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Syria Crisis; McCain, Graham Press Conference; Chris Kofinis and Ana Navarro Debate Obama, McCain, Graham and Congress; Nyad Completes Cuba to U.S. Swim, Reporter Interviews Assad; Israel Reaction to Obama Rethink

Aired September 2, 2013 - 15:30   ET

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


BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: What do you make of that tone?

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR, "THE LEAD": Well, look, Graham and McCain and a few others have been literally for years, since 2011, arguing that the U.S. needed to be arming the rebels in Syria. And they've been making that case.

And I'm sure that they believe that if that had been done in 2011 and 2012, there would not have been this moment where the Syrian regime allegedly gassed its own people on August 21st.

It's hard to dispute the fact that the White House has not done enough in terms of convincing the public and convincing Congress that something needs to be done.

President Obama has talked periodically about sanctions, about Syria needing to control itself and to lay down its arms, but there really hasn't been any serious preparation for the idea of military action in terms of a public campaign. And I think that's what Lindsey -- it's hard to disagree with that.

Look, the president himself sounds very ambivalent about the use of force, and up until Saturday, when he talked about he's made up his mind, but he wants to go and get congressional approval, even the day before, on Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry was conveying a very fierce urgency of military action while President Obama during a pool spray was sounding torn, was sounding ambivalent.

So it's not just the public that needs to be convinced. Sometimes it's President Obama who sounds as though he needs to be convinced.

BALDWIN: Yeah, yeah. And also the angle with Russia, and, Dana Bash, let me bring you in on this. I was talking to Jake about this earlier because we've now learned from the Kremlin that they're going to be sending this Russian delegation, right?

They're sending their own lawmakers to Congress to chat, to have this dialogue with American members of Congress.

And, according to -- I guess all these phone calls Jake made, basically, this is sort of unprecedented.

My question to you is, how is that going to go? Are they going to listen?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: First of all, it depends who the "they" are, who's actually going to meet with these Russian members of parliament.

And I agree with Jake. We, our team here, we can't think of any precedence either.

But before I get to that, I just want to add one thing if I may, Brooke, to what Jake was saying, particularly about the idea of Lindsey Graham trashing the president in his own driveway, which is effectively what he did.

I completely agree that this is something that Lindsey Graham and John McCain have been talking about, nonstop. You basically can't walk down the hallway here on Capitol Hill and bump into them without hearing them rail against the fact that they feel that the administration has not done enough against Syria and left these millions of people, refugees, high and dry and threatened the region and everything you just heard them say.

But also, just to give a little bit of context here, I know everybody says this isn't political, but guess what? It's Washington. Everything is political.

Lindsey Graham is racing back to South Carolina now because he's got a very difficult re-election on his plate. He's getting hit from all sides, particularly the right, so he's got to be careful here. I thought that was a very interesting moment. He basically just went off on the president there.

But also, just bigger picture here, when this whole -- when this press conference started, I was getting ready to say that I thought it was potentially a seminal moment on a process and on a substantive reason.

First, process because John McCain has proven in the past couple of months that if he wants to help the president, he can get it done for him. He can twist arms. He can make it happen. He knows how to legislate. He's a veteran here, and he knows how to kind of work deals.

If he wants to work a deal for the president he can probably make it happen, so he sounded like he was almost there at the beginning. And at the end, someone asked the direct question, are you going to twist arms? And he said, I have to be persuaded first. Sounds like he's almost there.

But then, substantively, they did sound a lot more positive about the fact that they felt the administration does have a plan to, in their words, "upgrade" help for the rebels. That's what Lindsey Graham told me several times in the past few days going into this that they wanted to do, use the authorization vote as leverage to get what they want.

They feel more comfortable. They're not there yet, but that is absolutely what this is about. And I completely agree with Jake in talking to lawmakers here, it is why it makes this job of the White House to lobby members so difficult because there was this conference call just a few hours ago with Democrats arguing the opposite in order to get their vote.

BALDWIN: Gosh, it's all over the place. It is a conundrum to quote Mr. Tapper there.

Dana Bash, my thanks to you. Jake Tapper, we will, of course, be watching for you at the top of the hour with all the news that has percolated on what has certainly not been a boring holiday.

I know you're speaking with former CIA Director Michael Hayden, so we'll stay tuned to that.

TAPPER: Thanks, Brooke.

BALDWIN: Let's get both sides of this just sort of political speaking. Chris Kofinis is a Democratic strategist, and Republican strategist, CNN political commentator Ana Navarro.

