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White House Condemns Chemical Attack by Assad Regime; President Trump's Possible Policy Change on Syria Examined; U.S. Officials: Syrian Warplanes Carried Out Chemical Attack; Interview with Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired April 6, 2017 - 08:00   ET


[08:00:00] CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Joe?

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Chris, this really is just a defining moment for President Trump and this administration. As you said, on the campaign trail, he railed against China and its trade policies. He promised a big win at the negotiation table. Now going face to face with the leader of China certainly trade will be an issue. But these leaders have a lot more to talk about.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: These heinous actions by the Assad regime cannot be tolerated.

JOHNS: President Trump confronting multiple international crisis during a week of high stakes diplomacy, including today's meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

TRUMP: My attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much.

JOHNS: The president opening the door to greater action in Syria in the wake of the horrific chemical attack perpetrated, the U.S. says, by President Bashar al-Assad against his own people.

TRUMP: When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, that crosses many, many lines. I do change. And I am flexible. And I'm proud of that flexibility, and I will tell you that attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me.

JOHNS: A significant shift from a president who in the past has advocated against intervention in Syria after similar attacks.

TRUMP: Now we're supposed to get involved with Syria. I would say to stay out.

JOHNS: And fought for a ban on Syrian refugees.

TRUMP: I'm putting the people on notice that are coming here from Syria as part of this mass migration that if I win, if I win, they're going back.

JOHNS: United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley warning that the U.S. may take unilateral action if other countries fail to respond.

NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: When the United Nations consistently fails in its duty to act collectively, there are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action.

JOHNS: A starkly different tone from her comments just days ago when she told reporters, "Our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out." Those comments and others from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson prompting bipartisan rebuke.

REP. ELIOT ENGEL (D), NEW YORK: The remarks that we were no longer going to go after Assad as one of our major policies I believe caused Assad to do what we did.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: I don't think it's a coincidence that a few days later we see this.

JOHNS: Ambassador Haley now slamming Russia for supporting the Assad regime.

HALEY: How many more children have to die for Russia cares?

JOHNS: As President Trump also condemned the Kremlin, but in much lighter terms, telling "The New York Times," "I think it is a very sad day for Russia because they're aligned."

North Korea's latest ballistic missile launch presenting another major test for Trump when he meets with the Chinese president today.

TRUMP: We have a big problem. We have somebody that is not doing the right thing.

JOHNS: China's role in confronting North Korea's nuclear threat certain to be a main point of conversation during the two day summit, which the president has acknowledged will be difficult, particularly after his routine criticism of China on the campaign trail.

TRUMP: We can't continue to allow China to rape our country, and that's what we're doing.


JOHNS: The visit of the Chinese president means that the administration will have to turn the page quickly after the upheaval following the removal of the president's controversial aide, Steve Bannon, from the principals committee of the National Security Council, which some are seeing as a potential inflection point for this administration during the first 100 days. Alisyn?

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: OK, Joe, thank you for all that reporting.

We do have some breaking news to bring you. Russia just said what happened in Syria is, quote, "a monstrous crime." That is a shift from their initial blanket Assad support. But they still will not say what happened or who did it. Turkey's justice minister says autopsy results show definitely chemical weapons were used in that attack that killed 86 innocent people and injured hundreds more in Syria.

We have these images of the aftermath. They are very disturbing. They are also of course the ugly truth. Emergency workers took more than 30 victims of the attack to Turkey where three victims have since died. Some of those killed include, of course, young children. Turkey blames Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad's regime for carrying out this heinous attack.

CUOMO: Remember, the numbers there are still preliminary. They are still trying to figure out how many people are affected, and those who are injured, are they going to make it? So it is something we have keep our eye on.

We have a lot to discuss with our panel. You've got CNN political analysts David Gregory and April Ryan, April, also the White House correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks and author of "At Mama's Knee." Also joining us, Chris Cillizza, CNN politics reporter and editor at large.

[08:05:09] So let me ask you this, David Gregory. The president said he had a change that was motivated by what he saw of these children. And of course you can't not be moved by that. The question is what are you moved to do? Do you think we will see a meaningful set of actions taken here? Do you think that his change will extend to his feelings about these Syrian refugees who he said, quote, "And if I win, I'm telling those Syrian refugees you're going back." Do you think he would be as willing to send him back to that?

DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: That's a good question, and we'll see, because that's still a policy that's pending that is probably being overrun by the fact that there is a responsibility for moral leadership from the president of the United States.

