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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Ten U.S. Sailors Missing After USS McCain Crash. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired August 21, 2017 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:00] JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Another tragedy at sea for the U.S. Navy. Ten sailors are now missing after a Navy destroyer collides with a merchant ship. Why do these tragedies keep happening?

Going broke. Protecting the president. The Secret Service says it's running out of money. An old problem exacerbated significantly by this president, his large brood, and their multiple trips. I wonder if President Trump ever attacked President Obama for traveling too much?

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper coming to you live from Racine, Wisconsin. It's the site of tonight's town hall with House Speaker Paul Ryan. This comes at a very tense time in this nation with racial tensions bubbling over in Charlottesville, Virginia, and elsewhere, and with many Republicans publicly breaking ranks with President Trump.

And tonight in just a little under five hours right before our live town hall with Speaker Ryan, with critics on both sides questioning the president's leadership and his moral authority, in a prime time address live on CNN, the commander-in-chief, President Trump, will ask Americans implicitly to trust him on his new strategy for Afghanistan.

The president will speak from Fort Myer in Arlington, Virginia. And that's where we find CNN's Athena Jones live for us this hour.

Athena, what are we expecting the president to say?

ATHENA JONES, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Jake. Well, we'll likely to hear the president lay out a plan that would increase troop levels -- U.S. troop levels by several thousand and also address the U.S. relationship with other countries in the region, principally Pakistan.

As you mentioned, the president's speech comes against a backdrop of weeks of West Wing chaos and the controversy over his response to the violence in Charlottesville. This is a chance to turn the page, focus on national security. The question is, how effective will this new strategy be in making gains in Afghanistan and how effectively can the president sell it to the American people?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JONES (voice-over): A new commander-in-chief, a new strategy in America's longest war. DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's a very big

decision for me. I took over a mess. And we're going to make it a lot less messy.

JONES: President Trump back at the White House after his working vacation is set to lay out his administration's plans for the fight in Afghanistan. A 16-year conflict the top general there warned in February has reached a critical juncture.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARMED SERVICES CHAIRMAN: In your overall commander's assessment, are we winning or losing?

GEN. JOHN NICHOLSON, COMMANDER, U.S. FORCES AFGHANISTAN: Mr. Chairman, I believe we're in a stalemate.

JONES: A conclusion Defense Secretary James Mattis echoed in June.

JAMES MATTIS, DEFENSE SECRETARY: We're not winning in Afghanistan right now.

JONES: The president addressing the nation in prime time after months-long deliberations wrapped up this weekend at Camp David during which he was presented with a range of strategies. From a full withdrawal to deploying up to 4,000 more soldiers, in addition to roughly 8,000 U.S. forces already there.

Those additional troops would allow Americans to train and assist Afghan forces, much as they are doing in the fight against ISIS in Iraq. A move to increase troop levels would be at odds with Trump's own statements on the campaign trail.

TRUMP: They're going to be there for the next 200 years. You know, at some point, what's going on? It's going to be a long time. We made a terrible mistake getting involved there in the first place. Wasted, $6 trillion on wars in the Middle East. We could have rebuilt our country twice. That have produced only more terrorism, more death, more suffering.

JONES: And even before he was a candidate going back years, tweeting in 2012, "It is time to get out of Afghanistan."

The decision on strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia coming as the president tries to steady his administration after weeks of infighting and tumult leading to the departure of several top aides, most recently chief strategist Steve Bannon, who opposed sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan.

All this as the president struggles in the polls in the wake of his controversial remarks about racial violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.

TRUMP: You also have people that were very fine people on both sides.

JONES: A new survey by NBC-Marist showing his approval numbers sinking below 40 percent in three states that helped sweep him into office in November. (END VIDEOTAPE)

JONES: And Jake, one more thing about Afghanistan strategy. The president faces a challenge tonight in convincing his supporters that any increase in engagement in Afghanistan is the right move after spending so much time arguing for a full withdrawal -- Jake.

TAPPER: Athena Jones, thank you so much.

With thousands of U.S. service members in Afghanistan, America's longest war has been left in limbo since President Trump took office, at least in terms of a new direction.

So what are the options for the way forward? We took a deeper look at the potential strategies presented to the commander-in-chief.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TRUMP: Look at Afghanistan. What a mess.

[16:05:03] TAPPER (voice-over): Some 8400 American service members are currently in Afghanistan. And sources tell CNN despite blunt talk in the campaign trail President Trump is likely to commit as many as 4,000 more.

TRUMP: That's a very big decision for me. I took over a mess.

TAPPER: A troop increase is not the president's only option, of course. On Thursday Defense Secretary Mattis said all possibilities remained on the table, including greater use of private contractors or even a full withdrawal from Afghanistan.

If it were entirely up to commanders on the ground, the president would send additional special operations forces and more military advisers. That's according to a senior military official who added that those military advisers will need more protection as well. Not having that protection means advising teams are only 75 percent as effective as they could be, the Pentagon says.

