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Obama & Putin Met on Syria; Lawmakers Face Syria Blowback at Home; U.S. Could use Long-range Bombers

Aired September 6, 2013 - 09:30   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Good afternoon. I'm Jake Tapper in Washington. This is a special edition of CNN NEWSROOM.

Just minutes from now we're going to hear from President Obama. He's holding a news conference at the site of the G-20 economic summit as it wraps up. He's been meeting with world leaders on the sidelines of the gathering, trying to rally support for military action against Syria. He's due to speak in about 20 minutes or so. He may give us a better idea of where other countries stand on the matter.

Our troops are fanned out across the world covering this morning's developments from the Pentagon to St. Petersburg, from Capitol Hill to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Let's begin with senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta. He's traveling with the president and he joins us from St. Petersburg.


Well, what we can tell you right now is that President Putin is sort of jumping the gun a little bit, getting ahead of President Obama. He's holding his own news conference right now. And he made a little bit of news there, Jake. He said that he and President Obama had a 20- minute meeting. Don't have an exact time as to when that happened, but a White House official is now confirming to CNN that that meeting did occur. President Putin said at his own news conference, when asked by a reporter, that he and the president met for about 20 minutes. They talked about the situation in Syria. But according to the Russian president, both men basically stuck to their guns. That they understand where they - where they stand on that issue.

The other thing that President Putin said during that news conference is that he basically laid out who's with the United States and who's with him when it comes to Syria. He said basically it's the United States that wants to do this, wants to have military intervention in Syria, and he said that the United States is taking its friends along with them, naming France, Canada and some other countries. And then President Putin talked about all the countries that he says are with him. So it will be interesting to see whether or not the president gets asked about that.

But, Jake, one thing that does seem to be clear from this G-20 Summit is that the president, our president, President Obama's walking away from this summit maybe with not all of the support that he expected to have when he got here. Aides to the president, who talked to reporters earlier this morning, wouldn't list which countries were with the president. They said that might happen after this summit is wrapped up. But you do get the sense the president is - he is trying to make a case here for military action. He's just not getting as much support as perhaps he would have liked.


TAPPER: All right, Jim Acosta with the president in St. Petersburg. A tough sell for President Obama abroad.

It's also a tough sell here at home. Lawmakers have expressed to many reporters that it's difficult to vote for something when more than 90 percent of the constituents they're hearing from are opposed. Lawmakers across the country, of course, are meeting with constituents this week to get their views on Syria, sometimes getting a lot of blow back. Take one town hall meeting with Senator John McCain in Phoenix just yesterday.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I am unalterably opposed to having a single American boot on the ground in Syria.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's not good enough.

MCCAIN: What you're doing is not just disrespectful -


MCCAIN: What you're doing, sir, is not just disrespectful to me, but you're disrespectful to others who would like their opinion and their views heard. So I would appreciate it --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: First of all, Senator McCain, thank you for being here. But I have to wonder, do you really realize what you're getting our -- what you're getting our country into with this war in Syria. If you attack the Syrians, who do you think they're going to take it out on? Israel. Why are you not supporting Israel on this one? We should be backing Israel, not turning away from them.

And second of all, this is what I think of Congress. They are a bunch of marshmallows. That's what they are. That's what they become. Why are you not listening to the people and staying out of Syria? It's not our fight. Back Israel!

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I've always been a loyal supporter of you since the Keating (ph) Five (ph) (INAUDIBLE). Anyway, the point is right now no one's denying there's a lot of atrocities being committed in Syria, whether on the rebel's side or whether on the other side as well. The point is, there is a good option to what could happen in Syria. For me to listen to you saying there is no good option, I refuse to believe that. The good option right now is to take Saudi Arabia and Iran and force them to stop supporting the two sides in Syria. And you could do it. You can do it by negotiate - by diplomacy and negotiation, not bombs, Senator McCain. We cannot afford -- we cannot afford to shed more Syrian blood. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My question to you, if this is 1,400 peoples, child -- children and women die, they were Jews. As this crowd would say, OK, let them go, we're not going to fight them? You know, this is a human being. We have to get rid of whoever did this crime. This is a crime against humanity. Bashar al Assad is a criminal and everybody knows, how can we support him? Hezbollah is a criminal organization and they supported him. Iran supported him. We have to stop this madness. We have to stop Bashar al Assad at any price. I'm Syrian- American and I'm proud of it. My family's in Syria and I want to protect them. If Bashar stay there, he will kill half of the nation. He already did.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I feel very complain - compelled today, like everyone else, to take time out of their lives and prevent what I feel is a tragedy. The tragedy would be to have our military forces strike Syria. I want to tell you, it does not seem to be good rationale for the attack.


