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Will U.S. Send Troops to Syria?; Republicans Go Nuclear on Supreme Court Pick; Republican Chairman Steps Down From Russia Investigation. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired April 6, 2017 - 15:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[15:00:00]

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: President Trump said -- quote -- "I think what Assad did is terrible. I think what happened in Syria is one of the truly egregious crimes. It shouldn't have happened. It shouldn't be allowed to happen."

"Have you talked to Putin about this?"

"At some point, I may. I haven't. But at some point, I may."

"Do you think Assad should leave power?"

President Trump: "I think what happened in Syria is a disgrace to humanity. He's there and I guess he's running things so something should happen."

Finally, Brooke, "Have you told members of Congress that you plan to use military action in Syria?"

The president saying: "I don't want to mention that, but the answer is, no, I haven't."

I know there's a slight nuance in the reporting there, in that we reported that he has spoken to members of Congress about the possibility of a military response. The question here was, well, do you plan to use military action in Syria? And he seemed to be saying, no, I haven't said specifically that to members of Congress.

So, there might be a nuance there that might explain why he answered the question that way. But no question about this, Brooke, what we're seeing from the president of the United States, what we're seeing from the secretary of state is a dramatically different policy when it comes to dealing with Syria than what we saw a week ago, when you had the secretary of state, when you had the White House press secretary all indicating that Bashar al-Assad is probably not going to leave the scene.

This attack, this chemical weapons attack has very much changed what is happening inside this administration when it comes to dealing with Assad and weighing whether or not he should remain in power.

I think there's no question that this is going to be coming up with President Xi during these very intense talks down here in Florida. It's only going to be about 24 hours long, this meeting between President Xi and President Trump. They were already going to be talking about these thorny issues of trade in North Korea.

But you can add Syria to the list, because it does appear very much so that President Trump and Secretary of State Tillerson have really changed their attitudes when it comes to Bashar al-Assad and Syria.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Let me stay on that.

Dana Bash -- Jim, thank you. And such a -- the point is right on, because it was just a couple of days ago Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, and I'm paraphrasing, it's up to the Syrian people to decide the fate of Assad. Days later, now when asked this question about an Assad removal, he says those steps are under way.

How can you change like that so quickly?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's whiplash. There's no question.

The answer that you want to give that would apply logic to it and understanding is, these horrible images that everybody has seen around the world, that certainly, unfortunately, the tragedy that's going on there and the horror that has been going on for years is not new, but this degree of it is certainly new under the Trump world, under the Trump watch. OK?

So I think that's sort of the most generous way to answer the question, Brooke. But let's just take a step back, and if you are anybody from a Syrian refugee to somebody in war-torn Syria to anybody else who has been focused on this for the past several years, their response would be, OK, what took so you long?

And certainly a lot of the hawks on Capitol Hill -- I just came from the Hill -- not only would be saying that, but are saying that. And there was certainly -- after we first reported a few hours ago that the president is talking to members of Congress about the idea of military action in Syria, among those who have been calling for it for so many years, and specifically to the end of Assad removal or at least crippling Assad's regime, there was a sigh of relief, especially given the fact that this is a president who campaigned very hard on being even less hawkish than President Obama.

BALDWIN: Right.

BASH: Certainly criticizing him for not acting after setting a red line on chemical weapons and so forth, but being more standoffish, more inward-looking.

BALDWIN: Yes, and thank you and stand by.

And I was just handed this piece of paper. Dana, I know you and I had talked about it, asking I think yesterday, who is advising him? This is somebody who has now president who has never had to make calls like this.

So, General, here's my question for you. Let me just read this for everyone.

Senator John McCain told reporters that it's his -- quote, unquote -- "understanding" that President Trump is consulting with Defense Secretary James Mattis, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster on Syria. He does not know what they will recommend to him, but believes they will provide him with an excellent one.

What do you make of that, that these two are clearly people advising him?

BRIG. GEN. ANTHONY TATA (RET.), U.S. ARMY: Well, I think that, getting back to your earlier point, brook, is that I give credit to the administration for letting the events sort of drive the policy here.

And this is a heinous crime, a weapon of mass destruction, and so he has a good team around him that is advising him. You couldn't ask for two better people. I know of them. H.R. McMaster and I served together. And so he's get getting good, solid advice here.

[15:05:05]

And if we remember anything from the campaign trail, this is a president who is not really going to tip his hand about how many troops we're sending to where to do what. And it's not going to be a publicity stunt perhaps as it was previously.

