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Syrian Government Continues Flying Missions from Airbase Attacked by U.S. Missiles; U.S. Secretary of State to Meet with Russian Ambassador; Images of Effect of Gas Attacks on Civilians May Have Influenced President Trump's Missile Attacks on Syrian Air Base; Possible Infighting Among Trump White House Officials Examined. Aired 2-3p ET

Aired April 8, 2017 - 14:00   ET



[14:00:24] FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Hello again, everyone, and thanks so much for joining us in this split programming. I am Fredricka Whitfield in New York.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Jim Sciutto in Washington, happy to be joining Fred today on a big news day at home at abroad.

WHITFIELD: It is very busy indeed. Thanks so much, Jim.

So we're following new developments on Syria. A military base hit with dozens of American tomahawk missiles is back open and operational less than 24 hours after President Trump gave the order to launch. This new video purports shows a Syrian jet moving on a tarmac on that same Syrian base. And this is the same tarmac pictured in this damage assessment imagery. We'll have a response from the Department of Defense straight ahead.

But first, we are also learning new bombings north of that airfield. The town that suffered this week's devastating chemical attack is now being hit by air strikes. Although it is not immediately clear who is behind these new air strikes, the planes are mostly likely from Russia or the Syrian regime.

Let's begin our coverage now with CNN senior international correspondent Clarissa Ward. She is near the border between Syria and Turkey. So Clarissa, what more are we learning about these air strikes?

CLARISSA WARD, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Fredricka. What we're hearing from activists inside Syria on the ground is that there were several air strikes beginning within 24-hours after the U.S. strike against the regime air base, the Shayrat air base. Activists say that at least one woman has been killed and three others injured.

What it appears to be on the surface is an attempt by the Assad regime essentially to show defiance, to show that it will not be cowed, that its military campaign against the opposition is continuing. And as you mentioned, we know that the Syrian air force is using that Shayrat air base once again. This of course is the air base that U.S. strikes targeted. Although it is important to emphasize that the U.S. did not attempt to render the base unusable. The attempt from the U.S. strikes point of view was to stop it from being used as a launch base for chemical weapons. The U.S. targeted some 20 Syrians planes there as well as a kind of weapons dump and some other storage facility. They did not destroy the runway itself.

We also know that the Russians have moved a frigate with cruise missiles aboard it to the sea, towards the west of Syria. Again, this looks like a display of force, a show to the United States that despite these strikes, the Assad regime and its backers in the form of the Russian military, will go about business as usual, Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: So does that kind of messaging in addition to the aerial photos of the airbase end up demonstrating that those missile strikes were not very crippling?

WARD: I think that's certainly what it is attempting to show. It is attempted to show you didn't hurt us. You didn't change our modus operandi. But from our point of view of the U.S., the intention was, and we heard over and over again in the language from the Department of Defense, from the U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, the attempt was a moderate and proportional response. The attempt was to show that the U.S. does have lines that can't be crossed and that it will enforce those lines.

And in doing so, there is no two ways about it. This will have an effect on the balance of proxies who are fueling this war. The U.S. has largely been on the sidelines for the past five years. Now, it may have a seat again at the table.

But the truth or the end result, we will more likely get a much better idea when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sits down with his Russian counterpart in Moscow this week. That will likely be a difficult conversation between the two countries. But at that point, we should start so see whether things will continue to escalate or whether they will calm down again, Fred.

WHITFIELD: Clarissa Ward on the Turkish-Syrian border, thank you very much.

All right, so measuring that end result just might take some time, Jim.

SCIUTTO: No question. And to be clear, the U.S. says and has repeated it never intended for that air base not to be operational. This was more about message-sending specific to chemical weapons.

I want to talk again to CNN Pentagon reporter Ryan Browne. You and I both heard that message from the Pentagon. This was about sending a message, don't use chemical weapons. We never intended to make that base unusable. But we've seen a pretty bleak demonstration of that within the first 24 hours, planes taking off from there, bombs still dropping from what almost certainly are Syrian forces planes.

