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Sweden Attack: Explosives Did Not Properly Detonate; Official: U.S. Probes Russian Complicity In Gas Attack; U.S. Not Ruling Out Further Strikes On Syria; Populist Supporters Abandon Trump Over Strike. Aired 6-6:30a ET

Aired April 8, 2017 - 06:00   ET





UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The U.S. military is investigating whether Russia was complicit in the Syrian regime's gruesome chemical weapons attack on civilians.

NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: The United States took a very measured step. We are prepared to do more.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I wish we would obey the Constitution and do this the way our founding fathers intended.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was the right move. It was legal.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The president at his Mar-a-Lago resort. He has his full command center with him. They are watching the reaction here in Syria.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: There are tensions within the White House just as there are tensions within President Trump himself.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All the focus is also on Russia. The secretary of state will be going there next week. That's where this goes next.


VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN ANCHOR: Good Saturday morning to you. Good to have you with us. I'm Victor Blackwell in New York.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN GUEST ANCHOR: And I'm Brianna Keilar in Washington for Christi Paul.

BLACKWELL: Troubling new reports out of Syria this morning about who may have been involved potentially in a chemical attack that killed dozens of people including children. The U.S. is investigating whether Russia knew what was happening and did not do anything to try to stop it or potentially tried to cover it up.

The kremlin is fiercely denying those accusations, but the Pentagon says it is too soon to know if the Russian government played a role here. We'll go live to Moscow in a moment.

But we are starting with breaking news out of Sweden where a deadly attack in the nation's capital could have been really so much worse. Swedish media reports a bag full of explosives was found in the truck that was used to run over innocent civilians yesterday but the bomb did not properly detonate.

CNN international correspondent, Max Foster, is live in Stockholm with the latest developments. Max, what are you learning?

MAX FOSTER, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's interesting hearing about that explosive because we've been fitting this into a patent of attacks around Europe. So Nice, Berlin, London where they use vehicles to drive into crowds. They didn't use explosives then. They have done on this situation.

So a very intensive intelligence gathering operation to see if they can build a picture around that. But Victor, just let me show you the scene of the attack because this is the main shopping road here in Stockholm. It's really tight. It's pedestrianized.

When this attack happened it would have been full of people, full of shoppers, full of commuters as well, and also tourists, and imagine only a few people died and were injured even as tragic as that was. You look down there and you imagine could it have been so many more that actually came into that shop there on the left.

That's where eventually stopped this truck. You can see all of the destruction there. You can see how Sweden is trying to cope with this and trying to make sense of it. This barrier I'm in front of is turning into a makeshift memorial.

People coming down, laying flowers, saying a prayer, the crown princess was just here, very emotional, could hardly speak actually and also I had a chance to speak to the deputy prime minister when she came down and laid flowers too.


ISABELLA LOVIN, SWEDEN'S DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: We can never protect ourselves from this type of violence with no, let's say no limits to what the perpetrator is willing to do, with no human or normal, let's say calculations. But if you're willing to sacrifice your own life and you're willing to sacrifice others completely innocent people's lives that's very difficult to protect yourself from.


FOSTER: They do have someone in custody, Victor, and think it's the driver of the truck.

BLACKWELL: All right, Max Foster with the breaking news for us there out of Stockholm. Max, thanks so much.

KEILAR: President Trump's strike against Syria may just be the first act. The United States is delivering a stark new warning for Syria and keeping a suspicious eye on Russia this morning. Right now, the Pentagon is investigating if Moscow was involved in the Syria chemical attack.

The kremlin is staunchly denying any complicity in the attack. It's the latest wrinkle in the U.S.-Russian relations that President Putin hoped would thaw under President Trump instead (inaudible) setting up a high stakes trip to Moscow next week for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Also overnight, we are learning, a Russian war ship is on the move to a Russian naval base in Syria. A military source tells Russian state news the ship is armed with cruise missiles. It's entering the same waters where U.S. ships launched that volley of Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian airbase.

We have our team of correspondents tracking the latest on the aftermath from the U.S. strikes on Syria.

BLACKWELL: We are beginning with chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto. We should warn you that some of the images that you're about to see are graphic.


[06:05:09]JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The U.S. military is investigating whether Russia was complicit in the Syrian regime's gruesome chemical weapons attack on civilians earlier this week.

Specifically whether a Russian warplane dropped a bomb on a hospital treating victims of the attack five hours later, perhaps to destroy evidence. The probe comes after President Trump ordered a barrage of missiles on a Syrian airbase in retaliation for the deadly attack.

