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Nunes Steps Aside on Russia Investigation; Trump Considering Syria Retaliation; Senate Votes on Nuclear Option. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired April 6, 2017 - 12:00   ET



[12:00:24] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thanks for sharing your day with us.

It is a big, breaking news day here in the nation's capital. We're told the president now telling members of Congress he is considering military action in Syria. Also this day, the Senate changing its rules over fierce Democratic objections to advance President Trump's trip for the Supreme Court.


SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MINORITY LEADER: Mr. President, the 60-vote bar in the Senate is the guardrail of our democracy. When our body politics is veering too far to the right or to the left, the answer is not to dismantle the guardrails and go over the cliff, but to turn the wheel back toward the middle.


KING: As that break news unfolds in the Senate, over on the House side, the House Intelligence Committee chairman steps aside from its Russia election meddling investigation because he now faces an ethics review of whether he properly disclosed -- improperly disclosed classified information.


REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-cA), RANKING MEMBER, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE.: I'm sure it was a very difficult decision for him. But as he mentioned, I think it is in the best interest of the investigation. It will, I think, allow us to have a fresh start moving forward.


KING: And Republicans insisting today they haven't given up to repealing Obamacare, but as they brag of their progress today, guess what, they still don't have a plan that has a prayer of passing.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), HOUSE SPEAKER: Their amendment makes this a much better bill. It gets us closer. This is the kind of collaborative, bottom up effort that we have been looking for. Like I said, we have more work to do.


KING: With us to share their reporting and their insights, CNN's Nia- Malika Henderson, Shannon Pettypiece of "Bloomberg Politics," Matt Viser of "The Boston Globe," and Jackie Kucinich of "The Daily Beast."

As I noted, a lot of breaking news. We have the confirmation fight for the Supreme Court in the United States Senate. We have big developments in the House Russia investigation, the chairman stepping aside. Also developments in the health care debate.

But I want to go straight now live to our chief political correspondent Dana Bash on Capitol Hill who has word of President Trump in consultation with members of Congress. Putting on the table, Dana, correct me if I'm wrong, the possibility of U.S. military strikes to retaliate for the horrific gas attack we saw yesterday in Syria.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's exactly right, John. We are told that the president himself is making calls to senior members of Congress saying that he is seriously considering something he said he would never do not that long ago, which is military action in Syria. And as you said, and as he said yesterday in the Rose Garden, it is because of the recognition of how horrific that chemical attack was this week and, of course, the -- what that means for the broader situation in Syria.

Now, I am told by a source familiar with these conversations that the president made clear it is not a done deal. He has not made a firm decision. He is in conversations and consultations, as he should be, with his defense secretary, General Mattis, but that this is now on the table. And certainly if you go back and listen to what the president said yesterday about how he has changed and his view of Syria and what to do about Syria has changed in light of that chemical attack, this would be a potential, logical step and now we do have reporting that that is, in fact, what he was signaling. The notion and the idea of military action, U.S. military action in Syria to make clear that the U.S. will not tolerate what happened there.


KING: And, Dana, from those conversations with sources, has the president been specific, are the sources relaying whether he's talking about targeting chemical weapon facilities, targeting airstrips so that the Syrian military and the Russian military, let's be honest, flying out of Syria as well would have a harder time getting planes off the ground? Do we know?

BASH: All good questions. The answer is no. All of those things are very likely being considered. Unclear if at this point they have decided if any or all of those targets would be on the list or if it -- if all of that is still under consideration. One source did mention to me just broadly that vis-a-vis Syria and their air capability, that they only have six airstrips in Syria so that air strikes would not be that hard to successfully use to take out at least Syrian, you know, air capability. But, of course, the next question, the obvious question that you just asked about chemical weapons and so on and so forth, that as far as I know is still under consideration, or at least was based on the source that I talked to vis-a-vis the conversations with the president.

[12:05:06] KING: Dana Bash on Capitol Hill with the breaking news, the president beginning to tell members of Congress he is considering military action.

