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U.S. Investigates: Did Russia Play a Role in Attack?; U.S. Not Ruling Out Further Strikes on Syria; Explosives Fond in Stockholm Attack Truck; Syrian Airbase Suffers "Extensive Damage" in Strike. Aired 7-7:30a ET

Aired April 8, 2017 - 07:00   ET




[07:00:25] 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 U.N.: The United States took a very measured step. We are prepared to do more.

SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: I wish we would have obeyed the Constitution and done this the way our founding fathers intended.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: 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're watching the reaction here in Syria.

SEN. 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: Welcome to our viewers in the U.S. and around the world. I'm Victor Blackwell, live from New York.

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

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 Syrian chemical attack. The Kremlin is staunchly denying any complicity in the attack, but it's ratcheting up the stakes for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson when he travels to Moscow for his first meetings with Russia's foreign minister next week.

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

This morning, we got our team of correspondents tracking the latest on the aftermath of those strikes on Syria.

We're going to start with CNN Pentagon reporter Ryan Browne.

Ryan, good morning to you. And what are officials telling us about this investigation into Russia and potentially their involvement or at least knowing about the chemical attack?


That's right. Pentagon officials are telling us one of the things they are looking at is the fact there were Russian forces at this airbase when this attack took place and it was an aviation unit. So, some officials say it's hard to imagine that they wouldn't be aware of what was going on, for instance, the loading of chemical weapons on to a Syrian warplane.

Another thing they're looking at, a Russian surveillance drone flew over the hospital that was struck five hours after the initial chemical weapons attack. Now, that hospital was treating some of those who suffered injuries from those chemical weapons and is thought that that attack might have been intended to cover up the initial chemical weapons strike. So, these are some of the things.

Now, Russia does operate surveillance drones in Syria quite often. They are looking whether or not this is connected to that attack.

So, Pentagon is definitely taking a look at this to see what exactly happened. It's part of a wider look at where chemical weapons are in Syria.

BLACKWELL: So, speaking of is in Syria, we know there about a thousand U.S. troops there in Syria. Is the military doing anything different? Are there any specific or special precautions being taken as it relates to those thousand troops?

BROWNE: That's right. Those troops right now are part of the fight against ISIS, but military officials are telling us that they are looking at -- they are taking precautionary steps, kind of looking, dedicating some surveillance assets to make sure that those troops are not facing any threat of retaliation from the regime or forces allied with the regime. Now, these forces have been in Syria for some time. The military officials say that they are always kind of looking at the wider operating environment, taking precautionary protective steps. But we're told that for now they are taking additional measures and

actually relaxing some of the fight against ISIS to ensure that those troops are protected.

BLACKWELL: All right. Ryan Browne for us in Washington -- Ryan, thank you.


BROWNE: You bet.

KEILAR: Let's get now to Paula Newton live for us from Moscow.

Paula, tell us -- what is the Kremlin saying about this allegation that Russia may be complicit in the chemical attack?

PAULA NEWTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Short to the point. Their answer: this is not true. That was Dmitri Peskov, who gave us that answer in terms of asking was Russia complicit. Did they know about this chemical attack? He just says there's absolutely no truth to that.

Having said that, all of this is designed in order to set up that meeting with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his Russian counterpart here in Moscow on Wednesday. A much watched meeting that's been scheduled for a while but the dynamic will completely change, and that's being noticed here on the ground as well.

Influential politician, Alexei Pushkov tweeting today that, "Look, Tillerson, U.S. was disappointed by the Russian response.

[07:05:05] What was he expecting? Was he expecting anything else?"

It's a startling statement but with a purpose. It builds leverage before the visit. What does that leverage mean?

It means when Rex Tillerson gets to that table, he's going to be asking Russia some of the questions you just heard from Ryan. You guys were responsible back in 2014 to tell us that Syria did not have those chemical weapons. Why do they still have them? If they do, how can you help in making sure that they get rid of them? Brianna?

KEILAR: That's right. They provided that off-ramp, that discussion between Vladimir Putin and President Obama that was supposed to facilitate the remove of weapons.

Tell us about this Russian warship. It is moving, it's on the move right now in the Mediterranean Sea. This is where, the area where these Tomahawk missiles were launched from, right?

