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SMERCONISH

Interview with Senator Rand Paul; Where Does Trump Stand on China? Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired April 8, 2017 - 09:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[09:00:09] MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Michael Smerconish in Philadelphia. We welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.

President Trump's first big foreign policy move, a missile attack on Syria. Were the payback for poisoning children and civilians or an unauthorized act of war? Senator Rand Paul is here.

And the strikes occurred the same day that he met with Chinese president Xi Jinping after campaigning bigly against China. Did the timing of the Syrian strikes send a message about North Korea?

Plus, to override a filibuster and confirm Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, the GOP changed the rules. Did the Democrats lose a much bigger fight? I'll ask former senator Allen Simpson.

And after reports that FOX paid out at least $13 million to female employees accusing Bill O'Reilly of harassment, advertisers are fleeing the show. Is this justice or censorship?

But first, the president is mostly receiving praise from both sides of the aisle for the Tomahawk missile strike on Syria in response to Bashar al-Assad's Sarin gas attack on children.

I'm not against it. It's harder for me to say that I'm for it. How could you be against the idea of seeking retribution after seeing those horrific pictures of kids who were gassed to death? I just want to make sure that we're really going after the evil doers this time, that we really have the goods, that it was al-Assad who initiated this, and that the base we hit was in fact the point of origin for the Sarin gas. So far that all seems to check out.

With my cynicism about government at an all-time high just because I'm told the case, I don't necessarily buy into it. That blind faith ended with reports of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

And my second concern is that I hope this isn't the beginning of a larger scale commitment that culminates with American boots on the ground in yet another Middle Eastern country with no exit plan. To his credit, President Trump campaigned against such incursions and that pleased my next guest.

Like his father, former Congressman Ron Paul, Senator Rand Paul has earned a reputation for non-interventionalist thought. During the campaign he was on the receiving end of many of candidate Trump's more mocking salvos. But recently he's emerged as one of the president's newfound friends. The two golfed together last weekend. Then came the Syrian strike. And putting friendship aside, Senator Paul has returned to his roots. I caught up with him earlier after a classified Senate briefing on the retaliatory attack.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SMERCONISH: Senator, I know that on Friday there was a closed-door briefing for members of the Senate regarding the Syrian situation. Is there any reason to believe that the Russians may have played a role in that chemical attack that killed children?

SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: You know, I can't go into the details of anything from the intelligence briefing, but what I can say is that our government, our intelligence communities, our military is convinced that the Syrian government was involved with the chemical attack.

SMERCONISH: Are you convinced that the target that we struck indeed is where that attack originated?

PAUL: You know, I guess what I've been more concerned is not the military aspects of the mission or even whether or not it will have any significance. My concern has been mostly that this is an inappropriate way to begin a war, that the Constitution says war begins with a vote in Congress, and that even George Bush, who was often treated mercilessly by the media as being so far out there, he came to Congress and asked to -- to go to war against the Taliban and those who attacked us on 9/11. He also did the same in Iraq.

And so I think this is a wrong-headed notion that we just skip the most important step and that is whether or not we should go to war.

SMERCONISH: Do you think that President Trump was wrong to be emotionally swayed by the photographs of those dead kids?

PAUL: You know, I think we -- you'd almost not be human to be emotionally swayed by it, but in an era of television, you know, we see horrific images almost every day. We see the swollen distended babies who are swollen from, you know, malnutrition, from maybe their leaders stealing the food that comes in as aid and reselling in the black market. We see people burned and beheaded throughout the world. So there are atrocities throughout the world. We just have to decide when we are going to intervene as a country, when we're going to put our young men and women, put their lives on the line and we don't, frankly, do it for every atrocity in the world.

It doesn't mean we don't have great sympathy but we have to debate when and where to go to war. That's what our founding fathers asked us to do.

SMERCONISH: Well, I understand that. And in trying to determine when it's appropriate that there should be a strike, there's a historical parallel that occurs to me.

[09:05:05] Would Senator Rand Paul have opposed the bombing of the tracks going into Auschwitz?

