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Reports Indicate Chemicals Weapons Possibly Used in Syria; Possible Intelligence Unmasking by Former National Security Adviser Susan Rice Examined; Interview with Senator Chris Coons of Delaware; Interview with Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired April 4, 2017 - 08:00   ET


[08:00:00] TIMOTHY O'BRIEN, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, "BLOOMBERG VIEW": I think they're both very controlled personalities, but they are also a little out over their skis. I'm sure who wouldn't give up on some of the opportunities they're getting, but that is a separate issue from whether or not they are qualified to be sitting in the chairs they're sitting in.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: And look, again, he values family. I don't think anybody has got a problem with that. It's just where you put family. These are un-vetted positions, these adviser positions. They have always been controversial because they don't go in front of any confirmation process, but usually the people who occupy them are known quantities. That's what's so different about this White House is there is a bunch of people in there that nobody has ever heard of before and they're kind of learning on the job.

O'BRIEN: And they've still got conflicts. They'll still got important financial conflicts that are going to cloud any decisions they make in people's mind as to whether or not they are talking sound public policy or whether or not they're talking their wallets.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Timothy O'Brien, Emily Jane Fox, thank you very much for all of the insight.

CUOMO: All right, we have breaking news to get to out of Syria. Let's get after it.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

CAMEROTA: Good morning, everyone. Welcome to your NEW DAY. We do begin with breaking news for you. This is out of Syria. Dozens of people have reportedly been killed, including at least 10 children, and hundreds others injured following a gas or chemical attack. Some of the images that we are seeing, as you can see on your screen right now, they are very hard to watch. These are raw images. You can see children are being treated and doctors there attending to them.

CUOMO: They're also the truth of what is happening right now in a part of the world that seems to be benefitting from the collective negligence of the U.S. coalition, the allies who all say way want to make a difference in Syria. The timing matters here. This attack that you are seeing the product of right now comes days after the Trump administration announced a major shift in the U.S. policy on Syria. That shift was no longer will the U.S. have any interest in regime change and ousting Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Is it just a coincidence that right after that we saw what could have been a wanton attack on his own people?

We're joined by CNN senior international correspondent Arwa Damon and Clarissa Ward. Good to have you both. Now, as expected from our earlier conversation, the Syrian regime is coming out and saying we didn't have anything to do with this. But again, coming from the air with directed attacks that seem to have some type of noxious gas capabilities, that's not something that you're going to see from some run of the mill ISIS or rogue type running around in the desert.

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: You're not necessarily. And the broader issue here of course is then what happens next? What does the international community do? Do they allow this attack to happen with impunity the same way that we saw happening in 2013 with the chemical attack that took place outside of Damascus?

CAMEROTA: France is calling for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council, but who knows what that will result in.

DAMON: And that kind of action, those kinds of calls have not resulted in anything shifting when it comes to what's happening in Syria. And I think that's what's been so confounding for those of us that are covering it. We know what's happening there. We're watching it happen. The world is watching it happen, and yet it seems as if no one is willing or able, but probably willing to make the sacrifice it is going to take in terms of what political chips they have in their pockets to put pressure where pressure is needed in the particular case to stop the Syrians and their backers from attacking the civilian population. No matter who is responsible for this, there are civilians that are dying by airstrikes caused by the Russians and by the Syrians every single day.

CAMEROTA: In fact we know from the Trump White House that they are going in the opposite direction than what Arwa is saying. We have Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who just said on a trip to Turkey, quote, "The longer term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people."

CLARISSA WARD, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think you have to be a little bit fair here because while the Trump administration has come out and said this, the Obama administration did next to nothing to really make a difference on the ground in Syria.

CUOMO: Which is what they say is motivating this new kind of recognition of the reality there, that you drew your red line. It meant nothing.

WARD: It meant nothing. It emboldened Russia. It emboldened the regime. It emboldened Iranian proxies on the ground, and there have been major geopolitical consequences to pay for that. And there is of course a very strong argument to be made for, you know what, this is realpolitik. We can't be getting involved in every war. We don't have a lot of skin in the game. These people need to sort it out for themselves.

But let me make one thing clear to our viewers. For any Muslims across the world watching these images today of small children apparently killed by some kind of chemical gas, there is no greater rallying cry for extremist jihadists groups than to see the international community stand there on the sidelines and allow this type of war crime, if it is indeed the use of a chemical weapon against a civilian population, go unpunished or unmet.