So welcome to you both. I hope you were plugged in and listening to both of those Republican senators there, fresh out of the White House.

And, Ana Navarro, let me go to you first just because you talked to both of those senators last night.

In hearing from them today, did anything surprise you?

ANA NAVARRO, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Absolutely nothing surprised me.

They've been saying it, and it shouldn't be a surprise because both Jake and Dana were completely right. They've been saying the same thing now for years. They have been rattling the cage about what this means for Jordan, about how a risky position the king of Jordan is in because of the influx of refugees.

They have been asking for more sustained help and support for the Syrian rebels. They have been saying over and over again that we are losing the moment, that we've lost the momentum in Syria.

There were some times ago when it looked like the rebels were about to win, when we were talking about a possible exit, immediate exit by Assad. We've lost that momentum while we twiddle our thumbs.

So this is not surprising by John McCain. It's also not surprising that Lindsey Graham and John McCain show up and do this as the White House because it has political risks. They have been in this region over and over and over again. They are internationalists.

They care tremendously about the stature of the country and how we are seen in the world. They have been known to put our country over politics time and time again. I am very proud of them.

BALDWIN: Chris, to you, hearing -- again, Dana was exactly right in saying some of this is politics. Hearing Lindsey Graham rail on the president in his own driveway, hearing him say, you know, it's a serious cancer growing in the region, it's the president who's allowed this to become a debacle, do you think that's a fair criticism?

CHRIS KOFINIS, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: No, it's not a fair criticism for a lot of reasons.

Listening to Senator McCain and, you know, Senator Graham is kind of sometimes amusing because they think somehow this is a big game of "Risk." You just move these little pieces around and you have no consequences.

The reason why this is so complicated is there's not one single opposition. To suggest that the American people, to suggest it would have been just easy to give weapons to one good guys who are a rebel force. It's not. It's much more complicated.

There are groups that are divided. There are groups that are backed by al Qaeda and other radical Islamist factions, so this is a very complex issue.

You heard it right there and the part that bothered me the most about Senator Graham and Senator McCain said, you have a real difficult position for the president to try to build support amongst Democrats and Republicans who are very concerned about what the end game here is.

And he -- they go out there and they basically suggest that it's not a limited strike they want. It's an expansive strike. It's a long-term commitment.

Now does anyone think that's going to help build congressional support? I mean, does anyone think that's going to help build public support?

It was very counterproductive and very political, but it is what it is because I think, as you pointed out, Senator Graham has his political, you know, contest back home that maybe he has to worry about.

BALDWIN: So they have a meeting.

NAVARRO: Senator Graham didn't have to show up today, OK? He was in South Carolina. He flew up expressly for this.

If he had wanted to say in South Carolina, he could have, as most of his colleagues. He's there because President Obama called him in because he realizes he needs the support of these two key senators in order to get this done.

And what they want is not a more expansive strike. They want an effective strike. They don't want us to just go in and give them a slap. Give Assad a slap on the wrist that then doesn't do a thing.

You know, going out there, sticking our tongue out and saying boo to Assad is not going to achieve anything. They want us to be respected. They want us to have a mark. And they want us to be effective.

KOFINIS: You know --

NAVARRO: If not, what's the purpose of going through all of this very difficult and painful process?

KOFINIS: With all due respect, not a lot of people are going to take strategic advice from Senator Graham and Senator McCain giving their strategic analysis going up to the Iraq war, dealing with Afghanistan, so it's not surprising that a lot of Americans are going to be suspect.

Listen, this is a complex issue, and there's no easy answers here. Everyone understands that.

But the frustrating part that I have here is you have Republicans like Senator McCain and Senator Graham and others who make it sound like this was easy, who make it sound like, oh, there's no problem here. There's no consequence.

BALDWIN: I don't think they think this is easy. Come on.

KOFINIS: Listen --

NAVARRO: You think a guy who hung by his thumbs -- you think a guy who hung by his thumbs in a political prison for five years thinks that it's easy?

You think Barack Obama's not calling them in because he appreciates their strategic advice?

KOFINIS: When they sit there and say that they want to take Assad out, that's fine. He's a very bad man. He's done very evil things, ad clearly has to pay some price.

But then what ends up happening after that? And that's where I think if you talk to a lot of average Americans and a lot of real people going and sitting there and going, listen, we've been in two wars now in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our military is exhausted.

