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EARLY START

Trump Outlines Path Forward in Afghanistan; Ryan: Trump "Messed Up" on Charlottesville; USS McCain Lost Steering Control Before Collision. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired August 22, 2017 - 05:00   ET

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


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[05:00:01] DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Micromanagement from Washington, D.C., does not win battles. We will fight to win.

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ROMANS: President Trump revising the American strategy in Afghanistan. He says there will be more troops and no deadlines. How does this change what happens on the ground in Afghanistan?

Good morning, everyone. Welcome to EARLY START. It's Tuesday morning. I'm Christine Romans.

BRIGGS: I'm Dave Briggs. It's Tuesday, August 27th. It is 5:00 a.m. in East, 1:30 p.m. in Kabul, Afghanistan.

And that's where we start. After months of planning, President Trump has unveiled to the nation a new vision somewhat for the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

The president breaking from his campaign rhetoric and that of a private citizen when he promised to pull out of Afghanistan. But keeping with the America first theme, saying the days of nation-build regular over. The strategy, light on specifics by design. The president reaffirmed he does not want the enemy to know his plans. And a hasty withdrawal like the one in Iraq is not an option.

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TRUMP: The vacuum we created by leaving too soon gave safe haven for ISIS to spread, to grow, recruit, and launch attacks. We cannot repeat in Afghanistan the mistake our leaders made in Iraq.

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ROMANS: The president signaled the U.S. would increase troop levels in Afghanistan but offered no numbers. The president also put no end date on America's longest war.

BRIGGS: All right. Let's bring in retired Air Force Colonel Cedric Leighton, CNN military analyst and former member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Good morning to you, sir.

ROMANS: Nice to see you.

CEDRIC LEIGHTON, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Good morning. Good to see you both of you.

BRIGGS: All right. Let's start about what the speech was light on. Again, by design. Light on specifics. Here's what President Trump said about just that.

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TRUMP: We will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities. Conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables, will guide our strategy from now on. America's enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out. I will not say when we are going to attack, but attack we will.

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BRIGGS: So, the president will not reveal specifics. Is that a positive?

LEIGHTON: Yes, on balance it is a positive, Dave. And the reason it's a positive is because he's using, I guess, one would call the principle of surprise from the ancient philosophers like Sun Tzu and others who have basically said that the more you can surprise the enemy, the more likely you're going to win.

And, of course, the president's idea is he's going to do something that will get us to a point where we can, in essence, declare victory in Afghanistan. What that victory will actually look like is something that he really didn't spell out last night.

ROMANS: Yes, let's listen to what he talked -- he talked about no blank check. Our commitment is not -- you know, is not unlimited. I want you to listen to that part of the president's remarks.

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TRUMP: Our commitment is not unlimited and our support is not a blank check. The American people expect to see real reforms, real progress, and real results. Our patience is not unlimited.

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ROMANS: Colonel, how is this different from prior administrations who have said almost the same thing? We won't be there forever, we need to see, you know, political gains on the ground?

LEIGHTON: The difference will be in the execution. So, will President Trump and his administrations back up the word with an enforcement mechanism to go after what is everybody, I think, says is rife corruption within the Afghan government. And it's not just the central government in Kabul, but it's every warlord, every person associated with these areas.

There's a considerable amount of corruption. And I think that about 40 percent of Afghanistan's GDP is actually paid for by the U.S. military in one way or the other.

ROMANS: Wow.

LEIGHTON: If that goes away, clearly, Afghanistan would lose. It's also a significant amount of leverage that the U.S. has if it chooses to use it.

BRIGGS: For you, what questions still remain about our strategy there in Afghanistan?

LEIGHTON: Well, he mentioned something about rules of engagement. And you played at the beginning of the hour. The basic idea being that there is no way in which the forces that are working in Afghanistan will have to go back to Washington to ask permission to do certain things.

So, this is going to be an interesting element because when you look at how military conducts its operations, there is a great deal of freedom for tactical commanders to exercise certain authorities.

[05:05:05] But there are also certain constraints. Some of them provided by international law. Some of them provided by the types of weapons that could potentially be used. And sometimes, there are, frankly, strategic effects that come about because of tactical actions.

And I don't think the White House intends to abrogate any responsibility in those areas. But what really becomes a key element here is how much freedom of action the soldiers on the ground are actually going to have. That freedom of action is going to make a difference. It can allow for a lot of good, local initiative, but it can also get us into trouble if it's not watched over carefully.

ROMANS: Yes, the president talked about micromanagement from Washington, D.C. He says it doesn't win battles. Clearly, that's what he's talking about. Let me ask you, yesterday, you told us that, you know, there have been moments in the past where the United States could have ended this conflict, walked away from this conflict. The president not giving an end date. The president saying that he would commit more troops.

How do you feel overall about the strategy?

