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Lack of Niger Details; Trump on Puerto Rican Response; Bush Rips Divisive Politics. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired October 19, 2017 - 14:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[14:00:21] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: And we begin with breaking news about that deadly ambush in the African nation of Niger. Four American soldiers dead, one of their bodies left behind in the fog of war. But (INAUDIBLE) came under heavy fire. Fifty ISIS affiliated terrorists involved. The troops fighting back. Four of those men losing their lives before French military assets came to their rescue. At some point though during the firefight, Sergeant La David Johnson got separated from his comrades. His body was found 48 hours later by Nigerian troops. And it's not known how he got there. How long he was alive. Why he was left behind.

Joining me now, as we try to sort out some of these details, is Michelle Kosinski, our CNN senior diplomatic correspondent.

So, Michelle, it appears that even the Pentagon chief doesn't have the full story here.

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: Right, the lack of detailed information on how this happened, why the outcome, is dismaying, CNN is told, by three U.S. officials even to the secretary of defense. He wants those answers.

But there is an investigation going on. It doesn't seem like he's trying to rush that investigation in any way. This is, right now, being handled by Africa Command, AFRICOM. They are trying to establish a more detailed timeline, minute by minute, if not more detailed of why and how this was so unexpected.

The U.S. intel sources were -- who are in contact with these service members, they felt it was their assessment that it would be unlikely that they would be met with enemy fire. Why was that assessment as it was on that night? And we also know that this is going -- the investigation is going to incorporate all branches of the military. U.S. intelligence is involved too. So they want this to be very comprehensive, obviously, to try to get some of those answers.

And the lack of detail has been surprising, as well as how this went down on the ground. Among the biggest questions are the intel situation, what exactly happened to Sergeant La David Johnson? Was he alive when he was left behind? Why and how did that happen?

Brianna.

KEILAR: All right, very good questions that we don't have the answers to.

Michelle Kosinski, thank you so much.

Senator John McCain says he may get a subpoena to learn the details that he is seeking on what happened in Niger. Listen to what he told our Susan Malveaux.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: It may require a subpoena. I did have a good conversation with General McMaster. (INAUDIBLE). We have a long friendship and we will hopefully get all the details.

QUESTION: Will you wait for the Department of Defense, their own initial investigation, to carry out (INAUDIBLE) what's on the ground or is there more (INAUDIBLE)?

MCCAIN: (INAUDIBLE). That's not how the system works. We are coequal branches. (INAUDIBLE) We should be informed at all times.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KEILAR: CNN's Kaitlan Collins is there at the White House live for us.

So, Kaitlan, Senator McCain has also complained that the Trump administration is not being forthcoming about the information that it has on what is the deadliest combat mission the president has experienced in his short time in office. How is the White House responding to this?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, so far there has been no response. They have not responded to our requests for comment in response to what the senator said just there. But it's likely that the press secretary, Sarah Sanders, will be asked about this when she briefs reporters here at the White House in the next hour. And it's also likely she's going to be asked about the pattern of information and what the White House knew and when they knew it overall regarding this ambush.

We have learned, thanks to a report in "Politico," that a national security official actually drafted a condolence statement from the president in the hours after this ambush happened, but that statement was never published. Instead, the White House had Sarah Sanders come out and tell reporters on October 5th that the administration -- convey their thoughts and prayers on behalf of the families of these fallen soldiers. They weren't releasing names at that time until the next of kin had been notified. And then Sarah Sanders was asked about this again the next day after Sergeant La David Johnson's body had been found.

But then the White House effectively went dark for the next 10 days. It was a 12 day period where we did not hear from the president on this and he was very uncharacteristically silent. We know that we hear from the president very often what's on his mind, whether it's in tweets or in comments to reporters, and no one -- the president did not comment on it until my colleague, Sara Murray, asked him about it in the Rose Garden. And the president defended his silence. He said that he had written letters to the families of these soldiers.

[14:05:25] And then we heard from the White House once again during the press briefing on this just yesterday. They were asked if the president is satisfied with the level of information he knows about how this situation went so wrong, Brianna. And the press secretary, Sarah Sanders, said that while she couldn't get into specifics, that the president was never satisfied that there was a loss of life. But it's almost without a doubt that the White House is going to be pressed on this very issue here in the next hour.

KEILAR: All right, we'll be watching with you. Kaitlan Collins for us at the White House. Thank you.