NEWTON: Yes. And it wasn't supposed to be going back to the Mediterranean. Mediterranean, the defense ministry says indeed it is and will thereabout shortly. It is armed with state-of-the-art Russian missiles.

And Russia says this will help in order to strengthen its missile defense on the ground in Syria. I mean, this is symbolic for now. It still makes everyone a little bit nervous. We do have obviously the American warships in the Med as well, but it is symbolic at this point. Russia feeling as if, look, we had to respond in some way and decided to send the ship back.

What's concerning many though is that they also suspended the air safety hot line, and that is the line, the line of communication that goes between Russian and American aircraft to make sure that there are no collisions in the ground.

You know, the prime minister here made it very clear, Brianna, that he feels that the U.S. and Russia are this close to a conflict in Syria and that is the table as it will be set for Mr. Tillerson as he comes here next week.

BRIANNA: Wow, and that suspension may increase the chances of that.

Paula Newton, thank you very much.


BLACKWELL: All right. Brianna, thanks.

Let's go now to Athena Jones, she's live near Mar-a-Lago, the president's resort there in Florida. He's waking up this morning there.

Athena, we heard from Ambassador Haley, ambassador to the U.N., that the U.S. is prepared to do more but hoping that it does not have to.

What is next? Do we have an answer to that question?


We don't have an answer to that question yet. What the U.S. does next will depend a great deal on what Syria does next. It sounds like Ambassador Haley was communicating that all options remain on table. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had a briefing with reporters at Mar- a-Lago yesterday and he said the future will be guided by how we see their reaction, the Syrian's government reaction.

The U.S. is monitoring the Syrian response, looking into whether they tried to attack U.S. forces or coalition forces or they detect that the Syrian government is planning to launch another chemical weapons attack. Remember, Thursday night's strikes were targeted at degrading the ability of Syria to carry out such attacks, but they did not completely Syria's ability to carry out chemical weapons attack. In fact, that Thursday night strike specifically avoided hitting a storage facility at the airbase where they believe sarin gas, the nerve agent that's been used in some of these recent chemical weapons attacks was being stored.

So, Syria is still able to carry out another chemical weapons attack. If they do, Haley seemed to be hinting that the U.S. could respond in a similar way because if you talk to senior administration officials, they will tell you that Thursday night strikes were not intended to signal that the U.S. was about to embark on a wider campaign against Assad. Instead, this was a specific retaliation for the use of chemical weapons. And so, the idea is if the Syrian government continues to carry out, such attacks the U.S. could have a similar response -- Victor.

BLACKWELL: We've also heard from the treasury secretary that there will be some economic consequences for Syria as well. What are we hearing about those?

JONES: That's right. In the same briefing with reporters yesterday, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said that soon, the U.S. government would be announcing sanctions -- additional sanctions against Syria. He did not specifically lay out who would be affected, what entities would be affected. But they are targeting people who do business with Syria.

Steve Mnuchin said, we view sanctions as being a very important tool and will use them to maximum effect. But the key question here is to what effect? What effect could any additional sanctions have on the ability of Syrian President Bashar al Assad to wage this war against his own people? Will it affect his actions?

So far, sanctions don't seem to have much of an effect -- Victor.

BLACKWELL: All right. Athena Jones there for us on the island of Palm Beach -- Athena, thanks.

Now, after the missile strike on Syria, critics are praising President Trump, while some supporters are now criticizing him.

KEILAR: Plus, a Russian frigate moves towards the waters where the strike was launched. How does this the standoff play out through Russian eyes. We're going to talk to a former KGB agent.


[07:14:08] BLACKWELL: We got breaking news out of Sweden where a deadly attack in the nation's capital could have been really much worse. Local media reports a bomb was found in the truck used in yesterday's attack but it did not properly detonate.

CNN international correspondent Max Foster joins us live from Stockholm.

What's the latest on this new element of explosives in that truck?

MAX FOSTER, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. That goes to state media, and police sources speaking to them. But I've just been speaking to the foreign minister and she didn't deny that. She's leaving it to the police to follow that investigation. But she certainly left it there as a possibility.

And if that is the case, it does ramp up this type of attack that we've seen across Europe. So, we have an attack in Nice, in Berlin, in London, where a vehicle was used to drive into a crowd, a mass of people. That's what happened here. But it also included explosives if we're led to believe that that is true. If you look down the street, you got to imagine the truck was --


[07:15:08] BLACKWELL: All right. I think we lost Max Foster's shot there. We got him back?

