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Syrian Government Reportedly Uses Chemical Weapons to Attack Civilians; White House Criticizes Russian Backing of Assad Regime in Syria; Will Congress Authorize Military Use Of Force In Syria?; GOP Senators Take Aim At Embattled EPA Chief Scott Pruitt; Will EPA Chief Scott Pruitt Survive Ethical Scandals?. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired April 9, 2018 - 8:00   ET


[08:00:00] CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: It is Monday, April 9th, 8:00 in the east.

And we begin with breaking news. Russia's defense ministry claims Israel carried out air strikes on a Syrian air base after a suspected chemical weapons attack in the suburbs of Damascus that killed dozens, including children, an attack that Russia has said is a hoax. Wait until you see the photos. Trump warning Syria that Assad, there is going to be a big price to pay for backing him and for attacking civilians again.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: And in a rare more President Trump also called out Vladimir Putin by name for backing Assad. The White House is facing several crises overseas as well as here at home as the president's new national security adviser John Bolton begins his first day on the job. And there are questions about Chief of Staff John Kelly's influence inside the White House and the future of embattled EPA chief Scott Pruitt. So we have it all covered for us, but let's begin with CNN's Fred Pleitgen live in Damascus, Syria, with the breaking news.

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Alisyn. Yes, you're absolutely right. The Russians are saying they believe that Israel was behind those missile strikes on a Syrian air base that happened overnight. They say the Israeli warplanes flew over Lebanese territory and fired eight missiles into Syria, and five of those were intercepted and three that hit that airbase killing several people on the ground. The Israelis for their part of not commented yet.

And then you have that alleged chemical weapons attack. We have got to warn our viewers that the images they are about to see are extremely graphic and extremely disturbing, but they are still very, very important. Apparently all of this happened at around 8:20 p.m. on Saturday night when a Syrian military helicopter, the opposition says, hovered over that area and dropped several canisters onto the area. People then got extreme respiratory problems and, the opposition says, dozens of people were killed. And we have those horrible images of children laying on the ground, children not able to breath, doctors in chaos really trying to help them as all of this is going on. The Syrian government for its part says it was not behind any sort of

attack. They say, yes, they were prosecuting an offensive in that area at the time, but they said the offensive was going so quickly that they did not need any sort of chemicals to further their advances. They also said this attack happened in the rear echelon areas behind the front lines and certainly would not have helped them militarily in any way.

So as you can see, a lot of accusations flying out there. One thing that unfortunately we keep seeing in this conflict and we're seeing again with those images as well is that it is civilians once again who are suffering the most here in Syria, guys.

CUOMO: Thank you very much, Fred. And people have to be reminded Syria's regime have denied these attacks in the past and they have wound up being hollow denials.

President Trump's new National Security Adviser John Bolton hitting the ground running on his first day, some big questions of his desk. He's leading a meeting with key members of the national security council today. Officials say he is likely drawing up plans for military action in Syria. CNN's Barbara Starr live at the Pentagon with more on how the U.S. is preparing to respond if ordered. Barbara?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Chris, good morning. Those last two words you said, "if ordered," if ordered by the president is the key issue at this hour. But what we do know based on the strikes that happened just a year ago in Syria that the military does not wait to be asked by the president. Options planning, getting options ready for him to look at would already be going on right now.

And those options are centered around the key question, what does President Trump want to achieve? Does he want to send a message by striking the chemical weapons targets? Does he want to go further and strike at the heart of Assad's regime? That will dictate the options presented by the president. Those options will look at targets, the chemical weapons, the barrel bombs, tough targets set because those helicopters that deliver them are mobile and can move around. You would have to chase them down and get to all of them.

It's not going to end the threat, so you have to be able to look at the targets. You have to decide what weapons you are going to use. U.S. not likely to put pilots into Syria. Expect to see cruise missile attacks once again, and perhaps one of the key questions, enemy forces. You are going to be flying into the face of Russian and Syrian air defenses. Their missiles that could shoot pilots down and shoot missiles down, it will be very tough business. Alisyn, Chris?

CAMEROTA: Barbara, thank you for explaining just how complicated all of this is.

Let's bring in CNN political analyst John Avlon and CNN national security analyst Gayle Tzemach Lemmon. Gayle has been in Syria twice in the past six months. So Gayle, let me start with you. What do you think the response should be when President Trump says there is a big price to pay? Barbara just laid out how complicated that price would be to extract.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: It is complicated. Syria is really the conflict that has trampled on all of the international norms for seven years.

[08:05:02] So I think there are three W's, the what. What is the response? The when, which is what is the timeline? And then the third is the will. How committed is the U.S. going to be to staying the course in Syria and to following up on whatever message the Trump administration decides should be sent?