So, what we're going to see is something that is measured, well- thought-out, and applies directly to the problem at hand, which is weapons of mass destruction in Syria. And we got to get at those in a way that is very meaningful.

And I think both H.R. McMaster and General Mattis understand that in spades and General Kellogg, who is chief of staff of the National Security Council. He's surrounded by good people as they make these decisions, Brooke.

BALDWIN: OK.

So, that's one headline on Syria. I do think we should move on and talking about why, as we see these pictures of the president and his wife -- we saw Ivanka and the kids -- why they are all down in Florida at Mar-a-Lago now. He will be meeting with the president of China, Xi Jinping.

David, just turning to you, you have these two leaders, the world's two biggest economies coming together, and I think before we look ahead, let's look back at some of the comments the president, or then candidate Trump made.

Candidate Trump promised to stop the theft of American jobs by China and he acknowledged this week that this meeting would be a difficult one. What tone should he even take going into this?

DAVID ANDELMAN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: He has to be sensitive also to what Xi really needs domestically in his own country, just as he has to be understanding of what Trump needs domestically in the United States.

Xi is coming up on the end of his fifth year as leader, which means he's going to stand for a second term, first this fall at the 19th Communist Party Congress in Beijing, and then next spring, as -- early next year, as president for a second five-year term.

At the same time, he needs to have a really solid base of power in his own country, because he wants to be able to select very carefully his own successor, which he will eventually have to do.

So all of this is part of the whole atmosphere, shall we say, that's going to surround these talks, the needs of both of them to seem in charge, in power and to really have a very good relationship with the other that can carry forward and help them.

Lanhee Chen, these are two men who do not know each other at all. What sort of expectations do you think should be placed on really just 24 hours together?

LANHEE CHEN, FORMER POLICY DIRECTOR, MITT ROMNEY CAMPAIGN: Yes, frankly, Brooke, I think we have to be careful not to expect some grand communique or some huge conclusion from this particular meeting.

What this is really about is about President Trump and President Xi getting to know one another. And at the end of the day, that personal relationship between the leaders is going to be critically important.

There is a very thin line between issues of strategic cooperation and strategic conflict when it comes to the U.S. and China. You think about North Korea, you think about trade and the economic issues. Those are issues where there is a very thin separation between the United States and China working together and potentially being at odds.

So, hopefully, they will socialize with one another, but also get to know one another in a way that allows them to work together as they tackle these very difficult issues.

BALDWIN: You were just there, Lanhee. Tell me just briefly about your trip to China and what people there shared with you.

CHEN: Well, I was in East Asia. I was also in Australia. There are deep concerns about the U.S. relationship with China, because there's a lot of uncertainty about how the two countries are deal with one another, and then a broader question about how the U.S. is going to engage in the region.

I think the president has done a very good job of engaging with the Japanese and certainly to a certain extent with the Koreans. But the bigger question, particularly when it comes to North Korea, is, how is the U.S. going to work with China? Is the U.S. going to go it alone potentially? And is the U.S. willing to do so if China's not willing to step on the gas a little bit when it comes to dealing with Kim Jong-un?

These are all questions of great uncertainty. So, ultimately, people in the region are most concerned about getting a clear signal from America about where it stands and what is going to happen going forward.

BALDWIN: What about though on North Korea? General, you get my last question, which is obviously this is a huge piece of the conversation.

I remember back to when prime minister of Japan, Prime Minister Abe, was down in Mar-a-Lago and at the time even North Korea then launched a missile. They did so this week. I was talking to General Hertling yesterday and he said, Brooke, Vegas odds are, they will launch a missile while these two are in Florida.

Talk about provocative. What's in it for China, though, to have a conversation and be part of the strategy with the U.S. on North Korea?

TATA: Well, I think it all comes down to the economy, as your previous guests have discussed, Brooke.

You have got the Republic of Korea and you have got Japan, two of the largest economies in the world, and built really in our image after World War II and the Korean War.

[15:10:07]

And those are great trading partners for us. And so China has a vested interest in making sure that commerce continues to flow throughout the world, because that's where this president is getting his mojo, so to speak.

And the Chinese-North Korean relationship is one that needs to build over the next 24 hours between the two presidents. And then as well we need Chinese help in North Korea, because it's a vested interest that the North Koreans have -- or the Chinese have in keeping North Korea from launching more missiles, which, as Mark Hertling said, they're going to certainly do.

