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John Kelly Gives Emotional Press Conference; Congresswoman Stands By Comments Made About Trump's Call to Army Widow; Gold Star Mother: "I Just Want People to Remember My Son". Aired 8-9p ET

Aired October 19, 2017 - 20:00   ET


[20:00:06] ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: Good evening.

We begin tonight with a remarkable moment at the White House press briefing room this afternoon. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, retired marine general and Gold Star father, spoke to reporters and delivered an emotional defense of President Trump's phone call to an army soldier's widow this week. The call in question was to the wife of fallen Army Sergeant La David Johnson. He and three other U.S. service members were killed in enemy fire in October 4th in an ambush Niger.

Now, this week, Democratic Congresswoman Wilson was with Sergeant Johnson's wife when President Trump called the Congress -- called her. Congresswoman Wilson says the president was insensitive when he told Johnson's wife that her husband, quote, knew what he signed up for but I guess it still hurts.

Tonight, her office says she still stands by those words and they said to look at her statement from last night. Here is part of that statement.

Quote: Despite President Trump's suggestion that I have recanted my statement or misstated what he said, I stand firmly by my original account of his conversation with Myeshia Johnson, the widow of Sergeant La David Johnson. Moreover, this account has been confirmed by family members who also witnessed Mr. Trump's incredible lack of compassion and sensitivity.

Also listening to the president's phone call with Sergeant Wilson's widow was Chief of Staff Kelly. His son, Marine Lieutenant Robert Kelly was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2010. Kelly has been reluctant to talk about the loss he and his family suffered publicly. But today, he didn't hold back. He said given what's happened this week, he decided it was time for him to speak up.

Here are some of the key moments.


JOHN KELLY, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: So he called four people the other day and expressed his condolences in the best way that he could. And he said to me, what do I say? I said to him, sir, there's nothing you can do to lighten the burden on these families. But let me tell you what I'd tell them. Let me tell you what my best

friend Joe Dunford told me, because he was my casualty officer. He said Kel, he was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1 percent. He knew what the possibilities were, because we're at war.

And when he died in the four cases we're talking about Niger, in my son's case in Afghanistan, when he died he was surrounded by the best men on this earth, his friends.

That's what the president tried to say to the four families the other day. I was stunned when I came to work yesterday morning and brokenhearted 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. That 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. And 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.

And when I listen to this woman and what she was saying and what she was doing on TV, the only thing I could do to collect my thoughts was to go walk among the finest men and women on this earth. And you can always find them. They're at Arlington National Cemetery, went over there for an hour and a half, walked among the stones. Some of whom I put there because they were doing what I told them to do when they were killed.


COOPER: An emotional defense from White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, again, a former marine commander and a Gold Star father.

Joining me now is CNN senior White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny.

So, what are you learning about the decision to send General Kelly out there to speak? Was it his decision? The president's? Do we know?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, a White House official told me tonight that Chief of Staff John Kelly would never have done this on orders. They said that he rarely, as we know, talks about his son Robert, who died seven years ago next month in Afghanistan. This is something that he has been, as he talked about, deeply troubled by, disgusted by in the words of the White House yesterday.

So, he I'm told wanted to try and put an end to this, wanted to try and explain this as they viewed only he could.

But Anderson, I can tell you just by watching him stand before he took the podium there, it looked like he wanted to be anywhere but there. But again, we are told that he would not have been there if he did not want to be.

COOPER: I used the word remarkable a few minutes ago, because -- I mean, watching it on television, it certainly was.

[20:05:00] You were there at the briefing when this happened. I'm wondering what it was like in the room.

ZELENY: Anderson, I was probably four or five feet away from him on our normal seat there in the briefing room, you know. And these briefings can be fairly perfunctory over the administrations, over the press secretaries. This was unlike anything that I have seen in that room.

And it is -- you could hear the emotion. You could feel the emotion. You could see the emotion, particularly when he was talking about the painstaking detailed version of how American fallen soldiers come back here. He used such detail about how they're packed in ice and they're flown from the battlefield on to Dover eventually and wrapped in a flag.

And, you know, going detail by detail by detail. But that was the point. The White House was trying definitely to turn the page here.

But I think it's important also to point out that, you know, John Kelly talked a lot about politics today. He blasted this member of Congress from Florida, and she now is actually not responding. She said she stands by her account but is not adding on to this.

But beyond that, Anderson, he talked very little about President Trump's role in all of this. He said that -- and if you look at his words carefully, he actually was being, I think, gently critical of the president in the sense that he was not able to deliver the message that John Kelly, you know, was trying to help him with. And he said he did it in the best way he could.

So, obviously at the end of all this, Anderson, I think we're left with, you know, will this story go away? Will it move on? There are questions about the attack, no doubt. But also still not reconciled with what President Trump said yesterday, he did not say that and in fact John Kelly said today he did say that. He gave him those words. Those words were simply misconstrued and politicized.

