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White House: More Action in Syria is Possible; Trump Tries to Quell WH Infighting. Aired 5-6p ET
Aired April 10, 2017 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
TAPPER: [17:00:05] That's it for "THE LEAD." I'm Jake Tapper turning you over to Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. Thanks for watching.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening or not, regime change or not? The White House says peace in Syria is unimaginable under the dictator Bashar al-Assad, but the administration is sending mixed messages and leaving open the possibility of more military action. What is President Trump's next move?
Increasingly reckless. North Korea slams the U.S., denouncing what it calls Washington's aggressive acts of war, but the Kim regime is believed to be poised for another nuclear test. We'll go live to North Korea this hour for an exclusive report.
Work it out. Top Trump advisers are scolded by the president after reports of in-fighting between Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner go public. The White House says their differences are overblown. Can they cooperate, or will one of them be pushed out?
And logging on. Watchdog groups sue to get a closer look at visitor logs from the White House and President Trump's Florida resort. Should Americans be able to see who's calling on the president at home?
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
The White House is facing questions tonight about its next moves regarding Syria with top administration officials sending mixed messages. Press Secretary Sean Spicer is echoing U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley on the future of the Syrian leader Bashar al Assad calling the possibility of peace under his regime unimaginable. He's also leaving opening the possibility of new U.S. military strikes in response to attacks on Syrian civilians.
But Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is downplaying regime change. He's heading to Moscow which he says shares responsibility for the latest chemical attack on Syrian civilians. Tillerson clammed Russia's failure to control Syria's chemical weapons as incompetent.
Also, a CNN exclusive. We're live in North Korea tonight where U.S. intelligence believes the Kim Jong-un regime is ready to conduct a nuclear test at any time. The country is vowing to accelerate its nuclear program defying President Trump.
We're covering all of that and much more this hour with our guests, including Senator Chris Murphy of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And our correspondents and expert analysts are also standing by.
Let's begin with the Syrian crisis now facing President Trump. Our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, is joining us with the latest. Jim, the White House is keeping the door open right now to more military action.
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: That's right, and the White House spokesman, Sean Spicer, today opening the door to another path, another justification for military action, not just the use of chemical weapons, saying that the use of barrel bombs would also be unacceptable, might prompt a U.S. response.
Of course, the difference there is they are used frequently, including many times since the U.S. military strike on Friday. Will the White House follow through on that apparent threat?
That comes at the same time that senior administration officials are sending out contradictory messages on what exactly the goal is of U.S. policy in Syria.
SCIUTTO (voice-over): Tonight Syrian warplanes taking off from the same air base hit by a U.S. missile strike Friday. The White House says it has not ruled out further military action there, but it is sending mixed, even contradictory messages on the administration's goals in Syria. U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said regime change is inevitable following last week's chemical weapons attack which sparked the U.S. military action.
NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO U.N. Regime change is something that we think is going to happen because all of the parties are going to see that Assad is not the leader that needs to be taking place for Syria.
SCIUTTO: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, however, appeared to say the opposite, placing his faith in a political process inside Syria over any outside action.
REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: I think our strategy in Syria, as you know, our priority is, first, the defeat of ISIS. And it is through that political process that we believe the Syrian people will ultimately be able to decide the fate of Bashar al-Assad.
SCIUTTO: White House press secretary Sean Spicer seemed to acknowledge both end games.
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 multi-pronged approach. We are ensuring that ISIS is contained, and there's a de-escalation of the proliferation of chemical weapons at the same time, creating the environment for a change in leadership. SCIUTTO: Tillerson and other U.S. officials have been unanimous in
blaming Russia for sharing responsibility of the chemical attack, a message State Department officials say Tillerson will bring to Moscow.
TILLERSON: The recent terrible chemical weapons attack, in large measure, is a failure on Russia's part to achieve its commitment to the international community.
[07:05:11] SCIUTTO: Russia dismisses the accusation, accusing the U.S. onstead of, quote, "an act of aggression."
Tonight U.S. warplanes continue to fly over Syria, targeting ISIS forces, even as the Syrian regime has increased its air defenses in the western part of the country.
