Return to Transcripts main page

ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT

W.H.: "Highly Inappropriate" To Question Four-Star General Kelly; Officials: Sergeant Johnson's Body Found Nearly A Mile Away From Niger Ambush; White House Denies Bush, Obama Were Bashing Trump; CIA Director: U.S. Preparing for North Korea's "Final Step"; CNN Gets Rare Access to Devastated City Where ISIS Fell. Aired on 7-8p ET

Aired October 20, 2017 - 19:00   ET

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


ERIN BURNETT, CNN HOST: OutFront" next, the military dictatorship, the White House says Trump's chief of staff, John Kelly, shouldn't be questioned. Well, we're going to do it.

And breaking news, the body of one of the U.S. soldiers killed in Niger found nearly a mile away from the ambush. How did he end up so far away? Plus, Trump's quick to talk about fake news, but what about his fake art? Let's go "OutFront."

Good evening, I'm Erin Burnett. "OutFront" tonight the breaking news, the military dictatorship that appears to be what the White House thinks the United States is. Today, when pressed about false statements made by Chief of Staff General John Kelly about Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said it's inappropriate to question a four-star general.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SARAH SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: 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)

BURNETT: It is appropriate to question the general. It was when we questioned him last night and it still is tonight. Questioning is fair. But Kelly's own boss, the man he's trying to defend in this whole controversy over a call to the family of a soldier killed in the Niger ambush, President Trump has no problem insulting, let alone questioning four-star generals.

Just last year he tweeted about one of them, "General John Allen, who I never met but spoke against me last night, failed badly in his fight against ISIS. His record = BAD." And about another four-star general from President Donald Trump, and also last year, "I was never a fan of Colin Powell after his weak understanding of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq equal disaster. We can do much better."

All right, so there's that hypocrisy. But now let's get to what General Kelly said that is actually untrue. Kelly attacked Congresswoman Wilson for talking about Trump's call with a Gold Star family. To further discredit her, he brought up an event from two years ago, an event to dedicate an FBI building to agents killed in the line of duty. Here's General Kelly's version of what happened.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LT. GEN. JOHN KELLY, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: A congresswoman stood up, and in a long tradition of empty barrels making a most noise, stood up there in all of that, and talked about how she was instrumental in getting the funding for that building. Even for someone that is that empty a barrel, we were stunned.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: Kelly was wrong on multiple specifics. In the two minutes that he went on about this story, Kelly even got the name of one of the fallen agents wrong despite his outrage on their behalf. We do have the tape and we're going to show you what Kelly said that didn't happen in just a moment.

There's, though, the also the reality that, again, Kelly is calling out a congressman for doing what his own boss did. Here is Donald Trump last year when asked if he had made sacrifices for his country.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Even the military, I mean, I was very responsible along with the group of people for getting the Vietnam Memorial built in downtown Manhattan, which to this day people thank me for.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: So Kelly is OK with Trump bragging about funding a memorial, but just attacks -- but attacks a congresswoman incorrectly for doing the same thing?

And the White House is outraged about Congresswoman Wilson. Its coming 16 days after four American soldiers were killed in an ambush by 50 ISIS fighters in Niger. It is the greatest combat loss of Trump's presidency.

So while the President's chief of staff is busy attacking a congresswoman, the administration is still not answering questions about what happened. Here's Sarah Sanders answering four questions about that today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SANDERS: There is a full review that takes place. We're going to wait until that review is complete.

Again, I'm not going to get into any of the details. I'm not going get into the details until that is finalized.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BURNETT: Jeff Zeleny begins our coverage "OutFront" tonight at the White House. Jeff, how can the White House say it's inappropriate, highly inappropriate, in fact, to question the chief of staff of the President of the United States?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, Erin, that is something that Sarah Sanders said from the podium there and of course, generals for years have been asked questions here at the White House, at the Pentagon, of course. And the reality is John Kelly now is the White House Chief of Staff. That is a political job.

But look, the White House has been trying to move on beyond this. They've been trying to, you know, sort of get beyond this issue of their own making that has gone on for the entire week overwhelming everything. But one of the reasons they can't turn the page on this, the President himself.

Take a look at how he weighed in after the general tried to end this yesterday on Twitter, of course. This is what he said about the member of Congress from Florida. He said this, "The fake news is going crazy with wacky Congresswoman Wilson who is secretly on a very personal call and gave a total lie on content."

So, again, referring to a member of Congress as wacky, again, sort of raising all of this. But as we end this extraordinary week here at the White House, Erin, so many questions about the substance of that attack in Niger.

[19:05:04] Those questions we're not answer today. The President in the Oval Office asked if he authorized the mission, he did not say.

BURNETT: All right. Thank you very much, Jeff Zeleny.

So the feud between the White House and Congresswoman Frederica Wilson is escalating because of the White House. The White House is doubling down on General Kelly's empty barrel comment, even saying tonight that Wilson made additional comments that weren't caught on tape. Those so far they have yet to provide an example.

