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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

FBI Investigating U.S. Soldiers' Deaths in Niger; White House Chief of Staff Under Fire; White House: "Highly Inappropriate" to Question General Kelly; Sources: FBI Helping to Gather Evaluate Evidence on Ground. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired October 20, 2017 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:01]

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: But here's what I want you to know.

Out of these fallen four, the American public needs to get ready for more operations, not less. We're going to build on what President Obama did in some of these countries.

We're probably going to go to other places, because that's where the enemy is taking us. We're going to be more aggressive. So that means that the Congress has to be more informed, so we can decide whether or not we buy off on all of this.

Last question.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

GRAHAM: Right.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) ... counterterrorism strategy has changed. (OFF-MIKE) details about that?

GRAHAM: I'm going to let him tell you how it's changing, but it is changing in all the right ways, I think.

The frequency that -- I'm not the chairman of the committee. I'm not the ranking member. I have -- there is no better person to do this than Senator McCain. There is no better person to talk about how to collaborate than General Mattis.

But from my point of view, these rules of engagement are changing based on necessity, that we have been overly restrictive, but you have got to have a balance here. You have got to keep us informed, so we can make good decisions about, do we want 1,000 soldiers in Niger? And if we don't want them, the way to deal with it is to cut off funding.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, talking to reporters there in the halls of Capitol Hill, talking about why there is a presence of U.S. troops in Niger, obviously a response to the four slain American service members in Niger, talking about how -- quote -- "We don't want the next 9/11 to come from Niger."

Good afternoon and welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We're going to start with some breaking news in our politics lead today.

A hot debate being fiercely discussed in Washington, where the talk about the loss of service members has taken on all the dignity of a Delta House food fight.

And the White House Chief of Staff John Kelly remarks yesterday about the pain and experience of Gold Star families, where he also talked about the tragic loss of his son Marine Lieutenant Robert Kelly, the former general also called out Democrat Congresswoman Frederica Wilson in unusually personal terms.

Wilson is the one who shared with the media that the family of fallen soldier from Niger sergeant La David Johnson found President Trump's condolence call to them earlier in the week insensitive. That's a description that Sergeant Johnson's mother tells CNN is accurate. That's how the family took it.

Kelly took issue with the description of the president's call and his intentions. He thought it was anything but respectful. And he accused Congresswoman Wilson of having used a 2015 dedication ceremony to honor two fallen FBI agents to instead brag about how she was instrumental in getting the funding for the new FBI building and how she took care of her constituents because she got the money, how she just called up President Obama and on that phone call he gave the $20 million to construct the building.

That's what John Kelly Congresswoman Wilson claimed in that speech.

Congresswoman Wilson said Kelly was lying about her.

And breaking this afternoon, "The South Florida Sun-Sentinel" newspaper released the videotape of the congresswoman's 2015 remarks. And it shows that Kelly's description of her remarks was simply not accurate.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny is live at the White House.

And, Jeff, when a reporter pointed out just minutes ago that Kelly had gotten his facts wrong about this speech, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said one of the most shocking things I have ever heard from that podium. She suggested that journalists cannot question generals.

And not to put too fine a point on it, but that's not how we do it here in the United States.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Jake, that's exactly what she said. She was asked a very simple question, if she had seen the video that was at odds with in fact what the chief of staff said yesterday. And she responded like this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: Have you seen the speech?

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I have.

QUESTION: And then you know that most of it was her effusively praising these FBI agents. And when she was talking about what she did in Congress, she was not talking about securing of $20 million. She was talking about naming the building after these FBI agents...

HUCKABEE SANDERS: She was also talking about that.

QUESTION: ... who she then went on to effusively praise. And that was the bulk of the speech.

HUCKABEE SANDERS: She also mentioned that, and she also had quite a few comments that day that weren't part of that speech and weren't part of that video that were also witnessed by many people that were there, what General Kelly referenced yesterday

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) specifically because...

