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U.N. Security Council to Vote Today on Syria; Sources: Classified Docs don't Support Nunes, Trump; Top Senate Intel Dem Holds News Conference. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired April 12, 2017 - 10:00   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Good morning, everyone. I'm John Berman.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Poppy Harlow. We are following an extraordinarily busy morning on the world stage. At any moment, the United Nations Security Council will discuss the deadly chemical attack in Syria and vote, condemning the horror.

And we could soon hear from U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his Russian counterpart. They just ended a tense, four-hour meeting in Moscow. Tillerson's goal, try to find common ground with Russia, but Russia's foreign minister is at the table to define boundaries over its ally Syria and the U.S. military strikes there.

BERMAN: So, this is interesting. Moments ago, the White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer hinted that a meeting between Rex Tillerson and Vladimir Putin is still a possibility. He said you know basically, keep our eye on that. We're watching that very closely.

This even though President Putin is casting as Persians on the U.S.- Russia relationship, he says, "The working level of confidence in Russian-American relations especially at the military level, under the administration of Donald Trump, has not improved but rather worsened."

Elise Labott, following the U.N. Security Council meeting, you're just looking at live pictures of that. But first, we're going to begin at Moscow with Matthew Chance. Matthew, you know, no meeting yet as far as we know between the Secretary of State and Vladimir Putin. But the Secretary of State just did walk out of a four-hour meeting with the foreign minister.

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes and later on, in a few hours from now or maybe even before that, there's going to be a press conference with Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister. We're expecting that to be a joint press conference with the Secretary of State as well. It has not been confirmed to us yet by the Kremlin that there will be a meeting between Vladimir Putin, the Russian president and the Secretary of State. But that was always a possibility.

I mean, the Kremlin said it was only today, it wasn't on the agenda, but they were considering it. And of course, in the past the Secretaries of State from the United States particularly on their first visit to the Russian capital always have an audience with the Russian president. So, it would be considered, I think, it would be interpreted as a slap in the face to Washington, a slap in the face to the Trump administration if such a meeting did not take place.

Nevertheless, obviously there's a great deal of tension between the United States and Russia at the point in Washington and Moscow. That the Russians are furious about the fact that the United States launched those missile strikes against their ally in Syria, the regime of Bashar al-Assad and they're making that point repeatedly.

Rex Tillerson went into the meeting with Sergey Lavrov and saying, he wants to look for a candid exchange. The two countries could better define and narrow their differences. What Sergey Lavrov said, he wanted to know what the Trump policy was toward Russia and towards Syria. Take a listen to what he had to say.


SERGEY LAVROV, RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER (through translator): It is important for us to understand your intentions, the intentions of the U.S. and the real intentions of this administration. We hope that we can clear up today, these things. Welcome.


CHANCE: All right. We'll have to get a better picture of whether any kind of clearing up about the tensions between them and the differences between them has been achieved to when that press conference take place very shortly.

HARLOW: Matthew Chance in Moscow. Thank you very much.

Elise Labott is joining us now on this vote. I mean, so this vote that the Security Council is going to have, Elise, I mean, is it largely symbolic? Of course, they will condemn the horror, but what comes out of it? What does it really mean for all those suffering under the Assad regime?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, unfortunately, it won't mean much, Poppy, for the people suffering under the regime. But I think this is part of a whole administration of an international effort to try and pry Russia away from Syria. And if you remember, that vote was supposed to take place last week. The Russians put off the vote and that's when you saw that strike against the Syrian air base.

And now, you see U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley as the Security Council is assembling. We're looking at some live pictures there. Ambassador Haley tweeted a short time ago, "Busy day. Security Council meeting on political situation in Syria. It will be very telling." And what it means -- what she means by that is it will be very telling as to whether the Russians are going to side with the Syrians after this heinous sarin gas attack or whether they're going to be a more constructive player. And that's what Secretary Tillerson is trying to do in Moscow. Take a listen to President Trump yesterday, with Fox Business News, speaking about the relationship between Russia and President Assad.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Frankly, Putin is backing a person that's truly an evil person. And I think it's very bad for Russia. I think it's very bad for mankind. It's very bad for this world. But when you drop gas or bombs or barrel bombs and have these massive barrels with dynamite and they drop them right in the middle of a group of people and in all fairness you see the same kids, no arms, no legs, no face. This is an animal.


