senator McCain, of course, was saying that he wants and needs more information for the Armed Services Committee.
He was asked if he wants to conduct an investigation, he said he needs more information to know whether he needs to. But again that key question are -- is the White House being forthcoming, he said no.
At the White House briefing today, Sarah Sanders, the White House Press Secretary, said again and again the President was not satisfied by, you know, this mission, of course, because it had loss of life. But she said repeatedly she cannot comment on specific details.
Now, this is not necessarily usually. Usually the details of this, the raid, would come from the Pentagon or elsewhere, not necessarily from the podium at the White House. But the timeline here, Erin, I think is so important.
12 days, the President did not mention this at all until earlier this week when he was asked why he wasn't mentioning it, the he just, you know, starts a whole conversation about how Presidents notify next of kin. The reality here is the substance of the Niger attack is what is more important here than who is calling who. And those questions at the White House have not yet answered. Erin?
BURNETT: All right. Thank you very much, Jeff Zeleny.
And "OutFront" now, Bob Baer, former CIA Operative, April Ryan, White House Correspondent for American Urban Radio Network. You saw her asking the question there today at Sarah Sanders, and retired Major General James "Spider" Marks.
Bob, let me start with you. Senator McCain, one-word answer, asked whether the Trump administration was being upfront about the deadliest combat loss since he has taken the Office of President, he said, no. Do you agree?
ROBERT BAER, CNN INTELLIGENCE AND SECURITY ANALYST: I totally agree, Erin. He's covering up here. The question is what were the soldiers doing out there on the Mali border. It's extremely dangerous. The intelligence is awful up there. You've got ISIS coming over from Mali. It's an open end. Where was the quick reaction force? Any operations like this should have American soldiers right in the vicinity, helicopters and the rest, these are lessons we learned in Afghanistan, in Iraq.
And frankly, our troops are thin in Niger. And, you know, the President should come out and say that. And if he can't -- I mean, by the way, I think this is much worse than Benghazi. Benghazi was the ambassador's decision to go down there. An operation like this was the Pentagon's and ultimately the commander in chief's responsibility.
BURNETT: I mean, April, to this point about Benghazi, you were there. We heard you asked Sarah Sanders about the mission and you quoted Congressman Wilson. She was, of course, you know, with one of the families that the President calls, La David's family. You quoted her saying this was President Trump's Benghazi. Sarah Sanders twice answered you, "I'm not going to get into details of that action at this point." She was dodging every question.
RYAN: She dodged every question, but the issue is the fact that there are answers that need to be given. You have four servicemen who are dead. And then when you deal with this last piece, La David Johnson, who was left there for two days, and the congresswoman said something in our conversation that was poignant.
She said he had a transmitter with him that was emitting a signal when they found him. And she said that transmitter could have helped locate him, so why was he still there for two days? She doesn't know whether he was dead or alive when they left him in Niger. She's very concerned with what she's hearing.
She said that she's heard from intelligence committees, from Capitol Hill, that it was not as Barbara Starr says that they did not have an armored vehicle. They were there not armed well at all. She said the equipment was poor at best. And she said intelligence should have told them there was a problem. She said they were completely ambushed.
Even if they had known that they went in on a mission for Boko Haram, the group that is accused of taking or kidnapping nearly 200 school girls from a Nigerian schoolhouse about three years ago. So we understand that's what the mission was. And I talked to several people on the Hill to include Senator Chris Coons who said, "I have no reason to believe that what Congresswoman Frederica Wilson is saying is not true." And they have also --
BURNETT: Yes. I mean, you know, (INAUDIBLE) and you go into the sound, 50 ISIS fighters and you know nothing about it, General Marks. I mean, you know, when you're talking about these remote -- these areas along these borders, I've been along the Mali border, Burkina Faso, that everyone in this towns and villages sort of knows what's happening in the other ones, right?
[19:10:02] The Americans may not know, but people do know. I mean, was this an intelligence failure?
MAJ. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS, U.S. ARMY: Well, let me describe what I think is going on here. From the Department of Defense level and above there is some great explanation that needs to take place.
