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Strife Inside Trump Administration; White House's Confused Syria Policy?; School Shooting in California. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired April 10, 2017 - 15:00   ET



PAUL VERCAMMEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And all of them, of course, hoping upon hope that it's not their child who was shot.

Let's listen to some witnesses describing what they saw and heard this morning.


QUESTION: You came here looking for him?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, I see one of my boys, but not the smallest one.

QUESTION: How you doing right now, sir? I guess you're really worried at this moment?


QUESTION: What grade is your son in?


QUESTION: You have two kids here?


QUESTION: What grades are they in?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Fifth and -- my fifth grader, he's on a bus. He just got on this bus.

QUESTION: But you're looking for your second grader?


QUESTION: They are telling parents right now to go (INAUDIBLE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My boy's mom, she is over there now.

QUESTION: Yes. They are going to bus all these kids to Cal State and then send parents over there to pick up their kids.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So, they are not going to Cal? QUESTION: They are going to Cal State. But they are going to parents to (INAUDIBLE) and then reunite with kids. Yes.

Could I ask where you were, sir, when this all went down?


QUESTION: At work?


QUESTION: So you were working and then you heard. How did you hear about this?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Their mom works for the school district. And she shot me a text. And then I came over here.

QUESTION: And you have been waiting ever since?


QUESTION: Now, could you tell from looking at your son how he's doing right now?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, he looked fine. You can see the distress in their face, but most of the kids were smiling. I guess they didn't know what was going on. I don't know if he knew what was going on.

QUESTION: Does he have a cell phone?



That has got to be frustrating not being able to communicate with him.

QUESTION: what is your name, sir, if I may ask?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Lewis Roman (ph).

QUESTION: Lewis Roman. Thank you so much. Good luck.


VERCAMMEN: And police in San Bernardino saying that this is no longer a threat situation. But they confirm that two are dead within a classroom at that elementary school -- Brooke.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: And, again, just so I'm clear, so the phone conversation you had with the school was telling you that a student had some sort of issue with a teacher. And you don't know how old that student or how old that classroom is?

VERCAMMEN: No, let's clarify that.

The school district thinks, as does the police chief, that this was a murder-suicide, or at least an attempt. They believe this stems from a domestic violence issue. And so it is believed, talking to the school district, that the shooter was seeking some sort of retribution against a girlfriend or spouse. Not sure.

They believe the shooter was a male. They believe that the victim was probably a female teacher at the school. So, no, there is no student against teacher. And the two students wounded and taken to the trauma centers were just basically in the classroom at the time, from what they have been telling me.

BALDWIN: Thank you for the clarification. Awful all the way around. Paul Vercammen in California, thank you.

To the White House. Moments ago, Sean Spicer tried to clarify what many see as diverging statements from the Trump administration when it comes to Syria, the mixed signals coming less than a week after the U.S. missile strike in this war-torn country.

The president's ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said that regime change in Syria is something that -- quote -- "we think is going to happen." And yet Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says the hope is to work with Russia to "achieve areas of stabilization throughout Syria."

Remember, Russia has been backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Moments ago, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer tried to explain how the two U.S. diplomats are actually not in conflict.


SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I can't imagine a stable and peaceful Syria where Bashar al-Assad is in power. I think we all recognize that that happens and there can be a multipronged approach. We are ensuring that ISIS is contained and there is a de-escalation of the proliferation of chemical weapons at the same time creating the environment for a change in leadership.


BALDWIN: Let's go to CNN senior international correspondent Clarissa Ward there along the Syrian-Turkish border.

And there was a lot to that news conference, but much of it had to do with questions on Syria.

And there was one piece that really caught your ear. What was it?

CLARISSA WARD, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the thing that caught my ear and that I couldn't quite believe what I was hearing, to the point where I still don't understand if Sean Spicer was actually speaking correctly and clearly and whether I understand, is that he mentioned on three occasions barrel bombs.

Barrel bombs are these commonly used by the regime of Bashar al-Assad. They are essentially crudely made barrels stuffed with explosives and nails and they are dropped out of the back of helicopters on to civilian populations in Syria.

What he said was when he was talking about what would prompt or what could elicit another U.S. strike or strong reaction from the president, he talked about chemical weapons and he talked barrel bombs. Take a listen.



QUESTION: The red line for this White House, chemical warfare, is conventional warfare enough to get the president to go further there than this White House has gone before?

SPICER: Well, I think the president has been very clear that there are a number of lines that were crossed last week.

He's not going to sit down. We saw that in the last administration. They drew these red lines, and then the red lines were run over. I don't think you're going to see the same play. I think what not just Syria, but the world saw last week is a president that is going to act decisively and proportionally and with justification when it comes to actions like that.

And I will tell you, the answer is that, if you gas a baby, if you put a barrel bomb in to innocent people, I think you will see a response from this president. That's unacceptable.