(CROSSTALK)

HUCKABEE SANDERS: Exactly what he said. There was a lot of grandstanding. He was stunned that she had taken that opportunity to make it about herself.

QUESTION: Can he come out here and talk to us about this at some point...

(CROSSTALK)

HUCKABEE SANDERS: I think he has addressed that pretty thoroughly yesterday.

QUESTION: Well, he was wrong yesterday in talking about getting the money.

(CROSSTALK)

HUCKABEE SANDERS: If you want to go after General Kelly, that's up to you, but I think that that -- if you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that that's something highly inappropriate.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZELENY: Of course, four-star generals and three-star generals and others at the Pentagon take questions all the time, Jake. But the reality now is John Kelly is the White House chief of staff, a political job.

TAPPER: And even if not, I mean, if she thinks, in the United States generals should not be questioned, cannot be questioned, I have a 10- part PBS Vietnam series she should watch. [16:05:01]

But let's turn to that videotape in 20015, because that's what this all is from. What does the tape show?

ZELENY: Well, Jake, it was actually a fairly typical speech by a member of Congress.

Yes, there was some self-congratulation, if you will, which is pretty typical for all members of Congress. But she also went on to effuse praise on Republican Speaker John Boehner, President Obama, and it was at odds entirely with what John Kelly said one day ago.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY (voice-over): Florida Congresswoman Frederica Wilson firing back today, accusing White House Chief of Staff John Kelly of lying, keeping alive the controversy over President Trump's condolence call to a war widow.

REP. FREDERICA WILSON (D), FLORIDA: I heard his remarks and I heard him say that I bragged that I secured the money for the building of the FBI building in Miramar.

He can't just go on TV and lie on me. I was not even in Congress in 2009, when the money for the building was secured. So that's a lie. How dare he?

ZELENY: The congresswoman responding on CNN to Kelly's searingly personal attack on her from the White House podium on Thursday, where he falsely claimed she bragged about securing the money for a new FBI building in Florida.

JOHN KELLY, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: And a congresswoman stood up, and in a long tradition of empty barrels making the most noise, stood up there in all of that and talked about how she was instrumental in getting the funding for that building.

ZELENY: But that's not what happened.

A review of the video from that 2015 ceremony posted by "The South Florida Sun-Sentinel" shows that Kelly misrepresented her speech, where she actually talked about turning to Republican House Speaker John Boehner and President Obama to speak up approval for the naming of the building.

WILSON: Everyone said, that's impossible. It takes at least eight months to a year to complete the process, and I said, excuse my French, oh, hell no. We're going to get this done.

(LAUGHTER)

ZELENY: Kelly, who was in the audience for the speech, also didn't mention that the congresswoman devoted a third of her remarks to honoring two slain FBI officers effusively praising law enforcement officials. WILSON: If I may, with all men and women and first-responders who

work in law enforcement stand up, stand up now, so that we can applaud you and what you do? Stand up.

(APPLAUSE)

ZELENY: Kelly used the speech to discredit the congresswoman for her criticism of the president's call to Myeshia Johnson, the pregnant widow Sergeant La David Johnson. The soldier's mother, as well as the congresswoman, accused Mr. Trump of disrespecting Sergeant Johnson by saying, "He knew what he signed up for."

But Kelly blamed the congresswoman for politicizing the call.

KELLY: It stuns me that a member of Congress would have listened in on that conversation, absolutely stuns me. And I thought at least that was sacred.

ZELENY: The president escalated the feud by blasting the congresswoman on Twitter, saying, "The fake news is going crazy with wacky Congresswoman Wilson, who was secretly on a very personal call and gave a total lie on content."

In point of fact, the congresswoman knows the family and the Gold Star wife put the call on speakerphone.

Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said the White House wanted this debate to end, and then she added a new insult of the congresswoman.

HUCKABEE SANDERS: As General Kelly pointed out, if you're able to make a sacred act like honoring American heroes all about yourself, you're an empty barrel.

