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Bannon Removed from Security Council; Trump Comments on O'Reilly Situation; Trump talks Syria and Assad; U.N. Ambassador Blasts Syria. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired April 5, 2017 - 14:00   ET


[14:00:00] GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: That there is no place for a political strategist at the principal's table. Now we see that he's gone from the principals' table and the White House is saying, well, maybe he was there to be a check on Flynn, which leads you to ask the question, if the former national security adviser needed a check, why was he appointed national security adviser in the first place?

I think the more likely explanation is that General McMaster, the new national security adviser, Dina Powell, who now serves under him, are probably saying he shouldn't have been there. And I was told by another source that maybe this is also evidence of this power triumvirate, which was Bannon and Jared Kushner and Reince Priebus crumbling a little bit.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: So is this, Dana, the beginning of some diminished role for Steve Bannon? Is this a slap in his face that all of a sudden he is no longer on this National Security Council key group?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: I - my sense is that it's a combination of everything that you just said, that it is the fact that he was put on there to babysit Michael Flynn. And, yes, it does beg the question, why was he the national security adviser. And the answer is - that you get from a lot of sources, I'm sure you're hearing this - you're both hearing this too - is that Michael Flynn was loyal to the president and he wanted to be national security adviser. So the president said, OK, I'll make you national security adviser. Is that the way decisions should get made? No. But that's what happened. Mad the people around Donald Trump had to work around that. And part of that was putting Steve Bannon at the National Security Council, which then ended up with a whole host of other problems that they didn't actually realize, which they should have.

In addition to that, yes, it is separating him from the National Security Council, which should happen because of the fact that he's political. I was just - I just got a text from a senior administration official saying that his focus right now, as we speak, is trying to get health care back on track, which he was involved in really intensely right before it failed. He has close connections with the Freedom Caucus. Those are the people he - many of them he helped when he was over at Breitbart, the conservative publication.

So I think it's a combination of all of these. And it is some of the new blood, the Dina Powells, who was a Bush official, who came in as somebody who had worked with Ivanka and then is now at the National Security Council. It's a bit of a shift. And, frankly, a maturing - a quick maturing of the aides there.



BLITZER: And, you know, Nia, we just got a statement from Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee on the removal of Steve Bannon from the National Security Council. "Steve Brannon's departure from the National Security Council principals' committee is a positive step by General McMaster," the national security advisor, "to gain control over a body that was being politicized as Bannon's involvement as the administration's policy over North Korea, China, Russia, Syria continues to drift. We can only hope this shake-up brings some level of strategic vision to the body.

Schiff adds this, "lacking a strong background in national security and with a long history of pedaling racist and inflammatory conspiracy theories, Bannon should have never been placed on the principals committee to begin with, let alone given any role in the White House."

HENDERSON: Yes, and a lot of Democrats would co-sign to that and even some Republicans were a little bit, you know, sort of looking at that negatively, Bannon's placement on this - this committee.

You know, this is a White House that is getting its sea legs, right? I mean there is all this drama inside the White House, all sorts of turf battles between, you know, the New York folks like Ivanka Trump and Kushner and sort of what is framed as like the moderating influence on Donald Trump and then the kind of red hot section of the White House, the Bannon folks, the Breitbart kind of part of the White House. And in the meantime, as this White House is sort of settling all of that and those internal battles, there is North Korea, there is Syria, there is health care. And so I think we're seeing a White House that is struggling mightily in this almost first 100 days with few accomplishments at this point but a lot of leaking in terms of what's going on in that White House and a lot of unsettled feuds between these different factions.

BORGER: Well, it's a top-heavy White House.


BORGER: Everybody does everything, or so it seems.

HENDERSON: Yes, I would agree.

BORGER: Jared Kushner does everything. Steve Bannon did everything. Maybe what they're trying to do, which would be positive, is establish silos into which people fit and they can have their - their, you know, their lines of authority -

BASH: Make it more traditional.


BORGER: And they can be - whether Steve Bannon is now going to be devoted to health care and McMaster -

BASH: Not only that - I didn't mean to say (INAUDIBLE).

BORGER: No, no, no, but I - I think that when you're that top heavy, it's very hard to get anything done because everybody does everything.

BLITZER: You know, if all this were not enough, in that new interview with "The New York Times," the president also comes to the very strong defense of Bill O'Reilly of Fox News, who has now, according to a long story over the weekend in "The New York Times," settled several sexual harassment lawsuits for many millions of dollars. Let me read a sentence from what the president said. "I think he's a person I know well. He's a good person. I think he shouldn't have settled. Personally, I think he shouldn't have settled. Because you should have taken it all the way. I don't think Bill did anything wrong."

