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Strike on Syria after Chemical Attack Blamed on Israel. Aired 7-7:30a ET

Aired April 9, 2018 - 07:00   ET


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Syrian regime under President Assad cannot exist without Russia's support.

[07:00:06] SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R), MAINE: The president has to reconsider the early withdrawal.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We have a regime that uses chemical weapons. Our lack of action has consequences.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The reason why all the emphasis right now is on Mr. Pruitt is because he is executing these policies, and they're not a popular policy.

SEN. JOHN KENNEDY (R), LOUISIANA: These are unforced errors. Doggone it, he represents the president of the United States, and it is hurting his boss.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The president has nothing but good things to say about General Kelly.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Infighting in your own administration is not the way to do this.


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

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. Welcome to your NEW DAY. We do begin with breaking news for you. Russia's defense ministry claims that Israel carried out airstrikes on a Syrian air base after a suspected chemical weapons attack in the suburbs of Damascus that has killed dozens of people, including children.

President Trump warning Syria's Assad that there will be, quote, "a big price to pay" for attacking civilians again.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Mr. Trump also calling out Vladimir Putin by name for the first time for backing Assad. The White House now facing several global and domestic crises as the president's new national security adviser John Bolton begins his first day in the West Wing.

So this morning there are questions about chief of staff John Kelly's influence and the future of embattled EPA chief Scott Pruitt.

Let's begin with all this with CNN's Fred Pleitgen. He is live in Damascus, Syria, near this suspected -- this morning.


Some of the things that we're learning about those airstrikes on that base of the Syrian military, the Russians are saying that it was Israeli warplanes that flew into Lebanese airspace, launched several missiles onto that territory, that several of those missiles were not intercepted but some of them did hit that air base.

Now, as far as the alleged chemical weapons attack is concerned, you have to warn our viewers that the images they're about to see, they are extremely graphic and extremely disturbing.

But at the same time, they are also, of course, very, very important. Now, from what the opposition that was on the ground there is saying, they say that helicopters from the Syrian government dropped several canisters. After those canisters were dropped, people started to get respiratory problems. They couldn't breathe anymore. And dozens of people died in the process of that.

The Syrian government, for its part, denies using chemical weapons. They say, yes, they did have an offensive going on in that area at the time. But they said they didn't need any sort of help from chemicals to move that offensive forward, because it was moving fast -- so fast anyway.

Nevertheless, the images that we've seen on the ground there of, you know, people dead to -- inside their shelters, people having trouble breathing. Very, very disturbing images. That no doubt will be talked about in Washington and in other capitals around the world, as well, guys.

CAMEROTA: Fred, thank you very much for that. We'll check back with you.

President Trump vowing there will be a, quote, "big price to pay," end quote. So how will he respond to the reported chemical attack in Syria? CNN's Kaitlan Collins is live at the White House this morning, joins us with more. What's happening there, Kaitlan.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Alisyn, it is baptism by fire today for the third national security advisor, John Bolton, who officially gets his start here at the White House today.

But overall, this is also going to be a critical day for this administration and what they decide to do going forward there, because just days ago, President Trump was vowing to get U.S. troops out of Syria as soon as possible. But now the question is does an attack this grisly and this ugly just pull the president 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.

THOMAS BOSSERT, HOMELAND SECURITY ADVISOR: 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 on 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.

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.

[07:05:06] COLLINS: Senator John McCain faulting the president for those public statements, saying that Assad and his backers "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, Syria will certainly be the topic here at the White House today. The president is going to hold a cabinet meeting this morning, and then he will be briefed and have dinner with senior military leadership. All the while, the United Nations Security Council has called an emergency meeting on Syria today. CUOMO: Kaitlan, thank you very much. Let's bring in CNN political

analyst David Gregory and CNN military and diplomatic analyst John Kirby.

So David, let's start with a macro here about what's going on with Syria. What we've seen in the past and what that suggests about what we'll see now.

DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, let's start with one obvious point, which is presidencies are often defined by events not of your choosing. And this couldn't be clearer than having a bad actor like Assad keep asserting himself on the world stage, just less than a week after President Trump has said he wants the troops out of Syria and let other people take care of this problem. Now he gets pulled right back in.

The difficulty for the Trump administration, they've been very critical, President Trump has, of the Obama administration. John was part of that, can talk about the whole business of the red line that wasn't followed through on by President Obama and the damage that that left.

Well, the same calculation is here for President Trump. He launched missiles before. They didn't do a great deal of damage that obviously didn't prevent Assad from doing more of these grizzly attacks.

And is the president then prepared to step up to take Assad out and to own the military day two that is required? Or at the very least, if he doesn't want to do that, is he prepared to engage in some kind of strategic process that would work with Russia and Iran and others to try to change regimes. It's a big undertaking, and it goes beyond what Trump has said he wants, which is to focus on Syria, to get rid of ISIS and nothing more.

CAMEROTA: So John, I mean, having lived through this horror movie before as you did, what do you think the White House response should be?

JOHN KIRBY, CNN DIPLOMATIC AND MILITARY ANALYST: Well, I think they should certainly consider some sort of retribution act. Hopefully, it will be something that is supported by other nations and not just the United States.

CAMEROTA: Meaning militarily?

KIRBY: Alisyn, what I hope they're discussing today.

CAMEROTA: Just one second. Hold on, John. Meaning militarily or something else diplomatically?

KIRBY: I think full range. I think they should consider military options. But not just military options. I mean, look, a year ago, he launched 59 Tomahawk missiles into Syria. And it didn't stop Assad from continuing to barrel bomb his own people. That appears to be what he did here in Duma (ph). It didn't have the deterrent effect. So I mean, I'm not opposed to some sort of retaliatory strike here to

get-- to send a strong message. But it has to be followed up on the controversial policy about Syria and where we're going to go here for the long term.

It's not just, as David said, not just just about day two, frankly. It's about -- it's about the many, many, many days that come after that. We have 400,000 Syrians who have been killed. Millions flung into refuge. And the civil war rages on. And I think that's the discussion that they need to be having today in the White House how they get the civil war ended.

GREGORY: Remember what President Obama said. And he said it directly and he also said it through his policy, that the United States was not going to assume that humanitarian task. Because there was no good option.

We've been through this before. We invaded Afghanistan. We invaded Iraq. We are still managing both countries, Afghanistan more than Iraq. But you have to insert yourself, the country, into the political solution, which was some in the Obama administration was not in our national security interest.

KIRBY: Right.

GREGORY: Well, that has been furthered by President Trump, who has a more nationalist take on this, who wants other people to do it. But this now for -- he's gone after Putin on this. What is he prepared to do to force Putin's happen?

I'll tell you one thing. Putin believes it's in his national interest to control access to that deep-water port.

OBAMA: They call what we see with these scenes of the people on the ground outside Damascus a hoax. OK? And we've heard that word too much in our own political dialogue here.

But let's talk about a little bit of this aspect that's not as sexy but it should be more irrelevant to the American people.

So I did the interview with then-President Obama about the red line. It was the first one that he did when he was deciding, and he kind of went within 12 hours from "Slow down. We don't even know what happened yet," to "We should take action," to "I'm going to Congress."

[07:10:11] No, that's the part I want to talk, because whether it was in Syria or what happened in Libya, you could make the case that a president doesn't have the authority to unilaterally take military action in -- like this.

I know you guys argued that what you did in Libya was OK, saying it's not hostilities, because you're not on the ground. But I don't know how, when you use military force to kill people from a sovereign nation, it's not a hostile act. But that's a legal argument.

