Return to Transcripts main page


Soon: Trump To Speak After Syria Strike; McCain: This Strike Was Just The Beginning; Senate GOP Leader Reacts To U.S. Airstrikes On Syria. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired April 7, 2017 - 11:00   ET




KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan. We want to welcome our viewers here in the United States and around the world. We are following breaking news. Any minute now, we will hear for the first time today from President Trump, speaking to a changed world after ordering the first direct U.S. attack on the Syrian regime since the country's civil war broke out six years ago.

Also moments from now, the United Nations Security Council is set to gather on this very issue. Here's what we know right now about the operation overnight, 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from U.S. warships in the Mediterranean, targeting a Syrian air base.

This is retaliation for Dictator Bashar al-Assad's deadly chemical attack on his own people. U.S. officials say the missiles hit the base that Syrian warplanes used to launch that chemical attack.

The U.S. operation praised by U.S. allies, not surprisingly, condemned by Syria, Russia, and Iran. Russian officials now say in the aftermath, they're actually helping to bolster the air defense system in Syria, also saying "The risk of a collision with the U.S. couldn't be higher."

We're following the breaking news throughout this show. Let's start with Jeff Zeleny, in Florida traveling with the president. Also with us, chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto in Washington, and Paula Newton is in Moscow today.

Jeff, what are we going to hear from the president today? Any more reaction so far that you've been able to gather from the White House after the strike last night?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Good day, Kate. We are expected to see the president here coming up shortly, later this hour at his first meeting with the president of China. It's why he is here in Mar-a-Lago in Florida for the first place.

Now, we do not know if the president will say anything more or answer anything more about the strikes in Syria last evening. We're getting a little bit of conflicting reports from administration officials. Initially, I was told that he may answer a question on this, then I was told he would not.

So we'll frankly have to wait and see, but the president is not planning any major speeches or press conferences here to talk about this. Quite frankly, the administration is letting the action last night, the president's biggest military action since taking office, speak for itself.

We, of course, are watching the reaction from around the world, particularly looking at the reaction, the harsh reaction, from Russia. And that is where the next challenge of this administration lies, certainly.

We saw very strong words last night from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who briefed reporters here. And I asked him specifically about Russia, and he said, look, Russia is either incompetent or complicit in failing to remove chemical weapons as it had agreed to under the U.N. agreement from 2013-2014 here.

So, the question now is what the administration's policy towards Syria is going forward. We have been hearing Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill saying they need to hear more from the White House.

So, Kate, that certainly will be coming in the coming days here. But as of now, we are not, quite frankly, sure if the president will speak in a fulsome way on this this morning or not.

BOLDUAN: We will wait and see along with you. That could be coming in any minute. Thank you so much, Jeff. So, Jim, as Jeff was talking about, the reaction from Capitol Hill by and large was positive following this strike. Of course, all wondering what's next, but what strategic goals are you picking up did this attack accomplish?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, very tailored, very tailored specifically to chemical weapons used. This hit the base where that horrific chemical weapons attack was launched from, aircraft on that base, et cetera.

And the president's comments specifically referenced the chemical weapons attack, and declaring that a direct threat to U.S. interests. It does not talk about Bashar al-Assad's other military capabilities, which remain significant, and that's the key here.

Bashar al-Assad maintains an enormous capability to kill his own people, and the principal way he's done that is not via chemical weapons but barrel bombs, conventional weapons, et cetera, and that he maintains.

So, at least so far, no fundamental change to the battle structure and capabilities on the ground. That said, you do have bipartisan support for this. You're hearing it even from members of the Obama administration who might have privately counseled the president to go ahead when his red line was crossed, but you're hearing it from Republicans as well. Have a listen to Senator John McCain.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: This was a response which was required in response to the commission of war crimes. I want to emphasize, this is the beginning and not the end, but the signal is sent around the world is very important. I hope that the message is, the only thing that Vladimir Putin, the bully and thug understands, and that is, when you commit war crimes and help people commit war crimes, there's a penalty to pay.