TAPPER: Senator John McCain getting an earful from constituents yesterday in Phoenix, Arizona. Both senators from Arizona, McCain and Senator Jeff Flake, voted in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to pursue to support President Obama's authorization for use of force in Syria against Bashar al Assad. But that kind of unanimity is far from widespread in the Senate and the House.

Let's go to Dana Bash now, our chief congressional correspondent who's on Capitol Hill.

Dana, lawmakers seem to be getting -- even supporters of the president's resolution seem to be getting an earful from constituents to not get involved any further in this conflict. How are they handling it?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, you just saw - I thought that was absolutely fascinating with John McCain. Jake, you've probably been to as many, if not more, John McCain town hall meetings as I have. He knows how to handle tough questions. But even for him, that was unbelievable the opposition that he's getting.

Someone like him, you know, he did vote in the committee for the authorization. He got some changes that made him happier. And even so, at the end of this town hall, he kind of lashed out at a reporter there who asked, how are you going to vote? And he said, well, why would I be having a town hall if I've decided?

Having said that, it's hard to see John McCain, at this point, voting against it. But, you know, you have seen some lawmakers change their tune, even in the past week. Michael Graham from New York, for example, sounded very much in favor of voting for authorization earlier in the week and later -- as the week is coming to a close, he's sounding more undecided. So I think the key thing is - that is really surprising is that what the administration has been banking on is lawmakers going into these classified briefings and getting reassuring that this is the right way to go. But instead what we're seeing is them come out having more questions than answers.

Specifically, not so much on the intelligence and whether Bashar al Assad actually used chemical weapons, but on the military plans. A lot of people are very concerned that the contingency plans just aren't there. If they are, they're not being shared with members of Congress, about what - the what ifs. What if Bashar al Assad uses chemical weapons again, even after this, will we strike again? You know, what if this escalates broader conflict in the region, who will the U.S. respond? So many questions like that, that people are just not comfortable with. Never mind what they're hearing from their constituents back home, which is, as you just heard, don't do this.

TAPPER: Well, Dana, and that's the thing, I mean, as you say, I don't hear a lot of people questioning the intelligence, although certainly recent history would suggest that the intelligence should never be taken at face value, especially when all the details are not made at least as public as possible. But the questions are about how this nation is being led into this conflict and what happens next.

There was a -- I want to read to you, Dana, just for one second, from a rather devastating piece in "The Washington Post" today from Retired Major General Robert Scales (ph), who said that he had talked to many people planning this military operation and said, 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."

Dana, in your off the record conversations with Democrats on Capitol Hill, because we expect, obviously, a high degree of skepticism and, in fact, some knee jerk opposition from Republicans, are they concerned about the way that this is happening and what the military thinks behind the scenes?

BASH: Absolutely. I mean that is a big part of this. You know, kind of the internal conflict of many of these Democrats, as we've been talking about, is whether to support the president or to support something that they inherently have doubts about. The doubts are really magnified by the fact that they, as you said, aren't getting the questions answered that they have on the military issues. And these aren't sort of just rank and file Democrats with no military experience.

People like Tulsi Gabbard, whose a freshman Democrat from Hawaii, who was a combat veteran from Iraq. She understands war. She explains that. And she is taking a lot of time to ask questions, not just in these classified briefings, but on her own time, to call the Pentagon, to call, you know, generals, retired and current and so forth. And she is not comfortable with this. And she's made pretty clear, she even can't support this right now. She's undecided. So that just gives you an example of how difficult this is. Just like you said, even and maybe even especially for the president's biggest allies here on Capitol Hill. TAPPER: Thank you, Dana Bash, on Capitol Hill. We'll come back to you periodically throughout this special.