Now, candidate Trump was not one who talked that way. He was much more of an America first guy. We should think of our national security and foreign policy in terms of American interest only. And now he's talking about how moved he was, and this isn't the first time we've seen Bashar al-Assad use chemical weapons against his own citizens. The Obama administration had a red line, didn't enforce it when it didn't have support from Congress, and this situation has continued to deteriorate.

But as we've talked about throughout the morning, the president has got to make a determination about what he actually wants to accomplish in Syria. It can't just be about a putative strike. What does he want to accomplish? What's strategist endgame? I don't know they have thought that through. Presumably there are options that are being drawn up. There is also this collision course with Russia where you have seen Senator Rubio in the montage that we played just a couple minutes ago and Nikki Haley, the U.N. ambassador being very strong, saying that Russia has got to step up and abandon support for Assad. This puts the U.S. and Russia on much or of a collision course at a time when we have seen nothing but a cozier relationship between Trump and Putin before now. CAMEROTA: April, the Trump administration I think it's fair to say

has sent some mixed messages just this week alone on Syria. We heard Rex Tillerson, secretary of state, and Ambassador Nikki Haley both say getting rid of Assad is not a top priority anymore. Then this attack happens. Some people believe that is connected. Senator Marco Rubio went as far as to say that. And now you hear President Trump gripped by the images that he's seeing. So what does that all mean?

APRIL RYAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: What it means, and I'm going back to what David just said. David is absolutely right. This president has redefined himself when it comes to issues of Syria. The world community has spoken and those images could not be erased, could not turn away from those images. They're horrific.

But at the same time the president said yesterday in the Rose Garden when he was having the joint press conference with King Abdullah of Jordan, he said that, you know, president -- former President Barack Obama missed an opportunity when he was talking about the red line. So what is that opportunity now for this president? He kept talking about so many lines. What are the lines for this president and what will he do when it comes to Syria and other issues and North Korea, he brought North Korea in? So what happens remains to be seen, but he has redefined his stance as to he was as a campaigner for president and now as president. So we are expecting something from this president. What will it be? We just don't know as of yet.

CUOMO: You know, Chris, the White House was anxious to dump this Obama. This was his fault what's going on in Syria, even though Trump had back then cautioned the president to not act in Syria, said there was nothing to gain.

But there was a different dynamic in play in 2013. So here's the question. Congress didn't want to help out Obama with military action back then. They said there was no resolve among the American people to want that. Do you think it's different now given the chirping we're hearing from Congress about needing to do something?

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS REPORTER AND EDITOR-AT-LARGE: Let me say first I think it is probably a little too early to know. But I will say if past is prologue, Chris, the answer is probably not as it relates to the American public's will to get involved in any meaningful way in Syria. I know that is hard for many folks to believe when you look at these images. And I think everyone in the country is bothered and should be bothered by them.

That said, translating that beyond, oh, wow, that's really awful, I saw it on TV, then people move on to the next thing a week later, two weeks later. So I don't know that there is the will to do that. Remember that Donald Trump was elected no small part, April makes this point well, Donald Trump was elected in no small part to say, look, you know, that's sort of their business now. We're not going to involve ourselves in every single thing here. He said recently, he said yesterday with King Abdullah, we should have never gotten in the Middle East. I know that that's my opinion.

[08:10:00] So this would be a change for him. The thing I would say, you did a segment on the Trump doctrine. What's difficult is we don't really know what it is. Some of that is because he's never been in office before. He's never held elected office. Some of it is because he has shown a flexibility bordering on a lack of conviction as it relates to that, which makes it hard to know what he will do in the future because he has changed his mind, said contradictory things in the past.

CAMEROTA: David Gregory, the problem with minding our own business is the world keeps intruding, and that's what's happening with North Korea. So what are you looking for today in this meeting between President Trump and the President Xi of China?

GREGORY: Let me say one other word about the world being a mess. The Middle East had a way of pulling President Obama back in when he wanted to leave Afghanistan and wanted and did leave Iraq, and now there are troops back in Iraq. The issue is if you have a strategy to counter ISIS, you have to think about the fact that what the Assad regime is doing is creating not only death and destruction and horror but refugees who are moving around that region who are ultimately vulnerable. They are in a desperate situation, who are vulnerable to ISIS, some of them might be recruited, some might fight for them because ISIS opposes the Assad regime. That's part of that grander strategic focus.

And it is the same with China as well, whether it's economic matters and getting help from China to counter North Korea. David Sanger with "The Times" said it earlier on this program. China could have solved the North Korea a long time ago. It has chosen not to do it. It has reasons for doing it, using North Korea as a kind of buffer both to keep North Koreans from streaming into China and destabilizing the country but also because of encroachment from the U.S. military and South Korean military closer to China. So some of this is strategic in terms of national security in that region, and some of it is just purely economic.