[08:05:08] CAMEROTA: And what does that mean, Clarissa, that then Syria continue to serve as a magnet for jihadists to come there and to perpetrate --

WARD: Syria has completely reactivated the whole jihadists movement where it had been kind of a lull in the years after Iraq, because many young people, and some of them not even extremists, they see these images, day in day out, being blasted at them on social media. They feel powerless to help. They feel no one else is helping, and at a certain point they become enraged.

DAMON: And to that effect, if you look at what's happening there and you look at the revolution when it first began, and then you look at the process of radicalization of the revolution, why did it become radical? Why did extremist groups have the capacity to come in and basically alter the nature of what started out as a very basic cry that hopefully most people can relate to of freedom and democracy? It is because when the killings began, carried out by the Assad regime and their backers, no one and no nation, western nation that claimed to uphold these principles of democracy and freedom actually stood by the Syrian people and stopped the slaughter. When you have nothing left, you will take what the devil has to give you, and that's what happened.

CUOMO: For context, where can we point to in that part of the world and frankly anywhere show here is an example of where it worked, where there was a bad guy doing bad things and we, the United States, the coalition, people who value freedom, went in, took him out, and now the place is better for it?

WARD: This is the argument that Obama administration always put forward, and very persuasively. You go in and do a full-blown intervention like Iraq. It's a disaster. You go in and do a mini- intervention like Libya where it's just from the air but you don't sent in ground troops. It ends up being kind of a disaster. You don't do anything as in Syria and it's still a disaster. There is no question that there is a sense here of dammed if you do and dammed if you don't. At the same time allowing people to be slaughtered, particularly civilians, does have consequences and it raises real questions about our moral high ground, if you will, as the kind of leader of the free world if we are willing to stand by and just not do anything.

CAMEROTA: But of course it is complicated and we heard a lot about this during the election -- arming the rebels. That's -- during various elections we've heard about it. Arming the rebels. That's complicated. We don't know exactly who they are. Safe zones, that's complicated. Who is going to supervise those? There just seems to be no easy solution to this.

DAMON: There isn't. And there never has been. But to go back to Clarissa's point of you do nothing and you have Syria, the problem is they didn't do anything militarily that was sufficient, but then behind the scenes politically the U.S. still tried to manipulate the situation. So if you are going to do nothing and actually let the situation unfold as it would, then let it be. Don't give people false hope, because the other thing that goes back to what we were discussing earlier is, even today, talk to most Syrians, and they still fundamentally believe that if America truly wanted to help them, it could, and they still have this hope that America because of what it is meant to stand for can actually come in and alter the course of history.

WARD: And there was a lot of lip service paid as well. It is one thing to not want to get involved. It is another thing to keep calling for Bashar al-Assad to go, to keeping saying that this must stop and then not doing anything about it. That makes you look weak.

CUOMO: The red line was really the epitome of that. The president said it. He then got criticized because there were these types of attacks going on and he then wanted to take military action. There was not the resolve in the government, and you wound up in morass. Thank you, Clarissa. Thank you, Arwa. We wish there were better answers, but at least we are giving people the reality.

All right, so what are we going to see from the White House? This is a real-time demonstration for a call for leadership. We have seen no tweets at least from the commander in chief this morning about this situation in Syria. But President Trump is very active in trying to deflect from his own political problems, once again expanding the web of ties between his team and Russia by peddling another fake scandal to justify an unproven claim about surveillance. CNN's Jim Sciutto live in Washington with more. This "crooked scheme" as the president calls it.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Listen, at this point the open question is, was this information unmasked and then made public, leaked? We don't know that. But unmasking itself, one, not unusual. I have spoken to senior intelligence officials from both Republican and Democratic administrations. Not unusual. It is done to learn more about intelligence reports that these officials see. Certainly not illegal. Protocol is put in place since 9/11. And it is also by design private, only shared between the briefer and that senior intelligence official.

[08:10:00] So based on what we know right now, this looks like another chapter in an attempt by the administration to back justify the president's unfounded claim of surveillance of Trump by the Obama administration.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SCIUTTO: Former President Obama's national security advisor, Susan Rice at the center of President Trump's latest attempt to renew his unproven wiretapping claim and divert attention away from his team's contacts with Russia. President Trump seizing on conservative media reports that claim that Ambassador Rice unmasked the names of Trump transition officials caught up in surveillance.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: At its core, this was surveillance for apparently political reasons.

