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Pentagon: 'No Doubt' Syrian Regime Behind Gas Attack; Interview with Rep. Adam Smith; North Korea Warns of Nuclear Strike as U.S. Ships Deploy. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired April 11, 2017 - 17:00   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, breaking news. Russian cover-up. The Pentagon says there is no doubt the Syrian regime is behind the deadly gas attack on civilians, and the U.S. strike was meant to deter further chemical attacks. U.S. officials can't say if Russia was complicit in the gas attack, but they do accuse Russia of trying to cover up what happened.

[17:00:28] Showdown with Putin. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrives in Moscow, slamming Russia's role in Syria as Russian President Vladimir Putin doubles down, defending his support for the Syrian regime and criticizing the U.S. Amid a war of words, will the two men meet?

Offensive comparison. White House press secretary Sean Spicer says even Hitler didn't use chemical weapons and is forced to make a hasty clarification, after ignoring the fact that the Nazis used poison gas in their death camps during the Holocaust.

And "mode of war." North Korea calls the deployment of a USS aircraft carrier force an act aggression and says, if provoked, it's ready for any mode of war, including a nuclear war. In a CNN exclusive, we'll take you inside North Korea.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news. The Pentagon says it's very clear the Syrian regime planned and executed the chemical weapons attack which killed dozens of civilians, including many children. It says the U.S. strike on a Syrian air base was meant to deter further chemical attacks and warns the regime will pay a very stiff price if it uses those weapons again.

A war of words between the United States and Russia is playing out as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson begins a visit to Moscow. Before he arrived, Tillerson hit Russia's role in Syria, while the Kremlin has been criticizing the U.S. U.S. officials say there's no definitive proof of Russian collusion in the chemical weapons attack, but they say Moscow is trying to cover it up.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer stumbled today when trying to shame Russia over its alliance with the Syrian regime. He argued that even Hitler, quote, "didn't sink to using chemical weapons." Spicer was quickly forced to clarify his remarks, given the Nazis' use of poison gas during the Holocaust.

And North Korea is calling the deployment of a U.S. aircraft carrier battle group an act of aggression and is warning of a nuclear strike if it's provoked. President Trump says that Kim Jong-un's regime is looking for trouble, but the White House says the North Koreans do not yet have the capability to launch a nuclear attack.

I'll talk to the senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, Congressman Adam Smith of Washington state. He's standing by live.

And our correspondents, analysts and guests, they're also standing by with full coverage of the day's top stories. Our breaking news: the Pentagon says it's very clear the Syrian regime carried out the chemical weapons attack that killed dozens of people.

Let's begin with our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

Barbara, top officials, they're leaving absolutely no doubt about who's to blame.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: In this extraordinary press conference, Wolf, the top Pentagon brass wanted to send several messages. Some things were clear. Some things were deliberately ambiguous. Defense Secretary James Mattis telling me on that he wanted to be ambiguous about whether the U.S. would now go after chlorine-filled barrel bombs from Assad, but he was ambiguous on nothing else.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STARR (voice-over): The Pentagon top brass not yet ready to say Russia was complicit but definitive on Bashar al-Assad's involvement.

JAMES MATTIS, DEFENSE SECRETARY: There is no doubt the Syrian regime is responsible for the decision to attack and for the attack itself.

STARR: The U.S. missile strike telling Moscow the Trump administration will use force and is already not ruling out further military action against Assad but hoping that the Russians temper their own actions.

MATTIS: I'm confident the Russians will act in their own best interests, and there's nothing in their best interests to say they want this situation to go out of control.

STARR: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, arriving in Moscow today, also laid down a marker.

REX TILLERSON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: I hope that what the Russian government concludes is that they have aligned themselves with an unreliable partner in Bashar al-Assad.

STARR: But Russian President Vladimir Putin calling the missile strike reminiscent of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. VLADIMIR PUTIN, PRESIDENT OF RUSSIA (through translator): This very

much resembles the situation in 2003 and the war in Iraq. The Iraq campaign was launched, and it finished with the destruction of the country, the growth of the terrorist threat and nothing less than the emergence of ISIS on the international stage.

