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Trump Vows "Big Price" For Suspected Chemical Attack; Russia Claims Israel Hit Syria After Suspected Gas Attack; Soon: Cabinet Meets As Trump Defends Pruitt Amid Scandals. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired April 9, 2018 - 11:00   ET



KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan. The horrific attack and the president's response. Dozens dead including children in Syria after another suspected chemical attack on civilians, another attack by Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, according to President Trump.

Happening at this hour, we'll hear from President Trump for the first time since that attack. He sits down with his cabinet. Will he lay out what his, quote and unquote, "big price to pay tweet" means for Syria and Russian President Vladimir Putin will soon find out.

Also, today the United Nations is holding an emergency meeting. U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley is expected to speak, and if passed this prologue here, it could be a very dramatic moment for this administration and for the world quite frankly.

Remember when she spoke to that very same body almost a year ago to the day, she held up pictures of dead children to the Security Council, so they could see asking how many more children will have to die before Russia cares?

Twenty-four hours later, the U.S. launched almost 60 Tomahawk missiles into Syria as retaliation. Stand by for that. For all of this, let's start off with Kaitlan Collins live at the White House for us today. Kaitlan, it's great to see you, but what are you hearing from the White House on all of this right now.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Kate, right now the message out of this White House is that all options are on the table. Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert said as much yesterday and the defense secretary, James Mattis, just essentially laid out what the Pentagon's thinking is just a few minutes ago.


JAMES MATTIS, DEFENSE SECRETARY: The first thing we have to look at is why a chemical weapon is still being used at all when Russia was the framework guarantor of removing all the chemical weapons and so working with our allies and partners from NATO, et cetera, and elsewhere, we are going to address this issue.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can you rule out taking actions, launching air strikes against Assad, Mr. Secretary?

MATTIS: I don't rule out anything right now.


COLLINS: President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have also signaled some kind of action with President Trump tweeting that there will be a big price to pay and also calling out Russian President Vladimir Putin by name.

But Kate, the hard facts are a few days before this attack, the president said he wants to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, troops over there fighting ISIS, and now this will raise the question of, is this going to pull the president back into Syria? We know he's been very impatient to get out of there, but the facts of the matter are he may not have a choice here.

BOLDUAN: Yes. Because the facts of the matter are, the facts on the ground are changing. Great to see you, Kaitlan. Thanks so much. A lot happening at the White House. We'll get back there as soon as we see the president.

So, what is Russia saying about this attack and President Trump calling out Putin for name for the very first time? Well, right now, Russia's Foreign Ministry calls reports of a chemical attack a hoax and Russia's Defense Ministry now claims Israel is behind the airstrikes that were launched overnight. Israel is not commenting.

Let's get the very latest, CNN's Fred Pleitgen is in Damascus. So, Fred, this all happened in a suburb of that very city, very close to where you are quite frankly. Let's start with these strikes overnight. Any clear picture yet on who's behind it?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: So, far it's difficult to say. As you've mentioned, Kate, the Russians and the Syrians are saying they believe the Israelis were behind it. The Russians were saying Israeli warplanes flew over Lebanese territories and fired eight missiles toward an airbase near the city of Homs here in Syria.

They five of those missiles were intercepted, but three of those missiles hit their targets. And in fact, the Iranians have now come out and said that three of their Revolutionary Guard troops were killed in that air strike on that base.

So, the Israelis have said for a very long time that they believe there are Iranians on that base -- and it seems as though that might have been the target of that raid. Again, though, as you've noted, the Israelis so far not commenting on any of this -- Kate.

BOLDUAN: As I mentioned already, President Trump pointed the finger directly at Assad, of course, calling him animal but also at Vladimir Putin and Iran. How are they responding?

PLEITGEN: Well, so far, the Russians and Syrians are saying that they have nothing to do with this. The Russians specifically are saying that they believe that there wasn't a chemical attack to begin with. It's very interesting, if we look at the facts on the ground, that neighborhood where this happened until yesterday was under control of a rebel group called (inaudible) Islam, but since then last night it's essentially switched hands.

The rebels are getting out of there. They had a negotiation with the Russians for them to withdraw from that area and now Russian forces are moving in. They claim that they are on the ground in that neighborhood called Douma, and that they found no traces of chemicals anywhere there.

But of course, the videos that we've been seeing, the horrific videos, and we are going to show them, we have to remind our viewers they are very graphic. They are very difficult to watch, but at the same time, very important to watch.

They do seem to indicate that the people down there seemed to have had severe respiratory problems. And if you listen to the opposition on the ground, they say that it was a Syrian government helicopter that dropped a canister, and right after that people got those respiratory problems and dozens of people then died in the wake of that.

