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Assad: Chemical Attack is "100 Percent Fabrication"; Trump Launches Stunning Reversal on Campaign Issues; U.S.: Coalition Accidentally Kills 18 Syrian Rebels; Report: North Korea Nuclear Site "Primed and Ready". Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired April 13, 2017 - 10:00   ET



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

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Poppy Harlow. We begin with breaking news this morning, a brand-new interview with Syria's President, Bashar al-Assad, the defiant dictator saying his regime did not carry out the chemical attack that killed dozens, including children. He also blamed the United States for defending ISIS terrorists.

BERMAN: He says that Syria had no involvement in this massacre. He called it a "100 percent fabrication."


PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASSAD, SYRIA: We don't know whether those dead children were killed in Khan Sheikhoun. Were they dead at all? Who committed the attack, if there was an attack? What the matter -- you have no information at all, nothing at all, not investigated.

SAMMY KETZ, "AFP": So, you're saying it's a fabrication?

ASSAD: Definitely, a hundred percent for us. It's fabrication. We don't have an arsenal. We're not going to use it. And you have many indications if you don't have proof, because no one has concrete information or evidences.


BERMAN: "100 percent fabrication." He says this as sources tell CNN that there is new evidence implicating the government, the Syrian regime, in that attack. We've got a lot to cover this morning. Barbara Starr working her sources at the Pentagon, Nick Paton Walsh next door in Iraq. And Nick, we should remind people, this interview was done -- "AFP" did the interview. But it was Syrian government cameras. The Syrian government was able to edit and pick the sound that was released. Still, a lot of what was said, very revealing, Nick.

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Revealing, I think, certainly Bashar al-Assad's mind-set, remember, this is a man who's been kind of under siege for about five years with the exception of one very short trip on a jet to Moscow. So, his perception of reality possibly warped, although also perhaps strategically cunning to some degree.

The "100 percent fabrication" he refers to, well, he's pretty much basically saying that the entire story was fabricated. Let me read the full quote from "AFP" to you here. "Our impression is that the West, mainly the United States, is hand-in-glove with the terrorists. They fabricated the whole story in order to have a pretext for the attack."

Now, the key point here is that, of course, the U.S. have said in their own statements, they believe this to be sarin gas and there's a huge preponderance of evidence on open-source material at the time of that attack is almost impossible for somebody to have fabricated.

Now obviously, we have in the past heard Bashar al-Assad blatantly lie about things, frankly that many witnesses, including people like myself on the ground have seen to genuinely occur. He's lied about indiscriminate bombing against civilians. But here, of course, there's a much more important nuance, because he's playing a broad geopolitical game here. The Russians tried to explain those social media images of children twitching themselves to death because of nerve agents as perhaps a storage center for rebel weapons being hit by a stray missile, potentially, one of a number of explanations that came around at the time. Here, he's basically saying the whole thing never actually happened.

Now, this, of course, certainly plays into his broader, as I say, false perception of how the world actually functions, but of course, he's going back to an original playbook, which is, the things you're seeing and being told about by the West didn't occur. We, the Syrian regime, are the ones fighting the terrorists. That's always how he's referred to every Syrian rebel who's fighting against his oppressive regime, regardless of their extremist affiliations.

And he goes yet further on as well, to say well actually, it's the United States who are assisting ISIS. Of course, we know that to be completely untrue. They're bombing them on a daily basis and putting American lives at risk to fight them and here in Iraq and next door in Syria. But still, this is a snapshot of a mind very much sticking to his own playbook and denying what we all know to be the reality. John? Poppy?

HARLOW: Nick Paton Walsh, stay with us as we bring in Barbara Starr from the Pentagon. And as we show you some of these images, again, we just want to remind our viewers, they're incredibly hard to watch, very disturbing. Barbara, what more are we learning about the details of the chemical attack and what communication was happening around that?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, we know now that U.S. officials have the intercepts, the communications intercepts of the planning and execution of this attack. But let's put our own, you know, common sense sort of Intel agent hats on for a minute here and work our way backwards. You start with these terrible pictures of these people killed and injured and the suffering. Work your way back.

The U.S. has imagery of a bomb crater near this location. That bomb crater has chemical residue on it from a chemical agent. That bomb fell on the ground from an airplane overhead. The only two nations that fly in that region with fighter jets overhead are the Syrians and the Russians. There is a radar track of a Russia -- pardon me, a radar track of a Syrian fighter jet coming from the base that the U.S. attacked several days later. The radar track showing that flying over this region, the fighter jet that dropped the bomb with the chemical residue on it.

