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Interview With Texas Congressman Will Hurd; White House Divided; New Syria Red Line?; North Korea Defies Trump on Nukes as U.S. Warships Near; Bloodied Passenger Dragged from Overbooked Flight. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired April 10, 2017 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: the Trump doctrine? After the U.S. strike in Syria, is the White House drawing another red line on Bashar al-Assad's brutality? Tonight, growing questions about Mr. Trump's Syrian policy and whether he has a definitive global vision.
Provocative move. As U.S. warships move closer to North Korea, Kim Jong-un could order another nuclear missile test at any time. Are both sides ramping up the possibility for military conflict?
White House divided. The president tells feuding advisers Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner to work out their differences, while a spokesman tries to downplay the dispute and its impact on Mr. Trump's agenda. Is a staff shakeup avoidable or inevitable?
And unfriendly skies. A United Airlines passenger forcibly dragged off the plane after refusing to give up his seat on an overbooked flight. How could this happen? We're going to tell you what the airline is now saying.
We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Tonight, the White House is raising the specter of another U.S. strike in Syria. Press Secretary Spicer suggesting a barrel bomb attack by Bashar al-Assad's regime might also cross a red line for President Trump like the deadly chemical attack did last week. The administration now walking back that remark a bit, insisting there is no change in policy.
This is only adding though to the confusion, as top officials have been sending mixed signals about the president's Syria strategy.
Also tonight, new concerns that North Korea could launch a sixth nuclear test at any moment. Kim Jong-un's regime vowing to accelerate its nuclear weapons program as a U.S. aircraft carrier strike group moves closer to the Korean Peninsula and President Trump explores a full range of options to combat the North Korean threat.
Here at home, the president is celebrating a needed political win with Neil Gorsuch now sworn in as U.S. Supreme Court justice. At the same time, the White House is down playing the rift between top presidential adviser Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner, this after a frustrated Mr. Trump ordered the two men to work out their differences.
And an aviation security officer has now been put on leave tonight after dragging a passenger off a United Airlines plane because he apparently refused to give up his seat on the overbooked flight. We have new details and stunning video of this incident.
This hour, I will talk with a key Republican on House Intelligence Committee and the Foreign Affairs Committee, Congressman Will Hurd.
And our correspondents and analysts are also standing by.
First, let's go to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.
Barbara, there's a new assessment of damage from the Syria airstrike and a lot of uncertainty about what happens next.
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Good evening, Wolf.
The Pentagon today said there was destruction at all of the targets they hit, but they didn't offer a lot of details about how much destruction and yes, indeed, a clear signal that there could even be more military action to come.
STARR (voice-over): As Syrian jets resumed combat operations at the air base the U.S. struck, the Pentagon says the missile strike resulted in damage or destruction to 20 percent of Syria's operational aircraft, plus damage and destruction to fuel, ammunition and air defense capabilities at the site, and confusion about what happens next, with the U.N. ambassador saying one thing about the future of Syria's dictator, telling CNN's "STATE OF THE UNION":
NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: There's not any sort of option where a political solution is going to happen with Assad at the head of the regime.
STARR: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seemingly to say another, as he heads to Russia, Tillerson emphasizing the Trump White House puts a top priority on fighting ISIS.
REX TILLERSON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: We believe the Syrian people will ultimately be able to decide the fate of Bashar al-Assad.
STARR: White House spokesman Sean Spicer acknowledging both goals.
SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We all recognize that that happens and there can be a multipronged approach. We are ensuring that ISIS is contained and there is a de-escalation of the proliferation of chemical weapons at the same time creating the environment for a change in leadership.
STARR: Tillerson, attending the G7 foreign ministers meeting in Italy, says the world cannot stand by and watch. State Department officials tell CNN Tillerson's message in Moscow, Russia bears responsibility for Assad's actions.
And there may be more leverage, as a dossier of responsibility for the nerve agent attack takes shape. According to U.S. officials, Assad either knew about this specific attack or had given commanders standing authority to use nerve agent. More chemical sites in Western Syria likely exist, and scientists are still alive who know how to make nerve agent.
The U.S. also looking for direct evidence Russian commanders on the ground knew about the planned attack.
STARR: And, tonight, there is a full intelligence investigation into exactly that. How much did the Russians know and when did they know it?
