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WOLF

Trump's Decision on Syria; Syrian Air Base Strike; Syria Withdrawal a Mistake; Blamed for China Trade Deficit; Interview With Sen. Roger Wicker. Aired 1:00-1:30p ET

Aired April 9, 2018 - 13:00   ET

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


[13:00:00] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: See you back here this time tomorrow.

"WOLF" starts right now. Have a great day.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer. It's 1:00 p.m. here in Washington, 8:00 p.m. in Damascus, 9:30 p.m. in Tehran. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us.

Let's begin with breaking news.

President Trump responding to the suspected chemical attack in Syria. The president is warning of tough action in the United States and he says a decision on the exact response is coming soon. Here's what he said just a little while ago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It was an atrocious attack. It was horrible. You don't see things like that. As bad as the news is around the world, you just don't see those images. We are studying that situation extremely closely. We are meeting with our military and everybody else. And we'll be making some major decisions over the next 24 to 48 hours.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: And for the first time, President Trump is calling out Russian President Vladimir Putin by name following the suspected gas attack against civilians in Douma in Syria. The president tweeted this, President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing animal Assad. A big price to pay, closed quote.

Let's bring in our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.

Jim, it was a year ago last week that the United States launched missile strikes on a Syrian air base in response to another chemical attack. Is the U.S. prepared to strike again? What options are you hearing are on the table?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it sounds like the president's keeping all options on the table, including a military response. But as you mentioned, it was about a year ago when the president ordered that military strike in Syria in response to nearly the very same thing. And it just goes to show you the extent of what those kinds of measured responses can do. And so the president and his national security team, military advisers are all sort of in the same boat that they were in a year ago, having to face this very critical question.

And, of course, the president, as you know, is hearing from voices on all sides, like Senator John McCain, who was saying that the president essentially emboldened Syria and Russia by announcing last week and the week before that he had plans or thoughts about pulling U.S. forces out of Syria. And then, of course, you have Lindsey Graham saying, you know, if the president is serious about doing something about Bashar al-Assad, he's going to have to take military action.

Now, at the same time, Wolf, we should note that John Bolton, the president's new national security adviser, this is his first day on the job officially here at the White House. John Bolton was against military action in Syria when Barack Obama was faced with this question back in 2013. Then he was in favor of military action when President Trump was dealing with this a year ago. And now John Bolton, as you're seeing him on screen there, is advising -- helping advise the president on what to do about all of this.

But very interesting to note, Wolf, and perhaps this might be the most noteworthy thing of the day, when the president was talking about this not too long ago, he mentioned that there might not only be a price for Bashar al Assad and the Syrians, but perhaps for the Russians as well.

Now, obviously, we don't think that the president and the United States is contemplating military action against Russia, but when the president was talking about this just a few moments ago, he said if Putin has some kind of responsibility in all of this, there will be a price, there will be a cost. That suggests that perhaps they may be contemplating sanctions and that sort of thing for Russia down the road.

Now, one thing we should point out, one of the arrangements that Barack Obama made when he was president back a few years ago when he was dealing with this question, instead of taking military action against Syria, he made an arrangement with the Russians to help pull what they thought were all of Bashar al Assad's chemical weapons out of Syria. That obviously did not happen. And now, of course, that is why much of the world is now looking at Russia for having some responsibility in all of this. If they were not pulling all of those chemical weapons out of Syria, or at least helping the Syrians get all those chemical weapons out of Syria, what exactly were they doing?

And, of course, that's one of the questions that the White House will be grappling with as well. And, of course, Sarah Sanders, the press secretary, has a briefing on all of this in about an hour and a half and I'm sure she'll get all of these questions, Wolf.

BLITZER: I'm sure she will. We just got a statement from the British foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, the acting U.S. secretary of state, John Sullivan, saying that the chemical attack on the Syrian city of Douma, quote, bore the hallmarks of pervious chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian regime. So there's little doubt on that front. We'll see what options actually go forward.

Jim Acosta, at the White House, thanks very much.

