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Russia Claims Israel Strikes Syria After Suspected Gas Attack; Trump Denies John Kelly's Influence at White House is Shrinking. Aired 6-6:30a ET

Aired April 9, 2018 - 06:00   ET



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Syria blaming Israel for carrying out a missile strike against one of their air bases last night.

[05:59:11] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We've seen the photos of that attack. I wouldn't take anything off the table.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He needed to set the agenda, making it very clear that if we draw a red line in the sand we will honor that red line.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I was pleased the president mentioned Mr. Putin. That was a significant change.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: This is a defining moment in his presidency. They see our determination to stay in Syria waning.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. Pruitt, ethics matter. Impropriety matters. Stop acting like a chucklehead. Stop the unforced errors.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Scott has just done a fantastic job on policy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He has the confidence of the president and is getting the job done.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He's just not as influential with Trump as people thought he might be.


ANNOUNCER: This is NEW DAY with Chris Cuomo and Alisyn Camerota.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. This is your NEW DAY. It's Monday, April 9, 6 a.m. here in New York, and here's the starting line.

We're going to begin with breaking news this morning. Russia's defense ministry claims that Israel carried out airstrikes on a Syrian air base after that suspected chemical weapons attack in the suburbs of Damascus that killed dozens of people, including children. We'll show you the pictures. Something was obvious and ugly at play there. The big question is whether the U.S. will take military action once

again without congressional approval. Or will the U.S. withdraw as President Trump had suggested? That suggestion is now being weighed as part of what may have emboldened the attack.

President Trump talking tough, warning Assad there would be, quote, "a big price to pay for attacking his people again." And in a rare show of severity, really, Mr. Trump called out Vladimir Putin by name. This was the first time that he said stop supporting Assad.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: So the White House is facing several global and domestic crises as the president's new national security advisor, John Bolton, begins his first day in the West Wing. And there are questions about chief of staff John Kelly's influence and the future of embattled EPA chief Scott Pruitt.

Plus, a CNN exclusive. Sources tell us that President Trump has begun the initial steps of preparing for a possible interview with Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigators. This is the clearest sign yet that President Trump and his legal team remain open to an interview.

So let's begin our coverage with CNN's Fred Pleitgen. He's live in Damascus, Syria, with all of the breaking news there -- Fred.

FRED PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Pretty big developments, Alisyn, happening overnight and, indeed, the entire weekend.

Now as far as those air strikes, the Syrian government said that the Israelis were responsible. The Russians are saying the same thing. They say Israeli warplanes flew over Lebanese territory, fired eight missiles at that air base. Five of them were apparently intercepted. But three of them then hit that base, killing several people on the ground.

We know, of course, that the Israelis suspect that it might be Iranian operatives on the ground there. And then you have that suspected chemical weapons attack in that outskirt of Damascus. That is actually only about eight miles from where I am standing right now. It happened in the night from Saturday into Sunday.

And the opposition says that Syrian government helicopters were flying over that, dropped canisters and all of a sudden people on the ground got severe respiratory problems. And thousands of -- dozens of people, I'm sorry, were killed as a result of that.

The opposition obviously blames the Syrian government. The Syria government, for its part, issued a strong rebuttal saying they were not responsible. They do acknowledge there was an offensive going on in that area at the time. But they said they were making such big advances that they did not need any sort of unconventional weapons to make sure that their advance goes much quicker. In fact, that territory, which is called Dumaw, just outside of Damascus, has since then essentially won back by the Syrian government. The rebels that were down there on the ground, leaving that area. So as you can see, both sides trading barbs. And once again, as we've seen so many times, guys, in this conflict, the civilians suffering the most -- Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: OK, Fred. It's so helpful to have you on the ground there. Thank you very much.

We'll check back with you through the program. President Trump vowing there will be a, quote, "big price to pay." So how will he respond to the reported chemical weapons attack in Syria?

CNN's Kaitlan Collins is live at the White House with more. What have you learned, Kaitlan?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Alisyn, one heck of a day for the new national security advisor, John Bolton, who officially starts in his role here at the White House today. But overall, a very pivotal day for this administration, because just days ago President Trump was vowing to get U.S. troops out of Syria.

But the question now is does an attack this grisly just pull him back in?


