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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Interview With Syrian Coalition Representative To The U.S.; Less Than Half Of Country Behind Obama, According To New CNN Poll Out This Hour; Political Panel Discusses Lack Of Support For Administration's Plans; "An Unbelievably Small, Limited Kind Of Effort"; Rodman Plans To Train North Korea Olympic Team; Twerk Alert; Arsenio's Long, Long Hiatus Ends

Aired September 9, 2013 - 16:30   ET

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


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

The World Lead: many lawmakers will not vote for it. Most Americans don't want it. So I'll ask the representative to the U.S. from the Syrian opposition, what should President Obama do if Congress decides not to strike the regime?

In Politics, stunning new CNN poll numbers on the eve of President Obama's address to the nation on Syria. A wide majority of Americans don't have his back.

And the sports lead. Maybe it's the scarf or the cigar or the multiple nose piercings, but for some reason, Dennis Rodman's plan to bring peace to North Korea through basketball does not seem to have a lot of believers.

Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. In our World Lead, Syrian president Bashar al Assad was asked in an interview with CBS' Charlie Rose how he feels about being called a butcher and killing his own people.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BASHAR AL ASSAD, PRESIDENT OF SYRIA: When you have a doctor who cut the leg to prevent the patient from the gangrene if you have to, we don't call him butcher. We call him a doctor. And we thank him for saving their lives.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: The gangrene in that metaphor is, of course, is the rebellion in Syria. The rebels are men that Assad describes as terrorists.

Let's talk to a representative for the opposition. Najib Ghadban is Syrian coalition special representative to the U.S. He meets regularly with the White House, National Security Council and State Department. He supports a Democratic Syria.

Mr. Ghadban, thanks so much for being here. First of all, I would like you to respond directly to what Mr. Assad said, referring to the opposition as gangrene while obviously the moderate rebels, ones that have been vetted, I wouldn't -- you don't have to defend them. A lot of Americans see videos of some of the elements in Syria that are pretty brutal of the rebels. We saw one commander ripping out the heart or some sort of inside part of a Syrian regime soldier. We saw -- we have seen executions in videos.

How do you answer, how do you assuage these concerns of the American people that some of the rebels seem to be quite bad guys?

NAJIB GHADBAN, SYRIAN COALITION SPECIAL REP. TO UNITED STATES: Well, I would start by saying yes, there are some bad actors among the rebels. But the gangrene, subject of the gangrene has been 120,000 Syrians killed by this regime, seven million displaced or made into refugees, 1.2 million houses destroyed by the Assad regime. This is a regime that responded to legitimate demands of Syrians, which started peacefully for freedom, dignity and equal opportunity by, from day one, killing them with snipers into escalating to the point of using scud aircraft, air force and now chemical weapons.

TAPPER: No question about that in terms of the response to peaceful demonstrations. But when you talk about the bad apples, how many bad apples are we talking about?

GHADBAN: It's a very small percentage, even today. The estimate by the Free Syria Army, less than six percent of those fighters, 160,000, are extremists. Extremists that espouse the kind of ideology that we don't subscribe to. They want an Islamic state, which is something different from the vision of the coalition and the SMC (ph).

TAPPER: Let's talk about this third way proposed today offhandedly by Secretary Kerry about hypothetically, if Assad were to give his chemical weapons to the international community, maybe he could avoid a military strike. Now the Russians and Syrian government are saying oh, let's talk about this. What do you think?

GHADBAN: Well, let's start by making sure that we don't trust the regime nor the Russians when it comes to that. They want to buy more time to engage in more killing.

Number two, at the top of any political solution now or proposal should be accountability for those who committed the crimes of the use of chemical weapons.

Number three, to be a package of political settlement that would lead to democratic transition like Geneva espouses. And so I think what's really important is only when this administration decided to bring the credible threat of the use of force that they started to talk sense. Before that, they did not believe in a political solution. That's why we believe the House, Congress must support the president in its effort, in fact, to continue to put that use of force on the table.

TAPPER: Let's talk about what happens if the U.S. attack goes on. It happens, let's say some of these military installations are taken out. What happens next? Game it out for us. How do we know the situation in Syria doesn't get even more bloody? GHADBAN: Well, it's been a situation, it's been a war situation for two-and-a-half years. The Assad lost control of more than 60 percent of the land. He's fighting the rebel on the suburb of Damascus. This is why he used chemical weapons, because he could not defeat them by conventional means.

