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Trump Launches Strike Against Syria; Russia Condemns U.S. Attack; Trump Orders Action after Gas Attack; Senate Confirms Gorsuch; Tillerson Flip-Flops on Assad. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired April 7, 2017 - 12:00   ET


[12:00:00] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: He needs China's help to get North Korea to back down in its testing of ballistic missiles and the development of its nuclear program. We will see after this meeting if he gets progress with the Chinese on that front or whether North Korea could be added to the commander in chief's urgent task list.

Our Jeff Zeleny is standing by. He's at the president's resort down in Mar-a-Lago.

And, Jeff, you see this high stakes meeting with China today. No mention from the president there of Syria, very optimistic, saying he expects an outstanding relationship with President Xi, upbeat heading into these talks.

But let's go back to a minute about the big decision last night. The president, in the Rose Garden the other day, said he was deeply moved by those pictures and he left Washington and went down to Mar-a-Lago last night. And before you jump in and give me some details, I want people to listen to the president of the United States last night explaining after months and indeed years of saying going into Syria would be a mistake, he decided to act.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Tonight I ordered a targeted military strike on the air field in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched. It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.


KING: Jeff, take us inside this decision. What convinced the president to essentially forget many things he had said as a private citizen and then during the 2016 campaign?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: John, such a swift turn of events really in the last 48 hours or so. And we are told by several administration officials after the president made his speech last night we were briefed here near Mar-a-Lago by the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, as well as the national security adviser, General H.R. McMaster, and other administration officials we've talked to. They say to a person, the president was moved and changed by seeing those - you know, those gruesome, grizzly images from the chemical attacks earlier this week and he did immediately order several options from his military advisers, three options to be exact. And once he landed here in Florida yesterday afternoon around 3:00 or so, he immediately went into a meeting with his top national security advisers.

And, John, as he was flying down here, it was around 2:00 or so, he came back and talked to reporters on Air Force One for just a couple minutes. And we asked him repeatedly about Assad, should Assad stay in power. And that's when he said the comment that we've heard, you know, a lot now over the last 12 hours or so. He said, something should happen.

He paused before saying that. And, of course, he knew that something indeed was going to happen. He knew that he was going to order that strike. So this is what changed his mind, changed his view we are told.

But, John, it's also important to put this all in the full context. This is an administration that has struggled domestically, has struggled on the legislative front, has struggled to get things going here. This is something that the president himself could order, that he could do, that he could show a decisive act here. So it's important to put all of this into the full context, I think, of his time. But it is one of the things he's done that has been really widely praised by Democrats and Republicans to a point, that they want to know what his Syria policy is overall now.

Now, administration officials are saying this morning that, you know, this was a limited strike. This was something that, you know, was directly in response to the chemical attacks on Tuesday. But this opens the door to so many questions. What, in fact, is his posture towards Syria going forward, on Russia specifically? As the secretary of state heads to Moscow next week, what will those conversations be?

But, John, I thought it was very interesting. One thing the president said there a few moments ago, he said, "I believe that lots of very potentially bad problems will be going away." I'm not sure that that is - you know, will happen very quickly with this threat from North Korea hanging over him so much. But the meeting this morning, when the president's sitting there with his Chinese counterparts, the two, you know, biggest leaders - or the biggest super powers in the world, so much different this morning because one of them launched a big military strike overnight. So that certainly casts President Trump in a very different light this morning for that meeting, John.

KING: It certainly does. And he can - as he continues those meetings, we'll check back with Jeff Zeleny at Mar-a-Lago if we get more insight into the meeting with the Chinese or any more explanations from the administration about last night.

Russia, of course, has a big military presence in Syria, so a confrontation with Bashar al Assad is also, in many ways, a confrontation with Vladimir Putin.

Our Paula Newton is standing by in Moscow right now. Russia lashing out at the administration, Paula, saying that this will take further - cause further damage to a relationship that already had some pretty major issues.

PAULA NEWTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Vladimir Putin calling it an act of aggression. But really the prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, being very pointed and saying, look, this has brought the United States and Russia on the verge of a conflict on the ground in Syria. And they're of course saying, look, what does this do for the counter terrorism effort against ISIS?

Having said all that, John, look, right now, tonight, in Moscow, they are hoping it is one and done. They have been very successful in the last year and a half in Syria in at least getting a seat at the table again. They are really the power brokers in Syria right now. It gives them that geo-political foothold in the Middle East that they've clearly wanted. And that might be why you did not see their surface to air missile capability come into play yesterday. They would have figured out that this would have been a prime location to hit. It wasn't that hard to figure out that the Pentagon might hit that as a target.

[12:05:28] And so they're putting in a lot of rhetoric saying that they also suspended the air safety agreement between the two countries. That's the one where they, you know, get online with each other and make sure that they do not have any collisions in the air over Syria. Again, both the U.S. coalition and Russia in the air there. They're saying they've suspended that. What exactly does that mean? We don't know as of yet.