[11:05:09] The Syrian government just like the Russians are saying that they were not any part of this. They say that, yes, they were prosecuting an offensive at that time, but they say that offensive was going extremely well for them. They were gaining on the territory and they simply had no reason to use chemical weapons.

They are saying all of this was fabricated. The facts on the ground are murky. Claims and counter claims and address we've seen so many times in this Syrians civil war, the Syrians bearing the brunt of what's going on, on the ground -- Kate.

BOLDUAN: Yes. I mean, something like six chemical acts in the last three months have been happening in Syria. Fred, thank you so much. Those images don't get any easier to see. Let's discuss this and what the president should do right now.

Joining me right now is Democratic Congressman John Garamendi of California. Of course, he sits on the House Armed Services Committee. Congressman, thank you so much for being in. You receive regular briefings from the Pentagon on attacks like these. Do you believe Israel is behind those strikes overnight, though?

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN GARAMENDI (D), CALIFORNIA: Well, let's make very clear they are two very, very different things going on, and one is this issue of a chemical attack in the suburbs of Damascus. Another having to do with an attack at an air base actually quite far away.

Almost certainly Israel is behind that attack at the air base. With regard to the attack and the offense that is going on in the suburbs, clearly, that's a Syrian operation. Whether the Russians are involved or not in that particular operation remains to be seen.

But one thing is absolutely clear here, and that is that the Trump administration has no coherent strategy or no strategy at all, coherent or otherwise, with regard to Syria. Just less than a week ago the president was saying we'll pull out of Syria and leave it to others.

Well, who are the others? The others are Russia, Syria, Iran, Turkey, and perhaps other neighbors in the area. The fact of the matter is the United States cannot and should not just abandon this area because we'll see more of these horrific atrocities.

BOLDUAN: Cannot and should not, many members of both parties agree with you on this. But the very hard question is right now how should the president respond to these horrific images of the suspected chemical attacks that are coming out? How should he respond?

GARAMENDI: First of all, he should respond with the enunciation of a clear strategy that involves our allies in Europe, France, Britain and others in a coherent strategy that is a long-term thing over the next several months and years about what is the western interest in Syria.

Absent that kind of a strategy, a pinpoint or pinprick or bombing of various military installations is not going to do much in the long- term in dealing with the problem of Syria. I must say that the Obama administration is just as much at fault for not enunciating a clear strategy on how to deal with the Syrian issue.

BOLDUAN: So, do you think -- would you like to see, as you call it a pinprick, pinpoint strike like the Tomahawk missiles of last year? Would you like to see that again this time, though?

GARAMENDI: Without a strategy behind it may have some immediate usefulness in signaling the United States abhorrence for the use of chemical weapons but beyond that, it does not deal with what will inevitably follow and that is more atrocities by the Assad regime.

We've seen that for the last several years and that has not ended in part because the western governments have not had a strategy. Let me put one more thing on the table here, when the president says that we ought to leave it to others, well, let's understand who the others are.

Just last Wednesday in Ankara, Turkey, there was a three-party negotiation going on between Turkey, Iran, and Syria, who was not there? The United States was not there. That's what happens when the president gives an off the cuff remark at some rally in Ohio saying we're going to pull out. Well, that's it. We were not at the table. Our influence was not there and now these chemical attacks and others will continue.

BOLDUAN: Well, what we've heard -- we're waiting to hear from the president live, speaking out for the first time on camera this hour. Hopefully, we'll have that to bring to viewers and you. But he did in a tweet make a statement. This big price to pay he pointed out for Syria, for Russia, for Iran. Is he drawing a red line now?

GARAMENDI: I suppose it is a red line. But again, a red line without a strategy that deals with all of the other issues involved about the refugees. [11:10:03] And keep in mind, just last week, as part of that speech in Ohio and follow-up to it, 2$200 million reconstruction program was put on hold by President Trump. So, what are we signaling? We're signaling not only will we pull the military out but any effort to deal with the reconstruction of Syria.

In other words, an abandonment of Syria. A week later, five days later, a chemical attack. We shouldn't be surprised that Assad would see the president's words as a signal not to worry about the United States. Now we're going 180 degrees in the other direction.

BOLDUAN: Do you think his words led to this chemical attack?

GARAMENDI: I think there's a whole pattern here. Clearly Assad and Russia and Iran heard what the president said. He said he, the United States, would leave it to others. Well, the others are Iran, Syria, Russia. A chemical attack occurred, if, in fact, it was a chemical attack, all evidence indicates it was, occurred five days after those words.