GEORGE W. BUSH, 43RD PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: On my orders, the United States Military has begun strikes.

TAPPER: Since America's war in Afghanistan began in October 2001, more than 2,250 American uniforms, men and women, have been killed in that mission. And that number continues to rise.

TRUMP: It's our longest war in history, 17 years. That's unacceptable.

TAPPER: Regardless, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, says more Americans are needed there.

NICHOLSON: Let me be clear. We will not relent in our mission to fight alongside our Afghan comrades to destroy ISIS-K in 2017.

TAPPER: Whether Trump is committed to Nicholson, however, is another matter.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R) ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: General Nicholson is not going to be able to win in Afghanistan under the current construct. The rules of engagement have to change and new capability.

TAPPER: Mattis insists the Trump administration has every confidence in Nicholson. However, sources say the administration may also be looking to outsource at least part of the flight. Just fired White House senior strategist Steve Bannon has advocated for the increased use of private contractors, according to a source close to him.

Bannon has long been skeptical of the ability of U.S. troops to change conditions on the ground in Afghanistan long term and is suspicious that continued involvement is in U.S. national security interests.

Erik Price was the former head of the embattled Blackwater Security Company and he suggests letting private contractors assist the military in more permanent Afghan-based positions.

ERIK PRINCE, FOUNDER AND FORMER CEO, BLACKWATER: This can operate there, operate effectively and create the off-ramp for the rest of the U.S. forces to leave. Let's do that.

TAPPER: But others are urging other options.

SEN. JONI ERNST (R), ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: I do disagree with any thought that we should have a mercenary army paid for by American taxpayer dollars. And this is what Secretary Rex Tillerson able to conduct diplomacy because hopefully we will not have to have a forever presence in places like Afghanistan.

TAPPER: And what about the possibility of a complete U.S. withdrawal? This was General Nicholson's answer when asked earlier this year about that.

NICHOLSON: I personally believe that this effort that we're undertaking there is protecting the homeland and preventing these terrorists from bringing their fight to our doorstep.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER: What does President Trump need to say tonight to win support for his decision? We'll have much more from Racine, Wisconsin, when we come back. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:12:26] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. We're live in Racine, Wisconsin, ahead of our town hall this evening with House Speaker Paul Ryan. It comes immediately after President Trump in a prime time address lays out his strategy for Afghanistan.

Joining me now to talk about the options is CNN national security analyst General Michael Hayden, a former CIA and NSA director. Also with us, CNN military analyst Colonel Steve Warren, he's a former spokesman for the anti-ISIS coalition in Iraq and a new CNN contributor.

Welcome, Colonel. Let me start with you, Colonel, because it's your first question from me. What does President Trump need to do tonight?

COL. STEVE WARREN, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, Jake, thanks for having me and it's great to be here on the team. I think the most important thing right now that he has to do is lay out exactly what the end state is going to look like, in other words, what is success in Afghanistan going to look like?

And I think the next thing he has to address is how is he going to bring the entire U.S. government to bear against that problem?

TAPPER: And General Hayden, implicitly the president is going to be asking Americans to trust him on this new Afghanistan strategy, trust him with the most precious resource there is, American lives, for a U.S. president.

In the latest CNN poll, 60 percent of Americans say they did not consider the president to be honest and trustworthy. Will that have an effect on his announcement tonight?

GEN. MICHAEL HAYDEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: It will have an effect, Jake, and there are certainly trust issues out there. But, you know, the good news is that the decision the president is going to announce tonight is the product of what I would call regular order. You know, this isn't a tweet in the middle of the night, this is a result of long deliberations within the National Security Council, discussions with the president, a decision by the president and now the president is going to lay out the decision in a full-fledged speech so that he can put it into a broader context. So that's the good news with regard to what's happening tonight.

TAPPER: General, you said President Obama's plan to bring all but a few U.S. troops home from Afghanistan, which he had said before, could make Afghanistan look like Iraq. Is that happening right now? Is Afghanistan becoming Iraq?

HAYDEN: No, it's not. Now there is some negative trend lines that you saw General Nicholson and Secretary Mattis comment on a few minutes ago. So now we're adding to our forces there to stabilize the situation and perhaps to turn the battlefield physics in our direction, plussing up both our train and equipment support portion and our autonomous independent counter-terrorism mission.

Jake, frankly, this is probably the decision that President Obama would have made, harvesting the lessons for his 2011 decision in Iraq, but he delayed it. He deferred to the incoming administration for what I think are quite legitimate reasons. But now, we have President Trump who quite often campaigned with a completely different tone, embracing what I think the previous administration would have done.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Yes. Colonel, for years, President Trump called for a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. He called the war a waste of lives, a waste of money. He put that in tweets. What is the winning strategy, do you think? There are currently 8,000 forces there. Is there a number with which

the U.S. can win, or is this whole war at this point, is there a question about whether or not it can be, quote, unquote, won?