Let's go back to Max. All right. We lost him again.

We'll try to get back to him later in the hour.

Brianna, let's send it to you in Washington.

KEILAR: All right. Well, the president is being praised for this strike on Syria by many of his critics. That includes John McCain and Lindsey Graham. Take a look.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I want to applaud the president for taking action. It was justified. It was necessary. And I hope it sends the right message not only to Assad but other people throughout the world. But it's got be more than last night. It's got to be a step in what will be a fairly long journey.


BLACKWELL: But he's also seen the reverse, and criticism from some previously strong supporters. Ann Coulter tweeting, "Trump campaigned on not getting involved in the Mideast. Said it always help her enemies and creates more refugees. Then he saw a picture on TV. Those who wanted us middling in the Middle East voted for other candidates."

Joining me now to talk about these shifts, Sarah Westwood. She's a White House correspondent for "The Washington Examiner". And we also have Josh Rogin, CNN political analyst and columnist for "The Washington Post".

OK, Sarah, it is startling when you look at Donald Trump's position not just as the candidate but for years, going back to a somewhat similar conundrum that President Obama had to figure out, how did he make good on his threat or in the end not, that being a red line in attacking Syria for using chemical weapons.

So, where does he go from here to appease some of those voices, like the Coulters who took him at his word that he was against intervention?

SARAH WESTWOOD, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, WASHINGTON EXAMINER: That's the million dollar question because he was such a non- interventionist as a candidate. He criticized basically every element of the Obama administration's foreign policy and now, he's really at a crossroads with Syria. Does he get more involved militarily, diplomatically, or is this a one-off attack that hopefully staves off further U.S. involvement in the Syrian conflict? But for President Trump, this missile strike and maybe the joint address to Congress in February are the only two times in his presidency that he's received bipartisan praise. So, for now, I think the administration is riding on a high, soaking in all of these a accolades and they are going to have to come down from that and figure out what they're going to do in Syria because it's sort of untenable to leave this missile strike as the only indication of the U.S.'s approach in Syria moving forward.

KEILAR: So, Josh, he's getting this support. We just heard Sarah outlining that. But he's getting disapproval from Ann Coulter and others. What do the, quote/unquote, "real people", the supporters who voted him into office, what do they think? Are they sort of following suit here do you think?

JOSH ROGIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: He burned all of his supporters in a spectacular fashion, in an effort to sort of being the anti-Obama. It's kind of crazy. You can't repair that.

Now, he has to lean on his new found support from the people who opposed him for the last year and a half and that support is dependent on him doing not just this but a lot more, even more heavily involve the United States in Syria which is not clear he wants to do. So, he could end up with the worse of both worlds, being called a hypocrite by being who voted him and being called not enough of an interventionalist by his new friends.

So, you know, right now, he's getting a lot of praise. You know, we'll see what happens in a couple of days when Assad perpetrates another attack or Russians escalate on the ground. Is Donald Trump really going to continue to escalate the U.S. involvement in Syria? I don't think he knows yet. If he does, he's going to burn his supporters more. If he doesn't, he's going to lose the praise of his new friends. He's put himself in a tough spot.

KEILAR: Do you think some of his supporters think, hey, this is a show of strength, this is actually a good thing the U.S. flexing its muscle, or is the issue that even if some of them think that, Josh, he stands to lose some of his supporters and he already had a pretty small slice of the pie when you're looking at the electorate?

ROGIN: Yes. I mean, for people who are advocating for U.S. intervention in Syria, you know, flexing your muscle is not a policy, OK? All it does is get him involved, OK? And once he's involved, there's no real other option than to get more involved.

So, you know, a lot of support from sort of the traditional Republican hawk community is more like, hey, President Trump, welcome to the party. Now that you're here let us tell you about the seven other things we want to you do in Syria, most of which he's going to hate and not want to do in the end, you know? But he's already paid the rice for people in the alt-right. They are not going to forgive him very quickly for betraying everything he ever said about Syria and intervention in the Middle East for his entire life, right? [07:20:05] That's a sunk cost. So, as Donald Trump goes forward, politically, he can think, OK, should I, you know, capitalize on my new friends or, you know, should I play the middle and try to make everybody equally happy or unhappy? None of that has anything to do with what's good for Syria and, you know, there's no way to please both sides. If you think the best thing is not touch that problem and let them sort it out and not in America's core interest, or you think it's something that we have to do because it impacts Europe, the region, America, terrorism, refugees, and if you think that, then this missile strike is not much. It's not enough. It's just the beginning.