But, again, we shout questions as he walked out. What was President Trump's role in all of this? Those questions weren't unanswered, Anderson.

COOPER: Yes, because it is worth pointing out that the reason this entire situation is in the public discourse right now is because the president was asked about a 12-day delay in talking about what happened in Niger, and instead of answering that question and responding to it, I guess he interpreted it as -- you know, either as an insult or a tough question or critical question, he pivoted to attacking former presidents about how they handled this most sensitive of subjects. The president is the one who put this into the national discourse.

ZELENY: He did on Monday in the Rose Garden without question. That's something that the chief of staff today did not really talk about. But he was wearing three hats, Anderson, of course as chief of staff. So, he was very political. His new job is political.

His old job is a marine commander, of course. And perhaps the most difficult hat of all, of course, is the Gold Star father himself, talking about his son which he has been so reluctant to bring into this sphere here.


ZELENY: But I can tell you it was very raw, very emotional in there. It was extraordinary.

COOPER: Yes. Jeff Zeleny, appreciate you talking to us tonight. Thank you.

General Kelly today talked a lot about the sacrifice of those who serve and their families and said in so many words, unless you have worn the uniform, you simply cannot understand. You can understand the camaraderie of service. You can understand the loss a family feels when their loved one is killed. For them, it's really not about politics. They want the focus to be on their fallen son or daughter. They want their loved one to never be forgotten.

That's really the case for the family of Army Ranger Etienne Murphy, who was killed during a vehicle roll over this past May in Syria. It was his first deployment. Specialist Murphy was just 22 years old, a son, a husband, a father of two children.

I spoke with his parents, Sheila and Calvin Murphy just before air.


COOPER: Mr. and Mrs. Murphy, thank you so much for being with us. I'm so sorry for the loss of your son Etienne.

Mrs. Murphy, can you just talk about him a little bit. What kind of a guy was he?

SHEILA MURPHY, GOLD STAR PARENT: Yes. Etienne was a fun loving boy, young man.

COOPER: You still call him a boy.

S. MURPHY: I do, because he's my baby boy. He's always going to be my baby boy.


S. MURPHY: He was -- he love skateboarding. He was a "Star Wars" fanatic. He liked the Patriots, his football team, and most importantly, he loved his wife and his two children.

COOPER: He was really dedicated to those two sons.

S. MURPHY: Yes, he was. Yes, he was.

CALVIN MURPHY, GOLD STAR PARENT: Yes, he's a family man. He's a family man.

COOPER: And, Mr. Murphy, was -- I know you've talked about him as a God-fearing man and that all of his decisions in his life led him to being an army ranger. Can you explain that?

C. MURPHY: Yes. My son, even when he was young, he just lived and breathed army. He liked to play with march men. We didn't know what he was talking about. We took him to the store and said what are march men and he grabbed a bag of plastic army men.

And he's been doing that, running through the woods with paintball guns and everything.

COOPER: So he was meant to be a ranger from the beginning.

[20:10:00] C. MURPHY: Yes. Yes. Yes.

S. MURPHY: We believe that.

C. MURPHY: We do believe that.

COOPER: How did you learn about what happened to your son?

S. MURPHY: My daughter-in-law called me and said are you home? I said no. She said go home. Someone is coming to the house. And I just had a gut wrenching feeling that something was wrong with my child.

C. MURPHY: As soon as we walked in the door, five minutes after we shut that door, the doorbell rang. I peeked through the blinds and I seen the two gentlemen standing there and I fell to my knees.

COOPER: Mrs. Murphy, you and I were talking before the break and I told you about my mom losing a son, my brother. And one of the things I remember my mom saying to me, sometimes you don't even take it day by day. You take it minute by minute or even second by second.


COOPER: Just kind of breathing in and out. And I wonder if that's the way it is for you.

S. MURPHY: Yes. It's second by second because the pain is just so great. And sometimes it's hard to breathe. You have to remind yourself, tell yourself to breathe. And your mind is just all over the place.

You know, I'm expecting him to come through the door any minute. I'm expecting a phone call. Whenever I receive phone numbers or calls from numbers I don't know, I'm hoping it's him. I'm still hoping that he's coming home.

I'm still in shock, to tell you the truth. I'm still in disbelief. And I don't even know if I accepted it yet.

The clock has stopped for me and I'm just -- I don't know what to do some days. I don't know. I beg God all day to just let my child come back.

I just beg. I'll take his place. I'll go. Just let him come back and be with his family. He was a good boy and I wish he could just be here.

COOPER: I want to ask you about another Gold Star parent, the White House chief of staff, General John Kelly, because earlier today he spoke at the White House about what it's like being a Gold Star parent and obviously you're not speaking for other parents. You're speaking from your own experiences.

