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Tillerson Calls Out Russia Over Chemical Weapons in Syria; White House Tries to Clarify Trump's Red Line in Syria; Interview with Rep Ted Yoho (R) FL. Aired 7-7:30a ET

Aired April 11, 2017 - 07:00   ET


ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: ... though he did refuse to get off. We have two witnesses who were on that plane coming on to tell us what they saw.

[07:00:06] CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Winds up getting complicated. What are your rights as a passenger? What is the airline allowed to do? And then, of course, what should they have done?

CAMEROTA: Right. All right. Good morning, everyone. Welcome to your NEW DAY. We do have breaking news for you.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on his way to Russia, but he had a clear message for them before leaving from the G-7 summit. Tillerson calling on the Kremlin to drop its support of Syria's brutal dictator.

CUOMO: The Kremlin says relations with the U.S. are the most difficult since the end of the Cold War. What will they say about what they did or did not know about that chemical attack in Syria when the Russian and United States heads of state meet?

It is a critical day of diplomacy on this day, 82 of the Trump presidency. CNN has correspondents across the globe. Let's begin with Nic Robertson, live from the G-7 in Italy. And that got real important real fast.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMACY EDITOR: Yes, it really did, Chris. What Secretary Tillerson has learned from his allies here is support for the United States' strikes on Syria, their support for existing sanctions on Russia. That isn't support, however, for more sanctions to be put on Russia.

The Italian foreign minister here explaining it's better to be negotiating with Russia, rather than pushing Russia into a corner. Secretary Tillerson here saying clearly Russia has to make a choice. But its current position means it is supporting Iran. It is supporting Assad. It's supporting Hezbollah, and it needs to come across the table, if you will, and support the international community in getting a cease-fire and then bringing a political transition in Syria. Tillerson saying that, until now, Russia has been falling short on its obligations.


REX TILLERSON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: It is also clear Russia has failed to uphold the agreements that have been entered into under multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions. It is unclear whether Russia failed to take this obligation seriously or Russia has been incompetent with this distinction doesn't much matter to the dead.


ROBERTSON: The bigger picture right now, if you look at this collectively, is that the Trump administration is now, if you will, caught up with the Obama position on Assad, a transition to get him out of power. Of course, they have now the added heft that they're willing to use military strikes, and it's all in Tillerson's hands as he heads to Moscow -- Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: OK, Nic. Thank you very much for that.

Secretary of State Tillerson is on his way to Moscow as we speak for that high-stakes meeting with Russia's foreign minister. Relations between the two countries, as you just heard from Nic, are more tense than ever in recent memory.

CNN's Michelle Kosinski is live in Moscow with more.

So Michelle, tell us the latest from there. And has there been any reaction yet to what Secretary Tillerson has already said?

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: Not in direct response to his comments, which just happened. But any minute now we're expecting to hear from Vladimir Putin. He's going to be -- he's getting out of a meeting with his Italian counterpart. So it's really about their meeting, but he's bound to take questions or at least make some comment on the state of this relationship.

And in fact, he may not even meet with Secretary of State Tillerson when Tillerson arrives here. And if he doesn't, that in itself speaks volumes about how things are right now. And we've been hearing extremely strong statements from Russia over the last few days, calling the U.S. strikes in Syria an act of aggression. They're inadmissible, that they violate international law and that the U.S. is getting closer, they said, to clashes with Russia.

So there's been this reporting that the meeting between Secretary Tillerson and Russia, whether it's just the foreign minister or whether it's Vladimir Putin, is going to be tough. It's that something like an ultimatum, that he's going to tell Russia that it needs to back away from Assad and accuse Russia in complicity in that chemical attack in Syria.

But when Tillerson was asked exactly those questions, "What are you going to say? Is it going to be an ultimatum? Is Russia complicit?" he's been far, far less committal. He says there is no hard evidence at this point of Russian complicity, that he's going to call on Russia to change course in Syria -- Chris.

CUOMO: Michelle Kosinski, thank you very much for the reporting in Moscow. So we know where the allies stand on what is going on in Syria, even

where Russia seems to stand, but what is America's position on Syria? The White House seems to keep vacillating between motivating Assad's exit, defending the people, but from what keeps changing. And then we have Trump's stay out, "America first" motto.

CNN's Joe Johns, live at the White House with more. And all of this theoretical discussion comes around factual disputes about what Russia may have known about the attack in Syria?

[07:05:10] JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: That's certainly right. The big question, of course, is what did Russia know? What we know, in fact, is the United States at least alerted Russia to the facts of the strikes but not a whole lot more than that, quite frankly.

