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French President Claims He has Proof Chemical Attack in Syria Carried Out by Assad Regime; FBI Raid of President Trump's Personal Attorney's Office Reportedly Tied to "Access Hollywood" Tape. Aired 8- 8:30a ET

Aired April 12, 2018 - 8:00   ET


[08:00:00] NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: -- chlorine was used in the attack in Douma over the weekend which killed 40 people and effected about 500 or so. Now that is important because the specific nature of the gas is key here. In the past, in October, 2013, and in April, 2017, it has been the use of sarin gas, a palpable and horrifying nerve agent that caused the international community to sit up, and in Barack Obama's case in 2013 not take military action but get the Russia to persuade Syrians to give up their chemical weapons. And back in April last year Donald Trump launched 59 tomahawk missiles to an airfield in Syria that was considered responsible for the attack.

The issue here is that chlorine, which is the gas named by Emmanuel Macron, the first leader to come forward and say he has palpable proof at this stage. Chlorine has been used many different times allegedly by many sides in this war. It's a domestic cleaning product and can of course be very harmful to people in concentrated doses. But some of the U.N. experts who have reviewed footage of the scenes in Douma, horrifying that left children foaming at the mouth, have suggested that some of the muscular spasm suggest the use of a nerve agent here, and the possible horror that because people smelled chlorine at the time there may be a mixture of gases or substances used, nerve agents and chlorine to disguise what was being delivered, a horrifying idea.

But Angela Merkel too, coherent with the messaging of the U.S.'s allies that it's obvious the Assad regime was behind this, they say they won't be involved in military action. But they again remind everybody that it was a U.S. resolution back in October, 2013, which told Syria to get rid of its chemical weapons program. We're now on the second time when that's palpably not true. Britain meeting shortly as well to decide what level of response it will have. And the drum beating fast toward military action regardless of what the U.S. commander-in-chief tries to do to tamper, he's perhaps been advised, his recent tweet.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: And in no small irony, Nick, we'll remember that the U.S. wound up relying on Russia to secure the agreement that the Assad regime would take away its chemical weapons. We see how well that worked.

Nick, there is a big argument going on here about what the implications are in Syria if there is U.S. military action. Do me a favor, just list some of the potential eventualities that have to be taken into consideration?

WALSH: The biggest problem here of course is that we have U.S. troops on the ground here in northern Syria, very close to where I'm standing. Part of the anti-ISIS mission backing Syrian Kurds who have been fighting ISIS on their behalf.

Just in February it was horrifying, we were here ourselves to see that Syrian regime forces tried to take land off those Syrian Kurds that have American backing. They pretty much failed, but they had quite a lot of Russian mercenaries in their midst assisting that attack.

That was met with fierce resistance by the United States because they had their own special forces close to that position that was being advanced upon, and without knowing, frankly, they killed dozens it seems of Russian mercenaries even though the deconfliction line that even today the Kremlin Trumpeted as still being functional was working throughout that firefight.

So given the lack of transparency, the lack of trust between sides here, the broader geopolitical tensions, there is the possibility that strikes could take out Russian troops, that we could find U.S. troops on the receiving end of any response. And there are so many different actors here, frankly, that we have no idea what will happen if you chuck another match into this powder keg. Chris?

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Nick, I'll take it. Thank you very much for laying out all the reporting that you have there from Syria for us.

There are also big developments to tell you about this morning in the Russia investigation. Sources tell CNN that federal agents who raided Michael Cohen's apartment and office were searching for communications between the president and his longtime lawyer about, in part, that now infamous "Access Hollywood" tape. This is also the first known warrant that directly named the president.

And CNN has reporting exclusively the GOP is preparing an extensive campaign to try to discredit fired FBI director James Comey as he begins his media blitz for a tell-all book. CNN's Jeff Zeleny has been busy. He's live in Washington with these exclusive details on the RNC's battle plan. What does it look like, Jeff?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Alisyn. We are learning this morning that President Trump's allies are preparing an extensive campaign to fight back against James Comey's publicity tour. They're trying to undermine the credibility of the former FBI director whose memoir of course comes out next week. The White House and the president, I'm told, signed off on this plan last evening to brand Comey as a liar and a leaker. But perhaps the most interesting thing of all here is a central part of the Republican plan is criticism from Democrats. Of course, many Democrats furious at James Comey for how he treated Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential campaign. Here's a flavor of some of those blistering words.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) [08:00:00] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Democrats have been very critical of James Comey and many of us did call for his resignation.

