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Mixed Messages on Bashar al-Assad Regime; U.S. Sends Aircraft Carrier Group Near Korean Peninsula; Interview with Congressman Will Hurd; Does Trump White House Have A Strategy For Syria? Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired April 10, 2017 - 08:00   ET


[08:00:00] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They are working their way towards an intercontinental ballistic missile.


ANNOUNCER: This is NEW DAY with Chris Cuomo and Alisyn Camerota.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. Welcome to your NEW DAY.

A lot of news to talk about. The Trump administration talking pretty forcefully about Russia and about its support for Syria's brutal dictator, Bashar al-Assad and its possible involvement in last week's deadly chemical attack. Top Trump officials, though, are sending mixed signals about their priorities in Syria, and lawmakers, of course, are calling on president to come to Congress before his next move.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: So whether the White House decides to do something for real about Assad and stop him from killing his people, whether it's with chemicals or other types of bombs, or if their goal is to go after ISIS, either way they're going to have to find a way to deal with Russia. And this reality comes on the heels of a very big moment. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson heads tomorrow to Moscow. So at the same time that that's going on, you've got the U.S. Navy moving an aircraft carrier near the Korean peninsula. Escalating tensions are going on there because of Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions. The White House flexing its military might on this 81st day of Donald Trump's presidency. We begin our coverage with CNN Joe Johns live at the White House. Joe?

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Chris. A lot of tough talk there, but the strategy isn't clear just yet. The administration seemingly taking two steps forward, one step back on the issue of regime change in Syria with that symbolic bombing run on Friday, but one thing was demonstrated for sure, this president is willing to use force.


REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: Every time one of these horrific attacks occurs, it draws Russia closer into some level of responsibility. JOHNS: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson talking tough about Russia's

role in last week's Syrian chemical attack on the eve of his first diplomatic trip to Moscow.

TILLERSON: Regardless whether Russia was complicit or whether they were simply incompetent, or whether they got out-witted by the Bashar al-Assad regime, clearly they have failed in their commitment to the international community.

JOHNS: Slamming the Kremlin for allowing Syria to house chemical weapons despite a past agreement to ensure that Assad's stockpile was destroyed.

NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: How can they with a straight face cover for Assad? There's a lot of answers that need to come from Russia.

JOHNS: U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster echoing Tillerson's criticism and keeping the door open for imposing additional sanctions on both Russia and Iran due to their support for Assad.

HALEY: I don't think anything is off the table at this point.

JOHNS: But the administration's top officials sending conflicting messages about the future of the Syrian dictator, Tillerson emphasizing that America's first priority is the fight against ISIS, not toppling Assad.

TILLERSON: It is through that political process that will believe the Syria people ultimately will be able to decide the fate of Bashar al- Assad.

JOHNS: As Ambassador Haley insists that regime change is a primary concern.

HALEY: There's not any sort of option where political solution is going to happen with Assad at the head of regime.

JOHNS: An extraordinary reversal from positions articulated just last week and the discrepancy that has not gone unnoticed by Tillerson's critics.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: I think the strategy he seems to be outlining is based on assumptions that aren't going to work. There is no such thing of Assad, yes, but ISIS, no.

JOHNS: This as the president also sends an aggressive message to North Korea, just days after Kim Jong-un tested another ballistic missile, sending a U.S. aircraft carrier led strike group toward the Korean peninsula.

LT. GEN. H.R. MCMASTER, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: It's prudent to do it, isn't it? North Korea has been engaged in a pattern of provocative behavior. This is a rogue regime that is now a nuclear capable regime, and President Xi and President Trump agreed that that is unacceptable.


JOHNS: North Korea has also weighed in on the U.S. missile strike in Syria, calling it an unforgivable act of aggression and saying it proves North Korea was right to beef up its military power, saying that choice was right a million times over. Chris, back to you.

CUOMO: How will that kind of twisted reasoning apply to these ships sent in the waters off the Korean peninsula in the United States? We'll have to see. Our thanks to Joe Johnson.

