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Obama Hosts Pelosi, Boehner Over Syria; President Obama to Attend G-20 Summit; Crafting a Strategy on Syria; White House Makes the Case against Syria; Obama Meets with Boehner, Pelosi This Hour; Diana Nyad: "Never, Ever Give Up"

Aired September 3, 2013 - 09:00   ET


CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: We begin with the crisis in Syria. This hour, the shadow of Syria hangs over the White House. Minutes from now, President Obama meets with House Speaker John Boehner and minority leader Nancy Pelosi.

The president's mission, chip away at Congress's queasiness over military strikes. The debate so heated, the stakes so high, lawmakers are trickling back to Washington about a week early. In fact, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee holds an afternoon hearing with top administration officials.

Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and Joint Chiefs Chair General Martin Dempsey all will be there.

We're covering all the angles this morning both here and abroad. Let's begin with CNN's senior White House correspondent Brianna Keilar.

Good morning, Brianna.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Good morning to you, Carol. This meeting is expected to take place here at White House really in just about 45 minutes. And this is important -- the second day of meetings here with key lawmakers at the White House. We'll be seeing House Speaker John Boehner as well as House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, and you'll have the top Democrats and Republicans from key congressional committees.

The point that President Obama will be making is that he needs their help, and without it, a message may be sent to not only Syria if there is no retaliatory strike, but also to other American foes, like Iran and Hezbollah. Basically, a message of, you know, maybe you can go ahead and try us on some of our policies, because you may just actually get away with it.

And I'll tell you, I'm actually watching at this point a motorcade come in right now, as I imagine we're expecting some of the arrivals for this meeting here -- Carol.

COSTELLO: Yes, I see them, too. OK. So while you're watching that this morning on CNN, earlier this morning we heard from Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, two of the more hawkish Republicans who met with Mr. Obama yesterday. Of course, they still have some serious concerns. Listen.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: And to think that the Syrians aren't making accommodations to the likelihood of a strike by moving their assets around, including military assets into civilian areas is just foolishness. This kind of telegraphing punches could make our mission much more difficult and much more damaging to the civilian population. It's -- frankly, it's crazy.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: If we get Syria wrong, if we show a weakness here regarding Assad's chemical weapons utilization, you're almost ensuring a war between Israel and Iran over their nuclear program, and we would surely get drawn into that.

So to the American people, if you're worried about the Iranians getting a nuclear weapon, as I am, the last card to play to stop that is how we handle Syria.


COSTELLO: OK, so we just saw the vice president exit one of those black cars and go into the White House. We're expecting, of course, John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi to arrive at any time.

But, Brianna, in light of what you just heard, is the president making any headway with these meetings?

KEILAR: You know, I think that's actually really interesting to play that sound, Carol, and that's because when you listen to that, you hear McCain and you hear Graham saying, hey, but we still have concerns. But I think the real headline of what you have to listen to, and we heard this yesterday after they came out of this meeting, and we also saw today when Senator John McCain was on CNN, the first thing he emphasized, even though he dinged the president there, was the area of overlap that they have.

And I think that is something that the White House is taking as a very positive sign, and I think it's something that they should take as a positive sign. You're hearing from Lindsey Graham, you're hearing from John McCain, they want something done. Yes, they still have concerns. They want to make sure that the rebels are given more resources so perhaps they ultimately can weaken the Assad regime a little bit.

There's other members of Congress who have other concerns. They don't want boots on the ground, they want to make sure this is time limited. But I do think that this is tentative support from two key hawks, from two of the most prominent hawks in Congress, and president -- I think it's key to President Obama that he tried to find a sweet spot in a resolution that may be able to pass Congress.

It's still -- and we should emphasize this, Carol, and I know this is the point that you're making, it is so fair, it's still a very heavy lift and that's why you see all this outreach. COSTELLO: All right. I know you're going to stay there and watch for the arrivals and hopefully get some interviews for us, Brianna Keilar, live from the White House this morning.