U.S. officials are saying it was a Russian drone that flew over the hospital in Idlib, where so many injured people fled to try and get care. And about five hours after that Russian drone flew, an unidentified aircraft dropped another conventional bomb, perhaps trying to destroy evidence of the original chemical attack.
But, still, they are very much looking what they can definitively say about how involved the Russians might have been -- Wolf.
BLITZER: We heard what Sean Spicer said, Barbara, about the damage done to the Syrian air force as a result of those 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles. What are you hearing from your sources at the Pentagon?
STARR: Well, this is a very interesting question. They are saying that 20 aircraft were damaged or destroyed, again, not very specific. Could they be repaired? Could they fly again? Could the Syrians bring in additional aircraft from other areas?
Certainly, all of the above; 20 percent of the operational aircraft damage or destroyed would mean that they had 100 aircraft to begin with. Many open source reports indicate perhaps the Syrians have more than that, but not really clear. You know, they have had problems for years with getting spare parts, maintenance, all of that.
So, certainly a dent, but one of the key things to remember about this U.S. missile strike, much of the damage caused is repairable, and the U.S. knew that going in. They were not trying to destroy it all. They were just trying to put a halt to the Syrian advance of using chemical weapons -- Wolf.
BLITZER: We will continue to check that damage assessment. And we have no independent confirmation, clearly.
Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thank you very much.
Now to the latest on President Trump's red line in Syria and the possibility of another U.S. military strike. Let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Jeff Zeleny.
Jeff, you heard the press secretary, Sean Spicer. He was creating some confusion about the president's so-called red line.
JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: He was indeed, Wolf.
At the White House press briefing today, Sean Spicer was talking in very specific terms about what it would take for the U.S. to retaliate and strike again in Syria. This is what Sean Spicer said, and then I will explain what he said after this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: If you gas a baby, if you put a barrel bomb in to innocent people, I think you will see a response from this president. That's unacceptable.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ZELENY: So, by saying that, he said if you gas a baby or put a barrel bomb in, but then a short time after that, the administration was very worried about drawing a new red line there that is something that would box this administration into a corner, if you will here.
So, an administration official said Sean Spicer misspoke about this, that he is not changing policy at all, that barrel bombs would not constitute any type of action. They're still focusing on those chemical attacks here, Wolf.
But this is all sort of a larger way of saying that this administration is still figuring out what its red line is and what its policy is, because they know, of course, the Obama administration was backed into a corner, boxed in, if you will, about this red line here. But tonight they are saying that barrel bombs alone simply would not cause the U.S. to act again -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes. The Syrian regime, they have been dropping those barrel bombs for years, a lot of them.
On another issue, Jeff, the White House is now trying to downplay all these reports of a serious feud between top advisers Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner. What's the latest?
ZELENY: Wolf, they are indeed.
This something that's been sort of plaguing this administration for most of the last 11 weeks or so, this infighting inside the West Wing. On the Syria policy, it also became an issue as well with chief strategist Bannon arguing against strikes the last week, other advisers arguing for it.
But this all came to head last week, we are told, when the president himself directly said, work it out here. So today at the press briefing, we asked Sean Spicer about that comment. Let's watch. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ZELENY: It must have crossed a line if he said to work it out.
SPICER: Well, I think sometimes -- again, I'm not going to get into what happens internally. But I think sometimes, some things might spill out into the public more than other things.
But there is always going to be a healthy debate internally on a variety of policy issues among the Cabinet, among the staff, to make sure that the president sees every option that is available.
SPICER: He is very confident in the team that he has. They have an unbelievable amount of knowledge. And he enjoys the counsel that they all bring to the table.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ZELENY: It appears this evening, Wolf, that all this infighting is at least on hold for now at the moment.
We will see how long that lasts, of course, here. But the president is trying to get back on track. They are very focused on the first 100 days. We heard the president himself talk about that in the Rose Garden this morning. The White House is as well. His staff and advisers are. So they are trying to at least eliminate some of this infighting.
In the short term, it looks like that Steve Bannon will stay. He has the confidence of the president. Jared Kushner, of course, the senior adviser and son-in-law, he does as well here, Wolf. But there are significant ideological differences and policy differences as well.
But for now at least, we are told that they have mended those fences and have agreed to work on behalf and for the good of this president. We will see how long this detente actually lasts, Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes, good point. Thanks very much, Jeff Zeleny, reporting from the White House.
Let's talk more about the president's Syria policy.