But this should all fall on Congress. Obama wanted to go to Congress about Syria. They didn't want to do it. Trump is obviously of two minds about this stuff. He always has been. So you're going to have generals basically coaxing him to take action. That is specifically within the purview of Congress, do you think that this action needs to be taken up by Congress in some way, John Kirby?

KIRBY: If they're going to go the military route and only the military route, yes. Of course they need to have a conversation.

CUOMO: It didn't happen last time when they used the tomahawks.

KIRBY: Well, but if you remember, Chris, look at the statement that the president put out after the missile strike he talked about it being. In his determination, in the national security interests to conduct that strike in response to violations of the international law by the use of chemical weapons.

So and that is not another reason why they justified just doing the one set of strikes and nothing more. So he has precedent on this he could fall back if he wants to.

CUOMO: Just because it happened before doesn't mean he has precedent. It wasn't tested by Congress. All these senators stand up and talk about this. "Well, we don't know. We don't know." Yes, I know you don't know. They keep kicking this ball down the road.

KIRBY: You're right, Chris. If in fact, you're going to try to find a military solution to the civil war in Syria, and it's going to be a long-term intervention. Yes, of course, I just don't think -- I just don't think they're there.

I think they are going to discuss military options. I think they will be sort of retaliatory options, like we saw a year ago. But I think you -- and I disagree. I don't think he's going to be coaxed by the generals to get militarily involved. And he will be given options. But I don't think it's in the military's interest. I don't think the Pentagon leadership wants a protracted intervention inside the civil war in Syria. They want to stay there to fight ISIS, and that's --

GREGORY: And this is also going to test -- the president has a new national security adviser in John Bolton who is hawkish on these matters, who at the end of the Bush administration, wanted to attack Iran over its nuclear program.

This is a test of what this administration wants to do in terms of asserting its influence on the world stage. Because short of an invasion of Syria and the commitment of troops and assuming all of that entails militarily, politically, diplomatically in a sustained way, then you're going to have to engage these other powers who were involved in the fight and try to be persuasive.

The administration has shown no interest in doing that. The Obama administration tried to do it and didn't succeed. These are hard, hard issues.

But I do want to underline one point that you raised before, Chris. Here you have Russia saying that these pictures that we're seeing on our screen. The foaming of the mouth of children is a hoax.

Do you think that gives President Trump some pause when he talks about fake news and things being, you know, unreal? That this is what tyrannies do. They use this kind of language to invalidate the suffering, and the real events that people are going through. Is that what America wants to do when we throw around things like fake news and this is a hoax? Because this is somebody like Putin using it and kind of waving it in our face. I think that's something for the president to think about

CAMEROTA: So back to John Bolton for a moment. We do have a clue as to how John Bolton's feel about this and what John Bolton will advise the president to do, now that John Bolton is the national security advisor and takes over today.

This was him talking about Syria after a different chemical attack in 2013. So listen to John Bolton.


JOHN BOLTON, INCOMING NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: Well, I would not have referred the matter to Congress. And I think if I were a member of Congress, I would vote against an authorization to use force here. I don't think it's in America's interest. I don't think we should, in effect, take sides in the Syrian conflict.


CAMEROTA: That's interesting, John Bolton -- John Kirby. What do you think that will inform what happens today?

KIRBY: I just think that he should be consistent on this. I mean, you know, everybody talks about Bolton being this war hawk. And if you really read what he has written and listen to the speeches he has given, he is much more nuanced in that. He is hawkish when he believes an incident is in a direct violation or is harmful to national security interests. Yes, he will be hawkish.

But when he doesn't believe it's in our national security interests, and he's been pretty clear the civil war in Syria has not raised to that level, then he's going to advise against interventionism.

And I think he'll probably, my guess would be consistent with that, he will be supported by, I think, many in the Pentagon, as I said before, who aren't interested in another -- another ground war in the Middle East. That's why I think it's really important.