COLLINS (voice-over): President Trump warning that there will be a big price to pay for a suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria. One year after authorizing missile strikes against a Syrian air base after a sarin gas attack left dozens dead.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Every nation, all peoples have all agreed and have agreed since World War II is an unacceptable practice. So I wouldn't take anything off the table.

COLLINS: The president calling out Russian President Vladimir Putin by name for the first time, blaming Russia and Iran for backing the Syrian president who Mr. Trump nicknamed "Animal Assad."

Syria denying involvement and Russia firing back, calling the reported chemical attack a hoax and warning that using "far-fetched and fabricated pretexts for a military intervention in Syria is absolutely unacceptable and can lead to the most serious consequences."

President Trump also pointing the finger at his predecessor for not following through with his threat that the use of chemical weapons would be crossing a, quote, "red line." But in 2013, Mr. Trump also opposed a strike, repeatedly tweeting, "Do not attack Syria."

The suspected chemical attack coming just days after President Trump said he wants to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, ignoring near unanimous advice from his military advisors.

[06:05:01] DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I want to get out. I want to bring our troops back home.

We'll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other people take care of it now.

COLLINS: Senator John McCain faulting the president for those public statements, saying that Assad and his backers "have heard him and have been emboldened by American inaction."

GRAHAM: Well, it's a defining moment in his presidency. They see us, our resolve breaking. They see our determination to stay in Syria waning. And it's no accident they used chemical weapons. But President Trump can reset the table here.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R), MAINE: I think the president's going to have to reconsider his plan for an early withdrawal in light of what has happened.

COLLINS: President Trump speaking about the Syrian attack with the leaders of France and Iraq. The White House's readout of the call with France noting that the two leaders agreed to exchange information and coordinate a strong joint response.


COLLINS: Now, Chris and Alisyn, we are awaiting further response from the White House. Right now, they're saying nothing is off the table. It certainly will be the topic of the day here at the White House as the president holds a cabinet meeting around lunch and then meets and has a briefing with senior military leadership later on today.

CUOMO: All right, Kaitlan. Thank you very much.

It's not unusual to get mixed messages from Donald Trump when it comes to this type of action. He's clearly been against it personally. But he was convinced otherwise once he became president.

What will happen now? Let's bring in CNN political analyst David Gregory and CNN political and national security analyst David Sanger.

And gentlemen, let's remind people why the situation seems to have changed on the ground. We usually, you know -- we try to protect the audience. I'm not really sure why. That's a different discussion for a different day.

CAMEROTA: Well, it is very graphic. We should let them know.

CUOMO: What you're going to see, this should -- this should disturb you. But it's also real, and it's the reality. And the United States government has to decide what it's going to do about it. Here are some of the images of what whatever was dropped on these civilians did to them.

You will see that people are lying lifeless. You will see that is non-concussive, which suggests that this was a chemical agent or a nonconventional weapon. You will see foam coming out of their mouths, which is again, don't have to be a nuclear physicist to understand that this is some type of toxic agent.

CAMEROTA: And you also see children, by the way. CUOMO: There are children. There are families. This is the kind of

bombing that's been going on all along there, David Sanger. So in terms of what this means for the state of play on the ground, you heard Lindsey Graham there saying, "Maybe the suggest that we were leaving showed a lack of resolve and emboldened this kind of attack." It's speculation done by a member of the president's own party.

But how serious this offense, and how seriously should the U.S. consider military action?

DAVID SANGER, CNN POLITICAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, it is speculation, but it's a pretty good bet. And the reason for that, Chris, is that the president has moved between periodic interest in humanitarian intervention -- and that's what the strike a year ago was after a fairly significant chemical attack -- and his discussion of pulling the U.S. out, because he fundamentally believes the United States does not have many national interests in the Syrian war. So this puts them in complete opposition here.

On the one hand, he says, "We shouldn't be anywhere in the world where the United States' interests aren't immediately at stake." And that was what was behind his statement, "Let someone else handle it." This is time for others to go handle it.

And then he sees an image like this, horrible and awful thing, clearly appeared to be the use of either a chemical agent, chlorine, something like that. And he talks about coming in to bomb again.