As the world waits for U.S. response on Syria, Israel confirms it has fired a successful missile test in the Mediterranean Sea. That's according to a spokeswoman at Israel's Ministry of Defense. According to the ministry's Facebook page, the test was carried out from an Israeli air force base in the central part of the country.

Israel says the test was conducted in order to determine the ability of a new target missile system. A U.S. official told CNN the launch was an expected systems test.

Tonight, President Obama heads to Russia. He's attending the G-20 economic summit, and it is sure to be awkward. Not just because Vladimir Putin is standing by Syria, but because of so many other things like Edward Snowden and Russia's crackdown on gays and lesbians.

CNN's Phil Black is in Moscow this morning.

Good morning, Phil.

PHIL BLACK, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, hello, Carol. You're right, when Presidents Obama and Putin come face-to-face at the G-20 Summit in St. Petersburg, well, it was always going to be awkward because they agree on so little. In relation to being so poor recently, you may recall that President Obama cancelled a big one-on- one summit that was supposed to take place here in Moscow just before the G-20.

As diplomatic snubs go, well, that's pretty huge. And since then, the division on Syria has become even greater. More intensified over this issue of how to respond to the use of chemical weapons there.

Now Syria isn't formally on the agenda for the G-20 because it is an economic summit, but it's expected to dominate talks on the sidelines where lots of the leaders will get together and hold one-on-one meetings.

But at the moment, there is no one-on-one meeting planned between Presidents Obama and Putin. They won't be able to avoid each other. They're going to be in the same room a lot of the time. President Putin will greet each of the leaders individually with a handshake, presumably, so it could change, but at the moment, these two leaders are not scheduled to talk about this very important issue.

COSTELLO: Well, you know there's another rumor we heard that Russia is actually talking about sending some kind of delegation to the United States to lobby members of Congress. Is that true?

BLACK: That's what they are saying. This is a deliberate attempt by Russian politicians to try and influence that vote in Congress. A group of members of Russia's parliament say they want to travel to the United States to meet with members of Congress to try to bring them around to the Russian view, to try and persuade them to take a balanced view on Syria, which means they want them to reject the president's proposal to intervene militarily.

Now we don't know who or how many or precisely when they're going, but they're talking about in the coming days and obviously they've got to get there before the Congress votes -- Carol.

COSTELLO: All right. Phil Black reporting live from Moscow this morning.

Weak and indecisive, that's how some are characterizing President Obama after he decided to seek congressional approval on possible action in Syria. But given the anger in the wake of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and a country that's tired of war, did the president have any other choice?

David Gergen, CNN's senior political analyst and a veteran of Democratic and Republican administration. He joins me now from Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Good morning, David.


COSTELLO: OK, so you've worked with both Democratic and Republican presidents, so let me run this by you. A senior House Democrat had this to say to Politico, quote, "The Syria situation could be the biggest miscalculation of his presidency. Not only is his credibility on the line, but the country's credibility on the line, so he's rolling the dice by taking this to Congress."

Do you agree?

GERGEN: Yes, I certainly agree he's rolling the dice, and I do think an enormous amount is at stake for the country and for his presidency.

Typically, Carol, a president in a second term spends a lot of time in the first year on domestic policy, but as power runs out or wanes, and then he spends a lot of time in the last three years on foreign policy. This president's had an unusually choppy first year for a second termer, and so he's not getting as much done as he hoped to get done in the second term. And so I think he was planning to put more time into foreign policy.

If he gets stripped of his authority, if Congress rejects what he's asking, it will be the first time it happens to a president in the last 200 years. That will hurt him. It might even cripple him in foreign affairs. So yes, I think he's got a lot on the line. Does he have to take this risk? Well, I think he felt he got boxed in. This is a way out. Let's go to Congress.

COSTELLO: Yes. Because of his red line comment. But let me play devil's advocate even more.

GERGEN: Sure. COSTELLO: Republicans have long complained the president is a dictator, the Americans people don't want another war, 7,000 American troops have died in Afghanistan and Iran, 50,000 more have been wounded and it will cost us $1 billion a month if we take action in Syria just to get rid of the chemical weapon s. So in light of all that, doesn't the president have the responsibility of taking this to the people?