[10:05:10] LABOTT: And that's the message that Secretary Tillerson is taking to Russia. The message that the U.N. Security Council will give to Russia today, that Russia -- that Assad is becoming, is growing as a liability for Russia that they need to end their support for the regime and start working towards a political process that could see the end of the regime and that will help focus on the fight against ISIS.

Unfortunately, as we've seen, the Russians are doubling down. The Kremlin spokesman today said, it would make no sense for the Russians to end their support for Assad who is fighting terrorism. And we see that later in the week, the foreign ministers of Russia, Syria and Iran will be getting together to discuss. So instead of moving away from Assad, it really looks like the Kremlin is moving closer. Poppy and John?

BERMAN: All right. Elise Labott, again as we are watching the U.N. Security Council. They will hold a vote shortly. We will keep our eye on that. We'll keep watching for Nikki Haley and hear what she has to say.

Joining us now is Angela Stent, the director of Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University. And John Kirby, CNN military and diplomatic analyst, also a former State Department spokesman for a Pentagon press secretary.

Professor, let me start with you because White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer hinted at the possibility that Rex Tillerson might still meet with Vladimir Putin. This as the Russian leader said that the relationship between the U.S. and Russia is now even worse than it was before. But you suggest any notion that the relationship might even be getting better or would get better. It was just misguided to begin with.

ANGELA STENT, DIRECTOR CENTER FOR EURASIAN, RUSSIAN AND EAST EUROPEAN STUDIES GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY: I think it was. But I think what we heard during the election campaign was candidate Trump praising Russia, saying we have to do a deal with them, why our relations so bad. So, the expectation was, that he would put a lot of effort into improving ties with Russia. And then of course, as all these revelations about Russian interference in the election came out and now, obviously with the use of chemical weapons by Russia's client, President Bashar al-Assad. That really, you know -- and we can see having just hear, what President Trump said about Assad. That all those hopes, I think, have gone away.

And we now, I think, for the first time, have a fairly coherent Russia policy in the Trump administration because before, Defense Secretary Mattis, Secretary Tillerson and national security advisor, they were all seem to be on one page with Ambassador Haley, whereas the White House was on the different page. I think they're on the same page at the moment.

HARLOW: So, Admiral Kirby, to you as Tillerson is saying that they want to clarify differences, so they can better understand the differences. We've now just learned -- that Sergey Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, will on Friday meet with his counterparts in Iran and in Syria. It's an interesting development after he has these talks with Tillerson.

JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: Yes. I mean, you can read it a couple of ways. One way is you know -- it's sort of a slap at Tillerson and the United States. Basically saying, look, we're not going to change our overall strategy here. We're going to stay wedded to the regime and supporting the regime in their efforts which of course, Iran is also supporting. It could also be read as the Russians having been rattled by the strike. Also, taking advantage of this opportunity to sit down with the foreign ministers of -- those two countries to further explore options going forward and maybe even to express some of their own frustrations and dissatisfactions.

So, I think it's going to be interesting to see how they read those meetings out. I'm not at all surprised that they set that meeting for after meeting with Tillerson because then, they can go into a discussion with Iran and with Syria, informed at least, to some degree by what the United States' intentions are.

BERMAN: Angela, I want to ask you about something that Secretary of State said yesterday, because it gets to this notion which you brought up before that now the entire administration is on the same page. We'll see. Rex Tillerson, at this meeting with NATO ministers yesterday. He and the French foreign minister basically said, that Rex Tillerson asked explain to me why Ukraine matters to American taxpayers. What kind of message does that send to the rest of the world, to the people in Ukraine, not to mention in other countries who are wondering if Donald Trump, President Trump's notion of "America First" still holds or not?

STENT: Well, I mean, I think you raise an important issue. Again, on the campaign trail there was really a down playing of what was happening in Ukraine and I think this gets back to the question of U.S. support for NATO, how strong it is, how much we, the U.S. taxpayers, Secretary Tillerson said, should be paying for what's happening in Ukraine. So, clearly, there are big questions there. We may be on the same page or the administration may be on the same page on the Syria issue, but we've had different voices on Ukraine from different parts of the administration. But this was a very serious message to our allies that we're really questioning whether the way that they see the security threatened by what Russia is doing in Ukraine.

[10:10:05] Whether we support that and whether we're going to go forward trying to deter the Russians from doing any more in Ukraine.

HARLOW: Admiral Kirby, how do you see the White House administration's stance right now? Because the president has been adamant about saying, I don't telegraph my plan, et cetera, for Syria. But then, as Greta Van Susteren just pointed out rightly so in that interview with Sean Spicer, didn't the president do just that when he told Maria Bartiromo in that interview this morning, we're not going into Syria.