COL. STEVE WARREN (RET), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, you know, the war has been expensive in terms of money and in terms of the lives of American service members. There's no question about that. But what we must also consider is the alternative could well be worse. Remember why we originally went to Afghanistan, which is because that nation had become a safe haven for terrorists and for those who would do us harm.

And that problem hasn't completely gone away yet. So I think the alternative is much worse. There is value to us committing to stabilizing Afghanistan.

TAPPER: Gentlemen, thank you so much.

For the fourth time this year, a U.S. Navy ship is involved in a serious accident. The aggressive move the Navy is now making to ensure there isn't a fifth. That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:20:48] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm standing here in the Racine Theater Guild where we will be holding our town hall meeting with Speaker Ryan in just a little bit this evening.

Right now, let's talk about our world lead and the search for 10 American sailors missing after the USS John S. McCain Destroyer collided with a merchant vessel on the seas near Singapore. Now, the navy is ordering a wider investigation into why so many of its ships keep getting into actions. There have been four so far this year.

Let's go right to CNN's Michelle Kosinski. She's at the State Department.

Michelle, the nation has ordered an operational pause. What exactly does that mean?

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Jake. That's a very rare action for the Navy to take. This is going to be a chance for every U.S. fleet, every ship throughout the U.S. Navy to take at least a day for a very close look at how they're operating. I mean, back to basics in how they handle safety procedures, because as you said, this is the fourth accident involving a Navy ship just this year, the second most serious one in only two months. Ten American sailors right now are missing.

Because these incidents are supposed to be extremely rare, the Navy today launched this major review of how and why accidents keep happening.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KOSINSKI (voice-over): The USS John McCain now in port in Singapore with a gaping hole in its side. Not a wound of battle to the guided missile destroyer but another Navy accident. And a testament to the force of impact with a behemoth slow-moving oil tanker three times its size. As both were sailing east of the busy Moluccas Strait early this morning Singapore time, 10 U.S. sailors who were onboard unaccounted for, five more hurt.

JAMES MATTIS, DEFENSE SECRETARY: My thoughts and prayers are with the sailors and the families of the USS John McCain. We obviously have an investigation underway and that would determine what happened.

KOSINSKI: The president also weighing in by tweet, offering thoughts and prayers.

The destroyer playing an important role in the region, with Aegis - missile systems like this one onboard to counter the threat post by North Korea. It's also equipped with multiple state of the art radar systems and communications equipment, begging the question, how did the faster Navy ship not avoid the crash?

ADMIRAL JOHN RICHARDSON, CHIEF OF NAVAL OPERATIONS: Like you, I was devastated and heartbroken to hear about the collision.

KOSINSKI: The chief of naval operations today ordering an operational pause of at least one day on every U.S. Navy ship to be done over the next few weeks, a chance to review all safety and training procedures. Also, a comprehensive look into how things are done within naval operations.

RAY MABUS, FORMER NAVY SECRETARY: When you've got a pattern here, you have to find out if there is something systemic going on, if there is something in training, if there is something in the way that watches are being stood and the way these ships are being operated because it's getting too many to just be a coincidence.

KOSINSKI: It was just in June, the McCain's sister vessel, the USS Fitzgerald, collided with a container ship off Japan. Seven sailors died. Three officers have been removed from their duties as a result. Before that in May, a collision between a large fishing boat and the Navy warship USS Lake Champlain near South Korea. January, another guided missile cruiser Antietam ran aground trying to anchor in Tokyo Bay. All in Asia, where multiple U.S. ships are present to face the North Korean threat and work with allies.

COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON (RET), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: What's that telling our adversaries is that are some problems with the U.S. There are potentially training issues for U.S. sailors. There are potentially operation issues. There are potentially logistical issues. Really, it speaks to the idea that the ability we have to defend against any and all threats is much more limited than the American taxpayer has paid for.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KOSINKI: Also how this affects the U.S. mission in Asian waters. The U.S. today was reassuring, saying that there are other ships that patrol constantly in a broad mix of available forces -- Jake. TAPPER: All right. Michelle Kosinski, thank you so much.

[16:25:01] So, what might the Navy learn from this so-called operational pause? That story next. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. We're live in Racine, Wisconsin.

After President Trump addresses the nation this evening, talking about the way forward in Afghanistan, we will get the first live reaction from House Speaker Paul Ryan in our live town hall.

But let's turn now again back to world lead. Hours after the USS John S. McCain, the Navy's guided missile destroyer, collided with an oil tanker east of Singapore last night, 10 American sailors are still missing. General Michael Hayden is back with me and joining us is CNN military and diplomatic analyst and retired rear admiral, John Kirby.

Admiral Kirby, let me start with you.

CNN has obtained an advanced copy of a statement expected to be released by the chief of naval operations, Admiral John Richardson. In it, he says, quote: I have directed fleet commanders to immediately conduct an operational pause with commands and leaders across the fleet, to ensure we are taking all appropriate immediate measures to enhance the Navy's safe and effective operation around the world, unquote.