CHUCK SCHUMER, (D) SENATE MINORITY LEADER: I was appalled by what Director Comey did.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS, (I) VERMONT: Comey acted in an outrageous way.

REP. NANCY PELOSI, (D) HOUSE MINORITY LEADER: He made a mistake. Maybe he's not in the right job.


ZELENY: Of course it's an open question how successful Republicans will be branding him given that it was President Trump who fired James Comey nearly a year ago. But the White House is certainly bracing for this memoir largely because of how some aides and officials fear the president will react about their personal conversations of course and how all of this could influence the escalating Mueller investigation.

As for James Comey, he had this to say last month on Twitter. He said, "Mr. President, the American people hear my story very soon and they can judge for themselves who is honorable and who is not." Certainly, the president and the White House will be watching that interview. The first one comes Sunday. We of course interview James Comey next week. In that first interview on Sunday he apparently calls president Trump a mob boss. Chris and Alisyn?

CUOMO: All right, let's bring back CNN political analyst. We have David Gregory and chief legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin. David Gregory, so we see the French president after conversations with the U.S. president coming out and saying I have the proof Assad did this once again using chemical weapons on his own people in contravention of international law and simple decency. That seems to suggest building urgency. What do you think happens and what do you think Congress does?

DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Not just building urgency but building an international predicate for the president to take action kind of in defense of international norms and to make this a case of a violation of international law in the use of chemical weapons which would be, I think, the authorization that he would need to launch a strike separate from consulting Congress as you've been suggesting when we've had these conversations in the past days. I think that's one consideration.

I think the president wants to build something that feels more international here, and there's a lot of reasons for that. I think it's a mistake to think you can just punch somebody in the nose and then walk away and go back to your business. This has to be an effort that's part of a larger plan. And I haven't heard yet from the administration what their strategic goals are with regard to Syria.

I think the primary goal is to erode ISIS as a threat that can fill the void of a failed state. I don't think the goal of the administration is to topple Assad. We've seen that unsuccessfully in the past administration in an effort to push him out.

I think you're looking at a more robust strike if it happens to perhaps erode Assad's capability of using chemical weapons once and for all. But let's consider just one of the dangers of that, and that's targeting, bumping into, getting into some kind of fight at some level with the Russians. That to me is one of the most dangerous aspects of this is the potential for a mistake, a miscalculation, and some kind of escalation with the Russians in Syria.

CAMEROTA: It was hard to imagine, Jeffrey, who he is could have killed these people in Syria and hurt these children with chlorine and, as we just heard Nick say, possibly a nerve agent, but the idea that Macron in France is saying he now has proof positive legally, does that help the U.S. move forward with whatever the president's going to do?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: It does to a certain extent, although these -- these matters are not dealt with in a legal context. It's a political and military issue. But the situation is so complicated. We went into Syria to fight ISIS. Assad was fighting ISIS too. In effect, we were on the same side and still are on the same side as Assad in --

CAMEROTA: For that sliver of what's happening there, yes.

TOOBIN: In that sliver of what's happening. So, you know -- all right, we want to bomb Assad for punishment. And then what? What's the goal?

CAMEROTA: To stop the chemical attacks.

TOOBIN: We can't -- unless we throw Assad out of office, which we are incapable of doing and apparently don't even want to at this point, how do you stop Assad then?

CUOMO: Who says that Assad being a butcher and a murderer of his own people using an internationally illegal method, and he's done it with conventional, legal methods as well, gives authority to the United States to bomb in Syria?