The problem with this, Chris, is bombing is an immediate response, but it doesn't get at the central issue. And after you're gone, of course, Assad comes to the conclusion he can go try this again.

CAMEROTA: So David Gregory, obviously, President Trump was quite critical of President Obama back in 2013. There was a red line that President Obama laid down. And then President Trump -- Donald Trump at the time, felt that that was really not a good strategy to mention that.

So then President Trump tweets out that there will be a, quote, "big price to pay." Do you hear that as his own red line?

DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I don't see how you read it any other way. And I think it's also a confirmation that, when President Trump tweets, that is policy. Because if this is just an idle tweet, and this is a big threat, a big push of Vladimir Putin, only with no follow-through.

But to David's point, this is the issue with the targeted, limited airstrikes meant to be a punch in the nose. But you know, on the big world order, on the big world stage, that has limited impact, because these guys, a guy like Assad, who's a murderous dictator, who's backed by Iran and Russia, can wait these kinds of things out. But he's clearly not worried about civilian casualties and those around him, because he'll commit his own atrocities.

[06:10:11] The end game here is getting Assad out of power. It's what the Obama administration wanted but was not prepared to take by force, because it didn't want to own the outcome.

Because if you thought Iraq was bad, this sequel would be far worse, far more complicated, and far deadlier for the United States and its allies. And there appears to be no will to go in and take Syria over. So the United States under Trump and even under Obama says, "OK, we can't have a failed state." We saw that as a prelude to 9/11. So we want to attack ISIS, got ISIS out of Syria. But you have to own some kind of follow-up, some kind of outcome. And that's where we find ourselves yet again.

If the goal is to get rid of Assad, then what comes next? What is the United States prepared to do to own that outcome?

CUOMO: I mean, obviously, you have a very divided head here. Because the president clearly doesn't want to be in that kind of business. He's been, you know, very resolute about that over the years.

You have the fact that Israel, to your point, David Sanger, seemed to be the proxy agent here, if the reports are true about who sent these missiles down and may have done some damage on one of the bases.

But then you have the bigger question, which is because Trump is not of one mind on this kind of stuff, he really doesn't need to be. Because what is the legal authority for the president of the United States to unilaterally start any military action in Syria? I mean, this is something that really bollocksed up Obama. Right? He wound up going to Congress and saying, "Really, you guys are supposed to do this."

You then had Paul Ryan say, "We have to take our power back from the executive." What power has been punted more to the executive than declaring war?

You heard Susan Collins, Graham, McCain talking about this. Isn't it their job to get the ideas from the president and the military and vote on whether or not the U.S. takes military action? This isn't a national security threat?

SANGER: Well, it's not a national security threat to us. And all of the action that you see in Syria has really been done under the authorization to use military force that passed right after 9/11.

CUOMO: How does that apply? I mean, how does that apply legally?

SANGER: It's a pretty far stretching, because it went after Qaeda. And then it was interpreted to allow going after ISIS.

But in a case like this, a humanitarian intervention, there is no legal basis under the authorization to use military force. The attack here was against -- an awful thing, but it was against the Syrian people and, therefore, against all kinds of international law that could imagine.

CUOMO: But that takes U.N. resolutions. That's right. And you could take Assad up in the international criminal court. But for a military strike, it doesn't provide much of an

authorization. Now, this gets at the strategic incoherence of the Syria policy. President Obama hesitated to go take the military action, because he didn't know what would happen the day after. And he attempted and failed to bring about a diplomatic solution to the civil war.

President Trump is not really engaged in any diplomatic action there. He is simply hoping that the periodic threat of military strikes would stop these -- these kinds of chemical attacks. Clearly, they have not. It stopped for a while after last year's attack. And then they have been resuming gradually until what we saw happened over the weekend. And there's no reason to think it would play out any differently, even if he does strike, which I suspect he will, in the next few days.

GREGORY: And the larger strategic game is what is the United States prepared to do to drive an outcome that is not going to be achieved militarily? The outcome is going to be what has stagnated here over the past few years, an effort to talk to Russia, to get Iran involved, to get Turkey involved and others to change regimes.

But you see, Russia has a much bigger interest in Syria than the United States does. Access to a deep-water port, propping up its -- its proxies in the area to have influence in the region. And the United States doesn't want to assert its interests, beyond making sure that this doesn't become a safe haven for ISIS.