[14:05:03] RYAN BROWNE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: That's right. And this kind of complicates a little bit the situation. What this strike, it was a lot of missiles, it was hit against this air base. They hit radar. They destroyed 20 regime airplanes, and this is a regime air force that is old. They don't have a whole lot of these assets. So it is a loss for them.

But again, they're signaling back. You see Assad's government signaling back in their own way to the U.S. that this base will remain operational. And so there's a bit of a messaging issue. The thing to watch would be whether or not chemical weapon are employed. And that's when the military and both the U.S. diplomats and the military have both left the door opened for additional strikes should that line be crossed.

SCIUTTO: I spoke with the former U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford just a short time ago on this program, and he said it would not be surprised knowing the way Assad operates if in a few weeks or a few months if he tests, depending on what the action is since then, if Assad tests those waters.

Meanwhile the far bigger military power there is Russia, and that's the one where the U.S. is concerned about coming nose-to-nose with. Russia has now officially suspending the de-confliction agreement as it's called between the two countries.

BROWNE: That's right, and this is a channel that was set up as these two air forces began operating over the skies of Syria. There was a real concern about a potential collision, and targeting each other's side. So this was set up to allow them to help navigate this contested airspace. And now that the Russians have signaled that they have suspended it, the coalition won't actually speak to the state of the channel. But the Russians have said via state media that they have suspended it.

So this is a real concern. There is about 1,000 U.S. and coalition troops operating in Syria, helping local forces battling ISIS. The U.S. has ramped up its strikes against ISIS in its efforts to Raqqa, ISIS's self-declared capital. So there has been this uptake in operational tempo combined with the Russians continuing to support Assad, bombing the opposition, at times bombing ISIS. And so there is a real concern that this could lead to a miscommunication, an accidental targeting, or some kind of aerial encounter.

SCIUTTO: And meanwhile, the U.S. is investigating whether Russia was complicit in this chemical weapons strike. That question is still to be answered. Ryan Browne, CNN Pentagon reporter, thanks very much.

I want to turn now overseas to the headquarters, to the capital of the other player involved here, Russia. Phil Black is in Moscow. So how much of today's reaction in Moscow is posturing in terms of cancelling this key line, this hotline, as it were, for de-confliction? And how much of this is a fundamental change in the relationship. What are Russian officials telling you?

PHIL BLACK, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, on the surface it's a significant change, Jim, I think as you've been talking about there because it does affect practicalities on the ground, the ability of Russian and American forces to maintain the safe degree of separation from each other, advanced knowledge of each other's movements and so forth.

But it is a withdraw of cooperation, it is essentially a gesture. When countries disagree in this way as strongly as Russia says it disagrees with the American strike, they withdraw areas of cooperation. This was one of the few areas of cooperation that existed between Russia and American forces on the ground there.

There is a great deal of outrage still being vented here from American officials -- Russian officials, I should say, describing this as illegal and unjustified and a blow against the sovereign government of Syria and so forth. It's very much the sort of rhetoric that we've heard from Russia throughout the Syrian civil war when any sort of outside party attempted to influence or suggested that there should be some influence or pressure placed on the Assad regime. Such has been Russia's protection of the Assad regime.

But in that context, make no mistake, Russia will also be working in a pragmatic, cool-headed way I think to try and determine what all of this means for America's policy in Syria, whether or not this it a one-off strike, whether it does shift a broader change, a signal of perhaps more intense engagement, more pressure to come on the Assad regime as well. And all of this is really important leading up to and during the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson's visit here in Moscow later this week.

SCIUTTO: The other thing that's going to be happening when Tillerson is in Moscow is a continuing Pentagon investigation as to whether Russia didn't just turn a blind eye to this chemical weapons attack but might have been involved in it, might have been implicit in it. What is the reaction of Russia to that ongoing Pentagon investigation?

BLACK: It's a flat denial, Jim. They simply say the suggestion is not true. Russia was not complicit one way or another. They're sticking very much to the narrative that the established very soon after chemical weapons attack. They are of the view, and they're saying it again and again and again that the Syrian forces were not responsible for dropping chemical weapons because they simply don't have them.