Is there a direct line? I don't think anybody can say there was a direct line. But what is absolutely clear is that this is a helter- skelter policy that makes no sense, and really is no policy. It is just whatever the president wakes up and happens to say that particular morning. That is dangerous.

BOLDUAN: Well, so you don't see strategy. Not many people see strategy right now as they didn't with the Obama administration as well in how to bring the horrific Syria war to a resolution, but one thing we did see, which is out of the norm from this president, is that he called Putin out by name for the first time in this tweet. Do you give him credit for that?

GARAMENDI: It's about time. I think there was -- not think, there clearly was an attack on the united states electoral process. Not only with the Russians engaged in the actual election process, but clearly trying to hack into our electoral vote counting and registration systems. That's a proven fact.

That's been going on now for almost -- just close to two years. We also know that the Russians have hacked into our critical infrastructure, our electrical power grids, power plants, chemical plants, other kinds of things, to the point where they were able to gain control of those systems.

Yes. It's long past the time when the president ought to hammer Putin directly. The sanctions, good. More needs to be done what is the strategy? What's the long-term strategy for the United States to push back? How do we get allied involved? How do we move in concert with our allies?

None of that is part of the president's thinking. His thinking is whatever happens to cross his mind at any given moment, the result of which at best is confusion and chaos.

BOLDUAN: We will see. We might get some answers to those questions when we hear from the president later this hour.

GARAMENDI: We should hope so.

BOLDUAN: Thanks so much for coming in. I appreciate it.

GARAMENDI: Thank you, Katie.

BOLDUAN: So, coming up for us, from drain the swamp to travel expenses, OK. Why is the president backing up his embattled EPA chief despite the onslaught of questions that he continues to face?

Plus, as hundreds of migrant families make their way to the U.S./Mexico border, they could be facing a new level of military might when they arrive. We have new details on the new mission for the National Guard. That's ahead.



BOLDUAN: Minutes from now, President Trump gathers his cabinet, still with a seat at that cabinet table, embattled EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, but he's also still on the hot seat over reports of high- priced air travel, misuse of his official security detail and of course, those deeply discounted apartment rental rates from a Washington lobbyist.

Despite all of that, President Trump tweeted out a vote of confidence for Pruitt writing among things, "Scott is doing a great job." Though some members of the president's own party are not being so generous. Listen to this.


SENATOR JOHN KENNEDY (R), LOUSIANA: I don't mean to denigrate Mr. Pruitt, but he represents the president of the United States and it is hurting his boss and he needs to stop.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I think he has done a good job, but I'm looking to see what the Oversight Committee is going to say. The one thing I can say if you are the EPA administrator and two lobbyists changed a lot, you got a problem.

SENATOR SUSAN COLLINS (R), MAINE: On policy grounds alone, I think Scott Pruitt is the wrong person to head the EPA.


BOLDUAN: So, what is his fate now? Joining me to discuss, former Republican nominee for governor of New York, Rob Astorino, and Jim Messina, former President Obama campaign manager and White House deputy chief of staff. Great to see you both.

So, Rob, let me start with you. On Scott Pruitt, I mean, regardless of the president's vote of confidence, when a cabinet member becomes the headline, one, that's never been a very good thing for any cabinet member in this administration. But he's got headlines for all the wrong reasons here. How is that a good thing?


BOLDUAN: Thank you.

ASTORINO: It's never a good thing, especially with a boss like President Trump. However, I think as the president has tweeted and as the base says, he's done a good job on the policy. I hear all these things about always rolling things back. He's either right-sizing or correcting an overreach by the federal government when Obama --

BOLDUAN: But is that OK if you're not draining the swamp at all?

ASTORINO: Well, but I think this draining the swamp thing is pretty wide. Let's take a few of those things, his travel. His travel is basically in line if not less than Gina McCarthy in her last year. She went to Ghana and spent $70,000, went to Tokyo for 45,000 with security. She went all over the place and spent a lot of money.

[11:20:01] So, we didn't hear about those stories and this is basically in line when you are taking staff and security, which her predecessors had. These are basically costs in line as Jim looks at it.

BOLDUAN: But Republicans are not even happy with it. That's the wild thing about it. When you have three members of your same party coming out against the cabinet secretary, in another administration that would be all that it took to show the guy or the gal the door. With President Trump, I'm starting to wonder could presidents coming out against Pruitt actually help Pruitt keep his job?

