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US strikes Syria after chemical attack; Assad says, US strike unjust and irresponsible. Aired 7:30-8a ET

Aired April 7, 2017 - 07:30   ET


CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Because they want to see action, that we should stay out, isolationism. That's part of his base. He now just did a 180 on them.


CUOMO: Right or wrong, I'm saying that's a 180.

SCARAMUCCI: I actually don't think so. I think these people actually trust him. They voted for him. I think the information, the portfolio of information that he has in front of him, I think he pretty much knows decisively what happened there. He hit the airbases where the attacks came from. And I think it's a very bold decisive thing. I think American people are waking up this morning very satisfied in their president.

They're saying, OK, we've got a guy here that has the Ronald Reagan like muscle. What did Reagan say 30 years ago? We get our peace through strength? Wars do not get started globally with a weakened -- I'm sorry, with a stronger American military.

When we're weak and defensive and leading from behind, that's when our adversaries can take advantage of us. And so, what the president is basically saying is, hey, we have the most powerful military in the world, we're a benevolent moral nation, we want to make the world better and safer for all people, and particularly the American people.

And this is a big air traffic controller like message to everybody, including the president of China that he's sitting down with, who I said earlier this week on this show, that they are going to have a great series of meetings. And my guess is a lot of positive things are going to come out of that this week. But people need to know around the world the strength of our leader. And I give him huge credit for what he did last night.

CUOMO: Well, there is no question that what the president did overnight, or authorized overnight, is going to have reverberations on many different levels. We'll see how it plays out.

Anthony Scaramucci --

SCARAMUCCI: Always a pleasure, Chris. Thanks very much.

CUOMO: Thank you very much. Alisyn? ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: OK, Chris. Let get the other side of the aisle. Joining us now is Democratic Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland. He is the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Good morning, senator.

SEN. BEN CARDIN (D), MARYLAND: Alisyn, it's good to be with you. Thank you.

CAMEROTA: It's good to have you on this important morning. I want to ask you about a phone call that you got last night from the White House. Who called you?

CARDIN: It was a member on the National Security Council to let me know that an attack was taking place in response to the chemical use of weapons by Syria. And told me the specifics and when the president will be addressing the nation.

CAMEROTA: And how do you explain that the -- with all due respect that the White House called you individually rather than, say, taking this to Congress as a whole?

CARDIN: Well, the president does have certain discretions under Article 2, but it does require consultation with Congress and there is a requirement -- at least submit to us what he wants to do in regards to force.

The question is what comes next. If he's going to continue to use force, he really needs to consult with Congress and tell us exactly what authorization he would like to have on the use of force and then we'll consider that.

But we need to do that in the broader context of what his Syrian policy is. How are we going to get rid of President Assad, how is he going to end up being held accountable for his war crimes, how are we going to end the civil war. We can only do that through political negotiations. We can't do it militarily.

So, I think what Congress is going to be asking is how do we bring this Syrian conflict to an end.

CAMEROTA: But when you got this phone call last night from someone on the national security team, what was your response?

CARDIN: Well, I certainly was not surprised. What Syria did, what President Assad did required action. We all understand -- I understood that. The question is, what is the mission? What are we trying to accomplish? How do we get Assad out of Syria? And how do we bring an end to the civil war?

We don't know the president's policies in that regard. So, there's a lot of questions that I think Congress would like to have answers to and the American people would like to have answers to.

CAMEROTA: Well, let's talk about what Congress is going to do about this because you got the phone call last night. The president did not take it to Congress. I understand that you believe that he has latitude to do that.

But if now, say today, say next week, he comes to Congress because he wants to have some more military action against Syria, does Congress have the stomach for authorizing something like that?

CARDIN: Well, it's too early. We have to see what the president is going to ask for. I think that Congress wants to be part of a unified foreign policy. We want to end the war in Syria. We want to concentrate on ISIS, on the terrorists. We want Assad out. We want a government that will represent all the people of Syria.

It's not just our desire. I think that's what the international community is looking to. Six years, this conflict has been going on.

So, we want to be -- Congress should weigh in and give the president the authority he needs in order to work with our international partners to end this conflict.

The question, of course, is that there is no military solution here. You're not going to be able to bomb your way to peace in Syria. The Syrians must work out their problems. President Assad must be held accountable for his war crimes. He's lost credibility as a leader. He must leave the presidency. These are not just what America thinks. This is what the international community is telling us.