The other big question, I think, this morning is about Syria and, essentially, where the United States government is headed on policy towards Syria.

On the one hand, the president may have demonstrated, if you will, some resolve to act in the interests of the United States when he believes the United States' interest is threatened. On the other hand, this administration is still struggling to come up with what could be called a coherent policy towards some of the current foreign hot spots.


SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: If you gas a baby, if you put a barrel bomb into innocent people, I think you can -- you will see a response from the president.

JOHNS (voice-over): White House press secretary Sean Spicer telling reporters that another chemical attack or use of barrel bombs could result in more missile strikes.

SPICER: When you watch babies and children being gassed and suffering under barrel bombs, you are instantaneously moved to action.

JOHNS: This would mark a dramatic escalation of U.S. action, considering that Assad's regime has dropped 495 barrel bombs last month alone, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights.

Hours later, the White House walking back his apparent red line, saying Spicer meant to signal that the president is never going to rule anything out.

Further muddying the waters, this interventionist comment from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the G-7 summit in Italy.

TILLERSON: We rededicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world.

JOHNS: Very different from Trump's "America first" vision.

SPICER: We're not just going to become the world's policeman, running around the country -- running around the world.

JOHNS: The Trump administration's stance toward Assad also remains unclear.

SPICER: I can't imagine a stable and peaceful Syria where Bashar al- Assad is in power.

JOHNS: Spicer seemingly taking the position stated by U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley on Sunday.

HALEY: Regime change is something that we think is going to happen. It's going to be hard to see a government that's peaceful and stable with Assad.

JOHNS: Which was the opposite of statements from Secretary Tillerson.

TILLERSON: Once we can eliminate the battle against ISIS, conclude that, and it is going quite well, then we hope to turn our attention to achieving cease-fire agreements between the regime and opposition forces.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think they're still searching, frankly, for a policy and for a strategy.

JOHNS: Meantime, Syrian warplanes are back in the sky, taking off from the air base hit by the U.S. with dozens of cruise missiles. The Pentagon claims the strikes caused 20 percent of Syria's operational aircraft to be destroyed. But two senior military officials tell CNN it was 20 planes, not 20 percent.


JOHNS: The president did ask for a complete damage assessment on the bombing run last week. The Pentagon has not held a briefing since Friday.

Military and security matters will be on the president's mind today. He's meeting with his national security adviser, H.R. McMaster. As well, he's expected to have din we are top military leaders tonight -- Chris and Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: OK. Thanks so much, Joe. We have a lot to discuss. Let's bring in Ron Brownstein, CNN senior political analyst and senior editor of "The Atlantic"; Tony Blinken, CNN global affairs analyst and former deputy secretary of state; and former deputy national security adviser and CNN military analyst Cedric Leighton. Gentlemen, thanks for being here.

Tony, I want to start with you. How is this conversation between Secretary Tillerson and Sergey Lavrov or whomever he ends up meeting with in Russia going to go, particularly since just before he got on the plane to Russia -- he's currently in the air -- he said Russia has failed to uphold their agreements to secure the chemical weapons in Syria and for that they have to be held accountable?

TONY BLINKEN, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: I think Secretary Tillerson is exactly right. He said the right thing heading to Russia.

The fact is there was an agreement brokered by Russia in 2013 to get all the chemical weapons out. We succeeded in getting a lot of them out. but obviously, we didn't get everything. And Russia has failed to uphold the deal it brokered. Secretary Tillerson is right to say Russia failing to do what they said they would do were complicit, bears responsibility in the attacks. And I think going forward he will continue to hold Russia accountable if Assad continues to use chemical and biological weapons.

We hear all these different conflicting voices within the administration over exactly what the policy is. And I'm reminded of an old hit song from a few years ago, "Until I Hear from You." We need to hear it from the president. We need the president to tell us what the policy is and what we're trying to do in Syria. The greater the precision, the more comfort people will have. As it stands now, we're just hearing too many different voices saying too many different things.

[07:10:22] CUOMO: Ron Brownstein, what's your take on that? Interesting to note: President Putin came out and addressed his people, did not mention United States or the attacks in Syria. Taking a page out of the Trump book, so to speak, there. But what do you make of the president's reluctance here in the United States to address this mixed messaging? Is it because he was so demonstrably opposite, where they seem to be right now during the campaign, with "America first" and stay out?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I think what has happened in Syria is a direct challenge, not only to his remarks during the campaign about Syria but broader relations to Russia.