First of all, you have to question what were these special ops soldiers doing in Niger on this particular mission. And it was describe -- it must be described based on the conditions as a permissive environment. In other words, there's sufficient intelligence for the U.S. military to assess that it's OK for special ops troops to go into these kinds of missions which are called foreign internal defense, which is what they do all the time.
And for a second, let me -- you know, I don't think any one of these soldiers that were caught in this ambush didn't try until the very last round was discharged and every last effort was made to recover all four of those soldiers and the fact that one soldier was left for 48 hours tells me that that environment was so hot, they couldn't break back into it to recover that young man. This is --
RYAN: But, Erin, the congresswoman said -- excuse me.
MARKS: The multiple -- there will be multiple AARs, after-action reviews, that need to take place so that we can get around what took place at the tactical level, what they were doing there, what they didn't have available to them in order to prosecute this mission.
BURNETT: Right. Although, of course, 12 days, you know, now we're looking at, you know, 14 and not a single answer. I'm sorry, April, what were you going to say?
RYAN: The congresswoman said, you know, people were saying they couldn't find them. But then she clearly kept going back to this transmission.
RYAN: This transmission equipment that was immanent. I mean, she said they could have found him easily, so -- in those two days, because when they found him it was emitting the signal. And that's the question that needs to be answered. What was going on there?
And it sounds like it could have been very hot, but they could have also known where he was. So there are a lot of questions, not just for the congresswoman, but particularly for the family and the American public. People want to know what's going on, because this is very ugly.
MARKS: We get all that. Let me explain something. Let me explain something. At the tactical level of engagement, let's not for a second impugn any of the motives or capabilities of these soldiers on the ground. The concern that I think we should have is that what -- in needs to answer the question, what were these soldiers doing? What did they not have available to them? What was the competition --
RYAN: Fire power.
MARKS: -- of resources that couldn't be available for these?
BURNETT: OK. So to that point, Bob Baer, what they did not have, and April's raising it, they didn't have fire power. It took 30 minutes before help arrived, right, and there's still a lot of lack of clarity there. I understand it was likely French air cover and the evacuation itself was by a contractor. But these American soldiers were completely on their own and completely outnumbered, Bob, for 30 minutes. Was that too long?
RYAN: Without adequate fire power.
BAER: That's too long. Yes. More than that, you can't depend on the army of Niger. It's undermanned, under-equipped, not particularly disciplined. And so when they're going to a village -- and clearly this guy slipped across the border and that's how they did the ambush. And the intelligence coverage is not adequate for that sort of mission.
I mean, the 50 guys is a lot to come across that border but in that part of the world, even though its desert, it's very easy to do. And, you know, they acquitted themselves very well, but I think General Marks agree that it would be nice if they had some backup right there, a couple helicopters with Gatling guns.
BURNETT: All right. And, of course, as we I think all can agree, there are answers needed in the deadliest combat loss in the Trump presidency thus far. Thank you all.
And next, he said, she said. The White House trying to control the story over the congresswoman's description of Trump's call to the fallen soldier's widow.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SANDERS: I think it is appalling what the congresswoman has done in the way that she's politicized this issue.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BURNETT: Plus, General John Kelly, what he told the President about his son, and whether he ever thought the President of the United States would share that personal confidence with the world and use it to slam President Obama. We have new reporting tonight. And more breaking news, Russians using Americans to meddle in U.S. politics.
[19:18:02] BURNETT: Breaking news tonight, the White House attempting to explain why a grieving Gold Star father was left waiting for a $25,000 check that the President personally promised him months ago. That check was never sent, that is, until today when "The Washington Post" broke the story.
The White House blaming the delay on, "a substantial process that can involve multiple agencies." It comes as the White House is facing further controversy after Trump's call to another Gold Star family. White Press Secretary Sarah Sanders saying the President's chief of staff, General John Kelly, is disgusted that the death of four American soldiers in Niger has become politicized.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SANDERS: I think the General Kelly is disgusted by the way that this has been politicized and that the focus has become on the process and not the fact that American lives were lost. I think he's disgusted and frustrated by that.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BURNETT: Well, if he's disgusted and frustrated by that, certainly that disgust and frustration should also be directed at his own boss because it is the President who first politicized this.