People suffocating in their homes. Children gasping for air. Their bodies convulsing. Images from the suspected gas attack in Syria are very, very disturbing and extremely difficult to watch. More than 70 people have died and about 500 others show signs of exposure to toxic gas. That according to the White Helmets. That's a rescue group. Despite all of this, Russia is calling the suspected attack a hoax and vowing to retaliate. President Trump says the U.S. will figure out who's responsible.

[13:05:08] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're talking about humanity. And it can't be allowed to happen. So we'll be looking at that barbaric act and studying what's going on.

If it's Russia, if it's Syria, if it's Iran, if it's all of them together, we'll figure it out. And we'll know the answers quite soon.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Our senior international correspondent Fred Pleitgen is joining us live from Damascus, not very far away from the scene of this attack.

What more, Fred, are you hearing from Russian officials?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the Russians, Wolf, are saying that all of this is a hoax is what they call it. They say that there's no evidence of any sort of chemicals that were used there on the ground. And you're absolutely right, it's only about eight miles from where I am right now.

But at the same time, of course, Wolf, there are those horrible images that we always have to keep reminding our viewers are very tough to watch and very disturbing. But, at the same time, of course, so very important in all of this. And there certainly are images that the president will have been seeing as well.

And then, Wolf, there's also the response from the Syrian government. They came out very quickly after this alleged attack took place, unlikely for the Syrian government, and said that they were not behind this. They do acknowledge that they were pressing an offensive on that area in Douma at the time, but they say that offensive was moving forward so quickly that they simply had no reason whatsoever to use any sort of chemicals to make that advance even faster. They also say, Wolf, that there were actually still some prisons that the rebels were holding, some pro-government prisoners. And so they say that those prisoners would have been hit by that gas as well. That's why they say they were not responsible and that they didn't do it. But at the same time, of course, we keep seeing those images, Wolf, and how horrible the situation there must have been on the ground, Wolf.

Horrible indeed. All right, Fred Pleitgen in Damascus for us, thank you.

Russia is now accusing Israel of launching an airstrike overnight on a Syrian air base. There's been no comment from Israel so far.

Let's go to CNN's Oren Liebermann. He's joining us live from Jerusalem.

Oren, Israel has launched air strikes many times before against various targets in Syria. They always say they're targeting weapons shipments from Iran to the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group in Lebanon. The U.S. and Israel consider Hezbollah a terror group. Is there any indication that that's the case this time around, or is this potentially about conducting an airstrike in support of the U.S. against the Bashar al Assad regime?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you're absolutely right, that those weapons shipments, those convoys, are the most common targets that Israel strikes according to foreign media reports. And when it hits Syria -- but that doesn't appear to be the case this time -- as the target was a Syrian military base.

But perhaps it wasn't the Assad regime that was the target of that message or of the strike. Instead, look towards Iran. This Syrian military base, as Israeli officials and politicians have pointed out, is a joint base between Syria and Iran. And Iran effectively confirmed that when their semi-official Fars (ph) news agency says Iranian nationals died in that strike or were killed in that strike. Four of them at this time.

As well, the former commander of the Israeli air force saying, look, he concluded, it's only Israel that would have had the reason and the capability to carry out a strike. He said the suspected use of chemical weapons cannot go without a response. But the real reason was that Israel has its red lines that it has reiterated in Syria, saying it will not allow or it will try to prevent Iran from establishing a military base or a military presence in Syria, and that is likely the real reason behind the strike. A strike with a message, with a target directed right at Iran.

So, Wolf, it was likely that the use -- or the suspected use of chemical weapons was the pretext or the cover for the strike. The reason it happened now. But in terms of the real message, the real target here, look towards Iran as Israel and Iran continue this proxy war over Syria.

BLITZER: Oren Liebermann in Jerusalem, thanks for that update.

The suspected chemical attack in Syria comes just days after President Trump called for pulling U.S. troops out of the country. Here's what he said, listen to this, last Tuesday. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I want to get out. I want to bring our troops back home. I want to start rebuilding our nation. $7 trillion over a 17-year period, we have nothing, nothing except death and destruction. It's a horrible thing. So, it's time. It's time.

We were very successful against ISIS. We'll be successful against anybody militarily. But sometimes it's time to come back home. And we're thinking about that very seriously, OK?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: That's what the president said last week.

