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Interview With Wyoming Senator John Barrasso; North Korea Missile Launch; Bannon Out at National Security Council; President Trump Reacts to Syria Attack. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired April 5, 2017 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: President Trump launched yet enough evidence-free accusation missile at his political opponents. Perhaps Vice President Kushner might intervene.

THE LEAD starts right now.

The president publicly blaming Syria's dictator for a chemical attack on his own people. He called it an affront to humanity. He called it heinous. He called it horrific, but he didn't say what he might do about it.

Plus, need a project? Give it to President Trump's son-in-law, but now the project that put Jared Kushner's company on the map is in big trouble, so what in the Kushner track record shows that he can take on the world's problems?

And today is Gold Star Spouses Day. Politicians are proclaiming how much they appreciate the sacrifices of war widows and war widowers. We will introduce you to two Gold Star wives who say that talk is cheap. They need help.

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

President Trump has made it clear he wants to be president of America and not of the world. He stated this again just this week. Now the world is trying to figure out, what exactly does that mean? North Korea piled on the pressure with a missile launch last night right before President Trump is set to host China's president in what Mr. Trump calls a very difficult meeting, with some focus on North Korea.

But nowhere is President Trump being tested more than right now than in Syria. And, today, the president condemned Bashar al-Assad for the chemical weapons attack that killed dozens of innocent Syrians, including babies, and the president again faulted President Obama for refusing to attack Syria back in September 2013, after drawing that so-called red line on the use of chemical weapons.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The Obama administration had a great opportunity to solve this crisis a long time ago when he said the red line in the sand. And when he didn't cross that line after making the threat, I think that set us back a long ways, not only in Syria, but in many other parts of the world, because it was a blank threat.

I think it was something that was not one of our better days as a country.


TAPPER: Faulting President Obama, of course, for not acting against Assad after the red line threat is a perfectly legitimate criticism, but can President Trump credibly make it?

At the time, September 2013, Mr. Trump was tell President Obama, don't follow through on your threat -- quote -- "President Obama, do not attack Syria. There is no upside and tremendous downside. Save your powder for another more important day."

"Again, to our very foolish leader," another tweet said. "Do not attack Syria. If you do, many very bad things will happen, and from that fight the U.S. gets nothing."

President Trump today said that Assad crossed a lot of lines in this most recent attack.

CNN White House correspondent Sara Murray joins me now.

And, Sara, asked if he might take action against Assad in Syria, we didn't get an answer from President Trump.


And this is a very interesting moment today, Jake, because as this new president is learning, like so many before him, you may want to focus on your domestic agenda. You may want to put America first, but time and time again, the world intervene, as it did with this brutal attack in Syria, and once again the world is looking to the U.S. to see how they will respond.

Today, we did not get a clear answer.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The president of the United States and his majesty.

MURRAY (voice-over): President Trump sailed into office on tough talk, but faced with his first international crisis, it's unclear what action, if any, the U.S. will take in response.

TRUMP: One of the things I think you have noticed about me is militarily I don't like to say where I'm going and what I'm doing. I'm not saying I'm doing anything one way or the other, but I'm certainly not going to be telling you.

MURRAY: After meeting with King Abdullah of Jordan, today, in the Rose Garden, the president drew his own red line on Syria, expressing horror about the chemical attack that left women and children dead.

TRUMP: When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, babies, little babies, with a chemical gas that is so lethal, and people were shocked to hear what gas it was, that crosses many, many lines, beyond a red lines, many, many lines.

MURRAY: The primary focus of Trump's Middle East policy, defeating ISIS, while laying the blame for other foreign policy quandaries, from Syria to nuclear threats, at the feet of former President Obama. Even as he played the blame game today, Trump acknowledged that now he's the one in charge.

TRUMP: I now have responsibility, and I will have that responsibility and carry it very proudly. I will tell you that. It is now my responsibility. It was a great opportunity missed.

MURRAY: Today, congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle pointed to Syria as Trump's first true foreign policy test. Already, some say he's falling short.


SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MINORITY LEADER: What he's done with Syria is emblematic of what he always does. Instead of a policy, instead of action, there's just blame. Blame doesn't solve the problem.

MURRAY: Republican Senator Marco Rubio even suggesting the Trump administration emboldened Assad by signaling it he wouldn't seek to overthrow the Syrian leader.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: It's my belief that, if you're Bashar al-Assad and you read that it's no longer a priority of the United States to have you removed power, I believe that that is an incentive to act with impunity.

MURRAY: Today, Trump offered no criticism of Russia's support for Assad, saying only that his view of Assad was evolving.

TRUMP: My attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much.

MURRAY: But the biggest meeting of the week comes tomorrow, when Trump sits down with the Chinese president at his luxury resort in Mar-a-Lago, after putting China on notice over North Korea's nuclear problem.

TRUMP: That's another responsibility we have, and that's called the country of North Korea. We have a big problem.

MURRAY: All of this as staff intrigue continues swirling in the West Wing, the president removing one of his top advisers, Steve Bannon, from the National Security Council, the move a demotion for Bannon and a victory for H.R. McMaster, who Trump tapped in February to lead the council.