TOOBIN: This goes back to the question that you've been discussing for weeks here, which is what is the role of Congress in deciding where we go to war? We are still -- all of these military operations in the Middle East are still pursuant to the authorization of the use of military force passed in 2001 after 9/11. Congress has not weighed in on any of these ever since. It's a complete dereliction of their duty but they are politically -- they'd rather dump it all on the president and not --

[08:10:04] CUOMO: This is not a Trump criticism. Obama, Bush, Clinton, back to Bush 14, all of them is because presidents will take power if you give it to them, but that's why we have checks and balances. So David Gregory, Jim Jordan, Tim Kaine, everybody we've had on the show except maybe for Scott Taylor, maybe he didn't, or Adam Kinzinger, one of them said that he doesn't think that Congress needs to do this. But the majority has said yes, Congress should weigh in. Where are they? What's going to happen?

GREGORY: I don't know that they're going to weigh in, frankly, but I think you're still going to be making this argument, and it's a good one, and there's going to be a strike on Syria. And there's not going to be a revolt in this country or the Congress that the president is off course.

And I think that's one of the reasons is what you're seeing this morning is that there is international consensus and has been since the end of the First World War about this red line using chemical weapons as being a violation of international law. And I think that this president, like the last one, is going to stop short of committing the United States to some kind of end game in Syria that goes beyond his use of chemical weapons.

I think -- Obama tried to negotiate his way out of toppling Assad. That didn't work. There's no indication that this administration is committed to even moving that hard. The people who have in their view vital national security interests are the Russians and the Iranians to do their bad business throughout the Middle East and for Putin to have access to a deep water port. They're the ones who are really willing to commit forces to Syria, not the United States.

CAMEROTA: OK, let's move on to there are many developments in the Russia investigation. First, Jeffrey, this is part of the southern district of New York's investigation, so now as you know there's a separate investigation that Robert Mueller handed off to the investigators in New York. And it names Donald Trump for the first time in a search warrant. Significant?

TOOBIN: It's hugely significant. We sometimes I think get those of us who follow the story carefully get involved in the details and the --

CAMEROTA: It's hard for anybody to follow all the threads.

TOOBIN: It is.

CAMEROTA: It's important to say when something different happens.

TOOBIN: The United States attorney's office, the federal prosecutors are investigating the president of the United States. Think about how unusual that is in American history. It has happened a handful of times, but the president is now the focus, apparently a subject not a target, of a criminal investigation.

Having been a prosecutor, having known what this is like, the pressure that that put someone under, the gnawing uncertainty, the anxiety that you feel when you're under criminal investigation is so enormous, especially if you think you have something to hide, especially if you think the prosecutors are being unfair, it is just a deeply, deeply important moment in the history of this administration.

CUOMO: David, where do you think we are in terms of boiling point within the White House, within the president's head about what he needs to do with this investigation? GREGORY: I think that the president and those around him, they look

at recent history and they look at the Lewinsky scandal and impeachment of Bill Clinton and they say this is what starts to happen. All these spokes that get farther and farther away from the hub of this investigation draw you in and your personal business and your sexual past, and that's the kind of stuff that trips you up.

And so I think we're at a fast simmer reaching a boil because this president who doesn't listen to people thinks, I'll just start firing people. I'll find a way to really unwind this investigation that's getting out of control, because you look at some of these things. We don't know what they amount to. Payoffs, evidence of, wire -- financial wires, potential wire frauds, all of these things. We don't know if they are crimes, but we know that there's circumstantial reason to believe that the timing is important with regard to the chief investigation, which is the developments coming out of Russia or WikiLeaks that were aimed at meddling in the election and digging up dirt on Trump's opponent.

So the relevance of all of this continue to shake out, but I think now, in Trump's minds, as this gets farther afield, the closer he gets to thinking he's going to have some especially political justification to take some strong action.

TOOBIN: And I think Rod Rosenstein is the one who is really, really in danger. I think firing Mueller, even Trump recognizes that would set off millions of people in the streets, and legally I think he has difficulty firing Mueller, not impossible. But he could fire Rod Rosenstein tomorrow, and I think that is the much more likely scenario at this point.

CAMEROTA: All right, Jeffrey Toobin, David Gregory, thank you for the analysis.

So in just hours, secretary of state nominee Mike Pompeo will be in the hot seat. Does he have the votes to be confirmed as secretary of state? The ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee is going to join us with any reservations he has next.