SCIUTTO: Perhaps sensitive to questions about how long-lasting are of the effects of the U.S. military strike on Friday, the defense secretary, James Mattis, releasing a statement today, cataloging the damage from that strike, including saying, Wolf, that the strike destroyed some 20 percent of the active Syrian air force. You might have noticed President Trump tweeting about those questions, as well, this weekend.
BLITZER: Yes, I saw that. Thanks very much. Jim Sciutto reporting, our chief national security correspondent.
Let's get some more now on the latest from the White House. Our senior correspondent Jeff Zeleny, White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny is covering the president right now. Jeff, Syria is front and center in this whole infrastructure, this whole debate right now.
JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It is indeed, Wolf, front and center; and it seems like this Trump administration is still crafting policy as it moves along here.
Now, just a short time ago, an administration official tried to clarify or walk back some of the press secretary, Sean Spicer's, comments about those barrel bombs that Jim was just talking about there. They say, look, it does not represent a new red line. It does not represent a new sort of stipulation for military action here, but this all comes as this Trump administration is trying to get back its footing here. Syria at the center of this, but foreign policy now is dominating the conversations here.
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I can say that this is a great honor.
And I got it done in the first 100 days. That's even nice. You think that's easy.
ZELENY (voice-over): In the Rose Garden today, President Trump hailing the confirmation of Justice Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court as the biggest accomplishment so far in his young presidency.
TRUMP: A new optimism is sweeping across our land, and a new faith in America is filling our hearts and lifting our sights.
ZELENY: The president making clear that his eye is on the clock, with the end of his first 100 days quickly approaching, with global threats and challenges mounting.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer seemed to raise the stakes, saying the president could act again in Syria in response to conventional bombs, not only a chemical weapons attack like the one that killed dozens last week.
SPICER: If you gas a baby, if you put a barrel bomb in to innocent people, I think you can -- you will see a response from this president.
ZELENY: Tonight a new CBS News poll finds that 57 percent of Americans approve of the missile strikes last week in Syria.
Yet Americans are leery of the president getting more involved, the poll found. Seven in ten Americans believe the administration needs authorization from Congress. More than half of Republicans agree.
Only four years ago Mr. Trump, then a private citizen, also agreed, saying on Twitter, "Obama needs congressional approval." But as president, Mr. Trump did not seek such approval before unleashing 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles on Syrian military targets last week.
(ON CAMERA): And why does he not need congressional president?
SPICER: When it's in the national interests of the country, the president has the full authority to the act. He did that.
ZELENY (voice-over): The White House says the president's "America first" agenda still stands, and the action did not necessarily represent a new Trump doctrine.
With foreign policy suddenly front and center at the White House, infighting that has plagued the administration appears to have cooled, for now, at least. Tensions between Steve Bannon, the chief strategist, and Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and senior adviser, reached a boiling point last week. CNN has learned the president stepped in, telling them, "We've got to work this out."
SPICER: The reason the president has brought this team together is to offer a diverse set of opinions. I don't -- he doesn't want a monolithical kind of thought process going through the White House. He wants a diverse set of opinions. He is the decider.
ZELENY (on camera): It must have crossed a line if he said to work it out.
SPICER: Well, I think sometimes -- again, I'm not going to get into what happens internally, but I think sometimes some things might spill out in the public more than other things. ZELENY: He's sticking with Steve Bannon. Right?
SPICER: He's very confident in the team that he has, that they have an unbelievable amount of knowledge and -- and -- and he enjoys the counsel that they all bring to this table.
ZELENY: And things, indeed, did spill out into the open. There was a very public disagreement last week, and Syria is one of the items that they actually disagree on. I am told that Steve Bannon, the chief strategist, was against the military strikes in Syria, at least arguing, you know, perhaps a wait and see. Many on the right outside the administration have also been against this policy. Others have been advising him to go forward.
Wolf, I think that explains some of the confusion here we're seeing this evening about what the president's red line is, what it isn't. It's one of the central reasons members of Congress are saying that want to hear a Syria strategy from this administration -- Wolf.
[17:10:14] BLITZER: All right, Jeff, thank you. Jeff Zeleny over at the White House.
Let's get some more on all of this. Joining us live, Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. Senator, thanks very much for joining us.
SEN. CHRIS MURPHY (D), CONNECTICUT: Of course.
BLITZER: Do you support regime change in Syria in order to remove Bashar al-Assad?