And joining me now, Michael Weiss, CNN national security analyst and co-author of "ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror," and Colonel Steve Warren, CNN military analyst. Also a former spokesman for the anti- ISIS coalition in Iraq, and a former spokesman for Secretary of Defense James Mattis.

OK. So you've heard, colonel, that Senator John McCain is not happy. He feels like he's not getting the information that he needs. When you look at that, how do you think the administration is handling this?

COL. STEVE WARREN (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, they've moved too slowly, quite simply. There's enough information out there on day one that they can say something. Now, there's often reasons that they will want to stay quiet for the first 24 or 48 hours. Perhaps it was because they knew that Sergeant Johnson was missing and they were searching for him. They didn't know his status. I could understand staying dark during that window.

But once they had recovered Sergeant Johnson, then it's time to start explaining exactly what's going on. And there's three types of explanations that are lacking right now. Kind of the strategic level explanation. Why do we even have forces in Africa in the first place? Insiders may know, but the broader public doesn't.

Operationally, the second level, did these forces have the support they needed? Did they have the medevac? Did they have the intelligence, the logistics, et cetera?

And then finally, the tactical questions, which are, what happened on the ground that fateful day? Now that -- it may be a little longer until that information comes out. There's massive confusion in the case of a firefight. It's unlike anything else in human experience.

KEILAR: You know General Mattis well. He is dismayed by the information he feels he is not getting. What do you make of that?

WARREN: Well, General Mattis has been in plenty of firefights himself. He understands that these are difficult situations. But he also understands that information needs to move rapidly and it needs to move directly to him so that he can make any adjustments that need to be made -- that need to be made.

KEILAR: Michael, when you look at this and you're not getting answers for a long period of time, the general public starts to say, well, what does that mean? What aren't they telling us? You know, they start to, in a way, sometimes, fill in the gaps themselves or wonder if there's a reason, maybe because it looks bad, that information is being kept from the public. What's your take as someone who's very much involved in analyzing what's going on with ISIS and the U.S. battle against it?

MICHAEL WEISS, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, look, October was supposed to be the month that we sort of declare victory in a sense and ISIS has now lost Raqqa, the de facto capital of its so-called caliphate. The president was very triumphalist about that, saying that he's done more in his short presidency than Barack Obama had done in three years prior to smash the terror organization, although the media coverage hasn't been so kind.

You have this disaster in Niger. You also have a calamity in northern Iraq, in Kirkuk, where Baghdad is pitted against our ally in Erbil. U.S. backed forces on either side facing off in what could tip over the point of being a civil war. I mean, according to Kurdish officials I've talked to. So it's not quite the mission accomplished banner headline that he had hoped for.

Now, if this does turn out to have been a coordinated and planned ISIS assault -- I mean, keep in mind, Brianna, look, these guys are being driven out of Iraq and Syria, but they're setting up shop everywhere else. I mean Afghanistan, Yemen. In west Africa when -- when Boca Haram pledged allegiance to ISIS, it's true they didn't have the command and control capability that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's forces did in Mosul and Raqqa at the time. And this was going back several years.

But technically, ISIS gained about 20,000 miles -- square miles of territory in West Africa with that simple pledge of allegiance. Now, if guys who are coming out of the Lavant (ph) is Mesopotamia are repairing to Africa or to the AFPAC (ph) region or elsewhere in the Middle East and, frankly, around the world, that's going to be a major concern for the United States because this is -- this is a sort of -- I mean ISIS refers to it as immigration, right? We're losing our state but our forces are still (INAUDIBLE) around the globe and we're still a powerful and potent insurgency to be reckoned with. That's not exactly the headline news that the U.S. government wants to embrace at the moment.

KEILAR: No, it certainly isn't. So, Michael, when you understand that they walked into a totally unexpected ambush, 50 heavily armed ISIS affiliated fighters, there's this question of, how did they not know? How was the intel they were getting so far off base. What do you think?

[14:10:13] WEISS: Frankly, I don't know the answer to that question. I mean it's not the first time that America has had poor or insufficient intelligence with respect to a jihadist organization. I mean let's not forget, ISIS was the JV team before they were a caliphate, right? And America was kind of caught sleeping at the wheel when they managed to storm into Mosul in the summer of 2014.

