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Source: Trump Considering Military Action in Syria; Nunes Steps Aside from Russia Probe. Aired 8-9p ET

Aired April 6, 2017 - 20:00   ET


[20:00:00] ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening. Thanks for joining us.

We begin tonight with three words and the work now under way that could turn those words into action. "Something should happen." Those were the words that President Trump used today when talking about Syrian Dictator Bashar al Assad in response to this week's nerve attack, which U.S. officials say he perpetrated.

What that something is, when it happens, if it does, who it involves -- we're told all of it is being discussed. In short, perhaps the first large-scale use of military force of the Trump presidency in a part of the world that already has American and Russia forces practically eyeball to eyeball.

We have two reports tonight from Barbara Starr at the Pentagon and Jeff Zeleny outside Mar-a-Lago, with members of his national security team are on hand to brief the president.

But we want to start at the Pentagon.

So, Barbara, what's the latest you know about what the defense secretary, General Mattis, may be telling the president?


Late today, the Joint Chiefs of Staff were briefed, in fact, here at the Pentagon about military options and now, Defense Secretary Mattis tonight briefing the president at Mar-a-Lago about what the options are.

There's basically two ideas on the table, we are told. One would be a limited strike, perhaps against the air fields that Bashar al Assad's warplanes used to launch from, to launch that attack on the people in northern Syria. That would only be really sending a message to Bashar al Assad and the world that Donald Trump wants this type of behavior to change.

If he wants to have a broader action to take out Assad's chemical weapons capability, that is a much larger list of targets. That is air fields, aircraft, helicopters, barrel bombs, artillery, rockets -- all of that is used to launch these chemical attacks. You have to take out the entire supply chain, the entire delivery system chain altogether. That would be a very significant proposition. So, tonight, where we are is the president is being briefed. I think

it is fair to say, once the president is briefed, that means the U.S. military is, in fact, ready to go awaiting his orders. The U.S. military doesn't do these things from a cold start. They will be ready to go but they are waiting to see the decision that Mr. Trump wants to make -- Anderson.

COOPER: Yes. And, Barbara, just in terms of option -- I mean, there's a potential missile strike using aircraft obviously if you're using aircraft, you risk pilots. That's the advantage, I assume, of something like Tomahawk missiles.

STARR: Right. Well, let's take a quick look at the map. Exactly right, Anderson. In the Mediterranean, there are two U.S. Navy warships right now equipped with these Tomahawk cruise missiles obviously, unmanned, they fly low, they fly fairly fast. They can evade Syrian air defenses. So, that might be one of the key weapons that would be used -- these Tomahawk cruise missiles.

Another option in more central areas in Syria might be the B-2 stealth bomber. It can get in at fairly high altitudes, it has that stealth signature, it's not readily seen.

But the big question tonight, Anderson, is in fact what about the Russians? There are Russian military forces, Russian equipment, Russian aircraft, ground weapons all over the place in these regime- held areas in Syria. And the Pentagon knows that it wants to make sure that where it strikes, if it does, that they don't inadvertently strike the Russians and nobody is looking for a wider war -- Anderson.

COOPER: Right. I mean, if they are -- if you strike an airfield or something, it's very possible that there are Russian personnel stationed there all over the place.

STARR: Exactly right. So, let's just look at sort of for a second the kind of commonsense view here. If you start with the proposition that the U.S. military is ready to go tonight, if the president were to give the order, that would mean that they've done the overhead reconnaissance. They got a pretty good idea where everything is.

If they wait much longer, Assad begins to move his stuff around. The Russians may move theirs around. It makes it a little more challenging to relocate all of these targets and have that precision that you want. But again, it's a difficult proposition because we have seen this before. Anybody, any military force, you can strike a building, you can have all of the satellite imagery, you know, for days on end, and you may not know exactly who's inside. They don't want to strike the Russians.

COOPER: Barbara Starr, appreciate that. We'll be checking in with you throughout these next two hours.

This is unfolding, alongside the president of China's visit to Mar-a- Lago, which we'll talk about later in the broadcast, but certainly, it would ordinarily be the main story.

Instead today, it has been upstaged.

Jeff Zeleny is in Florida, joins us now with his reporting.

So, you heard Barbara's reporting. Have there been any sightings of President Trump at Mar-a-Lago tonight. I know he's been briefed on Air Force One this afternoon.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, he's having dinner at this hour. It is a joint dinner, his first meeting with the president of China. But, of course, this is hanging over everything here at Mar-a-Lago, but he's not able to have these full discussions with his advisers. He met with some of his advisers earlier and he's at the dinner now and he may meet with them after the dinner here, but this certainly is weighing heavy on him.

[20:05:03] When he was flying here from Washington on Air Force One, I was aboard the plane, and the president was asked directly about Syria, of course. And he spoke out with the, you know, most explicit words he has said yet about Bashar al Assad. But he -- it took about three different times asking him if he should leave power before he finally said something has to happen. Let's watch.


REPORTER: Do you think that Assad should leave power in Syria?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think what happened in Syria is a disgrace to humanity. And he's there and I guess he's running things, so something should happen.


ZELENY: So, he said, "I guess he's running things, so something should happen", but again, did not say what that something should be. And that is what he is going to be hearing from his advisers on.

Secretary Mattis here on the ground, as is Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who also spoke with very harsh language, sharp language, direct language here on the ground in Palm Beach, Florida. He said this is a serious matter that calls for a serious response.

