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Putin: Syrian Rebels may Use Chemical Weapons, Blame Assad; Tillerson: Russia either Incompetenet or Lax on Syria; Tillerson: "Defeat of ISIS" still Top Goal in Syria. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired April 11, 2017 - 10:00   ET




ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. The breaking news moments ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin lashed out at the United States for its actions in Syria and levied new accusations against Syrian rebels. Putin says that Moscow has proof that the chemical attacks that took place in Syria last week were an effort to frame -- to frame the Assad regime. And he warns that the United States rush to blame Syria is very similar to what Washington did in the run up to the war in Iraq in 2003.


VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): We say that this resembles very much the situation of 2003 and they warned Iraq. First of all, there was a campaign launched in Iraq and it finished with the destruction of the country, the growth of the terrorist threat and the emergence of ISIS on the international arena.


POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: This as the president's Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, is arriving in Moscow. He just got off the plane moments ago. He's also firing off accusations of his own.

We have a lot of news to get to this morning. Let's begin this hour with our Nic Robertson. He's in Italy where the G7 just wrapped up. And that's where we heard from Tillerson. We also have our Michelle Kosinski traveling with Secretary of State in Moscow. And let's begin with you Michelle.

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: All right. So, yes, we're hearing from Vladimir Putin today. You heard what he said about comparing this to the second Iraq war.

I mean, first to Russians after this attack. They denied involvement even though there was a Russian drone, that were seen over the hospital where the chemical attack victims were being treated, that hospital was then later bombed. I mean, the circumstances are still murky, but Russia has denied involvement.

Then they tried to pin this on rebels, saying that the chemicals were actually in a rebel store house that was hit, that they were not the Assad regime. So, they're trying to take blame not only away from themselves but also away from Assad. But now, they go a step further. Saying that they know of other provocations that are out there that could lead to additional U.S. strikes. Listen.


PUTIN (through translator): We have information from various sources that this kind of provocation and I can't call it anything other than provocation, is being prepared for in other regions of Syria, too, including the southern suburbs of Damascus, where they're preparing to drop similar chemicals and then accuse the Syrian government of it. That we believe that any manifestation that kind should be carefully investigated and we intend to apply to the relevant U.N. bodies in The Hague and to urge the international community to investigate these matters very carefully.


KOSINSKI: While Tillerson was in Italy at the G7, I mean, he was pushing for additional sanctions potentially against Russia as well as Syria. But the other nations wanted to hold off sanctioning Russia further because they wanted more investigation. They want to see what more evidence is out there.

So, the U.S. is saying there's strong evidence that this was the Assad regime. They're looking into whether Russia was complicit in it. And here you now have Russia absolving itself and the regime of blame, but saying that the rebels with chemicals within Syria are now provoking the U.S. to strike. That would ultimately then frame Russia and the regime again.

It's going to be a difficult conversation once Rex Tillerson lands -- now that he's here, he'll be meeting tomorrow with his counterpart. But still there's no sign that Vladimir Putin is going to sit directly down with him and have this conversation himself, a lot of accusations out there now though.

BERMAN: Yes, these verbal salvos happening even prior to these meeting. Michelle Kosinski in Moscow thanks so much.

Let's go to Italy right now, where we find CNN's Nic Robertson. And Nic, that is where the Secretary of State was when he made these harsh statements directed at Moscow.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: Yes, he's been very, very clear. Russia has a choice right now. It can either continue backing Assad and be on the side of Iran who this White House is diametrically opposed to. And that would also put Russia on the same side as Hezbollah, a designated terrorist organization in the United States and with many allies as well.

So, what he has said and what he has framed here, this goes directly to the point that Putin was trying to make, that somehow the United States is replicating what it did in Iraq and trying to replicate that in Syria. Secretary Tillerson, being very, very clear, about the rationale behind the U.S. strikes and the rational of the U.S. priorities in the region. It is ISIS. This is how he put it.

[10:05:10] REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: To be clear, our military action was a direct response to the Assad regime's barbarism. The United States priority in Syria and Iraq remains the defeat of ISIS.


ROBERTSON: Now, when we try to look at why there wasn't a consensus for further sanctions, the British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson had said, he thought that there should be.

But remembering that it was Italy that's chairing this G7 here, and it is Italy's Prime Minister last year, Matteo Renzi, of course he's out of office now, was the first of the European leaders, if you will, to break ranks and go meet Putin after the sanctions put on Putin because of Ukraine, met with him in the St. Petersburg somewhat in May last year. That is principally because Italy has a stronger economic ties and interdependence with Russia. That Italy tends to be a little bit more politically close.