Let's go straight over to the Pentagon now, our chief Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

Barbara, you heard Dana say there, the president talking to members of Congress saying he's waiting to get options from his defense secretary. He will rely heavily on the recommendation of his defense secretary, Jim Mattis. What do we know from your perspective?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: John, these kinds of military options have been in existence for some time. It's a question of what the president wants to do. That's what our sources are telling us. He has a couple of very critical military decisions he has to make. Does he just want to send a signal to Assad? He can do that with striking air fields. But, look, chemical weapons by Assad are not just delivered by airplanes. He's got artillery. He's got rockets. He's got barrel bombs that come out of helicopters. Cratering six airfields will do nothing about that. If he wants to just send a signal, that is certainly an option.

There are broader options. Do you want to go after all that capability? Do you want to end Bashar al Assad's ability to launch chemical weapons, to launch nerve agents against his own people? That is a very significant military campaign. Does the Pentagon know how to do it? You bet they do. But that's going to be a real challenge.

One of the decisions for the president in the coming hours, as he tries to decide what to do, is that -- is just that, the limited, send a message or take a much stronger military action. And one of the key factors is the Russians. What I am being told is they want to be very careful about not striking any facilities where once they bomb they might find that there are Russian military or security personnel inside the building that they don't know about. That would be a huge concern for the United States.

So if this goes ahead, it might suggest limited action, but it also might suggest that it really won't be much more than just that. We do not know at this hour what the president is deciding, but we do know all of these issues are in front of him. We know that there are tomahawk missiles in place. We know there are U.S. bombers in place. The U.S. military could, under orders from the president, begin action anytime he says to go ahead.

John. KING: Barbara Starr live at the Pentagon for us. Barbara, thanks so much. We'll check back as developments warrant.

Let's bring the conversation in the room now. As we do and as we discussed this very monumental decision for the new commander in chief, I want to also note for our viewers, breaking news on Capitol Hill. They are about to vote in the Senate on the so-called nuclear option, to change the Senate rules, to allow the confirmation of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court by a simple majority vote. We'll keep our eye on that as it plays out.

But let's have a conversation here in the room. If you listened to Donald Trump during the campaign, he was critical of America flexing its muscles overseas, critical of years of military involvement in the Middle East. Now he has in front of him, because of the horrific pictures we've all seen in the last 48 hours, the question of whether to use U.S. military strikes against Syria, which would also be picking a fight with Assad, as also picking a confrontation with Putin, which has been one of the defining questions about this president and Russia relations. If he's telling members of Congress he's considering this, then they're moving the process forward. Where do we go?

JACKIE KUCINICH, "THE DAILY BEAST": Here's my question. Did he not know that this had -- that this -- the use of chemical weapons had been used before, before he came out -- his administration came out earlier this week saying that they're not going to bother Assad essentially, that the Syrian people should make that decision. I mean that's one of the questions I have.

And this is also -- this is same president who has banned Syrian refugees who are fleeing this kind of horror from coming into the United States. So there's just -- there's so many contradictions here. I just -- I have a lot of questions.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: Yes, but the clarity yesterday, at least from Trump's perspective, he said the pictures and the video, which Nikki Haley showed at the U.N. changed his mind. And you can see --

KUCINICH: But this has happened before.

HENDERSON: Right, you can see the president --

KING: Right. And it -- it has -- it has happened before.

HENDERSON: It has. Right.

KING: But I would say this president understands the power of media.


KING: This president has -- he's president because of using the leverage of the power of media.

(CROSS TALK) MATT VISER, "THE BOSTON GLOBE": Yesterday I am flexible.


VISER: I am proudly flexible.

KING: Right.

VISER: You know, and so I think that in 2013 he criticized President Obama -- or urged him not to intervene in Syria when there was a similar chemical weapons attack. So I think we are seeing the evolution of his views in real time.

HENDERSON: Yes, and the education of this president.