[07:35:08] The question is, how does the United States -- President Trump lead in that. And if he gives us a comprehensive way that we can bring this conflict to an end, I know Congress is anxious to work with the president.

CAMEROTA: So, you think that if President Trump went to Congress and said, here is my plan for overthrowing Bashar al-Assad that Congress would greenlight that.

CARDIN: It's not overthrowing Assad. It's bringing peace to Syria. It's a political solution there --

CAMEROTA: Sure. But you'd have to get rid of -- I'm sorry to interrupt, senator.

CARDIN: Part of that political solution --


CAMEROTA: But I hear you saying you have to get rid of Assad.

CARDIN: President Assad could not bring peace to Syria. Those families that have seen their children choke to death are not going to allow President Assad to be present of Syria. He has to go.

CAMEROTA: And again, the devil is in the details. Do you believe that your colleagues in Congress would authorize something like that because as you know -- as you well know, heretofore, they haven't been comfortable with that. You voted in 2013 for President Obama to take some sort of military action in Syria after the last big chemical attack, but your colleagues in Congress were not all on board.

CARDIN: There's two questions here. We're not going to be able to use military to win a war in Syria that can bring peace. There is no military solution. It's going to have to be a political solution. Therefore, I think Congress will be very cautious on the use of military force.

But Congress can help the president achieve the political success of bringing the parties together. Let's have a -- you need a plan first. We don't have a plan from the president. We don't know what his strategy is in Syria. We don't know how he deals with Russia, how does he deal with Iran. That's part of the Syrian crisis.

How do we concentrate on the terrorist? We don't have a game plan. We're not only fighting Assad Syria, we're also in conflict with Russia and Iran in Syria and with ISIS. So, it's a complicated situation, but we need to have a plan from the president.

I don't think -- I don't know and I'm not sure of any member of Congress who really understands President Trump's strategies in regards to Syria. It's too early to say whether we would weigh in with a specific authorization when we don't even have that request from the president.

CAMEROTA: Understood. Senator Ben Cardin, thank you so much for taking time for us on NEW DAY this morning.

CARDIN: Thank you.


CUOMO: All right. So, what will President do next? Does he now own an obligation for more military action in Syria? We have new information next.


[07:41:12] CAMEROTA: We do have breaking news. Syria's leader now speaking out about the missile strikes on his air base last night. He calls the US strikes unjust, foolish and irresponsible. The US firing nearly 50 missiles at a Syrian government airbase.

The US officials believe the Assad regime used to carry out that deadly chemical attack. This is what has been left behind at that base. You can see the damage from this video that just aired on Russian television.

CNN's Ben Wedeman is live on the Turkey-Syria border with more. What's the latest there, Ben?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Alisyn, well, we've seen this statement on the Syrian Arab -- from the Syrian Arab news agency, the official news agency of the Syrian government, in which the Syrian presidency has put out this statement saying that the attack on this airbase in Syria is unjust and blatant aggression, irresponsible and shortsighted. Not a surprising reaction from the Syrian presidency.

We also earlier saw that the Syrian Arab news agency is saying that, in that strike on the airbase, nine civilians, including four children, were killed. Obviously, we cannot confirm these claims, but the regime in Damascus clearly very angry at this attack on the airbase overnight.

CUOMO: All right, Ben. Appreciate it. Let us know if you get any more information. This is a developing situation. And let's bring in reporter and editor at large for CNN Politics; CNN political analyst, David Gregory; CNN chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto; and CNN military and diplomatic analyst and former State Department spokesperson, John Kirby; as well as CNN military analyst, retired General James "Spider" Marks.

Brother Kirby, welcome to the team. As you can see, you join a very redoubtable group of minds here. Let's start with yours. What a difference 24 hours makes in terms of your analysis? What matters right now?

JOHN KIRBY, SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, I think what matters now is what reaction we get on the ground from Russia and from Assad. You see that Turkey is, obviously, in support. Many of our European allies came out publicly in support. Sunni Arab allies are certainly in support. Now, this was a decisive action that had a very, from all looks of it, a strong tactical effect.

Now, we need to see what happens next in the coming days and whether or not this had the deterrent effect that it was designed to have on Assad. And if it doesn't, is the administration willing to use military force again.