If you don't understand that reference, I will put it a little more simply. As we say in the South, all hat, no cattle.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY: So, the conversation over all of this has not given any more information about the actual attack in Niger.

The president for his part in the Oval Office today was asked if he authorized that mission. He did not answer, Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Jeff Zeleny, thank you.

We're going to have more on the attack in Niger later in the show.

But let's chew over all of this with my panel right now.

We have Phil Mudd and also Kirsten Powers and Alice Stewart.

Let me start with you, Alice.

I guess maybe to ears -- I'm trying to assume the best intentions here -- maybe John Kelly remembered the speech wrong. And to his ears, hearing the congresswoman talk about how the process went by so quickly was inappropriate.

But, in her defense, she was telling the story, she said, because it speaks to the respect that our Congress has for the FBI and the men and women who put their lives on the line every day. She said that. She told this whole story of how quickly the process went through because we have so much respect for the FBI.

It's hard to look at Kelly's description and then watch the nine- minute speech and think, well, that's a completely accurate description.

ALICE STEWART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Look, here we are four days later and we're taking one full speech, one portion of it possibly out of context, just like how this thing started, a call to a grieving widow, one portion of it possibly taken out of context, and here we are still talking about this.

[16:10:02]

I do want to say this. The big story today is the response from the White House with regard to asking about this clarification.

I do think it is highly inappropriate to question a four-star general, if you are a cadet in basic training. That being said...

TAPPER: And just to clarify, only if you're a cadet in basic training, is it inappropriate?

STEWART: Absolutely.

He is now the chief of staff of the White House. He was put out to address the media yesterday and answer these questions. Some of what he said needed some clarification. I think it was highly inappropriate for the media to follow up and ask him to clarify this.

The bad thing is, here we are chasing down this rabbit hole, food fight, as you say, when we should be honoring the four fallen. We should be honoring these men who gave their lives for this country and we should be trying to find out what exactly happened in the situation, instead of this back and forth he said/she said about things that really are not important in the grand scheme of things.

TAPPER: Phil Mudd, your response to Sarah Sanders suggesting it's inappropriate, highly inappropriate to question a four-star Marine general?

PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Dead wrong. Dead wrong on two fronts.

Number one, let's go back to what happened in Iraq after the invasion and going into the insurgency. If a four-star general had gotten out at that point and said things are going great in the midst of the descent into hell in Iraq, what should we have said? You get a pass because you're a four-star general?

Let's transition quickly. We have a four-star general who became the chief of staff of the White House. He came out publicly and made a political statement in support of a Republican president to attack a Democratic congresswoman.

That's not what four-star generals do. No four-star general in a Pentagon would ever do that. And he still gets to be not fair game for people like me? No how, no way. And I would be surprised if he said that.

If he did, I have got one question for him. Why the heck are you talking from the White House press podium?

TAPPER: Kirsten, it does seem like his description was not accurate.

She -- you know, even if you thought that the first part of the speech was self-congratulatory and a little puffery, as members of Congress are prone to do, there was a whole lot in that speech honoring the FBI agents about whom the building was named after.

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN COMMENTATOR: But can we just back up and consider the fact that he is offended by people being self-aggrandizing?

Has he met Donald Trump? I mean, seriously. We're talking about somebody who was just bragging about the amazing job, 10 out of 10, he did on Puerto Rico. We can sit all day long talking about the things he takes credit for.

What is so offensive about, even if she did take some credit for it, and that causes him to call her an empty barrel, this is a woman who is actually -- and, look, and I have actually been critical of her releasing the information about the call. We can talk about that separately.

But if you're just going to look at her for a person in her community, she's a hero in her community. She's somebody who is mentoring African-American men, including the fallen soldier in this case.

And so what is it about her that would lead him to say something so awful about her, to refer to her that way or have the press secretary of the president of the United States refer to her as all hat and no cattle?

She sounds like an amazing woman to me. I think she mishandled this, but in other aspects of her life, it looks likes she's doing pretty incredible things.