I really don't know. I mean there's questions that I have, such as, you know, were local authorities and local government on the ground perhaps infiltrated? Or were there rogue actors who might have been collaborating with this? We've seen this before in Egypt in the Sinai Peninsula where Egyptians, security officials, ended up basically being bribed by ISIS affiliates there and that led to all kinds of terrorist attacks and assaults on military check points.

KEILAR: Yes.

WEISS: These are the questions that I'd like to see answered in the coming days. But I quite agree with the colonel, I mean this is a two week period in which we have no answers, not even a kind of, you know, proforma public relations attempt at damage control. Just the naming of the dead and then also this PR disaster, the president saying, you know, he knew what he signed up for.

KEILAR: Colonel, you referenced this, but I want -- I want you to make the final point on this. When this happened, I think a lot of Americans said, oh, my goodness, there's American forces in Niger? But the truth is, there are special forces in well over half of the countries in -- around the globe. And this sort of reveals just how expansive this -- what is a pretty secretive war against ISIS is.

WARREN: Well, that's absolutely right. These special operations forces are trained and equipped for exactly this type of mission, this foreign internal defense, this building up of partner capacity, security assistance we've call it. And what this is, is to help these nations that are often fragile governments in charge of large, ungoverned spaces, help these nations to professionalize their military. And it happens very quietly. It happens sometimes out of common sight. But it is happening. And it's helping keep America safe. It is.

KEILAR: It's not without risk. That's what we are learning, though.

WARREN: It's full of risk.

KEILAR: And that's what Americans are realizes.

WARREN: It's full of risk.

KEILAR: Colonel, Michael, thank you so much so both of you.

And coming up, we have breaking news out of Gainesville, Florida. Thousands of protesters and counter protesters are converging at the University of Florida because a white supremacists, Richard Spencer, is delivering a speech on campus and we are going to take you there live.

And then moments ago President Trump asked how he would rate the White House response in Puerto Rico.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I give ourselves a ten.

(END VIDEO CLIP) (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[14:17:00] KEILAR: Just a short time ago, President Trump met in the Oval Office with the governor of Puerto Rico when he was asked to rate his recovery response to the hurricane there on a scale of one to 10. And here's how he answered that question.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: Between one and 10, how would you grade the White House response so far to the (INAUDIBLE)?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'd say it was a 10. I'd say it was probably the most difficult when you talk about relief, when you talk about search, when you talk about all of the different levels. And even when you talk about lives saved, it hit right through the middle of the island. Right through the middle of Puerto Rico. There's never been anything like that. I give ourselves a 10. I think that locally they are -- I really think locally they have, in this gentleman, great leadership. I have to tell you, he is -- it's a tough job, but we have provided so much so fast.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KEILAR: Well, the president also said that Puerto Rico faced a situation worse than Katrina. That's a quote.

Joining me now from San Juan is CNN correspondent Polo Sandoval.

Polo, that is actually the opposite of what he said when he was in Puerto Rico about Katrina. When you think of how the people of Puerto Rico would respond to the president's assessment, ten out of ten on this, what do you think they would say overall?

POLO SANDOVAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I think, Brianna, you may see a number that is perhaps not as optimistic as what we saw coming out of the Oval Office earlier today. This perfect 10 out of 10 that came from President Trump as he spoke to the governor of Puerto Rico earlier today. People here -- there certainly is a level of frustration, particularly when you leave San, Juan, Puerto Rico, and go into the more rural areas there. That is where there are still people who are in the dark.

You're looking at only about 22 percent of the residents in Puerto Rico that have (INAUDIBLE). So (INAUDIBLE) map you'll find that those are perhaps the more sobering statistics. The more -- the other numbers that tell more of the story here.

There is, though, some promise. Yes, we have seen improvements. For example, 78 percent of gas stations are open. A full commercial air traffic has been restored. But the reality, when you go into those rural communities, it certainly is not a perfect 10 situation, particularly when they're dealing with trying to get supplies.

You heard President Trump talk about issues at the local level, saying that that is where they are facing several issues there with some of the local municipalities and governments that are not able to get help to some of the residents. And I have to tell you, coming from some of my colleagues here, we have seen a little bit of both. We have seen local officials, mayors who get in vehicles and drive around with water and supplies, but you've also seen some other local governments that perhaps are a bit more scaled back in their response here, which is interesting to see because there are still many of their residents that are still in the dark, still needing food and water. But when you get into the more incorporated areas, yes, we certainly have seen some improvements every day (INAUDIBLE) that seems to be getting better. But when you get into the other areas, Brianna, that certainly is not the case. It's as if this storm basically just blew through here.

