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Trump Administration's Syria Policy?; Spicer: Even Hitler Didn't Use Chemical Weapons; Interview with Congressman Lee Zeldin, Republican of New York. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired April 11, 2017 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

There is -- quote -- "no doubt" Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad gassed his own people. That is according to U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis just moments ago, as you just heard in that press briefing.

Secretary Mattis also said that despite the military strike President Trump ordered in Syria last week, the U.S. priorities for the region, for Syria, has not changed.

The president is still focused on -- quote -- "breaking ISIS," as opposed to trying to force out Assad.

With us today right now to discuss all of this, senior White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny and others.

Let me start with Jeff, though.

Jeff, the White House this afternoon trying to link Russia to last week's chemical attack in Syria. How strong is that link? What are they saying?


JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, the White House is saying that they believe that Russia was at least complicit in covering up chemical weapons that existed in Syria.

They stopped just short, as did the defense secretary right there, of saying that Russia knew about this advance, that they knew about this attack that to happen a week ago today.

But they do say that Russia is complicit in covering up for the regime of Bashar al-Assad. So, you know, those are very harsh words there, but we also heard from the defense secretary, Jake, right there, in his first on-camera briefing since the strikes last week that Syria planned it, orchestrated it and expected it, but he said we do not know beyond that if Russia knew about this in advance here.

Jake, that's sort of the central question underlying this. But we have to sort of take a step back here, Jake. This is a momentous shift in this Trump administration posture towards Vladimir Putin. Throughout the campaign, throughout his first, you know, almost three months in office, the president has stood virtually alone in this town, in this government for not being critical of Vladimir Putin.

I asked him a question earlier this morning about Mr. Putin. He did not respond, but, Jake, his administration right now is saying that the Russian government was complicit in knowing about Syria's chemical weapons. Certainly, that's a departure from where this president has been -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Jeff, thanks so much.

Let's go to Barbara Starr, who was in this briefing.

And, Barbara, what struck you as the headline from this briefing? What was the most important thing said by Secretary Mattis?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, one of the most important things is what was not said.

You saw him being repeatedly questioned by reporters, and I think just behind me, you see some reporters still gathered, trying to talk to officials about the critical point of chlorine-filled barrel bombs.

We saw barrel bombs come up at the White House yesterday. The question for Secretary Mattis was, has the U.S. put chlorine-filled barrel bombs essentially on the strike list? Essentially, is the U.S. policy now to try to take military action against Assad if he were to use chlorine-filled barrel bombs again?

Those, of course, are oil drums potentially filled with chlorine tossed out of helicopters killing people on the ground. Very interesting. He kind of dodged the question publicly. I went up to him afterwards and said, we're confused. Has the Trump administration just put barrel bombs on the military action list? And he said he didn't want to answer that question, that he had a reason for not being specific.

They don't want to yet be specific. Technically, chlorine not in the same category as the sarin agent that was used in the attack we're talking about, but this potentially opens the door, potentially, to broadening of the campaign.

What struck me is Secretary Mattis made a repeated point of saying that the U.S. had intelligence on this hospital situation where so many people got killed and injured that they were absolutely certain that the regime planned and executed the attack.

That tells you that the U.S. has some pretty specific, very classified intelligence. If they knew, if they were absolutely convinced that Assad planned his people planned and excused it, they would only know through imagery or intercepts, some of the most classified intelligence. It really tells us behind the scenes that the U.S. intelligence community has a route into what Assad is up to.

That to me was one of the most interesting revelations in this 30- minute press conference. They were making the point that they are still very focused on ISIS, but what is clear is the groundwork is there if the president were to order, if he was to order additional military action, the U.S. military, the Pentagon ready for that prospect. There seems to be no question about it.

Nobody is saying more military action is coming, but it certainly is something that military planners always prepare for and very clear after this 30-minute press conference something that they are potentially thinking about -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Barbara Starr for us at the Pentagon, thanks so much.

Let's get reaction to this Pentagon briefing from retired General Michael Hayden, former CIA and NSA director, and former Pentagon press secretary, Rear Admiral John Kirby.

Gentlemen, thanks for joining us.

First, General, let me start with you.

Your thoughts on what you just heard. What was the most newsworthy item that you heard from Secretary Mattis?