And Sergey Lavrov was the one who was most optimistic saying, look, things - the relationship is at a low right now. It doesn't mean it's irreversible. So interesting again, John, for what Jeff Zeleny was saying. Rex Tillerson is on the ground here middle of next week. They will have already started to try and figure out what are the parameters of agreement between Russia and the United States starting to build on what they were talking about, which is a political solution in Syria.

KING: But, Paula, as you know, the Obama administration tried repeatedly - now it was often criticized because it did not enforce its red line. President Trump has now essentially drawn a new red line about the use of chemical weapons in Syria. But is there any optimism on the Russian end that you can actually get back to the Geneva talks, start talking about a political solution when Russia has made pretty clear it believes Assad should say or at least should be part of any negotiation about the future of Syria, and the Trump administration, in a week, has gone from saying he can stay to now saying it cannot see a scenario where you could have a political solution that left him in power?

NEWTON: And that's the key right there, Russia saying that, look, understanding, not saying, but understanding that the entire rules of this game have changed. They are hanging on to any modicum of hope that when they come to the table, they will broker a decision on the ground in Syria with or without Bashar al Assad, but somebody who is an ally of Russia as well. And that's really what they're up to. Remember, they have said repeatedly, Dmitry Peskov, Kremlin spokesperson, repeated again yesterday, our support for Assad is not unconditional and that is very key to this entire process, John.

KING: Paula Newton for us live in Moscow.

Paula, thanks so much.

So a big test for the president in Syria and in a region where many of his predecessors have been more than frustrated. Here to provide some help and insight as the president looks to go forward is Edward Djerejian. He's the former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Syria. Now heads the Baker Institute at Rice University.

Mr. Ambassador, grateful for your time today and your insights here.

I want to start with the administration essentially saying without using these words their red line now is the use of chemical weapons. They say this could just be a one off if Bashar al Assad stops using chemical weapons. Is that possible or has the United States now, if you will, bought in to the Syrian civil war?

EDWARD DJEREJIAN, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO ISRAEL AND SYRIA: Well, I think the decision by President Trump to launch the tomahawk missiles in retaliation to and response to Bashar al Assad's regime using chemical weapons. And from all the reports that we've seen from the administration's sources, it looks like sarin gas was used, which the Syrians have had for many years in their inventory, which we thought had been dismantled by the Russian broker deal, but obviously not. So I think this signal, John, is one that is very deliberately targeted to the chemical weapons use as a red line that this administration feels that if that red line is crossed, there will be a price to pay.

I think if you step back from this, I think the signal that Trump has sent out is that the United States' strategic restraint has its limits. There's no free ride if you use weapons of mass destruction. And I think that this signal, if it just remains isolated to this one incident and the Syrians or the Russians or the Iranians or Hezbollah do not retaliate in a way or react in a way that there's further military action, it sends a very strong signal back by military force that this is a red line that the international community should not allow anyone to cross.

KING: You understand this regime better than most. I want to try to get at, what was Assad's calculation in doing this? If the United States is correct, and it says its intelligence is overwhelming, that the regime launched this attack, what was Assad's calculation? And as you answer, I just want you to listen first to Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, one of the more hawkish voices in the United States Senate, who says essentially Assad is making a calculation now about this new - our new president, President Trump, and what he will do next.


SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: Like anybody else, Assad sits there and says, here is the price for doing this, here's the benefit for doing this. And I think for far too long he has said to himself, the price of these attacks, whether it's barrel bombing innocents or using sarin gas, is, I'll get some nasty letter from the U.N. or, you know, bad press in the global market. But the benefits are, I get to defeat my opponents even if I have to kill a bunch of innocent people in the process. Hopefully that cost benefit analysis will have shifted a little bit after last night.


[12:10:24] KING: Mr. Ambassador, do you think the cost benefit analysis has shifted, or will Assad just take this as, I can use conventional bombs, I can shoot my own people, I just can't use chemical weapons?

DJEREJIAN: Well, Bashar al Assad, I met with him about three times, he - he's not a strategic thinker like his father was, Hafez al Assad. He's tactically very cleverer. He's clung on to power, supported by the Russians, the Iranians and Hezbollah, as I said. But fundamentally I think he was listening very carefully to the Trump administration's statements of last week in which he probably drew the conclusion that regime change and he himself is not a priority for the administration and he probably then calculated that he could get away with these chemical weapons attacks against his opponents.

So he miscalculated. It was a stupid decision on his part, frankly, because the administration did act militarily and has laid a marker down. So I think he miscalculated the administration and he made a terrible miscalculation in having his air force use these chemical weapons.

