ROBERT COSTA: Two federal investigations are underway into the ISIS-led attack on U.S. troops in Niger. I’m Robert Costa. We get the latest reporting from the Pentagon and the FBI, tonight on Washington Week.
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JAMES MATTIS: (From video.) The loss of our troops is under investigation. We’ll certainly update you as we have information – accurate information, not speculation.
MR. COSTA: The Pentagon launches an investigation into the deadly ISIS attack in Niger, and a retired four-star general defends the president’s conversation with a Gold Star widow.
WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF JOHN KELLY: (From video.) If you elect to call a family like this, it is about the most difficult thing you could imagine. There’s no perfect way to make that phone call.
MR. COSTA: And two former presidents speak out about the political climate in America.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: (From video.) Our identity as a nation, unlike many other nations, is not determined by geography or ethnicity. This means that people of every race, religion, and ethnicity can be fully and equally American.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From video.) We’ve got folks who are deliberately trying to make folks angry, to demonize people who have different ideas.
MR. COSTA: Plus, President Trump praises, then shuns, a bipartisan deal to restore funding to the Affordable Care Act.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) But I won’t do anything to enrich the insurance companies.
SENATE MINORITY LEADER CHARLES SCHUMER (D-NY): (From video.) We think it’s a good solution. It stabilizes the system.
MR. COSTA: Meanwhile, Republicans shift to the president’s sweeping tax plan after pushing through a budget framework.
We cover it all with Yamiche Alcindor of The New York Times, Molly Ball of The Atlantic, Nancy Youssef of The Wall Street Journal, and Jeff Zeleny of CNN.
ANNOUNCER: Celebrating 50 years, this is Washington Week. Once again, live from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. The FBI is now assisting the Pentagon with its investigation into the ambush in Niger that targeted U.S. special forces. It was the deadliest attack on U.S. troops since President Trump took office, yet so far much of the focus has been on the president’s conversations with the families of the fallen soldiers. Four U.S. servicemembers were killed in the ISIS-led gunfight: Staff Sergeants Dustin Wright, Jeremiah Johnson, Bryan Black, and Sergeant LaDavid Johnson.
On Friday, Defense Secretary James Mattis met with Arizona Senator John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who threatened to issue subpoenas to get more details about that October 4th attack. The fallout has rattled the military, Congress, and the country, but it was the president’s calls and what he said that ignited a national debate. Florida Democratic Congresswoman Frederica Wilson says she heard the president tell the widow of one of the soldiers who was killed that, quote, her husband “knew what he signed up for, but I guess it still hurts,” end quote. Mr. Trump denied saying that, and his chief of staff, John Kelly – a retired Marine general whose son was killed in Afghanistan seven years ago – defended the president.
GEN. KELLY: (From video.) 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.
MR. COSTA: Hours later, President Trump attacked Wilson, who criticized his call to the widow of Sergeant Johnson, insisting she lied about what he said.
Let’s begin tonight about what we know, Nancy, about the mission there. Just a few weeks ago, most Americans didn’t even know we had U.S. forces in Africa fighting ISIS. Now U.S. service members have been killed. What is our mission in Niger?
NANCY YOUSSEF: So there are about 800 troops in Niger itself. And this mission is part of an effort to train their Nigerien counterparts against a multiple number of threats there. There are various jihadist groups battling in that particular part of Niger where the attack happened for control of smuggling routes from Burkina Faso and Mali. And so the goal is to create a force that can contain that threat and stop the expansion of Islamic jihadist groups in that vital territory.
MR. COSTA: NBC’s reporting that there was a massive intelligence failure in this operation.
MS. YOUSSEF: Well, one of the challenges is that the U.S. is depending on Nigerien forces for the intelligence in large part. They’re generally not interacting directly with villagers. And the Nigerien forces are compromised. Some of them are demoralized. Some of them are using these smuggling routes themselves. And the villagers will tell you that they are fearful to provide intelligence to those forces because, as they say, those forces leave at night. The jihadi groups that control their neighborhoods do not. And should they be found out to be giving intelligence, they fear for their lives. And so it makes it very hard to have strong intelligence. And you find that with such few U.S. resources there, that they’re depending on alternative sources of information.
MR. COSTA: As we try to answer all these questions and the government tries to look for answers, why is the FBI involved?