So the country is already in the most chaotic situation. This strike, I think, is going to lead to the end of this war. There will be a transition plan coordinated between the core friends of Syria, the (INAUDIBLE) countries, and the Free Syrian Army and the coalition in order to make sure there is no void, there's no vacuum, that there are local counsel, revolutionary -- in fact committees on the ground to fill in this vacuum. We might need the help of the international community, we might need peace-keeping forces. All of that, we are open to it.

But I think it's the U.S. intervention that's going to end this war.

TAPPER: Do you think President Obama should order a military strike even if Congress says no?

GHADBAN: I believe so. But it would make a lot of sense for Congress to support the president. This is not the time to get into domestic, in fact, fighting over a lot of issues. This is the time for Congress to show unity behind the president on a cause which serves U.S. national interests and in fact, does correspond to U.S. values in promoting freedom and democracy in Syria.

TAPPER: All right. Najib Ghadban, thank you so much for coming in and sharing your views.

GHADBAN: Thank you for having me.

TAPPER: Coming up next, President Obama wanted a debate, and the American people have spoken. So will he go ahead with military action even if the majority of the country doesn't support him?

Plus, just a couple guys on vacation. Dennis Rodman is back from his summer trip to North Korea. What secrets is he spilling this time about his friend Kim Jong-un?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

In politics, the president has an enormous lift in front of him, and less than half the country behind him. A new CNN poll out this hour puts the president's approval rating at just 45 percent. So on the eve of an address to the nation, does the president still have the political capital, the mojo, to sway the country on Syria?

Let's bring in our panel. Co-host of CNN's "CROSSFIRE," Van Jones. CNN political contributor Kevin Madden. And Washington correspondent for New Yorker magazine, Ryan Lizza.

Kevin, these numbers, I would think if I were in the president's political team, I would look at them and be distressed. Only nine percent of Republicans and 26 percent of independents approve of how the president is handling Syria. He obviously needs Republicans and independents behind him on this. He can't do it with just Democrats.

How can he move those numbers? He has these six interviews with anchors, including Wolf Blitzer today and the address to the nation tomorrow.

KEVIN MADDEN, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: You know, I don't think he can right now. I think it's important to remember that most of the time, public opinion is a process, not an event. So the idea that you can just go with an Oval Office address and some interviews with network anchors and change public opinion in such a short amount of time, I just don't think it can happen.

But what he has to do in order to make some headway on Capitol Hill, which is the crucial audience right now, is he has to talk about having an integrated, comprehensive strategy to change the situation on the ground. That, I think, is what has frustrated most people --

TAPPER: So, not just the strike but what comes after?

MADDEN: Right.

VAN JONES, CNN CO-HOST, "CROSSFIRE": I think that's right. He's got to tell a story that helps people understand the context here, what's been going on in Syria.

Syria has not been on anybody's mind. In fact, the president has sort of tried to keep it out of the public conversation in some important ways because he didn't want to be pushed into action. He's got to give people a story about Syria, its past, its present, what he wants to do.

But I think at some point, you got to face reality here. He is not likely to prevail in Congress, and I think he's got it this far -- people in D.C. have to start thinking we can't have this vote. We can't have this vote.

TAPPER: In the Senate or House or both?

JONES: In the Senate -- both. Kick it downfield 45 days, 90 days. Maybe the gaffe that saves the world, maybe John Kerry's gaffe will save us somehow. But we've got to play for time here. We can't be in a situation where the Congress of the United States shoots down the president, unprecedented, on this war. But we also can't go to war.

TAPPER: Ryan, you and I were talking about this before the show. The president goes to Congress, there's inevitably going to be some anti- war Democrats that vote against any military involvement and some anti-war Republicans, the Rand Pauls of the world. But there is a vast majority that are willing to be convinced. He has not made the sale to them yet. Why not?

RYAN LIZZA, WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEW YORKER": That's right. If you take away the isolationist libertarian wing on the right and the anti-war wing on the left, you still have a middle in this country and in the Congress that is theoretically willing to give the president support for military action.

But he - he's won the case I think on the fact that Assad has chemical weapons. Nobody disagrees with that. I think he's basically won the case that Assad or the regime has used these chemical weapons. I don't think there's a serious case against that.

But why has he lost the broad middle that should be in favor of action? He hasn't made the case of what this pin-prick strike would actually do. He hasn't made the argument of what it is we're defending. What is the national security interest here? An international norm is not something the American people often rally to go to war in favor of. And I think that's his challenge tomorrow night, is he'll have to lay out the case again of -- on the intelligence, but why is it the U.S.'s role to attack Syria over this chemical attack?