KIRBY: Yes it's a little bit mixed, isn't it? It's hard to tell where they're coming at on Syria from many different directions. I agree that they seem to be coalescing towards a more coherent approach about the civil war. They have really not talked about that at all until this gas attack. And then, only then prior was you know, the talk about the practicality of Assad's thing.

So, I think, their policy on Syria is evolving. And I do think that you can't have it both ways. You can't say I'm never going to telegraph my moves. And then telegraph removed, like the president also tweeted out that he was sending a strike group off to the waters of the Korean Peninsula, which is unusual. We don't usually talk about ship movements in advance. So, it doesn't seem to be real consistent either way.

BERMAN: If Vladimir Putin, Professor, meets with Secretary of State Tillerson and it would happen really in the coming minutes or hours right now. What kind of performance do you think that he would portray. What message does he want to send not just to the secretary, but to the entire world?

STENT: Well, I think he wants to show I am a strong leader. You have to respect me. You can't push Russia around. You know, Russia is the go-to power now in Syria. And the U.S. has to recognize that. But on the other hand, I think he might be willing to say, well, it's time to at least normalize relations with the United States. Maybe we can talk about jointly fighting Islamic State together. These are things he said before.

So, I think on the one hand it will be image of a strong, tough leader. But on the other hand, at least opening the door to better relations with the United States because he needs to come out of this, you know, looking strong and looking positive to his own people.

HARLOW: Do you think Admiral, that Tillerson goes into this meeting that I think John and I at this point believe is probably happening if you read between the lines of the answer that Sean Spicer gave just now. We'll see if it happens. Does Tillerson really go into that in a position of strength? I mean, yes, he has the airstrikes behind him. And yes, he knows Putin because of his role as Exxon CEO and the oil deal. --

BERMAN: He has the friendship driven. He has the friendship --

HARLOW: He has the order of friendship, but at the same time it's not clear that he has -- is really completely on the same page as the president and has full access to the president.

KIRBY: Right. I would not be surprised again if this meeting happens. I mean, this is not unlike Putin to not schedule a meeting with a visiting foreign minister, particularly the United States foreign minister until the last minute that happened to John Kerry a couple of times, as well. So, I agree that that meeting will probably occur. It wouldn't surprise me.

And I think that Secretary Tillerson had some leverage going into this meeting today with the airstrikes behind him. Leverage that John Kerry didn't always have and hopefully he's going to use that or did use that in this meeting and hopefully will be able to use it with President Putin. Look, we rattled their cage a little bit. They are really angry about this. And they are a little concerned about where this is going. Uncertainty on a tactical level can be helpful, but uncertainty on a strategic level with respect to policy cannot be.

So, to answer your question, I think he does have a little bit of leverage here given the strikes and given the way that that has rattled the Russians. But I also think that it would be more helpful in these meetings if he could point to a very cohesive, well- articulated, well-crafted United States policy with respect to the future of Syria and I just don't think we're there yet. I think it is still evolving for this administration.

HARLOW: Professor, Admiral, nice to have you both. Thank you.

Still to come for us, the CNN exclusive report this morning, congressional sources both Republicans and Democrats saying they really can't find anything to back up the claims by the Trump administration that their predecessors, the Obama administration collected information in any way that is wrong or any smoking gun about the Trump campaign.

BERMAN: Plus, just moments ago, Sean Spicer said he let the president down.


SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I made a mistake. -- I mean, there's no other way to say it. I got into a topic that I shouldn't have and I screwed up.


BERMAN: Much more on that, plus Sean's comments about Russia, as well. And the United Airlines CEO issues a new apology for the passenger dragged from a plane. Hear why he promises it will never happen again.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [10:19:00] BERMAN: All right. This morning we have a CNN exclusive. Sources tell CNN that documents that they have seen contradict claims made by the House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes, both Democrats and Republicans, tell CNN they see no evidence that the Obama administration did anything wrong. One source even said, they see absolutely no smoking gun.

HARLOW: That's right. But in an interview taped before this review of this Intel, the president doubled down on his allegations that former National Security Advisor Susan Rice, he says, committed a crime.


MARIA BARTIROMO, FOX BUSINESS NETWORK: She said she didn't do it for political reasons. Susan Rice --

TRUMP: Does anybody really believe that? Nobody believes that, even the people that tried to protect her in the news media. It's such a big story and I'm sure it will continue forward, but what they did is horrible.