MS. YOUSSEF: So the FBI investigation is separate from the Pentagon investigation. The Pentagon is trying to answer what happened, what are changes that need to be made in terms of techniques, tactics and procedures. The FBI, on the other hand, is trying to figure out two things. One, what kind of intelligence can they gather. And, two, if we can find out the actual individuals who were involved in this ambush, that their plan is to then bring evidence forth to then charge them and potentially in federal court.
MR. COSTA: Jeff, did President Trump authorize this mission?
JEFF ZELENY: We don’t know the answer to that. He was asked in the Oval Office today. He heard the question and did not respond. The White House press secretary was asked that, she did not respond. The Defense Secretary James Mattis was asked that, he did not say. It’s very likely that a type of mission like this would not need presidential signoff because it was, in many respects, a routine mission. Obviously, there was, you know, some type of massive intelligence failure because this happened. But this is – you know, it was actually more of a routine – or seen as a routine operation.
So this is something the president – it happened on the day when he was flying back from Las Vegas. Remember, he went out to visit the victims of that horrible shooting there. And he learned news of this when he was flying back to Washington. The striking thing, though, was utter silence from the White House for 12 days. Did not say anything at all about this, with the exception of the press secretary, Sarah Sanders, talked about it a couple times from the White House podium.
But the president did not. And this is a president who talks about a lot of things very often. So the political side of this, which is very separate from the substantive side of this, all started on Monday when he was asked by my colleague, Sara Murray, in that Rose Garden display: Why haven’t you said anything about this? And then it touched off a firestorm.
MR. COSTA: And, Yamiche, you’ve been on Capitol Hill all week. Congress seems to be on edge, Senator McCain in particular, about the lack of information about this mission. And they’re threatening subpoenas.
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Yeah, and it’s – and Senator McCain essentially is saying: I want to know what happened here. I want to know why we were there, what happened. Was there an intelligence failure? Did they have the right support? I mean, there are so many questions that Congress wants to ask. I should say that I’ve been talking to some Democrats about this, including Representative Wilson. And she essentially says, and the talking point is, that this is Trump’s Benghazi. The Democrats see this, I think, in some ways, as a political opportunity to question his effectiveness as a commander in chief. And as a result you see – I think there’s the substantive side of the Republicans also wanting to know more. And I think Democrats genuinely want to know more as well. But then it’s also whether or not they’re – that they’re going to use this to kind of attack the president.
MR. COSTA: And the most jarring moment for some, the most powerful moment for others this week, Molly, was when General Kelly came to the podium in the briefing room. And it was powerful to hear from a Gold Star father. But even that moment, hearing from him was a flash point. It generated as much praise as it did criticism.
MOLLY BALL: Yeah. And it was, on the one hand, a very different presentation of the sort that Trump gives. And so I think that that affected a lot of people, to see someone who had such seeming gravitas, such seriousness, and who really projects that air of authority, and to speak very emotionally about his concern for the lives of those killed in combat, including his own son. On the other hand, there were some parts of it that were – that were very disturbing. The story that he told about Representative Wilson was a very Trumpian tactic of turning something into a political attack on a perceived enemy rather than keeping it in what he said he wanted to be a depoliticized zone of talking about, you know, the deaths of soldiers, and having that be a sort of sacred space.
He’s then doing exactly what Trump does, which is turn it into a personal, political fight. And then – and he wasn’t telling the truth about what she said, whether it was because he misremembered the encounter or deliberately, he didn’t tell the truth about this speech that he attacked her for, that apparently didn’t happen. And then, you know, he made these comments attacking the press and saying – essentially saying that if you’re not, you know, flesh and blood of a member of the military you’re not qualified to have an opinion about this, or even to cover it. I mean, I happen to be related to a member of the military, but I don’t think that makes me any more or less of an American citizen than anybody else. And so it was a very – a very remarkable presentation, I think.
MS. ALCINDOR: And I think what’s interesting about what you said was it’s a Trumpian tactic. So you have General Kelly with all his gravitas saying this. And at first, as a reporter, and I think a lot of people heard this and said, OK, it’s Frederica Wilson, she’s very well-known in South Florida. She’s very well-known as being bombastic, as being someone who wears her decorative hats. So at face value you would say, OK, General Kelly wouldn’t make up a story about this congresswoman.
