Return to Transcripts main page


Syrian Nationwide Ceasefire Holding for Now; Putin Refuses to Respond to U.S. Retaliation; Obama Meets Democrats on Defending Obamacare; U.S. Ups Award for ISIS Leader as War on ISIS Continues in Iraq. Aired 1:30-2p ET

Aired December 30, 2016 - 13:30   ET


[13:30:00] ROBERT FORD, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO SYRIA: They've upgraded their Navy base in Syria, and so the Russians are much stronger in the Levant. Kind of peculiar. At the same time, the U.S. military is conducting military operations in eastern Syria against the Islamic State, but that counts for little. It gives little leverage in the broader conflict between Syrian President Assad and the Syrian opposition.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: You've been critical, extremely critical of the Obama administration's handling of this. And you left your post as ambassador two years ago, saying you could no longer defend America's policy. As we're here, 21 days away from the end of the Obama administration, how much of a black mark on his foreign policy legacy is the Syria war?

FORD: Well I think President Obama will leave office with some genuine achievements, even in the Middle East, such as the Iranian nuclear deal. But I have no doubt that the Syrian crisis, the carnage, the pressure on NATO allies, because of the refugee crisis, and the diminution of American credibility and influence in the Middle East because of the Syrian crisis and the Obama administration's handling of it. I have no doubt that will be a black mark on the administration's history.

SCIUTTO: We, of course have a new president coming. President Trump. I want to play for what you he said about his plans for Syria just a short time ago.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT-ELECT OF THE UNITED STATES: When I look at what's going on in Syria, it's so sad. I will get the gulf states to give us lots of money, and we'll build and help build safe zones in Syria so people can have a chance.


SCIUTTO: Is that still a realistic prospect in light of the ceasefire in Russian and Syrian government advances?

FORD: Well, if the -- if the Syrian government would agree to areas where reconstruction could begin outside of Syrian government control, the gulf states and the Americans would manage, maybe, but I'm not exactly sure what the president-elect means by "safe zones." it's not a very clear expression. And who would protect it? How would aid get into it? There are huge questions. It's not just about getting money from the gulf states. The United Nations is already deeply involved in humanitarian assistance, with a lot of American money and gulf money and other money. It's not a money issue. It's a kind of how do you make the deal on the ground with the Iranians, Russians, Syrians, the Turks? A lot of negotiation involved.

SCIUTTO: How to make the peace last.

Ambassador Robert Ford, thanks very much.

FORD: My pleasure.

SCIUTTO: And just ahead, the U.S. retaliates over Russian hacking, but Vladimir Putin decides not to expel American diplomats in response. What does all of this mean for the future of U.S./Russian relations? We'll talk with the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee. He is Congressman Adam Schiff right here with me. And we'll be live when we return.


[13:36:29] SCIUTTO: Joining us now to talk about the Russian retaliation, as well as the situation in Syria, is Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff, of California, ranking member of the Intelligence Committee.

Congressman Schiff, thanks so much.


SCIUTTO: There is a read of this ceasefire now in Syria, and as well as Syrian advances on the ground, that Russia has won, in effect. It got what it wanted. Assad is still in power, is that accurate?

SCHIFF: It's gotten a lot of what it wants, yes, unfortunately. And I think what's so telling here is, with the ceasefire, that Russia always had the capability of pressuring the regime, which is so dependent on the Russians, to bring about a ceasefire, but never wanted to use that pressure until it had changed the facts on the battlefield, until it had helped the regime take back Aleppo. Now that its accomplished those military objectives, it is now a new-found interest in a ceasefire, and we're seeing that manifest in a quelling of the guns, at least temporarily.

SCIUTTO: Is that a bad thing for the U.S., for its influence in the region and its fight against ISIS on the ground?

SCHIFF: As the ambassador says, the ceasefire is a good thing. It will save Syrian lives. That's very positive. But I think we've lost some of our stature in the Middle East, some of our credibility there, and I think the Russians gained. This has been a win for the Russians. They may have bit off something in the long term is a problem for them, because the insurgency there isn't going to go away. And I think they're going to have attrition on this hands, as the regime will also. So, they've taken on a lot. But it's burnished their image and ability to project their power.