[17:05:02] STARR: And warning Syrian rebels may have more planned.

PUTIN (through translator): We have information from various sources that this kind of provocation -- I can't call it anything other than a provocation -- is being prepared for in other regions of Syria, too, including the southern suburbs of Damascus, where they are preparing to drop similar chemicals and then accuse the Syrian government of it.

STARR: But the U.S. says the insurgents don't have sarin and, in turn, pressing the American case that the Russians bear responsibility for the chemical weapons attack.

The U.S. intelligence community now investigating how much the Russians knew about the attack ahead of time. The U.S. knows there were Russian forces at the base, and they likely knew about chemical weapons at the base and flight operations happening there.

The U.S. also knows a Russian drone flew over the hospital treating victims, and an unknown fixed-wing aircraft dropped a conventional bomb five hours later, trying to destroy evidence. Only Syrian and Russian aircraft fly in the area.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: So no definitive conclusion yet that it was the Russians who were complicit in this. A lot of circumstantial evidence, and what about the Syrian air force after the U.S. missile strike? The Pentagon now calculates it damaged or destroyed 23 Syrian aircraft at that base, about 20 percent of Syria's operating air force -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thank you.

Let's go to the White House. Our White House correspondent, Sara Murray, is on the scene for us. So what's the latest there, Sara, on Russia's role in Syria?

SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this White House may not be able to say what Russia's role, if any, was in that attack, but they were crystal clear today on one thing. They do believe Russia played a pivotal role in trying to cover up for Assad and the Syrian regime in the wake of that grisly chemical weapons attack.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY (voice-over): President Donald Trump silent for yet another day on what his next move is in Syria. In the five days since the president's strike in response to the chemical weapons attack against Syrian civilians.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I ordered a targeted military strike.

MURRAY: The Trump administration still struggling to clarify how it will respond to future attacks, as questions persist about the role Russia may have played.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Has your view changed on President Putin, sir?

TRUMP: Thank you all very much.

MURRAY: Trump refusing to answer questions today about whether his view of Russian President Vladimir Putin has changed.

This as a senior administration official accused the Russians of waging a campaign of disinformation in the wake of the attack, saying Russia tried to cover up the Syrian regime's culpability.

The White House says the intelligence community still has not reached a consensus about whether Russia had a heads up before the chemical weapons attack.

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: There's no consensus within the intelligence community that there was involvement.

MURRAY: But a senior administration official appeared to put more pressure on Russia today, questioning how Russian forces could not have had forewarning about the chemical weapons attack if Russian forces were interspersed with the Syrian troops that planned and carried it out.

Today White House press secretary Sean Spicer argued Russia is growing increasingly isolated in its defense of Syria.

SPICER: In this particular case, it's no question that Russia is isolated. They have aligned themselves with North Korea, Syria, Iran. That's not exactly a group of countries that you're looking to hang out with.

MURRAY: But he stumbled when offering up this condemnation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's cruelty.

SPICER: You look -- we didn't use chemical weapons in World War II, you know. You had a, you know, someone as despicable of Hitler who didn't even sink to the -- to using chemical weapons, so you have to, if you're Russia, ask yourself is this a country that you and a regime that you want to align yourself with?

MURRAY: While many historians believe Nazi Germany did not use chemical weapons on the battlefield in World War II, Spicer's comparison appeared to overlook the Nazis' horrific use of gas chambers. According to the U.S. Holocaust Museum, nearly 2.7 million Jews were murdered in killing centers by poison gas or shooting.

Later Spicer tried to clarify his remarks with this.

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. Thank you. I appreciate that. There was not -- he brought them into the Holocaust center, I understand that. But I'm saying in the way that Assad used them, where he went into town and dropped them down into the middle of towns. It was brought. So the use of it, and I appreciate the clarification there. That was not the intent.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY: Now, since that briefing earlier today, Sean Spicer has offered another clarification to that clarification, this one in the norm of a written statement. Spicer says, "In no way was I trying to lessen the horrendous nature of the Holocaust. I was trying to draw a distinction of the tactic of using airplanes to drop chemical weapons on population centers. Any attack on innocent people is reprehensible and inexcusable" -- Wolf.