[14:05:17] BASH: You know -

BLITZER: And that's going to cause a bit of an uproar, shall way say, as well.

BASH: You know, talk about the education of Donald Trump becoming president.

BORGER: Right.

BASH: Don't talk about Bill O'Reilly and a - and a sexual harassment suit or suits when you know nothing about the context and the content of what those suits are. OK, it's nice that he is a loyal friend. It's nice that they've known each other for years and years and he's coming to his defense. But he's the president of the United States. And to say that, no matter how nice he's been, is completely inappropriate.

HENDERSON: Yes, and -

BLITZER: Yes, for a president of the United States, Gloria, to say, I don't - I don't think Bill did anything wrong.

BASH: Knowing nothing about the substance.

HENDERSON: Yes. Right.

BASH: How does he know?

HENDERSON: Based on nothing. Yes, based on nothing.

And this is after the White House made a big showing of Women's History Month and how welcoming it was to women and talking about Ivanka Trump and empowering women and economic empowering of women. And for him to come out and essentially say there's no there there in terms of these women, it's troubling -

BORGER: Well - HENDERSON: And he should have said no comment. I mean I do think there is background here. He himself, Donald Trump, I mean we all remember the "Access Hollywood" tape and the things he was saying on that tape and some of the accusations leveled at him. So he probably should have just passed on this question.

BORGER: Well, he was - he was also loyal to Roger Ailes.


BORGER: And giving Roger Ailes advice privately during the campaign.

HENDERSON: (INAUDIBLE) the boys will be boys.

BLITZER: The former - the former leader of Fox News who was removed.

BORGER: The former leader. I mean I am sure that the aides who were in that room were not happy when he weighed in on this.

BASH: They probably got physically nauseous.

BORGER: Probably. Right.


BORGER: They were not happy. And they might not have been happy either when he said that he believes that Susan Rice ought to be prosecuted because that's something his Justice Department - if there is any there there, let your Justice Department do that. Don't speak publicly on it. I mean that's - that - you know, that -

BASH: But that's political. That's continuing to say, don't look at this ball, look at this ball over here.

HENDERSON: Yes. Yes. Yes.

BORGER: Well, exactly. But he's still president of the United States.

BASH: Totally. Absolutely.

BORGER: And you can't tell your Justice Department what they ought to prosecute.

BASH: No question.


BORGER: I mean it's a - it's -

BLITZER: And this interview was in the Oval Office and -


BLITZER: According to "The New York Times" Maggie Habermann, you're absolutely right, the interview was surrounded - he was surrounded at his desk by half a dozen of his highest ranking aides, including the economic adviser Gary Cohen, the chief of staff, Reince Priebus, the vice president of the United States, Mike Pence.

HENDERSON: My goodness, don't they have jobs to do? I mean they're sitting there - standing there -

BLITZER: They were all in the Oval Office.

HENDERSON: This is insane that all these people -

BORGER: But they're probably there to try and make sure that Donald Trump stayed on, you know, his talking points, and I guess he didn't.

HENDERSON: Oh, my God. So - and I mean the talking points were, Bill O'Reilly, there's nothing to see here, Susan Rice may have committed a crime, which at this point is basically a conspiracy theory to cover up another conspiracy theory about Donald Trump, sort of switching one villain for another. So, I mean, this is insane. (INAUDIBLE) -

BASH: You know what I - you know what would be great is if - is if we stopped this stuff. Unless he wants to come on CNN. He's always willing to come on here. But - and like, instead, focus on what the policy in Syria.

BORGER: Right.

BASH: Well, just a thought.

BORGER: Well -

HENDERSON: Oh, you mean the interview should have?

BASH: Yes. Yes.

BORGER: Well, let's just say -

BASH: No, I'm not saying - I'm just saying, instead of commenting on Bill O'Reilly -

BORGER: Right. Right.


BORGER: And - and let's just say, the president may have made a turn today, and this is the question we always have with Donald Trump, and we had it during the campaign, do you take him literally when he said today, I have changed, or seriously, just, OK, he said, I've changed, and there may not be anything behind it. I think presidents need to be taken literally.

BLITZER: Yes, Well, these are strong words from the president of the United States. A lot of news to follow.

That's it for me. I'll be back 5:00 p.m. Eastern in "The Situation Room." Our special coverage will continue right after a quick break.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news. BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, Wolf, thank you so much. We'll pick it up from here. I'm Brooke Baldwin here at CNN. Thank you for being with me.

