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CNN NEWSROOM

Trump Vows Big Price to Pay for Suspected Chemical Attack in Syria; John Bolton Begins as National Security Adviser as Syria crisis Grows; Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired April 9, 2018 - 09:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[09:00:00] CAMEROTA: It is time now for "CNN NEWSROOM" with John Berman. How about that segue?

CUOMO: That was good. It hurts my face.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. John Berman here.

Children killed, civilians killed, an apparent chemical weapons attack in Syria just days after the president said he wanted to pull U.S. troops out of that country.

The pivotal questions this morning as we look at these horrific images -- what will the president do about this? What will America do about this? What will the world do about this? President Trump warns there will be a big price to pay but what price? How far is he willing to push Russian leader Vladimir Putin?

Despite the horrifying pictures, the Russians literally say there is nothing to see here. They claim there was no chemical attack by their Syrian allies.

Overnight somebody responded. Russia and Syria both say Israeli war planes fired missiles at a Syrian base but Israel is not commenting. The U.N. Security Council set to hold two emergency meetings today. The president meets with his Cabinet shortly and his National Security adviser John Bolton's first day on the job.

You get the sense this is a day of enormous consequence.

Let's begin in the Syrian capital of Damascus. CNN's Fred Pleitgen is there.

And, Fred, the Russians say there was no chemical attack despite the pictures we have all seen.

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Yes, John. And one of the interesting things that's actually happened since this alleged attack took place is that the area which was under rebel control has since fallen to the other side. Rebels are being bussed out as we speak and the Russians are actually moving in. And it's interesting because the Russian are saying that they actually have teams on the ground and they claimed that they found no traces of the use of any chemicals. Now of course that flies in the face of some of the videos that we're

about to show. We do have to warn our viewers that they are graphic and they are disturbing but nevertheless of course they are very important to see.

All of this apparently happened at 8:00 p.m. on Saturday night when the opposition says a Syrian government helicopter was hovering over the area and dropped several canisters on to their people then almost immediately got respiratory problems and dozens of people died as a result of this. It's absolutely unclear still how many people exactly are dead but certainly the numbers still appear to be rising.

The Syrian government for its part issued a rebuttal very, very quickly saying it was not behind any of this. They say that they were conducting an offensive in that area at the time, but they said they didn't need the help of any sort of chemicals because they're advancing very quickly anyway.

They were talking about those air strikes that took place overnight. Both the Russians and the Syrian say it was the Israelis who did it. They say the Israel flew over Lebanese airspace, fired several rockets into Syrian territory. Some of those were apparently intercepted. But three of them landed on that Syrian air base.

The Israelis themselves not commenting on this time but as you can see a very, very volatile situation on the ground here with of course allegations going back and forth. And once again as you know, John, unfortunately as we've been reporting for so many years here from Syria the civilians bearing the brunt of what is going on here on the ground -- John.

BERMAN: When we see those pictures of the civilians killed, the children, innocent children killed.

Our Frederik Pleitgen in Damascus.

And we did just get a new statement from the Kremlin. The Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov said, "It is wrong and dangerous to draw conclusions over these reports of a chemical attack." So a firm diplomatic line being drawn now by the Kremlin.

The question for the White House is, how will it respond? The president has key decisions to make and soon.

Let's go to the White House. Our Kaitlan Collins is there -- Kaitlan.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it's going to be baptism by fire today, John, for the new National Security adviser John Bolton who starts officially in his role today. And one of the main things of this role, one of the most immediate things pressing him will be what to do with Syria and what kind of options to present President Trump with. And that is a president who over the weekend has vowed to make them pay a very big price for this attack, but also calling out Vladimir Putin by name very critically for one of the first times. But just days ago the president was vowing to get U.S. troops out of Syria and making comments like this. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Will be coming out of Syria like very soon. Let the other people take care of it now. Very soon. Very soon. We are coming out.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COLLINS: Now Senator John McCain was very critical of those statements that the president made saying that he believes they emboldened Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

And now the question here, John, will be what does the president do going forward? Because he's got two options on his hands. One, he wants to withdraw those troops from Syria, those troops that are fighting ISIS and on the other hand he is signaling that he could do something. He could issue a missile strike because of his very strong response to that attack from over the weekend.

So the question we'll be watching today is where the White House goes from here because on the president's schedule today it's very clear that Syria will be right at the top of the agenda because he's hosting another Cabinet meeting but also being briefed and having dinner with senior military leadership here today -- John.