On Monday, he went at a press conference he said former President Obama didn't call the families of fallen soldiers when asked about Niger. And then yesterday, the President invoked the death of General Kelly's son suggesting that the press ask General Kelly whether he got a call from Obama after his son died in Afghanistan.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You could ask General Kelly, did he get a call from Obama? You could ask other people. I don't know what Obama's policy was.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BURNETT: "OutFront" now, Democratic Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois. She is an Iraq war veteran. And, Senator, I appreciate your time tonight. What is your reaction to the fact that these deaths have become politicized? SEN. TAMMY DUCKWORTH, (D) ILLINOIS: Utter disgust with this President who is the current commander in chief of our armed forces. For him to have done this and play games with Gold Star families is absolutely unacceptable. Gold Star families are sacred.
BURNETT: Just to be clear, you do think that the blame for this, and he's the one who first brought it up, the blame for this is on him. He's the one who brought President Obama into this.
[19:20:06] DUCKWORTH: Yes. The President is the one who politicized a Gold Star family and he continues to a trend that began from -- even before he was elected. There's only one person here who's attacked a Gold Star family, and that is this President.
And for him to continue to use Gold Star families as pawns in whatever sick political game he's playing is not honoring the men and women who laid down their lives to defend this country.
And certainly, it's not helping the family members who may reach out and ask for help and now they're going to be hesitant because they have a President, a commander in chief, who's going to use their grief for his own political gain.
BURNETT: Do you think there's any chance he will apologize to this family?
DUCKWORTH: Well, he's never apologized for anything else so far, so I don't see why he would do it here, but he certainly needs to do that. More importantly, he needs to start keeping his promises to Gold Star families and make sure that they receive the care and the support that they need long term.
BURNETT: So when it comes to this particular family, he's right now middle of a he said, she said, which he is engaging in. This, of course, is over the call, his call to the widow of Sergeant La David Johnson.
Now, Congresswoman Wilson was there for that call. She said she heard the President say, of La David, "He knew what he signed up for, but I guess it's still hurt." Two members of his family also confirmed that the President said this. The President, though, completely disputes it. Here he is.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: I didn't say what that congresswoman said. I didn't say it at all. She knows it and she now is not saying it. I did not say what she said. And I'd like her to make the statement again because I did not say what she said. I had a very nice conversation with the woman, with the wife who is sounded like a lovely woman. I did not say what the congresswoman said and most people aren't too surprised to hear that.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BURNETT: Again, just to emphasize here, two members of the family did confirm what the congresswoman said happened. The White House still says the President was respectful and sympathetic. General Kelly was in the room and heard the call.
Senator, do you have any reason to believe that the President would not have been respectful to Johnson's widow?
DUCKWORTH: Well, he may have attempted to be respectful to the serviceman's widow, but let me tell you, if you ask me who I'm going to believe, I'm going to believe the family members who just lost their loved ones before I believe Donald Trump.
BURNETT: We did also speak to the family of Staff Sergeant Dustin Wright who was also killed in that Niger attacked. Now, his brother said that his father spoke to President Trump for about 20 minutes. They told us it was a private conversation, but his father was satisfied with it.
Is it possible that Congresswoman Johnson misunderstood what the President was trying to say or in anyway that this could have been a misunderstanding?
DUCKWORTH: Well, regardless, the effect on the widow was not a positive one. And the President should probably rethink how he communicates with loved ones who are hurting significantly and perhaps he needs to do a follow-up with the widow and make sure that he addresses her pain and her perception because at the end of the day the most important person here is not Donald Trump, it is widow of this fallen service member.
BURNETT: Senator, you know, the White House is confirming tonight about another breaking news story here this hour, confirming that today the President sent the $25,000 check to the family of Army Corporal Dillon Baldridge. The check sent today.
That came after "The Washington Post" published the story this afternoon in which they reported that the President had promised Baldridge to sputter (ph) the money in June on a phone call.
So in June the President promised $25,000, "Washington Post" wrote the story today, President got -- and he wrote the check today. What's your reaction to that?
DUCKWORTH: Well, thank god for free journalism and freedom of the press in this country because without it, no one would be holding our President accountable, it appears. And so congratulations to "The Washington Post" for forcing the United States President to finally keep a promise to the family member of a fallen service member, but it shouldn't have taken the free press to do that.