JIM MESSINA, CEO, THE MESSINA GROUP: Yes, that's a great question. I mean, when I was deputy chief of staff in the White House, for any of these offenses this guy would have been fired a long time ago. Gina McCarthy didn't have 24-hour security. She didn't want to spend $100,000 a month on a private jet service. She didn't do any of those things.

Instead of getting this guy fired, which is what would happen in the Obama administration. Last week reports were that Donald Trump is considering promoting him to attorney general of the United States of America. Which is not only the craziest thing I've ever heard, but pretty much par for the course for this president.

BOLDUAN: That's the craziest thing you've ever heard, Jim? There's been some crazy things going on. Like the three of us on tv together. Let's talk about another staff member, John Kelly, chief of staff.


BOLDUAN: Reports -- there's been reports he's frustrated, he's happy, he's frustrated. He's in there to shake things up. The latest this weekend is that he's lost power. He's lost confidence. He's lost that edge as chief of staff, and that is he is very frustrated. Do you think he has done a good job for the president? ASTORINO: I think it's still incomplete. I think things have gotten better in the White House, a little more control. I do think the president is going to be the chief of staff and the communications director most of the time, even though he has people in place. And I think he should listen to the people who are in place to do those kinds of jobs.

Just getting back to what Jim said about EPA, the reason why they never had those stories is because the left loved everything that the Obama administration -- did that they overlooked the travel. Susan Collins have never had a kind word --

BOLDUAN: She did not vote for his confirmation, but Lindsey Graham -- what about Lindsey Graham?

ASTORINO: Well, Lindsey Graham is always in the middle. He always takes different sides. I respect Lindsey Graham, very, very much. Yes, I understand what they are saying that it could be a problem, these headlines. But these headlines will always be there when you're controversial in the fact that you do things that the other side does not like.

BOLDUAN: No, you cannot fabricate that you paid 50 bucks a month for a room --

ASTORINO: I agree apparently that happened, but it was also clear to the council.

BOLDUAN: Jim, take it wherever you want, but one thing Rob said, he said President Obama is going to be his own chief of staff, coms director -- CNN is reporting that outside advisors are telling the president he doesn't need a chief of staff or communications director anymore. I mean, you've been in the west wing, what do you think that would mean?

MESSINA: Look, on the last day of the Bush administration, President Bush's chief of staff said to me all White Houses are always a reflection of the person at the top, what kind of person he was. That's why we were the know drama Obama.

Now you have all drama with President Trump. There's reports out this weekend that there's not been one single policy meeting about this trade war he started with China. He's just doing it on his own with Twitter.

And that's the problem with not having a strong chief of staff. That's a problem not having a bunch of these senior positions filled is you go back and forth. You have policy by tweet and not a real process.

And every other of the 44 presidents had real processes. You might not have liked them. You might have thought the wrong policy came out in the end, but there were real processes. Now with a chief of staff -- I agree, I think Kelly has done a better job than his predecessor, but he's not in charge. Donald Trump is in charge. If he takes this advice not to have a communications director or chief of staff, things will get worse, not better. And Kate, I didn't think that was possible.

BOLDUAN: Let's first see what the president has to say when he sits down with his cabinet later this hour. Let's see if he has anything to say about Scott Pruitt. Great to see you, guys. Thank you so much. I appreciate it.

OK, so this morning, getting back to our lead story, the defense secretary is not ruling out military action in Syria after those horrific reports of chemical attacks. The regime says the reports are false.

The president, President Trump, is pointing the finger at Assad and promising a big price to pay, his words, tweet. So, what exactly would that look like? We'll examine that coming up.



BOLDUAN: This just in, the U.S. is going to be introducing a new Security Council resolution at the U.N. today to uncover who is responsible for the suspected chemical weapons attacks in Syria. This is, of course, just a short time before the Security Council is going to be gathering for emergency meeting over the latest horror playing out in Syria. We'll have much more on that.

The suspected chemical attack had left dozens dead in the suburb of Damascus. Missile strikes overnight targeted the Syrian base believed to be behind the attack. Russia has blamed Israel for that. Israel is not commenting.

The big question in Washington at the White House right now is what could happen today? What is going -- what is the president going to do? What is the U.S. ambassador's role going to be as she prepares to speak out about the violence? What is the president's next move going to be?

With me right now is CNN national security analyst, Kelly Maxman, served on the National Security Council under President Obama, CNN military analyst and former U.S. military attache in Syria, Retired Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona, and Tony Blinken is here, a former deputy secretary of state under President Obama.

Kelly, let me start with you. The president will meet with his cabinet and national security team today. Take me inside the room of that national security meeting. The principals are meeting this morning. The president is meeting with them later today. What happens now?