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Dozens Killed in Toxic Gas Attack in Syria; Republicans Renew Effort to Repeal, Replace Obamacare; Republicans Call Susan Rice "Unmasking" Smoking Gun. Aired 11:30-12p ET

Aired April 4, 2017 - 11:30   ET



[11:32:39] KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, we are following breaking news. A toxic gas or chemical attack suspected in Syria. The images coming out of there are simply horrible.

And I want to warn you, they are hard to look at.

Dozens of people killed, including at least 10 children. Hundreds of others injured. Activists say the casualties are a result of asphyxiation.

Here's what we know right now. Air strikes hit a rebel-held town in northwestern Syria this morning, giving off something of a poisonous gas, according to activist groups. Video purporting to be from the scene shows victims who appear unresponsive or struggling to breathe at the very least. Activist groups are blaming Syrian President Bashar al Assad's regime for the attack.

Simply impossible to tear your eyes away from the screen when you see something like this.

Let me bring in CNN's senior international correspondent, Arwa Damon. She's here with me now.

Arwa, you've spent a lot of time in Syria. You see these images of these children unresponsive, were struggling to breathe, and you think what?

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I go back to something, you know, a number of activists said early on -- what is it going to take? How many more chemical attacks do there need to be? How many more children need to wash onshore or be covered in dust? How many more children need to come up dead by a mysterious gas, looking like they're asleep, but they're not. Their life is over. It denies logic. CNN spoke to a journalist who went to the scene shortly after it took place, and he himself was impacted by the residue of what was left behind. He was barely breathing. And he was describing how it seems like it was a series of attacks. One of the strikes, presumably is what set off the gas, but he was saying there were children there not only being treated at the scene, but also running around looking for their parents.

BOLDUAN: Gives you chills. DAMON: It really does. I mean, the scale of what's happening in

Syria is mind-boggling in and of itself. The tragedy of it, beyond the cost in human life, is the complete inability or lack of desire of any nation to actually want to do something about it.

BOLDUAN: You and I have kind of been racking our brains. This is clearly not the first chemical attack in Syria. This seems to be the first major one since President Trump has taken office. I mean, this -- it looks absolutely horrible. What does it do to these communities, who as you mentioned, it is one thing after another, the scale of the atrocities and the devastation, it's unimaginable.

[11:35:14] DAMON: Well, if we go back to 2013 and the attack that happened where then President Obama's red line was crossed, I think that was a turning point when it comes to the radicalization of the revolution. Up until then, you had a lot of activists, a lot of moderate rebel groups that were trying to push the more radical extremist elements out. When they realized that America and the West was not going to come and save them and protect them, when basically crimes against humanity are taking place in front of everybody's eyes, they will take a deal with the devil, if that's what it's going to take for them to save themselves. The more inaction there is by the West, the more it feeds into the narrative by the more extremist groups of, well, the West isn't going to help you. Why do you want these principles of freedom and democracy that America and Western nations try to uphold, because they might say all these things, but they're not going to come in and help you? We can help you. There are repercussions beyond the utter tragedy of the death toll.

BOLDUAN: And saying it's complicated is not even doing justice, what is now the players on the ground, and how confusing it is to get in there to help. We don't need to go back to say it was a lot less complicated in the beginning from where they are right now.

The White House has not put out a statement, has not had any statement since this has happened this morning. You can be sure that everyone is asking and waiting to hear what the president has to say about this.

But what do the Syrian people caught in the middle of this, after they've had the Obama red line, and we know what happened there, what are they expecting now from this administration?

DAMON: Look, they're very well aware of the fact that this administration did try to pass laws that were going to keep Syrians from coming to America full stop. They're very aware that this is an isolationist administration, that they view people that are perhaps not like them, people that are from over there, from the Middle East, as being a potential threat. They feel as if they are being unfairly and unjustly targeted to a certain degree. And this shatters them in ways that I fail to articulate at this stage, because, at the end of the day, America is supposed to at least superficially exist on this moral high ground. But now you have an administration that doesn't even seem as if it takes human rights infractions as being among any sort of priority whatsoever, never mind large-scale slaughters that are taking place. BOLDUAN: I think this is a very important moment for this

administration. When you see these images coming out and you see this evidence of crimes against humanity, what they say today.

