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Soon: Senate "Nuclear" Showdown Over Gorsuch; McCain Blasts "Nuclear Option" To Confirm Gorsuch; Trump Defends Bill O'Reilly Amid Harassment Claims. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired April 6, 2017 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:02] ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: I know you feel more glamorous, as do I right now.


CAMEROTA: Time for CNN NEWSROOM with Poppy Harlow and John Berman.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Prince and princess, Alisyn and Christopher. Thank you so very much. We have a lot of news, so let's get right to it.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Countdown to the nuclear option, the final moments before the U.S. Congress changes potentially forever. And if you think it's a good change, well, Senator John McCain says, think again. It is a, quote, "stupid idea."

And after the horrific chemical attack in Syria, the President claims a radical shift in his opinion. But what about his promises?


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: That crosses many, many lines, beyond the red line.


BERMAN: So is the Pentagon weighing military options? Just one question hours before the President's most important meeting with a world leader yet.

Then the President declares an Obama official guilty and Bill O'Reilly innocent. The Oval Office becomes the people's court.

Good morning, everyone. I'm John Berman.

HARLOW: I'm Poppy Harlow. At any moment, we will hear from President Trump at a Wounded Warriors event at the White House. We'll bring that to you live. As you see, people beginning to gather right there.

This on the same day that he holds a high stakes meeting with China's President. He is facing increased pressure to clearly define U.S. policy and response to that chemical weapons attack in Syria.

BERMAN: Yes, that attack killed dozens there, including children. President Trump now says he has changed after this. But how? What does that mean? Does he want Bashar al-Assad to go, and what is he willing to do about it?

That's a question being asked by Democrats, by Republicans, even Syria's most important sponsor, Russia. One Russian official is asking, what is the U.S. approach?

We're covering all of this. I want to begin at the Pentagon with CNN Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr.

Barbara, you know, look, if President Trump does decide to do something about this with U.S. military, what are his options?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, you made the key point here, John. Good morning. The first question is, does the President make a political decision to proceed with military action? That is a political decision for a president to make.

So if he were to decide to go ahead, will he have the options to do that? Military commanders don't wait to be asked by the White House. They are already moving to look at what potential options are to present to Mr. Trump if he asks for them. So, yes, they have several ideas.

It starts with this notion, what military objective will he want to achieve? Does he want to send just a signal to Assad? Does he want to maybe just take out a couple of targets, things Assad holds in great value, that would send a message, stop this or we're going to take everything out? You know, a commanding control facility. Would that be enough to change Assad's behavior?

I think there is a fair understanding that that is not likely to change his mind, especially with the Russians at his side. So the next set of options would be, do you want to take out all of Assad's capability to deliver chemical weapons?

That is a very difficult proposition. You have to take out airfields, fixed-wing aircrafts, helicopters that drop barrel bombs filled with chemical agent, the manufacturing sites that make the barrel bombs, and also the ground delivery systems, artillery, rockets, those shells that those system juice (ph) can be filled with chemical agents.

That broader set of targets becomes a great problem. You have evade Syrian air defenses. You have to get neighboring countries to understand why you're moving through their air space, possibly to take this military action -- John, Poppy.

HARLOW: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon this morning. Thank you, Barbara, for that.

And so far, the Assad regime just continues to deny any part in this, any part in attacking its own people. Let's get to our Muhammad Lila. He joins us live from Istanbul.

This is the continued line from the Assad regime, instead blaming al- Nusra. MUHAMMAD LILA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's right. Good morning,

Poppy. And the Assad regime has a bit more evidence stacked up against them this morning.

Today, Turkey announced that it had conducted autopsies on three of the bodies that were recovered from this suspected chemical weapons site. They say the autopsies were observed by the World Health Organization and an organization called the "Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons." They were the Nobel Prize winners a couple of years ago. They were the ones that disarmed Syria back in 2013. Turkey says the autopsy results clearly show that chemical weapons were used in this incident in Syria.

But here is where the plot thickens, Poppy. CNN reached out to the World Health Organization, and they said they can't verify the results of that autopsy because they weren't the ones conducting it. Now, as far as Syria's response, Syria's Foreign Minister today speaking out and again sticking to that line that they did not launch a chemical weapon attack.