CAMEROTA: Jim Sciutto, has Russia given any clues as to what their response will be to this?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, they clearly said they don't like it. And they called it an act of aggression, et cetera.

So, the question is, that public message, how is it followed on the ground because the US has attacked their client state there. Does it change Russian military action there? Probably unlikely.

I just want to bring up an operation that we may have forgotten, Operation Infinite Reach. This was 1998. This was also a cruise missile strike by the US. It followed the embassy bombings, you remember, in Tanzania and Kenya. It was against Al Qaeda.

And the reason I bring that up, because like then, with this, it all depends on how it's followed up. Is it a one-time message sending strike that targeted Al Qaeda after those embassy bombings? Didn't have a significant effect on Al Qaeda, didn't get any of their leaders and, of course, 9/11 followed three years later. So, the question is, does this change Bashar al-Assad's military action against his own people, not just the use of chemical weapons, does he continue to drop barrel bombs, et cetera? Hasn't significantly degraded his military capability around the country.

[07:45:12] So, what happens next? How does he respond. As John Kirby said, does the US show willingness to use military action if he doesn't change his behavior on the ground? Is this the first of many attacks? Is it about message sending? A lot of that, we'll know after-the-fact, after today. That's the test, I think, going forward.

CUOMO: And that '98 example is another example of dubious legal authority for military action taken unilaterally by a president.

David Gregory, we're going to see how that part plays out, this idea of the president needing to go to Congress. How does that play politically?

DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think the political calculus right now from President Trump is several-fold. He wants to contrast with President Obama. Obama had a red line, didn't back it up.

There were those in the Obama White House national security team, who supported then what President Trump has done now. President Trump wants to look strong on the world stage. He wants to look different on the world stage.

He wants a relationship with Russia that is based on strength and not perceived weakness. He wants the Chinese president with whom he's meeting to see, hey, when I tell you, I want you to act in North Korea, look what I just did in Syria, we mean business. We're going to reassert the US muscularity militarily and diplomatically in this part of the world, as well as Asia.

But what's not clear is what in the end the president wants. The United States has been countenancing cruelty and horror in Syria for six years and death on an alarming scale. That has been countenanced to this degree. It has not been challenged sufficiently.

Does the US want to just stop Assad from using chemical weapons in the future? It sounds like the administration is going farther. It really wants to push him out and wants to pursue that diplomatically. That's the next step to look forward. That involves that meeting with Russia next week.

CAMEROTA: Spider, there are a lot of next steps to look forward that our panel has laid out beautifully. So, the two questions that I hear them asking, the two pressing questions, does this change Assad's actions against his own people, does this change Russia's actions towards the US?

JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Let's talk about Assad first. Remember what we did since we're looking back in history a little bit. Let's go back to 1999, Operation Allied Force, against the former Republic of Yugoslavia going after Slobodan Milosevic. An airstrike, a concerted airstrike, a rolling thunder type of an engagement where we kept Milosevic's forces completely smothered. And as a result of that, after about 90 days, he capitulated. So, there is a historical precedent.

CAMEROTA: Except that's not this. This is a targeted, narrow strike --

MARKS: If we continued, that's my point. What we've talked a lot about is that regime change is not possible simply with this. Everybody agrees to that.

My point is that if you were to increase it, you could possibly do it without having to put an increased number of boots on the ground. I think that's a narrative -- a false narrative that we've been moving on the past path. Although as a military, as an army guy with boots on the ground all the time, I understand that powerful message.

CAMEROTA: And then quickly Russia. What are they going to do?

MARKS: Russia has to understand, what do they get out of this? If we want Russia's behavior to change, what are we going to give to Russia? Well, I don't know what the answer to that question is. This is a quid pro quo kind of a discussion. I'm not certain what that looks like just yet.

CUOMO: Well, Cillizza, let's pick up on that in terms of what this gives President Trump in terms of leverage with Congress, leverage with the president of China vis-a-vis North Korea and Russia. How do you see it playing?

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS REPORTER AND EDITOR-AT-LARGE: David makes, I think, a really important point, which is, you are always governed as president by the guy who came before you. I think Trump, despite his comments that we shouldn't get involved in Syria, saw Obama as weak, as feckless on the world stage, as a guy who said one thing and didn't back it up.

So, some of this is clearly meant to say, look, world leaders, this is not the last president. This is me. If we say we're going to do it, we're going to do it.

