Return to Transcripts main page


Trump Administration's Foreign Policy?; Spicer Compares Assad to Hitler. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired April 11, 2017 - 15:00   ET



BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin. Thank you for being with me here.

We have breaking news this afternoon on multiple fronts.

First of all, in just a couple of minutes, the Pentagon will hold a news conference. This is the first time General James Mattis will go on camera -- this is the secretary of defense here -- since the U.S. strikes on Syria five days ago. So, we will take that live.

And, also, the other moment making headlines from the White House press briefing just a little while ago, you had Press Secretary Sean Spicer triggering this firestorm of criticism when he compared the Syrian regime and Bashar al-Assad to Adolf Hitler.


QUESTION: The alliance between Russia and Syria is a strong one. It goes back decades. President Putin has supplied personnel, he has supplied military equipment to the Assad government. What makes you think that, at this point, he's going to pull back on his support for President Assad and for the Syrian government right now?


You look -- we didn't use chemical weapons in World War II. You know, you had a -- you know, someone as despicable of Hitler who didn't even sink to the -- to using chemical weapons.

So, you have to, if you're Russia, ask yourself, is this is country that you and a regime that want to align yourself with? You have previously signed onto international agreements, rightfully acknowledging that the use of chemical weapons should be out of bounds by every country.

To not stand up to not only Assad, but your own word, should be troubling. This is -- Russia put their name on the line. So, it's not a question of how long that alliance has lasted, but at what point do they recognize that they are now getting on the wrong side of history in a really bad way?

QUESTION: Quote: "Hitler didn't even sink to the level of using chemical weapons," what did you mean by that? SPICER: I think, when you come to sarin gas, there was no -- he was

not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing.

There is clearly -- I understand -- thank you. I appreciate that. There was not in the -- he brought them into the Holocaust center. I understand that.

But I'm saying that in a way that Assad used them, where he went into towns, dropped them down to innocent -- into the middle of towns, it was brought -- so, the use of it. And I appreciate the clarification there. That was not the intent.


BALDWIN: Let's go the Jeff Zeleny, our senior White House correspondent there.

And you saw Sean Spicer was given the opportunity to clean up his original statement. I understand he has tried to clean it up again.


He has issued a statement. Sean Spicer has issued a statement just a couple moments ago, again trying to clarify what he was talking about earlier.

Let's take a look at that, if we have it right now.

It says this: "In no way was I trying to lessen the horrendous nature of the Holocaust. However, I was trying to draw a contrast of the tactic of using airplanes to drop chemical weapons on innocent people."

Brooke, I'm still not sure if that reaches the historical gravity here of what we're talking about. Holocaust centers, presumably, he means concentration camps.

Again, though, we were talking about the chemical attack last week. Why Sean Spicer drew that to a parallel to the Holocaust in the first place is a question that he will have to answer, of course. But he is trying to say, look, he was not meaning any disrespect here, but coming during Passover, other things, Brooke, it certainly rang hollow and it was very off-tone, to say the very least.

BALDWIN: Yes. We will have more on that.

But let me follow up with you also on your great reporting from the senior official at the White House, so far as whether or not they believe that the Syrian strike, that Russia was involved or there was some sort of cover-up. What do you know?

ZELENY: Well, the administration believes that Russia was -- knew about the existence of chemical weapons in Syria.

They are stopping short of saying that they had knowledge of that attack specifically a week ago today. But, Brooke, this is very much what Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, a question he asked last Thursday night in the wee hours of the evening after those military strikes.

He said, is Russia is complicit in this? This is the administration officials saying that indeed the Russians had to know that the chemical weapons were still in existence in Syria there.

So, as close of a line as we have gotten into the U.S. saying that Russia, you know, had to know about this, but, again, stopping just short. They said there's not consensus in the intelligence community here in the U.S. that Russia did in fact know about the chemical attack in advance.


But they did know that there were chemical weapons still, that sarin nerve gas, nerve agent, still on the ground there -- Brooke.

BALDWIN: Jeff Zeleny, thank you very much.

We're going to move on from the White House and talk about what we're expecting at the Pentagon, because all of this comes as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, he is in Moscow right now. This is just days after the U.S. missile strike in Syria.

And in that White House briefing, Sean Spicer also spoke about Secretary Tillerson's planned meeting with the Russians, which is coming at -- quote -- "the most difficult point between the two nations since the Cold War."