COOPER: And, Jeff, just in terms of logistics at Mar-a-Lago, what do we know about where the president would go over military options with his team? Is there a mobile Situation Room on site I assume?

ZELENY: Well, there is. Every time the president travels anywhere, there certainly is a mobile Situation Room, if you will, a secure facility, particularly here in Mar-a-Lago. He's been coming here so often.

Anderson, you'll remember back when he was hosting the prime minister of Japan when there was a threat from North Korea as well, they were out on the patio having dinner in public display. I'm told that will not happen tonight. His dinner is indoors but he's also meeting indoors for the security briefings and things. So, do not look for a repeat of this very open type of briefing room here. But, of course, he has all of the capabilities here in Florida as any president does when they travel anyplace here. But he has a large number of advisers with him here. The question is, would he want to interrupt this very important meeting with the Chinese president with some other kind of airstrike? We don't know the answer to that, but he's certainly going to be getting those options this evening, Anderson.

COOPER: All right. Jeff Zeleny -- Jeff, thanks very much. A lot of talk about the options available to the president.

Joining us, Arwa Damon, retired Navy Rear Admiral John Kirby, former Pentagon press secretary and State Department spokesperson, CNN military analyst, retired Army General Mark Hertling, and retired Air Force intelligence officer, Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona. Also with us, chief political analyst, Gloria Borger.

Arwa, let's start with you. I mean, you know this area very well. Here is a map of Syria with, of course, the capital and the area where the gas strike took place and also some possible targets. Explain what we have here.

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Obviously, it's all really going to depend on the kind of message that the U.S. wants to send. A lot of these areas are not as used as others. A lot of the bases have been abandoned for a number of reasons.

But this one in particular, this is where a lot of reports say that the chemical attack originated from, the attack taking place up here in Idlib province. You also have Dumayr. Dumayr is significant because it's where a lot of other strikes that took place against opposition-held areas, such as Aleppo and other places in the country took place. It got also very important for the Syrians because this is where they have a significant number of aircraft that they do use in defense.

But again, as we heard Barbara Starr reporting, the Russians are also spread out across all of this. Of course, the Russians having their main naval base here in Tartus.

So, it really depends on the kind of message that the administration wants to send.

The Israelis, for example, have bombed Mezzeh, in the Damascus area, in the past when they wanted to send a message to the Syrians.

COOPER: We should also point out, sort of the pinkish areas are the areas that ISIS-controlled and more of the sort of dark areas are areas of ISIS support.

Colonel Francona, you pointed out that there are not only Russian military personnel in a lot of these places, the Russians have their own military installations in Syria.

How does their presence complicate this entire operation? LT. COL. RICK FRANCONA, U.S. AIR FORCE (RET.): Well, the naval base

in Tartus is almost a sovereign Russian area. So, you don't see too many Syrians moving in and out of there.

But the big area that they control is this air base just south of Latakia. It is solely used by the Russians and to protect their assets there, they put in the state-of-the-art s-300 air defense system which covers the northern half of Syria. This is a complicating factor for any kind of U.S. airstrike if we're going to mount one, you've got to consider, are the Russians going to oppose any kind of operation there? So, that really complicates the planning.

COOPER: Admiral Kirby, I mean, we heard Barbara Starr reporting the idea that the military operation is one conceived during the Obama administration, what is your biggest concern right now?

JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: I think for me, I think, obviously, he's going to be getting briefed on all of the pros and cons and risks and consequences. I think what they need to be thinking about is what about the day after?

[20:10:03] So, maybe you have a very precise strike, maybe you hit the targets that you want to hit, and maybe you do send a very strong message. But there are going to be expectations about what happens next. And I think it's important for everybody to be thinking through that, what -- how are the Russians going to react, how the Iranians are going to react? Certainly, how is Assad going to react?

And just as important, Anderson, how is the opposition going to react? Because now, you're potentially putting your thumb on the scale in the civil war in Syria, which we haven't done before. So, that could also send messages to the opposition groups in terms of what kind of support they might expect or want to see the United States perform going forward.

COOPER: General Hertling, I mean, to Arwa's earlier point, I mean, it really does depend on what kind of a message -- I mean, is this just sending a message to Bashar al Assad, kind of a warning in that would be one sort of strike. Is it actually to destroy, you know, air capabilities, that would be a far more sustained sort of strike.

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING, U.S. ARMY (RET.): Well, what you want to ask, Anderson, is the key phrase "end state". What is the strategic or operational end state? What do you want to accomplish?

Now, that was brought up in the earlier part of your reporting in terms of, is it just a poke in the eye or is this a sustained air campaign going after a bunch of different targets? Is this a one-time shot with a bunch of cruise missiles?

And, by the way, as my good friend Rick Francona pointed out, most of the targets are in regime-controlled area. Arwa will show that. They hit in Idlib province, which is where most of the rebels are, but they came from the regime area. So, you are literally shooting into an area where Russia has been

helping them. And again, this targeting, the end state piece, the targeting is against Assad and his regime.

What I would question and I know Mike Kirby has some comments on this, this has been supported for the last year-plus by Russia. We would not be in this situation, Assad would more than likely be gone had Russia not interfered about a little over a year ago, and supported him with aircraft and advisory support, which are all at those air fields.

I'm very concerned about what's going to happen and what is the designed end state?