But there is no question that the world is watching, and this is the same moment that President Obama had in 2012 when he talked about a red line.

CUOMO: So let's look at the politics of it. President Obama did not believe in exactly what Gayle is saying there, that this is not in the U.S. interest, the money, the time, what it would take to change the situation in Syria, so we're going to stay out of that. Trump feels the same way. He was critical of Obama back then for even considering military action. He does not believe in regime change there. He just suggested that we should get out. So how does this play out politically in terms of will, to the third W?

JOHN AVLON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: There is a total contradiction in Trump's policy, as you point out. President Obama famously did not act on Assad crossing that red line in part because he felt he couldn't get anything through Congress. Trump argued that he shouldn't get involved with Syria and Assad at the time, now criticizing Obama for creating the circumstance. But this all comes a week after Donald Trump called for us to withdraw from Syria and had a big conflict with his military brass.

CUOMO: Lindsey Graham says may have emboldened Assad and John McCain says may have emboldened Assad to use chemical weapons.

AVLON: May have. But obviously hypocrisy is something that doesn't touch this Teflon Don. What the real issue is you have got John Bolton baptism of fire. Day one, Donald Trump wanting to be tough, calling out Putin, deserves some credit for that in a tweet. But what will that action be? And if it's simply a limited strike --

CUOMO: Alisyn had sounds from Bolton.

CAMEROTA: I still do. We should do it. And Gayle, listen to this, because we do have a window into how John Bolton felt about Syria in 2013 and maybe how he will counsel the president today. So listen to this.


JOHN BOLTON, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: 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 is in America's interest. I don't think we should in effect take sides in the Syrian conflict. (END VIDEO CLIP)

AVLON: That's very much in line with what Trump has been saying, pull out of the region. But that itself creates a vacuum that Putin and Iran and Assad have been allowed to fill, which is the contradiction at the heart of this policy.

CUOMO: Gayle, let me ask you something. In that clip from FOX there is a little something on the window in the side that nobody saw. And it said NBC News. This was at the time in 2013. How many people think that President Obama should go to Congress for approval? It was almost 80 percent. They have punted time and time, president to president, giving the ability to declare war in situations basically where there is no direct threat to the U.S. Congress is really supposed to own this and at least be involved in voting on the plan. Do you think that should happen this time?

LEMMON: We're going to see because I think it is so important when you look at that Bolton set of comments. That was a half-decade and a half a million lives ago. And I think so much has changed on the ground in Syria since 2013, and you really have seen the rise of this axis of impunity. The Assad regime plus its Russian and Iranian backers who have been all in on the side of the regime.

And if you want to look at who is gaining from where we are in this moment in the Syrian conflict, it is certainly not the Syrian people, who have lost time and time again. It is Russia and Iran which have seen the influence on the ground surge and really have reshaped facts on the ground.

I remember talking to Obama administration officials back in 2013 when they went to Congress, and Congress wanted no part of these air strikes. They would have had a very difficult time getting it through. But I do think we are in a different moment and it will be up to the Trump administration to really figure out a way forward or whether the impunity which has been the norm in Syria this past seven years really gets to continue.

CAMEROTA: When we just had senator Ben Cardin on, he struggled, frankly, to say whether there should be military response right now. He said that he thought Congress should be involved. He thought there should be conversations. Obviously this is complicated. It would be perhaps alarming if somebody had some sort of kneejerk reaction and snap response. But Congress is not being full throated about what to do here.

AVLON: We have not had clarity on Syria for years because Congress and the American people are reluctant to get involved in another war in the Middle East. Understandable. At the same time there is moral outrage when chemical weapons are used against civilians as we have seen here. David Cameron, then prime minister of England, went to parliament and couldn't get authorization. That's one of the things that caused Obama to back off. So you've got folks --

[08:10:00] CAMEROTA: Wasn't it also that Assad said that he was going to hand over his chemical weapons? In September, 2013, it was a surprise development after the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had voted to go, then Assad made that move. Turns out he didn't give --

CUOMO: Who was supposed to oversee it? Russia. That was the joke at the time for people like Gayle who would understand the situation, were like what kind of deal is this? This is a sham. You're going to have the Russian who have an interest in them keeping the chemical weapons, who just called those pictures of all those kids foaming at the mouth a hoax, they're the ones in charge of whether or not they turn over the chemical weapons. That was worse than doing nothing. Anyway, Gayle, thank you very much. John Avlon, appreciate it. This conversation is going to go on.

CAMEROTA: It sure is, because how should the U.S. respond to Syria? So we're going to ask a Republican senator on the Armed Services Committee next.