[11:05:01]SCIUTTO: And there's a lot of talk about that, messaging, right, that this was intended not just to be a message to Bashar al- Assad -- don't use chemical weapons -- but a message of resolve to other adversaries, certainly Russia, which is directly involved here in Syria, but perhaps China as well. You have the Chinese leader here, a not too subtle message that when this administration is challenged, it won't be shy about acting in return.

BOLDUAN: It is pretty amazing that this is playing out as the president is in Florida meeting with the president of China. Jim, it's great to see you. Thanks for that.

Paula, so, as Jim's pointing out, as Jeff has pointed out, Russia not happy, a strong reaction to this attack. What are you hearing right now from Moscow today?

PAULA NEWTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Some of the strongest reaction, Kate, actually coming from the Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev. He put in a Facebook post that this action actually brings the United States and Russia on the verge of having conflict, and translated from Russian, saying on the verge of having conflict with each other.

He also accuses the United States of not only violating international law, but also its own laws by not going to Congress. And key here, Kate, he's saying, look, how does this help us fight ISIS?

Having said that, Kate, I mean, Vladimir Putin had some strong comments as well through his spokesperson, saying that, look, this was an aggression. What have they done, though in terms of deeds? They have suspended what is the air defense command or what they call the deconfliction.

What does that mean? That open line of communication so that they do not conflict with each other in the air in Syria. That has been suspended. Having said that, this is still quite a nuanced response, especially when it comes to actions.

And many people knowing that when Rex Tillerson hits the ground here in the middle of next week that will be the test of exactly how Russia has reacted to this strike.

BOLDUAN: Yes, that meeting was already important. It can't be overstated how important that is now. Great to see you guys. Thanks so much for following all this.

But also, of course the focus now is what is next here for the president, for the world, for what's happening in Syria? Joining me to discuss is CNN military and diplomatic analyst, former State Department and Pentagon spokesman, Admiral John Kirby, and former NATO supreme allied commander, General Wesley Clark.

One second, guys. I'm sorry. I'm going to go to Capitol Hill right now. Mitch McConnell is speaking from Capitol Hill about this attack.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY LEADER: -- this was a strike that was well planned, well executed, went right to the heart of the matter, which is using chemical weapons. So, had I seen that kind of approach by President Obama, I'm sure I would have signed up.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you believe we're at the point now where the U.S. policy should be Assad's removal in Syria?

MCCONNELL: I think this strike was simply about don't use chemical weapons again. That's what this strike was about. So I don't think it necessarily leads to another conclusion, but look, I don't see how they can possibly be any settlement in Syria that includes Bashar al- Assad.

I just can't imagine after all the butchering of his own people he's been doing now for four or five years, that there could be any successful conclusion to this chaos with him still there.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Inaudible) said he would support additional sanctions on Russia, because you know there is undergirding the Assad regime. Would you urge the president on that particular issue that Putin continues to help Assad and keep up his air defenses, there can be future attacks?

MCCONNELL: Well, I think it's certainly good that the administration's not lifted any of the existing sanctions. And if they feel they need additional sanctions, or we can come up with something that seems to enjoy bipartisan support, I'd be open to it. The Russians are not our friends. I think they've demonstrated that over and over and over again, so I'd certainly be willing to talk to Chairman Corker and anyone else who thinks we may need to go beyond where we are.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: First off, has the White House asked for anything in the spending bill that you feel would jeopardize its ability to pass here in the Senate? And two, have you talked to Mitt Romney about running for Senate in Utah?