MURPHY: I don't. I think that's a messy business that the United States should not be involved in, at least from a military standpoint. We have the capacity to put political pressure on Russia and on Iran to try to get a political process in place that may allow for Assad to stay for a short period of time and transition to a new leader, but the idea that the United States is going to go in with military power to remove him just misrembers all of the lessons from our attempt to do something similar in Iraq.
So I would hope that the president, to the extent he has any additional military plans in Syria, will come talk to Congress about it, because I'm going to tell you, he will find an American public that is very reluctant to carry out regime changes in Syria.
BLITZER: What about the slaughter that has gone on in Syria for, what, six years, 400,000, maybe half a million people killed, millions of refugees internally, externally. The U.S. has not gotten involved militarily until now against Bashar al-Assad's regime, and a lot of folks are saying maybe it's time.
MURPHY: Well, the U.S. has been involved. As you know...
BLITZER: Against ISIS in Syria but not against Bashar al-Assad's regime. This was the first military action.
MURPHY: The first direct military action, but the United States has been providing weapons and training.
BLITZER: Limited. How has that worked out so far?
MURPHY: Well, it hasn't worked out.
BLITZER: At all.
MURPHY: But exactly. It hasn't worked out, because it has given those rebels just enough support in order to continue the fight but not enough to win the fight.
BLITZER: And you blame the Obama administration?
MURPHY: I blame the Obama administration.
BLITZER: They were derelict in their responsibility, humanitarian responsibility?
MURPHY: They had a policy in Syria that did not work, in part because they prolonged the conflict by putting just enough military support in to keep it going but not enough to be dispositive.
BLITZER: But you agree Bashar al-Assad is a butcher?
MURPHY: Bashar al-Assad is a butcher. He deserves everything he gets, and ultimately, it's one of the reasons that the United States should, at the very least, have a policy of allowing anybody who wants to escape that civil war to escape. This policy of bombing Syria and then locking children inside, not providing them a way to escape as refugees, it's inhumane.
BLITZER: Well, so far it was just one, 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles hitting this air base. There hasn't been extensive military action.
Let me tell you what Marco Rubio, your Republican colleague in the Senate, he said, as long has Bashar al-Assad is in Syria, quote, "There will be a reason for people to be radicalized." Do you disagree with that thinking? Because he radicalizes a lot of people.
MURPHY: No, I agree. And it's a question of whether we're expressing a preference or a policy. Obviously, we want Bashar al-Assad out. He will continue to radicalize the Syrian people. But our priority should be on stopping the violence. If we can achieve a cease-fire that potentially gives some transition to new leadership, then we should entertain that notion. Right now, the priority should be on stopping the violence from both sides.
BLITZER: But do you have any doubt that he was responsible, Bashar al-Assad, for the chemical attack at Idlib that killed all those civilians, including those kids?
MURPHY: Of course he was responsible. He was responsible for that attack and for the 650 children that died last year inside Syria. He's responsible for all of the bloodshed inside that country.
BLITZER: So what should the U.S. do in response to a chemical weapons attack like that, which violates international law and brands him, for all practical purposes, a war criminal?
MURPHY: Well, try him as a war criminal, right? Come out and say that the United States is going to lead in the international consensus to bring him to justice and put pressure on the Russians and the Iranians in order to join us.
But let's be clear. The Russians were complicit in this. Right?
BLITZER: When you say complicit, what -- did they know in advance that he was going do this? Did they help him? Or did they just turn -- turn their, you know, eyes away?
MURPHY: I think that it's at least conceivable that the Russians had the ability to veto this action and chose not to. And they have may have decided to do that, because they thought they had a permission slip from the United States in the days and weeks leading up to that action.
So I -- I see as positive this change in rhetoric and policy that the Trump administration has vis-a-vis Russia, because it may actually put pressure and leverage on the Russians to get back to the effort of trying to rid Assad of every single one of these chemical weapons.
BLITZER: The White House press secretary that you heard of, Sean Spicer, he said -- today he said, "If you gas a baby, if you put a barrel bomb into innocent people," that President Trump is going to react. We know he has reacted to a chemical weapons attack, but now he's suggesting you put a barrel bomb; they have been using barrel bombs for months. These are these awful weapons. You can drop them from a helicopter. They've got shrapnel. They've got nail. They maim, they kill, they destroy. These are awful, awful weapons.