Just minutes ago we heard from Russian President Vladimir Putin. His country has just finished hosting the G-20 Economic Summit, but much of the gathering, of course, has been focused unofficially on the possibility of military strikes against Syria by the U.S. President Obama has rallied support for military action. He's trying to, at least, but President Putin, of course, has been doing the other thing. He's rallied against any attack on his allies. There's even been discussion of Russian officials trying to meet with U.S. lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Putin spoke moments ago about how he did sit down with President Obama.


PRES. VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIA (through translator): We actually met with Mr. Obama, not on - not on feet (ph) by (ph) but on other part of the body. We were sitting. The conversation lasted for probably 20 minutes. It was a very friendly conversation. We stick to our guns. Everybody remained with his position. We understand each other. We hear, we listen to each other. We understand arguments. We do not agree with those arguments. But, still, we can hear them. We try to find an agreement towards this whole settlement of this crisis.


TAPPER: Russian President Vladimir Putin speaking in St. Petersburg just minutes ago.

We are expecting, of course, President Obama to come out and talk about the G-20 Economic Summit and more to the point about his plans for U.S. military action in Syria. We're going to bring you those comments live. We'll be right back after this.


TAPPER: Welcome back to CNN.

We are expecting President Obama at the end of the G-20 Economic Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, to come out and talk to reporters. Specifically we're waiting for his remarks about his plans for a U.S. military assault on Bashar al Assad's forces in Syria. There's been a lot of discussion in St. Petersburg about the president trying to rally support for these military strikes, given the fact that Assad allegedly used chemical weapons, which is a violation of all sorts of international laws. But he is, apparently, having a difficult time rallying any sort of public support, especially when it comes to demonstrable actions from other countries. Pentagon correspondent Chris Lawrence joins us now.

Chris, there's now some new talk about the possibility of long-range bombers being used for strikes against Assad's forces in Syria. Tell us about that.

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Jake, I was talking to some sources here who say they have been fielding calls from the White House daily, multiple, many, many calls asking them for different options. Can we do this? What about this? What would this take?

One of the things under discussion is the use of long-range bombers. Some of which could even be flown directly from the United States. But the official that I spoke with said, look, it doesn't change the overall parameters of the mission. He said we'd still be looking at what's called a standoff capability. In other words, when you think of American pilots, he said, don't think of them buzzing over Syrian air space. These bombers would still likely be kept out of Syrian air space and using these long-range missiles to strike from a distance out of the range of those Syrian air defenses, much the way that the submarines and the ships that are already positioned in the Mediterranean can do right now.

TAPPER: All right, Chris, I want to get your response, or at least ask you about the Pentagon's response to the opinion piece that was in "The Washington Post" today from Retired Major General Robert Scales (ph), who, talking to, he says, many members of the military who are planning these strikes says that they are, quote, "embarrassed to be associated with the amateurism of the Obama administration's attempts to craft a plan that makes strategic sense." Is there a response from the Pentagon?

LAWRENCE: I can tell you this. I spoke with a source who is deployed in that region. And he told me, point plank, we all thought this was going to happen last weekend. He said, we were standing extra watches. The readiness level. Everything was pointing to the fact that this was about to happen and then all of sudden it -- he said the tempo went from go, go, go to almost nothing. So it was a shock, I think, to a lot of those who are deployed.

I'm not getting the sense of embarrassment from Pentagon officials. I think they have continued to sort of refine a lot of these options. Obviously they have told us that there has been a lot of movement over -- on the ground over the last week with the Syrian forces. That the target list has had to be updated. They have changed targets, adjusted targets. And one official told me last night, that's likely to continue to change. That by the time Congress votes on this and any decision is taken, he said likely these targets are going to have to be changed again.

TAPPER: All right, Pentagon correspondent Chris Lawrence.