That's not talking heads saying that, but actually Vladimir Putin's spokesman today. Here is more from Sean Spicer.


SPICER: Russia is on an island when it comes to its support of Syria or its lack of, frankly, acknowledgement of what happened.

The facts are on our side. The actions of Syria are reprehensible. And I think that Russia has been party to several international agreements that Syria is not holding up to, in fact, that Russia needs to hold themselves up to.

So, I think the president has been very clear with his stance on Russia. And in this particular case, we are going to be very forceful, and I think as will Secretary Tillerson during his visit, to make sure that we make sure that we let Russia know that they need to live up to the obligations that it has made.


BALDWIN: Let's turn now to CNN senior diplomatic correspondent Michelle Kosinski in Moscow and CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

And, Barbara, let's begin with you as we're moments away from this news conference with the secretary of defense.

What are you expecting, what should we all expect to hear presumably on Syria from General Mattis?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brooke, as the Pentagon briefing room with reporters begins to fill up, in about 25 minutes, we expect Defense Secretary Mattis to walk in accompanied by General Joseph Votel, the four-star head of Central Command, the man who oversaw the U.S. missile strike against the Syrian air base.

There's going to be a lot of questions about how that strike happened and what kind of damage it actually inflicted on the Syrians. What we now know is that the U.S. missiles either damaged or destroyed 23 Syrian aircraft, about 20 percent, according to the Pentagon, of Syria's operating air forces.

They have a lot of aircraft that don't operate. So, that will be one thing we will be looking for, also Russian complicity. The U.S. military and U.S. intelligence community are investigating this very question. What they do know is there was a Russian drone in the area and unidentified aircraft dropped a conventional bomb after the chemical attack.

Russians were at the air base. There's Russian chemical weapons expertise inside Syria. A lot of dots out there, but very cautious about connecting the dots and coming up with a firm conclusion. They don't want to be wrong.

But looking ahead, the next question, you know, the White House had said they are prepared to conduct more military action if the president orders it. And when you see both these men here at the podium in a little while, these are the two that will be working on any future target lists.

General Votel not a guy who sits around waiting to be told. U.S. Central Command pretty much has a continuous list for Syria. They will be ready to go if and when the president orders any additional military action, Brooke.

BALDWIN: We will be listening in on that momentarily, as I know you will be there. Barbara, stand by for us.

Michelle, to you there in Moscow focusing on Secretary Tillerson's trip, do you know, just based on our reporting from a senior White House official, do you know if the Russians are aware of this accusation of Russia is a cover-up, because Secretary Tillerson already alluded to Russia's possibly being incompetent, second time he said that, or just lax for allowing the Syrian government to use chemical weapons?

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: Yes, not yet. The Kremlin hasn't responded to those remarks specifically.

We may hear from them. But this question of whether Russia was complicit, how complicit, what they knew ahead of time has been circulating for days. It's been out there. And for the most part, Russia's repeated denials are what we're hearing. They have been blaming the chemical attack on rebel groups. They said it was a stockpile of rebel-held chemicals that was hit by an airstrike and that's how the attack happened.

They have been denying that consistently throughout. Today, also, we heard Rex Tillerson make remarks before he left here. He was in Italy before landing in Moscow, saying that the Assad regime is in its end stages, talking about a need for change and that he hopes that Russia will change course.

And the Kremlin, in fact, Vladimir Putin himself did respond to those remarks, but what he said was that he believes that not only the Assad regime, but Russia are being framed for this attack and others like it. He predicted that there would be more attacks.


He called them provocations, presumably by rebel groups that were planning these chemical attacks. He compared it to a similar instance to the Iraq War in 2003, when there were allegations of weapons of mass destruction, since proven false.

Some of the things he said today were absolutely stunning and that shows you the Russian line. And you have to wonder where there's room for cooperation going forward.

I mean, this big meeting happens tomorrow between Secretary of State Tillerson and the Russian foreign minister. And, at this point, President Putin has not scheduled a meeting with Tillerson, and that in itself is remarkable, based on precedent.

BALDWIN: Right. As you well, Mark Toner over at State says, if there is an invitation extended to Tillerson from the Kremlin, they will say yes, but thus far nothing. Michelle, thank you very much in Moscow.

Let me bring in our CNN military and diplomatic analyst, former State Department and Pentagon spokesperson Admiral John Kirby.

Admiral, welcome to the CNN family, by the way.


