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EARLY START

Ambush in Niger: New Questions; Both Sides Dig In on Trump's Call to Widow; Life in Puerto Rico: One Month After Hurricane Maria; Haley Rips U.N. Security Council Over Iran; Dow Closes Above 23,000 for First Time. Aired 4:30-5a ET

Aired October 19, 2017 - 04:30   ET

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


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[04:30:45] DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: The defense secretary is demanding answers as new questions emerge about the deadly ambush on American soldiers in Niger. Now, Senator John McCain says the White House is not being up front about the attack.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president was completely respectful, very sympathetic. To try to create something from that, that the congresswoman is doing, is frankly appalling and disgusting.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Fallout over the president's call to a Gold Star widow. The White House says the president was respectful, the soldier's mother says otherwise.

Welcome back to EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

BRIGGS: I'm Dave Briggs. Thirty-one minutes past the hour on a Thursday.

We start with Defense Secretary James Mattis dismayed at the lack of detailed information he's getting on the ambush in Niger by ISIS affiliated fighters. An attack two weeks ago that left four U.S. soldiers dead and two wounded. It's the deadliest assault on American soldiers during the Trump administration.

Three senior U.S. defense officials tell CNN Mattis is unhappy but is not trying to rush the investigation being carried out by U.S. Africa command.

ROMANS: Senator McCain says the Trump administration is not being up front about the Niger ambush. Asked by reporters if Congress should investigate the attack, the Senate Armed Services chairman said he wants information it deserves and needs. After that, McCain said you decide whether an investigation is needed or not.

As new details emerged about the attack, they're raising new questions about what happened in its immediate aftermath. For more, let's turn to Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Dave, Christine, we are now learning for the first time that a contractor flew an aircraft into the battle zone after the fighting died down to help evacuate American and Nigerien dead and wounded. These planes generally are not armed and only go in when the fighting is over.

It is not known what kind of communication that contractor plane had with the French and also the Americans, did they actually know how many people they were looking for to evacuate? Because, of course, the big question that remains is what happened with Sergeant La David Johnson, that he was left behind and his body was not discovered for 48 hours.

That is a key question for the Pentagon investigation and another key question, of course, is the intelligence. How did this 12-man team led by Green Berets walk into an ambush. Clearly, they did not know that ISIS fighters were there. Broadly speaking, this is an area where insurgents are very active, but they'd been to this village before and not run into trouble. So, the question is what kind of intelligence were they given on the day they went on this mission -- Dave, Christine.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BRIGGS: All right. Barbara Starr at the Pentagon.

As for the controversy around President Trump's call to the widow of Sergeant La David Johnson, neither side is backing down. The president firmly rejecting the claim of Democratic Congresswoman Frederica Wilson. She said she heard the president tell Johnson's widow that her husband, quote, knew what he signed up for but I guess it still hurt. Not so, says the president.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I didn't say what that congresswoman said, didn't say it at all. She knows it and she now is not saying it. 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. Did not say what the congresswoman said.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: Johnson's mother, the sergeant's mother also telling "The Washington Post" that President Trump, quote, did disrespect my son on that phone call.

Harsh new criticism of the president coming in last night on CNN from Illinois senator and military veteran, Tammy Duckworth.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) 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 played games with Gold Star families is absolutely unacceptable.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BRIGGS: President Trump's advisers meanwhile are furious with what they view as unfair criticism of the president from former Obama staffers and others. "The Washington Post" also reporting West Wing officials are accusing the media of assuming worst about their boss and jumping to conclusions.

ROMANS: The president himself tweeting he has proof the claims of disrespect for Sergeant Johnson were fabricated, unclear what that proof maybe, since the White House says there is no tape of that conversation.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

[04:35:09] REPORTER: Are there recordings of this phone call with Myeshia Johnson?

SANDERS: No, but there were several people in the room from the administration that were on the call, including the chief of staff, General John Kelly.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BRIGGS: As for Kelly, West Wing officials tell CNN it is true. He told him President Trump that President Obama never called him after his son's death but they say Kelly never imagined that the president would use that information publicly. He's fiercely private on the death of his son.

ROMANS: All right. As for why President Trump waited nearly two weeks to address the death of the four soldiers, CNN has learned staffers at the National Security Council drafted and distributed a statement of condolence for the president on October 5th, shortly after the ambush in Niger. The White House never released it. Instead, Press Secretary Sara Sanders publicly offered condolences at a briefing one day after those soldiers died.

BRIGGS: On Wednesday, the administration said it felt remarks from Sanders would be more powerful than issuing a presidential statement. CNN has learned the statement was prepared before recovering the body of Army Sergeant La David Johnson, which occurred nearly 48 hours after the ambush. Uncertainty whether Johnson survived may have contributed to the decision not to release presidential remarks.