SHANNON PETTYPIECE, BLOOMBERG: Well, and I think that is natural to come in the presidency. Every past president says the presidency changes you. The weight of the presidency starts to be felt. And everyone's kind of been looking for this moment where Trump, the weight of the presidency starts to lay in. And, yes, chemical attack happened before, but it's different when you're the one in that office and in that chair and now this responsibility falls on you. And I think, yes, we're starting to see him view the world in a bit of a different way.

KING: Right. Right. And let's --

PETTYPIECE: And I don't think he's reached any conclusions of how he's going to view it, but I think we're starting to see that evolution.

KING: And let's bring the president's words in. He was in the Rose Garden yesterday with King Abdullah of Jordan.

[12:10:01] And, again, we have been watching for 24 hours these pictures, the horrific pictures of children among the killed in this gas attack. The president himself has issued a statement but he hadn't said anything until this.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It crossed a lot of lines for me. When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, babies, little babies with a chemical gas that is so lethal, people were shocked to hear what gas it was, that crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line. Many, many lines.


KING: It gets to your point, Shannon, about the gravity of the office. You're the guy in charge when this happens.


KING: The original statement and even yesterday he wanted to blame President Obama, saying President Obama drew a red line, didn't do anything about it. It's largely true. It's largely true. The Obama administration had an ineffectual policy from a list of really bad options. Now he has that same list of really bad options, though. He -- you heard the president there saying it crossed a lot of lines for him. If he does even limited military strikes in Syria, he has crossed a line. He has decided on a policy that even successor or not in those initial strikes, that then changes the domino effect going forward.

VISER: It's also the America first president. I mean --

KING: Right.

VISER: The day before we just heard those comments, he said, I'm not the president of the world. I'm the president of the United States. So something has changed here with those images. But the options for him, you know, like he pointed out earlier, going up against Assad goes up also against his benefactor, Vladimir Putin. So the domino effects of getting involved in this intervention in Syria, it could be massive.

KING: It -- the power of the pictures is just irrefutable. The pictures are powerful. But is this also, as the president faces this evolution, is it also because he has H.R. McMaster at the National Security Council, Jim Mattis at the Pentagon? He has a military background, more establishment, more by the playbook guys around him, not the campaign team.

HENDERSON: I think that's right. Yes. I think that's right. I mean we, in this way I think see him becoming a hawkish Republican, sort of a standard issue Republican. He's certainly going to have a lot of cover and a lot of people in his ear, people like John McCain, people like Lindsay Graham, people like Marco Rubio who have been very critical of this White House in terms of their approach to Assad. So, yes, I think we do see those military leaders and Republican ethos in terms of using military power around the world to project strength, but also to project leadership in this idea that America is a moral authority and a beacon. And so I think that that's what we're seeing kick in here with Donald Trump.

PETTYPIECE: I would also keep in mind, he's a negotiator, prides himself the negotiator. So, you know, dropping a trial balloon that I might do air strikes, or leaking pieces here and there, I'd be very attuned to those sort of things over the next few days of, is he leaking pieces of information as a negotiating tactic to show he's willing to go further than (INAUDIBLE).

KING: It's a great point because Secretary Tillerson had some conversations with the Russian foreign minister coming up in the days ahead and that would be one key piece of it. The president meets tonight with the president of China, a key vote on the Security Council. If you try to do something at the United Nations, other key points. We're going to keep track of this story.

We're also tracking other breaking news this hour, including the United States Senate. Maybe out there in America you don't understand what this means, but the Senate is about to go nuclear.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [12:17:26] KING: Live pictures here. The floor of the United States Senate. It is a momentous day in that chamber. Momentous in the sense that the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to join the Supreme Court will move forward today. Momentous that in to get it done, Republicans are about to change the Senate rules, move from 60 to a simple majority of 51, the number of votes needed to put a justice on the Supreme Court.

As we went to break, I said -- told you Washington often speaks a funny language. This is called going nuclear in the Senate, changing the rules. That's what they call it. Get -- break out your civics book. Here's the majority leader, Mitch McConnell, just moments ago explaining what is going to play out today.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY LEADER: We need to restore the norms and traditions of the Senate and get past this unprecedented, partisan filibuster. Therefore, I raise the point of vote that the vote on cloture under the precedent set on November 21, 2013, is a majority vote on all nominations.