BALDWIN: I haven't had a chance to say that you.

So, the latest we've heard from the Pentagon in terms of damage, that's where I want to focus my first question, at this air base -- 59 out of 60 Tomahawk missiles hit their intended targets. Secretary of Defense Mattis said that the strike destroyed fuel, ammunition, air defense capabilities and 20 percent of Syria's operational aircraft.

But when you listen to Russia, they're saying only 23 missiles hit the air base, which, you know, leaves one with mixed messages. What's your expectation from this briefing with Secretary Mattis?

KIRBY: What I think what you are going to hear today is that he and General Votel are going to provide a little bit more context about the mission itself and the reasons why they believe in what we call BDA, the battle damage assessment, why we believe that we were hit what we were aiming at with as much ordnance as they launched.

I think he really wants to just sort of lay to rest some of the speculation out there that maybe the strike wasn't as targeted as they said it was, maybe it wasn't as precise. And I think that's what you're going to see.

Look, any claim by the Russians that it was 23 or whatever number is obviously false. There's no way that they could know that. But the American military certainly can tell and track the success of the launch of Tomahawk missiles.

BALDWIN: So, so just quickly again, going back to the number, when you have Defense Secretary Mattis saying hitting 20 percent of Syria's operational aircraft, how big of a hit is that, in your opinion?

KIRBY: That's significant.

Look, this isn't a huge air force. It's not a very sophisticated air force. They are flying a lot of old Russian airplanes. And for us to take out a percentage like that, 20 percent, that is not insignificant at all.

Does it completely eliminate Assad's ability to commit violence against his own people from the air? Absolutely not. And we have already seen that he's shown willingness to do that just in the day after the strike.

But it is significant. And I think what you are going to see from General Votel and from Defense Secretary Mattis is providing a little bit more context about the success of this mission, as well as explaining the targeted, precise nature in which it was conducted and why it was conducted that way.

BALDWIN: That's the BDA that we will be looking for in just a couple of minutes.


BALDWIN: Got you.

So, let me move on and ask how now the Trump administration has put this red line on barrel bomb, a weapon that the Assad regime pretty much routinely uses, but then the administration walked it back, almost like this is a growing, moving, malleable red line. Seems kind of all over the place. What do you think?


Well, I do agree that the messages coming out on Syria specifically in the last few days have been confusing, both from a military perspective, in terms of what will target more strikes or not, as well as on a political level. It's unclear, you know, how much regime change really is in the cards

here. So, they have got some message alignment that I think they need to work on.

I think what you're going to hear from General Votel and from the defense secretary today is that the purpose for this strike was to act in the vital national security interests of the United States against the spread and the use of chemical weapons and that that rubric is still valid, that that would be sort of the litmus test for any potential future military actions.

That's what I think. I don't think that they are going to expand the purposes for that strike to also apply to barrel bombs or other conventional strikes.

But it does raise a question, a larger issue, is that line really possible? Is it possible to have that line redrawn? Because if it has the deterrent effect that they think it will have, and Assad maybe doesn't use chemical weapons in the future, it doesn't stop him obviously from killing his people through other means.

And that's really the issue here. It should be the issue, is the civil war itself and the continued killing of hundreds of thousands of Syrian people.


BALDWIN: And what to do with Assad.


BALDWIN: Admiral Kirby, thank you very, very much with us here.

Stay with me, because we're going to take this briefing and talk on the other side.

The White House, by the way, slamming Russia's support of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in defending the U.S. missile strikes last week. Russia firing back, comparing the strike to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. This back-and-forth war of words quite a departure from the tone that we saw during the presidential campaign.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If Putin likes Donald Trump, guess what, folks? That's called an asset, not a liability. I hope we have a fantastic relationship. That's possible. And it's also possible that we won't.

He's the leader of his country. I say it's better to get along with Russia than not.

If we got along with Russia and Russia went out with us and knocked the hell out of ISIS, that's OK with me, folks.

He said nice things about me. He called me a genius. He said we're going to win. That's good.

If he says great things about me, I'm going to say great things about him. I have already said he's very much of a leader. You can say, oh, isn't that a terrible thing? The man has very strong control over a country.

There's nothing I can think of that I would rather do than have Russia friendly. I don't know that I'm going to get along with Vladimir Putin. I hope I do.


BALDWIN: Joining me now, Fareed Zakaria, host of CNN's "FAREED ZAKARIA GPS."

Good to see you.