I want to bring in Gloria Borger right now. Gloria, we're told that there's about a minute until President Obama comes on stage, so, obviously, if I abruptly cut you off you'll --


TAPPER: You'll -- you'll forgive me. But your thoughts as to President Obama's challenge right now. What does he need to do?

BORGER: Well, he's got to convince the American public. He's got to convince the Congress. He's got to convince our reluctant allies, as you were talking about before. And I think it's very difficult when the definition of the mission really isn't clear. And that's the problem he's having in Congress because he's trying to thread the needle between liberals who want a very defined and narrow mission -

TAPPER: If at least -- if even that, by the way.

BORGER: And - and some -

TAPPER: I mean a lot of liberals don't even want that.

BORGER: Want any mission.


BORGER: And some conservatives who are saying, you know what, we'd be with you if we could have a muscular mission that won't embarrass the United States, like the general that you just spoke about, a more muscular, robust mission that will actually degrade Assad's capability to use chemical weapons and deter him from doing it in the future. I mean they're afraid that a shot across the bow just won't be enough and will do - and will do nothing and then we'll send a signal to Iran that, sure, you can build your nuclear weapons with impunity. Go right ahead.

TAPPER: President Obama, obviously at the G-20 Summit at St. Petersburg, Russia, but there is a huge lobbying effort going on behind the scenes here in Washington, D.C.

BORGER: Right.

TAPPER: Even in his absence, Vice President Biden, others, really laying on the case. Tell us about that.

BORGER: Right. And the White House actually put out sort of a note which said, we've spoken to 60 senators, 125 House members, we are reaching out. And I don't know if you can recall, you used to cover the White House, I don't remember this kind of an outreach on any domestic program.

TAPPER: Well, health care. Towards the end of the health -- towards the end of heath care, yes.

BORGER: Yes. Towards the end of health care. Towards the end of heath care.

But obviously now, look, the White House has a very small window. The president's going to come back. He's going to go before the American people. He's going to make his case. Because they understand in the White House that if he were to lose this vote, his -- the rest of his agenda hangs in the balance. What will this do to embolden Republicans in the Congress who are not likely to support him on a lot of things, including the debt ceiling and everything -- and immigration and everything else he's got coming up. This will really sort of expedite a lame duck status for him. So they - they really understands what's at stake here domestically, as well as on the international stage. TAPPER: We're waiting for President Obama to speak in St. Petersburg, Russia. And we'll go to him live as soon as he comes out. But before we do, I want to bring in from Austin, historian Douglas Brinkley from Rice University.

Doug, how unusual is this situation for President Obama meeting overseas with world leaders, holding a news conference to address these issues, but really speaking to the American people?

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, HISTORIAN, RICE UNIVERSITY: Well, and speaking to the world right now. This is all everybody's talking about. Barack Obama is in a very difficult situation and I think we have to see whether he believes his own show, his own war strategy here today. How much passion will he have in this presser? Is he backing off a little bit. So far John Kerry's been the prosecutor of the Assad regime. Barack Obama's kind of middle-lined it a little bit. He's been at times passionate and at other times saying, look, it's up to Congress. So I think it's very important he sends a forceful message that he wants to go forward with this at the press conference. Then come home and quickly address a national prime-time audience. We need to know more. We need to hear more of Barack Obama, not just his surrogates.

TAPPER: How - how have previous presidents, Douglas, how have they made the case - oh, here's President Obama. We'll go to him. We'll come back to you in a second.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank President Putin and the people of St. Petersburg and the people of Russia for hosting this G-20. This city has a long and storied history, including its historic resistance and extraordinary sacrifices during the second world war. So I want to take this opportunity to salute the people of St. Petersburg and express our gratitude for their outstanding hospitality.

Now, this summit marks another milestone in the world's recovery from the financial crisis that erupted five years ago this month. Instead of the looming threat of another financial meltdown, we're focused for the first time in many years on building upon the gains that we've made. For the first time in three years, instead of an urgent discussion to address the European financial crisis, we see a Europe that has emerged from recession.