[17:10:18] BLITZER: Sara Murray at the White House. Thanks very much.

Joining us now, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, Congressman Adam Smith of Washington state. Congressman, thanks very much for joining us.

REP. ADAM SMITH (D-WA), HOUSE ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE RANKING MEMBER: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: I want to quickly get your reaction to the Sean Spicer comments on Hitler and the use of poison gas. We know that Hitler used poison gas to kill millions of people, including millions of Jews. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House, she just called on the White House to fire him. What's your reaction?

SMITH: Well, I mean, it's obvious that Sean Spicer needs to know a lot more about history when he's making his comments; and those comments were insensitive and ignorant without question. Not the first time, so -- and also, you know, Assad does not have to be worse than Hitler in order to be a real problem, in order to be somebody worthy of our condemnation.

I could tell that Mr. Spicer was freelancing there, and obviously, he was out of his depth, you know. I don't know if he needs to be fired or not, but he certainly does need to get better at his job.

BLITZER: Do you agree with White House officials who believe Russia is trying to cover up the Bashar al Assad regime's culpability in that chemical attack that killed so much civilians, including children?

SMITH: Yes, I don't think there's any question about it. They're deflecting the blame from Assad. And, look, I mean, given the presence of Russians on the base where the attack was launched from, it is very hard to imagine that they weren't aware of it, but at the end of the day, Putin doesn't care. He simply wants Assad in power, and he will kill whoever he has to kill to help make that happen.

And the international community has to recognize Russia for the rogue actor that they are. They are encouraging this type. Despotic regimes wherever they can, and that's really the threat of Russia. I mean, when Putin started, you know, messing around in Ukraine and other places, you know, that's but a small piece of what he is trying to do. He is trying to undermine liberal democracy every place he can. And basically, he's trying to make the world safe for autocratic dictatorships.

And we in the United States, as the leaders of freedom, should stand up against that and stand up strongly and try to rally the international community to recognize not just Assad's role in this attack but Putin's role in this and in many, many other actions that are undermining freedom in this world.

BLITZER: Well, let's be specific. Do you believe the Russians actually worked with the Syrian regime to conduct these chemical attacks?

I don't know. Like I said, it's hard to believe given their relationship that they weren't aware of it.

On the other hand, it's hard to believe that they would be so stupid as to allow this to happen. I mean, Assad was basically winning. Russia had come in and propped him up. You know, why they would do this with the international condemnation that was sure to follow, I'm not sure. But, again, given the close relationship it's hard to believe they didn't know, but I don't know for sure. I do not obviously have intelligence that has a smoking gun that clearly says Russia knew that a chemical attack was coming. It's just hard to imagine that they didn't.

BLITZER: Congressman, you've said in the past that the Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad, should go. So how do you think that should be done? And try to be as specific as you can? What needs to be done to get rid of him?

SMITH: Two things. I man, we need to separate the question of whether or not Assad is the legitimate leader of Syria with the question of what do we do to take them out? And I think there were bad early steps by the Trump administration that essentially seemed to say that it was OK for Assad to stay in power. We were going to focus on ISIS.

Independent of the question of how you would go about removing him, just stating clearly that, given the brutality that Assad has rained down on his own people, he is not a legitimate leader.

And also, ISIS will not be defeated as long as Assad is there. He is a rallying cry, given the way he brutalizes his own people, for many in the Arab-Muslim world.

Now, the next question is how do you remove him? Well, I'm not a fan of regime change. We've learned a lot from Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan that, as an outside power, being able to step in and remove, No. 1, extraordinarily difficult two and, No. 2, you've got to know what comes next and it's an impossible situation. I don't suggest there's an easy answer hare, but at a minimum we need to call out Assad for what he is. He cannot be an ally in extremism. He fuels extremism because of the brutality of his rule.

BLITZER: Do you think it's realistic to think he could be removed as long as he has the very strong support of the Russians, the Iranians, the Iranian-backed Shiite groups like Hezbollah, all of which -- all of whom are supporting his regime.