The first U.S. military strike against the Assad regime in the country's bloody six year civil war. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley warned of possible further U.S. military action.

HALEY: The United States took a very measured step last night. We are prepared to do more, but we hope that will not be necessary.

SCIUTTO: The target of the strikes was Syria's airbase, launched point for the Syrian war planes that carried out the chemical attack. The Pentagon says 59 of 60 Tomahawk cruise missiles severely degraded or destroyed their targets including aircraft, hardened aircraft shelters, fuel and ammunition dumps and air defense systems.

The Pentagon estimates some 20 aircraft were destroyed, though video of the aftermath shows several shelters still standing and military aircraft undamaged. U.S. missiles left the runway intact and avoided chemical weapons storage to prevent civilian casualties.

And U.S. commanders warn the Russian military one hour in advance to avoid accidentally striking Russian military personnel or assets. Still Russian President Vladimir Putin, Assad's primary backer, diplomatically and militarily immediately declared the U.S. airstrikes, quote, "an act of aggression."

That, quote, "dealt a serious blow to Russia-U.S. relations." Syria which says nine people were killed in the strikes claim the U.S. has undermine the fight against terrorism.

ALI MAYHOUB, SYRIAN MILITARY SPOKESMAN (through translator): This condemnable U.S. aggression confirms the continuation of the flawed U.S. strategy and it undermines the process of combatting terrorism. It makes the U.S. a partner of the Islamic State and Al Nusra and other terrorist organizations.

SCIUTTO: The march to military action took little more than 48 hours. The planning began Tuesday, the day the world saw the first images of victims, many of them children of the chemical weapons attack. On Thursday before President Trump sat down to dinner with the Chinese president, he met with his national security team to discuss military options.

Deciding then to order the strike that night. At 8:40 p.m. Eastern Time in the middle of the night in Syria the attack began. Two U.S. war ships in the Eastern Mediterranean, the USS Porter and USS Ross launched the 60 Tomahawk missiles towards the Syrian airbase.

Trump sat through dinner alongside the Chinese president as the attack was under way. Then just 35 minutes later at approximately 9:15 p.m. Eastern Time, the president's national security team briefed him on the mission's results.


BLACKWELL: All right, our thanks to national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto.

KEILAR: Let's go now to Athena Jones. She's live outside of Mar-a- Lago in Florida where President Trump is waking up this morning. Athena, you know, you couldn't have helped notice that Ambassador Nikki Haley said we are prepared to do more. Do we know what she's signaling?

ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Brianna. Well, that's the big question here. What will the next steps be for the U.S. government? According to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who briefed reporters, a small group of reporters at Mar-a-Lago yesterday, next steps are going to depend on how the Syrian government responds.

He said the future will be guided by how we see their reaction. He said the U.S. is monitoring the Syrian response, whether they try to attack U.S. forces or coalition forces. Whether they attack the Syrians may be considering launching another chemical weapons attack.

Remember, Thursday's strikes were targeted specifically to degrade Syria's ability to carry out these attacks but it didn't completely destroy their ability. In fact, we know that that U.S. strikes purposely avoided an area on that airbase where they believe the sarin gas, the nerve agent that's been used in some of these recent attacks was being stored.

So U.S. officials are very clear on the fact that Syria still has the ability to carry out these sorts of attacks. The question is, will they? If they do, it seems that Ambassador Haley is hinting that if they continue to carry out these chemical weapons attacks that the U.S. may have another similar response.

But it's important to caution here that a senior administration official told CNN that on Friday that the strike should not be interpreted as the beginning of a wider campaign to weaken or remove Assad.

[06:10:11]It's really in retaliation specifically for those chemical weapons attacks and to send the message that that will not be tolerated. So if that's the message they are trying to send, it certainly hints that if the Syrians take a similar step that they could see a similar response from the U.S. -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Athena Jones in Mar-a-Lago, outside of Mar-a-Lago I should say, thank you very much.

BLACKWELL: Let's go now to Paula Newton live in Moscow. Paula, what is the kremlin saying about the U.S. investigation now into the possibility that Russia either knew that this was going to happen or they took some steps to cover it up?

PAULA NEWTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Victor, look we got four words. This is not true. That was from Dmitri Peskov, he is the kremlin's spokesperson. This obviously was going to be what Russia said. They vehemently deny that they had anything to do with it.

More than that, Victor, they say that the United States in haste went through with these U.S. air strikes before proving anything. Russia is contending that it was the rebels who actually were responsible for that attack because they had a chemical making facility very close to that location.

