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Pressure Intensifies in Russia Probe; Secretary of State Nominee Faces Confirmation Hearings; Syria Strike Decision Expected Soon. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired April 12, 2018 - 15:00   ET



BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN HOST: We continue on. You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

More of our breaking news, President Trump announcing that the world should be expecting a decision on Syria fairly soon, his words.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're looking very, very seriously, very closely at that whole situation. And we will see what happens, folks. We will see what happens.

It's too bad that the world puts us in a position like that. But, as I said this morning, we have done a great job with ISIS. We have just absolutely decimated ISIS. But now we have to make some further decisions, so they will be made fairly soon.


BALDWIN: The president is meeting with his national security team to discuss options with regard to Syria. It appears that meeting may be under way right this very moment.

The defense secretary, James Mattis, arrived at the White House about 20 minutes ago. I can see him right there through the trees in the blue tie.

Let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Pamela Brown.

And so when we hear the president referencing major decisions to be made very soon, walk us through what these conversations may look like.


We heard that from the president earlier in the week as well. Brooke, he had said 48 hours there would be a major decision. It is Thursday. No decision has been agreed upon yet.

But the president is meeting with his national security team as they weigh the options that are on the table. We have learned from sources, according to my colleague Kevin Liptak, that the president has told him around him, Brooke, that he wants more muscular response in Syria than last year.

As you will recall, after the military strikes against Syria last year, the airfield was still in use following that and chemical weapons attacks have still happened. The president wants a more forceful response here.

We know that they have been in touch with counterparts in France, as well as in Great Britain. Theresa May, the prime minister, holding a meeting with her Cabinet officials there as well. The French president, Macron, going further than any U.S. official so far, saying there is concrete proof that a chemical weapon or chlorine was used.

By contrast, Defense Secretary Mattis told members of Congress today that, while he believes it was a chemical weapons attack, they're still looking for evidence or sending inspectors in to Syria to do that.

And you're seeing the president also, Brooke, sort of walk what he had said yesterday when he was apparently telegraphing that the U.S. would be sending missiles into Syria, sort of sending a warning shot to Russia.

By comparison, today, now he is tweeting out saying that he never said that an attack would take place soon. He then goes to say it could be soon or not soon at all. So, as you recall, he was criticized for sort of telegraphing what the U.S. was going to do, because he had in the past criticized past presidents for telegraphing military action ahead of time.

It remains to be seen what is going to happen, what this administration will decide on. But, as you pointed out, the president is saying that a decision will happen soon.

BALDWIN: All right, I want to continue this conversation. Pam, thank you so much.

With me now, CNN counterterrorism analyst Phil Mudd, CNN political and national security analyst David Sanger, and CNN military analyst and retired Lieutenant General Mark Hertling.

So, gentlemen, thanks for being on with me.

General Hertling, I just want to jump off on one of the words that Pam just used in her reporting out of President Trump that she is hearing. He wants a more muscular response than last year.

What do you think muscular means?

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: First of all, that's expected, Brooke.

Last year was a retaliatory response to a chemical strike, at the first point of his administration. He was three months into his administration. It wasn't a crisis. It was another nation violating the rules of international order. This time, he's basically going to say to them, hey, look, I gave you

a chance. I swacked you last year at this time. Now I'm going to go after some heavier targets because you're still using chemical weapons.

That's to be expected. The other thing, though, that I would say is, Brooke, this is truly Mr. Trump's first international crisis, where he has to pull his primary committee together, where they have to talk about the kinds of things of not only what he does, but the response of others to what he does.

All of those things are going to put him through some new dynamics that he has not experienced before, in my opinion.

BALDWIN: So, that said, David Sanger, on how this is his first international crisis, I imagine the U.S. has to be comparing notes with friends like the French. We now know the French president has said we have proof that chemical weapons were used.

Can you just walk us through -- pull the curtain back on this National Security Council meeting that is happening right now. What do those conversations look like and how imminent do you think a response is?

DAVID SANGER, CNN POLITICAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, the first going to consider, Brooke, is, I think the president is to be commended for this, he's recognized that it's much better to do this with allies than without.


And you will remember that the strike last year that the general just referred to was solely an American operation. This sounds like it will not be. It will probably be the French and the British and the U.S. and maybe there will be some others involved.

The problem in way the president has spoken so far is that he has confused various strategic options out here and objectives. He keeps mentioning in his tweets and in those comments that you broadcast before what a great job we did against ISIS.

Well, ISIS not the issue here. In fact, in fighting ISIS, the United States happened to be on pretty much the same side as Assad.

BALDWIN: Right. Right.

SANGER: We didn't put it that way, but we were.

So, in this case, he hasn't yet defined whether this is a humanitarian intervention merely to stop continued use of chemical weapons, whether it's an intervention made to try to potentially topple Assad's regime by going after regime leadership targets. And we will know that when we see what gets hit.