KING: Filibuster, point of order, precedent. Lucky for us we have a very good Senate translator. Our chief political correspondent, Dana Bash, is back with us on Capitol Hill.

Dana, as the American people watching this out in the real America follow this, essentially the bottom line here is, you're going to have a dramatic change in the rules to put Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court. Where are we in the process right now?

BASH: We're waiting. Where we are right now is Democrats using delaying tactics before that vote to change the rule, that dramatic vote happen. They've been doing -- the Democrats have been doing things like, we're going to move to adjourn at 5:00 and it wouldn't be surprising if they made a motion to say that today is, in fact, Thursday. Things like that, that they will try to do to delay the inevitable. At a certain point probably everybody is going to want to go home for their spring break, so that's going to stop.

But what this means, and I know you all have been talking about it, is a really important, significant shift in how the United States Senate acts. Right now it's just vis-a-vis the judiciary saying that any president can nominate anybody for any federal bench now all the way up to the Supreme Court -- again, there was no filibuster thanks to the Democrats starting about three or four years ago -- now, starting today, with this rules change that will happen, it also includes the Supreme Court. So any president can nominate anybody for any federal court and only need a 51 vote majority.

Now, people out there are going, OK, I think I remember from civics that's only the way it's supposed to work. It's only supposed to be 51 votes. That is true. But the tradition, not the law, but the tradition of the Senate has been that there has been a 60-vote threshold, a filibuster allowed. If there is a real problem for -- with any of the nominees coming up, they wanted to maintain that. That is going to go away today.

[12:20:15] So there is consequences for the judiciary, but the big question here, John, is whether or not there is a slippery slope from nominees, but also for legislation, which traditionally the reason the 60-vote threshold, the filibuster, I should say, has been in place, and the reason it has worked and had been important from time to time is because that has forced important bipartisan consensus on major legislation that has shaped this country, from Social Security, to civil rights, to Medicare. And even more recently the only way that the immigration reform bill got done a couple of years ago, it died in the House, but the only way it got done in the Senate was because of this bipartisan consensus. It hasn't happened yet but that is the concern among many senators today.

KING: All right, Dana Bash, we'll check back on Capitol Hill as these votes unfold. Again, the Democrats stalling right now with the big vote expected sometime today. They're voting now on the nuclear option on the floor of the United States Senate. We will watch as this plays out and we'll count the votes.

Let's come back into the room here.

There are some people in town, the traditionalists, who say this is the end of civilization. You know, to Dana's point, that it -- this -- the 60 vote threshold has been used to force consensus, to force conversations between competing factions, to force a word we don't speak very often in Washington any more, compromise. There are others who say, get over it. You know, majority rules. Fifty-one votes. Sure, that was a nice quaint, you know, consensus driving machine at the time, but our politics have been polarized for 20 years and this is just catching up to that fact. Which is it?

VISER: I think, if you think about the impacts of this with the polarization potentially of the Supreme Court, the actual justices there and how that would prohibit sort of these consensus picks, even if you think about some of the more politicized justices. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was confirmed with 96 votes. Antonin Scalia, whose seat this is, was confirmed with 98 votes. So there was a time when these people got sort of unanimous votes on the Senate floor. So I think we are seeing -- I mean it's the -- it's the end result of a long period of deep polarization. But now it's hit the Supreme Court.

KING: Right.

KUCINICH: And the Senate is going to be more partisan now.


KUCINICH: It just -- I mean -- as if that is possible. It is. Because -- because it's -- it's gone and -- or this will be gone very shortly. And that in and of itself brings the Senate, which has -- especially if you're up there enough, they do view themselves as a cut above the House. It does move them closer to how the House is. And that is a drastic change. It's not time to go into the bunkers or anything, but it is a way -- it is changing how laws are made on Capitol Hill and how it's done. PETTYPIECE: And I think it could be difficult for the president's agenda going forward because as we learned from the health care bill, you may very well need some Democratic help and you may have a better friend in Chuck Schumer, when I think the president missed an opportunity to form an alliance there, than you do with some members on the far right. And so it's going to make it difficult, I think, for some of those pieces of legislation.