So that's what the president has to get his head around his interests around. Because what he's articulated over the past couple of weeks is a very nationalist argument, which is we've got no dog in the fight in Syria. We should just bring those troops home. I mean, he said was the mistake of previous administrations.

Well, now he sees himself pulled right back in. And the question laid down in front of him, especially with an incredibly hawkish national security adviser who once wanted to attack Iran in John Bolton, is how are they going to attack taking on Russia and challenging them to be part of a bigger solution in Syria that prevents these kinds of attacks in the future.

[06:15:08] CAMEROTA: Well, those questions begin in earnest this morning when John Bolton takes his position officially. So obviously, it will be a very interesting day at the White House.

David Sanger, David Gregory, thank you very much.

So there's this chaos on the world stage matched somewhat by the strive inside the White House. Is the president's own team distracting him from dealing with the problems at hand? We tackle what's going on inside, including the Easter bunny, next.


CAMEROTA: President Trump denying reports that chief of staff John Kelly's influence has been diminished somehow. This comes as embattled EPA chief Scott Pruitt hangs on despite growing opposition even from Republican lawmakers.

So let's discuss this with CNN political analysts David Gregory and John Avlon.

John, I want to start with John Kelly. So there -- these reports that on March 28, so recently, John Kelly was so frustrated that Mattis and Nielsen, homeland security secretary, had to calm him down.


CAMEROTA: He has grown quite flummoxed by the lack of, I guess, control in the White House that he has. What are we to make of this?

AVLON: Flummoxed. The -- he, apparently, had a, you know, little mini-intervention by his friends, who say don't get too frustrated. Don't get so frustrated you're thinking about quitting.

[06:20:08] Apparently, he went home that day a little early and said, "I'm out of here." And some people interpreted it as a threat to quit.

Look, being chief of staff to President Trump has got to be one of the worst, most powerful jobs in the world. Because you're only as good as chief of staff as the confidence your -- you know, the president gives you.

But Trump doesn't want to be managed. He needs to be managed, but he doesn't want to be. So there's a natural tension there. Kelly had been really controlling access. Now Trump is allegedly trying to throw that off. And those friction point, at some point, will explode. I don't think it will be a good thing for the Trump White House if Kelly went out the door, though.

CUOMO: David Gregory, I've been on vacation, so help me. Remind me why do we care so much about each of the incremental machinations of what is obvious chaos in the White House? They can deny it all they want. We know it's not true. We know there's dysfunction. We know that they have problems there. But, you know, going into each new iteration of it, where does it get us?

GREGORY: Well, I don't think it gets us very far. But I think there is -- you know, as I would say, is part of this dysfunction becomes more serious and, you know, less amusing when you're facing a crisis like Syria. You're looking at the prospect of U.S. intervention. Because there again, process matters. Decision making matters.

And what you've got is this cycle of a chief of staff who's very frustrated by the fact that the chief executive is taking control of decisions, keeping him out of the loop. Obviously, is -- he himself, Trump himself, is feeding questions of whether Kelly still has influence by the actions he takes or by leaks that he, the president, makes himself.

And so there's this kind of fighting back and forth. And, you know, ultimately, if you are a member of Congress, the congressional leadership, if you're a foreign leader, you have to wonder who's really speaking for the president, who's really in control in the White House, who has real influence over the White House. And I think these things do tend to matter.

I think this idea that the president likes to have a kind of chaotic management style means he likes to keep everybody guessing. And he feeds this kind of frustration where, you know, Kelly is so frustrated that he wants to walk out the door. And there's no question what's happened on numerous instances.

So you know, all of this flux means it's harder for the president to have a good process to decide big things.

CAMEROTA: Because you've been on vacation, I'll bring you up to speed.

CUOMO: Please.

CAMEROTA: Scott Pruitt is embattled.

CUOMO: Yes, and where is he again?


GREGORY: Sorry about my (INAUDIBLE reference, as well.

CUOMO: He used to -- he's the guy who used to attack all the environmental protections when he was the attorney general, but now he's in charge of them.