Meanwhile, Wilson is responding accusing the White House of being full of "white supremacists." It's ugly on all sides, but what matters is the facts of what was accused. Did it happen? There's a tape and Jessica Schneider is "OutFront."

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The White House today standing by erroneous claims made by Chief of Staff General John Kelly during a rare press briefing Thursday.

KELLY: 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.

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Kelly criticizing Congresswoman Frederica Wilson for this speech in 2015 at the dedication of a brand-new FBI field office in Miami. He said she was grand standing at a solemn event naming the new building for two FBI agents killed in a firefight with bank robbers.

KELLY: Now, she took care of her constituents because she got the money and she just called up President Obama and on that phone call he gave the money, the $20 million to build the building and we were stunned. Stunned that she had done it, even for someone that is that empty a barrel.

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): But Kelly got crucial facts wrong in his very public and biting critique. Congresswoman Wilson never talked about funding. Instead, she touted her role ensuring the building was named for fallen FBI agents, Benjamin Grogan and Jerry Dove, and pushing the bill through Congress in short order.

REP. FREDERICA WILSON (D), FLORIDA: The FBI wants to name this gorgeous edifice at the same time in four weeks. Everyone said that's impossible. And I said, excuse my friends, oh, hell no. We're going to get this done."

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Wilson in nearly 10 minutes of remarks didn't focus only on her achievements as Kelly implied, but also honored the fallen agents.

WILSON: It speaks to the respect that our Congress has for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the men and women who put their lives on the line every single day.

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): And made sure they were acknowledged and applauded.

WILSON: So that we can applaud you. We are proud of you. We are proud of your courage. Thank you.

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Despite the video of the speech, the White House is digging in, defending Kelly's comments.

SANDERS: General Kelly said he was stunned that Representative Wilson made comments at a building dedication honoring slain FBI agents about her own actions in Congress, including lobbying former President Obama on legislation.

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'll put it in a little more simply, as we say in the south, all hat, no cattle.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: General Kelly also got two other details wrong saying the FBI agents were killed in a firefight with drug traffickers when they were actually bank robbers. And he called one of the agents by the wrong last name saying Duke instead of Dove. Regardless, Sarah Sanders said getting into a debate over what the chief of staff said was "highly inappropriate" because he is a retired four-star Marine general. Erin?

BURNETT: All right. Thank you very much, Jessica.

Now, John Avlon, Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Beast, April Ryan, White House Correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks, and former Air Force Colonel Cedric Leighton, also a former member of the Joint Chief of Staff.

Colonel Leighton, let me start with you. You know, what does this all mean for General Kelly's credibility?

COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON, U.S. AIR FORCE: Really hurts it, Erin. I mean, I don't know about you, but I didn't get the memo that said that, you know, Sarah Huckabee Sanders is now the press secretary for Erdogan or for Putin. I mean, this is a really bad thing.

You have to work with the facts. The facts are the key thing here and anybody who has been in the military and especially has worked in operations like General Kelly has knows that we rely on facts and we have to also respect facts no matter whether they are facts that we like or facts that we don't like.

This becomes a key issue for him and I think it's very important for him to set the record straight even though this particular aspect of it was not necessarily of his own doing.

BURNETT: So April, I mean, I think it's pretty important what the Colonel just said. And I want to play a little bit more of the exchange between the CBS reporter today and Sarah Sanders. He was pointing out that not only did Congresswoman Wilson not talk about funding when it came to the building.

[19:10:03] But that the funding for the building was actually secured before she was even in Congress. So she really even -- didn't have anything to do with it. Here's part of that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Was he (ph) 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, I think that that's something highly inappropriate.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: April, it was a stunning moment. I mean, I used the words military dictatorship and we thought about how we use it. I mean, it was a stunning thing to say.

APRIL RYAN, W.H. CORRESPONDENT, AMERICAN URBAN RADIO NETWORKS: It is stunning. It's stunning on the part where Sarah says if you want to go after the general, if you want to get into a debate with him. It's not getting into a debate or it's not going after him. It's just a search for answers to what he stated that may have been misspeak.

And, you know, the issue is it's inappropriate to ask him questions or question him about it. He was just in the briefing room Thursday, yesterday, taking questions from those he picked who he wanted to take questions from, from those who knew Gold Star families. So that is, that point is moot. So Sarah got that wrong.

But let me say this. The White House press corps is the first line of questioning an American president and those who were in that building. Now let say General Kelly, yes, he is a four-star general, but let say he was on the military, on the battlefield, and he had top secret information he couldn't share. That's one thing to say he will not take questions at that point.

But when you were in the people's house, the taxpayers' house and you are working for an American president that is elected by the people, you are to answer questions. And now it's unfortunate that the credibility of the chief of staff is now in question. The question, people want to see receipts or see proof of what he said.