So, when we try to look at why allies weren't so ready to get behind additional sanctions, there's a diplomatic rationale as we heard, not to box Russia in. But you know, there are divisions among the European countries. And at one time the United States would turn to England to have influence on its European partners, now this Brexit, not so much. John?

HARLOW: Nic Robertson for us in Lucca, Italy. Thank you very much Nic.

Let's discuss all of this with Robert Hunter. He's the former ambassador to NATO under the Clinton administration and former Foreign Policy Advisor to Senator Ted Kennedy and retired Major General Spider Marks. He's also a CNN military analyst, thank you gentlemen for being here.

Ambassador, let me begin with you. So you've got Tillerson saying, either Russia and Putin were incompetent or complicit in the chemical weapons attack in Syria. And then, you've also got him pointing at the United States and basically saying, you are just trying to gin up a fake justification for war ala 2003 in Iraq. Wow.

ROBERT HUNTER, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO NATO: I think Putin is trying to throw dust in our eyes. He's in a bargaining situation. He really has no time or let's say deep commitment to Assad or to Iran for that matter. But what he does want is a permanent Russian presence in the Middle East. He wants to be included in any negotiations or process that goes on. He wants more respect so to speak. And he also wants to get sanctions released or removed over Ukraine. So, he's setting up a situation of being somewhat belligerent in order to try to increase his bargaining leverage, including with a number of our west European allies who themselves are wondering what is America planning to try to do in the Middle East?

BERMAN: You know, General, Mr. Hunter, the ambassador said that Vladimir Putin is trying to increase his leverage. What about the leverage from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson? He's flying into Moscow, just landed in fact, after making these somewhat -- statements saying that Vladimir Putin is either incompetent or complicit. You know, does he go in with more bargaining power now because of what's happened the last week?

MAJOR GENERAL JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RET), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Yes. We just dropped 59 -- the United States just dropped 59 TLAMs into Syria in order to achieve political outcome. Clearly, that was the description that I think is a legitimate one to make about this strike. We can talk about the military effects, but truly what this was, was a message to Assad. But what's happening in Syria has more to do as the ambassador indicated with our relationship with Russia. Clearly, Russia has a historical presence in the Middle East. It's been a location that confluence of conflict between east and west in the Mideast has been for years, for decades.

So, Russia will have, and I think at the end of the day Russia rightfully will demand to have a presence in the Mideast. That's something I think we need to be able to acknowledge and we will. But we also have to be able to go forward and say, look, what Russia wants with the United States is some form of military cooperation. They understand that in any type of a conflict, our military would completely overmatch his.

So, without giving away the family jewels, the United States might be able to work out something with Russia. That gives us a common picture and a place where we both can achieve. But there's no scenario that I think the United States can see and that Mr. Putin can see where Assad is in charge in Syria over the course of the next couple of years. -- He's in decline and he's going to go away.

HARLOW: General, just sticking with you for a moment on the big picture here when it comes to Syria. I mean, obviously the major growing divide between U.S. - the U.S. and Russia doesn't help. But you also have a very confusing narrative coming from the White House on this. The red line, according to the president and his remarks after the strikes, was this chemical weapons attack.

[10:10:02] And then if you listen to White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer yesterday, three times he essentially said that the red line is this barrel bombs being dropped. But they've been dropped and dropped and dropped. And we have the numbers to show you. I mean, hundreds of them, upwards of 400 a month for you know, spanning over a year and a half now. Do we need more clarity from the president himself on what the go-forward plan is in Syria and where his red line is?

MARKS: Poppy, we do. In terms of the strategy, I would hesitate to say that the establishment of progressive or individual red lines is helpful to any end state. What Sean Spicer said - you know, he could have said barrel bombs and we're not going to allow that to occur. He could say small arms. We're not going to allow that to occur. He could say barricades. You know, he could have listed a whole bunch of things. That is not really relevant to the end state.

We do need to hear from the president in terms of what his vision is. In terms, a word picture of what he thinks right looks like in Syria. Clearly, I would say we're marching down the path. It may not be imminent, but we're marching down the path towards regime change of some sort. And you know, if you look at history, civil wars flame out within ten years. We're at about seven years in Syria. There might be a coincidence that within this administration's time frame Assad may be gone of devices that are just internal to Syria and pressure from the outside that we need to provide.