The American military can hit any target you want, and it can cause a great deal of destruction. But it's what comes next not only with Assad but with Russia, potentially Iran as well, because there's a lot of Quds force and Iranian fighter, Hezbollah fighters all throughout Syria.

COOPER: You know, Mike, I think to back -- I mean, I think Ronald Reagan sent missiles to I think Gadhafi, a tent in Libya, you know, I think there was a strike under the Clinton administration. There was sort of largely symbolic, more or less, there were people deriding it as sort of just pounding the sand.

Is that a concern -- I mean, that is I guess one option, sort of sending a message with a strike without it having much actual impact on the ground?

KIRBY: I'm sorry. Is that for me?

COOPER: Sorry. Go ahead.

KIRBY: I think, you know, you're absolutely right. Whatever they strike, it has to be -- most likely it's related to this sarin attack. It could be an airfield. It could be a storage facility. Something like that.

I have no doubt that the military planners are thinking through collateral damage and definitely thinking through presence of Russian and Iranian forces and there's no question that they're going to do that.

But no matter how precise it is, no matter how effective it is, and what they hit in terms of being proportional to the sarin attack, they do need to think through, again, the repercussions after that and what the reactions are going to be internally. It may not have -- possibly may not have the effect that they want. Hopefully it will. I think they should be looking at military options right now. If it doesn't have the effect they want, they've got to be prepared to follow that up going forward and that, then, runs a risk of greater escalation in this civil war that we haven't seen to date.

COOPER: Colonel Francona, just in terms of targets, some people are wondering if Bashar al Assad is the problem, why not target him, his compound in Damascus, which is a heavily populated area, I would assume?

FRANCONA: I think you just answered that. It's too heavily of a populated area. I mean, the palace sits right in the middle of Damascus. He doesn't really live there. He lives in a variety of different places and trying to take him out really just is probably going to kill a lot of his family, a lot of innocent civilians. It's too hard to know where he is at any particular moment.

I think to send the right message, you need to go after one of these military targets. As Arwa was mentioning, some target associated with this airstrike.

We know what planes they were and what base they come from. Knock down something on the base, send a message, as the admiral, general said, because do we really want to get into a shooting war with the Russians over this incident? We may want to. But someone has to answer that question.

[20:15:00] COOPER: Gloria, Democrats and some Republicans are already calling for President Trump to get a congressional authorization for any kind of military operation. It's interesting because you look back at some of the tweets that then civilian Donald Trump said about Obama, he repeatedly were saying, you know, that the president had to go to Congress in order to do anything militarily.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. And, remember, you know, President Obama did go to Congress with his famous red line and didn't win and ended up not striking Assad as a result of that. And so, it's interesting that we're talking about military strikes now because it seems to me that while Congress would like the president to go to Congress, it seems that he's not going to want to repeat anything that Barack Obama did and, of course, we know that there is the 2001 war authorization, anti-terror authorization against ISIS and al Qaeda that is often used, and if this president were to do something against Assad, I believe he would probably uses that and say he has the authorization under than piece of -- 2001 piece of legislation.

But I can't see him repeating what Obama did because they all understand that Barack Obama was stopped after he went to Congress.

COOPER: Arwa, we were talking about the possibility of civilian casualties. I mean, the -- you point out that a lot of the arsenal, not just air fields but a lot of the arsenal for Assad is near civilian areas.

DAMON: And that's one of the key issues. A lot of the surface-to-air defense capabilities are believed to be hidden within civilian areas. They are in some instance mobile, in which case, they can be moved around fairly easily.

The one thing the U.S. cannot afford at this stage is obviously causing a significant level of collateral damage. But then there's another discussion to be had as well. Militarily taking action is one thing. If the Trump administration is going to actually try to do something, are they going to change and say that Bashar al Assad must go? Because right now, we're not talking about ISIS. ISIS is an entirely different aspect of this already very complicated map. We're talking specifically about the leader of the country who is gassing his own people.

COOPER: But the problem -- I mean, there's no easy solution here. The problem, of course, is if Assad does go, then what happens in Syria? I mean, you have all these different warring factions, you what about, you know, the Alawites, you know, there's a leadership vacuum? Who fills that vacuum? And toes that mean greater U.S. involvement, greater, you know, western involvement?

So, there's a lot of questions obviously. We're going to continue to talk about this as we continue to monitor developments throughout the next two hours.

Just ahead, we're going to look at how the current administration has largely been blaming the prior administration for this latest crisis.

Also, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes, stepping aside from the Russian investigation. His own committee is running. Nunes sidelined and as you'll see, blaming others for it, not his own behavior. Details ahead.


[20:21:08] COOPER: Tonight, the man in charge of the House Intelligence Committee, Russia investigation is no longer in charge. In fact, he's under investigation himself. Republican Congressman Devin Nunes stepped aside today, just as the House Ethics Committee said he's under investigation for his actions, some would say antics, involving Trump friendly information he saw at the White House and then ran back the next day to brief the president about and waiting reporters as well. Information the White House, of course, already had, because that's where he got it from.

As it became clear to just about all concern, that we were witnessing some kind of Kabuki Theater, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was defending the chairman's conduct.


SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: What occurred between Chairman Nunes and coming here was both routine and proper. One hundred percent proper. One hundred percent legal and appropriate and clear. Entirely legal. He came over which happens daily.

