Trump's communications with military families questioned

This is a rush transcript from "Special Report with Bret Baier," October 19, 2017. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.


WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF JOHN KELLY: I was stunned when I came to work yesterday morning and broken-hearted at what I saw a member of Congress doing. A member of Congress who listened in on a phone call from the president of the United States to a young wife, and in his way tried to express that opinion. He's a brave man, a fallen hero. He knew what he was getting himself into because he enlisted. There's no reason to enlist. He enlisted. He was where he wanted to be, exactly where he wanted to be with exactly the people he wanted to be with when his life was taken. That was the message.


BRET BAIER, ANCHOR: And that was quite a briefing today by the White House chief of staff, John Kelly, a Marine Corps general who lost his son in 2010 in Afghanistan. An emotional day in the White House press briefing room as he was talking about Democrat Representative Wilson, Frederica Wilson, who has been talking out about this call to one of the widows of the soldiers killed in Niger. Wilson was asked for comments after this press briefing, and here's what she said.


REP. FREDERICA WILSON, D-FLA.: Let me tell you what my mother told me when I was little. She said the dog can bark at the moon all night long, but it doesn't become an issue until the moon barks back.


BAIER: Let's bring in our panel: Jonah Goldberg, senior editor of National Review; Mollie Hemingway, senior editor at The Federalist, and Olivier Knox, Yahoo! News chief Washington correspondent. Jonah, I'm not sure -- that was the comment she gave, that why we played it, because that was the reaction that the congresswoman had.

JONAH GOLDBERG, NATIONAL REVIEW: It kind of sounded like World War II code. I don't know what to make of it. And also don't know what to make about the constant hats.

Look, I think everyone of sound mind in this whole thing can say this has been a really ugly 48 hours. Whichever side you come on, whoever you believe, I personally think it strains all credulity to think that Donald Trump wasn't trying to be sympathetic and empathetic in that phone call.

Did he communicate in a way that was on a conference, on a speaker in a car that was misinterpreted by the people in the car? Entirely possible. But the idea that somehow he wasn't going into it in good faith just strikes me as bizarre and sort of false on its face. I don't think that tweeting and the defensiveness and the way the media now has to go and double check every victim, all that stuff is incredibly ugly. And whatever -- I think he can parse some of what Kelly said today, but at the end of the day he was a grownup and I think he was trying to put this thing to bed, which I hope happens.

BAIER: Which, by the way, twice now he has come to the briefing room and essentially held court and steered what had been the controversial coverage for a couple of days to a different place, the first time, and likely today.

MOLLIE HEMINGWAY, THE FEDERALIST: I'm not entirely sure if we're going to get a different level of coverage. We have to wait and see what happens here. But it's absolutely true that he is providing leadership. I think it was unwise of President Trump to refer to how previous presidents had or had not called families of people who had died in service. But this has been just a really ugly thing to witness.

I have never seen -- except for today, that was beautiful to witness -- I have never seen that level of leadership and cultural shaming. It was really amazing to see someone make the point that we should not be exploiting these stories about families who have made the ultimate sacrifice. And I really hope that people in the media respect that and understand that this is a very sensitive situation for people who have died, that they can still do a good job reporting without allowing these stories to be exploited for political harm or gain.

BAIER: Olivier?

OLIVIER KNOX, YAHOO! NEWS: I'm not really sure why chief of staff Kelly was stunned that Frederica Wilson was on the call. She is a longtime family friend of the bereaved. She mentored the soldier who was killed.

But to the broader point, yes, it's been an ugly couple days in which the grief and sacrifice of gold star families is being turned into a kind of partisan loyalty test, and that's never all that positive. I will say that I know a lot of people in the political press, and I would say as a group, as a population, they have a lot of respect for the troops. This is why they hold the commanders in chief, whoever they are, to account as much as possible.