BERMAN: You know, Ambassador, if we can go back to Moscow for a second right now. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, due to meet with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, no scheduled meeting with Vladimir Putin, do you expect that to change? Would you be surprised if over the next 36 hours or so, we learn of a meeting whether it be a chance encounter otherwise between the Russian Leader? Wouldn't that be a way to deescalate this for both sides?

HUNTER: Well, this Russian behavior goes all the way back to Soviet times, which is the junior guy, that is the foreign minister meets with the foreign guest. And then they decide if there's enough going on to be worthwhile for Putin to come in from the wings and in effect to wrap things up.

I expect that the Russians are going to talk a good game, but are in a bargaining situation, as we both have been saying here. They have no love for us. I think they could see him go tomorrow morning. But they want to make sure they get things out of this, the permanent presence and in particular, the relief of sanctions on Ukraine. They want to be taken as much as an equal as they can with us.

Incidentally, the idea of just getting rid of Assad and everything is wonderful. It's absolute nonsense. We have a minority Shia government, the Alawites, running a majority in effect Sunni country. And now, the Sunni Arab states and Turkey and Egypt would like to get rid of Assad in order to right the balance that was changed when we invaded Iraq way back in 2003.

So, we have to have a game plan going forward. The problem is, we have a young administration. We don't have anybody in office at the State Department other than the secretary. A very good Secretary of Defense, Mr. Mattis is in office, but he has nobody working for him. We have a young team at the NSC. We have a crisis now and we don't have the kind of coordination. We don't have a game plan that President Trump is going to have to work to put together very quickly.

BERMAN: Big couple of days. We'll be watching closely. Ambassador Hunter, General Marks, great to have you with us. Thank you very, very much.

Airstrikes in Syria looming very large as we close in on the first 100 days of the Trump administration, what is this White House doing to try to claim success?

HARLOW: Also, North Korea issuing a defiant warning to the U.S. military. And now, President Trump this morning hitting back, why he says North Korea is quote, "looking for trouble."


[10:18:08] HARLOW: So, pretty stunning claim from Russian President Vladimir Putin just a few hours ago saying essentially, there will be new chemical weapons attacks and they will be carried out to frame Syrian Dictator Bashar al-Assad. Now, Putin went on to say that President Trump rushed to act too quickly.

BERMAN: All this is happening as the president nears 100 days in office. Joining us now Angela Rye, CNN political commentator, former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus and Jeffrey Lord, CNN political commentator, contributing editor at "The American Spectator."

Jeffrey, let me start with you. During the campaign, candidate Donald Trump essentially said would it be such a bad thing to have a friendlier relationship with Vladimir Putin in Russia? Well, now the Russian leader is accusing the Trump administration of a war tantamount to a false invasion and suggesting that you know, Syria is being framed here.

JEFFREY LORD, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR AND CONTRIBUTING EDITOR "THE AMERICAN SPECTATOR": Well, so much for the idea that Vladimir Putin was blade to give Donald Trump the presidency. I don't think this worked out the way the critics have suggested.

Look, I have said all along from day one, it's not possible that Vladimir Putin preferred Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump is going to take, I think, Vladimir Putin and every other world leader at face value until they do something that crosses the line. And this clearly was a very disturbing incident, very, very disturbing. And he acted. He took action. And we've seen what it's like when a president does not act. So, we're just going to have to go on from here and play it as it goes.

HARLOW: All right. Do we have Angela with us guys?


HARLOW: All right. Angela Rye, it is Poppy Harlow. I'm glad you can hear us. Let me ask you this. Just looking at -- this is certainly front and center for this administration heading into the 100 day mark, which is not really significant other than people make a big deal of its sort of since FDR, right? And how is the administration judged.

[10:20:05] So, heading up to the 100 day mark, this administration has had some wins like Gorsuch, et cetera. And they've had some road bumps, like the failure to pass the health care reform bill, like the travel ban 1.0 and 2.0 not making it to the court system, like General Flynn's resignation.

However, they've had some wins, right? They've had Gorsuch. They've had the rollback on regulations. The stock market is way up. Illegal border crossings are way down. We know that the White House communications director called this meeting last week to try to figure out with white boards included how they're going to brand the 100 days. How do you see it?

RYE: Well, I think it's important for us to decipher between how they actually are categorizing wins. I think wins are determined by how they impact the American people. So, I can't help but to compare Donald Trump's first 100 days to Barack Obama's first 100 days.