[10:05:00] There was a Russian drone that flew over the hospital where so many people fled to try and get treatment and care. That Russian drone took imagery, according to U.S. officials, five hours later another unidentified aircraft flew overhead, dropped another bomb and there are intercepts showing the communications and planning for all of this. John, Poppy?

HARLOW: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, Nick Paton Walsh for us in Iraq. Thank you both very much.

Meantime, looking at U.S. policy, if you've been trying to follow President Trump's policy positions, the past 24 hours may have left you with a bit of whiplash. He has back flipped and reversed course on a number of issues, not just sort of sideline issues, issues that were cornerstones of his campaign. Take for example NATO, an abrupt about face from candidate Trump to President Trump.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Number one, NATO is obsolete. Number two, the countries in NATO are not paying their fair share.

It's obsolete and we pay too much money.

In my opinion, NATO's obsolete.

So, here's the problem with NATO, it's obsolete.

NATO is obsolete. It was 67 years, or it's over 60 years old.

I complained about that a long time ago and they made a change. And now they do fight terrorism. I said it was obsolete. It's no longer obsolete.


BERMAN: He says he complained about it a long time ago. That was three weeks ago! That wasn't that long ago. Joe Johns for us at the White House and there were a lot more reversals in the last 24 hours, Joe.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely and I think it's a difference between what you say when you're on the campaign trail and what you have to do when you're in the Oval Office. Take Russia. That's another good example. Donald Trump talked a lot about improving relations with Russia. But over the last 24 hours, he has sort of gone 180 degrees from saying things couldn't be worse with Russia to tweeting just a little while ago, within the last hour, that things will work out just fine with Russia. But listen to what he had to say just yesterday.


TRUMP: I think I'd get along very well with Vladimir Putin. I just think so.

Putin says very nice things about me. I think that's very nice.

I got to know him very well because we were both on "60 Minutes." We were stablemates, so we did very well that night.

Right now, we're not getting along with Russia at all. We may be at an all-time low in terms of relationship with Russia.


JOHNS: You kind of need a flow chart on some of these and we don't have one, but we do have a graphic and we can just put that up to show you some of these back flips the president has done. We did mention NATO, of course, right there at the top. We mentioned Russia. Syria is a very interesting one, too. At one time he was saying he really didn't want President Obama to get involved in Syria, called it a mess.

But within his first 100 days, Donald Trump, the president, bombed Syria, as we all know. China's another issue, especially on the issue of currency manipulation. The president said he was going to label China a currency manipulator on day one. And now, he says he's just not going to do that. So, a lot of different choices and even more that we haven't mentioned, back to you.

BERMAN: Like the multiple choice presidency. Joe Johns at the White House, thank you very much.

Let's discuss this, plus the breaking news, this new interview with the Syrian Leader Bashar al-Assad. We're joined by Kimberly Dozier, CNN global affairs analyst, senior national security correspondent for "The Daily Beast," Matt Lewis, CNN political commentator and senior columnist for "The Daily Beast" and Errol Louis, who does nothing for "The Daily Beast," he's CNN political commentator and political anchor for "Spectrum News."

Kimberly Dozier, I want to start with you. In this really startling interview we just heard from the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, where he said that the idea that there was a chemical attack on his own people by the Syrian regime was a "100 percent fabrication" and he even questioned some of the images of those children that we saw with our own eyes. Listen to what he said.


ASSAD: We don't know whether those dead children were killed in Khan Sheikhoun. Were they dead at all? Who committed the attack, if there was an attack? What the matter -- you have no information at all, nothing at all, not investigated.

KETZ: So, you're saying it's a fabrication?

ASSAD: Definitely, a hundred percent for us. It's fabrication. We don't have an arsenal. We're not going to use it. And you have many indications if you don't have proof, because no one has concrete information or evidences.


BERMAN: So, U.S. Intelligence says it was a chemical attack, Kimberly, and there will be an international investigation, which will likely say it was a chemical attack by the Syrian regime. So, what's the impact, then, of Bashar al-Assad being, you know, basically playing himself out as a liar on the international stage? Are there any repercussions for this?


