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Obama to Ask Congress for Authorization of Syria Strike; Obama's Last Minute Decision on Syria; Weather Outlook

Aired September 1, 2013 - 06:00   ET



BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: After careful deliberation, I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets.


VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN ANCHOR: The president has made his decision, but will Congress agree? The military strike that once seemed just days away, now appears to be farther off the horizon.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: And while Obama made his speech, Syria was watching. What opposition leaders think about the latest turn of events.


REP. CHARLES RANGEL (D), NEW YORK: I'm half satisfied.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R), TEXAS: I don't think we should be playing the role of the world's policeman.


BLACKWELL: Members of Congress are already weighing in on President Obama's decision. Now the debate begins. Should he call them back early?

KEILAR: Good morning, everyone. I'm Brianna Keilar.

BLACKWELL: I'm Victor Blackwell. It is 6:00 a.m. at CNN World Headquarters. This is NEW DAY SUNDAY.

KEILAR: It's a big gamble by the president. One that puts his prestige as commander in chief on the line.

BLACKWELL: In a stunning about-face, President Obama now says he wants Congress to sign off on a U.S. military strike on Syria, but he did not say what happens if Congress responds with no.

KEILAR: And we are covering all of the angles this hour. The president's announcement, reaction in Congress, and from Syria, plus, the behind-the-scenes moves, fascinating moves, that led the president to these words.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: After careful deliberation, I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets. This would not be an open-ended intervention. We would not put boots on the ground. Instead, our action would be designed to be limited in duration and scope.

And that's why I've made a second decision. I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people's representatives in Congress. For the last several days, we've heard from members of Congress who want their voices to be heard. I absolutely agree.


KEILAR: Congress could give the president political cover for a strike on Syria, support that he did not get from Britain or from the U.N. Congress has already started the ball rolling. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee holding a hearing Tuesday on the use of force against Syria. Now, Republican leaders say they will not end the House's summer vacation early. Members are set to return September 9th, as initially planned, and that means that final votes on the use of force to retaliate for a chemical attack may not come until mid- September, maybe even later.

BLACKWELL: Let's bring in Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr now.

Barbara, good morning. And let's start with the military and what this means from the vantage point there at the Pentagon.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, there -- all indications are they're going to still keep those warships on station in the eastern Mediterranean, waiting for any orders from the president, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, saying they'll be ready to go, the targeting will be complete.

But, you know, I think it's fair to say the military, as well as everybody else, looking at what has happened here over the last 24 hours or less. The president, apparently, by all accounts, coming to this decision after a Friday night walk, a 45-minute walk through the White House grounds with his chief of staff, Denis McDonough, talking about what the Congress' feelings were, talking about the emerging view in Congress that so many members wanted to have an open debate, wanted to talk about it more publicly before any action was undertaken.


BLACKWELL: Well, President Bush, Barbara, went to Congress before the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but is there any precedent for a limited strike like this? STARR: Well, you know, there certainly is from the standpoint that presidents have the authority, ability and have taken action when they feel the nation is at risk and for national self-defense. But many members of Congress have widely differing views now about the authority to do it and when to do it. So, have a listen to what a couple of key members of Congress have had to say about this.


SEN. TED CRUZ (R), TEXAS: I am very glad that President Obama has listened to the bipartisan calls for him to go to Congress and seek congressional authorization before any possible use of force in Syria. That was the right thing to do.

REP. PETER KING (R), NEW YORK: Let me make it clear, I believe the president can take this action without authorization from the Congress. I believe he has, as commander-in-chief, he has the right to take this action. It's in his interests to consult with the leadership in the House and Senate, but I don't believe he has to.


STARR: And so there you have, you know, this sort of multilateral split even within parties. Some saying that the president can go ahead, has every legal authority to do what he wants to do, others saying, wait a minute, we only want to see military action if there's a determination that the United States' security is at risk.

Victor. Brianna.

KEILAR: Barbara, thanks so much.

Now, the president did not decide to seek congressional approval until Friday night. Not everyone on his staff agreed with him.

BLACKWELL: Yes, CNN's senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta has really the behind-the-scenes details.


JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In a city that feasts on political theater, it was high drama just past high noon, as President Obama told the world he had pulled back from the brink of a military strike against Syria.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people's representatives in Congress.

ACOSTA: Aides to the president saying Mr. Obama decided to go in a different direction at almost the last minute. At approximately 6:00 p.m. Friday, the president made this stunning change in plans to seek congressional authorization, and then went for a walk. A 45-minute walk, in fact, with chief of staff Denis McDonough. At approximately 7:00 p.m., the president announced his decision to his national security staff, sparking a heated debate. He then started to spread the word, calling Vice President Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. Saturday morning, Mr. Obama convened a principals meeting with top national security and intelligence officials to finalize the decision.

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: The question is what do we - we collectively, what are we in the world going to do about it?

ACOSTA: Just hours before the president's bankrupt move, Secretary Kerry had made a passionate case for urgent action.

KERRY: Instead of being tucked safely in their beds at home, we saw rows of children lying side by side, sprawled on a hospital floor, all of them dead from Assad's gas.

ACOSTA: But aides say what Kerry and the rest of the president's team did not know is that Mr. Obama had been privately kicking around the idea of seeking approval from Congress for days. As Kerry was turning up the heat, the president seemed to be turning it down.

OBAMA: You know, I am very clear that the world generally is war- weary. Certainly, the United States has gone through over a decade of war. The American people understandably want us to be focused on the business of rebuilding our economy here and putting people back to work. And I assure you, nobody ends up being more war-weary than me.

ACOSTA: As it turns out, administration officials say, the president was listening to members of Congress who wanted in on the process.

SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: Well, I think it's incumbent to always obey the Constitution. The rule of law is something our country is founded on and I would ask Congress to come together.

REP. BARBARA LEE (D), CALIFORNIA: The 64 members of us who signed our letter want to make sure Congress is called back in session, debate the issues, the facts, and then vote on whether or not we should engage militarily.

ACOSTA: So, on Saturday, the president got back on the phone, calling House Speaker John Boehner and other congressional leaders.

OBAMA: Here's my question for every member of Congress and every member of the global community. What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price?

ACOSTA: Just minutes later, the president departed the White House with Biden to play a round of golf, leaving administration officials scrambling to show a united front. Despite that fierce discussion inside the West Wing, aides say, the president's team is now fully on board. As for the defense secretary, one senior U.S. official said, "as a former senator whose views on the limits of war are well known, it's not hard for Chuck Hagel to agree with the president." Another official said of Kerry, "no concerns. He was in the Senate for 29 years and has made consultation with Congress a huge priority since he became secretary of state." The debate that counts is the one to come, in Congress, where lawmakers from both parties still have questions.

CRUZ: In my view, U.S. military force is justified only to protect the vital national security interests of the United States. And to date, the administration has not focused on those interests.

REP. CHARLES RANGEL (D), NEW YORK: I don't see where America is threatened. I don't see where our national security is threatened. And perhaps between now and the time we get back in September the 9th, the president will have information that would allow the Congress to effectively see where this danger is.


ACOSTA: Administration officials say the president still reserves the right to take military action. As one top official put it, the commander-in-chief still has the authority to act, even if Congress says no.

Brianna and Victor.

BLACKWELL: All right, Jim Acosta at the White House, thank you.

While Washington debates what to do, the violence in Syria is not letting up. This video was uploaded to YouTube this weekend. It shows an explosion in a suburb of Damascus. The Syrian forces had taken about a five-hour break from the shelling, but they resumed the attacks on rebel areas right after President Obama announced his decision to get congressional approval for a strike. Thirty-nine people were reported killed across Syria on Saturday, including 10 children.

KEILAR: Now, coming up later this morning, John Kerry will be on CNN. The secretary of state joins our Gloria Borger to talk about the situation in Syria and the U.S. response.

BLACKWELL: "State of the Union" airs right here on CNN at 9:00 a.m. Eastern.

KEILAR: Still to come, as President Obama waits for a decision from Congress --

BLACKWELL: Will a delay complicate a possible international response, and will it only help the Assad regime?



BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm confident we can hold the Assad regime accountable for their use of chemical weapons, deter this kind of behavior and degrade their capacity to carry it out. Our military has positioned assets in the region. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs has informed me that we are prepared to strike whenever we choose. Moreover, the chairman has indicated to me that our capacity to execute this mission is not time-sensitive. It will be effective tomorrow or next week or one month from now. And I'm prepared to give that order.


BLACKWELL: Well, you heard him, the president is prepared, but first he wants lawmakers' approval before striking Syria. He reiterated in a Rose Garden speech yesterday, military action would not require sending in U.S. troops. Listen.


OBAMA: This would not be an open-ended intervention. We would not put boots on the ground. Instead, our action would be designed to be limited in duration and scope.


BLACKWELL: So, what does a military strike look like and how does a delay possibly hurt a strike against Syria? Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona lived in Syria for three years during the '90s and he is a formerly attache at the U.N. embassy in Damascus.

General, it's good to have you.


BLACKWELL: Lieutenant, I'm sorry. Now, Lieutenant Francona, General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as you heard from the Rose Garden yesterday, said that striking tomorrow, next week, a month from now, will not decrease the effectiveness. Do you agree with that? And what does this mean for the Assad regime as this week, month goes on?

FRANCONA: Well, I - you know, I disagree, depending on what we're trying to do. If you're trying to degrade the Syrians' ability to use chemical weapons, waiting 10 more days is going to hurt our ability to do that. I can guarantee you that right now almost every chemical weapon, chemical weapons delivery system, what the Syrians regard as high-value targets, things that they think we're going to go after, are being moved. They're being moved into hide locations, hardened locations. We've just given them 10 days to make sure that they can absorb any kind of strike we're going to make. And I'm not sure what the goal of this is going to be, if it's to punish or if it's to degrade their capability. We can certainly degrade their capability, but we're not going to eliminate their capability to use chemical weapons.

BLACKWELL: So, if this goes on for a month, and let's say that Congress authorizes this strike in a month, the president's ready to give the order, what left will there be to hit, especially if Assad moves some of these assets into civilian areas?

FRANCONA: Well, we have to decide what we want to do. If you want to go after the chemical warfare capabilities, that's going to be very, very difficult, especially with the t-lams (ph), the land attack missiles that are on these cruisers -- these destroyers. They're very effective weapons, but they're not bunker busters. They won't be able to hit the hardened sites. They're great for taking out air defense. If we were going to mount some sort of a combined campaign where we'd be using land-based aviation to drop bunker busters, hardened bombs, we could use the tomahawks to lessen those air defenses and get some manned systems in there to do some damage.

But no one wants to do that. That puts a lot of pilots at risk. So we have to sit back and say, well, what do we really hope to accomplish? Is this going to be a symbolic gesture or are we really seriously trying to degrade Assad's military?

BLACKWELL: Let's talk more about what is going to be accomplished. The president, almost a year to the day, in 2012, first spoke of that red line of chemical weapons. By going to Congress now for authorization, has he watered down what was a very strong, determined statement?

FRANCONA: I can tell you how this is playing in Syria, Victor. The -- I did a lot of research last night on the Syrian press and the Syrian television, and they're regarding this as the American president blinked. They're thinking that in the wake of the U.K. parliamentary vote, and now the president says, well, I'm going to go to my Congress and I'm going to see what they have to say, to the west, this looks like he's being deliberate and very thoughtful and doing all the right things.

In the Middle East, this looks like a sign of weakness, and it is being perceived as such, not only on the side of the Syrian regime, but also in the ranks of the Syrian rebels. They're all thinking -- they're feeling very isolated right now. They figure that they've lost support in Washington. Now, whether that's true or not really is immaterial. It's what they perceive.

BLACKWELL: And beyond Syria, for the region, I've been reading some publications in Israel, and they're a bit shaken as well. We're going to talk about it later in the show. Lieutenant Rick Francona, thank you so much.


KEILAR: Now still to come on NEW DAY, it was a place where some of L.A.'s homeless sought shelter, but now it's no longer standing and investigators want to know how this house just suddenly collapsed.


BLACKWELL: Twenty-two minutes after the hour.

New this morning, Nelson Mandela has been discharged from a South African hospital.

