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Putin Compares U.S. Strikes In Syria To Iraq War; Tillerson Rips Russia Just Before Arrival In Moscow; War Of Words: Putin, Tillerson Duel Amid Moscow Trip; United CEO: Passenger "Disruptive And Belligerent" Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired April 11, 2017 - 11:00   ET




POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Poppy Harlow. "AT THIS HOUR" with Kate Bolduan begins right now.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan. We are following breaking news with the crisis in Syria and continued provocations from North Korea, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson may have the toughest job in the world right now and is today facing his toughest meeting yet.

Arriving in Moscow, sitting down with Russian leaders just hours after criticizing Russia's support of Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad, and defending the United States missile strikes last week.

Even before Tillerson landed, Russian President Vladimir Putin was already firing back comparing the U.S. strike last week to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

And the Russian Foreign Ministry says relations with the U.S. have not been this bad since the end of the cold war. So what can Tillerson really do in these high stakes meetings?

Let's get straight over to CNN's senior diplomatic correspondent, Michelle Kosinski in Moscow right now. So Michelle, this appears to be the first time that Putin has not planned to meet with the new secretary of state visiting Russia. Is that in and of itself supposed to send a message? What are you hearing?

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: Definitely. That's a huge thing. To the point that originally the State Department had it kind of penciled in on Secretary Tillerson's schedule that he was going to meet with Putin after he met with Lavrov, and then it would be sort of solidified later with an exact time.

Well, now the kremlin has not extended the invitation to have that meeting at all. So yes, the message it sends is this relationship is pretty much in the gutter right now. What can either side do to try to make it better? The words that are being exchanged on either side are not exactly helping. We see President Putin himself today in an unrelated statement -- he is meeting with his Italian counterpart, and starts talking about what it sounds like Russia and the Assad regime in Syria are being framed by rebels on the ground for these chemical attacks.

Comparing it to the situation in Iraq in 2003 with weapons of mass destruction. Putin is saying that he knows of other provocations that are being planned in other parts of Syria. That could lead to more U.S. air strikes that would then be blamed on the Assad regime and possibly on Russia.

So we see Russia repeatedly over the course of days now take responsibility off of themselves, and even off of the Assad regime, and what we hear from the U.S. and from Secretary of State Tillerson is that this needs to change.

U.S., though, going into this meeting tomorrow is not using some of the same strong language we've heard over the last couple of days. I mean, it's not as if Tillerson is saying Assad must go or talking regime change.

He's saying things like we hope he's not part of that equation when the Syrian people have to decide for themselves what their politics is going to be. We see no role for him. So it's a little bit couched there. Here's part of what he said.


REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: Russia has really aligned itself with the Assad regime, the Iranians, and Hezbollah. Is that a -- is that a long-term alliance that serves Russia's interest or would Russia prefer to realign with the United States, with other western countries, and Middle East countries who are seeking to resolve the Syrian crisis?


KOSINSKI: So, when Tillerson was asked over the weekend are you going to sit down and give Russia an ultimatum that they have to drop support for Assad right now, his response was, well, we're calling on Russia to change its course -- Kate.

BOLDUAN: All right, Michelle, high stakes and just the stakes getting higher as the hours tick by and Tillerson lands in Moscow. Thanks so much. She's got her eye on that there.

Let's talk about this and everything this all really means with South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham. He is joining me right now. Senator, thanks so much for coming in.


BOLDUAN: As Michelle was laying out, this is an important meeting, maybe the toughest job in the world that Rex Tillerson has right now as he arrives in Russia for these meetings tomorrow. What, from your perspective, should be the message that Secretary Tillerson takes to Russia?

GRAHAM: That when you say Assad did not launch this chemical attack you're wrong. We know he did. We hold you accountable for not disarming his chemical weapons cache as you promised. There's no doubt in my mind, Kate that Russia aided and abetted this attack. They did not disarm Assad of his chemical weapons. This attack was launched from an air base where there are Russian troops present. So just let the Russians know that we don't believe the lies you are telling and we are never going to believe them.

[11:05:05]BOLDUAN: You said aided and abetted, but do you have any reason to believe or any knowledge -- any reason to believe that the Russians knew about the chemical attack beforehand?

GRAHAM: I have every reason to believe that they intentionally left chemical weapons in the hands of Assad. It's impossible for me to believe that Russia operates at the same air base where the chemical weapons were stored and the attack was launched from and they had no knowledge of it.

They either incredibly incompetent or they are complicit, probably they are complicit. They have attacked hospitals. When war criminal policing another will never work and when Secretary Tillerson says he hopes that Russia will realign itself to the western democracies and breakaway from Syria and Iran, with all due respect, I like Secretary Tillerson, that's pretty naive.