And I think the rest of the -- I think, look, again, one of the things that I don't want to doing is say, if you do this, this is the reaction that you're going to get.

The president has made very clear throughout his time in the campaign, through the transition and now as president that he's not going to telegraph a response to every corresponding action, because that just tells the opposition or the enemy what you're going to do and whether or not that response is worth taking.


WARD: And so you heard it there. If it you gas a baby, if you put a barrel bomb on to innocent people, I think you're going to see a reaction from this president.

If he was saying what it sounds like he was staying, that the use of barrel bombs could constitute or elicit or prompt a response, a military response from the U.S., that is, Brooke, a significant escalation, because barrel bombs, while they are not used as much as they were a couple years ago, they are still a regular occurrence inside Syria.

This is not like chemical weapons. These are one of the more conventionally used weapons. As grotesque and cruel and crude as they are, they are used a lot. So, potentially Sean Spicer making some big news there, Brooke. BALDWIN: You had that. You also had the question about the air base

which there have been pictures since some of the strikes that indicate that there are some aviation plane activity, whereas you had the U.S. group come in had and try to take out some of, what, the fuel areas and some of the planes.

What's the sense? What do we know as far as how much of it was degraded or destroyed?

WARD: So we have heard sort of two versions of the story. From the regime of Bashar al-Assad, it was business as usual, planes taking off the runway, showing a defiant face, saying you haven't cowed us, you haven't destroyed our capabilities. We're going to continue on this military campaign.

But then we were hearing a different story from Sean Spicer, from the Pentagon, hearing that some 20 percent of the Syrian regimes' fixed- wing aircraft were taken out in those U.S. strikes and that essentially what we saw when we saw those planes taking off again from Shayrat air base, Sean Spicer calling that a P.R. campaign, saying these must have been pre-fueled planes, because the fueling capability of Shayrat air base is done, the radar capability of that air base has also been destroyed.

So you're getting two versions of reality, one coming from the regime of Bashar al-Assad, which of course is very keen to show it has not been weakened by this strike, but hearing a very different story from the U.S. military about the impact, because to lose 20 percent of its fixed-wing aircraft, that is not insignificant -- Brooke.

BALDWIN: Sean Spicer calling it a P.R. stunt on behalf of Syrians.

Clarissa Ward, thank you for listening so very carefully to that White House briefing, by the way. Thank you so much.

David Lesch is with me now. He's Ewing Halsell distinguished professor of history at Trinity University in San Antonio. He serves as a consultant to U.S. and European governments and the U.N. on this particular issue.

And, David, as I know we have spoken in the past, you have met with Bashar al-Assad multiple times before 2009. And you wrote the book "Syria: The fall of the House of Assad."

So, David Lesch, so wonderful to talk to you again.

And just if I may springboard off of my same question to Clarissa Ward on the note from the news conference, on the barrel bomb comment and how significant do you think that would be if that would be the line not to cross for the Trump administration?

DAVID LESCH, TRINITY UNIVERSITY: Well, it would be significant, because the Syrian government just does not have the manpower or the resources to go town to town, city to city and extract the opposition, defeat the opposition. They need this asymmetric warfare in order to carry out its military objectives. Also, as part of their policy -- and unfortunately it's been successful to date -- is to bludgeon the population, particularly the civilian population that houses many of what the Syrian regime calls terrorists into submission and into entering into these so- called reconciliation agreements with the government.


And it has worked to a certain degree to this point. And so if they make it so difficult for the civilian population, maybe it will facilitate their reconciliation with the government and possibly a less inviting environment for again what Syria calls the terrorists.

So this would be significant, although to further parse the words, Sean Spicer said barrel bombs against innocent civilians. And the Syrian government has been saying all along they are using them against terrorists and the armed opposition, although there's a lot of collateral damage.

But if Sean Spicer really did mean barrel bombs in any sort of use, then that's game changer and it will force Assad to recalibrate even more so than he has with regard to the red line on chemical weapons.

BALDWIN: Let me just take you back just even to last week, David. Why do you think -- why do you even think Assad would have gone through with this and launched this chemical attack?

LESCH: Well, if he did do it -- and I think there's still some skepticism regarding this. It's clear that...

BALDWIN: Do you think he did?

LESCH: The preponderance of the evidence suggests he did, although it will be impossible to find out beyond a reasonable doubt, I think, ultimately.

But let's assume he ordered it. Then I think it was act of arrogance. It was an act of overconfidence. It was a reaction to Trump administration statements the week prior to that, saying basically they are accepting Assad's position.

And I think he figured, look, the Russians are bombing the Idlib province. The U.S. has been bombing the Idlib province, especially the al Qaeda affiliate in that area. So, therefore, the world will look the other way if I do so.