Having said that, though, it's been breathtaking really in terms of how things have changed here on the ground in Russia in the last few days since that chemical attack.

We are having more Russian reaction when they look forward to that visit of Rex Tillerson next week. You know, a very influential politician here is pushing back to what Mr. Tillerson has been saying and he says look, Tillerson, U.S. was disappointed by the Russian response.

He's saying look, was he expecting anything else? He called it a startling statement with a purpose, though. It builds leverage before the visit. And that means that look Russia is going into this meeting with Secretary Tillerson hoping that what they heard from Athena Jones just now comes true in those meetings.

They are willing to bet, though, that the United States will demand much more and one thing it will demand, Victor, is why does Syria still have chemical weapons? Russia was supposed to be responsible for the fact that by 2014 that Syria had gotten rid of all of its chemical weapons.

BLACKWELL: Yes. I'm sure that will be the top of the list. Let me get to what's happening now with the movement of the Admiral (inaudible), this frigate that's being moved from the Black Sea into the Mediterranean. Tell us about it. Why is it moving?

NEWTON: So it wasn't the Black Sea doing maneuvers, exercises with the Turkish naval forces, as soon as those airstrikes happened it was turned around. It had been in the Mediterranean before. It's gone back there now as a show of force.

This has state of the art missiles on board and this goes to what Russia said that it was going to, in its words, strengthen the missile defenses in Syria.

Now everyone has noted that they did not launch any surface-to- air missiles to try and take out those Tomahawks when they came into Syria. This is largely symbolic as is them suspending the air safety hotline, the one to make sure there are no collisions in the air between U.S. and Russian aircraft.

Having said that, though, Victor, this is a show of force that has been going on for a year and a half now. When the United States vacated that space NATO called it the largest deployment of the Russian military in decades.

They are there in the Mediterranean in Syria and they will continue to flex those military muscles and it will be something that Mr. Tillerson will be reminded of when he's here next week.

BLACKWELL: We'll talk more about this with our military analyst a little later this hour. Paula Newton in Moscow for us, thanks so much.

KEILAR: After the strike in Syria, Trump critics praised the president while supporters criticized him and what comes next in Syria after this missile strike?

Plus a chemical gas attack, airstrikes just part of the realities of war for people living in Syria. A closer look at the lives they've been living every day for the past six years.



BLACKWELL: Some of President Trump's most fierce critics are praising his decision to strike in Syria including Senator John McCain. Watch.


MCCAIN: I think that he is like a lot of presidents growing in the job and recognizing the enormity of his responsibilities and I'm glad that he seems to rely on that national security team that you and I talked about earlier. That's as good a team as I've ever seen.


BLACKWELL: And now some of the president's supporters are becoming critics. Look at this tweet from Ann Coulter. She tweeted, "Those who wanted us meddling in the Middle East voted for other candidates. What is the president's next move and what will the shifts here mean for the president moving forward?"

Joining us now we have John McCormack, a writer at the "Weekly Standard," and Errol Louis, CNN political commentator and political anchor for "Spectrum News."

Good morning. Errol, I want to start with you. What's the significance here? Let's start with some of the conservatives, some of the populist like Nigel Farage who was miffed by this decision. What does this change mean?

ERROL LOUIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, what it means is that they like many of the president's critics now realize that what he said was not necessarily what he meant. You know, when he campaigned on a policy of staying out of these kind of entanglements in the Middle East, not committing troops willy-nilly, calling Hillary Clinton a war monger, he built a certain amount of political support.

But Donald Trump has always said that he'll do what he thinks is best. That he is not going to telegraph his intentions and that sort of usually was put in the context of "I'm going to keep my enemies off balance."

But you're not keeping your allies off balanced as well and politically there will be some kind of small price to pay for it. But where will these folks honestly going to go? Where is -- who's Ann Coulter going to support instead of Donald Trump now? Now that she's written a book saying that he's just an awesome guy.

[06:20:04]BLACKWELL: Yes, awesome she wrote, in Trump we trust. John, let me come to you. Does this rise to the level of questioning conviction here, when the president said that we will not be the policeman of the world, that I am representing the United States and not the world and then we see this shift. Does this lead some of those die-hard supporters to question on what they can trust and where they can trust this president especially as it relates to foreign involvement?

JOHN MCCORMACK, WRITER, "WEEKLY STANDARD": Well, you know, one thing about Donald Trump is that his ideology has never been that fixed. I mean, he was a liberal Democrat in the late 1990s. He became a populist nationalist during this campaign. Now as we're just seeing events can really change his mind.