If you go back to the campaign, if you remember, the jewel in the crown that was supposed to come from a better relationship with Russia was cooperation against ISIS, particularly in Syria. Look at the language in the very first presidential debate where he said, "wouldn't it be great if we were working with Russia against ISIS.

I think what that always kind of miscalculated was, that while Russia did have an interest in dislodging ISIS, it had a greater interest in reinforcing Assad. Now that we are, you know, understandably drawing a civilizational red line against the use of chemical weapons, the divergence between our interest and their interest in Syria is apparent and makes it more unlikely we will get that kind of cooperation that he talked about during the campaign.

Having said all that, it is not clear that Putin wants to go all the way down the road defending everything Assad has done or might do. So there might be some opportunities there. But again, the kind of broad cooperation that he talked about in the campaign, I think, is one of the things that has been exploded by the events of the last week.

CAMEROTA: Cedric, another thing that is confusing is they're trying to justify what the motivation was for the missile strike from the U.S. to that air base in Syria last week. It was popular according to polls with voters, but today you hear them using lots of different justifications for it. So was it national security? Was it because they broke their chemical weapons agreement? What do you think it was about?

LEIGHTON: I think, Alisyn, it was a combination of several factors, among them the national security interests, the nonproliferation of chemical weapons for starters.

No. 2, though, it is also a way in which you can convey a message, a way in which to say, there is a red line here. They aren't using that term. They're basically saying, "We have a red line, and we're not going to let you cross it." Now, some of the mixed messaging here could actually be used to the administration's advantage if they choose to do that.

CAMEROTA: Keep them, yes.

LEIGHTON: Exactly. That goes in line with what President Trump said during the campaign, "I don't want to reveal exactly what I'm going to be doing here. I want to keep the adversary guessing."

And what I see happening here is first they want you to do -- take care of ISIS first. I think that's pretty clear from what Secretary Tillerson said and what some other things that happened.

But the other part of it is they also want to make sure that they can pivot -- once they take care of ISIS they want to pivot and take care of Assad. How they do that, that becomes a huge, huge issue then. And that is, I think, they're trying to figure out how to do that. They're trying to get Russia on board. And that becomes the really hard part.

How do you convince somebody that you're putting into a corner, how do you get them to be on your side?

CUOMO: You know, it may have been a message, Cedric, but you spend 59 Tomahawk missiles, about $100 worth -- $100 million worth of munitions, you want to get something done. The results we're hearing: 20 percent of the Syrian air force, or 20 percent of the Seventh Wing Division of their air force.

CAMEROTA: Or 20 planes.

CUOMO: Or 20 planes. What seems more likely? You know, from your time in the military, that doesn't sound right. Somebody has got it wrong here with the numbers.

LEIGHTON: Sure. What's probably right is this: 20 percent of the Syrian air force is wrong. That's not going to happen in a strike of this type and of this magnitude and with that weapons system.

What is possible is 20 percent of the Seventh Wing or 20 percent of what was on that air base, because those two things mean the same thing, basically. And so if you cut out 20 percent of the operational aircraft on a base, that is a significant factor from an operational standpoint, but it doesn't kill the base, and it doesn't kill their ability to fly from that base. So they are sending a message. The Syrians are sending a message back to us, saying, "We can still

fly from here, so your strike wasn't as effective as you like to tell people it is."

But the fact of the matter was it did do some damage. It did allow for there to be a pause in the use of chemical weapons. But it also was one of the key things that really brought about a change in the dynamics. So I think what the administration was trying to do was change the dynamic. And in that sense, they have a possible opening to make that happen.

CAMEROTA: So Tony, no Pentagon briefing since this happened on Thursday night. You know, as Cedric has been saying, they don't telegraph to the enemy what they're doing. They don't like to talk about their plans. But they're...

CUOMO: They told Russia they were going to launch the missiles.

CAMEROTA: That's true. They did give that, you know, international courtesy or call it whatever you want. So they're also keeping Americans in the dark here about these questions that we're all wrestling with this morning.

BLINKEN: And again, Alisyn, I think it comes back to the president. It would be good if he spoke to the American people about this. They want to know, we want to know how he sees this. What he's thinking, what the goals are going forward, both with Syria specifically and more broadly with Russia.

We're seeing Russia make a lot of mischief in very different parts of the world right now. Whether it's in Syria and it's complicity with Assad, whether it's in Ukraine, Belarus near its own borders, whether it's in places from Libya, all the way to other places around the world. And a lot of this is just to challenge us.

I also think that Mr. Putin is trying to take people's attention back home, away from their own problems. You saw the very significant protests in Russia just a little over a week ago. Making -- making trouble somewhere else is a good way of distracting people's attention.