SCIUTTO: On to the Russian hacking here, if there was an issue that could unite the divided parties on the Hill, it appears to be Russian hacking. Right? You've been a very strong voice on this but you are hearing from the McCains and Grahams of the world, from Paul Ryan, McConnell and others, they believe Russia did the hacking, should be tough penalties, and in fact, even tougher penalties. It's between everybody on the Hill, it seems, and President-elect Donald Trump. How is that resolved when he takes office?

SCHIFF: I think it will be solved either by an about-face by President-elect Trump. When he gets this intelligence briefing, maybe that's the way he makes his pivot. Or you might have an about-face by the Republican leadership in Congress that's not willing to send him a sanctions bill, notwithstanding support of McCains and others. Right now, that Republican resistance, for example, is torpedoing every effort of a comprehensive select committee or joint committee investigation of the hacking, notwithstanding a lot of bipartisan support for that. So, one has to give or there will be a real confrontation.

SCIUTTO: What do you do if Republicans don't hold their fire, but rather hold their ground on this? What do Democrats do without majorities in the Senator and the House?

SCHIFF: Well, on the Russian hacking, we push for the most thorough investigation and we have the ability to conduct part of that ourselves and there's a bipartisan willingness, at least in the Intelligence Committees, to go forward with that. On the broader issue of going after Russia, punishing Russia, deterring Russia, we ought to do everything we can as Democrats to work with Republicans and put together the strongest sanctions bill possible and send it to the president. He may or may not sign it. Nonetheless, the steps this president took are an important first step but not ultimately to deter the Russians.

[13:40:02] SCIUTTO: You've been pushing for these kinds of steps for quite some time. Did President Obama wait too long?

SCHIFF: I think they did. It would have been more powerful had it come earlier, in combination with allies, tough to put together in the last couple weeks of your office, but a these are significant steps none the less. I don't think it's superficial. And I hope what the administration is doing covertly is more significant than what it's doing overtly, and covert action, a bunch of alternatives involving exposing corruption in the Kremlin, Putin's only stashes of money around the world, these things are not easy to undo and would have a lasting impact.

SCIUTTO: What evidence, though, do you have? Do you believe that will work? Will they deter? Will they stop Putin from doing this again?

SCHIFF: The steps taken so far? No. If we do more, it can be a credible deterrent. The things the Russians care about most is their economy. That's the real threat to the regime, if their economy continues to go south. So, building on sanctions over Ukraine is the most powerful thing we can do. They're hoping to get everything they want from Trump, a weakened NATO, doing away with sanctions, free reign in their sphere of influence, just by mere flattery of the president-elect. So why rock that boat?

SCIUTTO: We'll watch it closely.

Adam Schiff, thanks very much.

SCHIFF: Thanks, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Happy holidays to your family as well.

SCHIFF: You, too.

SCIUTTO: Coming up, President Obama, fresh off his Hawaii vacation, heads to Capitol Hill next week to pow-wow with Democrats on how to defend Obamacare from his successor. Is the president boxing in the president-elect? Our panel will be back to discuss.


[13:44:57] SCIUTTO: Welcome back. We are back with our panel, Rebecca Berg; Aaron Blake; and Jackie Kucinich.

You just heard Congressman Adam Schiff there, Rebecca. In so many words, President Obama waited too long on these sanctions. Something you certainly hear from Republicans as well?

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Absolutely. Part of the calculation for President Obama was that he didn't want this to be seen as political during the election, but now you're having to deal with the same accusations of this having been political now that Donald Trump is waiting to be sworn in as president. And so, I guess as it turns out, there was no perfect time for this, and that's going to be the criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike who wanted him to be stronger against Russia, he should have done it sooner.

SCIUTTO: CNN reports he didn't want it to be political before the election, in part, because he thought Hillary Clinton would win --

BERG: Precisely.

SCIUTTO: -- and didn't want to -- I hate to repeat that word -- delegitimize or undermine her own victory.


BERG: If he had been putting in these sanctions in the context of a President-elect Hillary Clinton, no one could have accused him of trying to box her in or making this into a political --


JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Speaking of a box, a pretty efficient one right now, because it deals with putting Trump in a box. Obama, nothing he could have done right in this particular situation.

SCIUTTO: But, wait. To be fair, Aaron Blake, it's not exactly a noble motivation as president to not take these steps because you expect your party's candidate to win the White House?


SCIUTTO: And then to take the steps after, when the other guy wins?

