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Syria Accused of Chemical Attack Killing Dozens; Defense Secretary Won't Rule Out Action Against Assad; Israel Refuses to Comment on Air Strike; Interview with William "Mac:" Thornberry; John Bolton Begins as National Security Adviser as Syria Crisis Grows; Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired April 9, 2018 - 10:00   ET



[10:00:27] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Good morning, everyone. I'm John Berman.

What will the president do in response to an act that he has called sick and atrocity. President Trump says there will be a big price for Syria after an apparent chemical weapons attack on his own people. That price could be determined at a key White House meeting beginning very shortly.

Now moments ago, Defense Secretary James Mattis says he will not rule anything out. Syrian activist groups say dozens of civilians were killed in the suburb of Damascus.

You've been looking at these horrible, devastating pictures. Now despite what you're seeing, Russia says there was no chemical attack by its Syrian allies. Russia also says that Israel was behind an overnight missile strike at an air base in Syria. Israel is not commenting.

Now we do have breaking news from the White House. We understand that the National Security principals meeting on this subject is beginning as we speak.

Kaitlan Collins at the White House with the very latest on that -- Kaitlan.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That meeting is going to focus on Syria and what options they're going to present to President Trump to deal with an aftermath of that deadly and ugly attack over the weekend. And John Bolton, we should note, it is his first day on the job here officially as the National Security adviser here at the White House today.

We've seen him going back and forth between the West Wing and the executive office building. We just saw him come back over to the West Wing, presumably for that meeting that is beginning right now here.

And John, it's a very big day for him. One of the first things he's focusing on right out of the gate is what to do with Syria going forward and what he's going to say to President Trump. President Trump who is in between these two things because just a few days ago he was saying he wanted U.S. troops to get out of Syria, those troops that are fighting is, but now he may be pulled back into the conflict because of what has happened here.

But in light of that, let's listen to what the president was saying about Syria and about those troops in Syria just a few days ago.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We'll be coming out of Syria like very soon. Let the other people take care of it now. Very soon. Very soon. We're coming out.


COLLINS: Now the president was criticized over the weekend for those comments from Senator John McCain, namely, saying that he feels that those public statements by the president emboldened the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to make that strike or to create that chemical attack that he did over the weekend. So certainly the president has got that.

Of course, John, he could decide to withdraw those troops and also strike Syria, something he seemed to hint at over the weekend when he said that there would be a big price to pay. But the question going forward is, what would the clear strategy that the U.S. is going to have in Syria going forward here going to be? That's something that is likely to be determined here at the White House today, John.

On the president's schedule, he's got a Cabinet meeting, but he's also being briefed and having dinner with senior military leadership and we can likely expect a meeting with his new National Security adviser to be on the agenda for today as well -- John.

BERMAN: Yes. A full day of apparent discussions on this subject. The National Security principals meeting now under way.

Kaitlan Collins, we'll let you go watch for any kind of reaction after that meeting. Kaitlan, thank you very much.

Now let's go to Damascus, the capital of Syria. Our Frederik Pleitgen monitoring the situation there.

And Fred, it's interesting, the Russians say they see no evidence of a chemical weapons attack despite the pictures we've all now seen.

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Yes, absolutely. And one of the other things, interesting things that's happened, John, is that that area where the strike apparently happened, which was in the hands of rebels, and was encircled by Syrian government forces, has now essentially switched hands and the Russians say that they are inside.

Now they say, as you mentioned, they have no traces of any sort of chemicals. They also say that aid organizations, they are on the ground as well. But certainly the pictures that we've been seeing strongly indicate that something of that nature did indeed happen. We have to keep warning our viewers that the images that we're showing were obviously very graphic and very disturbing. Nevertheless, very important to see.

All of this happening on Saturday night when the opposition says that pro-government forces seemed to have dropped some sort of canister, which they say was a toxic gas. They say people almost immediately fell ill, had trouble breathing, and that dozens of people then died.

