Return to Transcripts main page


U.S. Launches Missile Strike against Syrian Airbase; Interview with Senator Marco Rubio; Interview with Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired April 7, 2017 - 08:00   ET


[08:00:00] ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: We begin with CNN's Jim Sciutto. He is live in Washington for us with more. What's the latest, Jim?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: 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, did damage or significant damage to their targets there.

This was a major attack, dozens of cruise missiles, but also a very focused attack on a very narrow target, that target being this one Syrian air base, the one base the U.S. believes was used to launch these horrific chemical weapons attacks earlier in the week. On the airbase we are seeing pictures from the ground now. It hit hardened air shelters there for aircraft. It hit aircraft. It hit the taxi way. It hit ammo and fuel depots there.

But it is crucial, just as crucial as what was hit as what was not hit. The runway itself was not hit. Chemical weapons depots were not hit. The reason for that is Pentagon did not want to cause these chemical weapons to be dispersed, cause the possibility of civilian casualties. But also crucial to say that Russian forces were not hit. That very intentional. We know that the U.S. was in touch with Russian military commanders on the ground yesterday to let them know this was coming. We know people on the ground witnessed some Russian forces moving out of the area before this attack. The U.S. did not want to pick a fight with Russia here, but it did target Russian's client state there, which is Syria and Bashar al-Assad.

One final note, one consequence of this, and this is a significant consequence, that Russia says it is suspending what's known as a de- confliction agreement with the U.S. there. This is keeping lines of communication open so that U.S. military assets do not come into contact with Russian military assets, aircraft, et cetera, in the air. They are not canceling. They are suspending it, but that is potentially risky. You've got a lot of U.S. airplanes in close proximity to Russian assets there. That could be a danger going forward.

CUOMO: Jim, appreciate that. Stick with us. You have two main angles of analysis here. Was this the right move for the president? Did he have the right to make this move legally? That is part of a broader discussion that certainly Congress has liked to ignore. On the political side, the administration has made a huge pivot. They have gone from saying Assad's future is up to the Syrian people, that intervention is a bad move for the United States, they went from that and in 24 hours they went to a missile strike. CNN's Athena Jones live in Palm Beach, Florida, where the president is now in the midst of what was supposed to be the big international test, his meeting with the president of China.

ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Chris. That's right, this action certainly distracts from that summit. This first district U.S. military action against the Assad regime was meant to send a message that the use of chemical weapons will not be tolerated. But as you said, it represents a major turnaround for this president in his approach to Assad specifically and to the Syrian conflict more broadly. Back in 2013 after a similar chemical weapons attack, Trump then argued strenuously against military intervention in Syria, and earlier this week he was slow to respond initially to this later chemical weapons attack. He has responded now in word and deed. Here is some of what he had to say about this last night.


DONALD TRUMP, (R) PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Using a deadly nerve agent, Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women and children. It was a slow and brutal death for so many. Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror.


JONES: The president went on to say that this targeted military strike that he ordered was in the vital national security interest of the United States. One of the big questions now is what this will mean for U.S./Russia relations. We heard strong words from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last night, saying that Russia, which had been responsible for removing and destroying Syria's chemical weapons, either Russia was complicit or Russia has been incompetent in its ability to deliver. Back to you.

CAMEROTA: Athena, thank you very much. Joining us now is Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. He serves on the foreign relations and select intelligence committee. Senator, good morning.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO, (R) FLORIDA: Good morning.

CAMEROTA: What is your position on what happened last night?

RUBIO: It was the right move. First of all, it was legal. It was in furtherance of both enforcing an agreement that the United States and Russia were a party to for the removal of chemical weapons. It was a furtherance of the treaty they signed. It was in furtherance of international law that says that you cannot use chemical weapons against anyone, not to mention innocent civilians. It was a furtherance of U.N. Security Council resolution.

[08:05:04] It was also in our national interest. There are hundreds of American troops now in the region and in Syria who could be threatened by sarin gas. If Assad is willing to use that gas against civilians why would he not be willing to use it against Americans? And so it was important. It was proportional and it was targeted. But it was not just symbolic. He specifically targeted and degraded, significantly degraded a key military installation which has been used in the past and I believe would have been used in the future for chemical attacks.

CAMEROTA: So if the president wants to launch more missile strikes, does he need to go to Congress?