Republican Congressman Will Hurd is joining us. He is a member of the Intelligence and Homeland Security Committees, former clandestine CIA officer as well.
Congressman, thanks very much for joining us.
REP. WILL HURD (R), TEXAS: I'm always glad to be on, Wolf. Happy Monday.
BLITZER: Thank you. You said you think the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, should go.
So, how do you think that can be accomplished? And be specific.
HURD: Well, I think that the missile attacks from a couple of days ago shows that President Trump is willing to use all levers of national power, diplomatic, intelligence, military and economic.
We need to be having a diplomatic engagement with the Russians and make the Russians recognize that Bashar al-Assad is a problem for them. Russia and Iran today kind of signaling their support or their reaffirmation of support for Bashar al-Assad, I think is going to create an additional diplomatic pressure on these two, on Russia and Iran.
And I think one thing that hasn't been talked about is that we still have some economic tools. We have some ability to do sanctions on Russia. If they were involved in this chemical weapons attack, there are tools that we can use unilaterally, but also working to build a coalition of many of our European partners to do that, to put additional pressure on Russia to make sure that they back away from their support of Bashar al-Assad.
BLITZER: Were they involved with the Syrians in launching that chemical weapons attack at Idlib that killed all those civilians, including a lot of children?
HURD: Well, this is what our intelligence sources are going to be reviewing and looking at to make sure that they have a clear understanding of what happened and what did go on, because I think that their reaffirmation of support to Assad is condoning these chemical attacks in the future.
And I think that is unforgivable and this is something that we can't let stand.
BLITZER: But, as you know, Trump administration right now seems to be sending mixed messages when it comes to the future of Bashar al-Assad. Is that troubling to you that the secretary of state, the U.N. ambassador, the White House press secretary, they are not necessarily all saying the same public things?
HURD: The term -- the word I would use is that their strategy is evolving, but they are looking at this from a strategic viewpoint.
We oftentimes have to respond to realities on the ground, and sometimes that doesn't fit within a larger strategic framework. But the conversations that are going on now, the diplomatic engagement that Secretary Tillerson is going to be doing in the next few days is now coming from a position of strength, because President Trump has shown and proven that he is willing to use this military tool and lever of power in order to deal with Syria and Bashar al-Assad.
BLITZER: The White House earlier in the day seemed to be drawing a new red line, the press secretary, Sean Spicer saying -- and I'm quoting him now -- "If you put a barrel bomb into innocent people, then President Trump is going to react." Assad, as you know, he has been using barrel bombs for years very, very frequently, slaughtering people with the -- the carnage has been awful. But does this signal to you a new red line? Because they seemed to walking that back later in the day.
HURD: Well, I think it signifies that they are thinking about it and that this is a potential part of strategy that outlines how we would respond militarily to what Assad and the Russians do within Syria.
We have to remember that there is a refugee problem from Syria because of Bashar al-Assad. There is an ISIS problem in Syria because Bashar al-Assad created the civil war which created the vacuum that allowed ISIS to come in.
But Bashar al-Assad needs to go. In order to prevent a terrorist group like ISIS from training and equipping themselves and potentially attacking us and our allies, there has to be some level of stability in Syria. And I don't see any scenario in which Bashar al-Assad would be able to provide that level of stability.
BLITZER: But we heard also from the White House press secretary, also from Pentagon officials, they are claiming, we have no independent confirmation of this -- and I want you to tell me what you know -- that these 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles either destroyed or severely damaged about 29 percent of the Syrian air force, the Syrian planes.
What do you know about that? Is that true?
HURD: Well, there was definitely -- they are doing a bomb damage assessment as we speak.
I think the attack was successful. It was restrained, it was specific, it was timely. And I think we can all walk away saying that that was a good move.
We also need to be talking about, why did Assad and forces use these chemical weapons in the first place? What were the realities on the ground that Assad was responding to? And many have talked about how he was concerned about rebel forces approaching and that he was concerned about losing additional grounds to the rebels.
So, the use of chemical weapons is not necessarily a show of strength on behalf of the Syrian president, but a show of weakness. And the fact that we were able to damage and take out a key reason of how Assad has been able to repel the rebels, is the use of his air force and the use of Russian air force as well, I think that is a good thing to happen to talk about having Assad leave and the rebels being able to take additional ground.