And you can disrupt two of the most significant economies in the world in a matter of hours with nuclear strikes on the Korean Peninsula and in Japan. There's a real threat there. There's a sense of urgency in the conversations down in Florida today.

BALDWIN: Sure. And just one more quickly with you, David, just on we know these two won't be playing golf.

ANDELMAN: No. Golf is absolutely anathema to the Chinese leadership, the Chinese Communist Party leadership. It's seen as the billionaire's game.

BALDWIN: So he's a man of the people. President Xi, he will not come near a tee or a golf ball.

Just quickly, what's a sign of a successful meeting?

ANDELMAN: I think just the fact of the two of them together.

In fact, it's interesting, because Xi really wanted to be seen in the White House, in the Oval Office shaking hands with Trump there because that would really help him back home. He will settle for something less than that here.

He also doesn't want to be blindsided. He doesn't want to be taken down a path that is bad for him in dealing with North Korea. They have to set their own path in North Korea, very much so. The United States is going to have to have a very important role, but Xi doesn't want to be led around by the nose on any of these issues. And that's very important for Trump to be sensitive to that.

BALDWIN: OK. Thank you so much. Good to see you again this weekend. Thanks to the rest of you here as well both on China and on Syria and the comments from the secretary of state.

But, coming up, the man in charge of the House investigation, the House Intel investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia now facing an investigation unto his own, Chairman Devin Nunes stepping aside as the lead on this investigation, what he's saying now about accusations that he violated Congress' code of ethics.

Also ahead, Senate Republicans change the rules forever here. This is all to stop the filibuster and make sure that Judge Neil Gorsuch lands that spot on the U.S. Supreme Court -- why some people are saying it's the final nail in the coffin of bipartisanship.

You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[15:16:59]

BALDWIN: Welcome back. You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

Let's talk about this huge development from Capitol Hill, that the embattled chairman of the House Intel Committee that has been looking into possible ties and this investigation into Russia meddling and maybe the Trump campaign, we're talking about Devin Nunes.

We now know he's stepping aside, at least for now. This is coming about two weeks after his secret meeting over at the White House drew repeated calls for members of both parties for Nunes to resign, but certainly to recuse himself.

Now the House Ethics Committee confirms it is investigating him.

Manu Raju is up on Capitol Hill for us.

And, Manu, I mean, you have talked to him so many times. He sounded like he wouldn't, and then finally this about-face. Why?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: It was this House ethics investigation just turned out to be the final straw, really the straw that broke the camel's back.

There was not just this, but the controversy over his handling of that surveillance information that he received that he said showed some incidental collection of Trump team communications, and then his decision to brief the president of the United States before his own committee fed those accusations that he was too close to the White House, that he could not conduct an investigation that was looking into the issue of any coordination between Trump associates and Russians during the time of the presidential election.

And not just that, his decision also to cancel a public hearing into Russia in which we would probably have heard from people who would have raised concerns about Trump connections to Russia, and that decision to cancel the hearing led to a lot of those calls from Democrats for Nunes to recuse himself.

But, Brooke, even in light of all of those recusal calls, Nunes was defiant time after time, telling me that he was not going to step aside, it was the Democrats' problem, that they want to raise it, he was still going to plow ahead.

But over the last couple of days, his tune changed. He stopped talking to the press at all, said he was only going to worry about the investigation. Had he a private meeting with Paul Ryan earlier this week and Ryan said ominously that this investigation would get back on track.

And then last night, he had a meeting with Nunes -- and Ryan -- and Nunes told him of his decision. Ryan says he supports it, but not saying whether the speaker himself pushed Nunes aside -- Brooke.

BALDWIN: OK, Manu, thank you so much.

Let me bring in our brand-new CNN politics reporter editor at large, Chris Cillizza.

Welcome to the good side, Chris.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: Thank you, Brooke. Thanks for having me.

BALDWIN: So, you heard Manu say that Chairman Nunes is saying he's recusing himself because of the House Ethics Committee. You're not buying that?

CILLIZZA: Well, I think that that's convenient and certainly would complicate his ability to keep on with the job.

I just think that it is unlikely that Paul Ryan meets with Devin Nunes and then all of a sudden the next day Devin decides that he's going to recuse himself after, many times over, as Manu detailed, saying, why would I, I don't need to, that kind of thing.