PAUL: Well, you know, I haven't contemplated going back to World War II but I can tell you a more similar analogy would be Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurds and then we chose to intervene. We overthrew a despot who had used chemical weapons on his own people, same sort of thing. But what we wound up with something worse. We wound up with an emboldened and empowered Iran. Now the same people who want to take our Hussein now want to take out Iran. So there can be an endless supply of enemies and you have to ask yourself who takes over next, so are they better than the current occupant?

So are Islamic rebels -- the radical rebels in Syria better than Assad? There are also two million Christians in -- in Syria that are being protected by Assad and they fear the Islamic rebels taking over. So there's a -- there's a complicated decision-making process as to who are the good guys in the war.

If you talk about Auschwitz, it's pretty clear there was one bad guy and many innocent slaughtered, so I don't think that's a necessarily correct analogy.

SMERCONISH: Well, but let's just pursue that one step further, right? I mean, if the argument is that it would be right to take out the tracks going into Auschwitz because there was a greater good, we could avert catastrophe in terms of a human loss --

PAUL: Well, the reason why it's not a great analogy is because we were at war and we -- absolutely you do all of that when you're at war. And we had made a decision to be at war so it was not -- it wouldn't have been a big deal or a big decision. The actual more important historical question, if you want to talk about history, is why didn't we, why didn't we show more concern for those in these concentration camps because there's some historical evidence that we could have done much more? And so -- but I don't think that's really a question for me. It's a question historically for those who at the time didn't act and do more.

SMERCONISH: Has the president himself reversed course? Because in August of 2013 he tweeted, "The president," in this case he was referring to President Obama, "must get congressional approval before attacking Syria. Big mistake if he does not."

PAUL: You know, I can't answer for the president and he hasn't asked me to be his spokesman yet. He hasn't even asked me to reveal his golf score anything yet. But what I would say is that my hope is that this does not reflect a profound change in his attitude towards foreign policy. He really clearly ran on the Iraq war was a mistake, regime change hasn't worked and that involving ourselves in civil wars throughout the world is really not the job of America's foreign policy.

Some will say maybe this is an exception to the rule, and I hope, frankly, that this is an exception, that he won't believe that we can actually solve the Syrian war militarily. I hope he doesn't believe that we can get involved in Yemen's war frankly, but there's been some evidence that in both Syria and Yemen he's had more of a propensity to get involved than I would have hoped for.

SMERCONISH: I completely understand that your position, Senator Rand Paul's position, is that Congress needs to be a part of this equation. What of the argument that says that the 2001 authorization gives him grounds to do that which he has done, the president is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force, those who aided terrorist attacks, those who harbored organizations? You know the language of the 2001 authorization. Is that enough for him?

PAUL: Well, people who make that argument are not intellectually serious people. In fact, I think they're dishonest people. That resolution specifically says September 11th. It was 9/11. It was the people who perpetrated, helped organized that. And if someone is going to come on television or in any public forum and say Assad had something to do with 9/11, they're frankly just a dishonest person.

No, we cannot let one generation bind another generation. We are now having a new generation of soldiers that might not even have been born or have been barely born at the time of 9/11. We have new legislature which turns over periodically and a representative democracy like we have, you should vote. I mean, the generation of 9/11 certainly shouldn't bind us to a forever war in the Middle East. I think that's absurd, it's wrong-headed and frankly intellectually dishonest.

SMERCONISH: Was there a vital U.S. interest at stake in our retaliation? You know that President Trump has said that the potential for the spread of chemical weapons was that vital U.S. interest. Do you agree with the president?

PAUL: No. I think as horrific as the attacks were and as heartrending as the pictures and the atrocity and the children dying, I don't believe that there was a national interest of the United States. And that's why you have the debate because too often we all -- everybody knows the buzz words, everybody knows the catch words. It was in our vital interest.

Well, that's the conclusion. So we get 100 senators together and we have a debate and 435 members of Congress who have a debate.

[09:10:05] Everybody's going to assert from their position that it either does or does not have a vital national security interest, but that's sort of like weighing the facts in a jury and you can come to different conclusions.