ROMANS: All right. A bipartisan health care bill that appeared to be gaining momentum has suddenly stalled. After the president called the agreement a great solution, the White House got immediate blowback from conservatives. Now, the president is backtracking, declaring on Twitter that insurance companies should not benefit. Note the new measure does address that issue.

CNN's Phil Mattingly has more.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Christine and Dave, it seems like only 24 or 36 hours ago before bipartisanship was in the air, Republicans, Democrats, health care, everybody was agreeing on something. There was actually a deal, at least on the short term measure, to try and fund the subsidies that the president had basically ended just a few days prior. Well, that bipartisanship has essentially imploded. And why? Well, the president is a pretty good reason, deciding that he is opposed to the bill, to the compromise, to the agreement that Senators Patty Murray and Lamar Alexander reached on this health care issue.

Where do the Republican senators stand on it? Well, take a listen to a few that we spoke to.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I wouldn't call it dead, but it's sucking wind.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLIAN: We don't want to pass something that has no chance in the House. Here's the question for Paul Ryan, are you interested in continuing the payments if we can get more flexibility? If you're not, tell us. Then the payments stop, and then we'll all accept the consequences of that.

MATTINGLY: Now, guys, listen close to what Senator Graham was saying there. He makes very clear something that has become very apparent -- the House and particularly, Speaker Paul Ryan is opposed to this idea, doesn't want to take it up at all. That is a huge problem, so is the obviously the opposition of the president.

Right now, Senators Alexander and Murray are trying to gather co- sponsors, essentially prove that there's momentum here. They're also willing to make tweaks to try and address what the president has labeled as his top concerns, that this bill would essentially be a bailout for insurers.

Now, when it comes to the policy, that's not actually the case. The bill has very specific provisions that basically don't allow insurers to pocket any of the money that's given to them. It all has to be used to pay down premiums for individuals that are in the marketplace. But they recognize it's a problem, rhetorically or otherwise and are trying to address it.

The big question now is, with the opposition that's building, with the skepticism that exists, will they be able to overcome these hurdles? It's still an open question. But keep a close eye on the end of year spending bill, that is a vehicle, not as a standalone bill, but trying to attach it to something that's almost certain to move. That's probably the best hope they have. That is what they're targeting at this point as they try to gather that support -- Christine and Dave.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROMANS: No one knows this better than Phil Mattingly.

BRIGGS: No, and language is important here.

ROMANS: All the twists and turns, yes, it really is.

BRIGGS: All right. Ahead, millions of Americans in Puerto Rico still waiting for help after hurricane Maria. Next, CNN goes to one of the most remote areas of Puerto Rico and asks FEMA if they need more help. The surprising answer from Bill Weir, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[04:43:20] ROMANS: U.S. backed forces are telling citizens of Raqqa, Syria, don't come home yet, just days after ISIS was largely driven out of its self-declared capital, Kurdish security forces are still trying to clear the city of mines and clear the city of ISIS fighters.

CNN's Arwa Damon has traveled into the Raqqa. We have her right now on the phone for us this morning with the situation on the ground.

And, Arwa, some of the footage we have of the drone footage in particular just shows a city devastated. It's hard to imagine what there is to come back to. What are you seeing there?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): Well, the forces on the -- being backed by the U.S. coalition are telling people not to come home just yet because they only managed to clear some of the main arteries. As well as one -- hundreds of -- part of the front line battles that took place to try to push ISIS out of Raqqa. They have come to this -- round about (AUDIO GAP) significance.

It is where ISIS really clearing out (AUDIO GAP) executions, beheadings. In fact ISIS used to place the heads of its victims on some of the spokes that line this. They even dare to disobey ISIS's rule. I'm struggling to put words to the destruction that exists.

[04:45:00] Buildings are so bombed out, there's so much rubble that you don't see any really splashes of color. You don't see any traces of life that was here. And it's chilling and sobering to be driving through and standing amongst all of this destruction. Even trying to imagine how intense fighting must have been.

It's terrifying it must have been, Christine, for those civilians that ISIS was not allowing to flee, because remember ISIS was keeping the population hostage. Some of these female commanders we have been speaking to have been describing it as quite literally a multilayered battle. You have a battle that was taking place on ground and then a separate battlefield that existed underground, and it's the complex tunnel system that ISIS had so well entrenched itself within the city.

Now, they're trying to clear the city of improvised explosive devices. But we were specifically told to stay on the main roads, not veer off in any of the side street. Not trying to into any of the biddings because just about anything could still be booby trapped, Christine.

ROMANS: All right. Arwa Damon for us in Raqqa, on the phone for us -- be careful and thank you for that reporting, Arwa.

BRIGGS: All right. In just a few short hours Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello and President Trump will meet at the White House to discuss the post hurricane recovery and rebuilding effort. Meantime, life on the island remains a desperate daily struggle a full plant after hurricane Maria hit.