And this gets to something that David has been talking about all morning, that they have to have a political strategy here for the civil war. We -- they have completely, the Trump administration, abrogated any leadership in a diplomatic process led by the U.N. to try to bring the civil war to a close. They have given that over to Russia and Iran. And yes, President Obama focused more on that without the leverage of military force.

[07:15:15] Trump has used military force before. He could use that again as leverage to get back in the game diplomatically and try to end this war. You can do that without necessarily having to commit large ground forces into a big --

CUOMO: You already have a decent number of people on the ground there. You know, just so people -- I know we call them support troops and all that. But you know, John, you know that that's just some B.S. nomenclature. When you're on the ground in places like that you're exposed to risk.

KIRBY: Sure.

CUOMO: And they're sitting on the ground there right now, and it's not an easy situation.

GREGORY: But they don't have enough forces there to effect a political outcome. And I think this is -- becomes important. Which is, I think to John's point and what John Bolton was saying in that clip is we may find that this administration says, "You know what? Assad is a bad guy, and we will take action to kind of put him back in his box if he crosses the line on chemical weapons." Well, we're not going to throw them out of power, because we'd rather have -- we'd rather live with Assad and have Syria be ISIS-free. That's in our national security, rather than take on the big fight of Assad and what would come next.

KIRBY: I agree. Again, go back and look at what the president articulated about the strike a year ago. He said it was in our national security interests to strike back when somebody uses a chemical weapons, in violation of international law. I would be looking for the same kind of logic this time around, trying to find a way to go ahead and reassert that any more, national security interests and probably nothing more.

CUOMO: But that logic is dependent on the United Nations making the same determination and asking for international action. It never happened. So I don't know how that gives him a legal basis. But we'll talk about. This isn't going away. We'll talk about it again.

CAMEROTA: Thank you, gentlemen.

GREGORY: Thanks.

CAMEROTA: Would Congress authorize use of force in Syria if it came to a vote? We're going to ask a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.


[07:20:53] CAMEROTA: President Trump vows there will be a, quote, "big price to pay" for Syria's regime after an apparent chemical weapons attack.

Video from the region shows the horror. We want to warn you these are horrible images to look at. You can see children, they were rushed to the hospital, needing help breathing following this attack. The Syrian government denies being behind it. Joining us now is Democratic Senator Ben Cardin. He's a member of the

Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Good morning, Senator.

SEN. BEN CARDIN (D), MARYLAND: Alisyn, good to be with you.

CAMEROTA: Good to have you. When the president says there will be a big price to pay in Syria, what does that mean to you?

CARDIN: Well, Alisyn, it's in the interest of the civilized world to make it clear that chemical weapons cannot be used. The United States is the leader of the civilized war. So we need to work with our international partners.

First and foremost, we need to work with the United Nations and hold President Assad accountable for his war crimes. I introduced legislation a year ago, bipartisan legislation with Senator Rubio that made it clear that President Assad needs to be held accountable for war crimes in the civil war.

CAMEROTA: And just to stop you there. I'm sorry, Senator. Just because -- because you introduced this legislation with Senator Rubio, what would that mean? I mean, obviously, Assad has never been held accountable. So what would that look like?

CARDIN: It would require the United States to say -- to preserve the evidence against President Assad, to provide technical assistance in the preparations of the trial material, and to work with the United Nations to establish a war crimes tribunal in regards to President Assad.

That should be done a year ago. It passed our committee. It's time for the Congress to act and our leaders to work with the international community to do that.

President Assad is -- should be held accountable for war crimes. We say never again. But we see over and over again these types of atrocities being used by leaders of countries. This time the president of Syria. But we also need --

CAMEROTA: Do you think that -- but just quickly, do you think the U.S. should respond militarily this time?

CARDIN: I was going to get to that. Secondly, Congress authorized sanctions against both Russia and Iran last year. The Syrian regime cannot exist without the support of Russia and Iran. And we need to take action against both Russia and Iran, making it clear that they need to act to control what President Assad is doing.

