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Crisis in Syria; Interview With Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson; Lawmakers Grilled on Syria at Town Halls; Unemployment Rate Dips to 7.3 Percent

Aired September 6, 2013 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: The president was asked several times, but still no direct answer as to whether he might order a strike if Congress says no.

I'm Jake Tapper, and this is THE LEAD.

The world lead, and yet by any other name, well, they came, they saw, they agreed to disagree. President Obama leaves a meeting with Vladimir Putin with the same deep divisions over Syria.

In our politics lead, the Senate sets a vote on Syria strikes right as the president plans to address a skeptical nation. And some lawmakers are facing everything but pitchforks in angry town halls.

And in our buried lead, it's one of the most iconic images from the civil rights movement, a little girl being walked to school by federal marshal when Southern schools were ordered to integrate. More than 50 years later, the two meet again.

Good afternoon. I'm Jake Tapper. Welcome to THE LEAD.

Now it's time for the world lead. President Obama is heading home right now to face what could be some of the most crucial days of his presidency, after he wrapped up the G20 summit in Russia this morning with a meeting on the sidelines with a key ally of Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Russians have a saying for so close and yet so far. It is your elbow is close, yet you can't bite it.

Obama and Putin were today physically close. Their meeting was described as candid and constructive, and yet nothing budged on the topic of military action in Syria. In fact, Putin promised he would continue to help Syria during any attack.

After the meeting, President Obama, who won the Democratic presidential nomination and then the White House in no small part due to opposition to the war to go after murderous Middle East tyrant Saddam Hussein, well, he explained how the gassing of hundreds of children has shifted his position on dropping bombs even without the backing of the U.N.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Over 1,400 people were gassed. Over 400 of them were children. This is not something we've fabricated. There are times where we have to make hard choices if we're going to stand up for the things that we care about.

And I believe that this is one of those times.


TAPPER: The president's next step will be speaking directly to the American people in an address on Tuesday.

But lawmakers under intense pressure from a weary and at times angry public to say no to airstrikes.

Let's bring in one senator who voted no against the congressional authorization for military strikes when it was brought before the Foreign Relations Committee, Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin.

A vote before the entire Senate is expected next week. Senator Johnson joins us from his home state of Wisconsin.

Thanks for being here.


TAPPER: So you have over 100,000 killed in Syria since this conflict started, over six million refugees when you count those who are displaced both inside and outside the -- question -- and now this evidence that chemical weapons were used.

You voted against this authorization, but what do you say to people who say something needs to be done?

SEN. RON JOHNSON (R), WISCONSIN: I agree something does need to be done.

It's a question of whether or not almost unilateral military action is the right strategy. And I would argue at this point it probably isn't, because, Jake, one of the problems in unilateral military action is it will take the focus of the world off of Bashar Assad's crime against humanity and start focusing -- certainly our foes will be pointing out that the U.S. is acting unilaterally.

And we need to garner the world opinion. I agree with President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry that this is a world red line, this is humanity's red line, but we haven't garnered that support. And I'm afraid we won't be able to garner that support if we act militarily, ineffectively to boot, because we have lost the element of surprise.

A lot of those military assets have been moved. And a strike I think would be ineffective, which would be worse than any military action at all. So, I just think there's a better strategy. I think we need to identify the secular, the Western-leaning, the democratic-leaning elements of Syria. We need to support those people. And we need to do a worldwide campaign on shaming anybody -- and I mean shaming anybody -- that would support the war criminal Bashar Assad.

And that would include Russia. So, we need to. It's a shame. It's a shame that the reset with Russia has failed, but we really need to start working on that.


TAPPER: I think the administration would argue that they have been trying for more than two years to shame those who are letting Assad do what he's doing. They have been doing diplomacy.

President Obama made the point -- today, he reiterated it -- if we do nothing, if the U.S. does nothing, we're letting the violation of an international norm stand, the use of chemical weapons, and that no one else is going to do it. We certainly can't count on the United Nations, because of Russia, and we can't count on the international community.

What do you say to those who say we need to do something because this is so beyond the pale, using chemical weapons; if we allow this to stand, we're sending the wrong message to the Iranians, to the North Koreans and others?

JOHNSON: I agree. We need to respond.