They insist that this was a rebel weapons depot that was struck by a conventional weapon. That's how that horrible scene happened on the ground. And they've been very critical of America's strike in the sense that not only has America not put forward any proof to establish Syria's guilt in this, but in striking the airbase in the way that they have done so, the location that America says the attack was launched from, they have essentially ruled out any possible investigation that could have taken place on that base to determine whether or not there were any chemical weapons present and whether or not that base did in fact play a role in that chemical weapons incident, Jim.

[14:10:21] SCIUTTO: Now, a bigger picture for a moment. You have an American president who spent the entirety of the campaign discussing better relations with Russia, even allegations here in the U.S. of him getting too close, cozying up to Putin. A bit of a turnaround you might say not just in terms of Donald Trump's approach to Russia but the prospect for an improvement in relations. What are Russian officials saying about that change?

BLACK: A lot of them are saying, well, we hoped for better but it turns out President Trump is just like all the other presidents to come before him, because there is a long standing view here in Moscow that if you look at American interventions, whether it was in the Balkans, in Iraq, in Libya, the Russian view is you can draw a connecting lines between all of these. And regardless of who the president was, it was tied together by a similar pattern of American behavior which they put down to unilateral violence supposedly in the name of a noble cause but often for more selfish motives. And the often describe these sorts of interventions as ones that leave more chaos in a way.

There is no doubt as we heard through the campaign and since President Trump's inauguration that I think there was a hope on both sides of a more constructive relationship. On the Russian side there is a host that President Trump would not be a president to get involved in these sorts of international actions. They are disappointed, but they are also pragmatic, and they'll be now looking ahead to try and determine precisely what this means. Was it a one-off, or has the entire nature of the Russian relationship with this new president suddenly and so very dramatically change.

SCIUTTO: George W. Bush, Obama, Trump have all talked about that, and so far none of those rapprochements have gone anywhere. Phil Black, thanks very much.

Fred, back to you in New York.

WHITFIELD: Thanks so much.

Meanwhile, the president is issuing his first comment via tweets since launching the U.S. missile strike in Syria, tweeting this, quote, "Congratulations to our great men and women for representing the United States and the world so well in the Syria attack," end quote. So we are also learning that the president spoke about the Syrian missile strikes with Saudi Arabia's king Salman. Let's go now to CNN's Athena Jones who is in Palm Beach near Mar-a-Lago. So what did we learn about the conversation this?

ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Fred. Well, we got a read out a short while ago about this phone call that took place yesterday between President Trump and King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia. I'll read to you part of what the White House says in this read out. They said "The king reaffirmed strong Saudi support for the United States military strike against the Shayray airfield in Syria and thanked the president for his courageous action which both agreed was a necessary response to the horrible chemical weapon attack on innocent civilians."

So that is part of the statement that we got from the White House about that call. One of the big questions, Fred, of course going forward is what happens next in Syria. And that is going to depend a great deal on what Syria does. That's according to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who says that the U.S. is monitoring Syria's response, looking to see if they try to attack coalition forces or U.S. force or launch another chemical weapons attack. As you've been hearing this hours, Thursday's strikes were not meant to destroy Syria's ability to carry out any sorts of attacks. In fact they avoided striking a storage facility on the airbase that was storing sarin gas, the nerve agent that has been used in some of the recent attacks.

But the strong suggestion from, for instance, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, is that if Syria takes this kind of action again, the U.S. could respond similarly because the whole point of Thursday's strike was to show that the use of chemical weapons won't be tolerated. So we'll of course be watching to see what next steps Syria takes. Fred?

WHITFIELD: All right, Athena Jones, thank you so much in Florida.

U.S. lawmakers are calling on the president to lay out his strategy for Syria. So what will it be and what could the U.S. be doing next, and what will role will Russia play? We'll discuss all of that straight ahead.