SMITH: Honestly, I don't. I mean, I think that's the problem. With all those groups that you just mentioned supporting him, he is able to stand in power. And that presents an enormous challenge to the international community.

And I want to make sure that we don't overreact in the U.S. and think that there is some military solution and think that we can go in there and go to war, not just with Syria but with Russia and Iran and not cause even more damage than is currently being caused.

Look, the images are horrific. What Assad has done is horrific, but we also have to be mindful of our limitations and I think in the past, certainly in the case of Iraq, we overthought what he could do. Saddam Hussein was awful. If we remove him, things will get better. Well, it's not that simple.

The United States doesn't have the power to simply step in and fix other countries. That doesn't mean that we don't take whatever steps we can to try to move it in a positive direction, but I think you outlined perfectly the very realistic challenges of making, you know, any sort of significant change in the short term.

BLITZER: You make a fair point. Moammar Gadhafi was a very, very, very bad man and errs helped get which had of him look at that. That's in Libya in north Africa. Much more to discuss. We've just heard, by the way, from President Trump. He's now weighing in on all of this. We'll tell you what he's saying right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:20:52] BLITZER: Our breaking news, the Pentagon says there is no doubt that the Syrian regime is behind the deadly gas attack on civilians, but tensions are also rising on the other side of the world as North Korea reacts angrily to the deployment of a U.S. carrier force moving towards the Korean Peninsula.

We're back with Congressman Adam Smith, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. I want to get to North Korea in a moment, Congressman. But just moments ago, FOX Business released an excerpt from an interview that they just did with President Trump, part of it on Syria. Let me play the clip for you.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: We're not going into Syria, but when I see people using horrible, horrible chemical weapons, which they agreed not to use under the Obama administration, but they violated it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They said they got rid of them. TRUMP: Hey, look, what I did should have been done by the Obama

administration a long time before I did it, and you would have had a much better -- I think Syria would be a lot better off right now than it has been.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Although I want to point out back in 2013 when the Obama administration did not respond to the use of chemical weapons with a military strike he did at that time tweet -- he was a private citizen -- "What I am saying is stay out of Syria." He also tweeted, "Rebels just as bad as the regime." He said stay out of Syria, and now he says the Obama administration should have moved. What's your reaction to all of this?

SMITH: First of all, I hope at some point President Trump realizes that he is, in fact, president and should take responsibility for what's going on instead of continually blaming other people for everything, most notably President Obama, but certainly he blames others. So that's the first point.

The second point is I hear what he's saying about the chemical weapons, but Assad has murdered and butchered his own people with conventional weapons as well and that is extraordinarily problematic. And what is the Trump administration going to do going forward if Syria continues to use chemical weapons?

I mean, I supported the strike. I think it made sense to respond that way, but we also have to be mindful of the limitations of that. It didn't do too much damage to Syria, and we still don't have a clear policy from the Trump administration about how they plan to work towards an alternative to Assad, and I certainly don't want the policy to be what t had been prior to this chemical weapons attack from the Trump administration which was basically, "Well, Assad is OK because he's with us on fighting ISIS." That is not the case. We need a different policy.

BLITZER: Let me talk about North Korea with you for a moment. You're in Seattle; Seattle, Washington. The former CIA director, Michael Hayden, has said soon -- he says within the next few years -- North Korea will be able to reach Seattle with a nuclear weapon. North Korea warned it is ready to react to any mode of war desired by the U.S. Those are their words, if the U.S. were to make some moves towards a preemptive strike. How serious is a threat like that from the North Korean leader?

SMITH: Well, I think the threat is very serious. North Korea, Obviously, they're an incredibly dangerous country. The fact that they already possess nuclear weapons makes them even more dangerous. You have an unbelievably unstable leader in Kim Jong-un.

What I'm worried about is I don't want us to miscalculate and do something that would prompt a reaction. Look, North Korea already has nuclear weapons. They are already a threat to the international community. The best way to contain them, in my mind, is to make deterrence absolutely clear, that there are lines that if they step over in terms of attacking South Korea or Japan, anyone in the region, much less us, then we will obliterate them, because the one thing about Kim Jong-un, he is not suicidal.