KING: And I assume as he thinks about his next moves, the view of Moscow and Tehran will have a lot to do with what Bashar al Assad feels he should do next. What do you think the conversation is in Moscow and Tehran today about the president's actions?

DJEREJIAN: Well, you know, it's interesting. I believe that Putin has played a weak hand in the Middle East, a relatively weak hand, very skillfully, and we have not played our hand as skillfully as we have - we could have given our - who we are and our diplomatic and our military capabilities. And I'm talking about the last few years up to the present incident.

But the Russians and the Iranians own this problem because they are staunch supporters of Bashar al Assad's regime. That takes on consequences and they must not be too comfortable with the person that they are supporting because of his actions that are putting them in a very difficult spot because this - this use of chemical weapons, the very staunch and decisive move by the Trump administration, has sent a signal to everybody that this administration's strategic restraint is limited and chemical weapons is a line that should not be crossed. That now affects U.S. Russian relations. It's very timely that Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, is going to be in Moscow next week. That is going to take on critical dimensions, that discussion.

But Putin has to think of the big picture, and that's the strategic relationship between the United States and Russia. And Iran has to think very carefully of the person and the regime that it's supported so staunchly in Syria. Owning these types of regimes has its consequences. So what pleases me about all of this is that a signal has been sent out that it's not a free ride to be supporting the policies of a regime like this.

KING: Mr. Ambassador, greatly appreciate your time and your insights today. Thank you very much.

DJEREJIAN: You're very welcome.

KING: Up next here, the United States Senate has just voted to confirm Neil Gorsuch as the next justice on the Supreme Court. We'll get a live update on that.

Also next, what now? Will the United States get drawn into the Syrian conflict? And what message did the president send beyond Syria?


[12:18:24] KING: The floor of the United States Senate right there. We'll get back to our breaking news on Syria in just a moment, but there is other breaking news in Washington. By a 54-45 vote, the United States Senate has voted to confirm Judge Neil Gorsuch, President Trump's pick - nominee for the Supreme Court.

Our Sunlen Serfaty is live on Capitol Hill.

Sunlen, the drama was more yesterday, breaking the rules, changing the rules to get to this vote. But take us inside the final minutes of history for Neil Gorsuch and President Trump.

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, John, it certainly was baked into the cake essentially that Neil Gorsuch was going to be confirmed today. As you noted, a lot of drama up here on Capitol Hill yesterday involving invoking the nuclear option and the controversial procedures that were made up here to get Trump's nominee through. But he was indeed confirmed today by a vote of 54-45. Only three Democrats switching sides and siding with the Republicans here, Senator Heitkamp, Senator Donnelly and Senator Manchin voting to confirm Neil Gorsuch. And Vice President Pence, he presided over the Senate during this vote, not because he was needed to be on hand to break any tie, but because it was more of the historical nature of the moment. And certainly the White House wanting to highlight that they are certainly notching a big win and getting this nominee through.

Now, what's next for Neil Gorsuch? Well, on Monday, he will attend a private ceremony at the Supreme Court where he will be sworn in by Chief Justice John Roberts, then it's up for a public ceremony at the White House. And then he gets right to work on the bench April 17th.

KING: Sunlen Serfaty live for us on Capitol Hill. Sunlen, thank you so much.

Judge Gorsuch will be on the job next week. Back now to our top story. In announcing the cruise missile strikes in

Syria last night, President Trump said it was an important, and in his view appropriate use of American military might.

[12:20:08] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Using a deadly nerve agent, Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women and children. It was a slow and brutal death for so many. Tonight I call on all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria and also to end terrorism of all kinds and all types.


KING: Now, we know the president was moved by those horrific pictures of children killed in the Idlib province sarin attack. But there were also horrific images after a 2013 chemical weapons attack and, back then, Mr. Trump repeatedly warned then President Barack Obama to show restraint. "Again to our very foolish leader, do not attack Syria," Trump said in one of those tweets back in 2013. "If you do, many bad things will happen. And from that fight the United States gets nothing."

Joining me in studio to discuss - share their reporting and their insights, Karen Tumulty of "The Washington Post," CNN congressional correspondent Phil Mattingly, CNN White House correspondent Sara Murray, and Mary Katharine Ham of "The Federalist."

It's - I take the president at his word, those pictures were horrific. They would move anybody, especially a parent, I would say, but any human being. But he does have his history. What is it? What is it that change this president? Is it the gravity of the job? Is it his new national security team? Or is it he realizes he's president of the United States now, not - I don't mean this disrespectfully - but a private citizen who can freelance on Twitter with no consequences.

KAREN TUMULTY, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Yes, I think what's different is now this is his problem. And I think that probably most Americans don't really care so much what he said in 2013. What they care is that going forward that he has a clear sense of what the goal is and how far he is willing to go to accomplish it. And right now he has a lot of support on both sides of the aisle, from European allies. The question, again, is, are there going to be next steps required?

