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Report: Illegal Southwest Border Crossings Drop 67 Percent; Gas Attack Kills 70 In Syria; Sessions Orders Sweeping Review of Police Reforms. Aired 3:30-4p ET

Aired April 4, 2017 - 15:30   ET



BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Quickly, then, what is DHS saying on then candidate Trump's talk on the border? Is that having an influence on these numbers?

MARSH: Aguilar said he credits the Trump administration's stance on immigration for the drop. The Trump administration is proudly taking credit for this saying that it's due to the tough stance that it's taken on immigration laws. If you remember back in January, the President signed two executive orders concerning the construction of the law and increasing the number of immigration enforcement officers who can carry out deportations. They say they are cracking down on illegals and the numbers show that.

BALDWIN: Meantime, more on the Trump and Russia investigation. Adam Schiff talking to Wolf Blitzer earlier this afternoon ripping into the white house. We're trying to force the investigation to lose focus. Here's part of his conversation with Wolf.


ADAM SCHIFF, CONGRESSPERSON, CALIFORNIA: I think there are a few things going on. There is, in the first instance, a strong desire by the white house that we lose our focus, that we not pursue the investigation of Russia, particularly as it might impact the Trump campaign. I think that's priority number one for the President and the administration.


BALDWIN: This comes after Mr. Schiff publicly asked Devin Nunes to recuse himself from the investigation into possible ties between Russia and the Trump transition team. Nunes himself is a member of that team. We'll talk to Ari Fleischer about this and so much more, including Syria, next.


BALDWIN: All right. Let's talk about Syria. Breaking news out of Syria. To tell this story, I just want to tell you that the images are beyond disturbing. As chemical weapons are suspected of massacring children and women and among 70 killed so far from air strikes that activists say gave off a poisonous gas. One doctor near the northern Syrian village of Idlib tells CNN 500 wounded patients covered the floors of just one hospital. Mothers and their children dying of asphyxiation, foam covering their mouths. I'm joined by Rick Francona, senior international correspondent Arwa Damon fresh off a plane from Mosul covering the air strikes there. Thank you so much, as always, with regard to what's happened in Syria, we remember the chemical weapons attack from 2013 under the Obama administration and you have talked for years, having been in Syria with these activists who are beyond angry.

ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: They are devastated. And I've said this before but I truly think we're going to need to invent new words to describe what's happened in Syria and the emotions that it generates because imagine being Syrian. Imagine going through all of that cycle of violence and having the United States of America say chemical weapons is a red line. I remember an activist calling me and saying, Arwa, do you think they are going to come save us now? That didn't happen. In fact, the violence there was allowed to be perpetuated with impunity and now we have it being repeated again. Little children suffocating to death. It wasn't just the poisonous gas attack afterwards, according to activists on the ground and doctors. Hospitals were targeted in air strikes as well. It's this relentless cycle and we're watching it happen. We're allowing it to happen.

BALDWIN: Let me just read you -- I was just handed this statement, we heard from Sean Spicer, we get to hear from the President, this was handed this to me from the President. Today's chemical attack in Syria against innocent children and women is reprehensible. And cannot be ignored by the civilized world. The heinous acts by the Bashar al Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration's weakness and irresolution. President Obama said in 2012 he would establish a red line against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing. The United States stands with our allies across the globe to condemn this intolerable attack.

Colonel to you, coming off that statement yet at the same time we know the Trump administration last week said the priority was not to oust Assad but was to oust ISIS. How do you square these images?

[15:40:00] RICK FRANCONA, LT. COLONEL, FORMER U.S. MILITARY ATTACHE IN SYRIA: The United States is now in a difficult position and we put ourselves there by not doing anything in 2013 when we allowed the red line to be crossed. And then when we wanted to do something, it's too late now because we've got the Russians there. The Russians are going to back up the Syrians no matter what happens or we'll rely on the U.N. the Russians will protect them there. So, if anybody wants military action out of the United States to stop these chemical attacks, I don't think that's going to be happening because of the Russian presence there. The opportunity for us to declare no-fly zones, to set up safe areas all of that ended in 2015 when the Russians showed up.