[09:05:15] BERMAN: And Kaitlan Collins at the White House, you do get a sense that a decision will be made today one year ago when the U.S. struck Syria for a chemical attack. Much like this one appears to be. It was done in about 60 hours after that attack. 60 hours would be within the next day or so. So watch this very closely.

Joining me now General Wesley Clark, former NATO Supreme Allied commander, and Samantha Vinograd, CNN national security analyst who worked on the National Security Council.

General Clark, I want to start with you. What specific options do you think that the president is weighing right now? He calls this a mindless chemical attack. He says there will be a big price to pay. What do you think he is weighing actually doing at this point?

GEN. WESLEY CLARK, FORMER NATO SUPREME ALLIED COMMANDER: Well, I think the only realistic immediate response is some kind of bombardment and the question is where. So you want it to be as close as possible targeted on the helicopter base that lifted out the chemical bombs. So would it be some kind of a stealth strike? Those military options will be discussed but I don't think there is any realistic option beyond in the immediate term beyond striking back with force against the source of the chemical weapons.

The real question is, what is the policy? Where are we going? We know Russia has an agreement with Syria. We know Russia is working with Iran. U.S. policy for 70 years has been to keep Russia away from Iran. And so they're there now and they are in Syria. So what's the longer term? And you've got to have a coherent policy so the strike if it's just a one off strike, some lands are fired, some people are hurt, there are some statements and anger, what is the real consequence for the region?

The answer is nothing because if the U.S. wants to stay in this region it has to stay engaged.

BERMAN: We'll talk about the long-term strategy and Russia in just a moment. But just in to CNN we just got sound from Defense Secretary James Mattis speaking about the crisis in Syria. Let's listen.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Is U.S. capable of striking Assad's chemical weapons facilities?

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

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Can you rule out taking actions, launching airstrikes against Assad, Mr. Secretary?

MATTIS: I don't rule out anything right now. Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen.

BERMAN: "I don't rule out anything right now," from the Defense Secretary James Mattis, also asking why were chemical weapons in Syria if Russia was in charge of getting them out?

Samantha Vinograd, the Russian element here is a key complicating factor. Yes, President Trump called out Vladimir Putin by name for the very first time on any subject, but how does Russia factor into the equation of what the United States does now?

SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Well, John, I actually think this is a key question in the National Security Council meeting that's going to occur later today. To General Clark's point we have to look at all the options, military, diplomatic, financial and otherwise. But the Intelligence Community is going to come in to today's meeting and needs to brief on what matters to Vladimir Putin. Syria matters to him. He's there now largely to counter the advance of the United States.

What is going to change Vladimir Putin's mind when it comes to his activities in Syria? Otherwise all the strikes that we are going to launch are going to be symbolic. And so for example, we know that Vladimir Putin cares about moving goods and services around the world. That's why we issued sanctions last week. So for example, if that's the case why aren't we talking to the European countries about imposing their own sanctions against the Russians for their activities in Syria?

Why aren't we talking to Saudis and the Turks, our allies in the region, about stopping their arms deals with Russia because of its support for Assad? The Intelligence Community needs to come into this meeting and brief on what matters to Putin and that should drive policy responses.

BERMAN: And we should note again, the Russians denied. They say they've seen no evidence of a chemical weapon attack.

VINOGRAD: As always.

BERMAN: But that's what they do. The Russians deny this type of thing in Syria. They denied the Russian election meddling. And of course Syria would not do, Assad would not do this, if Russia did not allow it to happen at a certain level.

General Clark, John McCain wrote over the weekend that he feels that Syria is emboldened by the president's statement, and we heard him moments ago, that he wants to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. Do you believe that to be the case?

CLARK: Yes, I do believe that to be the case. I think there's been incoherence in U.S. policy in the region but not just with Trump. Previously as well, but it's gotten worse. This statement made it worse. If we want a say in the region we have to keep troops on the ground.

[09:10:02] We've got a minimum footprint. We're doing very effective work there with a few thousand troops using air power, using our intelligent assets, working with our allies. If we don't stay and work this -- but you can't just work it militarily. You have to say, what's the political strategy? Are we going to contribute to reconstruction? Are we going to re-settle refugees in the area? Are we going to cooperate with Assad's government? Or are we going to coop to demand that he leave or simply accept it?

And then there's the Russia question as Samantha brought out. That's really the big question for the United States.

BERMAN: Right. And we're not being coy here. We simply do not know where the president stands on many of these key questions.

Samantha, it's interesting it appears as if Israel struck overnight. Israel won't comment, though, because they don't comment on it right now. But this is an area where there actually is daylight, a rare area where there is daylight between what the U.S. wants here and what Israel wants. Israel doesn't want the U.S. to leave Syria.