I think it's hard pressed to believe that -- I'm not saying it's a good thing that Syrians would have chemical weapons but it's a hard press to believe that they have the ability to either launch them in any military way to attack us at home or bring them here somehow. It's not a good thing and I think it's good for us as part of the civilized world to unite and say, we shouldn't have these things.

And in some ways we should lead by example and it was always troubling to me that we were the biggest stockpiler of nerve gas. We have a big depot in Kentucky were we've been decontaminating it for 20 some odd years. But who were the people who thought it was a good idea for the U.S. to have the biggest stockpile of nerve gas? So fortunately we never used it, but you don't stockpile that stuff unless you have the intentions some day of using it.

SMERCONISH: On Friday Nikki Haley said that this might be the beginning, there could be more action that we would take. How concerned is Senator Rand Paul that the net-net of all of this might be ground troops, American ground troops in Syria?

PAUL: You know, I asked Nikki Haley very clearly during her confirmation whether or not she would advocate for war not authorized by Congress, and in her testimony to me she said she wouldn't and so I take her at her word. She may not quite be understanding 59 cruise missiles as war, but I certainly hope that she and others will understand that increasing and escalating ground troops in Syria is obviously war.

And, you know, the great irony is, look, we just appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch because all the conservatives said hey, he's an originalist, he's going to obey the original interpretation as the founding fathers believed it. Well, guess what, the founding fathers also believed you should declare a war. So if we are originalist for Neil Gorsuch, couldn't we at least have a few Republicans who are consistent enough to believe in the original interpretation with regard to war?

SMERCONISH: Final question, are we being hypocritical insofar as we acted in the name of those dead children but still refused to take on additional Syrian refugees, many of whom are kids?

PAUL: Well, I think when you look at what creates mass migration, what creates refugees and what creates the death that has happened in Syria, it's war. And so people ask me that and they say, well, you know, aren't we going to help them? Well, if war created it, more war may well create more refugees and more death. I don't understand how more war is going to lead to less refugees. I do think, though, that there is an opening and one of the tragedies of all this Russia craziness right now is it probably does prevent us from having any kind of meaningful dialogue because anybody who wants to talk to Putin about a political settlement and helping Assad go away, anybody who wants to talk about that, myself included, will be called by the McCains of this world a friend of Vladimir Putin.

So as long as we have that kind of stupidity involved in the debate makes it very hard to get to what President Obama said and many other thinking people said, that the answer in Syria is ultimately a political solution.

SMERCONISH: Senator Rand Paul, thank you so much.

PAUL: Thank you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SMERCONISH: I think it's a shot at Senator McCain at the end of the interview. What are your thoughts? Tweet me @smerconish, you go to my Facebook page and I will read responses throughout the course of the program.

Here's something that just got put up on Facebook, let's see. "Wag the dog much?"

Jerome, I'm just saying I'm not -- I'm not buying into it only because the government is saying it to me. I did say on Sirius XM radio program last week it's times like these when a president's numbers are in a tail spin that some of them get trigger happy. You can make up your own mind.

Still to come, after it was revealed there have been millions of dollars paid in sexual harassment settlements for Bill O'Reilly, advertisers are fleeing his top rated FOX News program, but is it an advertisers responsible to police the air waves, or should it be up to the viewing audience?

And just before ordering the strike on Syria, President Trump was meeting with China's President Xi. What message did he convey, meaning President Trump, regarding North Korea?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:18:42] SMERCONISH: President Trump's bombing of Syria occurred as he was hosting Chinese President Xi Jinping for dinner at Mar-a-Lago. During his campaign Trump took a tough stance against China and remember he even flirted with Taiwan, but those positions have virtually vanished in his first few months in office.

So what kind of message did President Trump's military actions send to President Xi about U.S. relations with China, North Korea and beyond.

Much to discuss with my next guest, author of the award-winning, best- selling book, "What the U.S. Can Learn from China." Ann Lee joins me now. She's also an adjunct professor at New York University.

Professor, here's what occurs to me. They're having Dover sole at Mar-a-Lago on Thursday night as this attack commences. Presumably the attack didn't have to take place then, do you think that President Trump was intending to send a message to President Xi at that moment about North Korea?