The Russians are the complicating factor here. Unfortunately, we're going to see more of this. Every time the regime gets backed into a corner, and they are fighting a tough battle, this area is only 20 miles northwest of Hama. It's a symbolic and strategic importance to the regime. They will use any means they complicating factor here. Unfortunately, we're going to see more of this. Every time the regime gets backed into a corner, and they are fighting a tough battle, this area is only 20 miles northwest of Hama. It's a symbolic and strategic importance to the regime. They will use any means they need to defend it and we see what they are doing by using chemical weapons. If they get backed up again, they'll do the same thing again. As Arwa says, we've seen this with the systematic destruction of virtually every government in Idlib.

BALDWIN: What do you think?

DAMON: I think the Trump administration has an opportunity here. It's easy to turn around and blame the predecessor for the situation that you're in but are you going to look back on history and allow it to repeat itself or are you going to take actions? Yes, Syria is complicated and the Russian factor has changed. The dynamics on the ground, to a certain degree. But there are pressure points that can be applied. There are negotiations that can be made at this stage and if the Trump administration really wants to stand behind these kind of statements that it's putting out, there are other options to be explored, things that Turkey, for example, like safe zones inside Syria.

BALDWIN: Thank you and, colonel, with all due respect, I hope you're wrong and that there are not many more of these and I hope the administration, to use Arwa's words, uses this as an opportunity to do something. Colonel, thank you and Arwa, thank you so much as well. I have Ari Fleischer who standing by here. Great to see you. Since we just kind of came out of this whole conversation on Syria, I should go ahead and begin there with you. I read the white house statement a moment ago from the President but we have some sound, also, from the British Prime Minister Theresa May also reacting to the atrocity.


THERESA MAY, British Prime Minister: I'm appalled by the reports of a chemical attack in Idlib by the Syrian regime. We condemn this in all circumstances. If proven, this is further evidence of the barbarism of the Syrian regime. I call for all to have a transition away from Assad.


BALDWIN: She said it so clearly there. Can be no future for Assad. You know what the Trump administration said last week about the focus now more on fighting ISIS and less about ousting Assad but England is our closest ally. Should we for the be on the same page?

ARI FLEISCHER, FORMER WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Well, the problem with that, of course, as heartfelt as it is, that's exactly what Barack Obama said and Assad does have a future. He made one for himself because Barack Obama did not act. It's one thing to use the rhetoric, the kind and compassionate rhetoric, there's no future for him. But that has nothing to do with the facts on the ground. Look, I wouldn't mind if we took military action and destroyed something and killed some people who are very close to Assad to send a signal that we will not allow this to happen. I wish Barack Obama had done that when he drew the red line. He should have. We have indeed leaving with the consequence of a red line that was erased.

BALDWIN: I understand Republicans are criticizing the Obama administration because he did draw that red line and walked right past it after that chemical weapons attack of 2013. But the question is, what do you do now? Let me play some sound. This is Sean Spicer speaking about Syria last week.


SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: With respect to Assad, there's a political reality that we have to accept in terms of where we are right now. We lost a lot of opportunity the last administration with respect to Assad and I think that Arwa's statement that U.N. ambassador Haley gave yesterday and secretary of state Tillerson reflects the reality.


[15:45:00] BALDWIN: To Arwa's point, she's been in Syria and has talked to the activists who believes that the world has turned its back on Syria. One last question and then we'll move on. What could the Trump administration use this as an opportunity to help?

FLEISCHER: Well, as I said, I would support military action and send that signal that we will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons. It should have been done before and can be done. I'd be careful now about Assad himself in that as we learned in Iraq, you better have a plan in place if you take down the leader of the country, would that create more instability in the middle east. I think there are things that can be done. Sean Spicer's statement is a reality. He's acknowledging the life on the ground in Syria.

BALDWIN: Let's talk about health care. We saw that mess a couple of Fridays ago. Didn't quite even get to vote on the floor because of the house freedom caucus saying it wasn't doing enough. They called it Obamacare-lite. Now you have the resurgence of talks. I mean, how do you think the white house -- where do you think the focus should go? Last night it was the President meeting with the house freedom caucus. Tonight, it's the moderates. How do they thread that needle?

FLEISCHER: Republicans squandered their best chance. Your first chance is always your best chance. Now for the party is how do you put humpty dumpty back together again?

BALDWIN: Can you put hump tea dumpty back together again?

FLEISCHER: That will test things here. The only thing is that it took place early and if they can get the will of the members to compromise but what's driving Republicans, it was such a fundamental promise Republicans have made for seven years that they would repeal and replace Obamacare and then they failed to do it. And so, they have this drive now to fulfill it because they promised they would and I hope they can. But I'll tell you, Brooke, I give it no more than a 33 percent chance of getting it done. It was a 50/50 chance when they started it so I think you have to let the dust settle and go on to other issues and bring it to the front burner when the time is right.