MCCONNELL: On the first question, you all know how I really don't like to negotiate these deals with you guys. All of those items are under discussion between the White House and Democratic leader in the senate and the four corners on the committee. I can't specify how it all plays out. Yes, I've had some conversations with Mitt Romney. Obviously, I'm an Orrin Hatch supporter and Orrin has to decide what he wants to do. If he wants to run again, I'm for him.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sir, can you describe --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Given that the president's -- [11:10:08]MCCONNELL: I'll get to you in a minute. Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sir, can you talk about your interaction with the president and the administration on Syria? Are you satisfied with the interaction between the administration and --

BOLDUAN: All right, we're listening right there to the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, speaking -- really hearing from him for the first time in the aftermath of this U.S. airstrike. What he said is that he thinks this was simply about don't use chemical weapons again.

And he also said that he thinks that the president had the authority for this, to do what he did, and he's glad that he did it. Let me get back to where I was right before we jumped over to Capitol Hill, back to General Wesley Clark and Admiral John Kirby.

Gentlemen, thank you again for joining me. I really appreciate it. Let's talk about what's next and where this goes. General, we are learning that U.S. military operations in Syria, according to U.S. officials, had been temporarily adjusted.

That's the terminology they're using to ensure the protection of U.S. forces fighting ISIS. Does that mean that they fear retaliation from the Assad regime against the United States? What would that look like?

GENERAL WESLEY CLARK (RET.), FORMER NATO SUPREME ALLIED COMMANDER: Well, I think you have to expect that there would be some effort by the Assad regime to strike back. It could be Assad's own military firing artillery. It could be mortars. It could be some kind of a terrorist strike organized by Assad against United States forces over there.

We don't know what that could be exactly. But yes, you have to anticipate that Assad under great pressure is going to feel the urge to strike back.

BOLDUAN: Admiral, when the secretary of state was doing a briefing last night, he said in no uncertain terms the following, and I thought it was pretty stark language. He says that this is no way the actions in they took. A change in our policy or posture relative towards Syria today and he said there's been no change in that status. What does that mean?

JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: I think what he's trying to say there is that you shouldn't read into this strike some sort of larger now development from a policy perspective that they are going to use military force to oust Assad or to get into a broader involvement into the civil war in Syria.

But Kate, the problem with this is that you don't necessarily get to control all those factors. The truth is that by conducting this strike -- and I think it was done with great precision and to the proper tactical effect here -- is that you have now put your thumb on the scale in this civil war. You have now set expectations. The Turks are already now talking about expanding this to no-fly zones and the opposition groups and our Sunni-Arab allies are now hoping they could lead to more aggressive U.S. military action in the civil war. So I don't know that they get to perfectly control the outcomes in that regard.

BOLDUAN: And General, we were hearing from Paula Newton that the Russian prime minister saying that this brings the U.S. and Russia closer to a collision than ever. I mean, the Russian military says now that it's going to help strengthen air defenses in Syria after the strike. They've suspended the deconfliction channel, as they call it. What does that all mean? Where does this go?

CLARK: Well, we don't know where it goes because we don't know what the administration's real policy is going to be going forward. I think the administration, as John said --

BOLDUAN: And it's important for them to hear that to articulate that, right, General?

CLARK: That's right. I think the administration would like to think this is a one-off strike. OK, we did it, we showed you not to do it, now let's go on, keep on going, but in fact, it's stronger than that. This is a change from what Obama did. It was done without congressional approval. It was also done without U.N. or NATO support or approval.

And so, it is a strong push. And when you make a strike like this, and it's the United States of America, you have, as some people have said, put your thumb on the scale in the Syrian civil war. So, there will have to be a lot of diplomatic fence-mending to go back to the status quo before we did this strike.

We don't know whether that's really the policy or not because the administration has said at one point that Bashar al-Assad was going to stay, if that was the will of the Syrian people, and at the other point said he can't stay.

So, if we really believe he can't stay and we're now intervening with military force, where does this lead us? Do we set up a safe zone, a strong alternative government somewhere on the Jordan border and try to push Assad out?

Do we cut a deal with the Russians and try to give them a deal, say if you'll get rid of Assad, we'll enable you to do "a," "b" or "c"? We don't know where it goes.