But I just want to play part of what General Kelly said and get your thoughts on it.


KELLY: Typically, the only phone calls a family receives are the most important phone calls they could margin and that is from their buddies. In my case, hours after my son was killed, his friends were calling us from Afghanistan, telling us what a great guy he was. Those are the only phone calls that really matter. And, yes, the letters count to a degree, but there's not much that really can take the edge off for the family members going through.


COOPER: I'm wondering if you have similar experience or what has given you strength in this time?

C. MURPHY: I don't know. I think the only thing that gives us strength is each other and our grandchildren and making sure we're there for his wife.

S. MURPHY: And our children.

C. MURPHY: And our children. That's right. That gives us strength.

COOPER: I know that you've received a huge number of letters from probably complete strangers you don't even know, obviously from loved ones, from people in Washington, from officials. I know you didn't receive a letter from the president, but does that matter to you?



S. MURPHY: It doesn't matter. And I just want to say I have no hard feelings towards President Trump for not reaching out to us. This is just something that has happened to us, and I'm not expecting him to call or send us a letter.

And I'm not angry or upset or surprised by it. It's just something that happened to us and we're just trying to get through it through the day. And my son would not care about a letter either.

I just didn't want people to forget my son, and I just want people to know that there is an aftermath of these soldiers and the Gold Star families. And I can only speak for my Gold Star family. I just wanted people to see our pain.

COOPER: I understand you actually wrote President Trump a letter.

S. MURPHY: I did. And I wrote him a letter, you know, just thanking him for what he's doing over there. Thanking him for trying to bring some type of solution. I don't know. I don't keep up on these things because as a military mom, it made me nervous, so I tried my best not to really get involved in it because it would make me -- I'm just such a nervous person.

I still don't even know what's going on about the letter and the phone call because I don't watch the news anymore. But, yes, I did reach out to President Trump just to thank him, you know, because he was my son's, you know, I guess commander-in-chief and my son loved this country. My son would not want his name to be involved in something that was negative about a phone call or a letter.

He wants to be -- yes. He wants to be remembered as a man, an army ranger that loved his country.

[20:15:01] He did what he wanted to do. He accomplished what he wanted to do. That's what I want people to know about Specialist Etienne J. Murphy. It's not about a letter or a phone call.

COOPER: He was doing exactly what he wanted to do.

S. MURPHY: Yes. Yes. He loved it. I begged him not to join. I begged him not to go to Syria, but he said mom, I have -- he told me he didn't want to go, but he did.

COOPER: You talked about this a little bit, that grief is something we don't talk about much in this society. It makes people uncomfortable. Loss is kind of a language that only those who experienced it speak to each other.


COOPER: I'm wondering, does it help to talk about Etienne?

S. MURPHY: You know, in the past it didn't help me. I didn't want to talk about it. But for some reason, these past few days when I did speak about him and I think it's because of the responses that I'm receiving and the support that I'm receiving from others, it's helping me because I felt like, and some days I don't want to go on, but when I'm reading these letters and the outpouring of support that I have received, it has touched my heart so much that it gave me a little bit of strength.

So I just want to thank everyone for their support and understanding and their compassion during this hard, very difficult time in our lives.

COOPER: Mr. Murphy, is there anything else you want to say about -- C. MURPHY: Well, yes. You know, me as the father, I have my pain.

You know, we handle our pain, you know, and our feelings a little different than our wives, but our wives, you know, they carry our children and they nurtured them and everything like that. So, when I -- sometimes I hear her pouring out her feelings and I get uncomfortable because I think it's just going to bring more pain to her, but I'm finding out that when she does that, it may be -- it's healing her little by little.

And as long as I know that she's healing, then I know that I could heal as well.

COOPER: Mr. and Mrs. Murphy, I know you have a long road ahead and I just wish you strength and peace in the years ahead.

S. MURPHY: Thank you.

C. MURPHY: Thank you.


COOPER: Well, General Kelly today said to put the politics aside. It was, of course, President Trump who brought up the whole subject of conversations with Gold Star families when he went after former presidents and then back tracked. We'll talk to a general and an admirable about that.

And the president today continued to praise his response to crisis in Puerto Rico. He gave his administration's response a 10. Our Bill Weir is on the ground tonight in Puerto Rico, keeping him honest.


[20:20:38] COOPER: Our breaking news tonight, Congresswoman Frederica Wilson is standing by her comments about President Trump's condolence call to an army widow. She believes he was insensitive.

This afternoon, in a surprise appearance, as we've been talking about at the White House briefing room, White House chief of staff and Gold Star father John Kelly said he was brokenhearted and stunned by the congresswoman's comments. Take a look.