[09:05:00] They say it was an attack on some sort of weapons or ammunition depot and that there were chemical weapons in that depot, and the result of that blast is what caused the chemical weapons to be released into the air.

And they also point out something that they say they've warned the U.N. about multiple times, something that's widely been suspected as well as reported in other reports before, and that is that ISIS is also widely believed to have access to chemical weapons as well as a group called the "al-Nusra Front," which has changed its names a couple of times but basically it still remains the al-Qaeda affiliate.

So, Syria's line is, hey, look, other guys have chemical weapons too. Why didn't you look at them? That's been their answer so far.

BERMAN: Yes. The delivery option is much different, though, for a regime like the Syrian government as opposed to rebel groups who don't exactly have ways to deliver it. Muhammad Lila in Istanbul. Thanks so much.

We want to discuss this right now. Joining us is Andrew Tabler, author of "In the Lion's Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington's Battle with Syria," and Robin Wright, contributing editor for "The New Yorker."

Welcome. Obviously, yesterday, in the Rose Garden, we saw President Trump claim a reversal in his opinion towards Syria and Bashar al- Assad. Let me play you, one more time, what he said.


TRUMP: That attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me, big impact. It was a horrible, horrible thing. And I've been watching it and seeing it, and it doesn't get any worse than that. And I will tell you, it's already happened, that my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: Now, Robin, we don't know exactly how it's clanged, right? We don't know if he went from, two days ago, thinking that Assad shouldn't go, to all of a sudden, today, thinking that Assad should go. But if he does think that's the case, you know, what are his options, Robin?

ROBIN WRIGHT, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, THE NEW YORKER: Well, this is the problem. There are military options to take out whether its his aircraft or his chemical weapons capabilities, but the problem has always been, in this grizzly, atrocious civil war that's taken the lives of almost half a million people, that there are very few political options.

The Russians and the Iranian allies said to the United States over and over, OK, if you don't like Assad, where is a viable opposition leader who could represent the Syrian people, who could win some kind of election? And that's the problem, that the U.S.-backed rebels have gotten to the point that they're almost dysfunctional.

The political opposition has never been viable. It's largely exiled. They haven't had traction inside the country. And so the great challenge for the West and those who oppose Assad is coming up with an alternative, a peace process that the U.N. has tried to run, that has repeatedly stalled because of divisions among the oppositions but also in transitions by the regime.

And so we are stuck in this hell of wanting to see Assad go, knowing that he is unacceptable, that he engages in widespread slaughter of his own people, and yet not being able to find a mechanism now to replace him.

HARLOW: Andrew, for the Obama administration, it did not work to set a red line because then that red line was crossed and nothing happened. Do you think that the Trump administration, that this President needs to say where his red line is?

ANDREW TABLER, AUTHOR, "IN THE LION'S DEN: AN EYEWITNESS ACCOUNT OF WASHINGTON'S BATTLE WITH SYRIA": Well, I mean, of course, in the coming hours and days, we're going to know what the President meant in the Rose Garden and a little bit about what was outlined. But, look, this is not about regime change. It hasn't been about regime change in a long time.

This is about the fact that Bashar al-Assad massively violated the much-touted CWU deal of 2013. He has done it on multiple occasions as verified by the U.N. with fluorine gas. This one is more egregious because it appears to be sarin, and that substance was supposed to have been destroyed by the Assad regime as part of the chemical weapons deal. So it begs the question, how did it get there?

Blaming the opposition as the regime has done so far in saying it was part of their stocks isn't in with keeping with the U.N. findings. The U.N. has only found that ISIS once used sulfur mustard against other rebels. So it's not really about if there is a viable alternative leader to Assad, that's part of the political problem.

The immediate problem is the much-touted chemical weapons deal, President Obama's liberation as he called it, appears to have been violated. And the question is how to keep him from continuing to violate it, and that is a very tough nut to crack, militarily.

BERMAN: No, I mean, evidently, he has violated it. I mean, it does seem, by all accounts, this was an attack carried out by the regime on his own people, so he obviously still has chemical weapons.

You know, Robin, Andrew said something interesting. He said we may learn in a few days what the White House policy is. I don't know if that's the case. I don't know if the White House actually has a policy, if what we heard yesterday from the President was articulating that he's decided on something new or articulating the fact that he's not sure what he is going to do, and that matters here.