KEILAR: The 95-year-old former president had been hospitalized since June 8th because of a lung infection. BLACKWELL: Mr. Mandela will continue his recovery at home. He is frail. He is in critical and at sometimes unstable condition, according to the office of South African President Jacob Zuma.

KEILAR: Well, there's been a spike in radiation levels at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan that was left crippled by a tsunami two years ago. The radiation was measured in the pipes and containers that hold water at the facility.

BLACKWELL: Tepco is the company in charge of the cleanup. Officials say just one drop of contaminated water dripped out of the holding tanks when a worker touched a pipe, and that there is - that isn't a leak. They also said they're making every effort to keep workers safe.

In California, investigators are trying to figure out why a single-family home in Los Angeles collapsed. Look at this. According to officials, the house, which was abandoned, was used as a shelter by the community's homeless population.

KEILAR: The fire department was able to clear the house after sending in a team of specialized dogs to determine whether anyone was trapped. No injuries were reported in Friday's collapse.

You know Tim Tebow? He won't be suiting up in a New England Patriots uniform this year. The Pats cut him just days before the new season kicks off. The former Heisman trophy winner is probably the biggest name to get axed this preseason. But always a class act. Tebow took to Twitter to thank the team for giving him an opportunity and he vowed to make it back to the NFL.

Well, summer isn't over just yet. Just a little bit of it -- a little bit of it left. And you still have one last hoorah this Labor Day weekend. But beware, because rough thunderstorms could disrupt those barbecue or beach plans.

BLACKWELL: Barbecue, mm-mmm.

KEILAR: I know, that sounds good.

BLACKWELL: Right? Let's bring in meteorologist Karen Maginnis in the CNN Weather Center.

I hate the rain to interrupt a good barbecue.

KAREN MAGINNIS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: No, or Dragoncon for that matter.

KEILAR: Your favorite.

MAGINNIS: Brianna, I know you're all over that now.

KEILAR: Yes. Finally, I got what it is.

MAGINNIS: And we saw -- we both saw Superman this morning, by the way. KEILAR: Superman.

MAGINNIS: Yes, he was out there.

KEILAR: Not fully clothed, actually, on the way here.


KEILAR: It's this big conference going on in Atlanta. Very strange.

BLACKWELL: We won't tell you what he's missing, but, yes, not fully clothed.

MAGINNIS: Who needs clothes when you're celebrating?

KEILAR: It's summer!

MAGINNIS: All right. Well, we've got a frontal system that's making its way across the United States, but in its wake there will be some pretty big thunderstorms. It will cool those temperatures off. But guess what happens for your Labor Day celebration? Yes, a lot of those thunderstorms are really going to be collecting along the eastern seaboard. So a few more storms expected. Washington, D.C., Atlanta, all the way down to Miami, even across that I-95 corridor, as a frontal system progresses more towards the east.

I wanted to mention Yosemite. And it does look like we can expect some showers or thunderstorms. They're saying that for firefighters, some of this monsoonal moisture is going to make its way a little bit further towards the north. So enhanced chances for some showers there. They're saying the fire's about 40 percent contained, so that's some good news for visitors there and firefighters.

Back to you.

BLACKWELL: Some good news. Karen Maginnis, thank you.

KEILAR: Now still to come, people from coast to coast are taking to the streets.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The people (ph) united!

CROWD: Stop the war!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The people (ph) united!

CROWD: Stop the war!


BLACKWELL: Why these protesters and others across the country want the U.S. to stay out of Syria.


KEILAR: Mortgages ended the week mixed. Check it out.


KEILAR: It's the bottom of the hour now. Welcome back, everyone. I'm Brianna Keilar.

BLACKWELL: I'm Victor Blackwell.

President Obama puts the pressure on Congress. In a surprise move, the commander-in-chief says he wants lawmakers to sign off on a U.S. strike against Syria now -- in a response to a suspected chemical weapons attack. Listen.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Our military has positioned assets in the region. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs has informed me that we are prepared to strike whenever we choose. Moreover, the chairman has indicated to me that our capacity to execute this mission is not time-sensitive. It will be effective tomorrow or next week or one month from now.