The Syrian government, for its part, is saying that it was not behind the use of any chemicals. It says that yes, it was conducting offensive in that area at the time, but said it was moving forward so quickly that it simply did not need the use of any sort of chemicals to move forward anyway.

As you can see, John, these allegations being put back and forth and once again so many times in Syria, the civilians that are suffering the most -- John.

BERMAN: All right. Our Frederik Pleitgen in Damascus. We are lucky to have you there, Fred. Thank you very much. Let us know what you see and hear.

[10:05:02] Now Israel is still not commenting on whether they were behind this apparent airstrike at a Syrian military base overnight. Israel does not comment on this type of thing.

Joining me now from Jerusalem our Oren Liebermann.

Oren, what have you learned?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we've asked the prime minister's office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for comment but they remained quiet as has the army. But a former commander of the Israeli Air Force has said look, there were only two countries with the capability and the reason to carry out the strike. One, the U.S., two, Israel. It quickly ruled out the U.S. saying it would have been very difficult to plan a strike so quickly in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons. Especially if they don't have the fighters nearby and the weaponry to carry out that strike.

Therefore, he concluded as an analyst, it's almost certainly Israel that carried out the strike. We just got this video in from Syrian state media. Although we cannot independently verify the contents of the video, Syrian state media says it shows the missiles flying towards the T-4 air base near Homs, Syria.

So if it was Israel, why did they carry out the strike? Well, the former air force commander said the chemical weapons, the alleged use of chemical weapons cannot go without a response. But the big picture here is Iran. The base that was struck is not only a Syrian base, it also has Iranian forces there. In fact Iranian FARS news agency confirming there were three Iranians killed in the strike on the air base.

It is also worth pointing out, John, that just a couple of months ago, an Iranian drone that penetrated Israeli air space left from this base, this T-4 base, so Israel has its red line, it will not allow Iran or is trying to prevent Iran from establishing itself militarily in Syria and this strike may have been a part of those efforts.

BERMAN: Israel, Iran, Russia, Syria, keep track of how many nations are involved in all of this.

Our Oren Liebermann, in Jerusalem. Oren, thank you very much.

We did hear moments ago from U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis on all of this. Listen to what he said.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Can you rule out taking actions, launching airstrikes against Assad, Mr. Secretary?

JAMES MATTIS, DEFENSE SECRETARY: I don't rule out anything right now.


BERMAN: All right. Joining me now to discuss, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Republican William Mac Thornberry of Texas.

Chairman, thank you so much for being with us. You like the rest of us, you have seen these horrifying pictures, but unlike the rest of us, as chairman of the Armed Services Committee, you're in a position to do something here.

What will you do to help protect these children, these civilians inside Syria?

REP. WILLIAM MACK THORNBERRY (R), CHAIRMAN, ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: Well, to be clear, the president is the commander-in-chief and he must order whatever must be done by our military or by our diplomats. Congress' job is to make sure that they have the tools they need to carry out whatever they choose to do. So these people are clearly butchers.

What we saw a year ago when Assad used chemical weapons to kill about 100 people was the president responded with a targeted attack against the military units in Syria that had carried out that chemical attack. So my opinion is that they ought to consider doing something similar this time with our allies because we cannot allow this sort of behavior to continue.

BERMAN: Advising the administration that another attack like the one from last year would be appropriate. After that missile attack last year in Syria, you said, "My hope is that this action will help deter future atrocities by the Assad regime." So that clearly didn't happen, based on what we've seen over the weekend. So will another missile strike be enough?

THORNBERRY: Well, it may not be enough, but just to remind you, there have been some small scale uses of chlorine gas in the last year.