DAMON: It's very important, because, look, President Trump talks tough when he wants to talk tough, and this might appeal to some of the authoritarian regimes that are out there. But at the end of the day, he talks tough. Is he going to take this opportunity to talk tough to players that can perhaps influence the regime? In other words, Russia. It is a key moment for this administration as to whether or not they want to use the current position that they have to try to push certain power points that they may be able to push, pressure points that they may be able to push at this stage to alter what's happening and demand accountability, because if this continues on this scale with impunity, we are going to have to create new words in the English language to describe what has happened in Syria.

BOLDUAN: Full stop, like, honestly. It is unacceptable what we continue to see over there. Every time you go back into Syria, is the message still the same? Do they still believe that the U.S. -- do they still want help? Is that simply the message that you hear from them? Because after six years, I feel this -- there's this massive disconnect between those who have not seen it firsthand and those who see it on TV. It starts kind of to glaze over, because it's constant and it's been happening for six years.

DAMON: You know, actually, I last went into Idlib Province very briefly in January for a couple of hours, and I was speaking to people who had just left Aleppo after being under bombardment. And one woman said to me, I don't want to be interviewed, I don't want to talk about this because we've been talking about this in the public eye for six years. And she said what was happening to us in Aleppo was so horrendous, was so terrifying, that my 5-year-old child said, mommy, I wish I was dead. And she said to me, how do I respond to that?

What do we say to these parents? What do we say to these children? What do we say when we look back in history? This is not happening in a dark, remote corner away from the public eye. We know exactly what's happening in Syria.

BOLDUAN: You have been there.

DAMON: And the tragedy of Syria is not just the death toll, it's the fact that we know what's going on and nothing is being done because it's part of this larger geopolitical sickening chess game.

[11:40:10] BOLDUAN: Just to leave you with this, eyewitness accounts -- you were talking about this is one thing that this doctor said, who was there on the ground trying to help folks, "I believe this horrible memory will stay with me for the rest of my life."

That's someone who has already been living through what's going on in Syria right now.

Thank you, Arwa. Great to have you here. Thank you so much. Coming up for us, the White House makes a new push, while the House

speaker says they're not there yet. So, where is the Republican Party on the new effort to repeal and replace Obamacare? Where do things stand? Why is it so confusing? That's ahead.

And is President Trump throwing up smoke screens to support his wiretapping claims against former President Barack Obama? CNN's editor-at-large, Chris Cillizza, explains.


[11:45:29] BOLDUAN: So, if you thought health care was DOA, think again. It appears a renewed effort to jump-start and revive the Republican plan to repeal and replace Obamacare. Vice President Mike Pence taking the lead and pitching a new plan to members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus last night, and this morning, word they're even putting pen to paper.

CNN's Phil Mattingly is covering this from Capitol Hill.

So, Phil, you've got this reporting that the White House might actually be sending some text to the Hill today, but Paul Ryan today described it as more like they're still spit-balling ideas. Which is it?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, it's important to kind of understand the dynamic here. And I think what you're seeing right now, driven by the White House, driven by Vice President Mike Pence, is they're really making a deliberate, solid effort to try and get those conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus, that group they simply couldn't bring along when this bill collapsed the first time, on the table. And as such, they have proposed based on a closed-door meeting last night with that Freedom Caucus, to add two provisions to this bill. One would be to give states the opportunity to get waivers to get away from the essential health care benefits that are currently in the Affordable Care Act. Those are the 10 minimum requirements for any insurance plan. They would also give them kind of the ability to get away from the so-called community rating system, which is basically a mandate on insurance companies that they can't discriminate based on age or gender. The states could apply for those waivers. This at its core is in part what those conservatives have wanted. They want the Title I regulations, the insurance regulations in the Affordable Care Act to come out. Why? Because they believe those have been driving up premiums. So, this is the effort to try and bring that group along.