But then Sun Sentinel, local reporters there in Miami have been doing a phenomenal job. And they come out with this nine-minute video that tells the exact opposite. General Kelly said that she was basically bragging about getting $20 million from President Trump. So you have him one saying that she was kind of using this in a political moment, but also invoking President Obama, which Trump often does. And neither of that is true. The speech – in the speech she actually thanks a lot of Republicans for helping this – helping her get this building named for these fallen FBI agents.
So I think that’s where the problematic thing is. And when I was speaking to Representative Wilson all week and today, she said: I don’t even understand why he would say this, because it’s so easy to trace that this would be a lie. She called it a lie. But also she said essentially that she felt that there was some racial charge there, that this is a president, of course, that’s had all sorts of issues with race. But she said, when I asked her, well, what do you think is going on here? She said, well, the White House is full of white supremacists.
And I think that is something that’s really interesting to me, because there are people on the ground in Miami who have also told The New York Times that they feel it this way. So you have this president that even when he’s trying to do the right thing, people are seeing it through this prism of race.
MR. COSTA: Jeff, we heard from former President George W. Bush this week, former President Obama. They’re talking about the ugliness of this national debate, this messiness – this infusion of questions of race, Gold Star families being at the fore. They step forward to not criticize President Trump by name, but to criticize the kind of week we’ve witnessed.
MR. ZELENY: No doubt. And I think if we – as we take stock of weeks, and we’ve done this often, this was an extraordinary week in this respect, to hear from a president – Bush, I think, specifically, because President Obama has been out there a little bit more. But to hear President Bush talking about this. We basically know how he and his family feel. But to hear him articulate this in a more optimistic way, really, you know, to say that the country is essentially better than this. We can overcome this. So it was all tied together. This speech was long-planned, but I think the timing of it is – you know, is really interesting.
But back to the chief of staff for one second, I was in that briefing room on Thursday. I mean, just to – I mean, you could see the emotion on his face. You could hear it in his voice. So as he wore his three hats – his chief of staff hat, his Marine commander’s hat, and his father’s hat – he is eminently qualified to talk about all of this. But the reality now is that he has a political job. And his job is politics. He was defending the administration and the president. But I think it highlights how all of this has been politicized by him, by the president, by the congresswoman. It shows how low our discourse has sunk, I think, and how we – there’s no trust or credibility. Even a phone call can become controversial like this. It was pretty unseemly, I thought.
MR. COSTA: And the context of these phone calls, Nancy, really is a subject of debate, interpretation. And you’ve spoken with Gold Star families this week about what it’s like to get that call.
MS. YOUSSEF: I spoke to families who had received a call from the president. I spoke to families who were told they would get the call and didn’t get the call. And what struck me, the connector thread between all of them is that call, for all of the debate that’s happening now, is not the thing that sustains them in those early days. It’s not the comfort that carries them. It’s the support of local communities, of families, of friends.
I talked to people who couldn’t even find the letter that they’d gotten from the president because at the end of the day when they – as they described it – when you lose a loved one – it’s flattering to have that acknowledged by the president, but in those horrific, early days in particular, what carries you though are the people who loved your loved one as much as you did. And that’s what they remember of that period, not the VIPs who may or may not have called.
MR. COSTA: Molly, you’ve covered Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina for some time, and he said today that we don’t want the next 9/11 to come from Niger, to come from ISIS in Africa. Are we witnessing on the Republican side a willingness to have some more intervention in that part of the world to fight ISIS?
MS. BALL: No, there’s never been a lack of willingness on the part of Lindsey Graham. He’s one of the most ardent interventionists in the Congress, and has taken on Trump – or at least one version of Trump, the “America first” vision that he has sometimes espoused and sometimes not, because the president’s sort of all over the map on everything, including foreign policy. So, I mean, I think Lindsey Graham is always willing to go there, and we – this administration has been so all over the map that we have no idea. There has not been a coherent ideological push to reorient the United States in one direction or another. It’s just been things here and there. It hasn’t added up to, yes, we’re going to, you know, push forward or, yes, we’re going to pull back, we’re going to fulfill some of those “America first” promises and really get the troops out of all these foreign countries where candidate Trump was so critical of the efforts. I mean, I do think that one thing the Niger incident highlights is that is a very significant unfulfilled promise, that the president has basically done nothing to scale back the American presence overseas even though that was – that was the signature plank of his foreign policy platform.
MR. COSTA: And do we see a strategy emerging, Nancy, ISIS in Africa?