THORNBERRY: But we have not seen anything like that sort of attack affecting this many people. So I -- look, I cannot promise you that another missile attack will prevent Assad from carrying out atrocities, especially with Putin standing there and propping him up. But I do believe it's important to have some sort of response and that we do it with a united front. Because if you look at what has happened in Britain, with this targeted assassination using chemical weapons against a Soviet defector and now you see some of the same actors there at least acquiescing into the use of chemical weapons against a broad number of people, this is an international problem which requires an international response. So, for example, going to the U.N. I think is exactly right.

BERMAN: And there are two meetings at the United Nations at least on just this subject today. You seem to be pointing the finger squarely at Vladimir Putin here. And by the way, the president, for the first time, mentioned Vladimir Putin by name. Albeit it was on Twitter. But that is where he makes many of his official statements. Do you believe that more specific pressure needs to be put on Russia in this issue of what is happening in Syria?

THORNBERRY: Yes, absolutely. Assad would not be in power if Putin had not been there over the last several -- couple of years propping him up.

[10:10:01] And remember, the administration did levee additional sanctions against some of Putin's right hand people. I think that's good, but to go back to the point, our allies like Britain and France need to all stand with us, both diplomatically, economically and considering military sort of -- targeted military action.

BERMAN: Britain within the last hour has said they believe there needs to be a -- last question on this subject. You know, John McCain and Lindsey Graham have suggested when the president said he wants to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria, albeit a different side of Syria now, that might have emboldened Bashar al-Assad to carry out this attack. Do you believe there's any truth in that?

THORNBERRY: I believe a president has to be very careful in what he says because all sorts of actors are going to be listening and trying to take -- to figure out what their policy should be. What I know for certain is that Putin and Assad are like schoolyard bullies and they're going to try to see what they can get away with and they're going to push it to the limits and so pushing back against those sorts of bullies is going to be very important.

BERMAN: You say you need to be careful of what he said, the president does. Do you believe he was not careful in this case when he said that he wanted to withdraw U.S. troops?

THORNBERRY: Well, I think the notion that we would leave Syria is -- was a mistake because we haven't finished destroying ISIS and because people like Iran and Russia see the -- a vacuum created when the U.S. leaves into which they will run. So we don't need to fix Syria.

BERMAN: Right.

THORNBERRY: That's beyond our capability. But we need to be there with enough presence to try to keep the lid on or else we're going -- could get drawn into a wider conflict as your correspondents were just talking about with Israeli and other concerns.

BERMAN: Sure. You know, it's remarkable, a number of nations now directly involved in this.

Mr. Chairman, I want to get to this subject, because I know you care deeply on it. It has to deal with our military readiness and preparedness. There's been a spate of fatal accidents involving our military training exercises over the last several weeks.

What do you think is going on here and what needs to be done to remedy this?

THORNBERRY: We are seeing the consequences of eight years of cutting the military budget by 20 percent. Now the world didn't get safer, we didn't ask less of our military men and women, but what we did do is cut some corners on training and maintenance and replacing old equipment and so just in last three and a half weeks we've lost 16 service members, not to hostile action, but just to accidents in routine training and operations.

So on March 22nd, Congress passed a bill to begin to turn that around. We don't -- we can't fix it all in one bill, and it has gotten a lot of criticism that it spent too much money and maybe it did on some things, but if we're going to send men and women out there to risk their lives to protect us, we owe them the very best equipment, training and support our country can give.

And there is one other important point, if you're Putin or Assad or anyone else, you listen to what the United States says, but you watch what we do. And so rebuilding our military is one of the strongest actions we can take to show them that we're going to stand up and defend ourselves and our interests.

BERMAN: Mr. Chairman, thank you so much for joining us this morning. An important discussion, I appreciate having you here.

THORNBERRY: Thanks for having me.

BERMAN: All right. Still to come, EPA chief Scott Pruitt under fire over the cost of his security detail. But there -- but are the claims that he received death threats actually true?

Plus, the attorney for adult film actress Stormy Daniels says he plans to release a sketch of the man that he says threatened Stormy Daniels to keep quiet about her alleged affair with the president.