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

You know, when I say a kid growing up, a lot of things were sacred in our country. Women were sacred, looked upon with great honor. That's obviously not the case anymore as we see from recent cases. Life, the dignity of life is sacred. That's gone. Religion, that seems to be gone as well.

Gold Star families, I think that left in the convention over the summer. But I just thought the selfless devotion that brings a man or woman to die on the battlefield, I just thought that that might be sacred.


COOPER: Joining me now, two of our military analysts, retired Army Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, and retired Navy Rear Admiral John Kirby.

General Hertling, I understand General Kelly, his criticism of the congresswoman for making public this conversation. He is in an odd position, though, because he is no longer general. He's now the chief of staff for an administration and it's the president of that administration, the president of this country who actually brought this into the conversation by using conversations with Gold Star families to attack former presidents.

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Yes, Anderson, what I'd say -- I want to say a couple things fist. I consider John Kelly a friend and a comrade and a battle buddy. We served together for 15 months in Iraq. We had quite a few exchanges during that period of time. I hope he feels the same way about me.

And we often talked about both of us having two sons in the military. My wife and I have two sons and a daughter-in-law who served a total of nine tours in combat.

I can't imagine what the knock on the door was like for him and his wife. My wife and I attended his son's funeral at Arlington. I've been to Section 61 and 60 multiple times as well.

But this isn't about John Kelly or his past experiences or his combat tours or his rank of four-star general. This is about presidential leadership.

I was also disgusted, truthfully, with Congresswoman Wilson's remarks and listening in to a phone conversation that was private. But that's not the point.

The point is that we have continued to be divisive in all of this, that John Kelly's actions today were separated from his time as a general and as a commander. And he's now in the political realm.

And unfortunately, I think his comments today were untoward. He should not have been the one out there.

I didn't appreciate what he did to the professional members of the press, the journalists. And I'm sure there are many people who consider journalists the enemy. But truthfully, they are part of a free society, and he attacked them today. And he separated and continued the divisiveness that continues in this society.

What we saw today was another day where the focus wasn't on the families like the couple you just had on, Mr. and Mrs. Murphy, and Mr. and Mrs. Johnson that were on earlier today and the suffering that they're going through because their soldiers are dead.

And I think we have to stop this divisiveness and go back to the point of empathy and understanding and humility within our society and within our presidential leadership.

COOPER: Admirable Kirby, how do you see what happened today?

REAR ADM. JOHN KIRBY (RET), FORMER STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESPERON, OBAMA ADMINISTRATION: I couldn't agree more with everything that general hurt ling said just there. Again, I've known General Kelly, worked with him every day at the pentagon for a couple of year. I have incredible respect for him.

But he is a political figure. And I was sorry to see -- sad to see that that press conference got as political as it did when it didn't need to. And I want to echo the general's comments exactly that now this thing just continues to fester. And now, we have another day of coverage of this and headline of this.

I do hope that as a result of all of this that two things will happen.

[20:25:04] One, that we'll begin to try to understand that every Gold Star family is different. All their experiences are different. You've had them on your show. You've seen that for yourself.

And maybe begin to allow ourselves to think that that young 24-year- old widow with those two kids and an unborn child on the way, maybe perceived those comments a little differently than General Kelly perceived them when he got them from General Dunford. That the message may have been transmitted as the General Kelly said, that all four of those families, but not received the same way.

And number two, I hope that the discussion over these last few days really elevates the need to wrap our arms around the nation these families. And all military families, the civil military gap continues to widen in this country and that's just not healthy for us. And I hope that as a result of all this ugliness over the last few days, we can move past that and have a serious discussion about how to bridge that gap and how to make sure that those families are supported throughout the rest of their lives.

COOPER: General, you know, some of the most powerful things that General Kelly was saying there was about things that used to be held sacred which he believes no longer are. And I think many of the things he said are certainly well-taken.

But again, representing a president who has been a number of the things he mentioned in terms of attitudes towards women, attitudes toward Gold Star families, this president is certainly, you know, has a track record on these things as well that General Kelly is now in the awkward position of bringing these things up, going after the Democratic congresswoman, which I understand, but leaving completely unsaid anything about the administration he works for which understandably for political reasons he has to.

HERTLING: Yes. And Anderson, your great producer sent me the transcript. I didn't see the presentation by John Kelly today, but I did read the transcript. And in just reading the words I was wondering, is John Kelly not only commenting on society as a whole, but is he also sending a message to his boss? I hope that's the case --

COOPER: He was very careful in how he phrased things, so it could be interpreted that the president would be included in on the critique that he was making.

HERTLING: Yes. The thing that I found interesting his comments about President Trump asking him how he should deal with these calls. And I agree with Admiral Kirby that, you know, when you're told how to handle it, the way you handle it between members who are in uniform who have lost a son versus someone, a president reaching out to a family would be very different.