BURNETT: Right. Well, look, there's the facts that were wrong, whether he remembered it wrong, whatever it may be, the facts were wrong. There's also the hypocrisy, which I know I heard on.

RYAN: But just saying it on the camera, yes.

BURNETT: But to take the, you know, act as if you're taking the high road and your integrity is unimpeachable with someone else story that is so horrific when you're own boss is doing it, left and right is problematic.

John, the President spoke today to the Fox Business Network. He was asked about General Kelly and the press conference and here's the President responded. Here's the quote.

"He is a very elegant man." It's like a word he took from Tom Barrack. "He is a tough, strong four-star Marine. You're four-star Marine, you've got something special to start off with, OK? General Mattis, General Dunford also, but very few. He was so offended, because he was in the room when I made the call and so were other people. And the call was a very nice call. He was so offended that a woman would be -- that somebody would be listening to the call."

Offended someone would be listening in on the call, but on behest of the family. Kelly himself was listening in on the call behest of the President. But he is offended about the other side.

JOHN AVLON, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, THE DAILY BEAST: Yes. I mean, look, the hypocrisy runs deep here. Congresswoman happens to be a very close family friend, a long standing. This was not political grandstand.

BURNETT: She knows this young man since very early in his life, his father, his family, to be clear.

AVLON: That's exactly right. And the family was listening to it on the speakerphone. So, yes, the President may not have known the congresswoman was in earshot, but that's really irrelevant. I mean best case scenario, we've got people missing each other.

Obviously the President's intention wasn't bad, but the family felt disrespected because he didn't use the soldier's name, because he referred to his -- to widow as your guy as opposed to your husband. Totally they missed each other.

But over and over again when Kelly gets brought out, he's a man with enormous moral authority because of his service, because of his sacrifice. And clearly the President pushed him out to do his dirty work and defend him.

But in the process, Kelly undercuts his own moral authority that comes from being someone above politics, someone above partisanship. And it diminishes the whole debate that we've had three days on this when we should be honoring the so soldiers. We should be getting the facts of what happened on the ground.

BURNETT: Yes.

AVLON: And when he comes out and says, you know, no one respects women anymore. No one respects Gold Star families anymore. Again, you're just setting yourself up for a whole series of hypocrisy when it comes to this President as a candidate or in office.

BURNETT: April, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders actually just sent an e-mail to CNN and said in response to this. OK, so she says, "Of course everyone should be question."

RYAN: She's watching.

BURNETT: "But after witnessing General Kelly's heartfelt and somber account, we should all be able to agree that imputing his credibility on how best to honor fallen heroes is not appropriate." April.

RYAN: I'm glad Sarah is watching. And Sarah, you are absolutely right. He has -- he's a four-star general, but he came into that briefing room. You gave the podium to the general that Thursday, Sarah. And the general took questions from those he pointed out who were Gold Star family -- new Gold Star family members.

This is not myth. This is not conjecture. People saw this. He said things that were may not or in question and we just want to find out the true answers to it.

[19:15:06] BURNETT: Right.

RYAN: There is a credibility issue with the President. Now, there's a possible credibility issue with the chief of staff. In order to clean it up, let him take questions, Sarah. That's all we're asking. We're not throwing -- we're not trying to debate. We're not trying to impugn him. We're not trying to hurt him. We just want the facts to what happened.

BURNETT: Right.

RYAN: He is a four-star general as you said. (CROSSTALK)

BURNETT: And they're trying to conflate it seems, John. They're trying to conflate to basically say that questioning him base on the fact of what he said is questioning somehow his personal experienced, which is somber and is deeply personal and no one is questioning. Those two things are not the same thing.

AVLON: No.

BURNETT: And they cannot be allowed to conflate that in the minds of the public.

AVLON: And that is explicitly what they're trying to do. There is universal respect for General Kelly's sacrifice and his service and the loss of his son. But to say in any instance from the White House podium that it's inappropriate to question a four-star general who now is serving in a civilian capacity as chief of staff, that is the job of the press corps. That is the job of the American people in a civilian-led military and there is no person and no fact that is off limits to question in getting the truth.

BURNETT: And Colonel, you know, there is the issue here also of the hypocrisy given some of the President's actions and the very things that General Kelly is outraged about. I mentioned a couple of them.

One of them though was that the whole issue here was that he went on for two minutes about how stunned and offended he was that this congresswoman who he dubbed an empty barrel would brag about her role in obtaining funding. Forget the fact that she didn't do it. It's actually not the point I'm making. The point I'm making is he found that to be deeply offensive. What then does that make this?

LEIGHTON: Well, you know, you have --

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: I did a poll. I'm like the most popular person with the vets. You know, I built the Vietnam Memorial in the downtown Manhattan, OK? And the vets like me a lot.

You know, one of f the reasons I was very much involved in building the Vietnam Memorial in New York is, as you know, you probably remember. And to this day, I mean everybody, people that fought in Vietnam are always thank me for that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: Colonel, I mean, that would be incredibly offensive to General Kelly. It would seem.