BOLDUAN: And Russia's a huge factor in this, John. I mean, as the secretary of state is right now, at least, still scheduled to head to Moscow next week for meetings, I mean, I truly do wonder -- I mean, that is probably the most hostile diplomatic atmosphere you could enter.

KIRBY: Well, it's never -- it's been pretty frosty of late, that's for sure.


KIRBY: I think, look, I mean, the president ought to take advantage of the leverage he may now have with the Russians with respect to diplomacy and put Tillerson on a plane a little early. Send him to Geneva. Try to set up a meeting with Russians and the U.N. and try to restart some meaningful political talks.

[11:15:11]One of the things that they knew before was that there wasn't necessarily the threat of military force when we sat down at the diplomatic table, and therefore, there was a perception that we didn't have the leverage that we maybe could have needed to get the Russians to really push diplomacy forward. We may now have that with this strike. That may be a tangential effect that they weren't counting on. They ought to take advantage of that.

BOLDUAN: All right, Admiral John, General, thank you both very much. It's great to see you both on this important day.

A live look now at Capitol Hill. We will be seeing Vice President Mike Pence, I am told, arriving on the capitol. He is there for the other very important story that we've been following. There he is.

There is the vice president arriving to the capitol steps right now for the final confirmation vote for Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch. A lot of news has been happening this week. That was obviously a huge story for us as Republicans pulled the nuclear option yesterday in order to push through this nomination.

Vice President Mike Pence there for that historic vote. He could be there to help cast a vote, break a tie, if needed. That vote outcome, though, not in question, especially now with that rules change. The vice president right there.

Coming up for us, minority leader, top Democrat in the House, Nancy Pelosi is now calling for the House to cut the recess short to come back to that capitol we were just looking at and debate the strikes on Syria. What's the role of Congress here? Details on that, ahead.

Plus, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations set to deliver her first public remarks since the airstrikes in a Security Council meeting this hour. Russia and Syria also expected to speak. We'll bring that to you live.



BOLDUAN: This morning lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are offering support for President Trump's airstrike on a Syrian air base overnight. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi called the strike a "proportional response" to Assad's apparent use of chemical weapons on civilians there.

But this morning, she is also calling on Speaker Paul Ryan to call the House back into session from their recess to debate any further action on Syria. Meantime, on the other side of the capitol, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says that all senators are going to be briefed on the military action in Syria this afternoon.

A lot going on there. So let's get there. Joining me now, Republican senator from Idaho, James Risch. He of course sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Senate Intelligence Committee. Senator, thank you so much for the time.

SEN. JAMES RISCH (R), IDAHO: Thank you, Kate. Glad to be here.

BOLDUAN: Your reaction, Senator, to the president's strike on Syria last night?

RISCH: Well, first of all, I think that this has demonstrated for us as Americans and for the world that this president is committed and that he's not afraid to act. I think the big story here is that this is going to have impact worldwide.

I absolutely guarantee that today in North Korea, in Iran, in Moscow, and for that matter, in Beijing, there are people sitting around the table saying, you know, it's time we recalibrated what the status of the United States is and what they are willing to do when they think they need to do the right thing.

BOLDUAN: Senator, does the president need to come to Congress to get any -- to get approval for any further military action?

RISCH: You know, Kate, we haven't passed an authorization for the use of military force since 2001 and 2002.

BOLDUAN: That's right.

RISCH: I've been on groups where we've tried to negotiate it. We've seen the president ask for it. You can get a battalion of lawyers on each side of this issue as to whether he needs to do that or not, and it will take you so deep in the weeds, you'll never find your way out. There are a couple ways to do --

BOLDUAN: What do you think?

RISCH: Personally, I would rather have an AUMF by Congress, but I guarantee you, if yesterday morning when President Trump made up his mind he was going to do this, he came to Congress and said this is what I'd like to do, I want to take out one airfield, and this is how I'm going to go about it, we'd still be talking about it at Christmastime. So --

BOLDUAN: Some say that's the point. Some say that's the point, that Congress debates it, brings the American public into it before any big military action -- that's why you want to debate it before you go to war.