GEN. MICHAEL HAYDEN (RET.), FORMER CIA DIRECTOR: Well, the first point was, it was refreshingly candid, fact-based and very clear.

And what struck me on multiple occasions that Secretary Mattis and General Votel each emphasized job one is ISIS, job one is ISIS. This was singular. It was done. We're done with that. We're back to ISIS.


And both men were given multiple opportunities to go ahead and start floating about regime change and the future of Assad. They refused to go there. Job one, defeat of ISIS.

TAPPER: And one of the things, John Kirby, that is interesting is yesterday Sean Spicer seemed to draw a new line talking about the use of barrel bombs as something that would prompt a reaction from President Trump.

Whether he did that intentionally or accidentally, we don't know, but it did bring this whole other element into the equation, if it's not a chemical weapon used, but it's a barrel bomb, a different lethal weapon, but not prohibited by the Geneva Convention and not on the agreement that Syria signed a few years ago in 2013.

Explain the significance of why barrel bombs being added to this the and also why you think Secretary Mattis refrained from being more clear.

JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: Well, I can't explain why he refrained from being more clear, but we long said at the State Department that though it's an industrial agent, it can be weaponized.

And if it's weaponized, we would consider it as a chemical weapon. If you drop a barrel bomb full of chlorine on people, that in fact becomes now a chemical weapon and should be considered that.

That was our take on this. I can't explain why he would refrain from that. I agree with the general. One of the big takeaways for me was that both individuals really tried to narrowly describe what they did and narrowly describe it in the future tense as well.

The second big takeaway for me was the very, very clear threat to Assad that they will do it again, if he actually does employ chemical weapons in the future, that they will do it again, but I think they tried very hard to narrowly prescribe and describe what they did.


I think maybe we have got three categories going here, all right, and Secretary Mattis was very clear the vital American interest here for the airstrike was to not let the bar be lowered globally with regard to the use of chemical weapons, and it wasn't just about civilian casualties.

It wasn't just about barrel bombs. The vital American interest was that international norm, so, Jake, I think you have got three baskets here, and I think John would agree. You're going to use sarin again, we're coming after you. The conventional use of high-explosive barrel bombs, as sad as that is, probably is not going to trigger the response.

And then the secretary left this vagary in the middle. If you use chlorine, which is not illegal to have.

KIRBY: Right.

HAYDEN: It's just illegal to weaponize.

KIRBY: Weaponize.

HAYDEN: If you use chlorine, he tried to create some ambiguity there, I think.

TAPPER: And what would be the purpose in that, just so that they are not hemmed in by promises? Or maybe he doesn't even know the policy because it was set by Sean Spicer yesterday or what?

KIRBY: Well, I think he probably is leaving himself a little bit of room. That is a policy decision that has to be made and a discussion that he has to have with the commander in chief.

And maybe that discussion just hasn't happened yet, because what they reacted to was a very clear use of sarin gas.

TAPPER: Right.

KIRBY: And that would be beyond dispute. The issue of weaponizing chlorine is still something that is discussed. Again, under the Obama administration, it was clear to us that was considered and should be considered and is considered by most of the international community weaponizing a chemical, a chemical weapon. TAPPER: And what would you recommend were you in the Trump Cabinet in

terms of a chlorine barrel bomb? Do you think that should be a different red line?

HAYDEN: Look, I think I'm with John that it's clear what this is.

Frankly, though, the use of sarin is such an egregious action. It's very clear. You have got broad international support and frankly no ambiguity with regard, they used sarin. We saw what happened because of that.

There is some ambiguity on the battlefield about chlorine, allegations in this case going both ways with a little more legitimacy than the current Russian story, that the sarin may or may not have been used by the rebels.

So I think you would absolutely need clear intelligence, know that the Syrians had done this, and then frankly I think at the political level, Jake, it would have to be significant casualties that would trigger this kind of response for the use of chlorine in the future.

TAPPER: And one last thing, John, having worked with the Russians when you were at the State Department. Do you think that the Russians knew about this chemical weapons attack specifically, or do you think it's just more they have a military presence all over the country, they have to know that there are chemical weapons all over there?

KIRBY: You know, with the caveat that I haven't seen the intelligence, it's strains credulity to think that the Russians that were at least at this base didn't have any idea that the gas was there and that it was going to be weaponized and put in a bomb on airplanes.