Let's continue along on the breaking news. The U.S. response to a toxic massacre in Syria. The commander in chief, Donald Trump, reacting to one of the worst chemical bombings in history. And for the first time, the president of the United States has placed the blame directly on the shoulders of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. And as we tell you this story of the atrocities in Syria, I just want to warn you, the pictures are graphic. Barrel bombs brimming with saran gas, a nerve agent dropped from the skies killing dozens, including young children, children who were gassed as they slept. Here was President Trump from the White House.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: These heinous actions by the Assad regime cannot be tolerated. The United States stands with our allies across the globe to condemn this horrific attack.

[14:10:11] QUESTION: You've condemned the chemical attacks in Syria, but you also appeared in your statement yesterday to pin some of the blame on the Obama administration. You are the president now. Do you feel like you bear responsibility for responding to the chemical attacks and does the chemical attack cross a red line for you?

TRUMP: Well, I think the Obama administration had a great opportunity to solve this crisis a long time ago when he set the red line in the sand. And when he didn't cross that line after making the threat, I think that set us back a long ways, not only in Syria, but in many other parts of the world because it was a blank threat. I think it was something that was not one of our better days as a country. So I do feel that, Julia, I feel it very strongly.

QUESTION: Do you feel like you now have the responsibility to respond to the chemical attack?

TRUMP: I now have responsibility and I will have that responsibility and carry it very proudly.

QUESTION: Before I move on to the king, can I just quickly ask you if the chemical attack crosses a red line for you?

TRUMP: It crossed a lot of lines for me. When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, babies, little babies, with a chemical gas that is so lethal that people were shocked to hear what gas it was, that crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line. Many, many lines.


BALDWIN: Let's begin this hour with Ben Wedeman, our CNN's senior international correspondent there live in Turkey, just near the Syrian border.

And, you know, hearing the - President Trump today, Ben, talking about how he now - a major turnaround, changed his mind on Assad, says, you know, this crossed many lines for him, I mean you've been meeting these people who have been coming in to Turkey fearing for their own lives. How do you think these words will sit with them?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think it will go down, Brooke, as words. Words that we heard from President Obama. Words that we're hearing now from President Trump.

But the problem is, that it's not words that's going to solve this problem, but nobody really has a solution. Keep in mind that Bashar al Assad, the Syrian president, is backed to the hilt by Russia, backed by Iran, backed by Hezbollah. What do you do in Syria? That is a question that has kept many people up at night. And no one really has a solution short of something that would approximate World War III, where you have the United States and Russia fighting in Syria. And therefore, you know, the people here on the ground, they have these horrific stories of this chemical attack that took place yesterday morning at 6:30 where you have as many - well over 100 possibly people dead as a result. But the solution is just as difficult for President Trump as it was for President Obama.

Keep in mind that, OK, if you want to - if you want to fight the Syrian regime, you're going to be fighting Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. And who are you supporting? On the rebel side as you have groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, which has changed its name but it hasn't changed its stripes. It is an al Qaeda affiliate. You have ISIS, which controls large parts of the country. In terms of a credible, moderate opposition force in Syria, it just doesn't exist. So President Trump can say more words, but in terms of deeds, he's going to have to do some serious homework to come up with some sort of solution for Syria because nobody has till now, Brooke.

BALDWIN: We'll talk words indeed with my next panel. For now, Ben Wedeman, thank you so much for your reporting there close to Syria.

I have with my David Chalian, CNN political director, Christopher Hill, former U.S. ambassador to South Korea and Iraq, former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. Also with us, Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, and retired Army Lieutenant General Mark Hertling.

So thank you all so much for being with me.

And, David Chalian, just first to you out of the gate, I mean this was President Trump's first on-camera response to a massive international crisis, the chemical attack in Syria, total turnaround on Assad. How did he do?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Well, he certainly gave voice to the outrage that I think so many Americans feel looking at those horrific images. So I think there's little doubt about that. But giving voice to outrage is something that many people have done who have tried to deal with this problem that seems completely intractable. The question now, of course, is, well, what - what policy change are we going to see? What comes next from the Trump administration? [14:15:04] On this we didn't really get answers to that. So - so

whereas if you thought that perhaps he was cozying up to Russia and felt that maybe he was going to be hands-off on Assad, here some of the previous signals had been, he definitely turned that around and sort of worked up the moral outrage. Now comes the next step, which is, what is his administration actually going to do from a policy perspective to try to start solving this problem.

BALDWIN: He said, you know, toward the end, "I inherited a mess. The world is a mess." But in the end he said, "you will see."

Michael, "you will see." Your thoughts?