BLITZER: Well, I'm going to take a quick break, and then we're going to resume our conversation, but have you been told that 20 percent of the Syrian planes, warplanes, have been either destroyed or severely damaged?
HURD: Sorry, Wolf, I don't have a specific number for you.
BLITZER: All right. Stand by, Congressman. We are going to take a quick break, resume our discussion right after this.
BLITZER: We're back with Congressman Will Hurd. He's a Republican on the Intelligence and Homeland Security Committees.
Congressman, the USS Carl Vinson, an aircraft carrier, the entire battle group, in fact, is headed towards the Korean Peninsula in response to recent North Korean provocations. Do you support this move?
HURD: I do.
And that battle carrier group has been in that region before. I have been saying this for a long time. Kim Jong-un, the dictator of North Korea, will stop at nothing in order to have an intercontinental ballistic missile.
The number of tests that he's done over last year-and-a-half has increased significantly. And we have to be prepared for this eventuality. And this is a real opportunity to achieve security cooperation with the Chinese on North Korea.
We have to get the Chinese to understand that Kim Jong-un is a larger threat to China than any U.S.-South Korea relationship.
BLITZER: President Trump has warned, as you know, that the U.S. would be prepared to act unilaterally if necessary. All options are on the table.
Would you support a U.S. unilateral move against North Korea?
HURD: I think we have to reserve all of our tools on the table. That includes a unilateral response.
I think, when it comes to North Korea, that we would be able to establishment a coalition of other countries that would support this move. We have to remember that it is not just the missile program that we have to be worried about when it comes to North Korea. They have long-range artillery that can kill hundreds of thousands of people in Seoul within a matter of minutes.
They have the world's largest special forces that could come across the DMZ at any moment. We have a special relationship with South Korea and Japan to come to their defense if one of their adversaries like North Korea was able to attack.
He has the ability, if he does get an ICBM, and can put a nuclear weapon on top of it, to kill tens of millions of people within a matter of minutes. This is a real menace. This is a real problem. And, again, I think we can achieve true cooperation with the Chinese on this threat.
For them to continue to stop buying coal from North Korea would be a good move. They could actually change and tighten up some of their legal ways that the North Koreans are using Chinese business practices to get in elements into their country to support their weapons programs.
China is North Korea's most important line to the rest of the world, and we need the Chinese to be able to step up to the table on this.
BLITZER: Yes, a lot of people have now included this North Korean threat represents potentially the gravest national security threat facing the United States right now.
Congressman Will Hurd, thanks for joining us.
HURD: Wolf, always a pleasure.
BLITZER: Just ahead, we will have much more on those U.S. warships heading toward the Korean Peninsula and how Kim Jong-un is responding to new pressure from President Trump.
Also, overbooked flights, they're common, but this stunning turn of events is certainly not. Why was a passenger forcibly dragged off a plane? A statement from United Airlines is prompting even more outrage.
BLITZER: Tonight, the White House is suggesting that Syria will never be stable and secure as long as Bashar al-Assad is in power, but still no definitive declaration on whether or not the president is committed to regime change after ordering direct military action against the Assad regime.
[18:30:22] Let's bring in our team of experts. And David Swerdlick, the press secretary, Sean Spicer, today said this about the administration's vision for a future Syria. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I can't imagine a stable and peaceful Syria where Bashar al-Assad is in power.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: But yesterday, Secretary of State Tillerson said it's up to the Syrian people to make that kind of decision. So there seems to be some confusion.
DAVID SWERDLICK, ASSISTANT EDITOR, "WASHINGTON POST": There's a disconnect. And when Secretary Tillerson said that before the chemical attack, it didn't make that much sense then. It doesn't necessarily make that much sense now. But on the other hand, it's not clear to me that Press Secretary Sean
Spicer wanted to go to all the way to basically laying out there that a prerequisite for peace or resolving that Syrian civil war is the removal of Assad, because it's not clear that the administration yet is committed to regime change.
BLITZER: Andrew Tabler, you're an expert on Syria. As you know, President Obama, he struggled for nearly six years dealing with this horrendous war that's been going on there; 400,000 people have been killed. But it presumably could even be more complicated now for President Trump.
ANDREW TABLER, FELLOW, WASHINGTON INSTITUTE FOR NEAR EAST POLICY: It can be. Certainly, there are so many other international players now. Russia, Iran to a very heavy degree. Also, a lot of foreign fighters on all sides. Jihadists and so on. So it's very, very complicated.