Moreover, the United States is a source of strength in the global economy. Our manufacturing sector is rebounding. New rules have strengthened our banks and reduced the chance of another crisis. We're reducing our addiction to foreign oil and producing more clean energy.

And as we learned today, over the past three and a half years, our businesses have created 7.5 million new jobs, a pace of more than 2 million jobs each year. We put more people back to work, but we've also cleared away the rubble of crisis and laid the foundation for a stronger and more durable economic growth.

We're also making progress in putting our fiscal house in order. Our deficits are falling at the fastest rate in 60 years. And as Congress takes up important decisions in the coming month, I'm going to keep making the case for the smart investments and fiscal responsibility that keeps our economy growing, creates jobs, and keeps the U.S. competitive. That includes making sure we don't risk a U.S. default over paying bills we've already racked up. I'm determined that the world has confidence in the full faith and credit of the United States.

As the world's largest economy, our recovery is helping to drive global growth. And in the emerging markets in particular, there's a recognition that a strong U.S. economy is good for their economies, too. Yet we came to St. Petersburg mindful of the challenges that remain. As it emerges from recession, Europe has an opportunity to focus on boosting demand and reducing unemployment, as well as making some of the structural changes that can increase long-term growth. Growth in emerging economies has slowed. So, we need to make sure that we are working with them in managing this process.

And I'm pleased that over the past two days we reached a consensus on how to proceed. We agreed that our focus needs to be on creating jobs and growth that put people back to work. We agreed on ways to encourage the investments and infrastructure that keep economies competitive. Nations agreed to continue pursuing financial reforms and to address tax evasion and tax avoidance, which undermines budgets and unfairly shifts the tax burden to other taxpayers.

We're moving ahead with our development agenda with a focus on issues like food security and combatting corruption. And I'm very pleased that the G-20 nations agreed to make faster progress on phasing down certain greenhouse gases a priority. That's an important step in our fight against climate change. During my trip, we also continued our efforts to advance two key trade initiatives -- the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and the Transpacific Partnership. And I believe that if we continue to move forward on all the fronts that I've described, we can keep the global economy growing and keep creating jobs for our people.

Of course, even as we focused on our shared prosperity, and although the primary task of the G-20 is to focus on our joint efforts to boost the global economy, we did also discuss a grave threat to our shared security, and that's the Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons. And what I've been emphasizing and will continue to stress is that the Assad regime's brazen use of chemical weapons isn't just a Syrian tragedy, it's a threat to global peace and security. Syria's escalating use of chemical weapons threatens its neighbors, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Israel. It threatens to further destabilize the Middle East. It increases the risk that these weapons will fall into the hands of terrorist groups. But more broadly, it threatens to unravel the international norm against chemical weapons embraced by 189 nations, and those nations represent 98 percent of the world's people. Failing to respond to this breach of this international norm would send a signal to rogue nations, authoritarian regimes and terrorist organizations, that they can develop and use weapons of mass destruction and not pay a consequence. And that's not the world that we want to live in. This is why nations around the world have condemned Syria for this attack and called for action. I've been encouraged by discussions with my fellow leaders this week. There is a growing recognition that the world cannot stand idly by. Here in St. Petersburg, leaders from Europe, Asia and the Middle East have come together to say that the international norm against the use of chemical weapons must be upheld and that the Assad regime used these weapons on its own people and that, as a consequence, there needs to be a strong response. The Arab League foreign ministers have said the Assad regime's responsible and called for deterrent and necessary measures against the culprits of this crime. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation, its general secretariat, has called the attack a blatant affront to all religious and moral values and a deliberate disregard of international laws and norms, which requires a decisive action.

So, in the coming days, I'll continue to consult with my fellow leaders around the world, and I will continue to consult with Congress. And I will make the best case that I can to the American people, as well as to the international community, for taking necessary and appropriate action. And I intend to address the American people from the White House on Tuesday.

The kind of world we live in and our ability to deter this kind of outrageous behavior is going to depend on the decisions that we make in the days ahead. And I'm confident that if we deliberate carefully and we choose wisely, and embrace our responsibilities, we can meet the challenges of this moment, as well as those in the days