Republican Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi is a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He's joining us live from Capitol Hill.

Senator, thanks for joining us.

SEN. ROGER WICKER (R), MISSISSIPPI: Glad to be here.

BLITZER: All right, so the president didn't set a specific timeline for withdrawing from Syria last week. He simply said very soon. Does he need to rethink that thought, pulling out of the country, quote, very soon?

[13:10:05] WICKER: I think he's probably rethinking that now. And probably was before this attack.

The president should rely on his chairman of the Joint Chiefs. He should rely on Secretary Mattis. And, of course, this is quite a welcome for John Bolton, his first day on the office in the White House.

So he's got some very talented leadership around him. And I think if I were the president, if I -- if the president asked me for my advice, I would say, listen to the generals, listen to your top leadership and act accordingly. But I do believe in Syria we should be results-based and not slaves to a timeline.

BLITZER: Some leading Republicans, as you know, senator, they say the president's words actually embolden the Syrian leader, Bashar al- Assad. Listen to how, for example, the House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, and Senator Lindsey Graham, a man you know well, listen to how they responded.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. WILLIAM "MAC" THORNBERRY (R), ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: 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 a vacuum created when the U.S. leaves into which they will run. SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I think 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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: So what's your reaction? Do you agree with him?

WICKER: Well, OK, I didn't hear Mac Thornberry say that the president's statement emboldened the Syrians into doing this chemical attack. So I would characterize his statement differently.

I think both of them make a valid point. I don't think the job is done in Syria and I think we ought to stay until we get the results we need.

BLITZER: Let's talk a little bit about what Senator John McCain, who's the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, what he said. He tweeted this, and I'll put it up on the screen. POTUS is -- president of the United States -- pledged to withdrawal from Syria has only emboldened Bashar al Assad, backed by Russian and Iran, to commit more war crimes in Douma. That's that suburban town where the poison gas is suspected to have occurred. He says the president should make Bashar al Assad, quote, pay a price for his brutality. Do you agree with Senator McCain?

WICKER: Well, I certainly agree with the second part of that. And, yes, John McCain is the one who really made a -- quite a statement that this emboldened the Syrians. But I will subscribe to the second part certainly of Senator McCain's statement. We need to make Bashar al Assad pay a price.

There are a number of options on the table. And, frankly, the -- you know, to the extent that we can ascertain what role the Russians had, I do think sanctions and strong measures are called for with President Putin also.

I'll tell you, Wolf, why -- I'll tell you why the Russians are saying this was a hoax. That's for domestic consumption. They know that no one in the U.N. Security Council believes that this is a hoax. This is for domestic consumption back in Russia. He's totally in charge of his media there and he can make people in his own homeland believe almost anything because he's the only one who gets to broadcast their side of the issue.

BLITZER: And the president, we just heard him say, it may have been the Syrian regime of Bashar al Assad. It may have been the Iranians. It maybe have been Putin and the Russians. Maybe all of them. He's raising that possibility.

What -- he says all options, senator --

WICKER: But the Russians -- the Russians are saying it didn't happen at all and, of course, that's absurd.

BLITZER: Well, obviously, if you -- if you --

WICKER: No one believes that except people in Moscow who are listening to only one TV station.

BLITZER: Yes, I suspect they don't even believe that.

But if you take a look at these pictures of these little children gasping and trying to be protected, these are horrific, horrific pictures that we're seeing. And it's clearly devastating.

WICKER: It's awful.

BLITZER: We're showing some of those video right now, those little kids being poisoned with this gas attack.

When he says all options are on the table, the president, what option would you like to see the U.S. commit?

WICKER: Well, I'm not the commander in chief. I'm not in that line of decision making. But I think he's correct not to rule anything out. That's been a -- that has been a process, that's been the position that presidents down through the decades have taken on both sides of the aisle, and I think the president's correct not to -- not to take any action off the table.

[13:15:04] BLITZER: Well, he says there is something that will happen over the next 24 to 48 hours. We shall see.

Senator Wicker, thanks so much for joining us.

WICKER: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: It's his first day on the job as the president's new national security adviser, so what advice is John Bolton giving President Trump after years of being known as a war hawk?