BLAKE: Seems like that shouldn't really be part of the calculus. You should be doing what's right. If you don't want to release before the election, it's because you don't want incomplete information that could have an impact on the election. The same thing happened with James Comey coming out with that letter 11 days before the election. An impossible choice for him. He could, you know, put this out there and have people think it was trying to influence the election, or ignore it and people looking, saying, why didn't you do something about this, that you had new e-mails? Turned out to be not much of anything that impacted the election, as far as the actual content of the e-mails. But so much reluctance to do anything that close to the election and that's probably why the Obama administration didn't do it, even it was thought Hillary Clinton was going to win.

SCIUTTO: Is the Republican charge true to some degree that Obama is trying to tie Trump's hand with these steps on sanctions? With the U.N. resolution on Israel? He'll go up to the Hill next week to talk about Obamacare? Seems there's something to back that up?

KUCINICH: He's trying to make things politically very difficult for him. In ways, some of the things he's done, some of the Arctic drilling provisions he's put in place, will be very hard for Trump to undo unilaterally. That will involve a fight in the courts.

SCIUTTO: Politically hard or legally?

KUCINICH: Legally hard, maybe both. In terms of sanctions, Obamacare, he's trying to make it politically hard for Trump and there will variations how hard it will be. Republicans and Obamacare, not much reach initially, unless there's something to replace it.

BLAKE: There's too much done in the last few days and weeks for this to be coincidence. They want as much done as they can towards the end. And so much seems to be geared towards putting Trump in a little bit of a box. The Israel speech from John Kerry is another good example, and the Russian sanctions that pit him against the more hawkish Republicans, the monuments in Utah and Nevada. All stuff 245they're putting out there and basically daring Donald Trump to undo once he becomes president.

SCIUTTO: Same can be said of these sanctions, right, because are you, -- really, part of the message of Obama is, are you, Mr. Trump, going to welcome 35 operatives back into the country? Really hard to reverse.

BERG: Precisely. Donald Trump views the world very differently and there's a little fear among President Obama and Democrats about what Donald Trump will do in office. And so, part of this is just them playing defense, trying to stop him from doing some of those things, or at least make it as difficult as possible for him politically and practically to get those things done, because he doesn't just want to see everything he's done in the past eight years evaporate on day one.

SCIUTTO: Interesting, there's a lot of talk about the first 100 days of the Trump presidency. They've already telegraphed, to some degree, what they're going to be, replace Obamacare and infrastructure and that kind of thing. But we're seeing a situation where Russia could swallow that up, could it not? If you have Senate Republicans talking about hearings and votes on new tougher measures, that's going to occupy -- suck up a lot of oxygen on the Hill, isn't it?

KUCINICH: It's too soon to say what will dominate the first 100 days because of the nature how news is right now. But looking at right now, certainly, because this sets up Trump against his own party on its face.

[13:49:58] BERG: But let's be clear, the White House sets the agenda, not Congress, so President-elect Trump will go up to the capitol on Inauguration Day, give his inaugural address, and then he will be setting the agenda. There will be a lot of pressure on congressional Republicans to, if not give up on the Russia issue, at least be quiet for a while, focus on the initiatives President Trump wants to focus on.

KUCINICH: It depends. They set the agenda, you're right. But if one of Trump's first things is he erases those sanctions, the Hill will react. And that will become a very big --


BERG: Right. I would anticipate his focus will be on jobs as a result, because it's less politically difficult, something everyone can rally around.

SCIUTTO: Infrastructure, maybe taxes.

Rebecca Berg, Aaron Blake, Jackie Kucinich, thanks very much, as always.

Coming up, the war against ISIS marches on in Mosul as Iraqi forces and U.S. airstrikes fight to push the terrorist group out of Iraq. We'll go live to the Pentagon right after this.


SCIUTTO: The elusive leader of ISIS may now be on the U.S.'s radar. A U.S. official tells CNN in the last few weeks they have been aware of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi's movements. A few weeks ago, the U.S. upped a reward for information that would lead to his capture, jumping from $10 million to $25 million, the same amount they'd asked for Osama bin Laden.

Pentagon press secretary, Peter Cook, joins me now. Peter, I know much of this gets into extremely classified territory

here, but let me ask you, how confident is the U.S., one, that Baghdadi is alive and, two, that they're getting closer to know his location.