[14:18:45] SCIUTTO: And welcome back. The U.S. has consistently said that chemical weapons used by the Assad regime is a violation of international laws. Enforcing that law, could it raise the risk of pulling the U.S. into war? Now that U.S. missiles have hit targets at a Syrian airfield in response to that horrific use of chemical weapons earlier this week, we have learned that the White House briefed senators on possible next steps on Friday afternoon. I want to get a sense of what that strategy going forward might look like. We are joined by several men who may know the answer, Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, he's a CNN military analyst, Aaron David Miller, CNN global affairs analyst, and Kirk Lippold, he's the former commander of the USS Cole.

General Hertling, if I could begin with you, we are now talking about next steps. You heard Ambassador Nikki Haley at the U.N. say that the U.S. could follow with more military action. They're talking now of peace negotiations, perhaps rebooting the ones that Secretary Kerry tried. What are the most likely next steps in your view following this military strike?

LT. GENERAL MARK HERTLING (RET), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, there is the continuing requirements to develop a strategy, Jim. What we've seen as a military strike occurred on Thursday is an action, and there has been a lot of questions over the last few days of what happens next?

[14:20:06] If there is another violation of a chemical strike, does that mean that there is another U.S. strike. If as we're seeing today, there are potential for escalations not only in the coordination of aircraft in northern Syria but also even coordination of ship routes in the Mediterranean Sea as we see those two ships that fired the tomahawks now being trailed by a Russian cruiser. So all of these things are critically important and they all depend on

either a strategy or a policy. And I think many are very confused about what, and I am one of them, about what is going to happen next. What could perpetuate additional strikes or additional involvement.

But the key thing I'd like to say is it shouldn't just be military action. There should be an expansion of diplomacy, some economic means, and I would suggest doing more sanctions against Russia because they are behind this. They are the proxies in all of this. And some greater informational tools to be used to show exactly what is going on to the entire American public and the world of what's occurring in Syria.

SCIUTTO: So Aaron David Miller, the goal of U.S. policy regarding Syria changed in the span of 72 hours because Rex Tillerson on Monday I believe we're no longer interested in removing Assad from power. That is a decision for the Syrian people. Now he is saying actually we're going to work and there is a plan in place to work towards removing him. Say you are advising the president, how would you advise him to make that reality?

AARON DAVID MILLER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: I think the first reality, and it's Mark's point of departure, I think, Jim, is whether or not this was intended to change Assad's behavior when it comes to use of chemical weapons. And let's be clear, since the last time Syrians used these in massive attack in 2013, there have been 117 incidents, and 17 alone this year.

So the question is, I think for the administration, is this a matter of changing Assad's behavior or is it a matter of changing the regime, or something designed to bring the Russians and Assad and the Iranians to the table. That arguably would require an application of military, economic, political pressure.

But I think we are facing three major problems. Number one, focused and proportionate is not going to change Assad's calculation. He's already used the same airfield to launch additional strikes of conventional but barrel bombs. And they do terrible, terrible damage.

Second, as Mark and Kirk know far better than I, the enemy has a vote. And our strategy in large part is going to be partly derivative of what the Iranians do, the Russians and Assad.

And finally, my major concern is putting the Syrian humpty dumpty back together again is going to take a long time. And in the process we have for the first time a variety of forces in this arena that carry the risk of miscalculation or even willful calculation that could trigger a broader crisis.

So Tillerson's trip to Moscow, assuming it happens, is important. Work with the Russians to try to determine exactly whether or not they are prepared to assist us in helping to change Assad's behavior on the issue of chemicals. If we want to go beyond that I think we're headed down a slippery slope and hopefully not a train wreck.

SCIUTTO: You bring up this idea of potential conflicts between forces there. Commander Lippold, you know that there was a line of communication, de-confliction hotline between the U.S. and Russia specifically to keep U.S. and Russian forces both in the air and on the ground from hurting each other, from shooting at each other. That has been suspended by Russia. How significant of change? Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for the Kremlin, saying the risk of conflict between U.S. and Russian forces, let's not underestimate how horrific that might be, have never been higher.