RISCH: Very legitimate argument. If you're going to enter into a world war that's going to go on for years, that absolutely needs to be done. If you're going to do a kinetic, surgical strike -- they passed the War Powers Act that allowed the president to do this for 60 days.

Now, you can argue whether that's right or wrong, but that's the state of play. But you're right. The founding fathers wisely said, look, the first branch of government, the civilian branch of government, are the ones that are going to make this decision.

That's the way the founding fathers set it up. Over years, that has deteriorated. In recent years, right or wrong, in recent years, presidents from both parties have used the War Powers Act.

BOLDUAN: Where we are now, if President Trump would make a request to Congress, if it was the same one that President Obama sent over in 2013, would you support it now?

RISCH: Well, it would depend upon their explanation of it. A lot of this has to do with the confidence that you have in the commander-in- chief. When this is done, they don't just send it over and say, here it is. They've got to come in and defend it. We cross-examine them. We spend hours and hours and hours working with the prior administration on what their strategy was in Syria.

And as you know, that request didn't pass. It really got short shifted because there were not people who had confidence in the plans going forward. Right now --

BOLDUAN: And you voted no on it.

RISCH: I was not -- after listening to their explanation of what they were going to do and how they were going to execute this, look, my conscience said we're not going to do this, and yes, I did vote no on this. Right on that.

[11:25:03]Right now there are discussions going on with the present administration as to what this means, how we're going forward, and obviously, I'm going to keep an open mind and we'll negotiate with them in good faith and see if we can't get to a point.

But again, Kate, to come back to, the big story here is this is going to cause a real recalibration of how other countries view the state of play on the surface of this planet.

BOLDUAN: And it's also caused a recalibration within the president, it seems. I mean, the president says that the images of those dead children over there, it changed his mind on Syria. You support his response and how he responded to it. Does it also change your mind on those same children coming to the United States as refugees?

RISCH: Well, certainly, those pictures of the kids that were being -- that had the chemical weapons applied to them is a bad deal. It can't help but influence you. When it comes to the refugee process, America has always taken refugees.

We will continue to take refugees. Obviously, how the refugees are vetted is a matter of discussion and certainly a matter of negotiation between all parties involved in this. But we're always going to have refugees here in America. BOLDUAN: Well, not necessarily, if it was according to the original travel ban coming from President Trump. That was going to ban refugees coming from Syria. That's why it's obviously a question.

RISCH: On a temporary basis, that's true, while they refined the vetting process and I have been a strong, strong advocate for redoing the vetting process. The vetting process was not a good process. You had all these administration people running around saying, we do this extreme vetting. I sit on an intelligence committee. I can tell you that was not the case and it needed to be revamped. It's in the process of being revamped, and we'll see where that goes.

BOLDUAN: Well, since you -- of course, as you mentioned -- are on the intelligence committee, I do want to get your reaction to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes stepping aside temporarily from the Russia investigation, as he's -- as House Speaker Paul Ryan says, it's become a distraction, everything that's gone on over there. Do you think that's a smart move?

RISCH: Appropriate.

BOLDUAN: I'll take that. Thank you so much, Senator. Appreciate your time.

RISCH: All right. Good to be with you this morning.

BOLDUAN: And brevity. That's impossible! We don't do that on Capitol Hill.

RISCH: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: Thank you so much, Senator.

Coming up for us, 59 Tomahawk missiles, the U.S. strike in Syria sent a message, but did it make a major military impact on Assad's regime? We will break down what we know, next.

Plus, a live look at the United Nations where the Security Council is about to hold an emergency meeting on the Syria strikes. U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, is expected to speak, her first comments since the strike, as well as representatives from Russia and Syria. We're going to bring this to you live. Stay with us.