BALDWIN: If they had been working with the house freedom caucus, President Trump called out members of the house freedom caucus on twitter and now they are meeting with the house freedom caucus and told the financial times, maybe Democrats we want to work with you. If you're a member of Congress, what are you thinking and how do you get anything through?

FLEISCHER: We're thinking it's a mess. You're thinking humpty dumpty is broken. I just wish they would all work together. That's the real problem with Washington and where it's particularly painful is now there's a problem inside the Republican caucus.

BALDWIN: Was it this bad when you were in the white house?

FLEISCHER: Well, we had two major failures but one involved comprehensive immigration reform and the other involved social security reform. In both those instances, we never pushed it as far to seek a vote or get a vote. Like this one, I credit Donald Trump for trying. He tried to get this threw the house and the problem really was that the house Republicans were too fractured to get it done on a core issue. I don't mind divisions over ideology but on the core issue at the end of the day, they need to make the necessary compromises as a caucus to get it done. Otherwise, what's the point in having Republican control?

BALDWIN: Ari Fleischer with the humpty dumpty metaphor on this Tuesday, thank you, my friend. I appreciate it.

FLEISCHER: Thank you, Brooke.

BALDWIN: Coming up next, Attorney General Jeff Sessions making a bold move to potentially undo the work that the Obama department of justice did on reform. What that could mean on the streets. You're watching CNN.


BALDWIN: U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions sending shock waves through law enforcement and civil rights committees, he just ordered the department of justice to conduct a sweeping review of all Obama era police activities that would include Baltimore, Maryland and Ferguson, Missouri. Sessions did not rule out changes to these federal orders. So, Wesley Lowery is our "Washington Post" political reporter and you've been all over this. You first reported the release of the attorney general's memo and the so-called consent decrees. They're formal reform agreements, former President Obama's administration negotiated with different cities. What is the Trump administration trying to do with these?

WESLEY LOWERY, "WASHINGTON POST" POLITICAL REPORTER: Of course, these consent decrees, these agreements are essentially binding interactions between the federal government and the local police department. It's when the federal government comes in and conducts an investigation as we remember in Chicago and Ferguson and it concludes that the local police are violating the civil rights of the residents. Now, it forces the residents into the cities into binding agreements overseen by a federal minder or judge, requiring certain reforms. People like Attorney General Jeff Sessions and others have been skeptical of these agreements and they argued that the federal government shouldn't be forcing local police to reform. So, by ordering a review all of all of the agreements it potentially imperils the findings in the agreements itself, right? Essentially, Attorney General Sessions is saying I don't trust the previous investigations run by the justice department so I'm going to review this. So, it raises questions where there are agreements in place, what this review might mean for them.

[15:55:00] BALDWIN: What about Baltimore, they're work under the consent decree and the mayor of Baltimore, she says the city is ready to move forward. What are the implications of the review in Baltimore, Chicago, New Orleans with the agreements in place?

LOWERY: In cities like that, there are reports that came out years ago, there seems to be less likely of a chance of a More upheaval. They agreed to the reform. Baltimore just entered their agreement, earlier this year, so there is still a lot of federal participation that needs to be done, so there is a world in which -- and we heard from the mayor in Baltimore and the police that will bring it to a halt. In Chicago, there is not a formal agreement. It's still being negotiated between the department of justice and the police. And this raises question whether there will be ever a reform agreement. You have an attorney general who doesn't believe in this and he is taking steps to review previous agreements and so it raises a real question of will Chicago ever receive a consent decree, a reform agreement like so many of these other cities have.

BALDWIN: Please keep reporting on all of this and all of the cities. Wesley, thank you so much for joining me.

Coming up the former national security adviser Rice is speaking out to defend herself against the reports that she unmasked the names in the intelligence reports, why she says the claims are absolutely false.


SPORTS ANNOUNCER: Barry's got it. One lob ahead to Jackson. Two hit. And Carolina seconds away from erasing a year's worth of pay.


BALDWIN: Oh, yes. 2017 NCAA University of North Carolina, and how proud I am of pulling through and Gonzaga, my hat is off, it was a tough one. Incredible to watch. I will be celebrating with you in Chapel Hill.