[14:20:11] Many people here a month after this are still dealing with this same struggle they did when the storm swept through, Brianna.

KEILAR: It's amazing. As you see, one in five people only have power one month after this happened there in Puerto Rico.

Polo Sandoval, thank you, sir.

And next, former presidents speaking out. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama made separate public appearances today. Bush 43 taking a not so thinly vailed swipe, I think we could say, at Trump's world view. What he says the nation has to do to move forward.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[14:25:10] KEILAR: Two of President Trump's predecessors are making a rare return to the spotlight. In the next hour, President Obama is going to attend a campaign rally on behalf of the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in New Jersey. And then President George W. Bush today speaking out against what he calls blasphemy against America. What is that to him? He says it's bigotry and white supremacy. And here's some more from the 43rd president.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: Our identity as a nation, unlike many other nations, is not determined by geography or ethnicity, by soil or blood. We become the heirs of Martin Luther King Jr. by recognizing one another not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. This means that people of every race, religion, ethnicity can be fully and equally American. It means that bigotry or white supremacy, in any form, is blasphemy against the American creed.

Bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone, provides permission for cruelty and bigotry and compromises the moral education of children. The only way to pass along civic values is to first live up to them.

Ten years ago I attended a conference on democracy and security in Prague. The goal was to put human rights and human freedom at the center of our relationship with repressive governments. Little did we know that a decade later a crisis of confidence would be developing within the core democracies. (END VIDEO CLIP)

KEILAR: And joining me now is CNN political commentator Ana Navarro and CNN legal commentator Ken Cuccinelli.

Ana, you are friends with the Bush family. Maybe this doesn't come as a surprise to you, this speech. But is it possible to see it as anything other than a rebuke of President Trump?

ANA NAVARRO, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Of course it's not. You know, I think it, you know, it was where he went unnamed. But we all know who he was referring to and he made it clear who he was referring to.

And, for me, frankly, you know, as a Republican, as an American, as a Hispanic, as an immigrant, it felt like aloe on a burn. It was so needed, it was so refreshing to hear that kind of unity, to hear that kind of statesmanship coming from somebody that has got a national platform.

We've heard it twice this week. We heard it earlier from John McCain. We heard it today from George W. Bush, who has been very quiet. You know, there's this unspoken pact among former presidents to not criticize their successors. But I think that enough is enough. There's a lot of people that are frustrated, that are heartbroken, that are sad and that want to -- you know, it's time to speak up and act up and have a position.

KEILAR: Ken, what did you think?

KEN CUCCINELLI (R), CNN LEGAL COMMENTATOR: Well, certainly he sounded presidential. He was speaking in broad themes and he went on to also lament the lack of civility and the conspiracy theory type of reporting that goes on and discourse that goes on now. And that's been rising over the years.

So I think you can read this a lot more broadly than what President Bush, as an attack by President Bush on President Trump for sure. He was addressing a lot more than that. But I don't think he has any problem laying a land mine here or there for President Trump. He's made that clear in the past as well. He was very indirect about it if that's what he was doing here today.

And as you noted, there is this pact among presidents where they tend to leave quietly and President Bush certainly did that. He was not much in evidence in terms of policy discussions in the Obama era. And, of course, some people appreciate that. Some people don't appreciate that. But it has kept a continual tradition of ex-presidents.

KEILAR: You felt like he was sort of under the radar in his criticism?

CUCCINELLI: If you're -- since he's been president, he's stayed under the radar when President Obama was president.

KEILAR: Oh, I thought you meant with this -- with this -- with this speech, though, of President Trump, you didn't -- did you feel -- CUCCINELLI: Well, this -- this speech -- I mean, yes, I don't -- this

speech wasn't set up and designed to undermine President Trump. He certainly touched on themes that have been discussed as raw nerves since President Trump became president. I also think some of that -- he had complaints about institutions as well and some of that certainly rings true. I mean you just look at Charlottesville. Of course, when we think of Charlottesville this year, we think of the August display of violence and bigotry and so forth and hatred and repressive of speech and everything else that was going on there.

[14:29:59] The month before a lot of the same people got together, the KKK got together in Charlottesville the month before and without that press, without all that pushing, there were 50 people there, 50. Not 1,000. And I --