GERGEN: Absolutely, and I think that's what's going to happen in the meeting today with John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi, and the other leaders, is that both Boehner and Pelosi are going to put pressure on him to go to the country with the argument, essentially to have -- Mr. President, first you have to bring along the country, you have to bring along the public and then you can bring along the Congress.

And right now, as you know -- as well as I, the country is very split, very weary for the very reasons that you suggested, so I think once he gets back from the G-20 meeting, there is a very strong likelihood he will make a national appeal, whether it come in the Oval Office or as Bill Clinton did, you know, many people believe Bill Clinton turned around a situation in the Balkans when he went and made a joint appearance before Congress.

That swung the day. He brought the Congress and the country with him. So I think there's going to be a lot of pressure on the president. If he wants these boats as we he so much does, to bring the country around. And, you know, today's hearings are sort of a warm-up for that. It's just stark getting the arguments out there more persuasively.

COSTELLO: OK. So what if Congress says no? What's the president do then?

GERGEN: I don't know. I think it's extremely likely that he would not act. You know, David Cameron, the prime minister of Britain, was in a similar situation and as soon as he -- a strike was rejected by his parliament, his government has ever since taken the position, well, we have the authority to go, but we're not going to do it. We're going to listen to the voice of the people.

So I do think this vote is pretty darn important. It may be that the president could get a different worded resolution out of the two chambers. They would be in conflict, but each chamber would authorize him up to a degree and he would then go anyway. I think there are a lot of -- I think there are a lot of twists and turns ahead, Carol. It's going to be a fascinating story.

The president has an uphill fight. I believe that at the end, going back to what Brianna said about the McCain and Lindsey Graham arguments about how catastrophic McCain believes this would be for the country to have a rejection, I believe that argument is going to carry a lot of weight over time and that the likelihood is the president will win. But he's definitely taking a risk and he's putting a lot of his presidency, as well as the country's prestige and credibility, say, with a country like Iran, he's putting it on the line. It is a gamble. COSTELLO: OK, you're going to join us at the bottom of the hour. David Gergen, thanks so much for joining us right now.

GERGEN: Thank you.

COSTELLO: We appreciate it.

We're also watching today's other big story out of Washington. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Joint Chiefs' chair General Martin Dempsey, and Secretary of State John Kerry all prepared to testify this afternoon at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The big question, will they be able to win over support for a strike against Syria?

CNN's Erin McPike joins us from Capitol Hill with that side of the story.

Good morning, Erin.

ERIN MCPIKE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Carol. Well, there are two very big things to watch for in the hearing today and the first is simply that these administration officials have to convince lawmakers beyond a shred of a doubt that there was, in fact, a chemical weapons attack in Syria. Believe it or not, there's still skepticism about that both in Congress and within the public.

The other thing is how these attacks in Syria affect national security. We heard over the weekend from many lawmakers who don't understand what the president is saying when he says this is a problem for national security and U.S. strikes would be helpful in protecting American national security. So two big things the administration officials will have to do to convince Congress today.

The other thing I want to tell you about is the Republicans who will be in the hearing today. We've got John McCain and Bob Corker, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who have been largely supportive of the president on this, but there is a big divide, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio will also be in this hearing, and as you know, Rand Paul has been very against the United States striking Syria.

And so we'll have to see how Republicans in this hearing today fall. Will they follow John McCain's lead or will they be following Rand Paul's lead -- Carol.

COSTELLO: Well, and Rand Paul certainly has a point in many Americans' mind. I mean, how is Syria threatening our national security? How is it threatening our national security? Can anybody really answer that question at this point?

MCPIKE: Well, that will be up to Chuck Hagel and John Kerry today, but that's what lawmakers, again, have been saying all weekend, and that's what John Kerry and Chuck Hagel will have to answer -- Carol.

COSTELLO: All right. Erin McPike live on Capitol Hill. We'll get back to you soon. I'm just picking up my iPad because I want to show you all something. You can see how your lawmaker plans to vote on a strike against is Syria.