[09:10:12] It matters in particular when it comes to Russia, right, because you have some advisors, like Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of State, Nikki Haley, the Ambassador to the United Nations, speaking out in harsh terms against Russia. But you don't have the President doing the same, Robin. How is that interpreted on the world stage?

WRIGHT: Well, I think that's a really interesting question, and we will see a little bit more because Rex Tillerson is due to visit Moscow in the next couple of weeks. And they Syria issue will rise now to the top of the agenda of their talks.

And there had been this sense that the two countries were in sync, perhaps, on Syria more than anything else among the top burner issues, that they were prepared to see some kind of transition with Assad staying in place until there was a process that reached fruition, kind of an indefinite process.

And now, the President's tough language will make that much tougher to, at least, sell internationally. I think the allies, actually, are somewhat relieved because I think there's been a sense, particularly in Europe, that Assad was unacceptable. And the idea of seeing him remain in power was controversial, to put it mildly, and they didn't share Mr. Trump's position on that.

HARLOW: As you see on the side of your screen, we are waiting for the President to come in. But as we do, I just want to show our viewers, again, why this is so important.

Guys, let's bring up the photos of all the children and the people that have been killed in yet another massacre carried out by the Assad regime, by all accounts. Because Russia is responding, guys, and Russia's Foreign Minister's spokeswoman said that Russia's approach to Assad is clear. He is the legal president of an independent state. What is the U.S. approach?

Andrew, do the Russians have a point on that? They say, look, you may not agree with our position, but this is our position. This is Assad, the leader. What is the U.S.'s position? TABLER: All right. Look, I mean, it is a legal fig leaf. President

Assad doesn't control more than a third of his territory. He hasn't for years. So, I mean, he's not even capable of fulfilling his treaty obligations. That's the reason why we're in this mess. That's the reason why we're intervening in Syria.

Believe me, once a political decision is made, the legal justifications can be found to pursue different parts of a military action or whatever. Now, I think the big problem here is the threat to proliferation. This is now beyond Syria. It's been beyond Syria for a long time. And I think that's probably part of the calculus for the White House, right?

It's not just about Syria. It's not just about the Middle East. It is the fact that, somehow, Bashar al-Assad is being propped up by the Russians and the Iranians, decided that he was going to go for something that's the closest in his system to the nuclear option. How is that?

How is it that after all of these efforts at de-escalation and diplomacy by Obama's administration and then in the early days of the Trump administration, that Bashar al-Assad thought this was a smart thing to do?

BERMAN: All right, guys. You're looking at live pictures from inside the East Room of the White House right now. This is an event the President is about to attend with Wounded Warriors. It is the Wounded Warrior Project.

And I have to say, you know, it's a poignant reminder of the consequences that of decisions that the President makes with the U.S. military. Important on this day.

Guys, do you want to go to commercial, or do you want to stay with this?

All right. We're going to take a quick break. We'll come back and we'll hear from the President. Stay with us.

CNN NEWSROOM brought to you by dell technologies. Magic can't make digital transformation happen, but we can.



POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: You're looking at live pictures from the east room of the White House. The president is about to walk out, make some remarks benefitting wounded warriors. You see a number of those who have served the country lined up right there. We are waiting for the president. We'll bring you his remarks live as soon as they begin.

Meantime this morning, history about to be made. We are minutes away from a showdown that will change how the Senate works potentially forever. Debate over Supreme Court pick, Neil Gorsuch, starts at the top of the hour.

It is expected to end in a Democratic filibuster and then the Republicans are expected to deploy the nuclear option that will reduce the traditionally needed 60 vote approval count to a simple majority of 51.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Now once that historical move is made, it is likely that Neil Gorsuch will become the next justice on the Supreme Court with that mere 51 vote majority.

CNN's Sunlen Serfaty following the latest developments for us live from Capitol Hill. It is about to get very interesting there, Sunlen.

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It certainly is, John. A lot of technical gymnastics the Senate will be jumping through today and the choreography here is very important. I want to show you how this is all anticipated to go down.