Should the U.S. respond if there are more barrel bomb attacks against innocent civilians, including children?
[17:15:00] MURPHY: So I don't know how we would eventually unwind that commitment, right? If we are going to go in and respond to every single human rights violation inside Syria, then let's just be honest about what we're proposing to do. We are proposing to invade Syria and carry out the job until that's done. That is a massive endeavor. That is hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops.
I don't think my constituents in Connecticut would support that. They would support humanitarian efforts, political efforts, limited military efforts. They would not support an invasion of Syria.
BLITZER: What if he could do it through air power alone, not just Tomahawk cruise missiles but warplanes going in and bombing, leveling, basically, all of the Syrian air bases, destroying their planes from the air, not on the ground?
MURPHY: He can't do it with air power alone. Assad has... BLITZER: He could do a lot of damage to his regime.
MURPHY: Well, you can, but, remember, there are Russian air defenses that were not triggered for this limited Tomahawk missile strike but would likely be triggered if there was a broader campaign against Syrian assets.
We are potentially getting involved or sending signals of getting involved in a hyper-complicated proxy war in which there are major powers, the Russians and the Iranians, that have assets on the ground. Future air campaigns won't go -- I'll just guarantee you -- won't go as smoothly as this Tomahawk missile strike did.
BLITZER: Afraid the U.S. could get engaged in another type of Iraq or Afghanistan and stay there for a long time.
MURPHY: Yes. Should be all of our worry.
BLITZER: All right. Stand by, Senator. We have much more to discuss. Let's take a quick break. We'll be right back.
[17:20:56] BLITZER: The White House says more U.S. military action against Syria is possible as President Trump weighs his next move and top administration officials send mixed messages on whether the dictator, Bashar al-Assad, has to go.
We're back with Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee.
The White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, said today -- and I'm quoting him now -- "Article 2 of the Constitution is pretty clear, when it comes to the national interests of the country, that the president as commander in chief can do in a situation like this as he sees fit."
Do you agree that the president has the authority, the legal constitutional authority, that he had it to launch those 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles?
MURPHY: He clearly does not have that authority, and that is a complete misread of the Constitution. The Constitution says that, if it is in the national interests of the United States to take military action overseas, it is only the Congress that can authorize it.
Now, there's a limited exception built in, which is if the security of the United States is under imminent threat. But that was not the case inside Syria, so he absolutely needs congressional authorization. And by the way, we also have about 500 U.S. troops sitting inside Syria today with an undefined mission, with no exit plan.
We have to have a broad conversation about whether or not we're going to launch more attacks against Bashar al-Assad and what we are going to do with the 500 troops that are getting ready to take the fight to ISIS. BLITZER: Some people think there's 1,000 U.S. troops already. But their mission, supposedly, is to fight ISIS in and around the...
MURPHY: They think.
BLITZER: ... in Raqqah, the caliphate capital.
Here's how the president justified his congressional -- his authority to go ahead with this action. He wrote a letter to the House and Senate leadership. He said -- over the weekend he said, "I acted in the vital national security and foreign policy interests of the United States pursuant to my constitutional authority to conduct foreign relations and as commander in chief and chief executive." Is that good enough for you?
MURPHY: It's not good enough. He does have the power and the responsibility to conduct relations with other countries, but the Constitution is very clear that, when it comes to war-making, when it comes to military activity, that is a congressional prerogative.
President Obama understood that. That's why he asked for authorization from Congress before bombing Syria. He wasn't likely to get it, but that was for a very good reason. It's because the American public were very reticent to support that kind of military action in Syria.
And though I think they might support this limited strike, if there is a broader engagement, then you absolutely have to come and talk to Congress, because I don't think the American public are going to give the president that kind of latitude.
BLITZER: I know all this is happening as the Trump administration is recommending some significant cuts in foreign aid to various countries. You are bitterly opposed to that. Tell us why.
MURPHY: Well, not only am I opposed to it, but I unveiled a plan today to dramatically increase the resources that the president has outside of the U.S. military. Why? Because there are all sorts of new threats posed to this country. Very few of them, frankly, are military in nature.