We need to be clear that we're going to stand against that when we have to, even as we look to see if we can find ways to cooperate where -- where we can. But again, this all comes down to the president giving us some clarity about what his approach for Russia is as well as Syria.

CUOMO: Ron, let's go back to the role of president again. It seems to be looming large. The silence seems to be deafening. He put out a tweet with an awkward explanation of why you don't bomb runways, and there's no evidence that the military wasn't trying to take out the runway; it just didn't happen.

On the messaging here, how important is it for the president to be out front? And what is the likelihood of where he'll come down on this? BROWNSTEIN: I agree with, you know, Tony that it's extremely

important. And I don't think it is 100 percent clear where he will come down on it, given both the dissidence within the administration -- we heard from different voices -- but also the distance that all of this conversation has traveled from where he was during the campaign.

Don't forget: at points during the campaign he even suggested that we could work with Assad against Russia.

And going back to Alisyn's point, it is true that there is majority public support for this action, but it is at the lowest end that we have seen Gallup reported of any military action that it has seen. Essentially only about half the country saying they support this, and it dividing along familiar lines, with the groups that are skeptical of President Trump expressing skepticism of this in the Gallup polling. His approval rating remains at 40 percent in the three days after the attack, and the three days before. That's very unusual, and that is a constraint on his ability to act and mobilize public opinion. The doubts about him are still there among the people who are skeptical.

CAMEROTA: That's good context, Ron. Thank you for that.

Thank you, panel, for all of your expertise.

CUOMO: Saying during the campaign it was different. Last week it was different, the White House position on Assad, than it is right now.

So how should Trump administration deal with adversaries like Russia, Syria, North Korea? We're going to ask a Republican congressman about what he wants to see happen next.

CAMEROTA: Plus, two passengers who witnessed this on a United flight. OK. That was a fellow passenger being dragged off the plane. Why did this have to happen? What did they see? They're going to give us more context ahead.



[07:22:50] TILLERSON: It is also clear Russia has failed to uphold the agreements that have been entered into under multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions. It is unclear whether Russia failed to take this obligation seriously or Russia has been incompetent, but this distinction doesn't much matter to the dead.


CAMEROTA: That was Secretary of State Rex Tillerson taking a hard line on Syria ahead of his meeting today in Moscow. Let's discuss this and more with Republican Congressman Ted Yoho of Florida.

Good morning, Congressman.

REP. TED YOHO (R), FLORIDA: Good morning, Alisyn. How are you? CAMEROTA: I'm doing well. Before we get to what's going to happen today, let me just ask you about what happened with the U.S. missile strike on Syria. What did the U.S. accomplish with that strike?

YOHO: I think the best thing they did is they sent a strong signal that enough's enough. You know, there's been 480,000 Syrians killed, whether at the hands of Assad or whether it was the rebels or ISIS or the coalition forces. This has been going on for six years. The world sits by idly. You saw a lot of rhetoric but no action.

I think this is a very decisive action. And along the lines of Rex Tillerson, when we had the agreement that Syria would give up these chemicals of mass destruction, and they didn't do them all, and Russia was supposed to certify that, and even John Kerry signed off, said they're 100 percent gone. And the Americans are the ones that paid for this. So that means either Assad was reproducing them or they didn't turn them all over. And so it's something that it's -- they broke the accord that we had, and we have to stand up and do something about this.

CAMEROTA: But, so this was just a signal. We didn't go after any of the stockpiles that they still have of the chemical weapons. We didn't even disable the airport.

YOHO: Right. And I think that's a very strong signal that, you know, we've got very pinpoint targeting. We could do more damage if needed. Hopefully, we don't have to and that Assad got the message.

And, you know, let's bring the civil war to an end. It's displaced as many people as before World War II, you know, with the refugees around the world. It hasn't just destabilized Syria; it's destabilized the whole, you know, world with refugees going everywhere.

CAMEROTA: And Congressman, just help me understand why do you feel so strongly about taking decisive action now and helping to bring the Syrian civil war to an end now when -- when President Obama was in office -- you felt completely differently.

[07:25:13] Let me read a statement that you gave in 2013 about this.

YOHO: I did, yes.

CAMEROTA: You said, "While the president" -- Obama -- "aims to intervene in Syria's internal conflict, I maintain it is neither the role of the United States federal government to do so nor the responsibility of the American taxpayer to fund such an unconstitutional act. The Founding Fathers never intended an act of war to be conducted without the consent of Congress. And if we were to engage in military aid or action in Syria, we are engaging in an act of war against a sovereign nation."