I don't want to judge that, but I think it was interesting the way John Kelly parsed his words today. I don't want to put anything in his mouth. I don't want to judge him, but I think, I hope he was sending as much of a message about presidential leadership to his boss as he was about the divisiveness in the country.

Because I think John Kelly to be a true patriot, and he's a true marine and does the right thing for the country. So, hopefully, what I think he was saying in those words were, hey, boss, take a look at what you're doing too. It's a technique of leading up that I think President Trump can certainly pay attention to.

COOPER: General Hertling, appreciate you being on. Rear Admiral John Kirby as well.

There are a lot of questions about the Niger attack that left these four U.S. service members dead. The defense secretary is demanding answers. Senator John McCain, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, says subpoenas might be needed. We'll get into all of that, next.


[20:31:10] ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: Amid the controversy over President Trump's condolence call to a widow of the U.S. soldier killed in the ambush in the African county of Niger, there are serious questions about the attack itself. An investigation is underway. Chief of Staff John Kelly was asked about that this afternoon.


JOHN KELLY, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: The people that will answer those questions will be the people at the other end of the military pyramid.

I'm sure their -- the Special Forces group is conducting it. I know they're conducting an investigation. That investigation, of course, under the auspices of AFRICOM, ultimately will go to the Pentagon. I've read the same stories you have. I actually know a lot more than I'm letting on, but not going to tell you.

There is an investigation being done.


COOPER: Well, Kelly wouldn't say too much, understandably. But Senator John McCain, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, talked to CNN's Suzanne Malveaux and other reporters today who is more blunt about the growing questions.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: On the Niger mission, what does the committee need to know in terms of details?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can you be more specific?

MCCAIN: Everything.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What steps will you take, Senator, to get to the bottom of this?

MCCAIN: It may require a subpoena, but I did have a good conversation with General McMaster and they said that they would be briefing us. We have a long friendship and we'll hopefully get all the details

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you feel like the administration has been forthcoming up to this point about what happened there?

MCCAIN: Of course not.


COOPER: More now on the investigation underway by the Pentagon, here's CNN's Jim Sciutto.


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Tonight, the head of the U.S. Military is demanding answers on the deadliest U.S. combat mission of the Trump administration.

JAMES MATTIS, DEFENSE SECRETARY: 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. And so we do not have all the accurate information yet. We will release it as rapidly as we get it.

SCIUTTO: Two weeks after the ambush, Defense Secretary James Mattis official say is discouraged by the lack of information he's received from his own people on the ISIS attack in Niger that killed four U.S. soldiers and injured two more.

The 12-member U.S. Army team was meeting villagers in a town on the Niger-Mali border. They were walking back to their vehicles, which were not armored, when up to 50 ISIS affiliated fighters attacked them with machine guns and rocket propelled grenades. The Americans fought back but were only armed with light weapons such as rifles.

COL. STEVE WARREN (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: There had been nearly 30 trips along this route already. So they had reason to believe that they were in a permissive environment.

SCIUTTO: After 30 minutes, French aircraft flew by to try to disperse the attackers from the air and later to evacuate the wounded. The U.S. had to rely on a private contractor to airlift out the dead.

In the chaos, Sergeant La David Johnson was separated from the rest of the team and left behind. Commanders launched a large joint U.S., Nigerian and French search and rescue operation. Forty-eight hours later, Nigerian troops recovered his body.

Today Secretary Mattis attempted to answer hard questions about what went wrong. For one why the Military's own intelligence assessed it was unlikely the team would run into enemy forces.

MATTIS: The specific case contact was considered unlikely but there's a reason we have U.S. Army soldiers there and not the Peace Corpse, because we carry guns. And so it's a reality, it's part of the danger that our troops face in these counterterrorist campaigns but, remember, we do these kinds of missions by, with and through allies. It is often dangerous.

SCIUTTO: And as the families grieve, another question, why was a U.S. soldier left behind on the battlefield?

[20:35:02] MATTIS: 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.


COOPER: Jim Sciutto joins us now.

What more do we know about what happened?

SCIUTTO: Right now, the Pentagon is just not answering a lot of these hard questions. They're even disputing the characterization of Sergeant Johnson being left behind, say, preferring the terminology separated from his unit. Fact is for some 48 hours he was missing.

And the question is, when that French evacuation came after the firefight and took the wounded away, took the surviving members of the unit away, did they know at that point that there was missing soldier still, do they know his condition at that point?

I remember the night that this raid happened, there was concern that he might have been captured. And you had a long operation there or joint operation and urgent aggressive operation to try to find him in those circumstances.

So what happened then? Did they know then? Did they have an idea? Did they know how he got separated from his unit? From the podium at the White House today, John Kelly said that he know something, classified presumably, about this to explain it, but he can't share it yes.