BURNETT: Your Republican colleague tonight, Senator John McCain, Senator, is saying that administration is not being upfront about the Niger attack. You obviously are a veteran. Do you agree with him?
DUCKWORTH: I do agree with Senator McCain on this. I think the White House is being evasive about what happened in Niger. Remember now that under this President we have now lost service members in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Niger. We have thousands of American troops in Africa and the American people don't even realize this.
He's not made himself available to the Congress of the United States to let us know what exactly his overall plan is and what he's doing and I think they're being evasive. I think we need to learn more. And if he can't go to the American public, then come to the Congress, come to the Senate, we'll listen, but we need to know more because I'm not satisfied with the answers that they've been giving us so far.
BURNETT: Of course, Sarah Sanders today was asked whether this was going to be like Benghazi, right.
[19:25:02] We're already looking at a timeline of when was help called for, when did help actually arrived, who was that help. Do you think that that is a fair comparison at this time?
DUCKWORTH: Well, I serve on the Benghazi committee. And if you look at my role, it was to try to figure out what we can best do to preserve American life, especially those on the front lines. Our troops deserve nothing but the best.
I think the President is being evasive. I want to know what happened. I want to know what those troops were doing there and were they given the adequate support that they needed in order to carry out their mission. Or did we leave them out there to drive because that is not acceptable.
BURNETT: All right. Senator Duckworth, I appreciate your time. Thank you so much.
DUCKWORTH: Thank you.
BURNETT: And "OutFront" next, new details about how Chief of Staff John Kelly shared private details about his son's death with President Trump. Did he believe that conversation would remain private?
And President Trump, why does he seem to say the wrong thing when it comes to talking about military heroes like John McCain?
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: He's a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren't captured, OK?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
[19:30:00] BURNETT: Breaking news, Chief of Staff John Kelly had no idea if President Trump would publicize that former President Obama never called him when his son was killed while serving in Afghanistan.
Kelly has kept his son's death private. One source says he was caught off guard by these comments from Trump.
(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [19:30:08] ERIN BURNETT, CNN HOST: Breaking news, chief of staff John Kelly had no idea President Trump would publicize that President Obama never called him when his son was killed while serving in Afghanistan. Kelly has kept his son's death private. One source says he was caught off guard by these comments from Trump.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You could ask General Kelly, did he get a call from Obama, you could ask other people. I don't know what Obama's policy was.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
BURNETT: The comments come as Trump tried to defend his own response to the four soldiers who were killed in the ambush in Niger.
Jeff Zeleny is back at the White House.
And, Jeff, this relationship between the president and his chief of staff, there is no more important relationship one could argue right now for this country than that one. What else are you hearing about Kelly's reaction to the president making their conversation public?
JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Erin, no question. Their relationship is very important, but we are learning tonight this was a conversation the chief of staff had with the president. In terms of the whole context of this Niger -- the ambush that killed four Americans, and he did -- we are told -- tell the president that President Obama never called him after his son was killed in Afghanistan back in 2010, some seven years ago. John Kelly at the time was a lieutenant general in the Marines.
So, that was something the president had in his mind, in his head, and then when he went on the radio on Tuesday to talk about that, essentially telling the world to ask John Kelly if President Obama had called him, that was simply telegraphing something that the chief of staff, we're told, was telling the president privately.
So, the -- there's been no reaction from John Kelly himself. He's declined to answer our questions about this. He rarely talks to the media with the exception of last week. We do know he was taken aback by this. He believes this whole process has been politicized. We heard the press secretary saying he's disgusted by how it was politicized.
But that was aimed at the media. We do not know how he feels about the president bringing this up in the first place -- Erin.
BURNETT: All right. Jeff, thank you very much. And OUTFRONT now, Richard Painter, the former White House ethics lawyer for George W. Bush, and our senior political analyst Mark Preston.
So, Mark, you know, you just heard Jeff. Look, this was clearly something John Kelly said to President Trump in a private conversation. I guess the big question is, did he think it was going to remain
private? He clearly seems to have, right? And then the president just went out and shared it with everybody.
Sorry. We can't hear him right now. So we'll get to him in a moment.