An acceptable message to a rogue regime, that's how the attack in Syria is now being spun. And, again, that carrier group is on its way to the Korean peninsula. So what shape will the message be this time? CNN's Barbara Starr is live at the Pentagon with details. As we just saw, ships off your shore can bring the hurt. So what happens now?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, this is a very tailored message yet again that the Trump administration is using, Chris. Aircraft carrier strike group, everybody throws those words around. What does it really mean?

[08:05:04] Well, an aircraft carrier is a big visible message to the North Koreans, but militarily not as much use if there was a North Korean provocation. It's the other ships that are there, the U.S. Navy ships that have missiles on board that could shoot down a North Korean ballistic missile launch. So that's where the real message is. That's what the North Koreans know. The U.S. watching all of this carefully because North Korea could launch more missiles, could conduct an underground nuclear test, so a very visible message from a president that says he doesn't like to signal what he's doing with the military.

And like we have been talking all morning, the same kind of messaging going on in Syria, that strike against that air base did not destroy the base. It wasn't even meant to. It was mean to send that message, don't use your chemical weapons. That air base in Syria now by all accounts up and running again, Syria warplanes again attacking Assad's own people. Alisyn?

CAMEROTA: Barbara, you raise all of the right questions, including this one, how is North Korea responding to all of this?

CNN's Will Ripley is live in North Korea. CNN is the only American network in that country. Will?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Alisyn, the North Koreans are certainly receiving the message that President Trump is sending, but their response to it may not be with the administration is intending. We've been on the streets of Pyongyang, we've been talking all weekend with government officials. We were with them when they learned about the carrier strike group Carl Vinson moving back to the Korean peninsula, not unprecedented because it was in the region just a few weeks ago for joint military exercises with South Korea. And these officials told me they believe this is just another provocative act by the United States. They think the U.S. is the one to blame for escalating tensions. They talked about that missile strike on Syria, saying if it had happened in North Korea, the big difference is they would retaliate.

We know that North Korea does have the capability to do some real harm, certainly to the millions of people living within range of the artillery along the demilitarized zone in the greater Seoul area, also 28,000 U.S. troops in that country. This is also a big week for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Tomorrow, a major political gathering, the supreme people's assembly, where delegates will vote an approve motions that he puts forward to them. Then on Saturday, it's the day of the sun. Five years ago North Korea tried to launch a satellite into orbit just a few days before the day of the sun, and many officials watching their nuclear test site believe at any moment Kim Jong-un could push the button on his sixth nuclear tests. It certainly would be a way to send a strong message ahead of this important North Korean holiday. Chris?

CUOMO: Will, appreciate it, my friend. Keep us in the loop.

Joining us now is Republican Congressman Will Hurd of Texas. He serves in the House Intel and Homeland Security Committees and is a former undercover CIA officer who served in the Middle East. Congressman, always a pleasure. I want to talk about what we just saw down there in Texas with people messing with that emergency signal system, what that means for the integrity of our cyber security with our grid.

But let's talk about these bigger macros first. Help me understand the moral agency involved with what just happened in Syria. The president justifying the strike by saying, listen, they crossed a line, you know, now it's wrong, this is the right moral message. We're America. How does that not apply to the other killings that's going on in Syria? I get that chemicals are bad. I get we have the 1925 agreement, and that's always been a priority in the international community, but either you think it's wrong that this despot is killing his people or you don't. How do you draw this moral distinction?

REP. WILL HURD (R), TEXAS: Well I think Assad should go. I've been saying that for a long time. You can't have stability in Syria with Assad in power. Assad is the reason why we have a refugee problem. Assad is the reason that a civil war started, which created a vacuum that allowed ISIS to come in. I think ISIS is an immediate threat to the United States, but in order to truly demolish him, you have to have Assad go as well.