HARLOW: CNN chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto following this story from Washington. So, Jim, what have you learned? I know you've got sources. You know it's not just Democrats in this, it is Republicans as well.

[10:20:01] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: That's exactly right. And frankly, their accounts contradict the president, Republican and Democratic lawmakers and aides, casting that on claims by the president and Devin Nunes that Obama administration officials improperly requested the names of U.S. individuals that have been redacted in intelligence documents. CNN sources say, these lawmakers have now seen the very same intelligence documents that Nunes reviewed last month, before that famous press conference. And they tell CNN, they see no evidence that Obama administration officials did anything out of the ordinary or illegal. One congressional source described the request to me as, quote, "normal and appropriate."

BERMAN: You've seen. You've talked to sources. You and Manu Raju have talked to sources. You've seen these documents. What are they saying about the contents, Jim?

SCIUTTO: They're saying, in a word, "absolutely" and that's a quote, "no smoking gun" in these reports. In fact, one person Manu and I spoke with, even urging the White House to now declassify them, make them public to make it clear there's nothing alarming in them. As you know, a lot of questions have focused on the role of Susan Rice, Obama's national security advisor, whether she in particular acted legally in requesting the names in particular of Trump officials who were incidentally collected in these intelligence reports.

And as we know, the president himself -- the president himself has said that he believes she may have broken the law. But again, Republicans and Democrats, these are lawmakers on the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, who reviewed these documents in a classified setting, said they looked at them and said there's no there, there in effect, that these would be the kinds of things that someone in that senior and national security position might ask for unmasking.

And you know, what does that mean in practical terms? They get a lot of intelligence. Every day they are briefed on the intelligence of the day and sometimes that intelligence includes mentions of U.S. citizens and those names are taken out. And sometimes they might look at that and say what American were they talking about there or what American was on the other end of that phone line with that foreign official. It's cases like that. But again, these Democrats and Republicans, they looked at those requests and they said, "Seems reasonable."

HARLOW: What, Jim, are the rules, right, for actually making and granting these unmasking requests?

SCIUTTO: Well, it's important for our viewers to know that. These rules are set by the Intelligence Committee. They're not set by Democrats or Republicans. They are set by the Intelligence Community. Certain senior national security officials, not all of them, a very limited list, can make such requests. And then the agencies -- the Intel agencies, the NSA in this case, they decide whether to grant those requests.

Now, as a practical matter I am told that in practice, when a senior official like a Susan Rice asks they're rarely denied based on their position and you do have people that we spoke with -- that I spoke with, who say that yes, what we've seen from these intelligence reports do not back up Nunes' claims or the president's claims. But there are legitimate questions here about the justifications given, the standards for granting those requests and that's part of the conversation, John and Poppy, that I think will continue.

BERMAN: All right, Jim Sciutto for us in Washington. Jim thanks so much for your reporting. Appreciate it. Nice work.

Sean Spicer, the White House Press Secretary, moments ago said that he let the president down. Why? We'll tell you after the break.




SEN. MARK WARNER (D), VICE CHAIRMAN INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: And this is the unanimous conclusion of the whole Intelligence Community. It is the overwhelming conclusion of most senators, Democrats and Republicans. We know that a foreign country, an adversary, Russia massively intervened in our election in 2016.

We know as well, they're currently intervening in the French elections and trying to intervene in the German elections. We know that Russia hacked into both political parties and selectively released information that would help one candidate and hurt another candidate. We know -- here, we're talking about no wrong door where we have the good use of technology to help people. We also see in what Russia did in 2016, the bad use of technology where the Russian government, in effect, paid close to 1,000 Internet trolls and what Internet trolls would do is manipulate information, many times create false Twitter accounts or false Facebook accounts.

And then, on a regional basis, flood the zone with fake news. That fake news would then mean if you received your news off of Facebook news account or Twitter news account and didn't watch television, you were reading information that had no connection to the truth. For example, in certain states you read stories in the last week about Hillary Clinton being sick or Hillary Clinton stealing billions of dollars from the State Department, all factually inaccurate.

We also know that our committee and the Senate committee in a bipartisan way is doing is -- investigating any contacts between either campaign and the Russians prior to the elections. If the FBI director has said there is enough evidence that he has opened investigations. I can't comment on specific investigations. I can't comment on the FISA warrant, but if a FISA warrant has been issued, it is a very, very serious matter.


HARLOW: All right. You're listening to Senator Mark Warner, the vice chairman of the Senate Intel Committee, the ranking Democrat on that committee, talking about the latest in their investigation into Russia's hack in the election.