JONES: I think it's worse than you say. What you say is pretty tough, but there are people who you would expect to be in that persuadable middle -- for instance, you take a congresswoman like Tulsi Gabbard, who we talked about before. She's a Democrat, she's from his home state, she's 31 years old, she's an Iraq war veteran. You would think if anybody would come to ride to the guns and support the president, maybe she would. She looked at this stuff, she came out today and said no. Tammy Duckworth, another veteran, says no.

So he's actually -- it's not just the sort of wild, anti-war left in the party, of which I might be a part. It's actually people who right there in the center that are also not there with him --

LIZZA: There is no constituency for this war right now.

TAPPER: Let me just read this statement from Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, combat veteran of the Iraq War, as you mention. Quote, "As a soldier, I understand that before taking any military action, our nation must have a clear tactical objective, a realistic strategy, the necessary resources to execute that strategy, including the support of the American people, and an exit plan. The proposed military action against Syria fails to meet any of these criteria." That's a Democrat from Hawaii!

JONES: Who is an Iraq - who's a veteran. She's a military kind of centrist, that kind of a voice. That's where you know he's in trouble. .

MADDEN: Yes. That's the big problem here. This goes to both Van and Ryan's point. The president from the very beginning has been lacking any clarity on the mission. He's lacked it in making that case with the American public and he's lacked it with Capitol Hill. What he has tomorrow night is an extraordinary opportunity to talk with just his voice, directly to the American people, no filter. I do not think it's enough time because he hasn't engaged earlier on this, but it is an extraordinary opportunity.

TAPPER: Let's talk about that mixed message. Earlier today, something else Secretary of State John Kerry said as he described the strike on Syria as an unbelievably small, limited kind of effort, that's Kerry's words, unbelievably small. Senator John McCain, a supporter of intervention, said that is unbelievably unhelpful.

JONES: It's complicated.

TAPPER: Van, they're trying to thread this needle here where it's like, it's going to make a big change in Syria to get people who are more interventionist types and saying it's not going to be that big a deal.

JONES: Well, it is a big challenge here, because I've said before he's trying to be half hawk and half dove and that kind of bird doesn't fly in Washington, D.C. But here is a president who I think in a good way is reluctant to go to war. He's not a warmonger. He's not a let's go shoot them up kind of cowboy character and he's put in a situation where he's trying to figure out what to do and he's kind of taking the country with him on this walk.

I think the walk around the White House has to stop. He's got to take a stand tomorrow and make his case. I don't think he's got to pull Democrats like me along, but he's got to recover as a leader now.

TAPPER: Ryan, I want to give you the last word. Before I do, Van, we'll have to table this for future conversation. I think there are people who would look at drones and counterterrorism and disagree with you on the militaristic thing. We'll table that for now.

JONES: Fair enough.

LIZZA: Look, there's a certain incoherence to the case, right. He wants to do something that will prevent Assad from using these weapons again, but to sell it to an anti-war base on both the left and right he's saying we're not really going to war. He's got to fix that incoherence tomorrow.

TAPPER: All right, it's great conversation. Kevin, Van, Ryan, thank you so much for coming in. Remember, of course, speaking of Van Jones, "CROSSFIRE" returns tonight to CNN at 6:30 p.m. Eastern. Thanks, man.

Coming up next on THE LEAD, he leads one of the most repressive regimes on earth, but according to Dennis Rodman, Kim Jong-Un is just doing his job. The worm has turned up and has lots to say about his friend.

Plus, he made history 20 years ago as the first black late night talk show host. Now, Arsenio Hall is back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. Now it's time for the Sports Lead. Let's say you're the head of a big Hollywood studio and I come in to pitch this. It's a fish out of water story in which a flamboyant former NBA star suddenly finds himself in dictator-controlled North Korea and he takes it upon himself to train a rag-tag group of North Koreans in the art of basketball and take them all the way to the 2016 Olympics.

Before you throw me out of your studio office and say that is ridiculous, let me finish the pitch. It's called the Dennis Rodman story.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DENNIS RODMAN, FORMER NBA PLAYER: I'm doing some ground-breaking things. Come talk to me.

TAPPER (voice-over): Ladies and gentlemen, Dennis Rodman.

RODMAN: I want to bridge a gap with North Korea so why Obama are afraid to talk to Dennis Rodman?