And from Assad's perspective and from the Syrian government perspective over the years, they feel that if the U.S. government wanted him out of power, he would be gone by now. Therefore, the fact that he isn't gone, and the U.S. hasn't taken assertive action against him means that they want him to stay in power, that he's the least worst alternative.

And so from his viewpoint, the action against the Shayrat air base was really a slap on the wrist and in my mind actually reinforced his view that the U.S. wants him to stay in power, because it was just a limited, proportional, targeted attack. And it wasn't meant to overthrow the regime or undermine the regime.

BALDWIN: So you don't think this was -- you say overconfidence. Was this in any way to test President Trump?

LESCH: It could. It could be. It could be a message sent to the Israelis, because there's been some Israeli-Syrian tensions of late and an Israeli attack into Syria. But it could have been to test the Trump administration.

I can't believe the Russians are happy about this at all because it certainly placed them in a difficult position. But this is the whole conundrum of patron/client state relations where the latter oftentimes -- the tail wags the dog, rather than the dog wags the tail. And that's caused the Russians some headaches over the years.

BALDWIN: David, I went back and I watched an interview. I had talked to you five years ago. And we were talking about Assad then and you were talking even then about how you remember him as being a pretty -- how he was pretty cocky.

You said to me then you thought the only way Assad would be leaving Syria was by body bag. Do you feel the same way now?

LESCH: I do, because I think Assad and his supporters really believe from their perspective that they are saving the country. They have convinced themselves that their well-being is synonymous with the well-being of Syria.

And so they are in this for the long haul. And, of course, the military fortunes have improved as of late. The Russians and the Iranians are all in, in support. So, they really figure they can retake the rest of the country. And they know they -- I believe they really understand they have to enter into some political reform process.

And this is where there's a difference with the Russians. The Russians would be very happy transitioning away from Assad. And they have told anyone who wants to listen that very same thing.

BALDWIN: They would?

LESCH: Oh, absolutely. They would be very happy transitioning from Assad, as long as their geostrategic interests are maintained.

And they've been telling everybody this for a number of years. Unfortunately, the next line is usually, we have no choice right now. He's the only horse we can ride on. The alternatives are worse. And to maintain our geostrategic interests in the short-term, we must rely on him.

But they also realize he's a liability. And so in the long-term future, they know that it must transition away from him. And that's why the Russians have taken the lead of late in initiating diplomatic processes to try to come to sort of some sort of political settlement that is at least to their advantage, where they can control the process, where they hopefully can almost hand-select a successor eventually to Assad some years down the road.

BALDWIN: So curious to see what happens with the Secretary Tillerson meeting in Russia and if he does ultimately meet with Putin, or it's just Lavrov.

We will continue our conversation. David Lesch, you are excellent on Syria and Assad. Thank you so very much for coming back.

LESCH: My pleasure.

BALDWIN: Thank you.

Meantime, West Wing drama. Two of the president's top advisers apparently feuding, one of them his son-in-law, the other the man who helped him win the White House. So who power is shrinking?


Also ahead, why is Democrat Tulsi Gabbard skeptical that Assad was behind the gas attack in Syria? Liberal leaders now calling for her head. We will debate that. Is she right? Is she wrong?

And chaos erupts on a plane, this United flight. Have you seen this video? After this airline randomly picks a passenger to kick off, drags him off the plane. What the heck happened? We will talk about that coming up.


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

Let's talk about this palace intrigue, this power struggle behind the scenes of the White House. Appear to have a right wing of the administration on the ropes. You have chief strategist Steve Bannon vs. the so-called secretary of everything, Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law.

The president scolding the pair behind closed doors, as we're told from officials, officially telling the two to cut out the bickering and to work out your differences. But the White House is downplaying this, telling reporters a short time ago this is much ado about nothing.



SPICER: He understands that we have some pretty smart, talented individuals who are opinionated on a lot of subjects, but that our battles and our policy differences need to be behind closed doors. We need to focus and ultimately all come out committed to advancing the president's agenda.

QUESTION: This meeting on the Friday where the two principals, Bannon and Jared Kushner, were essentially told by the president cool this and get along and get on the same page.

SPICER: Well, look, I think there's a lot of stuff that was overblown about this, that makes it out to media and sometimes it gets a little bit more sensational than it truly is.

But I think the president is obviously very pleased with the last week that he's had and the accomplishments especially on the foreign policy front.


BALDWIN: This all comes after a tough week for Steve Bannon. The former Breitbart executive was removed from his top post on the National Security Council and then he reportedly lost in convincing the president not to strike Syria and then his private feud with Kushner went public.

I have got Ned Price, former CIA analyst and former National Security Council spokesman during the Obama administration, with us.

Ned, thank you for coming on.

And Randy Evans is back with us today, chairman of the Republican National Lawyers Association and member of the RNC.

