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EARLY START

U.S. Drops 11-Ton Bomb In Afghanistan; Shifting Dominance In The White House; Russian Foreign Minister Hosting Iran & Syria. Aired 5:30-6a ET

Aired April 14, 2017 - 05:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[05:30:47] CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN HOST: The U.S. military deploys its biggest non-nuclear weapon for the first time ever. EARLY START's complete coverage continuing right now. Welcome back to EARLY START this Friday morning. I'm Christine Romans.

DAVE BRIGGS, CNN HOST: And, I'm Dave Briggs. It is 5:30 Eastern Time on this Good Friday. This morning, the damage assessments are coming in after the U.S. military's biggest non-nuclear bomb was used in combat for the first time. Officially designated the MOAB, nicknamed the "Mother of All Bombs", it was dropped in eastern Afghanistan against ISIS fighters. The Afghan Ministry of Defense announcing overnight 36 ISIS members killed, three tunnels destroyed, along with weapons and ammunition.

ROMANS: The commander in chief gave this response when asked if he gave the order.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did you authorize it, sir?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Everybody knows exactly what happened, so -- and what I do is I authorize my military. We have the greatest military in the world and they've done a job, as usual, so we have given them total authorization and that's what they're doing. And frankly, that's why they been so successful lately. If you look at what's happened over the last eight weeks and compare that, really, to what's happened over the last eight years, you'll see there's a tremendous difference.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: So if the president did not give the order, who did, and why? CNN national security reporter Ryan Browne is live in Washington for us this morning and, Ryan, walk us through, I guess, the chain of command of deciding when to drop this bomb.

RYAN BROWNE, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: Well, good morning, Christine. This bomb, you know, this MOAB, this 20,000-pound bomb, it was a capability that was requested by the commander in Afghanistan -- that's Gen. John Nicholson. He had requested some months in advance, we are told, and he was granted the authority to use it by his superior, Gen. Joseph Votel over at Central Command, so this had been in the works for some time seeking this capability. Now, this target of opportunity -- this cave and tunnel complex in this very remote part of eastern Afghanistan, Nangarhar province, right there on the border with Pakistan -- kind of emerged, so they kind of was -- well, the military is saying it was the right target and they were looking for the right weapon and the two things kind of converged.

So, again, we believe that President Trump was briefed on this weapon's use, given it was the first time it's ever been used in combat, but he -- the authority to actually use it had long been delegated to the commander in the field. Again, this -- we're still getting the battle damage assessments. The Afghans put out this one assessment, about 30 ISIS fighters killed. The U.S. is still waiting to make their assessment. We're expecting to hear from Gen. Nicholson in a press conference with the Afghan Minister of Defense very soon, so we might learn a little bit more about why this was used.

But again, this all comes as Trump's administration is trying to figure out what its Afghan policy's going to be. General McMaster, his National Security adviser, is expected to visit the country soon. The commander there, Gen. Nicholson, has asked for more troops -- in the thousands of more troops. Again, President Obama drew down the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan by some 90 percent and the security situation there has become a little bit less stable. So it will be interesting to see how this plays into the future decisions by the Trump administration vis-a-vis Afghanistan.

ROMANS: All right, great context and details there for us. Ryan Browne at the Pentagon, thank you.

BROWNE: You bet.

BRIGGS: So why use the bomb now and what signal does it send to allies and adversaries around the world? Joining us now, senior international correspondent Nick Paton Walsh, live from Iraq. Good morning, Nick. The "Mother of All Bombs" here, did it yield the mother of all results, though?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Not as far as we know now and, of course, this is early days in terms of assessing the kind of damage a bomb like that would cause. It's going to be, obviously, very consequential. But the first assessment from the Afghan Ministry is 36 dead ISIS militants and three tunnels destroyed. Frankly, about 300,000 militants, at this stage, so not as effective as perhaps that would have liked to have seen. We've seen strikes of similar effects almost daily happening here with much less of munitions, but I'm sure those counts will grow as they progress.

This clearly was a very hard to reach, very extensive ISIS camp. Out by itself, very rugged, hard to get into terrain anyway and the residents are, in fact, saying they don't believe there were many civilians in that area. But you ought to bear in mind we just don't at this particular stage and, obviously, a bomb like that doesn't get to choose who it kills. It's quite so extensive. Residents, in fact, feeling the blast and feeling the dust of the explosion from kilometers away. [05:35:15] But it's always been the epicenter of ISIS in Afghanistan to some degree -- Nangarhar in the east, as I said. They've been kicked out of it by the Afghan army in the past couple of years since they emerged but also come back with some force. U.S. drones and airstrikes often targeting that particular area but ISIS still moving forwards.