[08:15:00] ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: So, in just hours, secretary of state nominee Mike Pompeo will be in the hot seat. Does he have the votes to be confirmed as secretary of state? Well, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee is going to join us with any reservations he has, next.


CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: The Senate confirmation hearing for Mike Pompeo kicks off in two hours. President Trump's nominee to replace Rex Tillerson as secretary of state is going to need to get at least one Democrat vote to be confirmed. Will it happen?

CNN's Manu Raju live in the hearing room on Capitol Hill.

We got a wager going?

CAMEROTA: He's thinking.

CUOMO: Manu's tight with his money.

CAMEROTA: He's thinking a lot.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I would expect a pretty aggravation line of questioning from depends on this committee, probably far more aggressive than what we saw last year when Rex Tillerson came before this same committee in large measure because Mike Pompeo as a CIA director has been in the middle of key decisions, perhaps more than any other cabinet members, and members want to know what the administration is thinking about some of these key issues in addition to what Mike Pompeo is doing himself, views about these issues himself.

Already, we're getting a sense about what Pompeo might say based on his closed doors meetings with senators, Senators that I've talked to, as well as the excerpts from his opening statement, which has provided, suggesting that he'd be open to fixing the Iran deal not just nixing it, also suggesting that Russia, the years of soft policy towards Russia are over, expecting tougher line against Russia.

[08:20:10] He's expected to be pushed, especially on Syria, North Korea.

But one thing he wants to do coming in is dispel the notion that he is a hawk on these issues, a warmonger of sorts as Democrats are concerned about. This is what he says from his opening statement. He says: So when journalists, most of whom have never met me, label me or any of you as hawks, war hardliners or worse, I shake my head. War is always the last resort. I would prefer achieving the president's foreign policy goals with unrelenting diplomacy rather than my sending young men and women to war.

Now, the challenge for Pompeo going forward is that Democrats have a one seat disadvantage on this committee and Republicans, they already have one Republican no vote, Republican Rand Paul, if he were to advance Democrats, there needs to be one Democrat to support his nomination to get a favorable recommendation to be sent to the floor and that's the ultimate question about whether or not any Democrats jump ship.

That's something we'll see that today whether or not any Democrats are willing to vote for his nomination, Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: OK. Let's try to get the answer to that right now, Manu. Thank you for the reporting.

Joining us is Senator Robert Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator, thanks for being here. Do you have a sense of whether or not you will support Mike Pompeo? SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ (D-NJ), FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: Well, I

think a lot of its going to depend upon Mike Pompeo's performance today, his answers to some critical questions, a sense of his world view, whether diplomacy is going to be really his mantra or is he going to be a facilitator of the president's worst instincts.

CAMEROTA: Well, I mean, let just start with Manu just reported -- are you someone who considers Mike Pompeo hawkish?

MENENDEZ: Well, I look at a series of his actions in the past and one might view it that way. But I listen to his comments on Russia that he has in his prepared opening statement saying this administration has been muscular, it has been anything but muscular. Congress passed overwhelming into the legislation sanctions that are mandatory against Russia that still have not been implemented by the administration.

So, I think there's a difference between the rhetoric and the actions as he tries to paint the administration in a tougher light than what they've been on Russia. A president who can never even invoke Putin as someone who committed attack on our democracy, but says that a judge who issues an order to go ahead and to seek documents from his former lawyer is an attack on the country.

So, you have a totally different messaging here than what I've heard the president of the United States say.

CAMEROTA: You met with Mike Pompeo on Monday, correct?

MENENDEZ: Yes, I did.

CAMEROTA: And did you pose any of these concerns or reservations you had directly to him and was he able to quell those?

MENENDEZ: Well, I did. I asked him for his world view, I asked him about democracy as our first and most important line of defense. I asked him about what happens if you walk away from the Iran deal, what's the follow on strategy.

And, look, he's very affable. He's smart. But at the end of the day, he himself he doesn't have any deep substance in foreign policy questions and I'm not sure that he's going to be able to give us a good sense and flush out some of the strategies, which is what this administration is critically lacking of, whether it be on Syria, on Russia, on China.