And 87 million Facebook users getting the same message today, your data has been compromised.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [10:18:12] BERMAN: All right. A pivotal week for the Trump administration as rumors swirl about a chief of staff losing power and EPA chief under fire and the new National Security adviser facing a crisis in Syria, his first day on the job.

CNN chief political correspondent Dana Bash joins me right now.

And Dana, we just learned moments ago from Kaitlan Collins the National Security principals meeting is under way on this matter of Syria. John Bolton, he's showing up to work for the very first time today with just a major issue on his plate.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. No question. You know, the good news for President Trump is that John Bolton has experience in government, has experience dealing with crises that administrations don't expect. He was President Bush's ambassador to the United Nations.

This is obviously a different time, it's a different role, and it's a very different president. But I think the one thing that we have to remember and it is sort of easy to lose sight of in this atmosphere where news cycles last five minutes and it sort of -- you feel like you're careening from crisis to crisis watching this White House is most of those crises, John, are self-made. They come from the White House out, whether it's personnel or anything on those -- on those issues.

This is one of those that every president faces. Something that comes to them. And really the last time the president had to deal with something like this was on the very topic, on Syria last year. It was a pinprick air strike in response and I'm hearing from some of his Republican colleagues on the Hill, they want him to be much more robust this time.

BERMAN: You know, we just heard from Mac Thornberry, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, who said he wants to see that kind of response, but, again, a strategy, a global strategy will be needed to move it any further forward.

On the issue of Scott Pruitt, the EPA chief, so much seems to have happened over the last week, a news story bubbling up every day. You know, one of the latest BuzzFeed actually FOIA'd the EPA and asked, is there any proof he's received death threats that you say he has, that's why he needs this multimillion-dollar security?

[10:20:09] And they found no evidence of those death threats. Where is Scott Pruitt on Monday morning? Is he safe?

BASH: TBD. I think that, you know, you probably don't hear this very much but you have something in common with Congress today and that you're both coming back from a week off and in Congress' case, it's two weeks off. And that has a potential to have a big impact on Scott Pruitt. Why? Because we heard all of this rumbling and the drip, drip, drip while members of Congress weren't walking through the halls with people like us running after them asking for a response. Today that's going to change. And I talked to a Republican member of

Congress before coming on with you saying we're all going to get pretty sick of answering questions on this. This Republican member's suspicion was one more big thing and this guy's going to probably go because of the pressure that the president is going to get from Congress.

BERMAN: One more big thing, this guy is probably going to go. Very interesting to hear that. We'll be watching closely.

Dana Bash, great to have you with us. Thank you so much.

BASH: You too.

BERMAN: All right. Texas today expected to send National Guard troops to the Mexico border as the president debates sending thousands more to back them up.

Joining me now, CNN political commentators Kevin Madden and Nina Turner.

Kevin, you know, there are troops beginning to arrive, these National Guard forces that the president wants to see at the border here. What does he get out of this politically? We will start seeing these pictures very, very shortly. Is this something that he feels he needs?

KEVIN MADDEN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, it's exactly that, John. It's the pictures. It's the optics. Those particularly -- those kind of optics are particularly important during the immigration debate. So many folks who care about the issue or animated by the issue of immigration and what they would describe as lax border security, when they see illegal aliens coming over the border, that does spark a lot of protests in many communities along the border.

So when Donald Trump, you know, sends National Guardsmen down to the border in order to stop what he believes is a pervasive problem, that does send, he believes, a strong message to those people that are most animated about this issue, and particularly in a year where we're heading into midterm elections, where base support is most important, that is the portion of his base that gets -- that is -- that finds this to be a really strong smart action on his behalf.

BERMAN: Yes, it's one end of this immigration discussion, Nina. And the other end of it, I suppose, is the discussion over DACA and protections for Dreamers that Congress and the president and no politician anywhere near Washington has seemed to be able to work out a compromise on this matter, despite the fact that they all agree one needs to be found.