We're talking about Barack Obama signing the Lilly Ledbetter Act into law, which ensures equal pay for equal work for women. We're talking about someone who ensures the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, to what he said, allow rising tides to lift all boats and to strengthen the economy for people in their local areas. And then, you compare that to I think what I would categorize as frankly, many epic fails by the Trump administration.

And that is, as you said, the Muslim ban and the various iterations of that. The wall, the fact that he said to taxpayers, OK, I'm just kidding, now actually you all will pay for the wall, the number of things, the number of moments they were and they had to pivot. I think, the only real thing where Donald Trump has won besides of course, Gorsuch, and he had the Senate to help him there. Thank God they implemented the "nuclear option" there. Is golfing, he is winning on golfing, Poppy. He's 28 days in -- 28 days out of 100 into golfing. And that's it in it. So, funny because he was the critic in chief about Barack Obama's golf game.

BERMAN: All right. Jeffrey Lord, I'm going to let you respond to that specifically. I think we have some sound. Hang on Jeffrey. Hang on Jeffrey because to Angela's point, I think we have some sound of then- candidate Trump talking about golf. Let's play it.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Obama, it was reported today, played 250 rounds of golf. He played more golf last year than Tiger Woods.

This guy plays more golf than people on the PGA Tour.

Golf, golf, golf, golf, more, more, more. Learning how to chip, learning how to hit the drive, learning how to putt. I want more.

I love golf. I think it's one of the greats. But I don't have time.

I'm going to be working for you. I'm not going to have time to go play golf.

I wouldn't leave the White House very much, because you know like little things, like these little trips, would they get on to cost you a fortune.


BERMAN: All right. And Jeffrey, on top of that, CNN is reporting that President Trump is on pace to spend more on personal travel in his first year than President Obama spent all eight years that he was in office. It just so happens, I don't think there's anything wrong with presidential golfing. But doesn't this prove that then-candidate Trump was dead wrong about it when he was running for office, Jeffrey?

LORD: I don't think so. I think this is just the media gossip? You know -


HARLOW: Jeffrey Lord, how is it a media gossip? You heard the president's own words.

LORD: You know, I'm looking for things like did President Obama donate his first quarter salary to the National Park Service? I don't think so. Did he play golf on his own golf course? I don't think so.

RYE: That's costing us $3 million, Jeffrey, every trip, $3 million every trip.

LORD: Look, the important thing here is Neil Gorsuch. I mean, I went to some of these Trump rallies. This was something that people talked about all the time. That's a generational change. He's going to be on that court for a very long time.

This is why Angela and her friends were so upset and forced the pulling of - trigger of the "nuclear option." He's had a stunning great time here in the beginning. He's really changing America. And I might add, as the "Wall Street Journal" editorial has pointed out this morning, President Obama has left this country with considerable tab financially that we're going to be paying for a very long time.

RYE: Jeffrey. OK, I just have to push back on this a little bit. Again, I'm so glad you brought up the tab. Let me talk to you a little bit about that tab. $3 million per golf trip, Melania staying in New York City, $1 million a day. We're talking about, Jeffrey, you're looking at --

LORD: It's her home.

RYE: -- conservative. It's me. And I'm just so surprised that you won't even agree with me on this point. You're talking about wins for the American people. I would push back. Climate change is a real thing. You talked about me and my friends. Tell your friend that there are icebergs melting, OK? We have a real challenge. And your guy is dialing back regulations that are harmful not just to the American people but globally. This is a problem. We have to acknowledge where there is - well, at least where there should be bipartisan agreements. That should be on facts. Facts are non-negotiable despite what your friends --

[10:25:03] LORD: Facts are non-negotiable -


HARLOW: All right. Angela Rye - LORD: -- Donald Trump is in the White House in the first place is because people had it with the Obama era -


HARLOW: We got to go, guys. Angela Rye and Jeffrey Lord we have to go because John and I need to go golfing. - Thank you very much.

BERMAN: We're going to get all our friends together. We're going to get Jeffrey's friends together, Angela's friends together, our friends together and go golfing.

HARLOW: And we're going to put it on the federal government.

BERMAN: And we're going to put it on the federal government. We'll do that.

HARLOW: All right. Still to come for us, on a much more serious note, it is not just Putin, North Korea lashing out this morning at the United States. It says it is ready for war. What Trump is tweeting back? That's next.


[10:30:00] HARLOW: North Korea this morning lashing out at the United States warning it will hold the U.S. fully accountable.

BERMAN: Yes, this comes after the U.S. decision to deploy a carrier strike group to the Korean Peninsula.