What's changed?

YOHO: I feel the same. The things that have changed are a couple of things. One is, you know, this is six years later. And you've got the 480,000 people that have been killed. This -- when we sat down with Denis McDonough, who was the chief of staff with President Obama, they had an open-end policy. They wanted to do no-fly zones like we did in Libya that led to a failed state where ISIS is recruiting and training in Libya. It's one of the worst areas on the planet for ISIS recruitment.

So President Obama wanted to have an open-end. In fact, I asked Denis McDonough, how long was this operation going to last? He says, "We're not sure. Maybe ten years." And I asked how much it was going to cost. It was going to be over a billion dollars a month is what their estimate was.

CAMEROTA: OK, so let's just...


YOHO: It was engaging us long-term in the Middle East.

CAMEROTA: ... let me just ask you about that on that note, Congressman, because do you know what the Trump policy would be in Syria? I mean, when you're saying it's time for this brutal civil war to end, how long would you be in? How much would you spend?

YOHO: Again, this is six years later.

CAMEROTA: Four years. I mean, this is 2013 when you said it.

YOHO: Four years.

CAMEROTA: We're four years later. Go on.

YOHO: Right, it's four years later, 480,000 people have been slaughtered over there.

And so what President Trump did was an immediate attack. He says enough is enough. I am still of the mindset that we are not going to commit. What we did is, I feel, was right at the verge of an act of war. We attacked a sovereign nation. And so for him to go any further, he's got to come to Congress. We have to talk about this. I'm not willing to commit American taxpayers' money anymore or American troops on the ground in another Middle Eastern country.

CAMEROTA: Right but...

YOHO: All we have to do is look at Afghanistan and Iraq.

CAMEROTA: Sure, but no taxpayer money...

YOHO: I don't want to go down that path.

CAMEROTA: ... how are you going to stop the brutal civil war that you're talking about?

YOHO: Well, let's hope, as a world community, that this brings that to an end, where they pivot and they make changes in Syria. Something had to be done. Are we going to sit here and watch another Auschwitz, you know, where millions got killed as the world stood by? CAMEROTA: Sure, but...

YOHO: This is something we've got to help bring to an end.

CAMEROTA: OK, but are you saying that one airstrike on an air base that damaged 20 airplanes is going to bring the civil war that Assad has been waging to an end?

YOHO: Nobody knows that. Let's -- let's hope that happens.

CAMEROTA: Do you think that's possible?

YOHO: This changes the dynamics. Yes, I think it's possible, for sure.

CAMEROTA: You think that President Bashar al-Assad was so struck by what happened on Thursday with the missile strike, the next day virtually, on Saturday, those planes were back in the air, again bombing innocent civilians in his country. It doesn't seem -- if that's what you think the message was, it doesn't seem he received that message.

YOHO: Well, let's see if there's chemical weapons used. This is, again, something that the world community has said chemical weapons are off the table. We've had legislation in to stop the barrel bombs that he's used on his own people with chlorine gas, and we've sent this message through the Committees of Foreign Affairs. It's gone through Congress.

CAMEROTA: OK, so if the barrel bomb is used again -- if he uses a barrel bomb, would -- do you support President Trump again striking Syria?

YOHO: I support President Trump coming to Congress to ask for approval and then the Congress talks about this and we debate it.

CAMEROTA: And you would give that approval?

YOHO: And we decide before this.

Again, I have to look at the facts. You're looking at a hypothetical in the future. I have to see what the conditions are.

CAMEROTA: Well, I mean, I'm looking at the past. He has used barrel bombs. There's no promise that he won't again.

So you're saying that you are now ready. You feel differently than you did in 2013. You are now ready to grant some sort of permission for further military action against Syria?

YOHO: No, ma'am. That's not what I'm saying. I said I'm willing to debate it and look at the cause, how long is this going to last? What kind of commitment are you looking from the United States? Where's the rest of the world community? Doesn't everybody around the world that has been affected by the influx of refugees, don't they have something to bring to the table on this? Where is Europe? Where is the E.U.? Where is Germany?

You know, so I think we need to have that discussion before we go any further and commit America any more. But I think it was a strong signal. It was a decisive signal sent by our president, that says this has to be brought to an end. This conflict has destabilized the whole world.

And then we've got North Korea to think about, too.

CAMEROTA: Indeed, we do. You have 10 seconds. Very quickly, what's the answer in North Korea?

YOHO: North Korea, again, we've got a fleet out there...