But the speaker made very clear, it's early effort. Take a listen.


REP. PAUL RYAN, (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: We're at that conceptual stage. We have very productive conversations occurring among our members, but those are productive conversations. That doesn't mean we have language and text that's ready to go and the votes are lined up.


MATTINGLY: Now, Kate, the White House told the House Freedom Caucus members last night that they would be sending text up to the Hill, and the House Freedom Caucus members have made clear they are not committing to anything until they see that text, but if you wonder why Speaker Ryan is so cautious, he said that this is not just about getting one caucus or group on board. This is about getting to 216 votes. And in reality, talking to Republican aides who are trying to get eyes this proposal, if you reach out to conservatives, do you in turn lose members at the other end of the conference that were wary of this proposal from the beginning? Threading the needle and the difficult hasn't changed. As long as that's there, that's why you see the caution out of leadership.

BOLDUAN: Right. What they have to avoid, first and foremost, is a replay of just a couple weeks ago, which if they're going fully one route, then they're likely to lose moderates or conservatives, depending on which path they decide to take. The president, though, blamed the Freedom Caucus, Phil, called them out by name after their first effort failed. What is different now?

MATTINGLY: I think there's a recognition -- well, here's how it was described by one GOP official I spoke to who's directly involved in this process. The White House basically came to the understanding that they have a guy who currently inhabits the Oval Office who really doesn't like to lose. And so, while he said that he was done with health care and he was moving on, and while he kind of berated half of the House Freedom Caucus over the last week, I think Mike Pence, a vice president, somebody whose conservative principles aren't questioned, thought that based on prior negotiations that there was a way to get to the House Freedom Caucus, and that's exactly what they're doing right now. I can tell you, having spoken to the House Freedom Caucus members over the course of the last five or six days, nobody appreciated those tweets, nobody liked the intent behind them and not many people were moved by them, but there was a lot of pressure at home. This was a campaign promise. This is something they wanted to deliver on. And I can tell you, a lot of these members are very sensitive to the idea that they were the ones who killed this. They don't believe that's the case. They believe they were sticking to their guns, negotiating a position they've made clear from the very beginning, and that's why you're seeing kind of this rejuvenated effort here. But again, if you lock up 20 or 25 Freedom Caucus members but lose 15 or 20 moderates from the Tuesday Group, the math still doesn't work, and so that's kind of where we're at right now -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: Yeah. Just as confusing as last time.

Great to see you, Phil. Thank you so much. Talk to you soon. Thank you.

Let's talk more about this right now. I want to bring in reporter and editor-at-large for CNN Politics, Chris Cillizza.

Phil Mattingly does a masterful job of trying to figure out where they are going to thread the needle, if it is humanly possible. It is not easy. The reports here, Chris, the White House is going to put something on paper, they want to set it up today. But Paul Ryan, he kept talking about this is still in the conceptual state. Do you see real movement here?

[11:50:07] CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN REPORTER & EDITOR-AT-LARGE: Look, anytime -- if words are put on paper, then sure. But the conceptual stage is very different than the passing it phase which is Phil's point. The problem here is that they're going to get into a very similar dynamic that they were in before. Everything that you take off to gain on the right, the House Freedom Caucus, you will lose in the center from the Tuesday Group, the moderates, Republicans in Congress. It's this balancing act. That's the exact thing that doomed this bill before. And I would remind people Sean Spicer in the lead up to that vote which wound up not happening said that Donald Trump had done everything he possibly could have done to make that path. So it's sort of like what now? What else is out there? I'm not sure making tweaks here and there, I think you lose as many people as you gain.

BOLDUAN: And it sounds like some of the moves that are at least on the table, and of course, this is conceptual. It sounds like it makes it difficult for the pre-existing condition provision to really stick. Making sure everyone -- you can't be kicked off health care and you have to be given access to health care. Are you going to be able to pay for the health care you offered? It seems they're walking into difficult territory.