I think you have to understand that they did. The question is at the strategic level how much did they know, and did that get up to Moscow, and did Putin or his defense ministry even know?

We tend to think -- and I think the general would agree. He's more of an expert than me. But we tend to think of Russia as this monolith, like information goes perfectly from down to up. And it doesn't. There are disconnects.

And sometimes people at the ministerial level don't always know what's going on, on the ground. So, I don't know. I think we have to wait to see.


I also think that that was the other thing missing from this, and I think hopefully people recognize that. Secretary Mattis didn't call out the Russians.

TAPPER: Right. Yes.

KIRBY: He called out Assad. More than once, he laid it right at Assad's feet and he didn't specifically talk about Russian complicity. I think maybe he's trying to buy a little trade space with them, while Tillerson is in Moscow.

TAPPER: And Spicer said there's no consensus in the U.S. intelligence community.

HAYDEN: You saw that reflected two or three times. They threw that bait in the water, hoping the secretary or the general would come to it.

And two or three times, they said, the Syrians did this. This was command-and-control. This was totally under the control of the Syrians.

Now, I do think there's a very good case to be made now for the Russians trying to obfuscate what actually happened and trying to create their own fake news story to make this more palatable to the world.

TAPPER: Right.

KIRBY: The first thing Lavrov will say with Tillerson is, show me the intel.

TAPPER: Show me the intelligence. Exactly. I'm sure they would love to see the intelligence.


TAPPER: General, Rear Admiral, thank you so much for joining us.

With the Pentagon just saying there is -- quote -- "no doubt" Assad was behind the chemical weapons attack in Syria one week ago, how will Congress react? A member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee will join us next.

Stay with us.


[16:15:12] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Our politics lead today. A rather stunning comment from the White House today as Press Secretary Sean Spicer tried to build the case against Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad who stands accused of killing his own people using chemical weapons, Spicer said this.


SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We didn't use chemical weapons in World War ii. You had a -- someone as despicable as Hitler who didn't even sink to using chemical weapons.


TAPPER: Now, it is true that the Nazis did not use chemical weapons in combat against say the British army or the Soviet army, though they did happen to hues them to kill Soviet prisoners of war, but the comparison Spicer was attempting was not about combat weapons against troops, it was about Hitler not, quote, "sinking to use chemical weapons on innocent civilians" and to state the obvious, Hitler obviously did sink to using chemical weapons against innocent civilians, specifically a poison gas called Zyklon B. The Nazis used it against innocent civilians in gas chambers and especially constructed death camps that Hitler had built, places named Auschwitz and Ravensbruck.

What Spicer said was false and frankly kind of ignorant. Reporters in the briefing did give the press secretary an opportunity to clarify his remark. He took the lifeline and tied it to an anvil.


SPICER: I think when you come to sarin gas, there was no -- he was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing -- I mean, there's clearly -- I understand. Thank you. I appreciate that. There was not -- he brought them to the Holocaust center, I understand that, but what I'm saying in the way that Assad used them, went into towns and dropped them down into the middle of towns.

It was brought -- so the use of it, and I appreciate the clarification. That was not the intent.


TAPPER: Spicer referring there to Hitler bringing Jews and Poles and the disabled and gays and others into the, quote, "holocaust center" which presumably means concentration camp?

Hitler used chemical weapons to kill his own people, innocent civilians. He didn't drop them in the middle of Berlin, no, but he use them to kill German Jews so he did use them to kill his own people.

Sean, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is just a few blocks from the White House. Perhaps a visit is in order.

Let's bring back Jeff Zeleny at the White House.

Jeff, Sean Spicer released a statement after this briefing but I feel like he's taking lessons from United's CEO. What did he have to say?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, the words "I misspoke" and "I'm sorry" are not words used often and they are not being used by Sean Spicer today, but he did about 30 minutes or so after that briefing, he put out yet another statement, a third attempt to clean this up, and this is what he said. "In no way was I trying to lessen the horrendous nature of the Holocaust. I was trying to draw a distinction of a tactic of using airplanes to drop chemical weapons on population centers. Any attack on innocent people is reprehensible and inexcusable," Spicer goes on to say.

Jake, important to point out he was initially bringing this up in the first place to say that, you know, Russia is being complicit here in the Syrian regime, but by mentioning Holocaust, particularly during Passover, he simply created a fairly off-key response that is still sounding here at the White House, Jake.