CUOMO: The United Nations Security Council is convening two emergency meetings today after the suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria that killed dozens. President Trump is going to meet with his senior military leaders tonight. Will Congress authorize the use of military force? Will they even act? Will they even undertake what should be their constitutional and legal duty? Let's ask Republican Senator Mike Rounds of South Dakota. He's on the Armed Services Committee. Always good to see you, sir. Thank you for joining us.


CUOMO: So you know what my argument is. My argument is that this is on you guys, that president after president has been gifted authority that they don't really have to declare war on sovereign nations and in situation where there is not a direct hit to the U.S. people.


This is arguably another one of those situations. Do you think Congress must vote to authorize any military action in Syria?

SEN. MIKE ROUNDS (R), SOUTH DAKOTA: They do not have to vote to authorize additional military force in Syria because of the War Powers Act that is already in effect. The president can act in a case like this. That does not mean that it is not good public policy to have the open debate about an additional AUMF in the future.

CUOMO: But the 1973 war powers resolution was predicated on the idea that there is a threat to the U.S. people in it. And then in Libya many people in your party were shaking their heads and saying this is wrong when Obama used the exact same rationale. So, you know, where is the standard for you guys?

ROUNDS: Look, you bring up a very good point, but in this particular case you are talking about the use of chemical weapons. If you are in the middle of the use of chemical weapons you have to be decisive if the red line has been drawn.

There has been a clear demarcation that this is not acceptable under anybody's terms. The question to begin will be whether or not we can properly attribute who actually the attack. I think they will be able to do that.

Second of all, this should not be done in a knee-jerk fashion. This should be done after proper consultation with military commanders. General Votel, who is the commander of Central Command should be actively engaged in the discussion.

And then finally, General Mattis, Secretary Mattis, should be able to make recommendations to the president as to what his options are. At that time, I do believe that Congress should be advised as to the president's intention, but he does have a time period in which he can respond and then if he does commit military forces we have time in which we can say time-out we are not going to --

CUOMO: Right. That is how the war powers resolutions, but again the premise -- people should Google it on their own time if they care about this because I see it as an abdication of your authority. Even the idea that this crosses a red line. The question is whose red line?

Not yours, we don't get to decide when we use military force in a sovereign nation because we don't like what they are doing to their own people. The United Nations has to make that determination and ask for a coalition to take action.

That hasn't happened here yet. We know meetings are happening, but it does seem like Congress whether it's the AUMF, which was allowed for the last serious strike, which I don't even know how that could happen. ISIS wasn't even imagined at the time you guys drew that up in 2001, but you don't want to own the ball here and make the call. That's what it seems like.

ROUNDS: The practical side is that we recognize that on short term notices you have to have a chief executive who can make that determination. In a case like this where you have determined that there are chemical weapons are being deployed, Congress has in the past because we have already done it once, we have recognized that the president does have the ability to respond in short order.

That doesn't mean -- and I agree with you that Congress should be the one who decides whether or not we declare war and get in. But in the case like this, the president clearly has the authority to respond on short notice. That I think is pretty clear. Your debate is a good one and it's a healthy one to have.

CUOMO: I wish you guys would have it honestly because I hear your position on it and I respect you for making it and you making it with a relative degree of cogency, but I think you guys should have it out because I've been reading these things. And literally I was reading them on vacation. That's how sad my life is.

But when I was doing it, I got to tell you I feel like we slipped away from the legal standard. Let me ask you a couple of other political questions. Scott Pruitt, you have members of your party who are saying this is too much. There is too much going on here that is embarrassing to the White House and the president and the mandate. He should go. Do you share those concerns?

ROUNDS: No, I don't at this point. I recognize that there are multiple attacks being made on Director Pruitt at this time. I also understand that some of them are politically or policy-motivated. Some of them are raising fair questions if they are suggesting that he is spending too much money or whatever in terms of his security services.

But here's my point, if you are going to start identifying that you have ethical problems because you are spending too much money on security I think you are on thin ground. If you suggest that because he had an apartment where it was previously approved that his business relationship, there had been appropriately divulged.

And then afterwards the same individuals who claimed that they knew about it then said, well, wait, we have taken a second look and now we are not so sure, he doesn't have the ability to go back and say, wait a minute, you've already approved me once on this.

Now I've already made the deal and you are going to ask me now to be guilty of something after I have done everything I'm supposed to do to try to make it right.

[08:20:08] CUOMO: Now I hear you on that, but it does seem to beg for oversight, Senator. Look, we are happy to do our job in the media and bring things out that need to be appraised, but it's really up to the oversight. We will see if the committee gets a little more aggression in terms of getting some answers here, so we don't have to keep trafficking on it.