Part of the reason he's building all these weapons, the nuclear weapons, testing missiles is he wants to discourage anyone from trying to take him out, and I think what we have to make clear is he cannot attack any of his neighbors if he wants to survive.

I don't want us to do something premature. I mean, given the nuclear weapons he has and even given the conventional weapons that are already trained on Seoul, a nation of, I think, around -- sorry, a city of around 14 million people.

[17:25:06] So any kinetic action on our part, trying to prevent him from getting further down the line with ballistic missiles, I think is more likely to have worse consequences than if we simply maintain a very strong deterrent posture.

BLITZER: Yes, his conventional military capability is enormous. Just north of the Demilitarized Zone, he's got a million troops, thousands of artillery pieces, missile launchers. And Seoul, as you correctly point out, a huge city, only, what, 30 miles south of the DMZ. The stakes clearly are enormous.

Congressman, thanks for joining us.

SMITH: Thanks, Wolf. I appreciate the chance, as always.

BLITZER: Coming up, more on the American warships approaching the Korean Peninsula as North Korea is raising the specter of nuclear warfare.

Meanwhile, President Trump is reacting to the escalating tensions on Twitter. Stay tuned for a special report we'll have from inside North Korea.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The breaking news. Pentagon officials now say they have no doubt the Syrian regime is behind a deadly chemical attack on its own civilians. At a briefing today the Pentagon declined to directly link Russia to the massacre, but officials did accuse the Russian military of attempting to destroy evidence of the attack.

[17:30:34] John Kirby, you used to work at the Pentagon, the State Department. The Trump administration deliberately now accusing the Russians of trying to cover up this Syrian chemical attack. How significant is this?

JOHN KIRBY, FORMER STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: Well, if it proves true, it's enormously significant. I mean, look, there's no question that at least those Russian forces at the bases had to know something, but to be complicit in it, to actually try to cover it up, that's a significant charge. And I suspect that Secretary Tillerson, at least I hope, he raises that when he meets with Foreign Minister Lavrov later today. BLITZER: And he might meet with Putin, too. We don't know if that's

going to happen. But we know he's going to meet with the foreign minister.

Phil Mudd, the White House, as you heard, they say there's no consensus in the U.S. intelligence community right now about whether Russia was actually complicit in organizing the actual chemical attack, but one U.S. official is telling us that Russia will have to answer how it could share that air base that was knocked out by those Tomahawk cruise missiles with Syrian regime forces and not know of this chemical weapons strike. What's your answer to that?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Look, I think this is simpler. I think they are complicit.

Let me tell you what's happening in the intelligence community. Before the attack, I suppose you could make an argument about the difference in intelligence between what you think. For example, we're 70 percent certain at CIA that the Russians know, and what you know. We can guarantee you, Mr. President, that they were aware of the attack.

The significant question, though, Wolf, is let's go to the past four days. What do they know now? Presumably, they've talked to Syrian officials. They're on the ground at the air base, but furthermore, they've got their own intelligence assets. They have human penetrations, I guarantee you, of the Syrian government, and they have intercepts of the Syrian military. And if you want to tell me afterward why they still continue to cover up for the Russians, that they still don't know, I don't buy that for a second, Wolf. They got to know.

BLITZER: John Kirby, do you buy that?

KIRBY: I think -- I think there's certain a level of knowledge here. How high it goes, I don't know, but I think Phil is right. I mean, I think certainly, there's -- in the last four days, they have gained more knowledge -- more context about what happened.

BLITZER: We know there was a Tomahawk cruise missile strike, Nia, but is there a real Trump administration strategy -- some call it doctrine -- that is unfolding right now?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: There doesn't really seem to be. And you've seen some shifts even over these last couple of days. Tillerson initially said that the fate of Assad would be up to the Syrian people. He is now saying that Syria -- that Assad's reign over Syria will come to an end.

I think the question still, in terms of the policy, is what does that mean? How does his reign come to an end, and when does it come to an end? You heard from General Mattis today where he said that the U.S. has no intention of going full bore into this very complicated civil war.