KEILAR: The president is expected to brief congressional Republicans and Democrats today during a members-only, classified briefing.

BLACKWELL: He has already said any military action in Syria would be limited in duration and scope. Congress is out of session until September 9th.

A slim majority of Americans does not support U.S. military action in Syria. That's according to an NBC News poll. It found that 50 percent, half of the people who were surveyed, oppose action and just 42 percent support it.

KEILAR: Now, the public is more supportive when the scope is limited to just cruise missiles. For that, the numbers practically flip. So, you've got a 50 percent supporting that, 44 percent against.

BLACKWELL: Meantime, though, the vast majority, 80 percent say the president should get congressional approval for military action.

KEILAR: Thousands opposed to military action took to the streets across the country yesterday. Now, from Boston to Indianapolis to Dallas, Los Angeles, people made their position pretty clear.


CROWD: Hands off Syria! Hands off Syria! Hands off Syria Hands off Syria! Hands off Syria


KEILAR: In the nation's capital, huge crowds gathered outside the White House calling on President Obama to back down.



CROWD: Hands off Syria!


CROWD: Hands off Syria!


KEILAR: There were also antiwar protests in Indianapolis, Atlanta, San Francisco as well.

BLACKWELL: Well, it's not just protesters opposed to military action. Members of Congress from both parties really have already voiced their opposition. Others are showing strong support as well.

KEILAR: There's no sign, though, of consensus really either way, and Congress doesn't return to Washington until September 9th. So, joining us now to talk about this from Princeton University is Professor Julian Zelizer. He is a political historian. Julian, thanks so much. Good morning to you. And I want you to first address, historically speaking, how unusual this is, a president's decision to consult with Congress on a strike, and I think doing it in a way that's sort of last-minute. And also, when you consider that Congress's response is very iffy at this point, if they'd even approve it. How unusual is that?

PROF. JULIAN ZELIZER, PRINCETON UNIVERSITY: Well, it's not unusual in that since 1950, presidents have been going to war without declarations of war. And since 1973, this is the kind of consultation they've been engaged with. Clinton did this with Kosovo, and presidents have had this kind of interaction with Congress for some time now.

BLACKWELL: So, here's the question after the vote. As Brianna said, it's iffy right now if Congress will authorize. If Congress votes no, could the president still go through with that strike? And how unusual would that be?

ZELIZER: Well, the administration, I think, technically can go through with this. And according to the War Powers Act, they have to notify Congress. Congress has 60 days to say no. And then there is 30 more days where operations can take place, all meaning President Obama has a lot of leeway. And this all depends on how they define what's going on. But if he does it without congressional support, it could cause huge political problems here in the U.S. and undermine the whole mission overseas.

KEILAR: Has that - has that been done before, that a president is told no by Congress and he goes ahead anyways?

ZELIZER: Yeah. When Clinton was striking in Kosovo also for humanitarian arguments, the House of Representatives in the end didn't support the bombing operation, and it went through. So, it can happen and we can see this happen again.

KEILAR: So, President Clinton, this is one of the things people talk about, regrets, perhaps. Clinton talked about his regret for not getting involved in the '94 Rwandan genocide. Here's what he told CNN's Erin Burnett.


BILL CLINTON: We just blew it. And I think had we sent 10,000 troops here and gotten a few more people to come, we might have been able to save a third of the people who died. So, I don't think we could have ended the violence, but I think we could have cut it down, and I regret it.


BLACKWELL: That's telling years after, the president's feelings. So, you're the historian. That's why we have you on. Years down the road, if the U.S. doesn't do something now, I mean, 100,000 have already died and now there's 1,400-plus from chemical weapons, the U.S. government believes. How will history judge this president and this Congress?

ZELIZER: Well, it could certainly be a huge negative on both branches of government. I think the failure to respond to humanitarian crises in the '90s remains something that looms large not just for Clinton, but many of the advisers, like Samantha Power, who currently surround President Obama. They just don't quite know, how do you conduct and justify military operations to deal with these humanitarian issues. It would be a huge change if Obama can articulate that. So far, he hasn't, but I think it's a challenge he wants to try to meet.