Do you think seeing these pictures that Kevin is talking about will push that any closer to happening?

NINA TURNER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: No, I'm not so sure, John, and the point that Kevin made about this being a midterm election year, that in lies the problem, that for too long in this country under various administrations and with the Congress that the only time they're willing to act on something like this is when it's a midterm election, when somebody's back is against the wall that has not gotten us as a country the comprehensive immigration reform that we need.

And your comment -- your point about DACA, those young people should not be used as pawns for the president to get what he wants. What the president needs to do and the Congress needs to do is to really put forth comprehensive, bipartisan immigration reform in this country and stop having knee jerk reactions based on who's on the ballot and who's not. It's not right.

MADDEN: Just one point on --

BERMAN: Senator -- go ahead, Kevin.

MADDEN: I just want to point on that. The other thing that's looming here is the Supreme Court. And given the Ninth District's ruling earlier this year about the DACA case, they've actually decided to take that up and so the political incentive is now being sort of overrun by the fact that so many members of Congress are going to look to the courts to make their decision before they ever go out and walk, you know, which is a pretty tough issue to deal with in a midterm election.

BERMAN: Kevin Madden reporting from the Ninth District as he's bringing this subject up.

You know, Senator Turner, I want to bring up this issue of impeachment. It was interesting, "The New York Times," Jonathan Martin has a really interesting article this morning saying that Republicans are starting to use this looming possibility, you know, deeply looming possibility, of impeachment as a rallying cry for Republican voters, saying, hey, look, if the Democrats take over the House, they're going to impeach the president here. So you have to keep this from happening. Do you think Democrats need to be careful about the use of the I word?

TURNER: I mean, this is just to raise money. You have a few members in the Congress on the Democratic side who have mentioned impeachment. You have others like Adam Schiff who has said that the Democrats need to be cautious about this and let the evidence play out in all of these investigations.

[10:25:10] But the bottom line to this is that the Republicans are using this to rally up their troops, both parties do it from time to time, but this is nothing more, in my opinion, than a scare tactic to get their base all amped up and to raise money.

BERMAN: Look, I can see it amping up both bases if the Republicans say look at Democrats, want to impeach the president. I can see some Democratic voters and Democratic --

TURNER: On both sides.

BERMAN: Yes, yes. You want this right now.


BERMAN: But, Kevin, you think --


MADDEN: Yes. Nina has Tom Steyer to thank for this as well. Some of the folks that are the wealthiest liberal donors in the Democratic Party are spending money out there promoting the idea of impeachment. So --


TURNER: Right. Kevin, I know we don't want to compare donors now, do we? I mean, we don't want to talk about the Mercers and the Koch brothers.

MADDEN: Well, I'm just saying --

TURNER: Let's not go down that road.

MADDEN: Yes. I know. I'm stating the facts, but I --

TURNER: Stating the facts, too.

MADDEN: Yes. I think as much as the big risk for Democrats here it's not only about the base politics is that many soft Trump voters would see this as a potentially as like a soft coup against a dually elected president. And even those soft Trump voters may -- it could animate some of those voters to vote either against Democrats or for a Republican in the midterm elections if it becomes a central issue.


BERMAN: You can't do this to our Delta Tau pledges. Only we can do this to our pledges.


TURNER: Well, all the voters --

BERMAN: The idea that there's a Republicans --

TURNER: -- should be animated because the Congress and the president, they should be about the people's business and cut out all of this foolishness.

BERMAN: Nina Turner, Kevin Madden, Senator and Kevin, thank you so much for being with us, I really appreciate it.

MADDEN: Good to be with you.

TURNER: Thank you.

BERMAN: All right. This morning, social media giant Facebook telling 87 million users their information was part of a massive data grab. Head to your Facebook account shortly. You will see if you're one of those people.