Russia's Putin -- Putin's regime is very much aligned with Syria and Iran and the way they do business. They will never break away until the cost of doing business is too high. If you want Russia to abandon Assad, you have to create cause for Russia.

BOLDUAN: Well, but Senator, I mean, that's a major charge against Russia right now because senior administration officials when asked that very question, if Russia had knowledge of the chemical attack beforehand, this is all they have said. They say at this time there's no U.S. intelligence community consensus that Russia had foreknowledge of the Syrian chemical attack. You say it's there?

GRAHAM: Well, here's my belief. I believe that the Russians did not overlook the chemical weapons cache that exists in Syria today at that air base. That they are complicit with Assad. They want him to have an upper hand. They've been helping him stay in power by bombing hospitals, committing war crimes themselves.

BOLDUAN: But do you think that they knew that Assad was going to take that step beforehand?

GRAHAM: I don't know. But I find it hard to believe they didn't know he had chemical weapons. I find it hard to believe that they could be on the same air base and have no knowledge of a chemical weapons cache on the base and that they would eventually launch airplanes with chemical weapons.

You know, when it comes to Russia, quit having your head in the sand. Putin's a war criminal. Assad's a war criminal. They're birds of a feather. If you wanted to break Russia away from Assad, make them pay a heavier price than they are paying today for backing them.

BOLDUAN: Even at this point after the strike, do you think the president's head is in the sand about Putin?

GRAHAM: No. I think this strike was a game changer. There's a new sheriff in town. I hope North Korea is watching. Let me tell you this, if I were you I would be reluctant to take Trump on if I were an adversary of the United States. He's very unpredictable. He's subject to using military force when he thinks it's justified.

I would not dally at all with Trump. Here's what I think will happen. I think trump will get more realistic about Russia. We need to sanction them for what they did in our election, aiding and abetting in a chemical attack.

I hope we'll have safe havens for the opposition -- members of the opposition so they don't get barrel bombed in the future. You see a change in policy here. Sean Spicer said don't use chemical weapons or barrel bombs. I hope --

BOLDUAN: But then they walked that back. They walked that back. Then the White House put out a statement after the barrel bomb kind of addition, moving the red line which would be a huge escalation if barrel bombs were the red line now. They walked that back saying there's no change in posture.

That gets to what we faced really since the -- since the strike by the United States. A lot of mixed messages coming from this White House on issues, especially like the issue of Assad. Should Assad stay? Should Assad go?

You talk to Nikki Haley, you talk to Rex Tillerson. You get two different answers. Do you understand what Trump's policy is towards Assad right now?

GRAHAM: I think it's clear after Sunday and today what Tillerson said was very clear to me that there's no place for Assad in Syria. The Syrian people won't accept him as their leader. He slaughtered about 500,000. He's a puppet of the Iranians so no heir of government in the region will accept him.

It's impossible for Assad to stay in power in Syria. How he goes, but I would suggest we declare a safe haven so the Syrian people can live without being barrel bombed and attacked by chemical weapons.

That when we take ISIL down, which should be the number one priority to destroy the caliphate, that we begin to train Free Syrian opposition members, well vetted, NATO, Arab countries begin to train the opposition so they can take Assad on and create a change of military power on the ground. That's how he gets pushed out. Russia won't fight to the death for Assad.

BOLDUAN: Do you think barrel bombs should be the red line now?

GRAHAM: Yes. I think -- I would ground the Syrian Air Force --

BOLDUAN: That's a huge escalation, right? You acknowledge that's a huge escalation, right?

[11:10:04]GRAHAM: Yes. It's long overdue. Here's what I would tell President Trump, you did a great thing by enforcing the chemical weapons violation. It's not about how you killed the babies, it's the fact that you're slaughtering innocent people through air power.

If it were not for the Syrian Air Force, Russia and Iran working together, the opposition would have taken Assad down a long time ago. So my advice for President Trump is to tell Assad your days of using the Syrian Air Force to indiscriminately bomb civilians and bomb the opposition's hospitals are over.

That I would declare a safe zone. A safe haven and tell the Russians if you cross this line, the Assad air force, if you cross this line, you'll be shot down. That would allow people in Europe from Syria to go back to Syria.

The best thing we can do for Syria is create a safe haven inside of Syria so that women are not raped and murdered, babies are not barrel bombed and chemically attacked. That safe haven to me is the key to going forward. If this is one and done, I don't think we accomplished the goal. We have to follow up.

BOLDUAN: Here's part of the issue here. We've heard from a lot of folks in the administration, there have been some mixed messages. The one person we have not heard on specifically what is the United States policy towards Syria on these various issues is the president himself. Do you want to hear from the president more specifically, Senator? Do you think he -- do you think the American people are owed that?