The other thing I would say is healthcare, tax reform, the building of the wall, the appropriations process, all those things just took a very much back burner, may have dropped off the stove entirely, at least in the near term. And possibly, as the generals make the point, if there is more beyond this, for the midterm and the long term.

This will now be the central focus of both Congress and this White House. So, this is always a thing. The presidency you plan for is not necessarily the presidency you get. Donald Trump finding that out 78 or 79 days in.

CAMEROTA: John Kirby, we have heard -- not only have we seen this action, which is so different than what President Trump's critics and his supporters thought that he would do in terms of Russia because, as you know, he's been accused of being overly cozy.

[07:50:06] Then Rex Tillerson, who has been called a friend of Vladimir Putin, used very strong language against Russia and Putin. Let me play a portion of it.


REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: There is no doubt in our minds and the information we have supports that Syria, the Syrian regime under the leadership of President Bashar al-Assad are responsible for this attack.

I think, further, it is very important that the Russian government consider carefully their continued support for the Assad regime. Assad's role in the future is uncertain clearly. And with the acts that he has taken, it would seem that there would be no role for him to govern the Syrian people.


CAMEROTA: He basically -- another soundbite where he went on to say that Russia was sort of incompetent because they couldn't control the chemical weapons that Assad had used. How significant is this language?

KIRBY: That's a big turnaround for Secretary Tillerson. I would remind, though, that when he talks about Assad leaving and not having legitimacy, that is exactly the Obama administration's position, which was very, very consistent.

Not consistent for these guys. They've certainly come around. And by all accounts, it was the sarin gas attack that did it. I think it's a shame that it took something like that for this administration to realize the butcher that Bashar al-Assad is.

The one thing I will also say, though, Ambassador Haley, Secretary Tillerson, it has been a welcome to my ears to hear them both be as strong about Russia's role and responsibility on this as they have been. I think that tone and tenor will no doubt continue right with Tillerson as he goes to Moscow next week as it should.

CUOMO: David Gregory, yes, there are a lot of heavy issues that are motivating this even from the president's perspective and those around him. His heart was moved. He was broken inside watching those kids.

There are other dynamics at play that may influence him as well. You have his poll numbers. And then you have one of the cardinal rules. Putin picks his words very carefully. He called this a trumped-up attack. That's the first time we've heard him seeming to personally insult the president. And we know he's very sensitive to that. Could those words wind up motivating a move?

DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, look, I think anything is possible with President Trump. And I think one of the biggest concerns that anybody should have is the president's temperament and his credibility. When the president of the United States says things that are not true over and over again, when he gets into conspiracy theories, when he uses a social media platform like Twitter as sloppily as he does, then you're on the world stage and then your credibility matters. And this is when it comes to the test because, as Chris said before, this is not the presidency he planned for, but this could, in fact, define his presidency, what he does now, what he does moving forward.

And I'm sorry, you had one of his friends from the campaign on before. It's ridiculous, the idea that he had just woke up and found out that there were atrocities in Syria and now he was moved because he is such a compassionate man, come on! Pay attention to what's been going on and he's been totally inconsistent on this.

Now, he's made a change, fine. So, let's get into what the policy is. There's lots of tough questions that have to be answered, including from the prior administration. And John is sitting there who worked for Secretary Kerry.

I thought those chemical weapons were gone. So, what happened to those? How are they still there? Is that all on Russia? Or did the previous administration get duped too.

So, there's going to be some changes and the president is going to have to say, yes, I was over here yesterday, I'm here now today, there's a change, let's move forward and let's see what he does.

KIRBY: Well, I would say, clearly, we knew that we got the vast majority of the declared stockpiles out. And at the time, we said, as well as OPCW, that we couldn't guarantee that there weren't undeclared stockpiles still in the country or that we could negate his ability to acquire or to create more.

It is something we were mindful of at the time. It has, obviously, carried out to a disastrous effect here this week. But we were careful at the time not to say that we knew we got every single stockpile of every single chemical weapon out of Syria.

CUOMO: Well, it's also interesting, Jim Sciutto, the political flip on that, right? You have the White House blaming the Obama administration as much as it could. Now, they're blaming Russia for not getting the chemicals out and allowing Assad to use them.

And similarly now, action creates reaction. How can the president's open eyes -- let's give him full benefit of seeing it differently now and saying that he was heartbroken and feeling for these people. How can that not extend to those same people as refugees?