SCIUTTO: Tweeting that he was spied on before the nomination and calling it a "crooked scheme." A source close to Rice telling CNN that the allegations that she did anything unusual or improper, false. The White House meanwhile blasting the media for ignoring the ginned up scandal.

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: From a media standpoint, somewhat intrigued by the lack of interest we have seen in some of these public revelations.

SCIUTTO: As officials stressed unmasking names in intelligence reports is a routine procedure, something different from leaking this information to the press.

REP. JIM HIMES (D-CT) INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: If somebody feels that there is intelligence value, and of course there is a whole series of procedures that you have to go through and lawyers look over your shoulder. So there is nothing at all unusual about unmasking.

SCIUTTO: The administration's latest justification a far cry from President Trump's initial claim one month ago, that President Obama wiretapped Trump Tower, an accusation that Mr. Trump has since attempted to really redefine.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: That really covers surveillance and many other things.

SCIUTTO: And justify, even after his own FBI director refuted the claim.

TRUMP: I think you're going to find some very interesting items coming to the forefront over the next two weeks.

SCIUTTO: Last week the Trump administration tried to distort comments made by a former Obama defense official Evelyn Farkas.

SPICER: Dr. Farkas's admissions alone are devastating.

SCIUTTO: To substantiate Trump's contention that Obama spied on him. Farkas says her comments were, quote, "wildly misinterpreted." And the week before that House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes got wrapped up in the White House's diversion.

REP. DEVIN NUNES (R-CA), HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: The president needs to know that these intelligence reports are out there. SCIUTTO: Briefing the commander and chief and the media before his

own committee about classified information of incidental collection on the president's associates.

TRUMP: I very much appreciated the fact that they found what they found.

SCIUTTO: Trump calling Nunes's announcement vindication. Later it turns out that officials inside Trump's White House were the source of the documents shown to Nunes.

REP. ERIC SWALWELL (D-CA), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: We believe this is nothing more than just an effort to roll more smoke bombs into an investigation that was making progress.


SCIUTTO: One more note -- unmasking cannot happen on the order of one official. In fact that official has to make a question to the intelligence communities, specifically the NSA, which then has to make a judgment as to whether it is appropriate to unmask that I.D. And there is also, and we've spoken about this, a paper trail that is meticulously logged. It is not done in the dark. One former senior intelligence official described it to me, like Irish baptismal records. This things are meticulously followed and recorded, so it cannot happen secretly and in the dark. Chris and Alisyn, back to you.

CAMEROTA: That is a helpful analogy, Jim. Thank you for all of that reporting and explaining it to us.

Joining us now is Democratic Senator Chris Coon from Delaware. He serves on the Foreign Relations and the Judiciary Committee. So you are a busy man and you are very relevant to us today to talk to about all of this. OK, Susan Rice, what you've just heard from Jim Sciutto's reporting, is this business as usual? Or was there something controversial about how the name of someone on team Trump got out into the public sphere?

SEN. CHRIS COONS (D), DELAWARE: Well, Alisyn, from what I heard just on the reporting you covered there, there is nothing unusual or alarming about the allegations here, about the national security adviser. But that's why we need the Senate intelligence committee to work well, to work hard, and to work in a bipartisan way. There were also allegations earlier this week that the UAE set up a back channel between a Putin crony and the founder of Blackwater. There is more shoes dropping day after day, more smoke pouring out of every window, door, and chimney of this house than we can keep track of. We need a solid bipartisan investigation of all the different allegations on this.

An important point here, Alisyn, is that the White House keeps trying to find some way to justify President Trump's tweet from a month ago that he had been wiretapped. I don't think this provides any sort of cover for that. And given the very important developments this week, President Trump's meetings with the president of Egypt, with the king of Jordan, with the president of China, this isn't reality TV anymore. This is no time for Twitter diplomacy.

[08:15:00] We need to focus on our work here in the Senate and the president needs to focus on important international diplomacy issues.

CAMEROTA: One more question, Senator, about what happened with Susan Rice. If this was business as usual, if this was a customary practice where when you read an intel report and you see an American identified as only as, say, American one and your curiosity is aroused that you would ask for the name to be unmasked, if it was business as usual, why didn't Susan Rice disclose that or even be straightforward about that in the past week or two when he was on PBS and she said basically something to the effect of, no, I don't know anything about that?