They're propaganda threats. They're threats from energy bullies. They're threats from people that are expanding their economic footprint like China.
We need a series of non-military tools to match those that our adversaries have. And General Mattis himself has said that, if you cut the foreign affairs budget, the budget that tries to grow stability in places like the Middle East, you have to give him more bullets. The two budgets are complementary, and it makes no sense to power up the Department of Defense at the expense of the Department of State.
BLITZER: Do you think you've got the support in Congress to fight the president on this? MURPHY: I think we have the support to at least hold steady on the
State Department budget. John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio all understand the power of the State Department. But we need to be talking about dramatic increases in the funds that promote global stability.
BLITZER: Senator, thanks so much for joining us.
MURPHY: Thank you.
BLITZER: Lots to assess.
Coming up, CNN has exclusive reporting from North Korea. Amid rising tensions with the United States, American warships are now on their way to the region, and Kim Jong-un appears to be preparing for yet another nuclear test. This hour we'll go live to the North Korean capital for an update.
[17:29:21] BLITZER: The White House says the missile strike on a Syrian air base sent a message to the regime of President Bashar al- Assad, but as mixed signals emerge from the Trump administration, one question remains: exactly what message did the president intend to send?
Let's bring in our panel. Chris Cillizza, I want you to listen to the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, at today's briefing, speaking about the future of the Syrian regime.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SPICER: I can't imagine a stable and peaceful Syria where Bashar al- Assad is in power.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Yesterday we heard from Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, and he said that removing Bashar al-Assad is still not necessarily a top U.S. priority. What is it?
CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN: Right, and we heard from Nikki Haley, the U.N. ambassador, who sounded a lot like, language-wise, like Sean Spicer.
[17:30:10] What is it? I don't know that they know, candidly, Wolf. There's no obvious answer here. I always remind people this is -- this is not on Donald Trump necessarily. This is deeply complex set of issues. There are no good options here.
That's true from a policy perspective but also from a political perspective. Lots of polling out in the last 24 hours on this, where people, broadly speaking, support the strike that was made against the air base but don't -- there's no consensus or anything close to a consensus about what we do next: diplomacy alone, air strikes without ground force. The only thing I would say is I think most people, 70- plus percent, do not want ground troops in the area. BLITZER: There was another remarkable statement that Sean Spicer
delivered today at his briefing, Elise, and it involved what's called barrel bombing. I want you to listen to this.
ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Yes.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SPICER: If you gas a baby, if you put a barrel bomb into innocent people, I think you can -- you will -- you will see a response from this president. That is unacceptable.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: That was pretty remarkable.
BLITZER: Because the barrel bombings have been going on.
LABOTT: Daily. Daily.
BLITZER: Almost daily for, what, months if not years?
LABOTT: It's certainly Assad's weapon of choice, and if he was going to say that, if you have a barrel bomb, we'll be striking, then the U.S. would be essentially striking every time that Assad would bomb his people.
I think, you know, he might have been confused about the language, and also some of these barrel bombs do have chlorine use. They're filled with chlorine. So...
BLITZER: They're filled with shrapnel and nails.
LABOTT: Right. Exactly.
BLITZER: They can be dropped from a helicopter at relatively low levels, and if it hits a school or a hospital...
LABOTT: It's much more incendiary than any kind of conventional weapon.
BLITZER: It just -- it just destroys all these people, including kids.
LABOTT: That's right. But like I said, this is one of Assad's weapons of choice. He's been using it almost daily against his people. So the question is that is this really going to be a red line? I think he might have misspoke there. We're waiting for some kind of clarification from the White House.
But this is the issue with words and the idea that words matter. And I mean, when we're talking about this issue of regime change, I mean, there's been a lot made about Nikki Haley and Rex Tillerson having different messages. I think it's just a matter of words. What Nikki Haley is saying, that there's no way that anybody is going
to want Assad at the end of this. Tillerson is not going as far. I think Nikki Haley is much more forceful and much more articulate about it. But essentially, it's the idea that everybody hopes that, at the end, that the Syrian people and all the parties involved will assume that Assad won't be there. I don't think Nikki Haley was saying that the United States is going to go and take out Assad. I'm pretty sure that's not what they're talking about.
JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: And the deeper the United States gets into Syria, the farther away they're from Donald Trump's campaign promise of "America first" and him having to explain a broader conflict there, and they haven't really done that yet. They haven't really -- I mean, you've had some, as you said, different statements from Tillerson and Nikki Haley. That said the Trump doctrine, as he stated it during the campaign, was America first, not -- and staying out of the Middle East.
BLITZER: You know, they did issue sort of what they're calling a clarification after the briefing on the barrel bombing threat. This is from a White House official: "Nothing has changed in our posture. The president retains the option to act in Syria against the Assad regime whenever it is in the national interest, as was determined following that government's use of chemical weapons against its own citizens, and as the president has repeatedly made clear, he won't be telegraphing his military responses."
CILLIZZA: Right. So OK. The difficult thing here is, and Spicer said this a number of times; President Trump has said a number of times, which is, "Well, we're not going to tell you the tactics that we're going to use, and we're not going to tell you the strategy." Which is OK.
BLITZER: Which is nothing wrong with that.
CILLIZZA: But it's also indistinguishable, Wolf, from the possibility that the broader strategy doesn't yet exist.
LABOTT: That's right.
CILLIZZA: It's "I'll tell you -- I'm not going to tell you my secret theory of how I dunk a basketball." It's also possible I can't dunk a basketball. Right? So I think you have to think of it in that context.
I understand the desire to say, "We're not going to telegraph." At this same time, this is to Jackie's point. This is, at this point, a one-off in a region that demands some broader strategic thinking to it. We don't need to know everything, but I do think you need to know some sort of broad outline or blueprint, which we have not gotten yet. And again, I don't know whether it exists or not.
BLITZER: But it's all taking place on the eve of Secretary Tillerson's trip to Moscow.
LABOTT: That's right. Absolutely. BLITZER: He's going to be meeting with the Russian foreign minister.
I don't know if he's going -- if there's going to be a meeting with Putin. Maybe there won't be. Maybe there will be. But this could be a critically important session, Elise.
LABOTT: Well, I think, you know, look, for years, months, Secretary of State Kerry was saying, when he was negotiating with Foreign Minister Lavrov, "I don't have any leverage. The Russians know that the U.S. isn't going to take any military action, and that weakens my hand."
Well, now Rex Tillerson is going there for meetings with the Russians. He's going to take a very strong approach to kind of making Russia culpable for Assad's actions and saying, "Look, this is a strategic risk for you now." And he's going just have -- the U.S. just having bombed the Syrians. And maybe they will again.
[17:35:13] So I mean, I think this does strengthen his hand. On the Putin meeting, it's on, it's off. We don't know. Right now the Kremlin is not saying. I think they're playing with Tillerson.
BLITZER: Right now they're saying it's not going to happen, but it could.
LABOTT: They've been playing with him a little bit. I think...
BLITZER: It could happen, and let's not forget, Jackie, Rex Tillerson when he was chairman of ExxonMobil, he went to Russia, got a friendship prize from Putin at the time. So he's someone who is known to the Russians.
KUCINICH: And he has said -- but he said during his confirmation hearings that this is a different job and that his customer is the president and the United States, not ExxonMobil.
And it is important to point out that this tougher talk toward Russia is endearing Trump to some Republicans that were very skeptical of his relationship with Vladimir Putin and his tone toward the Russians so he might be bringing his party around him through these actions as a result.
CILLIZZA: And one thing he needs, by the way, to that point, Wolf, is he needs a united congressional front because, remember, these investigations -- the congressional investigation, the Justice Department investigation -- into the Russian meddling in the election aren't going away. He needs as many defenders from Capitol Hill as possible.
BLITZER: All right. Everybody stay with us. Don't go too far away. We're going to continue our analysis of all of these important issues right after this.
[17:40:57] BLITZER: As President Trump approaches his 100th day in office, rumors of a staff shake-up are feeding tensions within the White House. The president's chief strategist, Steve Bannon, is under pressure to work out his differences with more moderate advisers, including the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
A lot of the core constituency that helped get Donald Trump elected, they're not very happy right now, Chris, as you know, that Steve Bannon is being criticized like this.
CILLIZZA: No, and Elise mentioned this in the last segment. This is not someone who was elected on the idea that we're going to respond in Syria. This is someone who was elected on the make -- make America great again. America first. All of these ideas.