But it's a question whether a military reaction is the proper response. And I'm sure the administration has made some attempts to garner world support over the last two-and-a-half years. I'm just not aware of all -- it certainly hasn't been a very robust effort. It certainly hasn't been a successful effort.

And the other problem here with military action, Jake, is if you're going to have military action, you better define what success looks like and you better be committed to success. And if you do not have the support of the American people behind you, you will not be able to maintain that commitment over the long period to actually achieve that success.

So, the problem is, is President Obama was not decisive. Had he acted with we still had the element of surprise, the military attacks might have been effective. It might have deterred and degraded Assad's ability to carry out further attacks. But he didn't act decisively.

Now he's waited. Those assets have been disbursed, and now it's his task to make sure the American public is behind him. And all evidence to date is that the American people are not behind his action.

TAPPER: Senator, you, I'm sure, watched President Obama today in the press conference in Saint Petersburg repeatedly not answering the question that if Congress votes against this, would he definitely not act?

They are definitely leaving that door open. As a senator, one that I assume will vote against the authorization next week, what would your reaction be if Congress voted against this, but President Obama acted anyway?

JOHNSON: Well, Jake, first of all, I'm going to keep an open mind until the moment I vote. I just have so many unanswered questions, I'm trying to get those questions answered. But I believe the president has the authority. I think he had the authority. He would continue to have the authority. He's the commander in chief. I don't think it would be a wise use of that authority now that he hasn't been decisive. At this point, I really do believe, before he acts, he better get the support of the American public, because it just does not work.

I think, historically, it does not work if the president does not have the support of the American people before he takes military action.

TAPPER: Some would argue that that's not necessarily true, that there were acts, military acts in the former Yugoslavia, that the U.S. has taken action before without the support of the public, and what's important is doing the right thing.

JOHNSON: No, if the American president acts and then goes to the American people, explains his action, he almost always gets overwhelming support for his action, because American public does realize that he has access to information and they trust the president to act in the national interests of America.

But when he doesn't act decisively, when he dithers and all of a sudden it becomes a public debate, well, then you better enter that public debate and you better convince the American people of future action. That's really the difference here. And that's the situation we're in and that's the point in time we're at. We're at a point in time where first and foremost the president must get the American people supporting future action.

TAPPER: All right, Senator Ron Johnson, thank you so much. Enjoy your time in beautiful Wisconsin. We will see you back here in Washington, D.C.

JOHNSON: Have a great day.

TAPPER: Coming up next: going home and playing defense -- why John McCain and others are getting an earful, even from supporters. Will it change their minds on Syria?

Plus, will the future iPhone look different from the one you have now? Why some are saying a redesign could be in the works. What's new this time around?


TAPPER: Welcome back to the lead.

The president said it himself. Getting Congress to back him on action in Syria will not be easy.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I knew this was going to be a heavy lift. I said that on Saturday when I said we're going to take it to Congress. (END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: A heavy lift. Well, lift with your knees, Mr. President, because with each passing day that lift is looking more and more hernia-inducing.

CNN chief congressional correspondent Dana Bash joins me from Capitol Hill.

Dana, by CNN's latest count, there are only 24 yes votes in the Senate right now, and 60 are needed, and 24 yes votes in the House, and 218 are needed. Which way is the momentum going?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, at this point, today, sort of the feel, the smell, the taste here on Capitol Hill is definitely that momentum is going away from the president.

Talking to so many lawmakers coming out of these classified briefings all week long, many of them go to two, three, four of them. The sense is that they're not getting -- many of them, maybe even most of them who are still undecided, they are so because they're not getting the answers they're looking for, specifically with regard to what exactly the U.S.' broad strategy is in Syria and then more specifically the military strategy.

And obviously those are very much related. So, definitely, the feel is -- even -- especially in the House, maybe less so in the Senate, but especially in the House, a lot of minds that need to be changed and solidified. One piece of good news, potential good news I can report to you which is just coming to us from outside of the latest briefing, and that is Democratic Senator Al Franken, who, by the way, almost never talks to reporters in the hallway, just broke that rule.

And he said after attending personally 12 hours of classified briefings, he is now leaning yes. That is a piece of good news for the president, despite the overwhelming feeling that it's going the other way, at least today.

TAPPER: And, Dana, we know congressmen are getting an earful from the voters on this, just from Twitter.