There's nothing that I see that there's problematic in him conducting an investigation. Conducting an investigation. Running an investigation. Reviewing a situation.

He has met with people who are cleared to discuss classified information regarding a review that he is conducting.

That's how it was supposed to work.

COOPER: At the same time, Sean Spicer is anything but forthcoming with information, just as who signed Chairman Nunes into the White House the night he got the information, that he then briefed the president about and reporters on a day later.

Here's what Spicer said when a reporter actually brought it up.


SPICER: I never said I would provide you answers. I said we would look into it.


COOPER: So, there's a lot we do not know about the White House meeting. There's a lot we don't know about the chairman's benching. He says he's being targeted by left-wing activists, like everything else. It's about as clear as a bowl of guacamole.

More now from Manu Raju.


MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER (voice-over): Leaving the Capitol Thursday, embattled House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes refused to answer any questions. But he released a statement blaming left-wing groups for making false and politically motivated accusations.

Still, he said it was in his best interest to let Congressman Mike Conaway lead the investigation into Russia and the Trump campaign. The news stunned members of the intelligence committee who only learned of the decision after a stuff handed them Nunes' statement once he abruptly left a closed door meeting.

REP. JIM HIMES (D), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: We were all caught a little off guard. I think now the investigation can proceed.

RAJU: It marked a dramatic shift from a week ago when Nunes defiantly rejected calls to step aside amid his decision to cancel a public hearing that could have provided more information on Russia's alleged coordination with Trump associates.

(on camera): Are you going to stay as chairman and run this investigation?

NUNES: Well, why would I not? You guys need to ask them why these things are being said.

RAJU: But they're saying that it cannot run as you as chair with --

NUNES: You're going to go and talk to them. That sounds like their problem.

RAJU (voice-over): House Speaker Paul Ryan privately met with Nunes last night and said he supports the chairman's decision.

REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: Chairman Nunes wants to make sure that this is not a distraction to a very important investigation.

RAJU: But neither Ryan nor his aides would say if the speaker urged Nunes to step aside.

(on camera): Did you urge Nunes to step aside, sir? Did you urge him to?

(voice-over): Nunes had grown weary as his explanation shifted on whether the White House had given him intelligence so he could provide cover to President Trump's unsubstantiated charge that former President Obama had Trump Tower wiretapped.

On Tuesday.

(on camera): Can you stop for a second? Just take one second.

NUNES: No, not going to get into --

RAJU (voice-over): And on Wednesday.

NUNES: We're not going to talk about anything to do with this investigation.

RAJU: And today, Democrats praised Nunes' move.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA: I'm sure it was a difficult decision for him. But as he mentioned, I think it's in the best interests of the investigation.


COOPER: And Manu Raju joins us.

Now, where does the chairman go from here? I mean, do we know if he'll get -- still get access to classified information after recusing himself from the investigation?

RAJU: Well, as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Anderson, he still has access to top secret information that the Gang of Eight, those top leaders in Congress will get. That will be a decision, if he were not get that, that decision would be made by House Speaker Paul Ryan or people in the White House or the intelligence community, to deny him clearance to get that information.

[20:25:06] Now, we're not getting any indication, that he will get that clearance for votes. In fact, Speaker Ryan was telling me tonight that he is still chairman of the committee, a sign that he will still have access of that information. But, Anderson, a lot of questions still about whether or not this investigation can proceed in a bipartisan manner.

One big sign will be whether or not Mike Conaway, the chairman of the committee, will actually schedule a public hearing. They will also hear the testimony of that former justice official, Sally Yates, who had warned privately that Michael Flynn, the former Trump national security adviser, may have been susceptible to blackmail by the Russians. If that hearing is scheduled, perhaps they'll move forward on a bipartisan manner, if not, you'll probably see a lot more partisan bickering -- Anderson.

COOPER: All right. Manu Raju, Manu, thanks.

Joining us now is Democratic committee member, Congressman Jim Himes of Connecticut.

So, Congressman, first, I want to ask you about Chairman Nunes stepping away from leading the investigation. Is your confidence restored in the House Intelligence Committee's ability to conduct an independent investigation?

REP. JIM HIMES (D), CONNECTICUT: Well, Anderson, from the inside, I think I talked about this with you in the past, from the inside, the investigation was actually proceeding pretty well. In fact, as late as just yesterday or the day before, we had reached agreement on a witness list. So, inside, we were doing pretty well.

But, very clearly, Chairman Nunes' ability to lead this in a way that was going to be perceived as impartial was badly damaged by the whole White House escapade. So, I do think that Mike Conaway, assuming that the control of this investigation, is a good thing. I have a lot of faith in Congressman Conaway. He's always been very fair, in my experience. So, hopefully, now we can proceed with also, a public perception of impartiality.

COOPER: Have you figured out a timetable for the committee for -- I mean, has the committee for when Director Comey, James Clapper, former acting Attorney General Sally Yates are going to be interviewed? Obviously, the Comey interview is supposed to still be behind closed doors? Has there been an agreement both from Democrats and Republicans on the timetable?

HIMES: Well, that's one of the interesting things about this change in leadership and the investigation, right? So, remember that the Comey/Rogers meeting, which was so urgent, was scheduled or proposed to be scheduled right on top of that open hearing, at exactly the same time as that open hearing, in which the deputy attorney general was to testify. That had the effect, of course, of cancelling the open hearing, which sadly I think was part of the intent.