That was then, this is now. And you wrote -- I want to use your words. You said "The strike President Trump ends strange flirtation with Putin on the Middle East."

Tell me why it's all changed.

FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN WORLD AFFAIRS ANALYST: Well, because it seemed as though it was entirely based on some kind of personality match that Trump seems to have found on or something like that.


ZAKARIA: It was based on the idea that he liked Putin, and we know he had never met Putin, so he liked what he saw on TV, I guess.

BALDWIN: Never spoken a word?

ZAKARIA: Never spoke a word. Claimed falsely that he met him once, but then backed off on that.

But, more importantly, he didn't seem to recognize that this is not about personality types. This is not about This is the fact that the Russians have interests in the United States diametrically opposed to the United States'.

The United States has long pursued those interests. Russia has long pursued them. We think -- the United States thinks the Russians are on the wrong side. And what is fascinating to me, to watch reality set in.

And while Trump has not reneged or reversed himself, every other member of the administration has, from Sean Spicer to Rex Tillerson to McMaster. And what you have is in a sense the long-term interests of the United States asserting themselves and what they reveal is, there is a big divide between the United States and Russia.

BALDWIN: He stopped short on saying anything about Russia or Putin when he was standing next to King Abdullah in the Rose Garden last week, which was noticeable, although he changed on how he feels clearly about Assad.

But what do you make of, other than a tweet about why you don't bomb runways and maybe a diversionary tweet this morning on North Korea, what do make of the president's reticence on Syria?

ZAKARIA: I think that maybe he's trying to absorb it.

It's always struck me that there are two elements to the Trump administration. There's the sort of freak show of Donald Trump and the tweets and the crazy talk and the -- and, frankly, the lies, but then there are these very smart professionals, Tillerson, McMaster, Mattis.

And clearly they must have been pushing him in a direction that perhaps he's not yet comfortable with. But he's allowing -- he's the president. You have to give him credit. He has allowed a lot of things to happen.

In the last two days, think of what the White House has put out. The White House today put out a four-page document accusing Russia not just of allying with the Assad regime.

BALDWIN: Covering it up.

ZAKARIA: But of covering it up. And they used a phrase which I thought was fascinating. They said that they are confusing the issue with a false narrative.

Now, this is what the Obama administration would have called fake news. What the Russians are doing is essentially spewing fake news. The Trump people don't want to call it fake news because...

BALDWIN: Because that actually is fake news.

ZAKARIA: Exactly.

And in a way, that would be aligning themselves too much with the critics of Russia. Right? The second part is, Tillerson gave it -- the things you mentioned, what Tillerson said about Russia and Assad was very tough. He said they are on the wrong side of history, they're allied with a dying regime.

BALDWIN: Incompetent.

ZAKARIA: And do they really want to be allied with Assad, or do they want to come over and work with the West?

This is language straight out of the Obama administration. There is an article in "National Review" I think by Andrew McCarthy, who says -- and this is a frustrated conservative speaking. He said, we thought if we had elected Hillary Clinton, we'd get the third Obama term in foreign policy. We've elected Donald Trump and we're getting the third Obama term in foreign policy.


Right now, the Trump administration's policy on Syria is indistinguishable from Barack Obama's.

BALDWIN: Except that Barack Obama drew the red line, and...

ZAKARIA: Well, he drew the red line and said, if you cross this -- so remember what happens.

They do the deal, and the Assad regime says, we won't use chemical weapons again, and here are all of our chemical weapons. And the implicit threat the Obama administration had was, if you do, there will be consequences.

So, guess what? They did, and the Trump administration implemented the consequence of that deal. In a sense, the Trump administration honored the Obama administration's threat that, if do you this one more time, there will be a consequence.

BALDWIN: And we're coming to get you.


ZAKARIA: And they also have shifted on Russia. They have also shifted on Assad, now calling for him to go. It's an across-the-board shift.

BALDWIN: Fareed Zakaria, thank you very much for all of that.

And waiting to get this briefing from the defense secretary, James Mattis, momentarily from the Pentagon. Live pictures there. The room is filling in. We will take it live. This is the first on-camera briefing since the strikes in Syria some five days ago.

We will be right back.


BALDWIN: Just into CNN, the CEO of United Airlines is now apologizing -- weren't we just talking about this a couple minutes ago here? He's now apologizing after global outrage surrounding this horrific video.