RUBIO: It depends on the circumstances. If it is response to an exigent circumstance or an immediate threat to our national interest, then I don't think the president needs to come before Congress. He is the commander in chief and he has the right to pursue that. It's been the position of every president beforehand as well, and I agree with that. If he wants to engage in a broader conflict, then I certainly think he should come to Congress and it would behoove him to do that because Congress has to pay for it. We have to appropriate the money for that. But that's not where we are right now. But as of last night just talking about that one instance alone, what he did was the right thing.

CAMEROTA: And where are we right now? What do you think happens next?

RUBIO: What is interesting here is I do believe that through the National Security Council they have been working on a strategic plan for Syria. And obviously, you can't control the timing of these crises and it got ahead of the planning. I do believe now that that work will continue but with some new dynamics building, including what I hope is the growing realization that as long Bashar al-Assad is in Syria and in control, not only will he continue to commit crimes, but you're going to have radical groups, there will be radical Sunni jihadists in Syria as long as Assad is in power. Even if you destroy ISIS, they are already being replaced by the Al Qaeda linked al Nusra groups. And so the removal of Assad is in furtherance of our other goal, which is to defeat and not allow these radical jihadist groups to continue to grow.

CAMEROTA: OK, so you're calling for Assad to be removed. If the president comes to Congress and says that he's on board with that plan, does the Congress give him the authority?

RUBIO: It depends on what plan is in place. I don't believe that will nearly be accomplished solely through a military component. I think we have allies in the region that have an interest in this as well. That includes Turkey who cares deeply about northern Syria and what's happening there, or Jordanians who care about what's happening in the south, or Sunni allies, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, who care about Iran's influence in the region. But you have to be able to show that there is a capable group of Sunnis, not just capable on the battlefield but also capable of governance of significant portions of the country in the a way that protects the rights of the Sunni majority in Syria. And that's the one area where I hope we'll continue to invest in because I think that's a critical component of a long-term solution.

CAMEROTA: I guess my point is that the U.S. and the world community has been watching Assad's atrocities for seven years and there hasn't seemed to be the appetite in Congress here to really stop him or do much, and I'm wondering if you think that something shifted. Has something changed where Congress has a different stomach for this?

RUBIO: I talked about that 48 hours ago. I said we've grown desensitized to these horrifying crimes and these horrifying attacks in the past. I worry that we have grown desensitized. Hopefully that has changed.

In 2011, when this all began, I was very clear that I really thought we needed to empower non-jihadist Sunnis on the ground and that if we didn't, that space that was being created by this conflict would be filled by foreign fighters. That's what happened. So our options are a little bit more difficult now than they were five, six, seven years ago. But nevertheless, it's sooner, rather to do it later than never at all. It's more difficult. This is not an easy thing but it is a necessary thing because as long as Assad is in power, as long as instability is in Syria, you will have a radical jihadist group to fill that void.

CAMEROTA: You said something earlier this week that got some attention. You basically suggested, correct me if I'm wrong, that the rhetoric of Secretary of State Tillerson as well as Ambassador Nikki Haley where they both said getting rid of Assad was not a top priority, and you suggested that gave Assad perhaps cover or at least impunity to then launch that chemical attack on his own people, that the timing of that statement and what he did was connected. And now we see, you know, just two days later this attack on Assad's air base. Do you draw a straight line between those first comments of Tillerson and Haley to where we are today?

RUBIO: I don't believe that that was their intention, but I don't believe it was coincidental. And here's why. Like anybody else, Assad sits there and says, here is the price for doing this. Here is the benefit for doing this. And I think for far too long he has said to himself the price of these attacks, whether it is barrel bombing innocents or using sarin gas is I will get some nasty letter from the U.N. or bad to the press in the global market. But the benefits are I get to defeat my opponents even though I have to kill a bunch of innocent people in the process. Hopefully that cost/benefit analysis will have shifted a little bit after last night.

[08:10:05] CAMEROTA: You have focused on Syria and what's going on there and Assad for a long time. What do you think his next move is?

RUBIO: Whose, I'm sorry, Assad?


RUBIO: Assad is fighting for survival. And I think he's willing to go as far as possible to hold onto power. He knows that if he is removed from power, he is going to be before the Hague for war crimes or dead. So obviously that's what we're dealing with, a very desperate individual.