What they want is clarity, and I think when Senator McCain and Senator Graham go out there and make it sound like we're talking about a bigger commitment, a bigger mission, it doesn't help the cause.

BALDWIN: Let me jump in because on your point, when it comes to Iraq and Afghanistan, I think a lot of people, Chris, agree with you.

Going back to what one of the senators said, this was Senator Graham, specifically. He's saying, how can I sell this? He's going back. They're on vacation one more week. How do I sell this to South Carolinians?

He says that it's not Iraq. It's not Afghanistan. If we don't send the signal, what effect would this have ultimately connecting the dots with Iran? Right? Because we know what the president said, August of last year, when it comes to this red line, if we follow through, that is sending a message when it comes to the pursuit of nuclear weapons and saying you can't do it, and we're going to come after you if you do.

KOFINIS: Listen, the president's made, I think, a very clear red line. I think there's going to be some consequences that follow from that regardless of what happens to congressional vote.

But I think that -- and listen. Just, I think, as a normal human being, I think most of us would agree the use of chemical weapons by any regime, either against its people or another country is an international norm and standard that we cannot look away when it's broken.

But that being said, we cannot do this alone, and I think what most Americans will say is, wait, if this is an international norm and standard, where are our other allies, in the Middle East, across the world?

And that's why I think the administration as well as Republicans and Democrats have to kind of try to explain to the American people that this is not going to be something we're going to do by ourselves.

BALDWIN: Ana?

NAVARRO: Let's just think, though, that the Arab League is supporting action by the U.S.

Our allies in the region are aghast by this recent decision by President Obama and the fact we haven't taken action yet.

KOFINIS: But wait a second. The Arab League put out a statement.

NAVARRO: What both senators are saying is that in order for there to be allied support, in order for there to be congressional support, in order for there to be support from the American public, the president of the United States, who's got the biggest bully pulpit in the country, has got to go out there himself looking determined, himself looking resolved, himself looking decided, looking like a leader.

If he wants us to follow, he's got to lead, and here's been a lot of vacillation from him. What they are doing is trying to pump him up to go out there and do the sales job he needs to do so that we don't go at it alone because, yes, we will be much stronger with the congressional approval.

BALDWIN: On the sale job -- Chris, let me just jump in. On the sale job, this is a question I wanted to get in really to both of you.

If you're advising the president, do you feel like the president needs to come out again to the nation to lay out, I don't know, more proof or details, more evidence when it comes to Syria? What do you want to hear from the president?

KOFINIS: Listen, I think at this point given, I think, a lot of questions the American public has, everyone right now is focused on Congress, and that's where the legislative battle is going to be over this resolution. I understand why.

But the reality here is I think the real audience here is the American public. They have a lot of questions, a lot of concerns, a lot of issues with what the president may or may not do.

And at the end of the day I think the administration, the president, need to come out, I think, to address the American people. They need to put a very aggressive effort in place to let people know what the stakes are here, what the scope of the mission is, what the interests are here at stake, and what the end game here is.

And I think he'll get support, and, once you get the American public's support, he'll be able to get congressional support, but it's not going to be easy if it's the other way around.

BALDWIN: Ana, final word from you.

NAVARRO: Brooke, I think what I want to hear from him, I want to hear him articulate a vision, a strategy, an end game.

I want to hear him talk about what the effects are for the United States around the world if we don't do anything.

I want him to touch our human hearts, to talk about those children gassed, to talk about what it means as a parent to see those images and what it means for all of us and why we cannot stand by and allow this to continue.

I want us to -- him to win us over. Listen, if there is something that president Barack Obama can do, it's campaign. We've seen him over and over do it, and he's done it -- he's a master at campaigning.

He is in campaign mode right now. Put the golf clubs down, there was no reason why he should have been golfing right after this announcement, and go out and sell this to the American people.

He can do it. He's capable of it. And I think that's what McCain and Graham want to see from him.

BALDWIN: Ana Navarro and Chris Kofinis, great conversation. Thank you both very much.

KOFINIS: Thank you.

NAVARRO: Thank you.

BALDWIN: Coming up next, as we heard from Senator McCain, made a surprising comment about possible targets, including chemical weapons.

Our military analyst breaks that part of it down, right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BALDWIN: Just in to me. On the phone right now, the reporter who just interviewed Syria's leader, Bashar al-Assad. It was an interview during which the dictator blasted President Obama directly.

His name is Georges Malbrunot. He's the Middle East reporter for "Le Figaro." He's calling in from the capital city of Damascus.