MS. YOUSSEF: Well, I mean, we could see potentially two things. We could see a more aggressive approach and an attempt to go after the Islamic State in the Sahara, who are suspected to be behind the attack. Alternatively, we could see a retreat – a decision that this is not worth the risk associated with it, that the U.S. simply doesn’t have the resources, particularly in Africa, to have enough intelligence, enough drones, enough air support to protect those troops, such that when they’re in harm’s way they can be safely taken care of. Remember that in this instance it was the French that evacuated U.S. troops because the U.S. military did not have air assets in that area.
MR. COSTA: As lawmakers evaluate what happened in this Niger attack, they’re also dealing with a lot of other issues on Capitol Hill, where President Trump’s agenda has been stalled for months. But this week there were a few sparks that could significantly reshape how Americans access health care and who pays what in taxes. All of this action, however, doesn’t mean anything is a done deal.
First, the possible overhaul of the tax code. The Senate passed a $4 trillion budget overnight, clearing the way for the Republican tax revamp.
SENATE MAJORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL: (From video.) Passing this budget is critical to getting tax reform done so we can strengthen our economy after years of stagnation under the previous administration.
MR. COSTA: At the same time, two dozen senators have signed onto a bipartisan health care deal sponsored by Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Patty Murray of Washington state. The Alexander-Murray proposal would reinstate the Affordable Care Act’s subsidies for low-income families for two years, stabilize individual insurance markets, and give states flexibility to customize health plans. President Trump announced last week that he would stop paying the federal cost-sharing subsidies because he said they were nothing more than a bailout to insurance companies. While it looks like there was some progress on the budget, tax reform, and health care, many obstacles remain, do they not, Yamiche?
MS. ALCINDOR: There are a lot of obstacles that remain, mainly because Congress has this long laundry list of things to get done. If you think about health care, essentially Lamar – Senator Lamar Alexander said we just want to avoid chaos. And I thought that was really striking because essentially Republicans are making the case that we can’t do nothing about health care; we have to do something about it because, essentially, we’ll be blamed for it when people’s premiums skyrocket. So they have this bipartisan deal that would allow people to do all sorts of things and would also help, they think, premiums go down, or at least stay lower than they would be.
So the problem is whether or not that’s actually going to pass. You only have a couple senators that have come out in support of it. The sources that I’ve gotten say that the president was actually the one who wanted to have a bipartisan deal on health care, but then you saw him kind of backtrack.
MR. ZELENY: That was so interesting. I mean, just, I mean, talking about the old phrase, I mean, I was for it before I was against it, I mean, this happened this week with the president. On Monday, you know, he spoke in favor of it in the Rose Garden. And then, you know, there was – by the time he had walked back inside, I was told by an advisor there was already alarm from conservatives coming in, including some House Republicans, who aren’t in favor of this plan at all. So the president’s sort of out there supporting it, and then he dials it back the next day. But then the next day, on Thursday, he says he’s for a bipartisan plan, and he’s been on the phone with Senator Alexander repeatedly this week urging him to keep going, keep going. So I think this is a sign the president wants some type of a deal on this. He knows that the ownership of health care will eventually be his. I think that’s a worry of his. But I do not see any agreement in the short term on that. Perhaps at the end of the year, after the tax plan and other things. But the president is sending mixed signals and, again, does not always have the grasp of all the details.
MR. COSTA: Molly, when I was at the Capitol yesterday I was talking to some senators, and they keep saying they’re moving on tax reform. The Republicans on Capitol Hill are focused on tax reform. So is that really going to be the priority thing for the next few months, if you’re worried about what’s going to happen or you’re cheering what’s going to happen first? It seems like taxes, or is health care also part of the package?
MS. BALL: You know, they’re both sort of up in the air right now. I mean, this health care thing is sort of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, right? They actually managed to work out a bipartisan deal, which is what everybody said they wanted. And then they left poor Lamar Alexander essentially all alone out on a limb and sawed it off with the president dramatically undercutting him. The Republican Caucus overall is never going to sign onto something that they don’t know President Trump will have their back on. If they feel like he could cut their legs off with a tweet at any given moment, they – and that would turn their base against them and that would make them instantly unpopular – they are never going to do something that puts them at that kind of political risk. And because he has sent these mixed signals, they are very – they are terrified of it. Tax reform has, you know, different problems.
MR. COSTA: Do they also feel that they could own – do they also feel that they could easily own tax reforms and tax cuts in a way that they don’t probably want to own health care?