TAPPER: Everyone, stick around. We're going to take a quick break. Much more on the story after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

[16:17:24] REPORTER: Can he come out here and talk to us about this at some point?

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think he's addressed that threat thoroughly yesterday.

REPORTER: He was wrong yesterday in talking about getting the money. The money --

(CROSSTALK)

SANDERS: If you want to go after General Kelly, that's up to you, but I think that if you want to get into a debate with a four-star marine general, think that's something highly inappropriate.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: If you want to get into a debate with a four- star marine general, I think that's something that's highly inappropriate. A perfectly acceptable comment if you're the press secretary of a junta, but not if you're the press secretary of the White House.

By the way, I'm going to talk with my panel right now, but before I bring them back, I want to point out that there is a long tradition in this country of questioning generals. You know who has done a lot of questioning of generals? President Trump.

Tweet, I was never a fan of Colin Powell after his weak understanding of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq equal disaster. We can do so much better.

Or, how can General Martin Dempsey tell Obama that delaying the Syria bombardment will have no consequences? He is not Patton or McArthur.

Or, General John Allen, who I never met but spoke against me last night. Failed badly in his fight against ISIS. His record equals bad. #neverHillary.

So, panel, it is perfectly acceptable, including by President Trump, to attack, question, whatever, generals.

ALICE STEWART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: If you're Donald Trump. Yes, it is perfectly fine.

TAPPER: Oh, these are the rules. OK.

STEWART: Well, look, once again, I think going back to where this all started, this started with a condolence call from the president to a family, a grieving widow. And I don't see anyone in any political spectrum that could mistake the fact that he did this with all the right intentions, to offer the condolences and offer the sympathies of a grateful nation. And some of this -- what he said -- may have been taken out of context.

I'm frustrated that we're still talking about this to this day and there is an inference in the press conference, let's put an end to this. Well, the best way to put out a fire is to not continue to put gas on it. That means no more tweeting about this, no more comments, no more statements that are critical of --

TAPPER: She said she wanted to end it and then she took a new shot, said all hat, no cattle, about the congresswoman.

STEWART: Absolutely. I think it's time for everyone to call a truce. Let's put this behind us and let's put our attention where it needs to be, as we saw John McCain and others. Let's find out what happened.

TAPPER: Yes.

STEWART: Let's find out how these four heroes died and let's make sure this doesn't happen again. I wish everyone would call a truce and put the focus where it should be.

TAPPER: Kirsten, you said you've been critical of Congresswoman Wilson. You thought it was inappropriate for her to share that conversation?

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, I just put myself in her position. You have a 24-year-old widow who just lost her husband.

[16:20:01] If that was me and I was -- and she has a close relationship with this family -- if that was me, the last thing I would do to somebody that I cared about was throw them into the middle of a national debate with Donald Trump right when they have lost someone in their family.

TAPPER: Yes.

POWERS: It doesn't seem like the time to be doing something like that. And so, I just don't -- I don't think she should have done that.

That said, she did do it and then I think that doesn't justify the way the president responded to it or General Kelly has responded to it.

TAPPER: And, Phil Mudd, assuming the best intentions of President Trump. He wanted to make this call. He wanted to offer some consolation to this family. This week, and a lot of it because of him and his staff, that is not what has happened.

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: I think that's true. Let's step back for just a moment here. What we had was a president and his press secretary saying -- talking about politicization, a president who started this by not talking about grieving, by comparing himself favorably to his predecessor, as the griever in chief, I'm better than Obama.

We had a congresswoman and I falter. Instead of talking about the loss of a man who was a hero in America, taking a shot at her rival, that is a Republican president. And we had a chief of staff whose responsibility is to keep the White House running on time, getting in front of the podium, becoming immediately political after the comments about his son, which were touching, and taking a shot at Republican congresswoman.

How about if the three of them, Jake, had sat up and said there is a GoFundMe page. Democrats and Republicans, including the president, want to make sure that that family never worries again. Instead what do we have? We don't talk about a sergeant who lost his life. We talk about people who are pissing on each other to figure out who is bigger in Washington, D.C.