KIRK LIPPOLD, FORMER U.S. NAVY COMMANDER (RET): I will tell you, Jim, that I think that the risk has increased but it's not overwhelming. There are still other ways that they can formally communicate, for example, the guided missile frigate that is now shadowing the two Navy ships, the Ross and the Porter off the coast, they have bridge to bridge communications. We already have an agreement in place so they can telegraph their movements and what they're doing. But I also believe that even between the aircraft there is an ability. Plus there are other methods to tell what these aircraft are doing, whether they are targeting U.S. forces, whether they are targeting our aircraft. You have electronics and other intelligence that we can use to our advantage to get some insights into how the Russians are thinking tactically.

At a larger level, I think that if the Russians are going to realize that we are going to continue the overarching strategy that we both want to defeat ISIS, that line of communication is going to be reestablished.

[14:25:00] Right now you do have a lot of posturing going on. But as the general said, an overarching strategy for the United States needs to be articulated for the sake of the American people and Congress so they can understand was this a one-off or is there going to be a larger engagement?

But by the same token, other levers of instruments of national power need to be pulled so that we can have a broad and comprehensive approach to what we are going to be doing in Syria both in engaging with the Assad regime and hopefully beginning that long-term goal of removing him from power, getting a government in there that has the ability to take care of all the players involved to reach their needs, which we may not seek, because after all, Russia and Iran are not going to look friendly upon what we are doing there.

SCIUTTO: What you described requires a lot of steps, a lot of investment, the possibility of at least a credible threat of further military action, diplomatic capital, time, negotiations et cetera. Right now, General Hertling, if I can ask where we are now, because the Pentagon frames the goal of this initial strike in very narrow terms. It was intended to send a message, not even to disable or to take out that airfield. And we know they didn't because planes have taken off from that airfield in the last 24 hours and bombs are dropping in same area where those horrible chemical weapons dropped.

From a military man's perspective, and you see, and there's a video now playing, going down the runway of Shayrat airbase just after the U.S. attacked it, is that an embarrassment at all for the U.S.? HERTLING: I think it meant to embarrass the U.S., certainly, Jim. I

think that this was purposeful in terms of launching aircraft from that field that was just struck.

But here's the thing, and I have been involved with this a couple of times when missions are given to the military that don't really fall into a military rubric. I was involved in a mission of regime change in Iraq, and a lot of us questioned, what does it mean? That's not what we do. We don't change regimes. We fight, kill, and blow things up. The same thing that has to do with sending a message with tomahawks. That's not a great military mission. What the military looked at, what targets do you want us to hit and why, and it's up to the politicians to determine what message is sent through diplomatic means. That does not come on the front end of a tomahawk. A killing device comes on that.

So I think, as Kirk just said, this has to be a combination of military, diplomacy, information, and economy. And all we are seeing right now, and the president just tweeted, thanks to the military for what you have done. That better just be a first step and there better be a longer, overarching strategy behind this as opposed to continuing to just use military force. I am a military guy and I am saying that I want the diplomats out in front.

SCIUTTO: That fuller strategy certainly has not been our articulated yet. General, diplomatic, commander, sounds like a John Le Carre novel, thanks to all of you for taking time out of your Saturday. It's great to talk to you.

The president said the chemical attack caused many, many lines in his words. These images, they are familiar now, could be why. I must warn you what you are about to see, certainly graphic, a father holding two lifeless children. They've becomes a symbol of this attack, the twins, his grief. Ahead, how those images in particular could have helped jump change his mind.


[14:32:28] WHITFIELD: Welcome back. This week's chemical attack in Syria killed more than 80 people. And the images from the horrendous attack are simply gut-wrenching, graphic and maybe hard for some of you to watch. So if you need to turn away momentarily, now is the time to do that.