So, now, the question in my mind, anyway, is, is in fact that close hearing with Rogers and Comey really that urgent and, of course, Mike Conaway will be making those decisions. So, we'll see where he goes with this.

COOPER: Paul Ryan had on many occasions expressed confidence in Nunes, and the ability to lead this investigation. House Speaker Ryan said in a statement that he trusts Nunes but also supports his decision to step aside as the issue has become a distraction.

HIMES: Well, you know, Chairman Nunes, where he goes from here, of course, is in the hands of the ethics committee. We will -- we will see where they come out and we'd like that to proceed, and as a nonpartisan a fashion as we can. The one characterization I would take issue here -- you were running comments by the White House spokesman Sean Spicer before who characterized Chairman Nunes' behavior, going to the White House, getting the intelligence, doing press conferences, taking it back to the president as routine. I can tell you, it was anything but routine and having now had the opportunity to review those documents myself, I would concur with ranking member Adam Schiff when he said that there is nothing there that would warrant anything as un-routine as the way Chairman Nunes chose to react to those documents.

COOPER: You know, the chairman said that he's stepping down is going to be temporary. Do you actually think he would reassume his position at some point leading the Russia investigation?

HIMES: Well, I think you sort of have to play this out. There's now an ethics investigation underway, hard for me to imagine any circumstance under which you would reassume leadership while that investigation is under way. I suppose that if this were -- if ethics committee fully clears him and if we all got some explanation, again, for the very strange way in which he dealt with these documents, and that explanation made sense, maybe then. But that seems like a long shot to me.

COOPER: So, I just want to be clear, you have actually viewed documents that Chairman Nunes has gone over to the White House grounds in order to view? Not just some. You've actually viewed the documents?

HIMES: No. You know, as of today, those documents were made available to the broader membership of the committee and, yes, I've had an opportunity to review them today.

COOPER: OK. Obviously, you can't talk much about the details of them, but you say it confirms what, in your opinion, what chairman Schiff said? Not chairman, ranking member.

HIMES: I completely concur with Adam's conclusion, which is that there's nothing there that for either one of us jumped off the page to say this has to be handled in some, you know, unusual fashion.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: What's going to change though in terms of, you know, partisanship on the committee? I mean, you know, we saw in the first open session, you know, a lot of the questions by Republicans all seem to be about leaks. There were the questions by Democrats where, you know, on Russia connections, on Russia involvement in the election itself. I mean it almost seemed like two different committees. Do you think that -- does anything would that really change?

HIMES: Yes, well I think it's -- first of all, we shouldn't confuse the sort of different approaches to this investigation with partisanship. Actually that's a committee that historically has operated in very bipartisan fashion. And, you know, I continue to be puzzled by Chairman Nunes' behavior with respect to this White House information. But that wasn't a Republican way of acting and when we are questioning, I mean it wasn't because we were Democrats, I mean it's not so much a partisan question, but you're absolutely right that I think. And I want to give Mike Conaway a lot of room here, as the guy who's leading us now, he may sort to change the approach a little bit.

But yes as you saw in the open hearing the Democrats really did focus on what the headline of that hearing was which was the FBI director saying, there is an investigation into the possibility of collusion and links to the Trump campaign and of course the Republicans much, much more focused on the leaks.

COOPER: Yes. Congressman Himes, good to talk to you, thanks very much.

HIMES: Thanks Anderson.

COOPER: Up next, we're going to get the panels take and all this including what they think the turning point was for Congressman Nunes who just have week ago said he saw no need to step aside.


[20:35:36] COOPER: We are waiting tonight for possible word outside of Mar-a-Lago where the Pentagon of the 8th military action targeting Syria, we're of course going to bring that to you as soon as we hear anything and we'll have more details ahead.

While we wait, we're also following tonight's breaking news on Capitol Hill, the House Intelligence chairman Devin Nunes no longer leading his committee's Russia investigation. He stepped aside, he is under investigation himself, it's a huge one 180 for Congressman Nunes, until today he'd been unbending in the face of growing pressure and accusation of bias. Here's what he said last week.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you going to stay as chairman and run this investigation?

REP. DEVIN NUNES, (R) HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: Well why would I not? You guys need to ask them why these things are being said.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But they're saying that it cannot run as you as chairman.

NUNES: You guys go talk to them. That sounds like their problem. I don't have, you know, my colleagues are perfectly fine, I mean there's -- they know we're doing the investigation and we will continue.


COOPER: Well, as now we'll continue without congressman. A lot to discuss with the panel. Joining is me Ryan Lizza, Matt Lewis, Kirsten Powers, Doug Heye, Jeffrey Lord and Paul Begala. Kirsten, do you think this is just temporary? Because he says he just temporarily stepping down.

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I mean, there's no way to know but I think that it is pretty clear by the way that even Republicans have come out and said that this is a good idea. They said that they're still support him and trust him, but this is a good idea for him to step away because he's created of the destruction of this ethics investigation created distraction, would suggest that, I supposed if he was cleared but at least ethics committee he could come back but it seems like he already turned into such a circus, then it would make more sense for him to just accept.

COOPER: Matt, I mean do you think it was his choice, I know he met with Speaker Ryan, I think it was, you know, the night before and Ryan approved the decision, do you think he suggested it?

MATT LEWIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: My inclination yearly (ph) when something like this happens is when people want to spend more time with their family.