The Russians care about having a presence. It is their largest military presence in the world outside of Russia. The Iranians care about having a sphere of influence. And Hezbollah cares about having a supply line so they can get rocket technology from Iran into southern Lebanon. Everybody has a different interest in there. Our interest is to make sure that Syria is not an ungoverned space where jihadists can go and flock to attack Americans. That's our interest. That is our deep national security interest, and that's what we should be pursuing.

What Assad is going to do next, I'm not sure other than continue to murder people if he could get away with it. And so hopefully what he's doing next is he's deeply worried about losing power and being ousted and having to stand trial for war crimes.

CAMEROTA: Do you believe there is an international coalition that would now starting today help the U.S. get rid of Assad?

RUBIO: We're about to find out. But I can tell you that international coalition will not happen without strong American leadership. We can't solve all the world's problems, but there are very few problems in the world that can be solved without America. And I do believe if America is willing to lead with a combination of military and a diplomatic solution to this problem, then I believe we will have willing nations, including the Turks, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, the Jordanians, perhaps even Egypt, and our allies of course in Europe.

CAMEROTA: And Senator, what do you think this does for U.S./Russian relations? Do you think starting today that we will hear different rhetoric than we've heard heretofore coming out of the State Department and the White House?

RUBIO: I don't know. We'll see. I think clearly the Russians are complicit in these war crimes. If they were at that facility, and they personnel stationed at that airbase. They had to have known there was sarin gas being loaded onto those planes. The Russians know that Assad has sarin gas. They know that he used it. They cover for him in international forums. One of the things is we need to stop worrying so much about what Russia is going to think or what Russia is going to do. They should be worried about us. And perhaps now for the first time in quite a while I think they are.

CAMEROTA: Senator, you ran for president, obviously. If you were president today, what would you do today?

RUBIO: First of all, I agree with the decision the president made last night. I am not the president, so I did not have before me all of the strike packages that were proposed to him. Obviously I would have made different decisions if I was president when President Obama was president, but I'm not the president and so I don't suppose to put myself in that position because he's got more information about this than I do. Suffice it to say that I support what he did last night and I do believe the president must now focus on a strategy that accomplishes the dual goals of removing Assad and replacing him with something more stable and in the process also defeating ISIS and Al Qaeda and any other radical element in Syria.

CAMEROTA: Senator Marco Rubio, thanks so much for taking time in this busy morning to talk to us. We appreciate it.

RUBIO: Thank you.


CUOMO: And of course how Assad reacts and how Russia reacts is very important coming out of this missile strike. And from Russia we now hear that they are planning to bolster air defenses in Syria, and they say the risk of a collision with the U.S. in the sky could not be higher. President Vladimir Putin calling the strikes "trumped up," an apparent insult of Trump. It would be the first by Putin.

What does all this mean for future relations? Let's go to Russia. We have CNN's Matthew Chance in Moscow with more. Matthew?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Senator Rubio was saying that the Russians perhaps for the first time worried about what the actions of the U.S. will be. And I think that's probably true. And they're certainly moving quickly to take measures to try and alleviate their concerns.

For instance, they vowed that they are now going to bolster the air defenses of the Syrian army. They're going to be moving in more anti- aircraft missiles, air defense missiles, to make sure that the Syrian infrastructure, the Syrian military is better protected.

They're also moving one of their own sophisticated missile ships off of the coast of Syria which will provide further air defense and further strike capability. And of course they have announced they have suspended the all-important air safety agreement, the de- confliction agreement that has existed for the past couple of years between the United States military and the Russian military to try and make sure that the aircraft in the skies over Syria from both of those countries carrying our air strikes do not come into unwanted contact with each other. That makes the whole process of carrying out air strikes in Syria for the United States a whole lot more difficult right now.

CAMEROTA: Matthew, thank you very much for that update.

So thus far this morning, many U.S. lawmakers already voicing their support for the strikes. But should the president have consulted Congress first? Former Democratic V.P. nominee, Senator Tim Kaine, joins us live next.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Former Democratic VP nominee, Senator Tim Kaine, joins us live, next.


[08:18:39] CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: President Donald Trump just authorized the launching of 59 missiles at an air base in Syria. The president says it is in retaliation, that it was done in defense of the United States. And he is receiving political support.

But hid he have the legal authority? It supposedly wasn't there for the same action by President Obama in 2013. What changed? Is there a line anymore that a president cannot cross when it comes to using lethal force around the world?

These are heavy questions. They matter a lot. Now, one of the men who took an oath to answer these questions joins us right now, former Democratic vice presidential nominee, Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, a member of the Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees.