[10:10:01] Really, it's directed at the Syrian people, who are still supporting him in the third of Syria he still controls and also to the wider Middle East. Also, he knows, he can hear what's coming out of Washington, D.C. and see that Moscow is facing a choice, find a way to remove Assad and preserve its relationship with the Trump administration or get stuck on the outside of the international community and back him up.

So, yes, he and Moscow are saying the same thing, that this was fabricated that it was Al-Nusra, al Qaeda-linked militants on the ground who have spread chemical weapons and made it look like it was the regime, but he knows his back's against the wall. He knows that D.C. has already asked Moscow, find someone to replace him.

HARLOW: All right, we do also, guys, stand by, have some news coming in that I want to get to Barbara Starr. Do we have Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, on this, guys, yet?

All right, Barbara at the Pentagon. We're just learning that this U.S.-led coalition airstrike has killed 18 Syrian Democratic Force personnel, is that right? What can you tell us?

STARR: There has now been a brief statement from the U.S.-led coalition that, indeed, 18 of these U.S.-backed fighters in Syria were killed in an airstrike. This was near Tabqa in Syria. Apparently, what happened is, these U.S. fighters called in an airstrike on what they believe was an ISIS position. Strike called in, bomb dropped, but 18 of their own fighters were killed, very early word now from the Pentagon about all of this. And of course, it's under investigation.

What we don't know yet is, this strike, did it get called in on the wrong location? Was it aiming for an ISIS location, but it turns out to be a location where the U.S.-backed fighters were? Did the bomb drop in the wrong place? You know, all of these are the possibilities, very early word. Often, there's not a lot of specificity. It will have to be investigated as to exactly what went wrong. It's all an indication of the complexity of the battlefield, especially in Syria, where you have so many different forces on the ground. But 18 of the U.S.-backed fighters killed in an airstrike conducted by the coalition that clearly was not something that was supposed to happen. Poppy?

BERMAN: All right, Barbara Starr for us at the Pentagon. You know, it brings up a good point, which just illustrates how involved the United States still is -

HARLOW: Absolutely.

BERMAN: -- in Syria. Again, we had the missile strike last week. You have the continued airstrikes against you know, what are meant to be ISIS targets. And Matt Lewis, this is a level of involvement that then-candidate Trump really, you know, campaigned on not having, which gets us to the issue of what's happened over the last 24 hours right now, which is that the positions being taken all of a sudden by President Trump on a great many issues are drastically different than he ran on.


BERMAN: You know, at what point does he go too far for those who put him in there and what does this all show to you?

LEWIS: Well, first of all, I think, yes, very clearly, he is in a pretty short span of time flip-flopped on multiple issues of substance that he ran on. I actually think in most cases -- the evolution, the shift has been in a positive direction. I actually wonder if he could have gotten elected by taking the more responsible, mature stances that he has taken in the last week. I actually wonder if he would have -- he might have lost the election if he had been another like John McCain or something.

The thing that I'm curious to see is whether or not this is a linear evolution. In other words, is this the product of a man who, you know, came in to office without knowing that much information and is learning and growing on the job, or is this the product of a man who just oscillates from one Svengali, Steve Bannon, to another, H.R. McMaster and will he then flip back at some point?

HARLOW: It's a good point. Is it a fundamental shift because being president is different than running for president? And no one would argue with that. Or is it another flip-flop and he is back and forth?

Errol Louis, to you, it's also a question of who has his ear. We know from a lot of reporting throughout the campaign, this is a president who very much listens to the last person in the room, if they respect that person. So, this is very anti-Steve Bannon, "America First." This is very much more sort of the world view of a Jared Kushner or even you know, Gary Cohn, who came in as an economic advisor, former president of Goldman Sachs, but who's now getting a lot of chatter. Maybe he replaces Reince Priebus as chief of staff. --


HARLOW: How do you see this for Bannon?

LOUIS: Well, the disturbing thing in all this is that what you get is a string of positions, not so much policies. If there were well- developed policies, even some of the chaos and competition within the White House wouldn't necessarily be so unnerving. If there was a well- developed world view that had sort of some intellectual heft to it and -- some reality behind it, facing another countervailing view, you would have one kind of debate -

[10:15:09] HARLOW: Did we know what that world view was specifically from President Obama when he was grappling with how to deal with Syria?

LOUIS: Well, in Syria, there was, in fact, a number of contradictory messages that were being sent, one which was especially, I think, egregious by not being present was concern for human rights, fighting for human rights above all, sort of using the moral superiority argument to sort of rise above all of this conflict on the ground.