(END VIDEOTAPE) MURRAY: Now, at that high-profile press conference in the Rose Garden today, it was notable who was in the front row, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and H.R. McMaster. Not there, Steve Bannon -- Jake.

TAPPER: Sara Murray at the White House for us, thank you so much.

For more on the latest atrocity in Syria, let's go now to CNN senior international correspondent Ben Wedeman, who is live for us near the Turkish-Syrian border.

Ben, you have spoken to survivors of this attack. What more are you learning?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we're learning that they're still, Jake, pulling bodies out of the rubble.

And we spoke to some activists just a few minutes ago who said they discovered seven more bodies in one of the areas that was affected by this incident. Now, we got an opportunity to speak to some of the people who were brought over from Syria into Turkey who had been affected by this chemical agent.

We have met one young boy, 13 years old, who told us that when he heard the blast, he ran up to his roof. He saw that one of the explosions took place near his father's -- his grandfather's house. He ran barefoot to find out if something had happened to his grandparents. He found his grandfather slumped over, seemingly dead, asphyxiated.

He ran outside amidst the fumes and himself succumbed to the fumes and he came to in a Turkish hospital. He told us today that 19 of his relatives were killed in that attack -- Jake.

TAPPER: Ben Wedeman, thank you so much.

Another major world crisis, North Korea, with another provocative missile launch coming just before a big meeting between President Trump and the leader of China.

CNN's Will Ripley joins me now.

Will, the big question, I guess, was North Korea trying to send a message ahead of this big meeting between President Trump and Chinese President Xi?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, there's no public statement saying that from North Korea, and Chinese officials here in Beijing are trying to downplay any connection between this very important presidential summit.

It has to be irritating for them that their President Xi Jinping is often mentioned when North Korean leader Kim Jong-un does something bad, but, of course, as North Korea's sole benefactor, if you will, China is often believed to bear responsibility for providing the financial resources for North Korea to do this. This latest missile launch described by one senior administration

official as a spectacular failure. It only traveled around 37 miles or so, but given the fact that there is this big presidential summit coming up in Mar-a-Lago, as well as two major events in North Korea next week, the big legislative gathering, the Supreme People's Assembly on Tuesday, when all of the delegates vote unanimously for whatever Kim Jong-un presents, and then on Saturday, their most important holiday of the year, the Day of the Sun.

North Korea often plans major events around this particular holiday. In 2012, they attempted to launch a satellite. Analysts believe North Korea could push the button on a nuclear test. If that were to happen during this big summit, Jake, it would force the U.S. and China to speak out about it when they have a lot of other things on their plate, including trade and the South China Sea.

TAPPER: All right, Will Ripley, thank you so much.

Will Congress go along with the president's change in attitude on Syria? Senate John Barrasso of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee weighs in next.

Stay with us.



TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Let's continue with the world lead and bring in my guest, Republican Senator John Barrasso. He's a member of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator, thanks so much for joining us, as always.

SEN. JOHN BARRASSO (R), WYOMING: Hey, thanks. Appreciate being with you, Jake. Thank you.

TAPPER: So, Senator Marco Rubio, he's a fellow Republican, a fellow member of the Foreign Relations Committee, he today drew a straight line between Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggesting that the U.S. would not be the ones to take Assad out of power and the horrific chemical weapons attack in Syria.

Take a listen.


RUBIO: It's concerning that the secretary of state 72 hours ago or a week ago, it was last Friday, said, you know, that the future is up to the people in Syria on what happens with Assad, in essence almost nodding to the idea that Assad was going to get to stay in some capacity.

I don't think it's a coincidence that, a few days later, we see this. Assad believes -- and, sadly, he may be right -- that he can gas his people with sarin, kill children, kill innocent civilians. People will complain. There will be a meeting at the U.N. Security Council, and then life will go on and he will stay in power.

He's made that calculation. The Russians support him on this. China is indifferent. And I hate to say this. I think he's going to get away with it again.


TAPPER: Do you agree with what Senator Rubio says, both in terms of Secretary of State Tillerson and also in terms of the general response of the world?

BARRASSO: Well, a couple of things.

One is, this is a horrific attack against humanity. Anyone that has seen the video understands that completely.

I do believe that Assad feels emboldened, but emboldened because he has Russia on the ground right now in Syria and because he had Russia and China both doing his bidding at the United Nations, vetoing the efforts that we had in a worldwide effort to put additional sanctions on Syria.

[16:15:04] So I think that Assad feels emboldened for a number of reasons, and that's the way I look at it.

TAPPER: Do you think that one of those reasons includes the fact that the secretary of state basically announced that the United States government has a new position and no longer believes that regime change in Syria is necessary?

BARRASSO: Well, I think President Trump made his statement as well of the number of lines that this has cross, the red line that was talked about by President Obama may need to be enforced now by President Trump. But Assad is emboldened in ways that he hadn't been before, and President Trump's job is that much more difficult as "The Washington Post" editorial said this morning because of the failures of the Obama administration in terms of getting rid of the chemical weapons, in terms of basically allowing Russia to be engaged and on the ground in Syria.