LEIGHTON: I think the basic outlines are not bad at all. They're fairly sound. The one problem that I see -- the one major problem is that the number of forces being talked about are not really sufficient to carry out what he's addressing. So, what that means is do we want to really make a commitment to stay the course here, 4,000 or so extra troops, a number that he did not really mention in his address but that's been talked about. It is not a very large number to really move things on the ground in a country as complicated and as driven by ethnic strife as Afghanistan is. So, I think the execution is going to be a very, very difficult thing

to do. But it really depends on what -- one's definition of victory. And that can potentially be a sliding scale where he could, president Trump could potentially say, OK, this is where we've won. This is how we've done this. We've stabilized Afghanistan.

And I think the end effect is going to be a continuation of the status quo. It's not exactly what he intended. But it's also, in his view, better than having Afghanistan become a platform from which terrorists like al Qaeda could launch another attack against the West.

BRIGGS: To that central point, I think millions of Americans are still wondering this morning, what is our definition of victory, and how do you achieve it when we had north of 100,000 troops there five years ago and still did not win there in Afghanistan?

Colonel Cedric Leighton, thanks a lot. We'll talk again in about 20 minutes.

ROMANS: Yes.

All right. As President Trump plans to commit nature troops to Afghanistan, how much has the longest U.S. war cost already? The most current fiscal financial estimate is $841 billion since 2001. That's straight from the U.S. budget, including the president's request for next year.

You know, many say that's simply too low. It does not include future spending like medical care for returning veterans. So, others place the total price tag at more like $2 trillion. Experts say that -- even that figure isn't enough. It leaves out expenses like interest owed on the money borrowed to finance the war. Historically, the U.S. passes wartime taxes to pay for conflicts.

That tradition broke with Afghanistan and Iraq. Not only did Congress not pass a tax when the wars began, to pay for them, Congress introduced tax cuts during the same time period. That alone could add trillions of dollars to the total tab.

Why do these estimates vary? Because the government doesn't have a uniform way to track all the money it spends on war. Of course, no financial estimate can measure the true cost -- the loss of human life and the treasure and blood lost in Afghanistan is immeasurable.

BRIGGS: And those were the thoughts of President Trump when he was a candidate, when he was a private citizen. Very critical. Almost a complete reversal from all those stances.

All right. House Speaker Paul Ryan with some harsh words for President Trump.

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REP. PAUL RYAN (R), WISCONSIN, SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: He messed up on his comments on Tuesday when it -- it sounded like a moral equivocation or, at the least, moral ambiguity when we need extreme moral clarity.

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BRIGGS: The speaker shares his thoughts about the president's response to Charlottesville. More from a CNN town hall, next.

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[05:13:34] RYAN: He made comments that were much more morally ambiguous, much more confusing. And I do think he could have done better. I think he needed to do better.

So, I do believe that he messed up in his comments on Tuesday when it -- it sounded like a moral equivocation or, at the least, moral ambiguity when we need extreme moral clarity.

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ROMANS: All right. President Trump's handling of Charlottesville a big focus for House Speaker Paul Ryan during a CNN town hall. Ryan saying the president messed up.

BRIGGS: All right. Let's bring in Greg Valliere, political economist and chief strategist at horizon investments.

Good morning to you, sir.

ROMANS: Hey, Greg.

GREG VALLIERE, POLITICAL ECONOMIST: Good morning. Hi, guys.

BRIGGS: Good to see you. Some feel that Charlottesville was on the mind of the president, as well, to start his speech on Afghanistan. Here's what he said last night about healing.

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TRUMP: The young men and women we send to fight our wars abroad deserve to return to a country that is not at war with itself at home. We cannot remain a force for peace in the world if we are not at peace with each other. As we send our bravest to defeat our enemies overseas, and we will always win, let us find the courage to heal our divisions within.

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BRIGGS: Greg, when he stayed on script, he can move past that incident.

[05:15:01] Perhaps we should wait until tonight in Arizona for this answer, but has he turned the page from this horrific gaffe after Charlottesville?

VALLIERE: Well, I think the criticism was so ferocious from his own family, from members of Congress and his own party, from business leaders, from the military that maybe it's had an impact. I think the jury is still out. He did say about the Boston protest that they were doing the right thing to protest extremism. He did have that sound bite last night.

We'll see about Arizona. But one gets a sense that for one of the rare times, all of this criticism may have had a real impact on him.

ROMANS: We also heard about a new strategy. But his new strategy without a lot of detail on Afghanistan, the longest, and costly war in American history.

VALLIERE: Yes.

ROMANS: And the headlines this morning from Breitbart I think are interesting, especially since it's the first week with Steve Bannon not in the White House but now weaponized, as he said.

BRIGGS: War.

ROMANS: Here are some of the headlines: Trump reverse course, will send more troops to Afghanistan, Trump's "America First" base unhappy with flip-flop Afghanistan speech.