Does the Military have those answers? We don't know. But even some simple things too, Anderson, for instance the exact time of the attack, the Pentagon won't confirm that.

So granted it's early, they're doing their best now to find out what happened. They don't want this to happen, but a lot of very basic questions have not been answered.

COOPER: All right, Jim Sciutto, appreciate that. Thanks.

When we come back, breaking news, two former presidents, both speaking out against what they see happening in our country. Either spoke of President Trump by name but the message was clear. Why they say the country is moving in a dangerous direction.


[20:40:32] COOPER: Breaking news, former President Obama just wrapped up a campaign speech on behalf of the Democratic candidate for governor of Virginia. And in it, he assailed the direction of politics in this country. Here's part of what he said.


BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Instead of our politics reflecting our values, we've got politics infecting our communities. Instead of looking for ways to work together and get things done in a practical way, we've got folks who are deliberately trying to make folks angry. To demonize people who have different ideas. To get the base all riled up because it provides a short-term tactical advantage.


COOPER: Well, he wasn't the only member of the president's club to speak out today. Former President George W. Bush offered a point by point takedown of Trumpism in a speech in New York this morning.


GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATE: We've seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty. At times it could seem like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than those the forces binding us together.

Argument turns too easily into animosity. Disagreement escalates into dehumanization. We've seen nationalism distorted into nativism, forgotten the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America.


COOPER: Well, joining me now, Scott Jennings, former special assistant to President George W. Bush and Jen Psaki, former White House communications director and deputy press secretary under President Obama.

Scott, were you surprised to hear President Bush coming out so forcefully today? He didn't mention President Trump by name but, I mean, the implication was clear.

SCOTT JENNINGS, FORMER SPECIAL ASSISTANT TO PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I did not -- I was not surprised he made these comments because this is the same decent, civil, dedicated to public service George W. Bush that I've always known and that we've always known in the Republican Party.

So I wasn't surprised to hear him espouse his views on politics in this country and on policy. He was as consistent in his views today as I think he was when he ran for president and got elected.

COOPER: He's been very careful, though, you know -- President Obama, he was very careful not to sort of publicly criticize things he would have disagreed with about.

JENNINGS: And he didn't mention Donald Trump by name today.


JENNINGS: And, look, I don't think the concept of us unraveling a bit in our politics started with Donald Trump. I think we've been unraveling over a number of years. And I think there's a sense right now that we don't understand each other. We have an urban/rural divide that I think it's plaguing our politics and we have a seeming inability to disagree with each other without hating each other.

And I think this has been unraveling over several years. And I think President Bush has been watching this and that's what he was talking about today. And I think Barack Obama knows it too. And I think these two guys are pleading with the country, we have to pull ourselves together because we're Americans. We're all in this together.

COOPER: I assume it's just coincidence that they happen to be speaking out on, you know, the same day, but, Jen, what did you think of what you heard from President Obama?

JEN PSAKI, FORMER WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR FOR PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, it was definitely a coincidence. But I think it tells you a lot that you have the two former presidents of the United States who most recently sat in the Oval Office.

Giving what were not complicated sets of remarks, really they were about human decency. They were about finding what unites us and not what divides us. And these are themes President Obama has been talking about since he ran for office and President Bush has also been talking about for quite some time.

So what struck me was in a week where we have been arguing about whether or now these past presidents called military families, they stood up today and I think what they were really saying was this is not normal and we all need to rise above this. It's not just about President Trump. It's about all of you, elected officials. It's about people who were public servants. And we need to recognize this is not normal what we're seeing from Oval Office.

COOPER: It is -- I mean, you know, people on television and the news and, you know, pundits can say -- can, you know, decry what's happening all they want or praise what's happening all they want. To hear from two former presidents, I mean, it does give it a very particular weight.

I want to play more of what President Bush said today.


BUSH: We know that free governments are the only way to ensure that the strong are just, and the weak are valued. And we know that when we lose sight of our ideals, it is not democracy that has failed. It is the failure of those charged with preserving and protecting democracy.


COOPER: It almost gives them both more power to not name President Trump. Because if they name President Trump, then it just falls into the realm of, oh, yet another he said/he said Twitter war kind of coverage on this.

[20:45:09] It allows President Trump to then go after George W. Bush for something or President Obama to -- you know.

JENNINGS: Sure. And, look, I don't think it does any good to single out any one political actor because I think everybody in politics bears responsibility for making it better.

And the president today and President Bush said all we have to do is remember who we are. And that goes for all Republicans and it goes for all Democrats. If we just remember who we are and remember our own values then things will get better.

And so I'm glad he didn't name names today because I think it heightens the discourse and I think we have a lack of civil discourse in this country and I thought what he had to say today really enhanced the discourse.