GRAHAM: Well, let me tell you, I'm proud of what the president did. By striking back against Assad for using chemical weapons, he's enforcing the treaty that Assad signed up to in 2013.


GRAHAM: But here's the test for this president. If they use the same air base, if they keep using the same air base and other air bases to indiscriminately kill civilians with barrel bombs and other conventional weapons, then we'll never get Assad out of power. The only way Assad goes is when the Syrian people get some help from the western world and the Arab nations that they border.

BOLDUAN: Right. But does the president need to lay that out? Do you want to hear the president speak publicly about what his specific position is towards Assad? What his specific position is towards if barrel bombs are the red line now? Do you want to hear that publicly?

GRAHAM: Yes. What I want the president to do is connect Syria to American national security interests. It is in our national security interests that Assad not stay in power because he's a puppet of the Iranians. The Ayatollah is very much an enemy of the region and the United States.

If you leave him in power, you're giving Damascus to Iran. He's a recruiting tool for al Qaeda and ISIL. Sunni extremists would love Assad to be in power because they can recruit in perpetuity.

I would like the president to make the case that Assad has to go, it's in our national security interest that he go, that the caliphate, ISIL has to be destroyed, and that we are going to accelerate the demise of ISIL.

We are going to create safe havens for the Syrian people so they're no longer be slaughtered in the future. We will help them rebuild their army, the Free Syrian Army, and they'll go after Assad, that's how he leads.

Yes, I want a policy that's real clear. Assad must go. You can no longer use the Syrian Air Force against the opposition without consequence. And that we're going to train the opposition aligned with Arab countries and NATO to create --

BOLDUAN: Are you comfortable hearing that from Sean Spicer at the podium? Are you comfortable hearing that policy articulated in various degrees of clarity from the U.N. ambassador or secretary of state or do you want to hear it from the president?

GRAHAM: At the end of the day, the president has to make the case for what I just said, what is the policy of the United States regarding Assad? I believe after the attack it's pretty clear from Ambassador Haley and Secretary Tillerson, we put the puzzle together that the Trump administration believes Assad has to go.

I think it's pretty clear they view the Russians differently. If you don't believe the Russians aided and abetted Assad, that's pretty naive. Here's what I would tell the president, it's not how the babies die, it's the fact that Assad is just slaughtering his own people.

He's changed the military equation on the ground by using air power with the help of Russia and Iran. If you want to reset Syria, you have to tell Russia and Iran you are no longer going to be able to help Assad kill the opposition without push back.

BOLDUAN: One more question about Russia, since Secretary Tillerson is on the ground there. It's customary for President Putin to meet with secretaries of state when they visit. As far as we know that will not happen. Michelle Kosinski says they have not extended that invitation. To use your phraseology from the weekend, is that an f-u to the United States?

GRAHAM: You know, I think he's trying to send that, but Putin is a weak figure when you look at it. He really is dominating his country by killing opposition. He's stolen his people blind. By not meeting with Tillerson he's trying to act tough, but it actually shows his weakness.

[11:15:07]The fact that he won't meet with Tillerson tells me that Trump did the right thing. And if Trump really wants to get Russia's attention. Here's what you need to do, you need to --

BOLDUAN: Really? How does it mean he did the right thing? Don't you want to force Russia to the negotiating table? How does them not meeting after this strike mean he did the right thing?

GRAHAM: It means that he sees our actions to be strong, not weak.


GRAHAM: He's saying I'm not going to meet with you. He says that Assad did not commit this chemical attack. Trump says he did. Here's what Trump needs to tell Russia, Iran and Assad. You won't use air power anymore to slaughter people in Syria. If you drop a barrel bomb, we'll hit you again.

We'll establish safe havens. Here's what I think Russia would do. If they saw Assad begin to lose militarily, they would go to Geneva. What do they want in Syria? They want a presence. I don't mind Russia having a presence in Syria.

I just don't want them have a veto over what happens in Syria. I don't mind Iran having a say about Syria. I don't want them to run Damascus through Assad. The only way to get Russia's attention and change the balance of power in Syria is for Russia to pay a price.

I hope the president will embrace sanctions that I've introduced. I'm going to amend those sanctions to include a paragraph for Russia's aiding and abetting Assad's chemical attack.

They either through incompetence didn't collect the chemical weapons or they left some in the hands of Assad on purpose. I believe they did this on purpose. I believe they need to pay a heavy price.

I'm looking for President Trump to follow through with what I think was a good first step, but this is just a first step. If you don't do more, Putin will get emboldened. If you're aggressive, he begins to retreat because he is on the wrong side of what's happening in Syria. Most Syrians hold Russia accountable for this as much as they do Assad.