Or whether there is the idea with the French and the British and with others that you now have to get deeper into the fundamental problem of the civil war in Syria, which the president has pretty much avoided until now, both diplomatically and with troops, so that you have a long-lasting solution.

Otherwise, you have just hit a set of targets and you go away and maybe this time it will take them longer to recover than it did a year ago, but you haven't solved anything. You feel a little better, but you haven't solved anything.

BALDWIN: It's the then what. It's like he got all the praise from taking out that Syrian airfield a year ago , but then what's the strategy, what is the policy, what is next?

Quickly -- then, Phil, I want to come to you.

But staying with you, David, you mentioned the allies. Are you surprised Germany has ruled out joining any possible strikes against Syria?

SANGER: Yes and no.

Germany has never gotten involved in the past usually in these kind of offensive strikes. And there's always great debate about doing it. But in this case, involving the gassing of civilians, you would think if ever there was a moment where Germany says there is an issue on which we can step in and show a completely different Germany and one that will intervene on humanitarian purposes, you would think this would be the issue.

BALDWIN: That this would be the one. Right.


BALDWIN: Phil, on the president and how we have heard, I don't know if you want to call it whiplash, mixed messages, we will strike, we will strike soon or we may not strike soon, I'm wondering how all of this and these tweets are being interpreted by Putin and Assad. What do you think?

PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: I think these are tweets that are meant for an American political audience that is saying, how do you say you don't telegraph during the campaign and you are telegraphing now?

By the way, I think he should have told the Russians. I think he should have told them privately in deconfliction. So, I don't have a huge problem with what he did.

BALDWIN: Told them what?

MUDD: Told him that we were going to strike, so that we could say, if there ever are any Russians at a base, that we could say, we told you, move your guys out.

But I think the conversation inside the White House is far more advanced than we know. People are talking about, including the president, whether we have made a decision.

Take this in a bet book in Vegas, Brooke. We have made a decision. You can't criticize President Obama for not striking, you can't strike shortly after President Trump took office, you can't have the president of the United States just a couple days ago talk about an imminent strike in reaction to the murder of so many civilians, and then say, well, we kind of decided not to do it.

They're going to strike. There's only two questions. What are the targets and what's the duration? That's all I see here.

BALDWIN: Is it increasingly complicated, though, and the even from the last year's strike to this, with Iranians and the Russians on the ground?

MUDD: It is.

I think the strikes are complicated, in the sense of saying, what facilities are we striking and do we see using intelligence, and do we see using intelligence, the continued presence Iranians or Russian there?

But I think David hit on the more significant issue that you picked up on. After this, I don't think there's anything much we can do we. We have a very limited presence on the ground.

That presence has declined. As the president of the United States has said, ISIS is in decline. What are we going to do? Invade and take out ISIS? The Russians are winning this one. Nobody wants to acknowledge it.

That's the after-action here.

BALDWIN: Let me come back to the what are we going to do.

But, General Hertling, what happens if Russia shoots down a U.S. missile, as they have suggested they could? Is the U.S. then at war?

HERTLING: Potentially.

It depends on how it is de-escalated very quickly. But, Brooke, if I can go back to something, other than just the back and forth between the superpowers. And you include Iran in that, potentially Israel at the same time, because they certainly have a say in all of this.

You're talking about tactics. And David mentioned this, but it -- last year, the 59 cruise missiles was a tactic. There was no end state involved. This is just tactics again with a bigger bang for the buck.


There's still no strategy associated with this. David outlined three different courses of actions on what we attempt to get out of this, and yet no one has put their finger on it and said, hey, this is what we're trying to do.

And, in fact, the administration thus far has been very schizophrenic in terms of what they want out of this, with different people saying different things.

So, all of that contributes to this. And if Russia does get involved, if they do shoot down a missile or shoot down, even worse, an airplane, then it's Katy bar the door, and you have just stumbled into warfare.

And that's what is the problem with these kind of things when you don't have an end state in mind.

BALDWIN: Listen, I have no idea what these sort of conversations look like that he's in the thick of with his National Security Council, but would strategy, what the what do we do next piece that all three of you have brought up which was lacking a year ago, isn't that part of the discussion, though?

HERTLING: It certainly is, I think.

It is in fact the key part of the discussion of where do you want to be when all of this is over? When the last smoke cloud clears, what do you want to have happen? And when you don't know whether or not it's just a punitory action against someone using chemicals or if you want something out of it and you want to have some type of end state involved, that is what should be driving your actions and your use of kinetic munitions and, frankly, the most important part, putting our soldiers and our sailors and airmen's lives on the line when they're conducting these kind of attacks.

It's going to be dangerous. This is going to be a lot more difficult than just launching a couple of cruise missiles.

BALDWIN: David Sanger, final thoughts from you.