COONS: Well, Alisyn, I didn't see her PBS interview. Obviously, this is a topic that is subject to a number of controls. There are processes by which an intelligence official can request unmasking, but as your previous reporter commented, that is very closely tracked. And, so, she would have had to articulate an intelligence justification for doing that.

This is exactly why we need a strong and thorough investigation, to make sure that where there are allegations made, they are thoroughly investigated. I am hopeful about the progress here in the Senate, with our intelligence committee. I remain very concerned given Congressman Devin Nunes' side scurry over to the White House two weeks ago that the House Intelligence Committee has gotten badly off-track and I hope they, too, get back to our core mission in the House and Senate oversight.

ROMANS: OK, let's talk about Judge Gorsuch's confirmation to the Supreme Court. As you know, the nuclear option is now very real, where forevermore or at least breaking precedent, he will only need 51 votes, as opposed to 60 because, as you know, the Democrats filibustered and blocked his nomination.

Aren't you guys cutting off your noses to spite your face? Because you're standing on principle here because of what happened with Merrick Garland, but then going forward, the next judge might be even less appealing to you than Judge Gorsuch and then you are going to lose this again when only 51 Republicans are needed to install that person?

COONS: That's right, Alison. That's a very legitimate concern. If we look down the road, the further erosion of the system here in the Senate that has kept us different from the House, the erosion of the protections for minority political rights of the filibuster would be, I think, a very grave step.

We've got just two days now until the cloture vote. What that really means is we are ready to stop debate and move to a final vote. I said in the Judiciary Committee yesterday that I intend to vote against cloture because I don't think we are yet ready to close debate.

I will vote against closure unless we are able to find some way together, Republicans and Democrats to preserve the tradition of consultation and of the nomination by a president of a consensus candidate who can win confirmation by both parties. That didn't happen on this case.

President Trump largely relied on the Federalist Society and Heritage Foundation for his list of nominee.

CAMEROTA: Yes, but he's filling a conservative seat. I mean, let's be honest here. You mean, you're talking about lots of sort of formal terms that I don't know that Americans know about, sort of all of the byzantine workings of how it works in the Senate. However, in simple math, Gorsuch would be filling a conservative seat.

So, why are you digging in on this one?

COONS: Well, Alisyn, as I think I just repeated, I'm not digging in. I'm saying that I am open to conversations about how we might preserve the filibuster.

There's three paths forward here and now it is clear to the Republican majority that if they choose to break the rules, to change the rules, that will be on them. There are Democrats and Republicans who I hope will be talking this week, in the next two days, to see if we could find some path forward, where we preserve the filibuster for exactly the reasons you are laying out.

But they can break the rules and force Judge Gorsuch on to the court. They could step back and recognize this is an historic moment. Now that it's clear that both sides have the votes and we need to have a conversation or they can consult with us and reconsider Judge Gorsuch's nomination.

Those are the three paths and it's my hope that the Senate will play its historic role and that folks here will be talking in the next two days.

CAMEROTA: OK. We'll be very interested to hearing the results of those conversations. Senator Chris Coons, thank you as always for being on NEW DAY.

COONS: Thank you, Alisyn.


CUOMO: All right. There is an international crisis happening right now. We are witnessing these horrifying images of an apparent chemical attack on citizens of Syria. What will the United States, what will the world do? We have Republican Senator John Kennedy joining us next.


[08:23:34] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

CUOMO: All right. Dozens of people have been killed, including several children in a gas or chemical attack in Syria. Those numbers are preliminary estimates.

This comes just days after the Trump administration announced a major shift in U.S. policy, saying the United States is no longer trying to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

So, what should the United States do, if anything, in response to this horrific attack?

Joining us now is Republican Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana.

Senator, sorry to have you on with hard news, but it's important to have you on because this is an important question. The concern is, if you do nothing as the United States, as the United Nations, as the allies, are you surrendering the moral authority to call out this kind of horror?

SEN. JOHN KENNEDY (R), LOUISIANA: The first thing we've got to do, Chris, is get the facts. And if the facts are confirmed, I think it is probably the case that Assad is testing President Trump and he's testing our new secretary of state, Tillerson, and we can't do nothing. We'll have an appropriate response.

Now, of course, what's appropriate will be much debated, but we can't just do nothing. We can't let Assad cross this line without having consequences.

CUOMO: Well, we've heard that talk before, right? And that's exactly what happened.


CUOMO: We've seen another chemical attack.