MS. BALL: Well, I mean, tax reform – we don’t even know what’s going to be in the tax reform. But it is an encouraging sign for those who want to get this done that the budget did pass, I think much faster than a lot of people expected, and much more seamlessly. But that – all that does is open the door. And they still have to actually, you know, make a bill. (Laughs.) So, like, there is notional agreement that this is something everybody wants to get done. But the devil is in the details. The details don’t exist. And this is not a Congress that inspires a lot of confidence about its ability to work out details.
MS. ALCINDOR: I mean, I – (laughs) – I think that it all comes down to the president’s credibility on Capitol Hill. And from what I can tell and from all the Republicans that I talk to, even if they’re on the record saying, yes, I support this president, in reality they don’t really trust him.
They don’t really trust that if this goes – if they pass this bipartisan deal, or they pass something that maybe repeals parts of Obamacare, and then everybody gets mad and people’s premiums go up, and the base doesn’t like it, that President Trump isn’t going to turn around and say, look, it’s not my fault. This is what Congress gave me. I passed what I could. This is not a winning bill.
You can kind of see almost the argument that he would make from the Rose Garden. And I think that that’s why health care is so hard to get. I think tax reform is one of those things where Republicans have thought about it for so much longer. And I think it’s closer to their brand as a party that I think that’s why –
MR. ZELENY: And they need it. More than anything else, they need a victory. That is one reason Mitch McConnell was at the White House this week for so long with the president. They need some type of an accomplishment, I think, if they want to, you know, not face the wrath of their voters next year.
MR. COSTA: And there’s new reporting from the Post tonight that the White House is involved in trying to yank this Murray-Alexander bill to the right, because they probably feel like they need something for 2018.
MR. ZELENY: Mmm hmm, that’s right. But I’m told that these principles that they’re talking about is basically repealing Obamacare, which makes this –
MR. COSTA: That’s right.
MR. ZELENY: What was a bipartisan plan no longer a bipartisan plan. So we’re sort of back to square one, because the problems still exist in the Republican conference, not among Democrats. Those things haven’t changed.
MS. BALL: Well, and inside the White House as well. I mean, you can always feel under these kinds of incidents the tug of war that’s happening internally in the White House. Different staffers with different priorities, different positions and a president who doesn’t really have one. And he gets tugged in different directions. And he has different instincts on things. And so there isn’t a coherent line, because there’s not a single leader on policy.
MR. COSTA: Such a smart point, because the president seems to want to a bipartisan deal, but when you read the reporting tonight they’re talking about getting rid, as Jeff said, the individual mandate, getting rid of the employer mandate, or at least having some retroactive relief. That seems to be the possible tweak. So you’re looking at a president being pulled in both directions.
MS. BALL: Yeah, I mean, I don’t think – I’m just going to go out on a limb here – I don’t think Donald Trump himself wrote those talking points, right? It’s a faction in the White House. And there are competing factions in the White House always.
MS. ALCINDOR: I also heard that the president possibly himself, or at least people in his administration, have literally been making the pitch to Democrats: Why don’t you – why don’t we get a bipartisan deal to repeal and replace Obamacare? Like, using that actual language. And Democrats are, like, of course I’m not going to do that. So I think that there’s a real problem because you had a president who was wildly – at least, you know, wildly popular enough to win the presidency, but never has a firm grasp of what actual policies he wanted passed.
MR. COSTA: That’s why the president made a move on those subsidies, to try to get the Democrats to the table.
MR. ZELENY: He did. And, look, I mean, the reality here is that health care is – no one that I talked to thinks it’s going to happen this year. Tax reform might.
MR. COSTA: Tax reform. We’ll leave it there. Thanks, everybody, for joining us.
And before we go tonight we want to take a moment to acknowledge Judy Woodruff and the late Gwen Ifill, who were awarded the Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism this week at Arizona State University. Gwen’s brother, Bert, the award on her behalf. He said the PBS NewsHour co-anchors were so successful together because they shared the same commitment to the truth. That’s what so many of you saw every week around this table with Gwen. We miss her very much. And Judy said it best during her speech, I think, that we need good journalists now more than ever. And I can’t think of any duo we’d rather have holding leaders’ feet to the fire than those two wonderful ladies.
And just a reminder that our conversation will continue online on the Washington Week Extra. You can find that later tonight and all weekend at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
Thank you for watching. I’m Robert Costa. Have a nice weekend.