Richard, let me put that question to you, what does this say about the president, that a conversation that he had with General Kelly, right, about his son's death, something intensely personal and private, that he would go out and share that with the world twice, frankly, once when he said talk to the generals and the other very specifically when he talked about whether President Obama had called John Kelly about the death of his son.
RICHARD PAINTER, FORMER WHITE HOUSE ETHICS LAWYER FOR PRESIDENT GW BUSH: Well, I think we've seen over and over again that President Trump has no empathy for those who have served abroad, who have been captured like John McCain, or those who've been killed, or the families of those who've been killed in the case of General Kelly. He has no empathy. No understanding of the human emotions, of what people go through, because he never did it himself. He stayed home during Vietnam, with a sore foot or whatever it was. And he has no empathy.
And there are people who have not served in the military but who understand the pain of losing a son at war. And, you know, what he's done to General Kelly is atrocious, but General Kelly needs to stick with this job. He owes it to our country, because there are very dangerous people out there, Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, a number of others who are pushing to get General Kelly out so we can get the extremists back in the saddle in the White House.
And that's what puts our troops in danger, because our troops are going into Muslim countries and they're fighting side by side with our allies, many of whom are Muslim, and the Muslim haters out there who want to take over this administration, they're the ones who are putting our troops, their lives in danger. And General Kelly is what stands between this administration and that type of complete chaos.
BURNETT: Now, so, all right, do you then, Richard, applaud what General Kelly's doing? You know, he's not himself -- we have reached out directly for comment, he's not chosen to respond other than coming to the podium a few days ago, last week, you know, and coming out and taking the president's side and defending he wasn't able to stop the president's use of Twitter.
[19:35:06] We haven't heard from him since the president started talking about this issue.
But I guess the big question is, do you think he will defend it and look the other way? I mean, he's saying it's disgusting pointing at the media. Is it really possible that he believes that and is not aware of the blatantly obvious fact which is the president of the United States is the one who made this political in the first place?
PAINTER: He's aware of it. He knows what he's dealing with. He is the chief of staff of the president of the United States. And if he's not there, somebody else is going to be there, and I can assure you we are in a very dangerous situation. If we get people like Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, people who are removed from the White House, who are extremely dangerous. And there are others lurking in the background who want the United States at war with the Muslim world.
I think it's a very dangerous situation. We need General Kelly right where he is, and that's where he best serves his country, even though this president is I think psychologically imbalanced.
BURNETT: Mark, John Kelly has chosen to be very private about this issue. In fact, there's just one time he's talked about it and I just want to play what he said.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOHN KELLY, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: He's the finest man I ever knew.
KELLY: Just is. Yes, finest guy. Wonderful guy. Wonderful husband, wonderful son, wonderful brother, brave beyond all doubt. His men still correspond with us. They still mourn him as we do.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BURNETT: That's moving to see and that's what he chose to make public, Mark. That's what he chose to make public. He did not, it appears, choose to make this lack of a phone call from President Obama, whatever interaction they may have had, public.
Do you have any knowledge as to how he feels about the fact that President Trump just put it out there?
MARK PRESTON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, just from our limited reporting right now, Erin, that we're starting to hear that when he made the comment to the president, he didn't think it was going to come out. We heard Jeff Zeleny and our White House team, that are digging deep into this.
And I do think we have to take a step back and look at this from a bigger perspective right now. You have to wonder what is going through General Kelly's mind. The idea that President Trump is the one who decided to politicize the death of General Kelly's son, it was President Trump who decided to use this as political cover to try to make up for the criticisms he was receiving at that time, Erin.
And, honestly, you know, I agree with Richard. To see General Kelly leave because he would be angry would be a big blow to the administration, big blow to the country. The fact is, he's done a very good job of keeping a low profile in trying to keep the trains run on time, trying to make sure that the White House doesn't go into absolute chaos. I can't imagine what he's going through right now.
BURNETT: All right. Thank you both very much. And next, President Trump in times of tragedy, like this, like the Las
Vegas massacre. Why does he choose to say things sometimes like this?
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: What happened in Las Vegas is in many ways a miracle. The police department has done such an incredible job.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BURNETT: And it's like a spy story out of the Cold War. Our breaking report how Russians got Americans to interfere with U.S. politics.