Anthony Scaramucci was wrestling with that. He says, well, it's different messages about keeping the homeland safe. I don't get it logically or emotionally. How does he not reconcile those positions?

[07:55:07] SCIUTTO: Well, listen, it's a test because, is President Trump willing to take the next step which would be a safe zone, right?

And the safe zone would require a much greater military investment here in terms of aircraft and also risk because you're talking about protecting people on the ground from both Syrian and Russian air assets that requires a lot of US warplanes, it requires -- in the Pentagon view -- taking out missile defenses, et cetera, and really standing up to not just the Syrian regime, but Russia in a way that has enormous inherent risks. That's a real test going forward.

We know that Hillary Clinton supported that idea while in office and during the campaign. We know that that's an option on the table for the president. But does he take that step? That would be an extremely significant step?

KIRBY: Can I just add quickly? We know that the Trump position is really the same as the Obama position, which is target ISIS and don't interfere in Syria's civil war. That's still what's on the table right now. And I'll be very interested to hear the conversation between Tillerson and Trump. What we learn about -- Tillerson and Putin.

Whether it's Russia saying, look, let's keep our focus on ISIS, leave the regime where it is, that may be where Trump wants to come down in the end. That would be consistent with what he said. He just may want to enforce this line about chemical weapons because, to his credit, the American president, with moral leadership upon the world stage, says you cannot allow that line to be crossed.

CAMEROTA: Hey, Chris Cillizza, I want to ask you about this fascinating paradox we're seeing play out now at least on social media. And that is, all of you political types said for the past week, these 75 days when something big happens.

The fact that President Trump has played fast and loose with the facts will come back to haunt him. People won't necessarily trust what he's doing or believe what he is saying. So, here we are. We've found ourselves here this morning.

And it turns out that the Democrats that we've had on thus far do trust what he's saying and believe what he's saying to all of us. But his supporters -- his diehard supporters on social media, this is fake news, this isn't happening.

That is mind blowing. It did end up having a repercussion, but not the one that we thought it would.

CILLIZZA: I think that is the result, Alisyn, of the fact that a lot of his supporters think that he is someone who I don't think he fundamentally is. I think there's a sense of he's sort of an ideologue and he's really not.

This is someone who was a Democrat five years ago. This is someone who's taken a wide variety of positions not just on Syria, but on virtually every issue. He has said something that, if not the opposite of what he is currently saying, is close to the opposite.

So, I think a lot of people who supported -- and this happens all the time. There were many people in 2009 and 2010, many Democrats who were disillusioned with Barack Obama, because they thought on day one he would close Guantanamo Bay, right?

So, this happens. But I think what you're seeing here is that this is sort of -- Donald Trump, at root, is a pragmatic dealmaker who is, to his own words, flexible. That's what he values. He values flexibility and uncertainty. That, I think, is going to alienate some of those people, but it's not really his fault. It's what they thought he was as opposed to who he really is.

CUOMO: I'll tell you something, interesting perspective on this. Donald Trump, October 2012, now that Obama's poll numbers are in tail spin, watch for him to launch a strike in Libya or Iran. He is desperate. It's interesting what was said then and what is happening now.

Gentlemen, thank you very much. Appreciate you being with us. We have lots more to our rolling coverage. There is breaking news. Let's get after it right now.

Good morning to you, our viewers in the US and around the world. This is a special addition of NEW DAY. President Trump ordering military strikes in Syria. 59 Tomahawk missiles striking a Syrian air base.

The president says this is retaliation for Assad's chemical weapons attack on his own people that killed dozens, including children.

CAMEROTA: US officials say these missiles hit a base used by Syrian warplanes to carry out that horrific chemical attack. Russian officials now say they are bolstering their air defenses in Syria, adding that the risk of a collision with the US could not be higher.

The action in Syria is a stunning reversal for President Trump on Syria and Assad. The president has gone from initially not talking about the chemical attack to now bombing the brutal dictator's regime.

We have the global resources of CNN covering this story. So, we begin with CNN's Jim Sciutto. He is live in Washington for us with more. What's the latest, Jim?

SCIUTTO: Alisyn, we're getting our first battle damage assessments, as the Pentagon calls them, from this attack. They're saying that 58 of those 59 cruise missiles hit their targets.