LEIGHTON: You would think so. I mean, the whole idea here is that people should be accurate about what they're doing, you know, whether they are -- if they actually did something that, you know, benefits charity or, you know, the vets in this case of President Trump. That's great and that's, you know, if you really did that, that's fantastic.

But the issue here is you have to be truthful and the key victim in this I think is the truth. We have to make sure, you know, when the military we're taught to be operationally accurate.

You know, as an intelligence officer, I was always taught to make sure that everything I said was 100 percent correct to the best of my ability. And that is really the ethos that we should be dealing with here.

This idea that facts don't matter is something that is corrosive, not only to our institutions, but to our very democracy itself and that is something that really has to change because we cannot function on half truths, on lies, or on hypocrisy.

BURNETT: All right. Thank you all very much. I appreciate your time tonight.

And next, the breaking news that we have in the investigation into the Niger ambush which truly is at the heart of all of this. We now know the body of one of the soldiers, Sergeant La David Johnson, was found a mile away. How did that happen?

Plus, the CIA director warning Americans to be b ready for North Korea's "final step." And after Presidents Obama and Bush slammed President Trump, the White House seems to be the only ones not getting they are hit.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SANDER: Our understanding is that those comments were not directed towards the President.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[19:22:39] BURNETT: Breaking news, the body of one of the American soldiers killed in Niger was found nearly a mile away from the scene of the ambush. That's according to four administration officials familiar with the early assessment.

Sergeant La David Johnson's body was recovered nearly 48 hours after his 12 member team was ambushed by 50 ISIS fighters in what ended up as the greatest combat loss so far in President Trump's presidency. Three other U.S. soldiers were killed and there are still many unanswered questions about what went so wrong.

Barbara Starr is "OutFront" at the Pentagon.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Sergeant La David Johnson was found nearly a mile away from the central scene of the ambush according to four administration officials familiar with the early assessment. They all caution this is the early picture and the investigation continues.

The Pentagon is still looking at the exact circumstances of how he became separated from his unit. The entire team led by Green Beret has been interviewed, officials say, about when they last saw Johnson.

The U.S. team had stopped in a town on the Niger-Mali border so the Nigerians they were working with could pick up supplies, including food and water. And then they met with village elders. Investigators believe the ambush may have begun when the U.S. soldiers were back in their vehicles, possibly even driving.

As those killed are laid to rest, Defense Secretary James Mattis on Capitol Hill briefed Senator John McCain one day after McCain, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, threatened subpoenas if the Pentagon doesn't start telling Congress what it knows.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: I felt that we are getting sufficient amount of information and we are clearing a lot of that up now.

STARR (voice-over): Mattis refusing to publicly comment why the FBI is now involved in gathering intelligence on the suspected ISIS militants that ambushed the U.S. forces.

TOM FUENTES, FORMER FBI ASSISTANT DIRECTOR: The FBI would have jurisdiction to investigate and bring back the perpetrators to the U.S. if it can be done.

STARR (voice-over): The pressure is mounting for a public explanation. What did happen to Sergeant Johnson?

WILSON: He was abandoned for two days, for 48 hours. Why? Why didn't they pick him up and put him on their shoulders like they did the other fallen comrades? And put him on a helicopter and take him to safety. He could have still been alive.

[19:25:13] STARR (voice-over): But Mattis is fiercely adamant that troops on the ground did everything they could.

JAMES MATTIS, DEFENSE SECRETARY: Having seen some of the news reports, the U.S. military does not leave its troops behind and I would just ask 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.

STARR (voice-over): And taking pains to point out all troops face risks. (INAUDIBLE), pushing back hard.

LT. GEN. KENNETH MCKENZIE JR., DIRECTOR, JOINT STAFF: You know categorically that from the moment of contact no one is left behind, either U.S., our partner in Nigerian forces or French forces were on the ground accurately searching for the soldier.

(END VIDEOTAPE) STARR: In the first 48 hours when Johnson was still missing, CNN was one of the news organizations that did not report a soldier was missing. The Pentagon asked us to do that and we agreed because nobody would interfere with an active operation if it was even possible a soldier was still alive out there. Erin?

BURNETT: All right. Barbara, thank you. And now, Shawn Turner, former Director of Communications for U.S. National Intelligence, he also served in U.S. Marine Corps for 21 years, including in Iraq and Afghanistan. Also here, retired Major General Spider Marks.

General Marks, let me start with you. The breaking news here, as we are starting to learn, that Sergeant La David Johnson was found a mile away from the others. What does this say?

MAJ. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS, U.S. ARMY: Well, what we do know, what we do know, when the ambush occurred is the environment went from permissive to contested in a blink of an eye. And so an ambush is nothing but complete chaos, lots of noise, lots of blood, lots of injuries taking place. And so those men in that fight were fighting for each other and fighting to try to get out of the kill zone as we say.