MICHAEL O'HANLON, SENIOR FELLOW, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: Well, I don't know what that means and I would encourage President Trump not to think of this in terms of something that requires an immediate, symbolic military response. We need to start with, what is the political goal that we're after in Syria at a time when Mr. Trump is right, President Assad's not going anyplace and the Obama administration hoped that somehow we could talk him out of power through the Geneva process. That was an unrealistic aspiration. At least Mr. Trump realizes Assad is not going anywhere in the near term.

But I think we're going to have to find ways to help protect the Sunni Muslims and Kurds in the eastern and northern parts of the country with a political model that devolves power. Some kind of ultimate autonomy for those regions, at least temporarily, sort of like what I know Chris Hill worked with in Iraq with Iraqi Kurdistan. And I think that kind of a model can recognize the reality that Assad is not going anywhere, but also offer some vision for the Sunnis and the Kurds, they don't have to live directly under the control and rule of Assad. This is a hard thing to make work and I would acknowledge that right off the bat. But that kind of a vision, I think, is much more realistic than either saying Assad must go, because that's not going to happen -

BALDWIN: Yes. Yes.

O'HANLON: Or Assad can stay, because the Sunnis and the Kurds will never really happily tolerate that.

BALDWIN: Well, he talked - General Hertling, to you - you know, he - we heard from Sean Spicer, you know, going back to that red line that President Obama, you know, the line in the sand that they crossed when there was that chemical attack and nothing was done. We saw the protest and the criticism toward the Obama administration. And so President Trump was asked about that. And his response was that this attack crossed a lot of lines. He talked about, you know, young children being killed and said crosses many lines beyond a red line. What parameters, what options in terms of action would he have, general?

LT. GENERAL MARK HERTLING, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, first I'd like to point out, Brooke, he - it has crossed a line with our president. He is beginning to see the reality of the Middle East. But it was a visceral and emotional response to an incident with chemical weapons that had been used in many other places in the Middle East to including Iraqi Kurdistan, as Chris Hill notes.

But I would say that, where has Mr. Trump been? Because there have been tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians killed by these kind of barrel bombs, bombing of hospitals. Is that the same as using chemical weapons on children? I believe it is. There's been several years of these kind of atrocities in Syria and we have yet to come to a political solution. That's the challenge. And Russia is right smack in the middle of this. Mr. Trump did not say a word about Russia during his press conference.

BALDWIN: He didn't, did he? He didn't mention Russia one - one bit.

HERTLING: And he's going to have to - yes, he did not. And he's going to have to go up against Russia and Iraq, as well as Syria and perhaps even a part of Iraq depending on what he wants to do.

And I'd also comment, Brooke, as you well know, the U.S. military, if that is the weapon of choice, is involved in several other places right now up to their neck and he will soon have another crisis, as Mr. Shay (ph) comes from China, that he may see additional actions in North Korea.

So we are seeing literally, without a strategy or a national security policy, which I know H.R. McMaster is working feverishly on -


HERTLING: We can't just depend on which direction Mr. Trump wants to go on any given day because of an emotional response to chemical weapons.

BALDWIN: Mr. Ambassador, you know both of my guests brought up your knowledge, of course, with Iraq. How do you see this?

CHRISTOPHER HILL, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO SOUTH KOREA AND IRAQ: Well, I think there are a number of dimensions here. First of all, you could use military power to - as a punitive effort or to support some kind of political process. I don't think there's any political process that's been identified and frankly I think our country needs to do a lot better job of explaining what it is we want to see in Syria. Do we really want the creation of Sunni-stan (ph)? What do we really want in Syria?

But beyond that, and maybe before that, I think the president looks like he's going the route of using some military power punitively. Just whack the people who did this and make it clear that when people do things like that, they're going to be hit and hit hard.

I don't think it's very useful, obviously, and I think it's rather disingenuous for the president to talk about what Barack Obama did or did not do some three and a half years ago. I seem to recall President Obama's first instinct was to do something militarily, and I don't seem to recall too many supporters for that and I certainly didn't see Donald Trump in those - in those ranks (ph).

[14:20:11] BALDWIN: Well, even at the time, Mr. Trump at the time, in 2013, I'm roughly paraphrasing a tweet I had read, but he was saying - essentially saying, Mr. President, don't waste your powder. You know, don't - don't do anything, which is what he was saying.

HILL: You've got it. You've got it. And there are a lot of senators today who are talking about the need to do something, but I don't remember the Senate really stepping up when President Obama turned it back to the Congress.

