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U.S. Probes into Gas Attack; U.S. Attack on Syria; Russia Calls U.S. Strike an Act of Aggression; Trump Shifts Position on Syria; Clinton Urges Syria Strategy. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired April 7, 2017 - 14:00   ET


[14:00:00] ANNOUNCER: Breaking news.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Hi there. I'm Brooke Baldwin. You're watching CNN.

Breaking news today, Russia, outraged, China, calling for diplomacy, Britain, showing support. The world today is reacting as President Trump launches his first military offensive while doing an about-face on his views on Syria and on the president there, Bashar al Assad. The White House just released this photo showing the moment after President Trump decided to strike against Syria. This is a first for the U.S. government and a response to Syria's use of chemical weapons against its own civilians, according to U.S. officials.

U.S. warships in the eastern Mediterranean launched 59 tomahawk cruise missiles against a Syrian air base. And, moments ago, we just received this Russian drone video showing the actual impact of the U.S. attack. This is the actual airfield that U.S. officials say was home to the warplanes that carried out the chemical attack killing dozens earlier this week.

For several hours now, the United Nations have been in an emergency meeting and, moments ago, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, condemned Syria, as well as Russia and Iran.


NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N.: The United States took a very measured step last night. We are prepared to do more. But we hope that will not be necessary. It is time for all civilized nations to stop the horrors that are taking place in Syria and demand a political solution.


BALDWIN: We have two senior correspondents standing by to cover this story. I have our senior international correspondent Ben Wedeman is near the Turkey/Syrian border, and CNN's Barbara Starr is at the Pentagon for us.

And so, Barbara, let me just begin with you because I understand a new development into this story is the fact that the U.S. military is now trying to figure out if Russia was complicit, had any sort of knowledge in this chemical attack. What do you know? BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Brooke. Two

U.S. military officials briefed reporters a short time ago, answering questions on this very subject. And what they are telling us is, while there is no evidence at this point, in fact, they will investigate any evidence before them that the Russians might have known what was going on, that there might be Russian complicity at this point in the Syrian chemical weapons effort.

What they are saying is a couple of key points. At that airfield, there was a Russian aviation unit. Those pilots would have known about every mission taking off from that airfield. What could they have known about the mission that attacked in Idlib province that killed so many? What would they have known about the chemical weapons at the site of the Russian - of the Syrian air base because those chemical weapons were stored in a very specific way. So what did the Russians know about what was going on there? What did the Russians know about the continuation of the Syrian chemical weapons program? One of the officials say we, the U.S., will now more aggressively investigate the Syrian chemical weapons program.

But let's be clear, this is not a surprise. The Syrian regime has been engaging in some of these attacks for months now. We've seen them use chlorine. We've seen them use suspected sarin agent. This is not a surprise to the world. The Pentagon saying that the U.S. will now more aggressively investigate it, but the world has seen this movie before, to use some of the phrases that we're hearing here in Washington. So, yes, there will be an investigation. They will look for Russian complicity. But I think underneath all of this there's a very growing sense nobody should be surprised.


BALDWIN: Barbara, thank you.

And, Ben, just to you there near Syria, tell me more about what exactly was hit.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we understand it was this Shayrat air base that the Syrian air force, which is just outside of Homs in central Syria. And, of course, that was the air base from which it's believed, the Pentagon believes, the planes that were used to hit Khan Sheikhoun at 6:30 in the morning on Tuesday were used. Of course, that strike leaving more than 80 people dead, more than 27 of them children. So, obviously, the importance - the symbolic importance of this missile strike by the United States is crystal clear. The problem with this strike, of course, is that it has raised the expectations of many that this is the beginning of a broad American effort to bring down the Assad regime, which may be a bit of a rash conclusion to be drawn.

[14:05:02] Now, the Free Syrian Army, the supposedly moderate rebel opposition to the Syrian government, has put out a statement telling President Trump, don't stop here. Now - and also the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who's long been a proponent of harsher measures against the Syrian regime, said that the missile strike on Syria was positive but not enough. And he says I hope it will be the beginning of an operation against the Syrian regime. So, high expectations. Now, it's not altogether clear if the Trump administration is actually going to go any further than what we saw last night.


WEDEMAN: Brooke.

BALDWIN: That is one of the questions. We'll get into all of that next here with my panel.

But, Ben, thank you. Ben Wedeman. And, of course, my thanks to Barbara Starr.