Arkansas Rick Crawford tweeted: "Thanks for your feedback on Syria. In past week, over 99 percent of my calls to my office were opposed to action. You spoke. I listened."

Congressman Chaffetz: "Hundreds of calls to our Provo and D.C. office, so far, not a single call in favor of bombing Syria."

Are members of Congress hearing anyone supporting an act against Syria?

BASH: When it comes to their constituents, I have not heard anybody say they are hearing positive things, even those who have already completely made up their mind, like Dianne Feinstein of California.

She says point blank my people are calling overwhelmingly negative from California, but they don't know what I know. There's no question that public opinion is very much against this. And the concern, even from some Republicans that I'm talking to who are undecided and might be inclined to vote with the president, is that the fact that he's giving this prime-time address on Tuesday is too little too late, that is not going to give him and his constituents time enough to digest whatever points he is going to make and allow them to give a yes vote with good conscience. Even those who might be willing to defy their constituents are worried about that.

TAPPER: All right, Dana Bash on Capitol Hill, thank you.

A bunch of marshmallows, that's what one angry constituent called members of Congress while giving John McCain a piece of his mind at a town hall meeting.

McCain is not the only lawmaker facing enough heat to make s'mores with over potential military action in Syria.

Our Athena Jones has the story.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We sent you to stop the war.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If we shoot a -- quote -- "shot over the bow" and aren't willing to finish the battle, we're worse off than we started.

ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Across America, people are showing up to have their voices heard on Syria.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think we should stay the hell out there.

JONES: And, by and large, they're not happy.

From Arizona, to Missouri, to Alabama, senators got an earful from constituents about whether missile strikes are a good idea.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We put missiles in there, it's not going to do anything. Boots are going to be on the ground.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is what I think of Congress. They're a bunch of marshmallow.

JONES: It's their last chance to go face to face with people who voted them into office before they head back to Washington and decide the country's course of action.

Republican Jeff Sessions says he hasn't decided whether he'll support missile strikes. On the one hand --

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R), ALABAMA: We cannot as a nation take it upon ourselves to take military action or declare war any time any dictator in the world violates some U.N, some treaty.

JONES: But on the other?

SESSIONS: To turn down the president's request is not a matter to be lightly done.

JONES: Some in his town hall audience near Montgomery, Alabama, question the rationale for an attack.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm not sure it was a chemical weapons attack. I think -- I think it was a pesticides attack. I think al Qaeda can get ahold of pesticides. I think it was set up to get the United States to come in there and do al Qaeda's dirty work.

JONES: It got more heated in Arizona where Republican Senator John McCain, who supports strikes, faced a skeptical crowd.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: People like me have to come to the people he represent and have a conversation with him and try to get all the facts out in front of them.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I not believe we can differentiate between the good and bad guys.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When are we going to start dealing with the major problems in this country?

JONES: Still, not everyone was opposed to action.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I applaud Senator McCain for his stature.

REP. EMANUEL CLEAVER (D), MISSOURI: This debate will matter. And so, because it will matter, what you have to say matters.

JONES: In Kansas City, Missouri, Democratic Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, who is against U.S. action in Syria, also heard from strike supporters.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is not just the first red line that we have drawn and he has crossed. He has been crossing red lines for two and a half years.

JONES: But they were outnumbered by opponents.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I say we bail out of everybody and say, you guys are on your own.

JONES: And back in Washington, members on both sides of the issue say the word they're getting from constituents is a very loud no on military action.

REP. TED YOHO (R), FLORIDA: I and the people I represent said not just no but something like heck no. Don't get involved in this.

REP. JANICE HAHN (D), CALIFORNIA: My constituents overwhelmingly are saying absolutely no to dragging us into another foreign war.

REP. JASON CHAFFETZ (R), UTAH: My job is to represent the people of Utah and right now, we're just not convinced. JONES: Athena Jones, CNN, Washington.


TAPPER: A heavy lift indeed.

Coming up next on THE LEAD, she became one of the youngest symbols of the civil rights movement. And now, Ruby Bridges is finally meeting the man who risk his life to protect hers.

And later, he killed a man and he wants everyone to know. Why one man confessed online, even though his lawyers told him he could get off scot-free.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. Now, it's time for the money lead.

Let's start with the latest report card on the economy. The Labor Department says the U.S. added 169,000 jobs last month and the unemployment rate dropped to 7.3 percent. That's just a hair. But that might not necessarily be such good news.