So, Georges, thank you for calling in. Just begin with how did Bashar al Assad seem? Is he celebrating? Is he breathing a sigh of relief that at least for now the U.S. has put off any kind of military action?

GEORGES MALBRUNOT, REPORTER, "LE FIGARO" (via telephone): Bashar al- Assad looked calm. He didn't show any sign apparently of "worriness," but he is very concerned about the seriousness of the situation.

And, as you said, he was -- he was quite tough against President Obama, saying that he's weak because he was facing pressures from inside United States.

And he was -- he was warning, he was advising the member of the Congress to think twice before -- to say yes to the U.S. strike. I think that the U.S. don't need more instability in the Middle East, that the war in Iraq, the war in Libya, didn't bring any stability, to the contrary, brought more instability.

And he was extremely tough against France, saying that France became a (inaudible) state and is now enemy for his country, Syria.

BALDWIN: The U.S. says it has proof that it was Bashar al-Assad's regime who specifically we learned over the weekend it was Sarin gas on his own people back on August 21st.

Did you ask him about that? Could the president prove otherwise?

MALBRUNOT (via telephone): Yes, of course, I asked him, and he said that according to him, Barack Obama and Francois Hollande were unable to show any evidence to the -- to their people.

And that he said also, secondly, that there was no logic that his army launch an attack at this time when the Syrian army was, on the contrary, gaining some ground around Damascus and they had no need to launch chemical attack, using mass destruction weapons while the conventional weapons were bringing at this time progress, achieving some progress on the ground.

So he said where is the logic? And that is the way he answered my question.

BALDWIN: Georges Malbrunot, calling in from Damascus, fresh out of an interview with Bashar al-Assad with France's "Le Figaro," thank you.

Coming up, Israel, Israel not at all thrilled with President Obama' decision and now the country is stocking up on gas masks, putting the military on high alert.

We're going to take you there, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BALDWIN: Perhaps no other country in the Middle East has more at stake in this drama than Israel, and our correspondent, Jim Clancy, he's in Jerusalem with the Israeli perspective.

Jim?

JIM CLANCY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Brooke, Israelis were not only disappointed that President Barack Obama backtracked and delayed action against Syria, they were worried what conclusion the rest of the region might draw.

In a country that's been stocking up on gas masks and keeping its military on alert, that wasn't the time, they think, for Mr. Obama to rethink the fundamentals.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID HOROWITZ, FOUNDING EDITOR, "TIMES OF ISRAEL": The public evidence of a president who changed his mind, facing off against Syria, where Assad believes now, of course, he's faced down America, thinks he can claim victory, where Iran thinks maybe the president isn't -- we don't necessarily always need to take him at his word.

It's that sense because this region is so ruthless, because Israel faces this array of challenges, to see a president, to have this (inaudible) president who's rethinking publicly, that's the problem.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CLANCY: Government officials who were warned in advance by the White House were quick to point out that going to Congress is all part of American democracy, but people here were braced for something else.

Nearly half of all Israelis think that they are a likely reprisal target for Syria and its allies. Israel's own stockpile of nuclear weapons is never mentioned here. The Israeli view that they must be ready to stand alone in this region was on full public display.

All of this reflects Israel's own interests and, to some extent, U.S. interests in this region. What isn't being discussed here is when and whether any strike is going to improve the situation for the people of Syria on the ground.

Brooke?

BALDWIN: Jim Clancy, thank you.

Back here at home it was an historic day. All the way from Cuba to Key West, she did it. Diana Nyad, at the age of 64-years-young, swam all the way, 103 miles. It's a first, folks. She did it without the shark cage.

You will see the moment she made it ashore and hear what she had to say.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BALDWIN: Just this afternoon, swimmer Diana Nyad did it. She reached the shores of Key West, Florida, walking onto the sand. Wait for it. You'll see her, taking her first step.

There she is, accomplishing a dream she has been chasing for 35 years. Incredible.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Quiet!

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Quiet!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Quiet!

DIANA NYAD, 64-YEAR-OLD SWAM FROM CUBA TO KEY WEST: I've got three messages. One is we should never, ever give up.

(APPLAUSE)

NYAD: Two is you never are too old to chase your dreams.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BALDWIN: This was her fifth and final attempt. Diana Nyad, we all here salute you.

I'm Brooke Baldwin. Thanks so much for being with me on this Labor Day Monday.

Let's send it to Washington. "THE LEAD" with Jake Tapper starts now.