Right now, though, you know, Trump has inherited a situation where there are few friends, there are no good choices, there's al Qaeda behind the scenes who are actually supporting some of the same people as the U.S. is supporting. You've got Kurdish rebels in the north who are fighting with the Turkish government, which is an important U.S. ally. You've got Bashar al-Assad, as we just saw, making things up and daring anybody, you know, strictly an internal argument, daring anybody to challenge him. --

LEWIS: -- About a gas attack, which is amazing. But it's basically, what are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes? But you know.

BERMAN: All right, guys, these are important questions, you know and again, there are no two sides inside Syria, which complicates it and there are no two positions at this point from this administration. There are many more, so that is what complicates this. Kimberly Dozier, Matt Lewis, Errol Louis, thank you so much for being with us.

HARLOW: All right. Still to come, reports that North Korea is, quote, "primed and ready" for another nuclear test. We're going to take you there.

BERMAN: All right, his face was on the cover of "Time" magazine a couple of months ago. Man, I'll bet you he'd like to have that magazine cover back, because this has created a whole bunch of problems for him. Is that the reason that Steve Bannon might be on the outs? Will he stay or will he go?

Then, dragged off of a United Airlines plane into the national spotlight, we are waiting very shortly. Will we hear from this would- be passenger's lawyer? Are they getting ready to sue United?


[10:21:05] HARLOW: All right, new this morning, surveillance photos revealing North Korea may be gearing up for yet another new nuclear test. Analysts say these satellite images show continued activity around one of the country's testing sites. They describe it as "primed and ready."

BERMAN: And this comes as Japan's Prime Minister is saying that North Korea may be able to launch missiles tipped with sarin gas. Just moments ago, President Trump, he wrote about the situation there. He said, if China doesn't properly deal with North Korea, the U.S. and its allies will.

Want to bring in CNN international correspondent Will Ripley. He's inside North Korea. Will, again, everyone's looking at these images, trying to gauge what North Korea might do in just days.

WILL RIPLEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, this is the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site. There are a number of different tunnels on the test site and what this thing, -- 38 North is looking at is one of the tunnels in particular where they have seen vehicles, they have seen tarps put up, possible electronic equipment. Keep in mind, the U.S. and South Korea have been monitoring satellite images of this particular area for quite some time and have believed for several weeks now that North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un could order this country's sixth nuclear test really at any time.

We've been looking at this week in particular, because on Saturday, North Korea's most important holiday of the year is coming up, the Day of the Sun. There was also a political gathering that happened earlier in this week. So there's a lot of attention right now on North Korea. And this is the time around these major holidays that this country has been known to display its military force through provocative behavior, such as missile launches. There was an attempted satellite launch before the Day of the Sun five years ago and speculation that there could be a nuclear test.

Now, whether it will happen or not, well, that depends, of course, on Kim Jong-un himself. But if it does happen, we'll have to see how the United States responds. We know that that carrier strike group is off the Korean Peninsula and there are signs that China may be willing to exert more economic pressure on this country. John, Poppy?

HARLOW: And Will, can you just talk to us, because you are in Pyongyang and you have this sort of remarkable access and experience being inside the country. You had something bizarre happened this morning to you. What is the atmosphere been like reporting there?

RIPLEY: Well, the thing about reporting here in North Korea is that you never really know what's going to happen and that certainly was the case this morning. I was woken up by a phone call about 4:20 a.m. in the morning and told I had 30 minutes or so to get showered, dressed, into a suit and out the door. We were told we had to leave our phones behind and could only bring basically our cameras and our tripods.

And then, we were on buses going to this area. We went through a security checkpoint. Then we went through an additional security checkpoint, waiting for several hours. We arrived to an empty street in the heart of Pyongyang, but within a matter of minutes, there were tens of thousands of people streaming in, soldiers, civilians, people with balloons who were apparently mobilized very quickly for this event that even our North Korean government-minders didn't know about.

And then, the military band plays this one tune that always plays when North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un appears. And he rolls up in a black Mercedes limousine and stands on stage for the ribbon-cutting of a new high-rise apartment complex that he ordered his soldiers to build in less than a year.