And the use of military force is something that the president needs to work with Congress. That's a requirement. And I hope this Congress returns today. There will be close consultations between Congress and the president so we can act in unity in America and with our international partners.

CAMEROTA: And if there were a vote today on an AUMF, an authorization on military force, how would you vote?

CARDIN: Well, it obviously depends on -- we're not going to authorize the use of sustained presence in Syria for the civil war. We do have a responsibility with the international community to root out ISIS wherever ISIS may be found. We need to redefine that AUMF for ISIS.

But in regards to Syria, our immediate concern is to make it clear that President Assad needs to be held accountable for his war crimes.


CARDIN: And we must make it clear that chemical weapons has no place in our civilized world.

CAMEROTA: I understand. But just how about military force here. I mean, not a sustained action. Let's just say a military response. How would you vote?

CARDIN: Well, there's a -- it depends on how that is presented. If there -- there needs to be consultation between the leaders of Congress, our committee, and the White House working with the international community to determine what should be the response. If the military option is chosen, my expectation is it's not going to be a sustained operation. That may or may not require specific approval by Congress.

CAMEROTA: Yes, I understand. But you personally, do you think the U.S. should respond militarily to this?

CARDIN: I think the United States needs to work with international partners, and it needs to be more than just considering a military option. It needs to hold Assad accountable and to undermine his support with Russia and Iran. I think that's critically important so we don't have another chemical weapon attack six months from now or three months from now.

[07:25:11] CAMEROTA: Is that a no?

CARDIN: It needs to be part of a package. Work with the international community. There are steps that could be taken. I supported what President Trump did after the last attack. I thought that was a measured response. It had a definitive message. And there was no sustained operations. It gets more complicated now that he's done this again.

CAMEROTA: President Trump has talked behind the scenes, according to CNN reporting, about pulling troops out of Syria, U.S. troops out six months from now. Publicly he has said, "I want them out. The time is now."

I mean, he has said -- in other words, the time frame was even shorter when he said this at a rally earlier. What do you think about that? Is it time to pull U.S. troops out?

CARDIN: Well, we certainly don't want U.S. troops involved in a civil war in Syria. Our presence there have been focused on getting is, which is located also in Syria, which is complicated by the civil war in Syria itself. I do not support U.S. presence in Syria as it relates to the civil war.

As it relates to ISIS, I think the president a long time ago should have sought specific authorization for the use of force. It should have had a finite mission and a finite length and making clear what our military options objectives are. We don't have those today.

CAMEROTA: There's some political news back at home. Governor Rick Scott of Florida is expected to announce that he will be running for -- against Senator Bill Nelson for Senate in Florida. Does that worry you?

CARDIN: I think Bill Nelson has an incredible record on behalf of the people of Florida. They know him well. He has represented the needs of the people of Florida during natural disasters during economic opportunities. I think he's done a great job, and I think the people of Florida know that.

CAMEROTA: Mike Pompeo, his confirmation hearings will be, I believe, this Thursday for secretary of state. You did not support him as CIA director. How do you feel about him becoming secretary of state?

CARDIN: I'm meeting with him tomorrow. And the confirmation hearings are later this week. I have lots of questions. I want to make sure he will be an independent voice in the White House for diplomacy, for speaking up for American values. I'm very interested in his views as it relates to America's participation in the climate talks.

America is living up to our responsibilities in the Iran nuclear agreement. He's expressed himself in several of these areas that are contrary to what I would like to see in the policy of this country. I recognize the president makes these decisions, but I want to make sure that our top diplomat understands American values and uses diplomacy in order to achieve those objectives.

CAMEROTA: OK, Senator Ben Cardin, thank you very much for being on NEW DAY.

CARDIN: Thank you, Alisyn.


CUOMO: All right. Stormy Daniels's lawyer is teasing a major announcement today, and he's making his case once again to depose President Trump. What is his case? Next.