KEILAR: Sarah, a top administration official when briefing senators yesterday on this said, essentially, the policy is reaction, military reaction when chemical weapons are used. But to Josh's point, there's a lot of these, quote-unquote, "new friends", some previous critics of Donald Trump like John McCain, they don't want to see just a response to chemical weapons attacks. They want to see a response to barrel bomb attacks and other attacks on Syrians.

WESTWOOD: Right. The only thing we know about Trump's approach to Syria is that the administration is not interested in regime change. They are not interested in taking out President Assad. They don't want to have to deal with the aftermath of putting together a new government in Syria.

And that's really the only thing we know. That's what the administration has been telegraphing for several weeks now. And that is not a line with McCain or Graham or even some of these Democratic critics who are praising Trump for this missile strike.

There's a lot of interest in Washington in taking out Assad. That was the Obama administration's stated policy. So, when Trump came out and said the Trump administration was not interested in doing so, it was a departure that surprised a lot of people. But escalating involvement in Syria beyond missile strikes that are reactionary to specific violations of the chemical agreements with Russia, that would open the door to potentially whether we're going to go the full measure and take Assad out, or whether we're just going try to weaken him. And so, that's when escalation becomes an even thornier question.

KEILAR: All right. Great conversation, you guys. Sara Westwood, Josh Rogin, thank you so much.


ROGIN: Thank you.

BLACKWELL: So, the U.S. launched this strategic blow to the Syrian regime after that chemical attack. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, is confirming the U.S. is prepared to do more. What's on the table?


[07:27:00] BLACKWELL: Good morning. I'm Victor Blackwell live from New York.

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

BLACKWELL: The Pentagon is trying to solve or get an answer to a question many world leaders are asking: was Russia involved in some way in the chemical attack on Syria? The Pentagon is examining whether Russian warplanes bombed a hospital five hours after the chemical attack aiming to destroy evidence. The chemical attack Tuesday killed we know now at least 80 people, injured dozens more and the images you see them here, the children and their grieving families prompted President Trump to launch a missile strike on Syrian airbase there.

And U.S. lawmakers believe Russia may have played a role in that attack.


RUBIO: The Russians are complicit in these war crimes. If they were at that facility and they had personnel stationed at the airbase, they had to have known that there was sarin gas being loaded onto those planes.


KEILAR: New photos show the extensive damage that was left behind after President Trump authorized the launch of 59 U.S. missiles to hit a Syrian airfield. And here's what you can see of what's left of three aircraft hangars. One is destroyed. Two others are damaged.

In these pictures, what's left of five workshops near where the base stores ammunition.

CNN international diplomatic editor Nic Robertson is in London.

And, Nic, the world watched as the U.S. dealt this blow to the Syrian regime. But what is the path ahead and what is the expectation considering we're now into the seventh year of this civil war?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: There's a belief that the United States and Donald Trump took the right decision to have this strike. That certainly the view in Britain and France and Germany and Italy to name just a few of the United States allies in Europe.

But at the same time, there's still concern. I mean, President Trump just a week ago, you had the French questioning what his policy on Syria was, what his policy on Assad was. It seemed they felt that he was ready to leave him in power.

So, there's concern while Trump praises himself for his flexibility, the allies are still sort of contorting themselves at the moment to try to figure out what is he going to do next, what's the next move. Certainly, what you're hearing from the Europeans, you hear it coming from the Middle East, whether it's Egypt. We know President Trump just met with President Sisi of Egypt not so long ago, within the past week. We heard it from the Jordanians and also the -- some of the sort of more moderate secular opposition in Syria.

These are people who also deal with Russia because they believe Russia is a path to the future political stability inside Syria. So, what you're hearing from the Europeans, from Middle East, from some of these Syrian moderate groups is they now want to see the administration or the White House get engaged politically in Syria. To begin to sort of ramp up their involvement in the Geneva peace process. That's the one that the U.N. Security Council resolution 2254 which said that there should be a transition from power from President Assad.