And in some ways, we're still, in some ways I think at Obama strategy with the threat of another response, and the way that we saw from this Trump administration, if there is a similar chemical attack, so I think that's in some ways where we are. The Trump administration learning the same lessons that the Obama administration found out and now trying to put that pressure on Russia in the same way that the Obama administration did, with little sense that there will actually be results.

BLITZER: Ron Brownstein. Go ahead.

KIRBY: The difference is now that, on the wake of this attack on the air base, there may be some leverage now for Secretary Tillerson. He may have some advantages at the table tomorrow that Secretary Kerry didn't have.

BLITZER: Because of the attack?

KIRBY: Yes, in terms of the rattling the Russians' cage a little bit and with our willingness to use force against the regime.

Now, it was carefully scripted and very narrowly focused, as Secretary Mattis made clear today about the chemical attack, but, still, it may give Tillerson just a little bit of an edge here in these talks

BLITZER: You know, Ron Brownstein, Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, said that that Russia could be compelled to be more cooperative, give up its support for Bashar al-Assad, because right now the Russians are on the same team, he said, with Syria and Iran.

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes.

BLITZER: And that's not a team that you want to be on. How realistic is that?

BROWNSTEIN: Look, these events of the past week have so totally disrupted the gyroscope of the way the Trump administration came in thinking about Syria but also about Russia.

The dialogue during the campaign, and even into the first weeks and months of the administration, was essentially we will put off the question. We will essentially tacitly accept the rule of Assad in order to get Russia's cooperation against ISIS. That's what the president during the campaign most explicitly talked about as the benefit of a reset with Russia, that they would join with us against ISIS.

What's become clear -- and, again, it's clear again today -- that more important than dislodging ISIS from Syria is, to them, to Russia, is stabilizing Assad's rule in Syria. And I -- I think, you know, John, you have a better sense than I. But I don't experts believe that Putin wants to give him a blank check, wants to be on the hook for anything he might possibly do.

But idea that they are willing to quickly give this up and shift their focus as we wanted during the campaign towards is has been one of the other things exploded in the past week. BLITZER: You know, Phil Mudd, there has been a clear, what the

diplomats would call, evolution in the president -- in President Trump's strategy, thinking about what to do in Syria. You've seen a dramatic change, haven't you?

MUDD: It's not an evolution, Wolf. It's backfilling. That is the president saw some photos and decided to do something, and the diplomatics -- the diplomats said, "Heck, we better figure out some strategy behind this in the last 96 hours to explain why we're doing something."

Let's be clear here. We're trying to corner the Russians after an election campaign where the president cozied up to him.

BROWNSTEIN: Yes.

MUDD: In the past week, a week and a half ago, we saw Secretary Tillerson say the Syrians should decide their own solution. Now we're saying not only should we take -- somebody should take Assad out but that we're trying to isolate the Russians. What happened in the past week that didn't happen in the past six years?

We have a butcher who's murdered 400,000 people. He used chemical weapons in 2013. He's been allied with the Russians for years. What led the president to change his opinion?

I'm afraid that emotion by looking at photographs led him to strike, and then the diplomats said, "Heck, we better come up with something in the wake of that strike to explain why we did it." I think there's zero strategy here.

BLITZER: All right. Guys, stand by. There's more to discuss. I want to get everyone's reaction also to the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, saying at that briefing today that even someone as despicable as Hitler didn't use chemical weapons. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:41:26] BLITZER: The Trump administration is making its case for missile strikes against the Syrian air base following the deadly chemical attack on civilians, but the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, is now scrambling to try to clarify comments he made comparing Bashar al-Assad to Adolf Hitler. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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

So you have to, if you're Russia, ask yourself, is this a country that you and a regime that you want to align yourself with 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 was clearly -- I understand, thank you. Thank you. I appreciate that. There was not -- in the -- he brought them into the Holocaust center, I understand that, but I'm saying in the way that Assad used them, where he went into towns, dropped them down to innocent -- into the middle of towns. It was brought -- so the use of it, and I appreciate the clarification there. That was not the intent.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: After the briefing, he issued this statement, Sean Spicer. Quote, "In no way was I trying to lessen the horrendous nature of the Holocaust. I was trying to draw a distinction of the tactic of using airplanes to drop chemical weapons on population centers. Any attack on innocent people is reprehensible and inexcusable."