KING: Right. A, because Democrats are so emotional about this. But you mentioned -- it's the time -- earlier in your administration, what, 77 days in --


KING: We've had a fight about Obamacare. Now a fight about the Supreme Court that has everybody off in their corners. And sometimes, even if you agree on something, once you're in your corner, it's hard to get back to the middle and make that deal.

HENDERSON: And that's where America is. I mean everyone is in their corners. It's a very partisan time. Everybody sort of gets affirmations from their view from different media sources and different sort of FaceBook friends. So I think this is a reflection of where we are. And in some ways I think the Senate has been leaning in this direction in -- for -- for many, many years. I mean we sort of think of it as the cooling body. But I don't think Obama really thought of it as the cooling body in terms of his legislation.

KING: Right.

HENDERSON: So we'll see what this means for this White House and see what it means for legislation, right? I mean for legislation you need 60 -- I think at some point you need a little more, 67, and some of those rules have been changed. But this is what happens. I mean it's not a static institution. It's an institution that I think is meant to change. And we'll see. Maybe they'll change it back at some point.

KING: Well, meant to or not, it is changing and almost lost in this fight over partisanship, fight over process, fight over the rules, is the fact that a 49-year-old man, Neil Gorsuch, by the end of this week, is likely to be on the Supreme Court.


KING: Ooo's right, he's a judge on the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, if you don't know that. He clerked for justices White and Kennedy. Oxford PhD, Harvard Law degree. He's very much a student and a -- you know, of Antonin Scalia. Views him as a mentor. It's a -- it's a conservative for a conservative, but it's a young conservative who, let's be honest, most Democrats came out of those confirmation hearings saying, OK, he's more conservative than me, but he's a pretty impressive guy.


KUCINICH: Well, and that's -- that's why you have Democrats saying this could be the wrong fight because this is replacing a conservative for a conservative. This is someone who's qualified. This is someone probably at a different time wouldn't have had a problem.

PETTYPIECE: And the Supreme Court --

KING: And so if there's a Ruth Bader Ginsburg or an Anthony Kennedy vacancy down the road, where the balance of the court is at stake --


KING: Simple majority now after this vote we're watching now.


[12:25:01] VISER: Some of that is the ill feeling. I mean Democrats felt that same way about Merrick Garland. And he got praised from some Republicans who never even advanced to this stage.

HENDERSON: Yes, they never gave him --



VISER: So I think that that -- you're feeling some of that --

KING: Right. Right.

VISER: You know, lingering, you know, animosity from Democrats.

KING: Democrats -- Democrats view this as a stolen seat. That's one of the reasons they're fired up. We're going to continue to watch this vote on the Senate floor. The Senate voting to change the rules so that it can confirm President Trump's Supreme Court pick with a simple majority. We'll keep an eye on the vote count.

Also up next, House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes does what he says he would not do. He steps aside from the Russian investigation for now.


KING: Welcome back. Pictures here just moments ago. That's President Trump arriving by motorcade, Joint Base Andrews, just outside of Washington, D.C. Too rainy and cloudy here to fly the helicopter today. Taking the motorcade, boarding Air Force One. The president off to a very consequential two days at Mar-a-Lago, his resort in Florida. Dinner tonight with the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, then more meetings tomorrow. Trade and possible military confrontation with North Korea on the agenda as the president flies down to Palm Beach for very important conversations. We'll keep track of that tonight and into tomorrow. Important conversations for the president there.

[12:30:03] Let's watch him board Air Force One. A pretty miserable day here. We'll watch this. Dinner tonight with President Xi, then meetings -- more formal meeting tomorrow. You see the president there boarding Air Force One. He is on his way down.