So, let's lay out the differences here between President Trump's strikes and the ones President Obama first began in Syria in 2014. President Obama's military offensive in Syria was against ISIS. President Trump's strike was against the leader and regime of Syria. Under the Obama White House, the U.S. was leading a coalition of nations. Currently the U.S. is going it alone. And under President Obama, the U.S. was working with Russia to attack the common enemy of ISIS, but under President Trump, Thursday night's launches have many concerned that the U.S. may now be entering a proxy war against Russia.

So I have Fareed Zakaria here with me in New York of CNN's "Fareed Zakaria GPS," retired Naval Commander Christopher Harmer is with us, who's now with the institute for the study of war and analyzed actually back in 2013 what the U.S. could do to degrade the Syrian air force, and CNN's senior international correspondent Nick Paton Walsh.

So, thank you all for being with and, commander, of course, thank you so much for your service to this country.

But, Fareed, let me start with you, just bigger picture, because when you hear, you know, President Trump's actions, they've been widely praised by both Republicans and Democrats and he did something that President Obama couldn't quite bring himself to do. How do you see the strike?

FAREED ZAKARIA, ANCHOR, CNN'S "FAREED ZAKARIA GPS": I think that's exactly right. Trump just was willing to do something, was willing to risk a small incremental military strike and not worry too much about the spillover and the consequences in a way that stayed President Obama's hand.

But the larger issue actually is the one you put very nicely on the screen there, which is that this is a complete reversal of Trump's original policy toward the region, which was, he kept saying, our goal is ISIS, our enemy is ISIS. We should be focused on defeating ISIS. That means collaborating overtly or covertly with the Russians. That means, you know, keeping our eye on the prize, which is ISIS. He's now moved to something which, in those terms, is kind of a distraction. It's not entirely clear how it helps or hurts. There are a lot of people who have argued that by attacking the Assad regime, you're helping ISIS because, after all, the biggest opponent to the Assad regime is ISIS.


ZAKARIA: Ted Cruz had denounced Obama's plan to attack the Assad regime by saying, you're turning America into the air force for ISIS. So that contradiction or complication is one we haven't figured out yet. So, tactically, as everyone is pointing out, this is - this is both a - tactically a win because it's a limited, contained strike. I think it also upholds an important norm. It shows that President Trump is bold and willing to take some risks. But, strategically, it does complicate the reality of our position in Syria. Are we now determined to get rid of Assad? If that is the case, are we in a tacit alliance with the jihadis who wanted to get rid of Assad?

BALDWIN: Let's put that question to the commander as to whether or not the U.S. should - that that should be the next step to get rid of Assad. Commander, the question to you, how do you see it militarily?

CHRISTOPHER HARMER, COMMANDER, U.S. NAVY (RET.): So it's a great point by Fareed Zakaria there that tactically this was an easy kill for us.


HARMER: I mean launching cruise missiles at an air base, it doesn't move, there's no people there. We told the Russians upfront we were coming in. That is the easiest of easy military operations against the softest of soft targets. So, tactically, yes, let's congratulate ourselves on an easy win.

Strategically, nothing has changed. If anything, things are more complicated. If we are committed to the removal of Bashar Assad as the illegitimate president of Syria, then we have to accept ownership for what happens after that. My position is, Bashar Assad is the original sin in Syria. Part of the reason that ISIS and al Qaeda have been so successful in Syria is because Bashar Assad is such a brutal, vicious, totalitarian dictator. It's amazing to me, three and a half years ago I was in the New York studio talking to Nick Paton Walsh about this exact thing. Three and a half years, nothing has changed for the better. It seems that everything has changed for the worse. So if the Trump administration wants to bite this problem off, it's a lot bigger than simply just launching tomahawks at one relatively obscure air base.

BALDWIN: Well, fast forward three and a half years later, I've got Nick Paton Walsh still a part of this conversation.

[14:10:08] Nick, let me just pose this question to you, just bringing in the whole Russia factor. Keep in mind, the biggest, you know, presence - troop presence of Russians outside of Russia is Syria, number one. I was listening to some of the comments at the United Nations today, the - one of the - the envoy said, quote, "this was a flagrant violation of international law and an act of aggression." How then does this affect U.S./Russia relations?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it certainly causes them to go to a way worse situation than they already were, which was pretty bad indeed, obviously. They did risk during this strike potentially catching some Russian personnel up in those tomahawk strikes. But you also have to bear in mind, too, you know, three and a half years ago we were talking about strikes against regime military targets that if done effectively enough could have crippled the Syrian military adequately. They may have started losing ground very fast to rebels, and that could have been a success potentially for jihadists. That was part of the rationale some felt for not necessarily punishing Assad for crossing Barack Obama's red line.