In the next hour, the Senate will convene. An hour after that, at 11:00 a.m., that's going to be the first vote to break the Democrat filibuster. Republicans do not have the 60 votes that they need. They won't get this.

This will fail as a small but temporary victory for the Democrats here. That will set off a series of procedural maneuvers that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will be taking where he will involve the so-called nuclear option.

And that will set up a second vote to break the Gorsuch filibuster at that lower threshold, that 51 threshold rather than the 60 threshold.

And I can tell you there is a lot of grumbling up here on Capitol Hill from both sides of the aisle about what today means for the institution of the Senate, the fact that they are going to at the end of the day change the rules.

Senator McCain interestingly was asked about this in an interview, and he was asked specifically if the Senate could run more smoothly if the nuclear option is invoked. Here is how he answered.


SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I would like to meet that idiot. I would like to meet that numb skull that would say that.

[00:00:00]That after 200 years, at least 100 years of this tradition where the Senate has functioned pretty well, they think it would be a good idea to blow it up. Whoever says that is a stupid idiot that has not been here and seen what I have been through and how we were able to avoid that on several occasions. And they're stupid and don't -- and they have deceived their voters because they are so stupid.


SERFATY: Now after a lot of procedures today, a lot of heated moments at times, today, guys, it is very likely that this all sets up Neil Gorsuch to have his final confirmation vote on Friday. Back to you.

HARLOW: Sunlen Serfaty on the Hill, thank you very much. Let's talk about all of this and a lot more with a panel namely, Nia Malika Henderson is here, our senior political reporter. A.B. Stoddard joins us, an associate editor and columnist for "Real Clear Politics," and David Drucker, our political analyst and senior Congressional correspondent for the "Washington Examiner."

History is about to be made and Nia, I wonder how big you think this moment is. Right now, it is just about, you know, the Supreme Court pick, but could this branch over into the legislative side of things. That is another outstanding question. Is this a moment and day when we are going to look back in history and say this is when things change forever for the Senate?

NIA MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: You know, quite possibly. It reflects where the country is in terms of being driven by bipartisanship, very heavily identify themselves in terms of party and very much attach to the idea and the politics of certain party. All of that is reinforced by Facebook and sort of media consumption.

So in some ways I think this is inevitable and I think the question you raise about whether or not this is a slippery slope in that this will be, you know, sort of a bridge to more partisanship because we know the Senate has been a cooling house with the lower chamber on the House really being much more partisan.

But here, I mean, you see I think the Senate reflecting where the country is and the country doesn't feel so great about the way Congress operates as it is. It is about 12 percent, 13 percent approval rating. In some ways, I think this is, you know, sort of a funeral for a body that has been dead for a while in terms of operating in a bipartisan fashion.

BERMAN: Yes, I think you make a good point. I think the shock over the fact that the Senate is becoming partisan might be overblown given the way things have been over the last months and years. You know, A.B., Democrats are going to lose. You know, Judge Neil Gorsuch is going to be on the Supreme Court unless something ridiculous that no one foresees happens.

The question is did they get anything politically out of this week, out of their filibuster, which is about to happen officially, out of the way they've handled this?

A.B. STODDARD, ASSOCIATE EDITOR AND COLUMNIST, REALCLEARPOLITICS: I don't think so, John. I mean, they have given up leverage for next time. Next time a possibly polarizing and more partisan justice will come before the Senate for confirmation. Glide through on a party line vote of 51 votes, and that will be the case even if the Democrats take back control of the majority in the Senate.

We will look at more controversial judges. Less measured people who meet a more moderate standard that can bring at least a few votes over from the other side. I'm surprised only three Democrats who are up for election in states Trump won came on board to support Neil Gorsuch.

He is obviously really as ideal a candidate that they could be voting on in those types of candidates for justice positions have been supported in the past by Republicans when a Democrat is in the White House, even who disagreed, you know, ideologically with the opinions of that judge.

They said this is the right of the president and you can absolutely vote against Neil Gorsuch without blocking the vote in there, thereby blowing up the filibuster. I think they're acting very much like Republicans in 2013 who didn't have the votes for Obamacare and shut the government down any way.

HARLOW: David Drucker, other important news as we wait for the president to speak in the east room of the White House. In this fascinating interview that the president gave to "The New York Times" late yesterday, he is playing judge. It is almost like the oval office has been people's court.