COOPER: Do you expect to hear President Obama campaigning for candidates more and more?

PSAKI: And I think he will. And it's something that he talked about doing even before he left office. I think one of the things he felt before he left office and he's been consistently too is that he doesn't want to be the voice of the Democratic Party. He thinks it's time for other leaders to rise.

He also didn't mention President Trump today for the same reasons. And both of their sets of remarks were more about the values of who we are than they were about attacking the person in the Oval Office, even though implied in there was criticism of some of what's been going on.

COOPER: It was refreshing, in a way, just to hear from them, not only because we don't hear from very often, but just in what is a steady diet of partisanship and, you know, shamelessness in many quarters, to hear from them just -- even if people, you know, on all sides didn't like either one them when they were in office, in hindsight, they kind of take on a different tone and tenor.


JENNINGS: Oh, sorry. Go ahead.

PSAKI: I was going to say -- we're getting along.


PSAKI: I was just going to say what's striking is they had policy disagreements and they still do. But fundamentally, they're both good human beings and they really talked about decency. And that was striking because we're in such a moment where that's not common in our politics.

JENNINGS: And not mentioning Donald Trump or any specific politicians, reminds us that people who occupy these offices are temporary but the offices go on and the values go on. And that was what I took away from President Bush's speech, which is it doesn't really matter who the president is. The underpinnings of American democracy are always the same.

COOPER: One hopes.

JENNINGS: And that's the lesson, you know, that I think he wanted us to take out of this today and not only the underpinnings but the need to protect those underpinnings from -- he mentioned, you know, foreign actors, also I think was a big theme of the speech today.

COOPER: Scott Jennings and Jen Psaki, see you later.

Coming up, the president gives himself a 10 out of 10 for his response to Puerto Rico. And pretty much asks the governor of Puerto Rico do the same thing. "Keeping Them Honest," next.


[20:51:58] COOPER: The president met at the White House today with the governor of Puerto Rico, the island of 3.4 million American citizens, the island where access to food, water and electricity remain a challenge a month after Hurricane Maria.

The president spoke about some of those challenges, but mostly spoke about what a good job he thinks he's doing.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Between 1 and 10, how would you grade the White House response so far to Puerto Rico? DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'd say it was a 10. I give ourselves a 10. I would give a 10.


COOPER: Ten out of 10, a perfect score, presumably meaning nothing could have gone any better. Everything is great.

Keeping them honest, here are some other numbers. It's been four weeks and a day since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico knocking out power to the whole island, destroying homes and roads and bridges, leaving towns full of people barely getting by.

Four weeks and a day later, more than 28% of Puerto Rico has no access to drinking water. Just this week, CNN's Ed Lavandera found people collecting and drinking water from a potentially contaminated Superfund site.

Here's another number, 78.4%, that's how many people still don't have electricity, people are waiting in line for gas, for money, food and water isn't getting everywhere it needs to go.

But it wasn't enough for the president to praise himself. He also pushed the governor of Puerto Rico who is sitting there to him to do it as well.


TRUMP: Did the United States, did our government, when we came in, did we do a great job? Military, first responders, FEMA, did we do a great job?

RICARDO ROSSELLO, GOVERNOR, PUERTO RICO: You responded immediately, sir, and you did so, you know, Tom and Brock, they have been on the phone with me essentially every day since the disaster.


COOPER: That sounded kind of familiar it's because it's not the first time the president has looked for compliments from those around him. Sometimes he does it all the way around the table.


TRUMP: So I think what we'll do, most of you know, most of the people around the room, just go around and just your name, your position.

REINCE PRIEBUS, CHIEF OF STAFF: President, we thank you for the opportunity and the blessing that you've given us to serve your agenda.

RYAN ZINKE, SECRETARY OF THE INTERIOR: It's an honor to be your steward of our public lands.

TOM PRICE, HHS SECRETARY: Mr. President, what an incredible honor it is. BEN CARSON, HOUSING AND URBAN DEVELOPMENT SECRETARY: Mr. President, it's been a great honor to work with you.

STEVE MNUCHIN, TREASURY SECRETARY: And an even greater honor to be here serving in your Cabinet.


COOPER: Progress has been made in Puerto Rico. There's no doubt, and the White House deserves credit for some of that. But once again, the president made it about himself, the great job he says he's doing, not necessarily the people of Puerto Rico who continue to suffer. The American citizens were struggling with basic necessities. It's about collecting compliments.


TRUMP: I think we did a fantastic job, and we're being given credit. You know, it's very nice that the gentleman who worked for Bill Clinton, when he was president, gave us an A-plus. And that included Puerto Rico. Gave us an A-plus.

And I think our response was better than ever seen. And again, we were given an A-plus by the man who did this, did what you were doing for the Clinton administration. And while I don't know him, I would like to thank him for what he said.