Now you've got a new president who says you have got to help us on this if you want some better relationship on the economic side of our relationship.

TRUMP: April, basic politics suggests that Trump needs a win. You keep hearing that even from the people around him. What would be a win coming out of a meeting with the president of China?

RYAN: What would be a win is a shift in trade. As you know over the years there has been a big issue with many of these presidents when it comes to how much America buys of China's goods versus the Chinese people buying American goods. A big win is trying to close that very wide gap. But also this president is talking a lot about pull right now. China has been very enamored in trying to buy up a lot of our coal. So I would not be surprise if there was some kind of environmental thing or energy piece that is coming out of this as well because coal is something that the Chinese people really are looking for, and we have a lot of it, and that's on the table for this president as well.

CAMEROTA: OK, panel, it's going to be a very interesting day. Thank you very much for all of your insights. We do want to get to some breaking news right now because we do have new information about that chemical attack in Syria. We are learning information about who carried it out. We have those details for you next.


[08:16:50] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

CUOMO: Breaking news in the investigation of that horrific and deadly chemical attack in Syria. We have CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr live in Washington.

Breaking details. The big question is who did it. What do we know now?


Now, there is no doubt in the minds of U.S. military and intelligence analysts that Bashar al-Assad's regime did carry out this attack. How do they know this now? They have been looking at some technical intelligence.

Through radar, they have been able now, we are told, to pick up the tracks of the regime aircraft in the air at the time. The U.S. military can determine who those aircrafts belong to. They know they track them. That's through radar. Through infrared, essentially heat signatures, they know that those warplanes dropped bombs in this area of Idlib province at the time of the attack.

So, it all adds up. Radar, heat signature, they know planes were in the air. They know they dropped bombs. There was nobody else flying at the time.

So, what happens next? It will be a political decision, of course, if President Trump decides to undertake military action. But already, U.S. commanders don't have to be told. They are looking at options. They're looking at what they could possibly do if the president comes to them and says give me those options.

There is two things in the works here, which is one, what do you want to accomplish? Do you want to just hit something to deliver a message to Assad, something that will make him change his behavior, hit his command and control, something he holds very dear and valuable? Would that be enough to change his mind and his behavior? Not very likely.

So, the next question, do you want a full range of air strikes. Hit his aircraft, his helicopters, his barrel bombs, his artillery, his rockets, a very difficult proposition -- Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: Barbara, thank you very much, for all of that breaking news. That gives us a whole new perspective on all of this that we can talk about with our next guest.

Joining us is Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee.

Senator, thanks so much for being here. SEN. BOB CORKER (R), TENNESSEE: Good to be with you, Alisyn. Thank


CAMEROTA: Now that you have just heard the reporting that the U.S. military has determined in their minds that Bashar al-Assad was behind this chemical attack, what should the Trump White House do in response?

CORKER: Well, Alisyn, I think the first step, which I think is a good one is that, you know, the Trump administration understands the reality of who Assad is. He's a monster. The fact that Putin supports him, Iran supports him, the reality at least is acknowledged by them and an understanding of who we're dealing with.

As you mentioned, I'm sure military -- I know military officials are developing plans as to what it is we should do. Obviously, the United States doesn't want to get sucked into some long ground war, but there are ways that we can -- we can send signals to Assad and I'm sure those plans are being developed.

In addition to that, though, Russia has got to take responsibility for the fact that they are supporting this brutal monster, which is what he is.

[08:20:01] He did the same thing as we know back in 2013. We should have hit him then. We had a ten-hour plan off the Mediterranean that could have changed the dynamic when we really had a moderate opposition that was gaining ground and he was on his heels.

I realize that decisions today are much more difficult, but I'm sure the administration that's looking at this in a mature way and, hopefully, will develop a way to send a signal to this person.

We need to put this guy in jail. He needs to be behind bars. We need to have him before a tribunal and hopefully this enough evidence to get the world community behind that effort.

CAMEROTA: Senator, have you heard strong enough language from President Trump about Bashar al-Assad?

CORKER: Well, you know, Alison, because of what I saw happen with our former president and what it did to really discredit our country around the world and still is having effects, you know, our allies are concerned about where we're going to be with him on other issues, I really hope the president doesn't use very strong rhetoric. I hope he'll be measured in what he says, but much stronger in what we do.

CAMEROTA: Senator, correct me if I'm wrong, but back in 2013, what you're talking about with President Obama brought the case of let's use military action to Congress.

CORKER: Right.

CAMEROTA: You voted for it. You were all in. That ended up -- go ahead. CORKER: I actually wrote the document with Senator Menendez that authorized the use of force. So, I was definitely all in. No question.