They put up a whole block of buildings. This was an attempt to show the world that North Korea is growing economically, despite international sanctions. And then, after about 20 minutes, without saying a word, he got back in his limousine, drove away and the crowd went wild, so just another day in North Korea and who knows what we'll see here tomorrow and through the weekend as we cover news here.

HARLOW: Just another day in North Korea. It's remarkable. Will Ripley, thank you for the reporting.

BERMAN: All right, joining us now, Democratic Congressman Eliot Engel. He's the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Congressman, thank you so much for being with us. I'm going to shift gears from North Korea back to Syria, because the breaking news this morning is we're getting our first look in an interview from the Syrian Leader Bashar al-Assad, where he calls the notion that he staged a chemical attack against his own people a "100 percent fabrication."

[10:25:09] And he talked about those pictures we've all seen of dozens of children dead. He said how do we even know that those children are dead? I wonder if I can get your reaction to that interview, sir?

REP. ELIOT ENGEL (D), RANKING MEMBER FOREIGN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE: Well, I think that he's proving that not only is he a murder, he's also a liar. There is no doubt in anybody's mind. The intelligence tells us nearly 100 percent accurately that he was behind the gas attacks. It's not the first time he's done it against his own people and that is why the future of Syria, he cannot be a part of a future Syria. He has to go and the sooner, the better.

HARLOW: On overall policy from the president, Congressman, we've seen a breathtaking, stunning reversal of course in the last 24 hours on not one thing, not two things, you know, more than three things. We've heard him say now that China is no longer a currency manipulator like he had said they were throughout the campaign. He reversed course on Fed chair Janet Yellen. He reversed course on this Export-Import Bank. I mean, he's changing his view on China as it comes to dealing with North Korea.

Here's how political writer Mike Allen of "Axios" top -- stories this morning "Operation Normal achieved supremacy yesterday and a new phase of Trump's presidency begins." Do you like what you're seeing?

ENGEL: Well, you get the feeling that this administration or the president's positions on things, are sort of fly by the seat of your pants, you know. It doesn't seem to be one cohesive strategy. One day it's this, the next day it's something else, the next day he corrects himself with something else. Now, if he's getting a better grasp of it, I'm happy about it. But we can't just lurch back and forth, you know, NATO is obsolete, supposedly, then it's not obsolete. Russia's our friend, now Russia's our enemy. It's sort of like making this up as you go along. I hope he understands the fact that Russia's not our friend.

BERMAN: But and I understand you wanting some constancy, as it were, but you seem to like where he's ended up on Russia. You like -- you seem to like where he's ended up on NATO. Should he get credit for having changes, in your mind, to the positive?

ENGEL: Well, but he's not ending up calling for a special prosecutor or a special commission. If there are still lingering questions and there are, about the ties of the Trump campaign to the Russians, then there's only one way to find out the truth and that's to have an independent commission, independent of Congress so there's no political influence. That's really what we need to do.

So, Yes, I mean, I'm happy that he now understands the fact that Putin's not our friend, Putin's a pretty bad guy and happy that he understands the fact that Assad is a bad guy and that our NATO alliances is very important, was always very important since the end of World War II. But what we need is really more consistency, not just, you know you see children choking, as horrific as that is and that changes your policy. -

In fact, let me just say that I really believe that one of the reasons Assad felt emboldened to have the gas attack was that the administration came out with a statement that we were no longer making Assad a priority in terms of getting rid of him. That we would concentrate on al Qaeda and we didn't care about Assad and I think that emboldened Assad to think that we would look the other way, no Matter how horrific -

HARLOW: So, bottom line, Congressman, it sounds like you're not encouraged by the shifts, the dramatic shifts this White House has made. 30 seconds left. Is that the right read?

ENGEL: Well, I think time will tell. If it's a constant shift -- look, he's got to come to Congress. The war powers act has started. 60 days to come to Congress. He cannot use the old AUMF to just do whatever he wants. We want to know what his strategy is and we want him to come to Congress and I think that's the bottom line.

We don't have laws by fiat bite from the president. The president has got to come to Congress. And right now we just don't know where he stands. So, if it's a change of attitude, then I welcome it, but you just don't know, because one day it's one thing and the next day it's another thing.

BERMAN: All right, Congressman Eliot Engel of New York, great to have you with us, sir. Thank you so much.

ENGEL: Thank you.

BERMAN: All right, the White House. What do you think the president will do now with White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon? Is his job on the line? New tea leaves to read this morning. That's next.