John Kirby, you were the State Department spokesperson, the Pentagon spokesman. What was your reaction to that?

KIRBY: Yes, I cringed, I have to admit. I mean, rule No. 1, you never compare Hitler to anything, and it's just -- you just -- that's not smart.

BROWNSTEIN: It never ends well.

KIRBY: It never ends well.

I think -- and I think, frankly, he made it worse when he tried to explain it in the briefing and then -- and in his statement. The only thing you can say is, "Look, I misspoke. I was wrong" and apologize, and then let it go. I thought, in trying to explain himself in the statement, he actually only made it had worse

BLITZER: What did you think, Phil Mudd?

MUDD: Well, I agree. The explanation was worse, but there -- I mean, there's 100 angles to this. Let me give you the first one I reacted to, in addition to the outrageousness of the remark.

If you're Rex Tillerson going in to take to a brazen dictator in Moscow or to his foreign minister, you just gave him a talking point. As soon as we try to isolate the Russians, if I'm the Russians, I'm saying, "You want to develop a partnership with us, and 24 hours ago, you said we were worse than Hitler? I expect you to apologize publicly, Secretary Tillerson."

I think this makes the talks in Moscow more difficult.

I mean, you're looking at this in terms of decision-making. I've never been to -- a spokesman, but as John was saying, you either never talk about Hitler or you can run out in a lightning storm and grab the tallest tree. Which one do you want to choose? I mean, epically bad judgment that's inexplicable, Wolf. I don't get it.

BLITZER: You know, and Ron Brownstein, it's a liability...

BROWNSTEIN: Yes. BLITZER: ... for the Trump administration, because all of a sudden people are talking about this, as opposed to some other issues that they would clearly prefer us to be talking about.

BROWNSTEIN: Competence matters; execution matters. The sentiment that Sean Spicer was trying to express was one, I think, has broad -- most Americans would agree with, you know basically saying to Russia, "Is this really where you want to be in the international community?" That point got totally lost in the execution.

And by the way, if you look at where Donald Trump is overall as president, with this 40 percent approval rating, much lower than anyone else, I think most experts agree it is about competence, demeanor, the approach to the presidency more than it is at this point about agenda. Competence, execution. Those things do matter at this level.

BLITZER: Yes, and I heard him say, and I'm sure you did, as well, Nia, that as despicable as Hitler was, he didn't sink to using chemical weapons. I said what is he talking about?

[17:45:08] HENDERSON: Yes. And then he used the phrase Holocaust centers which he, of course, meant gas chambers. I don't think anyone has ever used the phrase Holocaust centers.

And the other thing here is that if he's really comparing Assad to Hitler in saying, in some ways, Assad is worse than Hitler, then you would imagine that the U.S. would have some urgency to act to remove Assad. So it goes to sort of a policy argument if, in fact, that is what he's argue.

But, again, you know, not a good day for Sean Spicer. And he hasn't, in some ways, had a good run. I mean, he's become a caricature on "SNL." He mispronounced Assad's name in that briefing, so, you know, I think it goes to what Ron was talking about in terms of competence.

BLITZER: And, yesterday, he was mispronouncing his name as well. You saw that Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House, she just issued a statement saying the White House should fire him.

RON BROWNSTEIN, SENIOR EDITOR, THE ATLANTIC: Yes. Well, look, I mean, that's the President's choice. And I think, you know, as I said, the underlying sentiment that he was trying to get at was an important one that I think most Americans would agree with, and I think most people would have been pleasantly surprised by the degree to which they have called out Russia.

Rex Tillerson's statement this morning in Italy where he said that, you know, whether it was complicit or just inattention, it didn't matter to the dead. That is a powerful moral statement that was perhaps stronger than many people would have anticipated from the Trump administration in the wake of this, but all of that, again, gets lost. Competence, execution, they matter.