So I do believe there needs to be more conversations about what disease Syria look like post-Assad. What does Syria look like once the rebels take back Raqqah? These are some of the conversations that the executive branch and Congress should be having conversations on. And I also believe that the strikes of last week, the 59 tomahawk missile strikes in Syria, was the right move to show that this is a new day, and that kinetic strikes are on the table. CUOMO: What's the plan? Everybody keeps saying, I don't know what

the plan is. They have to form the plan, we're going to see what the plan is. You see the top officials in the White House, they are mix messaging at best. Do you think there's a plan, or do you think this was a one-off?

[08:10:00] HURD: I think this was evolving. I think that would be the best way to describe this. I think the president is consuming intelligence and the situation on the ground is changing day-to-day, and his thoughts on this is evolving as well.

I think one of the conversations that Secretary Tillerson's going to be having with the Russians later this week is going to be on the Russian support to Bashar al-Assad in Syria and what the Russians can do in order to move forward there, because they are complicit. They are supposed to be responsible for getting rid of the chemical weapons, and it obviously didn't happen. And so I'm sure this topic will be a major part of the conversations that Secretary Tillerson is having in Russia.

CUOMO: What's your take on sending this battle group up into the waters off the Korean peninsula? Again, is this something that's been thought through, in your opinion, or is it just the hope that the show of force is enough?

HURD: Well, that battle carrier group has been in the region before. I think Kim Jong-un, he has the ability to kill hundreds of thousands of people right now in south Korea with the push of a button. He will stop at nothing to have an intercontinental ballistic missile. They likely have the capability of putting some type of nuclear warhead on top of that. That means meaning in less than 12 minutes, he could kill 12 million people.

And we have to ask ourselves, what are we going to do when we see a potential test of an ICBM? Are we going to try to shoot that ICBM down? Are we going to let the test go on unimpeded? These are some of the questions that should be asked when it comes to Korea.

But the reality here is that we have -- this is a real opportunity for the U.S. and China to have true security cooperation when it comes to North Korea. The Chinese have to recognize that Kim Jong-un is more of a problem to Chinese security than a U.S.-South Korea alliance.

CUOMO: So let's bring it back home. Down where you are in Texas, somebody hacked public communication systems down there, the emergency alerts. They're going off all over the lace, these 911 calls. It's a distraction, a disturbance, but is it an indication that, wow, we are really vulnerable to cyber-attacks of our power grid? Things could really happen, and thus, bringing our attention back to the Russian interference investigation. You know, you have to take them seriously because you don't have to use a missile to mess with somebody these days.

HURD: Well, when I got out of CIA, I helped start a cyber-security company, and my team had been involved in trying to hack a subway-like system. And we figured out that we couldn't get access to the trains or to the critical infrastructure, but you could take over P.A. systems. So I think a P.A. system like what was taken over is separate and on a separate network than usually the control systems that are being used to power our lights. But it's an indication that, you know, you can create a lot of havoc taking over a P.A. system. And imagine if it was more than sirens. And so I think local municipalities have to recognize that and understand that the surface, the attack surface that you have to defend is much broader than most people realize.

CUOMO: That's interesting. So is your message to the American people that don't worry about someone taking over air traffic control or our trains or anything that would, you know, has a high degree of lethality to it. We have no reason to believe that those capabilities exist?

HURD: Well, the capabilities are always there. The intent is there. But we have seen that defenders are able to protect against this threat. You know, any time you upgrade system, you introduce a new vulnerabilities or potential vulnerabilities that can be attacked. But just know that, you know, Department of Homeland Security is working closely with our municipalities, trying to make sure that federal resources are available to local municipalities for these types of issues. So, you know, the cyber threat is real. The cyber threat is diverse. But those that are defending need to recognize that all these systems are connected, and you can create pandemonium in a number of different ways.

CUOMO: Will Hurd, Republican Representative from Texas, thank you for being on NEW DAY as always.

HURD: Always a pleasure, Chris.

CUOMO: Alisyn?

CAMEROTA: There were differing messages this weekend from the White House on Syria. What do they say about Mr. Trump's strategy going forward? We discuss that next.



ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: So different messages from top Trump officials concerning the U.S. policy in Syria. Listen.


NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: There's not any sort of option where political solution's going to happen with Assad at the head of the regime.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They were asking and calling on Bashar al-Assad to cease of use of these weapons. Other than that, there is no change to our military posture.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That he will against President Assad if he goes against civilians no matter what weapon he uses?

LT. GENERAL H.R. MCMASTER, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Well, the president will make whatever decision he thinks is in the best interest of the American people.


CAMEROTA: OK. So let's discuss this with former New York City Council speaker, Christine Quinn, and former political director for George W. Bush, Matt Schlapp. Great to have both of you. Matt, let me start with you.


CAMEROTA: Matt, do you know what President Trump's strategy is?

SCHLAPP: No. I won't try to spin you here. If you look at those three answers, you can see potentially different paths. I would give General McMaster points for the right answer, which is all alternatives should always be on the table and we ought to be careful about drawing lines that we don't intend to enforce which is why the bombing was the right decision because he actually said the use of chemical weapons is something we can't tolerate.

CAMEROTA: So Matt, one more question for you before I get to Christine, so basically to your mind today, that was a one and done? That was a one and done solution, Assad used chemical weapons. We said that crosses the line. We sort of bombed the airfield, sort of, although on Saturday, Assad was back to bombing his innocent civilians, so that's it?

[08:20:11]SCHLAPP: Yes. I guess, I would look at it this way, which is airstrikes are only so effective, Alisyn. Presidents like to use them because they seem tidier, but at the end of the day, you don't really accomplish what you want to without using everything at our disposal. So I like the fact that this was kind of a pinprick attack.


SCHLAPP: I think -- but I don't think anybody should read into this that we're going to war in Syria.

CAMEROTA: OK. How do you see it, Christine?

CHRISTINE QUINN, FORMER NEW YORK CITY COUNCIL SPEAKER: Well, I find the fact that you have three, four different people in the Trump administration speaking for the Trump administration, but saying completely different things.

CAMEROTA: Doesn't that tell you that they just haven't cemented it yet? There is no doctrine --

QUINN: Then don't talk.

CAMEROTA: -- what the plan is with Syria. QUINN: Look, if you -- well, one, if have not figured out a few steps yet, then I understand you're not going to necessarily with the situation as complex as Syria, figure out A to Z, but one would hope we had beyond A, right?

That at least we -- but if you don't know, don't talk. What good does it do the American people in a very scary time to hear our international leaders within the United States say different things and help our standing on the world stage?

CAMEROTA: Because my point, Christine, is that there is no plan beyond A, A was it. I mean, you hear Matt. We've heard our guests all morning, A was it. That was it. We're done. We sent the message. Assad, you cannot use chemical weapons or we will bomb your airfield. We bomb the airfield. Now we're done.

QUINN: But Nikki Haley says and I heard her both say it on the news over the weekend and last week, she alluded to this very clearly and strongly at the Women in the World Conference, that it's not done. She's in the papers today, on television over the weekend saying she sees the mission as accomplished when the leadership of Syria is changed.

And she seems to be taking a hard line on Russia where we hear the secretary of state taking a very different line. These just don't be the parts of the world that we want to lack clarity on.

CAMEROTA: Go ahead, Matt.

SCHLAPP: Yes, I agree that Ambassador Haley seems more clear that the eventual goal should be to get rid of this dictator, Assad, in Syria --

CAMEROTA: Yes, so why don't McMaster and Tillerson know that?

SCHLAPP: Well, because, look, I worked for President George W. Bush. We toppled a couple authoritarian regimes and you can be fighting in those countries for decades after spending our treasure, having our young brave men and women in harm's way. Look at that --

CAMEROTA: Look, we know the dangers of war -- the repercussions. We are talking about the messaging. Why is Nikki Haley on a different page than the other officials?