Fast forward now three and a half years, well, the Russians are everywhere and one possible, possible comeback from all of this is, well, yes, possibly Bashar al Assad massively over - underestimated the Trump White House's desire to response to the horrific chemical weapons attack we saw. They did respond. Maybe he thought they weren't going to. Perhaps a possible consequence of this now is, he's definitely put the Russians in a corner. Moscow pretty much has to stay alongside Damascus now. They've perhaps been slightly humiliated on the world stage by the audacity of these strikes. You've got to bear in mind, you may see some kind of comeback too against American targets in the region. Assad is known for that in the past. This may not be over and this may be the reason why Obama didn't want to get sucked in, because you strike one, you get hit back, you strike again and potentially you find yourself drawn into a broader war. But the Russians potentially now in their rhetoric certainly even closer to Bashar al Assad and you have to wonder, in the longer term, how long the Kremlin wants to be in this fight.


WALSH: Well, certainly, at this stage, it's pretty tough to get out, Brooke.

BALDWIN: Hang on. Let me go back to a point you made and, commander, let me ask you. I man the possibility of retaliation?

HARMER: Yes, there's a number of escalatory steps up the - up the ladder that the - both the Russians and the Iranians can go. The Iranians have all kinds of proxies in the region. They have launched attacks against the U.S. in the past using Hezbollah in Lebanon in 1983, Shia militias in Iraq, 2003. Iran has all kinds of response options here if they want on respond in behalf of the Assad regime. As far as Russia goes, they've got a lot of escalatory steps they can take as well if they so desire.

One last point to Nick's earlier point, three and a half years ago the Assad regime was on the narrow margin of survival. Today, with the Russian air force embedded in Syria, we can kill all of the Syrian air force and it really wouldn't make much of a difference to Assad as long as the Russian air force is still operation on his behalf.

BALDWIN: And just adding to that, we heard Ambassador Nikki Haley saying that we are prepared to do more. What she means by that, Fareed, you know, we don't yet know. But just back on - if you're Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who a couple of days ago said, hey, you know, the fate of Assad is up to the people of Syrian. We want to fight ISIS. That's our focus. To now coming out in Palm Beach yesterday and saying, Russia - either Russia has been complicit or Russia has simply been incompetent. He's supposed to go to Moscow next week to hold meetings. What tone does he take? What message does he bring?

ZAKARIA: The crucial question is exactly the one you pointed to with Nikki Haley's comment because strategically, I think, what we're all trying to figure out is, OK, the strike happened. It does seem to be a one-off. Has it changed the strategy? The strategy that the Trump administration -

BALDWIN: U.S. strategy?

ZAKARIA: U.S. strategy. The Trump administration came in saying exactly what you said. ISIS is our problem, Assad is not.


ZAKARIA: It seems to have changed, in a sense, back to the Obama policy, which was, we want to get rid of Assad. But this is now the Trump administration. So if you want to get rid of Assad, are you willing to stay the course? Are you willing to put military power to bear? Are you willing to do more strikes? And if you are, I think that the - the scenarios that the other guests outlined are entirely plausible. There is going to be pushback. There is going to be backlash. And it's not just - not just from the Russians, potentially from the Syrians, from the Iranian allies.

Remember, there are a bunch of American soldiers in the field in Syria, in Iraq. Trump has actually doubled the number in Syria. So there are potential targets, not easy to get to, but there are potential targets. And, most importantly, I think the big picture for the American people is to ask, have we entered the Syrian civil war? Have we entered the Syrian civil war on one side that is against Assad and what does all of that mean? Are we in it for the long haul? Are we willing to commit more troops and resources? Are we in some kind of tacit alliance with a bunch of pretty unsavory jihadis in Syria? You know, that is going to shape a lot of what President Trump has to deal with. And the one thing I can assure you is, President Trump is now going to be dealing with Syria a lot more than he might have thought he would one week ago. He might have thought he had a limited battle against ISIS. He's now in the middle of a very complicated civil war.

[14:15:14] BALDWIN: Fareed Zakaria, thank you so much. We'll see you on Sunday with all of this.

And Commander Harmer, thank you. Nick Paton Walsh, appreciate your time as well here.

Coming up, we're all over this, the dramatic shift by President Trump and his administration. Is he moving away from that whole America first position? Remember the other day he said he's not the president of the world, he's the president of the United States. What does that mean for the White House and policy moving forward?

Also ahead, was this an act of war? My next guest, a U.S. congresswoman, says, yes, indeed, it was. She is calling on Speaker Ryan to bring Congress back for a debate on military action in Syria.

So much happening on this Friday. You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.