[13:54:39] PETER COOK, PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY: Well, you are getting into sensitive intelligence matters. What I can tell you is we do think Baghdadi is alive and is still leading ISIL and we are obviously doing everything we can to track his movements. And if we get the opportunity, we certainly would take advantage of any opportunity to deliver him the justice he deserves. But I won't get into it beyond that. We're doing everything we can. This is something we're sending a lot of time on. As you know, we've had a lot of success hitting and targeting ISIL leaders. He's having a hard time finding advisers and confidantes to speak with because a lot of them are no longer with us.

SCIUTTO: Let me ask you this. There's a lot of talk of President Obama wanting to get Baghdadi before the end of his term. Is that a realistic possibility that in the next 21 days Baghdadi could be dead or captured?

COOK: Well, Jim, there's no calendar or timeline on this. We are actively going after ISIL's leadership, including Baghdadi. We have from the start of this campaign. And we're doing everything we can, working with our coalition partners, working with partners on the ground to try and assess intelligence, to try and achieve this goal. But there's a larger goal of defeating ISIL, and that's what we're most focused on. We're doing everything we can. And rest assured, the U.S. military and our partners are actively doing everything we can to identify where he may be, and the rest of the leadership team for ISIL, because we think if we strike leadership, it does have an impact on the organization as a whole. That's what we've seen from the strikes we've conducted so far.

SCIUTTO: Let's talk about the offensive to retake Mosul. ISIS forces have been battling there for a number of weeks now. How close are Iraqi forces backed by coalition air strikes and forces to taking back the city?

COOK: Well, Jim, this is a hard fight and you've seen that play out on CNN on a daily basis. The Iraqi security forces have shown determination. They've shown resilience against a difficult and hardened enemy, an enemy that's been able to build up defenses in Mosul for the last two years. And basically, as you've seen, this is very difficult urban warfare in which the Iraqis, to their credit, are taking great steps to make sure that civilians, the risk to civilians is reduced. This is going to take time. But what we've seen in the last 48 hours is significant. The Iraqi security forces, in a coordinated attack, along three separate axes, has put the most pressure so far on ISIL. And we've seen so far that it's hard for ISIL to defend each and every one of those axes of attack. That simultaneous activity is difficult to bring to bear. We're supporting them, the coalition is. In the last 24 hours, we've delivered nearly 200 munitions in support of the efforts in Mosul. This is a hard fight, but the Iraqis are carrying this out in the way we expected, appropriately. And the time, to some extent, Jim, is also on the Iraqi security forces' side. Remember, ISIL is isolated here, unable to resupply significantly, unable to get reinforced by outside forces. And to some extent, this is -- again, patience is a virtue for the Iraqi security forces.

SCIUTTO: You mentioned the risk to civilians. There were reports yesterday of civilian casualties from a U.S. air strike in Mosul. Is there any update?

COOK: I know it's still under investigation as our folks at Operation Inherent Resolve, the combined joint task force, reported yesterday. What happened here, as best we can tell, there was a vehicle, an ISIL vehicle that was firing a weapon from that vehicle, and the vehicle itself was targeted. And at the time it was targeted, it may have been near a hospital. That's what they're investigating, what happened here and whether or not there is the possibility of civilian casualties. Our goal is never to incur civilian casualties. There's a risk here, as I said, in this urban environment. It's something we'll investigate right away, as soon as we determine there was a credible possibility that civilian casualties occurred here.

SCIUTTO: Final question. You're aware of the ceasefire announced by Russia in Syria. How does this affect U.S.-backed anti-ISIS forces on the ground there?

COOK: Well, it doesn't have an impact on our ISIL fight. As you know, the ceasefire appears to be holding. We're seeing the same thing. We think that's a good thing for the Syrian people, the suffering of the Syrian people, and perhaps an opportunity for an end to the Syrian civil war political resolution. But in the meantime, ISIL is still very present in Syria, particularly eastern Syria, and our fight there continues. And the partner forces we're working with are showing progress in that fight against ISIL and they'll continue to have our support.

SCIUTTO: And, yes, U.S. troops on the ground there still in the line of fire as well.

Peter Cook, from the Pentagon, thanks very much for taking the time today.

COOK: You bet, Jim. Happy new year.

SCIUTTO: That's it for me now. I will be back at 5:00 eastern time on "The Situation Room."

For our international viewers, "The World Right Now," with my colleague, Hala Gorani, is next.

For our viewers in North America, NEWSROOM with Fredricka Whitfield starts right now.

[14:00:11] FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Fredricka Whitfield, filling in for Brooke Baldwin.

We start with Russia's --