CNN's Bill Weir headed to the remote mountain region of Western Puerto Rico for a firshand look.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BILL WEIR, CNN CORRESPONDENT B(voice-over): As dawn brings Maria's one-month anniversary, we head out of San Juan by air and low to the ground.

AUTOMATED VOICE: Terrain, terrain, pull up. Pull up.

WEIR: All the better to see the mudslides, broken bridges, shattered homes. We pass Arecibo, one of the biggest radio telescopes in the world, but we're looking for intelligent signs of life in the western mountains where people have been waiting for help for weeks.

We land and inside the Mayaguez Airport, a group of bighearted military veterans has turned baggage claim into a bunk house and operations center.

ERIC CARLSON, WARFIGHTER DHT: I think we're at, like, 30,000 meals, 35,000 meals. And I don't know how many crates --

WEIR (on camera): Wow.

CARLSON: And that's just with the small trucks we've had and by hook or by crook getting supplies.

WEIR (voice-over): They came down on their own dime and shake their heads in frustration with FEMA. If it were up to them, they would bring in the National Guard, 15,000 at a time on two-week rotations.

CARLSON: I thought you had to pay these guys anyway to sit at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin and for two weeks --

(CROSSTALK)

WEIR (on camera): Right, right. Yes.

CARLSON: You're wasting your money.

All of this stuff bringing contractors, these security contractors, riding shotguns on the trucks, I'll get you 5,000 military vets who will do it down here for free.

WEIR (voice-over): We head into the hills in search of answers, but soon get a taste of the logistical headaches here. Maria obliterated this stretch of highway. And with little hope for road crews, the neighbors are building their own bridge. (on camera): Do you feel like Americans in moments like this? Do you

feel taken care of as citizens?

(voice-over): We're not people that say the government must help us, Santiago says. We're all part of humanity. Every person does the best they can.

(on camera): What kind of help are you getting from the outside? Have you seen FEMA or?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We've seen FEMA. We've seen other group. They came from America. They purify the water.

WEIR: Are these the veterans? The guys, some are soldiers --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, that's right.

WEIR: We met them at the airport.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, yes, they are beautiful people.

WEIR (voice-over): Thanks to Junie (ph) and his mini-monster truck, we get past yet another mudslide and soon track down one of FEMA's top men on this island.

(on camera): Couldn't you use National Guardsmen in two-week rotations to come in? Are you begging your bosses for more men?

JUSTIN HERNANDEZ, DEPUTY FEDERAL COORDINATING OFFICER: No, I'm not.

WEIR: Why?

HERNANDEZ: Because we have 4,500 National Guardsmen coming in.

WEIR: But just as a point of comparison. Two weeks after the Haiti quake, the U.S. had 22,000 troops on the ground in a foreign country?

HERNANDEZ: I don't know how much more we can bring without actually impacting the economy of Puerto Rico. If I keep flooding the place with food and water, when is it that they knock neighbors (ph), are going to open their supermarkets?

WEIR: Is it true that FEMA had a presence in New Orleans for like seven years, right? People were living in FEMA trailers for years.

HERNANDEZ: We were in New Orleans just two years ago and we left 5,000 mobile homes there.

WEIR: Right.

HERNANDEZ: And we were there for seven or eight months, responding there. And we're in Florida. And we're in Harvey. And we're going to be in Puerto Rico and now, we are in Virgin Islands also, for as long as it takes.

WEIR: For as long as it takes? HERNANDEZ: For as long as it takes.

WEIR: Despite what the president says?

[04:50:00] HERNANDEZ: You know what? We don't follow -- I don't see TV. So, I don't even pay attention to them. I pay attention to the mission that I have in my heart, which is fixing Puerto Rico.

WEIR: In just a few hours, we've been out shooting, an amazing development here at this abandoned airport, the Air National Guard out of Tennessee and Kentucky has arrived and are militarizing this airport. They tell me off camera they have 500 guys, more are coming. They have been sitting at home for two weeks chomping at the bit to come, but there are so many layers of bureaucratic red tape. They just couldn't pull the trigger.

But the good news is, they are here now. They got supplies and they're going to start pushing them into the mountains as soon as they possibly can.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROMANS: Thank God.

BRIGGS: Yes, good to hear the International Guard made it there.

ROMANS: Thank God.

BRIGGS: There's some good news on the horizontal. We have to hope, right?

ROMANS: All right. Just months after going public, Blue Apron is cutting jobs. We'll tell you why on CNN "Money Stream", next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N.: The regime continues to play this council. Iran hides behind its assertion of technical compliance with the nuclear deal while it brazenly violates the other limits on its behavior. And we have allowed them to get away with it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BRIGGS: U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley ripping the U.N. Security Council over Iran. Haley telling members they are being played by Tehran, letting it get away with a long list of violations of U.N. resolutions and international law. All this at a critical time for Iran in the world stage.