JOHN KIRBY, FORMER SPOKESPERSON, UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF STATE: Here's the thing. I mean, Assad's brutality doesn't need to be compared to anything.

BROWNSTEIN: Right.

HENDERSON: Right.

KIRBY: It's bad enough as it is. And, look, I think it's great that they took this strike in retaliation for the chemical attack, and I'm glad that Secretary Mattis came out today and explained that they're not afraid to do it again. That's where you just need to leave it. Making comparisons from that podium, particularly that comparison?

BLITZER: Yes.

KIRBY: Never a good idea.

BLITZER: All right. Stand by, guys. There's more news coming in.

President Trump scolds Kim Jong-un on Twitter, accusing North Korea of looking for trouble. But the regime isn't backing down, raising the possibility of a nuclear strike. CNN is on the ground in North Korea right now with the latest details. Our exclusive report, that's next.

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[17:51:34] BLITZER: North Korea is calling the deployment of a U.S. carrier group an active aggression and is warning of a nuclear strike if it's provoked. President Trump, meantime, tweets that Kim Jong- un's regime is looking for trouble. CNN's Will Ripley is inside North Korea for us right now. Let's go live to Pyongyang.

Will, what's the mood over there?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, this really is an unprecedented situation here, Wolf. We've never seen dynamics like this with North Korea. We've heard North Korea threaten nuclear attacks against the United States for quite some time, but never before have we had a U.S. president responding with such fiery rhetoric. And it seems as if both sides keep upping the ante, and nobody knows if a military confrontation could possibly be on the horizon.

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RIPLEY (voice-over): Brand new images of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un presiding silently over the Supreme People's Assembly in Pyongyang. The man they call Supreme Leader sitting beneath giant statues of his father and grandfather, North Korea's two late leaders.

The symbolism is clear. The third generation leader, like his father and grandfather before him, continues to hold absolute power over North Korea and its growing nuclear arsenal. That arsenal has become central to what many here see as a potential showdown with the U.S.

After a frantic series of North Korean missile launches, this week, the U.S. moved warships, including the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, off the Korean peninsula. That move prompted an angry response from the North Koreans overnight, hand delivered to us in Pyongyang. Calling the warships reckless acts of aggression, the government told us if the U.S. dares to choose a military option, the DPRK is willing and ready to react to any mode of war desired by the U.S.

President Trump responded in turn on Twitter today, writing, "North Korea is looking for trouble. If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them. USA!" And in a second tweet, "I explained to the President of China that a trade deal with the U.S. will be far better for them if they solve the North Korean problem."

Blunt words for the Kim Jong-un regime and for Chinese President Xi Jinping who made no promises of specific action against the North Korean government after meeting Trump at Mar-a-Lago last week. China is North Korea's only meaningful trading partner, but it's not clear how far China is willing to go to reign in Pyongyang or even if economic pressure would work.

Tensions on the Korean peninsula at their highest level in years. With U.S. warships off the coast and just days after President Trump ordered a missile strike on the Syrian government, perceived by some inside North Korea as a thinly veiled threat. This North Korean newsreader saying, "We are not intimidated." North Korean state media warning of a nuclear strike if provoked.

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RIPLEY: And we are now just three days away from North Korea's most important holiday of the year, the Day of the Sun. And North Korea has a track record and have had for a long time of projecting strength and power around their major holidays, often with provocative military activity. It was five years ago that they tried to launch a satellite into orbit just two days before the Day of the Sun.

[17:55:08] Will Kim Jong-un order his nation's sixth nuclear tests? Will he roll out a mobile missile launcher and fire more missiles? And the really unknown question tonight, Wolf, how will President Trump respond?

BLITZER: Important questions indeed. Will Ripley reporting from Pyongyang, North Korea. Thank you.

Coming up, as the Pentagon blames the Syrian regime for a deadly poisoned gas attack, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer says even Hitler didn't use chemical weapons and is then forced to make a very hasty clarification.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: He was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing. I mean, there's clearly -- I understand, but thank you. Thank you. I appreciate that.

It was not in the -- he brought them into the Holocaust centers. (END VIDEO CLIP)

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