SANGER: Well, I think the general has got it just right.

You want to make sure you don't do this one backwards. Your tactics flow from your overall strategy. Your overall strategy has to be, what is the end state that we're looking for in Syria or at least our participation in Syria?

The president offered one about a week ago when he said I just want to get out and let someone else handle it. Well, that's one end state, which is: not my problem.

But now if he's going to commit these forces, and particularly if he's going to commit them running the risk of conflict with Russia, however remote or direct you think that is, he's got to go into it with a clear understanding of what it is we're trying to achieve.

And that's what's new to this president. I don't think he has ever -- and certainly in the interviews that I did with him during the campaign on foreign policy, he has just not in the past had to approach issues rigorously thinking about the strategy first. He runs right to the tactic.

BALDWIN: Gentlemen, you're outstanding, all three of you. Thank you so much. Come back. Thanks. Coming up next here on CNN: breaking moments ago, the deputy attorney

general, Rod Rosenstein, meeting with President Trump the White House, yes, the very same Rod Rosenstein that the president has been raging against over his handling of the Russian probe and the FBI raid on Trump's personal attorney.

What did meet about? Those details ahead.

Also, new reports on another hush money payment involving President Trump and his former doormen and the parent company of "The National Enquirer." The story behind it, you will want to hear it. Stay with us.



BALDWIN: All right. We're back. You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

Happening this afternoon, a meeting at the White House that officials call routine, but when President Trump meets with the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, eyebrows certainly rise, especially as the drumbeat grows louder for the president to fire the man who oversees Robert Mueller and the Russia probe.

The latest push actually comes from Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist, who had a major falling out with the president.

Now, reading "Washington Post," they're reporting the Bannon is telling Trump allies the president should fire Rosenstein and Ty Cobb, one of the lawyers here. But take note of the president's tweet just a couple of hours ago.

Quoting him: "I have agreed with the historically cooperative, disciplined approach that we have engaged in with Robert Mueller, unlike like the Clintons. I have full confidence in Ty Cobb, my special counsel, and have been fully advised throughout each phase of the process."

So, let's start there.

I have got Dana Bash with me, our chief political correspondent. Solomon Wisenberg, he's the former deputy independent counsel in the Whitewater-Monica Lewinsky investigation, and Caroline Polisi, a federal and white-collar crime defense attorney.

So we're going to start there and then going we're going to move on.

But, Dana, just first you on the fact that we know that Rod Rosenstein, who had been the target of the president's ire for some time now, rolls through the White House. I believe in talking to Kaitlan Collins last hour, she referred to it is as, roughly paraphrasing, like routine Justice Department business.

What's really going on?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, there is a lot of business to be done. There are a lot of discussions to be had about what information to give to Capitol Hill, for example, on the investigations.

But, look, I think that the fact that you -- the tweet that you just showed, Brooke, that the president sent out today was written in a very formal way, not generally the style that we see from the president when he's just doing it on his own.

And look at the end there. "I have full confidence in Ty Cobb, my special counsel, and have been fully advised throughout each phase of this process."

The only thing that's missing there, and I feel like if you had sort of X-ray vision, you could see, CC: @SteveBannon, because that is, it seems to me, a direct response to Bannon who talked on the record to "The Washington Post," telling them this is his idea for a game plan, to be aggressive, to fire Ty Cobb, to fire Rod Rosenstein, Mueller, sort of burn the house down.

Did it through the press because he doesn't seem to have a connection to the president directly anymore because of the falling out you talked about.


So this is the retort from the president and maybe even more importantly from the president's staff.


Let me move on from that and talk about this latest hush money story out today on the president. The Associated Press reports the publisher of "The National Enquirer" paid $30,000 to a former doorman at a Trump building for his details on this whole salacious story on Trump.

Then "Enquirer" dropped the story, the same silencing tactic of catch and kill used against former Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal. We should tell you that the parent company of "The Enquirer" emphatically denies that the president had anything to do with killing the story and a source told CNN the doorman and didn't know the contract was going to be a whole catch and kill situation.

So, Solomon, to you. Just from your perch as you're reading about all these different stories, you have the fact it was this time yesterday we were reporting the investigators raided Michael Cohen records related to the "Access Hollywood" tapes. Before that, as we mentioned, it was Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal and now this doorman.

Would you consider that a pattern, Solomon?

SOLOMON WISENBERG, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Well, I would consider it a pattern, but not a very important pattern.

The Southern District of New York is looking at this. All of this is pretty penny-ante stuff. You're talking about potential violations of campaign finance law, which is almost never prosecuted. You're talking about with Cohen the potential bank fraud, but it's very -- it's stuff that if it wasn't the president of the United States would be utterly garden variety at best.

So it is a pattern. It's too early to say anything about it. And it's the Southern District. It's not Mueller.