LEWIS: The same sort of thing. Maybe he was nudged. And really I think this was a cumulative thing. I mean that the straw that broke the camel's back was probably this ethics thing. But, you know, we've got a series of incidents, like the first thing where he doesn't brief, you know, Ranking Member Schiff about this and then the second thing, he tells Speaker Paul Ryan that this information came from a "whistle-blower" type person, in fact it didn't appear that it came from the White House. So I think he misled, you know, Speaker Ryan. And now you have this emerging. So it seems like maybe three strikes and you're out.

COOPER: You know, Ryan, I mean it is interesting that Nunes is blaming several left wing activist groups when in fact I mean what he's, you know, being investigated for we should just point out because you're investigated --


COOPER: -- doesn't mean you're guilty of anything, but the congressional ethics office still looking at their, you know, misuse.

LIZZA: Yes, like the left wing activist groups, they sent a letter to the ethics committee saying, hey, Devin Nunes said, and they quoted what he said and the ethics committee said, oh yes well we're charged with investigating members of Congress who are credibly accused of disclosing classified investigation. And that trigger this investigation.

I mean let's just take a step back and talk about the irony here of for three weeks now, Devin Nunes has been running around, doing press conference, coordinating with the White House, hammering people before his committee saying the scandal in Washington is the leaking of classified information and he is now being investigated by the ethics committee for leaking classified information.

So I think that's the only thing that trigger. This I think the ethics committee says OK, there's nothing -- there's really nothing here, he didn't do that. I think he will be back running the investigation.

COOPER: Doug, do you agree with that?

DOUG HEYE, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: I do. And Congress, when they investigate themselves, one of the ironies here, Congress is a very small town. And so Mike Conaway who is taking over now for Devin Nunes at the Intelligence Committee is the former ethics committee chairman. But we're going to see two things operationally happened, one of two scenarios, either there's going to be a very quick investigation, a small scope and Nunes will be cleared and back at the full committee running the investigation or they'll take a broader scope, go investigate Democrats and we'll see this go on for a lot longer.

And I can tell you with two members that I spoke today two Republican members and a couple lawyers who were close to and working with ethics staff, they feel that that second scenario is very possible, the Democrats will be investigated and this will be a longer thing with Conaway and charge for much longer time.

POWERS: But Doug, you don't think that it's an opportunity for the Rpublicans just to move Nunes out of the picture? I mean it seems like created opportunity fore them. I mean what's the benefit of bringing him back?

HEYE: Well, I think it depends how long it goes, but --


HEYE: -- we have two different dynamics here, there's the House where its been members on both sides on television holding a lot of press conference versus the Senate and for disclosure I worked for Richard Burr. When he first came in the Senate. Where they've been much more quiet, much more methodical about this, you don't see Mark Warner or Richard Burr on TV everyday talking about.

[20:40:15] LEWIS: Getting word of Nunes, it's good if you're a Republican and you like Donald Trump.


JEFFREY LORD, TRUMP SUPPORTER: I think Anderson that there's a sense for a lot of these people on the Republican side that this is going to be a mammoth investigation, and that this whole leak situation with Susan Rice and that there is more there. And therefore, they don't want anything to screw this up. And they view this as an uneeded distraction, quickly detach, get somebody in there and plow ahead so that does not become the subject.

COOPER: Paul? PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, it's going to go on, this thing with Susan Rice, going to go to Donald J. Trump. We already have a National Security Advisor to president General Flynn disgraced kicked out by President Trump 24 days into his term for lying about what contact with the Russians. We have an attorney general --

LORD: I know, find all that.

BEGALA: -- the attorney general who had to step aside and recuse himself from an investigation why, because he lied to the Senate about what? Contacts with the Russians. Now we have Devin Nunes who had no contact with the Russians but his the third person to be discredit, because they need an independent nonpartisan investigation.

LEWIS: That's why Nunes had to go.


LEWIS: Because if you want to avoid special --


BEGALA: I thought he sounded really bipartisan. I'm embracing -- excuse me embracing the -- Congressman Conaway who's going to now run as a Republican for Texas being praised by a Democrat from Connecticut, fine. It's not going to work. Conaway, too, had ties to the Trump campaign. Conaway said get this, that the Russians trying to tilt the election is the same Mariachi singers performing at a Hillary rally. He can't do a credible investigation, none of this congressman can't, going to get out the politics, have an independent prosecution.

COOPER: Jeff you actually said --

LORD: -- connections at the Clinton.

BEGALA: I can't as well advice. All of them have been independent non-bipartisan investigation.


COOPER: I mean you actually that there should be an independent --

LORD: Yes.



BEGALA: Get out the Hill and get in professional investigators and prosecutors.

LORD: Fine. Let's get to the bottom of the Russian thing and there's no there, there in my view, but let's find out. And let's get Obama -- let's get President Obama, Secretary -- Susan Rice, Ben Rhodes, John Brennan, Director Clapper, and anybody who touched classified information in the Obama administration in terms of this, get them in front of the committee.

BEGALA: And how about the people who tried to hack our election? Right, the Russians, we know the beneficiaries with the Trump campaign. There is -- I'm trying to say something good.

LORD: Yes for you.

BEGALA: There is no conclusive proof that they colluded. There is none, but I want to know if there is any. The only way to find that out is to have incredible investigative, they awful a lot of smoke. Everybody is lying about it, right about their contacts with the Russians, but there's no collusion. We'll see.