TAPPER: Jeff Zeleny at the White House for us -- thank you.

Is Sean Spicer's clarification enough? A Republican member of Congress will join to us discuss this and much, much more coming up.


[16:22:51] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

More on our politics lead. We have a lot to discuss, including the shocking comment from White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer who while trying to make the case for the airstrike in Syria said, "Even Hitler didn't use chemical weapons on his own people", which, of course, is factually inaccurate.

Joining me now is Republican Congressman Lee Zeldin of New York, who serves on the Foreign Affairs Committee, and he's an Iraq War veteran.

Congressman Zeldin, thanks so much for being here.

I want to talk about Syria. But, first, I just want to put a button on this issue with Spicer, because you first criticized White House when they didn't mention Jews in their statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day. What do you make of Spicer's comments today?

REP. LEE ZELDIN (R-NY), FOREIGN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE: Well, Hitler did use chemical weapons on innocent people. Millions of innocent people lost their lives as a result of Hitler's decisions. As far as comments being made, as far as making a comparison to exactly what tactics and methods and what you define as the battlefield versus off the battlefield, combat versus non-combat, you know, you can make the comparison a little bit differently and it could actually have been accurate. But the way it's presented, it's just really important to clear up that Hitler did, in fact, use chemical weapons and murdered millions of innocent people.

TAPPER: Using chemical weapons, yes, indeed. Secretary of Defense Mattis said today that ISIS is the primary focus of the campaign in Syria, not necessarily the removal of Assad. Do you think that clouds at all the message about regime change and the desire the U.S. government has for him to leave, although not to be forced by the U.S.? And if it does deter or undermine the case that they are making about Assad needing to leave, do you think that might embolden Assad in any way?

ZELDIN: Well, as it relates to Assad, there should be regime change. You have to make sure though that Assad isn't replaced with another Assad. That isn't something where, you know, you can just hope that Assad doesn't wake up tomorrow and everything is going to work out ideally.

So, as you develop that plan, you have to ensure that if you're going to pursue a regime change, that you're not going to just end up with someone close to Assad ending up in charge of the country. [16:25:01] As far as ISIS goes, that should remain our focus and

that's somewhere where we have been going after ISIS for a long time, going back to President Obama. We currently have special operations troops operating on the ground in Syria. President Obama was launching military strikes against infrastructure and personnel as it relates to ISIS towards the end of his term. So, that's something that's ongoing.

ISIS is -- you know, they have spread all throughout the world, including their people. Their sympathizers here are carrying out attacks to the United States. So, that should remain a focus.

As far as replacing Assad though, you have to make sure that when you go there, that you have a plan to actually follow through and end up with the result that you want.

TAPPER: What do you make of Vladimir Putin today saying the strikes in Syria remind him of the invasion of Iraq, not just in the sense that this is not going to only be another war in the Middle East, but he also suggested that the false intelligence or the incorrect evidence on weapons of mass destruction was similar to the claims that the U.S. is making now?

ZELDIN: Vladimir Putin is wrong on several counts. He is reminding us, again, that he's an adversary of the United States. He is not a friend of this administration. He is not a friend of the United States.

He meddles in countries all across the Middle East, and it's a false comparison. The invasion of Iraq is one that resulted in an occupation of well over 100,000 service members plus, and a broad coalition ended up forming over the course of years in Iraq until -- really to this present day where there are thousands of U.S. service members currently operating there. So, one targeted air strike towards a Syrian infrastructure cannot be compared to a decision to invade where -- this isn't an invasion of Syria where there's now, you know, tens of thousands or more U.S. and other forces occupying the country.

So, it's as false comparison but an important reminder that Vladimir Putin is not our friend. He thinks that he's eight feet tall. He'd love to put the USSR back together again and he's again meddling aggressively in a way that's contrary to United States interest and that of our other allies in that region around the world.

TAPPER: All right. Congressman Lee Zeldin, Republican of New York -- we really appreciate your time. Thanks so much. Please come back to the show again soon.

ZELDIN: Thank, Jake.

TAPPER: Ready to respond with a nuclear strike -- that's the fierce warning from North Korea to the United States. We're going to go live inside North Korea next.

Stay with us. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)