This president works on impulses, not on strategies. And you can't work on impulse in a world that is so insecure as we find it today.

CAMEROTA: And I do want to get to Syria in one second but did he tell you he wanted to get out of the Iran deal?

MENENDEZ: Well, he basically said that, you know, the president is pretty much focused on getting out of the deal unless he gets all the elements that he wants to, quote/unquote, fix it, but the problem is that even if that's the case, the question is what's the follow on? If the United States unilaterally leaves the deal and if we don't have

our European allies with us, are you going to snap back the sanctions, sanctions that I actually wrote? And if you do so, some of those secondary sanctions affect our European partners? Do you expect them to comply? Do you expect them to crumble under the weight of the sanctions and join us? Or do you expect retaliatory sanctions? And if so, what does that mean to us?

CAMEROTA: Very quickly, do you see any way that Mike Pompeo does not become the next secretary of state?

MENENDEZ: Well, that's really going to depend upon his performance today and depending upon that. It will depend upon the vote in the committee, as well as it moves to the floor. So, I think this is a critically important position to the nation's national security and he'll have a high bar to meet.

CAMEROTA: OK. Let's talk about Syria. So, there's breaking news that we just reported this hour, and that is that French President Macron says he has proof positive that the chemical attack, the chlorine attack, was launched by Assad on his own people.

[08:25:09] What do you want to see the U.S. response be?

MENENDEZ: Well, what I've wanted to see the United States do for some time, what I've been advocating is that the administration needs a strategy to Syria. If we want to defeat ISIS, if we want to end the civil war, if we want to end the humanitarian disaster that Syria has become, then you have to have a comprehensive strategy.

The president once before fired missiles at Assad for using chemical weapons. It didn't ultimately end the use of chemical weapons as we have now seen, so a military strike is only one element of what is more important. We need to get a coalition of the willing to ultimately isolate not only Assad but the countries that are propping him up which is Russia and Iran.

We need our Middle East partners to engage if they truly care about Syria to economically isolate Russia and Iran. So, there's many elements of this that are lacking. I just don't see the president having a strategy as it relates to that. That's one of the issues we'll ask Director Pompeo.

CAMEROTA: And whether you have that coalition, whether you have that coalition or not, should Congress have to authorize whatever military move is going to happen next with Syria?

MENENDEZ: Yes, because there is a difference between the authorization to fight ISIS and now a military action, particularly if it's a prolonged one, that ultimately strikes at Syria for the use of chemical weapons.

Look, the use of chemical weapons is barbaric and horrific and it has to be dealt with, but at the end of the day, when you're going to take those types of actions as President Obama sought to do originally, when I was the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, he came before -- asked the committee for an authorization for the use of military force. I drafted one that got Republicans and Democrats to vote for it in the committee.

He took it to the G20 Summit in Russia and got then the chemical weapons that existed to be given up. So, the reality is, Congress has to play a role in this and I don't think the president has the authority to do that under the guise of fighting ISIS.

CAMEROTA: OK. So, what is Congress doing to that end? I know that Senator Corker may unveil a new wars powers bill. So, how will you insist the president consult you and come to you for permission or for authorization for the next move?

MENENDEZ: Well, the committee is soon considering a new authorization for the use of military force to undo the 2001 and other authorizations, to narrow it more focusly, to not let an attack on associated force be considered an attack upon a state itself. Those are very important, but in the interim, I think that the president has to understand that the best way that we ever engage in a military action is when we have the collective support of the country. He needs to come to Congress and ask for that support, ask for an authorization of use of military force.

CAMEROTA: Senator Robert Menendez, thank you very much for being on with us and explaining your perspective on all of this.

MENENDEZ: Thank you.

CAMEROTA: And stay with CNN. Wolf Blitzer is going to anchor or special coverage of mike Pompeo's hearing. That starts at 9:00 a.m. Eastern.


CUOMO: All right. There's a new allegation of hush money payment to protect President Trump during the campaign. I emphasize the last part because that's what would be legally operative here. It again involves the publisher of the "National Enquirer". "The New Yorker's" Ronan Farrow joins us next. How does he make the case?