Senator, good to have you.

SEN. TIM KAINE (D), VIRGINIA: Thank you, Chris.

I want to play for you what Senator Rubio who supports what just happened just said on NEW DAY about why it was legal, not just the right thing to do.


SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: It was the right move. First of all, it was legal. It was in furtherance of both enforcing an agreement that the United States and Russia were a party to for the removal of chemical weapons. It was in furtherance of the treaty that they signed. It was in furtherance of international law that says you cannot use chemical weapons against anyone, not to mention innocent civilians.


CUOMO: Now, those may be compelling political arguments.

[08:20:01] But do you think they were compelling legal arguments? What agreements empowered the United States to take military action against Syria, what international law allows the United States without U.N. resolution to unilaterally strike out against a sovereign?

KAINE: Chris, there is no legal justification for this. I think from a moral standpoint, absolutely, I agree with Senator Rubio. It was the right thing to do. It is the right thing to do to try to deter Bashar al Assad from war crimes.

And remember, I voted to use military action against Syria in August of 2013. Senator Rubio voted against it back then when Bashar Assad did exactly the same thing.

But I said the president has to come to Congress. And Donald J. Trump, citizen Trump at that time said exactly the same thing, a president has to go to Congress. President Trump's doing this, finally waking up to the atrocities in Syria is a good thing, but he should not have done this without coming to Congress.

I'm on the Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees, I'm the Democratic lead on the committee over the Middle East, I was not consulted. I heard about this on the news. The president needs to come to Congress. It's on his shoulders now to bring us whatever his plan -- he's obviously had a huge change of heart about Syria. No longer an apologist for Bashar al-Assad, wants to take action. He's got to lay the plan on the table so Congress can debate it and vote on it.

CUOMO: But, Senator, isn't it true that the president was able to do this because you guys let him, you ducked your constitutional --

KAINE: No --

CUOMO: -- authority to declare war. Ben Cardin was just on saying, yeah, I think he did the right thing, I got contacted. That's not how it's supposed to work. But that's how you in Congress let it work.

KAINE: You're wrong. He took this action without talking to people.

CUOMO: Cardin knew, other members of Congress knew. They could have stood up and tried to block it and didn't.

KAINE: You can't say -- Chris, you know this, I can't say I talked to three or four members of Congress and launched a war unilaterally.

CUOMO: But where was Congress trying to stop it before it happened? Who stood up?

KAINE: This is an act -- well, he did this unannounced, Chris. The Constitution is very clear. Whatever you think of Congress, the Constitution is clear. Congress declares war.

If you let a president do it unilaterally whenever he wakes up and thinks it's a good idea, you're going to have chaos. And the reason you do a war declaration is threefold. First, it's what the Constitution requires. Second, we shouldn't put our troops in harm's way without a political consensus that the mission is worth it. And third, when you have a debate in Congress over a war, you bring the American public in so that they understand the stakes and they feel invested in it as well.

That's what President Trump should have done. He told President Obama to do it in 2013, but as soon as he has the opportunity, he just blows by the constitutional requirement. He's got to come up to Congress and put a plan on the table so that we can see where this is going.

CUOMO: I hear you on this, and I know that you have been an advocate to debate the authorization for use of military force anew. You've pointed out that it doesn't make sense anymore, but you have to own that the House and the Senate have wilted on this issue time and again since Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Clinton, Bush, and allowed them to abuse it.

KAINE: Chris, let me say to you so what? Does the Constitution matter? Does it matter?

It says that Congress needs to declare war. And that's what Donald Trump said when he was a citizen. When President Obama wanted to use military action against Syria, he knew he couldn't do it on his own, to wage war against a sovereign nation, so he came to Congress.

President Trump has got to do the same thing. Since the Trump administration started, listen what's happened. First American ground operations in Yemen. First American ground operations against ISIL in Syria. Now, war strikes against the Syrian government.

All these things are happening without a congressional debate. It's time for us to get in the game. I share your frustration --

CUOMO: I don't have frustration about it. You love to put it on the media. It's not a subjective judgment. What I'm saying is --


CUOMO: I know where you've been --

KAINE: I was hard on President Obama about this. I'm hard on President Trump about this.

CUOMO: I know you did. I know you are. I get it.

But what I'm asking you to do is own the collective for a moment because you know that 2001 AUMF doesn't even come close to supporting actions that have been taken by multiple presidents now over the years.