CNN is keeping track of which way the House and Senate might go. It's very easy, just go to and click on "Counting Votes," and you can see -- you can see how your senator, how they would vote on Syria today and some of the comments they've made. And if you switch, oh, my iPad's messed up. Well, there it is. That's how the Senate and this is the House member.

So if you want to know how your house member might vote, what your House member has said about it, it's all right here,

We'll be right back.


COSTELLO: Right now, President Obama meeting with two top House leaders at the White House as he tries to build congressional support for a strike on Syria. Actually, those two top congressional leaders aren't there yet, he's expecting John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi.

Somebody who's already at the White House, meeting with the president right now, is the vice president, Joe Biden. Pelosi and Boehner expected to arrive at any moment. This will likely be the president's last face-to-face meeting with lawmakers before he departs for an overseas trip tonight.

Also today, United Nations weapons inspectors are analyzing samples taken from Syria at labs at Finland and Sweden. Supposedly, that will take up to three weeks.

I'm joined now by former top U.S. weapons inspector, David Kay, who led several inspections into Iraq following the Gulf War.

Good morning, sir.


COSTELLO: Thanks for being with us. We really appreciate it.

KAY: Happy to be with you.

COSTELLO: The United Nations is testing samples right now, but the U.S. has already tested samples and has already come to a conclusion. So why is it taking these U.N. inspectors so long?

KAY: Well, first of all, they've got to vastly increase number of samples over what the U.S. had and there are different media. The U.S., according to a statement, used blood and urine samples. They've got a lot of soil samples and more importantly than just the complexity of the task, and it really is more complex than any lab has done before in a chemical area, is the fact that you've got to be careful. The view stated by the U.N. and the U.N. inspectors is going to carry a great deal of weight, and after Iraq, you know, it's very important not to make a mistake in this area.

COSTELLO: OK. So, speaking of Iraq, some internationally wonder where the United States got its samples in Syria. It said it got it from independent sources.

Who were they?

KAY: Well, it said also in various statements they got it from first responders. And I take that to be the medical personnel that you've shown and other stations have shown on video, who treated them.

Let me just say, if you look at that video, those first responders were extremely courageous. They were not equipped to deal with bodies that had sarin on them and they went ahead and tried to save lives. They have my greatest admiration.

COSTELLO: That's for sure. OK, so the key question here remains, not if chemical weapon were used, because, frankly, the United States has already made up its mind, but who used the chemical weapons. U.N. inspectors -- well, you know, they are still checking to see if chemical weapons were used, but they are not going to get into who used them on these people.

Why don't they get into that?

KAY: Well, this is the Security Council in its best or worst, depending on your perspective. Because of Russian and Chinese objections, the resolution authorizing the inspectors limited them to be determination of whether chemical weapons were used.

Now let me say, there is an out. If some of these samples were, as I suspect, collected from artillery shells, bombs, rocket warheads, you can describe, even have pictures that show them as some of those are things that the Syrian rebels in no form had access to. So, without saying specifically this came from the Syrian government, you can provide some damning evidence if you want to.

Question is, how aggressive will the inspectors be in this regard?

COSTELLO: OK. So, Ban Ki-moon, we talked about it's going to take a couple weeks for U.N. inspectors to determine conclusively, but Ban Ki-moon is saying hurry up, guys, because I want the United Nations to remain relevant. I mean, wouldn't it be nice to have the United Nations report for the G-20 Summit? That's not going to happen, right, because on Thursday, President Obama will be in Russia, then Ban Ki-moon is saying wouldn't it be nice if at least the U.S. Congress could use it sometime around September 9th and maybe it won't be ready then either.

So, if the U.N. report isn't ready until after that, does the U.N. at that point become irrelevant?

KAY: Well, look, being nice is not as important as being accurate and being able to speak with a great deal of conviction.

Remember, these results will be analyzed and reanalyzed around the world, so as an inspector, you want to get it right rather than necessarily get it quick. Are you relevant? I think you're relevant because of the shadowing effect of Iraq.