BOLDUAN: We're going to see further clarity on where the red line stands right now, if it includes barrel bombs. Senator, thanks always for your time. Appreciate it.

GRAHAM: Thanks a bunch.

BOLDUAN: Thank you. Coming up for us, new outrage erupts after a man was dragged off an overbooked flight. Is United now blaming the passenger? Is the passenger to blame? Who's to blame? You'll have to hear the CEO's response.

Plus what did the strike in Syria accomplished on the ground? President Trump asking for a new assessment on the damage in Syria.

And after taking to Twitter to slam then President Obama for how much his travel was costing, guess whose travel tab is now adding up? We'll discuss.



BOLDUAN: Is United Airlines blaming the victim? Watch this.


BOLDUAN: It doesn't get much better from there. This victim, the passenger who was yanked out of his seat, dragged off an overbooked flight in Chicago. In an e-mail to staff, United's CEO claims that the flight crew followed established procedures.

But this morning United Airline shares are falling. The federal government is reviewing the incident and one security officer involved has been put on leave.

Here with me now because this has become such an outrage to so many, CNN aviation analyst and attorney, Justin Green, and Marvet Britto, public relations and branding expert.

Quite a bit to get to in both of your areas of expertise. First of all, everyone has seen the video, it is crazy pants, which is a technical term, Justin, but don't forget where this began, it began because the flight was overbooked. Something everyone has dealt with an overbooked flight. Why is overbooking a flight policy at all?

JUSTIN GREEN, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: First of all, customers wanted it, people who fly want cheap tickets. They want to have the flexibility of canceling their tickets or moving their flights. When I travel or you travel for business, sometimes you don't make your flight. You don't want to have to pay for that empty seat and then buy a complete new ticket.

So the system is based on overbooking. The system also has a way to prevent things like this from happening, which is they offer compensation to the people. Most often they're not allowed to board.

So this is what happened here is they allowed everyone to board, and then they said, we have too many people. Let's start pulling people off.

BOLDUAN: So, it is policy, overbooking is policy across all airlines, correct?

GREEN: That's right. There's regulations and laws that say what to do when you deny boarding.

BOLDUAN: If it is policy, why then, Justin, does this not happen more often?

GREEN: It doesn't happen more often because the airlines generally know how to plan for it. So they know, on this particular flight on this particular day, 5 percent of the passengers won't show up so they oversell by 5 percent --

BOLDUAN: At least they guess that.

GREEN: They guess it. It's high-level math plus with years of experience, they determine those things. When they have too many people, they usually -- you've been sitting there and they say anyone who wants to miss the flight and get compensation, come up what is unusual, it's happened to me a couple of times is when they let everyone board, and now they will pull people. Here, apparently what they were doing is pulling paying passengers off in order to put crew on.

BOLDUAN: Right. There's adding to the -- why people are outraged. Also part of what people are getting wild about here is the reaction from the CEO. He put out a public statement, but in an e-mail he sent to employees, he says he's upset by how it was handled, he stands by the team, and then calls the passenger disruptive and belligerent. Would you recommend that be in an e-mail that a CEO that you're working with sends to employees?

MARVET BRITTO, ENTERTAINMENT, PUBLIC RELATIONS AND BRAND STRATEGIST: Not at all. The CEO missed the mark. First of all, companies and corporations are built on brand promise. United's is fly the friendly skies. The CEO's response was off mark. It was not in line with the alleged core values of United Airlines.

It was not sympathetic. It was not apologetic and he really seemed to coddle the myth that all passengers are belligerent and/or disruptive, which was not the case in this instance.

[11:25:08]It goes against the evidence and the witnesses who really readily shared the images and the video of what took place.

BOLDUAN: Of course the question, Marvet, what will change? Will this bring about a change in policy? Who knows? One thing that does change companies is the bottom line. Their stock has been taking a hit. My producers told me down 4 percent from what they are seeing right now.

BRITTO: They're bracing for fallout. They are bracing for the bottom to fall out because consumers have a choice. Brand loyalty is really built by the brand promise. Again, if consumers no longer see United as the friendly skies, they will seek alternatives. That CEO will have to rethink the way he addressed this unfortunate situation.

That could have been any one of us. It could have been any one of our parents. The mismanagement of something that was supposed to be rooted in you being a volunteer turned to this gentleman being forcefully taken off the aircraft.

BOLDUAN: Yes. Didn't end well for anyone, it seems, when it was supposed to be voluntary or accommodative. Great to see you both. Thank you very, very much.

Coming up for us, President Trump on pace to spend more on travel in his first year than former President Obama did in eight years? How is that possible? How big of a problem is this? We'll be right back.