CNN's Frederik Pleitgen live in Tehran with more.

Good morning, Fred.

Any reaction to those comments from Nikki Haley? [04:55:05] FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hey, yes. Good morning, Dave.

Actually, just a couple minutes ago, literally before we just went to air, we did get some reaction specifically to what Nikki Haley said. And it comes from Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard which is very active in places like Iraq and Syria. They came out and they said, look, they believe U.S. is angry because Iran is winning here in the Middle East. They also vowed to continue the missile program that, of course, Nikki Haley was so very critical of as well.

Now, yesterday, you also have Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, he came out and he also said that he believed that the U.S. was so very angry because Iran is winning specifically in places like Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. And one of the things that we've been seeing is that, you know, we saw President Trump come out last Friday saying he wants to curtail Iranian influence in these places.

But, right now, it really seem as though the Iranians are stronger they are than ever before. We've seen that in the past couple of days, in the past couple of weeks. So, the Iranians are saying they're going to continue that. They're going to continue their missile program, but they also say they're actually going to stay in the nuclear agreement despite some of the rhetoric coming from the United States.

But they're also calling specifically on the Europeans to be by their side. They believe that it's America that is actually isolating itself in this matter. They do say the nuclear agreement is in jeopardy but for now, the Iranians want to stay in. But the overarching message they have right now is, look, at this point, we are winning here in the Middle East and America is losing, Dave.

BRIGGS: It would appear a confrontation is on the horizon.

Fred Pleitgen, live for us in Tehran, thanks.

All right. There was talk of leak during Wednesday Senate hearing for Attorney General Jeff Sessions. It had no effect on national security but it will impact Ted Cruz's dry cleaning bill. After an animated exchange between Sessions and Democratic Senator Al Franken, it was Senator Ben Sasse's turn at the microphone. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BEN SASSE (R), NEBRASKA: It was some drama there, sort of added to the drama and distracted you for a minute. I was paying enough attention there I dumped a Dr. Pepper on Senator Cruz. So, that's what was distracting us on this side of the dais.

(END VIDEO CLIP)]

BRIGGS: It's also media applauded, Ben Sasse.

Afterward, the senators indulged in some Twitter high jinks. Cruz tweeting, memo to office, please place a picture of Ben Sasse after the Dr. Pepper fridge in the lobby. He is now cut off.

Sasse responding with a reference to President Trump's claim that Cruz's father was involved in John F. Kennedy's assassination. He tweeted, full disclosure, I was wearing my Lee Harvey Oswald framed t- shirt.

The world needed that yesterday, Ben Sasse. And Ted Cruz were playing along. I think we needed to laugh at something out of Washington yesterday.

ROMANS: Dr. Pepper.

BRIGGS: The doctor.

ROMANS: Let's get a check on CNN "Money Stream" this morning.

Global stock market lower right now after the Dow closed above a brand new milestone, 23,000. The Dow has hit 20,000, 21,000, 22,000, now 23,000 this year alone, driven mainly by hope for tax cuts and strong corporate profits.

This latest milestone comes on the eve of a dark anniversary for the Dow. Black Monday. Thirty years ago today, the Dow fell 22.6 percent, the biggest one day percentage decline of all time, something that honestly couldn't happen really again because we have circuit breakers in the system now to prevent panicky people and overloaded computers from selling stocks so strongly.

But, seriously, 1987, that was a day a lot of folks got their start in this business with a very big decline.

Blue Apron laying off hundreds just months after its IPO. According to an SEC filing, the company's trimming 6 percent of its staff to help profitability and growth. Blue Apron stock has collapsed cut in half since going private in June. Its profits hurt by new competition from Amazon in an already tight market. No head count was given for the layoffs. But with 5,000 employees means about 300 people may have been cut.

The long-time CEO of American Express is stepping. Kenneth Chenault retiring after 16 years as CEO and 37 years with the company. He planned to leave two years ago, but stayed on to help American Express after it lost a lucrative partnership with Costco.

He's one of America's most prominent African-American business executives. His departure leaves just one black executive leading a Dow 30 company. Merck head Kenneth Frazier, as you know, plans to step down February 1.

BRIGGS: All right. EARLY START continues right now.

(MUSIC)

BRIGGS: Secretary of defense demanding answers. New questions emerge about the deadly ambush on American soldiers in Niger. Now, Senator John McCain says the White House is not being up front about the attack.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SANDERS: The president was completely respectful, very sympathetic. To try to create something from that, that the congresswoman is doing, is frankly appalling and disgusting.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: New fallout this morning over the president's call to a Gold Star widow. The White House says the president was respectful. The soldier's mother says otherwise.

Good morning and welcome to EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

BRIGGS: I'm Dave Briggs. It is Thursday, October 19th. It's 5:00 a.m. in the East.