Enough already. Let's move on.

STEWART: I was talking the other day with someone who lost a loved one a few years ago in the line of duty, and one of his biggest frustrations in all of this for anyone who is a Gold Star family member is for soldiers to become pawns in a political game.

TAPPER: Yes.

STEWART: He says that is the biggest frustration, and that is exactly what we have here. And I think we need to put all of this behind us and put the focus on all four of these fallen soldiers. They should not be pawns in a political debate.

TAPPER: The Gold Star families, I know, they are in agony this week. They hate this whole thing.

Kirsten, Alice, Phil, thanks one and all. I appreciate it.

While the White House pushes back on Congresswoman Wilson, there is a push for more answers on the deadly ambush itself which is obviously much more important. So much of a push that secretary of defense just actually personally went to Capitol Hill to personally meet with Senator John McCain who has been very critical of the Pentagon. That story next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:26:42] TAPPER: We're back with the world lead.

This afternoon, Congress is demanding answers from the Pentagon about the Niger ambush and the tragic deaths of four U.S. soldiers earlier this month. The investigation has been taken to a new level with a U.S. official telling CNN that FBI investigators are on the ground there assisting authorities with evidence.

This afternoon, Defense Secretary Mattis meet with John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who has accused the Trump administration of not being sufficiently forthcoming about what has went wrong and has even threatened to issue subpoenas for more information about the attacks.

CNN's Elise Labott has new details about what did go wrong in that fatal mission.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Tonight, U.S. investigators are probing what went wrong in Niger's desert that led to the deadliest U.S. combat mission of the Trump administration. As lawmakers demand answers.

Defense Secretary Mattis on Capitol Hill today to meet with Senator John McCain, a day after he threatened to subpoena information.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I felt that we were not getting a sufficient amount of information and we are clearing a lot of that up now.

JAMES MATTIS, DEFENSE SECRETARY: We can do better at communication. We can always improve on communication. That's exactly what we'll do.

LABOTT: Mattis has defended his troops in the face of criticism.

MATTIS: Having seen some of the news reports, the U.S. military does not leave its troops behind, and I would just ask that you not question the actions of the troops who were caught in the firefight and question whether or not they did everything they could in order to bring everyone out at once.

LABOTT: U.S. officials are starting to provide a clear picture of the circumstances surrounding the attack. The U.S. team stopped in a town on the Niger/Mali border so the Nigeriens they were working with could pick up supplies, including food and water, and then meet with village elders.

Investigators believe the ambush may have begun when the U.S. soldiers were back at their vehicles, possibly even driving. With four Americans dead, the FBI is assisting Nigerien authorities with the investigation, providing technical assistance and helping to gather evidence. A routine step when U.S. citizens are killed overseas.

TOM FUENTES, FORMER FBI ASSISTANT DIRECTOR: The first thing they're going to do is speak with the military personnel who survived the attack. They'll be analyzing every bit of electronic evidence, any kind of e-mail traffic that might have come and gone from that region, talk to all of the security forces throughout West Africa who may have information regarding the movement of the people who attacked them.

LABOTT: Questions still remain about how Staff Sergeant La David Johnson was separated from the rest of the team and left behind. His body recovered 48 hours later by Nigerien troops.

LT. GEN. KENNETH MCKENZIE JR., DIRECTOR, JOINT STAFF: I'll tell you categorically that from the moment of contact, no one's left behind, either U.S., our partner and Nigerien forces and French forces were on the ground actively serving for this soldier.

LABOTT: About 1,000 U.S. troops are in Niger, supporting a French-led campaign against extremists. At the Pentagon today, France's defense minister received full military honors and a thanks from Mattis.

MATTIS: Following the ambush against U.S. troops in Niger last week, thank you for your support.

LABOTT: French fighter jets arrived on the scene to help U.S. troops, but CNN learned they didn't fire on the militants because they couldn't ID targets and risk hitting the U.S. and Nigerien forces on the ground.