A lot of them harnessing disillusionment with the Taliban insurgency and getting new recruits from that, but also from Afghanistan's beleaguered youth and they do have a reach into the capital now behind some pretty substantial attacks in what used to be this sort of impenetrable safe areas of Kabul. But ISIS, themselves, obviously a big enough threat now in Afghanistan that a munition like this was considered on the table for tackling them.

BRIGGS: It still came as a surprise to many. Nick Paton Walsh live in Iraq for us. Thank you. We are expected to hear from Gen. John Nicholson, commander of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan. We'll bring you that as soon as we have it.

ROMANS: So let's bring in CNN military analyst and retired Air Force colonel, Cedric Leighton, a former member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He's in Washington for us. And you've been listening to our analysis and our reporting out of this MOAB bomb and, you know, some are trying to look and see how this fits into President Trump's worldview and his foreign policy. And then there's a lot of questions about well, did he personally sign off on this in the first place or was this something that was long in the works? What's your assessment about whether that even matters?

CEDRIC LEIGHTON, CNN MILITARY ANALYST, AIR FORCE COLONEL (RET.), FORMER MEMBER, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: Well, good morning, Christine. It does matter to an extent in that you want to know how involved the president is in these decisions. But there's also a way in which, you know, it's good for the president to delegate his authorities to the people in the theater as long as they provide the effects that are desired.

So in this particular case I think a big decision was made a while back that was we need to eliminate this particular ISIS area -- this ISIS encampment. The only way to do it was to use this bomb, the MOAB, and in order to use that MOAB, of course, a lot of planning had to go into that. They had to make sure they had the right target set, that they avoided civilian casualties, and that they did the kinds of things that you do when you're using something new. And using something new -- a weapon system -- can have often non-intended consequences. And this first operational use it will be interesting to see how the assessments go -- the battle damage assessments, especially.

BRIGGS: Sure, and some feel the president deserves credit for trusting, in this case, his military advisers and not getting stuck with the political quagmire. But let's talk about the proportionality of these results.

ROMANS: Yes. BRIGGS: We hear 36 ISIS fighters killed with the "Mother of All Bombs". Is that proportionate, in your view?

LEIGHTON: It is not. It is certainly not the mother of all results and that would, you know, of course, indicate that there is something that either was lacking in intelligence or that ISIS really does have so few fighters but, possibly, the only way to get at them was to use this particular weapon, so there are a lot of different aspects to it. But I think that when you look at proportionality, you know, as Nick Paton Walsh mentioned, these are early days. There are certainly new elements to this. There will be more information coming out and, you know, if this ends up having destroyed an IED assembly point or an IED factory or a series of those, then it probably was worth it in terms of actually preventing casualties to U.S. military forces --

ROMANS: Right.

LEIGHTON: -- Afghan military forces, and civilians.

ROMANS: Does it show a new engagement in the Afghan situation? I mean, you know, under President Obama we've been drawing down troops, you know, years -- 16 years, I mean, of engagement in the region. Is -- does this show a reengagement by the United States?

LEIGHTON: I think it does, and the fact that Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the National Security adviser, is going to Afghanistan as President Trump's personal representative to take a look at exactly what's going on there and to help devise a strategy that works both militarily and politically is significant. I think President Trump -- my read is that he is impatient to get results and in this case, you know, a 16- year long war is a really long war and that is something that needs to, in essence, come to an end. And to get out of a quagmire like this, but on our terms, is something that is certainly a desirable endstate.

BRIGGS: But, what signal does this send to the North Koreans who some expect a sixth nuclear test on Saturday?

LEIGHTON: Well, I think it sends this signal and, again, whether it is intended or not it shows that the United States is willing to use massive amounts of force, even newer weapon systems, to go after regimes or groups that it considers to be dangerous to it or to its soldiers. So this becomes a key element in this and it does put people in North Korea and other potential rivals on notice that they are at risk. That there are things that could happen if they go ahead with things like that sixth nuclear test, which is a good possibility for North Korea in the next few days.

[05:40:30] ROMANS: Sure.

LEIGHTON: If that happens then there could very well be something that the United States tries to do, or they may just have tried to send a message saying that this could happen to you. It depends on how they want to -- want to actually executive this.

ROMANS: All right. Colonel Cedric Leighton, thank you so much for your analysis this morning. I'm sure it will be a busy morning for you. We'll be waiting for that press conference today, as well -- any minute, actually. Thank you.

LEIGHTON: You bet.