The president himself said, you know, look, when you get into the Oval Office, sometimes things look more clear than they do when you're not in the oval office. Does he risk any political capital with the people who wanted him elected who wanted to get out of Afghanistan?

VALLIERE: He may risk some, Christine, but I saw a poll yesterday, 80 percent of Republicans still support him. So, his base is still solid.

ROMANS: Yes.

VALLIERE: The hemorrhaging has been among independents. But I do think that this new tone from him reflects to a certain extent Bannon's departure. It's not just on nation-building and U.S. foreign engagements. I think it's on economics, too.

I think that Gary Cohn and Mnuchin have won. I think their agenda is much more pro-Wall Street. They don't like trade wars, things like that. So, to a large extent, the Bannon departure I think really does make a big difference.

BRIGGS: That will be an interesting story to follow in the days ahead.

VALLIERE: Yes.

BRIGGS: Again, to Arizona, he'll probably please that base with an immigration message tonight. But something surprising from Senator Susan Collins yesterday about the prospect of 2020 when she was asked, do you think President Trump will end up the party's nominee in 2020? She said, Greg, it's too difficult to say.

VALLIERE: Yes.

BRIGGS: How unprecedented is that to hear from a Republican senator about a sitting Republican president?

VALLIERE: Well, you might expect her to say that. I would counter by saying that John Kasich, over the weekend, said it's too early to think about challenging him. Let's see if maybe he can grow in the job.

There's a piece in "Politico" this morning saying that Trump is putting together a campaign organization for 2020. So, I think the jury is way, way out on this. But I think he personally thinks he could run again.

ROMANS: This president has a lot of work to do in September with Congress, Republican leaders in Congress fork get stuff done. A little thing called the debt ceiling. You've got to fund the government.

VALLIERE: Yes.

ROMANS: Mitch McConnell and Steve Mnuchin, treasury secretary, and the Republican Senate leader, both say Congress will raise the debt ceiling. The treasury chief says prioritizing payments is not an option. Mitch McConnell says there's no chance the ceiling won't be raised.

Does that make you happy?

VALLIERE: Well, it makes me happy to hear that, but you've got to get the votes. Minor detail here. As the three of have us discussed over the last few weeks, the budget issues are huge in September. Debt ceiling, there will be talk about default. Getting a budget done, there could be talk about a government shutdown.

So, a lot of really complicated stuff lies ahead. And I'm not sure Ryan has the votes in the House to get some of this stuff done. He may have to go to Pelosi to get votes from Democrats.

BRIGGS: That's no easy thing with the political divide --

VALLIERE: No. Yes.

BRIGGS: -- in Washington right now.

Greg Valliere, political economist, chief strategist for Horizon Investments, we'll talk to you in about 30 minutes.

VALLIERE: OK.

ROMANS: Yes, I want to ask him in 30 minutes if tax reform is dead. Real, true tax reform, if it's just tax cuts. And can this isolated president get that agenda through?

BRIGGS: Yes.

ROMANS: All right. Thanks, Greg.

Navy and Marine Corps divers searching for ten sailors still missing after the USS John S. McCain collided with an oil tanker. We're live in Singapore with the latest developments.

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BRIGGS: This morning, the search is intensifying for 10 missing crew members of the USS John S. McCain after the warship collided with a commercial tanker near Singapore. Navy officials say the McCain suffered a, quote, steering casualty. The head of naval operations expected to order a rare operational pause across the entire Navy in the wake of the latest incident involving a U.S. ship in Asian waters.

CNN's Matt Rivers in Singapore with the details.

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MATT RIVERS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the priority, of course, at this point remains trying to locate those 10 missing sailors. The ship, the damaged ship is actually just down the shoreline from where we are now, moored inside the naval base there. And we know that divers from another U.S. Navy ship are actually examining the damaged portion of the ship, trying to get inside those sealed compartments that were sealed off during the flooding that took place after that accident occurred, trying to find those missing sailors.

We also know that the U.S. Navy in conjunction with the navies from Malaysia and Singapore are actually looking in the waters in the area where this incident took place. As for why this happened in the first place, a U.S. Navy official tells CNN that the ship's steering actually failed shortly before the incident happened, but it's unclear at this point if that is the cause of this accident.

[05:25:10] That, of course, is going to be part of what the Navy is calling a comprehensive review across its entire fleet that will include what they're calling an operational stand-down, meaning that different commands across the world will stand down for one day as a part of this safety review. We're expecting more updates later today when a U.S. navy official gives a press conference to reporters.

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BRIGGS: All right, Matt Rivers. We'll have a former naval secretary on NEW DAY just ahead to talk about what the operational pause means.

ROMANS: President Trump laying out a revised strategy in Afghanistan.

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TRUMP: A core pillar of our new strategy is a shift from a time-based approach to one based on conditions.

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ROMANS: So what conditions are critical, and is the country better off with new end date for America's longest war?

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