COOPER: I'm not even sure it's worth appointing this out because we've already pointing this out, but what the president just said there twice is not actually true. It's not true that the former FEMA director gave Trump an A-plus on Puerto Rico. It wasn't true when the president said it on Monday and it's not true today when he repeated it twice.

[20:55:02] That Clinton -- or the former FEMA James Witt was asked if he'd give the president an A-plus for the response to hurricanes in Texas and Florida, he said he would, no doubt about that, that was before Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico.

All right, as I mentioned, more than 78% of the island still without electricity, when 28% no -- without drinking water. And in some parts of Puerto Rico, it still seems like help is very slow in coming. Bill Weir has been there all week. He continues his excellent reporting tonight.


BILL WEIR, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It is the most popular music video ever. Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee's "Despacito" has been viewed on YouTube over four billion times. But most of that massive audience probably didn't realize the video was shot in one of the most notorious neighborhoods in all of Puerto Rico.

(on camera): Welcome to La Perla. For years, this place was written off as being drug and gang infested. Community organizers fought against that stigma. Hadn't been a murder here in six years and then came "Despacito." And suddenly, this grass (ph) side of town was a tourist destination and economy started to blow up.

People felt good about themselves. But then came Maria. Now you've got an outbreak of conjunctivitis among the children, the clinic is without power, there's no roof on the school and there is no hope that help is coming anytime soon.

Tourists wanted to come here, she did tells me. They came from Africa, China, South America, but after Maria, nobody comes. It's like a ghost town.

So the doctors will see people in the dark here? Dr. Rosita shows me around the powerless hospital where cardiograms and electronic medical records are worthless.

Is it true that Luis Fonsi donated a generator? Five generators.

They're trying to get it installed but they need to go to the mayor's office and fill out paperwork, she tells me. You need permission, oh, my gosh.

(voice-over): The excited scramble for a single bag of ice is proof that potable water and power are still elusive luxuries over a month after Maria, which puts enormous pressure on the men paid to electrify Puerto Rico.

(on camera): There are countless hospitals, dialysis centers, homes, depending on power that runs through those lines over there. That's the artery, the main spinal column of the power system. Maria devastated it, crushed it. So how do you fix it? Well, you get guys like Troy and Nick, guys who aren't afraid of heights, and you send them up to heal the lines.

(voice-over): They are journeymen linemen contracted by Whitefish Energy, a small 2-old-year company out of Montana, raised a lot of eyebrows when they were given a $300,000 contract without any input from the Army Corpse of Engineers.

(on camera): You know, the headline down here for a couple of days was, how the hell did you get this contract? You're a brand new company, right?

ANDREW TECHMANSAKI, CEO, WHITEFISH ENERGY HOLDINGS: We've been around for a few years. And, you know, we specialize in difficult and mountainous terrain projects. All I can say is we took the call and we're here.

WEIR: They called you?

TECHMANSAKI: We called each other.

WEIR (voice-over): He struck a deal with PREPA, the publicly owned utility notorious for high prices, rolling blackouts and a $9 billion debt. (on camera): Is it a risk for you as a businessman to take this gig?

TECHMANSAKI: It's a risk. But, you know, when you come down here and you see what I've seen and you have that skill set that can have an immediate impact on the people here it becomes a mission. So we --

WEIR: Not just a job?

TECHMANSAKI: It's not a job, no. It became a mission.

WEIR: How long before juice is flowing through these?

TECHMANSAKI: It's a good question. And we hope to have this line back up in the next three to four days.

WEIR: The governor is promising 95% power back by Christmas?


WEIR: Is that reasonable? Is that a fantasy?

TECHMANSAKI: It's going to take a lot of people to reach that deadline.

WEIR: You got a lot more people.

TECHMANSAKI: Lot more than we have here today, yes.

WEIR: Yes.

(voice-over): Whitefish says they have 300 linemen on the island with another 700 on the way while they wait for a hundred bucket trucks and bulldozers still stuck in Florida ports.


WEIR (on camera): You're welcome.

(voice-over): So it is anyone's guess as to when they'll have the lights back on in La Perla. Until then, there is little to do but take care of each other. The kids with no school, the elderly with no hospital. And they clean up, just in case the tourists ever decide to come back.


COOPER: And Bill joins us now.

Bill, you've been in Puerto Rico on and off for two weeks since Maria hit, I wonder what you think based on the hundreds of people you've talked to all over the island, when you hear the president say he gives a relief effort a 10, what are you hearing from people on the ground?

[21:00:00] WEIR: Well, I mean, let's put it this way. If you lived in one of Donald Trump's buildings and only 20% of the people had power and 50% had water and there was holes in the roof, would you give him a 10 or an A-plus?