VINOGRAD: That's correct. And to be clear Israel has launched strikes in Syria for years. Israel has been the country that's been most willing to take direct action against Syrian regime interests. And this puts Israel at odds with Russia. Netanyahu and Putin have very open relationship but Netanyahu was very public with Putin as recently as January that Israel will continue to act in Syria to counter Iran.

But the truth is, John, that Israel has been launching strikes for years. The killing has gone on. So Israeli strikes are not going to deter Assad. They are not deterring Russia. And that's why again we need to ask what is actually going to change the calculus.

BERMAN: These are the questions that will be asked at the White House in the coming hours.

Samantha Vinograd, General Wesley Clark, thank you so much for being with us.

As we said, a day of apparent consequence today on this matter.

The stock market set to open very shortly after frenzied swings. These are fears over a trade war. We have a new statement from the president on just that subject.

Plus new pressure on Scott Pruitt. Members of his own party voicing their concerns about the embattled EPA chief as the ethics questions are mounting.

And Bill Cosby's retrial underway this morning. He faces three counts of aggregated indecent assault. We're outside the courthouse live.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:16:29]

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. The breaking news just moments ago, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis says he will not rule out U.S. air strikes against Syria in response to this apparent chemical attack by the military forces of Bashar al-Assad against civilians and children inside that country. We do not know how many people were killed, but the pictures are horrifying.

Joining me now is Democratic Congressman Mike Quigley of Illinois, a member of the House Intelligence Committee. Congressman, thank you so much for being with us. Let me get you on this question of how this happened.

John McCain and Lindsey Graham, both Republican senators say that they believe that Bashar al-Assad was emboldened by the president saying that he wanted to remove U.S. troops from Syria and soon. Do you believe that that had something to do with this chemical attack?

REPRESENTATIVE MIKE QUIGLEY (D-IL), HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: I think it does. I think it's important to remember that this isn't the first time for Assad. A year ago, we shot out airstrikes to retaliate for the last time they did this. I think Assad feels emboldened that no one is going after Russia or Iran and I think he is emboldened by the fact that he sees American presence and interest in his mind waning.

BERMAN: Do you feel that the United States needs a military presence, troops, about 2,000 right now inside Syria?

QUIGLEY: I think they have been extremely helpful. I don't think it is a good time to abandon the Kurds and the anti-Assad forces there, but I think Congress needs to weigh in, in its full authority. It's advocated that responsibility for way too long. Where are the diplomatic solutions?

BERMAN: You can take the vote to authorize the use of force here. Congress has decided not to do that for years now with both President Obama and President Trump. Let me ask you because last year at this time it was basically one year ago exactly when 60 cruise missiles were launched in response to a chemical attack inside Syria.

You called that proportional and appropriate and it may prevent Assad from carrying out future chemical attacks against Syrian people. You said that last year. Apparently, that attack did not prevent Bashar al-Assad from carrying out these attacks on the Syrian people. So, why would it work this time?

QUIGLEY: Right. And I think the second half of my statement was pretty clear, too. It's not going to do much long term unless there is an international effort towards a diplomatic political solution. And I believe the same thing is today.

I believe that there will be some sort of response, but we have wasted a year not making that effort. I was in refugee camps in Jordan. I saw the devastation. So far there has been no humanitarian or diplomatic efforts by this administration to address this problem.

In the final analysis this conflict was turned several years ago when the Russians and Iranians engaged. How do we change their behavior? That is going to take international diplomatic efforts. That's the long-term solution. I understood the response last year. I don't see that response working if we haven't done anything for a year to engage the larger problem.

BERMAN: Congressman, I want to shift gears, if I can, and talk about the various investigations that the FBI is involved in and the feud really between the White House and the FBI on several matters.

Today, the attorney general is going to announce that U.S. Attorney John Lausch (ph) from Illinois is going to oversee sort of the document turnover process from the FBI to Congress on matters dealing with the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation and also (inaudible) issues around the Russia investigation. Do you believe this is a good move?

[09:20:03] QUIGLEY: You know, it is just so discouraging right now. Since the House Committee of Intelligence shut down their investigation, we learned that the president's attorney reportedly offering pardons to Gates and Manafort. Obviously, the issues with social media attacks on our country and Cambridge Analytica.

We've heard of Gates and Manafort allegedly meeting with associates tied to Russian intelligence. Here we are investigating our own country and our own law enforcement agencies and not the Russians who attacked the democratic process.