But it's very interesting that the strike itself sent a fairly narrow message. It was specifically targeted at the use of saran in Syria, and I think they'll use that as a thin end of the wedge and go from there.
BLITZER: What does it send, Rebecca Berg, the message to various players out there, that the administration is speaking with different voices?
REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it sends that message, certainly, that maybe we don't know who is in charge. Foreign nations wouldn't necessarily know who to take at their word. Should you trust the secretary of state? Should you trust the White House? It's not clear what the answer there would be.
But it also projects sort of an element of disarray and maybe a little bit of just how new this White House is at dealing with matters of foreign policy, dealing with matters of national security. There aren't a lot of people in this administration who have been here before, and I think that shows in these conflicting statements, Wolf.
BLITZER: Phil Mudd, we did hear a remarkable statement from Sean Spicer at the White House briefing today. I jumped up when I heard this. But listen. Listen to what he said.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SPICER: If you gas a baby, if you put a barrel bomb into innocent people, I think you can -- you will see a response from this president. That is unacceptable.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: That sounded like a new red line. Not just the poison gas but barrel bombs, which they've been using those for years.
PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: They have. I think the messaging has been confused from day one. The president's move -- and I supported it last week -- was wildly
popular across America. He gave his staff a softball, and they whiffed. Since that strike, we've gotten barrel bombs; we've gotten regime change. We've gotten "We're not doing regime change; it's the Syrian people." We've gotten "Our priority is ISIS." The messaging has been horrible.
Let me give you a bottom line, Wolf, because it's confused out of Washington. They've got two choices. If you want to take out a regime with regime change, that means civil war. Insurgent groups and terrorists benefit. They profit from civil war, because that means governments fall, security services fall, and chaos reigns.
If you want to prioritize ISIS -- and this is the message nobody wants to tell the American people -- you need stable leadership and a stable army and security service. That means Assad is staying. So you make the choice, and you tell the American people without all this gobbeldy-gook about barrel bombs. If you want to take out ISIS, Assad's going to be around. If you want to take Assad out, you're going to have civil war and chaos. You make the call, but in the past four days, we got both, and you can't have both.
BLITZER: Andrew, give us some context on the use by the Bashar al- Assad regime of these barrel bombs which contain shrapnel and nails and chlorine, and they slaughter these people.
TABLER: That's right. So they're improvised explosive devices, essentially, from the air. And they -- they vary in form.
I think what the -- Spicer's comments today seemed to indicate was that Syrian regime has been found on at least three different occasions by the U.N. to have used and deployed chlorine. So I think that is, you know, the big worry, if the regime continues to use these chemical weapons. But in the overall fight of the Syrian war, to -- barrel bombs are part of the regime's major form of offense.
BLITZER: And they've been using them for years, right?
TABLER: Years and years and I don't expect that they're going to stop it.
But the question is now, do they stop using chemical weapons. And, you know, Syria is the only violator of the chemical weapons convention ever, in its 25-year history. And it's done so on multiple occasion. And this particular occasion, they were using saran, which was supposed to have been destroyed.
[18:35:00] BLITZER: Didn't the Russians tell the U.S., John Kerry among others, that all those chemical weapons supply depots in Syria were destroyed?
TABLER: Correct. And it all gets down to the OCPW, which oversees this, long suspected that the Syrian government did not disclose all of their chemical weapons stockpiles. And this indicates that the OCPW is correct. BLITZER: And Phil Mudd, the key question a lot of people are
wondering: did the Russians at least know about the use of this poison gas against these civilians in Idlib; were they complicit? And that's something the U.S. intelligence community presumably is going to be able to determine.
MUDD: I'm not sure that's true, Wolf. I can -- after 25 years in that community, I can assure you they're looking at the problem to be certain about whether Russia was complicit. I would suspect they would be. You can't be that tightly wound with the Syrian military without knowing what they're doing at a tactical level.
But if you want a hundred percent guarantee, which is what you want to bring in the Oval Office, I don't believe you're going to get that in this case.
Let me take one further step. We stuck 59 missiles in the course of three to four minutes in one air compound. In Russia's brazen support for Syria dictator, if we think that's going to turn around the Syrians' willingness to use brutal methods against her civilians, we've got to think again. I support what the president did, but this has got to be backed up over time.