KAINE: I completely agree with you.

CUOMO: But they allowed it. Congress shirked their duty, you can't expect the president to turn down power. If you give them the power, they're not going to say no. It's on you guys.

KAINE: Did he take an oath to uphold the Constitution?

CUOMO: So did you guys.

KAINE: And we are. I have introduced an authorization with respect to the war against ISISL, and if it will come to us, and I have voted to use military action against Syria for using chemical weapons against civilians. But as of now, there is, as you point out, there is no congressional authorization that covers this.

[08:25:05] And that means we've got to bring it and have the debate. I was hard on my colleagues, as I am on both the Obama and Trump administrations. But he took an oath to the Constitution, as did we. He needs to follow it.

CUOMO: But there is a pattern of allowing it. But, look, I'll agree with you, what Rubio is saying, I don't know those are compelling legal arguments, but it never matters because you guys won't debate it. We just had Ben Cardin on. We haven't heard from Harry Reid.


KAINE: Can I say something?

CUOMO: They never speak up about this.

KAINE: When you say it doesn't matter, I know you're kind of blasting Congress. It matters. There's 1.6 million families like mine that have a kid in the military.

CUOMO: True.

KAINE: It matters. Out can't put people into harm's way without a political consensus, to ask to risk their lives.

CUOMO: I agree.


KAINE: It matters. And even if we're acting like it doesn't matter, it matters.

CUOMO: But why don't you guys convene a debate on it? You and I have discussed this on the show before. There are opportunities to do it and it hasn't been done.

KAINE: No, it has been done on numerous occasions. I introduced an authorization that got a vote in the Foreign Relations Committee in December of 2014.

CUOMO: Right.

KAINE: The Republicans would not support it. They said wait until we take over the majority. We want to take it up when we have the majority.

CUOMO: Right.

KAINE: The next month started, we introduced an authorization. President Obama brought an authorization to Congress. They refused to take it up.

CUOMO: That's my point. It keeps happening. That's what I'm saying.

Constitutionally, there's supposed to be a debate. It hasn't happened. If it does happen now, would you authorize what the president has just started in Syria?

KAINE: I can certainly see voting yes just as I did on 2013. But I want to understand what the president's plan is because I think it's really important. The difference between now and 2013 is -- there's a lot of differences. One, there's American troops on the ground there. Two, Russia is in and they weren't in 2013. Three, the Turks and the Kurds are engaging in significant challenges on the battlefield space.

I'll tell you what I think we should do, and I hope the administration will put this on the table. I think we should still establish a humanitarian zone in northern Syria to enforce the U.N. Security Council resolution that senator Rubio was talking about, and we should do it as a humanitarian zone and protect it with military assets if anybody tries to mess up the humanitarian mission. I think that's what we should do. I've been calling for it for nearly

three years. I am heartened that the administration is taking this seriously.

But, Chris, let's get this right. It's the start of a new administration. With a new administration we've got an opportunity to get this right, and that's why my colleagues and I, senator flake and senator McCain and I, are trying to restart the AUMF discussion. But the discuss we're having is about ISIS.

CUOMO: Right.

KAINE: That would not cover action against a sovereign nation of Syria. There's going to have to be a discussion about that.

CUOMO: Logically, that would make sense. But can you at least acknowledge that you, McCain, a handful of others are an exception, not the rule, that since that vote for the war in Iraq that so many have had to pay a price for in general, Congress has shirked its constitutional duty to own declarations of war? And you've ceded power to presidents who are only to happy to take it, which is understandable.

KAINE: Chris, I will agree with you now. I'm with you.

This has been primarily an abdication of responsibility by Congress. But just because Congress has abdicated in the past doesn't mean the president can start a new war and say, well, I don't need to go to Congress now.

The constitutional command is clear. He should be putting an authorization on the table before Congress, and we will see whether now, with a new president and two Republican houses, will Congress continue to abdicate or not?

But there's no excuse for by passing Congress. The constitution we all pledge an oath to is very, very plain, that except for defending the nation against imminent attack, you can't start a war without an act of Congress.

CUOMO: Well, look, you're laying out all the right points. And we will be watching very carefully what happens next.

Senator, thank you for making the case on NEW DAY, as always.

KAINE: You bet, Chris.

CUOMO: Alisyn?

CAMEROTA: We will have much more of breaking news conference of U.S. strikes in Syria when NEW DAY returns.