BAIER: This all started actually with the question in the Rose Garden about Niger and why we haven't learned what happened, why there hasn't been more explanation. Up on Capitol Hill there is a concern as well, and the defense secretary talked about the investigation ongoing.


DEFENSE SECRETARY JAMES MATTIS: The loss of our troops is under investigation. We in the Department of Defense like to know what we're talking about before we talk. This specific case, contact is considered unlikely, but there's a reason we have U.S. army soldiers there and not the Peace Corps, because we carry guns.

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL, D-CONN.: We are investigating, holding a hearing, and holding accountable those who may have been responsible for sending these courageous, able young man on a mission.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-ARIZ.: But I did have a good conversation with General McMaster, and they said that they would be briefing us.


BAIER: As you take a look at the map, Jonah, Niger, the reason they're there, the four soldiers who were killed, Special Forces working with indigenous forces. And we're told that they came trying to meet with village elders. And then the U.S. led patrol was ambushed, roughly 50 terrorists from a new ISIS affiliated group, Islamic State. And basically, they're there to try to prevent ISIS from getting a foothold in that area.

GOLDBERG: Yes. I find, first of all, I think the effort to try and turn this into a Benghazi scandal seems incredibly strained to me, the political context completely different, the issues involved are completely different.

Our troops sometimes get killed when they're doing dangerous things in combat. And I'm all in favor of investigation to find out, there has to be oversight, they do oversight about any time an American troop dies. But one of the things that kind of perplexes me is that in terms of the messaging on this as a political matter, Donald Trump actually has a great story to tell about basically breaking the back of ISIS. And one of the complications that come from essentially defeating them as a territorial power is you get this sort of runoff, metastasized elements throughout Africa and the Middle East that are going to require a lot of this kind of thing.

And it seems to me it would be in the White House's interest and it would also be true to put it in that larger context and say, look, we're making enormous strides on the campaign promise to defeat ISIS, and at the same time we're going to have a lot of these kinds of issues because they're fleeing all over the place trying to set up places in ungoverned spaces.

BAIER: This president communicates differently. If he had had answered that way to that question and said this is under investigation, thanked the soldiers for their sacrifice and the families, but this is why we stand for the national anthem and put our hand over our heart, or he had somehow answered the question differently than he did pointing back to past presidents, we would be in a different news cycle, would we not?

HEMINGWAY: Part of the blame can be attributed to President Trump. As I said, I don't think it was appropriate to talk about what previous presidents did or didn't do. At the same time there is culpability on how the media don't respond very well to the differences in this presidency and this president.

It would be great actually to have a really good conversation about what's happening in Niger. We have been there for a long time. We should know a little bit more about what we're aiming to do there, about our $100 million drone base there, or the uranium enrichments that make it a very valuable place for various countries who are there. And we're going to be spending a lot more time talking about those things. But I don't think this is just a problem of the way Trump communicates. This is a problem of everybody making everything about Donald Trump when, again, we've been there for a long time. We're going to be there for a long time because it's a country that is an ideal partner for the U.S. there.

BAIER: I want to quickly turn to Capitol Hill. We're going to get a vote on a budget expected to go through sometime tonight. Republicans feel they have the votes that sets the table for tax reform. But the biggest question now seems to be this healthcare stopgap measure. We had Lamar Alexander on. He feels confident.

KNOX: Yes, the vote tonight doesn't just set the table for the tax reform. It's a must-pass because with it Republicans can pass tax reform with 50 votes, 51 being Mike Pence's tie-breaking vote, without it at 60 votes, that makes it a much, much heavier lift, probably ends those hopes.

We now have a fight over healthcare which is really interesting. You remember the deal that Chuck and Nancy cut with Donald Trump in the Oval Office? One of the concerns from Republicans on Capitol Hill was that that gave leverage to Democrats down the road in December or possibly later with a bunch of must-pass items, raising the debt ceiling and things like that. We'll see whether this healthcare ends up being wrapped in that kind of stuff.

BAIER: Maybe it all gets wrapped together.

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