BLITZER: How does Secretary of State Tillerson, David, going to handle all -- he's meeting with the Russian foreign minister in Moscow this week.
SWERDLICK: Right. Well, take this issue of whether or not the Russians knew or turned a blind eye. Potentially what, as you said, our military and our intelligence is looking into right now.
If that were, in fact, the case, it has to be found out, because that would have meant, at a minimum, that Russia sort of abdicated its responsibility as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.
On the other hand, if you're Secretary Tillerson, you go into a meeting in Moscow, and you're not absolutely sure how far the administration is willing to go, that's a very delicate thing to bring up in these kinds of meetings.
BLITZER: All right. We've got more to discuss. Everybody stand by.
Just ahead, United Airlines' explanation only adding to the outrage. We're going to have the latest on why a passenger was forcibly removed from an overbooked flight, and what happens now.
[18:41:58] BLITZER: Tonight the White House says the president is very confident that Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner can put their rift behind them after Mr. Trump told his top advisers to work it out.
We're back with our analysts.
And, you know, Rebecca, the -- what does it say that Steve Bannon's influence at least appears to have been diminished? BERG: Well, it tells us something that we already knew about Donald
Trump, that he values family and the loyalty that they bring with him. So he's running the White House like he ran his business. This is a family business, essentially. So part of this we already knew.
But it also underscores these different ideologies that you have constantly in competition in this White House. You have what you might call the right wing of the West Wing with Steve Bannon and Mike Pence and Mick Mulvaney and others; and then you have sort of this New York Trump set with Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, Gary Cohn, Dina Powell. And they're constantly clashing in terms of personalities but also in terms of ideas. And you're seeing this come to bear in the relationship between Kushner and Bannon.
BLITZER: Could they find common ground here?
SWERDLICK: Maybe. But they need to do it quickly. And to Rebecca's point, right, you have these competing styles and ideologies. On substance neither of these guys is like a government slash or small government guy. So if they go for something like infrastructure on policy, maybe that's something that they can work with.
Or on politics, they need to find a common foil. In the campaign, they had Hillary Clinton to mutually lower an attack. Now they don't have that. They need something.
BLITZER: I assume you think it's good -- correct me if I'm wrong, Phil -- that the generals; the secretary of defense, General Mattis; the national security adviser, General McMaster, that they seem to be elevated right now in the decision-making progress on these critically important national security issues.
MUDD: Boy, you got that one right, Wolf. If you look at what they bring to the table, any time you get a new administration, rightly, the American people elect big ideas people. That's the president of the United States. But big ideas have to face reality. And I think both of them, two generals, bring a lot of reality.
One issue: this conversation in the past three or four days about regime change in Syria, these guys are going to know. We tried this in the '50s in Africa and Southeast Asia. We tried it with Cuba. We did it with Iran in 1959. Fast forward to 2003, we did it with Iraq. WE supported it in Libya. You tell me which of those was a success. We swung and missed on each one of them.
So I think if there's going to be big ideas about what do we do with Assad, he's got to go, those guys are going to bring experience in the field to say you can do that, but beware of the consequences. They're the consequence guys.
BLITZER: The generals, they clearly are influential right now, Andrew. You're an expert on Syria. You spent your whole professional career studying Syria. Are there individuals inside the Trump administration who are expert on Syria?
TABLER: You know, in terms of the actual expertise, the national security staff is there. A lot of them are hold-overs from the Obama administration. The expertise is there. I think that, you know, as Phil mentioned, the experience of those in the military that they bring to the table is very solid. It's very -- very nuts and bolts. And you can see with this strike they didn't go really wide; they went very narrow, as the narrow end of the wedge. They're concerned about Syria, but overall, for the moment, are focusing on C-dot.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: How do they know that 20 percent supposedly of the Syrian air force, their fighter jets, were either damaged or destroyed by those 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles?
TABLER: Yes, I can't be -- I can't be sure. But I think it's based on the intelligence assessment post-strike.
BLITZER: Do you buy it?
TABLER: Yes, I do. I think the Syrian air force was knocked down significantly anyway. It was bolstered by the Russians. No Russian jets seem to have been destroyed.
So, look, the regime change has problems. But we have to admit something -- we are headed in the way back to like Iraq in 1990s. But the difference is that Assad's regime is far weaker that Saddam's regime. And that's the reason why Assad is repeatedly turning to strategic weapons like sarin, like chlorine, to try to defeat his population.