ANN LEE, AUTHOR, "WHAT THE U.S. CAN LEARN FROM CHINA": Absolutely. So we know that Trump ordered these attacks before his meeting with Xi, and we know that these attacks take months of preparation to put together, so all intelligence -- all the legal arguments for this had already long been assembled and I think it was opportunistically timed to coincide with the Xi meeting as a way to send a strong message to the Chinese that the Trump administration means business when it comes to the issues of North Korea and the South China Seas.

[09:20:16] And we would -- I would say that he was very effective because all the comments coming out of the meeting was that the meetings were very frank and candid. These are statements by Tillerson. And Trump saying that we're going to be cooperating it means that he probably got the assurance from Xi Jinping that the Chinese will agree to demands by the U.S. because it's clear that the Chinese do not want to engage in military confrontation and would seek a diplomatic solution to anything. SMERCONISH: Secretary Tillerson said that we were prepared, I think

his word choice was, to chart our own course. Do you interpret that to mean that it's an acknowledgment that President Xi and the Chinese are not about to reign in Pyongyang?

LEE: Well, according to Chinese media they basically sort of pre- announced before this meeting with Trump that if the U.S. were to go ahead and perform a surgical strike against the North Korean leader, China would not be in a position to stop it because the Chinese would not know when the strike would occur and they wouldn't know how it would occur.

They did say that if U.S. troops were to cross the 38th Parallel, then they would jump into action. And so that is almost a tacit agreement to the U.S. saying that, you know, you have our permission in some respects, if you're going to go forward with something similar to the Syrian attack, but they're going to say if you dare send troops over then that's really, you know, where we draw the line. And so I think the U.S. needs to think about is this something they're willing to take on because North Korea has striking capability against Seoul and Japan. Seoul being very close to the border. And there have been estimates that if North Korea was to retaliate, they could strike Seoul and kill a million citizens and that would be a conservative estimate.

SMERCONISH: And finally, from a Chinese perspective, the concern is twofold, right, about the U.S. taking military action in North Korea. They don't want a U.S. military installation on their border, nor do they want a refugee crises that's propelled by a military strike that then fled -- that causes people to flee into China.

LEE: Absolutely. This is why the Chinese say that this would be where they draw the line, and of course if the U.S. chooses to strike the North Koreans and the North Koreans strike back at Seoul, then that would give pretext for the U.S. to invade North Korea and that would pull China into a slippery slope of going to war against the U.S. this could be the scenario for the beginning of World War III if we pursue this route. So this is a very high stakes game, and so I would say that this is, you know, something I agree with Rand Paul that needs to be discussed and debated, you know, throughout Congress and perhaps the nation because we have some very high stakes here.

And yes, this would be sending a strong signal to China and China certainly, I think, will want to avoid such a scenario and will be more accommodating to President Trump. But, you know, this could also have major stakes for President Xi as well back at home. I think it's no surprise that the Chinese media is trying to paint this as a very positive outcome because if Xi Jinping has to make concessions to the U.S. it would be spun as, you know, something that he's being a statesman about this in order to avoid military confrontation, but it's going to make him quite unpopular back at home. And so that could also cause a lot of uncertainties to unfold from the Chinese side.

SMERCONISH: Understood. Professor, thank you so much for your expertise. We appreciate it. LEE: Thank you for having me.

SMERCONISH: Still to come, there was a nuclear event this week inside the Senate chamber. The GOP changed the voting rules to detonate the Democratic filibuster against Neil Gorsuch.

[09:25:07] I will tell you why the Democrats overplayed their hand. And what Bob Dole just tweeted could have me returning to the GOP. Plus, a media watchdog group successfully campaigned to scare advertisers away from Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. Now they've targeted Bill O'Reilly on FOX News for his sexual harassment settlements, but is that their job or the job of the public?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SMERCONISH: OK. Prediction. The Democrats will regret their filibuster of the Supreme Court nomination of Neil Gorsuch. Charlie Savage had it right in the "Times" earlier this week and here's why.

First of all, the conservative Gorsuch now replaces the conservative Scalia, so the balance of power on the court is not going to shift. It will still be 4-4 with Justice Anthony Kennedy casting the deciding vote.