ROMANS: All right, signs of a new brain trust at the White House with Steve Bannon under increasing pressure. Is a new moderate voice bringing the president to the center?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[05:45:15] BRIGGS: Just one day after he reversed course on several big policy planks, President Trump keeping his promise to bomb the "bleep" out of ISIS. Let's bring back Michael Warren, senior writer at "The Weekly Standard." Good morning to you, Michael.

MICHAEL WARREN, SENIOR WRITER, "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": Good morning, again.

BRIGGS: So let's take into account the president and the missile strikes on Syria, the stark warnings to North Korea ahead of what could be a sixth nuclear test, and now the dropping of the "Mother of All Bombs" on Afghanistan ISIS fighters there. What, then, is the Trump foreign policy as you see it?

WARREN: Well, it's a -- it's a bit of ad hoc, catch as catch can in trying to figure out how to respond to events. You certainly saw that in Syria, right? The chemical attack by Bashar al-Assad sort of prompted the president to act in a way that differed from the kind of rhetoric that he had during his campaign. I think it shows, in many ways, the sort of fluidity and malleability of his foreign policy, as well as the influence of a lot of what detractors might call the deep state. But really, the sort of foreign policy establishment, whether it's from the Pentagon, the Intelligence Community, the sort of foreign policy and diplomatic establishment that is sort of teaching Donald Trump a lot of lessons about the way --

ROMANS: Right.

WARREN: -- things work.

ROMANS: It's so fascinating to me, too, to see how the sphere of influence around him has been changing. I mean, that always happens with a new administration, you know. There's this jockeying for power and influence in the West Wing. But the front page of "The Wall Street Journal" today has a great story about how Trump's policy reversals we've been talking about for the past 24 hours are a reflection of the business influence, you know. He's got all these people around him -- Gary Cohn, for example, Jared Kushner, his son- in-law, and then this business -- these business leaders who he talks to who seem to be pulling him toward the center. Do you agree?

WARREN: Yes. I don't know how much of a shift it really is. There's sort of two different sides of Donald Trump. There's the economic nationalist populist side that's sort of represented by Steve Bannon. But remember, Donald Trump also promised to bring in the best people and he comes from a sort of appreciation of business. You can see this in several members of his cabinet, including Steve Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sachs executive at the Department of Treasury.

ROMANS: Yes.

WARREN: And so I think that this is the sort of other element of Donald Trump respecting that business acumen from folks like Gary Cohn -- again, another Goldman Sachs person -- as well as the influence and advice of his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, the 36-year-old husband of Ivanka Trump, who's a -- is really emerging as the most important adviser to the president.

BRIGGS: An interesting quote in "The Washington Post" this morning from Sam Nunberg, who was a strategist on Trump's campaign. He says, "The Trump White House will always be held in suspicion when you have someone who's consolidating full economic power in the White House who's also a liberal New York Democrat." Conservatives may be pleased at the military action of the president. Are they nervous, though, to see that sphere of influence increasing by those perceived to be Democrats?

WARREN: Yes, I think so, and look, this is a political problem for Donald Trump. He is struggling in the approval rating polls, something like 37, 39 percent -- not a good position to be in. Now, who is with him in that 37, 39 percent? It's his base. They really didn't elect, I think, the Goldman Sachs wing of the party and certainly you have the country's elite, so this is something I think Donald Trump's going to have to deal with.

Now, I think we've found that he can be a little mercurial in terms of what -- who he's listening to, advice wise. And so while we're seeing this sort of -- the Bannon wing on the wane here, something else could happen. He could -- the president could simply decide that he needs to return to that base and give them a few bones to chew on. So I don't think this is necessarily a permanent shift and it's certainly not reflected on all policy.

ROMANS: Well --

WARREN: Certainly not on immigration.

ROMANS: Well, and there's a risk here, let's be honest, because he was -- he was elected by angry, working-class voters who responded to his pleas that he was going to get rid of the Goldman Sachs influence in the world. He was going to get rid of, you know, the big Wall Street influence. That it was going to be about the little guy again and there's no little guy around Donald Trump -- advising Donald Trump right here.

WARREN: Well, I would say Gary Cohn -- again, the National Economic Council director -- would argue that he is -- he does come from that little guy perspective.

ROMANS: OK.

WARREN: He grew up working-class in Ohio and sort of rose to the ranks. And I think there is a sort of message that somebody like Gary Cohn and others around him would make. But I think you're right in sort of the perception -- the idea that Goldman Sachs or whoever Wall Street is having influence, this is what a lot of Trump supporters voted against --

[05:50:08] ROMANS: Right.