BLACKWELL: Princeton professor and political historian Julian Zelizer, thank you.

ZELIZER: Thank you.

KEILAR: So, when a president hits the pause button, does it signal prudent deliberation or does it signal waffling? We'll be asking our guests about the politics of President Obama's decision to consult Congress about a strike on Syria.



OBAMA: This attack is an assault on human dignity. It also presents a serious danger to our national security. It risks making a mockery of the global prohibition on the use of chemical weapons. It endangers our friends and our partners along Syria's borders, including Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq. It could lead to escalating use of chemical weapons or their proliferation to terrorist groups who would do our people harm. In a world with many dangers, this menace must be confronted.


KEILAR: After nearly two weeks of threatening military action against Syria, strikes that appeared imminent, it is remarkable for a president to hit the pause button for a congressional vote, but that's exactly what Mr. Obama is doing. Without Great Britain or the United Nations backing him on Syria, Congress may now be his best bet for political support.


OBAMA: Over the last several days, we've heard from members of Congress who want their voices to be heard. I absolutely agree. So, this morning I spoke with all four congressional leaders, and they've agreed to schedule a debate and then a vote as soon as Congress come back into session.


KEILAR: Now, joining me here in Atlanta is Jason Johnson. He is a professor of political science at Hiram College and in Columbia, South Carolina, Katon Dawson, a national Republican consultant and former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party.

Jason, I will start with you. You're here right with me. First off, can you talk a little bit about the problems that this is not a done deal by any stretch of the imagination? President Obama is facing bipartisan opposition to this.

PROF. JASON JOHNSON, HIRAM COLLEGE: Right. It's going to be really strange. I mean, this is a long punt, because he's saying, basically, Congress is going to have to make a decision. And he's got really a lot of different arguments in Congress. There are Republicans who don't like this, Democrats who don't like this. Everyone who's running for president in 2016 is trying to figure out what their speech and debate will be. This is by no means over and I don't really know what Obama's strategy was in trying something like this. This could last for weeks.

KEILAR: So, what was his strategy, do you think, Katon? Is he punting or is he, I don't know, passing the buck? Is he punting, passing the buck, or is he being deliberate?

KATON DAWSON, NATIONAL REPUBLICAN CONSULTANT: I think it was extremely clumsy that both the vice president and the president certainly haven't sold the American public that we need another conflict. He did connect the dots with Israel's security. He didn't mention Iran and the imminent threat we have there with the nuclear weapons on the horizon. And it was just clumsy. And I think the American people, especially going into the 2014 cycle, where we know that the House is fairly secure with the Republican majority and the Senate's going to be in play, so what he's done politically is thrown the Senate question up there. And now that we've gone ahead and paused and we're going to wait a minute and let's go see and go through the process after we've lost -- after they've spent 100,000- plus lives, 1,500 plus on chemical weapons, it is clumsy.

I will give the president credit for calling their bluff after he drew the red line in the sand about using chemical weapons, but I think there's a lot of confusion among the American public. Now we're going to mix the politics with it and we're going to send it to Congress and it's going to get more confusing and more awkward, because our country is war-weary. They'll support a president if he states the case in a clear objective, but I think what I find out there among my colleagues and friends is, we're tired of entering a conflict that we can't see a strategy where we can win it. And no one wants to just go drop a few hellfire missiles or cruise missiles and back on out and say we got you for a little while. And that's what the clumsiness is. So, you know, I understand what's going on here. It's going to be a long, protracted process ...


DAWSON: ... while the Syrian rebels and everybody's fighting. So, we'll see what happens, but it's going to be clumsy and awkward.

KEILAR: And Jason, let's talk about the calendar here. This is something that I personally find perplexing. Congress doesn't return, or at least the House ...


KEILAR: ... does not return until a week from tomorrow. The White House is not -- the president is not talking about calling them back early. He has an international trip ahead of him this week, including to Sweden, which you could argue -- I mean, the G-20, you can kind of understand why he goes Sweden, maybe more of a social visit. What is with this timeline, and is he serious if he is going away throughout the week this week instead of twisting arms with Congress?