[08:25:00] It was believe to be from him. It's hard to confirm these things 100 percent, right? You're not even in the country to do the investigating and nothing was done.

The red line by Obama apparently crossed. No matter how you wanted to define it, there was not the resolve in the United States Congress to put boots on the ground or military action.

So, what would be an appropriate response if, in fact, it is Assad attacking his own?

KENNEDY: I don't think we know yet. I think what we do know is Assad is a thug and you can't hand feed a shark and expect to get anything but bitten. If Assad is doing this to test the mettle of the new American leadership, if he would kill people, murder people just to test a political theory, that further proves he is a thug and accept consequences.

Now, what the appropriate consequences are, if reports are confirmed, I'm sure the secretary of the state, the president and their people are discussing it right now. We'll have a response, I can tell you that.

CUOMO: Well, you may not get the cover --


KENNEDY: Those are debatable.

CUOMO: You may not get the comfort of 100 percent of what happened. We know how this works. You know that you're going to have a range of different people who have these kinds of different capabilities. There'll be different sightings. You'll have some intelligence coordination about who was in the air at that time and it will be as likely or not that it was the Syrians.

So, the question becomes on what basis do you act and what basis do you say? We've heard nothing from the president so far about this. Is it time for him to put out a statement?

KENNEDY: Well, I don't know what he's looking at, Chris. I trust our intelligence officials. When they tell us they are reasonably certain that Assad is doing this, then I will be willing to act on that assertion.

CUOMO: All right. Let's use that as a segue, you say you trust your intelligence officials, does that trust extend to the notion that Susan Rice, if she asked for any unmasking of American citizens because of the volume of contact between them and Russian points of foreign contact, that it was done for rightful reasons?

KENNEDY: Well, masking is not infrequent. The issue here is whether it was done for intelligence reasons or for political reasons. And I think we've got to get to the bottom of it.

CUOMO: Is there any indication it was done for political reasons? We know there was a paper trail in requesting it. We don't know that the names were brought out. We haven't been given that information by those on the right trying to forward this as some type of magic solution for President Trump's allegations.

KENNEDY: That's all true. We don't know one way or the other.

That's why I suggest we just throw it into the pot. I've got a lot of confidence in Warner and Burr in the Senate. They're going to investigate all of this. They're both I think as objective as they can be, given the different sides of the aisle, and I just add it to the list.

We'll get to the bottom of all this, and once we get the facts, we'll let the chips fall where they may. We'll report it to the American people and we'll let the chips fall where they may. I think it would be appropriate for Ms. Rice, if she is involved, to come to the Senate Committee and explain what happened and what.

CUOMO: But is it helping in the aim of truth and clarity, or is it just muddying the water? This is being called a crooked scheme by the president of the United States and there is absolutely no basis in fact for that assertion. It is more likely a distraction than it is anything else.

Why just keep adding things to the stew because of some rogue suggestion? KENNEDY: I understand your point. My guess is the White House would

disagree with it. I don't know whether you're right or the White House is right. That's why we've got a committee investigating this.

And I would just throw it into the stew, as you put it. Now, it is not going to be the first thing the committee is going to investigate because there are a few other things are ahead of it. But the American people are wondering what in god's name is going on in Washington, D.C.? Why aren't we fixing problems that keep them up at night instead of talking about Russian? I'm not saying we shouldn't be.

But as these issues come up, as far as I'm concerned, OK, let's put them out there, let's investigate them, let's find the facts and let's tell the American people what they are and then we could move on. If somebody did something wrong, they ought to be punished. If they didn't, let's move on.

CUOMO: But as an American leader duly elected, it doesn't trouble you that the president of the United States keeps muddying the water to distract from that investigation of all the all-important Russian interference and he does seem to be doing it for political motivations?

KENNEDY: Well, Chris, this is America. You are entitled to your opinion. I just think that's not an objective statement. I think the White House and others might see it otherwise.

I'm not saying you're wrong. I'm just saying I don't know. I know some names were unmasked. There was an allegation Mrs. Rice was involved.

CUOMO: Right.

KENNEDY: If she was involved, she either did it for intelligence reasons, the right reasons, or she did it for political reasons, or maybe a mixture of both. Now that the issue has been raised and the interest of the American people has been tweaked, we've got to get to the bottom of it. We'll find out what went on.

CUOMO: Right. But my only point is that very -- you can have an allegation that is in search of proof, you know, as supposed to proof that leads to an allegation.