Randy, nice to see you, sir. And, if I may, let me begin with you, because you're buds with Reince Priebus. You're very close with the chief of staff.

And so he reportedly met with Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner to help work it out, as per the president. Is it going to get worked out? What's he telling you?


The bottom line is when you put a lot of elephants in a small space, they are going to bump into each other. And you have got some pretty powerful personalities in that West Wing. I don't know if you have been in there, but it's pretty close quarters.

BALDWIN: It's small.

EVANS: And if you start to drag through, you had the immigration order, which had its difficulties, followed by Sessions' recusal, followed by the health care failure, then you follow that by the recusal by Nunes, heading into last week, it was a pretty -- I think there was a little bit of exhaustion, as well as not having exactly a good two or three weeks there.

BALDWIN: Randy, Randy, Randy, Randy, you're an establishment guy. Let's be real. Are you sleeping a little bit better at night knowing Steve Bannon's influence is on the downing?

EVANS: I don't sleep well one way or the other.


EVANS: I like them both. I have friends in all those offices, so I don't really worry about it.

BALDWIN: All right.

EVANS: But I do I think will agree with you on this, Brooke.

Clearly, tensions did escalate. Clearly, there was a moment where it had to be addressed. I think it has been addressed. I think everybody is kind of getting back into their comfort zone of where their strengths are and then let the president lead.

BALDWIN: At least you admit it. This is step one on a process here of elephants in a small space.

Ned, here's a question to you. Do you think though that this is a signal that -- clearly it raised itself all the way up to the president to need to be dealt with. Do you get the sense that this more far-right, populist ideologue agenda is waning in the White House?

NED PRICE, FORMER CIA OFFICER: Well, I think we actually saw two important moves in the national security world within the course of the past week.

One, you have mentioned, and that was the removal of Steve Bannon from the National Security Council Principals Committee. But the other I think is actually more meaningful and more important. That's the apparent dismissal of K.T. McFarland as the deputy national security adviser.

She, by all accounts, is being put on a slow boat to Singapore, being offered the ambassadorship there. And in doing so, I think that H.R. McMaster, who replaced Mike Flynn as the national security adviser, is trying his best to put his mark on this National Security Council.

And he's trying his best to maneuver people vis-a-vis people like Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner and Reince Priebus, who had previously crowded him out and crowded out National Security Council officials.

But with this move, I think the national security adviser is signaling that the amateur hour within the National Security Council staff is over.

BALDWIN: Sean Spicer was asked about that. He said, hey, you guys asked me about this when General McMaster got the job and would he have the power to -- over the National Security Council? And apparently he does. It appears that way.

Randy, what about Reince Priebus? Because I had Jamie Gangel, well- sourced Jamie Gangel sitting next to me on this set on Friday saying she was hearing from top sources that Reince Priebus could be on his way out. She even had -- there was a full screen graphic with four faces who could potentially replace him. What's the word on that end?

EVANS: That's a great example of rumors taking on lives all to themselves.

I think Reince is actually kind of the glue that holds it all together. He's the person who worked with every different hard section or faction of our party bringing them all together in the general election. He's close friends with, as you know, Speaker Ryan.

He works well with Senator McConnell. He works well with Steve Bannon. If you remember, early on, there were even issues that Priebus and Bannon had issues. But at the end of the day, he's starting to be kind of the constant of it all, if you will. He's the one who actually kind of makes the engines and the trains run on time.


BALDWIN: What about Gary Cohn, Ned? This is Jared Kushner's chief economic adviser, registered Democrat, former Goldman Sachs exec, referred to by Bannon supporters as -- quote, unquote -- "Globalist Gary."

Apparently, he's tight with Jared Kushner and by extension the president of the United States. How does that make you feel, knowing that there's a Democrat in these close quarters in the West Wing?

PRICE: Well, he's called Globalist Gary. And he has a counterpart, as I understand it, now in a prominent position on the National Security Council staff. And that's Dina Powell, also a former Goldman Sachs executive who is also derided as being a Democrat.


PRICE: Look, I think you are seeing a shifting power center within the White House.

And I frankly have been heartened by some of these personnel moves. I think right now what we have seen over the past couple weeks are the adults emerging within this White House and taking their rightful positions.

BALDWIN: Ned Price, thank you. Randy Evans, appreciate you as well.

EVANS: Thank you.

BALDWIN: We're going to continue our conversation here, because we have to get back to our breaking news on this deadly shooting in California, this elementary school in San Bernardino, police confirming two adults were shot and killed inside a classroom. Children may have been wounded.

We're waiting for a police news conference. It should begin any minute now. We will take that live.

Also ahead, shocking cell phone video of this United passenger bloodied as he was forcibly removed from this overbooked flight. We will talk to one passenger who witnessed the entire thing.