BERMAN: OK, first of all, you said that the president's attorney was offering pardons to attorneys for Paul Manafort and Rick Gates. We know we have reported that they've discussed pardons and do not know if they are flat-out offered just to be clear on that and both maybe a problem and that will be something the special counsel will look into.

My question to you was do you believe this John Lausch, this U.S. attorney from Illinois, whom I assume you know, I don't know how big the legal community is there, do you feel --

QUIGLEY: It's a big state.

BERMAN: OK, I appreciate that, but do you feel as if it is a good move to have someone overseeing this document turnover?

QUIGLEY: I think the whole investigation is a charade. It's an attempt to obstruct the overall investigation and attempt to discredit institutions which have gotten very close to the White House and law enforcement agencies. I think the American public ought to see it for what it really is.

BERMAN: So, nothing useful in that as far as you are concerned. Let me ask you, CNN also reporting over the weekend that the president has taken the very first steps to prepare for a possible interview with the special counsel, Robert Mueller. Do you feel as if he needs to sit down? At this point, if you were a betting man, would you bet that he would sit down with investigators?

QUIGLEY: If I were his lawyers, I would keep him as far away as possible from the Mueller investigation. I don't think this is a president that can handle the kind of inquiries that would take place. He is a president that has trouble. He struggles with the truth at times. And I think his ego gets away from him. I did criminal defense for ten years. This is the exact type of client I would have kept away from prosecutors at every possible opportunity.

BERMAN: Congressman Mike Quigley of Illinois, a Democrat, getting free legal advice to the president and his team. Don't testify. Do not answer questions from investigators. Is that what you're saying?

QUIGLEY: I want him to tell the truth. I wanted him to come forward. I think the best thing that could have happened over a year ago is for him to tell his associates, tell the truth and tell everybody what they need to know.

But if you are asking me if it makes sense for the president to do this from his political and legal point of view, absolutely not. I served with my Republican colleagues on the House Select Committee on Intelligence for over a year on this now and they were acting like that was their primary responsibility was to protect the president legally.

BERMAN: Congressman Mike Quigley of Illinois, I do know it's a big state. I appreciate that and I appreciate you being with us. Thanks very much, sir.

QUIGLEY: Anytime, thank you.

BERMAN: All right. Has General John Kelly lost his influence inside the west wing? It depends who you ask.

We are moments away from the opening bell. The markets hoping to rebound after dropping more than 500 points on Friday. What a strange few weeks it has been. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:27:45]

BERMAN: All right. This morning, a growing number of Republicans criticizing Scott Pruitt amid new questions about how the EPA chief is spending taxpayer money. Despite new reports of Pruitt's security detail costs more than $2 million a year, President Trump is coming to his defense. That might be the most important development on this matter.

Joining me CNN political analyst, Alex Burns, CNN political commentator, Errol Louis, and CNN contributor, Bianna Golodryga. So, I was on vacation last week. All I kept on seeing was Scott Pruitt this and that. But at the end of the week, Alex, I see President Trump's come to his defense so is the book closed?

ALEX BURNS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Certainly not. The president tends to come to people's defense until he suddenly doesn't anymore, and, if I were Scott Pruitt I would not be resting easy because President Trump has a couple of times stuck up for him.

I think clearly if the president does move him out at some point, it won't be with some sort of loud, you know, censorious denunciation of the way he's handled public money or it will be sort of mission accomplished, thank you, Scott.

You know, now see yourself to the exit, but I don't know exactly when that is going to happen, and Republicans in Washington feel pretty anxious that they sort of continue to go about their business, back in Washington this week with this guy around their necks despite all the support there is in D.C.

And there is a ton of support on the Republican side for Pruitt's agenda. There really is this sort of spreading sense that he is no longer an asset to that agenda.

BERMAN: You know, Errol, it is interesting that the president does seem to back the agenda. That seems to be what he likes about Scott Pruitt. Now I'm warning you, I'm going to jump in about 25 seconds for the stock market update.

ERROL LOUIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, that's right. I mean, look, the very fact that this is mission critical for the Trump agenda, the EPA in rolling back regulations that matters a lot. Something like HUD. Ben Carson spends too much a little public controversy about a desk for his office, it doesn't really matter.

Scott Pruitt spends a lot of money for his office and now it matters. If you put the core agenda in danger, then people raise questions about whether or not we can afford to have this guy in this place. If you have one person on your side, Donald Trump is the one guy to have.

BERMAN: It's a good point. All right. We have about 10 seconds away from the opening bell down on Wall Street. Alison Kosik watching the market open with us. It's 500 points down on Friday. Expecting to see some gains early today -- Alison.

ALISON KOSIK, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, John.