COOPER: But, you know, the argument that folks on Capitol Hill use against having an independent investigation, it's going to take a lot more time. Do you have to, you know, get security clearances for people, you have to form -- get people together that these committees already cleared. They can already look at information.

LIZZA: That's true. It would take many months to get that off the ground, but they would have an actual budget and depending on how the legislation is written they would have a (inaudible) of authority to get to the bottom of things. The Senate and House Intelligence Committee's, they have small staff, they don't have the resources of say, you know, the FBI that have nearly the kind of resources that say the 9/11 commission had when they investigated something, you know, on the -- it was a similar idea.

So if it were a few months, would that be the worst thing in the world compared to the credibility a commission like that might have? And interesting here is, you know, you starting to see Republicans and conservatives actually say maybe this is the best thing. And then they can investigate both things. You know, Republicans seem obsessed with the U.S. Intelligence and what U.S. Intelligence Agencies did. Most Democrats care about what the Russian intelligence agencies did. A commission could look into both of those.

COOPER: We should point out, Doug that according to an intelligence official, CNN is reporting that the intelligence committee actually had concerns about sharing intelligence with these committee committees. They have more confidence, according to this official in the Senate Intelligence Committee. Does that argue though for an independent investigation?

HEYE: No, I think it speaks to how the Senate regardless what happened on the Senate floor today. The Senate has handle this process in a much less political fashion.

COOPER: Well, their hearings are also behind closed doors by and large.

HEYE: Yes, absolutely. But we've seen really the working relationship with Senator Burr and Senator Warner be much more passive, and what we've seen from the House. COOPER: And when they give a press conference together, it certainly seemed to many people that the adults had sort of entered the room.

HEYE: Sure, and I talked to Mike Warner last night, who lavished praise on Richard Burr and it's a in a private setting. But this process have been filled with politics from the beginning. Keep in mind that the top three people critical of Devin Nunes in this process have been Eric Swalwell, Adam Schiff, and Jackie Speier. Not just member of the committee but three California Democrats. And I can tell you having working the California congressional delegation for six and half years there is no more poisonous partisanship state delegation than California, that's true Republicans and Democrats, this whole thing has been infected with politics.

[20:45:00] COOPER: Paul, is it all by politics?

BEGALA: It is. It is, but it shouldn't be our election was hacked. There was some affect with the outcome determine we'll never know. We do know that the Russians hack the election, we know they did with the intent to hurt Hillary and help Trump. We know that. The question is did the Trump campaign collude? No evidence of it. I don't want to get over my ski tips here. But everybody is lying about it so many people that lie --


COOPER: You do want to get out on it.


BEGALA: No, every time we talked --


BEGALA: -- but boys there a lot of smoke.

LORD: Not to wax Tom Cruise's, but I want the truth and I can handle the truth.

BEGALA: Be careful, I'm not --


COOPER: All right, just ahead, President Trump had repeatedly blamed his predecessor for the crisis in Syria that he inherited. Does he have a point? And if he launches a strike, what will that mean from here on out? That's more and that ahead.


COOPER: Well the breaking news we're following tonight and watch it very closely, President Trump tonight considering military action in Syria and retaliation from Monday's chemical attack on civilians. Earlier the president went as far to say quote, "Something should happen." Gave no specifics obviously. [20:50:00] We also know that the joint chiefs of staff met this afternoon to discuss Syria options. President Trump who's at his Florida resort, hosting the China's president is also expected to meet with his national security team. All of this just he day after President Trump for the first time acknowledged that the mess in Syria is his responsibility, almost in the same breath he blamed his predecessor.


DONALD TRUMP, U.S. PRESIDENT: The Obama administration had a great opportunity to solve this crisis a long time ago when he said 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.


COOPER: Well lots to discuss. Joining me is former White House communications director for President Obama and CNN political commentator, Jen Psaki, also CNN senior political commentator, David Axelrod.

David, I mean President Trump argues that he inherited a bad Syria policy, saying that President Obama said he would establish a red line against chemical weapons and failed to do anything about it. I mean, does he have a point here? There's certainly been a lot of criticism within the some of the administration about that.

DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, look, there are a lot of people back there offering the president advice back in 2013 after the last major chemical weapon attack by Assad. Some of them -- many of them urging him not to do anything to stand out (ph). One of those who was offering that advice was Donald Trump.


AXELROD: Which kind of undercuts his credibility as he makes this point now. But here's what I learned Anderson very quickly when we went to the White House. And that was we walked into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, we're involved in two wars with 180,000 American troops in broiled. But nobody wanted to hear about what the last administration had done. Nobody wanted to hear us pointing at the last guy. Everybody wanted to hear what we were going to do.

Donald Trump is president of the United States now. A heinous attack has occurred. I think most Americans looked at that with horror and he now has the responsibility to do something about it and I think he's going to find that people's patience are going to wear thin if his answer is, well, it's the last guy's fault.

COOPER: Jen, I mean, you know, in -- to kind of point out what David was saying, back around that time in 2013, I mean Donald Trump sent repeated tweets about that clearly then his preferred, you know, method of communication as well about President Obama telling him not to have military action in Syria, that there's no reason to do that. We have one of them I think we can put on the screen. But there's, you know, there were whole slew of them.