So I think, one, there ought to be some type of just punitive, just whack them, just hit them and make it clear where we stand on this. But that's not policy. What has to happen is a serious policy where we say, this is how we want to see Syria, this is how - what we would like to work toward. These are - we are going to reach out to other countries that have a stake. I mean one of the problems of President Obama's policy in Syria is it was as if for many - for many years, many months he didn't accept that anyone else had an interest in Syria. Syria's a complicated place and there are a lot of countries (INAUDIBLE).

So I'd like to see some serious diplomacy. But in the meantime, I would just like to see some - some of those units that committed this crime to be whacked. In the fullness of time - in the fullness of time, I think Assad needs to stand up against the war crimes tribunal. But that's not for now.

BALDWIN: OK. We've heard so many voices within the administration. We heard from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, you know, last week essentially saying, OK, we're going to actually let the people of Syria, you know, decide the fate of Assad. And then we see now today it appears the president's changed his mind and going hard after Assad. And then there was this moment today with the ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, with this powerful moment on the floor. Here she was.


NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N.: We awoke to pictures, to children foaming at the mouth, suffering convulsions, being carried in the arms of desperate parents. We saw rows of lifeless bodies, some still in diapers, some with visible scars of a chemical weapons attack. Look at those pictures.

If Russia has the influence in Syria that it claims to have, we need to see them use it. We need to see them put an end to these horrific acts. How many more children have to die before Russia cares?


BALDWIN: Final question to you, David Chalian, who's advising him, the president?

CHALIAN: Well, I mean, we know that he's getting a lot of advice and I'm not sure, though, that it matters all that much because what somebody was just saying about not being reliant upon the winds of Donald Trump's emotional reaction to a headline on a given day. But that is how Donald Trump operates. So when we say Donald Trump changed today, I think we have to be a little careful about that. Yes, he took a different tone today, but to say that there is some - now a complete 180 and reversal and Donald Trump is on a new path, that remains to be seen. I don't know that we know that.

The one consistent - and consistency is no hallmark of the Trump administration, but the one consistent thing over time in the campaign and recently that Donald Trump has sort of put out there about his world view is that he repeatedly says, I don't want to be president of the world. I want to be president of America.


CHALIAN: And he sees these kinds of problems as other country's problems. And that does not, to me, in one statement in the Rose Garden reacting to these horrific images, all of a sudden erase that philosophy, Brooke. And I think that is what we have to be on the lookout for.

BALDWIN: That's right. Thank you all, gentlemen, so much for that.

We've got more breaking news here because we've learned just this afternoon that Steve Bannon, President Trump's chief strategist, former Breitbart executive, has been removed from the National Security Council. We'll talk about the significance of the shake-up, what's behind this.

Also ahead, how is this a rare moment after their husbands' joint press conference, First Lady Melania Trump and Queen Rania of Jordan visiting a D.C. elementary school. We'll talk about what they're doing there and how they feel about the importance of education and young women in this country, coming up next. You are watching CNN.


[14:28:19] BALDWIN: Welcome back. You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

A shake-up at the White House. A stunning reversal here. CNN has confirmed President Trump's chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has been removed from his permanent seat at the National Security Council. Our sources tell CNN that the decision ultimately came from the president himself.

Dan Merica is on this for us. He is live at the White House.

Dan, what happened?

DAN MERICA, CNN POLITICAL PRODUCER: Hey, Brooke, I think this - this signals a power shift in the White House on a crucial day when you have foreign leaders here. The National Security Council is getting a bit of a makeover. Steve Bannon was announced to the National Security Council in February in a move that many questioned. People questioned why a political mind, a political strategist would be a key person on the National Security Council. Now, today, President Trump, as you noted, President Trump made the decision to take him off of that council. It is a win for H.R. McMaster, who is the newest member of the Security Council, was named by Trump after Michael Flynn left in February.

Now, why does this matter? It matters because McMaster's power is growing in the White House and Bannon's could be diminishing to a more political policy role - domestic policy role. One that he was thought to operate in initially in the White House. It's also crucial to note that White House officials are saying, you know, this - this is happening because Steve Bannon was initially put on the Council to monitor Mike Flynn. That is somewhat contradicted by the fact that not only was Mike Flynn a top campaign adviser to Donald Trump, his top pick for national security adviser, but he was also someone who Donald Trump spoke very highly of, even after he was asked to resign because of his contacts with Russian operatives that weren't disclosed to the vice president and others in the White House.

[14:30:01] So what I think you have today is H.R. McMaster rising in the White House and Steve Bannon being diminished a little bit.

BALDWIN: OK, Dan, thank you.

Let me bring in David Chalian for a little analysis on this.

And so, David Chalian, I'm hearing all kinds of reasons, shades of reasons maybe why this is --