He says with no evidence that Susan Rice is guilty. Not only that of what and that she is -- this is going to be a very big story, the biggest story. And in the same interview, just a few moments apart, he says I know Bill O'Reilly, he's a good guy. He did nothing wrong.

Therefore, really discrediting the claims of five women that have been paid millions of dollars for harassment claims by Bill O'Reilly. How big of a deal is this?

DAVID DRUCKER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think the president has bigger things on his plate and they will overshadow this element of the presidency that I sort of like to refer to as a barstool presidency where he sort of riffs on news of the day, gives his opinion and does things that, you know, aren't generally thought of as presidential.

[09:25:06]But I think for the president the key is how he handles his meeting with the Chinese president and how he deals with Syria because here he has put the Syrian regime and Vladimir Putin on notice he is not happy with what is happening in Syria, that he has serious concerns about what's going on in that country.

And, so, the question and leaders around the world will be watching this, is what do you plan to do about it? The president was very critical of his predecessor for talking tough but not following through.

We are talking about things that were wrong, but then not putting any teeth behind it in terms of action. And for a president that campaigned on keeping the U.S. out of the world and reducing its footprint, I think the question is here if the president is outraged about what is going on in Syria and finds it unacceptable, what does he plan to do about it?

So far he hasn't actually said that. All he has said is he is flexible, but there is no foreign policy behind his displeasure and there is no sense of how he plans to take on Assad and Vladimir Putin. The Russians are very entrenched in Russia and there is no way for us to do anything about the Syrian problem without going to bat against Russia.

BERMAN: You know, it is an interesting question. Is he choosing his words as carefully on Syria as he is on Bill O'Reilly and Susan Rice? If the answer is yes, that could be a problem in terms of how other countries deal with the U.S. going forward particularly Russia.

Let's break town the Susan Rice comments because the way the president has said it is fascinating. The Russia story is a total hoax, there has been nothing coming out of that. So on the one hand he thinks Susan Rice, the former national security adviser, who seemed to have unmasked at least one member of the Trump team during the transition.

HARLOW: Which, by the way, isn't illegal.

BERMAN: He says with no evidence she committed a crime, but that's bigger than the entire Russian investigation. He seems to be laying out at least part of the reason he's talking about this, isn't he?

HENDERSON: Yes. I think he wants to make it the biggest story, which is why he talked to the "New York Times" about it. Remember, all this began with his initial conspiracy theory around President Obama allegedly tapping his phones and we have seen that kind of fall apart.

He's found he essentially accused Obama of doing something illegal. Now he's found someone else in the person of Susan Rice that he is accusing of doing something illegal. I think to his base, there is glee about this.

And, so, I think that's what he's doing. But my goodness it is incredibly dangerous for a president to call someone out like this and essentially call them a criminal or possibly a criminal in the pages of "The New York Times" and Fox of course went wall to wall on this yesterday. So, you know, I mean, here we have a president again that's the barstool presidency, as David said.

HARLOW: All right, let's listen in to the president walking into the east room with the first lady. This is an event honoring the Wounded Warriors Project. Obviously the president is going to make remarks. What is he going to say? Will he address any further the situation in Syria? It is unclear at this time.

MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: To all the heroes gathered here, to their families, patrons of this great project, members of Congress, you have my wife, Karen. It is my great honor standing beside the president of the United States and the first lady to welcome you all to the White House.

We're grateful to have so many who are of such great consequence to our armed forces with us today, as well as those who serve our veterans. Our secretary, David Sholken, and Secretary Ryan Zinke, we serve in this cabinet.

But on behalf of the president and the first family, a special thank you to Lieutenant General Michael Lenington and Devin Shy. The Wounded Warrior Project is a source of great comfort to our veterans across the country and it is an inspiration to the nation.

Since 2003, the Wounded Warrior Project has faithfully served men and women who have been injured in the defense of freedom and paid a small debt of gratitude that this nation will never be able to fully repay.

The White House has hosted the Wounded Warrior Project soldier ride every year since 2008 and the president and the first family and Karen and I are so proud to be a part of continuing this important tradition. In fact, we are bikers and Karen and I hoped someday to join the Wounded Warrior --