[19:42:09] BURNETT: Breaking news: the White House denying President Trump ever told the widow of a sergeant killed in the Niger ambush, quote, he knew when he signed up for, this despite the fact that family members of Sergeant La David Johnson and their congresswoman, Frederica Wilson, say that is what Trump said.
It's not the first time Trump's words have gotten him in trouble, though. Tom Foreman is OUTFRONT.
TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Hurricane Harvey slams Texas. The president salutes the calamity then spins to the relief effort.
TRUMP: It's been really nice. It's been a wonderful thing. As tough as this was, it's been a wonderful thing.
FOREMAN: Maria's dark clouds hit Puerto Rico and he embraces the silver lining.
TRUMP: But if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina and you look at the tremendous -- hundreds and hundreds of people that died, and you look at what happened here with really a storm that was just totally overpowering, nobody's ever seen anything like this. What is your death count as of this moment? Seventeen?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sixteen.
FOREMAN: Even when a gum slaughters dozens in Nevada, he looks beyond the sadness.
TRUMP: And what happened in Las Vegas is, in many ways, a miracle. The police department has done such an incredible job.
FOREMAN: For his political opponents, President Trump often runs long on political posture and short on empathy, especially when it comes to the military.
TRUMP: I know more about ISIS than the generals do, believe me. FOREMAN: During the campaign he trashed Senator John McCain, a
longtime prisoner of war in Vietnam.
TRUMP: He's a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren't captured, OK?
FOREMAN: Trump accepted a Purple Heart from a veteran, even though he never served, let alone got wounded.
TRUMP: I always wanted to get the Purple Heart. This was much easier.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You have sacrificed nothing. And no one.
FOREMAN: And, of course, there was his titanic confrontation with the father of an American officer killed in combat who spoke at the Democratic Convention.
TRUMP: Who wrote that? Did Hillary's script writers write it?
INTERVIEWER: How would answer that father? What sacrifice have you made for your country?
TRUMP: I think I made a lot of sacrifices. I worked very, very hard. I've created thousands and thousands of jobs.
FOREMAN: And it continues. In so many moments that would appear to demand sensitivity, the president unapologetically focuses on optimism and strength.
TRUMP: I was having fun. They were having fun. They said throw them to me. Throw them to me, Mr. President.
FOREMAN: The White House's defense, whenever this comes up is not that the president is uncaring. They say he just has a different way of doing things. And if his critics want to see more tears or touching moments, this president won't be very sympathetic to them either -- Erin.
[19:45:05] BURNETT: Maybe just a little bit more kindness, not something that seems to come naturally in those moments to him.
Thank you very much, Tom Foreman.
And OUTFRONT next, the breaking news. Russian spies enlist Americans in a bizarre plot to turn American citizens against each other. We have a special report.
And Jeanne Moos on Vice President Pence, bringing new meaning to a phrase, just a heartbeat away.
BURNETT: Shocking details about Russians were pitting Americans against each other, stoking racial tensions, and it was all done without the Americans even realizing that they were agents of Vladimir Putin.
Drew Griffin is OUTFRONT.
DREW GRIFFIN, CNN SENIOR INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In January of this year, well after the presidential election, New York martial arts instructor Omowale Adewale says he was contacted by a group called Black Fist, saying it would pay him to host self-defense class for members of the black community.
(on camera): Did you ever think this was weird?
OMOWALE ADEWALE, MARTIAL ARTS, BOXING INSTRUCTOR: Yes, a lot of times, I thought it was -- I thought it was weird.
GRIFFIN (voice-over): Weird, but the money was good -- $320 a month paid directly through PayPal and Google Wallet to teach just four classes.
[19:50:07] And Black Fist would promote it.
What was also weird -- no one from Black Fist ever showed up to meet him. His only communication was in text and far away sounding phone calls from this man named Taylor.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, hello, Walli, this is Taylor. I wanted to confirm the self-defense classes that we talked about last time.
GRIFFIN: The digital trail suggests that contact on the phone was most likely connected to Vladimir Putin's state sponsored propaganda arm seeking to stoke racial tensions and disrupt the U.S. political system.