CILLIZZA: They're caught a little between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, I think they do hear from their constituents who said we elected you are the last six years to repeal and replace Obamacare. But at the same time, I think when you take away some of the things people like, including pre-existing conditions, including your kids can stay on your insurance until you're 26, they say, wait a minute, wait a minute. I think you're facing cross pressures politically.

I also remind people there's a reason that six presidents before Barack Obama tried and failed to overhaul the health care system. And Barack Obama did so only in costing him the House and eventually the Senate for his party. This is not easily done. The idea that in less than three weeks they did 18 days between when they introduced the legislation and when they tried to pass it, it's just very, very complex and complicated, both from a policy perspective, but from a political perspective. There's just a lot of cross pulling and cross purposes here that don't fall along traditional party lines.

BOLDUAN: Also if you take one step further, what is actually going to happen if they go through these motions, even well-intentioned, and they hit another wall? You can't hit another -- you can't hit the wall twice at lee least politically speaking.

CILLIZZA: I don't think you can repeat this enough. The last eight years, the first thing that every single Republican political rally was, if we control Washington, we will repeal and replace Obamacare. It was the biggest applause line for Donald Trump. It was the thing that Paul Ryan hung his hat on. What's hard then is to say, well, we tried. It didn't work. What's even harder is, well, we're going to go at it again and Lucy is going to pull the football and Charlie Brown is going to hand on his head again. It hurts once. It hurts more the second time. That's why I'm skeptical that we wind up seeing this. Maybe over a long period of time where there's a lot of sort of back-room conversations with the Republican Congress to say we're going to bring this forward, I need your absolute lock promise you can be for it, but I don't anticipate next week, they're going to solve the problem that a week and a half ago they couldn't.

BOLDUAN: That's why Paul Ryan is definitely not putting a timeline on this one.


BOLDUAN: Again and again and again.


CILLIZZA: He's smart not to.

BOLDUAN: I agree.

I would ask, real quick, what you're writing about today, a term I think everyone needs to get familiar with, "unmasking." Susan Rice requesting names of Trump associates to be unmasked in intelligence reports. Republicans here, Chris, they see this as a smoking gun. Democrats - I just talked to Jackie Speier -- this is taking your eye off the ball and missing the point completely. I feel like this has quickly become a test.

CILLIZZA: Yeah. Golly, I think everything has become a test at this point.


CILLIZZA: But you're right. You tell me what party they're in and I'll tell you how they're going to react to virtually anything. That's sort of a problem with your politics.

But to your point, I think these are somewhat separate and distinct issues. I think you can say I want to learn more about the unmasking process and how did Mike Flynn's conversation with Kislyak, how were they leaked? How did we find out they had talked about sanctions? But you can also say Donald Trump's allegation via Twitter that Trump Tower was wiretapped under order from President Obama, there's no evidence there. Those two things can coexist. You can want to say I want to find out more about that, but that is not a justification or evidence of this allegation that Donald Trump has made a month-plus ago that he continues to search for evidence to back up. That is not this.

[11:55:20] BOLDUAN: And even Devin Nunes said that is not this. It seems this is president is the one that has not yet said at least publicly that he accepts that.


CILLIZZA: It's important. It doesn't invalidate. Sorry -- I know it --


BOLDUAN: No, I agree.

CILLIZZA: It doesn't invalidate the questions about Susan Rice and how did the media find out about it. It's just not evidence that Donald Trump was right with this tweet. Sorry. I think it's important.


BOLDUAN: That seems to be one of the things.

Great to see you, Chris. Thank you so much.

CILIZZA: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: I want to show you right now live pictures of the White House. President Trump is expected to leave any moment. That's actually a picture of Adam Schiff. He's going to be coming to speak to Wolf in the 1:00 hour. That's important. This is also important. A picture of the White House. The president is going to leave to make remarks across town. We'll bring you his speech live right here on CNN.

We'll be right back.