And I can only presume that Sergeant Johnson, who was the designated driver of one of the vehicles if we're not mistaken, might have been trying to evade what was taking place and to get out of that kill zone and maybe folks that were in the vehicle were knocked out, fell out, we don't know.

So it's not -- it wouldn't be unusual in my estimation based on everything that's taking place in that environment that he could be a mile away from where that kill zone was.

BURNETT: Right. And, of course, and we don't know then what happened to him when he got a mile away, what happened from there, Shawn, in terms of if he got that far and he was driving, then we don't obviously know what happened. Subsequently, obviously, he did not survive. The FBI tonight, Shawn, is now involved. Do you have any sense as to why?

SHAWN TURNER, FORMER DIRECTOR OF COMMUNICATIONS, U.S. NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: Well, Erin, you know, it's not unusual for the FBI to join military investigators in an investigation like this. The FBI has a number of resources that readily available that can be leveraged.

It's also the case that, you know, the military investigators have to look at absolutely every possible scenario that unfolded here and that includes the possibility that the intelligence that this unit had access to was not bad intelligence and that the possibility that perhaps these attackers in the days or weeks prior to their military movement may have had some additional information that could have led to this attack.

So the FBI has those kinds of investigative resources and so this is not unusual. I think they'll be value added for this investigation. BURNETT: And General Marks, look, 16 days have passed here. We really know almost nothing. And after this much time, we're still learning some very basic things that end up being false.

Yesterday, officials told Barbara Starr that the French who, of course, came to rescue the American soldiers after 30 minutes were not allowed to drop any ordnance, so when they're fighter planes flew over, they couldn't drop anything because of the rules of engagement with Niger.

Today, several officials tell Barbara Starr that that is not the case. They were allowed to drop ordnance. They didn't because they didn't want to risk injuring friendly troops. Look, this is a crucial detail. How could there be confusion by U.S. officials on whether someone is allowed to drop bombs in a foreign country where American troops are?

MARKS: Yes. There are several things at play here, Erin. All of that is incredibly important to try to lay out. We need to kind of peel this back. I tell you, it goes back to the nature of the operation.

These soldiers were armed for a permissive environment. They had done this 29 times in advance. Every time you go out on a patrol, there is a reset of intelligence and what the purpose and objective is and on this 30th patrol, I can guarantee you, they did that. And they also had 29 in advance.

So I'm sure there was an understanding that this was not going to be something, this was not going to turn into a gunfight. It never had before. But you've got to every time. Now, I'm suggesting it probably happened, but because of the experience, they did not start to peel away probably as much as they should have the intelligence that wouldn't reveal that you got the challenge.

[19:30:20]

Now, having a coalition partner, at least a partner to the French dropping ordnance from a fast mover, that's a very complicated operation and in fact, when you had the United States Air Force and United States ground forces both Army and Marines, you have very technical skill sets within those organizations to ensure you don't have fratricide, that you don't hit your friendlies.

BURNETT: Right.

MARKS: So I can see where there would be hesitation in that as well. So, those rules of engagement certainly are going to be reviewed, starting -- should have started immediately upon this tragic incident occurred.

BURNETT: All right. Thank you both so very much.

And next, the White House in full denial today, saying criticism from ex-presidents about white supremacy, bullying and bigotry have nothing to do with President Trump. And North Korea calls its nukes program non-negotiable, and the CIA director says prepare for the worst.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BURNETT: Tonight, the White House in denial.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders trying to convince the nation that these comments by former Presidents Bush and Obama were not about President Trump.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT: Bigotry seems emboldened. Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication.

BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT: What we can't have is the same old politics of division that we have seen so many times before. That dates back centuries. It's the 21st century. Not the 19th century.

[19:35:04] Come on.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Our understanding is that those comments were not directed towards the president. And in fact, when these two individuals both past presidents have criticized their president, they've done so by name and very rarely do it without being pretty direct as both of them tend to be. So, we'll take them at their word that these actions and comments weren't directed towards the president.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: This as the nation's five former presidents plan to gather tomorrow for a hurricane relief concert in Texas. The current president as of now is not anticipated to be there. We'll see.

OUTFRONT now, former Republican congressman, Jack Kingston. He was also senior adviser to the campaign. And former national press secretary for Bernie Sanders campaign, Simone Sanders, also a communications consultant for Priorities USA Action.

Congressman Kingston, Sarah Sanders says those comments weren't about President Trump with straight face. Do you agree?

JACK KINGSTON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I somewhat agree, but I would say that President Bush had his brother defeated by Donald Trump. He's a good family member. You know, he has a right to say some things and certainly President Obama does as President Trump is dismantling all of Obama's policies, which I think is a good thing and many Americans do as well.