TAPPER: Flashy scarf aficionado and unlikely liaison to the world's most isolated dictator.

RODMAN: He's my friend. If you hate my guts, hate my guts, but he's my friend.

TAPPER: This morning, the cross dressing, face piercing bad boy, formerly of the NBA announced a plan to unite the United States and North Korea through -- wait for it -- basketball. It is, after all, the favorite sport of dictator, Kim Jong-Un. Rodman just returned from his second friendly visit to Pyongyang, paid for this time by a gambling web site, Patty Power.

While Rodman was there, it seems he and kim formed a grand diplomatic plan. Step one, gather some of this country's best athletes and have them perform for a packed stadium in North Korea to mark the dictator's birthday.

RODMAN: It was going to January 8, he said you want our stadium? We'll give it to you. We got 150,000 kids will do anything for you on the field. We got 95,000 people will be in the stadium watching this game.

TAPPER: Step two, have one of the best rebounders in American history train the North Koreans to play competitive basketball on an international stage.

RODMAN: I said Dennis, do one thing for us. For the next Olympics, can you train our Olympic team to compete in the Olympics for the next three years, I'm like OK.

TAPPER: Of course, and yes, step three.

RODMAN: I'm going to give you guys this thing. It will be a bestseller. He gave me the rights for me and him to sit down for one month, and me and him is going to write a book together. There we go.

STEVE CLEMONS, "THE ATLANTIC": It is buffoonery amplified because of who Dennis Rodman is. I think that it is very unfortunate that this great basketball player and star in the United States is allowing himself to be duped by Kim Jong-Un. TAPPER: But Rodman says this time his sponsored antics are no joke.

RODMAN: Take me seriously because I have the only interview with this guy. I'm going to write a book by this guy.

TAPPER: While celebrities are often blurring the line between politics and publicity stunts, few are laughing at Angelina Jolie's causes, George Clooney's protests or Ben Affleck's aid work so why not take Rodman's basketball diplomacy to heart?

CLEMONS: Dennis Rodman is a very confused man who is not very sophisticated about U.S. foreign policy and what our stakes are in terms of trying to guide North Korea in a very different direction.

TAPPER: So all Rodman and his sponsors hope to settle our differences with a bit of hoops, chances are President Obama will not be adding North Korea to his brackets any time soon.

RODMAN: Obama, what are you afraid of? Come talk to me.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER: Rodman also says that he will interview Kim Jong-Un on live TV when he goes back. One way or another that will be can't miss. Coming up on THE LEAD, what's Sarah Palin's twin doing now? Tina Fey's next gig has just been announced. Find out where you will see her next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back. Now it's time for the "Pop Culture Lead." We may get to hear what Sarah Palin thinks of the Syria debate when Tina Fey comes home to host "Saturday Night Live" this weekend. NBC announced that she will help kick off the 39th season of the show.

And twerk alert, Miley Cyrus fresh off her violation of a foam finger and stuffed animals on the MTV Video Music Awards will double as host and musical guest on October 5th. It's hard to think of a public figure who has been out of the mix as long as Arsenio Hall, Amelia Earhart, Jimmy Hoffa come to mind?

But tonight his hiatus is on hiatus. The Arsenio Hall show complete with the dog pound and a lot more late night competition returns to the air tonight, CBS is syndicating the show. Chances are you will be able to see it. Hall has been gone for nearly 20 years, waiting for the right time to jump back in. Of course, it's not 1994 anymore. A lot has happened since then. Viewers will tell him if his timing is right.

It's not very often that you get something new from a man who has been dead for 123 years. But that kind of happened. A wealthy Norwegian was told the Van Gogh painting he had was fake so he did what we all do with our fake paintings. He put it in the attic. Now six decades and a lot of dust later, experts say it's not a faux Van Gogh at all. It's real and worth millions of dollars. It's called "Sunset At Mount Majeaux" painted in 1988. He apparently thought he mailed this one in and gave it to his brother. The last discovery of this magnitude was in 1928.

Make sure to follow me on Twitter @jaketapper and also at @leadcnn and check out our show page @cnn.com/thelead for videos, blogs, extras. That's it for "THE LEAD." I'm Jake Tapper. I'll be back at 11:00 p.m. Eastern for a special on the crisis in Syria. I now turn you over to Wolf Blitzer who is at the White House.

WOLF BLITZER, HOST, CNN'S "THE SITUATION ROOM": Jake, thanks very much.