TAPPER: OK, but with all due respect, sir, you didn't answer my question. Does Secretary of State Tillerson's statement basically that Syria is going to decide whether or not Assad is the ruler and the United States is not going to have anything to do with it, which Marco Rubio says is one of the reasons why Assad felt emboldened?

BARRASSO: No, I listened to what Nikki Haley said today at the United Nations, that the United States may need to act and I listened to President Trump and his statements today along similar lines.

TAPPER: While we're talking about Nikki Haley, listened to her this morning at the U.N. Security Council.


NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: And Russia has shielded Assad from U.N. sanctions. How many more children have to die before Russia cares?


TAPPER: Nikki Haley taking Putin to task there. President Trump did not mention Russia or Putin in his statement. Why not, do you think?

BARRASSO: Well, I'm not sure why not. Look, Putin is actively involved and is providing basically cover for Assad through his involvement in Syria. It's that much more difficult of a situation now on the ground. I thought Nikki Haley gave a very strong speech and talked about the need for action, and it's time for people not just at the United Nations but around the world to say we need to do more.

This activity must stop, and it may be important for the United States to step in. The last time with President Obama when he first asserted the red line and then ultimately said any attack would have been just a pinprick. That is not the kind of decisive action that would deter additional attacks like Assad has been doing now in Syria to his own people.

TAPPER: Senator, stay with us. We're going to take a very quick break.

I want to talk about the fact that there is this other burgeoning world crisis having to do with North Korea. Stay with us. We'll take a quick break.

BARRASSO: Thank you.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. We're sticking with the world lead.

We still have with us, Republican Senator John Barrasso. He's a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator, let's turn to North Korea and its latest missile launch. The response to Secretary of State Tillerson was surprisingly brief. He said in his paper statement, quote, "North Korea launched yet another intermediate range ballistic missile. The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment."

Translate that for us. What message is the U.S. sending with that? What message should the U.S. be sending?

BARRASSO: Well, the message that we are sending, I believe, is that the North Korean leader wants attention, wants credibility, and I think the less you say, the better about that. North Korea's capacity is increasing, and if you want to deter somebody you have to use what we have is our own capacity which is significant, our willingness to use that capacity, our commitment to do that, and I believe we are ready to do that. We have defensive missiles now -- deployed into the areas of South Korea and in Japan, and then you have to communicate your willingness to take action.

And now, we're seeing that in a much different way than we've seen in the previous administration. I think the North Korean leader needs to recognize that.

But additionally, the president of China is visiting with President Trump this week. China has a consequential role to play as well in terms of economic relationship with North Korea. They can be sending a very strong message and an impact on the North Korean economy to slow down the actions that we're seeing with North Korea and their efforts for testing and for nuclear weaponization.

TAPPER: So, you refer to defensive missiles that the U.S. could deploy or has deployed in the area to respond and to deter North Korea from acting, but let me talk about the fact that President Trump has said everything is on the table here. The other day, he told "The Financial Times," quote, "China will either decide to help us with North Korea or they won't." And he went on to say, "If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will."

Now, we wondered what that might mean. We looked into all the president's comments about North Korea going back 20 years, and in 1999 "Wall Street Journal" op-ed, Mr. Trump wrote, quote, "I would let Pyongyang know in no uncertain terms it can either get out of the nuclear arms race or expect a rebuke similar to the one Ronald Reagan delivered to Moammar Gadhafi in 1986." In other words, a bombing of North Korea.

Is that on the table, do you think? Should it be on the table?

BARRASSO: Well, with deterrence, all things are on the table and you don't want your enemy to know exactly what you're going to do. You want them to know you have the capacity to do it which we do.

What the president is saying there, we have the commitment if we need to use it and that's what he's communicating as well. That to me sends a strong message to North Korea that we have the ability, and we'll do it, if necessary.

TAPPPER: Senator John Barrasso, always a pleasure to have you on, sir. Thanks so much for joining us.

BARRASSO: Thanks, thanks for having me.

TAPPER: Without any evidence at all, President Trump has said that he thinks President Obama's former national security adviser may have committed a crime. Where's the evidence? Stick around.


[16:29:16] TAPPER: Welcome back. More on our politics lead now.

Earlier today, President Trump made yet another shocking allegation for which he provided absolutely zero evidence. In an interview with the "New York Times" the president says he thinks former Obama national security advisers Dr. Susan Rice committed a crime. He did not specify what the crime was and, again, he made no evidence of -- no mention of any proof. This comes, of course, at the same time that the president distracts attention from the FBI investigation into contacts his associates have had with Russian officials last year while that country was interfering in the U.S. presidential election, according to U.S. intelligence agencies.

Let bring in CNN's Manu Raju.

And, Manu, Dr. Rice denies she did anything proper (ph) and as you know what Rice stands accuse of doing, asking people on the intelligence community to unmask or name the person instead of individual "A" can be routine.