But I think they have the right to get up there and say things. But for either one of them to pretend like there was peace and harmony in the land when they were president is ridiculous. President Bush, all those Bush lied signs that were out there for years, the pink ladies who roamed the halls of Congress, demanding us to get out of Iraq. And then the Tea Party all over the Mall in Washington, D.C. and again in the halls of Congress when President Obama was president.

There was not peace and love and harmony. We're a very tough nation. We demand a lot of our leaders and leaders can polarize us, or we can be polarized by ourselves and blame it on the leaders. And for them to look back with these rose colored glasses saying, oh, it was love throughout the fruited plain when I was president, I think that's a little farfetched.

BURNETT: Simone?

SIMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I don't think anyone was looking back with rose colored glasses, if you will, Erin. The future of the republic is currently being threatened by the presidency and the administration of Donald Trump.

You know, I'm no fan of George W. Bush. I definitely thought his handling of Katrina was poor. We can talk about the war. We can talk about all these different things. But I never thought the republic was being threatened by him being in the White House. I wasn't concerned about him having the nuclear codes. Bigotry and racism was not brought from the fringes and to the mainstream with his presidency.

So, I -- that is the difference here in what the former presidents were talking about.

BURNETT: So, Congressman Kingston, there was a little bit more of what both of them said a lot more. Here's another thing that President Bush said yesterday that has been interpreted as a criticism of President Trump. Here's President Bush.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: We've seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty. Bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone, provides permission for cruelty and bigotry, and compromises the moral education of children.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: He talked about casual cruelty and what that means in terms of educating our children. Of course, we all remember this moment when Trump mocked a disabled reporter during a campaign. Here he is.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You got do see this guy, I don't know what I said. I don't remember. He's going, I don't remember.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: OK, and just another random example when he attacked the morning television host, Mika Brzezinski in a series of tweets where he claimed she was bleeding badly from a facelift. We can see that here. She was bleeding badly from a facelift. That is casual cruelty. Would you not acknowledge, Congressman?

KINGSTON: Well, I think Americans knew Donald Trump and they knew who they elected. And he's a guy from the streets of Queens, if you will. My dad --

SANDERS: Oh my God, don't put this on Queens, Congressman Kingston. Do not put that on Queens. Don't blame Queens.

KINGSTON: I'm going to say is, I think the product of -- well, you know what, my dad was from Brooklyn.

BURNETT: So, you're saying -- Congressman, are you saying, yes, he's casually cruel, but we knew what we were getting? Is that your argument?

KINGSTON: What I'm saying is, he's a tough guy, and if you insult him or you push him, he's going to push back. I think the American people knew that, but I think they also wanted him to push back on Washington, D.C. and the political status quo.

BURNETT: OK, but before you try to pivot here, I know, I know what you're trying to do. I respect it, but let me just say, do you really think it's OK to push back by making fun of someone being confined to a wheelchair?

KINGSTON: Absolutely not, but for Bush to suddenly forget all the vicious claims against him. Bush lied, Bush lied, Bush lied, on the floor of the House, on the streets of Washington, D.C., in the streets of New York City and yes, Queens, people were saying Bush lied and for him to think there was peace and harmony back then was ridiculous.

[19:40:02] SANDERS: I think President Bush readily remembers folks calling him a liar. I think he remembers Kanye West saying he didn't care about black people in his handling of Katrina. I don't think George Bush has forgotten about any of this.

What the difference here is, is that Donald Trump has not exhibited the decorum that is worthy of the office of president. I think that's what the former president was getting at and just because -- and just because this is who he is does not make it OK. I have said from the beginning it's not OK. He needs to rise to the level of the occasion.

KINGSTON: But let me say this: as much I respect your views and you're right to have that rue about President Trump. I can say this -- on the conservative side, many people thought the same thing about Barack Obama, that he was indeed endangering the republic.

(CROSSTAK)

SANDERS: Did Barack Obama mock a gold star family? Did Barack Obama personally attack people? Did Barack Obama -- please, Barack Obama is leaps and bounds smarter and more, just better, just better than Donald Trump.

(CROSSTALK) SANDERS: And to compare him, compare him and Donald Trump's conduct to President Obama's is just disappointing.

BURNETT: All right. I will hit pause there. Thank you both.

KINGSTON: Thanks a lot.

BURNETT: Next, we're going to talk about the CIA director's dire warning coming on North Korea tonight.

And CNN with rare access -- ISIS self-declared capital of Raqqa has fallen. It is a ghost town, but we have a reporter there and close by, hundreds of ISIS fighters are still lurking. Wait until you see this report.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[19:45:30] BURNETT: And now, a developing story: CIA director warning North Korea must be stopped from reaching its, quote, final step in being able to strike the United States with a missile, a nuclear missile.

This is one of North Korea's top diplomats warns North Korea's nuclear weapons program is non-negotiable and the U.S. has no choice but to accept that and co-exist.

Brian Todd is OUTFRONT.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Kim Jong-un appears to be so confident in North Korea's nuclear weapons program that one of his diplomats is brashly declaring he's never giving those weapons up.