So, yes, that alienates a part of the party. The Bannon/Kushner thing was inevitable in some ways, Wolf, for two reasons. One, because you have four people essentially deputized -- Bannon and Kushner being two, Reince Priebus, Kellyanne Conway the others -- deputized at the same level with no specific, clear demarcations of who's responsible for what.
And No. 2, Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner are so different in terms of world view, background, how they come at issues, what they care about, that putting the two of them together and saying work it out is -- is going to be difficult.
BLITZER: You remember, Jackie, that President Obama predicted that the challenge, the responsibility of being president of the United States will convince Donald Trump eventually to adopt more moderate positions.
KUCINICH: I don't know that we're there yet. I really don't. Because it is -- this is all new. They're trying to work it out. And Jared Kushner does have the advantage of being family, and it's very hard to win against family if you're on the outside.
But this is very complicated. As Chris said, a lot of people that got Trump elected really like Steve Bannon's philosophy of really trying to shake up Washington, and he's not the only loyalist there. There are Steven Miller. There's Jeff Sessions, who's his attorney general, who very much come more from the Bannon school. So this is a conflict that I don't think will even -- if Bannon does leave, will be over.
BLITZER: You're our global affairs correspondent, Elise.
LABOTT: I am.
BLITZER: So how are people outside of the United States, leaders, seeing this battle that's going on inside the White House?
KUCINICH: Well, I think, you know, when you saw that Flynn resigned and they moved, to you know, H.R. McMaster.
BLITZER: As national security adviser.
KUCINICH: As national security advisor, and Dina Powell as the deputy, I think -- I was just in Israel and Europe and the Middle East, and basically, what diplomats are saying that this shows that President Trump, for all of the concern that people had in the beginning, that he is able to course correct. And it is giving, I think, allies a little bit of comfort, as was the strike in Syria, you know.
I talked to some diplomats, and they said, "Listen, this is giving confidence that U.S. leadership is back there. We're looking for the president to take -- President Obama to take action in Syria." There was this perception that he was retreating from the Middle East. And now you have a president, you know, who took decisive action.
I think it's too early to say that this is a strategy or a trend or a doctrine, but I think that they do -- they do see some positive trends.
I will say who's not so happy, though, are Trump's populist kind of right-wing supporters abroad. You saw Marine Le Pen speaking very derogatorily about the strike. Nigel Farage said he thinks that Trump is going to have some problems. And also you see kind of the alt- right here, some of those commentators not happy.
CILLIZZA: What's hard about Trump, is it's sort of a day-to-day presidency. Elisa's point is right, which is...
LABOTT: Or who talked to him last.
CILLIZZA: Right, right. Which is, is this predictive of something? We have a tendency in our business, especially, but the political world more broadly, is to see shape and form. And OK, the direction it's moving is this.
But if you look at his campaign, it would suggest that the only sort of plan is that there isn't a plan.
I always go back, Donald Trump, the executive. He went in, sat in his office in Trump Tower. No -- nothing on his desk. No plans, no meetings, and he always said he liked to let it come to him. Let the day come to him. I wonder if that's the presidency we're witnessing, that there isn't sort of a broad arc to it.
BLITZER: He didn't get repeal and replace of Obamacare through, at least not yet. His travel ban 1 and 2, still before the courts. He did get a big win, though, with his Supreme Court nominee who is now the Ninth Associate Justice of the United States. That's a huge, huge win for the President.
JACKIE KUCINICH, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, THE DAILY BEAST: And expect to hear a lot about that, about Neil Gorsuch.
ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: No, totally.
BLITZER: Neil Gorsuch is only 49 years old. He's going to be sitting on the bench for maybe 30 or 40 years right now.
BLITZER: That will have an enormous impact. KUCINICH: And you're right, that cannot be diminished. And also,
nothing unites the Republican Party, we talked about it with Russia, more so than a Supreme Court pick that could help change the court for generation. And keep an eye on if someone else retires, whether it's Justice Ginsberg or Justice Kennedy, the next court pick also will be just be a huge deal for the Republican Party, and you'll see that coalescing around him and that nominee again.
BLITZER: You agree, that this is a big win for him?
CILLIZZA: That's a huge win and it's always been his best argument to unify Republicans. I'm going to nominate justices who you agree with much more so than Hillary Clinton or whoever runs against me.