[15:20:11]

My experience in politics is, there are very few coincidences. It's like when somebody is talking about running for president and just happens to pop into Iowa because they were in the neighborhood. That doesn't happen all that much.

BALDWIN: Des Moines is great this time of year.

CILLIZZA: Yes. It was beautiful in January.

It is possible, of course, that these two events are sort of unrelated, but I do think the issue for congressional Republicans, they have to find a way to stop the bleeding on the Russia ties. They have to do what they can do.

And what they can do is try to do everything possible to make sure that whatever that Intelligence Committee comes up with in their investigation is seen as a credible, serious finding, particularly if it absolves Donald Trump and his senior associates of blame.

The worst thing that could happen is it's seen as, well, it's just a partisan endeavor and they're never able to get beyond it.

BALDWIN: Yes.

Let me ask you about Judge Neil Gorsuch. We know today officially the Senate invoking the so-called nuclear option. So, now you just need a simple majority for confirmation of a Supreme Court nominee. The 60- vote threshold was really about getting folks from the other party, forming consensus.

And now that is getting obliterated, Chris. Isn't that one of the reasons why Americans so totally just despise politicians in D.C.? Won't today's actions just worsen that?

CILLIZZA: To the extent that people pay attention to it, Brooke, yes. But I'm not sure the average person is sort of deeply engaged in the filibuster rule changes, though they should be, because what's important here is this is sort of a middle step to what could be a very radical way in which the Senate works.

The first step was in 2013. Harry Reid lowers the filibuster number from 60 to 50 on federal court appointments, but exempts Supreme Court. Now, today, Mitch McConnell does so as it relates to Supreme Court appointments. The big third step, the big shoe to drop -- and this would be big that everyone would need to pay attention to...

BALDWIN: Legislation?

CILLIZZA: ... is legislation, which is the Senate still -- let's say you want to pass health care reform, for example.

You still need 60 votes on almost every provision to do that to end debate and bring it to a vote. That still exists. But 10 years ago, if you asked me if they would had gotten rid of the filibuster on federal judges and not Supreme Court justices, I would have said no.

So, it's certainly sliding in that direction.

BALDWIN: Chris Cillizza, come back.

CILLIZZA: I will. Thank you for having me.

BALDWIN: Come back. Thank you so much.

CILLIZZA: OK.

BALDWIN: Coming up next here on CNN, President Trump welcoming Chinese President Xi to Mar-a-Lago in Florida after he's been publicly ripping on China for decades and decades. We will discuss whether tensions are too high to really have massive expectations here.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We can both benefit or we can both go our separate ways. If need be, that's what's going to have to happen.

We can't continue to allow China to rape our country -- and that's what they're doing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[15:27:40]

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REX TILLERSON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: Well, obviously, the events that have occurred in Syria with the chemical weapons attack here in the past day have just, I think, horrified all of us and brought to the front pages and to our television screens as well the tragedy that is part of the Syrian conflict.

There is no doubt in our minds and the information we have supports that Syria, the Syrian regime under the leadership of President Bashar al-Assad, are responsible for this attack. And I think, further, it's very important that the Russian government consider carefully their continued support for the Assad regime.

QUESTION: Sir, does Assad have to go?

TILLERSON: Assad's role in the future is uncertain, clearly. And with the acts that he's taken, it would seem that there would no role for him to govern the Syrian people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BALDWIN: That is a major departure from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's previous statement from just a couple of days ago, essentially saying that the future of Bashar al-Assad be left up to the Syrian people.

We have just learned that moments ago on Air Force One reporters were allowed to ask a couple of questions of the president. And one of the questions was, do you think Assad should leave power?

And President Trump responded, saying -- quote -- "I think what happened in Syria is a disgrace to humanity. He's there and I guess he's running things so something should happen."

Ben Wedeman, on the border there along Syria and Turkey, is our senior international correspondent.

We were talking last hour. You reminded us all this civil war has been raging for seven years. And now we're hearing that maybe Assad should be removed? Your response?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the problem is, removing Assad is, who do you put in his place? Who is the strongest -- what is the strongest faction in Syria right now after Bashar al-Assad?

It is ISIS. And, therefore, this is, I think, one of the reasons why the Barack Obama administration had so much difficultly taking action, because, obviously, if you weaken Bashar al-Assad in any way, the first group that's going to take advantage of his weakness is ISIS.

And, therefore, you're really caught between the devil and the deep blue sea when it comes to Syria. And, of course, you have the added element of Russian, Iranian