CHOE SON HUI, NORTH KOREAN DIPLOMAT: DPRK's nuclear weapon is nonnegotiable, unless the U.S. is prepared to coexist with a nuclear DPRK.

TODD: The ramp up rhetoric comes just a few hours after the president's national security adviser said this about his boss' position.

H.R. MCMASTER, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: He's not going to accept this regime, threatening the United States with a nuclear weapon. He won't accept it.

TODD: Former ambassador Joe DeTrani is one of few American diplomats to ever negotiate with North Korea. He says despite the war of word, conflict is not inevitable.

AMB. JOSEPH DETRANI, FORMER SPECIAL ENVOY TO NORTH KOREA: If North Korea's major issue is security concerns, and the major issue is the so-called hostile policy we have towards North Korea, we're prepared to talk about their security concerns. But we are not walking away from insisting that they eventually will have to give up their nuclear weapons. TODD: But the U.S. is now concerned about another weapon in Kim's

arsenal. Cyber warfare.

MIKE POMPEO, CIA DIRECTOR: They have a robust capability. It is cheap.

TODD: Kim Jong-un is believed to have an army of more than 6,000 hackers. Most of them from North Korea's top intelligence agency. North Korean hackers are believed to have cyber heisted $81 million from the central bank of Bangladesh last year. Analysts say most of the money they steal pays for Kim's weapons programs.

The concern now is that North Korea could expand its list of targets from money to American missiles.

JAMES LEWIS, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC & INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: If there's missile defenses or command and control or military operations that are vulnerable, they will be able to get in and they will look to disrupt them, cause confusion, turn things off.

TODD (on camera): But America is counterattacking in cyberspace. Current and former U.S. military officials have said the U.S. has a program to disrupt north Korean missiles with cyber attacks.

Brian Todd, CNN, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BURNETT: Thanks, Brian. And OUTFRONT now, "Daily Beast" columnist Gordon Chang, also the author of "Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes on the World".

Gordon, North Korea's diplomat says a nuclear North Korea is nonnegotiable. The U.S. must coexist with it. The national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, says the United States will never accept that, but they already are a nuclear power, right? I mean, maybe not to strike the United States, but they're a nuclear power.

So, what -- how does this end in this U.S.'s favor?

GORDON CHANG, AUTHOR, "NUCLEAR SHOWDOWN": Well, this could end in our favor if President Trump's campaign, which is especially embodied by his September 21 executive order, actually cuts off the flow of money to North Korea. Because if he doesn't have money, he's not going to be able to build nukes, missiles or engage in gift politics, like giving gifts like Mercedes and Rolexes to his senior regime officials.

President Trump has been pretty successful in cutting off the flow of money. But he needs to do this over a course of a year and that is going to take a lot of discipline on the part of the administration and, right now, the administration's actually staffed up to enforce the sanctions that we have on the books.

BURNETT: Right, which is obviously a crucial point.

A question though, Gordon, is this, you now, when you hear the former CIA director, John Brennan, he has been consistent in describing Kim Jong-un in conversations I've shad, in conversations he said this week, when he was speaking at Fordham, as someone he believes is a logical actor.

And my question for you, if you truly do remove everything that he has, right, his Rolexes and his cars and everything, if he has nothing to lose, does that then mean he might act?

CHANG: Well, you know, he certainly might act because Kim Il-sung, who founded the regime, said that if you, you know, you're going to lose, you might as well destroy the world, and Kim Jong-Il, Kim Jong- un's father said the same thing.

But, you know, with diplomacy, so for instance, when we're constricting the flow of money to North Korea and when it looks a little bit dire, that's the time for us to have the discussions, not only with North Korea, but also with China and Russia. And that's when diplomacy can actually disarm the North Koreans peacefully.

I know the North Koreans say they'll never give up their nukes.

[19:50:01] But that's only because they believe the incentive structure in the future is going to be same as it is today. We can change that incentive structure to our advantage.

BURNETT: Does getting out of Iran deal hurt all of this if the United States doesn't keep its word on a deal it made, bad or not, not the point? Why would North Korea make a deal with the United States on its nuclear program?

GORDON: Well, the reason why is that if Kim Jong-un had no choice but to give up his weapons, then he certainly would. And so, the issue is, how much coercion can you apply. And I think that we have the ability to do that, because we've got overwhelming leverage over China and China has overwhelming leverage over North Korea.

BURNETT: All right. Thank you very much, Gordon, as always.

And now, a look inside Raqqa, which is a place really our eyes have not seen since the ISIS crisis began. U.S.-backed forces have declared the total liberation of the self-declared ISIS capital of Raqqa in Syria after a bloody four-month battle, control of the devastated city and devastated is the only word to use here, is now being handed over. But the threat of ISIS is still very real and right there.

Tonight, we take you deep inside Raqqa where ISIS fighters made their last stand.