JOHNSON: Well, I think part of this is also Obama's general reticence about getting involved. I mean, he thinks that there's a moral case, but he knows that the country is weary, he knows that this is expensive, he knows that it's complicated, and that's why it's partially a punt. He's going to be out of town. This is now squarely in the lap of Boehner and squarely in the lap of McCain and all the congressional Republicans and Democrats who have been chirping from the sidelines. Now they're going to have to deal with this and Obama gets to escape. So, again, that's part of what he's doing here.

KEILAR: Katon, what do you think, if Congress says no and the president still goes ahead, what does that look like for him?

DAWSON: Well, I think that might - that might be the president's endgame here, because if the seriousness is there, the American people have always backed up a president in this type of crisis, in my opinion. And the fact is that he is going overseas or going to play golf or whatever the president's going to do. Any time you're asking Congress this big a question, best thing you ought to do is stay home and talk to them. And right now, I think Congress is going to have a long, hard discussion. But remember, we're now mixing in 2014 and 2016 politics, and there are going to be a lot of people on TV stating their case out there to the public, a lot of politicians. So, I think the president's making some bad choices.

KEILAR: And don't forget, Congress was supposed to come back, right? What were they going to be dealing with? Making sure the government stays funded, making sure that the U.S. doesn't hit its debt ceiling. So, already had their work cut out for them. Professor Jason Johnson, Katon Dawson, thanks, guys, for being with us.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

KEILAR: Victor, over to you.

DAWSON: Thank you.

BLACKWELL: Thank you, Brianna.

Let's broaden the conversation now about the Assads, the Assad family. She's been called glamorous and chic, modern, but now Bashar al Assad's wife is taking heat as the country is torn apart by civil war. More on the secretive life of Syria's first lady, next on "New Day."





BLACKWELL: This video uploaded to YouTube purports to be recent bombing in the Damascus suburbs in Syria. And as the civil war death toll continues, the U.N. says it's above 100,000, the U.S. creeps closer to military action. Now, we take a look at the once outspoken wife of regime president Bashar al-Assad. Now, it would be hard to believe that Asma al-Assad doesn't know about the bloody reality on the ground in her country, but lately, she's been seen smiling in social media posts. According to hacked emails, she's gone on lavish shopping sprees. Our Erin McLaughlin has more on Syria's first lady.


ERIN MCLAUGHLIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: These are the latest photos of Syria's first lady. The silent counterpart to her husband, Bashar al-Assad. Here she is at the bedside of those wounded in the civil war. Tweeted from the account @syrianpresidency. Part of the government's attempt to put a sympathetic face on a regime accused of atrocious crimes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think that she's standing by her man. She threw her lot in with Bashar a long time ago. MCLAUGHLIN: Once profiled in "Vogue" as glamorous, modern and chic, Asma Assad and her husband were supposed to be the new Syria. She grew up in London, was well educated, even worked at investment banks. Now she's infamous for an online shopping spree, buying expensive furniture, fondue pots and Louboutin shoes as her Syrian hometown was bombarded by government forces. Those that know Asma say this side of her is difficult to believe.

BARIA ALAMUDDIN, FOREIGN EDITOR, AL-HAYAT: I can't believe that she is not reading what everybody else is saying. I mean she was educated here, she's grown up in the West. She knows what the human rights is.

MCLAUGHLIN: In 2009, Asma was an outspoken critic of Israel's bombardment of Gaza, a conflict that left 1,300 Palestinians dead.

ASMA AL-ASSAD, SYRIAN FIRST LADY: We have a choice. We can either sit by and we can sit and watch our TV screens and watch the atrocities and see some really horrific images, or we can get up and do something about it.

MCLAUGHLIN: But now, Asma Assad shows no signs of trying to put a stop to the endless stream of horrifying images pouring out of her own country. Erin McLaughlin, CNN, London.


BLACKWELL: Let's dig a little deeper into the Assad family with CNN editorial producer Nicole Dow. Thanks for this. This is a fascinating report that she's got for us. Some compare this family to the mafia, that they're kind of Soprano-like. They are powerful, they're rich, they're very secretive, and knowing how the Assads operate can kind of be crucial to helping us understand where they might be coming from, where their minds are here. Can we understand that a little more?