CNN has confirmed the social media accounts connected to Black Fist are among the pages Facebook identified as coming from Russians, according to a source familiar with the matter. Links to those accounts appear on the Black Fist Website and Black Fist, which portrayed itself as an activist group seeking to empower black Americans, was likely developed inside the Russian troll factory in St. Petersburg, Russia.
(on camera): They convinced you?
ADEWALE: Very easily. Very easily. Some of the things were, you know, sketchy, but at the end of the day, it's still fitness, just training. Just training people.
GRIFFIN (voice-over): Look at what Black Fist said about its self- defense classes. They are by black for black and let them know that black power matters.
Adewale's contact also wanted these videos and photos of blacks learning self-defense. Adewale wasn't the only one. Personal trainers and classes promoted
in other cities, Los Angeles, Lansing, Michigan, according to event right and other pages where classes were being publicized, there were dozens.
In Tampa, Florida, amateur boxer Chuck "Jetton" Jefferson says Black Fist found him through Instagram, offered to pay him $100 a class, like Adewale through PayPal. He confirms it was the same voice on the other end of the phone call. The same demand for videos to prove classes took place.
And though the entire setup sounded odd, he's having a hard time understanding why Russians were behind it.
CHUCK "JETTON" JEFFERSON, AMATEUR BOXER/TRAIN: So, I mean, when you have somebody that's going to pay you do something you love -- I mean, it's hard to see it like a -- like a negative thing. It's hard to see it in that light, but, I mean -- like I said, it was weird, it was different.
GRIFFIN: The Russians magazine "RBC" first identified Black Fist, as well as dozens of other Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts designed to look and act like real Americans they say were all part of the Russian Internet Research Agency and had a reach of 70 million people weekly.
BURNETT: So, Drew, just how easy was this to do?
GRIFFIN: And I think that's what was alarming. It was extremely easy, using all these social media platforms. And remember, this is in January of this year. After U.S. intelligence knew supposedly about what was going on in the elections, knew that Russians were flooding social media and Facebook with fake messages, yet this whole operation, what ever the heck it was, was developed and operated during this time when all the scrutiny was put in place. It makes you raise the question of what is U.S. intelligence doing about this Russian troll factory.
BURNETT: Right. I mean, are they doing anything about it, right? I mean, they're looking at -
GRIFFIN: Apparently not.
BURNETT: -- forensically at what happened, but currently --
GRIFFIN: I can tell you, the action that took place came from companies. It did come from U.S. intelligence. That is alarming.
BURNETT: That is alarming and it's a stunning reality.
All right. Thank you so much, Drew Griffin.
And OUTFRONT next, Jeanne Moos on Trump, Pence, and the art, because this guy has mastered, of the adoring gaze. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
[19:57:56] BURNETT: Have you ever noticed how Vice President Pence looks at President Trump?
Here's Jeanne Moos.
TRUMP: Very impressed.
JEANNE MOOS, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Whether he's laughing at the boss's jokes or listening intently beside him, Vice President Mike Pence has perfected the art of the gaze.
TRUMP: He likes action.
MOOS: The adoring gaze often accompanied by the nod, nodding almost to the beat of the maestro's gestures.
TRUMP: Of new American jobs.
MOOS: You want to see the opposite of Pence's look, look no further. The VP's gaze is so loyal, so consistent that it's been compared with love struck children's characters.
(on camera): But there's one name that keeps popping up in description of how Vice President Pence fixes his eyes upon the president.
(voice-over): Actually it's Nancy Reaganized, remember how she used to stare lovingly at her husband. "The New Yorker" describes Pence's mastering a devotional gaze rarely seen since the days of Nancy Reagan.
A business correspondent took it a step further tweeting, Mike Pence with Trump makes that Nancy Reagan's gaze at Ronnie look like snark face.
In the wake of the current first lady not always looking so enthralled, someone commented, Trump wishes that Melania would gaze at him like that. But a worshipful stare seems wasted when the president forgets you're there.
TRUMP: I want to thank Mike Pence. He is --
MOOS: A Republican media consultant tweeted wistfully, I want someone to look at me just once in my life the way Mike Pence looks at Trump.
The president picked Pence as his political dance partner. Now, Pence has to do it his way.
Jeanne Moss, CNN, New York.
BURNETT: All right. Thank you so much for joining us.
Anderson starts right now.