Think about this thing -- it's called the labor participation rate. The percentage of people who either have a job or who are looking for a job -- that fell to just over 63 percent. That's the lowest level in 35 years and some economists blame that on a lack of good jobs.

Soon it might be hard to tell where the phone ends and the pad begins. Reports say Apple is thinking of a wider iPhone, with a screen of up to six inches. That's inches more than the iPhone 5. The wide iPhone is still in the planning stages but Apple clearly doesn't like having its bell rung by Samsung. The Korean company surged in the smartphone market, in part because you don't have to squint to read the screen.

Now to the buried lead. It was a reunion more than 50 years and one civil rights movement in the making. Ruby Bridges was only 6-years- old back in 1960. She was one of the first African-American children to attend a white school in New Orleans. It was a scary time, with racist backlash. And she needed protection from a federal marshal.

The story inspired a Norman Rockwell painting. And 50 years later, that child and her protector met again. Ruby and Charles Burks, now 91 years old, met for the first time since that day. The meeting between the two was filmed, that will be part of an exhibit at an Indianapolis museum.

Coming up, one retired Army general is calling it a war the Pentagon doesn't want. I'll ask two veterans what they think about attacking Syria.

And in politics, when Joe Biden starts a sentence with words like "my staff told me not to do this", you know it's going to be good.

Stay with us. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. Continuing with our world lead and the crisis in Syria.

A scathing op-ed written by a retired Army major general and what he thinks the military really thinks about the proposed strikes. He writes, quote, "I can justifiably share the sentiments of those inside the Pentagon and elsewhere who write the plans and develop strategies for fighting our wars. They are embarrassed to be associated with the amateurism of the Obama administration's attempts to craft a plan that makes strategic sense. They are outraged by the fact that what may happen is an act of war and a willingness to risk American lives to make up for a slip of the tongue about red lines." He specifically points out that Joint Chiefs chairman, General Martin Dempsey's testimony this week that Dempsey doesn't want to intervene in Syria.

Here's some of what Dempsey said this week.


GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY, JOINT CHIEFS CHAIRMAN: The answer to whether I support additional support for the moderate opposition is yes.

SEN. BOB CORKER (R), TENNESSEE: And this authorization will support those activities in addition to responding to the weapons of mass destruction?

DEMPSEY: I don't know how the resolution will evolve but I support --

CORKER: What you're seeking. What is it you're seeking?

DEMPSEY: I can't answer that, what it is we're seeking. I have made it a point of importance not to discuss my personal views about the resolution. That's for you to determine.

I will tell you that, militarily, the broader the resolution, the more options I can provide.


TAPPER: So, are these proposed strikes supported by members of the military? And what about by soldiers or veterans?

Joining me now are two veterans with different views on the crisis in Syria, Jon Soltz is the co-founder of That's the largest progressive organization of veterans in America. He's also an Iraq veteran.

And Pete Hegseth is the CEO of Concerned Veterans for America and an Afghanistan and Iraq veteran.

Gentlemen, first of all, thank you both for your service.

Let's talk about Syria. Jon, let's start with you. You've said that both Kerry and Hagel, who are supporting this action, that both of them were personal inspirations for you. You worked for Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign. But you don't support him here. Why?

JON SOLTZ, CO-FOUNDER, VOTEVETS.ORG: It's hard. But it's just not going to work. The administration wants to somehow limit the regime's ability to use chemical weapons. We very much opposed arming the insurgents three months ago when the administration decided they were going to go ahead and do that because the red line was going to be crossed. Our fear was it wasn't going to work and we'd get sunk in further.

And so, what we have here is a strategic goal that has not really been established by the administration. So, tactically and operationally, I just don't quite see how limited strikes is going to prevent a dictator who is being attacked, who will be killed, is going to prevent him from using massive force against people who are still trying to kill him.

So, he's going to cross the red line. This isn't going to work. And we're going to have the same conversation all over, except with a further argument over intervention of U.S. forces into the conflict.

TAPPER: But, Pete, you support limited strikes. Tell us why.

PETE HEGSETH, CEO, CONCERNED VETERANS OF AMERICA: Well, Jake, he's certainly going to cross the red line again if we do nothing. I am as reluctant and conflicted as you can be about this.