CAMEROTA: So you believe it was the right choice.

CORKER: No question.

CAMEROTA: And then there was this deal that was hatched with Russia that would -- basically, Syria would turn over their chemical weapons by mid-2014 and international inspectors would enter in. So, the U.S. felt they had some other way around it, some other progress that could be made without military action.


CAMEROTA: Why do you think everything is more complicated today? Why not just go back to that plan that you had in 2013?

CORKER: Well, we had a moderate opposition that was real, that was gaining ground. Assad was on its heels.

It's much different now. The moderate opposition is scattered. It is a much different effort that's underway.

But let me go back to that. I mean, what happened was president took a long walk around the White House and made the decision not to do it. And then an excuse was given and we jumped in the lap of Putin. We really did.

And I don't know if, Alisyn, you know this because you cover these kinds of things, but that was the beginning of Putin ascendancy onto the world's stage and it was also the beginning of Putin's awareness that that White House at the time was not going to take any steps to push back. Then, we had Crimea. Then we had Ukraine, and now, you had -- then you had Russia stepping in to what has happened in Syria. It has tremendous destabilizing efforts that took place all across Europe.

So, this was the beginning of creating Putin. What happens is, leaders see what happens and see the lack of response. Today, sure, I hope the military is developing a limited response to Assad that will spend a signal.

I also hope that the world community, to the extent you can shame Putin, shame Russia, I hope the world community will shame them into taking actions that no longer cause them to support this brutal monstrous dictator that Assad is.

CAMEROTA: Senator, do you still feel as though we're in the lap of Putin?

CORKER: Well, at this -- I don't. I mean, I don't. There is really no relationship. I will say that --

CAMEROTA: Which have you heard -- I'm sorry to interrupt you. But which language have you heard from this White House that makes you think we are not in the lap of Putin.

CORKER: Yes. So, look, I will be very direct with you and say that I was alarmed by some of the comments that were made during the campaign, during the transition, during the beginnings of this administration.

But what I've seen is really a very good evolution. I have seen that with China. I have seen that with Israel. I have seen that with NATO.

I think what you saw yesterday was the president understanding more clearly, those of us who had been to refugee camps, those of us who know these Syrians, those of us who have seen the horrible things that Assad has done, we have known this for some time.

I think what you're seeing is the administration becoming fully aware of who Putin is, who Assad is. And so, yes, I haven't liked the rhetoric.

Do I think that things are changing relative to how this administration views Russia and views Syria?

[08:25:03] There is no question. I think that's a very positive development and I'm not going to criticize something that I see to be very positive happening now.

Did I like the earlier comments? No. Did I think the well is poisoned now from the standpoint of the United States doing some cheap grand bargain with Russia? Absolutely.

Do I think that's a good thing? Yes. Are there some common areas of interest? Hey, this is a great one right now. Let's do what we can to really punish Assad.

CAMEROTA: And, Senator, I know that human rights are on the forefront for you. You have been vocal about talking about human rights around the globe. But just for people who haven't heard that sort of stronger talk or shift in rhetoric that you're referring to about Russia coming out of this White House, what exactly is it that you've heard that gives you hope that President Trump will not treat Russia with kid gloves?

CORKER: You know, one of the great privileges, Alisyn, in my job is I have, you know, the ability to interact constantly, not only with the White House, but with people like Secretary Tillerson to a degree, Mattis. People like McMaster who's at the NSC, Nikki Haley. So, I'm very aware of kind of input the president is getting.

There is no way. I mean, I think all of us, me, Ben Cardin, all of us have poisoned the well for any kind of deal with Russia and just based on their actions.

So, look, look, you know, I'm sure would I love for us to have better relations with the Russians? Absolutely. But I think you have to deal with the realities of who they are, what they are doing to really undermine institutions of democracy around the world because countries like Ukraine and what's, you know -- anything that shows that people can have self-determination, can really work in a free enterprise system without corruption, those are things that are a threat to Putin, and we need to make sure that we do everything we can to hold those values high, including human rights.

And again I think this administration is moving in that direction, thankfully, and I want to support that, as everyone should.

CAMEROTA: Senator Bob Corker, we appreciate you coming on NEW DAY. Thanks so much for being here.

CORKER: Thank you.


CUOMO: Important to note, we have not heard the president make any comment about Russia yet except to say he was sad for them because they are in alliance with Assad.

Now, on to North Korea. Their missile launch changed the agenda for President Trump in his meeting with China's president today. Does Mr. Trump have a plan to stop Kim Jong-un? We're going to speak with a senator who's going to reveal his ideas. He says that conflict could be ended, next.