LABOTT: Well, he released that list during the campaign, though.
CILLIZZA: That was one of his best days, yes.
BLITZER: Big win. All right, guys. Stand by, more coming up.
Kim Jong-un appears to be poised for another nuclear test. The defiant dictator vows to accelerate his weapons program despite threats from the Trump administration. CNN is on the ground in Pyongyang, North Korea with an exclusive update.
[17:51:01] BLITZER: We have exclusive reporting from North Korea tonight. The country is vowing to accelerate its nuclear weapons program, defying new pressure from the Trump administration. A U.S. aircraft carrier strike group is heading towards the region, and the President's National Security Advisor is warning that President Trump has a full range of options to respond to Kim Jong-un's threats.
CNN's Will Ripley is the only U.S. journalist reporting from North Korea. He's joining us now live from Pyongyang.
Will, there's high tension in the region. Give us the latest.
WILL RIPLEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, just days before Vice President Pence heads to the region here, there are indications that China may now be taking action against the North Korean regime after that meeting in Mar-a-Lago with President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
There are reports flashing on "Reuters" that Chinese traders have been told to return shipments of North Korean coal, a major revenue generator for the regime which continues to aggressively grow its nuclear program. The nuclear envoys for China and South Korea also pledging to take very strong action, which they have not specified, if North Korea conducts its sixth nuclear test, which officials believed could happen at any time.
RIPLEY (voice-over): Facing mounting global pressure to stop testing nuclear weapons, many fear North Korea leader Kim Jong-un might accelerate his weapons program, and they're awaiting his next move.
On Saturday North Korea celebrates the Day of the Sun, their most important holiday of the year, honoring the birth of the nation's founding father, Kim Il-sung. Five years ago, North Korea tried to launch a satellite, just two days before the Day of the Sun. The first attempt failed, followed by a successful launch later that year.
Now North Korea may be ready for another dramatic show of force. After a series of missile launches, U.S. and South Korean intelligence officials believe North Korea is ready to conduct a nuclear test at any time.
In response to recent provocations, the U.S. is rerouting the carrier strike group Carl Vinson to the Korean Peninsula, just days after President Trump's surprised missile strike on Syria. Some view the strike as a warning to North Korea, the U.S. is willing to respond with force if provoked.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (through translator): The situation is so tense. We're at the brink of war. But if that happens, we will all go to the front lines to fight the Americans.
RIPLEY (on camera): President Trump may be trying to put pressure on North Korea to stop developing nuclear weapons. But here in Pyongyang, that pressure seems to be having the opposite effect.
RIPLEY (voice-over): One North Korean government official tells CNN, "The aggressive acts of war on the part of the United States are getting increasingly reckless. In response, we will continue to strengthen our self-defense capability."
North Korea is working to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile that can deliver a nuclear warhead to the mainland U.S. Most analysts say they don't have one yet, but it is only matter of time.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): We think we're very capable of defending ourselves because we have the strong leadership of marshal of Kim Jong-un.
RIPLEY (voice-over): The mood inside North Korea is not tense but festive on their biggest holiday week of the year. Tens of thousands are visiting national landmarks, like the birthplace of late President Kim Il-sung.
For the first time, CNN cameras are allowed inside the Museum of the Korean Revolution. More than 100,020 rooms chronicling all three generations of Kim family leadership. This rare inside look at North Korean history shows the entire nation
is built around these three men. I'm shown footage from 2011 when North Koreans learned of the unexpected death of the nation's second leader, Kim Jong-il. The footage brings our guide to tears.
[17:55:00] Now their supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, is leading her and 25 million North Koreans like his grandfather and father before him. He has absolute power over the lives of his people.
RIPLEY: We could hear Kim Jong-un himself speak about this later today, a major political gathering. The Supreme People's Assembly kicks off just hours from now, but of course, the votes are always unanimous. No political dissent allowed here, Wolf. It's Kim Jong-un who decides what this country does in regards with nuclear program, moving forward.
BLITZER: Will Ripley with that exclusive reporting from Pyongyang, North Korea. Will, thank you very, very much.
Coming up, we have new details of the damage from the U.S. strike on that Syrian air base. What will President Trump's next move be?