You hear this and see this screaming passenger violently dragged off of this overbooked flight out of Chicago. His face is bloody. He's crying. He just wants to go home.

So, let read for you. The CEO statement in part reads: "The truly horrific event that occurred on this flight has elicited many responses from all of us, outrage, anger, disappointment. I share all of these sentiments, and one above all, my deepest apologies for what happened. Like you, I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight. And I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all of the customers aboard. No one should be ever be mistreated this way.


"I want you to know that we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right." So, there you have it, finally an apology.

A defiant warning today from North Korea, as the U.S. directs warships to head toward that region. North Korean state media saying a nuclear strike is possible if provoked by what it calls U.S. aggression.

President Trump issuing a warning of his own vis-a-vis 140 characters or less, tweeting: "North Korea is looking for trouble. If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them. USA."

Will Ripley is standing by for me. He's the only American reporter live there in Pyongyang, North Korea.

Will, North Korea has issued provocative warnings before. What's the difference in this one?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The difference now, Brooke, is that this is the Trump administration that we're dealing with, and we're seeing firsthand on the ground here the power of that 140-character tweet in shaping a country's policy.

That airstrike in Syria really started things off for this latest round of provocations with the North Koreans. And it's only been escalating even further with word that carrier strike group Carl Vinson is approaching the Korean Peninsula, and now these two new tweets threatening not only North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, but also Chinese President Xi Jinping, telling China they need to solve the North Korea problem or the U.S. will still take unspecified action to do it itself.

Of course, North Korea interpreting that as a military threat and pledging, Brooke, that they will only step up their development of nuclear weapons and missiles that could potentially carry them to the mainland U.S. -- Brooke.

BALDWIN: All right, Will Ripley in Pyongyang, thank you.

Let me now bring in former Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams, a conservative who served under Ronald Reagan and President George W. Bush and most recently was denied a job at President Trump's State Department.

So, Mr. Abrams, it is a pleasure to see you again on the show. Thank you.


So, first, just on North Korea, you have the president of the United States again taking to Twitter, calling out North Korea. It's almost like -- I have heard some people say it's like this real-life experiment, yet we're in this national security crisis. How do you see it?

ABRAMS: Well, I think Rex Tillerson said rightly that 20, 30 years of policy on North Korea have failed. That's pretty clear.

They keep developing their nuclear program. The president is being more aggressive, at least in tone. And this comes right after the strike on Syria. I think this is putting pressure on China. It's meant to push pressure on China, maybe to develop some more cooperation from them. It's worth a try, because that's really been the missing ingredient.

Don't you think President Xi walked away from that dinner at Mar-a- Lago from a very different President Trump than probably who he thought he would seated with, given what happened in Syria?

ABRAMS: Absolutely. The timing was quite amazing.


ABRAMS: And maybe this makes them more serious about them. And that would be a very good thing. The timing was great.

BALDWIN: On Syria, President Trump thus far, though, has been silent other than this tweet about why he wouldn't want to bomb a runway, as I mentioned with Fareed.

How do you see this Trump doctrine? Do you agree that there isn't one, first of all?

ABRAMS: Well, first, I have to say my friend Fareed, I think, is trying desperately to save President Obama here.

But this is not the same policy. This is a new policy. This is a policy of using American power. And that's what we did. It changes everything on the ground in Syria, because it's the president of the United States saying we're going to enforce this international norm.

It means, I think, there will never be another use of chemical weapons by Assad in Syria. And what remains to be seen -- and it's really a good question for Mattis -- what if he doesn't use chemical weapons, he uses these bombs, these barrel bombs, that kill more people, bomb a hospital, bomb an apartment house?

Are we going to sit back or we going to act? And I think we don't know the answer to that. I hope somebody asks Mattis that, because I think -- you mentioned the Trump doctrine. The president has not been clear on Syria. The secretary of state has been pretty tough on Syria. So has Nikki Haley at the U.N.

So, what does Mattis have to say? Are -- how are we going to do this? We going to go after ISIS first? Good. But then how does that translate into peace in Syria? How do you get the Russians on board?

BALDWIN: They are all excellent questions. And I'm listening to you, and I'm also channeling hearing Sean Spicer over and over say in a briefing, saying that the president doesn't telegraph what he wants to do in the future.

How do you thread the needle? If you're Secretary Mattis, you do have a policy, you do perhaps hopefully have a plan in moving forward, yet you don't want to telegraph it to the world.