BLITZER: Does he have more?
TABLER: He does. Well, this is a real question, what did he disclose? What didn't he disclose? It's very clear that he didn't disclose all of his sarin stockpiles. And getting chlorine is not hard at all. It's an industrial chemical.
BLITZER: You think he will do that again, Phil Mudd? Do you think he'll use that kind banned poison gas to kill civilians?
PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: We have an important distinction we just talked about. That is chlorine versus sarin. Chlorine is very easy to acquire. I think we will see chlorine used again.
If I had to wager on sarin, I would say yes, simply because the cost so far in a civil war that's six years in has been relatively low for him. Remember the attack years ago resulted in 1,400 dead, 1,400. In this case, we have fewer than 100. He paid nothing a few years ago when he used it.
So, I think he's going to look at the missile attack and say, if that's cost, so far, the cost isn't high enough yet.
BLITZER: But next time, David, if the president is faced with a reality that sarin gas is used and civilians, women and children and kids are killed, he may not necessarily just limit it to the Tomahawk cruise missiles. DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: No. I mean, one
advantage of doing this limited strike is you have somewhere to go up from there in terms of a response. The only problem, though, is that you have to figuring out in advance how far you're willing to go up to and including trying to oust a regime and then dealing with whatever consequences there are from that.
BLITZER: And he's facing an American public that's sort of, as you know, Rebecca, war weary.
REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: That's right. I mean, Trump ran an America first campaign for a reason. He criticized our engagement in the Iraq War, promised that he as president would not engage us in that sort of quagmire to use his phrasing and his view. And so, he is absolutely risking especially his core supporters, will they turn on him if he goes any further.
BLITZER: All right, guys, good discussion. We're going to stay on top of this.
Also coming up, with U.S. warships on move right now, will Kim Jong-un respond by pushing the nuclear test button once again? We're going to have the latest on the North Korea threat.
And the story behind the pictures that are creating a firestorm right now. We are getting new information on the passenger who was dragged off an overbooked flight.
[18:52:28] BLITZER: Tonight, as the U.S. carrier and its battle group head toward the North Korean peninsula, Kim Jong-un is responding with a fresh show of defiance. The North Korea dictator is vowing to accelerate his nuclear weapons program and experts are warning he could launch his sixth nuclear test at any moment.
Let's bring in CNN's Brian Todd.
Brian, President Trump's national security advisor says there's a full range, his words, full range of options to deal with the North Korean threat.
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That is what the administration is saying, Wolf. Officials telling us nothing is off the table. And given the recent U.S. missile strike in Syria, analysts say Kim Jong- un is now facing something he hasn't seen before, the very real prospect that North Korea could be hit with U.S. firepower.
Tonight, a key question is: how will Kim respond?
TODD (voice-over): Tonight, an armada of American warships is steaming toward the Korean Peninsula. The USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group, with more than 60 fighter planes and 5,000 personnel is on route from Singapore, deployed a U.S. official tells CNN in response to Kim Jong-un's recent provocations.
MAJ. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: The carrier battle group sends one very strong message, that is the United States reserves the right and has the capability to immediately respond if North Korea gets frisky.
TODD: The deployment of the Vinson strike group comes after North Korea launched an extended range Scud missile in the recent days. Kim's regime has also conducted several missile engine tests recently designed, experts say, to speed up his plans to have a long-range nuclear tipped ballistic missile capable of hitting the United States.
But the deployment of U.S. warships also comes just after President Trump launched Tomahawk missiles into Syria, which analysts say likely changed the calculation of America's rivals from the Russians to the volatile young dictator in Pyongyang.
PATRICK CRONIN, CENTER FOR A NEW AMERICAN SECURITY: I think for the first time in his life, Kim Jong-un has to imagine that the American military might could hit the North Korean homeland. And before the Syrian strike, I don't think he thought this was possible.
TODD: Alongside the aircraft carrier Vinson, there will be two guided missile destroyers and a guided missile cruiser which can track and shoot down the types of ballistic missiles Kim has been testing.
Experts say Kim's forces likely won't directly confront the American strike group, but they say he could respond in other dangerous ways.
MARKS: It could be a little bit asymmetric. It's not beyond him to launch special forces. He could launch an artillery barrage at one of the outer islands on the shoulders of the South.
[18:55:01] He's done that as a matter of routine.