This father holding his lifeless twins in complete devastation has become symbolic of the crisis in Syria. And he wasn't alone. Families there ripped apart in the latest attack from the ongoing civil war that claimed hundreds of thousands of civilian lives. But we have seen devastating images of the war in Syria before. This video from August of 2016 of a Syrian boy who was pulled from the rubble stunning the world and capturing the horror in one simple image.

CNN's senior media correspondent and host of "Reliable Sources" Brian Stelter is joining me now. And of course no one can forget the image of a little boy's body washing up on shore. So there have been horrific images with roots in what has been happening in Syria.

So now there is this feeling by so many that President Trump was really moved particularly by these latest images. Is there a feeling that that is the case, that that was the impetus?

BRIAN STELTER, CNN SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: Indeed. And the reporting, the tick-tocks that are now being written this weekend all suggest that it was news coverage and perhaps other images that were not part of the news coverage the president was shown by his aides that affected his decision. This is something that had been thought about theoretically up until now. I was talking to a class of students a week ago saying this is a president that is frequently watching cable news. Does that mean is that going to affect his decision-making in moments of crisis? Will he see images on television and feel compelled to act more so that past presidents have? I think we've seen an example of that in recent days with this story in Syria.

But I think it is so interesting and important to think about what images have not moved governments to act over the years. This is of course a war that's been going on for six years and we have seen other chemical weapons attacks, other images as horrific as what we saw this week that did not move action.

And there was an interesting column in "The Washington Post" by Paul Waldman about this, talking about the impact of a chemical weapons attack versus other weapons. Here is what he wrote. He said "We get to see these horrifying images precisely because they are less gruesome than what happens when someone is killed by conventional weapons. If a photojournalist takes a photo of a dead child shoe limbs have been blown off by a bomb, you won't ever see and neither will Trump. The newspaper won't run it and the evening news won't show it because editors considered those images too upsetting. But you will see photos of a child killed by sarin gas because her body is still intact.

The argument here from Paul Waldman is perhaps journalists, perhaps television networks need to think through whether we should be showing more gruesome images and those images of conventional weapons attacks that have killed many hundreds of thousands of Syrians. These are complicated arguments, and I've been inside newsrooms because there is also an argument to be made that if you see sickening images of war every day you might become desensitized to it. But definitely a conversation for newsrooms and also how it affects the government.

WHITFIELD: The issue of sensitivity certainly is a powerful one. Thanks so much Brian Stelter. We'll be watching you tomorrow right here on 11:00 a.m. eastern time. Appreciate it.

Meantime, we are also following a developing story out Coral Gables, Florida, where at a mall, the mall is called Merrick Park, it has been put on lockdown after a shooting. It is sandwiched in Coral Gables right near the Coconut Grove area of south Florida and Miami. We understand one person is dead and two people have been injured. The condition of the two injured individuals unknown at this time. police they are not seeking a suspect at this time. Again, we don't know the circumstances of what has happened, this shooting at this south Florida mall, one killed, two injured. But of course we're going to continue to monitor the situation and bring you live update as we get them.

An ideological battle raging in the White House. Some of President Trump's top staffers are on some rather shaky ground. So who exactly is the president listening to? Who will stay, who might go or at least take a backseat? We'll discuss next.


[14:40:54] SCIUTTO: The Trump administration is still in its infancy. But already there are talks at least of shakeups and reboots. A senior administration official tells CNN that just yesterday Reince Priebus held a meeting with chief strategist Steve Bannon as well as the president's son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner. The goal of that meeting is to get everyone on the same page and ease growing tensions that increasingly have broken out into public. CNN's Sara Murray has more.


SARA MURRAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Some of President Trump's top staffer are in tenuous territory as an ideological battle rages in the White House. Trump's chief strategist Steve Bannon is facing an uncertain future and has become increasingly isolated in the West Wing sources tell CNN. The president's concerns about his brain trust coming as Trump took an unexpected leap on the foreign policy front this week in ordering a military strike in Syria.

DONALD TRUMP, (R) PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We hope that as long as America stands for justice, then peace and harmony will in the end prevail.