He is easily swayed. Someone say persuaded. But what's really interesting here as you pointed out, you know, this shows that people are actually judging this specific incident not through partisan lines but whether they think this is right or wrong.

You know, even Senate Democrats largely are supportive of President Trump right now. If you asked me two weeks ago is there anything that Chuck Schumer would praise Donald Trump about I would say no way.

But yesterday he called it the right thing to do. You know, almost every Democrat I spoke to in Capitol Hill yesterday, they thought that this was well within the president's authority.

I would have thought two weeks ago that the Democrats would have criticized this as another illegal Republican war in the Middle East. So really a surprising moment here.

BLACKWELL: And John, if it's a one off, and the White House is suggesting that this is not leading to some larger strategy but if this is a one off for one singular act, does this criticism fade?

MCCORMACK: Yes, I definitely think so, but again, you know, this is a really complicated situation where we could see some escalation. If we do get entangled more deeply, well, then I do think you might see some people sort of breaking away, some former critics coming to Trump support. We'll have to see how it shakes out in terms of further escalation.

BLACKWELL: I see you nodding over here.

LOUIS: I mean, just to pick up on that a little bit, Victor. You put your finger on it. The president is not just the leader of this government, America first being his political slogan, he's also the leader of the free world. There's a lot of people outside of the American political process who need to know that there is going some consistency.

I'm talking not just about other nations, also the refugees themselves, the Syrian Free Army, the opposition that's trying to figure out what to do about Assad. They need stability, reliability, policy line, that they can sort of expect the United States to do certain things around.

And so when President Trump says that it's in his best interest to be unpredictable, there are tremendous negative consequences for a whole range of people not just American politicians but people who are really suffering and whose lives are on the line.

BLACKWELL: Let's stay here for a moment. Before the chemical attack we heard from the secretary of state, the U.N. ambassador that essentially the U.S. was OK with Assad being in power, that they were going as Nikki Haley said sit here and focus on getting Assad out.

After the attack we heard from the secretary of state that there were movements under way to remove him. Last night, the White House would not say whether or not they were trying to remove Assad. Why can't they get on one page here even after the --

LOUIS: Listen, there will be yet another round of statements when Rex Tillerson is expected to be on the Sunday shows tomorrow. It's what you get when you hear people say we need a policy. We need some consistency.

During the campaign. Trump was criticized as a chaos candidate. They sort of poo-pooed that. It was the establishment. You brought us the Iraq war, a mess. We are going to go in and do things entirely different. This is what entirely different looks like.

You have no idea where they are coming from. I'll add one more wrinkle to it. You've got human rights policy. If this was a humanitarian intervention, however military it may have seemed from the outside, well, when do you launch missiles?

I mean, over 1,400 people died because of chemical weapons just a few years ago. Trump was very critical of the United States for considering military action. So when and where and why do we intervene for humanitarian reasons, also unclear.

BLACKWELL: But John, you know, the president sees this as a feather in his cap. He called it flexibility. Flexibility he was proud of in the Rose Garden just a couple of days ago. I want you to nail down on this point, at what point does flexibility become a little more than inconsistency?

MCCORMACK: Well, listen as I said I think the president versus candidate and as a president is going all over the place. He in his own administration, he has his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, a Democrat. He has Steve Bannon, a nationalist. He has Mike Pence, a staunch conservative.

So I think that this is a president who given the issue, given who he's listening to, he's going to come down from a different ideological perspective on any given day, any given week. You know, it really does question in this particular instance how much more involved do we get.

Because this really is -- listen, whether it's President Obama or President Trump, this is an incredibly thorny issue. You have Bashar al-Assad, a murderous dictator on one side. You've got these Islamist terrorist groups throughout the country.

[06:25:14]You know, there really has to be comprehensive strategy to make sure, even a stalemate that could sort of bring the humanitarian disaster, sort of stem the flow of refugee crisis. That would be a success compared to what we've seen over the last six years.

BLACKWELL: John McCormack, Errol Louis, thank you both. Let's send it to Brianna in Washington.

KEILAR: Thanks, Victor. Next, a Syrian refugee who narrowly survived a 2013 chemical attack is praising the president for the U.S. strike on the Syrian government.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We've been asking for protection. We've been asking for consequences for more than six years and today for the first time it happened.



KEILAR: Welcome back. I'm Brianna Keilar in Washington for Christi Paul.