CRONIN: Now, Kim Jong-un may decide this is a time to fire several more missiles toward Japan in order to test their capabilities, in order to provoke the United States, in order to provoke South Korea in the midst of its election.
TODD: Now, what's got military officials and analysts worried tonight is if a mistake is made, if Kim's forces launch some kind of missile test while the U.S. carrier group is there and inadvertently put the carrier group in danger, then they say the American forces would likely respond by taking out the missile and the launch pad, which might then trigger a North Korean assault on South Korea -- Wolf. Very dangerous.
BLITZER: A dangerous situation.
Brian, adding to the tension, there are important events coming up this week on North Korea which might prompt Kim Jong-un to launch some sort of provocation, right? TODD: That's right, Wolf. On Tuesday, North Korea, which is right
about now, they have the gathering of the supreme people's assembly. That's an important vote on some of Kim's proposals.
But the real window for a possible missile launch or a nuclear test analysts say could come this Saturday. It's called the Day of the Sun. It's the most important holiday of the year in North Korea. It is the birthday of the founder of North Korea, Kim's grandfather, Kim Il-sung.
BLITZER: All right, Brian. Thanks very much. Brian Todd reporting.
Meanwhile, a public relations crisis tonight for United Airlines over a widely seen video showing a bloody passenger being dragged from an overbooked flight.
Our aviation correspondent Rene Marsh is here with details.
Rene, overbooking is common, but something extraordinary happened this time.
RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Right. I've never seen anything like this.
This is was not an unruly passenger, but yet you see him being dragged from the plane by his arm as if he's a criminal. Tonight, the officer seen dragging that passenger is on administrative leave and the Department of Transportation which protects passenger rights is reviewing the incident to determine if United Airlines violated any rules.
MARSH (voice-over): A United Airlines passenger was dragged off an overbooked flight from Chicago to Louisville when he refused to give up his seat Sunday night.
Passengers were horrified as they saw three Chicago airport police officers board the plane and yank the man from his seat. His head hit the arm rest and blood flowed from his mouth as he was pulled down the aisle.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh my God! Look at what you're doing with him.
MARSH: Witnesses say the flight crew was trying to free up seats for United Airlines employees.
TYLER BRIDGES, PASSENGER ON UNITED FLIGHT #3411: Once they dragged the guy off, then subsequently the United employees come on the plane. The other passengers were just berating the employees, saying things like, "you should be ashamed of yourself, you should be embarrassed to work for this company."
MARSH: In a statement, United said the flight, quote, "was overbooked. Normally when this occurs, passengers are asked to voluntarily give up their seats for compensation and the situation is resolved. However, this was not the case on Sunday night's flight and United was forced into an involuntary de-boarding situation."
Perhaps the compensation was not good enough. The airline didn't get all the volunteers it needed so its computers picked which passenger to kick off. Families and unaccompanied minors were given priority to keep their seats. It's unclear what the offer actually was, but passenger rights activist Charlie Leocha says the airline should have offered the maximum.
CHARLIE LEOCHA, PRESIDENT, TRAVELERS UNITED: The maximum of deny boarding which the government requires you to pay is $1,350 in cash. They could have offered the maximum. And that would have taken care of the problem.
MARSH: The incident sparked outrage on social media. One person tweeting, "United Airlines is pleased to announce new seating on all domestic flights. In addition to United first, we introduce fight club."
The backlash so fierce the airline's CEO was force in had to respond tweeting, "I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conducts and our own detailed review of what happened."
(on camera): Was the passenger wrong in any way for refusing to get off?
LEOCHA: I don't think he was wrong. I think -- my only way of saying he's wrong is -- well, I've never seen this happen before. I've never seen a passenger roughed up and dragged off a plane to put a flight attendant on. I mean, that's just idiocy.
MARSH: Well, Chicago's airport police admit the officers seen in that video, quote, "was not in accordance with standard operating procedure."
We should note, it is in the fine print an airline can make a passenger give up their seat if the flight is overbooked, but, Wolf, it's the way this man was removed from the aircraft that really is sparking a lot of outrage.
BLITZER: Yes. They would have spent a $1,000 and offered that message money or others --
MARSH: Or more money.
BLITZER: Yes. I'm sure there would have been a lot of people ready to get off that plane. Really a stupid decision by those folks who did what they did.
Rene, thank you very, very much.
That's it for me. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.