MURRAY: The move highlighting the fault lines emerging between the nationalist wing of the Trump's White House led by Bannon and the moderate crowd, including Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner. The president's decision to intervene in Syria appeared to be the latest indication that the America first group is losing some sway.

TRUMP: I now have responsibility, and I will have that responsibility and carry it very proudly.

MURRAY: It is an abrupt change of tone from Trump on day one when he relied heavily on Bannon to craft his speech hammering home this message.

TRUMP: From this day forward it is going to be only America first, America first.

MURRAY: But Trump has grown frustrated with infighting among top aides and his inability to make more progress on his domestic agenda. The relationship between Bannon and Kushner has grown especially strained, sources say, with Bannon even lamenting to someone that he's locked in an unwinnable battle with Trump's family. This week, it was Bannon who lost ground. Trump removed him from the

National Security Council's principals committee. This as Kushner was brushing up on foreign policy, recently returning from a trip to Iraq.

But the chief strategist isn't the only Trump team member who could be on the ropes. Trump once heaped praise on his chief of staff.

TRUMP: He's a star, and I knew that a long time ago.

MURRAY: Now, Trump's confidantes are floating names of potential replacements for Reince Priebus. Among them, Gary Cohn, Trump's top economic adviser who has close ties to Jared and Ivanka. Also on the list, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. He has quietly built a relationship with Trump and has experience on the Hill. But a source cautioned there have been no serious talks about him taking the job. On Thursday, the president shrugged aside staff shakeup rumors aboard Air Force One, insisting that he's already shaking up Washington.

TRUMP: I think we've had one of the most successful 13 weeks in the history of the presidency.

MURRAY: Now officially the White House is denying there could be any change to President Trump's staffers. Lindsay Walters, a spokeswoman for the White House, said "Once again this is a completely false story driven by people who want to distract from the success taking place in the administration."

Sara Murray, CNN Washington.


SCIUTTO: So who actually has the president's ear? Those growing tensions among his closest advisers amid new indications a major staff shakeup could be in the works. We'll discuss after a quick break.


[14:48:39] WHITFIELD: All right, welcome back. Let's take a closer look now at the growing tension in Donald Trump's inner circle. Take a look at this picture right here. This illustrates a point, doesn't it? This was the Situation Room at the southern White House here. You see the president being briefed on the U.S. strike on Syria. And who's at the table and who is not at the table? Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner and chief of staff Reince Priebus are at the table. And then you see far to the right near the lamp there, the chief strategist Steve Bannon no longer at the table. And we know that there has been quite a bit of consternation between the three of them. But Mr. Trump's top adviser, Kellyanne Conway, tells FOX News there is nothing to see here, just move along, she says.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Is Bannon there to stay? Is Reince Priebus is there to stay?

KELLYANNE CONWAY, TRUMP CAMPAIGN MANAGER: I would assume so. That's up to Donald Trump. In other words, I have heard nothing but rumors and innuendos and press reports that would make any of us believe that anything other than the real shakeup going on in Washington is the way Donald Trump is coming in as a disrupter. And I know people want to write stories about process and personnel, who's up, who's down, who's in, who's out. But you have to go back to who President Trump is and the way he has always governed as an executive. He appreciates a diversity of opinion.


[14:50:02] WHITFIELD: All right, so let's talk more about this with CNN political commentator and former RNC communications director Doug Heye and CNN contributor Michael D'Antonio. He writes an op-ed for and is the author of the book "The Truth about Trump." Good to see both of you, gentlemen.

So Michael, you first. Is this just a diversity of opinion as Kellyanne puts it?

MICHAEL D'ANTONIO, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: To some degree it is. One of the things Trump does is he gives people as much as they can handle and then he gives them a little more to discover where the limit is. And so I sort of see Jared Kushner as emerging as the chief operating officer if you take the corporate model, and Bannon was more the chief marketing guy. He might fancy himself intellectual, but what he really seems to be good at is selling this image of the hard right, disruptive, ultra-nationalistic politics. And I don't think that's where the White House is moving now. I think that they have had so many stumbles that they're looking for someone who can offer.