SCHLAPP: Well, look, as I told you, I'm not going to spin you on it. It seemed like there were three different paths that were outlined over the weekend. I think what the American people should not be scared by this, but I think they should understand thatthe president is taking in the information and ascertaining what the right policy strategy is.

Let me tell you, as somebody who works in the White House, happens on tax policy, health care policy, it doesn't shock anybody. It also happens on these very fundamental questions of foreign affairs.

QUINN: Look, I don't -- the president needs to take things in and needs to hear from different people, and make a final decision. That's not what's happening. We had three members of the administration go out and say contradictory things, and that was not some attempt, I believe --

SCHLAPP: They were not contradictory.

QUINN: They were not in line and lock step with each other, and this is what worries me and many, many of the American people, that the president made a decision that I think was the right decision, but a decision in a complex regime that needs to have a sense of a plan and a policy, and a clarity, and that's what worries the American people that he is over his head.

CAMEROTA: Go ahead.

SCHLAPP: Christine, if you agree with what he did, which is something Obama failed to do when he said that there was a line in the sand --

QUINN: And the very same people who were applauding Trump criticized Obama.

SCHLAPP: Give him grace -- that's OK. Give him the grace that he made the right decision here. He has very difficult decisions to make ongoing from here. Nobody believes that Assad will be a boy scout now. He'll do all types of terrible things. We'll have to deal with the all the repercussions of it, but he made a good step here.

Now the question is, what does he do going forward? Yes, his advisers are trying to probably internally convince him of one path or another, but in the end, Donald Trump's going to make the decision, and I do not believe that that decision's going to be that we go to war with Syria.

QUINN: I'm not urging that he do that because I think that's obviously, you know, a terribly frightening decision right now, what you're saying, going to war with Syria. I'm not advocating that. Let me be clear at all. But what I'm thinking is just unacceptable is to have the U.N. ambassador and the secretary of state saying things that are not in lock step.

[08:25:10]And you know what? I'm not going to cut in president or any president slack when they are talking about brutal horrible dictators like Assad and Vladimir Putin and they are one day here, another official there.

CAMEROTA: Aren't President Trump's words the ones that we should be listening to?

QUINN: Well, that's not clear --

CAMEROTA: Not exactly. What he has said, I'm flexible, one day he feels one way, another day he feels another way. He's flexible.

QUINN: That's (inaudible) because I don't understand how you are flexible about brutal dictators.


QUINN: And I don't understand why a child --

SCHLAPP: Hold on --

QUINN: -- a weak baby being killed in Syria by gas is -- it's traumatizing, that that was traumatizing to the president, but as a dead Syrian baby on the shores in a soldier's arms touches nothing in his heart.

CAMEROTA: Matt, why is my characterization of his flexibility not fair?

SCHLAPP: Well, because it implies that almost anything could happen and I don't think that's not fair at all. I think what we understand is that as a president you have certain options when things happen, and he was willing to take this option. He could have chosen not to do that. I guess you can call that flexibility, but at the end of the day --

CAMEROTA: Well, he calls it flexibility. I'm not calling it flexibility, I'm taking him at his word.

SCHLAPP: I just want to just push back on the idea if you mean by flexibility, almost anything's on the table. I think that's wrong.

CAMEROTA: No, I mean, Matt, honestly, just so that I can clarify, he said that he was so struck by the pictures, the devastating pictures of children being killed, that that's when he decided to act because he's flexible. That's what he considers his positive attributes.

QUINN: And those pictures --

SCHLAPP: I'd say this. He's open to the facts as they happen, and what we learned in Syria is this that terrible attack happened. He wants a more humble foreign policy. He doesn't want to be an interventionist, but there are lines.

CAMEROTA: OK, guys, we have to leave it there. Thank you very much for the debate. Great to talk to both of you -- Chris.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: All right. The Supreme Court is about to become whole again, we're going to have the swearing of in Judge Neil Gorsuch this morning at 9:00 a.m. He's going to take the oath then there's going to be a ceremony afterwards. We have a live report from the Supreme Court. You're looking at the 101st justice.