BALDWIN: OK. With that said, Caroline, just turning to you, he's absolutely correct. It's SDNY who conducted the raid and this could end up being they want to look at maybe his bank accounts, but -- and he's absolutely correct too in saying it could be nothing.

Or, as we discussed before, it could be more than that.

CAROLINE POLISI, DEFENSE ATTORNEY: It absolutely could be more than that.

And I don't think that the SDNY is in the practice or the business of taking on small crimes like federal election law violations. So, I think what's really interesting and what people haven't really been reporting on is that Michael Avenatti, of course, the lawyer for Stormy Daniels, went on "ANDERSON COOPER" last night and basically said that he is for certain that there will be more raised.

He is working with SDNY. He then went on to sort of praise the SDNY for the work that they have done in this case. So I think it's pretty clear that we don't know the full extent of this story.

I agree that the issue of the pattern and the practice with this new reporting of the $30,000 payment, it seems pretty clear that there was a systemic pattern and practice among team Trump to pay off stories that were unfavorable to them.

Now, catch and kill is not in and of itself illegal, Brooke, but the fact is, look, AMI, of course, the parent company of "The National Enquirer," their sort of plausible deniability statement on this is that they didn't publish the stories because they weren't credible.


POLISI: Now, Brooke, I ask you, when has credibility ever been sort of the hallmark of "The National Enquirer"'s reporting policies and procedures?

The clear reason they didn't publish this story was because they wanted to protect the president, so there could have been a conspiracy to violate campaign finance laws. That much is clear.


BALDWIN: Go ahead, Dana. Jump in.


BASH: I was just going to say, I'm pretty confident that the alien babies that "The National Enquirer" has reported...

BALDWIN: That's not real?

BASH: Yes, exactly. That has not happened.

POLISI: That's my point.

BALDWIN: Here's this piece.

And, Solomon, I want you because of your involvement from the Whitewater era, I want to read you a quote from the latest "TIME" magazine cover by Brian Bennett.

So, he writes: "Much as how Paula Jones' harassment case against Bill Clinton helped drive his impeachment and the seizure of Anthony Weiner's laptop led the FBI to reopen its probe of Hillary Clinton, Trump's personal history now may threaten his presidency. In politics, as in life, the highest falls often come from the basest origins."

What say you, sir?

WISENBERG: I think that's very, very accurate.

And it's often the woman -- sometimes, the man -- in these cases that end up bringing you down. And in the case of President Clinton, the way in which they tried to take care of Monica Lewinsky by arranging the job through Revlon-affiliated companies, they just weren't quite as careful about it as they were with arranging other things because nobody had ever looked at personal relationships like that.

So that was the first thing I thought when the Stormy story broke and everybody was dismissing is as unimportant. No, this could end up being very important. It's just -- it's too early to tell.


And another thing to keep in mind, as I have stressed many times before, when I worked for Ken Starr, and I would come home every night at about 1:00 a.m. and flip on cable news, I'm telling you literally 75 of the stuff I saw about what we were supposedly doing had absolutely no basis in reality, no basis.

So, remember, Mueller himself is looking at a number of things that we don't have any idea about. Nobody had any idea -- nobody knew who Papadopoulos was before that criminal information came out. So stay tuned.


We are.

Dana, over to you, though, because I think it is important to point out the relationship between President Trump and Michael Cohen, right, because I remember Michael Cohen, I think it was last September, gave this interview to Emily Jane Fox over at "Vanity Fair" where he said I am the guy who would take a bullet for the president.

And Caroline and I have had this whole discussion about, even though it's SDNY and I know it could be we're saying an FEC issue, but that could -- it could be more and it could be something used as leverage taking it back to all things Mueller and the broader investigation to get him to flip.

But, that said, Michael Cohen of all people to flip, do you think, based upon what you know, could he?

BASH: It would be very, very difficult, but he's human and he has a family. He has a family that -- a blood family. He considers Donald Trump family. But a wife and children that he wants to protect.

So depending on how far down the road this goes, depending on how much pressure is on Michael Cohen to flip or to give anything up about the person he said he would take a bullet for, Donald Trump, we will see.

We are dealing with people who are made of flesh and blood, no matter how hard and aggressive their tactics are. And I think that's why -- and the other guests here who have worked in this arena for years understand that.

And that's why this kind of a case, where you kind of go bit by bit, person by person, witness by witness, tends to work.

BALDWIN: And to Solomon's point, there is so much we just don't know.

BASH: Exactly.

BALDWIN: Solomon and Dana and Caroline, thank you all so very much.

Just ahead here on CNN, on the very day the president teases a decision on Syria, coming "fairly soon," a key player of his national security team faces a tough confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill.

Next, the heated exchanges with the secretary of state nominee there, Mike Pompeo, and why one senator says he has -- quote -- "serious doubts."