CAMEROTA: Yes, but he is embattled, because he's spending an inordinate amount of money, even on his personal security detail --

CUOMO: Except on where he stays. There, he gets a real basement bargain.


CUOMO: Now I'm back. All right.

CAMEROTA: He's back.

So even Republican lawmakers this weekend on the Sunday shows were expressing their misgivings. Here they are.


SEN. JOHN KENNEDY (R), LOUISIANA: Now these are unforced errors. They're stupid. There are a lot of problems we can't solve. But you can behave. I'm not -- I don't mean to denigrate Mr. Pruitt, but doggone it, he represents the president of the United States, and it is hurting his boss. And he needs to stop.

GRAHAM: I think he's done a good job. But I'm looking to see what the Oversight Committee is going to say.

The one thing I can say, if you're the EPA administrator and two lobbyists change the locks, you've got a problem.

COLLINS: On policy grounds alone, I think Scott Pruitt is the wrong person to head the EPA.


CAMEROTA: All right. Well, John Avlon, Trey Gowdy on the Oversight Committee, we had him on last week. And he said that he was going to begin looking into this.

CUOMO: For Captain Benghazi, wasn't there a big (YAWNS).

I mean, they went after that with such an aggression? And here he says, "Well, I don't like these kinds of allegations." But then, they've had a month to get documentation from Pruitt. They haven't gotten it. And Gowdy's like, "Oh, we should get around to this."

CAMEROTA: But now they're ratcheting it up, supposedly.

AVLON: I'm just digging "Captain Benghazi."

CUOMO: The urgency there. I mean, what was that about?

AVLON: Political. Well, political.

CUOMO: That's the point.

AVLON: But Pruitt has caused a number of self-inflicted wounds in a short amount of time. I mean, that particular relay race goes to Scott Pruitt.

The latest is he's got 19 people on a 24/7 security detail, 19 vehicles. Baseline salary, $2 million at a time when the budget for the EPA is being cut. These are not good facts.

And you know -- and you know, God bless Senator John Kennedy and Lindsey Graham for kind of laying in some folksy common sense. But he's got problems from policy to these pesky ethical concerns that keep piling up. The president can say he supports him, but the fact pattern doesn't look good for Scott Pruitt.

GREGORY: Yes, but I would look at it differently. I mean, I think he's been through a really rough week. And if the worse thing that happens over the weekend is, like, "Wow, that was just really bad that you did that. And those are unforced errors, and it's really got to stop." That is not like "He's got to go."

[06:25:10] And we know the president is defending him. I don't know. I don't see what pushes him out in this administration. I think he would be gone in a different administration. But if the president is digging in --

AVLON: Any other administration.

GREGORY: But -- right. But let's remember, let's remember that this is still a darling of the right for what he's doing on regulation in an election year. And I think the president's support for him thus far matters.

And here's another thing about Kelly. Kelly had reportedly -- wanted him out and has not won that round. I don't know. I think Pruitt may be safe for now.

CAMEROTA: Just one last curious thing. And that is that this BuzzFeed reporter filed a FOIA request to try to get to see the threats that had been made against Scott Pruitt. Because if he's under so many threats and he needs all of this beefed-up security at a high taxpayer cost.

So here's the tweet. "I filed a FOIA with EPA for any records of death threats made against Scott Pruitt. EPA said it had zero records."

AVLON: Yes. This is Jason Leopold, who's a self-described FOIA ninja, very good reporter. You know, if all of a sudden, Christine Todd Whiteman walked to work when she was EPA secretary after 9/11 under Bush after 9/11. So this is a relevant inquiry by Jason Leopold and came back goose eggs. So.

CUOMO: But again, let's say you find out Leopold is right. There are no records; this was fabricated. It's still up to Trump. If Trump wants him in there and likes what he's doing, he's sweated so much talent at this point.


CUOMO: That each one that loses -- that leaves now makes Trump look bad.

CAMEROTA: It still is good for taxpayers to know --

CUOMO: Sure.

CAMEROTA: -- whether or not it was justified spending.


CAMEROTA: Gentlemen, thank you.

Cuomo: Are you waiting for a response? Thanks. We could get anybody on here. We have you guys. You don't even say.

All right. So your private information on Facebook. Was it compromised by Cambridge Analytica? You may find out today. How? Next.