That one said the only reason President Obama wants to attack Syria is to save face over his very red line statement. "Do not attack Syria. Fix U.S.A." Another one he sent, "We should stay the hell out of Syria. The rebels are just as bad as the current regime. What will we get for our lives and money, billion, zero?" It goes on and on. I mean, it is though very different obviously when you are president and suddenly it is your responsibility as it is now for President Trump.

JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: That's absolutely true. I think what should be concerning to people is he also left out 3 1/2 years of events there. As you know, not only -- but President Obama didn't move forward in part because he didn't have the support from the international community. In the U.K., the parliament had just voted against using military action and he decided, late in the process, to go to Csongress. Republicans at the time didn't even bring up a vote because there weren't enough votes to move forward.

So, there's a lot that has happened over the course of time and I think campaigning is very different from governing. And what you saw Donald Trump do yesterday was go back to his safe zone during the campaign, a time when he also accused President Obama and Hillary Clinton of co-founding ISIL. So clearly, this is a different time. I hope that he's asking some of the questions when he's meeting with his military advisors that President Obama would have, which is what next, what then, what will strikes do, and how will that impact our overall strategy in Syria and in the Middle East.

COOPER: You know, David, it's interesting because from what we're hearing a lot of the potential strikes, the potential options are options that President Obama looked at or that the Pentagon while under the Obama administration drew up for just this sort of scenario.

AXELROD: Yes, I think what President Trump's going to find out as he did on health care is that Syria is very complicated and reacting to this kind of aggression, this war crimes frankly, is very complicated. As Jen pointed out, it involves your allies. It involves these actors in Congress. It also is a little more complicated now because of the involvement of the Russians --

COOPER: Right.

AXELROD: -- and the calculation about how far you can push this before you're in a face-to-face confrontation with the Russians.

It's curious that the president hasn't really mentioned the Russians much in his discussion of Syria, but the Russia is really the guarantor of Assad. They're standing by him with their troops.

[20:55:13] And so, if you launch a military attack, you have to work that into your calculations. So it's very complicated. And as Jen pointed out, he is coming face-to-face with the reality of being president as opposed to running for president. And look, every American, and I feel this way strongly, I hope he comes to the right answer on this. I'm not rooting for him to fail on this. I hope whatever he does is the right thing. I hope it does hurt Assad and discourage him in some way from doing this again. But it's tough stuff.

COOPER: You also as president learn not only the capabilities of the U.S., but also the limits of U.S. power in some cases, Jen?

PSAKI: That's exactly right. And, you know, I'm certain but if they were to move forward with military action, they would say they have legal authorization for that. I defer to lawyers to confirm if that's accurate or not. One thing that's been sitting out there is reauthorization of an AUMF. And an action that he could take is to ask for a reauthorization to get Republicans and Democrats at the table to do that. I don't have any, you know, I'm not predicting he will, but there are a lot of components of this that require legal authority either from an international body or from support from your own Congress and I'm not sure that he and others are thinking about that or at least not that we've seen.

COOPER: Go ahead.

PSAKI: You know, Anderson, Jen mentioned something that I think is so important, which is the -- it's the second level questions that are always the most difficult. There's the decision to go ahead and take an action and then there is the assessment of what the consequences of that action would be, how are the -- how would Assad react, how would the Russians react, how would the world community react, how would it impact our efforts vis-a-vis ISIS and would it contribute to some of the radicalization.

There are so many questions that one has to ask one's self before you take an action like this. And I'm sure that these are some of the things or at least I hope these are some of the things that are being discussed right now at Mar-a-Lago.

COOPER: I mean, the scary thing about it, I mean there's many scary things about it, but obviously, given just what you said, David. The incredibly complex nature of Syria itself, the different, you know, groups, the different factions, the different and ethnic, you know, and religious groups and the different alliances and sort of shifting alliances. The question of course is how read in is President Trump on Syria, on the entire region. I mean, during the campaign, you know, in an interview to me he said, you know, there is no Iraq, there are no Iraqis and he talked about taking the oil.

So, one wonders if he does understand all the complexities of it. Certainly, you know, there are people around him in the military and elsewhere who do, in the National Security Council but that's a huge concern I think probably for -- I think for anybody watching this.

AXELROD: You know, this is obviously a baptism of fire for him. This isn't his expertise, this isn't real estate, this isn't branding, this isn't the Celebrity Apprentice, this is deadly serious and it's going on by the way at the same time that he's sitting down with China to talk about another mortal threat to the U.S., which is -- or potentially mortal threat to the U.S., which is a nuclear North Korea. So there is a lot going on right now and one hopes that he is getting briefed up, but the other thing we should put out is that the administration itself has to speak with coherency because just this week, you had Secretary Tillerson who speaking pretty tough -- in pretty tough words today saying essentially that Assad is not our concern and Nikki Haley did the same at the U.N. And this came at a time when the President was meeting with the General el-Sisi of Egypt whose human rights record has been very, very dubious.

So, if you were sitting there and you were Assad what would you be thinking if you heard those things? So, you know, it's important for the administration from this point forward to speak with one voice on this and not send confusing signals.

COOPER: As we came up in the top of hour, I want to bring our viewers up to speed on President Trump, at his National Security team weighing military action against the Assad regime. Our Barbara Starr is at the Pentagon. Jim Acosta is at Mar-a-Lago where the president is tonight.

Let's go first to Barbara Starr. So the President is being briefed at Mar-a-Lago by the Defense Secretary Mattis, what's the latest on all of this.