WHITFIELD: Particularly after the failed GOP health care and immigration plan, all of that.

D'ANTONIO: That was Steve Bannon.

WHITFIELD: So when the president says to the three of them, come on, you guys, work on something and talk amongst yourselves, is he leaving it up to them to fix the problem or is that just the first layer and ultimately he will be one who says you stay or you go?

D'ANTONIO: You are right there. I think ultimately he probably already has an idea of what he's going to do. I think to a great degree the die is cast. And we're going to see Jared Kushner rising higher. I think Reince Priebus may hold on. I don't know about Bannon. I think there is a good chance the president is least attached to him right now.

WHITFIELD: And so Dougg, there was a lot of reporting about whether Reince Priebus was out in the White House, or at least administration folks were quick to say, no, he's not going anywhere. So is this a start of a real shakeup or this just the way it goes when you are, what, 78 days or so into the presidency?

DOUG HEYE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think there is so much smoke at this point that there has to be some fire somewhere in all of this. It is hard to tell when different stories come out on different days. Yesterday Reince might have been out. Today he's back in. I can tell you just from having worked with Reince and having seen him work with members on Capitol Hill, he is one of Trump's best advocates on the Hill and has deep relationship there. I think Reince not being a part of this administration would be a mistake.

But here is the larger problem, I think, Fredricka, is we have just came off the best week that Trump has had as president. His responses politically, the response to Syria was very positive and on a bipartisan basis, which is something we haven't seen. And also going under the radar was the Neil Gorsuch nomination confirmation which was a huge thing for conservatives. That may be because he also brought in some outside help with Kelly Ayotte, Ron Bonjean, and Rob Collins, who are some real pros who were working on thnis. But he had a really good week. They should want to emphasize that instead of more palace intrigue.

WHITFIELD: So then Doug, momentum is key because we remember being in this place before, meaning the Trump White House was celebrating after his address to members of Congress, and there was that momentum that suddenly fell by the wayside. So how does this White House keep it together?

HEYE: That's obviously been the problem that they have had not just all along so far on the administration but going back into the campaign as well where we also had this palace injury. Certainly right now Syria and Trump's reaction to Syria is going to dominate the headlines. We are not really talking about, say, the House intelligence committee anymore like we were just three days ago. Where Donald Trump is doing good, smart things, emphasize that and then stay out of your own way. Stay out of your own lane. Let good news happen, help good news get out there, don't contribute to any bad noise or any bad conversations and gossip.

WHITFIELD: So Michael, you know this president. Was it the imagery of children, babies being killed by sarin gas, nerve gas that really got to him, or is it his advisers, those closest to him such as Jared Kushner or perhaps even his daughter, Ivanka, who may have gotten to him, or do you see that Steve or Reince Priebus are also equally influential in this decision?

D'ANTONIO: I think the United Nations secretary, Nikki Haley was involved. Her outrage at this gas attack was really visible. I also think more than just the photos, it was probably the president's sense that he is responsible now. It is very easy to dismiss tragedy when you are commenting on what Obama should or shouldn't do on the campaign trail.

WHITFIELD: He was meeting with Iraqi leader, with Jordan's King Abdullah. Might that have influenced him as well because the timing is remarkable?

[14:55:04] D'ANTONIO: The timing is remarkable, and I actually think he's being educated. He's understanding more and more about what's going on in that part of the world. It's not this cartoon situation. It's "I am the president and I am responsible." I would not be surprised to see him become more receptive to refugees in the future. All of these campaign promises seem to shrink when the burden is on your shoulders.

WHITFIELD: All right, Michael D'Antonio and Doug Heye, thanks so much gentlemen, appreciate it.

HEYE: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: Thanks to everyone for watching us today. It's been a real pleasure to work with Fred. I am Jim Sciutto in Washington.

WHITFIELD: All right, thanks so much, Jim. Great being with you. Next time we'll be in the same city. I'm Fredricka Whitfield in New York. The NEWSROOM continues right after this.