KING: And do we know what their - we know chemical weapons now, he drew a red line. He didn't use those words last night, but the president - this president of the United States drew a red line and essentially made clear he will enforce it, unlike the previous administration which did not. But beyond that, if Assad uses conventional weapons against his own people, which he has for years, if we see pictures of a massacre but they're from bombs dropped from airplanes and they're not chemical weapons, is that OK?

SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, they've made clear that they don't want this to be a broader campaign. That they feel like this was a targeted action. It was in response to a specific attack. That said, Donald Trump made very clear that he's not going to forecast what he's going to do next. I think we saw that there was this chemical attack and then we saw him respond to it. I think, yes, there was the reality that this is his problem now, but there was also the reality that he was uniquely in a position to do something about it, which was not the situation when he was, you know, sitting on his couch tweeting in 2013.

And so I think that he is sort of learning the lesson of, it's one thing to have a plan going in, and then it's another thing to be the world leader that everyone else is looking to in the wake of these attacks. And so it's fine to say this will be a very targeted mission. It's not part of a broader campaign. But I think you do have to wait and see what happens next with Assad. What happens next with Russia and how Trump will respond to that.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: : I think just being on Capitol Hill all morning talking to senators who are still in town, what I kept hearing is, what happens next, you know? And I had one kind of senior congressional aide be - just made it very clear, this was a head-snapping change on foreign policy over the course of a couple days. If you just listen to the U.N. ambassador or you listen to the secretary of state and now all of a sudden there are targeted strikes.

As Karen said, there's a lot of support on Capitol Hill from Al Franken and Tammy Baldwin, to Mitch McConnell, to Speaker Ryan, all support what happened last night. What everybody wants to know is what happens next and, more importantly, when does Congress actually start getting involved in this progress as politically feasible or not feasible as that may seem.

KING: Right. Right. And we'll spend more time on that because it's important. Some - Nancy Pelosi saying bring the Congress back immediately. Let's debate an authorization of use of military force. Others saying, if it's a one-off, the president has the right to defend national security interests. It's fine. The question is, is there more to come?

Sean Spicer, the press secretary, tweeted out a picture of the president in his final meeting where he called off on these. I think we have a picture of that. You see the president with his team here, his national security team, but also you see his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, there as well and some others. They're all down at Mar-a-Lago because of the China meetings as well.

I want you to listen here, Mary Katharine, it's a new discrimination. Sometimes you get on the job and you learn things. And sometimes you get on the job and you turn - change your mind. This is Rex Tillerson one week ago from yesterday and then yesterday on whether Bashar al Assad could stay in power.


REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: The status and the longer term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people. Assad's role in the future is uncertain clearly. And with the acts

that he has taken, it would seem that there would be no role for him to govern the Syrian people.


[12:25:03] KING: I mean it was heinous what we saw the other day, but it's, sadly, not the first time we've seen that. Why have they flipped the switch?

MARY KATHARINE HAM, "THE FEDERALIST": Well, one of his pitches, by the way, was that he would be unpredictable in these situations and he certainly was this time. And I think that does have some merit in Assad's thinking probably in the way he responds to that. It also has a serious downside when you're talking about foreign policy.

But, look, I think there's - they seem to be drawing a useful line here, which is, this was a violation of this treaty that was in the international community that obviously was not abided by on chemical weapons. Chemical weapons are a national standard. It's in our interest to - our international standards. In our interest to discourage their use.

And then I think both President Obama and candidate Trump were too reliant on the idea that there's either nothing to do or all out intervention and boots on the ground. There are many things in the middle and I think making the case for those things is worth doing. And I think candidate Trump didn't do that. He actually adhered a bit to the Obama line and the arguments that there were these two ends of the spectrum. But you do have to be really clear about what your end game is and what you understand your strategy to be. And I am not sure that the unpredictable and often changing President Trump is the guys to make that clear case.

KING: Well, it's -

MURRAY: I do think is was telling that when - you know, yes, he is unpredictable and many people had a lot of concerns about President Trump on both sides of the aisle, particularly on foreign policy, but that when he was presented with these options, he chose the narrowest options. He chose the option for a targeted cruise missile strike. He did not choose to wipe out airfields. He did not choose to wipe out their entire, you know, capacity to go after their own civilians with chemical weapons. He chose to do something targeted to essentially send a message. Now, I don't know if that might be just cold comfort to people who are weary about President Trump or not, but it does say that, to me, at least, that he thought about these efforts strategically thought about, the downfall and the ramifications strategically. But, still, the question is, what's next?

KING: And the question is, exactly, what's next? What is the response? And then what does the president do if the response is on the ground in Syria from the regime is not what he's expecting or not what he's liking.

Everybody sit tight. Up next, U.S. missiles fly into Syria. Where did they hit? What damage did they cause? We'll get a military assessments just ahead.