WARREN: -- when they voted against Hillary Clinton. But it just goes to show you that, again, this is a very fluid president who doesn't necessarily have underpinnings on every single issue, ideologically.

BRIGGS: And if you believe reports, he is singularly focused on health care legislation. He'll need conservatives to get that through the House. Michael Warren from "The Weekly Standard," we appreciate it.

ROMANS: Nice to see you. You have a great weekend.

WARREN: Thanks, guys.

ROMANS: All right, time for a quick early start on your money. The U.S. stock market is closed today for Good Friday. Stocks fell Thursday after the news the U.S. dropped that bomb in Afghanistan broke. The Dow fell 138 points. You know, stocks have been down for a couple of weeks now but for the year, the Dow, the S&P 500, and the Nasdaq are all still higher. There you go.

BRIGGS: All right. Top level talks at this hour between officials from Russia, Syria, and Iran. What's on the agenda in the wake of the Syrian chemical attack and the United States' response?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[05:55:10] ROMANS: All right, welcome back. Happening now, Russia's foreign minister hosting his counterparts from Iran and Syria. Their trilateral talks in Moscow focusing on the recent chemical attack in Syria and the U.S. missile strike that followed it.

BRIGGS: All this comes after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad flat- out denied a chemical attack even took place. In an interview with a French press agency, but filmed and edited by the Syrian regime, Assad insists the horrifying scenes are fake, with child actors staging death scenes to discredit his regime. Let's go live to Moscow and bring in CNN's Paula Newton. These trilateral meetings, Paula, are they coordinating on this message that the chemical attacks were faked?

PAULA NEWTON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: They seem not to be. In fact, what's so interesting, the meetings seem to be over now. We're still in the middle of a press conference but I'll give you an update that even the Syrian foreign minister is saying look, he denied the fact that they were responsible for the chemical attacks -- that we have never used chemical weapons on our own people -- but did not repeat that they were fake.

From all three sides, though, what we're hearing about more is they want an independent investigation. Still calling those U.S. airstrikes, in their words, a gross violation of international law and that the U.S. acted way too soon. What they're saying is that they still do not know the facts on the ground and that the possibility is there that it was the rebels that were responsible for that attack. But again, Dave, really interesting there that the Syrian foreign minister, with his Russian and Iranian counterparts sitting next to him, would not repeat what you just heard from Assad.

BRIGGS: Some sanity to this situation. Thank you, Paula.

ROMANS: All right. Let's go -- we're going to go right now to this live news event we've been telling you about.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

ROMANS: This is a briefing with Gen. John Nicholson in Kabul. He is the commander of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Let's listen to this, please.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Foreign Language Spoken)

GEN. JOHN NICHOLSON, COMMANDER, U.S. FORCES IN AFGHANISTAN: The enemy used these tunnels and minefields to move around the battlefield and protect themselves from the attacks from Afghan and U.S. forces.

TRANSLATOR: (Foreign Language Spoken)

NICHOLSON: This was the right weapon against the right target.

TRANSLATOR: (Foreign Language Spoken)

NICHOLSON: I want to assure the people of Afghanistan that our forces take every possible precaution to prevent civilian casualties.

TRANSLATOR: (Foreign Language Spoken)

NICHOLSON: We had persistent surveillance over the area before, during, and after the operation, and now we have Afghan and U.S. forces on the site and see no evidence of civilian casualties, nor have there been any reports of civilian casualties.

TRANSLATOR: (Foreign Language Spoken)

NICHOLSON: Let me take a moment now to emphasize the brutality of our enemy, Daesh.

TRANSLATOR: (Foreign Language Spoken)

NICHOLSON: Since they arrived in southern Nangarhar, ISIS Khas dragged elders out of their homes and beheaded them in front of their families.

TRANSLATOR: (Foreign Language Spoken)

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN HOST: All right, we've lost our satellite feed for a moment there. We do want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. This is NEW DAY. And we have breaking news for you. You were just listening to the U.S. military's top commander there for U.S. forces about what has happened in Afghanistan just outside of Kabul. The U.S. dropped the "Mother of All Bombs", the MOAB. Let's see what the commander is telling us. I believe we have our satellite back -- listen.

NICHOLSON: ISIS K has murdered male family members, kidnapped their wives and daughters, and forced them --

CAMEROTA: All right, well -- all right, let's -- we're obviously having satellite issues but we are monitoring that press briefing. Let's bring in Barbara Starr, our Pentagon correspondent, for all of the breaking news that she has. Barbara, what's the latest.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Good morning to both of you. Well, I think one of the --