ROUNDS: One thought. Take a look at what he has done in terms of the regulatory relief and the changes that in some areas are not very popular. In my part of the world they are very popular, but that I think is driving a lot of it, as well. I think you have to recognize that as we start talking about the nit-picking in some cases that is going on with Director Pruitt.

CUOMO: Well, look, it's true. You shouldn't prosecute political opponents because you don't like your policy. But then, you know, one Republican, Senator Ramp, you like his policies. Senator Collins from Maine also Republican doesn't, but again, that's separate than looking at whether or not ethically he is living up to the standard of his position.

ROUNDS: I agree with you there.

CUOMO: Governor Scott is running for Senate. Do you endorse his candidacy? Do you think he'd be better than Senator Nelson?

ROUNDS: Senator Nelson is a friend of mine. He is a hard worker, but at the same time we need votes. I know Governor Scott is a great individual. I have known him for probably ten years now We think alike when it comes to health care and so forth. I would welcome his inclusion into the race.

CUOMO: So, you like Bill Nelson. You think he is working hard doing a good job, but you will throw him under the bus to get your party another vote. That's what you're saying.

ROUNDS: In this particular case, I think the people of Florida are going to have a great opportunity to take a look at two different individuals who are both qualified for the job.

CUOMO: I'll tell you what, in this atmosphere of partisan division, to give Nelson that much, that sounds like unusual compromise. We'll take it and end on that. Senator Mike Rounds, thank you very much.

ROUNDS: I work with people on both sides of the aisle and they are good people.

CUOMO: Good. It's good to hear that. We would love to see more cooperative action, compromise and things getting done down there. Let us know how we can report on that effort. Be well -- Alisyn.

ROUNDS: Thank you.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: President Trump denies that there is strife at the White House amid reports of tension with Chief of Staff John Kelly and reports that EPA Chief Scott Pruitt's job could be in jeopardy. We get insight from somebody who knows the president very well, that's next.



CUOMO: President Trump denying there is chaos in the White House as he defends his embattled head of the EPA, Scott Pruitt, despite a growing number of GOP lawmakers calling for him to step down. Here's a taste.


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

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I think he has 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 are the EPA administrator and two lobbyists changed a lot, you got a problem.

SENATOR SUSAN COLLINS (R), MAINE: On policy grounds alone, I think Scott Pruitt is the wrong person to head the EPA.


CUOMO: It's interesting to see Republicans disagree on whether or not Pruitt is doing a good job. I guess it is done on the basis of whether or not you want clean air and water protected. But the big political question is whether or not the president will remove Pruitt. Right now, he is saying no, he is going to keep him. Joining us now is Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign senior adviser. Good to see you, sir.


CUOMO: So, I'm doing well. Do you think the sword is hanging over the head of Scott Pruitt or no, and why?

CAPUTO: I don't think it is at all. In fact, I think the president and I think a lot of people in the White House, a lot more Republicans than those speaking out against him are proud of the work he is doing. It's the most difficult work when you are opposing liberal orthodoxy.

I mean, probably number two target in this administration after President Trump is Scott Pruitt because he is doing things that are very effective at the EPA like, for example, cutting the budget by about 30 percent. That triggers the kookiest leftists.

CUOMO: First of all, science would be his main opponent when it comes to some of his positions, climate change, that is why he is so controversial. As AG in Oklahoma, he was fighting against it. There were things that were suggested that had come out of him about a rejection of climate science. Now he is the head of the EPA.

That is all politics and policy. He has a string of ethical considerations several of which could have been seen as fatal by someone else without the president's support. In fact, other guys have had to leave over less. How do you explain it?

CAPUTO: I think that is kind of an exaggeration. He may have done something wrong here. I think oversight is important in these kinds of situations out of Congress, but I think just like the IRS and Holder at the DOJ, he can come forward and apologize and move on. That will be enough for the American people. It won't be enough for the liberals who want to get rid of him because of the effectiveness, but it will be enough for the American people.

CUOMO: Look, I get the whole political currency these days of pointing the finger at the other and saying, but they did this. Who in the Obama administration got caught up with this kind of string of ethical violations?

CAPUTO: I'm not going to go tit for tat.

CUOMO: You just did, Caputo. You just said Holder and Koskinen, so put some meat on the bones.

CAPUTO: If you look at Holder and Koskinen, they did arguably from the right, you would say they did far worse things. We are talking about the use of security because he has been targeted and yelled at and screamed at and attacked by leftists in airports. We are talking about him trying to save a few bucks on the overheated department market in Washington --

CUOMO: Fifty bucks a month that he doesn't even pay. Look, these are ethical considerations. It's going to be a political --