Also, as the president continues to escalate his rhetoric against China in a possible trade war, his top economic adviser just admitting he doesn't know if the tariffs will actually ever happen.

And the lawyer for Stormy Daniels teasing a sketch of the man who she says threatened her to stay quiet about her allege affair with the president. New details on that coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're following breaking news.

President Trump taking the blame off China for the U.S. trade deficit and pointing it right back at the United States and his predecessors as two of the world's biggest economies go head to head with threats of a trade war. Listen to what the president said just a little while ago.

[13:20:05] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't blame China. I blame the people running our country. I blame presidents. I blame representatives. I blame negotiators. We should have been able to do what they did. We didn't do it. They did. And it's the most lopsided set of trade rules, regulations that anybody's ever seen.

If during the course of a negotiation they want to hit the farmers because they think that hits me, I wouldn't say that's nice. But I tell you, our farmers are great patriots. These are great patriots. They understand that they're doing this for the country. And we'll make it up to them.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, let's bring in our CNN political analysts, joining us Karoun Demirjian, Margaret Talev, and our chief political analyst Gloria Borger.

What's your reaction, Gloria, to this news from the president that it's really not China's fault, it's the previous presidents' and their trade negotiators' fault. He says they did a horrible job for the United States.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: They were -- they were -- well, I'm shocked that he actually blamed his predecessors because he blames them for everything else. And I -- what was stunning to me was sort of his reaction about the farmers, which is saying, we'll take care of them eventually. They're great patriots. This isn't going to bother them.

Well, guess what?

MARGARET TALEV, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, take one for the team, right.

BORGER: Guess what? Take one for the team.

It is going to bother them. This is their lives. This is their livelihood. The president promised them a tax cut, maybe gave them a tax cut, and this will remove that and more. And I think that the farmers are not going to be so sanguine about this.

BLITZER: Because he says, you know, yes, they're going to take a hit, whether on soybeans or corn or wheat or, you know, hogs or whatever, but we'll make it up to them. How will he make it up to them if they lose a ton of money in the short term?

TALEV: Well, I mean, I think you've got to look at the stock market.

BORGER: Absolutely.

TALEV: And I think you've got to look at the stock market to understand what's going on here. The week ended really poorly. Ever -- the markets are back up today, in part in anticipation that the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, is going to give some remarks tomorrow that will kind of calm the waters. And this -- what we may be seeing is President Trump trying to do his part.

The performance of the market is something that he has really been hanging his hat on in recent weeks and months when he talks about his accomplishments. You remember when they were -- it was basically the tax cut plan and how well the markets have performed. It's not in his interest -- it's not in the nation's economic interest, you know, to see things going in another direction. So this may be, to some extent, his effort to kind of slightly hit a reset, even as he's proceeding with these policies.

BLITZER: In fact, Karoun, I want you to listen to Larry Kudlow, the president's new chief economic adviser. He's been going out a lot trying to reassure Wall Street. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: If we're not in a trade war as you repeatedly and the president has repeatedly insisted, what does a trade war actually look like?

LARRY KUDLOW, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF ECONOMIC ADVISER: I don't know. See, I don't get -- you tell me. I don't know.

QUESTION: You don't know what a trade war looks like?

KUDLOW: I don't know what a trade -- I mean this is not Smoot-Hawley in the '30s, trust me. We have -- by the way, there are no tariffs enacted yet. You understand that?

QUESTION: Yes.

KUDLOW: None. Zero.

QUESTION: Yes.

So what will a trade war look like?

KUDLOW: I don't -- I don't know. It's this imaginary thing. We're going to have to --

QUESTION: It's an imaginary thing?

KUDLOW: We're going to have to look at a novella or something.

QUESTION: Have you seen any signs --

KUDLOW: I mean, I just don't get it. The U.S. economy --

QUESTION: But that's a thing -- that's a real thing, right?

KUDLOW: No, it's not.

QUESTION: A trade war -- trade wars have happened in history.

KUDLOW: I don't --

QUESTION: So what will that look like for the U.S. economy?

KUDLOW: I don't -- I have no idea because we're not engaged in one.