BALDWIN: You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

President Trump's view on how to handle the war in Syria and its dictator, Bashar al Assad, has evolved, not just in the last say 48 hours, but in the last few years, if you trace back to President Trump's tweets from 2013, which is when there was a massive chemical attack in Syria, about 1,400 people were killed, you will find his recommendations to then President Obama. Quote, "if the U.S. attacks Syria and hits the wrong targets killing civilians, there will be worldwide hell to pay. Stay away and fix broken U.S." He then again tweets days later, quote, "again to our very foolish leader, do not attack Syria. If you do, many very bad things will happen and from that fight the U.S. gets nothing."

[14:20:36] So, CNN political director David Chalian joining me, as is CNN chief political analyst Gloria Borger.

Gloria, first to you. I mean this is a president who tried to install an indefinite travel ban against Syrian refugees, but then it's the very images of their suffering, you know, really, it seems, like motivated him to act. Do you think this is a fundamental shift in President Trump's America first mindset?



BORGER: I mean you can get whiplash if you look at Donald Trump's positions just a week ago, much less in 2013 to now. We have Rex Tillerson originally saying, you know, that Bashar al Assad's future should be left up to the Syrian people. We are now getting a completely different message from him. Nikki Haley today threatening another strike if chemical weapons were used again in Syria. President, you know, described as an isolationist by many, suddenly is making John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Hillary Clinton happy with his strike in Syria.

BALDWIN: Who would have thought?

BORGER: So I'm not sure - I'm not sure we actually know what the president's policy is, even regarding Syria. Does he want to take out Assad? Is this a one-off? I think we just have to wait and hear from him specifically on it, which is what Congress has been squawking about. They'd like to know.

BALDWIN: You know, you mentioned Hillary Clinton. And, David, let me just read this quote. We're going to turn some sound around. Hillary Clinton was speaking at an event in Houston and she noted the point I had made, and I know a lot of Trump critics have made, about, you know, that he doesn't want to allow, you know, women and children in because of this refugee ban, but, yet, you know, he does appears to feel real compassion to the horrible images we saw. And Hillary Clinton said, "ultimately, I also hope that they," the administration, "will recognize that we cannot in one breath speak of protecting Syrian babies and in the next close American doors to them." Does she have a point?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: And that was obviously directly to the president.


CHALIAN: He's the one who used the word "babies." And her daughter, Chelsea Clinton, was out tweeting about this, too. There's no doubt there's some, you know, logical sort of thinking, disconnect there that his critics are exploiting. But - but, Brooke, I think we should separate it out here because I think you were zeroing in on really what is the most fundamental and important question here. Yes, he made those tweets in 2013 and we can expose his hypocrisies and positions all the time for political purposes. Remember, Donald Trump was once a pro-choice Democrat not that long ago.

BALDWIN: Sure. Right.

CHALIAN: So for him to just move for political purposes, critique Obama then not, you know, it's one thing. But I do think there's a fundamental question here than - and Gloria's right, that we don't really know the answer to yet, which is, I'm much more intrigued by a year on the campaign trail. And even in the last several months of putting forth an America first policy, even as recently days ago saying I am not president of the world, I am president of America, and then to be so persuaded by these pictures to fundamentally change that world view, whether that is a permanent change or just a change because the circumstances fit to be able to do a divisive action this week in this scenario is something that I think we have to pay very close attention to going forward because that's just a totally different world view that he sold to the American public throughout the campaign.

BORGER: Well, and it - it raises the question, quite honestly, of whether Donald Trump has a fixed and firm world view. America first is a great slogan and it certainly worked during the campaign. But, what's his world view now? And, you know, he always likes to tell us he's flexible, he's capable of change, and that's a good thing, not a bad thing. But when it comes to -

BALDWIN: Are we about to find out?

BORGER: Right. Well, that's the point. And when it comes to foreign policy and you have allies and the world is watching you, I think they'd like to know where you're coming from, as would many people in the - in the Congress and in the rest of the world.


CHALIAN: And as the world gets - sorry, I just - quickly.


CHALIAN: As the world gets to learn Donald Trump and they see now that the images that came out of Syria were able to flip him 180 degrees, it begs the question of how people around the world or people in Congress or people inside his West Wing now are going to be able to provide him data if they think he is so moveable in such a dramatic way.

[14:25:16] BALDWIN: David and Gloria, thank you on that. We're going to talk to members of Congress on how they feel about what might be motivating him and how malleable he may be and also some of the changes even within the West Wing in the wake of all of this. Thank you both so much.

Coming up next here on CNN, almost immediately after word of missile strikes in Syria, some members of Congress were telling the president, not so fast. You know, does military action in Syria, should that require approval from Congress? Congresswoman Barbara Lee, the only dissenting vote against military action after the 9/11 attacks back in 2001 will respond live to that, next.