Nick Paton Walsh is OUTFRONT.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): ISIS usually leaves places looking like this in their self-declared capital. It was no different, with one exception. Where are the people? Hardly a soul here by the victors swarming around ISIS' old HQ, the stadium.

(on camera): It's extraordinary to stand exactly where ISIS, just a matter of weeks and months ago may in fact have been plotting attacks against the west. This, the stadium, one of the symbols of their presence here.

(voice-over): It was underground where this place mattered most, torture, imprisonment of foreigners, even their own.

(on camera): Eerily, graffiti here, some of it explains to prisoners. One saying, if you're reading this, there's four main reasons why you're here. You did the crime and caught red handed. Using Twitter, GPS locations, or having GPS location switched on mobile phone, uploading videos and photos from a sensitive Wi-Fi account, i.e., you need your emir's permission, which you didn't do.

Be patient, be patient, be patient. The enemy of the Muslim, Satan, will do every whispering while you stare at the wall or the floor.

(voice-over): Further down still, the hazard that still remains. A city beset by tunnels that run deep. The main fight may be over but the flame that ISIS's sick idea lit flickers worldwide online.

The global fight here for its volunteers though, is over.

(on camera): How was it?

JOHN, VOLUNTEER: Sad now that we're not fighting anymore.

WALSH: You enjoyed it?

JOHN: Yes, like -- yes.

WALSH (voice-over): John is on his way back to sleepy Colorado.

(on camera): How close to ISIS did you get?.

JOHN: Like seven meters, you can see them running in the street.

WALSH: Is this a thrill for you?

JOHN: It's better than sitting in the desert doing nothing, drinking chi.

WALSH (voice-over): Will life for him be the same again?

JOHN: I'm 34. I was doing customer support fixing computers and stuff. So, I don't know what --

WALSH (on camera): So, probably not that.

JOHN: Probably not that.

(voice-over): What life can return here, where the only building not eviscerated is a hospital where ISIS held human shields. This is the only ISIS fighter we saw, the bodies cleaned up fast.

In the dust of this refugee camp where many have fled misery are these new sparkling tents, home to 200 ISIS fighters and their families who surrendered after a negotiated deal.

We weren't allowed to talk to them. They once lived on and in fear. Fear drove them to surrender and a future uncertain almost certainly now haunts their nights under the cold canopies here.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WALSH: Well, that's what the local Syrian ISIS fighters are. Big question as to where did the foreign ISIS go, did some escape or are some in somebody's custody? And, of course, the big outstanding question, where is ISIS's leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in hiding, on the run, unclear.

He's the one remaining symbol ISIS have, now they lost their territory and can still potentially inspire attacks on the West, Erin.

BURNETT: All right. Thank you very much, Nick. Obviously, crucial points. And, of course, ISIS, as we know, active in places as far as Niger.

OUTFRONT next, Jeanne Moos with Donald Trump's fake art.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[19:58:08] BURNETT: In President Trump's world, many things are fake when it comes to the news. But there is one thing in his personal world. Here's Jeanne Moos.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JEANNE MOOS, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Forget about --

TRUMP: Fake news.

MOOS: We're talking about fake art. Is that really a Renoir in the President's Trump Tower apartment? Visible in the background as Melania did an interview.

INTERVIEWER: What annoys him? What does he get mad about? What does he don't like?

MELANIA TRUMP, FIRST LADY: Stupidity.

MOOS: Back when Tim O'Brien was writing his book, "TrumpNation: The Art of Being the Donald", the Renoir was hanging in Trump's plane.

TIM O'BRIEN, AUTHOR, "TRUMPNATION: THE ART OF BEING THE DONALD": And I asked him about the painting, Donald said that's an original Renoir. I said, no, it's not Donald. And he said, that's the original, that's an original.

I said, Donald it's not, I grew up in Chicago. The Renoir is called Two Sisters on a Terrace and it's hanging on a wall at the Art Institute of Chicago.

MOOS: The Art Institute confirms it's been there since it was donated by this art collector in 1963. The institution told "The Chicago Tribune", we're satisfied that our version is real. Now, the president's Renoir is being referenced in quotes, called a fake in various languages, the butt of jokes.

His is signed by Wrenwahr, so it's all good.

(on camera): Next thing you know, the painting was popping up all over.

(voice-over): Hey, I have one too, got mine at the gift shop in the Art Institute of Chicago.

Before the election, Two Sisters on a Terrace hovered over a "60 Minutes" interview.

TRUMP: He's entitled to make a mistake every once in a while.

MOOS: Theorized one poster, without a doubt, Trump bought a forgery, but the master huckster can never admit he was swindled.

Biographer Tim O'Brien had a different take --

O'BRIEN: He believes his own lies.

MOOS: Remember the bogus magazine discovered on the walls of Trump golf clubs. Someone tweeted about the painting, was it hanging next to his fake "Time Magazine" cover? It is now, somebody's been framed.

Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BURNETT: "AC360's" next.