NICOLE DOW, CNN EDITORIAL PRODUCER: Definitely. You know, the Assads are very, you know, influential family, Brianna, but very much behind the scenes. And not a lot is known about them. In the process of writing this piece, I really had to dig deep to get some details. But a very interesting family, very powerful and very secretive. Family shrouded in secrecy. So, let me start with the mother, who is Anisa Makhlouf al-Assad. And she was married to Hafez al-Assad, who is Bashar's father and was president of Syria. And her family is very wealthy. Since marrying into the Assad family, the Makhloufs, which is ...

KEILAR: Her family ...

DOW: Anisa's family ...


DOW: ... has taken on contracts in telecommunications, banking, oil ...

KEILAR: So, almost a business deal in a way.

DOW: Yes. Her nephew, Rami, actually is the wealthiest man in Syria.

KEILAR: Really?

DOW: Yes. She herself is known to be very influential in the family, but keeps a very low profile. There are reports she didn't even attend her husband's funeral.

KEILAR: Wow, OK. And so, and she also -- there's some younger brothers here, right?

DOW: Yes. There are two. Well, actually, three. The youngest brother is Maher al-Assad, and he is regarded as the second most powerful man in Syria.


DOW: And he oversees the military, specifically the 4th Armored Division, which suppressed the early uprisings that happened in southern Syria and also the Republican Guard, which protects the regime in Damascus.

KEILAR: Wow. So, he's a key defense figure, but this is fascinating, because for however small amount of information we know about him, we know even less about who are referred to as the lost brothers.

DOW: Yes. But I do -- before we move on to the lost brothers, very quickly about Maher. Known for being ruthless.


DOW: A hard-liner. There are reports that he allegedly shot his brother-in-law in the stomach during an argument in the presidential palace in 1999.


DOW: So, you don't want to mess with this guy. And then, moving on to the lost brothers, they are Majid and Bassel. So, Majid, not a lot is known about him. He has stayed out of the spotlight. A Syria news agency reported a couple of years ago that he died of an illness.


DOW: Nobody knows what that illness was.

KEILAR: And other lost brother?

DOW: The other lost brother is Bassel, and Bassel was groomed to be the heir apparent and take his father's place ...

KEILAR: Interesting.

DOW: ... as president of Syria.

KEILAR: It didn't happen.

DOW: Yeah. He died in a car accident when he was 31.

KEILAR: Right.

DOW: And upon news of his death, Bashar, who was studying ophthalmology in London at the time, was brought back to Damascus to be groomed to be president of Syria.

KEILAR: OK. Nicole, thank you so much for that report.

DOW: Thank you.

KEILAR: And we'll be right back after a moment.


KEILAR: That wildfire burning in Yosemite National Park may not be contained until October 20th.

BLACKWELL: That's a month later than originally predicted. The rim fire, as it's known, is now the fourth largest fire in California history. More than 340 square miles have burned, but firefighters are making progress. They say the fire is now 40 percent contained.

All right, imagine finding this in your backyard. Mm-mmm.

KEILAR: What? Oh!


BLACKWELL: Yeah, that.

KEILAR: Oh, he's bigger! He's - I'm like, I've seen a guy like him. No.

BLACKWELL: And he's looking into your window.

KEILAR: Well, kids and their parents were on high alert in Texas when this large, exotic lizard got loose. Four feet long.


KEILAR: Very fast.

BLACKWELL: Not a tiny one. He managed to pull off a couple of quick escapes, but neighbors ultimately captured their unexpected visitor, he was caught in a cage.

KEILAR: A little cage there. Amazing.


KEILAR: Thanks so much for starting your morning with us. BLACKWELL: We've got much more ahead on the next hour of CNN's "NEW DAY." it starts right now.


OBAMA: After careful deliberation, I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets.

KEILAR: The president has made his decision, but will Congress agree? The military strike that once seemed right around the corner now appears to be farther off on the horizon.

BLACKWELL: Late-night meetings, long walks around the garden, rendezvous behind closed doors. This is not some romantic tryst. It's behind the scenes at the White House. We have the real story about how the president made his decision.