To be able to conclusively say this occurred and it was a chemical weapons attack takes that completely off the table. I think it is off the table for the administration and off the table for many Americans, including myself, but that's not enough because of Iraq.

COSTELLO: David Kay, thank you so much for your insight. Much appreciated this morning.

KAY: Happy to talk to you, Carol.

COSTELLO: Thank you.

Still to come in the NEWSROOM, Diana Nyad reaches shore after 100 miles and 53 hours in the water. The first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage talks to Dr. Sanjay Gupta, next.


COSTELLO: Wow, what more could you say?

Diana Nyad, she did it. Her epic 53-hour journey ending on a beach in Key West, becoming the very first swimmer to cross from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage. Nyad was on her fifth attempt at the endurance swim, 35 years after her first try.

She had inspirational messages for the crowd on the beach as she stumbled to shore. She said never give up and, hey, you are never too old to chase your dreams.

Nyad also received messages like this tweet from Hillary Clinton, "Flying to 112 countries is a lot until you swim between two. Feels like I swim with the sharks, but you actually did it! Congrats."

Dr. Sanjay Gupta sat down with Diana Nyad just hours after she finished her marathon swim.


DIANA NYAD, ENDURANCE SWIMMER: I won't get up, because I can't. Hi, honey.


NYAD: You know what's so great about it, Sanjay, is that it's all authentic, just it's a great story. You have a dream 35 years ago, doesn't come to fruition but you move on with life --

GUPTA (voice-over): Sunburned and still swollen, that 64-year-old Diana Nyad speaking out about her incredible feat and it's just been hours after swimming across the treacherous waters between Cuba and Florida without a shark cage. It was a dream, decades in the making. And it wasn't always a sure thing.

NYAD: I'm just like every other human being, even the bravest soldier has doubts, has fears.

GUPTA: In fact, she tried four separate times over three decades to do something that no human had done before, and each time. And each time, she failed. We have followed Diana every step of the way, and this past Saturday, we were there again.

This time she wore a full body suit, gloves, booties, and a new silicone mask to protect against those jellyfish stings.

Fifty-three hours and 112 miles of actual swimming and then this.

NYAD: We should never, ever give up.

GUPTA: But it was no surprise to those of us that know her that she agreed to sit down and talk to us just hours after getting out of the water.

NYAD: I don't wake up gay or even female or 64. I just wake up like a, get me out of another day, you know? I'm not relating to that, but I must say that I'm extremely -- vain isn't a good word, because it doesn't have to do -- I mean, I sit down with you today with no makeup, what 64-year-old woman would even do that?

So, it's not vanity, but it's more like pride of fitness and youth. I think that I'm just the youngest 64-year-old that ever lives and I go by a store window sometimes and catch myself in a mirror, oh, no, you're right on 64.

GUPTA: If you're ever wondering what goes on in the head of someone like Diana, just listen to this --

NYAD: My whole mantra this year was: find a way.


COSTELLO: Find a way. Find a way, and she certainly did. Congratulations, Diana Nyad, and thanks, Sanjay Gupta, for bringing us her story, because, man, she is one inspirational lady.

Also tonight on CNN, continuing coverage of the Obama administration's push on Syria, but first, Erin Burnett takes an in-depth look at a scandal that's engulfed the White House earlier this year, the IRS.


ANNOUNCER: CNN tonight at 7:00, an OUTFRONT investigation, is the IRS politically biased? Are certain political groups specifically target? We get to the truth about the IRS.

And at 9:00 on "PIERS MORGAN LIVE," what happens while the world waits for Washington to vote on Syria? Wolf Blitzer fills in for Piers with the very latest on the war of words plans of attack. It's all CNN tonight starting with "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" at 7:00, "ANDERSON COOPER 360" at 8:00, and "PIERS MORGAN LIVE" at 9:00 p.m., tonight on CNN.


COSTELLO: All begins, tonight, 7:00 Eastern.

Still to come this hour, crisis going by the second, Syrians fleeing their homelands in the millions and what's being called the great tragedy of the century.