I don't know whether we're going to have tariffs or not. I wouldn't take it -- I mean I would take the president's arguments quite seriously. We may. On the other hand, we may be able to settle this with negotiations.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Yes, so, Karoun, what do you think? What's your reaction to that? Clearly he's trying to send a message, don't worry so much Wall street.

KAROUN DEMIRJIAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. Exactly. I mean the novella of the trade war is an interesting way of doing that because I think Wall Street clearly is worried based on how we saw the markets reacting last week.

Look, they have to deliver two separate messages right now. One is delivered to Wall Street. One is delivered to middle America. And, unfortunately, it cannot be the same message because -- because you're talking about calming markets versus preserving your majority in the 2018 elections really are the stakes of this.

And so, yes, in terms of, you know, whether or not the tariffs are actually implemented, how severely, whether there's some sort of mitigating, you know, influence that when the Chinese president speaks, that may all mean that you don't actually have people in middle America feeling the impact of this as severely as they could, which even the president is acknowledging when he's saying they're going to have to take one for the team. But, but, but if he's spending people out to make a more impassioned plea to Wall Street right now and not to those voters, that's an interesting choice given where the president stands and where the party stands politically right now. You can't buy an election off of the strength of the markets.

BORGER: I think the thing that is so odd is that this -- there's such ad hawkism here. That the president does this, he decides he wants to do it, he's not consulting anybody else, he's not having major meetings about it, months of planning, et cetera, et cetera, he does this. And then you have somebody like Larry Kudlow, who's a free trader, have to go out there and say, well, there are no tariffs, which is true. Which means, OK, don't take the president at his word. It's just a threat. Farmers, and the president says, don't worry, we'll do something for you.

[13:25:19] So there is this sense of unease, which is clearly reflected in Wall Street. And I will say that "Bloomberg News" has pointed out that the president's rallies on Wall Street are number eight among presidents in modern history, below that of Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. And so, you know, as you say, the president's trying to play both sides, but we're not sure what he actually is going to do. And the unpredictability is roiling not only the markets, but the farmers and our allies. I mean it's just -- it's something you can do in a private business maybe, but when you're president of the United States, it's a little different.

DEMIRJIAN: It's also creating these weird coalitions of people. I mean you saw Mitt Romney say that he supported the move.

BORGER: Yes.

DEMIRJIAN: And Chuck Schumer is kind of supporting the move too. And so the cacophony is everywhere. It's between the markets and the country and it's also between members of their own parties. And the fact that you don't have anything, you know, completely -- one strong line coming out of the administration even --

BORGER: What's he doing?

DEMIRJIAN: Is also --

TALEV: Yes, but at the bottom of it there is this unifying feeling that the United States has been in not as strong a position vis-a-vis China, right, as they want to be.

But the question has been, was throughout Obama's administration, now as under President Trump, what do you do about it? And this has been an attempt to calibrate that. But it's not really fine tuning. It's been a real swing of calibration as they try to figure out how to manage the markets, domestic concerns, expectations, foreign policies.

BLITZER: Yes, and the president's advisers keep telling me (ph), these are negotiating ploys. They're trying to get a new deal with China, so you've got to be tough. You've got to go in without --

TALEV: Well, China doesn't want a global recession either, right.

BLITZER: Right. You've got to go in with a hard stance to begin with and then work out a deal.

BORGER: So is China serious or not?

BLITZER: Right.

DEMIRJIAN: And in the interim you, you know, there's -- it's not just a controlled vacuum where you can just kind of play with China a little bit here. There's a lot of fallout. There's a lot of reacting that happens in the meantime.

BLITZER: And China takes all this very seriously.

BORGER: This isn't a real estate deal --

DEMIRJIAN: Yes.

BLITZER: Yes.

BORGER: Right, where you're bluffing about the price of the property.

DEMIRJIAN: Right.

BORGER: It's something completely different.

BLITZER: All right, guys, thanks very, very much.

We'll have more on the breaking news. The president vowing a decision on Syria will be coming in the next 24 to 48 hours as he blames his predecessor for failing to act on Syria. I'll speak with the former Obama national security adviser Tom Donilon. He's standing by to join me live.

Plus, how he thinks John Bolton may be advising the president right now on this, his very first day on the job.